Monday, November 29, 2010

Reinhardt Inconsistent On Heathcare?

President Barack Obama delivers his weekly add...Image via Wikipedia
November 28, 2010
Reinhardt: Repeal Health Care, Make GOP Cut Costs
By John Greenwald

In a freewheeling interview with The Fiscal Times, (Uwe Reinhardt) critiques the new health care reform law — including its lack of cost containment — and recent proposals from the president's deficit-cutting panel. Never one to mince words, Reinhardt also discusses what he sees as the real culprit behind soaring health care costs, why he doubts a single payer health care system could work in the United States — and where he believes the country's founding fathers went wrong.

The Fiscal Times (TFT): What would a high-performing national health care system look like?

Uwe Reinhardt (UR): I think the Germans, the Swiss, the Dutch have a perfectly fine approach. It's not a single-payer system. While I'm a Canadian I am not for [single payer] in the U.S. because we do not have a political system that can handle it responsibly. Canada has a parliamentary system that insulates considerably the public program from lobbying.

TFT: So you favor universal coverage but not a single payer system?

UR: For other countries I do [favor single payer] but we can't run it. You need a responsible system of governance. Whatever you can say about U.S. governance, you cannot call it responsible. You really couldn't. I think the founding fathers gave us an impotent government that acts quite irresponsibly. I don't think parliamentary systems are that bad.

Comment:  Single payer advocates frequently are perplexed by Uwe Reinhardt's positions on health care reform.

He seems to support health care justice. He frequently uses the example of the waitress who is trying her best to support herself and her child, but who is unable to afford health care. By extrapolation, a just society would not let her or her child go without the essential health care services that they might need.

Yet what about single payer? He is a supporter for single payer, but for other countries. In this interview he states that he does not support single payer for the United States. The reason he gives is that "the founding fathers gave us an impotent government that acts quite irresponsibly."

Right now the British and the Canadians are facing an assault on their public health systems by their conservative governments. In the United States, we are facing an assault on our Medicare program by the conservatives and right-leaning moderates. Although we don't know how much damage, if any, will be done to the systems, it is highly probable that all three of the systems will survive intact considering the strong public support in each nation.

Does our government act irresponsibly? Wars? Income transfer from the workers to the wealthy? Neglect of poverty and other social inequities? Of course our leaders have been irresponsible, and so have the leaders of all other nations, but only at times. Social Security? Medicare? Our national parks? Most government activities are quite responsible and certainly do not set us apart from other nations.

Although Reinhardt criticizes the new health care reform law for failing to contain costs, he states, "The private sector is the inflationary component of health care, not Medicare or Medicaid." Can he seriously contend that these government programs are irresponsible and impotent when they continue to outperform the private plans on cost containment? Considering this, how can he support single payer for other nations, yet reject it for the United States?

Government impotence and irresponsibility are not reasons to reject single payer. They are merely an excuse as to why we haven't enacted it yet. What we need is more responsible people power. Let's get busy stirring it up
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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hear About National Listening Day?

Listening To Ourselves

by Terry Plumb

One way to make a newspaperman wince is to request publicity for a day of observance. Hardly a day goes by when someone isn’t promoting a day or week dedicated to, say, the fight against cancer or the importance of eating more blueberries.
So when my younger daughter requested a column in support of National Listening Day, my initial reaction was lukewarm. When I learned that the third annual event would take place Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, I was even more dubious. Every real American knows that’s the day we rush, lemming like, to the nearest mall. What was she thinking?
The more I thought about it, however, the merits of a designating a day for listening during Thanksgiving made sense. Despite the best efforts of supermarket chains and greeting card companies, Thanksgiving remains largely unsullied by commercialization. And with the possible exception of Christmas, it’s the holiday most associated with family.
First some background: National Listening Day is the creation of StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization that provides people the opportunity to record and share the stories of their lives. It’s best known for the sometimes humorous, often gripping interviews that National Public Radio airs on “Morning Edition” each Friday.
StoryCorps is the brainchild of Dave Isay. A former radio documentary reporter, Isay believes passionately that the story of America is best told – not by politicians or talking heads who fill the airways with their ego-centric ranting – but by ordinary people speaking to someone who cares about them. The art of listening, he maintains, can be mastered by anyone and has the potential to enrich our lives, both as individuals and as a nation.
I first became familiar with StoryCorps several years ago while visiting our daughter in New York City. She took my wife and I to Foley Square, where StoryCorps maintains a permanent booth. She interviewed us for 40 minutes, asking such questions as how we met, what we remembered about our childhoods and what she and her older sister were like as children. At the end of the interview, we were handed a CD of the interview and, with our permission, a copy was sent to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where it’s preserved for posterity along with more than 30,000 similar interviews.
In the interest of disclosure, I need to say that our same daughter later would go to work for StoryCorps. She now manages the StoryCorps office in Atlanta.
StoryCorps doesn’t charge for its services, although donations are welcome. For National Listening Day, however, the organization isn’t asking for anything other than that people record their own stories, using tape recorders, cell phones or any other recording devices they may have around the house.
Typically, interviews are between family members, but I’ve heard excerpts of moving conversations between co-workers and neighbors. The only essential ingredients are curiosity about another human being and a willingness to listen to what they have to say.
To facilitate participation, StoryCorps has created a Web link,, where visitors may find tips on how to conduct an interview, find advice on choosing equipment, etc.
Best of all, there is a list of favorite StoryCorps questions that are likely to evoke fruitful responses. Some are designed for specific relationships. For example, you may want ask your mother, “If you could do everything again, would you raise me differently?”
There are sample questions for friends, questions about working, serious illness and military service – among others. War veterans are notorious for not wanting to talk about their battlefield experiences, but many will open up if asked, “How did war change you?”
Isay would say that just as there are no wrong answers, there are no wrong questions. Indeed, the use of such open-ended questions is a technique that journalists have long employed. Some experts say the best question a reporter can ask is, “What do you think about that?”
We seldom are asked that question. Even more rarely do we ask it of ourselves. Why bother when public opinion pollsters are constantly ready to tell us what we think.
National Listening Day won’t provide a cure-all for what ails we Americans, but it’s the least bitter medicine I’ve heard prescribed lately.

