January 9, 2006

(RETRACTED) The WaPo Sago Saga, Part 2: Kurtz Passes Off Long-Time Activist as “Persistent Reporter”

NOTE: I received the following e-mail from Ken Ward Jr. at the Charleston Gazette today:
_______________________

Mr. Blumer,

Someone passed on to me your blog posting that mentions me and the Howard Kurtz column.

I wanted to inform you that you have me confused with a different Ken Ward – one who is definitely not me and is no relation to me.

I do not know, nor have I ever, worked for Greenpeace. That is a different Ken Ward. If you had read the bio attached to that Ken Ward’s columns in Grist, you would know that THAT Ken Ward has been a major activist for more than 25 years old. I was born in 1967.

….. I would simply request that you publish a retraction of that incorrect information.

Thank you,
Ken Ward Jr.

Consider it done. I intensely regret, am mortified by, and apologize to Mr. Ward and Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post for the error.

The post content has been removed, as its presence, especially in an era of search engines, will serve no useful purpose, and in fact could be harmful.

I have ensured that the relevant portion of the related NewsBusters Post has been removed, and that it makes reference to this retraction post.

I have also created a post that will stay at the top today that points to this retraction.
___________________

Jan. 11: Howard Kurtz sent an e-mail asking about certain aspects of the retraction and the error that caused the need for it. A somewhat heated exchange ensued.

The WaPo Sago Saga: Kurtz Critiques Mine Disaster Reporting, and Like Others, Ignores the Stats

Howard Kurtz’s “Media Notes” in The Washington Post, which is supposed to be a critique of media reporting, is very often closer to a whitewash. Today’s Kurtz column is an example of just that.

After dissecting, and mostly defending, the “they’re alive, they’re dead” reporting calamity, Kurtz criticizes what he sees as media disinterest in on-the-job health and safety reporting:

The larger issue is that much of the press has abandoned reporting on health and safety regulation until disaster strikes. How many reporters have dug into the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, which under the Bush administration was run by a former Utah mine manager until last year?

….. “I have tried to get the general press interested,” says Ellen Smith, owner of the trade publication Mine Safety and Health News. “I just kind of gave up.”

Then Kurtz, after noting scant coverage of mine safety during the past 5 years, fails to do exactly what Mainstream Media outlets failed to do all last week — tell their readers, listeners, and viewers what the coal mine statistical safety record has actually been during the Bush Administration. So add Kurtz’s name to the non-diggers, and add Ms. Smith, who as a trade publication owner should know the truth, to the list of willful dissemblers.

As noted in NewsBusters and BizzyBlog posts last week, coal mine fatalities have fallen from 42 in 2001 to 22 in 2005, an alltime low (graph is here). Further investigation after the NewsBusters post indicates that mining deaths per labor hour are down 40%. “Digging into” this information would have required Kurtz all the time it takes to Google “Mine Safety and Health Administration” (MSHA) and two clicks of his mouse, one to MSHA’s home page from the Google list, and a second on “FatalGrams/Reports” near the bottom left of the home page. Once at that page, the very first detail area shows links to coal mine fatality reports for 1995 through 2006 (it took way longer to type this than it did to just do it!).

And as to who is running the MSHA, why is it apparently scandalous news to Kurtz and the rest of the Mainstream Media that someone who knows the industry is running it, especially if, as is evident (despite the horrible 12-fatality tragedy last week, which will under rules already in place be thoroughly investigated), mine safety has improved? Maybe there hasn’t been much news on mine safety because the news until last week had been good — and good news during the Bush Administration isn’t particularly welcome.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

PunditReview.com BizzyBlog Interview Has Been Posted

It’s here (not sure of technical requirements, but it worked fine in 2 different Mac browsers), commercials, news breaks, Democratic response to Bush’s radio address, and all, but you can drag the progress bar to skip past them. The total length is about 60 minutes; my interview ends at about the 54 minute mark. Total talk time during that 54 minutes is maybe 30, so lots of skipping is recommended.

I don’t have an actual MP3 file; I’m not going to ask for one, given that it’s posted, because it seems like an imposition, I know they had to work hard just to get a postable file, and they deserve the hits. I’m very grateful to Kevin and Gregg for all they’ve done. – Jan. 14 — Wow, Kevin sent, and I just received, an mp3 for posterity. Thank so much.

