Thursday, December 18, 2008

Baggage Fees and Government Cheese

(Posting during another electronic medical records class. I still haven't figured out how to include links, so I'll clean these posts up later. sorry)

Earlier this year, most airlines began charging passengers $15 for their first checked bag, as well as increasing fees for subsequent bags. The reason given by the airlines when they introduced these fees was increased fuel costs at a time when oil was $147 a barrel.

At the time of this post, oil is trading at $38.97, which is down over 70% from its peak earlier this year. Jet fuel prices have fallen 60% since July. And yet, airlines are still charging the same fees that they added to "cover increased fuel prices".

Why haven't these charges been rescinded? It's because consumers have already gotten used to the idea of being charged for baggage; they aren't mad about it anymore, so airlines will keep making them pay it, even though the supposed rationale for the fee is long gone.

Similar to the inertia of baggage fees, government programs, once enacted, are very difficult to get rid of because people become accustomed to them. Social Security and Medicare were controversial programs when they were first enacted, and it wouldn't have caused a huge political upheaval if they were never passed. Now that we have these entitlements, however, there would be senior citizens rioting in the streets if the programs were seriously threatened.

This concept shows the potential for huge and long-lasting change Obama and the Democrats in the next few years. Government-subsidized health insurance is a hot issue right now, but once people have a government insurance card in their wallet, they'll be much more likely to favor the program and support candidates who will protect it.

Two Cher-related Questions

Why is it that T-Pain gets credit for starting the whole "digital voice modification" thing when Cher was doing it years ago in that unbelievably irritating "Do You Believe" song?

What is this Beyonce "If I Were a Boy" song if not an attempt by Mrs. Jay-Z to add herself to the hallowed ranks of Judy Garland and Cher as favorite artists to impersonate for drag performers?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

For No Reason at All

Obama/Dems Need to Be More Aggressive

This whole Blagojevich thing has not been handled well at all by the Obama transition team. Journalists are trying to figure out what the President-elect knew and when he knew it, which is never a good thing to have journalists asking about you. And, as discussed previously, the transition team's response has not done much to assuage concerns.

Obviously it would have been much better if, upon first hearing Blagojevich's ridiculous demands, the Obama team would have called up U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald's office, which was publicly investigating the Governor for months, to inform Fitzgerald of Blagojevich's corruption. That would have kept any of Blagojevich's stink from being passed on to the transition.

Similarly, Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress need to be more aggressive and publicly confrontational in fighting Senate Republicans over the auto bailout. Yesterday, the bailout passed the House mainly due to Democrat support. Its fate in the Senate, where 60% of Senators must support the bill (or at least support a vote on the bill), is murky, with Republicans led by Richard Selby (R-AL) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL) threatening a filibuster even though the bailout is supported by the GOP White House.

I say, let 'em filibuster, and make 'em actually keep talking on the floor of the Senate; in recent years when a cloture vote fails to end debate, the Senate just moves on to something else, instead of making Senators actually filibuster, which is a shame. Such drama on the Senate floor would lay bare the clear conflicts of interest at play on this issue.

Alabama is home to three Honda and Hyundai plants, which the state attracted by giving the Japanese manufacturer's a bunch of tax breaks and subsidies. So Sens. Selby and Sessions are more than happy to abandon their apparent love for the removing government influence over the free market when it benefits their own state, but not when it helps save millions (or hundreds of thousands, depending on whose analysis you believe) of American manufacturing jobs. Republicans would also benefit from a weakened United Auto Workers, which reliably supports Democratic candidates all over the country.

By drawing attention to Republican opposition to the bailout, Democrats can either a) generate enough public support to get the bill passed, or b) clearly establish that it is Republicans who killed the bill and allowed the companies to fail. Seems like a win-win.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Oh yeah, I forgot...

In the taped calls, Blagojevich says at some point, when discussing who he thought was Obama's preferred candidate to take his old Senate seat, "they're not willing to give me anything except appreciation."

Let me tell you, that's a great bit of tape for Democrats

Obama's First Potential Scandal

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested by the FBI this morning. According the the press release put out by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who is the man who successfully prosecuted former Cheney Chief of Staff Scooter Libby, he was attempting to sell Obama's Senate seat, which as Illinois Gov he is solely responsible for appointing the new Senator. Let me summarize the issue as briefly as I can:

Gov. Blagojevich was being investigated by the Feds for corruption, getting campaign contributions from lots of rich folk, including our old friend Tony Rezko, in exchange for your standard slate of government contracts and other favors. As part of his investigation, Fitzgerald, who is widely thought to be the best prosecutor in the country, tapped Blagojevich's personal and office phones, as well as his office and a conference room at "Friends of Blagojevich", his political organization. The Illinois legislature passed an ethics law to make it tougher for Blagojevich to raise money, starting January 1, 2009, so time was a-wastin'.

As it became clear that Obama was going to win, giving Blagojevich the opportunity to appoint his successor to the Senate. Appointing himself to the seat would benefit him, so he made clear to anyone who would listen that he was open to offers. Bribes he was asking for included:

1. Being appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services, Energy, or an ambassador
2. Getting his wife a well-paying position on a corporate board
3. A high-paying job for himself with a political committee and/or a non-profit group
4. Campaign funds

So yeah, it's illegal to ask people for that stuff in exchange for an official decision.

There are two ways this can come back to sting Obama. First off, there's Rezko's involvement. There was a real estate deal involving Rezko and the Obamas in the past that, while probably not anything that will ever be a big deal, it hurts any time "Obama" and "Rezko" are in the same news story.

The more serious issue is a discrepancy between Obama's statements on this issue and those of David Axelrod, Obama's chief campaign strategist. In an interview with the Chicago Fox affiliate a couple weeks ago, Axelrod said that Obama had "talked to the governor" about who would replace him. Today, Obama said "I had no contact with the governor or his office." If Obama indeed has spoken with Blagojevich in the past month or two, Fitzgerald would have a recording of the conversation. Let's hope Obama's telling the truth. I think he is, actually. It seems unlikely that Obama would actually personally talk to pretty much anyone directly, especially a corrupt governor. So Axelrod just meant that Obama's people talked to Blagojevich and/or his people.

During Obama's comments today about the issue, he said "I had no contact with the governor or his office and so we were not, I was not aware of what was happening." Notice that he stopped himself from saying "we were not aware", correcting to "I was not aware". So clearly his team knew what was going on, but Obama at least has plausible deniability. Depending on how close it gets to the man himself, he could be politically hurt, leaving him less able to pass his agenda. Health insurance reform and funding for green energy, infrastructure and higher education got a little less likely. We'll find out how much less.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Workers First

My brother, earlier in his career, had a bad habit of working for companies that went out of business while he was still an employee. When Builder's Square went out of business years ago, Greg had built up a couple weeks of vacation time when his employer declared bankruptcy. Since workers come way down the line when it comes to selling the company's assets to pay creditors, he didn't see a penny of his earned vacation pay.

With all the business closings going on these days, hundreds of thousands of workers, like those in Illinois who are occupying their plant after their employers violated federal law by laying them off with only three days' notice, find themselves in the same situation Greg did. But these workers aren't teenagers who miss out on spending money. They include parents trying to support their families and older workers close to retirement.

How about a law that, when a company goes out of business, workers get their money first? After they've received their owed compensation, other creditors, such as banks and shareholders, can be paid. What's the problem with that?

Only the Pentagon

According to the LA Times, since March the Pentagon has reworked the rules for what qualifies as a disability received in combat, which earn the soldier more benefits than a non-combat injury, to no longer include wounds received as a result of land mines or roadside IEDs. This saves the federal government millions of dollars, which they can then turn around and give to banks.

And conservatives have the unmitigated gall to say that it's un-American to tax the bank shareholders' capital gains taxes at the same rate at which they were taxed under Bill Clinton.

Every now and then, conservatives are real motherfuckers. Just utterly indefensible mommy-sodomizers.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Does Religious Tolerance Apply?

So, as you might be aware, there's nothing on TV Sunday nights. The Mrs. and I are watching Joel Osteen, who is just about the douchebagiest douche that ever douched a... nevermind. But he does suck. If you've never watched or read Mr. Osteen, he's a televangelist based out of a "church" which is a converted 20,000 seat basketball arena in Houston. That's your first problem right there.

If you've never listened to a couple minutes of one of Mr. Osteen's "sermons", I'm sure there are some on YouTube. Check out any clip you like, and ask yourself "What is the message he is promoting? What is the fundamental "good" he is arguing for?" I haven't actually gone to YouTube to verify this claim, and yet I feel confident in saying that it's not going to be "love", "kindness", or "charity", or anything else I'd describe as "Christian".

Every time (totalling maybe 3 or 4 hours of material, if I had to guess) I've watched Mr. Osteen, the message he's selling, in his obvious used-car salesman way, is relieving anxiety, regaining control over your life, or achieving financial success. Worthy goals, I suppose, but not anything that anyone should be listening to and thinking it's "church".

He's so obviously preaching a message that bears no resemblence to and is in fact often directly opposed to biblical Christianity that I can't have any respect for anyone who follows him. If I ever met anyone who's a member at Lakewood Church, I would discriminate against them. If I'm staffing a practice, and I've got a choice between a nurse who graduated from University X and worked for Y years at Z Hospital, and a nurse who graduated from University X and worked for Y years at Z Hospital and is a member of Joel Osteen's flock, I'd pick the first one. Is that ok? Should I work on that?


Obama on Meet the Press

Posting while Obama's on Meet the Press with Tom Brokaw this morning; all quotes are paraphrased as best as I can remember them whilst watching live:

-Starting off with the economy. Who'da thunk?

-All Obama's talk of helping states and telling Brokaw that "Governors have projects that are shovel-ready" and just need funding gives him a tremendous amount of political capital. He's basically telling 50 state leaders "come along with me and I'll make you look good to your consituents"

-He's better than any politician of my adult life at explaining both sides of an issue, stressing both the need to help the Big Three automakers and the need for them to restructure.

-He actually seems to think that if we give Ford/GM/Chrysler billions of dollars, they won't come back for more. Maybe he is hopelessly naive.

-Just did a great job deflecting Brokaw's suggestion of a new gas tax, since gas is so "cheap" now, by pointing out the other ways people are worse off economically. Good policy, but even better politics. "I feel your pain", in quite a few more words.

-Interesting thought about the "moral hazard" problem of bailing out homeowners who took bad mortgages, thereby "punishing" responsible homeowners by making them pay their whole mortgage and pay taxes to bail out their neighbor. "If my neighbor's house is on fire, even if they were smoking in their bedroom, I want to keep the fire from spreading to my house."

-Commercial break. I don't know if you ever watch these Sunday morning shows, but there are some weird freakin' ads all the time. Companies like Boeing and Archer-Daniels-Midland, the huge agricultural business, advertise a lot, even though 99.999% of people never buy anything from these companies, those big-time corporate "decision-makers" do watch these shows, so it's worth it to advertise to that tiny but powerful faction.

-He's really talking like his presidency is going to be a complete refutation of the Reagan Revolution. Greed is not good. Help everyone to help the economy, don't just help the rich and wait for benefits to trickle-down.

-When do you suppose Obama actually offered the Secretary of State job to Hillary Clinton? In November? During the general election? My money's on toward the end of primary season.

-Nothing earth-shattering so far. But really, there never is with Obama. Part of his appeal, I suppose.

-Ostensibly talking about farmers in Afghanistan, he says that the country needs things like infrastructure improvements and increased aid from the Afghan national government. Nice, subtle effort to further bolster support of such help to the American little guy, too.

-Would have been better if he had said it at some point during the campaign without prompting from Brokaw, but Obama's answer extolling the virtues of the Presidential "bully pulpit" being used for wider purposes than just government, such as culture, parenting, art, etc.

-Obama won't say that he's quit smoking but does say that he's done a great job, "under the circumstances", to make himself healthier. Meaning every now and then, brotha needs a smoke.

-And we end with "news" about the future of Meet the Press, with David Gregory replacing Tom Brokaw. Good riddance! I've never liked Brokaw. He completely lost me when he came out with all those books about "The Greatest Generation". I mean, sure, they did a lot of great things, but his completely positive portrayal of them struck me as a blatant attempt to make money off of nostalgia. Tim Russert tried the same thing with "Big Russ and Me". So watch for the next book to offer a collective blow job to the people who gave us Nixon and Reagan, from new MtP host David Gregory!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Quick Hits

Random thoughts on call:

-Why is the Democrat never the one in the lead when there's a close federal election?

-Who wants to make wagers on how soon after January 20th Supreme Court justices start to retire? I think there'll be at least 2 next year.

-I continue to be confused by the psychology of the stock market. The Labor Department announces the worst one-month loss of jobs since 1974 AND adds more lost jobs to the totals from the prior 2 month, and stockholders respond by sending the Dow up 250 points.

-Actually, I'm not confused. Traders, analysts and pretty much everyone else make money when the market goes up. So when there's good news, the market goes up cuz things are good. When there's bad news, the market goes up cuz, so the thinking goes, things are so bad now that it has to improve eventually. Amazing how people will interpret data when they have a financial interest in the outcome.

-Maybe LeBron James and the Cavs are playing a mind-game with the rest of the league. By dangling the possibility that he'll leave Cleveland and play somewhere else in 2 years, teams such as the New York Knicks have been trying to get rid of expensive players so they'll have money to hire LeBron in 2010 but making their current team worse in the process. This makes the Cavs more likely to win in the next couple seasons, as the other teams are worse.

-Is there any reason to appoint Gen. Shinseki, who's the guy who was fired after saying we'd need "several hundred thousand" troops for Iraq, your VA Secretary other than to poke Bush in the eye?

-hehheh. "Poke Bush"...

-I like Chris Matthews, but if he really runs for Specter's PA Senate seat, I'm not voting for him. Governing is way different from talking about governing.

-Remember when Bush vetoed an increase in funding for children's health insurance last year, which would have resulted in millions more children being covered, because it cost too much? The $34 billion being discussed for the Big 3 automakers could have paid for the increase for about 5 years. The $700 billion bailout could have paid for a century.

Thursday, December 4, 2008, a Day Behind the Doctor!

Today's 538 post:

They talk about "Swing Senators", and their first 3 are Snowe, Collins and Specter. And then they go on to mention the other senators I listed yesterday.

You read it hear first!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Obama's Ridiculously Strong Cabinet

It's safe to say that Obama is pulling out all the stops when it comes to assembling his Cabinet. On Monday Obama announced his national security team, which includes, among others, Bush's Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, and John McCain's former foreign policy advisor, James Jones, as Obama's National Security Advisor. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security, and, of course, New York Sen. and former Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. He will also nominate New Mexico Gov. and former Presidential candidate Bill Richardson as Commmerce Secretary. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle will be Secretary of Health and Human Services. He recruited Rahm Emanuel, a rising Dem star in the House and who was well-known to have aspirations to be Speaker of the House, to serve as his Chief of Staff.

Choosing people from Bush's Cabinet and the McCain campaign demonstrates Obama's supreme confidence in his management abilities. He said when introducing Gates that "I will make policy" and "the buck stops with me," even though he has selected a man who very publicly disagreed with him on Iraq, the central issue which will be run by Gates' department in Obama's administration. Cabinet Secretaries, particularly those Obama has selected, are not politically powerless, and they tend to be protective of their power and influence. But Obama, choosing Gates, believes that he can keep Gates in line on this very important issue.

There are two reasons why I'm potentially thrilled about the selection of Gates, assuming Obama indeed will be able to set Pentagon policy, which I trust he will be. One is that Gates has already been running the Defense Department for years, so he figuratively (and, sadly, literally) knows where the bodies are buried. It's also fabulous that Gates, and Jones as well, will provide opposing viewpoints. One of the biggest factors that lead to the problems during the run-up to Iraq was that pretty much everyone around the President was a neocon who thought the war was a good idea. Wall Street is in such deep doggy-do because just about every financial CEO had an Ivy League MBA and thought CDO's were the bee's knees. When it comes to foreign policy, Obama will have within his own Cabinet viewpoints from men who disagree.

Having two former Democratic primary opponents in his Cabinet, as well as another as his VP, raises the risk of Secretaries looking after their own political interests before the Administration's. I don't think you'll find many people who would argue with Clinton and Richardson being the best-qualified Democrats to hold a Cabinet-level position, so there is also a significant benefit to these selections. It will be up to Obama's management skill, as well as his political muscle, to keep these two in line and put their massive qualifications to good use. Same goes for Emanuel, though it's pretty hard to score political points for yourself when you're Chief of Staff. Actually, I'm convinced Obama picked Emanuel only because in Hebrew "Rahm" and "Barack" translate to "thunder" and "lightning".

Selecting Napolitano also is not without negatives because, according to Arizona law, she will be replaced by the current Arizona Secretary of State, who is a Republican. It also robs the Democrats of a very strong chance to defeat John McCain in 2010 when he runs for another Senate term; Napolitano is the strongest Democrat in the slightly red state and the only Dem with a good chance of taking McCain's seat, so it's no coincidence that McCain spoke publicly and strongly in support of Napolitano's nomination. Just because they didn't get to 60 Senate seats this time doesn't mean they wouldn't have a chance next time around. Choosing Napolitano makes it significantly less likely. Clearly, Obama is aware of this implication of her nomination, so he must really think she's gonna be a great Homeland Security Secretary.

By assembling such a strong Cabinet, in name, stature, and diversity of opinion, Obama is raising expectations for his Administration. With such power in the Executive branch, as well as near-dominance of the Legislative, Obama is setting the table for a strong government. It'll be pretty much make-or-break time for the Democratic Party. They've got their all-star team in the Executive branch, so they have no excuses if they fail.

OK, 60's Not That Important Anyway

With yesterday's Georgia runoff victory by Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss (who, to remind you, first earned his seat in 2002 by attacking the patriotism of Max Cleland, a veteran who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. Chambliss stayed out of Vietnam by receiving 5 student deferments and then a medical deferment for knee problems. You know, Sen. Chambliss, Max Cleland has knee problems too; his knees are still in Vietnam!), the Democrats lost the last faint glimmer of hope that they'd reach a filibuster-proof 60 Senate seats. To review, it takes 60 votes to invoke cloture and stop debate to call for a vote on a bill; without 60 votes, one Senator can talk and talk and talk, keeping a bill from being passed. So it looks like the Democrats will wind up with 58, or possibly 59, if Franken wins in Minnesota, where the recount is finishing up. Even though they'll need to find a couple GOP cloture votes, along with unanimous support from within their own party, in order to pass a bill, they have several very good GOP targets to find a few more votes.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) is up for re-election in 2010, and he's in the unenviable position of being a Republican in a state that has voted for a Democrat for President every year since 1988, including a huge 11% victory by Obama. It will be very difficult for Specter to resist a President so popular among his constituents. It also helps that Specter is about the most liberal GOP Senator.

His competition for that title include Sens Olympia Snow and Susan Collins of Maine, which went for Obama by 18%. So there's two more pickups that should be pretty easy for one bill or another.

Richard Burr (R-NC), Norm Coleman (R-MN, assuming he beats Franken), John Ensign (R-NV), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Judd Gregg (R-NH), Richard Lugar (R-IN), and George Voinovich (R-OH) are all Republicans from states which made significant shifts toward the Democrats/Obama in '08. They'll no doubt be more persuadable than they might have been in the past when it comes to voting for cloture on a Democratic bill

As long as Obama remains popular and politically strong, it shouldn't be too difficult to find some Republican votes. So screw Georgia! They can keep their stupid Republican Senator,


The dark side of the rush to install electronic medical records in hospitals is that it forces hot young docs like myself to sit through hours and hours of tedious training for the new system. Today, my friends, is my first day of three of training for Merlin, Ruby Hospital's new program. We're 50 minutes in, and we're still working on things like managing tabs, dragging and dropping, and plenty of other things that are as natural as breathing to any middle- or upper-class American under the age of 40. I understand why we have to do this, as there are people in this class who are asking something like "one click or two" for everything, but it still sucks. So I'm just gonna go ahead and do some posting this morning (and tomorrow afternoon and 12/18, when I get even more training). So buckle your seatbelts! It's gonna be a bumpy ride!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Wall Street Optimistic About Obama

Our old friend Rush Limbaugh, two days after the election, proclaimed that "the Obama recession is in full swing." Parroting time-honored GOP talking points, he claimed that Wall Street was reacting to Obama's plans for increased taxes on rich folks by selling their assets before the Dems had a chance to gouge them.

This past week's action on Wall Street have greatly refuted the idea that stockholders are scared of Obama. On Friday, November 21st, Obama announced that New York Fed chair Timothy Geithner would be his pick to be Treasury Secretary, which, to remind you, has become an absurdly powerful position lately. The Dow responded to Geithner's nomination, which NBC News reported at 2:59pm Friday, by skyrocketing 500 points in the hour before the stock market closed. Take a look at that last link. It's obvious that Wall Street loved Obama's choice.

But maybe this was a one-time fluke. Obama has been pressing his luck by holding daily press conferences the three days before Thanksgiving. The Dow has gone up each of those days, plus this past Friday. It should go without saying that a 5 day winning streak on the Dow, in this economy, is nothing short of remarkable. The last time the Dow Jones Industrial Average went up this much, percentage-wise, five days in a row was 75 years ago.

Screw the "one President at a time" line that Obama's been spouting. Time to take over, Barry!

UPDATE: Today, the Dow went down 680 points. Obama, instead of holding another economics press conference, decided to announce his national security team today, including Hillary as his Secretary of State (more on this later). It's official; he's not allowed to talk about anything other than the economy.