Lazy Saturday Reads

Panoramic view of Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA

Panoramic view of Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA

 

Happy Saturday!!

Recently Dakinikat wrote about how gentrification has affected her adopted hometown, New Orleans, since Katrina. Well this morning I read some surprising news about Harvard Square–a place I’m very attached to because I either lived nearby, worked, or hung out there for so many years. I’ve written about it before of course. I moved here from Indiana in 1967. It was the “Summer of Love,” and Harvard Square was the center of local hippie-dom, plus there were endless bookstores to feed my addiction to reading and possessing books.

So this morning I read in the The Boston Globe that Chinese billionaire Gerald L. Chan has been quietly buying up prime real estate in Harvard Square, and he now has “enough clout to influence the square’s look and character for years to come.” Harvard Square has already changed a great deal since the late 1960s, of course, so I don’t know why this should shock me. But the Square is still unique–a special place, with a traditional look and feel. What will happen to it now? From the Globe article:

First he grabbed an apartment and retail building in the heart of Harvard Square. Months later, he bought another apartment and retail complex on the other side of John F. Kennedy Street. Then came the deal for a building known as the American Express travel office, quickly followed by the purchase of apartments behind the Harvard Lampoon office.

Over the course of 18 months — and without calling attention to himself — billionaire businessman Gerald L. Chan spent about $120 million to amass an impressive portfolio of Harvard Square real estate that includes nearly a dozen properties….

“Take Harvard University out of the equation, and I don’t know of anyone who owns more real estate in Harvard Square than he does,” said Peter Bekarian, executive vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate firm in Boston.

Chan and his brother, Ronald, control the Hang Lung Group, a leading Hong Kong real estate development and management company that has made them billionaires. Forbes pegs their combined wealth at nearly $3 billion.

Chan is a Harvard graduate who now lives in Newton, MA. He says he loves the place and he’s just investing in “properties that have the potential to generate a good return.” He says he doesn’t have a plan to remake the Harvard Square area according to his own vision, but some local business people have expressed concern–and some have abruptly been put out of business. In their places, Chan has installed business owned by his children.

Some tenants in Chan’s newly acquired buildings, including local landmarks such as UpStairs on the Square and nearby Leo’s Place diner, did not have leases renewed and shut down earlier this year.

Chan paid $6.8 million for 93 Winthrop St., where he is replacing UpStairs on the Square with another restaurant, Parsnip. His daughter, Ashley Chan, is listed in corporate documents as one of the managers of the Morningside-controlled entity that operates the restaurant. UpStairs co-owner Mary-Catherine Deibel said, “It was time to wind down the business after 31 years.”

New restaurants — the Noodle Project and Night Market, a Japanese eatery — will replace Leo’s Place, a haunt of movie actor Ben Affleck, and Indian bistro Tamarind Bay, on JFK Street. Ash Chan, Gerald’s son, is operating both. He’s a West Coast restaurateur known here for Churn2, a Harvard Square stand that services liquid-nitrogen-chilled ice cream.

I guess we local peons will just have to wait and see what happens…

Speaking of billionaires, Brian Beutler has written a response to the views on the Affordable Care Act expressed by Charles Koch in his truly strange op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that I wrote about on Thursday. From Salon, Greediest family on earth: Proof Koch brothers have just one political principle.

David and Charles Koch

David and Charles Koch

Beutler argues that the Kochs opposition to “Obamacare” is less about ideology than selfishness, greed, and desire for power.

Would you believe me if I told you that the Koch brothers actively participate in, and benefit from, a healthcare system in which the government subsidizes private insurance; carriers are prohibited from discriminating against the sick; the young cross-subsidize the old; and qualified beneficiaries who opt out suffer a big financial hit?

Well, they do. Not Obamacare, of course — they want to repeal that. But as employers, they can and do compensate their employees with tax-exempt health insurance benefits, their employees are all part of one risk pool, and everyone contributes the same amount for equal coverage….

despite the fact that employer-sponsored health insurance resembles Obamacare in many ways, the Koch network is not actively trying to repeal ERISA — the law that regulates employer-sponsored health plans — or to repeal the tax expenditure that allows them to advantageously provide the benefits they claim they’re working so hard to maintain.

So why do they so vehemently oppose the Obama health care plan?

To the Koch brothers, there’s apparently a big difference between government subsidizing and regulating health insurance for their employees and government subsidizing and regulating insurance for the self-employed, individuals whose employers don’t provide health benefits, and the unemployed.

This might seem strangely contradictory, unless you stop and consider what the existence of a universal right to health insurance coverage means for employers and the people who work for them. When the Congressional Budget Office updated its analysis of the Affordable Care Act’s labor market effects, it concluded that the existence of a coverage guarantee for all, and subsidies for many, would reduce employment by more than 2 million people over the coming decade. Opponents of the law pounced on this as proof that Obamacare would be a job killer, but for the most part what CBO actually meant was that Obamacare would shift the center of power between workers and employers a bit closer to the workers.

For some of those workers, that shift will mean the freedom to quit — hence the “job killing” canard. But for other workers — current and prospective — it will mean the freedom to ask for more money. All thanks to a program that’s financed largely by taxing people like Charles and David Koch. And I think therein lies the key to understanding why they’re devoting so much time and so many resources to destroying Obamacare.

That’s a very interesting argument, one I never thought about. Read the rest at the link.

 

Jose Rodriguez

Jose Rodriguez

At The Washington Post, the former head of the CIA interrogation program Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. defends the Bush policy on torture. I ran the CIA interrogation program. No matter what the Senate report says, I know it worked.

On Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to declassify and release hundreds of pages of its report on U.S. terrorist interrogation practices. Certain senators have proclaimed how devastating the findings are, saying the CIA’s program was unproductive, badly managed and misleadingly sold. Unlike the committee’s staff, I don’t have to examine the program through a rearview mirror. I was responsible for administering it, and I know that it produced critical intelligence that helped decimate al-Qaeda and save American lives.

Rodriguez says the committee never questioned him or other CIA leaders and they were not permitted to review the report. He says the committee began with conclusions about the program and simply looked for evidence to support those conclusions. On the “harsh” interrogation methods the CIA used, he writes that they were approved “the highest levels of the government,” were declared legal by the Justice Department, and were subject to Congressional oversight, and most of all they were effective.

When we captured high-ranking al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaida in 2002, we knew he could help us track down other terrorists and might provide information to allow us to stop another attack. Those who suggest we should have questioned him more gently have never felt the burden of protecting innocent lives.

Second is effectiveness. I don’t know what the committee thinks it found in the files, but I know what I saw in real time: a program that provided critical information about the operations and leadership of al-Qaeda. Intelligence work is like doing a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box top and with millions of extra pieces. The committee staff started with the box top, the pieces in place, and pronounced the puzzle a snap.