Reax to listening the interview:

  • Lesson: Never use a headset on a radio interview (I noticed that Glenn Reynolds and his wife experienced the same problem in their Michelle Malkin podcast over the weekend when I listened to it). After the first break, I went to the handset and there was a big improvement.
  • The agenda was good, except my answer on the “bubble markets” and the rest of the country could have been better.
  • We didn’t circle back to the deficit issue because of a break, and I wish we would have.
  • Another lesson: Be ready for the conversation to go anywhere, because it probably will (and it did).

All in all, a good experience. Let’s do it again sometime.

AP Warns of Corporate Pension and Retiree Healthcare Crisis, Ignores the Public Sector Elephant in the Room

I guess this will qualify as the first of the “economic downer” posts of 2006.

There are indeed problems in the private sector with pensions and retiree healthcare promises:

The pension system is heading for a crisis, or maybe two.

The first is the most worrisome for workers: Too many pension plans aren’t adequately funded or are already in default. The companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 with traditional pension plans need to put aside another $40 billion this year to fully fund the plans, according to S&P.

The second impending crisis is an accounting change that may make pension issues more painful for corporations. Accounting regulations for both pensions and retiree health care costs are poised to change in the next five years, in what could be the largest shift in accounting rules in more than 30 years.

“We believe this project will have a significant impact on evaluations, income and balance sheets, and will become the major issue in financial accounting over the next five years,” said Howard Silverblatt, equity market analyst at Standard & Poor’s.

The Financial Accounting and Standards Board, the arbiter of the nation’s accounting rules, has said it will require companies to add their net pension and retiree-healthcare costs to their balance sheets within the next year. Then, over the next three or more years, the accounting methods for pensions and retiree-healthcare costs will also change.

….. But retiree healthcare-costs are a muddier issue.

Of the companies in the S&P 500, 337 offer some kind of medical benefits for retirees. According to Silverblatt’s analysis, only 282 companies provide sufficient information for estimates about their retiree-healthcare plans. Those plans are scarily underfunded: Companies would have to set aside $292 billion to meet current obligations, according to his analysis.

The state of these funds “is extremely unsettling,” Silverblatt wrote.

Unlike pensions, retiree health care costs aren’t a clear-cut legal obligation, unless they’re part of a contract, which is the case at Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp., where retiree healthcare-obligations are underfunded by $94 billion.

….. No agency will step in and pay a company’s retiree-healthcare costs. In the S&P 500, retiree-healthcare plans cover 12 million employees.

Fine:

  • These issues have to be addressed. For pensions, it’s amazing what a few good years in the stock market could do to reduce the actuarial liabilities of these plans. Three quick answers that would help the markets out tremendously: make the current tax structure permanent, reel in the ridiculous excesses of Sarbanes Oxley, and repeal the death tax once and for all.
  • Healthcare is a tougher nut to crack, and will require some study by yours truly. But here’s an interesting point — GM and Ford’s underfunded healthcare promises of $94 billion represent an amazing 32% of the entire obligation ($292 billion) of all companies involved.
  • I believe the financial markets already have the realities of the pension and healthcare situations factored into share prices, and that the impact on the markets themselves of balance sheet restatements and the like will be minimal.

But the much bigger problem is in the public sector, and because of less stringent accounting requirements, nobody knows how much bigger (just that it IS much bigger). Look at the situation, just for health care, for just one state’s employees:

Financial documents are often best read starting with the footnotes in the back.

Take, for instance, the state comptroller’s new Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Massachusetts. On Page 116 there is a brief discussion of the bill the state faces for healthcare for retired state employees:

”The Commonwealth has not performed an actuarial valuation of its post-retirement health care and life insurance benefit liability. Private industry typically sees an actuarial accrued liability of 10 to 20 times the current annual payments. For the Commonwealth, this would extrapolate to an actuarial accrued liability of $2.5 billion to $5 billion.”

