Tuesday, March 31, 2009

GM: A Failure Of Leadership All Around

Wall Street took a big dump yesterday after three weeks of gains and the culprit, depending upon whose ax you're helping grind, is General Motors or the White House.

"If the government would stop doing the private sector's work, I think we might be a little better off," whined one analyst who took unkindly to the tough love President Obama dished out to GM and Chrysler, as well, "But at this point it might be too late."

The analyst has it exactly backwards.

If GM had showed more interest in producing a viable recovery plan than chugalugging billions of dollars in taxpayer dough this day of reckoning would not have arrived -- or at least not with such a bang.

Where the analyst might have something is the "too late" thing.

Having proved itself not too big to fail, GM is now probably looking at bankruptcy, but methinks Obama is hedging that bet -- and putting the lie to the notion that he wants the government to run the automaker -- by putting its hands to the fire now to reduce the chances that it will be forced to take over later.

Obama and his advisers certainly understand that the government's record when it comes to nationalization is mixed. (Its efforts to run railroads have been notable failures.) And that they must be able to better explain why the ouster of GM CEO Rick Wagoner and his board was a pre-condition for more government bailout money but the managers of failing banks and other financial institutions that have received many times more money than automakers have been virtually unscathed.

Wagoner had begun to turn GM around with some decent new products after 15 years years of lousy "leadership" while the automotive world was stealing a march on him, but these products are far too little, far too lacking in innovation and far too late, while Wagoner himself continued to be accountability averse and his board tone deaf regarding the hash he had made of things.

Meanwhile, the recovery plan that Wagoner fashioned was laughably inadequate.

He believed that GM could remain far larger than was realistic in today's hyper competitive global market. His recovery plan did not cut deeply enough and assumed the best at every turn, including hanging on to its already diminished market share and even growing while projecting losses for years to come.

What we have here is a failure of leadership all around starting with Wagoner and his board of directors to the enablers in Congress led by a Michigan delegation that looked the other way for years, to the Bush administration and congressional Democrats, who proved to be better at panicking and throwing our money at the mess than than getting tough.

President Obama gets a pass, but only for the time being.

'Sirens That Broke The Evening'

By David Bowie
He looked a lot like Che Guevara,
drove a diesel van
Kept his gun in quiet seclusion,
such a humble man
The only survivor of the National People's Gang
Panic in Detroit, I asked for an autograph
He wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone

Panic in Detroit

He laughed at accidental sirens that broke the evening
The police had warned of repercussions

They followed none too soon
A trickle of strangers were all that were left alive
Panic in Detroit, I asked for an autograph
He wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone

Panic in Detroit

Putting on some clothes I made my way to school
And I found my teacher
crouching in his overalls

I screamed and ran to smash my favorite slot machine
And jumped the silent cars that slept at traffic lights

Having scored a trillion dollars,
made a run back home

Found him slumped across the table.
A gun and me alone
I ran to the window. Looked for a plane or two
Panic in Detroit.
He'd left me an autograph
"Let me collect dust."
I wish someone would phone

Panic in Detroit

Image by Nick Morris

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/University Press Syndicate

Turning Of The Screw -- Spanish Edition

A Spanish court is going where the Obama administration has dared not tread: The opening salvo of a criminal investigation into allegations that former high-level Bush administration officials violated international law by providing the legal framework to justify the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.

The case, against former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, John Yoo, Douglas Feith and others was sent to a prosecutor’s office for review by Baltasar Garzón, a crusading investigative judge who ordered the arrest of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The official said that it was "highly probable" that the case would go forward and that it could lead to arrest warrants.

