Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in August 2009

The Mac not-quite attack

wu in mac

Outside the Wu town hall, McMinnville/Stapilus

As the McMinnville town meeting by Representative David Wu broke up, one man in the front row flipped open his cell phone and delivered a call, apparently to his wife - it was a call of reassurance: "Well, it's over. No automatic weapons."

Not a bad summation, as these things go. After reports about disruptive congressional town halls around the country, with anti-health reform protesters shouting down congressmen and anyone else who disagreed with them, you can understand why so many nerves and such trepidation accompanied this one. Some congressmen have bagged out on public events, and some (Representative Brian Baird for one) have resorted to telephone-only halls. This event was Wu's first town hall of the break back in district (several more are scheduled to follow), and both sides in the health care debate were primed for action.

That may have helped defuse it.

The pro-reform side was alerted to the prospect of being swamps by the anti's, so they moved quickly. We were told both sides (a local Democratic group on one side, and a protest group led by a former county Republican chair on the other) wit with police and Wu officials, and ground rules set. An escalating set of pre-town hall events was loosely planned, but the situation developed this way: A line formed about four hours before the event outside the meeting room, and most of the early arrivals were pro-reform people.

From there, over four hours, the line and participation swelled to somewhere upwards of 700 people, certainly one of the larger political gatherings ever in Yamhill County. (A typical town hall by Senator Ron Wyden, by comparison, typically might draw 100 people, which under normal conditions is considered pretty good turnout.) The crowd appeared well split between sides, the pro-reform people probably in a majority but likely not by a lot. (more…)

A Utah prescription

utah

Utah Health Care Initiative

Several readers of the recent post here on health care and costs have pointed to a just-delivered speech at the Boise City Club by Utah physician Joe Jarvis, of the Utah Health Care Initiative. The speech is available online.

The speech is called "Too much market, not enough care," and Jarvis' points overlap greatly with those that have been made here. Have a listen. There's a lot of useful material here: "Medicine has once again become a business opportunity. Our body politics has become paralyzed by a market oriented health policy."

From the initiative's web site: "The conventional wisdom about health care is that we should fear socialized medicine (the name offered by those with a proprietary interest in the status quo health system for anything that might threaten their business model) and instead embrace market-based medicine (the notion that health care is a commodity and that unfettered market forces can improve health care delivery). The conventional framing of the health reform debate is bogus. The pretense of a market makes wasteful spending due to a combination of inefficient financing and poor quality care inevitable. What should be feared is not the 'socialization' of American health care. No one, not even the most liberal advocate, is proposing government owned and operated hospitals and clinics in the US. Instead, fear the effects of poor quality health care. The fifth leading cause of death in the US is preventable hospital associated injury. Fear the loss of needed revenues through corporate welfare paid by the taxpayer into the coffers of for-profit insurers and pharmaceutical firms. It is time to change the debate about American health system reform. Rather than worry about coverage, we need to focus on waste. Waste elimination is politically difficult, but essential if sustainable health system reform is ever to happen."

We're en route, just now, to a congressional town hall where the topic do jour is expected to be health care.

After effects

The triple homicide in the small eastern Oregon town Elgin, apparently a spinoff effect of the trade in methamphetamines, has brought a temporary spotlight back to the meth trade and what Oregon has been doing, or trying to do, about it. A couple of points of that light merit a little more attention.

In 2005 Oregon took a highly-publicized step in restricting purchases of many cold medicines, at least those that use pseudoephedrine, because it has been a key ingredient in meth production. The new law appears to have had a significant effect: The number of arrests for meth production in Oregon have dropped drastically (95 percent by one estimate). That would be the good news.

The bad news is that usage doesn't seem to have dropped. And beyond that, aspects of the trade are getting deadlier. From today's Oregonian perspective on the Elgin situation:

"The downside is addicts switched from locally made meth powder to an even more addictive and potent form from Mexico, Roberts said. And that process may have funneled more of the trade to the Hermiston 'pound' dealers. 'Are they making more money now?' Gibson, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking program director, asked rhetorically. 'Obviously there is a lot of money in the drug trade. The price is up.'"

The Hutchison file

Hutchison

Susan Hutchison

If the voters of King County elect as their next executive the former TV news anchor Susan Hutchison - and she is likely to get through the primary election - they won't be able to say they weren't warned about what is likely to happen next.

Hutchison is well positioned at the moment, running against five veteran Democratic elected officials (in the legislature and the county council), all men, who probably have a hard time drawing distinctions between themselves - none has decisively broken out of the pack. Hutchison, the one woman and the one philosophically to the right of the other four, has never run for office before, has fewer policy stands to demand, and is at once the fresh face and (owing to her TV work) probably the best-known countywide. Little wonder she leads in polling and is likely to end the month headed for the general election with one of the other four. How she fares in that revised structure is less clear.

