advice from a fake consultant

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On A New System (Sort Of), Or, Referendum 71 And Mail-In Voting October 27, 2009

We are now about two weeks away from the November election in Washington State, and one item on the ballot that has national attention is Referendum 71, the so-called “everything but marriage” proposal that would give same-sex couples more rights and protections than they have today.

There has been a lot of conversation about whether it will or won’t pass—and a lot of conversation about whether it should pass.

I hope it does, and if you live here I encourage you to vote “yes” November 3rd.

But that said, you may not be aware that Washington has an electoral system in transition, and that as a result of the transition Washington has some idiosyncrasies that will make forecasting the results a bit tougher, and determining the results a bit slower.

We’ll talk about that today, and by the time we’re done you should have an appreciation of the odd way in which things can work out—and that, absent a landslide, we aren’t likely to know the results on Election Day.

These Are Not Normal Times

We have the strangest weather here: it is not quite 50 degrees F. as I write this, in midafternoon; but by tonight it’s expected to get warmer as the rain moves in.

In normal times, this is the kind of thing experts would be considering as they tried to estimate what turnout might be in the upcoming election—but these are not normal times. After the November ’08 election, Washington, following Oregon’s lead, became the second “vote-by-mail” state, and now the question has become not whether weather will impact the turnout…but if it will matter at all.

“Democracy is only an experiment in government, and it has the obvious disadvantage of merely counting votes instead of weighing them.”

–Dean William Ralph Inge, Possible Recovery?

The first unusual thing about Election Day in Washington is that there no longer is an Election Day. Voting now begins when the ballots begin to arrive in voters’ homes (20 days before Election Day), and as of Sunday, October 25th, King County Elections (Washington’s largest county; the county that includes Seattle and almost 1/3 of the State’s population) reports that 8.59% of the ballots are already in. All ballots with a postmark before November 4th will be counted, which means there will be new ballots arriving for several days after the “polls close”.

(As you may have guessed, each county operates their own elections office. All elections in the State are regulated by the Washington Secretary of State, which is also the office that handles paperwork for State-level candidates, initiatives, and referenda.)

This is driving the professional political community nuts, because it means every day there is a smaller pool of voters to influence, even though the cost of advertising time isn’t going down. Additionally, it is at the moment unclear exactly who has voted and how; over time, I think we’ll begin to see patterns emerge.

For example, in King County in this election cycle, the locations most likely to have already voted are, for the most part, the wealthiest regions of the county. A group of six communities clustered around Bill Gates’ house all have “in” rates above 10.5%, including three above 13%. The Town of Beaux Arts Village is at the top of that pack, running almost double the countywide rate at 16.74%.

The other communities most likely to have already voted are among the most rural in the County. Skykomish has 16.31% in, Enumclaw 12%. Unincorporated rural King County, however, is only running 8.49%, suggesting that the trend to vote early among the wealthy is more predictable than that same trend among the rural voters.

Among the many communities with average “in rates”, however, are clusters of low- and upper-income housing—and that’s where it is impossible to determine precisely who’s voted already and who is left to influence. With polling reports on Election Day you can track by precinct (and that type of tracking will be available after November 3rd), but for now an effective method of tracking has not emerged.

We assume that over time we’ll see the development of some form of “exit polling” of those who have already voted…but this is the first significant election since all-mail voting began, and prediction tools are as of yet untested.

“Message, We Have A Problem”

All of this is affecting advertising—after all, if you don’t know what portion of the electorate has already voted, how do you target your message to the remaining voters? When we get a week out, if we have 20% or more of the ballots in, this question will begin to loom very large as campaigns have to decide whether they have spent enough campaign dollars to buy airtime…or not…and whether the target audience they seek to influence is actually responding to the message…or not.

This all becomes even tougher to figure out because it’s a series of state and local races that are being contested in this election; as a result there is no daily tracking poll data available from which we might draw some near real-time conclusions.

Speaking of polling data: here’s some. A Survey USA poll conducted October 3rd and released October 6th of 548 likely voters suggests R-71 was winning 45%-42%. Women were both more likely to vote for the measure and more unsure as to how they would vote, relative to men (48% yes, 36% no, 16% unsure for females; 42% yes, 46% no, 12% unsure for males).

Voters 35-49 were simultaneously the least supportive of the measure and the most unsure as to how they’ll vote (35% approve, 49% reject, with 20% unsure). Voters over 65, the group most likely to vote, were supporting the measure (44%-40%, 16% unsure) as of October 6th.

