Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fox Could Be Blacked Out In Dispute

Two of the nation's greediest media giants are at loggerheads over fee transmissions and no matter who wins the public will pay dearly. Unless a deal is struck with News midnight New Year's Eve, Time Warner Cable could drop all Fox programming.

At the moment, the dispute affects only Time Warner subscribers. Waiting in the wings how this plays out is NBC, ABC and CBS.

I'm a TWC subscriber and pay $82.67/mo for cable and high-speed internet service. That's 7% of my net income and eats up most of my budget for fun and games.

Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Flint writes industry insiders believe Fox is asking TWC to pay a fee of $1 per subscriber to transmit its station affiliates. The cable company has more than 1 million customers in its Southern California region. The highest fee is $4 charged by ESPN. The Times:

Fox says on a website set up to argue its side of the dispute that the fee it's seeking is reasonable. "Fox attracts more viewers than the five most expensive cable networks combined (ESPN, TNT, USA, ESPN2 and NFL Net)," the site proclaims.

Congress created the conflict by passing a law in 1992  giving broadcasters the right to seek payment from cable operators to retransmit station signals.

The cable industry contends that because TV stations broadcast over the air for free, it shouldn't pay to retransmit their signals over cable lines. Broadcasters counter that most consumers wouldn't even subscribe to cable if local channels weren't in the package.

What really pisses me off as a consumer is Rupert Murdoch's henchmen telling me to drop Time Warner and switch to satellite broadcasters DirecTV and Dish Network or phone company Verizon's Fios so I don't miss their programming.. That's a choice with a gun pointed at my head. This ain't my fight, guys. It's yours.

"This isn't good public relations for either company," warned Andy Donchin, director of media investments for advertising firm Carat, whose clients include Radio Shack and Papa John's International Inc. "Ultimately, whatever agreement they come to, the consumer will pay for it."

Fact is, Fox is probably fourth in my TV selection choices. During the NFL season, I regularly view the games and would be crushed not to continue watching. Same goes for its package of regional college football games and the upcoming Fiesta Bowl. I would miss Fox Cable News if for nothing else wouldn't have anything to shout at. I could care less not watching "American Idol" and can always find "24" through Netflix.

 (Author's Note: I could be wrong but I believe the dispute involves all Fox stations carried by Time Warner and not just those in Southern California.)

Report Discredits Obama Afghan Mission

 I must admit I was not shocked to hear a secret report for Pentagon brass that efforts to train the Afghan National Army (ANA) are beset with deep-rooted problems which could take years to overcome.

NBC-TV foreign correspondent Richard Engel said the privately-commissioned report:

1) -- Contends nepotism, corruption and absenteeism among ANA officers makes success impossible. ANA troops on the ground, however, are doing some fighting.

2) -- Quotes a finding: "If Afghan political leaders do not place competent people in charge, no amount of coalition support will suffice in the long term."

3) -- Charges Afghan leaders inflate the numbers of army and police as much as 50%.

The 25-page report, said to still be in draft form, will be presented to Gen. David Patraeus, head of Central Command, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, senior commander of troops in Afghanistan.

Engel, appearing on the NBC nightly news show and later on MSNBC's Rachael Maddow Show, said the military brass already knows the problems and findings in the report. As a result, it shows that President Obama's timetable to begin returning troops home by August 2011 is impossible.

The correspondent said all the military commanders he talked to said the number one priority in Obama's mission is to train the ANA and they estimate it will take a minimum of four years and as long as 10 years. The surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops is to provide stability on the ground to enable the training efforts.

What is troubling is that if the military knew this, then the president knew. It cements the charges Obama set a deadline to consider troop withdrawal simply to appease the left wing of his party. That's a damn sinister act when he knew full well the deadline was arbitrary, capricious and impossible to achieve.

I never could satisfactorily connect the dots of Obama's Afghan mission as it relates to a more stable Pakistan. The price in treasure and lives outweighs any hope of victory in a country with such a corrupt and unstable government.

Why does the U.S. strategy to fight al quada in the Afghan provinces require 100,000 U.S. forces and 50,000 NATO personnel when it is equally effective fighting the extremists with special ops and drones in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia or any other Islamic-ruled state bedeviled with terrorists.

I'm disappointed in the president. It reminds me of Tonto telling the Lone Ranger, "He speaks with forked tongue."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why Americans Are Dumb At Math

When it comes to math, Americans are really dumb. I know. I lucked out with a C in algebra and flunked calculus. Two totally unrelated stories in today's news explore the reasons why.

Bob Sullivan, author of "Gotcha Capitalism," writing for's Red Tape Chronicles, says a government study reports only one in seven Americans are proficient in math. Worse yet, only 1 in 10 women, 1 in 25 Hispanics and 1 in 50 African Americans were determined proficient.

This is simple stuff. While 42% could add two menu items and determine a tip, just one in five could calculate a mortgage rate. Four of five flunked when told to figure their gross weekly earnings after given an hourly rate. 

Little wonder, Sullivan muses, consumers played a large role in the housing market collapse by buying $3,000 monthly mortgages with $2,000 earnings and installing granite countertops at 30% interest.

Of the 30 industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks 25th in math next to Serbia and Uruguay. Yet, America's students are led to believe by their superiors they are the smartest in the world, Sullivan claims. 

Which leads us to the second story, this from the Washington Post that implies Arne Duncan, President Obama's Chicago friend and Education Secretary, is not cracked up as a savior the Obama people would like us to believe.

Chicago, the nation's third largest public school system, was cited as a model for reform under Duncan's tenure. But, in recent National Assessment of Education Progress tests, Chicago trailed Miami, Houston and New York while larger gains were recorded by Boston, San Diego and Atlanta. Even fourth graders in the much-maligned Washington D.C. schools improved twice as much as Chicago since 2003.

In math, Chicago placed far down the pack.

No doubt Duncan improved performance since 1987 when it was called the worst public school system in American by former Education Secretary Bill Bennett. Among Duncan's successes:

For more than seven years, starting in 2001, Duncan tried to rejuvenate his city's struggling schools: jettisoning staff, hiring turnaround specialists, shutting down those deemed beyond hope. He pushed a back-to-basics curriculum, spawned dozens of charter schools and experimented with performance pay. State and federal test scores and graduation rates rose on his watch.

But critics say he lowered graduation standards and pushed unruly students to other schools that prompted more drop outs from the system. The Post:

Duncan's record is of more than historical interest. He wields considerable power through the combination of his Chicago connections, shared with President Obama, and his oversight of billions of dollars in reform funding. The Education Department is dangling an unprecedented $3.5 billion in grants for school systems to turn around weak schools and $4 billion for states to pursue innovation.

You may wonder as I do is whether throwing all this money at schools will improve our mathematical illiteracy, especially if it is based on a flawed model.

Which returns us to Bob Sullivan.

Even by taking into account the blackboard jungle atmosphere in some urban classrooms, the quality of our math teachers is highly suspect.
"Study after study shows U.S. achievement falls off the cliff during middle school, when subjects like fractions and percentages are introduced -- exactly the skills you need as a consumer or, for that matter, to move on to algebra, calculus and advanced sciences," Sullivan says.

In 18 U.S. states, not even one elementary math class is required for certification.
Some teaching colleges allow admittance as long as students have math skills equal to their future students -- that is, as long as they could pass a 5th grade math test.
It's possible in some states to pass the teacher certification exam (Praxis) without answering a single math question correctly. 
In Massachusetts, there's a special program to reacquaint teachers with math. The man who runs the program says half of teachers can't answer basic questions involving fractions and has concluded that many elementary teachers are "phobic" about math.
Teachers seem to be math-averse from the start. College bound seniors headed for elementary education have math SAT scores significantly lower than the national average (483 vs. 515).

 American taxpayers as a group are equally paranoid with math. More than 20 million hire someone to pay for filing their 1040EZ tax returns which require 10 blanks to be filled.

The stories I linked are worth the time to read.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Our Flawed Airport Security System

We have seen how easy it is to place blame with the benefit of hindsight in the case of alleged Nigerian suicide bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Two glaring glitches in airport security leap out as the suspect is being charged in federal court with trying to detonate an explosive device while Northwest Airlines Flight 253 approached Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day.

One is that authorities failed to place Abdulmutallab on the no-fly list after investigating a complaint to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria by his father that he feared his son was becoming radicalized and unstable.

The other is the security system itself wasting time and money screening the wrong people for fear of being accused of invading privacy and racial profiling.

Political correctness aside, when was the last time since Sept. 11, 2001, has anyone other than an Islamic extremist with ties to the Middle East hijacked or attempted to blow up a commercial airplane?

Let's focus on these two glitches.

The New York Times:

When a prominent Nigerian banker and former government official phoned the American Embassy in Abuja in October with a warning that his son had developed radical views, had disappeared and might have traveled to Yemen, embassy officials did not revoke the young man’s visa to enter the United States, which was good until June 2010.

Instead, officials said Sunday, they marked the file of the son, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for a full investigation should he ever reapply for a visa. And when they passed the information on to Washington, Abdulmutallab’s name was added to 550,000 others with some alleged terrorist connections — but not to the no-fly list. That meant no flags were raised when he used cash to buy a ticket to the United States and boarded a plane, checking no bags.

No bags and a one-way ticket? That's a red flag in itself if you believe the rules established by the Transportation Security Administration. Furthermore, Amsterdam Schipohl Airport  where the Nigerian boarded the plane, is regarded as one of the most secure in the world.

The Netherlands airport has 15 advanced checkpoint screening devices that use millimeter waves to create an image of a passenger’s body, so officers in a secure room can see under clothing to determine if a weapon or explosive has been hidden. An official there said Sunday that they were prohibited from using them on passengers bound for the United States, for a reason she did not explain, according to the Times.

To date, only 40 of these screening devices have been installed at 19 airports in the United States. In a nonbinding vote in June, the House overwhelmingly approved a measure to prevent scanners from being used for primary screening.

The Washington Post reports:

But Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism analyst at Georgetown University, called the suspect's ability to smuggle the device on board profoundly disturbing, given that the TSA has spent more than $30 billion on aviation security since 2004, the world's airlines collectively spend an additional $5.9 billion a year, and PETN (the explosive chemicals used by the 23-year-old Nigerian) is well-known as a favored material for terrorist suicide bombers.
"This incident was a compound failure of both intelligence and physical security, leaving prevention to the last line of defense -- the passengers themselves," Hoffman wrote in an e-mail.

In a WaPo sidebar story:

"Security failed," said Doron Bergerbest-Eilon, Israel's senior-ranking counterterrorism officer from 1997 to 2000 and a former national regulator for aviation security. It is of little comfort that Abdulmutallab was stopped only after he allegedly failed to properly detonate the bomb, instead igniting a fire that alerted fellow passengers, Bergerbest-Eilon said.
"The system repeatedly fails to prevent attacks and protect passengers when challenged," he said, adding that, in the minds of security experts, "for all intents and purposes, Northwest Flight 253 exploded in midair."

While such methods have been "wrongly perceived as racial profiling," Bergerbest-Eilon said, "past events have taught us that we cannot rely on intelligence alone to thwart major terror attacks."

 The most revolting blowback of the Christmas Day episode is the TSA's knee-jerk response to upgrade screening resulting in longer delays at the terminals and our politicians scampering  to cover their failures.

The job of a TSA screener is next to impossible. It's as working at a conveyor belt looking for the burned potato chips among 10 million  passing through. Miss one and there's hell to pay.

Until a terrorist plants a bomb inside the purse carried by the little old white lady from Pasadena, people who do not fit the profile for a thousand reasons should be steered to an express line.

English Replacing My Favorite Police Codes

Unlike some of my peers in the twilight of their lives, I don't spend too much time lamenting the good old days. Yes, I feel saddened that my chosen profession in the newspaper business has failed to repair its economic model which has turned it into a dinosaur.

But it did come as a shock that police departments throughout the country are phasing out the radio dispatch police codes and replacing them with common English. I mean this transformation has nothing to do with the incredible technological advances we have experienced in our and our parents' lifetimes.

I made my bones in the newspaper field as a police reporter. There were certain police codes that triggered entire newsrooms into action. One was 11-99, an officer in deep trouble. In California, much of the state penal code was reduced to radio dispatch communications lingo.

Movies and television series made some of the call letters universal. Actor Broderick Crawford said 10-4 so often it became a joke. They even made a series with the call letters One Adam 12. The series "CHiPs" made famous the call letters 10-40, 10-29 and Code 3. I was always partial to Code 7 which meant a lunch break.

When I was first assigned to the cop shop, all the tools of the trade were simple. A scanner, telephone, phone books, Thomas Bros. maps, pencils, notebooks and a copy of 31 of the most used police codes.

Some of the veteran beat officers at San Diego Police Department used the codes to good humor. An 11-50 was a person believed psychotic. A radio dispatcher asked the officer to confirm his 11-50. "At the moment, I would evaluate him as an 11-49 and a half," the officer responded. Replied the quick-thinking dispatcher: "10-4, Officer Freud."

Without fail, the officers I interviewed always said the "415 domestic" calls were the scariest. They never knew when one of the parties to the dispute would turn on them.

After listening to the police scanner for eight hours, I would sometimes return home and still talk in cop code. During one Christmas season in the 1970s, I blurted to her: "Guess who got booked on a 502 last night?"

"What's a 502?" she asked.

"Drunken driving."

"Who, then?"

"Ted Geisel of 'Dr. Seuss' fame."

"The childrens' book author?"

"Yeah. My lead was "This is the story how the Grinch got pinched."


"Not really," I said. "The editors said they don't publish drunken driver arrests."

My son overheard my after-work discussions. He memorized all 31 police codes at the age of six. At that early age he decided to be a cop. He did and has enjoyed a marvelous career so far spanning 16 years.

I haven't listened to a police scanner for years and can't imagine the radio traffic without those wonderful codes.

10-4? and a mighty Code 5, y'all.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

OMG! Palin As President

It's the season for the Remmers Report Annual Awards which run the gamut from the serious to the mundane, We take no prisoners and offer no pity for the absurd, especially when we gaze into the crystal ball and prognosticate the future of political mayhem.

First, let's get the serious out of the way.

Hero of the Year -- US Airways pilot Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger who safely landed his plane on the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 150 passengers and crew.

Heroes of the Year -- The three Navy snipers who killed three pirates holding an American cargo-ship captain hostage for five days on a covered lifeboat about 350 miles off the Somalia coast.

Gutsy Diplomat of the Year -- Matthew Hoh who resigned the top foreign service job in Afghanistan in protest of the administration sending in more troops.

Of those three, it reflects my gratitude and admiration for people who by training and experience do their jobs well.

Meritorious Achievement -- To Barack Obama who was sworn in as the first black president in the history of the United States and to American voters who elected him. This honor is based on overcoming in part the prejudices of our past history. It does not reflect the job he has done so far in his first year in the Oval Office.

Now, let's party.

Winners of the Year -- Private health insurance carriers and Big Pharma. What industry wouldn't drool over the prospects of 30 million new customers mandated by Congress?

Loser of the Year (foreign division) -- The Norwegian committee that bet the come line as if it were a craps table game and named President Obama winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for doing nothing but talking the talk.

Loser of the Year (domestic division) -- Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich impeached by his state legislators and indicted by the feds for attempting to sell Obama's vacant U.S. senate seat to the highest bidder. Me thinks he protests his innocence too much.

Losers of the Year -- All those investors and charities who lost $50 billion at the hands of Ponzi scheme ring leader Bernard Madoff.

Quote of the Year -- "You lie" shouted by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) during a joint session of Congress speech by President Obama.

Most Gullible -- Teabaggers.

Most Intellectually Challenged -- Republican Rep. Michelle Bachman of Minnesota who received more ink and air time than any other member of Congress. She has produced nothing to show for it but those inane statements about investigating fellow congressmen for patriotism, the wonders of carbon dioxide/global warming and leading The Charge Of The Light Brigade (which lost to the infidels).

Frequent Flier -- Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Of all his trips, the one I enjoyed most was his taking the state plane to get a haircut, a one upsmanship on the president flying to Chicago which just happened to include a visit to his personal barber. The governor flying to Argentina to meet his girl friend was cool. Not so cool was leaving the state without telling anyone where he was going.

God Blesses The Elite -- All the House and Senate members living for nominal rent at the K Street church where some counseled member John Ensign to pay $90,000 in hush money to the husband of whose wife was having an affair with the Nevada senator.

Most Self-Serving U.S. Senator (tie) -- Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Nelson's negotiation to have all taxpayers fund his state's Medicaid costs forever is as breathtaking for Nebraskans as the purchase of the Louisiana territory for early Americans.

And, now the media and entertainment gold mines.

Athlete of the Year -- Tiger Woods for his prowess on the golf course and stamina off it.

Buffoon of the Year -- Glenn Beck.

Biggest Blowhards -- (Tie) between Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann.

Most Influential News Network -- Fox. Personally, I abhor most of the stuff they put on the air but you have to give them credit grudgingly for ratings and shaping much of the national agenda.

Best Political Cable News Host -- Chris Matthews of MSNBC. Just the thought sends shivers up my leg.

Best Network News Anchor -- John Gibson of ABC who promptly retired, his network handing over the reins to Diane Sawyer, Nixon's former girl Friday.

Best Viewing TV Night -- Tuesday's CBS's lineup of "NCIS," "NCIS: Los Angeles " and "The Good Wife."

Best TV Ad -- AT&T's little-girl-loses-dog found by North Carolina basketball star Tyler Hansbrough by social networking his campus buddies.

And finally the Remmers Report fearless forecasts.

Nov. 1, 2010 -- Constitutional lawyers are consulting with House congressional leaders facing a parliamentary crises. The mid-term elections resulted in no majority for any party. The Democrats lost 50 members, the Republicans dropped 10 with third party candidates picking up 60 new members consisting of the Conservative Party, Teabagger Party, Reform Party, the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, the Birthers Party and the Right To Life Party.

Jan. 21, 2013 -- President Sara Palin was sworn into office, telling a world audience she would ask Congress to declare war on a foreign country consisting primarily of brown-skinned people. On her Facebook Page the following day, President Palin said she was misquoted.

July 4, 2015 -- President Palin resigns.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Obama Homeowner Rescue Plan A Bust

The Obama administration's $75 billion program to help homeowners escape foreclosure is a failure and should be scrapped. By unintentional consequences, the government itself under the FDIC sabotages the program.

The irony of this is that a private non-profit company exists that has a proven track record helping homeowners renegotiate mortgages they can afford -- for free.

Bear with me as we go through this one step at a time.

About 40% of the mortgages in which banks voluntarily lowered the monthly payments by 20% were delinquent in less than a year, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision reports.

Since March when the Obama program began, 760,000 homeowners were offered loan modifications but only 31,000 were eligible. Of those, only 781 (less than 1%) were determined permanently enrolled. Those were "qualified" homeowners defined as having made at least one in three consecutive payments on time.

Nationally, 14% of homeowners with mortgages are either behind on their payments or in foreclosure.

Certainly, the basic problem is homeowners caught in the jaws of a recession and unemployment. "Even if you've gone through a modification, your situation may deteriorate," said Fred Phillips-Patrick, director for credit policy at the thrift office.

Part of the reason for the poor showing is that mortgage servicers don't  have adequate staff and systems to process the increasing number trial plans. Another reason is that the banks had no business "giving" homes to people with questionable credit or in some cases not even jobs.

 Enter the FDIC. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is going broke. It insures consumer savings accounts in banks and takes over banks that fail and sells them to competitors deemed more financially stable. It is supposed to be self-supporting by assessing a fee on banks for its insurance fund. One of its bad management policies was not tapping wealthy banks any levy whatsoever, a policy Congress changed in 2006. When the housing market collapsed because of subprime and predatory lender practices, it had in reserves only $583 million for failed banks. It was forced to secure a $500 billion line of credit from Treasury and stuck taxpayers a bill analysts say will never be repaid. As of June 30, FDIC reported its insurance fund assets exceeded liabilities by $10.4 billion, about 0.22% of insured deposits. So far this year, 94 banks have been shut, the fastest pace in almost two decades. The FDIC said 416 banks were on its “problem” list, a 15-year high, as of June 30. That was up from 305 three months earlier.

What is overlooked although reported on the FDIC website is the sweetheart deals they make to banks they lure to takeover failed ones.

A classic is OneWest Bank which took over IndyMac Bank in March 2009. OneWest purchased all current residential mortgages at 70% par value. FDIC guaranteed anywhere from 80-95% from any losses OneWest might occur based on the original outstanding loan balance.

For example, if a home has a loan amount of $500,000, One West would pay $350,000. If the owner is offered $250,000 cash in a "short sale," OneWest can report a $250,000 loss based on the original loan and receive a check from Uncle Same for $200,000. Add that to the $250,000 "short sale" price offer and OneWest earns a grand total of $450,000 and a nifty 100 grand profit.

A short sale is when a home is sold for less than its outstanding mortgage. Since September 2008 short sales have increased 22%.

Bottom line: The FDIC in its shared loan agreements with some 50 banks unwittingly encourages them to foreclose on homeowners because it is more profitable, less risky and rids the banks they consider deadbeats.

That's not all. Banks which are making a serious effort to loan say regulators -- another arm of our government -- have reversed course since the market collapse and made borrowing more difficult by insisting on larger reserves and higher collateral and credit ratings from consumers.

In researching this article, I learned from a Realtor about The Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, a non-profit advocacy group for homeowners who fall victim to subprime and predatory lenders. I can't vouch for them but they seem to be one solution to a problem the Obama administration is trying to fix with its $75 million homeowners assistance program.

According to its website:

The NACA solution is to restructure the existing mortgage by permanently reducing the interest rate to achieve an affordable mortgage payment. A mortgage restructure is not a refinance that requires eligibility for a new loan (i.e. high credit scores, high property values, etc). Since a restructure reduces either or both the interest rate and/or mortgage principal on the existing first mortgage, there are no mortgage criteria eligibility restrictions. If the homeowner is unemployed NACA provides a forbearance with a minimum payment until that have steady income to have their mortgage restructured.

... NACA has legally binding agreements with all the major lenders/servicers covering over 90% of homeowners to achieve to a restructure or forbearance and is advocating against others. All of NACA’s services are free. NACA also provides for free a forensic audit to determine any violations in obtaining your current mortgage. 

The group, formed in 1988, claims it has negotiated more than $10 billion in loan commitments and guarantees.

Based on the government's record of helping just 781 out of 31,000 problem mortgages, I would think NACA's  proven success is worth a shot at tackling the problem and one helluva lot cheaper.

It is one of those scenarios where the private sector, not the government, can do a better job.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Stop Whining

I've had it with my liberal or progressive or whatever we call ourselves whiners who feel double-crossed that President Obama reneged on a campaign promise they insist included a public option in the health reform legislation.

My recollection is exactly the same as reported in today's "First Read" posting by reporters for MSNBC which I will reprint in total after I offer my own take.

What I do recall is that during the campaign and as president Obama had said he preferred a public option. It was never included on his campaign website nor has he insisted it be included in the legislation now pending before both houses of Congress.

This is typical Obama. Followers and detractors read into his words what they want to believe.

What I read from the beginning of what Obama meant by his "preference" for a public option was that if it was included in the legislation he would be more than pleased to sign it into law.

I also believed that Obama did not insist inclusion of the public option is because he doubted it would pass the Senate and certainly a rallying cry for opposition from conservative and moderate voters. Say what you want about Obama, as president he is a pragmatist.

The polls are all over the place on the public option. In generic terms, the public supports it. In specific forms crafted by the House and the Senate, the proposed legislation falls as low as 35% approval.

The White House strategy in pushing for health reform has been highly suspect in my mind. From the beginning, Obama did not want to make the same mistake as the Clinton administration which crafted the legislation in secret and tried to ram it down the throats of Congress.

As time dragged on, it became clear that Obama would sign anything emerging from Congress and call it a landmark victory. You know, anything is better than nothing.

It came as no surprise to me that when the Democratic senators met privately with the president last Friday, Joe Lieberman emerged to say the public option did not come up in the conversation. Why? It's not Obama's style.

Obama, no matter how much his fate depends on a workable health reform package, is not a Lyndon Johnson. No one could twist arms and bang heads as crudely and effectively as LBJ. We really don't know how politically astute Obama as a practicioner really is behind closed doors. Time will tell.

I'm not drinking the cool aide that maintains the public option is the only key to success. There are many routes taken on the path to a universal coverage goal and the current Senate version is one of them. Is it the best route? No way. If the two bills are reconciled and passed by both houses, it is the only way.

Liberals/progressives are losing the public option battle at this moment but they are on the cusp of winning the war. Take what you can get now and fine tune it in future years. That came about for Social Security and to a lesser degree Medicare.

Despite all the projections, we do not know whether this bill or one with a public option would not in time bankrupt our nation. The doomsayers make a salient point by claiming the government cannot run a program and wave Amtrak and the U.S, Postal Service as examples.

I have stated repeatedly I prefer Medicare for all or at least a robust public option. Just because I don't get my way doesn't mean I throw a tantrum and use the president as a straw man accused of idealogical treason.

As promised, the First Read item:

Some liberals are upset with this statement President Obama made to the Washington Post: "I didn't campaign on the public option."

The liberal group Progressive Change Campaign Committee is up a with new TV ad in response, which will run in D.C. and Wisconsin (to influence Sen. Russ Feingold). "President Obama should frankly feel ashamed that he promised Americans a public option, got people to believe real change was possible, and then never truly fought for it -- instead, pushing an insurance mandate that he specifically campaigned against," said the PCCC's Adam Green. "Hopefully, our ad inspires one brave senator to represent the will of the people and insist that a public option be in any final bill."

As we've written before, the words "public option" didn't appear in any Obama campaign speech we can remember; they didn't come up during the debates; and they didn't surface in TV ads. Remember when Obama and Hillary Clinton dominated the MSNBC debate with Brian Williams and Tim Russert with 16 minutes of health-care discussion, the words "public option" were never uttered.

It is true that a public plan was part of Obama's health-care plan, and it's also true that the public option was an idea being debated in policy-wonk circles during the campaign. 

But, from our vantage point as reporters who covered the presidential campaign, Obama's quote to the Washington Post appears to be correct.

And here's Huffington Post's Sam Stein's take: "An examination of approximately 200 newspaper articles from the campaign, as well as debate transcripts and public speeches shows that Obama spoke remarkably infrequently about creating a government-run insurance program. Indeed, when he initially outlined his health care proposals during a speech before the University of Iowa on March 29, 2007, he described setting up a system that resembles the current Senate compromise - in which private insurers would operate in a non-profit entity that was regulated heavily by a government entity." 

Now, there’s no doubt that Obama broke a promise on mandates. And he’s had to answer for that in interviews with reporters. It’s certainly accurate to say that he campaigned against a mandate. Remember, Clinton was in favor a mandate and much of the debate on health care centered around THAT word. And because of the mandate, the irony for the left -- now up in arms about mandates -- is that her plan was the one that was seen as the more liberal.

When asked over e-mail about the above points, Green wrote, in part, “Those two arguments above -- that he actively campaigned against the mandates, and that his health care plan actively called for a ‘new public insurance plan’ seals the deal beyond the need for anything more.” 

He added, “[C]ampaigns are mostly about themes, you know that. Obama promised he would take on special interests and fight for regular people. He promised change you can believe in. Instead he cut a deal with the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, is embracing a bill that they love which is wildly unpopular with the public, and never fought for a public option which Americans overwhelmingly want. As the petition that accompanies our ad says (which his own staffers, volunteers, and donors signed), that's not change we can believe in.”

Yet, Jacob Hacker, the Yale professor who is credited with being the father of the public option endorsed the Senate bill -- even without the public option. 

To that, Green responded, “When Hacker was being honest with himself, he wrote a piece about the Medicare buy-in called, ‘You Call This A Compromise?’ When later accepting this even-worse bill, he said that if we don't pass it, ‘The most progressive president of my generation...will be handed a crippling loss. The party he leads will be branded as unable to govern.’ This was before it came out that Obama never even pressed Lieberman to support the public option. He didn't fight. So this isn't a real's an insurance industry bill.”

Here’s an excerpt from his May 29, 2007 speech laying out his health care plan. Again, there’s nothing about a public option. 

“It’s a goal I believe we can achieve on a national level with the health care plan I’m outlining today,” Obama said, according to his prepared remarks from that day. “The very first promise I made on this campaign was that as president, I will sign a universal health care plan into law by the end of my first term in office.  Today I want to lay out the details of that plan -- a plan that not only guarantees coverage for every American, but also brings down the cost of health care and reduces every family’s premiums by as much as $2,500. This second part is important because, in the end, coverage without cost containment will only shift our burdens, not relieve them. So we will take steps to remove the waste and inefficiency from the system so we can bring down costs and improve the quality of our care while we’re at it.”

This all really speaks to what a blank slate Barack Obama was for so many people -- liberals, centrists and conservatives alike. Anyone could find something they liked about him and adapt the idea of Obama to what they wanted.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

General Softens Pregnancy Ban

Last week I bookmarked a story from MSNBC that reported the Army general of U.S. forces in northern Iraq threatened to court-martial and jail personnel who became pregnant or impregnates another service member, including married couples assigned to the same unit.

I was too busy to pursue the story, expecting an outcry from my sisters in journalism. Wrong. Not much of a peep out of them.

This man's army is not like the one my father, uncles and cousins served. They were subjected to explicit training films on the ravages of venereal disease. Until this order by Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo, the gender-integrated military debate focused on the "Don't Tell" policy involving gay and lesbian personnel.

The general's orders Nov. 4 was first reported by the military newspaper Stars & Stripes and quoted Col. David S. Thompson, the inspector general for all soldiers in Iraq, that the edict was legal and no cases had been filed. He said it was the first time he could recall pregnancy being prohibited.

Several days after the original Stars & Stripes article, four female and three male soldiers were disciplined but not court-martialed for violating Cucolo's orders.

The four female soldiers were given letters of reprimand that will not be in their permanent military file, Cucolo told the Stars and Stripes military newspaper late Monday. So were two of the male soldiers. The third male soldier, who is married and impregnated a subordinate, was charged with fraternization and given a permanent letter of reprimand, Cucolo said.

One of the female soldiers declined to say who impregnated her and the unit “let it drop,” Cucolo told Stars and Stripes, adding that he had no plans to further investigate paternity. “I’m in a war zone,” he said. “I don’t have time for that.”

Cucolo commands some 22,000 soldiers, and nearly 1,700 are female.

“I can’t tell you how valuable my female soldiers are,” Cucolo said. “They fly helicopters. They run satellites. They’re mechanics. They’re medics. Some of the best intelligence analysts I have happen to be female.”

“The message to my female soldiers is that I need you for the duration,” Cucolo said. “Please think before you act.”

I appreciate Cucolo's problem of personnel attrition but his solution was rather Draconian. To order people in their late teens and early twenties to think before they act in war time conditions is the same as placing a wad of bubble gum to plug a leak in a dam.

One thing you can say about our military is that historically they are a virile lot. During World War II the Brits accused our G.I.'s of thinking between their legs rather than their brains. In postwar Japan, our troops impregnated thousands of natives in which their offspring were ostracized.

Somewhere in Gen. Cucolo's chain of command must be a quartermaster who can procure condoms for his personnel.

Monday, December 21, 2009

It's The People, Not The Process, Fools

Sometime between now and the day next year President Barack Obama signs the historic healthcare bill into law -- based on the path they are now headed -- I want to know how much the private insurance carriers gain in all this.

We know they will gain potentially 31 million new customers. We know some of their practices of arbitrarily denying claims and refusing to insure persons with pre-existing conditions will be curbed. We are led to believe competition from new non-profit insurance markets will increase competition and keep premiums from rising as fast as they have the past six years.

But until more detail comes out, I have a gnawing fear the health care industry that includes Big Pharma will have undisputed control of one-sixth of our national economy. It's not because government should take total control. It's because I don't trust the bastards running the insurance cartels.

Meanwhile, we have to settle for the hanky-panky -- Republican Sen. Tom Coburn rightfully described as corruption -- on how the Senate got to 60 Democratic votes to override a filibuster. It's known as the Cornhusker Windfall. We're talking process here, folks. Not what's best for you and I.

Here's what Sen. Ben Nelson, the last Democratic holdout negotiated to secure his vote, the last needed by  Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Everyone knows he secured wording prohibiting federal funding for abortions and for U.S. taxpayers to pick up Nebraska's Medicaid costs. According to the New York Times, Reid paid tribute to senators from many states.

1) Increased Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals in any state where at least 50% of the counties have population densities less than six people per square mile. Although Nebraska fails that yardstick, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming comply, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

2) A grant of $100 million to an unnamed "health care facility" affiliated with an academic health center at a public research university in a state having only one public medical and dental school. Translation: the most likely would be Commonwealth Medical College, a new school in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

3) Amended the original health bill imposing new restrictions on referrals of Medicare patients by doctors to hospitals in which doctors have financial interest. The effective date was delayed from Feb. 1, 2010, to Aug. 1, 2010, allowing time for Bellevue Medical Center, scheduled to open next year in Bellevue, Neb., to escape the tougher controls. Molly Sandvig, executive director of Physician Hospitals of America, which represents doctor-owned hospitals, said Sen. Nelson "has always been a friend to our industry."

4)  Included victims of asbestos exposure from a vermiculite mine in Libby, Mont., 10 years ago to Medicare coverage immediately based on the June 17, 2009, declaration that it was a public health emergency. Montana Sen. Max Baucus has been trying to help those patients for the past decade. He was able to deliver finally as chairman of the Finance Committee and a principal author of the health care bill.

5) Increased Medicare payments to certain "low-volume hospitals" treating limited number of Medicare patients. This amendment would apply to Iowa hospitals in Grinnell, Keokuk and Spirit Lake, courtesy of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. Keep in mind all taxpayers will pick up the difference in these costs.

The political column "The Fix" in the Washington Post listed winners and losers in the healthcare debate. One of the winners was Nelson.

The Nebraska senator played the legislative process like a virtuoso, not only getting stricter language about abortion funding included in the final bill but also scoring another huge plum -- the promise of full federal funding for the expansion of Medicaid in the Cornhusker State. Of Nelson's bargaining, one Senate Democratic operative said: "A one-man study on how the Senate works -- they should teach this in civics class."

Among other winners:

The National Republican Senatorial Committee: Strategists at the Senate GOP campaign arm were rejoicing over the weekend with the news that targeted Democrats including Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.) were going to vote for the measure. Unlike Nelson or even Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), who is up for reelection in 2014, neither Lincoln nor Bennet got anything major in exchange for their vote -- meaning they could face the blowback from those unhappy with the legislation in their respective states without an accompanying sweetener to make the bill more palatable. And, will the vote of Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) for the package be just the leverage the NRSC needs to get Gov. John Hoeven (R) into the race? Tom Coburn: The Oklahoma Republican's procedural maneuvering -- including demanding the bill be read aloud -- had his Democratic colleagues living in fear of what he might pull out of his bag of tricks next. And, despite his hard work to kill the bill, Coburn's upfront attitude about his opposition kept him from attracting too much ire from his Democratic colleagues.

Of note, the public failed to make the winners or losers list.

Hey, guys. This is supposed to be about us. Not the process.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Healthcare Reaches Take It Or L:eave It Stage

I have never claimed to be the brightest light in the room, which makes me wonder why the major newspaper websites are claiming victory for a healthcare reform bill cobbled together by Senate Democrats. With Sen. Ben Nelson finally aboard, all that does is snuff a Republican filibuster. The floor vote is scheduled Christmas Eve.

A lot can happen between now and Thursday evening. That's plenty of time for Connecticut Independent yo yo Joe Lieberman to change his mind 144 times which is about every hour on the hour.

To win their support, Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised several hundred millions of dollars to Mary Landrieu for Louisiana and anti-abortion and other special waivers to Nebraska for Nelson..What he give to Lieberman? A CEO job at Aetna? Or any other recalcitrant senator playing King For The Day?

Okay, I get it. If cloture is cut off, the bill will need only 51 votes in the senate to pass on Christmas Eve. That leaves a margin of nine Democratic senators to vote against it. It will provide cover for Democratic moderates that include the likes of Jim Webb of Virginia, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Lincoln and McCaskill of Arkansas, Landrieu, Nelson and ... Oops. It's getting close. What if liberals such as Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Ron Wyden of Oregon join the pack in protest?

Some may call it the art of compromise. I call it prostitution under the guise of principle. While on the subject, the people who the healthcare plan was to help got partially screwed. I say partially because there appears to be some inherent good coming out of this legislation. Stack it up to doing nothing and it looks even better.

The healrthcare plan would increase insurance coverage for 31 million more Americans. The Washington Post summarizes the highlights:

Instead of a public option, the final product would allow private firms for the first time to offer national insurance policies to all Americans, outside the jurisdiction of state regulations. Those plans would be negotiated through the Office of Personnel Management, the same agency that handles health coverage for federal workers and members of Congress. 

Starting immediately, insurers would be prohibited from denying children coverage for pre-existing conditions. A complete ban on the practice would take effect in 2014, when the legislation seeks to create a network of state-based insurance exchanges, or marketplaces, where people who lack access to affordable coverage through an insurer can purchase policies. 

Insurers competing in the exchanges would be required to justify rate increases, and those who jacked up prices unduly could be barred from the exchange. Reid's package also would give patients the right to appeal to an independent board if an insurer denies a medical claim. And all insurance companies would be required to spend at least 80 cents of every dollary they collect in premiums on delivering care to their customers. 

Every American would be required to obtain coverage under the proposal, and employers would be required to pay a fine if they failed to offer affordable coverage and their workers sought federal subsidies to purchase insurance in the exchanges. Reid's package would offer additional assistance to the smallest businesses, however, increasing tax credits to purchase coverage by $12 billion over previous versions. 

The overall cost of the package was not immediately available, but aides said it would be more than covered by cutting future Medicare spending and raising taxes in the health sector, including a 40 percent excise on the most expensive insurance policies. The package would reduce budget deficits by $130 billion by 2019, aides said, and by as much as $650 billion in the decade thereafter.(These projections appear to concur with those compiled by the Congressional Budget Office.)

And, what did Nelson get for playing hardball?

Under the new abortion provisions, states can opt out of allowing plans to cover abortion in insurance exchanges the bill would set up to serve individuals who don't have employer coverage. Plus, enrollees in plans that do cover abortion procedures would pay for the coverage with separate checks - one for abortion, one for rest of health-care services. 

Nelson secured full federal funding for his state to expand Medicaid coverage to all individuals below 133 percent of the federal poverty level. Other states must pay a small portion of the additional cost. He won concessions for qualifying nonprofit insurers and for Medigap providers from a new insurance tax. He also was able to roll back cuts to health savings accounts.

During a news conference this morning, Nelson said: “Change is never easy, but change is what’s necessary in America, and that’s why I intend to vote for health care reform.” He also vowed to vote against the expected conference reconciliation bill if "anything" in it fails to meet his approval.

Although I would prefer a single payer plan by extending Medicare to all or even by lowering its age limit to 55 or even a robust public option, the Senate bill as I understand it is good enough for starters just like any foreplay.

I do not subscribe to the doomsday vision that the bill should be defeated as championed by Howard Dean and It's gone too far and torn the country apart simply through the debate process. What glitches crop up can be fixed or killed by future congresses.

I expect hundreds of tiny details to expose themselves as time goes by and the bill is honestly vetted. One horror story repeated on MSNBC is that some insurers will comply by offering coverage to patients with pre-existing conditions but at premiums up to five times higher than those without.

One thing we can all agree upon. The healthcare and insurance reform bill was the focus of a national debate. That's a far cry from the Bush administration which said "trust me" as it bullied us into the invasion of Iraq.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Smoking Guns Of Global Warming

While San Diego was Richard Nixon's favorite city for political reasons, Copenhagen, may be Barack Obama's worst. For it is the capital of Denmark where Obama's last-minute pitch for Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Olympics fell on deaf ears earlier this year. Today's the "sky is falling" plea to 193 nations for a global climate warming pact most likely will suffer a similar fate.

Obama holds a poker hand the other players read. The joker is held by his own Senate which appears unlikely 1) to pass its own climate change bill any where near the one passed in the House, and 2)  to ratify a treaty even if one is smoked out in Copenhagen.

In language a fifth grader can understand, poisons coughed into the air by carbon-producing fuels from vehicles and factories can only be reduced by universal cooperation. Doing it alone -- or unilaterally in grown-up words -- won't accomplish anything.

The biggest stumbling block in Copenhagen  has been resistance by China and some other rapidly-developing nations for reduction standard verification. No one trusts one another, especially the United States based on its record during the Bush administration.

The second hang-up is the cost. One proposal has wealthy nations paying $10 billion dollars annually until 2020 -- about 20 to 30% of the total costs absorbed by the U.S. -- to third world countries to help them achieve their goals in reducing pollution. From 2020 to 2050 the cost would be $100 billion annually.

The president is trying to take the lead but it is too late and not enough people and nation's are following.

Obama in his speech to the world leaders today said their collective will to address global warming "hangs in the balance."

 "We are running short on time, and at this point the question is whether we will move forward together or split apart, whether we prefer posturing to action," Obama said. "We are ready to get this done today, but there has to be movement on all sides."

Whether it's health care, rushing troops into Afghanistan when they're not ready or climate change, Obama always is in a hurry-up crises mode, it seems. He's right, of course, but in all cases the pushers and shovers outside his control are dragging their feet.

Before his arrival in Copenhagen, The Washington Post says it obtained a draft text of a basic agreement of general goals.

It provides a way for industrialized nations to commit "aggregate reductions of greenhouse gases" by 2020 and allows for this number to be judged based on both a 1990 baseline--which the European Union has insisted is the most meaningful date--and a 2005 baseline, which the United States, Japan and other developed countries have endorsed. The draft text includes all the near-term emission-cut pledges that industrial countries have made and would establish a 2050 target for reducing worldwide greenhouse gas emissions that would include all countries. 

India, along with China the world's second biggest polluter, is reluctant to even commit to emission reduction, according to French president Nicholas Sarkozy. 

While it may make environmental advocates feel good, the Obama administration's goal of reducing emissions unilaterally through the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory bureaucracies.not only will accomplish nothing on the global scope of things but politically dilute their bargaining power with other nations.

In an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey, two lawyers who both served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, write:

Unilateral action may well be the right option in cases in which the United States itself, given sufficient commitment and will, can achieve a particular goal. In the case of global climate change, however, the United States can do nothing that is in the least effective without the agreement and participation of all of the other major carbon-emitting economies, including Europe, India and China. Until all are on board, unilateral cuts will simply make the American people poorer, with no benefit to anyone but our foreign competitors.

The next time someone tells you "It's all or nothing," think global warming.

Seldom in the history of  mankind has there been a proposal so altruistic for the common good and fraught with paranoia and parochial economic interests. It's a green issue, all right, but in this case the color of money and not saving the rain forests nor taking a deep breath without choking nor watching Manhatten under 10 feet of water.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Merry Christmas! Your Car's Been Towed

Mónica Muñoz, SDPD spokesperson. Four holiday-spirited officers went beyond the call of duty, knocked on doors and found 15 residents who moved their cars off the neighborhood streets.

The towed-away gang called an emergency town meeting Monday night with a representative of the city councilman representing North Park and an assistant police chief. Ron Lanthier, the ringleader, wanted his money back after paying a $500 fine to retrieve his vehicle. His defense: No no-parking signs were posted.

Elizabeth Studebaker, executive director of North Park Main Street, the parade promoters, was dumbstruck. She told reporters for The San Diego Union-Tribune everything was done by the book. As custom, she hired volunteers from the Urban Corps to post the signs 72 hours in advance. She said police confirmed the signs were properly posted 24 hours before the parade.

“My heart goes out to them," she said. "I feel so horrible. I don’t know what else could have been done.” Uh, Elizabeth, maybe next year you might consider handing out seeing eye glasses.

Historically, North Park residents and business owners march to their own drummers. In the 1960s, North Park businessman Alan Hitch was elected to the city council on the pledge he would remove all the parking meters from the business district.

He kept his pledge and remained in office for 12 years.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Consumer Protection Agency A Goliath In The Making

One of my brothers is a regional vice president at Wells Fargo Bank in Portland, Oregon. We talked by telephone yesterday and after exchanging views on family and college football I asked him what he thought about pending new regulations on the financial institutions now being offered by President Obama and Congress.

"The (proposed) consumer protection agency is a disaster waiting to happen," he vowed. Now, my brother is no apologist for the banking institutions. He laments that greed and lack of regulation were instrumental in last September's financial meltdown. I was not equipped to challenge his view on the House's bank regulatory bill. So I spent half this morning trying to educate myself.

The legislation would govern the simplest payday loan and the most complicated high-finance trades. In its breadth, the measure seeks to impose restrictions on every house of finance, from two-teller neighborhood thrifts to huge interconnected conglomerates.

The cornerstone is creation of  the Consumer Financial Protection Agency that would take over consumer protection powers from current banking regulators.

My gut reaction is that such a colossal bureaucracy unless implemented pragmatically would handcuff the banks by overreach in their normal transaction of conducting business. It was followed by a belief based on factual evidence the regulators were out-smarted by the exotic high-risk trading techniques developed by a clique of Ivy League mathematics geeks.

It must be said that a New York Democratic congressman offered an amendment that passed and diluted tighter controls on the $600 trillion global derivatives market. by a 304-124 vote. Scott Murphy's amendment
created an exception for nonfinancial companies that use derivatives as a hedge against price, currency and interest rate changes rather than as a speculative investment. The amendment also provided an exception for businesses that are considered too small to be a risk to the financial system. The Obama administration originally proposed no exceptions of derivatives.

Meanwhile, the banks are taking a low profile fighting the consumer protection agency and handed that task to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

This is how serious they are, according to McClatchy News Service. The Chamber said it's spending about $2 million on ads, educational efforts and a grassroots campaign to kill the agency. It said that the grassroots effort has led to more than 23,000 letters sent to Congress to date. The Center for Responsive Politics said that for the 2010 election cycle, commercial banks have donated almost $3.7 million to lawmakers. Companies that provide credit have given about $1.4 million. Mortgage bankers and brokers have given $581,423.

"If you look at this actual bill, the powers are so broad and so ill-defined that the scope of who is covered is incredible," said David Hirschmann, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Center for Capital Markets, "They've managed to create a proposed new regulator for anyone who directly or indirectly provides credit to consumers."

Hirschmann said. "If you allow people to give gift cards for your store . . . you've got a new regulator. It's amazingly broad in scope, scale and power."

Reports McClatchy:

Until the current crisis, responsibility for these consumer protections fell to several separate regulators, who made consumer protection subservient to their core mission of regulating institutions for safety and soundness.
Predatory lending and no-documentation loans helped spawn the housing crisis. Weak oversight by federal regulators allowed mortgage bonds to be sold to investors as the safest of investments when they were far from it.

When economic times got tough last year, banks began padding their balance sheets by socking surprised consumers with new credit card fees that were hidden in contractual fine print.

"In practice, nobody really took it seriously. . . . I think clearly you have had a lot of abuses, and whatever was on the books wasn't being enforced," said Morris Goldstein, a former top official at the International Monetary Fund and a researcher for the Peterson Institute of International Economics. "I think it makes sense to try to wrap it together and give someone the responsibility to deal with the great bulk of it."

Meanwhile, President Obama continued playing hardball with the nation's major bank executives today, urging and cajoling them to expand their lending for small businesses and consumers as the right thing to do after being bailed out by nearly a trillion dollars in taxpayers money.

"America's banks received extraordinary assistance" from the government, Obama said at a press conference following a meeting with the heads of the largest banks. "Now that they're back on their feet we expect an extraordinary commitment from them to help rebuild our economy."

Sunday night on CBS "60 Minutes," Obama said "I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street."

I hate to say it but I doubt bankers will be moved on a guilt trip placed on their shoulders by the president.

The amount of money on loan from banks fell by almost $600 billion, or 7.2 percent, from September 2008 to September 2009, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Lending to businesses, excluding construction loans, fell 15 percent.

I am not convinced tighter regulation would produce fewer consumer loans. The consumer will bear the increased costs of the transactions passed along by the banks because of the burdening federal paperwork. The critical issue is that there will be money to loan and right now the banks are hoarding to cover their previous losses. 

Or, is it a case of leery bankers demanding more collateral and higher credit ratings to counter the bad loans they made when money was plentiful as offered by Euro, Middle East and Asian investors? If that's the case, then the $600 billion shortfall in lending is a mirage since most of it turned into toxic assets and shouldn't have been loaned in the first place.

The House bill, authored by Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the Financial Services Committee, that includes both the Consumer Financial Protection Agency and Financial Services Oversight Council, will be considered by the Senate in January.

"I doubt it will pass the Senate," my brother predicted. Stay tuned.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Fed Spending Falls On Deaf Ear(marks)

Sen. John McCain, who should know, once complained that Congress spends money on earmarks like a drunken sailor. This spending spree seen by penny-pinching Republican taxpayers was one of the central causes why the GOP lost both houses of Congress by the 2008 elections.

Now that the Democrats are in control, earmarks continue to pad appropriation bills but at a slightly lower level than when the Republicans were in charge. It's still an obscene culture.

The watchdog group Taxpayers For Common Sense reported the omnibus spending bill passed by the House contains 5,224 earmarks costing about $3.9 billion of the total $447 billion measure. But, that's only earmarks reported by House members voluntarily. Nor does it include the military spending bill which traditionally has more earmarks than all the other spending bills combined. That's an average 12 earmarks for each House member.

No Republican voted for the bill but many of the projects included earmarks placed in the bill by the GOP before the final floor vote.

The measure brings total earmarks in this year's spending bills to 7,577 at a cost of about $6 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. The Pentagon spending bill, the last of the annual appropriations bills, is expected to contain more earmarks than the omnibus bill, said Steve Ellis of the taxpayer group.

Click here for a more detailed report on the omnibus bill compiled by Taxpayers For Common Sense.

Congress defends the practice despite the criticism because it shows they are delivering the bacon for constituents back home, or to put a spin on it, returning their taxes in gift packages.

Knocking earmarks as special favors has become a cottage industry in itself.  I tend to look at alternative sources of financing. For example, the City of Bellflower, Calif., receives a $100,000 earmark to build bus shelters. Suggestion: Have the city or transit district build them and allow merchants to advertise in which the revenue eventually would pay for the cost.

Example: Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who secured $800,000 for the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail, said that the project would help generate tourism dollars. Suggestion: Take a portion of the hotel-motel tax to improve the trail and more tourists will come.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a leading critic of pork-barrel spending, singled out for criticism $200,000 provided for the Aquatic Adventures Science Education Foundation in San Diego. Rep. Susan A. Davis (D-San Diego) said that the money would go to a program that will "inspire children to pursue education in the sciences while encouraging students from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to college." This seems to me a duplication of services already offered by the San Diego City Schools District and private enterprises such as the Aerospace Museum in Balboa Park.

Another example: A $250,000 earmark for textile research at UC Davis. Suggestion: Apply for a grant from the textile manufacturers association.

I did a little researching on my own and realized even the non-profit organizations have problems with earmarks. That is, they too often are granted not on merit but by who you know in Congress.

Rich Cohen, a veteran community development director, writing in the Nonprofit Quarterly:

While we understand some of the arguments in favor of earmarks, especially those raised by rural groups that point out how earmarks constitute a small but important mechanism for getting money to rural areas notwithstanding the frequent built-in urban biases to many federal competitive programs, we tend to be unsympathetic toward earmarks in the federal budget.  Relatively few nonprofits to our knowledge have the political connections or can pay for the earmark-lobbying experts to win these grants.  The playing field for nonprofits competing for grant support of any kind is hardly level, we know, but earmarks clearly reflect one of the most uneven, asymmetrical dimensions of the federal grants scrum.

I confess I have scant faith in the feds doling out taxpayer money when the economy remains in the doldrums and federal deficits and national debt expressed in trillions of dollars. Perhaps in better times ...

Perhaps we should enact a concept in which Bill Maher invokes on his HBO show. In a segment called "New Rules" I would decree only federal projects awarded taxpayer funding until the economy rights itself.

It reminds me when then Gov. Jerry Brown admonished Californians during an earlier recession to "lower your horizons."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Eating Crow With Tiger Woods

 To prove how much I know and how much pull I have in the national media, I wrote a column last Wednesday headed "Leave Tiger Woods Alone."

All  I can say is that I still cling to that notion. That Tiger Woods' private life is none of our damned business. Well, it is now, thanks to TMZ, several dozen or so scarlet ladies and every media outlet on the planet. The avalanche of bad publicity about Tiger was brought on by himself.

It became even more bizarre yesterday as we learned his mother-in-law who had been living with the couple, their two children and his mother was taken to the hospital by ambulance. His home in that gated community has turned into a house of horrors. There is a room so badly damaged Tiger refused the local police to enter.

I'm still uncertain as the rest of us what transpired the morning after Thanksgiving when the barefoot icon of golf smashed his Cadillac SUV into a fire plug and tree.The resst, as they say, is history.

Some day in the not so distant future -- probably in seven weeks -- Tiger will emerge and play in his first tournament. It's the San Diego Open at Torrey Pines. Tod Leonard, the golf writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune, describes the preparation going on at this moment. It a jaw-dropping account.

The public's thirst for scintillating X-rated details of Tiger's sex life seems as unquenchable as his own. It reminds me of an autobiography by Wilt Chamberlain who claimed he had sex with more than 2,000 different women. I did the math and came away stupefied.

The strange thing is, I don't care if Tiger is a womanizer. The reality of it all is that neither he, nor his wife nor his mistresses are anywhere close to being victimized by his escapades. Rather, it is his two children. Yes, they will receive all the amenities money can buy. But as any kid from a broken home will tell you, there's more to growing up than that.

Finally, don't sell Tiger short on the golf course. It's in his DNA to compartmentalize and pulverize the opposition. I'm rooting for him to win more than the 18 majors now owned by Jack Niclaus. For it is his golf game that I marvel. Not him as a person for he is undeserving.

Which is what we get when we erroneously transfer celebrity stardom to standards the Pope would be hard pressed to follow.

More Happy Talk on Jobs From Obama

President Barack Obama outlined his proposals today to create jobs and make homes more weather resistant. Excuse me, Mr. President, but what you addressed at the Brookings Institute was happy talk.

First, what he proposed.

In addition to proposing a tax cut for small businesses to encourage hiring, he called for eliminating capital gains on these businesses for one year and suggested that money left over from the financial bailout program, the Trouble Asset Relief Program, should be redirected toward small businesses. He also proposed investing new money in roads, bridges and other infrastructure improvements, and offering rebates to people who make their homes more energy efficient.

 The president at least acknowledged it was up to Congress to enact the proposals and that the Republicans were acting irresponsibly by claiming further stimulus programs only added to the nation's growing deficit. To that point he charged:

... Republicans for criticizing his administration’s spending, saying that he inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit when he took office, largely because tax cuts and entitlement programs were not paid for during the last administration.
“These budget-busting tax cuts and spending programs were approved by many of the same people who are now waxing political about fiscal responsibility while opposing our efforts to reduce deficits by getting health care costs under control,” Obama said. “It’s a sight to see.”

Political grandstanding notwithstanding, the crucial problem facing small businesses is the simple fact they cannot borrow money at the same interest rates of those corporations and financial institutions deemed by the government as "too big to fail." 

Compounding the problem is the credit crunch still extends to the consumer in which lending shrank another 1.7% in October, a 3.5% decline amounting to $3.5 billion since its peak in July 2008, according to calculations by the Federal Reserve. Consumer credit activity accounts for two-thirds of U.S. economic growth.

My point, Mr. President, is that you can offer tax credits to encourage hiring and freeze capital gains for a year but if small businesses cannot receive credit to buy inventory and pay its bills all those gimmicks go to naught. And if consumer credit tends to decline who the hell is going to buy their products?

I'm all for the president to use his office as a bully pulpit. But, speak straight to the issue, man. Nix the happy talk and can the excuses. We've heard that song before.

Monday, December 7, 2009

BCS Menu Force Feeds Us With Mush

The BCS in its infinite wisdom has announced the college football bowl games at the end of this season featuring a national championship game between Alabama, which played out of its gourd the best game of its season beating Florida last Saturday, and Texas which was lucky to defeat just about the worst offensive team in Nebraska and failed to beat any team that finished in the top 20.

Undefeated Cincinnati plays one-loss Florida in the Sugar Bowl. And the two undefeated non-BCS schools Boise State and TCU play in the Fiesta Bowl, a repeat of last year's Pointsettia Bowl in San Diego.

I ask you. How long will the public tolerate this nonsense? Let these teams duke it out on the field in a 16-team single elimination playoff just as every other sport does, including the lower division college football conferences.

John Feinstein, the renowned columnist for the Washington Post, writes about the folly of the Bowl Championship Series. He compares inviting TCU and Boise State to a BCS bowl game is the same as inviting a couple to dinner as long as they eat in the kitchen..

Because the bowl games have contractual ties to conferences, the Holiday Bowl in San Diego really takes it in the shorts in a game between Pac 10 runner-up Arizona against the offensively challenged Nebraska Cornhuskers (even though its defense is one of the best in the nation).

The bowls are designed to make money for the conferences with pittances thrown to charities. But who the hell wants to attend a game other than the student body and alums for such bowl games as Wyoming vs. Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl at Albuquerque, Rutgers vs. Central Florida in the St. Petersburg Bowl and Middle Tennessee State vs. Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl?

And, what does it prove with the better known schools, the likes of which are North Carolina vs. Pittsburgh in the Meineke Car Care Bowl at Charlotte, N.C., Georgia vs. Texas A&M in the Independence Bowl at Shreveport, La., Stanford vs. Oklahoma in the Sun Bowl at El Paso, Texas, and Iowa vs. Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl at Miami.

I wouldn't consider these matchups made in heaven, especially since they don't decide much more than bragging rights.

Instead, we are forced-fed the bowl games where tradition is paramount and we can let our prejudices play out . Resigned to that fact, I take great pleasure in watching this year's Rose Bowl where my beloved Oregon Ducks will run circles around Ohio State,.this year's Big Ten sacrificial lamb.