But King County is beginning to learn more about Hutchison than they have known before. In those broadcast years she seemed to have a good television appearance and her smile was warm, but off-camera there seems to have been more to the story.

That grows out of the end of her two-decade run at KIRO-TV, in the time when she was replaced as anchor and later, in December 2002, terminated. Her removal as anchor seems to have had to do with ratings (KIRO was third in the market) and popularity scores, and there's no big lesson to be drawn about Hutchison in any of that. Happens all the time in TV news.

Hutchison filed a lawsuit against KIRO alleging discrimination. Those case records have been sealed. She said in a statement that "There is no doubt that the hard road I chose in fighting against discrimination so many years ago also prepared me for the rigors of this campaign, and the demands of serving in public life." But if so that's a puzzlement, since she fought their release. She didn't want them out.

News organizations including the Seattle Times which this week won their release extracted a different picture. The Times, which noted "no bombshell revelations," also noted that "after being demoted from the anchor's chair, her supervisors said Hutchison's behavior caused her to lose credibility with them." (The Stranger Slog headline on the story: "Deceptive, Delusional, Unpopular: A Portrait of Susan Hutchison.")

There were specifics. One, perhaps minor, involved a period when she claimed sick leave but was seen happily river rafting near Bend. More significantly, she said she was retaliated against for standing up for another employee (an independent review found no evidence of retaliation; and around the time of her loss of the anchor's spot, she began to describe KIRO (to people outside the station) as a "bad environment" owing to "drug abuse and sexual misconduct." The latter, she said, involved affairs and sexual harassment by top managers at the station; evidence has been lacking.

Those documents are a little over half of the total record. More should be coming in a few days.

Other than a brief statement after the release of the records, in which she said she couldn't talk about the situation, there's been no further explanation. The statement that she couldn't talk, though, is odd since the station's attorney explicitly said that there's nothing in the legal agreement that keeps her from doing so.

So put her in charge of a politically-sensitive, massive organization like King County government, and watch what happens . . .

The Blue Oregon bash

Last night the Blue Oregon 5th birthday event, at the Blitz bar in southeast Portland, was packed - hard to even move around a great deal at first. That was the first tip that something here was different from the events we've attended before, which were not low-turnout events, but certainly not as heavily attended as this one.

The other thing had to do with who attended: A lot of politicians were there. Secretary of State Kate Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney, lots of legislators. Portland Mayor Sam Adams (over off to the side). Prospective/sorta already gubernatorial candidate Brian Clem. A smaller percentage, it seemed, independent bloggers than before.

Shifting times. Blue Oregon seems very much to be moving into the mainstream in a way other Northwest blogs haven't yet.

Your money or your life

Political speech on health care, quite a bit of it, doesn't match up well with reality on the ground.

Some of the most critical votes in Congress when time comes, presumably some weeks hence, to vote on health care, will be those of the more skeptical Democrats. One of the Democrats most reluctant to accept the various health plans pushed in recent weeks through committees has been Idaho's Walt Minnick.

He's made a number of statements on health care; one (arriving in email) that seemed to need clarification was this: "Third, no 'socialized medicine.' The health care system of insurance must be private – not run by the government." In Minnick's use of the term (exact definitions can vary by person), what does socialized medicine mean? His press secretary responded:

He is firmly opposed to a public option. We of course have Medicare and Medicaid, and while people who use those services like having the benefits of some healthcare, most people very clearly do not like the process associated with those programs. So that partially informs his thinking.

The other key thing to understand is the reasoning by most proponents of a public option. The proposed plan and its proponents on Capitol Hill very much want a single-payer, single-provider system of health insurance – that is a poorly kept secret in Washington, D.C. They view the public option as a way to not just compete with insurance companies, but drive them out of business. The public option would so effectively kill competition in the marketplace, that the proponents would likely be successful in that endeavor.

For Walt, competition is at the heart of this part of the healthcare discussion. A public company would not have to pay taxes, it could bond without restriction, it could go into debt without being beholden to banks or shareholders and would not have to worry about losses. It could just add those losses to the national debt. Most importantly, it would not have any real incentive to drive down costs, because it would quickly become the dominant, overwhelming force in the marketplace. It would be the largest insurance company in the country, run by the federal government and subsidized by taxpayers at enormous cost. That is socialized medicine.

Walt said something interesting the other day as an off-the-cuff way to oversimplify and explain this. Let’s say you sell bikes. And the bike industry is an absolute mess due to poor standards, a lack of accountability, out-of-control costs which are due to a wide variety of complex factors, and wide spectrum of regulations differing from state to state, etc. The government decides it is critical that the industry be reformed so the cost of bikes stops spiraling out of control. Is the way forward for the government to start its own bike company?

