Friday, December 21, 2007

Minnesota's No New Taxes transportation system

Kudos to Star Tribune reporters Paul McEnroe and Tony Kennedy and their editors for a continuing series titled MnDOT money vs. safety, on the Minnesota Department of Transportation's (MnDOT) self-destruction under governor Pepsodent's (Pawlenty) administration. Additional kudos for the name of the series, and the headlining on the stories themselves, which unlike many recent Strib heds actually characterize the report.

A Dart to Nancy Barnes, the paper's editor, for saying in a column published the day the series began that both Republicans and Democrats are responsible for the craptacular state of our roads and transit in Minnesota. Barnes wrote:
This series is not an attempt to point fingers at any political party. The reporting shows that the decisions to delay repairs to many of our most dangerous roads and bridges have been handed down from one administration to the next, DFL and Republican alike.
Doesn't Barnes read her own paper? As Mark Gisleson wrote the other day,
I'm still waiting for even just a shred of evidence that the Democrats had anything to do with the starving of Minnesota's infrastructure.
Barnes, ala Doug Tice or Katherine Kersten, is trying to undo the harm done to Republicans by reality-based reporting. So when you read great reporting like that of McEnroe and Kennedy, know that it is done more or less in spite of poor leadership from the top.

Their first offering, published last Sunday, was headlined "This bridge can't wait," and offered a harrowing tale of a bridge in Hastings, Minnesota, that obviously should have been replaced years ago.

Part two featured a famous national highway that runs along southern Minnesota, headlined "Hwy. 14: Highway of horrors," where even Republican local lawmakers shook their heads in disbelief at the antics of our No New Taxes governor. The Highway 14 story also contains a chart showing state interest payments on highway bonds; in 1998 we paid $5 million; this year we paid $53 million. In interest. Does anyone remember when governor Pepsodent asked the contractors who bid on the Highway 62 redo to self-finance the project? When no company bid under those rules the project was set back at least a year, costing state taxpayers even more.

Part three, headlined "Flying into danger zone?" looked at how the governor's lawyer made a bundle off of getting MnDOT to change zoning laws around the airport, allowing dense development in areas that should be designated as buffer zones to prevent loss of life in the event of a takeoff or landing plane crash. No surprise that governor Pepsodent has now appointed said lawyer to the Minnesota State Supreme Court.

This great reporting should be complemented by great writing on the paper's opinion pages, calling out the Republicans who have fought investment in our infrastructure for decades. As Brian Lambert wrote, calling the I-35 bridge collapse the top local story of the year:
If ever a single event seemed destined to launch a spear through the heart of the cynical, recklessly simple-minded “Small Government” echo chamber, it should have been this one. Government on the cheap = Grossly deficient infrastructure … and a lot else. As the year ends it appears Gov. Pawlenty has again out-maneuvered progressives, mostly by throwing the hapless Carol Molnau under the bus. Maybe the session will draw blood.
So it's clear progressives and Democrats have been valiantly trying to get the state's Republicans to go along with investment in infrastructure, but the Repubs have shrewdly exploited the political system to thwart their efforts. There is not, as Nancy Barnes says, blame on both Republicans and DFLers. This is a Republican-made mess. One last point: Where was the Strib when the Republicans were eviscerating our state's transportation system? Why did it take a major bridge falling before they reported on it?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Goldman makes $11 billion shorting mortgage industry

The other day I wrote about a Washington Post story on how analysts missed the housing meltdown. One financial house, Goldman Sachs, however, actually made their biggest profit ever off of shorting the mortgage industry. A number of other brokerages bet against the housing bubble and won, too, according to the Wall Street Journal:
The subprime trading gains notched by Messrs. Birnbaum and Swenson and their Goldman associates are large by recent Wall Street standards. Traders at Deutsche Bank AG and Morgan Stanley also bet against the subprime-mortgage market this year, but in each case, their gains were essentially wiped out because their firms underestimated how far the markets would fall. New York hedge-fund company Paulson & Co. also turned a considerable profit on the subprime meltdown this year, as did Hayman Capital Partners, a Dallas-based hedge-fund firm, say people familiar with the matter.
So it wasn't all analysts who missed the subprime mess - only the stupid, biased or corrupt ones did.

Friday cat blogging

Here's a picture of Simon sitting in the backyard the other day. Even though the temps are close to 0 Fahrenheit he still likes to go out.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Programmed failure

Usually whenever terrible things happen as the inevitable result of business and press collusion the media comes through with some fake "mea culpa" that tries to absolve both institutions. Today that job belongs to the Washington Post, with a story on the housing finance fiasco headlined "Analysts late to the alarm."

