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Germs, Viruses, and Secrets: How The Obama Administration is Addressing Biological Threats

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

When most of us think of “Cold War history”, we think of the Soviet Union and the United States building up massive nuclear arsenals, staring each other down over missiles in Cuba, or former Eastern and Western Europe. We think of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev, and Reagan.

But what most people don’t remember, or may not even know, is that the United States once had a biological weapons program, and that the former Soviet Union did too. I like to think of this as the “forgotten” legacy of the Cold War arms race. Just because the Cold War is over, doesn’t mean that the weapons programs’ legacy is nothing we need to worry about anymore.

So, let’s look at a little bit of history before we talk about the legacy of these weapons programs, and how they affect the world today.

History: Renouncing Biological Weapons… or not.

In November 1969, President Richard Nixon made the following announcement:

Biological weapons have massive, unpredictable and potentially uncontrollable consequences. They may produce global epidemics and impair the health of future generations. I have therefore decided that:

  • The United States shall renounce the use of lethal biological agents and weapons, and all other methods of biological warfare.
  • The United States will confine its biological research to defensive measures such as immunization and safety measures.
  • The Department of Defense has been asked to make recommendations as to the disposal of existing stocks of bacteriological weapons.

Nixon followed up his announcement with an executive order in 1972, formally terminating the United States’ biological weapons program. The United States, as well as the former Soviet Union both signed the “Biological Weapons Convention“, which formally went into effect in March 1975.

But there was one very big problem with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which has not yet been corrected:

The greatest weakness of the Convention has been its lack of mechanisms to verify the compliance of the States Parties. Unlike the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and the CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention], the BWC does not contain verification mechanism. As a result, there is less confidence that all members are in compliance, eroding the overall trust in the effectiveness of the BWC regime.

There are several examples of this “erosion of trust”; the most obvious one is the former Soviet Union’s absolutely massive biological weapons program, which continued beyond the end of the Cold War, into the 1990s. You can read more about it in David E. Hoffman’s recent book, The Dead Hand; he also described it in an interview I did with him several weeks ago.

The Evolving BWC

Since the BWC went into effect, there has been an ongoing effort to strengthen it, as well as to assess how best to address biological security threats through the convention framework. There have been review conferences every five years starting in 1980; you can read about the details of each conference here.

One critical result of these meetings was the establishment of an Ad Hoc Group that, in part, “focused the efforts of States Parties on some difficult issues, in particular the absence of a legally-binding verification mechanism.” In 2001, the chairman of the Ad Hoc Group issued a lengthy document [pdf] that proposed some critical changes:

  • the establishment of an Organization for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons (OPBW), with relevant bodies to monitor the implementation of the Convention and the Protocol
  • mandatory declarations of all relevant facilities and activities, including those in the area of biodefense
  • inspections that would take place at random, in order to make clarifications, and following allegations of noncompliance

However, to make a long story short, in July 2001, the Bush administration completely rejected these ideas, and subsequent talks collapsed that Fall in Geneva.

Then, of course, we all know what else happened in the Fall of 2001. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States became acutely aware of the concept of biological terrorism, when seven letters laced with anthrax spores were mailed to multiple locations, including the US Senate offices of former Senator Tom Daschle. Ten people died, and millions of dollars were spent on clean-up efforts.

By 2002, “Homeland Security” concerns and US biological defense efforts had become intertwined with their opposition to the protocol proposed by the Ad Hoc Group. The history is obviously complex, and there are no easy answers.

The Obama Administration and the BWC

At this point, it should be obvious why arms control experts have been interested to see how the Obama administration would address the ongoing issues, and they got their answer several weeks ago, when the Obama administration announced its “National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats” [pdf].

In order to better understand the significance and the details of the new national strategy, I had a lengthy chat with Dr. Jonathan Tucker, who is a Senior Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He is an expert in biological and chemical weapons, as well as the author of several books, including War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to al-Qaeda, and Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox.