The poll has a 4% margin of error, and some of these results are within that range, so as of October 6th this was still a race that’s very much up for grabs.

There are no Federal or State offices being contested in this election, and the only other statewide ballot issue, Initiative 1033, seeks to limit the growth of State income. The presence of the two ballot measures is likely to increase voting by 3% to 8%. It is suggested that a lower turnout will help the anti-71 crowd, a higher turnout, the pro-71 crowd.

All of this has had a major impact on “get out the vote” efforts as well—for example, no one volunteers to drive voters to polling places anymore…because there aren’t any polling places left. (There are a few exceptions for the disabled.) Instead, the effort here is to make sure those ballots get in mailboxes before Election Day.

It is possible to construct ads that attempt to “close the deal”: suggesting, in the last 20 days, that voters vote right now for or against the candidate or issue, but I haven’t seen ads of that type yet.

Finally, a few words about the “after Election Day” action. If this election is close, the number of votes that are in the mail in the days following the close of voting (and where they’re from) will be critical—and in the ‘08 cycle 50% of the total votes cast were in that “in the mail” category.

(Washington has been moving to voting by mail for some time, and in the 2008 cycle more than 90% of the votes cast were mail-in ballots. At that time 37 of the State’s 39 counties were voting entirely by mail.)

The bad news: it could take anywhere from several days to several weeks before we absolutely know the results. This process may include “reevaluation” of votes after Election Day and efforts by either party to disallow votes based on what they think they can get away with, and the result could be litigation.

The good news: there are no electronic voting machines in this system, and every ballot is a paper ballot. This means we can determine, eventually, exactly how the votes were cast—and if it takes a few recounts before we know the results, well, that’s what it will take.

So as of right now, that’s where we’re at: it’s the first major election since mail-in voting was adopted statewide, we are not sure of exactly how the impact of early voting is being felt, even though we know that almost 10% of the votes are in, professionals are still not exactly sure of what’s going on, and there should be a higher turnout due to the fact that we have two questions on the ballot for the entire voting public to consider.

Don’t expect a final result on Election Night, and if we do have to go to a recount, there won’t be any electronic voting machines to screw things up. Instead, every vote will be on a paper ballot. Most importantly of all: this ain’t Florida, we’ve been through recent close elections and recounts before—and we were able to work things out just fine.

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On Being A Government DJ, Or, “Torture? You Call That Torture?” October 25, 2009

It’s become more or less common knowledge that US forces have been using music as an operational tool for some time now, and I’ve begun seeing lists of the songs that are being used either to inflict pain, to demoralize, or to just generally disorient various people in various sorts of situations.

There are others, wiser than I, who will opine as to the questions of efficacy and the moral issues surrounding these kinds of operations; I will opine, instead, as to the quality of the songs used.

Frankly, had anyone asked, I could have put the torturers onto much better musical choices, just by selecting from my own “My Music” folder–which left me thinking: “hey, it’s the weekend…why not do exactly that?”

Got any psychological warfare mission planned for the weekend? Expecting to have to direct amplified sound at an angry mob in a defensive maneuver Saturday night? Planning a Halloween haunted house that goes a bit…fuurther?

Come along with me then, soldier, and I’ll provide you a playlist that should do the trick in almost any foreseeable emergency.

vistrola.jpg

Before we go any further, a word of warning: some of the links in this story will lead to material that is extraordinarily offensive and, in some cases, exceptionally distressing in nature.

If you are reading this, and you’re, say, eleven years old, go get your parents and make them read this with you so that they can also learn about some sweet death metal; later on you can all listen to better music in the car on family outings.

What’s On Guantanamo’s iPod?

So the obvious first question: what songs are the government using?

If the lists that I’ve been seeing can be believed, there is a fair collection of songs being used to create “environmental manipulation“, including songs like Eminem’s “White America” and Kim, the obvious choices like Born in the USA, songs from the super-patriotic county song genre like that “boot in your ass” song, sexually suggestive songs like Christina Aguilera’s Dirrty (which has a waaaay dirtier video than lyrics…), and a heavy diet of heavy metal. (According to Justine Sharrock’s reporting at Mother Jones, MPs on duty in the detention facilities would often be making the choices about what detainees would hear.)

“The healthy man does not torture others — generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers.”

