February 19, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 9:04 PM

Posted by orrinj at 6:46 PM


When George Washington Became Great: Those were the times that tried men's souls. (MYRON MAGNET, Winter 2012, City Journal)

Meanwhile, Congress had written new roles for him and his army, and Washington had to establish them credibly in the eyes of the British commanders he faced, including General Thomas Gage, the commander in chief and governor of Massachusetts, who had served with him in the French and Indian War 20 years earlier. Little more than a month after taking command, Washington wrote Gage that he had heard reports that American soldiers captured at Bunker Hill, even "those of the most respectable Rank, when languishing with Wounds and Sickness," had been "thrown indiscriminately, into a common Gaol appropriated for Felons." Just be aware, he wrote, that we'll treat British POWs exactly as you treat Americans. You choose: either "Severity, & Hardship" or "Kindness & Humanity." Gage replied that of course he mixed up officers and enlisted men promiscuously, "for I acknowledge no rank not derived from the king." This was the wrong response, especially to a newly minted commander in chief who, as a mere colonial officer two decades earlier, had resented having to defer to officers with less merit than he but with royal commissions.

"You affect, Sir, to despise all Rank not derived from the same Source with your own," Washington thundered back, asserting a new, democratic understanding of legitimacy and worth. "I cannot conceive any more honourable, than that which flows from the uncorrupted Choice of a brave and free People--The purest Source & original Fountain of all Power." Furthermore, you claim that you've shown "Clemency" by not hanging my men as rebels. But it remains to be seen "whether our virtuous Citizens whom the Hand of Tyranny has forced into Arms, to defend their Wives, their Children, & their Property; or the mercenary Instruments of lawless Domination, Avarice, and Revenge best deserve the Appellation of Rebels." A higher authority than you will decide. "May that God to whom you then appealed, judge between America & you!"

Lord North, the prime minister, got the point, noting that "the war is now grown to such a height that it must be treated as a foreign war." Others were slower on the uptake, and Washington had to assert his new character strenuously at least once more. When Admiral Lord Howe, the British naval commander, and his brother General William Howe, who had led the assault up Bunker Hill and then replaced Gage as commander in chief, wanted to negotiate with Washington in New York in July 1776, they sent an envoy with an invitation addressed to "George Washington Esq., etc. etc." Washington's aides wouldn't take the letter, saying that "there was no such person in the Army," and indeed, "all the world knew who Genl Washington was." Some days later, the Howes sent another message addressed to "His Excellency, General Washington," asking him to meet their envoy to discuss a parley. But when the envoy arrived at the meeting with the original, misaddressed letter, Washington refused it with frigid politeness, the gentlemanly savoir faire of which he underscored by inviting the ambassador "to partake of a small collation" before he dismissed him. "I would not upon any occasion sacrifice Essentials to Punctilio," Washington reported to John Hancock, president of Congress, "but in this Instance . . . I deemed It a duty to my Country and my appointment to insist upon . . . respect."

Good fortune as 1776 dawned finally gave Washington the means to stage a spectacular coup de théâtre in Boston. A month before Bunker Hill, Connecticut militia captain Benedict Arnold, along with Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, had rowed across Lake Champlain to the New York side and seized the lightly manned British Fort Ticonderoga, with its rich cache of arms and ammunition. In an almost superhuman feat, Colonel Henry Knox, a hulking, 300-pound, stentorian-voiced Boston bookseller who had taught himself gunnery from his shop's stock of artillery manuals, had gone to Ticon- deroga on Washington's orders and dragged 55 mortars and cannon, weighing some 120,000 pounds, on ox-drawn sleds through 300 miles of snowy mountains and frozen rivers, presenting them to Washington on January 17. He happily discovered that Washington had acquired 2,000 muskets and two tons of ammunition, separately captured in the meantime.

Washington crowned Knox's feat with a suitably dramatic finale. Across a narrow strip of Boston Harbor and looking down upon the city from the south towered Dorchester Heights--sheer cliffs over 100 feet high (though now leveled and part of South Boston). The British had carelessly failed to occupy this territory, and if Washington could get Knox's guns up there, he would command Boston in a military checkmate. But how to do it without the British overpowering him in the process?

Out of tree trunks, poles, baskets of earth, and hay bales, Washington built portable fortifications, like a stage set. On the night of March 2, he began a deafening cannonade of Boston from various places away from Dorchester Heights, and this diversion continued incessantly through the night of the 4th, when, as a bright moon shone on the Heights but unusual warmth swathed harbor and city in fog, oxen dragged the heavy weapons and prefabricated fortifications on straw-muffled wheels up a slope frozen firm, while the diversionary bombardment masked what little noise the operation made. When the British awoke on the morning of the 5th, they found themselves pinned down under the many guns of a fortress instantly conjured up, it seemed to one British officer, by "the Genii belonging to Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp."

Both Washington and General Howe wanted to attack at once, but a fierce rainstorm and prudent second thoughts held them back. Seeing his position now untenable, Howe resolved to leave the city. He, too, tried the theatrics of a diversionary cannonade, but Washington glimpsed the "hurry, precipitation and confusion" of his preparations, and he gloated that when the British sailed away on March 17, they left behind £30,000 to £40,000 worth of cannon and provisions, he estimated, along with a wilderness of destroyed baggage wagons and artillery carriages drifting in the harbor. The town itself "has shared a much better Fate than was expected," and Washington was pleased to write Hancock that his house had "receiv'd no damage worth mentioning" and that "the family pictures are all left entire and untouch'd." As for Boston's Loyalists: "no Electric Shock--no sudden Clap of thunder--in a word the last Trump" could have "Struck them with greater Consternation" than the thought of facing "their offended Countrymen." Many fled by any vessel they could find; one or two committed suicide.