Perhaps so, but Rodrigues seems to be ignoring the primary point about torture: it is immoral. Sometimes a civilized people must choose to accept some risks to safety in order to remain civilized. As for the government officials, Congressional committees, and the Bush Justice Department, they too should be subject to criticism and even prosecution. Unfortunately the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress took those options off the table.

There’s a new AP report (via the Christian Science Monitor) on the Air Force nuke team cheating scandal: Did report on nuclear Air Force overlook signs of trouble?

Service leaders took an assessment last year of the nuclear Air Force as an encouraging thumbs-up. Yet, in the months that followed, signs emerged that the nuclear missile corps was suffering from breakdowns in discipline, morale, training and leadership.

The former Air Force chief of staff who signed off on the 2013 report is now being asked to dig for root causes of problems that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says threaten to undermine public trust in the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

The Air Force may have taken an overly rosy view of the report — it was not uniformly positive — by a Pentagon advisory group headed by retired Gen. Larry Welch. The study described the nuclear Air Force as “thoroughly professional, disciplined” and performing effectively.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, right, and Tech. Sgt. Justin Richie riding in a work cage at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, right, and Tech. Sgt. Justin Richie riding in a work cage at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont.

It sure sounds like it.

The inquiry itself may have missed signs of the kinds of trouble documented in recent months in a series ofAssociated Press reports. In April 2013, the month the Welch report came out, an Air Force officer wrote that the nuclear missile unit at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., was suffering from “rot,” including lax attitudes and a poor performance by launch officers on a March 2013 inspection.

An exam-cheating scandal at a nuclear missile base prompted the Air Force to remove nine midlevel commanders and accept the resignation of the base’s top commander. Dozens of officers implicated in the cheating face disciplinary action, and some might be kicked out, the Air Force said last week.

Welch began the new Hagel-directed review in early March, teaming with retired Navy Adm. John C. Harvey, who was not involved in the earlier reviews but has extensive nuclear experience. Much rides on what they find, not least because Hagel and the White House want to remove any doubt about the safety and security of the U.S. arsenal and the men and women entrusted with it.

Lots more to read at the link.

A little science news . . .

Apparently, there have been some videos floating around of terrified bison stampeding out of Yellowstone Park. Since there was a small earthquake there recently, some people have been asking if these are signs the “supervolcano” is coming soon? From Discovery News:

Recent videos of animals fleeing Yellowstone Park have many tourists and local residents concerned that a volcanic eruption may be imminent.

After earthquakes and tsunamis, stories often circulate of animals acting strangely or seeming to know of the disaster long before humans. Animals that detect impending earthquakes don’t have more senses than humans; they just have much higher sensitivity. Dogs have a remarkable sense of smell, birds can migrate using celestial cues, and bats can locate food with echoes. Elephants can detect faint vibrations and tremors from fantastic distances.

It’s not some unexplainable gift: Animals may sense unusual vibrations or changes in air pressure coming from one direction that suggest they should move in the opposite direction.

If a herd of animals are seen fleeing before an earthquake, all that is needed is for one or two of them to skittishly sense danger; the rest will follow — not necessarily due to some supernatural earthquake-detecting sense, but simple herd instinct.

Bison on the road in Yellowstone

Bison on the road in Yellowstone

Scientists pooh pooh these paranoid fantasies. From The Week: Don’t Sweat the Supervolcanoes:

Beneath the pine forests and hot springs of Yellowstone National Park is a huge chamber of magma, which by some measures makes the park’s volcano the world’s largest. The last three eruptions at Yellowstone occurred 2.1 million, 1.3 million, and 640,000 years ago, respectively.

Scientists estimate that another mega-eruption — which would send billions of cubic meters of choking ash up to 15 miles in the air, blackening the skies and drastically changing the climate — could possibly occur in the next 100,000 years. Such an event would present a huge danger to human civilization — killing millions in the initial blast, and then disrupting agriculture, infrastructure, and the global economy for many years to come.

But although the recent earthquake was the strongest in the area since 1980, experts say there’s nothing to fear. So what signs would indicate the supervolcano is imminent? And what could be do about it anyway?

If we were moving toward a massive geological event, then we should see massive geological signs of change. We could expect large earthquakes as opposed to the small rumble we saw last week, which registered a humble 4.9 on the Richter scale. We should also see the earth around the volcano swelling by tens or hundreds of meters, as opposed to the centimeters of uplift we see regularly.

But for the sake of it, let’s assume Yellowstone will erupt tomorrow. Could we do anything about it? Although some scientists are experimenting with the idea, to date there have been no successful efforts to stop or reduce a volcanic eruption. These kinds of geological events remain stubbornly outside human control even on the smallest scale — and Yellowstone is absolutely the largest scale.

If Yellowstone blows in 10,000 or 50,000 years, maybe technology will have been developed to mitigate or contain its effects. But if it unexpectedly blows tomorrow, we can do nothing whatever to stop it. At best, with warning signs, we could conduct an evacuation from the surrounding area.

Read more at the link.

Those are the stories that caught my eye today? What’s on your mind? Please share your thoughts and links in the comments


Tuesday Reads

fenway-park-richard-ramsey

Good Morning!!

Yesterday was opening day for baseball–a sure sign of spring! The Orioles beat the Red Sox 2-1. In past years this morning’s headlines would have jokingly read “Wait Until Next Year.” But that was the old 20th century Red Sox. Now they’ve won three World Series championships in the 21st century–including last year–Boston fans have calmed down a bit. We can wait a few weeks to see how the season develops.

On the day off today, the Read Sox are excited to be heading to the White House to meet President Obama and will also pay a visit to Walter Reed hospital.

As a reward for winning last year’s World Series, President Barack Obama cordially invited the defending champs for a ceremony to recognize their accomplishment, and the ceremony will air live on MLB.com starting at 11:30 a.m. ET.

“I think any time you have a chance to speak to the Commander in Chief, that’s a rare opportunity,” said manager John Farrell. “And for all of us that are going tomorrow, to meet him in person, to experience the White House, we know the reason why we’re there and it’s a fun day, it’s a unique day. I think it will be a good experience by all.”

Sox righty Jake Peavy has been to the White House before, but never as a World Series champion.

“Tomorrow, we will celebrate what happened,” said Peavy. “Pretty neat day when you experience what we’re going to experience tomorrow. I look forward to that.”

The Red Sox, as they did in conjunction with their White House visits in 2005 and ’08, will also pay a visit to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and visit with some of the heroes who served the country.

malaysia-airline-370-boeing-777

I haven’t watched CNN lately, but last night I accidentally turned it on and they were still talking about missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. This morning’s breaking news is that Malaysia either lied or made a big mistake about the “last words from the cockpit” before the plane disappeared.