Carl Jung

The odd thing about the metal: most of the songs seem to be far more tame than what they could have found–and a lot of the songs are actually among my “Rocktober” favorites…although at least one song was new to me, and I liked it, too.

Examples included Nine Inch Nail’s March of the Pigs, AC~DC’s Hell’s Bells, Drowning Pool’s Bodies, Mettalica’s Enter Sandman, and a song by Deicide that I had never heard before…but, to borrow from “American Bandstand”, it had a great death metal beat and you could mosh to it.

Now if it had been me in there, I would have suggested, for starters, some good old New Orleans Goatwhore, like Alchemy of the Black Sun Cult, or maybe some delightful Cannibal Corpse (Barbaric Bludgeonings being a good place to start), or perhaps something that draws from Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” concept, like Upper Decker, by The Red Chord.

One of my friends suggested I consider a Norwegian Black Metal band (which is a good choice due to the Satanic messages that are literally at the core of the music); and you can’t go wrong with either Gorgoroth’s most excellent Carving a Giant or a selection from Emperor’s The Nightside Eclipse (which should also be mandatory for any haunted house soundtrack anywhere).

Did You Say Sex?

Songs with gay-oriented themes work in both PsyOps and “friendly” haunted house environments; my suggestions would include two long-time favorites: The Mike Flowers Pops’ rendition of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina (which actually manages to be amazingly perky, unabashedly “pop”, samples “The Macarena”, and, despite all that, doesn’t suck), or, when you’re ready for the big guns, the Keta-Men’s super-masculine, give-it-a-beat, four-part-harmony reworking of Sheryl Crow’s Strong Enough; which should be effective, as I said, for any PsyOps you may have planned–or any friendly haunting.

As for other songs with a sexual connection: well, you could do a lot better than Christina Aguilera. How about, just to get things rolling, 20 Fingers and Gilette’s Short Dick Man …and then, after midnight, you gotta dig up the impotent sea snakes’ Kangaroos (Up the Butt) (which is, indeed, about an Australian lifestyle choice gone horribly, horribly, wrong).

maxell.jpg

Apparently songs like “Wind Beneath My Wings”, “Mandy”, Air Supply’s Lost in Love, the entire Celine Dion catalog, and Morris Albert’s unforgettable Feelings (unforgettable? After you hear it, you wish you could forget it…) did not make the list (although the public record is incomplete, and that may yet prove to be incorrect). The “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack apparently did make the cut, which confirms some theories I’ve had about the Brothers Gibb and torture that date back to the 1970s…but that’s a subject for another day.

It also appears that no one went for the industrial/dance bands, and as far as I’m concerned, no serious haunted house (or PsyOps mission) is complete until the Negativland comes out to play–but there’s a lot of other top-quality disorienting and jarring music available, including music from :wumpscut: and ohGr and Einstürzende Neubauten…or even Twink’s Pussy Cat.

Finally, a few words about what might be the cruelest songs to make it on the list.

The theme from the Meow Mix commercials made the list.

The Sesame Street theme song made the list.

And, finally, in what might be the most barbaric act ever perpetrated by the American Government…Barney the purple dinosaur’s I Love You, a song you always said was torture to have to listen to, has now actually been used to soften up detainees for interrogation at Guantanamo Bay.

Amazingly, the song that might be the worst ever to have deployed against you in any PsyOps operation–or any haunted house, for that matter–is not on any list I’ve seen so far: the theme from the Disney ride “It’s a Small World“. I can testify to this personally: as a kid at Disneyland I was stuck on the ride, one summer day, for about an hour-and-a-half.

All I can say…is that it changes you.

Check out the link. It’s almost 11 minutes long, and I challenge you to sit through the whole thing. If you do make it, I challenge you to get that song out of your head…ever…again. Good luck.

 

On Using Mr. Bullhorn, Or, DC Health Summit Thursday: Come Say Hi…Loudly October 21, 2009

It was a long hot August for those who would like to see health care reform, as rabid “Town Hall” protesters proffered visions of public options that would lead to death panels and socialism and government tax collectors with special alien mind control powers that would use sex education and child indoctrination and black helicopters as the means for gay people to impose their dangerous agenda on the innocent, God-fearing citizens of someplace in Mississippi that I’m not likely to ever visit.

Part of the reason that opposition was so rabid was because health care interests were spending millions upon millions of dollars doing…well, doing whatever the opposite of giving a distemper shot to the angry mob might be, anyway.