I asked Dr. Tucker what the difference was between the Bush administration’s approach, and the Obama administration’s new strategy. He said:

Because Bush administration officials didn’t think it was possible to prevent a bioterrorist attack with any degree of likelihood, they focused on mitigating the consequences of an attack by beefing up domestic biodefense capabilities. In contrast, the Obama people view prevention as a major priority and plan to devote a lot of resources to it. That’s an important departure.

A second difference is that the Obama approach involves a much greater emphasis on multilateral engagement.

A third difference is that rather than focusing narrowly on the deliberate use of biological agents as weapons, the Obama strategy covers the full range of biological threats, from natural outbreaks of infectious disease (such as H1N1 influenza and SARS), to accidental releases from high-containment laboratories working with dangerous pathogens, to deliberate use by states or terrorist groups.

The specifics of what’s new and different with the Obama strategy are interesting. Tucker told me that:

One new development is that under the mantle of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Obama administration plans to assist poor countries to meet their obligations in the revised International Health Regulations (IHR), which were adopted in 2005 by the World Health Organization (WHO). These rules require all WHO member states to detect and rapidly contain outbreaks of infectious disease on their territories—whether natural or deliberate in origin—that could potentially cross national borders and affect other countries.

The Obama administration’s plan to help developing countries implement their IHR obligations under the auspices of the BWC is a significant departure.
Until recently, the WHO was wary of getting involved with security issues, particularly those involving biological weapons. The organization created a small unit in Geneva responsible for preparedness and response to bioterrorism, from a strictly public health perspective, but didn’t want to be politically tainted by getting involved with the BWC. That attitude now appears to have changed, and it’s a real paradigm shift. Conversely, the BWC process used to focus narrowly on security concerns but is now addressing the full spectrum of biological threats, from natural to accidental to deliberate. The new U.S. strategy document clearly reflects this holistic approach, which is a positive development.

However, there are some critical weaknesses. These, of course, have to do with verification and compliance. Tucker explained:

The main weakness of the Obama strategy is in dealing with BWC compliance concerns. Undersecretary Tauscher’s speech called for building confidence in compliance through greater transparency, but she mentioned only a few token transparency measures that the U.S. is prepared to take, such as inviting an international official to tour the National Interagency Biodefense Campus at Fort Detrick and posting U.S. confidence-building measure declarations on the Internet. Those steps are extremely modest. In fact, much more needs to be done to increase the transparency of the U.S. biodefense program, which has expanded dramatically since 2001 with a cumulative expenditure of roughly $50 billion. In view of growing international suspicions about the U.S. biodefense program, the Obama administration should take more meaningful steps to increase transparency than simply invite one foreign official to tour Fort Detrick.

So efforts toward transparency need to be stronger. Again, the critical weakness has to do with the lack of ability to verify non-compliance. We (or any other nation) can have all the suspicions we want, but there’s no way for us to prove anything. Just to stress his point, Tucker told me more:

A weakness of the Obama administration strategy is that it doesn’t include new measures for addressing the fundamental weakness at the heart of the BWC—the inability to detect and deter non-compliance. Although the U.S. has made public allegations that several BWC members (including China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia) are violating the treaty, at present there are no effective mechanisms for clarifying such allegations and compelling states to comply.

I can’t begin to emphasize how important it is that the BWC is, in some ways, a far more complex issue than discussing nuclear treaties and compliance. Those are relatively clear-cut; since the BWC does not address verification and compliance, it’s not so easy to draw lines in the sand. In particular, Dr. Tucker and I discussed the dual-use nature of biotechnology. He gave a startling example, from personal experience:

Biotechnology is dual-use. Nearly every item of equipment one needs to produce biological weapons has some legitimate, non-weapons-related application. Although a few specialized procedures for weaponizing biological agents are not dual-use, all of the items of production equipment — fermenters, concentrators, spray-driers, and so forth – have legitimate uses in research and industry.

In 1995, as a member of a UN bioweapons inspection team in Iraq, I visited an industrial microbiology plant outside Baghdad called Al Hakam, which was ostensibly producing single-cell protein in yeast as an animal-feed supplement. Just by looking at the facility, there was no way of knowing that it was a bioweapons plant: the fermentation tanks were exactly what you would expect for the declared use. But UN inspectors later determined on the basis of other evidence that before the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqis had produced large quantities of anthrax spores at Al Hakam for military use. As a result, the plant was razed to the ground in the summer of 1996.

