Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Illinois votes + Amazon vs. Macmillan + Tissue as commodity + Golden Girls grow gays

Today's Primary Election Day in Illinois, and a number of key posts are on the ballot, from the US Senate seat, formerly occupied by President Barack Obama and now by his notorious successor, Roland Burris, to the Governors' seat, whose previous recent occupants include a convicted felon (George Ryan) and a man (Rod Blagojevich) who tried to sell the just-mentioned Senate seat to the highest bidder, was impeached by the state legislature, and will soon appear on a TV reality show, to various municipal and local positions, including one that almost no one outside of the state knows about but which has been a rag of contention for years, the powerful Cook County Board President's office. That seat is currently occupied by Todd Stroger, whose father suffered a massive stroke, thereby handing the gig to his son.

Since I vote in New Jersey, I'm a spectator in all of this, but I have to say that while I was somewhat frustrated with the lackluster options in the New Jersey elections that put Rovian Republican Chris Christie in office, I would feel even more disillusioned if I had to choose from the rogues' and hacks' gallery vying for these various Illinois seats. Let's just take the US Senate seat. On the GOP side, the leader is Mark Kirk, a sometimes moderate (by Midwestern standards), sometimes right-wing Congressman representing Chicago's wealth North Shore. Kirk was outed as gay, via a really sleazy media-leaked rumor, by one of his GOP opponents, a very nasty operator named Andy Martin, who has zero chance of winning. Facing almost no real competition Kirk, who ha moved politically to the right to secure the nomination, will very likely win the GOP nomination, where he'll face young, fairly progressive Democratic projected-winner Alexi Giannoulis, the current State Treasurer. (David Hoffmann, the state Inspector General, a former Federal prosecutor, and a truly progressive candidate with a clean (including anti-Daley) record, probably doesn't have a chance, but if he did, he would make the best Senator out of all the candidates.) Ironically enough, Giannoulis's family mint and former employer, Broadway Bank, is in serious financial trouble as a result of its lending policies over the last 8 years. During Giannoulis's tenure as Chief Loan Officer from 2002 to 2006, Broadway Bank jumped heavily into the subprime lending business and other risky banking activities. While Giannoulis has argued that he wasn't really involved in the problems that now place Broadway Bank on the brink, a review of the record belies this. As Treasurer he's done a decent job, particularly in the midst of the current economic calamities, which have hit Illinois, the nation's 6th most populous state, very hard, but his banking tenure, and his refusal to be explicit about his role in it, are troublesome.

On some of the major issues facing Congress, and in particular the Senate, it's clear where these two will land. Kirk has been reciting the GOP's health care initiatives mantras, which will do little to improve the ongoing health care cost crunch or resolve the longer time economic crisis the country faces, while Giannoulis would be a reliable vote for the current Senate health care/insurance reform bill, down to supporting Obama's flipflopped position on taxing higher cost plans, yet he also would probably support a reconciliation bill that included more progressive reforms like a public option. Kirk seems likely to oppose major banking reform, while Giannoulis, whose family firm would be affected by the legislation, probably would back it. On national security, Kirk appears likely to back any administration initiatives that track closely to Bush's, which is to say, most of them, while Giannoulis could very well be a firm supporter of Obama's on many national security initiatives, but also outspoken on ones that progressives have identified as particularly problematic, such as the delayed closure of Guantánamo, the glacial withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and so on. As to whether Giannoulis can defeat Kirk in the general election will come down to the general economic conditions in the state, how well he can appeal to people in the populous, centrist ring counties around Chicago, how vigorously he deflects criticism of his family bank's fiascos, and how much he delineates himself from the Blago-tainted Democratic cast. Kirk's chances will depend upon how much voters across the state are willing to hold their noses and vote for a Republican, people's sense that he would be willing to work with the Democrats and Obama as opposed to being yet another GOP obstructionist, and how many Chicagoans and Chicagoland suburbanites show up for the general election.  The after-effects of the outing and his denial will have little effect at all, because Giannoulis, like Burris, has a strong pro-gay record and wouldn't use Kirk's hypocritical record against him.