So wouldn’t it be great if all the CEOs of all those health care interests were to gather at one time and place so you could, shall we say, gently express your own thoughts regarding the issues of reform and public options?

By an amazing coincidence, that’s exactly what’s going to happen Thursday in Washington, DC, as the Patient Centered Primary Care Cooperative (PCPCC) holds its Annual Summit.

Follow along, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know.

The Who, The What

There are two important bits of setting up that are required to make this story work; and the first is to explain who the PCPCC is, exactly. To quote their website:

“The Patient Centered Primary Care Collaborative is a coalition of major employers, consumer groups, patient quality organizations, health plans, labor unions, hospitals, clinicians and many others who have joined together to develop and advance the patient centered medical home. The Collaborative has well over 500 members.

The Collaborative believes that, if implemented, the patient centered medical home will improve the health of patients and the viability of the health care delivery system. In order to accomplish our goal, employers, consumers, patients, clinicians and payers have agreed that it is essential to support a better model of compensating clinicians.”

The “patient centered medical home”?

Is that anything like “precious bodily fluids“?

Actually, the original idea was to create a “home” where a patient’s scattered medical records could be gathered. Forty years later, the concept has evolved to a “home doctor” who coordinates all your health and wellness care from all your providers.

This is a huge shift in how care is delivered (and how healthcare dollars would be distributed), which is why the Collaborative has so many members…including seven of the top ten health insurers in the country.

The Why

I’ve been getting emails that tell me CEOs such as Stephen Helmsley of UnitedHealth and Angela Braly of WellPoint (insert booing and hissing here) will be present–and these are the exact people that you should be giving a “Town Hall-like” welcome of their own when they hit Washington.

Groups such as Democracy for America and TrueMajority will be working together to bring people who have been personally affected by the insurance crisis to the meeting–even though we’re not invited inside to support something like, oh, I don’t know…maybe a public option?

They want you to attend as well, to make lots of noise, and to send the message that we won’t be ignored. It’s a critical time in the debate, as there are Democrats yet to be convinced, and if you can be at this meeting it will capture media attention that could help move those Democrats to our positions.

The Where, The When

The event takes place in Washington DC all day Thursday (from 9-4:30) at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, conveniently located at 801 Mount Vernon Place NW; just six blocks from the Executive Office Building and the White House complex…and, on its south side, just 50 feet from K Street, the “Glitter Gulch” of lobbying.

There’s a handy Metro station, and if you walk to the south end of the Convention Center (the Mt. Vernon Square end of the building) you’ll find that the American Federation of Labor occupies a building across the street from the Square on the west side–and National Public Radio occupies a building diagonally across the Square on the east side.

So if you’re planning to be in Washington Thursday–or you’ve been looking for an excuse to visit–make a day of it: stroll by the White House, see lobbyists and unions and National Public Radio at work…and most importantly of all, make sure the CEOs of the health insurers in attendance get the same kind of rousing “Town Hall” welcome at the Convention Center that they spent millions of dollars to create in our own home towns.

In other words, bring Mr. Bullhorn–and the extra batteries.

Of course, I don’t want to make this too much of a hard sell.

After all, it’s not as if your life depends on you attending some–hey, wait a minute…actually, I guess it kind of does.

 

On Learning To Love Homegrown, Or, Baucus’ Fundraising Considered October 9, 2009

So we are now finding out the answers to some of our questions about which members of Congress actually represent We, the People…and which ones represent, Them, the Corporate Masters.

We have seen a Democratic Senator propose a policy that would put people in jail for not buying health insurance and a Democratic President who has taken numerous public beatings from those on the left side of the fence for his inability to ram something through a group of people…and yes, folks, the entendre was intentional.

But most of all, we’ve been asking ourselves: “why would Democratic Members of Congress who will eventually want us to vote for them vote against something that nearly all voting Democrats are inclined to vote for?”

Today’s conversation attempts to answer that question by looking at exactly how money and influence flow through a key politician, Montana’s Senator Max Baucus—and in doing so, we examine some ugly political realities that have to be resolved before we can hope to convince certain Members of Congress to vote for what their constituents actually want when it really counts.

“The idea of covering even the early stages of the cynical and increasingly retrograde campaign has already plunged me into a condition bordering on terminal despair, and if I thought I might have to stay with these people all the way to November I would change my name and seek work as a professional alligator poacher in the swamps around Lake Okeechobee.”