To manufacture a military significant stockpile of chemical weapons, in the hundreds of metric tons, you would need one or more large chemical plants. Producing highly toxic and corrosive chemicals also requires certain types of equipment that are not commonly used in the commercial chemical industry, such as corrosion-resistant reactors and pipes made of a high-nickel steel alloy called Hastelloy, special air-handling systems, and so forth. In contrast, all of the production equipment in a bioweapons plant would be dual-use, although you might want to install specialized air-handling equipment to reduce the risk of accidental releases of deadly infectious agents into the surrounding environment.

Even here, however, Iraq cut corners on safety in order to avoid detection. For example, the Al Hakam factory had no air filters or specialized ventilation systems designed to create negative pressure and prevent dangerous pathogens from escaping. Because the Iraqi regime wanted to minimize the signatures of illicit bioweapons production, they were willing to sacrifice some of their workers and put nearby communities at risk in order to conceal the true nature of the facility. Thus, if countries seeking biological weapons are sufficiently ruthless in the way they go about it, it’s very difficult for outsiders to determine what is going on.

Finally, we discussed a parallel — and very related — concern. Our own biodefense program has the potential to cross some lines. I’ve written about this before, which is why I was curious about Dr. Tucker’s point of view. He said:

The dramatic expansion of the U.S. biodefense research complex over the past decade has raised a number of concerns. The 2001 anthrax letter attacks greatly heightened the nation’s preoccupation with biological threats and caused the Bush administration to make a huge investment in biodefense research, with an emphasis on biological threat assessment and the development of medical countermeasures. This effort soon acquired a life of its own, and states and localities began competing to get one of the expensive new biodefense labs. Yet there was no net assessment of how much high- and maximum-containment research space the nation really needs to deal with the spectrum of biological threats.

In recent years, biodefense has been one of the few areas of science to enjoy a sustained increase in U.S. government funding. As a result, the field has drawn a lot of microbiologists and other scientists away from research on infectious diseases of public health concern, such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, to work on those that are chiefly of biodefense concern, such as anthrax, plague, and brucellosis—infections that don’t kill many people naturally. Thus, one consequence of the biodefense boom has been a distortion of research priorities.

Another concern is that because of the thousands of scientists that have been drawn into biodefense research by the availability of generous funding, there’s a risk that a few of them may be “bad apples.” Indeed, after a seven-year investigation of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, the FBI now believes that the perpetrator was an insider – a government microbiologist working at Fort Detrick, the Army’s premier biodefense lab. So it turns out that “the enemy is us.”

It’s a great irony is that the anthrax letter attacks apparently came from within the U.S. government biodefense complex, because in response to that incident the Bush administration tripled the size of the complex. Today, some 14,000 people are authorized to work with pathogens and toxins of bioterrorism concern, known as “select agents.” By greatly increasing the number of people who know how to work with dangerous pathogens in order to develop defenses against them, we’ve increased the statistical risk that some of these individuals—for personal or ideological reasons—may decide to use their specialized know-how for harmful purposes. Thus, the biodefense boom has arguably increased the risk of an attack.

Beyond that, the sheer size and scope of the U.S. biodefense program has aroused suspicion on the part of other countries. There’s now a National Interagency Biodefense Campus at Fort Detrick that includes three maximum-containment labs: the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), the Integrated Research Facility run by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) under the Department of Homeland Security. Because NBACC does classified research, even some people I know at USAMRIID have no idea what goes on there. If U.S. Army scientists have questions about the secrecy surrounding NBACC, then the Russians and the Chinese must assume that the lab is involved in offensive research. I personally believe that those suspicions are unfounded, but they could still cause other countries to start hedging their bets, and soon we could find ourselves in the middle of a biological arms race.

The point is that in our efforts to defend against an attack, we may have increased the probability of one, plus the lack of transparency with biodefense research doesn’t exactly increase the “trust” factor with other countries.