Weeks ago, Malaysian authorities said the last message from the airplane cockpit was, “All right, good night.”

The sign-off to air traffic controllers, which investigators said was spoken by the plane’s copilot, was among the few concrete details officials released in a mystery that’s baffled investigators since the Boeing 777 disappeared with 239 people aboard on March 8.

There’s only one problem. It turns out, it wasn’t true.

On Tuesday, Malaysia’s Transport Ministry released the transcript of the conversations between the Flight 370′s cockpit and air traffic control. The final words from the plane: “Good night Malaysian three seven zero.”

Malaysian authorities gave no explanation for the discrepancy between the two quotes. And authorities are still trying to determine whether it was the plane’s pilot or copilot who said them.

You can read the full transcript at ABC News: Malaysia Airlines MH370: Full transcript of flight’s cockpit communication released. Searchers are still looking for the wreckage, but in just a week the plane’s black box will go silent.

Obamacare replacement

Today is April Fool’s Day; I can’t stand practical jokes, so I was planning to ignore it until I saw this headline at Roll Call: Cantor Says GOP Finishing Work on Obamacare Alternative, Details Agenda.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., reiterated on Friday that the House plans to bring up a bill to replace President Barack Obama’s health care law.

In a memo to members laying out the House agenda for the remainder of the winter, Cantor noted that the replacement is being finalized, and said that in the meantime, Republicans will work to target parts of the law with which they disagree.

“As we continue to work to finalize our Obamacare replacement plan, we will also act to highlight and address the serious consequences of the law,” he said.

That just has to be an April Fool’s joke, right? I guess not, because yesterday Fox News’ Jenna Lee badgered Sen. Lindsey Graham about when the Obamacare replacement would be ready. From Think Press:

During an interview with the network, Graham agreed that his party should introduce a unified health care proposal. But Lee persisted, pressing him for more details. “Why do you think Republicans can put together a better plan to get the trust back in government?” she asked. “What are Republicans putting out there that says to the American, people, ‘no, you can trust us. If you don’t trust what is happening now, trust us?’”

Some of Graham’s suggestions:

“I think it is good for the Republican party to have a plan of its own to insure Americans without losing your doctor and bankrupting the country,” Graham agreed. “Let’s start with the idea that pre-existing illnesses should not deny you coverage, that means you’re gonna have to have pools for the really sick, but why would you want to deny somebody insurance because they got sick? Allowing children to stay on the policies up to they’re 26 makes sense given this economy and buying policies across state lines makes a lot of sense to me.”

Ooops! Those proposals are already part of Obamacare. You can watch Graham ramble on about the horrors of Obamacare at The link.

Meanwhile ACA sign-ups surged yesterday, which was supposed to be the last day to enroll in a plan. Time Magazine: Obamacare Hits a Milestone With Enrollment Goal in Reach.

A last-minute push to insure millions of low-income Americans jammed phone lines and slowed down an enrollment websiteahead of a key deadline Monday, but the Obama Administration was close to declaring a tentative victory when it signaled early Tuesday that an enrollment goal, which had seemed almost impossible to reach just months ago, was now tantalizingly close.

Officials hailed record traffic to the federal health-insurance-exchange website as vindication of the politically divisive law. HealthCare.gov, the site whose hobbled launch in October became a political punch line and threw the initiative’s viability into doubt, recorded more than 3 million visits on Monday, officials said, the last day of a closely watched sign-up period. More than 1 million calls were reportedly placed to an enrollment call center as of 8 p.m., and the Administration said early Tuesday morning that the site was briefly shutting down so engineers could refocus on providing relevant post-enrollment information. The Associated Press, citing unnamed government officials, said enrollment was on track to hit the Administration’s target of 7 million Americans newly insured. As many as 100,000 people have started but not yet finished the process, and last-minute exemptions paved the way for them to complete enrollment after the deadline.

cheney-cartoon-torture

Yesterday the WaPo published some leaked information from the Senate report on torture during the Bush administration. We knew this before, of course, but the report concludes that the CIA repeatedly lied to Congress about the effectiveness of the “enhanced interrogation” program.

A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee concludes that the CIA misled the government and the public about aspects of its brutal interrogation program for years — concealing details about the severity of its methods, overstating the significance of plots and prisoners, and taking credit for critical pieces of intelligence that detainees had in fact surrendered before they were subjected to harsh techniques.

The report, built around detailed chronologies of dozens of CIA detainees, documents a long-standing pattern of unsubstantiated claims as agency officials sought permission to use — and later tried to defend — excruciating interrogation methods that yielded little, if any, significant intelligence, according to U.S. officials who have reviewed the document.

“The CIA described [its program] repeatedly both to the Department of Justice and eventually to Congress as getting unique, otherwise unobtainable intelligence that helped disrupt terrorist plots and save thousands of lives,” said one U.S. official briefed on the report. “Was that actually true? The answer is no.”

The report also revealed internal disagreement within the CIA about the use of torture. Some employees were horrified while others pushed for more torture even after it was clear it wasn’t working. The report also revealed some new information:

The report describes previously undisclosed cases of abuse, including the alleged repeated dunking of a terrorism suspect in tanks of ice water at a detention site in Afghanistan — a method that bore similarities to waterboarding but never appeared on any Justice Department-approved list of techniques.

Much more to read at the link.

Meanwhile, Dick Cheney continued to wholeheartedly defend the Bush administration’s use of torture. Dick Cheney Defends Waterboarding: ‘The Results Speak for Themselves’

Former Vice President Dick Cheney on Friday dismissed accusations that he is a war criminal and defended the Bush administration’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding, stating that he would “do it all over again.”

“Some people called it torture. It wasn’t torture,” Cheney said in an interview on American University’s television station, according to American’s student newspaper The Eagle. “If I would have to do it all over again, I would. The results speak for themselves.”

“More than two dozen” American University students protested Cheney’s appearance by walking out during his speech and yelling “walk out of war criminals.”

Ken Dilanian

At the LA Times, national security reporter Ken Dilanian reported on an interview with outgoing NSA director Keith Alexander, and cited some of NSA’s successes in saving lives of soldiers in Iraq.

In nearly nine years as head of the nation’s largest intelligence agency, Gen. Keith Alexander presided over a vast expansion of digital spying, acquiring information in a volume his predecessors would have found unimaginable.

In Iraq, for example, the National Security Agency went from intercepting only about half of enemy signals and taking hours to process them to being able to collect, sort and make available every Iraqi email, text message and phone-location signal in real time, said John “Chris” Inglis, who recently retired as the NSA’s top civilian.

The overhaul, which Alexander ordered shortly after taking leadership of the agency in August 2005, enabled U.S. ground commanders to find out when an insurgent leader had turned on his cellphone, where he was and whom he was calling.

“Absolutely invaluable,” retired Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former U.S. commander in Iraq, said in an interview as he described the NSA’s efforts, which led to the dismantling of networks devoted to burying roadside bombs.

Alexander “sped the place up,” Inglis said.

Dana Priest

Dana Priest

But Dilanian points out that Alexander is more likely to be remembered for the Snowden hack than anything positive NSA has done. Alexander was confused by the public reaction to Snowden’s revelations.

Ten months after the disclosures began, Alexander remains disturbed, and somewhat baffled, by the intensity of the public reaction.

“I think our nation has drifted into the wrong place,” he said in an interview last week. “We need to recognize that those who are working to protect our nation are not the bad people.”

Snowden’s PR man and protector Glenn Greenwald wasted no time before attacking Dilianian--a well respected reporter–as a propagandist and shill for the government. He also seemed to imply the same about the Washington Post’s Dana Priest when he linked to a July 2013 article she wrote on NSA’s efforts to identify terrorists. Greenwald writes:

[W]henever it suits the agency to do so–meaning when it wants to propagandize on its own behalf–the NSA casually discloses even its most top secret activities in the very countries where such retaliation is most likely. Anonymous ex-officials boasted to the Washington Post last July in detail about the role the agency plays in helping kill people by drones. The Post dutifully headlined its story: “NSA Growth Fueled by Need to Target Terrorists.”

And now, Keith Alexander’s long-time deputy just fed one of the most pro-NSA reporters in the country, the Los Angeles Times‘ Ken Dilanian, some extraordinarily sensitive, top secret information about NSA activities in Iraq, which the Times published in an article that reads exactly like an NSA commercial….

John “Chris” Inglis just revealed to the world that the NSA was–is?–intercepting every single email, text message, and phone-location signal in real time for the entire country of Iraq.

Obviously, the fact that the NSA has this capability, and used it, is Top Secret. What authority did Chris Inglis have to disclose this?

Wait– Didn’t Snowden and Greenwald already reveal these NSA capabilities and methods? Yes, yes they did, and now new methods have to be developed. And besides, the executive branch has the authority to declassify information. The story even named Inglis as the source, and he didn’t reveal any specific methods.

But Greenwald thinks Inglis should be prosecuted instead of Snowden. Because, you know, spying to save lives in Iraq is evil. I get that Greenwald believes that any spying by the U.S. is wrong (although spying and human rights violations are OK for other countries such as China and Russia); but I have to say calling reporters Ken Dilanian and Dana Priest is a bit over the top, to put in mildly.

Those are my reading suggestions today. What stories are you following? Please share your links in the comment thread.

 

 

 


Tuesday Reads: Are Women People?

women people2

Good Morning!!

Question for today: Are women human? Are we people in the eyes of our government? We’ve been told that corporations are people. We know that white men are people–that was established by the U.S. Constitution when it was ratified in 1789.  Since that time, there have been amendments that granted some rights to non-white men and to women. We can vote now. Does that mean our government recognizes our humanity?

Today our ultra-conservative, mostly Catholic Supreme Court will hear two cases that bring this question to the forefront, and the Court’s decisions may give us some answers to the question of whether American women are officially people with individual rights.

From MSNBC: Supreme Court to hear birth control case

Depending on whom you ask, Tuesday morning’s oral argument at the Supreme Court is about whether Obamacare can keep treading on religious liberty – or it’s about a woman’s right to access contraception on her employee insurance plan, no matter what her employer thinks of it. Either way, it is the first time the Affordable Care Act will be at the nation’s highest Court since it was first largely upheld as constitutional. The same two men as in that case, current Solicitor General Don Verrilli and former Bush administration solicitor general Paul Clement, are facing off to argue over a narrower provision.

Before the Supreme Court decides whether the contraceptive coverage required of insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act violates a 1993 law governing religious liberty, it has to settle the threshold question: Does a corporation even have religious liberty?

women human

I think the question about the rights of women is far broader than that. Without access to birth control and abortion, a woman has no real autonomy as a human being. If she becomes pregnant–even through rape–she loses the ability to make choices about her future life. It has been a relatively short period of time since women have had the power to make those choices. But that power has led to other advances for women–such as the right to prosecute a rapist or an abusive boyfriend or husband, the right to have credit in her own name, the right to an education, and entry into careers from which women were previously blocked. We can only hope that the justices see clearly what their decisions will mean for women’s lives and women’s personhood.

Back to the MSNBC article:

Hobby Lobby Stores, an Oklahoma-based, evangelical-owned craft chain with about 13,000 employees, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a small Mennonite-owned cabinet maker in Pennsylvania, sued the administration and got two very different answers from the lower courts. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals declared of Hobby Lobby that “such corporations can be ‘persons’ exercising religion.” In ruling on Conestoga’s bid for exemption from the requirement, the Third Circuit disagreed: “For-profit secular corporations cannot exercise in religious exercise.”

The companies are among the 47 for-profit corporations that have objected to their company plans complying with the minimum coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act. Under those regulations, contraception is covered fully, without a co-pay, as preventive care. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood object to a handful of contraceptives that they speculate can block a fertilized egg, which is neither documented in the science nor the medical definition of abortion. Other for-profit plaintiffs object to any birth control coverage at all….

The Obama administration says that the government has a compelling interest in women’s health and in gender equality. The Department of Health and Human Services agreed to classify contraceptives as preventive care after considering testimony from medical experts, who cited the country’s high rate of unintended pregnancy and the persistence cost barriers to accessing effective birth control.

Some legal experts argue that to rule for Hobby Lobby would be imposing religion on others, by forcing the women who work for such companies to pay the cost of their employers’ religion. Frederick Gedicks, a law professor at Brigham Young, has even argued in a brief before the Court that doing so would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

What will SCOTUS decide?

women people4

At NPR, Nina Totenberg offers some scary quotes from Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby:

“We believe that the principles that are taught scripturally is what we should operate our lives by … and so we cannot be a part of taking life,” explains Hobby Lobby President Steve Green.

“It’s our rights that are being infringed upon to require us to do something against our conscience,” adds CEO and founder David Green.

Using birth control is “taking a life?” Apparently one of the arguments Hobby Lobby is using that–contrary to scientific facts–some forms of birth control are equal to abortion. So is every sperm is sacred too? Should men be prosecuted for masturbating? But those questions are not likely to be asked, because it is already legally established that men are people.

 

At the WaPo, Sandra Fluke writes: At the Supreme Court, a potential catastrophe for women’s rights.

Unlike my congressional testimony in 2012, which was about Georgetown University — a Catholic-affiliated university — refusing to include contraception in student insurance because it was a religiously affiliated school, the institutions arguing before the Supreme Court are not houses of worship or religious non-profits. The Affordable Care Act already includes special arrangements for those types of organizations. These are private, for-profit corporations — a craft store and a cabinet manufacturer — that want to be excluded from health insurance and employment laws because of bosses’ personal views.

