Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Regrouping for Detroit, GM’s bankruptcy evasion and Chinese corporate records

Steven Brill
Apr 29, 2014 05:00 UTC

1. Kevyn Orr and a Detroit rebound?

Last Friday, I happened onto a C-Span broadcast of a speech to a national group of bankruptcy lawyers given by Kevyn Orr — the emergency manager who Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed to take over Detroit’s finances and guide the fallen city through bankruptcy. Since I couldn’t stand watching the Yankees get slaughtered by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, I stopped on the Orr speech for a minute. I stayed 45.

I had never seen Orr speak or paid much attention to Detroit’s troubles and his efforts to dig the city out from under. But if his talk — riveting, funny, emotional, self-effacing, forceful, fact-filled, wholly convincing and seemingly off the cuff — is any indication, both Orr and Detroit 2014 are big national stories.

They are worthy of coverage beyond the good work that’s been done by, among other local outlets, the Detroit Free Press, which ran this comprehensive story  last month, on the one-year anniversary of Orr leaving a lucrative partnership at the Jones, Day law firm to take on the rescue job.

It’s a job that involves balancing the needs of retired police officers and fire fighters, who had every moral right (and probably an impregnable right under the state constitution) to expect to be paid the pensions (averaging about $30,000 a year) they were promised against the need to relight the city’s street lamps and provide funds for ambulances and fire trucks to improve horrifying response times.

Orr negotiated a pension deal two weeks ago. He has had to figure out how to make sure the city’s stellar collection in its Detroit Institute of Arts doesn’t have to be auctioned to pay off bond-holders, while also creating incentives for investors to come back to Detroit. It’s all being done against the backdrop of a decades-long legacy of local government so incompetent and corrupt that there’s a stench associated with making good on any debts or union contracts it negotiated — even if the people, particularly the pensioners, relying on those promises are not to blame.

Obama’s unaccountable briefers, pipeline bribery, and economic woes at Yankee Stadium

Steven Brill
Apr 22, 2014 14:38 UTC

 

1. Obama’s unaccountable briefers:

Here’s a key paragraph in Saturday’s New York Times report explaining the Obama administration’s decision to delay yet again a decision on the Keystone pipeline:

’The Nebraska Supreme Court decision could lead to changes in the pipeline route, and it’s important to have that information and better understand that route, because it could have implications for environmental, socioeconomic and cultural impacts of the pipeline,’ a State Department official said Friday in a conference call with reporters that was conducted on the condition that the official not be named.

Why did this official have to remain anonymous? Was he or she providing a national security leak? Was he or she blowing the whistle on some government wrongdoing?

Sealing deadly court files, and Obama and his Cabinet

Steven Brill
Apr 15, 2014 04:44 UTC

1. Sealing deadly court files:

In the wake of continuing disclosures about General Motors’ failure to acknowledge critical safety issues related to faulty ignition switches, there’s a looming issue that has not been addressed: How litigation settlements negotiated by private parties can result in court-sanctioned cover-ups that endanger the public.

We now know that there were several cases in which the families of people who died in crashes after ignition switches failed quietly received cash settlements from GM.

In return for the cash, the plaintiffs not only promised to withhold the settlement details but also agreed with GM that the court files would be sealed. In some cases, those sealed records included documents and transcripts of pre-trial deposition testimony that contained evidence gathered about the dangers of the faulty switches.

America’s biggest boondoggle and ‘REAL’ voter ID

Steven Brill
Apr 1, 2014 15:05 UTC

1. The book on America’s biggest boondoggle:

Last week, the Government Accountability Office issued the latest report on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, warning that “delays in testing of the jet’s software may hinder delivery of the warfighting capabilities the military services expect” for an additional 15 months. This means that the jets are unlikely to be ready until August 2016, at the earliest, instead of what had been a July 2015 deadline.

This GAO report was the latest of 15 issued by the government watchdog since 2001. They catalog a mind-boggling series of cost over-runs, delays and denials of reality that make the F-35 a parody of defense contractors (led in this case by the Keystone Cops at Lockheed Martin), Pentagon and Washington dysfunction.

The plane was supposed to begin being delivered in 2010, with the total cost projected at a record-shattering (and much attacked) $233 billion. By last year the official acquisition cost was estimated to be $390 billion — though that is likely to rise with this latest delay.

A fair view of the Koch brothers, and explaining bitcoin

Steven Brill
Mar 25, 2014 04:57 UTC

1. Getting a full, fair view of the money behind the Democrats’ prime enemies:

Their company makes everything from Dixie Cups to Brawny paper towels to Lycra swimwear to a huge share of the plywood, lumber and other products used in construction. It operates 4,000 miles of energy pipelines, according to its website, and an array of oil refineries that can process 670,000 barrels of oil a day.