Biological weapons, biological terrorism, and biological defense are all tied together as part of the incredibly complex national security picture that has been etched by the events of the past decade. It’s good to know that the Obama administration has a broader, more multilateral, inclusive approach to addressing biological threats, but the biggest problem remains, and I’ll paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s favorite quote:

Without verification, there cannot be trust.

There’s a lot of work to do in the future.


Apple Stocks Soar To All-Time High Amid Tablet Computer Rumors

December 25th, 2009 admin No comments

Santa arrived early for Apple Inc. shareholders: The stock surged $6.94, or 3.4%, on Thursday to close at a record high of $209.04. That topped the previous closing high of $207 on Nov. 17.

The buzz continues to build about the company’s widely anticipated — albeit unconfirmed — tablet computer. The Financial Times reported that Apple has rented a stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in late January, most likely for a product announcement.

More on Apple


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Apple Stocks Soar To All-Time High Amid Tablet Computer Rumors

December 25th, 2009 admin No comments

Santa arrived early for Apple Inc. shareholders: The stock surged $6.94, or 3.4%, on Thursday to close at a record high of $209.04. That topped the previous closing high of $207 on Nov. 17.

The buzz continues to build about the company’s widely anticipated — albeit unconfirmed — tablet computer. The Financial Times reported that Apple has rented a stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in late January, most likely for a product announcement.

More on Apple


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Well, OK Then

December 23rd, 2009 admin No comments

President Barack Obama said Monday that Congress should approve a final healthcare bill even if it doesn’t include a public option.

Obama said the House and Senate bills are 95 percent “identical” and downplayed the fact that final legislation is unlikely to include a public health insurance option during an Oval Office interview with American Urban Radio Networks’ April Ryan.

“There’s 5 percent differences, and one of those differences is the public option,” Obama said.

“But this is an area that has just become symbolic of a lot of ideological fights. As a practical matter, this is not the most important aspect to this bill — the House bill or the Senate bill.”
…..

“But either way, whether there’s a public option in there or not, if you don’t have health insurance, you are going to have now the option of getting it at a reasonable cost,” Obama said. “And that’s the most important thing.”

That would have saved us all a lot of headaches if we’d heard it from the beginning, instead of this from June, or in September, or back during the presidential campaign. I guess that settles once and for all whether he’ll push for a public option in the House-Senate conference. Ah, well. And another not so minor quibble–it’s less an “option” the American people are getting to buy private health insurance as a mandate, albeit with assistance for many, to do so.

Beyond that, however, the public option isn’t an “ideological” triviality. It’s been recognized by health economists all the way from Paul Krugman to the wonks at the CBO as a significant means of cost control. You have to look no further than Medicare to know the power it has to save money. And the power it has to scare the crap out of the insurance industry. But calling it an ideological fight diminishes the substantive critiques from the left without actually having to address them on the merits.

The ever diminishing role of the public option in Obama’s vision for reform is illustrative of what Drew Westen (Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies), wrote about yesterday in critiquing Obama as leader.

What’s costing the president are three things: a laissez faire style of leadership that appears weak and removed to everyday Americans, a failure to articulate and defend any coherent ideological position on virtually anything, and a widespread perception that he cares more about special interests like bank, credit card, oil and coal, and health and pharmaceutical companies than he does about the people they are shafting….

Consider the president’s leadership style, which has now become clear: deliver a moving speech, move on, and when push comes to shove, leave it to others to decide what to do if there’s a conflict, because if there’s a conflict, he doesn’t want to be anywhere near it.

Health care is a paradigm case. When the president went to speak to the Democrats last week on Capitol Hill, he exhorted them to pass the bill. According to reports, though, he didn’t mention the two issues in the way of doing that, the efforts of Senators like Ben Nelson to use this as an opportunity to turn back the clock on abortion by 25 years, and the efforts of conservative and industry-owned Democrats to eliminate any competition for the insurance companies that pay their campaign bills. He simply ignored both controversies and exhorted.