Laws that include religious protection have never given corporations the right to have religious views, and it would be a terrible idea to make such an enormous change to our legal precedent now. Our laws protect individuals’ private religious beliefs, but when you cross over into the public sphere to become a corporation and make a profit off of the public, you must abide by the public’s laws.

Depending on the court’s rulings, the cases’ outcomes could deny millions of women coverage of any or all forms of birth control, limiting women’s ability to control their reproductive health, plan their pregnancies and manage their lives. As I testified, women also need birth control for many other medical reasons, including relief of painful health problems like endometriosis.

women people3

And, Fluke argues, recognizing a right for corporations to hold religious views will open the door to

Allowing any private employer to dictate which laws fit inside its religious beliefs could upset the necessary balance of both religious liberty and employee health and safety laws. Depending on the exact ruling, any for-profit corporation could cut off its employees’ insurance coverage for blood transfusions, vaccinations or HIV treatment — all of which some Americans have religious objections to. Any critical health coverage the boss doesn’t agree with could be eliminated.

Furthermore, SCOTUS could not limit these proposed “religious freedoms” to Christians.

Although this country predominantly descends from a Judeo-Christian tradition, our valuable religious protection laws ensure that anyone is free to practice any religion they want, including religions whose belief systems and practices many of us would disagree with vehemently. In fact, far-ranging beliefs that are not associated with any organized religion could be used to justify a corporation’s practices as well.

Sahil Kapur of TPM points out that Justice Scalia, who might be expected to vote in favor of a corporate “right to religious freedom,” will have to deal with one of his previous rulings: Justice Scalia’s Past Comes Back To Haunt Him On Birth Control.

In 1990, Scalia wrote the majority opinion in Employment Division v. Smith, concluding that the First Amendment “does not require” the government to grant “religious exemptions” from generally applicable laws or civic obligations. The case was brought by two men in Oregon who sued the state for denying them unemployment benefits after they were fired from their jobs for ingesting peyote, which they said they did because of their Native American religious beliefs.

“[T]he right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability,” Scalia wrote in the 6-3 majority decision, going on to aggressively argue that such exemptions could be a slippery slope to lawlessness and that “[a]ny society adopting such a system would be courting anarchy.”

“The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind,” he wrote, “ranging from compulsory military service, to the payment of taxes, to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races.”

That opinion could haunt the jurist if he seeks to invalidate the birth control rule.

“Scalia will have to reckon with his own concern in Smith about the lawlessness and chaos created by liberal exemptions to generally applicable law,” said Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA. “For him to uphold an exemption now is to invite more of the lawlessness that he warned about.”

women human5

At Think Progress, Ian Millhiser addresses the right wing organizations that have waged a concerted war against women’s rights during the past several years: Read This One Document To Understand What The Christian Right Hopes To Gain From Hobby Lobby.

2009 was a grim year for social conservatives. Barack Obama was an ambitious and popular new president. Republicans, and their conservative philosophy, were largely discredited in the public eye by a failed war and a massive recession. And the GOP’s effort to reshape its message was still in its awkward adolescence. If the conservative movement had a mascot, it would have been a white man dressed as Paul Revere and waving a misspelled sign.

Amidst this wreckage, more than two hundred of the nation’s leading Christian conservatives joined together in a statement expressing their dismay at the state of the nation. “Many in the present administration want to make abortions legal at any stage of fetal development,” their statement claimed, while “[m]ajorities in both houses of Congress hold pro-abortion views.” Meanwhile, they feared that the liberals who now controlled the country “are very often in the vanguard of those who would trample upon the freedom of others to express their religious and moral commitments to the sanctity of life and to the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.”

The signatories to this statement, which they named the “Manhattan Declaration,” included many of America’s most prominent Catholic bishops and clergy of similar prominence in other Christian sects. It included leaders oftop anti-gay organizations like the National Organization for Marriage, and of more broadly focused conservative advocacy shops such as the Family Research Council. It included university presidents and deans from Christian conservative colleges. And it included the top editors from many of the Christian right’s leading publications.

Perhaps most significantly, however, the document’s signatories includes Alan Sears, the head of one of the two conservative legal groups litigating what are likely to be the two most important cases decided by the Supreme Court this term. Indeed, the Manhattan Declaration offers a virtual roadmap to understanding what religious conservatives hope to gain from Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood v. Sebelius, two cases the justices will hear Tuesday which present the question whether a business owner’s religious objections to birth control trump their legal obligation to include it in their employee’s health plan.

Read the gory details at the link.

hillary_clinton_human_6423

Finally, I ask that everyone read this year-old article at Time Magazine by Jessica Winter, Subject for Debate: Are Women People? It is both darkly humorous and deadly serious.

All my adult life, I’ve been pretty sure I’m a sentient, even semi-competent human being. I have a job and an apartment; I know how to read and vote; I make regular, mostly autonomous decisions about what to eat for lunch and which cat videos I will watch whilst eating my lunch. But in the past couple of months, certain powerful figures in media and politics have cracked open that certitude.

You see, like most women, I was born with the chromosome abnormality known as “XX,” a deviation of the normative “XY” pattern. Symptoms of XX, which affects slightly more than half of the American population, include breasts, ovaries, a uterus, a menstrual cycle, and the potential to bear and nurse children. Now, many would argue even today that the lack of a Y chromosome should not affect my ability to make informed choices about what health care options and lunchtime cat videos are right for me. But others have posited, with increasing volume and intensity, that XX is a disability, even a roadblock on the evolutionary highway. This debate has reached critical mass, and leaves me uncertain of my legal and moral status. Am I a person? An object? A ward of the state? A “prostitute”? (And if I’m the last of these, where do I drop off my W-2?)

Please go read the whole thing. It’s not long.

So . . . those are my recommended reads for today.  What stories are you following? Please post your links on any topic in the comment thread.

 


Tuesday Reads: Are Things Really As Bad As I Think?

morning coffee book

Good Morning!!

I don’t even know where to begin this morning. I wish I could write a coherent diatribe like the one Dakinikat wrote yesterday, but I can’t do it. I have a sense that things are very wrong, but I can’t explain the feeling in any rational way.

As we head into the holiday season, I feel as if the country is leaderless. The public focus of the Obama administration and the media is on the glitches in a website; and yet in the background are terrible problems that are building  and growing more and more intractable as our political “leadership” fiddles with nonsensical issues like Obamacare and Benghazi.

As Dakinikat noted yesterday, there is a problem of growing poverty and income inequality become institutionalized and normalized. There is the issue of gun violence and our total failure to respond to it with any kind of rational regulations on guns. There is the devolution of education in the U.S., and of course there is the continuing attack on women’s autonomy and Democratic politicians seeming willingness to use women’s bodies as bargaining chips. Finally there are the already institutionalized problems of racism and hatred of immigrants. What have I missed?

