Friday, December 27, 2002

Is it possible that the Bush administration is doing something right? Possibly yes, if you judge them by their enemies. They're asking Big Pharma to cut out the kickbacks to doctors and medical schools, and everyone affected thinks the sky is falling:

In contending that the proposed federal code of conduct would require radical changes, those opposing the change discuss their tactics with unusual candor and describe marketing practices that have long been shrouded in secrecy.

Drug makers acknowledged, for example, that they routinely made payments to insurance plans to increase the use of their products, to expand their market share, to be added to lists of recommended drugs or to reward doctors and pharmacists for switching patients from one brand of drug to another.

Insurers, doctors and drug makers said such payments were so embedded in the structure of the health care industry that the Bush administration plan would be profoundly disruptive.

Moreover, doctors said that drug companies were a major source of money for their professional education programs, and that the administration proposal could drastically reduce such subsidies.

"Without financial support from industry, medical societies would most likely be forced to curtail or stop offering these important educational activities," said Dr. Michael D. Maves, executive vice president of the American Medical Association.

Might these arrangements have something to do with annual increases in spending on prescription drugs at three times the inflation rate, due to both doctors giving out more drugs, and the introduction of new drugs which in some cases prove no better than the old ones? (For the industry point of view, here's a pharma think tank trying to convince you that even though spending on pharmaceuticals is up by 14% to 15% annually --- their numbers --- rising drug prices are a "myth" since the prices on old drugs haven't risen. Not much. Read the page; it's a beaut).

But, to put this all in context, consider this other initiative from Dubya and co.:

The National Cancer Institute, which used to say on its Web site that the best studies showed "no association between abortion and breast cancer," now says the evidence is inconclusive.

A Web page of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used to say studies showed that education about condom use did not lead to earlier or increased sexual activity. That statement, which contradicts the view of "abstinence only" advocates, is omitted from a revised version of the page.

The administration claims that the revised pages reflect the views of its scientific advisors. Which is surely true, since (as I noted some time ago), those advisors are being explicitly chosen to put politics over science.

And then there's Janet Rehnquist, whose job would involve enforcing these regulations for as long as the ongoing investigation into her politically motivated dismissals, scuttling of ongoing investigations, and leaving firearms around the office allows her to keep it.

Update: The indispensible Atrios has more on Bush-league science...

Speaking of Rehnquist --- isn't it remarkable how quiet the Democrats on Capitol Hill have been about the situation?

Perhaps because they have other things to complain about? You surely remember FBI whistleblower Colleen Rowley. She really put the heat on the FBI higher ups, but they withstood her. And Dubya's administration showed where its heart was by giving one of them --- an official who had done a great deal to obstruct the inquiry into Zac Moussaoui's associates before Sept. 11th --- a special presidential award. Surely the Dems are raising the heat on that? Well, no --- I found out about it from a Paul Krugman column.

Republicans would not be so gentle. Republicans, while in a position of pure opposition, managed to make a fuss over completely inconsequential goings-on at the White House travel office. If Democrats are too moderate and genteel to complain about transparent corruption in places where it actually matters, what are they doing in politics?

Thursday, December 26, 2002

Stephen Charest asks:

Explain to me, O Secretary of Defense who has never worn a uniform, why you see fit to roll back the meager pay raise proposed for the troops whom you are about to send into battle? Tell me the reason, O Commander in Chief who was AWOL for many months from his cushy, non-combat Texas Air National Guard unit, why the men and women who will die for the cause no one understands must do so on reduced rations? Why in the hell, with a war pending that nobody seems to want outside of the DOD and defense contractors, are we telling the men and women who will be shot, gassed, bombed, and possibly stricken with diseases, that they are not worthy of the tiny pay raise set aside for them?

Admirably, he's far enough above the partisan fray to point out that these same gents actually campaigned on the promise of a spending more on the military --- which they've kept, in their fashion, by serving a prime dinner of plums and pork to politically connected defense contractors. He is. I'm not.

But, the question begs for a response. There's one over here:

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, "Death to all those who would whimper and cry"
And dropping a bar bell he points to the sky
Saying, "The sun's not yellow, it's chicken!"

Which sounds almost eerily Rumsfeldian. And yet some people think Bob Dylan lyrics are obscure...

To the extent that Enron still has defenders, their line has to be that the company started off with a sound, or at least plausible, business plan, but then overreached. That was certainly the line taken by Ken Lay and an amazingly friendly reporter in his recent Forbes interview, where they tell...