Leadership means heading into the eye of the storm and bringing the vessel of state home safely, not going as far inland as you can because it’s uncomfortable on the high seas. This president has a particular aversion to battling back gusting winds from his starboard side (the right, for the nautically challenged) and tends to give in to them. He just can’t tolerate conflict, and the result is that he refuses to lead….

The time for exhortation is over. FDR didn’t exhort robber barons to stem the redistribution of wealth from working Americans to the upper 1 percent, and neither did his fifth cousin Teddy. Both men told the most powerful men in the United States that they weren’t going to rip off the American people any more, and they backed up their words with actions. Teddy Roosevelt was clear that capital gains taxes should be high relative to income taxes because we should reward work, not “gambling in stocks.” This President just doesn’t have the stomach to make anyone do anything they don’t want to do (except women to have unwanted babies because they can’t afford an abortion or live in a red state and don’t have an employer who offers insurance), and his advisors are enabling his most troubling character flaw, his conflict-avoidance.

Drew Westen isn’t just any guy with a computer. He’s an expert on political communication, the guy who wrote The Political Brain, and as digby says, the “it boy” of the Democratic party. Corporations winning again (remember, they declared victory when Lieberman killed the public option) in this bill reinforces his critique. But right now, in this economy and at a time when so many people are strugging so mightily, this could have been a powerful win for the people.


Categories: Politics Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Dan Solin: Business Week or "Business Weak"?

December 23rd, 2009 admin No comments

Does selling magazines justify harming investors by writing irresponsible articles about the financial markets? Apparently, Business Week believes it does. At the end of each year, it shamelessly publishes its “Investment Outlook” for the following year. Unfortunately, this year is no exception.

In its “2010 Investment Outlook,
Business Week peers into its crystal ball and tells investors to “figure out where wealth is being produced and grab a piece of it.” It doesn’t believe the U.S will have a “robust economic recovery”, in contrast to China or Brazil.

Its most irresponsible advice relates to stock picking. Here’s the data it uses to entice its readers to engage in this discredited practice: “An investor who miraculously managed to select the top 10 stocks in the world in each market sector each year for the eight years through December 2008 would have had a cumulative return of almost 7,000%.” Raise your hand if believe anyone did that.

The article encourages stock pickers to “roam the world for candidates.”

Before you rush out and start “roaming the world” for under priced stocks, let’s look at the track record of Business Week.

On December 20, 2007, it advised investors “Where to Put Your Cash in 2008.” The article was based on interviews with seven stock market analysts. It was a stellar group, including the Chief Investment Officer of UMB Financial, the Chief U.S. Equity Strategist of Citigroup, the Chief Investment Strategist of Strategas Research Partners, the Chairman of Schaeffer’s Investment Research, the Chief Investment Officer of BNY Mellon Wealth Management ( “wealth management” is a term that usually means the transfer of wealth from your pocket to your advisors), the Chief Investment Strategist of Banc of America Securities and the Chief U.S. Equity Strategist of UBS Investment Research.

Surely these leading investment experts were able to predict the worst market crash in fifty years, right?

Their predictions of where the DJIA would end in 2008 ranged from a low of 14,400 to a high of 15,300.

The DJIA closed at 8,776 on December 31, 2008.

In retrospect, some of the predictions of these “experts” are amusing, in a perverse way.

One expert predicted 2008 would bring “sustainability of robust earnings.” Citgroup’s Chief Strategist (a title which, in retrospect, seems like an oxymoron) advised investors to “buy beaten down financial and retailing stocks.”

Financial stocks lost 58% of their value in 2008.

Business Week extolled the virtues of one of its experts, noting that he was “rated as one of the best market strategists by Institutional Investor magazine” and that he had a “strong following among the sophisticated investors who run pensions and endowments.” How could you go wrong relying on a stock guru with those credentials?

He noted the “odds of a recession are low” and believed “U.S. stocks are a good buy in comparison with bonds.”

The recession of 2008 was the worst recession since the Great Depression. The S&P 500 fell 38.5% in 2008. I wonder how strong his following remains with those savvy managers of pensions and endowments.