Insights On An Ancient Stoner

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish

Quotes From Around The Blogosphere

[W]e didn't invade Iraq to provide stability, but to force change. Likewise in Afghanistan. And once we were there, we didn't aim for stability, but to encourage democracy, which (the thought is not original with me) in a region like the Middle East generally undermines stability. I mean, if all we wanted was stability, why not find a strongman and leave?
What we really are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think, is instability operations. I don't think the U.S. military really has ever been comfortable with that mission, which was one reason we saw a lot of friction early on between the Bremer team trying to bring change and the Sanchez team simply trying to keep a lid on things. Personally, I think the mission of changing the culture of Iraq was nuts -- but that was the mission the president assigned the military. Remember the GOP's ongoing bid to paint Obama as a captive of the left? It's tough to reconcile that caricature with the fact that the highest praise for Obama's Afghanistan announcement is being voiced by the likes of William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Max Boot - all prominent neoconservatives. Suppose that a government can have any two of the following things, but not all three: globalisation, in the sense of openness to international flows of goods, services, capital and labour; social stability; and a small state. Or, to put it differently, conservatives can pick any two from an open economy, a stable society and political power – but not all three. There is a split in the country that is very much like the difference between supporters of rollback and containment during the Cold War, but unlike in the Cold War the advocates of containment seem to be a small minority. Even though containment was the wiser, superior policy during the Cold War, it has somehow lost its appeal. During the first two decades of the Cold War advocates of rollback considered it insufficiently “robust” (to use a word that ideological fantasists like to throw around a lot) and not nearly aggressive enough, and current partisans of the Long War concept seem intent on not making the “mistake” of opting for containment, which is to say that they are intent on embarking on fool’s errands.

The Long War is, as [Andrew] Bacevich says in The Limits of Power, “both self-defeating and irrational.” If we wish to secure our country and to get our economic and fiscal houses in order, one thing we have to do is start by scrapping the Long War concept and focusing on national security strategy that has limited, achievable objectives.


Pressure on President Obama to recast the failed American approach to Israel-Palestine is building from former senior officials whose counsel he respects.

. . . Deploring "seven years of absenteeism" under the Bush administration, they call for intense American mediation in pursuit of a two-state solution, "a more pragmatic approach toward Hamas," and eventual U.S. leadership of a multinational force to police transitional security between Israel and Palestine.


Obama's moment of truth will come if Iran doesn't, ultimately, want to play. Will the "demons" rot away his policy judgment? Will he exaggerate Iran's power, as the Israelis and neoconservatives routinely do, turning a relatively modest regional player into an existential threat -- mad mullahs ready to blow up the world? Will he allow Republicans to force him into a tough-guy pose for domestic consumption? Will he suffer the delusion that U.S., or Israeli, power can "take out" the Iranian nuclear program without disastrous retribution?
Barack Obama's most underrated talent is his ability to get his enemies to self-destruct. It takes a lot less energy than defeating them directly, and helps maintain Obama's largely false patina of apolitical niceness.

Obama is about as far from apolitical as you can get; and while he is a decent fellow, he is also a lethal Chicago pol. His greatest achievement in this respect was the total implosion of Bill Clinton around this time last year: Hillary was next. Then came John McCain, merrily strapping on the suicide bomb of Sarah Palin. With the fate of all these formidable figures impossible to miss, one has to wonder what possessed Dick Cheney, the former vice-president, to come lumbering out twice in the first 50 days of the Obama administration to blast the new guy on national television.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Don't Let The Door Hit You In The Ass

I, among others, have argued for years that Rick Wagoner is chiefly responsible for the decline and fall of General Motors and that until the imperious chairman was sacked there was little chance that the once mighty carmaker could be reinvigorated.

How extraordinary that calls for Wagoner's ouster have been routinely ignored by GM's board of directors and that is now happening only because the once mighty automaker still had not crafted a viable business plan and his departure was an Obama administration a pre-condition for receiving another injection of taxpayer bailout money.

A not small caveat here: While canning Wagoner is long overdue, how is it that the selfsame White House has not forced out any number of bank executives who have taken billions in bailout money to little positive effect?

Just asking.

Meanwhile, GM has been given 60 days to finally get what's left of its house in order while Chrysler gets a mere 30.


Because no one in the right mind believes that Chrysler with its tiny market share and dismal product line has a chance of surviving on its own, hence it will have to agree to a shotgun wedding with Fiat or die.

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

And Now A Word From Your Sponsor

The news that Rick Wagoner has been shown the door at General Motors would usually mean a big fat post on a huge development from a blogger who has written extensively about the Big Two and a Half's woes.

But in a rare example of self-discipline, I am forgoing that option because after putting a book project aside for three or so years to concentrate on blogging, I'm back in the chase and the finish line is coming into view.

The world needs another book about an unsolved murder like Barack Obama needs another war, but I am just vain enough to think that mine will be sufficiently different to justify the effort. In the meantime, I've been cutting back on the quantity -- as in fewer posts in general and Quotes From Around the Blogosphere in particular, as well as more recycled content -- but hopefully not the quality as I do a last round of interviews.

-- Love and Peace, SHAUN

Update: It's All In The Mind

If you didn't catch my interview on post-traumatic stress disorder last week, I urge you to give it a read. Long story short, the brain works in mysterious and sometimes nightmarish ways as a result of traumatic experiences.

This is abundantly obvious in two disparate but deeply heartbreaking cases:

* Tibetans call it srog-rlung, an imbalance of the "life-wind," but to Western doctors treating monks whose training in meditation could not block the flashbacks from when they were tortured by the Chinese as political prisoners, it had a more familiar name -- PTSD.

* Some Holocaust survivors who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease are found to be reliving their concentration camp experiences as though they're happening for the first time.

Photograph by Mark Wilson/Boston Globe

One More Reason Why Scientology Sucks


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Shazeen Samad

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lincoln-Obama Comparisons: How Valid?

With the nomination and election of Barack Obama, the comparisons to Abraham Lincoln have come fast, thick and furious. It is true that they are and were tall, skinny lawyers from Illinois who served in the state legislature before single terms in Congress, while Obama did invoke the Great Emancipator's name with some frequency on the road to the White House. But now that he has been in office two months and counting, how valid are the comparisons?

The short answer is that adjusting for 150 years, which is to say rather different times, there are indeed some compelling similarities.

Herewith some excerpts from commentators, as well as my own thoughts.

Jellani Cobb at American Exception:
Obama has important differences with Lincoln, most notably the fact that Lincoln succeeded a famously weak Democratic President. James Buchanan, whether for political reasons or personal belief, argued that the Constitution gave him no authority to stop the South from seceding from the Union. Lincoln took office and proceeded to vastly expand the power of the Executive branch, calling up troops without congressional approval and famously suspending habeas corpus.

Obama, on the other hand, replaces a steroidal presidency, one so swollen and powerful that it can scarcely fit inside the Constitution that once contained it. (Perhaps Bush took his governing philosophy directly from the A-Rod era Texas Rangers.) This means that despite their surface similarities, Obama and Lincoln were confronted by precisely opposite imperatives: one had to expand the power of the presidency to meet a titanic national crisis; the other has to constrict the titanic presidential power he inherited in order to avert a Constitutional one.

This difference between the circumstances in which Obama and Lincoln took office have remained a footnote were it not for the thorny politics of closing Guantánamo and the verbal sword crossing between Dick Cheney and Barack Obama. It is generally both bad politics and bad taste for an outgoing administration to criticize the incoming one (though Jimmy Carter was more or less justified in criticizing the Bush plans for war in Iraq.) And after the single largest terrorist attack on American soil occurs on your watch you might expect a degree of humility from the former vice president. But given the tenor of the past eight years we shouldn’t be particularly surprised that Cheney had the cardiac boldness to allege that the country is "less safe" in Obama's hands.

Michael Knox Beran at National Review:

President Obama’s invocation of President Lincoln is easy to criticize. But on the whole his fascination with his predecessor is a good thing, for it may serve as a corrective to the too-facile rhetoric of his campaign, in which he suggested that we can have a new kind of politics, one that taps the "pragmatic, nonideological attitude of the majority of Americans," and gets beyond old canards about "absolute truth."

Yes, but: Lincoln's career, like Churchill's, teaches that pragmatic conciliation can take a statesman only so far, and suggests that some principles can’t be fudged, some differences can't be papered over, some absolute truths are, well, absolute. The book the new president ought to read (or re-read) on this question -- the book that counterbalances the conciliatory lessons of Team of Rivals -- is Churchill’s The Gathering Storm, the greatest manual ever written on the question of when not to conciliate a rival.

Lincoln’s career teaches something else that the new president might bear in mind. Lincoln presided over a vast expansion of the powers of the federal government. So almost certainly will President Obama. Lincoln made clear that his own enlargements of coercive authority were temporary. His "strong measures," he said, would not outlast the emergency: America would no more come to rely on such measures after the crisis passed than a man would "contract so strong an appetite for emetics during temporary illness as to persist in feeding upon them during the remainder of his healthful life."

We can only hope that the new president will take these words to heart.

Harold Holzer at CNN:

Most extraordinary of all, surely, is the fact that Barack Obama's victory serves to help complete the "unfinished work" Abraham Lincoln spoke about in his Gettysburg Address: that America fulfill its dream of equal opportunity regardless of race.

Lincoln, of course, advanced black freedom and black voting rights; Obama represents the validation of those elusive aspirations.

It is not difficult to understand why so many Americans see Barack Obama as the second coming -- of Abraham Lincoln, if not more. Lincoln once declared, "We cannot escape history," and after years of national indifference to, or defiance of, the lessons of the past, our next president seems to love, comprehend, and use the past to illuminate the future.
Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe in Newsweek:
During the Civil War, Lincoln was able to brilliantly manage his team of rivals. His secretary of state, William Seward, came into office thinking "he would actually be controlling Lincoln," notes [historian Doris Kearns] Goodwin, but Lincoln was able to sit Seward down, remind him who was president -- and ultimately make him his close friend. Lincoln, in some ways, had it easier than Obama will. Cabinet secretaries in the 1860s could not step out on the White House lawn and hold press conferences with cable-TV networks. But Goodwin . . . thinks he has absorbed the deeper meaning of Lincoln's leadership style. "I think he's got a temperamental set of qualities that have some resemblance to Lincoln's emotional intelligence,": Goodwin says.

The most important quality may be humility, which both Obama and Lincoln repeatedly refer to as an essential virtue. Humility in this case is not to be confused with meekness or passivity. Rather, it comes from confidence. A Lincolnesque leader is confident enough to be humble -- to not feel the need to bluster or dominate, but to be sufficiently sure of one's own judgment and self-worth to really listen and not be threatened by contrary advice.
And my own thoughts:

Adjusting for 150 years, which is to say very different times, there are indeed some compelling similarities, but they should not blind us to the very different challenges that each president faced. Lincoln tried to literally hold the Union together; Obama is trying to bring the Union back from the brink of financial collapse.

That Lincoln failed spectacularly was no fault of his own, while if Obama fails he must share much of the responsibility no matter how Lincoln-esque his imprecations may be.

Cartoon du Jour

Mike Lukovich/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

'He Saw Victory Escape His Grasp'

13th of 45 excerpts from Lincoln by David Herbert Donald:
When the Repubican state convention assemled in the statehouse at Springfield on June 16 [1858], the outcome was prearranged. Without dissent, the delegates adopted a noncontroversial platform [Orville Hickman] Browning had drafted and nominated candidates for state treasurer and superintendent of eduction. Then they turned to the real business of the meeting. When [Norman] Judd and the Chicago delegation brought in a banner inscribed Cook County For Abrham Lincoln the delegates exploded in applause. A member from Peoria moved to change the motto to "Illinois is for Abraham Lincoln," and the convention went wild. Unanimously the delegates voted that Abraham Lincoln was "the first and only choice of the Republicans of Illinois for the United States Senate, as the successor of Stephen A. Douglas. It was a [William] Herndon reported, "a grand affair," and the Republicans "all felt like exploding -- not with gass [sic], but with electric bolts, shivering what we struck."

* * * * *
The seven formal debates between Lincoln and Douglas were only a small part of the 1858 campaign, though they naturally attracted the greatest interest. . . .

On the day after the Quincy debate, both Lincoln and Douglas got aboard the City of Louisiana and sailed down the Mississippi River to Alton, for the final encounter of the campaign. Looking haggard with fatigue, Douglas opened the debate on October 15 in a voice so hoarse that in the early part of his speech he could scarcely be heard. . . . He concluded with a rabble-rousing attack on the racial views he attributed to Republicans and an announcement "that the signers of the Declaration of Independence . . . did not mean negro, nor the savage Indians, nor the Fejee Islanders, nor any other barbarous race," when they issued that document.

In his reply . . . Lincoln again went through his standard answers to Douglas's charges against him and the Republican party . . . that brought him again to what he perceived as "the real issue in this controversy," which once more he defined as a conflict "on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and of another class that does not look upon it as a wrong." Rising to the oratorical high point in the entire series of debates, he told the Alton audience: "That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles -- right and wrong -- throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings."

* * * * *
Though Lincoln was not surprised by the outcome of the election, he was bitterly disappointed. Once again, he saw victory escape his grasp. With one more defeat added to his record, he had received yet another lesson in how little his fate was determined by personal exertions.

An Index To Abraham Lincoln Posts

Abraham Lincoln was the greatest American president because none faced such enormous challenges, none grew more in office and none reinvented the United States to the extent that he did. All of that and the fact that 2009 is the bicentenary of his birth is reason enough to publish posts each Sunday on the great man over the next 12 months.

Series highlights so far:
A PATENTLY CLEVER PRESIDENT (3/22) That Lincoln was the only president to get a U.S. patent is not surprising when you consider that he was an inveterate tinkerer and had a lifelong fascination with mechanical things. LINK.

A PRESIDENTIAL SCHOLAR ON LINCOLN (3/15) A wide-ranging interview with James Hilty on Lincoln's greatness, frailties and innate conservatism. LINK.

A BUMPY RIDE TO HIS REWARD (3/8) There was a controversy over a photograph taken of Lincoln's open coffin, an attempt to steal his corpse and his body was exhumed an extraordinary 17 times. LINK.

WAS THE GREAT EMANCIPATOR GAY? (3/1) No revisionist history of a famous person would be complete without a book on whether they were gay, or if they were gay whether they were bisexual, or if they . . . LINK.

PRESIDENTIAL POWER GRABS (2/22) The infringements by Lincoln on civil liberties arguably were greater than during any period in American history, including the last eight years. LINK.

EARLY ASSASSINATION PLOT (2/15) A March 1861 assassination plot was never carried out, but Lincoln's response to it sullied a carefully cultivated image of dignified courage. LINK.

(2/8) Beyond Lincoln's opposition to slavery there was no aspect of him more controversial than his spiritual bona fides

THE BOHEMIAN BRIGADE COMES THROUGH (2/1) Modern journalism can trace its roots to the Civil War, which because of the telegraph and steam locomotive was the first instant-news war, something of which Lincoln was very much aware. LINK.

(1/25) His metamorphosis from a frontiersman who always opposed slavery but like most white Americans felt that blacks were unequal into the Great Emancipator was as complex as the man himself. LINK.

LINCOLN'S CAUTION (1/18) Guest blogger Robert Stein writes that Barack Obama can learn much from the 16th president, who perhaps even more than wisdom and moral strength needed a highly developed political sense of the possible. LINK.

THE FIRST TECHNOLOGY PRESIDENT (1/11) Arriving in Washington at the dawn of the age of the telegraph, Lincoln embraced this new technology of instantaneous communication with a passion and used it not just to communicate with his generals in the field during the Civil War, but to bend them to his will. LINK.

LINCOLN LINCOLN BO BINCOLN (1/4) A substantial Lincoln mythology had taken hold in the American imagination even before his assassination in 1865. This canon of broad brush strokes and tall tales gave Lincoln his historic due but overlooked or willfully ignored the myriad complexities of our greatest president. LINK.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Of Comcast, Sears & Faux Hipness

Comcast and Sears are among the companies that have launched new ad campaigns in an effort to appear hip. Which is to say to try to make customers forget about how sucky they are.

Comcast, the cable-Internet-phone giant, is running mesmerizing animated TV spots on a make-believe "Comcast Town" where the sun is always shining and there is a smile on every face. Even the squirrels.

As Will Bunch notes, given the company's abysmal customer-service record, "Comcast Town would be a wasteland of flickering streetlights and crumbling apartment blocks. It would be populated solely by fat repairmen, who would stare listlessly at their clipboards and tell you they're still not sure why your cable's snowy."

My own experience is mixed.

When I first became a customer in 2000, Comcast's cable service was satisfactory but there were frequent Internet dropouts and slowdowns. Since then there has been a slow if steady improvement, but Comcast still manages to infuriate in small ways like being disinterested in reconciling my home phone number with my account so I can pay my bill by phone.

* * * * *
There is no other way to say it: Sears deserves to die a horrible death, it's dysfunctional sales people be damned, and it beats me why a company that set the standard for decades but hasn't been worth a crap in recent years hasn't already gone belly up. After all, Comcast is a monopoly in most communities while Sears typically goes up against other big-box retailers who do a much better job.

Sears' new "Blue Appliance Crew" ad campaign will fool no one. The DF&C and I certainly weren't.

Right after New Year's, she decided to buy a compact, high-efficiency, energy-saving Bosch washer and dryer tandem. We marched off to our local Sears store where she was able to twist the arm of a taciturn salesman and locked into a deal at a pretty good price -- but only if she applied for and bought the units with a Sears charge card. The salesman, while obviously unfamiliar with the units, nevertheless tries to foist accessories on the DF&C at additional expense that she didn't need or want.

Charge card applied for and approved, the washer and dryer were supposedly ordered and were to be delivered to a warehouse for pickup in early February. Early February came and went and it turned out the salesman was not only taciturn, but was disinterested in closing a nearly $2,000 deal during a crushing recession.

Long story short, after innumerable phone calls and cajoling involving salespeople who would never be mistaken for Blue Crew members, the washer and dryer finally were available for pickup in mid-March.

Alas, there were to be further complications.

The units were in the warehouse but no one could find them. No matter, I was entertained by two salespeople on a smoke break discussing paternity tests while the search went on.

And in a perfect coda to this retail rat f*ck, when we unpacked the dryer the power cord was hard wired and incompatible with the standard dryer wall outlet -- something that none of the salespeople had a clue and/or cared about even though they wanted to sell us useless stuff -- so a professional had to be called in at additional expense to rewire the unit.

Die Sears die!

Of Windmills, Dollars, Prayers & Dicks

I knew that the Republicans' time in the wilderness would not be short after its hard-earned drubbing in the November elections, but the Party of Limbaugh continued to amaze this week as:

* Its congressional leaders pushed back against the Obama budget with one of their own that had more windmills than hard numbers and not a hint about what kind of deficit would result.

* A wingnut introduced a bill that would prohibit the dollar from being replaced by a foreign currency.

Another shamelessly exploited actress Natasha Richardson's death by blaming it on universal health care.

* A leading contender for the 2012 nomination complained that no one from the McCain campaign would pray with her. The campaign responds that its people talk to God all the time.

* The same contender was caught in yet another lie.

Another leading contender picked up on the Obama as socialist fascist commie meme.

* Party chairman Michael Steele revealed himself to be a true strategic genius.

* And a neocon light announced the formation of a new policy group that will recycle discredited ideas.

But you are reminded how truly clueless the GOP has become when perhaps the
sanest thought of the crazy week came from a RedState blogger who invoked memories of the Hamilton-Burr duel as he chastised his party for its small-dick ideas when real manhood was called for.


Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Afghan Plan: Color Me Skeptical

The U.S. has a decidedly mixed record when it comes to "nation building" and there is no nation that has resisted building, unbuilding and everything in between despite the substantial exertions of foreign powers than Afghanistan. None.

While Obama's advisers are to be praised for recognizing that the military can't do it all, I am skeptical of the chances of the Obama administration's newly minted policy plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan succeeding, even the "administering a death blow" to Al Qaeda part.

This is because Afghanistan has always been an agglomeration of tribes and is incontrovertibly ungovernable, Pakistan wields more influence on Afghanistan than Washington ever will, there is an intractable opium cultivation problem, and the view that an Anbar Awakening approach that showed some success in Iraq can be replicated with the Taliban is probably wishful thinking.

But what the hay. Let's give it a try.

Irving R. Levine (1923-2009)

Do you think that the hash NBC so routinely
makes of the news killed him?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Dispatches From The Health-Care Wars

Psst. Wanna hot stock tip?

Invest in companies that make walkers used by women suffering from osteoporosis -- and there are millions of them -- because business is gonna go through the roof if a certain trend continues in the face of a crappy economy.

That trend is away from elective surgery, including knee and hip replacements for women with bone fragility and fracture problems that typically are covered by private health insurance with high deductibles.

The problem is being exacerbated by the precipitous decline of bone-strengthening Vitamin D in people's bodies, probably because they are indoors more and use more high-protection sunscreen.

Barack Obama soft-pedaled health-care reform during the presidential campaign. This is because it was one less thing to be attacked about ("he's a socialist!") and bringing the waste, fraud and discriminatory practices under control that are eating away at the system would take years and billions of dollars ("he's a socialist!").

Reform was not going to be on the table in the opening months of an Obama presidency if most of his advisors had their way, but a key player insisted that it be front and center.

Not only did health-care reform crash and burn in the early weeks of Bill Clinton's first term, but voters seemed to punish him for ClintonCare, his wife's shoot-the-moon initiative, in mid-term elections the following year.

But that was then and now is now, you say. Well, not so fast. Polls taken in 1993 and more recently show -- surprisingly, in my view -- that the basic contours of public opinion remain unchanged. What has changed is the political environment.

The taxes paid by American workers keep those massive government health-care programs running, but according to a new study nearly one in five of them are uninsured, a significant increase from fewer than one in seven when Hillary Clinton was making a hash of things.

In the 1990s, there were eight states with 20 percent or more of the working age population uninsured. Now there are 14, yet workers continue to foot the bill for covering others through Medicare, which insures the elderly, although government provides little direct assistance to help cover workers themselves.

Tucked away in the stimulus bill is $1.1 billion for something called "comparative effectiveness research" in health care, which in essence is an effort to look at different treatments and see which ones work better or work just as well for less money.

Seems simple, right? Wrong.

This is because the last time it came up -- yup, during the ClintonCare debacle -- it was decried as an invasion of privacy and worse.

Not too worry
. At least not too much.

The jury is still very much out on Commonwealth Connector, Massachusetts' bold initiative to provide health insurance for all that is often cited as a model for national reform.

On the one hand, fewer than 3 percent of Bay State residents are now uninsured, the lowest rate in the U.S., while on the other hand the gains to date will be unsustainable if costs, notably reimbursement rates for hospitals and doctors, are reined in.

Three views of the plan here, here and here.

Did I say that one goal of true reform is to bring discriminatory practices under control? Yup.

The health insurance industry has offered for the first time to curb its practice of charging higher premiums to people with a history of medical problems, a potentially significant shift in the reform debate, but there is a very big string attached: The practice will continue if not all Americans are required to get coverage.