Post-retirement healthcare promises in the public sector dwarf those in the private sector. Combine public-retiree healthcare with generous pension plans that allow 30-and-outs or full retirement as early as age 55 (see: NY transportation strike), and the actuarial liability nationwide for public retirement and healthcare systems isn’t in the hundreds of billions, it’s well into the trillions. And unlike private sector companies, many states and cities have NEVER taken a hard look at what it will take to fund those obligations. When financial rules published by the Government Accounting Standards Board go into effect, they, and taxpayers, won’t like the answers.

The second link ends with this statement: “Watch this issue: It is a big-ticket item — and it is going to get contentious.” You have no idea.

Editorial of the Day: The House GOP’s Real Problems

Filed under: Quotes, Etc. of the Day,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 10:06 am

OpinionJournal.com lays it out, delivers tough, deserved criticism, and sounds a warning that had best be heeded (bolds are mine):

Incumbency Over Ideas

The idea seems to be that a ban on lobbyist-paid golf junkets or limits on the House floor privileges of former Members of Congress will prevent the next Jack Abramoff.

This is a junior-achievement version of what Democrats did in responding to the Clinton fund-raising scandals by adopting the cause of “campaign-finance reform.” Why is it that whenever Congress gets into an ethics scrape, its first reaction is to further restrict the Constitutional rights of other Americans to influence Members of Congress? We can only hope these “reforms” will be as trivial as they sound.

The real House GOP problem isn’t about lobbyists so much as it is the atrophying of its principles. As their years in power have stretched on, House Republicans have become more passionate about retaining power than in using that power to change or limit the federal government. Gathering votes for serious policy is difficult and tends to divide a majority. Re-election unites them, however, so the leadership has gradually settled for raising money on K Street and satisfying Beltway interest groups to sustain their incumbency.

This strategy has maintained a narrow majority, but at the cost of doing anything substantial. The last year in particular was an historic lost opportunity. House Republicans were also the main culprit in watering down Medicare reform, while Ohio’s Mike Oxley has run the Financial Services Committee more or less as liberal Barney Frank would. Beyond welfare reform and tax cuts (and perhaps health-savings accounts), the GOP has achieved little in the last decade that will outlast the next Democratic majority.

Meanwhile, the most talented and policy-driven Members have continued to leave Congress for other opportunities. Chris Cox now runs the SEC, Rob Portman is the U.S. trade rep, J.C. Watts is in the private sector, and others are running for Governor or the Senate. The leaders who remain have become ever more preoccupied with process, money and incumbency. Ideas are an afterthought, when they aren’t an inconvenience.

As House Republicans consider replacing Mr. DeLay, they need to choose someone who will reinvigorate their commitment to reforming Washington. And this may mean more change than they’d otherwise prefer entering an election year.

….. Our sense is that Republicans don’t yet appreciate the trouble they’re in. Confident of K Street money and gerrymandered districts, they think the voters will never turn Congress over to a party run by Nancy Pelosi. But that’s also what Democrats and the media thought about Republicans led by Newt Gingrich in 1994. Eventually, voters may grow more disgusted with Republicans who care only about re-election than they are afraid of Ms. Pelosi’s San Francisco liberalism.

Let’s face it: The GOP’s performance on everything except the War on Terror and taxes has been awful for at least the past three years. This is what we get when “conservatives” are in control?

The GOP’s best friends right now are the people driving the other party to the far left. If the adults ever get back in charge in Donkeyland and become credible to swing voters, watch out.

In his OpinionJournal.com column today John Fund says that “The Abramoff scandal may sink congressional Republicans if they don’t get serious about spending reforms ….. The federal government is now 250 times as big in real terms as it was a century ago. If Republicans don’t use Mr. DeLay’s departure to restore their limited-government credentials, they will see their own voters rebel.”

Therein lies the silver lining: fear can be a great motivator. If they DO get serious, they can still run the table in November.

Bizzy’s AM Coffee Biz-Econ Links (010906)

What Kind of Question Is That?

Answer — Hostile. Who would ask a company with 25,000 US employees that is building a new US plant if the company is worried about a backlash because of their success? Here’s how Honda Chief Executive Takeo Fukui answered:

But Fukui said he was confident that Honda would not face a backlash from U.S. consumers.

Honda plans to open a new design facility in California for its premier Acura brand, and the company’s 2006 Civic was designed entirely by its U.S. staff.