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Monday, November 22, 2010

My Apologies to Michael Moore and the Health Insurance Industry

Cover of "Sicko (Special Edition)"Cover of Sicko (Special Edition)

My Apologies to Michael Moore and the Health Insurance Industry

by Wendell Potter
In advance of my appearance with Michael Moore on Countdown with Keith Olbermann tonight on MSNBC (8 and 11 p.m. ET), I would like to offer an apology to both Moore and his arch enemy, the health insurance industry, which spent a lot of policyholder premiums in 2007 to attack his movie, Sicko.
I need to apologize to Moore for the role I played in the insurance industry's public relations attack campaign again him and Sicko, which was about the increasingly unfair and dysfunctional U.S. health care system. (I was head of corporate communications at one of the country's biggest insurance companies when I left my job in May 2008.) And I need to apologize to health insurers for failing to note in my new book, Deadly Spin, that the front group they used to attack Moore and Sicko -- Health Care America -- was originally a front group for drug companies. APCO Worldwide, the PR firm that operated the front group for insurers during the summer of 2007, was outraged -- outraged, I tell you -- that I wrote in the book that the raison d'être for Health Care America was to disseminate the insurance industry's talking points as part of a multi-pronged, fear-mongering campaign against Moore and his movie. An APCO executive told a reporter who had reviewed the book that I was guilty of one of the deceptive PR tactics I condemned: the selective disclosure of information to manipulate public opinion.

Which Industry Was Really Behind "Health Care America?"

Well, shucks. Ignorance is no defense, I know, but no one at APCO ever told me, even when I was on the insurance industry's side, that Health Care America's first benefactor was Big Pharma.
Here are the offending sentences, excerpted from the chapter entitled "The Campaign Against Sicko," in which I described a top-secret meeting of insurance company flacks -- including me -- where APCO and America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the lobbying group for insurers, laid out the industry's strategy:
(AHIP's Mike) Tuffin and (APCO's Robert) Schooling said they had already begun recruiting conservative and free-market think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Galen Institute, as third-party allies. Those allies, they said, would be working aggressively to discredit Moore and his movie. They then mentioned an ally that most of us had never heard of, Health Care America. It had been created by AHIP and APCO for the sole purpose of attacking Moore and his contention that people in countries with government-run systems spent far less and got better care than people in the United States. The sole reason Health Care America exists, they said, was to talk about the shortcomings of government-run systems.
I learned a few days ago from Jack O'Dwyer, longtime watchdog of the PR profession and publisher of O'Dwyer's PR Daily, that an APCO executive told him I had failed to disclose that APCO had originally set up Health Care America in 2006 with money primarily from big drug companies. Big Pharma was worried at the time that drug makers would be Moore's main target in the movie. Thinking ahead, they feared that being vilified in Sicko would increase the odds that lawmakers would cast them as the chief villain when the health care reform debate got underway.
O'Dwyer blogged last Tuesday that, "Just about every known evil practice that PR has ever engaged in is described in 'Deadly Spin.' " He noted that I had mentioned APCO -- the second biggest firm in the O'Dwyer ranking, with $100.3 million in fees in 2009 -- several times in the book. APCO and AHIP must be paying a media monitoring service to alert them immediately when I am mentioned in the media, as they did for Michael Moore and Sicko three years ago. Within hours, APCO Senior Vice President William Pierce sent O'Dwyer an email to challenge my credibility because of my failure to disclose Health Care America's original incarnation. He's right --partially. I should have pointed out in the book that APCO repurposed Health Care America for the insurance industry and other special interests who were concerned that Sicko might lead to reforms that would threaten their profits, too. I would have disclosed it if I had known about it. Unlike PR people who practice the dark arts of PR, I had no intention of misleading anyone.

Now, Even More Info About "Health Care America"

After hearing from O'Dwyer, I discovered even more about Health Care America than I had recalled. I came across a couple of interesting articles and a press release from 2006 that Pierce had sent to the media. (He was listed as the organization's media contact, although he was an employee of APCO during the entire brief existence of Health Care America. If you called the number on the press release, you would have reached Pierce at his APCO office.) I also found Health Care America's federal tax returns for 2006 and 2007, which were helpful in understanding just how much of a front group it really was.
In a press release dated April 6, 2006, Pierce announced that Health Care America -- which he described as a non-partisan, non-profit organization --had "opened for business as a champion for common-sense solutions to improving our health care system without furthering government control."

