Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Scam U

It's bad enough that for-profit universities have offered up near-useless degrees and sky-high prices, loading mounds of debt on young adults, and positioning them for future financial failure. But Kaplan University, one of the nation's largest providers of for-profit higher education, may have taken it one step further:
Managers at Kaplan--the highly profitable educational arm of the Washington Post Co.-- have for years pressured academic advisors to use this method to boost enrollment numbers, the former employees said, offering accounts consistent with dozens of complaints filed by former students with the Florida Attorney General's Office and reviewed by The Huffington Post.

Guerilla registration has been part of a concerted effort by the university to keep students enrolled as long as possible in order to harvest more of the federal financial aid dollars that make up nearly all of the company's higher education revenues, according to former Kaplan academic advisor Sheldon Cobbler, who described the practice in detail.

Most advisors had access to a company database that allowed them to view students' e-mail correspondence without their knowledge, said Cobbler, who worked at Kaplan's Fort Lauderdale, Fla., corporate office from 2007 through July of this year. The advisors routinely searched through students' e-mails to look up their user names and passwords for Kaplan's enrollment system, and then they used that information to sign in using multiple student identities, enrolling them in classes they never intended to join, he said.

"The company didn't want students to withdraw," Cobbler said. "They wanted them to stay in class by any means."
Normally this sort of malfeasance on the part of a business or businesses would generate a fair amount of attention in the straight media - along with a suitable amount of tut-tutting by politicians - followed by a reasonable effort to correct the problem through regulation and better oversight....of which the last part was actually progressing with the Education Department's proposal of a 'gainful employment' rule:
The rule would establish metrics for assessing graduates' ability to repay their student loans as a way of judging whether an academic program is truly fulfilling its mandate: preparing graduates for "gainful employment." [...]

Education Department officials say the new rule would disqualify 5 percent of programs from receiving federal student aid money, and 55 percent would face limits on growth and mandates to warn students about the risks of excessive borrowing.
But once corporate profit margins are threatened...well, it's not hard to imagine what happens next:
For-profit colleges have increased their lobbying against proposed Education Department rules to cut off federal financial aid to programs whose students take on too much debt for training that provides little likelihood of leading to a well-paying job.

In addition to making personal visits to Capitol Hill, executives at the colleges have provided employees with “personalized” letters to send to Washington and urged students to speak out against the proposals.[...]

Last week, John Sperling, the founder of the nation’s largest for-profit college, the University of Phoenix, e-mailed every member of Congress, seeking help opposing the regulations, and attached a sample letter to be sent to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, asking him to withdraw them.

Donald Graham, the chairman and chief executive of The Washington Post Company, which gets most of its revenue from its Kaplan education business, visited Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, whose Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is holding hearings on the for-profit education industry.[...]

Many for-profit colleges have urged students, professors and administrators to send in criticisms of the proposals.

The Education Management Corporation, the second-largest for-profit company, hired DCI Group, a public relations firm, to contact its employees for information that would be used to create a personalized letter, which would then be delivered back to the employee for signature, along with a stamped, addressed envelope.
During periods of high unemployment like the one we are in now, the phrase 'structural unemployment' is thrown around, placing the blame on a mismatch of workers and their skill sets. I don't believe this is true, as  the issue with higher unemployment has been lack of demand for goods and services and the ability of companies to maintain profit levels with current headcounts...even so, when it comes to the fulfillment of American ideals like social mobility, maintaining an edge in the arts and sciences, and earning a true living wage, the accessibility, affordability, and efficacy of a post high-school education is crucial. These for-profit companies - who have been ripping off those who only want to better themselves in order to get a piece of that almighty American Dream - are placing a higher priority on protecting their profitability than on whether or not they are serving their students' interests.

That's one point in the whole public-versus-privatized education debate that I don't hear often: that publicly-run schools and universities are more free to promote a good education than their for-profit counterparts.