For Washington, those countrymen had universal praise for a miraculous, morale-boosting achievement. To one who called him "the savior of your country," the theatrical general replied by paraphrasing his favorite line from Addison's Cato: "To obtain the applause of deserving men is a heartfelt satisfaction, to merit it is my highest wish."
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Posted by orrinj at 6:11 PM


The Doom Loop: Andrew Haldane writes about equity and the banking system (Andrew Haldane, 2/23/12, London Review of Books)

By the end of the 1930s, only six British banks still maintained reserve liability. The governance and balance sheets of banks were, by this time, unrecognisable from those a century earlier. Banks were now controlled by arms-length managers, no longer major shareholders, while ownership was held by a widely dispersed set of shareholders, unvetted and anonymous, their upside pay-offs unlimited but their downside risks now capped by limited liability.

What impact did these changes have on banks' incentive to take risks? The answer was provided in 1974, around a hundred years after the introduction of limited liability, by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Merton, who showed that the equity of a limited liability company could be valued as if it were a financial option - that is, an instrument which offers rights over the future fruits of the company's assets. This option has value - in the jargon, it is 'in the money' - provided a firm's assets cover its debts. But the most extraordinary implication of Merton's framework is that the value of those options can be enhanced by increases in the degree of uncertainty about the value of the bank's assets. How so? Because while uncertainty increases both upside and downside risks, downside risks are capped by limited liability. For shareholders, the sky is the limit but the floor is always just beneath their feet. To maximise shareholder value, therefore, banks need simply to seek bigger and riskier bets.

The response to these incentives has been entirely predictable. Since 1880, the ratio of UK bank assets to GDP has risen roughly tenfold, and the increase has been particularly steep over the past thirty years, peaking at well over 500 per cent of GDP. The pattern in other developed countries has been similar, if less dramatic. The bets weren't just bigger, but also riskier. During the 20th century, an alphabet soup of exotic and complex instruments, often known by three-letter acronyms, came to displace simple loans on banks' balance sheets. These boosted banks' returns. But if returns are high, risks are never far behind. Returns on bank assets were two and a half times more volatile at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning.

Finance has a further trick up its sleeve, a trick that at a stroke boosts both volatility and returns to the owners of a bank. Leverage, simply put, is borrowing against your capital stake. For example, if borrowing allows a bank to hold assets of 120 against capital of ten, then its leverage is 12. The beauty of leverage is that it effortlessly multiplies the amount shareholders receive as a return on their assets. Consider a bank that makes a 1 per cent return on its assets. By allowing leverage (assets relative to equity) of two, shareholders can double their money; with leverage of four, they can quadruple their money. And so on. Banks have been using this device for well over a century. As unlimited liability was phased out, leverage among banks rose from about three or four in the middle of the 19th century to about five or six at its close. Leverage continued its upward march when extended liability was removed, and by the end of the 20th century it was higher than twenty. In 2007, at its high-water mark, bank leverage hit thirty or more.

This strategy translated, by the arithmetical magic of leverage, into higher shareholder returns. Having begun the 20th century in modest single figures, equity returns to banks were, on average, close to 20 per cent by its end. At the height of the boom, bank equity returns touched 30 per cent. Higher leverage accounted for almost all of this. Bank managers no longer had to sweat their assets: they simply had to borrow against them.

The downside of this strategy is now only too clear. With leverage of two (UK banks in 1850), 50 per cent of your assets must go bad before your equity is wiped out and you go bust. But with leverage of twenty (UK banks in 2000), you will go bust if you lose only 5 per cent of your assets. Over the last hundred years, as returns to banking have increased so too has their volatility, rising by a factor of between six and sevenfold. In the recent financial crisis, UK banks' shareholder returns fell from twenty-something to below zero in the space of a year.

In principle, market discipline ought to form a natural counterweight to these balance-sheet risks. Debt-holders in a bank, including depositors, ought to worry about shouldering increased risk, and should respond by raising the cost of funds or restricting their quantity, thereby restraining risk-hungry, excess-profit-seeking shareholders. During the 19th century, that theory fitted the facts. Depositor flight and bank runs followed when banks were perceived as fragile. But as the 20th century progressed, evidence of debtors exerting discipline over managers became increasingly patchy. Nowhere was the ineffectiveness of market discipline better illustrated than in the run-up to the recent financial crisis. At the same time as they were leveraging themselves up to the hilt, banks traded in debt markets as though they were riskless. Debtors should act as a brake on risk-taking, but in practice they served as an accelerator. The reason, once again, lies in incentives. When they face a crisis, it is dangerous for banks to have debtors take a hit. To do so may scare the horses, risking a stampede of deposits out of the door. Debtor discipline then has the effect of making a bad situation worse. Extended liability was abolished for just that reason. And the complex debt instruments issued by banks a hundred years later buckled under the same pressure.

In fact, making debtors shoulder the burden of risk in a crisis may have become harder over the past century. The structure of banking has been transformed during that time, in particular by the emergence of financial leviathans considered 'too big to fail'. At the start of the 20th century, the assets of the UK's three largest banks accounted for less than 10 per cent of GDP. By 2007, that figure had risen above 200 per cent of GDP. When these institutions hit problems, a bad situation can become catastrophic. In this crisis, as in past ones, catastrophe insurance was supplied not by private creditors but by taxpayers. Only they had pockets deep enough to refloat banks with such huge assets. This story has been repeated for the better part of a century and a half; in evolutionary terms, we have had survival not of the fittest but the fattest. I call this phenomenon the 'doom loop'.