Business Week could add credibility and strength by interviewing real “financial experts”, like William Bernstein, John Bogle, Burton Malkiel, Jonathan Clements, Jason Zweig, Michael Edesess, Eugene Fama and many others who would caution investors against relying on those who believe they can pick stocks or time the markets. Failing that, it should voluntarily add the kind of warnings mandated on cigarettes like: “Relying on these predictions can be harmful to your financial health.”

Otherwise, Business Week should change its name to “Business Weak.”

Dan Solin is the author of The Smartest Retirement Book You’ll Ever Read.

The views set forth in this blog are the opinions of the author alone and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with whom he is affiliated. The data, information, and content on this blog are for information, education, and non-commercial purposes only. Returns from index funds do not represent the performance of any investment advisory firm. The information on this blog does not involve the rendering of personalized investment advice and is limited to the dissemination of opinions on investing. No reader should construe these opinions as an offer of advisory services. Readers who require investment advice should retain the services of a competent investment professional. The information on this blog is not an offer to buy or sell, or a solicitation of any offer to buy or sell any securities or class of securities mentioned herein. Furthermore, the information on this blog should not be construed as an offer of advisory services. Please note that the author does not recommend specific securities nor is he responsible for comments made by persons posting on this blog.


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Arianna Huffington: The Senate Health Care Bill: Leave No Special Interest Behind

December 22nd, 2009 admin No comments

With Monday morning’s 1 a.m. 60-40 vote, the Senate’s health care bill took another step towards passage, prompting a fresh round of public celebrations. “I think it’s very exciting,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told HuffPost. “It’s a big day.”

Even many of those with serious reservations about the bill were slipping on their party hats. “Make no mistake about it,” said SEIU president Andy Stern, “for working Americans, this vote signals progress.”

And Paul Krugman, while calling the legislation “a seriously flawed bill we’ll spend years if not decades fixing,” applauded it as “an awesome achievement.”

This typifies the current thinking of the “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” crowd. Unfortunately, there are three faulty premises at work in this line of reasoning. First, that those who oppose the bill do so because it’s not perfect (as opposed to because it’s a hot health care mess). Second, that the bill is, well, good (as opposed to a total victory for Pharma and the insurance industry — witness the spectacular spike in health care stocks following Monday’s vote).

Third is the premise that this is as good a bill as we can get right now, and we can always go back and improve it later.

It doesn’t work that way. We heard the same kinds of sentiments about No Child Left Behind when it passed in 2001. Backers on both sides of the aisle had problems with it, but both sides celebrated it as a major step forward — and promised to make it better in the future.

“The agreement we reached reflects the best thinking of both sides,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman.

“This was a reform bill. We can’t have reform without resources, and that will be the next step,” said Sen. Tom Daschle.

“This is a good bill… And there are going to be many additional steps that will be necessary along the way, but all of us are committed to following in those steps,” said Sen. Ted Kennedy, the primary Democratic co-sponsor of the bill.

But despite the widespread commitment to taking the “many additional steps” needed, the steps were never taken, the resources were never allocated, the bill was never improved, and, indeed, is now generally regarded as a disaster (or, as Bill Clinton put it last year, “a train wreck”).

In an ominous sign of things to come, Vicki Reggie Kennedy, Sen. Kennedy’s widow, made many of the same arguments that were used in support of No Child Left Behind in her Washington Post op-ed promoting passage of the current health care bill.

It’s a moving piece of writing — and nobody doubts her late husband’s heartfelt dedication to health care reform. But nobody doubted his dedication to education reform, either.

If the miserable Senate health care bill becomes the law of the land, it’s only going to encourage the preservation of a hideously broken system. Just how broken the system is is summed up in the fate of Byron Dorgan’s drug re-importation amendment.

This is an idea that Obama co-sponsored when he was in the Senate and unequivocally championed on the campaign trail: “We’ll allow the safe re-importation of low-cost drugs from countries like Canada.”