“These are cars designed and built by Americans,” he said. “This is an American car. I think our customers understand that.”

So should non-customers.

Federal Trade Commission vs. AmeriDebt Starts Tuesday

AmeriDebt was the “non-profit” consumer credit counseling firm that did this to its customers:

With $13,000 in credit card debt, Sandra Gavin was looking for help paying her bills in 1999 when she saw a television ad for a credit counseling company called AmeriDebt. The promise to cut her monthly payments in half while ridding herself of debt seemed just what she needed.

Gavin spoke with a saleswoman and signed up, sending AmeriDebt $521. She thought it was her first debt payment. But a month later, when creditors said she owed late fees for missed payments, she discovered that money was instead a “contribution” to AmeriDebt. For the next two years, she paid a $70 per month contribution along with her monthly payment.

….. Gavin is one of thousands of former customers who allegedly paid millions of dollars in upfront fees to the Germantown-based AmeriDebt Inc., once one of the nation’s fastest growing nonprofits meant to help Americans staggering under personal debt.

In a lawsuit set to go to trial Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission claims the company unfairly portrayed itself as a nonprofit, then hid fees from the debtors who signed up.

The “contributions” should have been disclosed, and ideally should have been optional for the most financially difficult situations.

I’m rooting for the FTC to win big. We should all be crossing our fingers that there aren’t any more AmeriDebts in The US Bankruptcy Court’s stable of approved counselors or debt education providers brought on board because of the Bankruptcy “Reform” Law that became effective in October.

Update, Jan. 14: from Jeff Kreisler at TheStreet.com “….. the founder of AmeriDebt settled an FTC case for $35 million, though his lawyer said, ‘This settlement does not change the fact that [he] did nothing wrong.’ Really? $35 million for ‘Nothing Wrong?’ I’d hate to see the price tag on an ‘Oopsie.’” This is why prosecutions need to go to trial, so jerks like Andris Pukke, AmeriDebt’s founder, can’t have their lawyers make “nothing wrong” statements. The official FTC announcement notes that ” The settlement ends more than two years of litigation against Pukke, effectively securing virtually all of his personal assets, including homes in Miami Beach and Southern California, for use as consumer redress. Sounds impressive, but we’re talking $117 per affected person (300,000 total) before legal and administrative fees.

Surprise: Mortgage Rates are Still Pretty Low

So it appears that rates shouldn’t be the reason to stay out of the market:

Mortgage rates were little changed this week although rates on 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages inched down to 6.21%, the lowest since late October.

….. One-year adjustable rate mortgages edged up to 5.16%, compared with 5.15% last week. Rates on five-year hybrid adjustable rate mortgages averaged 5.78%, down a notch from 5.79%.

Most financial people would suggest that the ARM rates in the current market are so high that fixed would be the better alternative for most borrowers.

Positivity: Unborn Child’s First Kick Saved Mother’s Life

Filed under: Positivity — Tom @ 6:13 am

Wait until you see who the child is:

Hockey star’s mom says unborn son saved her from suicide

Vancouver, Jan. 06, 2006 (CNA) – Nineteen years ago Annet Pogge was about to throw herself over a bridge to commit suicide but was detained at the last second by the sudden, gentle stirrings in her womb. Annet is Toronto Maple Leafs’ hockey star Justin Pogge’s mother.

In an interview with Globe and Mail, Annet said she was 22 years old and four months pregnant when Justin’s father walked out on her and 126 guests gathered for their engagement party, after learning of the pregnancy.

That night Annet walked onto a bridge and decided to commit suicide. “Just when I was thinking of doing it,” she said, “when I was thinking of terminating everything, not just the pregnancy, but me, I felt a kick. It was light but I felt it. “

That tiny motion of her baby shocked her out of her despair. “It was the first real sign of life,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God. This is a sign. God wants me to live.’ I couldn’t end my life then. I couldn’t.”

Ms. Pogge underwent financial hardship and sacrifice to raise her son and keep him in hockey. She told him the story of that moment on the bridge, years before anyone else heard about it. She wanted him to know he was born out of love, she told the Edmonton Sun, and that it was his action that had saved her from ending their lives.

The Calgary Sun also has a great story on Annet and Justin.