Consider the effects of the too-big-to-fail problem on risk-taking incentives. If banks know they will be bailed out, those holding their debt will be less likely to price the risk of failure for themselves. Debtor discipline will therefore be weakest among those institutions where society would wish it to be strongest. This encourages them to grow larger still: the leverage cycle isn't merely repeated, but amplified. The doom loop grows larger. The biggest banks effectively benefit from a disguised, and growing, state subsidy. By my estimate, for UK banks this subsidy amounts to tens of billions of pounds per year and has often stretched to hundreds of billions. Few UK government spending departments have budgets this big. For the global banks, the subsidy can reach a trillion dollars - about eight times the annual global development budget.

We have arrived at a situation in which the ownership and control of banks is typically vested in agents representing small slivers of the balance sheet, but operating with socially sub-optimal risk-taking incentives. It is clear who the losers have been in the present crisis. But who are the beneficiaries? Short-term investors for one. More than anyone else, they benefit from a bumpy ride. If their timing is right, short-term investors can win on both the upswings (by buying) and the downswings (by short-selling) in financial prices. Bank shareholding has become increasingly short‑term over recent years. Average holding periods for US and UK banks' shares fell from around three years in 1998 to around three months by 2008.

Bank managers have benefited too. In joint-stock banking, ownership and control are distinct. That means managers may not always do what their owners wish. They may seek to feather their own nests by making decisions that boost short-term profits and thereby justify an increase in their own pay. Such decisions may also increase banks' vulnerability to shocks. In an attempt to avoid this problem, shareholders have sought to align managerial incentives with their own. One way of doing that, increasingly popular over the past decade, has been to remunerate managers not in cash but in equity or using equity‑based metrics. This can generate hugely powerful pecuniary incentives for managers to act in the interests of shareholders. At the peak of the boom, the wealth of the average US bank CEO increased by $24 for every $1000 created for shareholders. They earned $1 million for every 1 per cent rise in the value of their bank. But such equity-based contracts also set up some peculiar risk incentives. In the 19th century, managers monitored shareholders who monitored managers; in the 21st, managers egged on shareholders who egged on managers. The results have been entirely predictable. Before the crisis, the top five equity stakes were held by the CEOs of the following US banks: Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Countrywide. We know how these disaster movies ended.

The evolution of banking as I have described it has satisfied the immediate demands of shareholders and managers, but has short-changed everyone else. There is a compelling case for policy intervention. The best proposals for reform are those which aim to reshape risk-taking incentives on a durable basis. Perhaps the most obvious way to tackle shareholder-led incentive problems is to increase banks' equity capital base. This directly reduces their leverage and therefore the scale of the risks they can take. And it increases banks' capacity to absorb losses, reducing the need for taxpayer intervention. Over the past few years, this case has been pushed by regulatory reformers. Under the so‑called Basel III agreements struck in 2010, banks' minimum equity capital ratios will rise fivefold over the next decade, from 2 per cent to close to 10 per cent of assets for the largest global banks. That is a significant shift. Will it be enough?

Recent academic studies suggest not.

Posted by orrinj at 5:11 PM


QUADZILLA: Aksel Svindal has three Olympic medals, two World Cup titles, and the affections of fellow ski racer Julia Mancuso. But can he transcend the sport and become the next Hermann Maier? HAMPTON SIDES tracks down the Norwegian beast slopeside to talk about the 2007 crash that nearly ended his career and his chances of dominating the 2012 World Cup. (HAMPTON SIDES, March 2012, Outside)

Nearly all sports champions have a defining moment that exposes something profound in their character and summons a previously unseen dimension of greatness. For Svindal that moment began on a training run here at Birds of Prey almost exactly four years ago, on this same downhill course. It was November 27, 2007, a cold, overcast Tuesday. Svindal was 24 years old then, the reigning king of the World Cup ski-racing circuit. Going into the race, he was right where he wanted to be: first place in the standings for best overall World Cup skier. "I was on fire," Svindal said. "I didn't think anything could go wrong."

But something about the piste that day wasn't quite right. A dearth of storms that fall had forced Beaver Creek officials to spray down layer after layer of artificial snow. The coverage was still a little thin in places, and the course was erratic, full of unforgiving bumps and dips. The third skier out of the chute, Austrian Andreas Buder, promptly crashed, bruising his heel so severely that he would be out of commission for weeks. Several other skiers remarked on the tricky conditions. After his run, Didier Cuche, a Swiss champion hot on Svindal's trail for the overall title, expressed his reservations. "If you make an edge mistake," he said, "you're going to fly--but not in the right way."

A few moments into his run that day, Svindal dropped over the Brink, a terrifying transition roughly akin to plummeting over a waterfall. Within seconds, he accelerated from 35 mph to 60. At six feet three inches and 220 pounds, Svindal is one of the biggest skiers on the World Cup circuit, and his considerable mass helped him gather even more speed in the midsection of the course.  

By the time he flew over the Screech Owl jump, Svindal realized he was having one of the runs of his life. "I was hitting everything perfectly," he said. He had never gone faster, never skied a tighter line or felt so in tune with the flow of the mountain. It was almost surreally quiet, only the wind gushing in his ears and the occasional fan hooting somewhere beyond the safety fences.

Today, as I watch Svindal approach the flats that lead toward the course's biggest obstacle, a notorious spot called the Golden Eagle Jump, I cringe when I think of what happened here in 2007. Just before the lip on that fateful morning, Svindal hit a slight compression that threw him off balance. With all the speed he was carrying, his skis scooted out in front of him, just a little, so that when he reached the jump, he was leaning back--exactly the wrong posture. The G-forces he'd so carefully harnessed during his extraordinary run now rearranged themselves into something hideous.

"As soon as I was airborne, I knew it was going to be bad," he said. In the updraft, his skis tipped backward, throwing him into a long, terrible arc. He attempted to correct himself, trying in vain to best the laws of physics. His arms instinctively flailed in desperation--rolling down the windows, as racers say--but it was no use. As he vaulted through the air, his body kept rotating backward.

"You hope you're going to save yourself," he said. "But once you can't see the snow anymore, you don't even know where to land." His skis were now in the intensely compromising position that some coaches call bases to the sun. Svindal had given up trying to right himself and was twisting his torso sideways, to the snow, in order to protect his neck from the coming fall. 

At this point, he was traveling 72 mph--flying, but not in the right way. When he finally collided with the ground, along a stretch of course known as the Abyss, Svindal had sailed 197 feet through the air.   
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Posted by orrinj at 3:54 PM


Bitter Sweet: How Big Sugar Robs You (Michael Wohlgenant and Vincent H. Smith, February 14, 2012, The American)

For decades, sugar beet and sugar cane farmers and processors have been the beneficiaries of a sugar program that stealthily drives up sugar costs--and, consequently, the cost of that heart-shaped box of chocolates. Over the past 30 years, the annual burden on U.S. consumers has averaged over $3 billion in higher food prices.

The "no-romance" sugar program has largely been ignored by legislators and groups concerned with tax burdens because there are no direct federal subsidies for the sugar industry. Instead, U.S. sugar policy raises prices indirectly by taxing consumers through the marketplace. A system of import quotas and domestic supply controls works to raise sugar prices for households and food processors to a target level of 23.3 cents per pound of raw sugar when world prices fall below that amount. This system drives up consumer food prices and destroys jobs in the food processing sector because of reduced competitiveness in the global marketplace.

Over the 30-year period from 1980 through 2009, the sugar program effectively doubled the price U.S. consumers paid for sugar and increased annual food costs by about $9 per person. That may not sound like a big price tag, but it resulted in a $1.3 billion deadweight loss for the U.S. economy (think of all the extra money that could've been spent on red roses and high-end confectionary!). And how did the sugar farmers, who are fewer than 20,000 in number and relatively wealthy, fare? They received a $1.7 billion net gain.

How Big Sugar gets its way (Virginia Chamlee, 09.19.11, Florida Independent)

As one of Florida's top agricultural commodities, sugar has a lot to lose from regulations and a lot to gain from agricultural legislation. So the top companies spread campaign donations fairly evenly between Republicans and Democrats across the country, and are often rewarded with support.

During the 2010 cycle, U.S. Sugar donated $12,400 to then-Rep. Allen Boyd, while PACs and individuals working with Flo-Sun gave $16,000 and American Crystal Sugar gave $10,000. Sugar companies have also given heavily to Reps. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, and Tom Rooney, R-Stuart. Ross' second-largest contributor has been Flo-Sun; individuals working for the company donated at least $13,000 to his campaigns since 2009.

It is no surprise, then, that Boyd (before losing his 2010 reelection bid), Ross and Rooney have all crusaded against environmental regulations. The three have been especially vocal about the EPA's "numeric nutrient criteria," which could potentially affect agricultural interests including sugar, whose nutrient-laden effluent often makes its way into state waterways, causing noxious algal blooms and fish kills.

According to OpenSecrets, Big Sugar gave more than $4.2 million to federal candidates and party committees during the 2008 election cycle alone, 63 percent of which went to Democrats.

Companies with ties to Florida Crystals (which has contributed nearly $4.5 million to campaigns since 1991) gave at least $100,000 to now-Gov. Rick Scott's gubernatorial campaign. The head of Florida Crystals also hosted a large campaign fundraiser for Scott only four weeks after he blasted the company's rival -- U.S. Sugar -- over its role in a planned Everglades restoration project.

Adam Putnam, meanwhile, was one of the group's largest recipients in 2002, when he was running for reelection as a congressman. Big Sugar donated at least $61,000 to Putnam's successful 2010 campaign to become the Florida agriculture commissioner. Shortly after taking office, Putnam sought to delay a ban on sugary drinks in Florida public schools.

"We have been blessed in that the support for farm policies and sugar policies has not been a partisan issue."
The lobbying arm of U.S. Sugar is enormously powerful. In 2009, crop producers spent more than $20.5 million on federal lobbying. 

Posted by orrinj at 10:05 AM


GOP HEAVIES MAY SEEK NEW HORSE IF MITT BUCKED ON FEB. 28: 'If Romney cannot win Michigan, we need a new candidate' -- Doing the Hail Mary math (MIKE ALLEN,  02/18/12, Politico)

Our friend handed us a printout of FEC deadlines for ballot access, with five of them circled and starred: California (March 23), Montana (March 12), New Jersey (April 2), New Mexico (March 16) and South Dakota (March 27). The point: Even after Feb. 28, it might be possible to assemble a Hail Mary candidacy that could garner enough delegates to force a CONTESTED convention (a different nuance than BROKERED, which implies that someone is in charge).

Under RNC rules, the delegate count builds slowly: just 15% before Super Tuesday, March 6; 19% through Super Tuesday (brings you to 34%); 17% in the rest of March (brings you to 51%); with 48% in April, May and June (21%, 12%, 15%).

Our friend said: "If somebody came on the scene that week after Super Tuesday with, 'I'm coming in. I'm taking a look at this,' there are enough delegates. He would suck all the oxygen out of the race. People wouldn't even give a s[***] who won on these other dates in March that are after Super Tuesday. I mean, seriously, who would care?  It would all be about a new savior."

The very reason that such scenarios are dismissed--they're just about politicos praying for some excitement in the process--is exactly why it would work, because it would be so exciting.  Jeb would dominate the news until the Summer, when politics ceases to exist for several months, and then you just have that Labor Day to Election Day tussle.  No one would even get a chance to be sick of him before the whole thing was over.
Posted by orrinj at 9:58 AM


The War on Wyden: For daring to work on Medicare reform with Republican Paul Ryan, the Democratic senator from Oregon is lambasted by keepers of the liberal flame. (Kimberley A., Strassel, 2/16/12, WSJ)

Mr. Wyden has been stressing to colleagues that this joint proposal is different from Mr. Ryan's initial reform--which Democrats attacked--and offers plenty to reassure his party. It preserves the option for seniors to stay in government-run Medicare, makes Mr. Ryan's "premium support" plan more generous, even adds a catastrophic benefit. Mr. Wyden notes there'd have been no plan had not Mr. Ryan agreed to "traditional Medicare remaining a permanent part of the program," a fact, he says, that rebuts any notion of it "withering on the vine."

The real problem, he acknowledges, is ideological opposition to any private-sector involvement--a position that frustrates the senator, since it is already reality. More than 40% of Oregon seniors already use private coverage, through Medicare Advantage or Medigap.

"This is a disconnected conversation," he pronounces. The Wyden-Ryan bill is simply acknowledgment that any serious entitlement reform must encompass choice and markets.

That's been clear since the 1990s, when Democrats like John Breaux and Bob Kerrey came out for premium support. 

Medicare Reform Faces Reality (Joseph Antos, February 17, 2012, The American)

The Coburn-Burr solution is premium support, a system based on fair and open competition that gives the health sector a reason to find more efficient ways to deliver necessary care. Medicare would move from a defined-benefit program, which promises unconstrained fee-for-service payment for covered benefits, to a defined-contribution plan, which gives consumers the resources to choose a health plan that best meets their needs.

All the plans, including traditional Medicare, would bid against each other and would have an incentive to seek more efficient ways of delivering necessary care. No senior would be forced to leave traditional Medicare, but a better deal might be found in one of the competing plans that can offer the full benefit package for less.

Rather than waiting a decade to make this fundamental reform, Coburn and Burr would start competitive bidding in 2016. They recognize that delaying competitive bidding means delaying the efficiencies that the health sector will implement when given the financial incentive. Why wait when delay only means wasting more money?

Premium support with competitive bidding has the potential to save the taxpayers substantial sums without forcing seniors to pay more for their Medicare benefits. A recent AEI report shows that one form of competitive bidding could reduce Medicare outlays by $339 billion over the next decade without cutting benefits. If we do not find a way to achieve savings of this magnitude, Medicare will become an increasingly difficult burden on younger people, who pay most of the program's costs through their taxes.

Other steps must also be taken. Medicare enrollees are going to have to pay higher premiums, and doctors are going to have to accept today's payment rates for the next few years. Wealthier seniors will pay more out of their own pockets for their healthcare, and millionaires on Medicare will have to pay the full cost of coverage themselves. Medicare's eligibility age will gradually increase to 67. One clear improvement: Medicare will become a more streamlined benefit that, for the first time, offers protection against catastrophic expenses.

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Posted by orrinj at 9:55 AM

Joe Louis Walker In Concert From World Cafe (NPR, February 17, 2012

After 50 years of music, the modern blues icon continues to churn out powerful, gritty, heavy blues rock.

Posted by orrinj at 9:53 AM


The cool new Palestinians: geeks: The West Bank and Gaza Strip is home to hundreds of tech companies, creating everything from websites to smart phone apps. (Jackie Spinner, February 18, 2012, CS Monitor)

Until now, the primary Palestinian contribution to technology has been outsourcing programmers and engineers to firms in the United States and Israel, including Google and Cisco Systems.

But these new entrepreneurs want to do more. They want to create companies based on their own ideas and hire people to implement them. Already their ventures range from smart phone apps to Web design.

Crucially, the community is now beginning to attract investors. 
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Posted by orrinj at 9:34 AM


Why Obamacare is good for America (Dede de Percin, 2/19/12, Denver Post)

People without public or private insurance coverage are costly to all of us. In a familiar mechanism called "cost-shifting," hospitals charge higher rates for services to those with insurance in order to offset the losses from uncompensated emergency department care. Insurers raise rates to cover the cost of inflated bills, and the uninsured and underinsured are sent to collection agencies and/or forced into bankruptcy. Companies respond by scaling back on or eliminating health care benefits for their employees, and more Coloradans fall from the insured universe.

Indeed, small businesses have struggled for years with the double whammy of escalating health care premium costs and the inability to secure the better rates that large companies are able to negotiate. Now business owners with fewer than 25 workers may qualify for tax credits to help pay for employee health care benefits, thanks to Obamacare. These tax credits inspired some business owners to start offering health care coverage benefits for the first time and allowed other struggling entrepreneurs to continue offering benefits in a challenging economy.

Obamacare is starting to hold insurance companies accountable, controlling the runaway costs that prevent Coloradans from access to health care. For example, insurers must now justify premium rate hikes. Just last month, the Department of Health and Human Services found that a Pennsylvania insurance company's proposed rate increase of 12 percent was unjustified in relation to the benefits provided, and urged the insurer to rescind the rate, issue refunds or publicly explain their refusal to do so. While some states, including Colorado, were already regulating rate increases, before Obamacare there were no national limits on what insurers could charge as administrative costs. Now at least 80 cents of every dollar must be spent on actual medical care. [...]