But when Dorgan introduced an amendment that would do just that, the White House, sticking to the deal it made with the pharmaceutical industry, lobbied against it — and the commissioner of the supposedly non-political FDA just happened to release a letter citing “significant safety concerns” about all those dangerous drugs from Canada. Big Pharma’s many congressional lackeys trumpeted the letter and the amendment was killed.

But that didn’t stop David Axelrod from insisting in an interview with John King this weekend that “the president supports safe re-importation of drugs into this country. There’s no reason why Americans should pay a premium for the pharmaceuticals that people in other countries pay less for.”

No reason other than our broken system surrendering to the special interests.

From start to finish, the insurance and drug industries — and their army of lobbyists — had control over the process that resulted in a bill that is reform in name only. The postmortems of how they pulled it off have already begun. On Sunday, the Chicago Tribune published an exhaustive front-page analysis by Northwestern University’s Medill News Service and the Center for Responsive Politics of how it was done. The main culprit: “a revolving door between Capitol Hill staffers and lobbying jobs for companies with a stake in health care legislation.”

The study found that 13 former congressmen and 166 Congressional staffers were actively engaged in lobbying their former colleagues on the bill. The companies they were working for — some 338 of them — spent $635 million in the last two years on lobbying. It was money extremely well spent — delivering a bill that, by forcing people to buy a shoddy product in a market with no real competition, enshrines into law the public subsidy of private profit.

As we approach the end of Obama’s first year in office, this public subsidizing of private profit is becoming something of a habit. It is, after all, exactly what the White House did with the banks. Just as he did with insurance companies, Obama talked tough to the bankers in public but, when push came to shove, he ended up shoving public money onto their privately-held balance sheets.

This is not just bad policy, it’s bad politics.

Sharp-eyed opponents are already seizing on the opportunity to rebrand Obama and the Democrats as the party beholden to special interests.

Sunday night, just before the post-midnight vote was taken, John McCain took to the Senate floor and, hearkening back to his days as a crusader for campaign finance reform, lambasted Obama and the Democrats’ “negotiations with the special interests,” adding: “We should have set up a tent out in front and put Persian rugs in front of it. That’s the way that this has been conducted. So the special interests were taken care of, then we had to take care of special senators.”

This kind of populist rhetoric resonates with voters across the board, including independents. If Democrats cede this turf by celebrating a bill that is a victory for special interests and special senators, look for a lot more of this kind of rhetoric in the run-up to 2010.

President Bush brought us preemptive war. President Obama’s specialty seems to be preemptive compromise. He gave the farm away to Pharma, and then had to keep on giving when Lieberman, Nelson, and the other industry-backed Senators came calling.

There are many reasons for hoping the current Senate bill doesn’t become law. But the biggest reason of all is the desperate need for a DC pattern interrupt. The desperate need to draw a line in the sand against the continued domination of our democracy — and the continued undermining of the public interest — by special interests.

More on Joe Lieberman


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XING Launches OpenSocial App Assault On LinkedIn

July 22nd, 2009 admin No comments

Despite being virtually unknown in the US, and still somewhat hemmed in by its core German speaking market, XING, the LinkedIn competitor, refuses to lie down. And like a scene from the Rocky movie, it’s going into training to become better, quicker and faster than the LinkedIn machine. Although let’s face it, it has it’s work cut out as LinkedIn is now worth over $1bn and has 43 million members to XING’s 7.5 million. XING however is worth $213m and is publicly traded. And today XING launches a partner ecosystem based on 16 (count’em) OpenSocial applications from 13 partners, in 7 countries. LinkedIn currently has 6 applications.

Some XING apps will be be familiar to LinkedIn users: they will both have SlideShare and online workspaces from Huddle. But XING has has sourced heavily from European sources with apps from Doodle, Dopplr, Deutsche Welle, MindMeister, spreed, travelload, Tungle, sueddeutsche.de, Wallstreet:Online, WELT ONLINE and ZCOPE. The applications spread from news and project management through to travel planning and data sharing.

Crunch Network: CrunchBase the free database of technology companies, people, and investors


Categories: Technology Tags: , , , ,

Tech Investor News Delivers Exactly What You Assume It Would

July 22nd, 2009 admin No comments

As a writer covering the tech industry, there are a couple of websites and services that I would classify as downright essential for my job, including some VoIP/IM communication tools and my e-mail application of choice (Gmail).