The story starts out with an anecdote about an analyst who did get the story right, but then goes on to show what an anomaly that person was, and makes it sound like the financing of housing is such a complex system that, really, no one could figure it out. Sounds a lot like Enron, right? However, this time, lots of smart people did figure out that the alphabet soup of SIVs, CDOs and the like were a house of cards that could not stand. Nouriel Roubini, one of the top economists in the world, has been sounding the alarm on sub-prime mortgages for more than four years; almost the same for Paul Krugman, columnist for the New York Times, yet neither of these top economists are even mentioned in the Post story. This story from the Post, then, is really just another cover up for the corrupt business press.

All of this should be yet another warning to the average citizen to at all costs avoid listening to, reading or watching any popular business press or news, including, especially, public radio and television, which are themselves captives of the financial industries. So how is that so-called average investor to know what to invest in? This is a very difficult question, but here are a few suggestions. 1) Don't ever invest in something you don't understand. See Enron. 2) When everyone in the financial press is looking one way way, be sure to look the other way. 3) Understand that financial analysts have a stake in bamboozling rubes like us out of our hard earned money, and ethics do not stand in their way. 4) Invest conservatively such as limiting your holdings to government backed bonds; this might not make you the most money possible, but on the other hand you won't lose your money. 5) Try SRI - Socially Responsible Investing. Usually companies that clear SRI screens are more transparent about their operations, so it's easier to understand how and why they make money.

Just to be clear: The real story about the housing meltdown and the press mirrors just about every other sorry tale of media failure on important issues going back for some time. In that sense it is similar to the tale of media failure on the runup to war on Iraq or the current drumbeat to make war on Iran, or the business press' abject failure in covering Enron. As Norman Mineta testified at the 911 hearings, one odd thing happening is an anomaly; two is a pattern and three is a program. As painful as it is to consider, on the most important issues of our day the traditional media has a program of failure, and that should alarm us all.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ciresi's money

Recently the Daily Mole and Minnesota Monitor have reported on the Franken and Ciresi campaign's big contributors. Franken's list of people of who have maxed out their donations is just what you'd expect - a lot of money from liberal entertainment people. But Ciresi's big donors should raise a few eyebrows in progressive circles:
Minnesota donors of note [to Ciresi]: Stanley Hubbard and Karen Hubbard, who give the great majority of their campaign donations to the GOP; Marilyn Carlson Nelson of Carlson Companies, plus executives from the following companies: Best Buy, Bremer Financial, Doran Companies, Haskell’s, Medtronic, Oppidan, and Phillips Distilling.
Just what do these corporate executives want from their contributions to Ciresi? Why are the Hubbards maxing out donations to him? Do they see something in Ciresi that Democrats don't? Corporate types don't give this kind of money for nothing, and they're not giving it to Franken.

This upcoming election may be shaping up as a true progressive moment; one of the top issues, in my mind, is the over-concentration of power in corporations. It appears one Democratic Senatorial candidate is taking lots of money from traditional corporatists and one isn't. I'd be surprised if this doesn't become an issue in the campaign.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Trib goes all I.F. Stone on UnitedHealth

See Update below.

The great thing about daily journalism is that every time you screw up you have a chance to do better, even the next day. Today the Strib goes for a little atonement with a good story about just how UnitedHealth grew and who paid for that growth:
Since 2000, the Minnetonka-based company, an insurer of 70 million Americans, has been sanctioned in nine states for paying claims slowly, shortchanging doctors, hospitals or patients or poorly handling their complaints and appeals, according to a Star Tribune review of regulatory records.
Remember, at the same time that UnitedHealth was shafting doctors and patients, William McGuire was amassing a personal fortune of $1.8 billion:
As regulators uncovered problems with UnitedHealth’s payment practices and customer service, company profits soared to an estimated $4.7 billion this year, up fivefold since 2000.
Musta' been a coinky dink that profits soared as payment practices and customer service tanked, huh? So after the Trib got down on its knees last week in front of UnitedHealth, even as the company was getting some of its due in a court, this is some welcome journalism, and kudos are due to David Shaffer for good, document-based reporting. The story itself doesn't say a lot about the exact documents that were acquired and used in the report, only that they came from "a Star Tribune review of regulatory records." Coulda been a bit less opaque here guys.

It seems, too, the company was maliciously refusing to correct errors:
U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh of Missouri, ruling against the insurer in November 2006, declared its claims processing systems “flawed in many ways, denying, reducing, and improperly processing claims on a regular basis. And despite innumerable requests, United was unwilling to remedy the underlying errors in its systems.”
See, paying patients' claims and doctors on time might reduce profits. As they say in the software trade, the bad actions of the company were a feature, not a bug. And making big profits seems to be the only thing UnitedHealth is good at.

Andy Birkey has more at MinMon.

Update: There's also the possibility that UnitedHealth staged their PR campaign after hearing the Trib was doing a story about them. It is not unlikely that David Shaffer was working on his report for more than a week. If UH did stage their so-called "mea culpa" after inquiries from the Trib it put the paper in an awkward spot. Would the paper bow down to the health care insurance giant and let them manage coverage until their own report was ready?