A major cost-containment initiative of Obamacare is the exchange. In 2014, Coloradans will be able to purchase affordable insurance in the Colorado Health Benefits Exchange, a statewide nonprofit organization. Intended to be a competitive, online marketplace similar to Travelocity, Coloradans will be able to easily compare insurance plans. Subsidies to purchase a product will be available on a sliding scale based on income (an estimated 590,000 individuals in Colorado will be eligible), meaning many currently uninsured will be able to afford coverage.

While most Coloradans will continue to receive their coverage through work, small businesses and individuals finding it difficult to find affordable health coverage will be able to do so on the exchange, governed by a politically balanced board of directors.

Even members of Congress will receive their health care coverage through the exchange, ensuring that even our elected leaders will have some skin in the game.

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Posted by orrinj at 9:03 AM


The Kid (Joe Posnanski, 2/17/12, Sports Illustrated)

Everyone assumed that Gary Carter was going to play college football. He had twice been a Punt, Pass and Kick finalist -- he would always say that he should have won the second time, but he slipped on the ice in the bitter cold of Green Bay -- and he had a scholarship waiting for him at UCLA. He looked the part of the star quarterback; he would say that his dream was to be the next Joe Namath.

But legendary scout Bob Zuk -- who had signed Willie Stargell and Darrell Evans and so many others -- saw Gary Carter play baseball. He was blown away. It wasn't just the talent; anyone could see Carter's strong arm and hitting power. Zuk was an old-time scout, the sort who believed that he could see beyond talent, beyond tools, and peer deep into a player's soul. Carter's soul was there on the surface -- he played baseball with so much energy and life and excitement. Zuk told the Montreal Expos management that they had to see this guy. The Expos drafted him in the third round. Soon after that, he went to spring training and was dubbed Kid. Soon after that, he finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting. And in time, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Carter was a fabulous player in Montreal, and a very good one for a while in New York. He hit with power -- nine times he hit between 20 and 32 homers, this in times where those home run numbers meant something. He was a smart, tough catcher who could really throw -- three times he led the league in caught-stealing percentage. He might have been the best player in the National League in 1982. He led the league in RBIs in 1984. He made every All-Star Game for 10 years. And, of course, he refused to make the last out of the 1986 World Series, and was one of the key players in one of the most jolting and memorable comebacks in the history of the game.

But for some reason, it always seemed to me, Carter was never quite as big a star as he should have been. The Montreal teams he played on seemed to underachieve annually -- he took blame for that. His clean-cut image and personality did not quite fit in with those wild New York Mets teams -- he took blame for that, too. He played years past his prime -- and for four different teams in his last four years -- which probably led people to lose sight of his greatness. His relatively low batting averages (Carter never hit .300 for a full season) played a role, too.

There was also just this too-good-to-be-true thing going with Gary Carter -- he didn't drink, didn't smoke, seemed to be happily married to the same woman, studied the Bible, gave good quotes, smiled for the camera, smiled for everybody, reached down to pick up garbage he happened to see anywhere near the field. Teammates, many of them, just didn't quite get him. Strangers, many of them, were suspicious. There he was, in late August, still smiling while their bodies ached, still going full speed when the temperature was scorching 100, still the Kid, long after most of the others had grown up.

Certainly the most poignant tributes have come from former teammates like Daryl Strawberry and Wally Backman, who've expressed the wish that they had lived their lives as he lived his.

He was never quite as good as a Met as he had been as an Expo, not atypical for an aging catcher, but he was right in the middle of the two greatest games in Met history, maybe the two best ever:

25 Years Later: Mets And Astros Play The "Other" Game 6 (Ed Leyro, Mets Merized)

Jesse Orosco was called upon to pitch the bottom of the 14th for the Mets, as McDowell had been removed for pinch-hitter Howard Johnson in the top of the inning.  After his five-inning, 58-pitch effort, McDowell was done for the late afternoon/early evening and it was up to Orosco to deliver the pennant.  His first batter was Bill Doran.

Doran was a speedy second baseman for the Astros who made excellent contact and had one of the best eyes in the league.  With 42 stolen bases in 1986, Doran placed fifth in the NL in that category.  He also finished fifth with 81 walks and was one of the toughest batters to strike out (57 Ks in 550 at-bats).  Doran's eye for strikes became even better in the postseason, as he had fanned only once in his first 25 postseason at-bats up to that point.  So what did Doran do as he faced Orosco in what quite possibly could have been his last at-bat of the season?  He struck out on four pitches.

The next batter was centerfielder Billy Hatcher.  Hatcher had just finished his first full season with the Astros after playing in 61 games for the Cubs in 1984 and 1985.  He had never been considered a power threat and was not a top candidate to get on base, as evidenced by his eight home runs in his first 641 career plate appearances and his .297 on-base percentage.  Hatcher had gone 5-for-23 in the series and should have been an easy out for Orosco, as he had never gotten a hit off the Mets' reliever in four career plate appearances.  But with a full count on him, Hatcher hit one of most memorable home runs in postseason history, crushing Orosco's offering to deep left field.  The ball was hit far enough, but would it stay fair?  That question was answered as the ball hit the screen attached to the foul pole, rolling down said screen, washing away the Mets' 14th inning pennant hopes.  The game was now tied, 4-4, and Orosco's save situation had now turned into a "let's get out of this inning alive" situation.

With the three and four hitters coming up, including the dangerous Glenn Davis, Orosco had to settle down or else a seventh game against Mike Scott would become a shocking reality.  The Mets' veteran got back on the mound and promptly retired Denny Walling and Davis on a weak grounder to first and a pop-up to second, respectively, to end the inning.  The game, which had already reached epic proportions, would go on.