As our real problem grow, it seems the American political and media classes, either don’t notice because as part of the wealthy 1% they simply aren’t affected, or because they’ve got theirs and they just don’t care about the mass of people who are struggling to survive in a poisonous system. And because of the obsessive focus on the end-of-year holidays, nothing will happen in Washington until we hit the next debt limit and our “leaders” mobilize briefly to kick the can of our economic and social problems down the road once again and so they can return to their focus on minutiae.

Is there any solution to the political and economic stagnation we find ourselves in? Is the situation really as surreal as it feels to me on this Tuesday morning? Am I nuts?

Anyway, here a some of the stories leading the news at the moment.

Jeff Bezos tells Amazon customers to expect home delivery by drones. NBC News reports:

Amazon.com hopes to deliver small packages to your home in just 30 minutes by unmanned drones within five years, chief executive Jeff Bezos said Sunday.

In an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Bezos was actually less optimistic than what his company said in its online announcement, which declared that tiny robot aircraft could be landing on front porches as soon as 2015.

Bezos said Amazon already had the technology in place and had even flown a working prototype, which he showed off in a video the company published Sunday:

He promised “half-hour delivery, and we can carry objects, we think, up to five pounds, which covers 86 percent of the items that we deliver.”

The rest of the work, Bezos said, is in quality control and getting the plan OK’d by the Federal Aviation Administration — something technology experts said was unlikely on Bezos’ time frame.

So basically, this is just a silly idea that has no chance of actually  happening anytime soon. But the media sees it as more urgent than poverty, income inequality, and people getting killed with guns day in and day out.

From the Washington Post: U.S. students lag around average on international science, math and reading test.

Scores in math, reading and science posted by 15-year-olds in the United States were flat while their counterparts elsewhere — particularly in Shanghai, Singapore and other Asian provinces or countries — soared ahead, according to results of a well-regarded international exam released Tuesday.

While U.S. teenagers scored slightly above average in reading, their scores were average in science and below average in math, compared to 64 other countries and economies that participated in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which was administered last fall. That pattern has not changed much since PISA was first administered in 2000.

Gee, I wonder why this is happening? It seems like something that should concern our “leaders.”

The test scores offer fresh evidence for those who argue that the United States is losing ground to competitors in the global market and others who say a decade’s worth of school reform has done little to improve educational outcomes.

“While the intentions may have been good, a decade of top-down, test-based schooling created by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top — focused on hyper-testing students, sanctioning teachers and closing schools — has failed to improve the quality of American public education,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement. The AFT released a video on Monday in which it implored the public not to blame teachers, the unions, parents or students for poor PISA results.

But were intentions really good? Check out these years-old headlines on profiteers (including the Bush family) who cleaned up after passage of the Orwellianly titled “No Child Left Behind” law was passed.

Bush Profiteers Collect Billions from No Child Left Behind (Project Censored: The News That Didn’t Make The News, March 30, 2007)

Bush’s Family Profits From `No Child’ Act (LA Times, Oct. 22, 2006)

No Bush Left Behind (Bloomerg Businessweek, Oct. 15, 2006)

There are plenty more headlines where those came from.

And yet, nearly a decade later, we’re stuck with that awful law and the damage it has done to our public education system. Why have Democrats done nothing to reverse it? Most likely because they too profit from the continuing privatization of education.

What about the latest media narrative on Obama care?

From the Washington Post: Health-care enrollment on Web plagued by bugs:

The enrollment records for a significant portion of the Americans who have chosen health plans through the online federal insurance marketplace contain errors — generated by the computer system — that mean they might not get the coverage they’re expecting next month.

The errors cumulatively have affected roughly one-third of the people who have signed up for health plans since Oct. 1, according to two government and health-care industry officials. The White House disputed the figure but declined to provide its own.

The mistakes include failure to notify insurers about new customers, duplicate enrollments or cancellation notices for the same person, incorrect information about family members, and mistakes involving federal subsidies. The errors have been accumulating since HealthCare.gov opened two months ago, even as the Obama administration has been working to make it easier for consumers to sign up for coverage, the government and industry officials said.

Figuring out how to clean up the backlog of errors and prevent similar ones in the future is emerging as the new imperative if the federal insurance exchange is to work as intended. The problems were the subject of a meeting Monday between administration officials and a new “Payer Exchange Performance Team” made up of insurance industry leaders.

Okay, but what is with the bizarre impatience about some computer glitches from a media that couldn’t care less about institutionalized poverty, racism, and gun violence? And then there’s the Obama administration’s defensive response, as reported by USA Today: Obama to launch new health care law campaign

President Obama and his aides will seek to rally public support for his embattled health care plan in the coming weeks, starting with a White House event Tuesday.

Obama will promote the effort in a speech while surrounded by people who have benefited from the new law, according to an addition to the White House schedule.

The Affordable Care Act has come under heavy political attack since its rollout in October. Problems have included a malfunctioning website and the cancellations of polices that do not meet new federal standards.

In the coming days, Obama and aides will highlight what they call successful aspects of the law. They include provisions that prevent insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing health conditions, and allow young people to stay on their parents’ insurance policies until age 26.

A few writers have tried to look at the “Obamacare crisis” slightly more rationally than the mainstream corporate media.

Here’s Bob Cesca at The Daily Banter: As Healthcare.gov Bugs Are Fixed, the ‘Obama’s Katrina’ Script Continues To Be Shredded.

It’s been 11 days since The National Journal‘s Ron Fournier wrote that Obamacare is President Obama’s Katrina. Oh, and it’s also his Iraq, Fournier wrote. Obama’s Katrina and Iraq. Both.

Since then, however, the Healthcare.gov website has been vastly improved and many of the bugs initially reported have been fixed, according to the administration late Sunday.

Back on November 20, Fournier made sure to provide himself with an escape hatch, though, noting that Healthcare.gov isn’t the same in terms of the actual events during and after Katrina, or throughout the Iraq War. Instead, Fournier wrote, the similarities had more to do with incompetence in the execution of a major policy initiative.

Yeah, so incompetence that lasted literally for years in both Iraq and New Orleans, leading to massive body counts on both fronts, is the same as a glitchy website launch. Okeedokee. Roger that. In reality, yes, both administrations made mistakes, but those mistakes were vastly different in terms of magnitude — not to mention that the Bush administration’s response to its mistakes was to, well, make even more mistakes. Again, foryears.

On the other hand, the Obama administration realized there were problems with the website and rushed to address those errors. Within two months most of those problems have been resolved, and, bonus, no one died.

For more rational perspective, read the rest of the post at the link.