Dishonest pols, Big Business, and victory laps

Even after all of the brouhaha on Monday indicating a new lease on life for the 9/11 responders' bill, voting on the act will likely stall in the Senate...again. All of the preliminary reasons for killing the legislation were addressed in the prior go-round; the Bush tax cuts have passed, the bill has been available for review since 2009, the funding has been adjusted, and all of Jon Kyl's delaying-tactic questions have been addressed. So what problems do Senate GOPers have with it this time?
Now, after Senate House Democrats whittled down the amount of the bill and found additional sources of funding for it to satisfy Republican objections, Coburn continues to complain about process. Worse, he is also lying about the bill.

Coburn told Politico that he intends to stall and delay passage of the 9/11 heroes bill.

“The Oklahoma Republican senator and physician — known in the Senate as “Dr. No” for his penchant for blocking bills — told POLITICO on Monday night that he wouldn’t allow the bill to move quickly, saying he has problems with parts of the bill and the process Democrats are employing.”

Coburn also wrongly claimed that the bill was rushed through at the last minute without a committee hearing.

“This bill hasn’t even been through a committee. We haven’t had the debate in our committee on this bill to know if it is the best thing to do, said Coburn this morning on America’s Newsroom with Bill Hemmer.
“This is a bill that’s been drawn up and forced through Congress at the end of the year on a basis to solve a problem that we didn’t have time to solve and we didn’t get done,” added Coburn.
As Think Progress points out, Coburn is is either lying or has a severe memory problem.
“Despite Coburn’s claim, the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions committee did in fact hold a hearing on the bill in June — and Coburn should know as he sits on that committee.”
We can see that Coburn is laying on some pretty thick bull. But why bother? Whatever the current climate on spending is, this type of bill oozes feelings of patriotic sacrifice which goes over well with the average Fox News Channel viewer. At this point (and at this time of the year), passing the Zadroga bill should be a no-brainer, right?

Well, apparently the Chamber of Commerce still isn't liking how the bill is funded:
Instead of ending the foreign corporate tax loophole, Gillibrand proposed a new funding mechanism, including a 2 percent excise fee on certain foreign companies that receive U.S. government contracts. However, the Chamber still believes the bill’s offsets are unacceptable.

Asked for comment by ThinkProgress, Chamber spokesperson Tita Freeman told us that the Chamber takes no position on compensating 9/11 first responders, but absolutely opposes Gillibrand’s new funding mechanism because the Chamber believes it to be “harmful to the business community and the economy.”
That the CoC is putting people's lives at risk (people that became sick after courageously responding to a horrific event, natch) shouldn't be a surprise; note that the CoC lobbied to kill the bill previously, warning "that ending the tax loophole would “damage U.S. relationships with major trading partners” and “aggravate already unsettled financial markets.” Just taking care of Business, as usual.

All of the somewhat premature celebration coming from the Dem side for having passed a few pieces of legislation just might have reminded Senate Republicans that they needed to stick to their plan of obstructing almost all Senate business...can't let the opposition have too much success, lest the idea that Obama got his mojo back sinks in to the public consciousness...and to make sure that their core constituencies of Big Business and Big Money were satisfied once again.

Looks like what was called a "Christmas Miracle" on Monday may get turned into a cold lump of coal.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

When monopolies aren't all that bad

There are some pretty big ramifications for this, and not just in my home state of Michigan:
The case is viewed as a test for the Obama administration’s introduction of the federal health care law, which is aimed at spurring competition and driving down costs.
About half the states in the country, including Alabama, Rhode Island and Iowa, share circumstances similar to Michigan’s, in their relationships with a big single insurance carrier. Proponents of the new legislation have long argued that these dominant companies could subvert the competitive goals of the exchanges planned for 2014, which are intended to foster new business and cheaper coverage.

Officials “have been struggling for a while with the fact that in health insurance markets, small players are not able to enter and expand in a way to make them significant competitors,” said Jonathan M. Grossman, an antitrust lawyer at Cozen O’Connor. “Nobody can look at the suit against Michigan and say they didn’t put everybody on notice.”