The Old PR Dodge and Weave

In one of the hardest-working paragraphs of spin I've come across in a long time, the release went on to quote Sarah Berk, the outfit's executive director, as saying: "We will promote access, choice, innovation, quality and competition in the U.S. health care system. And we will highlight how government-controlled systems around the world limit payment choice, stifle innovation and force thousands to wait for health care services in the U.S."
(Note to Ms. Berk: Please make plans now to join me next July at the 11th annual Remote Area Medical Free Health Care Expedition at the Wise County, Virginia Fairgrounds. If you come early enough, you can help other volunteers scrub and sanitize the animal stalls where doctors and nurses treat the thousands of patients who wait for a year to get the care they need, but cannot afford in the United States of America. Be forewarned, however. The experience might force you to consider another line of work, as it did for me when I went to  Wise County in 2007. I knew then that my days as a spinmeister for the insurance industry were numbered.)
The release did not disclose that Ms. Berk had recently left the American Hospital Association where, according to a story in Roll Call, she was director of "grassroots" advocacy and federal relations. Roll Call also reported that she earlier had "worked on health issues" for former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania).
So what were the common-sense solutions Health Care America promised to champion? Well, according to Roll Call, Ms. Berk "declined" to talk about them.   "We're not there yet," Roll Call quoted her as saying. "We're not here to get in the weeds on issues."
That was not the only declining she did that day. According to Roll Call, "Berk declined to name any specific companies or groups that were backing (Health Care America)." Oh, well.
Roll Call did disclose a tidbit that the Pierce's press release did not: "Health Care America is represented by public affairs firm APCO Worldwide and is currently leasing office space from APCO." One has to wonder how much space APCO's front group leased from APCO. Berk was identified as the only employee, although she was quoted in Roll Call as saying that she planned to hire at least one other person within three months.

Undisclosed Income Source, Mysterious Expenditures, Virtual Offices ...

According to the Form 990 Health Care America filed with the IRS for 2006, it took in $822,298.00 from undisclosed sources. Of that, $142,500 was paid out in compensation, presumably to Ms. Berk, and $9,000 was spent for "occupancy." Accounting and legal fees totaled nearly $47,000. By far the biggest expenditure -- $240,000 -- was for "consultant services."  One has to wonder how much of that went to APCO.
Health Care America's Form 990 for 2007 disclosed that Ms. Berk was even more handsomely rewarded for her work during the second and apparently final year of the organization's existence (I could not find a Form 990 for any subsequent year), one presumes because she apparently never got around to hiring anyone else and consequently had to work an average of 60 hours a week, or so she claimed. She was paid $197,917 in 2007. Legal and accounting fees skyrocketed to more than $80,000, and the amount spent for "occupancy" jumped to $15,870 in 2007.
One has to wonder who got that $15,870. In the 2006 Form 990, Ms. Berk listed her office address as 1455 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20004. That is not where APCO is located. In fact, that is the address of a "virtual office" at the Willard Office Building. Well, of course. How appropriate. Why would a front group need a real office?
The Web site for the virtual office at the Willard lists these amenities: a prime business address; a "live" receptionist; a lobby greeter, a business support center, a client drop-off/pick-up point; and mail forwarding, all for $125 a month. That's a heck of a deal for an "office" in the heart of arguably the most important city on the planet. Note, however, that you will have to pay extra to have your organization's name in the lobby directory and to actually use a real office or conference room. You can rent a real office for $10-$35 an hour, which for some reason reminds me of the fleabag motels I've heard about that rent rooms by the hour. Make no mistake, though, the Willard is no fleabag. Here's a fun fact, noted on the Web site for Suite 400:
The Willard Office Building is nestled between the famous Willard Intercontinental Hotel, where the term 'lobbyist' was coined, and the Occidental Restaurant, where D.C.'s power brokers negotiate deals over fabulous American fare."
Go ahead. Google the address. You'll find that oodles of organizations claim to occupy Suite 400. Let's hope that all those folks don't show up for work on the same day.

Operating Front Groups Isn't Criminal, Just Shameful

While the Forms 990 disclosed some interesting information, they didn't disclose the details that would be most helpful in determining who is really behind Health Care America. The government doesn't require such disclosure, even though front groups play a major role in persuading people to think the way the groups' financiers want them to think and to do what they want them to do, such as disrupting Congressional Democrats' town hall meetings. The ultimate goal, of course, is to influence public policy.
"Where's the felony Potter is saying took place?" Pierce asked O'Dwyer.
There was no felony (that I have personal knowledge of), and I never said that anyone at APCO had committed one. That's the problem. Setting up and operating front groups -- and not having to disclose who is behind them -- is shameful and, according to the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America, unethical. But it's perfectly legal.
So APCO, I've apologized for failing to disclose something I didn't know when I wrote Deadly Spin. Now it's your turn. How about you apologizing to the American people for the role you played in making it necessary for me to write the book in the first place.
P.S.: I just received a message from an APCO spokesperson who wrote to chastise me for writing that the insurance industry would "push Moore off the cliff" in a worst-case scenario. "You know there was never any suggestion to do anyone personal harm," she wrote. Yes, I knew that and I wrote that. She should read the book. Here's what I wrote on page 38 of the chapter about Sicko:
"Tuffin and Schooling wrapped up their presentation with a 'worse-case scenario' plan. If Sicko showed signs of being as influential in shaping public opinion on health care reform as An Inconvenient Truth had been in changing attitudes about climate change, then the industry would have to consider implementing a plan 'to push Moore off the cliff.' They didn't elaborate, and no one asked what they meant by that. We knew they didn't mean it literally--that a hit man would be sent to take Moore out. Rather, an all-out effort wuld be made to depict Moore as someone intent on destroying the free-market health care system and with it, the American way of life."
The APCO spokesperson denied the firm had done research on Moore's family and said APCO "did not attempt to suppress turnout for the movie." I'll let the PR plan, which I first discussed on Bill Moyers Journal in July 2009, speak for itself. Moyers' staff obtained copies of May 2007 and June 2007 versions of the PR plan developed by APCO and AHIP. To view the interview and PDF versions of the documents, click this link.
P.P.S: I also want to apologize to Moore for not disclosing until now that, while I was still working for the insurance industry, I traveled as an industry spy to his hometown of Bellaire, Michigan, to attend the official U.S. premiere of Sicko on June 16, 2007. Moore and I actually met that day, although he doesn't know it. (I didn't tell him who I was or who I worked for). The picture accompanying this blog, taken at a pre-screening reception by another movie-goer, shows me on Moore's left and my son, Alex, on his right. Alex, who has always been a big fan of Moore's, traveled with me on the reconnaissance mission. Moore even autographed a Sicko poster for Alex. It's quite a momento.
Wendell Potter is the Senior Fellow on Health Care for the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wisconsin.
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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bio-Mass Rules Go To Far?