I particularly like this uncharacteristically long post by TBogg at Raw Story: Are-We-There-Yet?-American [sic] just wants to go home because we aren’t there yet. Here’s just a taste:

You may remember that about a month ago, which is four score and seven years ago to the iPhone generation for whom a Japandroids download that takes over 20 seconds is an eternity times infinity, that the Great Socialism Project That Will Stomp America Flat (aka Obamacareor Communism) had some internet user problems which is why there are absolutely no healthcare services available in America right now so you should just rub some dirt on your burst appendix, suck it up,  and quit yer bellyaching. In an effort to fix what wasn’t working, the Obama White House brought in some better quality nerds who, fortified with 5 Hour Energy IV drips, promised to get it up and working by Dec 1 or GTFO.

Please go read the rest.

Charles Pierce also had a few choice words for Ron Fournier and the rest of the Obama-hating press.

Ace reporter Ron Fournier of the Associated Press has another scoop for y’all. There is absolutely no fking way on god’s green and pleasant earth that this Obama fellow will be elected president again. He has blown his chance for that third term, and probably the fourth and fifth as well. Ron would like the Pulitzer committee to leave the medallion on the doorstep. Watch out, Obama. The Horsemen ride at daybreak! [....]

I heard my friend Eric Boehlert on the radio this morning, warning us that the traditional end-of-the-year retrospectives are likely to sing in close harmony on the theme of the collapsing Obama administration, even though his poll numbers are pretty much where they’ve been for a couple of years now, and even though the Republicans in Congress continue to have the approval ratings of skin disease. I think he’s right, and I think Fournier, who’s been a tool so long they ought to sell him at Home Depot, is just trying to get a jump on things here.

More hilarity at the link.

And what’s with the efforts to deny that racism exists? From Raw Story: Black female professor reprimanded for pointing out existence of structural racism to white male students.

A faculty member at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Shannon Gibney, received a formal reprimand for her handling of a discussion about structural racism in her Introduction to Mass Communication course.

According to Gibney in an interview with City College News, a white male student asked her, “Why do we have to talk about this in every class? Why do we have to talk about this?”

She claims she was shocked, because “[h]is whole demeanor was very defensive. He was taking it personally. I tried to explain, of course, in a reasonable manner — as reasonable as I could given the fact that I was being interrupted and put on the spot in the middle of class — that this is unfortunately the context of 21st century America.”

Gibney says another white male student followed the first, saying “Yeah, I don’t get this either. It’s like people are trying to say that white men are always the villains, the bad guys. Why do we have to say this?”

When Gibney attempted, again, to inform the students that they were mistaking a systemic critique for a personal attack, the students continued to argue. Eventually, she told them that “if you’re really upset, feel free to go down to legal affairs and file a racial harassment discrimination complaint.” This is exactly what they did.

This probably has something to do with our f’d up education system too . . . . As far as I can tell, critical thinking has been banned.

Okay, I’ve ranted long enough. What interesting news have you been reading? Let us know in the comment thread.


Saturday Reads

reading the news

Good Morning!!

There’s a little breaking news this morning. The Guardian reports: China scrambles fighter jets towards US and Japan planes in disputed air zone.

China scrambled fighter jets to investigate US and Japanese aircraft flying through its new air defence zone over the East China Sea on Friday as the regional clamour over the disputed airspace escalated.

The ministry of defence announced the move, which is the first time China is known to have sent military aircraft into the zone alongside foreign flights, stepping up its response to the challenge after its unilateral establishment of the zone. It previously said it had monitored US, Japanese and South Korean aircraft and had flown routine patrols in the area on Thursday.

The ministry’s statement said two US reconnaissance aircraft and 10 Japanese early warning, reconnaissance and fighter planes had entered the zone.

The airforce “monitored throughout the entire flights, made timely identification and ascertained the types”, defence ministry spokesman Shen Jinke told the official China News Service.

Meanwhile, according to The New York Times,

Even as China scrambled fighter jets to enforce its newly declared air defense zone, the Obama administration said on Friday that it was advising American commercial airlines to comply with China’s demands to be notified in advance of flights through the area.

While the United States continued to defy China by sending military planes into the zone unannounced, administration officials said they had made the decision to urge civilian planes to adhere to Beijing’s new rules in part because they worried about an unintended confrontation.

Although the officials made clear that the administration rejects China’s unilateral declaration of control of the airspace over a large area of the East China Sea, the guidance to the airlines could be interpreted in the region as a concession in the battle of wills with China.

“The U.S. government generally expects that U.S. carriers operating internationally will operate consistent with” notice requirements “issued by foreign countries,” the State Department said in a statement, adding that that “does not indicate U.S. government acceptance of China’s requirements.”

Just what we need, a fight with China….

We may shoot first

Meanwhile North Korea is still holding Merrill Newman an 85-year old American who fought in Korea as a young man and had arranged a trip to visit the places he remembered. From Reuters, via the Times of India:

SEOUL: North Korea said on Saturday it had arrested US citizen Merrill E Newman for “hostile acts” against the state and accused him of being “a criminal” who was involved in the killing of civilians during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Newman “masterminded espionage and subversive activities against the DPRK and in this course he was involved in killings of service personnel of the Korean People’s Army and innocent civilians,” the North’s official KCNA news agency said.

North Korea apparently forced the elderly man to make a confession and apologize on video.

In a separate dispatch, KCNA carried what it said was a statement of apology by Newman, made after being detained.

“During the Korean War, I have been guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against DPRK government and Korean people as advisor of the Kuwol Unit of the U.N. Korea 6th Partisan Regiment part of the Intelligence Bureau of the Far East Command,” it said.

The unit appears to refer to one of the special operations units of partisan, or irregular, fighters acting against the North.

Newman, who had been visiting North Korea as a tourist, has been held in Pyongyang since officials took him off an Air Koryo plane that was scheduled to leave the country on October 26.

I really feel for Newman and his family. His wife must be frantic. The Daily Mail has photos and more details on the “apology.”

A video has been released by the North Korean government showing detained American veteran Merrill Newman, 85, admitting to being ‘guilty’ of crimes including killing innocent civilians when he was a soldier in the Korean War.

Newman, who has not been heard from since he was detained on October 26, is seen reading a four-page hand-scribbled letter on camera in an undisclosed location in the video released on Saturday.

The veteran from California looks uneasy in the video, and with shaking hands apologizes for what he supposedly did 60 years ago.

‘I realize that I cannot be forgiven for my offensives but I beg for pardon on my knees by apologizing for my offensives sincerely toward the DPRK government and the Korean people and I want not punish me,’ he reads.