Stunningly, despite his best efforts to blow the game for the Astros in the 14th inning, Aurelio Lopez was still on the mound for the 15th, but this time he fared better against the Mets, allowing only a two-out single to Gary Carter.  With Darryl Strawberry at the plate, Lopez threw a 1-1 pitch wildly, but Carter was thrown out at second base by catcher Alan Ashby to end the inning.

Orosco also went back to the hill for the bottom of the 15th, and he did even better than Lopez, striking out Kevin Bass and Jose Cruz to start the inning, before getting Alan Ashby to ground out to Wally Backman for the final out.  The 16th inning was upon us, only one day and 2,000 miles after the Mets and Astros had played 12 scintillating innings in New York.  Something had to give after 27 innings of pulse-pounding baseball.  Something did give when the Mets came to bat in the top of the 16th.

After his relatively easy 15th inning, Lopez was given the ball again to start the 16th, but this time he wouldn't be so lucky.  Darryl Strawberry, who was given a fresh turn at-bat after Gary Carter ran his way into the final out in the previous inning, led off the 16th with a double.  He was followed by Ray Knight, who delivered an opposite field single to score Strawberry from second.  That was it for Aurelio Lopez, who was removed from the game for Jeff Calhoun.  With Wally Backman at the plate and an 0-2 count on him, Calhoun uncorked a wild pitch, sending Knight to third.  Backman fought back from the 0-2 hole and was able to draw a walk.

Next came Jesse Orosco, who was allowed to stay in the game to sacrifice Backman over to second.  On the very first pitch to Jesse, who had already squared around to bunt, Calhoun threw another wild pitch, scoring Ray Knight and moving Wally Backman to second.  The Mets were now up by two runs in the 16th, but they were not done yet.  Orosco laid down a successful sacrifice, with Backman taking third on the play, and Lenny Dykstra drove him in with a single to right, giving the Mets a 7-4 lead.  Even though Mookie Wilson ended the inning by grounding into a double play, the Mets surely had to be happy with their three-run lead.  This time, they weren't going to give up the lead like they did in the 14th, especially with the Astros riding on fumes, right?  Unfortunately for the Mets and their fans, those fumes had one more rally left in them.

The bottom of the 16th began as the 14th inning had, with Jesse Orosco striking out the first batter (in this case, it was Craig Reynolds) to bring the Mets within two outs of winning the National League pennant.  But then Orosco started showing fatigue of his own, allowing the next three batters to reach base.  Pinch-hitter Davey Lopes started the rally with a walk, followed by consecutive singles by Bill Doran and Billy Hatcher.  The latter single scored Lopes from second base and put the tying runs on base for Denny Walling.

Davey Johnson could have taken Orosco out of the game there, especially since both singles by Doran and Hatcher were hit on the first pitch, but the Mets manager stayed with his veteran closer, hoping he would reward his faith in him by getting the final two outs of the game.  It seemed as if Orosco would get out of the jam and deliver the pennant to New York when Denny Walling hit a ground ball to Keith Hernandez, who attempted to start an inning-ending double play.  However, the ball wasn't hit hard enough and the only out the Mets could get was a forceout of Billy Hatcher at second base.  The Astros now had runners on first and third and Glenn Davis was coming up.  A home run by the Astros' slugger would give Houston the improbable victory, adding more suspense to an already tense moment.  Although the left-handed Orosco didn't give in to the right-handed Davis, he still wasn't able to send him back to the dugout, as Davis produced a run-scoring single to center, scoring Doran and moving Walling to second base.  The game was now 7-6, and the tying and winning runs were on base for Kevin Bass.

Bass had already committed a mistake in the game way back in the first inning (hence the "more on him later" 21 paragraphs ago) when he got tagged out by Bob Ojeda trying to score on a failed double steal attempt.  Had Bass not made that gaffe, the game might have ended after nine innings.  Instead, the Mets and Astros were playing on into the Houston night in a game that seemingly did not want to end.

Baseball is a game of redeeming features, and Bass was being given a second opportunity to make up for his costly first inning baserunning error.  Orosco was one out away from giving the Mets a hard-fought pennant, but was not making it easy for himself or his team.  After going to a 3-2 count on Bass, Keith Hernandez came over to the mound to deliver an ultimatum to Orosco.

"If you throw him another fastball, we're going to fight."

With those words, Jesse buckled down, looked in at catcher Gary Carter's signs and threw Kevin Bass a full-count slider.  In a moment that will forever live on in the minds and hearts of Mets fans, Bass flailed wildly at the pitch, striking out on the 3-2 offering and touching off a wild celebration on the Astrodome mound and on the streets of New York.

If I recall correctly, Hernandez was actually speaking to Carter, who was trying to preserve his pitcher's aching elbow.

Fighting To the End: New York's No-Nonsense Approach To Baseball (Ash Marshall, 3/10/10, Bleacher Report)

In the bottom of the 10th inning, Eric Davis--pinch running for Pete Rose--stole second and then slid hard into third, getting into a fight with Mets third baseman Ray Knight. The benches emptied and the teams brawled: Kevin Mitchell raced in from right field, and Reds' pitcher Mario Soto, the losing pitcher from the day before, also got involved. 16 minutes later, Ray Knight emerged from the pile, bodies strewn everywhere.

All four men were ejected, forcing Davey Johnson to play All-Star reliever Jesse Orosco in right field for three innings, reliever Roger McDowell in both left and right field, and catcher Gary Carter at third base (for four innings, no less) for just the second time in his career.

