Monday, January 31, 2005

Uh-oh...SS stuff again...

Man, I don't need another day off from work. It gives me too much time to get into trouble at the keyboard...

Josh Marshall has posted a link to a 103-page PDF document prepared for those who want to advance the administration's position on changes in the Social Security system. What a study in organizational excellence. I have to hand it to these guys, they got their you-know-what together. Not only are there extensive articles and quotes, there are also a couple of prepared speeches, one generic and another for audiences over 50, ready to go...

Good day. My name is _______________. I am here to talk with you about your future, and the future of your children and grandchildren. I have studied the challenges facing our Social Security system. I am going to share with you today what I have learned, and tell you about the solution that I recommend.

Complete with Power Point slides and supporting material, whoever does his homework with this pile of stuff will have no equal when he marches into the next civic club or coffee klatch for a presentation. I'm impressed.

Unfortunately, I happen to be on the wrong side of the debate, essentially unarmed in the face of what is clearly an armory of artillery aimed in my direction. The only thing I have in my favor is that I work in a retirement community, I'm getting older, my kids and grandchildren have been on my mind a lot over the last few years, so I have been able to give the matter a good deal of layman's attention long before the issue took center stage in Washington. I have to give the president credit. I heard him say on the radio just the other day how everyone was afraid to touch it...the "third rail" of politics for fear of being killed. He's doing more than "touching" it.

At a glance (remember there is over 100 pages to look at) here is a couple of things I noticed...

Language is very important to the discussion...

"Personalization" not "privatization": Personalization suggests increased personal ownership and control. Privatization connotes the total corporate takeover of Social Security; this is inaccurate and thoroughly turns off listeners, who are very concerned about corporate wrongdoing.
Talk in simple language: Your audience doesn’t understand financial jargon. Phrases such as “cash flow deficits” and “actuarial imbalance” don’t normally crop up in conversation; avoid using them.
Keep the numbers small: Your audience doesn’t know how trillions and billions differ. They know these numbers are large, but not how large nor how many billions make a trillion. Boil numbers down to “your family’s share.” Also avoid percentages; your audience will try to calculate them in their head—no easy task while listening to a speech—and many will do it incorrectly.
Acknowledge risks: Many of your listeners will not have a lot of financial education or investment experience, but they know that markets have risk—and nothing is guaranteed. They believe investments can grow over time, but they also know they can lose their investments. They don’t trust someone who tells them differently.
Say it the way they can hear it: Your audience will reject some turns of phrase because of the connotations and associations. The responses are not universal, but they are much less personal than you might imagine.

I'm not going to the trouble to fisk this stuff. The condescending tone speaks for itself. We're down to "bread and circuses" here.

Credit where credit is due. There is one brief mention of an opposition proposal.

The leading liberal plan on Social Security is that of economists Peter Diamond and Peter Orszag. Its backers, such as Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic, prefer to describe it as "a series of tweaks" that "involves both raising taxes and cutting benefits." Likewise, the Washington Post describes Diamond and Orszag as "'balancers,' who would use benefit cuts and tax increases in equal measure." In truth, 85 percent of the improvement in solvency their plan accomplishes would come from higher taxes. (They even propose adding some benefits.) They want to raise the payroll-tax rate. They want to raise the amount of wages to which the tax applies. Then they want to add a "surtax" to high earners.

Yes, I added the emphasis to those thirteen words, because it is the only reference I found in the entire document to the cap on earnings taxed for Social Security. Notice the absence of the word and in that string of they-want's. All three refer to the same thing, the item highlighted in bold-face. That is one cat that no one wants out of the bag, including many, if not most of those who call themselves part of the opposition. It would mean that anyone earning over (this year) $87,000 would have to continue chipping in, maybe even for the remainder of the year, until resuming next January. Imagine that...somebody earning six or seven times the minimum wage having to pay the same percentage as everybody else! How unfair! Those folks would otherwise be salting away that money to create jobs and build factories, don't you know...

Settle down, Hoots. There's more to talk about.

This jumped out at me...

The average life expectancy has increased from 63 in 1935 to 77 today.

I don't think this is a deliberate attempt to mislead anybody because it is so widely believed to be important. It is, in a way, because those are "life expectancy at birth" numbers, which are not the same as "life expectancy at 50" or "life expectancy at 80". The differences are more dramatic when you look at statistics from birth. The difference is fourteen years. But the numbers for life expectancy at age 65 are not as dramatic. In 1930 a 65-year-old man could expect to live 11.7 years. By 1997 a 65-year-old man could look forward to 15.9 more years. That is an improvement of a little more than four years, not fourteen. Trivial point in the overall debate, but one worth noting.

Google showed a private site that was a treasure trove of numbers and statistics. It is a duke's mixture of stuff about insurance, annuities and the like, but it is a great jumping off point for anyone who wants to get informed about numbers. From what I have learned about gerontology, a lot of the material is pretty good. How about these...

Immigrants who come to the United States live an average of three years longer than people born here. (NIH)... A growing body of evidence indicates the life span difference reflects both immigrants' innate vitality and their reluctance to embrace Americans' drive-thru, drive-everywhere mentality. They also smoke less....The life expectancy deficit is true for all races but is most dramatic among blacks. Immigrant black men live nine years longer than black men born in the United States....The records showed the average American-born black man could expect to reach 64, while a black man born overseas would likely live beyond 73 if he immigrated. In the case of an African-born man remaining in his homeland, he might well have died before his 50th birthday.... Obesity, too, is far more prevalent among American-born residents. Data from the mid-1990s showed that 22 percent of adult immigrants were obese, compared to 28 percent of U.S.-born adults. (Recent numbers suggest about 30 percent of all U.S. residents are obese.) ...The smoking numbers were even more dramatic: 18 percent of immigrants smoked, compared to 26 percent of U.S.-born adults.

Does anyone need to be reminded about demographic trends regarding immigration?
Could these trends have any connection with the shape of the debate about Social Security reform?
I mentioned immigrants in my previous post about Korea. Because they are employed largely at the lower end of the economy they are contributing a growing share of the revenue upon which the Social Security System is supposed to be relying.
Is anyone bringing them up?

What about this (from USA Today)?

With better medical care and a drop in smoking rates, death rates for heart disease have been cut in more than half, and they have declined even more dramatically for stroke and other cerebrovascular disease. ...Death rates from injuries, particularly motor vehicle crashes, have also fallen since about 1970, with safer cars on the road and more people wearing seat belts. ...The average baby born in 1900 could expect to live 47.3 years and that gauge has been climbing ever since. By 1950, life expectancy had risen to 68.2, and it reached 76.9 in 2000. ...Infant mortality: The portion of babies dying before their first birthday was at a record low in 2000, 6.9 per 1,000 live births. That rate has fallen 75% since 1950. ...there are currently some 76,000 Americans over the age of 100. The Census Bureau estimates that the number of centenarians will increase to 324,000 by the year 2030, and swell to the astounding figure of 834,000 by the year 2050.

As Twain or Disraeli or somebody famously said There are lies, damn lies and statistics. That part about more than three quarters of a million centenarians looks to me like a stretch, but you get the idea. I don't wish to be an alarmist, but from what I can tell, the future, barring unforseen circumstances, is going to be cluttered up with a lot of old people. I'm old enough that by then I won't be part of the problem, but my kids will have to come to terms with it in all it's glory.

So to conclude this post, I want to go back to one of the canned speeches fouond in the PDF document.

For every six dollars the government takes from today’s workers for Social Security taxes, five dollars is given to retirees. That remaining dollar goes into the “trust fund” that you’ve heard about, but it’s not being saved there; it is being spent. And what it’s being used for is the day-to-day functioning of the rest of the government, which itself is running giant deficits.

I’m all for fiscal discipline. Forcing the government to balance its checkbook, cut its wasteful over-spending, and quit borrowing from the Social Security trust fund surpluses is one of the most important things we could do to strengthen Social Security. In fact, I’d love to see the government pay back to the trust fund the billions and billions of dollars it has alreadyborrowed over the years. But I’m not optimistic this will ever happen. No matter who’s in charge, there’s just no discipline in our nation’s capital.

There it is in black and white.
I could not have said it any better.
These are the words of a Republican talking points document and last time I checked, they were the ones in a majority.
My message to them, to the majority, to the man who wants to spend some of the "political capital" that he earned in the presidential election, is this: Pay attention to the paragraph above and do something to get some discipline in our nation's capital. Do what you have to do about the future without stealing any more money from those of us who continue to be taxed, not for the general revenue, but for Social Security.

I thought there was a problem in our history with "taxation without representation." I have been suffering under the illusion that income tax, designated for the general fund, was subject to some kind of deduction.

There is no deduction against the Social Security tax. It is REgressive, not PROgressive.
From the first earned dollar it affects everyone in the population.
Those who pass that cap, whose income levels are most able to absorb an increase, are not affected, year after year, while those who never come close to that level of income pay into the system all of their working lives.

What is going on?

Reply to a Jane Galt post

Just came across today's post on Asymetrical Information regarding recent reports of deterioration of North Korean leadership. I started to leave a comment, but in my usual way I had too many words and decided a blog post would be better. Here I have more space. And she and her readers would probably not find my remarks either interesting or germaine so I'll stick with a link instead.

Interesting post. Reports of cannibalism have been seeping out for a couple of years now, with Japanese journalists doing a lot of reporting. I often wonder how long North Korea can last until it completely implodes. I read whatever comes along about Korea because my tour of duty in South Korea raised my awareness of the country.

I can see how M.A.S.H. can be viewed as a thinly-veiled commentary on Vietnam, but I don't think most people would put that construction on either the movie or the TV series. After having served in the US Army Medical Service Corp, in Korea, all of 1966 and half of 1967, I was entirely taken by the film just a couple of years later. I can assure you that the not-too-military attitude of the doctors that I worked with was not too far off from the M.A.S.H. profile. Many of those guys were in effect drafted just as I was, but because of their professional training they were made officers rather than enlisted men, with "professional" pay, "hazardous duty" pay, and whatever other perqs Uncle Sugar could manage in order to pursuade them to serve. It made for good medicine, if not good military decorum. I served under a Captain who could not get a security clearance because he was a foreign national. Had there been a need for him to access certain confidential documents in the safe, a Spec-5 assigned as our pharmacy tech would have to open the safe for him!

The point of my comment, however, has to do with the attitude of (South) Koreans in 1966 regarding the Vietnam conflict, and also the line dividing their own country. These two topics were connected in the minds of many Koreans with whom I spoke.

I was shocked the first time I heard it, but after hearing it more than once I began to understand that Koreans regarded what we call "the Korean Conflict" as the sparkplug launching the Japanese economy as the economic engine of the Pacific rapidly being manifest at the time. Japan was the staging area for a good many US (or UN, if you prefer - that being the putative authority for our being there, then and now) military needs. Uniforms, food, storage areas, docks and whatever immediate support was needed for the US participation was furnished, at considerable economic advantage, by the newly pacified Japan, just a few years following WWII. Even when I was there, I think we may have been receiving supplies from Japan; reconstituted milk, for example, comes to mind.

Whether or not, or to what extent, any of this is true is beside the point. It was the thinking of Koreans at the time, undescored by a hatred of Japan that defies description in English. Prior to the Second World War, Korea had been dominated as a Japanese territory from the end of the Russo-Japanese War, 1915. During those years, the Japanese had treated Korea in a manner reminiscent of European Colonialism. Korean children had to learn and speak Japanese in school, people were required to change their names to Japanese names, historic artifacts of the country were collected and displayed in a National Museum, constructed for the purpose. But Korean young women were also transported across Asia to serve as sex slaves to the Japanese military, and their Japanese overlords treated Koreans with the same disrespect as Colonial subjects were by their masters. Again, how much of this is true is beside the point, although I have seen and read nothing to contradict the substance of it. That was the thinking of Koreans with whom I spoke.

At the time I was in Korea there were reported to be about 50,000 US troops stationed there. At the same time, interestingly enough, there were about the same number of South Korean troops stationed in Vietnam. There were so many Koreans in Vietnam that it was feasible for bilingual Koreans (Korean/English) to take assignments as translators in Vietnam. I heard reports of Korean taxi drivers going to work in Saigon in order to earn money to send home to their families. (We are witnessing the same phenomenon now, here, with aliens, both legal and illegal, coming to America to work, to live at what we imagine to be a "subsistence" level, while sending a significant amount of their earnings home to Africa, Mexico, Bangladesh or whatever third world country was their home. These are just a few about which I know personally from having employed them in my cafeteria.) And Korean soldiers assigned to Vietnam, of course, were the principle conduits of wealth back to Korea. In other words, South Koreans saw the Vietnam Conflict as their opportunity to flourish, in the same way that the Korean Conflict had aided Japan.

Regarding the DMZ and the division of their own country, it was clear to me that the notion of "Two Koreas" is a fanciful figment of the American imagination. My first reality check was in the form of a map, quickly drawn on a scrap of paper by a Korean X-ray technician explaining to me the location of Taejon. I had received a "permanent" assignment after a few weeks of OJT at the 21st Evac Hospital at Inchon, near Seoul. I mentioned that I had heard of Taejon, but I didn't know exactly were it was.
"Here, I can show you," he said.
Taking a piece of paper he sketched a line drawing representing an outline of Korea. Next he drew a line through the middle and said, "Here is DMZ..."
Instantly, I understood something more than the location of Taejon. I learned that in his mind the word "Korea" meant the entire country, not what I had been thinking of as "The Republic of South Korea." It was one of those "aha" moments for me. I remember it to this day. And for the rest of my tour of duty I never imagined that the Republic of South Korea was anything other than a temporary political construct, largely a creation of the American imagination.

As time passed, I came to the understanding that were it not for the US presence in Korea, there would be a good chance that the South might invade the North. Politically, we have been fed the line that a possible North Korean invasion of the South was the reason for the Demilitarized Zone (odd designation, since it is one of the most heavily fortified pieces of geography on the map). That may be true, but it is only half of the truth, the other half being that the South may have been just as eager to invade the North to free them from their Communist leaders. The degree of hatred for Communism in South Korea was only matched by their hatred of the Japanese. And their willingness to take a stand for their beliefs was as strong as anyplace else on earth.

Regarding the post to which I am responding, this is an operative paragraph...

...I've always been rather surprised at liberals and basically isolationist libertarians who concede World War II, but offer Korea as an example of a morally questionable war. Dear Leader is doing his best to turn the entire country into a concentration camp; how is it morally questionable to have kept tens of millions in South Korea from having suffered that fate?

My response seems off-topic. But I offer it as another point of view from the vantage point of an old-fashioned "liberal" and conscientious objector who finds all wars to be morally questionable. My own take on Korea is shaped by the tail end of a discussion I caught on S-SPAN about a month ago. Regrettably, I don't know who was speaking or what the occasion was, but the man was clearly well informed. He was clear in his argument that the main stumbling block to a political solution to the challenge of North Korea was none other than the Republic of South Korea. A visceral dislike of both China and Japan causes the diplomatic result that South Korea refuses even to sit in talks with those other two important players in their neighborhood, even to discuss a way to deal with North Korea.

When I remember how much the population of South Korea must absolutely agree with that position, it makes me question whether "democracy" is really what we want to prevail in this situation.

Voting in Iraq, another comment

Yesterday I posted Alaa's eloquent comment about the elections in his country. I notice the same piece was also cited at Friends of Democracy blog.

This one, from Iraq the Model, (via Pejman) is just as eloquent.

We would love to share what we did this morning with the whole world, we can't describe the feelings we've been through but we'll try to share as much as we can with you.We woke up this morning one hour before the alarm clock was supposed to ring. As a matter of fact, we barely slept at all last night out of excitement and anxiety.

The first thing we saw this morning on our way to the voting center was a convoy of the Iraqi army vehicles patrolling the street, the soldiers were cheering the people marching towards their voting centers then one of the soldiers chanted "vote for Allawi" less than a hundred meters, the convoy stopped and the captain in charge yelled at the soldier who did that and said:

"You're a member of the military institution and you have absolutely no right to support any political entity or interfere with the people's choice. This is Iraq's army, not Allawi's".

This was a good sign indeed and the young officer's statement was met by applause from the people on the street.
The streets were completely empty except for the Iraqi and the coalition forces ' patrols, and of course kids seizing the chance to play soccer!

We had all kinds of feelings in our minds while we were on our way to the ballot box except one feeling that never came to us, that was fear.
We could smell pride in the atmosphere this morning; everyone we saw was holding up his blue tipped finger with broad smiles on the faces while walking out of the center. I couldn't think of a scene more beautiful than that.

From the early hours of the morning, People filled the street to the voting center in my neighborhood; youths, elders, women and men. Women's turn out was higher by the way. And by 11 am the boxes where I live were almost full!
Anyone watching that scene cannot but have tears of happiness, hope, pride and triumph.

The sounds of explosions and gunfire were clearly heard, some were far away but some were close enough to make the windows of the center shake but no one seemed to care about them as if the people weren't hearing these sounds at all.

I saw an old woman that I thought would get startled by the loud sound of a close explosion but she didn't seem to care, instead she was busy verifying her voting station's location as she found out that her name wasn't listed in this center.

How can I describe it!? Take my eyes and look through them my friends, you have supported the day of Iraq's freedom and today, Iraqis have proven that they're not going to disappoint their country or their friends.

Is there a bigger victory than this? I believe not.

I still recall the first group of comments that came to this blog 14 months ago when many of the readers asked "The Model?"… "Model for what?"
Take a look today to meet the model of courage and human desire to achieve freedom; people walking across the fire to cast their votes.

Could any model match this one!? Could any bravery match the Iraqis'!?
Let the remaining tyrants of the world learn the lesson from this day.

The media is reporting only explosions and suicide attacks that killed and injured many Iraqis s far but this hasn't stopped the Iraqis from marching towards their voting stations with more determination. Iraqis have truly raced the sun.

I walked forward to my station, cast my vote and then headed to the box, where I wanted to stand as long as I could, then I moved to mark my finger with ink, I dipped it deep as if I was poking the eyes of all the world's tyrants.
I put the paper in the box and with it, there were tears that I couldn't hold; I was trembling with joy and I felt like I wanted to hug the box but the supervisor smiled at me and said "brother, would you please move ahead, the people are waiting for their turn".

Yes brothers, proceed and fill the box!
These are stories that will be written on the brightest pages of history.

It was hard for us to leave the center but we were happy because we were sure that we will stand here in front of the box again and again and again.
Today, there's no voice louder than that of freedom.

No more confusion about what the people want, they have said their word and they said it loud and the world has got to respct and support the people's will.

God bless your brave steps sons of Iraq and God bless the defenders of freedom.Aasha Al-Iraq….Aasha Al-Iraq….Aasha Al-Iraq.

Mohammed and Omar.

We are alive at a time when history is being made in the Middle East. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the majority of citizens in both Iraq and Afghanistan who have only read about voting in the media are moved beyond words just to be able to cast a ballot in an election. As the beggar doesn't care if the offering is small or large - only full of gratitude for anything he receives - these people are not interested in questions of legitimacy or other nuances of political analysis. They are simply elated to be voting for the first time in their lives, embracing the hope that they are in some way taking hold of destiny.

It is hard for those of us who have been born and reared under representative government, no matter how much we may dislike what is going on, to realize that most of the world hasn't a remnant of hope for representative government, no matter how imperfect it may be or become.

No reader of my blog will imagine that I am in favor of war. I cling to the notion that there must be better ways for civilized people to resolve conflict. But until the day comes when there are enough of us to figure out what those alternatives might be, it is important to admit that good results can be discovered in the aftermath of war. In the same way that surgery was able to progress between the discovery of germs until the discovery of anesthetics, so, too, can mankind continue to move forward until discussions of alternatives to war can be looked at as something other than treason.

The Fainthearted Faction

Last December Josh Marshall coined the descriptive term Fainhearted Faction describing the thirteen Democrats who look most likely to go wobbly when President Bush comes a'courting, asking for votes to phase out Social Security.

As the population shifts with the political debate, he now has a revised list. The reader will notice a half dozen with "OFO" (One Foot Out) and at least one tagged "L&P!" (Loud and Proud).

He notes yet another new designation for the move to torpedo Social Security, personalization.

Speaking of Lewis Carroll, I came across a reference to "curiouser and curiouser" in yesterday's reading. I should have marked it, but I didn't. I thought it was a clever reference on my part when I used it a few days ago, but it turns out to be pedestrian.
Oh, well...what about "painting the roses red"?

Drip, drip, drip

The drug war has been eating at the Bill of Rights since its inception. Asset forfeiture laws, for example, allow law enforcement to seize the assets of suspected drug dealers before they're ever convicted of a crime. Even if the defendant is acquitted or the charges are dropped, the mere presence of an illicit substance in a car or home can mean the loss of the property, on the bizarre, legal principle that property can be guilty of a crime.

Thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing laws, a judge in Utah recently had no choice but to sentence a first-time marijuana dealer to 55 years in prison (he had a pistol strapped to his ankle during the one-time deal, though he never brandished it). Frustrated but hamstrung by drug laws, the judge in the case noted that just hours earlier, he had sentenced a convicted murderer to just 22 years for beating an elderly woman to death with a log. Courts have carved out a "drug war exemption" in the Bill of Rights for multiple search and seizure scenarios, privacy, wiretapping, opening your mail, highway profiling, and posse comitatus - the forbidden use of the U.S. military for domestic policing.

Radley Balko, Cato policy analyst and blogger, is railing about the loss of first amendment rights.

This is why I like the internet. The link is from Matthew Yglesias, generally called "liberal."

Balko, of course, is not "conservative" in the usual sense, but "libertarian." That is another way of saying that in the area of social issues he prefers to stay above some frays, holding that "that government is best which governs least" and so the best government virtually governs not at all. Libertarians, it seems, fear social initiatives on the part of government less than they fear the law of unintended consequences. In our lifetime we have seen social initiatives on the part of governments - local, state and national - mess up everything from welfare and public schools to war itself (which is Neal Boortz' main complaint about Libertarians, their non-support of the Iraq war). There is adquate evidence to fear unintended consequences, although many of us are old enough to remember when it was illegal for a Negro to drink from a "white only" drinking fountain. And some of our parents remember the destitution of a population who welcomed the Social Security System.

I am encouraged when I come across reasonable people unafraid to admit shared common ground with others with whom they might generally disagree. They are few and far between in an era of polarization, but they do exist.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Discussion of music and worship

Touchstone Magazine supports an excellent online presence as well as a highly-respected print magazine. This week there was a string of essays addressing the general topic "Attractive Worship" which should be required reading for all ministers and "worship leaders," formerly known as "music leaders."

The discussion is trans-generational and trans-denominational, with commentary from several directions. I like this one...

It isn’t just the lack of a fixed order of worship for which the bills are coming due... no, we are witnessing the consequence in my generation of the self-indulgence of our parents. Oh, the irony of being told by the 50-year-old hipster that the introduction of the rock band into Sunday worship was done for our benefit! Um, no, but thanks for trying.

It's easy reading and the pieces are not too long. Read all ten links, starting at the top.
Recommended to anybody who has ever felt squirmy in church.

Exploding TV (continued)

Not to brag (too much) but I blogged about this in October.
Fred Wilson's post is interesting, but when you go to the Times the link isn't working. (So don't bother to register unless you want to read the rest of the paper instead.) The TV people are not clever enough (I'm not as confident about their character as I once was) to have disabled the link, but this is a trend they would be glad to have go away.

The front page top story in the New York Times' Arts and Leisure section this sunday is called Steal This Show. John Markoff and Lorne Manley do a good job of explaining the emerging 'exploding TV' technologies, including bit torrent, mythTV, and videora.

Proud and justified eloquence

Alaa (The Mesopotamian) has every right to be proud. The first hours of election day have only just passed, but there is a core of citizens who will not permit their country to sink into civil war. May God protect them and give them courage to prevail.

I bow in respect and awe to the men and women of our people who, armed only with faith and hope are going to the polls under the very real threats of being blown to pieces. These are the real braves; not the miserable creatures of hate who are attacking one of the noblest things that has ever happened to us. Have you ever seen anything like this? Iraq will be O.K. with so many brave people, it will certainly O.K.; I can say no more just now; I am just filled with pride and moved beyond words. People are turning up not only under the present threat to polling stations but also under future threats to themselves and their families; yet they are coming, and keep coming. Behold the Iraqi people; now you know their true metal.

NewsHog Apologizes

Everyone involved must still be out of breath...I know I am.

A couple of days ago, Instapundit linked to a post at Newshog and we got over 3,500 hits on that post in one day, along with dozens of comments.

I went to the post because Glenn Reyonlds was participating. He dropped off about half way down, and I was ready for the thread to deteriorate into the usual garbage, but it didn't. The host continued to participate, and the level of discourse remained solid. At this writing there are more than eighty entries!

For Sunday morning reading, this was better than the NY Times.

Great question

Found at Random Fate...

Why is it that the groups that proclaim the importance of personal responsibility are also the ones trying to remove the freedoms and opportunities to make decisions that require personal responsibility?

Comments thread so far is thoughtful and on point.

I am reminded of a quote I came across a few years ago...

"Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences and deploy pool alarms. All of these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can do for one's children is to teach them to swim."

Saturday, January 29, 2005

And one more for the road...

Radley Balko found this gem from Ananova...

A Slovak man trapped in his car under an avalanche freed himself by drinking 60 bottles of beer and urinating on the snow to melt it.

Rescue teams found Richard Kral drunk and staggering along a mountain path four days after his Audi car was buried in the Slovak Tatra mountains.

He told them that after the avalanche, he had opened his car window and tried to dig his way out.
But as he dug with his hands, he realised the snow would fill his car before he managed to break through.

He had 60 half-litre bottles of beer in his car as he was going on holiday, and after cracking one open to think about the problem he realised he could urinate on the snow to melt it, local media reported.

He said: "I was scooping the snow from above me and packing it down below the window, and then I peed on it to melt it. It was hard and now my kidneys and liver hurt. But I'm glad the beer I took on holiday turned out to be useful and I managed to get out of there."

Parts of Europe have this week been hit by the heaviest snowfalls since 1941, with some places registering more than ten feet of snow in 24 hours.

Individual Security

I started working on a post two days ago and finally got finished. It's pretty long, so for the benefit of visitors who don't already know how long-winded I get, I decided to let the last two little posts stand and put this little diverter up for those who have more time to read.
Besides, visitors want treats, not rants.

In a nutshell

This is what I call clear thinking.

The main economic consequence of privatization is that it eliminates the need for income taxpayers -- primarily rich people, that is -- to pay higher taxes in the future in order to repay the loan they were granted by working- and middle-class Americans in the 1980s and 1990s.

The pronoun "they" refers to "taxpayers," although the verb "repay" does not refer to the same individual "taxpayers." The repayment will also never - repeat: never - repay the actual people who involuntarily "granted" that "loan," because most of us (Yep, US) will never receive repayment. Those pre-inflation dollars, taken from day one of earnings, were worth a lot more at the time they were earned than they are coming back in the form of Social Security checks.

This sentence recognizes and admits that it is "rich people" who do, in fact, pay most of the income tax.

But it also underscores the fact that SS "contributions" collected from "working- and middle-class Americans" start vanishing from their earnings with the first dollar, and continue, with no deductions, unless and until they hit the annual cap on contributions. This feature of the Social Security system has been at the foundation from the start. The soundness of the system, the reason that it has survived so long, recalls that old saw by Lincoln that God must have loved the common man because he made so many of them.

Individually, working people are not known as "rich," but collectively, as in the unhappy example of state lotteries, the money collected from them adds up in a big way. (Somebody looked at a stringer of tiny little fish proudly showed off after an afternoon of fishing, and said, "You aren't going to eat those little things, are you?" The kid replied, "I guess we will...we eat butterbeans, don't we?")

[An afterthought: Don't you just love that word contributions?]

Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant!

From CNN, another one of those left-wing (er, not Fox) MSM voices:

The Department of Health and Human Services said Friday that a third conservative columnist was paid to assist in promoting a Bush administration policy.

Columnist Mike McManus received $10,000 to train marriage counselors as part of the agency's initiative promoting marriage to build strong families, said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families.

Further down...

Earlier this week, Bush ordered his Cabinet secretaries not to hire columnists to promote administration agendas. The declaration was prompted by reports that [Armstrong] Williams and another columnist, Maggie Gallagher, had been paid by the administration.

So how many other horses got out of the barn before the door closed?

Friday, January 28, 2005

Individual Security, a new phrase

As the national debate about Social Security heats up (or maybe we need to change the name to Individual Security, since many of the arguments I am reading aim to torpedo any "Social" aspects of the program) it gets harder to see through the smoke and mirrors. I sense yet another polarization in progress, very much like the debates about gay marriage, abortion and the war in Iraq: if you ain't fer it, then you must be agin' it.

I'm biased because my own experience witnessed my parents with nothing to show for a lifetime of work by my father and a lifetime of homemaking by my mother, other than Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, supplemented by the resources of my sister and me in our parents' declining years.

I feel assured that our safety nets will probably not be disturbed by the current debate. Politicians have learned that any problems they create will be ticking bombs that only detonate after they are no longer around to catch the flack. Can you say "social security"?

Yesterday I received a billet-doux from the Social Security Administration summarizing my "account" (with only the last four digits printed, incidentally, "to help prevent identity theft") and spelling out what my "benefits" would be under various scenarios. This morning I came across a helpful on-line "calculator", sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, to calculate the startling improvements that would be available to owners of private accounts when compared with the dismal results to be obtained by the current system of Social Security.

I came by this site via another site called The Fly Bottle, attracted by a headline that read "How Much Does SS Screw You?" I read the comment "Now, what's supposed to be the problem with this, exactly, especially when much poorer folk than me can also expect to be doing a lot better? Why are so many people so eager to oppose a program that makes almost everyone better off? I find it truly baffling."

I next checked the source. Will Wilkinson. Policy analyst for the Cato Institute. Smart young man, born in 1973, worked at George Mason U. Interested in a bunch of important-sounding, challenging intellectual stuff...My areas of philosophical interest as I write are metaethics, political philosophy, the philosophy of the social sciences, the cognitive sciences, and evolutionary psychology. I am especially interested in contractarian moral and political theory, the nature of moral progress, and the relation of findings in the cognitive sciences to the theory of rational choice. My historical interests include, inter alia, Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant, Reid, Hume, Nietzsche, and Sidgwick. My contemporary-ish philosophical influences include W.V. Quine, Friedrich Hayek, David Armstrong, Robert Nozick, David Gauthier, and John Rawls. I have a longstanding interest in libertarian political theory, especially the development of libertarian conceptions of equality and positive liberty.

Metaethics? word for me. Have to look that one up.
I've learned to watch out for that word libertarian because I really like most of what they talk about. Problem is, I read Atlas Shrugged in high school, when it was all the rage, and it struck me as wildly over-romantic, fantastical, and pretty unrealistic, with all that hand-shaking going on to clinch deals, with no witnesses or lawyers pouring over the details, and spectecular results deriving from clever people making all the right choices. I never read that entire speech of John Galt in detail, because I could see that a droning litany such as that would never catch the imagination of simple people on the sidewalk any more than the inscrutable remarks of Alan Greenspan when he talks to Congress.

Have I said enough to reveal all my biases? I hope so. Because what I say next is not spin. It is reality. Easy to grasp ideas and numbers that are not misleading in any way. Please follow me...

This fellow Will Wilkinson is certain that Social Security is one of the evil remnants of our unhappy past. Otherwise that title reference to "screw you" would not have been the idiom of choice. He must further believe that the Heritage Foundation's calculator is a reliable tool for analytical purposes or he would not have linked to that site. I would like to respectfully disagree with both of those points.

I am more impressed with the WSJ column Thursday by David Wessel who interview David Gremlich, a former Fed governor who once served on a Social Security advisory commission. Mr. Gremlich is in favor of encouraging people to save, but doesn't think that a 100% tax credit, dollar for dollar, against Social Security contributions is the way to do it.

(I think that's what's being proposed...earmarking individual tax dollars for those from whom they were collected, thus upsetting the actuarial benefit of their untimely early demise by passing those earmarked assets to their respective estates rather than using them as part of the collective safety net for survivors. The next step, not being discussed at this point, of course, will be the proportional reduction of survivor benefits for those whose estates have been awarded to survivors. Otherwise, survivors of individual accounts would fare better than those who failed or opted not to participate in any proposed plan.)

He said:
I'd like to protect the basic benefits, but we need more saving. We need it because people don't save enough for retirement. We need it to finance the benefit system we have. And need it for the nation's macroeconomics. One way to get new saving is to raise payroll taxes. I didn't think that was either politically feasible or necessary. Another way is to mandate that people save a bit on top of Social Security. This differs from a tax increase because they would ultimately get the money back, but the main motivation is to increase national saving. Increasing national saving implies reducing consumption. It's not a surprise that this is a hard sell.

He added a dose of reality when he said...
With carve-out individual accounts, we erode social protections at a time when we also seem to be witnessing the collapse of the corporate defined-benefit pension system. If we go to a retirement system that is entirely individual accounts, we also lose opportunities for income redistribution.

Two comments.
First, anytime the phrase "income redistribution" is used out loud, in public or in print, with no sense of shame or apology, I know that the person using it may as well be advocating Communism. I have been labeled Socialist and worse myself, so we'll just have to let the matter pass without further comment on my part. I have no interest in debating the phrase, but I want plainly to admit that I recognize the inflamatory effect that the phrase has on a good many people. People who have no problem with large estates being passed to heirs who never hit a lick at a snake in their life but thanks to an accident of birth can enjoy a lifetime of self-indulgence if they choose. "Income redistribution" in that instance takes the form of pissing it all away.

Second, a more important point about "the collapse of the corporate defined-benefit pension system" that he mentioned.

The Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation did not just blossom into existence because a lot of politicians in Washington had a fit of generosity one session and decided to do something nice for folks. It was a political response to thousands of employees losing retirement benefits because the outfits for whom they worked went out of business with no safety net for those liabilities. It didn't happen because of the depression, by the way. It happened decades later when that great American economic engine we call Free Enterprise had plenty of time to prevent and protect against disasters like "How can we protect our people in case we go out of business?"

If memory serves, I think that a lot of companies didn't even officially "go out of business." There was an era of mergers and acquisitions, hostile takeovers and the like that also contributed to the problem, with a lot of "private" pension benefits' being leveraged out of existence or liquidated outright, also resulting in pensions evaporating before the eyes of people whose only remaining pinch of the economy became their Social Security income.

Today, as the man said, companies are figuring all kinds of ways to get out from under company paid (read defined benefits) pension plans by shifting the responsibility of retirement security (I almost used the word "burden", but I wouldn't want anyone to think I want companies to be overburdened on the way to the bottom line just because they were obsessed with the security and future well-being of employees.) to individual, employee-paid plans.

I'm not going to repeat the last paragraph just to help dull readers catch on.
I know it is full of sarcasm, as well as ideas not yet in the public debate. Trying to paint it another color isn't going to make it any easier to read and understand. It's up to the reader to do the homework.

Finally, a word about that Heritage Foundation calculator.
It asks for only two pieces of data. First, your age. Second, if you are Male or Female.
When you click the magic button it announces...

You can expect to pay [Big Dollar Amount here] in Social Security taxes over your working life for retirement and survivors benefits.

I would love nothing better than to "expect to pay" that amount over my working lifetime, but in my case I have barely come close. And that includes all the contributions matched by my employers and what I will likely earn in the remaining years until I can claim full benefits. The document I got from Social Security fell way short of the amount indicated, and as the years unfold, I can reasonably expect that the amount will never reach the target. That calculator seems to presume that everyone using it will earn the social security maximum during their "working life"!

Just a few questions...
How many people consider their employer's matching taxes as part of their earnings? (Yeah, I know self-employed and educated people do, but in a random population of a thousand people from the street, how many think in those terms? 800? 500? 100? 10? Any?)
How many people will earn the Social Security cap during their lifetimes? And for how many consecutive years?
In fact, how many people even know that a cap exists?

In fairness, the calculator has a way to cusomize results by keying in variable data (ZIP, gender, etc.) and it carries a disclaimer.

This calculator is intended to be used solely as an educational tool to help citizens better understand public policy issues associated with Social Security. It is not intended for use as a retirement planner. The data, assumptions and formulas used in this calculator are based on information currently available to The Heritage Foundation.

"...not intended for use as a retirement planner..."
Damn right. But I don't think that will be a problem with most people using that site.


Here we are six months later and Mr. Wilkinson seems to have some up with a good suggestion:

Hey liberals! Since you insist on talking about social insurance, why not stop dissembling and plump for a system that is actually sort of like insurance? Why not not defend a disability insurance model of old-age insurance, where you get it only there is some actual threat of immiseration? We can fund it with a dedicated payroll tax and everything. It really will not function like a pension at all. It will be a safety net for people who need it funded by people who don't. Isn't this exactly what liberals should want?

He's bright enough to understand that any such plan would be D.O.A. in today's political climate, but I, for one, would be very much in favor. His suggestion, of course, is clearly tongue-in-cheek, but it shows that at some level he is smart enough to see the need.

Since my post was first written a rising tide of companies have announced their inability to meet pension plan obligations. United Airlines, notably, is among the biggest. In a competetive environment that no longer even pretends to look out for its employees' retirement security, old-line companies that cling to that quaint old notion can't afford to stay in the game. We are seeing the unintended consequences of IRA's, Roth's and 401-K plans -- and the corresponding termination of defined-benefits pension plans.

Problem is the tired and flawed old FICA system with all its shortcomings is all we have, and an uninterruped string of Congresses and Administrations have misappropriated that revenue stream from the beginning.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

More on Social Security

Derborah White put together a tight summary of the Social Security system.
Here is a partial result.

Fact – Social Security is entirely solvent and will pay full benefits at least through 2042. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that Social Security can pay all benefits through 2052 with no changes whatsoever.

Fact – Today, the Social Security trust fund has accumulated a surplus of more than $1.5 trillion. That occurred because the fund collected more in payroll taxes from our paychecks than it paid out in benefit checks.

Fact – 48 million Americans now receive monthly Social Security checks. Of those, 38% are the disabled, and widows and their children. The remainder are retirees. More than 5 million children receive part of their family income from Social Security.

Fact – The current US Social Security program is a model of financial efficiency both for the government and for banks and businesses, in that 99% of all payroll taxes paid into the trust fund are paid out as benefits. Administrative overhead to run the program is only 1% of all monies paid in by us.

Fact – In 2018 at earliest, monthly benefit checks sent out will be higher than the monthly payroll taxes collected by the Social Security trust fund. However, the surplus will keep growing until 2028 because of the interest that the Social Security trust fund earns in US Treasury Bonds.

Fact – If nothing at all is done to “reform” social security, it will still be able to pay 70% of full benefits after 2042, at worst case.

Fact – In 75 years at the earliest, if nothing at all is done to “reform” Social Security, it could run a deficit of up to $3.7 trillion. Not $10 trillion.

Fact – Payroll taxes (called FICA) are now withheld from US workers’ paychecks on the first $87,900 of their annual incomes. That means that if a person earns $300,000 a year, he pays exactly the same FICA as the person who earns $87,900 a year. (This is called a payroll tax cap, because it’s capped at $87,900.)

Fact – If the payroll tax cap was raised to $150,000 per year, there would be no Social Security funding gap for more than 100 years.

Fact – When President Bush states that he will not raise taxes to "reform" Social Security, that means he will not ask the wealthy to pay more because he refuses to raise the payroll tax cap.

Fact – President Bush proposes that Americans be allowed to invest part of their payroll taxes into private saving accounts that would be invested in stocks. These accounts are like 401(K) accounts. This is called "privatization."

Fact – By diverting payroll taxes away from being paid to the Social Security trust fund, Social Security would no longer be able to pay full benefits. Benefit cuts would range from about 15% to 46%. Many economists project that diverting payroll taxes way from the trust fund will result in the phasing out altogether of Social Security.

Fact – President Bush says the initial cost to American taxpayers for privatizing Social Security will be $2 trillion.

Fact – Privatized accounts will be reduced even more, as much as 20% to 30% by fees charged by investment bankers, trustees and account administrators. This occurred in Great Britain, Chile and other countries that adopted privatization. In both Great Britain and Chile, privatizing Social Security has been judged a failure because retirees’ benefits were greatly decreased.

Most interesting find from this morning's reading is down the page of Josh Marshall's Talking Points memo...

According to a July 28th, 2000 article in USA Today, back in 1978 when President Bush was running for congress in Texas, "he predicted Social Security would go broke in 10 years and said the system should give people 'the chance to invest money the way they feel' is best."

1978 is in the pre-nexis era. So it's difficult to find coverage from the time if you're not on the scene. But presumably there are some local papers accessible on microfilm down in Texas that would shed more light on George W.: The Early Phase-Out Years.

There's also a link to a five-year-old article in The Texas Observer which makes interesting reading.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Found a Treasure

Okay, this will take about ten or twelve minutes to follow.
If you don't have the time or inclination, it's okay. Skip this post and move on to the next one.

C-SPAN's Brian Lamb is one of the people who make me happy to be alive while he is still working. I am a hopeless C-SPAN junkie. I don't want to waste a lot of time here, but trust me.
The new program called Q&A is available online. Brian Lamb is interviewing Eric Liu, of whom I have never heard, but that's beside the point. In his younger years Mr. Liu was a Senate aide. Very smart. Very pro-active.
The whole interview takes an hour, but the first eight and a half minutes is worth the time to take a look, even if you don't finish the rest. Eric Liu's account of his first Senate assignment is one of the best stories I have heard in a long time.
Go. Get a cup of coffee or something.
Click "Watch the program." I haven't figured out how to make hypertext work the video from here.
The intro and story take the first seven or eight minutes...

Looking at junk lawsuits

The wife of an elected official goes to a chiropractor to have her back manipulated. She claims that the chiropractor committed malpractice and injured her back. Her husband testifies that she has to treat her back gingerly and notes that it is harder for her to make campaign appearances on his behalf.
The wife sues the chiropractor for $500,000 in damages to compensate her for permanent pain in her back and permanent numbness in one leg.

Now, who might that be?
And what was the outcome?
Fun reading at Wampum. I nearly missed it. Thanks, Dwight.

Safety net for Social Security

Now here's an example of thinking outside the box.
The guy said "I am just spitballing" but who knows? I just read Pejman's piece referring to Gingrich, noting that he was a fountain of ideas [Mr Gingrich has always been a fountain of schemes—some bold (reinventing health care or environmental policy), some small (paying students to take unpopular subjects such as mathematics and science), some nutty (employing the handicapped on space stations or giving laptops to the homeless), but all of them interesting...from The Economist] but you have to admit that thinking is better than NOT thinking...

The government will open ANWR for drilling IF AND ONLY IF Social Security trust fund goes dry and social security is unable to meet 100 percent of its entitlement obligations.

Other than pissing off every dog in the fight (environmentalists, petroleum interests not wanting to either wait or share profits, Indians claiming first rights, and probably a list of others I can't think of off the top of my head) I don't see any problems with the basic idea.

Tip to Matthew.

Salting fish in the net

Mr. Dumpling's essay hits the mark. It says exactly what I have been thinking for some time, that as Christians we have an opportunity to reach and influence non-Christians. Moreover, if I understand the Great Commission right, we have an obligation to do so as well. There is no need for me to try to summarize what has already been so well articulated.

...we Christians who surf the Net are digital salt.

He also addresses cocooning, which can be antithetical to evangelism.

I believe that there is always a need for us to have a sanctuary, a place where we can go and be able to put out guard down, a place where we find like minded people, a place where we can be refreshed and equipped for the battles ahead. But if that is the only place we go, it is not a sanctuary, it is a dungeon. For example, I try to visit a mix of blogs, religious and secular. Trough the Christian blogosphere that I feel edified and part of a family. That is where I go to be reinforced, so I can face alternative points of view. But, it is when I visit secular communities or read non-Christian blogs that I have a chance to share my faith, and to test the strength and coherency of my beliefs against those who will not automatically agree with me.

As they say, RTWT.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

al-Zarqawi Redux

Nobody but me remembers, but there used to be a TV show called The Grey Ghost. During the Great Unpleasantness that those of us in the South call "The War Between the States" there was a Confederate officer, Major John Singleton Mosley (we always have to say the whole name, you know, like John Beresford Tipton, The Millionaire) who was always able to elude capture. Hence the nickname "Grey Ghost."

This Abu Masab al-Zarqawi fellow seems to be a contemporary version of the same kind of character, although this Jordanian is the epitome of evil. I have already blogged about his being the almost perfect foil to US policy in Iraq, even to the point of sharpening our resolve and squirting gas on the fire at just the right time. He is to the Iraq war what Moriarty was to Holmes, doing all the right things to grow into mythic proportions while keeping readers on the edge of their seats.

There is now news of a tape made by al-Zarqawi in which he essentially declares "War on Democracy." Notice how his entire name and title are still being spelled out, just in case someone is reading about him for the first time, or lest we forget his al-Qaida connection...

"We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology," said the speaker, who identified himself as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of the al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq. "Anyone who tries to help set up this system is part of it."

Coming as it does just a week before the elections in Iraq, the timing is almost too good to be true. How better to steel the resolve of patriotic Iraqis and inspire them to show up to vote?
I just hate it when I become so cynical. I know it is one of my sorry traits, but it's there and I can't deny it. It's not good to make light of such a serious situation, but how else can it be seen? All that is missing is a black hat.

CNN report..."Purported al-Zarqawi tape" The authenticity of the message could not immediately be confirmed by CNN.

Huh? Where did this all start? Somebody? Anybody? Curiouser and curiouser...

Gotta go to a newsstand (sigh)

I let my Atlantic subscription lapse a couple of years ago. Damn. I guess I'll have to buy one now if I want to read this...

Letting Go of Roe
The Democratic Party's commitment to preserving Roe v. Wade has been deeply unhealthy for abortion rights, for liberalism more generally, and ultimately for American democracy
by Benjamin Wittes

Also in the Jan/Feb issue: "Abortion" A collection of articles from The Atlantic Monthly.

That's the title and tickler from The Atlantic.

No Left Turns says "In the latest issue of The Atlantic (sorry, for subscribers only) Benjamin Wittes argues that the time has come for the Democratic Party to stop defending Roe v. Wade. Part of his argument is that the criticisms conservatives have made against it are not totally off the mark.

After paying homage to conservative criticisms of Roe - legitimacy, etc. - this last part caught my eye:

...a reversal of Roe would on doubt expose a fault line within the GOP that is just as wide--the one separating die-hard pro-lifers from those of us who, while favoring certain restrictions on abortion, see considerable moral and practical problems with an outright ban.

I don't feel so all alone.
Somebody else has problems with an outright ban on abortion. In fact, he cited "moral" along with "practical" in the reasoning. Deborah White is correct. Abortion is the new Prohibition. Perhaps both parties are waking up to that reality.

(I still have moral objections to abortion, principally that it has become a substitute for contraception. Or staying out of the sack altogether. But that's another debate.)

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Clips from MEMRI

Kesher Talk links to a powerful TV spot about the upcoming elections in Iraq. She said it made her cry. I understand. As I watched I had a flashback to scenes in the movie Ghandi which depicted an example of direct action civil disobedience in which one after another a large crowd of people filed up, unarmed, to a formation of armed troops only to be beaten away, bloody but not defeated. In the end disciplined, focused civilized actions overcame tyranny.