Fairly clear as explanation of philosophy. Now, an explanation of how the matter looks as a matter of governing philosophy, from here:

We have laws, generally accepted across the philosophical spectrum, that prohibit someone from walking into your house (or your convenience store), pointing a gun at your head and demanding "your money or your life."

That is what our health care system is doing to us, right now, and on an immense scale. It is extortion at the least, robbery at the most. Governmental activism is needed to stop it.

That may sound harsh or extreme. It isn't. That way of looking at American health care today could be backed up by any number of statistics or studies, but, as Minnick drew on his experience to inform his take on health care, let me draw on some personal events that occurred about 13 months ago. Individual experiences differ widely, of course, but here's some of what informs my thinking on this: (more…)

Newport, and its new port

newport

Along a Newport Bay street/Stapilus

If you want to pick out tourism central for the Oregon Coast, the best choice probably would be Newport. It's a fun town to visit, with distinctive areas (the old bay area, Nye Beach and others) and plenty to see. It's become a tourism mecca, and on the recent Saturday when we visited, traffic was jammed.

Tourism alone still isn't a solid underpinning for a community, though. It can be helpful, but you can see the limits in Newport. There seems to be a real ceiling to the prosperity there, a limit to how far tourism alone will take the community.

That's where the move by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's decision to move one of its main operations from the Seattle area to Newport can become significant (even before you consider the spinoff and multiplier effects). The number of personnel is not enormous, only a couple of hundred or so, but it will add a real base to Newport's economy - a base much more solid than tourism can be.

This could mark a significant change for Newport. Nothing less for the enjoyable day-visit place know. But something more, besides.

From the Newport News-Times: "Port of Newport officials were figuratively dancing on the docks, giddy about a sense of destiny, and what Port Commissioner Ginny Goblirsch called 'a pivotal point in our history.' Port General Manager Don Mann said initial permitting and work on a $44 million, 18-month project to build a new facility to berth NOAA’s four-vessel operations fleet should weigh anchor on the south side of Yaquina Bay within the next two weeks."

One other point: The port of Astoria had applied for the NOAA development, but backed out because it felt the chances of luring it away from Seattle were too small.

Give them credit for openly acknowledging as much after the fact.

Yanking in speculation

Yeah.

There are things in our economic system, in useful capitalism, that we need, and things that we don't - things that can hurt more than help. Investment in business often is constructive. But the rawer forms of financial speculation, which have become such a large part of what we've built our economic house of cards on over the last decade, tends not to be.

So this may be one of the more beneficial pieces of legislation Congress considers this year, as reported via Dow Jones: "This week, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., plans to introduce a bill that would do away with tax incentives for all types of speculators, including hedge funds and pension funds. The legislation would tax the trading gains and losses of any taxpaying speculative energy trader the same way that commercial traders are currently taxed by treating them as ordinary gains and losses. Gains made on oil and natural gas investments would lose their eligibility for lower capital gains rates. The bill would also end the tax-exempt status for certain energy commodity investors like pension funds. Under this proposal, their gains would be classified as 'unrelated business taxable income.'"

Inexcusable that these kinds of financial devices weren't always treated this way (and a testament to the skill of certain highly-paid lobbyists). Just maybe, some correction is en route.

In case you're wondering what the practical effects of this may include, note that phrase "speculative energy trader." Do you wonder why the price of gas bounces around the way it does, so often untethered to the price of oil or any other apparently price point? Look to the speculators . . . and then think about what might happen if they were a much less critical part of the picture.

With one exception

Can you statistically measure how "liberal" or "conservative" a member of Congress is? Can you even define those terms with language both side would accept?

Maybe. An academic review at the University of California-San Diego (where it's now located; earlier versions of the project were elsewhere) has taken a stab at it with this review: Of "694 roll calls cast in the 110th House (not counting quorum calls). Of these, 485 had at least 0.5% or better in the minority and were used in the scaling. The rank ordering is based upon these 485 roll calls. Note that tied ranks are allowed." The rankings probably shouldn't be taken as gospel, but they are telling.

In the Senate, the regions' four Democrats were well inside their caucus, with the two Oregonians (Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley) ranking a little more liberal than the two Washingtonians (Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell). The Northwest's two Republicans, Idaho's Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, scored (almost identically) in about the middle of the Senate Republican caucus. In each case, about what you might expect.

Numerically, in the House, the rankings run from 1.0 for California Democratic Representative Bob Filner to 436.0 for Arizona Republican Representative John Shadegg. The two parties split nearly perfectly, with all Democrats (blue dogs included) scoring 257.0 or less, and all Republicans 258.0 or more - all, that is, but one.

Among Northwest Democrats, the most liberal was Washington's Jim McDermott (23.0); among Republicans, the most conservative was Oregon's Greg Walden (349.0).

But here's the stunner: The most "conservative" member of the Northwest delegation turns out not to be a Republican at all, not Idaho's Mike Simpson (281.0) or Washington's Dave Reichert (263.0), Doc Hastings (312.0) or Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (341.5).

Rather, it is the only Democrat in the House to score more conservative than the "least conservative" Republican - Idaho's Walt Minnick, at 359.5, which puts him just about in the middle of the House Republican caucus, and more "conservative" than, for example, Simpson. No other Democrat or Republican scores across the line at all.

UPDATE Minnick's office has taken a look at the numbers, and emailed us a comment on them:

First, it's no secret that Walt has the most independent voting record in Congress. Not "one of the most" but THE most, according to CQ and the Washington Post. [Editor: The chart makes that point pretty conclusively.] He is already more "conservative" (if that's the word you choose to use) than any other member of his caucus. And this data shows he is more conservative than some members of the other party, which I think is reflective of the District.

All that said, we were surprised by the raw numbers you linked to -- until we looked at the data. I can explain most of the disparity with two words: Jeff Flake. Flake is a GOP representative from Arizona who has made it his personal crusade this session of Congress to introduce hundreds of amendments to strip earmarks from appropriations bills. Many of those amendments ultimately make it to the floor. The vast majority of Republicans and almost all of the Democrats vote against those amendments. However, Walt has joined a handful of folks who refuse earmarks to vote with Flake, on principle, for each amendment.

Our legislative director looked at the data this morning for me, and confirmed that Flake's amendments and similar anti-earmark votes are the cause of the disparity.

The state differentials

The economic mess of the last year has led to inevitable finger-pointing state by state, some of which has come to a head with a Ross Douthat column comparing the conditions of the states of California and Texas, suggesting that blue California was in rugged shape, and Texas by some measures better, in part because of their relative redness or blueness.

It doesn't really make much sense; you can run all sorts of comparisons depending on what point you want to prove. One across-the-board comparison of some interest, though, was one pulled by economist and columnist Paul Krugman, who pointed to the batch of states with unemployment numbers over 10%. They are located, he pointed out, in two groups, on the Pacific west (Oregon, California, Nevada) and in the country's east-center (Michigan south to Florida). From his blog:

What you see, if you look at the black states — states with 10+ percent unemployment — are two great belts of suffering. One is California/Oregon/Nevada, which is about the burst bubble. The other stretches down across the middle of the country. Except for Florida, which is presumably more bubble damage, what this looks like to me is manufacturing — I know that a large part of it is “Auto Alley”, which is the south-by-east spread of the old Detroit hub that took place as foreign automakers moved in. And manufacturing, remember, has been hit especially hard in this crunch.

All of this suggests that who’s suffering most has little to do with state policies. It’s about what you happened to be doing for a living when the economy fell apart.

Assessing the details

Here's a suggestions for two new public commissions (with staff) - could be set up at the federal, state and local levels - that conservative analysts logically should applaud:

One would examine public budgets to raise questions about spending, whether all those expenses are needed, whether greater efficiencies could be had, and so on. The other would do something similar with the law: Systematically comb through the code and look for whatever is archaic, contradictory, unnecessary and so on.

The key to doing this is detail, taking a magnifying glass to the specific items, to assess what works and what doesn't. This is, obviously, work. Howling generically about big government and high taxes is a lot more fun, but nowhere near as useful; if this site is sometimes a little dismissive of that rhetoric, then this is why.

Which is prelude to the other hand: Some of the work Wayne Hoffman (through his Idaho Freedom Foundation) has been doing of late. He has been poring over the details of spending at the state and local level in Idaho, and coming up with some interesting results. Some of it could actually lead to practical changes and improvement.

Today, for example, a post on how Idaho state government has, in the last budget cycle, spent nearly $20 million "on furniture, cars, trucks and computer equipment." The largest chunk, approaching half, went for computer equipment but substantial amounts on the other items as well.

That shouldn't be the end of the story. Maybe those buys were needed and efficient. Maybe they weren't. Maybe (more likely) they were a mixed bag. The point is that someone (independent of the agencies) ought to be taking a detailed look at this stuff.

Hoffman has been posting what's turning into a steady stream of government spending information. There's some dispute over some of it. He has been looking into pay for local government employees, and seeking to post names together with salaries. That has ruffled some feathers (and led to roadblocks in some places); but the request is fair: These are, as they should be, public records, and it is the taxpayers, not boards or commissions or administrators, who ultimately employ these people. Sometimes a reminder of that is needed.

Some useful Sunday reading.

Who said what

Politics wonks will spend hours of great fun on this site, Congress Speaks.

Some of what's here - based on detailed analysis of speech in Congress (I'm assuming here, from the Congressional Record) - is interesting from the point of view of regularity of speaking, and what topics they're speaking about. (Quick - in the last term, did Oregon's Ron Wyden or Gordon Smith speak more?) But it's also go some real entertainment value. Check it out.