Friday, December 7, 2007

Why did the CIA destroy the torture interrogation tapes?

According to TMPmuckraker, because they were direct evidence of war crimes:

Of course, Hayden just inherited this whirlwind. His predecessors, George Tenet and Porter Goss, sowed it. And to a greater degree, it's the fault of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, David Addington, John Yoo and John Rizzo, who created a blatantly illegal interrogation program for the CIA to implement. Those on the tapes torturing Abu Zubaydah and Detainee #2 were, loyally, doing what those men wanted. But Tenet must have known that what's on those tapes is evidence of criminal activity. That's a much more plausible explanation for why he stopped taping interrogations. And it's also probably why Rodriguez, with Goss' tacit or explicit consent, destroyed them. If Michael Mukasey is the same man of integrity he was before he became attorney general, he'd call that criminal conspiracy or deliberate obstruction of justice.

What will probably end up consuming the remainder of Bush's term is an inquiry into the cover-up. But it's always the crime -- torture, systematic and approved by the highest levels -- that demands focus. And it was the CIA's decision to distract whomever it could from knowing about the crime.
Add to the list of war criminals our own little torture enabler, the Catholic St Thomas University's Robert Delahunty.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

George W. Bush, congenital liar

I've thought for a long time, since 2002 actually, that George W. Bush and his administration will say anything to achieve their desired political goals. In the summer of 2002 Andrew Card famously said they wouldn't be pushing for a war with Iraq until the Fall, because Summer is a bad time for product rollouts. That telegraphing of the forthcoming marketing campaign for a war that turned out to be the most foolish in the world for 2,000 years should have tipped off the press and Democrats that the Prez doesn't tell the truth.

Unfortunately the traditional corporate press continued to report on the what the President said as some kind of gospel truth, in most cases not even attempting to assess the veracity of his statements. Flash forward to today, when it has been revealed that the President knew at least for months that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program back in 2003 - four years ago - yet has been beating the drums for war, even invoking the specter of World War III brought on by a nuclear-armed Iran. Lying is so easy for the President that he'll do it even if it makes him look like a moron, as demonstrated when he said with a straight face after the NIE was released that he had only just then learned of its conclusions.

Here's a plea to traditional reporters: From now on when the President says something - anything - please either preface or conclude the report with the known fact that George W. Bush is a shameless liar, and there is almost always some kind of subterfuge going on, and that readers/viewers should consider that the truth is probably the exact opposite of what he says.

UPDATE: Bob Cesca at HuffPo had the same thought: "President Bush Was Lying, Is Lying, And Will Lie About Iranian Nukes."

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Burying the lede: Strib PR patsy for UnitedHealth

UPDATE (Friday): So now we know the UnitedHealth PR blitz that the Trib fell for was really cover for Thursday's blockbuster announcement that chief looter William McGuire will be giving back $600 million, and the company's former lawyer will be giving back $30 million. Note that this repayment came about because the Wall Street Journal, NOT the Trib, dug into the company's backdated stock options. Note that McGuire is not going to jail (yet) and still has salary and options totaling over $1.2 billion. So how much of a penalty is the $600 million giveback?
* * *
Today (Wednesday) there's an extraordinary story in the Strib headlined "Mea culpa: UnitedHealth says mistakes will be overcome." The story goes on and on about how UnitedHealth has had a change of heart regarding it's shitty service and financial shenanigans. In the next to last paragraph the story drops a bombshell: On Tuesday (yesterday - the day this story was written) an appeals court made a significant ruling against UnitedHealth requiring it to finally provide documentation to the state attorney general regarding the stock-option backdating of its executives.

So - a real news story took place in court - UnitedHealth was finally required to provide some transparency into the looting of the company by top executives - yet the Trib makes it look like the company separately saw the light in terms of its bad behavior.

The company obviously knew this bad decision (for them) was coming down, and skillfully planned their so-called "mea-culpa" to compete in the media with the judge's decision against them. The Trib is now a PR person's dream. I wonder if any of the UnitedHealth PR people thought this tactic would work so beautifully, transforming an incredibly bad news day instead into a story of voluntary contrition.

You knew the paper now regularly provides cover for Republicans, but even I am astounded by this cynical bullshit.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Who is Powerlineblog's "Anti-Keillor" columnist?

Another post from Scott Johnson at Powerlineblog that is purportedly from a Strib
"...columnist who has asked us to protect his or her identity. S/he writes that s/he has become the self-appointed "Anti-Keillor" to rebut Keillor's liberal rubbish whenever it appears in the Star Tribune...."
Uh-huh. Who could this person be? Here is the list of columnists at the Trib. I'm guessing the person is either 1) Lileks, although he's probably pretty busy over at, or 2) Some columnist not listed on the columnist's page, like Keillor isn't, or 3) Doug Tice, and the reference to a "columnist" by Johnson is a ruse.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Lileks says it's not him.