by Morris Housen
CEO & President
Erving Paper Mills

Erving Paper Mills operates 24 hours a day, 355 days per year and has done so continuously since 1905.
We employ 120 people in Central Massachusetts and we buy almost all of our purchased goods and
services from other Massachusetts / New England companies. As a 120 tons per day manufacturer of
recycled napkin, toweling and tissue paper, our operations are energy intensive. In fact, each year we
use almost 50 million kilowatts of electricity (enough to power 4,500 average homes) and about 2.9
million gallons of oil (enough to heat 4,000 average homes).

Erving Paper Mills is committed to environmental stewardship. Every day, we recycle 9 truckloads of
wastepaper that would otherwise go to a Massachusetts landfill. We constantly manage our system
of pumps and motors to ensure that they are optimized for energy efficiency and we recycle the water
used in our production process in order to minimize our ecological footprint.

The time has come for all of us, including Erving Paper Mills, to transition away from fossil fuels and
towards local renewable fuel sources. To this end, in late 2008, our plant commissioned an exhaustive
study to look at energy alternatives. The study found that a biomass-powered combined heat and
power (CHP) system would meet our needs perfectly. Biomass delivers a solution that is both the most
economically viable solution and, unlike solar and wind power, leverages the only renewable source of
energy that can provide a continuous stream of power within a reasonable amount of real estate. We
would need 46 acres of solar panels or 15 industrial-sized wind turbines and a steady 30 – 55 mph wind
to meet our electricity needs alone.

What is biomass? Biomass is organic material, primarily waste wood and brush that is generated during
proper forest management and unusable as timber, which can be used to power an industrial facility
such as ours. The shift is analogous to switching from heating one’s house with oil to heating one’s
house with a wood-burning stove. Yet, we would not just heat our factory, but actually power our
entire process with waste wood. In Central New England, we are surrounded by a natural, abundant,
sustainable and renewable supply of waste wood, clearly a compelling energy source for us.

Two months ago, in September, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) released

draft rules on the qualification of biomass as it relates to the state’s renewable energy portfolio. The
original purpose of these rules was to properly incentivize the more efficient and appropriate use of
biomass and other alternate fuel sources. Unfortunately, due to political meandering, the effect of the
rules as currently drafted will prevent us and others like us from moving away from fossil fuels. Even
though, biomass (32% efficient) is more efficient than wind (25%) or solar (17%) power, its use is being
singled out and unfairly targeted by legislators. Efficiency benchmarks are being established that will
restrict biomass installations in the Commonwealth.

We strongly urge Massachusetts lawmakers to amend the draft rules. We suggest that the
Commonwealth implement an efficiency standard that is achievable for alternative energy sources
like biomass and provide a full renewable energy credit for CHP facilities. We also suggest that
thermal RECS be introduced that will specifically incentivize CHP plants Without attending to these
changes, the ability of Erving Paper Mills and Massachusetts companies like ours to transition away
from fossil fuels will be severely hampered. Our companies will be less competitive, economic value
to the Commonwealth will be lost and an opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint will have been

In addition, we support science-based forest sustainability standards and believe that the proposed 15%
limit on what can be counted as biomass is arbitrary and does not allow for site-specific conditions to
be taken into account. We believe that a better approach would be the recommendations made by the
Forest Guild in the Manomet Study.

Erving Paper Mills is fully committed to deepening our investment in the local community and to
providing environmental stewardship by transitioning away from fossil fuels towards a renewable,
locally-sourced alternative that will not only lower our future emissions but also make us more
competitive. This is exactly the type of energy strategy that the DOER and the Patrick Administration
should want to encourage. Unfortunately, the rules, as currently proposed, would not allow us to make
this transition. A significant change is needed so that the final rules will take our situation and that of
companies in a similar situation into account.

Erving Paper Mills, Inc.
Morris Housen
CEO & President
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Monday, November 15, 2010

America's Eggshell Nukes

Control room in Nuclear power plant.Image via Wikipedia

America's Eggshell Nukes

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has made it clear that America's 104 licensed atomic power reactors are not accidents waiting to happen.

They are accidents in progress.

And proposals to build a "new generation" of reactors are not mere scams. They comprise a predictable plan for permanent national bankruptcy.

On November 10, the USNRC delivered a stunning reprimand to Japanese-owned Westinghouse, which proposes building new atomic reactors here and around the world. The Commission warned that the containment design for the new AP1000 did not include a "realistic" analysis of its ability to withstand a jet crash.