There’s much much more on the public humiliation of this poor man. I hope he wasn’t tortured. Watch the video at the link if you want. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. I just kept thinking of my Dad who was a WWII veteran. I would really like to know what the U.S. is doing to get Newman out of North Korea. It could be time for another rescue trip by Bill Clinton. 

woman-reading-newspaper

CNN is out with a new poll that found lots of Americans are unhappy with the way things are going in the U.S. these days.

[A] CNN/ORC International survey released Friday also indicates that less than a quarter of the public says that economic conditions are improving, while nearly four in ten say the nation’s economy is getting worse.

Forty-one percent of those questioned in the poll say things are going well in the country today, down nine percentage points from April, and the lowest that number has been in CNN polling since February 2012. Fifty-nine percent say things are going badly, up nine points from April.

Well, that isn’t too surprising, since the economy has been just awful for the vast majority of Americans for a very long time now. Good to know that more than half of the people polled have noticed something is off.

Besides an obvious partisan divide, which contributes to a urban-rural gap, the survey also indicates a difference of opinion between younger and older Americans.

“There’s a slight generational divide, with 46% of those under age 50 saying things are going well. That number drops to 36% for those 50 and older,” said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

So either older people are paying closer attention, or they can remember the pre-Reagan days when there was less income inequality; while younger people can’t recall a time when the economy was doing well.

It’s likely some of the negativity Americans are feeling is a reaction to the media’s constant trashing of the Affordable Care Act AKA “Obamacare.” This morning Reuters is reporting the the federal health care website–which was supposed to be fixed by today–is still experiencing problems and has been temporarily shut down.

Just hours before the Obama administration’s self-imposed deadline to get the insurance shopping website working for the “vast majority” of its users by Saturday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that it was taking down the website for an 11-hour period that would end at 8 a.m. EST on Saturday.

It was unclear whether the extended shutdown of the website – about seven hours longer than on typical day – represented a major setback to the Obama administration’s high-stakes scramble to fix the portal that it hopes eventually will enroll about 7 million uninsured and under-insured Americans under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

At the very least, the shutdown suggested that nine weeks after the website’s disastrous launch on October 1 prevented most applicants from enrolling in coverage and ignited one of the biggest crises of Obama’s administration, U.S. officials are nervous over whether Americans will see enough progress in the website to be satisfied….

After weeks of round-the-clock upgrades of software and hardware, Obama officials said they were poised to successfully double its capacity by this weekend, to be able to handle 50,000 insurance shoppers at one time.

Paul Krugman defends the program based on a “dramatic” reduction in health-care costs that no one else in the media can be bothered to report.

Much of the Beltway establishment scoffed at the promise of cost savings. The prevalent attitude in Washington is that reform isn’t real unless the little people suffer; serious savings are supposed to come from things like raising the Medicare age (which the Congressional Budget Office recently concluded would, in fact, hardly save any money) and throwing millions of Americans off Medicaid. True, a 2011 letter signed by hundreds of health and labor economists pointed out that “the Affordable Care Act contains essentially every cost-containment provision policy analysts have considered effective in reducing the rate of medical spending.” But such expert views were largely ignored.

So, how’s it going? The health exchanges are off to a famously rocky start, but many, though by no means all, of the cost-control measures have already kicked in. Has the curve been bent?

The answer, amazingly, is yes. In fact, the slowdown in health costs has been dramatic….

Since 2010, when the act was passed, real health spending per capita — that is, total spending adjusted for overall inflation and population growth — has risen less than a third as rapidly as its long-term average. Real spending per Medicare recipient hasn’t risen at all; real spending per Medicaid beneficiary has actually fallen slightly.

Read the rest at the link.

debbie harry reads

Edward Snowden is still in the news, and there’s talk of making him “person of the year.”  That would mean lots more money and attention for Glenn Greenwald. The latest link doesn’t seem that exciting to me–but what do I know? From The National Post: NSA tracked online sex activities of suspected terrorists, latest Edward Snowden leaked documents reveal.

LONDON — The American spy agency NSA tracked the online sexual habits of suspected terrorists in an attempt to expose them as hypocrites.

Details of the exercise emerged Wednesday in the latest leak of classified documents by the leaker Edward Snowden.

The spy agency identified six targets, all of whom were Muslim, as examples of how electronic surveillance could be used to gather potentially embarrassing information on individuals, such as evidence of visits to pornography sites.

One of the six “globally resonating foreign radicalizers” is believed to be a U.S. resident while the others live outside America. None of the targets, whose names have been redacted, is accused of being involved in terrorist plots.

I guess I should be all upset about this, but for some reason I’m a lot more freaked out by breadlines in NYC, the ongoing war against women, and the possibility of Republicans taking over the Senate and/or the White House.

A little more worrying is the possibility that the Greenwald/Snowden cult might decide to release the names of U.S. and U.K. intelligence agents. The Daily Telegraph: NSA terror over ‘doomsday’ cache of secrets stashed in online cloud by Edward Snowden 

U.S. intelligence officials say they are worried about a ‘doomsday’ cache of highly classified, heavily encrypted material they believe former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has stored on a data cloud.

The cache contains documents generated by the NSA and other agencies and includes names of U.S. and allied intelligence personnel, seven current and former U.S. officials and other sources briefed on the matter said.

The data is protected with sophisticated encryption, and multiple passwords are needed to open it, said two of the sources, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters….

One source described the cache of still unpublished material as Snowden’s ‘insurance policy’ against arrest or physical harm.

U.S. officials and other sources said only a small proportion of the classified material Snowden downloaded during stints as a contract systems administrator for NSA has been made public.

Some Obama Administration officials have said privately that Snowden downloaded enough material to fuel two more years of news stories.

Ironically, Snowden himself is living under the thumb of Russian security services, according to a recent story at al Jazeera. 

After a dramatic arrival and a prolonged confinement at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who is wanted by the United States government on espionage charges, has quietly vanished into a life of seclusion.

Nobody seems to know exactly where one of the most wanted and famous men in the world lives, who protects him or how he spends his days — beyond learning Russian and reading Dostoyevsky. Such glimpses into his life have been offered to the public by his Russian lawyer and de facto spokesman, Anatoly Kucherena.

Kucherena is a on the board of the FSB, Russia’s powerful intelligence agency.

“We know at this point that he’s not free,” said Yuri Felshtinsky, a Russian scholar who has written extensively about the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Felshtinsky, who believes the FSB controls Snowden, called the American exile a “Christmas gift” for President Vladimir Putin’s “public relations war” with the United States….

“He’s always going to be monitored and watched,” said Peter Savodnik, a journalist and author of a recently published book about another famous American defector who grew tired of his Soviet exile: Lee Harvey Oswald. “If he doesn’t already want to leave, he’s going to want to leave very soon.”

Good luck with that.

Those are my offerings for today. What stories are you following? Even if you’re just lazing around enjoying the final hours of the long weekend, please leave a comment or two and let us know what’s happening where you are.