Regulators worry that this prevailing dominance in markets across the country is a formidable obstacle. “Once you have a health plan that is that large, it’s really hard to change the dynamics of the market,” said Robert W. McCann, a health care lawyer in Washington at Drinker Biddle & Reath. [...]

Blue Cross drew the attention of federal prosecutors because of its use of what are known as most-favored-nation clauses in the contracts it signed with dozens of hospitals. Prosecutors charged that Blue Cross squashed competition by demanding that hospitals charge as much as 40 percent more to rivals, and it was even willing to pay hospitals more to sign these contracts.

That practice seems to have stymied competition. Priority Health, the insurer owned by Spectrum Health, says it has not been able to negotiate reasonable contracts with hospitals in places like Lansing. Blue Cross says it is a business decision being made by Priority Health to stay out of any market.

As insurers go, BCBS of Michigan isn't as bad as some...which is not the same as saying that they are great, having raised premiums by 'only' 88% from 1999 to 2009 - although that's lower than other states, a majority of which "more than doubled". I can almost understand what a supposedly nonprofit organization is doing writing most-favored-nation (MFN) clauses in their contracts with Michigan hospitals; as an insurance provider that dominates the market in a government-sanctioned-Ma Bell-sort-of-way, they have to find a way to pay the bills while retaining their self-proclaimed status as a “de facto insurer of last resort.” I understand that. But I'm kinda scratching my head, though...if the intent is to promote a well-regulated, competitive market among insurers that drives down prices, doesn't BCBS' lower rate increases - in its current state as Michigan's largest and most primary provider - put a shadow over that intent?*

Makes me think that this will do more to please free market enthusiasts than to cut insurance costs.

If we have to have that additional layer of business between doctors and patients, wouldn't it be better to have to work with a single large, market-dominant insurer? If a state charters a single provider - giving them a virtual monopoly, allowing for better government oversight/regulation while guaranteeing coverage at lower rates - who beyond a few locked-out competitors and a some free market idealists would object?**

Aside from that, what other price controls are being put into place, if any? Are we setting any standard medical service pricing? Pharma price limits? When it comes to controlling medical costs, I'd like to know that there's more going on than just some variation on the Underpants Gnomes' business plan.

Financial Times article here
Bloomberg article here
DOJ press release here

*I'll have to find some information about rate increases in states with more than one ginormous provider for comparison purposes. My hunch is that those states haven't seen overall rate decreases.
**Why not a single-payer system, even? It's cheaper to administer, cuts out the insurer as the middleman...

(edited for grammar, clarity)

Monday, December 20, 2010

It's that time of the decade again

A decent breakdown from of the upcoming Congressional reapportionment resulting from the 2010 Census:
According to an estimate done in October...states either certain or likely to lose seats in the House include Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Iowa.

...Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Washington would gain seats, with Texas picking up as many as four.
Whichever way the political or economic winds are blowing, I don't see Dems picking up too many - if any - seats in the House in 2012...Population growth is primarily in states leaning Republican. Minority representation in those states is (generally) limited to urban areas, but a larger minority presence might be a factor in the Democratic Party's favor in Florida, Georgia, and Texas.

That's wishful thinking, most likely. At least when the straight media reports this time that this is bad news for Dems, it won't be much of a stretch. Be sure to look for some really broad and dumb conclusions to be drawn from the numbers of House seats gained or lost, though...

Dear God

Absolution is the formal remission of sin, imparted by a priest. It also can explain why pedophilic priests can continue on after they've been caught molesting and raping children:
The Vatican tried to stop church leaders here from defrocking a particularly dangerous pedophile priest and relented only after he raped a boy in a restroom at a pub, according to an investigation released Friday.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said he fully accepted the findings of the latest chapter in Ireland’s investigation into child abuse by priests in Dublin who were shielded from the law by Catholic leaders.

Archbishop Martin called the priest, Tony Walsh, an “extremely devious man” who should never have been ordained.