But the excitement didn't end there. In the bottom of the 12th inning, with the game still tied at 3-3, the Reds had runners on first and second with nobody out, threatening to win the game. Carl Willis, who had just retired the Mets one-two-three in the top of the frame, looked to move the winning run 90 feet away, but he bunted into a double play, first-to-third.

The Mets went on to win the game in the 14th inning when Howard Johnson hit a three-run home run, and Roger McDowell, who had recorded three outs in the 11th inning before playing the outfield, came back in to get three ground ball outs to seal the victory.

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Posted by orrinj at 8:56 AM


Ex-NFL players sue league in La. over concussions (AP, 2/18/12)

Nearly a dozen former NFL players living in Louisiana have sued the NFL, the latest players to accuse the league of failing to protect players from the risks associated with concussions.

Several former New Orleans Saints players, including John Fourcade, are among the 11 ex-players named as plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit filed Friday in federal court in New Orleans. The lawsuit says each of them has developed mental or physical problems from concussions or concussion-like symptoms.

Several similar suits blaming the NFL for concussion-related dementia and brain disease already have been consolidated in Philadelphia. James Dugan, a lawyer for the former players from Louisiana, said he expects the case to be transferred to Philadelphia within a month.

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Posted by orrinj at 8:53 AM


Congress to Sell Public Airwaves to Pay Benefits (EDWARD WYATT and JENNIFER STEINHAUER, 2/17/12, NY Times)

The need for revenue to partly cover the extension of the payroll tax cut and long-term unemployment benefits has pushed Congress to embrace a generational shift in the country's media landscape: the auction of public airwaves now used for television broadcasts to create more wireless Internet systems.

If a compromise bill completed Thursday by Congress is approved as expected by this weekend, the result will eventually be faster connections for smartphones, iPads and other data-hungry mobile devices. Their explosive popularity has overwhelmed the ability, particularly in big cities, for systems to quickly download maps, video games and movies. [...]

The spectrum auctions are at least one to two years away, but most of the programs they pay for would be covered immediately. Consumers are unlikely to see additional charges since the auction would add new spectrum rather than adding to the costs of existing spectrum.

The payroll tax exemption would be extended through the end of this year, providing a worker earning $50,000 annually with $1,000 more in take-home pay over that time. The bill would also prevent a reimbursement cut for doctors who accept Medicare.

The legislation is the result of an unusual degree of cooperation between two parties that have fought bitterly over recent issues, and members of the conference committee that negotiated the deal played to the cameras on Thursday. One by one, members filed into the office of the committee's chairman, Representative Dave Camp, Republican from Michigan, to sign the papers splayed out neatly on a large table that rested under an ornate chandelier.

Mr. Camp and his chief negotiating partner, Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, linked hands for the cameras, as Mr. Baucus said helpfully for anyone who did not get the visual cue: "Working together!"

Posted by orrinj at 8:49 AM


John Fairfax, Who Rowed Across Oceans, Dies at 74 (MARGALIT FOX, 2/18/12, NY Times)

Mr. Fairfax was among the last avatars of a centuries-old figure: the lone-wolf explorer, whose exploits are conceived to satisfy few but himself. His was a solitary, contemplative art that has been all but lost amid the contrived derring-do of adventure-based reality television.

The only child of an English father and a Bulgarian mother, John Fairfax was born on May 21, 1937, in Rome, where his mother had family; he scarcely knew his father, who worked in London for the BBC.

Seeking to give her son structure, his mother enrolled him at 6 in the Italian Boy Scouts. It was there, Mr. Fairfax said, that he acquired his love of nature -- and his determination to bend it to his will.

On a camping trip when he was 9, John concluded a fight with another boy by filching the scoutmaster's pistol and shooting up the campsite. No one was injured, but his scouting career was over.

His parents' marriage dissolved soon afterward, and he moved with his mother to Buenos Aires. A bright, impassioned dreamer, he devoured tales of adventure, including an account of the voyage of Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo, Norwegians who in 1896 were the first to row across the Atlantic. John vowed that he would one day make the crossing alone.

At 13, in thrall to Tarzan, he ran away from home to live in the jungle. He survived there as a trapper with the aid of local peasants, returning to town periodically to sell the jaguar and ocelot skins he had collected.

He later studied literature and philosophy at a university in Buenos Aires and at 20, despondent over a failed love affair, resolved to kill himself by letting a jaguar attack him. When the planned confrontation ensued, however, reason prevailed -- as did the gun he had with him.

In Panama, he met a pirate, applied for a job as a pirate's apprentice and was taken on. He spent three years smuggling guns, liquor and cigarettes around the world, becoming captain of one of his boss's boats, work that gave him superb navigational skills.

When piracy lost its luster, he gave his boss the slip and fetched up in 1960s London, at loose ends. He revived his boyhood dream of crossing the ocean and, since his pirate duties had entailed no rowing, he began to train.

He rowed daily on the Serpentine, the lake in Hyde Park. Barely more than half a mile long, it was about one eight-thousandth the width of the Atlantic, but it would do.

On Jan. 20, 1969, Mr. Fairfax pushed off from the Canary Islands, bound for Florida. His 22-foot craft, the Britannia, was the Rolls-Royce of rowboats: made of mahogany, it had been created for the voyage by the eminent English boat designer Uffa Fox. It was self-righting, self-bailing and partly covered.

Aboard were provisions (Spam, oatmeal, brandy); water; and a temperamental radio. There was no support boat and no chase plane -- only Mr. Fairfax and the sea. He caught fish and sometimes boarded passing ships to cadge food, water and showers.

The long, empty days spawned a temporary madness. Desperate for female company, he talked ardently to the planet Venus.
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