...the tale of a company that was great before it was guilty, of a man who championed the deregulation that ought to outlive this scandal. Having covered Lay on and off for much of the past 20 years, I met with him again recently to talk about all of this. The one condition: We wouldn't thrash over recent history. Far from seeming defensive or defeated, he was relaxed and upbeat, confident that history would exonerate his work.

But it now seems that questionable accounting went all the way back to the founding of the company, when one oilpatch company, called InterNorth, bought another, Houston Natural Gas, and for some odd reason paid several billion dollars more than HNG's market value. Management of the combined company explained the purchase by applying "fair value adjustments" to the book value of some of HNG's assets --- for example, a pipeline with an estimated book value of $800 million, which was carried on Enron's books as a $4 billion asset. After which, quoth the Times:

... as the years passed, Enron sold parts of Houston Pipeline. Since no acquirer was willing to pay the value that had been assigned to the system, accounting rules normally would have required Enron to record a loss on those sales. To avoid that outcome, Enron shifted billions of the fair value adjustment from the pipeline itself onto a storage area associated with it.

Though the assumptions that had allowed Enron to inflate the pipeline system's value were ultimately undermined, the company never restated the value of the assets, people who have examined the company's financial records said. The exaggerated value represented several billion dollars worth of the $14 billion write-down that Enron's new management said would be appropriate.

At the time of the merger, Enron management proffered a mumbo-jumbo explanation of the pipeline valuation, saying that it would become much more valuable as the hub of a network. But particularly in light of subsequent events, it seems perhaps more reasonable to conclude that Enron's accounting involved billions of dollars of fraud from the get-go.

On another topic, there are also folks who are still trying to deny that Enron was particularly close to Dubya's administration, or its principles. Well, on the now-famous Enron party tape, the same one that features Enron executives joking about fraudulent accounting, George Bush Sr. tells Enron's outgoing president, anent George Jr., "You have been fantastic to the Bush family. I don't think anybody did more than you did to support George."

Which says something about Dubya and his associates, but also something about Enron. Remember that Ken Lay's career before Enron was largely as a lobbyist, and while he and the company were perhaps a bit loose in monitoring their money, they tended their political connections closely, to the extent of constructing a computer system which Josh Marshall memorably described as the "influence peddlotron", to try to figure out how best to exploit their political pull. Which raises the question --- did Ken Lay, Dubya's good friend "Kenny Boy", found a company which then took advantage of loose regulation, or was he first a Washington player who deliberately created a regulatory vacuum, and then structured a company to exploit it?

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

China announces that a new front has opened in the War on Terrorism. They're holding a New York-based dissident, Wang Bingzhang, who was kidnapped in July on a trip to Vietnam, in connection with espionage and terrorist activities --- more specifically, posting essays related to the Taiwan question on the Internet. Evidently, they have adopted the Western dictum that the pen is mightier than the truck bomb.

But then again, some governments in the West seem to have the same basic idea. More precisely, the American West. Like Denver, Colorado, where police officially classified two college professors who run a soup kitchen, troubled high school students, a nun who runs schools on desolate Indian reservations, and the Nobel prize-winning American Friends Service Committee, as "criminal extremists".

That may help explain, to people who can't figure out what's wrong with John Poindexter's "Total Information Awareness" scheme to spy on the public, exactly what the rest of us are frightened of. But hey, Poindexter's outfit is showing real signs of growing into the maturity they'd need to avoid the temptations the system would offer towards this sort of... well, shall we say threat enhancement or just plain sloppiness? The cheesy eye-in-the-pyramid logo which they cribbed off a cheap paperback edition of Illuminatus! is actually gone from their web site, along with other material. So now, nobody can see anything there that's worth worrying about...

A quick rundown on threats, or not, in various parts of the world.
  • Afghanistan: an early victory in the War on Terrorism, except that al-Qaeda is moving back in, and our troops are getting killed.
  • Pakistan: A valuable ally in the pacification of Afghanistan, except that the al-Qaeda forces that are drifting back into Afghanistan are based in their territory. Their nuclear weapons are not currently considered a threat, even though their intelligence service has a history of cooperation with Muslim extremists, their current ruler is a military strongman who was responsible, in the past, for sending regular army troops into Kashmir, and they have traded nuclear technology to North Korea.
  • Yemen: An ally in good standing, who are perfectly entitled to their shipment of North Korean scuds, in light of their valuable cooperation with the war on terrorism. Which must come in some form other than letting the United States use their airspace, cooperating with us in apprehending terrorists, or doing much to capture them on their own, since they aren't doing any of that.
  • North Korea: Having obtained plans for a working bomb from our ally in Pakistan, they have now reactivated their reactor, and broken the U.N. seals on their equipment for extracting weapons-grade plutonium, in violation of several agreements. A cause for concern perhaps, but Donald Rumsfeld opines that diplomacy "seems to me a perfectly rational way of proceeding".
  • Iraq: Has no nuclear weapons, and no immediate prospects of getting the requisite fissile material. Their military is a hollow force which presents no immediate threat to any of its neighbors; their trade is heavily restricted. An immense threat which must be dealt with immediately, by military action.

Any questions?

Monday, December 23, 2002

So, am I the only person who doesn't recognize any of the celebrities on "Celebrity Mole"?

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Now that l'affaire Lott is over and done with, a quick thought on the aftermath: Earlier in the week, Lott had threatened that if he couldn't be majority leader, he might just quit the Senate entirely, and take his little red wagon back to Pascagoula. In the wake of his resignation from the leadership, but not from the Senate, a lot of people are speculating what might have been offered to Lott to keep him from acting on his threats, in terms of chairmanships and other perks. But, as many noted at the time Lott issued the threats, giving Lott any committee chairmanship would involve unseating some other highly placed Republican. Hardly collegial.

But also hardly the only form of payoff which Lott might accept. Of the many pork-enriched pols in the soi-disant "party of small government", Lott is among the most gluttonous. And he brags about it at home. A few more defense contracts, and some factories from politically connected businesses, could easily be enough to keep him around at the dinner table.

Stepping back a bit, it's still not entirely clear why exactly, why now, Trent Lott's shopworn praise for the Dixiecrats was suddenly a major political issue. I've actually heard two stories being bruited about: one, that bloggers were keeping the story alive, and the other that Karl Rove was stirring the pot, in part to remove an embarrassment, but also to give the post to someone less inclined to compromise with the Democrats. They could both be right --- if you don't see the attraction of dealing with Frist instead of Lott, consider this New York Times profile:

If those colleagues had wanted a senator who wanted the job, they would have chosen Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who has ached to be leader for years. If they had wanted an "old bull," a caretaker who might have guided them past the racial shoals on which Trent Lott foundered, they might have picked Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico or Ted Stevens of Alaska.

Instead they picked a 50-year-old man who is not, at first glance, an obvious replacement for the veteran Mr. Lott. He is so closely identified with the White House that some members fret about becoming a rubber stamp. He lacks the broad legislative and parliamentary experience that can be useful in fending off the inevitable thrusts from the Democrats.

In short, a guy who might well be inclined to take direction from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Which isn't the whole story, of course; we can add Frist's successful political fund drives, and Republican discontent with Lott, who has been frequently knocked as too eager to compromise with the Democrats. (Squaring that with Dubya's conciliatory campaign rhetoric is left as an exercise for the reader).

So, how can we tell the country was dancing to the pulsing, packet-switched beat of the mighty Casio, or the wheezing blast of Karl Rove's Wurlitzer? In part, by seeing what comes next; in particular, whether left blogistan is capable of drawing similar attention to other stories, including the heinous racial record of other prominent Republicans (Ashcroft's praise for the Confederates, and his description of a school desegregation plan as "an outrage against human decency", among other things; Dubya's campaign appearances at Bob Jones university, etc., etc.). Or whether Atrios's playing up of the inhumane INS roundups helps get them fixed.

Early returns offer some encouragement. It's interesting to note that the INS is acting differently than it usually does when caught doing something outrageous; the ordinarily shameless INS bureaucrats are actually acting embarrassed. But, other hypotheses still cannot be excluded. So, I say in the name of science: let's turn up the heat.

Real live history professor Thomas Spencer critiques a history "quiz" on civil rights cited by Glenn Reynolds, who opines as well that Bill Clinton would flunk. It turns out that the quiz author wasn't doing so well himself; among other errors, he confuses Arkansas and Alabama so badly that some of the questions don't even make sense.

This would be a little less annoying if Reynolds wasn't in the habit of tarring any advocacy of firearms regulation, no matter how mild or what evidence is offered in its favor, by association with the bogus scholarship of Michael Bellesiles...