And so it goes down the line. The country and state are in sad shape, and many of today's leading candidates appear to offer little in the way of viable solutions for the nation's or state's problems.  There are Green Party candidates running in a lot of these races, and if I could vote here, some of them would get my vote, but I also don't think hardly any of them have a realistic chance to win in the upcoming general election. One candidate has stood out for me: Democrat S. Raja Krishnamoorthi (above right, Huffingtonpost.com) a former Obama campaign employee and current candidate for the Illinois Comptroller position. One of his ad taglines is "Another candidate with a funny name," and his commercials and posters emphasize "RAJA," with the aim of getting people outside Chicagoland to vote for him (he grew up in Peoria, about as middle-American as exists).  Based on his background and record, he appears to be one of the best options Illinois voters will have today.


Returning to the publishing tip, one of the most noteworthy issues this week has been the battle between mega-retailer Amazon, the largest online bookseller in the country and proprietor of the Kindle e-reader, and Macmillan (part of the McGraw-Hill conglomerate, I believe), over a pricing dispute. To summarize, Macmillan objected to Amazon's loss-leader pricing of e-books at $9.99, and wanted to sell e-books for more, by moving from a wholeseller model to an agency model. The fact that Apple just debuted its iPad, which represents direct competition to the Kindle, and agreed with the country's five largest publishers (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, Macmillan, Penguin Group, and Simon & Schuster) to sell e-books at a higher $12.99-$14.99 price point, threatened Amazon's power and buttressed Macmillan's complaint, since the publisher would be undercutting themselves by selling books at differing prices on a similar platform. Amazon responded in brutal fashion by severing all purchasing access Macmillan's books, not only removing buy buttons from Macmillan's print books on the Amazon website, but also also cutting Kindle owners' and user's access to Macmillan's texts.  Just like that.

Quoting the Publisher's Lunch site (I don't have login access, but h/t to Lisa M.):
Among the books subject to the greatest potential short-term effect of Amazon's buy-button removal is Andrew Young's just-released THE POLITICIAN, which curiously still ranks at No. 9 on Amazon's bestseller list (and has been between No. 4 and No. 6 today at Barnes and Noble.com). Hilary Mantel's WOLF HALL was at 69 on Amazon last night, falling steadily today and now at No. 128. Atul Gawande's THE CHECKLIST MANIFESTO: How to Get Things Right was at 34 last night on Amazon, now at No. 66,--and has risen from 112 up to 86 at BN.com in the same time period. (These numbers change slightly every hour we've been checking them.)

Amazon has now relented, but larger issues remain. What is an equitable price for e-books, which do not require much of the cost of hardcopy books; there's no physical printing or storage or shipping involved, so should they be priced as anywhere near as high as trade paperbacks? How much power and control should any retailer or hardware company like Amazon have over publishers, and should a retailer which is also a hardware maker also be allowed such overwhelming control the means of distribution? Yet on the other hand, if a bookseller is offering a deal that's more financially beneficial to readers, should a publisher be able to trump that?  How should we think and talk about the publishing and distribution systems in light of these dramatic technological changes?  Should the sellers be making the extra profit off these works, as the agency model suggests, or shouldn't that be going to authors, who are responsible for the works themselves--i.e., the content?  And, even more basically, what is an e-book, really?


This morning I was given to mull over the deep and historic mistrust many Black Americans, including my own parents and many friends of mine, have had with the medical profession, the government and affiliated private institutions after I read this New York Times story about poor, Black tobacco farmer Henrietta Lacks, who died from aggressive cervical cancer back in the early 1950s. Denise Grady's article discusses a new book, by Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown, 2010), which explores what Johns Hopkins Hospital did with her cancerous tissue--her body--after her death, how the ubiquitous HeLa cells developed from that tissue have enabled an array of medical discoveries, and even enriched some of the researchers and corporations using it, though not a dime nor, for years any recognition or thanks went to the Lacks family, which was devastated by the loss of this then young mother and wife. Moreover, this all happened without Mrs. Lacks' or her family's consent, or even knowledge.

The racial, class, and educational gulfs between the Lackses and the doctors and researches enabled this, paralleling other Black Americans' experience with the US medical system. According to the article, hoever, Skloot points out similar situations are still occurring half a century, despite beefed up informed consent laws. Courts have tended to side with the scientists as opposed to patients and the family of the deceased, provoking a new movement for "tissue rights" and greater ethical inquiry into who owns removed bodily tissue even in the face of legally binding agreements, and what happens and who benefits, and at what cost, when that tissue--after surgery or death--represents not just a vital element in invaluable, life-saving research, but a valuable commodity as well.


Today's laughter link: Christwire: The Golden Girls: How One TV Show Turned a Generation of American Boys into Homosexuals. Two names: Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan.

Not humorous at all, but a positive sign: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen spoke out strongly today on behalf of repealing the odious "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that has led to the discharges of thousands of valuable military personnel. Unfortunately, we do not need another year of "study." Ask the UK, Israel, and other countries for pointers, and take lessons. Just get it done, and swiftly!


  1. You are right about how candidates are offering little to the people and do not have any solutions – and they don’t even seek much input from their constituents. We have seen it time and time again. Candidates often make big leaping promises (some don’t even promise very much at all) and they get elected and deliver little to nothing. The puzzling thing to me is the large number of people who keep getting re-elected over and over and over and over and over and over again. People like Jesse Helms, Orrin Hatch, Robert Byrd, Barbara Mikulski, Arlen Specter, Paul Sarbanes, Elijah Cummings, Maxine Waters, are just a few of the names that immediately come to mind. I always ask myself why? In all of my circles, and my circles are quite diverse, people feel so very disenfranchised with the representation they get from their leaders. I know people of varying backgrounds, economic status, ethnicities, religions, and they all are dismayed with politicians. Why then are so many people re-elected so many times?

    I don’t even know if it’s the party ties that are to blame. Lately there have been people changing sides mid stream. That’s why I think we shouldn’t have the two party system like we do now. Political parties have changes from time to time since we have had the right to vote. I think it should change again. There should be NO party. People should get elected based on their ideals, their message, their past, and how they present themselves. But anyhow, I think it will get worse long before it gets better.

  2. Will, thanks for your comment. I didn't see it at first because the alert went right into my spam file (?). I appreciate what you're saying. One of the problems is that the US electoral system isn't built for a partyless structure. The two parties are the largest historical artifacts of earlier parties (the Democrats having been around since Jefferson), and they tend to switch ideological roles from time to time. That said, the major problem is the influence of corporations, outside and outsized forces, and the lack of any accountability, short of voting people out, to punish them from doing the wrong thing. Or, as in the case of Jesse Helms, they're doing in some part what the constituents want--upholding white supremacy in its various guises, while doing the bidding of corporate overlords. Because of the way our system is funded and structured, big-money interests dominate. It's been a problem for years, and worse in past eras (the Gilded Age, during Harding's presidency), but we saw perhaps one of the worst recent apotheoses during the 2001-2008 period. The country was literally robbed blind, alongside a wholesale violation of the Constitution, and the current administration basically was put in place to return the country to some semblance, at least financially (if not constitutionally) to the 1998-1999 moment. It's a serious problem, but there's such terrible inertia, disillusionment, and frustration among voters, and corporations and powerful interests have such tremendous power, that changing things is difficult. But it'll require tuning out a lot of the noise we constantly get (Lindsay Lohan blah blah, Brangelina blah blah, etc.) and focusing our thinking and our actiosn to demand and ensure change. We have to be the agents of what we want to see in the world.