–Hunter S. Thompson, Jimmy Carter and the Great Leap of Faith

Now any normal person trying to analyze last year’s election would have said something like “the fact that Obama was promoting a new type of politics—and that a large majority of the public liked what they were seeing—should have meant that politicians would finally do what the public wanted”…and if you’re as cynical as I am, you might have thought that the fact that Obama is the most successful fundraiser in the history of politics would have made other candidates figure that supporting Obama, politically, would be the easy way to put more cheddar in their own pockets.

But here’s the thing: Senator Baucus has been in Washington, in the same job, since 1978, which is about three years short of half of his entire life (and he spent those three years in the House), and unless he wakes up dead one morning or Montana secedes from the Union he’s pretty much guaranteed to be there until at least January 2015.

In those three decades he’s been able to create, and then “outsource”, his own independent fundraising operation—and he’s been so good at doing this that he can donate money from his own Political Action Committee (Glacier PAC) to other Democrats, which is the Congressional version of acquiring really cool “Magic: The Gathering” cards now in an effort to both control votes today and become a more powerful player later on.

He did it by cultivating people in his own office who later went on to become lobbyists. At least 24 of ‘em. Since Baucus now runs the Senate Finance Committee and every bill in the Senate that needs money has to pass through his Committee for approval, all those hard working lobbyists now lobby…wait for it…their former boss.

This creates a fundraising “virtuous circle”: “Baucus-affiliated” lobbyists sell access to Baucus…and part of the price of that access is donating to Baucus…which, since “the fix is in”, creates legislative successes that lead to more people wanting more access for bigger favors…which makes the prices all go up, creating more power and influence for Baucus and his orbiting constellation of homegrown lobbyists.

And now that the enterprise has reached the point where the entourage has gone on to have their own entourages, Obama’s vision of “change you can believe in” is sounding more like a promise to screw up a perfectly good hustle than it is a way to run a country.

So how does all this influence the healthcare debate?

At the moment, Baucus could literally coach a basketball team of former staff members who now lobby Baucus on behalf of health care clients:

David Castagnetti of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, Inc. is the vertically integrated busy beaver of the group, representing drug powerhouses Abbot, AstraZeneca, and Biogen, device manufacturers like GE Medical, service providers like Humana and the American Clinical Lab Association, and AHIP, the trade association of health insurers, among others.

Jeff Forbes, who is currently self-employed, is representing drug maker Roche Group, Manor Care (who provides long-term care services in nursing homes and other environments), and the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed), a group which includes many of the big players in the medical business.

–Roger Blauwet (he of DC’s Canfield and Associates), is representing Wyeth and Pfizer (two more major drug manufacturers), the Association of Financial Guaranty Insurers, who are the “reinsurers” who help carry risk for other insurers (in return for a piece of the action), and the Rx Benefits Coalition, which reports that it represents companies that support “market solutions” to make prescription drugs available.

Some clients feel that their needs require more than one “Baucus alumnus” on the payroll, which is why Scott Olsen and Jeff Forbes are working for biotech giant Amgen (along with about 150 other lobbyists), David Castagnetti and Angela Hofmann are slogging it out for Wal-Mart, and Roger Blauwet and Castagnetti are both hoofing it for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), who is, literally, the “Big PhRMA” that everyone talks about.

Drug manufacturer Merck hired three of the anointed: Forbes, Blauwet and Castagnetti.

All of this effort is working—and working well. According to OpenSecrets.org, somewhere in the range of $4.5 million has been donated to Baucus during his career by insurance and healthcare interests.

It isn’t just health care, either. Because somewhere around two dozen former Baucus staffers turned lobbyists are “home on the Washington range”, no matter what is being debated in Congress, Baucus gets paid (two quick examples of his Committee’s jurisdiction: changes in tax policy and financial industry regulation—or the lack of it).

In truth, “Baucus gets paid” is probably a bit too cynical.

What I really should say is that Baucus has been exceptionally successful in listening to all points of view when considering ways to make the lives of every American all they can be, that the people who get listened to are exceptionally grateful for this attention, that millions and millions of dollars worth of gratitude have been funneled to Baucus over the years because he’s such a good listener, and that, from now until at least 2015, if you need a Senator to support “status quo you can believe in” you might want to try launching a great big brick of cheddar into the Senator’s constellation.

So the next time someone asks you how “change you can believe in” could have possibly morphed into “buy insurance or we’ll put you in jail”…well, now you know—and given the choice, wouldn’t you rather watch someone make sausage?