An NRC rule introduced in 2009 requires that the integrity or cooling of used fuel, the containment and the cooling of the reactor core on new reactors must be able to withstand the impact of a large passenger jet. The failure of Westinghouse to explain its case amounts to a violation of that requirement.

New AP1000 reactors are proposed for numerous sites in the US, including Georgia's Vogtle, which has received $8.33 billion in loan guarantees from the Obama Administration. Site work has begun at Vogtle, which already houses two licensed reactors. But the new designs still lack final approval. At least one AP1000 plant is already under construction in China. Similar concerns about the AP1000 design (as well as France's EPR) have been raised by regulators in the UK.

The hotly debated ability of proposed new commercial reactors to withstand a jet crash underscores a stunning reality: not one of the 104 old ones now operating in the US has the proven ability to do so. The reactor industry successfully fought off such requirements, complaining they would make the plants too expensive to build. More than two dozen US General Electric Mark I containments are rated as weaker than the structure that blew off Chernobyl Unit Four during its 1986 catastrophe.

Owner-operators now want license extensions that would keep those same reactors going for 20 or more additional years. Under intense multi-decade stress from heat and radiation, all suffer dangerously from embrittlement of critical metals and degradation of structural concrete.

Because spent fuel pool are overflowing, thousands of tons of highly radioactive fuel rods now sit in "dry casks"---concrete boxes with vent holes. Neither the pools nor the casks can withstand a jet crash, or even a low level terror attack.

"In 2003, my colleagues and I reported that the drainage of a spent fuel pool by a jet crash could lead to a catastrophic spent fuel radiation fire that could render a 27,000 sq mile area uninhabitable. This is larger than the combined states of Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey," says reactor expert Robert Alvarez, Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and former Senior Policy Advisor to the US Secretary of Energy, 1993-7.

"A year later the National Academy panel, convened to address our study, warned that reactor ponds were vulnerable to terrorist attack and catastrophic radiological fire," Alvarez continues. "In particular, there are 35 Boiling Water Reactors in the U.S. that have elevated spent fuel pools several stories above ground. The pools are not protected by thick concrete containment as are the reactors. They currently hold about four times the amount of highly radioactive spent fuel than their original designs."

At Vermont Yankee, New York's Indian Point and other aging reactors, underground pipes are known to be leaking significant quantities of tritium, cesium and other deadly isotopes. Health researcher Joe Mangano has linked such emissions to serious human health problems at nuke sites throughout the US.

Meanwhile, new reactor pushers want Obama to cave on minimal financial requirements for federal loan guarantees. According to Alvarez, the General Accounting Office and Congressional Budget Office have both estimated that at least half the loans given for new nuke construction will fail.

But even marginal fee requirements for a proposed project at Calvert Cliffs, Maryland, has prompted Constellation Energy to back out. Michael Mariotte of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, among others, has speculated that Constellation wanted out of a plant it knew to be a loser, and used the loan fee as an excuse.

If Obama slashes builder-owner loan liability, the virtually certain failure of new reactor projects will dump billions of dollars of liabilities onto taxpayer and ratepayers.

The plants are also primarily insured against accidents and terror attacks by the public. The industry's liability---which could be in the trillions---is limited to $11 billion.

So continued operations at old reactors, or construction of new ones, could plunge the United States into permanent bankruptcy.

Reactor owners are now constantly pushing for license extensions. And Obama is soon expected to try to ease the loan guarantees for new ones.

Our economic future and physical health depend on stopping them both.
Harvey Wasserman's SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH, A.D. 2030, is at He is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, and writes regularly for
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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ted Koppel: Olbermann, O'Reilly and the death of real news

WASHINGTON - MAY 13: Journalist Ted Koppel (L)...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
Ted Koppel: Olbermann, O'Reilly and the death of real news
By Ted KoppelSunday, November 14, 2010;
To witness Keith Olbermann - the most opinionated among MSNBC's left-leaning, Fox-baiting, money-generating hosts - suspended even briefly last week for making financial contributions to Democratic political candidates seemed like a whimsical, arcane holdover from a long-gone era of television journalism, when the networks considered the collection and dissemination of substantive and unbiased news to be a public trust.
Back then, a policy against political contributions would have aimed to avoid even the appearance of partisanship. But today, when Olbermann draws more than 1 million like-minded viewers to his program every night precisely because he is avowedly, unabashedly and monotonously partisan, it is not clear what misdemeanor his donations constituted. Consistency?
We live now in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly - individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and who are encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable.
The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. It is, though, the natural outcome of a growing sense of national entitlement. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's oft-quoted observation that "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts," seems almost quaint in an environment that flaunts opinions as though they were facts.
And so, among the many benefits we have come to believe the founding fathers intended for us, the latest is news we can choose. Beginning, perhaps, from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unattainable, Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it. They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.
It is also part of a pervasive ethos that eschews facts in favor of an idealized reality. The fashion industry has apparently known this for years: Esquire magazine recently found that men's jeans from a variety of name-brand manufacturers are cut large but labeled small. The actual waist sizes are anywhere from three to six inches roomier than their labels insist.
Perhaps it doesn't matter that we are being flattered into believing what any full-length mirror can tell us is untrue. But when our accountants, bankers and lawyers, our doctors and our politicians tell us only what we want to hear, despite hard evidence to the contrary, we are headed for disaster. We need only look at our housing industry, our credit card debt, the cost of two wars subsidized by borrowed money, and the rising deficit to understand the dangers of entitlement run rampant. We celebrate truth as a virtue, but only in the abstract. What we really need in our search for truth is a commodity that used to be at the heart of good journalism: facts - along with a willingness to present those facts without fear or favor.
To the degree that broadcast news was a more virtuous operation 40 years ago, it was a function of both fear and innocence. Network executives were afraid that a failure to work in the "public interest, convenience and necessity," as set forth in the Radio Act of 1927, might cause the Federal Communications Commission to suspend or even revoke their licenses. The three major broadcast networks pointed to their news divisions (which operated at a loss or barely broke even) as evidence that they were fulfilling the FCC's mandate. News was, in a manner of speaking, the loss leader that permitted NBC, CBS and ABC to justify the enormous profits made by their entertainment divisions.
On the innocence side of the ledger, meanwhile, it never occurred to the network brass that news programming could be profitable.
Until, that is, CBS News unveiled its "60 Minutes" news magazine in 1968. When, after three years or so, "60 Minutes" turned a profit (something no television news program had previously achieved), a light went on, and the news divisions of all three networks came to be seen as profit centers, with all the expectations that entailed.
I recall a Washington meeting many years later at which Michael Eisner, then the chief executive of Disney, ABC's parent company, took questions from a group of ABC News correspondents and compared our status in the corporate structure to that of the Disney artists who create the company's world-famous cartoons. (He clearly and sincerely intended the analogy to flatter us.) Even they, Eisner pointed out, were expected to make budget cuts; we would have to do the same.
I mentioned several names to Eisner and asked if he recognized any. He did not. They were, I said, ABC correspondents and cameramen who had been killed or wounded while on assignment. While appreciating the enormous talent of the corporation's cartoonists, I pointed out that working on a television crew, covering wars, revolutions and natural disasters, was different. The suggestion was not well received.
The parent companies of all three networks would ultimately find a common way of dealing with the risk and expense inherent in operating news bureaus around the world: They would eliminate them. Peter Jennings and I, who joined ABC News within a year of each other in the early 1960s, were profoundly influenced by our years as foreign correspondents. When we became the anchors and managing editors of our respective programs, we tried to make sure foreign news remained a major ingredient. It was a struggle.
Peter called me one afternoon in the mid-'90s to ask whether we at "Nightline" had been receiving the same inquiries that he and his producers were getting at "World News Tonight." We had, indeed, been getting calls from company bean-counters wanting to know how many times our program had used a given overseas bureau in the preceding year. This data in hand, the accountants constructed the simplest of equations: Divide the cost of running a bureau by the number of television segments it produced. The cost, inevitably, was deemed too high to justify leaving the bureau as it was. Trims led to cuts and, in most cases, to elimination.
The networks say they still maintain bureaus around the world, but whereas in the 1960s I was one of 20 to 30 correspondents working out of fully staffed offices in more than a dozen major capitals, for the most part, a "bureau" now is just a local fixer who speaks English and can facilitate the work of a visiting producer or a correspondent in from London.
Much of the American public used to gather before the electronic hearth every evening, separate but together, while Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith offered relatively unbiased accounts of information that their respective news organizations believed the public needed to know. The ritual permitted, and perhaps encouraged, shared perceptions and even the possibility of compromise among those who disagreed.
It was an imperfect, untidy little Eden of journalism where reporters were motivated to gather facts about important issues. We didn't know that we could become profit centers. No one had bitten into that apple yet.
The transition of news from a public service to a profitable commodity is irreversible. Legions of new media present a vista of unrelenting competition. Advertisers crave young viewers, and these young viewers are deemed to be uninterested in hard news, especially hard news from abroad. This is felicitous, since covering overseas news is very expensive. On the other hand, the appetite for strongly held, if unsubstantiated, opinion is demonstrably high. And such talk, as they say, is cheap.
Broadcast news has been outflanked and will soon be overtaken by scores of other media options. The need for clear, objective reporting in a world of rising religious fundamentalism, economic interdependence and global ecological problems is probably greater than it has ever been. But we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers; we're now a million or more clusters of consumers, harvesting information from like-minded providers.
As you may know, Olbermann returned to his MSNBC program after just two days of enforced absence. (Given cable television's short attention span, two days may well have seemed like an "indefinite suspension.") He was gracious about the whole thing, acknowledging at least the historical merit of the rule he had broken: "It's not a stupid rule," he said. "It needs to be adapted to the realities of 21st-century journalism."
There is, after all, not much of a chance that 21st-century journalism will be adapted to conform with the old rules. Technology and the market are offering a tantalizing array of channels, each designed to fill a particular niche - sports, weather, cooking, religion - and an infinite variety of news, prepared and seasoned to reflect our taste, just the way we like it. As someone used to say in a bygone era, "That's the way it is."

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Commissions Composed Of Cretins?

Cover of "Plunder and Blunder: The Rise a...Cover via Amazon

The Deficit Commission Tsunami

During the mass unemployment of the Great Depression, Keynes once quipped that if we couldn't find any productive work that needed to be done, in order to reduce unemployment we could just pay workers to dig holes and fill them up again. Keynes was being sarcastic, but it seems that the Washington crew picked up on this suggestion. This is the only plausible explanation for the proliferation of deficit commissions in our nation's capital.There are three separate deficit commissions prepared to share their wisdom with the American people before the end of the year. These three commissions all have two important features in common: not one member of these commissions warned of the catastrophe that would be created by the collapse of the housing bubble, and they all think it is a good idea to cut Social Security.
The country is currently experiencing its worst economic downturn in 70 years with more than 25 million people unemployed, underemployed or having given up looking for work altogether. It might have been appropriate for a commission that purports to be giving advice on the future of the country's most important social programs, as well as the overall budget, to include at least one person who was awake enough to notice the $8 trillion housing bubble that wrecked the economy.
But these commissions that want to tell the public what is best for us don't feel that they need to bother with trivialities like the economic collapse. In fact, the commissions include many of the people who had helped guide our economy off the cliff. They see their credentials in this capacity as lending to their credibility. This is sort of like an officer from the Titanic using this experience as a basis for being appointed ship's captain.
In fact, these commissions don't have much other than their credentials to support their recommendations for cutting Social Security and Medicare. While the media have been hyperventilating at length to try to build fears about the budget deficits, it is easy to show that these fears are unwarranted.
In the short term, the United States has large budget deficits for the simple reason that private sector spending collapsed. The arithmetic is straightforward. The collapse of the bubbles in residential and nonresidential real estate led to a plunge in annual construction demand of more than $600 billion a year. The indirect effect of the loss of $6 trillion in housing bubble wealth was to reduce annual consumption by $600 billion a year.
With a total loss of $1.2 trillion in private sector demand, the choice for the government is either to boost the economy by running large deficits or allow the economy to contract further and let the unemployment rate rise even higher. If our deficit hawk commission members knew their economics, they would have been warning of the housing bubble in 2002-2006. Then, we could have avoided this economic collapse - and we would have had smaller deficits.
It is important to realize that the debt that we are incurring at present need pose zero burden on future generations. We are putting to use resources that would otherwise be idle, not pulling resources away from the private sector. While the deficit hawks eagerly threaten us with the prospect of our children paying interest on trillions of dollars of debt, the Federal Reserve Board could simply buy and hold this debt, leading to no net interest burden on future generations. (The Treasury pays interest on the debt to the Fed, which then refunds the interest payments to the Treasury at the end of the year, leaving no net interest burden.)
While the longer-term projections do show a serious deficit problem even after the economy has recovered, this is due to projections of exploding health care costs. Since more than half of our health care is paid by the public sector, if health costs really do grow out of control, then it will lead to very serious budget problems. Of course, if health care costs follow the projected path then they will also devastate the private sector.
The point is that we have a health care problem. If we don't fix our health care system, then our economy will be in serious trouble, with one problem being large budget deficits. If we do fix our health care system, then there is no long-term deficit problem.
The basic story is that, in the short term, there is no deficit problem; the problem is a plunge in private sector demand caused by the collapse of the housing bubble. In the longer term, the deficit problem is actually the problem of a broken health care system. The facts are as clear as can be.
So, why then do we have all these deficit commissions? It's simply modern Washington's way of digging holes and filling them up again. It gives these people something to do. Let's hope it ends up being harmless.
Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer ( and the more recently published Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of The Bubble Economy. He also has a blog, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues. 
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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Vermont Votes No Nukes

The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant.Image via Wikipedia

Vermont Votes No Nukes

Vermont has elected a governor pledged to make the state truly green by shutting its decrepit, leaking nuclear plant. And the town closest to that reactor has voted to take it by eminent domain if necessary, a step unprecedented in world history.
In reaction, the nuke's owner (Entergy) has turned tail and put the plant up for sale. (So far, no bidders).
In direct opposition, this post-election week has been marked by radioactive crowing from a dark age industry demanding massive government loan guarantees from "free market" Congressional Republicans. Armed with oceans of unaccountable corporate/billionaire cash, Karl Rove's new nuclear GOP wants to dump Adam Smith and pump public billions into a failed industry that cannot compete.
The industry continually points to France's industry as a model. But it's mute to the fact that France's leaky, error-prone nukes are owned, operated and regulated (sortof) by the French government. A national socialist prototype, the EDF/Areva edifice---like its counterpart in Japan---would melt and die in an open market.
The US industry's route to taxpayer billions is set to run through subsidized loan guarantees. In 2005, George W. Bush set aside $18.5 billion in loan giveaways for new construction. Barack Obama delivered $8.33 for two new reactors in Georgia, where ratepayers are being forced to foot the bill IN ADVANCE, even if the plants never open. They've already been forced to eat an additional $100 million in rate hikes. Having barely begun construction, the builders already want $1 billion more.
In Maryland, a French-American consortium has fallen apart allegedly because Constellation Energy did not want to pay fees on its prospective loans. In fact, Constellation ducked because it knows that no new reactor can compete in a deregulated state, where ratepayers are not stuck with buying nuke-generated electricity no matter what the price.
Nonetheless, the national industry is now whining that the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program must be "reformed." The official projected failure rate for these loans is 50%. The history of reactor construction is defined by gargantuan cost overruns, perpetual delays and endemic design and performance failure.
But Obama wants more money for the guarantee fund. The industry's Congressionals (from both parties) want to kill even the most minimal fees, requiring little or no liability from the billionaire builders.
But in Vermont, the election day story was different. Democrat Peter Shumlin was elected governor. As speaker of the Vermont House, Shumlin led the charge to deny the state's sole reactor, Vermont Yankee, an extended operating license.
Thanks to complex, unique arrangements made during an earlier ownership transfer, Vermont has the power to deny Entergy a new permit. On February 24, the state senate voted to do just that. No American state has successfully forced shut a nuclear plant. Yankee's owners---whoever they might be---are certain to go to court when the current license expires in March, 2012.
The nuclear industry did pour huge chunks of cash into the Vermont election to defeat Shumlin and strip the legislature of its pro-green majority. But it failed. Shumlin will now be governor, and Vermont's lawmakers are firmly committed to shut-down.
Furthermore, the voters of Brattleboro, the largest town in Yankee's near vicinity, voted 2,387 to 1,826 in favor of forcing the state to investigate taking Vermont Yankee by eminent domain to guarantee its shut-down.
The fate of America's aging reactor fleet has become a major national issue. Owners are now talking of running them 80 years and more.
Every operating US nuke was ordered before 1973. With one exception, all have run more than twenty years. Heavy doses of heat and radiation have embrittled metals and weakened concrete throughout. At Yankee, New York's Indian Point, North Anna in Virginia and quite possibly all the rest, underground pipes continually leak radioactive tritium and other lethal isotopes.
In December a confab of industry-owned Congressionals---along with Obama---will meet in Washington to choreograph the assault on taxpayer handouts for new reactors. They will want to highlight the alleged benefits on more nukes. Their efforts will ultimately be futile, says Michael Mariotte of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service. "Short of simply giving utilities billions of dollars to build new reactors, and then subsidizing the cost of their extraordinarily expensive electricity, it's hard to see what Congress could do to resurrect this deservedly dying industry. The growing anti-nuclear movement will fight every effort to provide any taxpayer subsidies" for new reactors.
In Vermont, the focus will be on shutting an old one. "In holding a fire sale for its systemically mismanaged nuke, Entergy is trying to undermine the Vermont senate's overwhelming vote to close Vermont Yankee's in 2012," says Deb Katz of the Citizens Awareness Network. "Governor Shumlin was elected because of his courageous stand to close Vermont Yankee and replace it with a sane and sustainable energy policy. Exit polls found that over 14% of the electorate voted for Shumlin because of his stand on Vermont Yankee. Without those votes he would not be governor today."
With the Green Mountain State's newly elected pro-green governor and legislature, Yankee may be the first domino to fall in a chain of leaky, rickety, increasingly dangerous elder nukes. With them would go a serious premise of a nuclear future. Stay tuned.
Harvey Wasserman's SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH, A.D. 2030, is at He is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, and writes regularly for
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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Rich Media, Poor Democracy

Rich Media, Poor Democracy

As the 2010 elections come to a close, the biggest winner of all remains undeclared: the broadcasters. The biggest loser: democracy. These were the most expensive midterm elections in U.S. history, costing close to $4 billion, $3 billion of which went to advertising. What if ad time were free? We hear no debate about this, because the media corporations are making such a killing by selling campaign ads. Yet the broadcasters are using public airwaves.I am reminded of the 1999 book by media scholar Robert McChesney, "Rich Media, Poor Democracy." In it, he writes, "Broadcasters have little incentive to cover candidates, because it is in their interest to force them to publicize their campaigns."
The Wesleyan Media Project, at Wesleyan University, tracks political advertising. Following the recent Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v. FEC, the project notes, "The airwaves are being saturated with more House and Senate advertising, up 20 percent and 79 percent respectively in total airings." Evan Tracey, the founder and president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, predicted in USA Today in July, "There is going to be more money than there is airtime to buy." John Nichols of The Nation commented that in the genteel, earlier days of television political advertising, the broadcasters would never juxtapose an ad for a candidate with an ad opposed to that candidate. But they are running out of broadcast real estate. Welcome to the brave, new world of the multibillion dollar campaigns.
There have been efforts in the past to regulate the airwaves to better serve the public during elections. The most ambitious in recent years was what became known as McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform. During the debate on that landmark legislation, the problem of exorbitant television advertising rates was brought up, by Democrats and Republicans alike. Nevada Sen. John Ensign, a Republican, lamented: "The broadcasters used to dread campaigns because that was the time of year they made the least amount of money because of this lowest unit rate. Now it is one of their favorite times of the year because it is actually one of their highest profit-margin times of the year." Ultimately, to get the bill passed, the public airtime provisions were dropped.
The Citizens United ruling effectively neutralizes McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform. One can only imagine what the cost of the 2012 presidential election will be. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., lost his re-election bid to the largely self-financed multimillionaire Ron Johnson. The Wall Street Journal editorial page celebrated Feingold's expected loss. The Journal is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which also owns the Fox television network and which gave close to $2 million to Republican campaign efforts.

"The elections have become a commodity, a profit center for these radio and TV stations," Ralph Nader, consumer advocate and former presidential candidate, told me on Election Day. He went on: "The public airwaves, as we know, belong to the people, and they're the landlords, and the radio and TV stations are the licensees. They're the tenants, so to speak. They pay no money to the FCC for their annual license. And therefore, it's really quite persuasive, were we to have a public policy to condition modestly the license to this enormously lucrative control of the public airwaves 24 hours a day by these TV and radio stations and say, as part of the reciprocity for controlling this commons, so to speak, you have to allow a certain amount of time, free time, on radio and TV for ballot-qualified candidates."
The place where we should debate this is in the major media, where most Americans get their news. But the television and radio broadcasters have a profound conflict of interest. Their profits take precedence over our democratic process. You very likely won't hear this discussed on the Sunday-morning talk shows.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 800 stations in North America. She was awarded the 2008 Right Livelihood Award, dubbed the “Alternative Nobel” prize, and received the award in the Swedish Parliament in December.
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