Apart from those, I consider an RSS reader to be such a vital tool for me as well, both on a private as a professional level. As I wrote before, I quickly fell in love with Streamy for that particular aspect of sifting through mountains of information on a daily basis, partly because it allows me to both track blogs and news sites I subscribe to and keep track of what Twitter and the people I follow on there as well as on Facebook and FriendFeed are buzzing about.

Add to that techmeme, which has an algorithm in place designed to weed out the best and/or most talked about news stories related to the tech industry out there, and you can tell I have a pretty solid set of tools readily available that enable me to keep tabs on what I want and need to be tracking closely. techfuga was another one, but it recently ground to a halt.

New to the arsenal of tools at my disposal free of charge is tech Investor News, which despite its not-so-sexy name is exactly what it sounds like: a news site that investors in tech companies – plus industry pundits and reporters – should be made aware of. Glad to be of service.

TIN complements the websites and services described above perfectly, and competes with neither one of them. If anything, it saves me a lot of time and rids me of the pain of going to Google News / Blogsearch all the time to learn what the most recent stories in tech or centered around a company in particular are.

What I like about it? The big fat stock quote in the upper corner, the fact that you can filter down to 20 of the most discussed tech companies (note the Google Investor News screenshot below), the decent search function and the speed with which it updates news feeds (every 15 minutes or so, with some human editing involved). But what I also like is the fact that you can narrow your news consumption down to a specific set of categories which makes it very easy to find specific information (for instance, you can opt to display only stories about ‘Steve Jobs’ or ‘Rumors’ when browsing for news on Apple).

TIN is a project bootstrapped by a self-described ‘media nut’ / investor called Frank Cioffi, who spent decades working in such media as radio and television and turned to the internet after many years of consulting and trading stocks. Cioffi got the idea for tech Investor News to scratch his own itch, and that’s always a good way to start something that other people – like me – could also find interesting.

Bookmarked!

Crunch Network: CrunchBoard because it’s time for you to find a new Job2.0


Categories: Technology Tags: , , , , ,

Dan Solin: The Untold Story: Separating You from Your Money

July 22nd, 2009 admin No comments

I don’t mean to pick on the financial media. They are part of a much bigger problem.

The securities industry is premised on the flawed assumption that they can add value. In reality, as many investors now understand, the value they add is to their own bottom line at the expense of the investors they profess to serve.

The financial media plays an important role in perpetuating this myth. I am not just referring to Jim Cramer and Fast Money. These shows do incalculable damage to those investors who still believe the insights and predictions of these pundits are anything more than musings of narcissistic personalities.

The more traditional media is not much better. Their daily grist consists of “analysis” geared to justify their selection du jour of stocks to buy or mutual funds that are likely to outperform. Investors who rely on these predictions suffer the consequences.

If the financial media couldn’t predict the worst recession in a generation, why would you rely on them for advice about what the future holds?

In this week’s video, I discuss how reliance on the financial media is bad for your financial health. It is the untold story of how the media and securities industry work together to separate you from your money.

The views set forth in this blog are the opinions of the author alone and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with whom he is affiliated. The data, information, and content on this blog are for information, education, and non-commercial purposes only. Returns from index funds do not represent the performance of any investment advisory firm. The information on this blog does not involve the rendering of personalized investment advice and is limited to the dissemination of opinions on investing. No reader should construe these opinions as an offer of advisory services. Readers who require investment advice should retain the services of a competent investment professional. The information on this blog is not an offer to buy or sell, or a solicitation of any offer to buy or sell any securities or class of securities mentioned herein.


Categories: World Tags: , ,

Stocks mostly higher amid more solid earnings

July 21st, 2009 admin No comments

Strong corporate earnings and reassuring words from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke are helping stocks hold on to most of the gains from their latest rally. Stocks fluctuated but mostly rose Tuesday as Bernanke told Congress the Fed would be able

Categories: World Tags: