Monday, February 27, 2006

Sincerity: If You Can Fake That, You've Got It Made

This week was pile-on-Jack-Harper week, in both newspapers, and of course I wanted to join the fun. You don't need to know much about Arizona politics to get the background; Harper is one of these blow-dry right-wingers who confuses being public office with being a conservative talk radio host, which raises the question, How can you possibly tell those two types apart?

My proposed headline was "Being a 'Winger Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry," but a "Love Story" reference is so 1970's that my editor simply couldn't allow it. And his headline mimics perfectly Pres. Bush's response to critics of the DP Worldwide approval: "This deal wouldn't go forward if we were concerned about the security for the United States of America." He was for it before he was against it! However, the editor took out the Jimmy Carter sentence--probably as a public service, as they feared too many of their readers' heads would explode if they read that. I've put it back in.

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 26, 2006

The Dubai Ports Worldwide deal makes George W. Bush’s concern about protecting the homeland seem as honest and sincere as a Jack Harper apology.

For those needing background information to understand that analogy, state Sen. Harper, R-Surprise, has set the new (lower) standard for political civility. Please recall that when a prominent GOP state senator's son was arrested on felony charges, not one Democratic officeholder, or the state Democratic Party, tried to use the family’s problems for political purposes. I wouldn’t have shown such discretion, but those who actually represent the Democrats in Arizona did.

But after the arrest of the adult son (who lived on his own) of a statewide Democratic candidate, Harper made a speech on the Senate floor to say that the arrest showed a “culture of corruption” inside the candidate’s household.

To their credit, some GOP senators (including state Sen. Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale) immediately recognized that Harper’s diatribe went over the line and demanded he apologize. But he initially refused, then the next day (after somebody probably pointed out the glass house inside of which he had thrown his stones) managed to apologize to the Democratic candidate’s spouse and other children -- pointedly leaving out the candidate, whom he described as a “big boy” who should expect such abuse for having the temerity to run for public office as a Democrat.

A number of Republicans outside the Senate also called on Harper to apologize including, to his credit, the GOP incumbent opponent. And to their credit, editorialists at both local daily newspapers denounced Harper, with the Tribune describing him as having reached “the bottom of the cesspool.”

But Harper’s after-the-fact sort-of non-apology seems to have satisfied the GOP powers-that-be. Harper still holds his elective office and his status as chair of one Senate committee and vice-chair of another; he’ll be supported by the state GOP in his re-election bid. Sure, he got slapped on the wrist editorially for a day, but that seems a small price for keeping what would have been a one-day story in the news again, and again, and again. And the editorials attacking Harper did spell his name correctly, which is the usual definition of good publicity.

So is civility really worth anything? The elected Democrats behaved honorably but got no credit, while the Republicans still have a hothead who violates supposed standards of decency, and who gets to keep doing it until, someday, he’ll be term-limited -- and then probably get voted into higher office by the talk-radio crowd which loves his cheap shots. Only Jack Harper could possibly make his rumored primary opponent, former state Sen. Scott Bundgaard, seem like an improvement.

Which brings us to the Dubai Ports deal, which this newspaper called “a reckless shirking of duty to protect our nation from terrorist infiltration and political corruption” by the Bush administration. I will disagree, but quietly; if you want to know about the merits of the transaction, go read The Wall Street Journal. (Hey, Jimmy Carter supports President Bush on this issue, if you need even more reassurance.) In my probably-should-be-humbler opinion, the contract for operation of shipping terminals in 6 ports has as much to do with national security as whether low-level employees of the Department of Homeland Security should have civil service protections.

In other words, there’s no connection at all. But that didn’t stop Republicans from using that fake issue to paint lots of Democrats as in-bed-with-Osama, terrorist-loving weaklings. So if Bush needs to explain that his long-standing love of all corporations extends to those owned by the United Arab Emirates, that dollars matter more than homeland security, and that fighting terrorism takes a back seat to the Emir’s business deals, then I’m delighted to let him.

So I plan to enjoy a political squabble that unites Hillary Clinton and Jon Kyl -- not just with each other, but against John McCain. And if you ever think I’ve gone too far, I’m happy to apologize -- just like Jack Harper.

Monday, February 20, 2006

It's Been Weeks Since The Last Healthcare Wonkfest, Hasn't It?

My suggested headline was "An Umbrella That Melts in the Rain" but the editor's choice, while less poetic, gets the point across jut as well. It turns out that the cost estimates and participation rates in the Bush budget are based on, well, implausible scenarios, so the cost numbers and lower-income participation rates are probably worse than in the Gruber study.

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 19, 2006

The Republicans in DC are using a one-step-forward, two-steps-back strategy, hoping that you’ll notice only the one step forward. They split apart this year’s “reconciliation” bill, which normally includes spending and tax proposals together, into separate packages.

With great fanfare, they claimed their first serious effort to reduce the deficit by cutting projected spending of -- drum roll -- $39 billion. Note, however, that the $39 billion occurs over 5 years, and with annual federal spending approximately $2.8 trillion, represents roughly a 0.28 percent cut (focused, of course, on the poor, young, and students, who lack well-connected lobbyists).

But reducing the deficit by $39 billion sure sounds impressive -- until you notice what the other hand did, which was cutting revenues by about $94 billion (and again, disproportionately benefiting those at the top of the heap). So the much-ballyhooed GOP “deficit reduction plan” actually increases the deficit by some $55 billion. By voting “No” on both bills, most Democrats were being $55 billion more responsible. But that requires that voters actually do the math and perhaps politically, that’s a losing proposition.

It turns out that this same sort of legerdemain (Look at the millions who benefit! Pay no attention to the millions who will be hurt!) also guides GOP plans for health care. A new study by Jonathan Gruber, professor of Economics at M.I.T., for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ran the numbers on the Bush administration’s 2007 budget health savings account proposals. Guess what? There’s good news and there’s bad news, and there’s more of the bad news -- but they don’t want you to notice.

First, a definition: a Health Savings Account is a tax-preferred account combined with a high-deductible insurance policy. In HSAs, people contribute money to the account for routine medical expenses, but once they spend enough, the insurance policy kicks in. It’s a very good deal if you stay healthy, because you don’t have medical expenses and the HSA money accumulates tax-free. It’s a crummy deal if you’re sick, because not only have you exhausted your HSA account, but having exceeded the deductible on an individually-underwritten policy, your premiums will increase as surely does the night follow the day. As Princeton’s Uwe Reinhardt says, HSAs are the insurance industry’s version of umbrellas that melt in the rain.

Gruber’s analysis (using a computer model very similar to those used by the Congressional Budget Office and U.S. Treasury) showed that 8.3 million people would take advantage of fairly substantial credits and subsidies to switch into HSAs. About 4 million would switch from employer-sponsored plans and 500,000 would come from Medicaid, meaning that about 3.8 million people who lacked insurance would get coverage.

Coverage for 3.8 million previously uninsured -- sounds pretty good, right? Unfortunately, not if you watch what the other hand does. Some 8.9 million people would lose employer-sponsored coverage because the HSA tax breaks will eliminate the tax subsidy for employer plans, leading many existing small or new businesses to drop health insurance benefits to shift employees into HSAs. About 4 million would switch, and about 500,000 would wind up on Medicaid -- meaning that 4.4 million people would become uninsured.

The HSA tax credits aren’t cheap; the 10-year estimate for the tax subsidies is $156 billion. Thus, the Bush administration plans to use $156 billion to increase the number of uninsured Americans by 600,000. The good news isn’t so good when you net out both sides of the equation.

Worse, adverse selection means that people switching into HSAs will be younger and healthier, and the people losing insurance will be older and not so healthy. Using HSAs not only shifts risk from government and employers to individuals, but also from the healthy to the sick. It’s “anti-insurance.”

So it’s more of the same from Bush and the Republicans. When you add it all up, it’s another sweetheart deal for those who already are doing well, at the expense of those that aren’t. And these days, isn’t that what America is all about?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

AZ Legislature: Let's Help Others By Helping Ourselves Instead!

It's been hectic here, which is why the Monday email is coming out so late on Tuesday. I like the editor's ambiguous headline, although mine was a little more direct: "The Republican Way To 'Solve' The ELL Problem Is To Help Republicans." I also misspelled Rep. Yarbrough's name in the paper, and he sent me an email objecting to that (but not to anything else--I guess I got his salary right), and I assured him, having been referred to as Sam Coopersmith (or, in my first time in the New York Times, as "Copersmith") more times than I can remember, that I certainly sympathized. I even offered to correct it in next week's column, if that's what he really wanted. Another chance to remind people that he has an interest in the tax credit expansion and serves as chair of the House Ethics Committee? Who does he think he is, Julie Myers?

Regarding the correction to last week's column, thanks to my friends who remember more of biology than I do from 10th grade.

For GOP, ELL Bill Is Chance to Better Selves
East Valley Tribune, Feb. 12, 2006

Let me help explain the connection between helping students who need to learn English -- an obligation the state has failed to meet, at the cost of daily federal court fines of $500,000 -- and the GOP “solution,” a private school tuition tax credit.

The connection? None. Connections? We don’t need no stinkin’ connections. According to the ‘wingers who control the legislatures in Arizona and in DC and their local pundit enablers, there’s no problem or human condition whatsoever that can’t be used to justify a tax cut for themselves and their buddies. It’s their hammer, and everything is a nail.

War? Cut the taxes of those not fighting. Katrina reconstruction? Cut the taxes of those not affected. Teaching English-language learner (ELL) students what they’ll need to succeed as our future workforce? Give a huge corporate tax break to people sending their kids, who already speak English, to private schools.

ELL kids are overwhelmingly in public schools, but the GOP insists on sending money to private schools. And as Richard Ruelas of the Arizona Republic noted, there are two teensy problems with the GOP plan. First, no private schools exist that can teach English to the large numbers of ELL students involved. A school here and there could take a student or two, but that doesn’t come anywhere close to a solution.

Second, there’s no way to get those ELL students to private schools, even if they existed. As Ruelas noted, the districts serving south and west Phoenix, where many ELL students are concentrated, already have school choice, but parents don’t shift children from their neighborhood school, even if underperforming, to better schools, undoubtedly due to lack of transportation. These parents can’t drive their kids across town to a different school, but the GOP tuition credits are designed for people with private cars.

One local columnist who somehow always thinks inside the GOP box interviewed a mother with a Hispanic surname who said that she would send her kids to a private school if only there were more tax credits. It was a heartwarming little tale, unless you realized the columnist doesn’t speak Spanish and must have talked to the mother in English -- and ELL kids don’t come from English-speaking homes. Once again, the need to help ELL students becomes a magical opportunity to shower other people with tax benefits.

The reality of no private schools and no transportation doesn’t bother the GOP legislative leadership. They wave their hands and say that “the market” will take care of it, when it hasn’t before and when there’s no evidence that it will. But there’s plenty of evidence that a private school tuition tax credit really benefits the pundits and politicians supporting the GOP “solution.”

There’s the local pundit who sends his kids to private schools and uses his platform to support this tax credit without mentioning that inconvenient fact. There’s Rep. Steven Yarbrough, R-Chandler, executive director (at $106,000 annually, in 2004; 2005 data aren’t available yet) of the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization, which solicits private school tax credits. You might think that’s an ethical problem, except that the Chair of the House Ethics Committee is Rep. Steven Yarbrough. (Hat tip: Ted Prezelski, the more handsome twin--although he can't spell, either.)

These guys all attack the Governor because she’s insisting on a bill that actually directs help to the schools where ELL kids actually go, and where they’ll continue to attend regardless of how many new private schools spring up in the suburbs. They're furious because she's interfering with Republicans using yet another problem as an excuse to help themselves. Enough already, guys.

Finally, one correction from last week: Some friends reminded me that bacteria are prokaryotes, not eukaryotes, so a taxonomically-correct ban on “human-animal hybrids” would not interfere with commercial insulin production -- assuming that the Bush administration and Congress know their biology. Don’t hold your breath on that one, either.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Human-Animal Hybrids? What On Earth Was That About?

If you, like me, wondered what on earth banning "human-animal hybrids" was about in the State of the Union address, I did the research and I've become convinced that Jeremy Rifkin and Pat Robertson are the same person. Have you ever seen them together? My suggested headline is above but my editor went for the more prosaic model you see below. (UPDATED to correct that the bacteria used for insulin production are more properly classified as plants than as animals; the distinction doesn't work particularly well at the unicellular level. But the mice definitely are human-animal hybrids under any reasonable definition.)

East Valley Tribune, February 5, 2006

Even by the standards of the now-usual George W. Bush State of the Union address (Let’s go to Mars! The federal government must rid professional sports of steroids!), one moment in last Tuesday’s speech was surpassingly weird: When Bush called for legislation to prohibit “creating human-animal hybrids.”

Huh? Is yet another remake of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” planned, and Bush fears Marlon Brando’s definitive 1996 performance might be forgotten?

For most people, the need for a federal ban of human-animal hybrids probably wasn’t on their list of pressing national concerns. But the president sees saving America from the specter of Boar Man and Hyena-Swine as a key priority, so he called for a ban on this sort of thing, whatever it is.

But like many things Bush says, in the real world it’s not quite that simple. As Prof. Kieran Healy of the University of Arizona points out, the health of millions of Americans depends on a laboratory-created hybrid with human DNA. Genetically modified E. coli bacteria produce almost all the commercial supply of insulin needed by diabetics. Some of the bacteria’s DNA is replaced with human DNA, allowing the bacteria to secrete human insulin.

Bacteria are single-cell organisms, but if Bush’s ban on human-animal hybrids is as broad and as poorly executed as basically everything else the administration has done (Iraq, the Medicare drug fiasco, Katrina, the deficit, the Palestinian elections, need I continue?), then single-celled organisms created and modified by inserting human DNA would be banned. With no economic way to produce insulin (we’d have to return to harvesting glands from corpses), millions of diabetics will die.

Maybe you think that’s too extreme; Bush didn’t mean bacteria, but rather “real” animals, like mice. Unfortunately, as Prof. P. Z. Myers of the University of Minnesota, Morris noted, Bush’s ban would stop promising research into treatment of Down syndrome.

Down syndrome results from having an extra chromosome 21, which can cause problems including heart defects, weakened immune systems, and mental retardation. Scientists have sought to create an animal model of Down syndrome, for experiments to determine which extra genes on chromosome 21 cause which problems, the first step to developing treatments or possible cures.

Scientists have been inserting groups of human genes into mice, seeking to produce similar “genetic overdoses” to study Down syndrome in detail. But last September, a group of British researchers announced in Science that they had successfully inserted an entire human chromosome 21 into mouse embryonic stem cells. Using those cells, the researchers have created mice with the wrong number of chromosomes (the scientific term is “aneuploid”). The mice show many symptoms of Down syndrome, including heart defects and central nervous system anomalies.

The group plans to study these mice, to learn if new therapies could counteract the harm caused by extra genes on the extra chromosome. These aneuploid mice can help medical researchers understand and eventually treat a serious human affliction -- but Bush just called for a ban that would stop this research.

But this is pretty subtle stuff, certainly not as striking as the pig-man or the mouse with a human ear. But that’s the intellectual level of a George W. Bush State of the Union speech. He’s more than willing to block useful medical advances and future research for the sake of a good sound bite.

Unless what’s really going on here is the usual “soft bigotry of low expectations” that applies to Bush himself. We’re not to take this seriously, because nobody expects President Bush to understand what he’s saying, much less such subtle adverse consequences.

Maybe calling for a ban on human-animal hybrids appeals to certain scientific illiterates, but we all have to hope that this latest Bush weirdness has only the same staying power as his previous trial balloons concerning Mars, steroids, Iraqi yellowcake, and Social Security privatization. Because if not, it’s a huge, hurtful mistake.