Other subsidiaries are leading producers of chemicals, fertilizer and electronic and fiber optic systems. Still another unit trades energy products such as crude oil and natural gas. Apparently (the website is vague) it even has a business buying and selling the emission allowances related to pollution control efforts throughout the industrialized world.

Amazon’s price increase, Congressional whistleblowers, and a question for President Obama

Steven Brill
Mar 18, 2014 04:34 UTC

1. Are customers really upset at the Amazon Prime price increase?

The day after Amazon raised the annual subscription price for its Prime service from $79 to $99, the New York Times ran a story headlined, “Complaints As Amazon Raises Cost of Prime.” I found the reporting lacking and the headline unfair.

I imagine if I were reporting the story, I could find people to quote grousing about the 25 percent increase. Indeed, Times reporter David Streitfeld did it the easy way, going on Amazon’s own customer comments page.

But everyone I’ve talked to who subscribes to Prime — membership not only delivers everything from a book to a flat-screen TV to your doorstep for free, but also provides free movies and TV shows and a free book-lending library — thinks it is a hard-to-believe bargain at $99 or $79. (One happy customer in my office thought the price had gone from $179 to $199.)

The mysterious allure of cruises, Al Sharpton conflict check, and doing the math on Ukraine bailouts

Steven Brill
Mar 11, 2014 15:00 UTC

1. Why do people take cruises?

A few weeks ago, USA Today reported that “More than 160 of 3,104 passengers on Princess Cruises’ Caribbean Princess “had fallen ill with a gastrointestinal illness that the cruise line suspected was norovirus — a highly contagious infection that causes severe vomiting and diarrhea.”

That incident, USA Today noted, came “just days after a massive outbreak of a norovirus-like illness forced an early end to a sailing of Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas.”

Yet a January 25 Associated Press story reported that the leading cruise lines trade association expects that 21.7 million people will take cruises in 2014, up from 21.3 million in 2013.

Ambassadors astray, the Federal Reserve Board’s minutes, and conflict recusals in the Valley

Steven Brill
Mar 4, 2014 06:55 UTC

 

1. Ambassadors without portfolios?

What happens when you’re an ambassador whose government has been overthrown?

With the Ukrainian government being deposed last week, I’m wondering about the fate of the country’s envoys and their families. As key appointees of President — now fugitive — Viktor Yanukovich, have they been replaced and evicted from their embassies in Washington, New York (the United Nations ambassador), London or Paris? Or are they all professional foreign service officers, able to roll with the punches?

Who at the new regime in Kiev would assert to whom in the host country that the incumbent ambassador no longer represents Ukraine and should be evicted from the embassy, if that is to be their fate? Where would they and their families go? What about the staffs and their families?

In the particular case of Ukraine, is the fate of its ambassador in Moscow different from that of his colleague in Washington because Russia still supports Yanukovich?

Cigarette companies’ final days, high-speed trading, and how rich is Ringo?

Steven Brill
Feb 18, 2014 16:16 UTC

1. Cigarette companies’ final days:

This article last week from the Associated Press, “U.S. health experts predict…a cigarette-free America,” highlighted the release of a 900-page report on smoking from the U.S. surgeon general. “Though the goal of a cigarette-free America has long seemed like a pipe dream,” the AP noted, “public-health leaders have started throwing around phrases like ‘endgame’ and ‘tobacco-free generation.’”

Smoking has declined significantly in the United States in the five decades since the surgeon general’s first report pinpointing the dangers of cigarettes. It is still a multibillion-dollar industry, however, that sells more than 300 billion cigarettes a year here.

Yet smoking rates continue to decline as the evidence of tobacco’s lethal effects becomes accepted wisdom. At the same time, venues forbidding smoking have become nearly universal, even as the sale of smoking products becomes more constricted. CVS’s decision two weeks ago to stop selling tobacco is the latest example. (I wrote about that here.) Several states are now considering raising the legal age for buying cigarettes to 21.

CVS and the doctoring business, Sochi consequences, and getting Cohen’s side of the story

Steven Brill
Feb 11, 2014 05:00 UTC

1. How far can CVS and other pharmacy chains get into the doctoring business?

In announcing Wednesday that CVS Caremark would stop selling tobacco, chief executive officer Larry Merlo said selling cigarettes would be, according to a company press release, “inconsistent with our purpose.” He explained, “As the delivery of health care evolves with an emphasis on better health outcomes, reducing chronic disease and controlling costs, CVS Caremark is playing an expanded role in providing care through our pharmacists and nurse practitioners.”

I’d like to know more about what Merlo has in mind vis a vis that “expanded role in providing health care.”

Drugstore chains like CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens already offer flu shots. How is that regulated? Is it allowed in all states? Do licensed nurses have to provide them? Did doctors’ groups or health clinics lobby against it?

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