A state-ordered investigation into cover-ups by the Dublin Archdiocese reported last year that church officials had shielded scores of priests from criminal investigation over several decades and did not report any crimes to the police until the mid-1990s.
We know that avoiding punishment (in this case, in the form of legal penalties, fines, and ostracization) is enough of a motivating factor for the Catholic clergy to cover up these horrible acts. There might be something wrong, however, with the idea that admission of sin to a priest with a subsequent forgiveness of that sin makes everything better...also that the placement of that Church doctrine over/above the mundane laws of governments is a Church practice that needs to be re-thought.

I'm not holding my breath for that, as the Catholic church does not adapt itself to change well.

"GOP Defends Performance of Sex Acts With Children"

(I know...but that's what the headline would have been on Fox News Channel if the Dems had crushed the Child Marriage Protection Act.)

I have a question

With DADT repealed, does the whole decision of whether or not to allow uncloseted gays to serve in the military revert back to its former state, i.e. policy is set by the CinC?

If not, then's a watershed moment in the ongoing culture war, a long overdue one.

If so, then how much do y'all think this issue will be used as a wedge in the next election?

George Will, No Labels, and irony

George Will goes all gangsta on the No Labels crew:
As the new political group No Labels convened in Manhattan, a judge was issuing a decision that illustrated why the group's premise is preposterous and its pretense is cloying. The premise, obscured by gaseous rhetoric, is that political heat is inherently disproportionate. The complacent pretense is that it is virtuous to transcend the vice of partisanship.[...]

The perpetrators of this mush purport to speak for people who want to instruct everyone else about how to speak about politics. Granted, there always are people who speak extravagantly, and modern technologies - television, the Internet - have multiplied their megaphones. But blowhards, although unattractive, are easy to avoid.[...]

No Labels, its earnestness subverting its grammar, says: "We do not ask any political leader to ever give up their label - merely put it aside." But adopting a political label should be an act of civic candor. When people label themselves conservatives or liberals we can reasonably surmise where they stand concerning important matters, such as Hudson's ruling.

Aside from his obligatory swipe at liberalism and odd use of the recent Hudson decision as a hook to hang his opinion on, Will isn't really wrong when he calls out No Label for its feel-good 'bromides' and 'banalities'...broken clocks being right twice a day, and all that...

However, George Will lambasting anyone for their 'sanctimony' or 'gaseous rhetoric' is, well, ironic. My 5-Minute Google for Will pulls up more than a few examples...such as his hissy fit thrown at Senator Jim Webb for not being polite enough to George Bush or this column, in which he whines about Cindy Sheehan not being polite enough to George Bush (among other bits of prissyness and failed predictions), using the situation as a hook to hang his opinion.*

I would argue that Will could have ranked higher on Salon's 'Hack List', but the rationale War Room provided is spot on:

George Will is a sanctimonious moralist, a pretentious hypocrite, a congenital liar and a boring pundit, to boot. In these days of red-faced screaming weirdos like Glenn Beck and obvious dolts like Sean Hannity, Will can seem like a harmless throwback to a calmer era in political discourse, but don't let his demeanor fool you: The guy's as utterly amoral as the loudest talk radio shouter, and he's a living example of the truth that there's never any punishment for bad behavior in punditland.

 At least the No Labels crew haven't proved themselves to be hypocrites (yet). George Will, on the other hand...

*sensing a pattern yet?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Post for formatting test

This would declare that, in the BODY area, all text within P tags will use this FONT FACE specified. Check your typing on those font names, because spelling counts.

Considering the differences of Windows and Mac users, it's hard to specify one specific FONT that will work, so a good list is best. See that last option of sans-serif ? That isn't an actual FONT, but a generic term for one. If the browser does not recognize the first FONTs, it can use the sans-serif option and choose the closest FONT that it knows with that type of properties. In most cases, that would be Arial.

Here are the other options you can use at the end of your list and the probable outcome :