Like colonial forces worldwide, the British in India used imperial force to maintain order. But behind that force was a belief system that was, despite whatever flaws it had, essentially civil. That core of civility eventually led to the end of colonial domination. But there is in a more evolved species of tyranny, lacking conscience, capable of unspeakable actions. That strain of toxic belief, unfortunately, seems woven into the Iraqi social and political fabric. The Iraqi elections will test whether a core of civility in that bloodied country will be strong enough to evercome the elements that seek to destroy it.

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) explores the Middle East through the region's media. MEMRI bridges the language gap which exists between the West and the Middle East, providing timely translations of Arabic and Farsi media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends in the Middle East.

Founded in February 1998 to inform the debate over U.S. policy in the Middle East, MEMRI is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit, 501 (c)3 organization. MEMRI's headquarters is located in Washington, DC with branch offices in Berlin, London, Jerusalem, and Baghdad, and has a project active in Sweden. MEMRI research is translated to English, German, Hebrew, Italian, French, Spanish, and occasionally Turkish and Russian.

MEMRI's TV monitoring center operates 16 hours per day, overseeing every major Arab channel. The center has the in-house capability to translate, subtitle and distribute the segments from Arab TV in real time to Western news channels across the world, effectively "Bridging the Language Gap Between the Middle East and the West."

Here is a link to the archives. Look to the bottom of the screen and see that it is the first of 32 pages of links. They are not all pro-US by any means. They are, nevertheless, what is being broadcast in the Middle East.

Whether or not these clips are accurate is very much beside the point. Railing against them is like complaining about the damage done by tobacco smoke or global warming or sugar in your next candy bar.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Abortion debate continued

According to two recent polls, collegians have turned into the most conservative generation in a long time - at least on the abortion issue....A Zogby International poll reports that young adults are more likely than their parents or grandparents to support a total ban - that’s right, a total ban - on abortion.... A University of California, Berkeley poll found a similar trend. In that one, young people (ages 15 to 26) were about 10 percentage points more likely to support abortion restrictions than their elders, by a margin of 44 percent to 34 percent. That’s a mere 7 percentage points away from a majority.


First, college students have a unique view of abortion - as survivors. Whereas the Gloria Steinems and Ted Turners of the world had their existence practically guaranteed, college students today are here because, frankly, their mothers did not head to a local clinic. The thought that "it could’ve been me, or my brother, or my friend" rings true.

"There’s a sense that we have survived," Michael says. "And also remembering the people that aren’t here. We’re missing them, without knowing who they are and who they would have become if given the chance to have life."
Second, many college students have experienced the pain of abortion - either themselves or through close friends.

These statistics, from online "webzine" Boundless, are linked by Eric Seymour, In the Agora. Now-historic photos of in-utero surgery showing a tiny hand squeezing the finger of a surgeon are also linked. The cliche of a picture's being worth a thousand words is true in this case.

The Roe decision, which never contemplated abortion on demand, has come to symbolize exactly that. A hyper-emotional argument continues with both sides still circling their respective wagons. Images such as these sharpen the issue.

I continue to advance the argument for legal restrictions after viability, with the debate shifting to a clear, constitutionally admissable legal definition of what the term "viability" means. The chances of "overturning Roe" are virtually non-existent, politically, but the swelling numbers of late-term abortions makes the need for reform more compelling than ever. The courts continue to be whipping boys for a problem that should be laid squarely at the feet of legislators, both nationally and in the states.

Multimedia on the move

For those who have not been keeping up - including myself - here is a link to Angry Alien Productions.

Be sure to see Jaws in 30 Seconds...just one of many such masterpieces.

Tip Virginia.

And while I'm at it, one of my personal favorites, from the people who bring you Yiddish with Dick and Jane, don't miss Craziest - all you ever need to know about Scrabble.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Confronting Death with a human heart

This is the kind of physician we all would be honored to have...

I walked into the doctor's lounge the other day and suddenly felt like a pan-pipe tooter in the halls of Mount Olympus. Instead of the usual tableau of snoozing anesthesiologists in the corners and scrub nurses sneaking sodas from the refrigerator, all the giants of medicine were there. They draped themselves about the couches and chairs, chatting with fellow colleagues, or back-slapping each other with that hail-fellow-well-met ferocity found in the supremely confident.

I could see Cardiology slathering a bagel with ambrosia, while Obstetrics sat next to him reviewing last night's scores. Across the room was Pulmonary, yakking with Urology about some mutual patient; leaning idly against the counter, General Surgery nursed a quiet cup of nectar. Across the room the king of the gods - Cardiothoracic Surgery - was in his court, issuing maxims to the small crowd of admirers gathered around him.

How did it ever come to this, that I, Oncology, was fitted with a shepherd's rags? Was I not charged with a noble responsiblity - not pursuing the cause of say, diarrhea, but engaged in a mountaintop-worthy battle against a seemingly omnipotent foe? Do my patients not cry out in great numbers in the fields, or across the vast waves for merciful Oncology to save them from the sweeping fury of cancer?

Of course they do. It's just that as deities go, we oncologists are far from divine in our ability to answer the prayers of our suppliants. Our therapies don't work all the time - often not even half the time, compared to a surgeon given the task of amputating a limb - hard to imagine that not coming off all right, eh? Perhaps that is one reason why our fellow healers, when grabbed by the sleeve to hear us prattle about the latest improvements in the treatment of melanoma, give us the same look used to silence the family dog.

I suspect the other reason we get the glare is because of the drubbing we give our patients - the toxicities of chemotherapy. Who would not look askance at a doctor who eschewed the scalpel for a bag of poison? Is this anyway to be kind to people in need?

Until we come up with a bona fide cure for the cursed disease, we oncologists will always have a self-esteem problem. We may dream about sitting on the highest throne in the pantheon, but by Jove, some of our colleagues believe our place is by the ashes of the hearth.

Many strides of course have been made in the search for the cure for cancer, but in the world of the gods it is not enough to show progress. We must show a complete elimination of the disease, or perhaps a metamorphosis - changing breast cancer into a lowing calf, for example, would be a sublime myth to pass on to the generations. Until that day occurs, oncology has been hereby relegated to a minor constellation in the starry night.

I didn't always feel like this. In fact, when I started my training I was on cloud nine, running morning rounds with the team, seeing patients in the clinic, attending lectures purported to be fascinating. As I recall, it was only three months into my fellowship when innocence was shattered. I was musing at the nurses' station one afternoon when a sharp voice cried out over the hospital loudspeaker: "Dr. Hildreth report to the Emergency Room, STAT!"

I leaped from my chair like a wallaby in a thunderstorm and sped down the hall. As I rushed by, various helpful personnel hailed me with greetings like "Hey, don't you know they need you in the E.R.?" My mind raced with the possible scenarios that were unfolding there. What crisis awaited me, to broadcast such an alarm to the entire hospital? I pleaded for strength, wisdom, courage. It is always the oncologist who is asked to perform miracles, I thought, and began to recite the Serenity Prayer.

Blasting into the ward, I announced my presence and inquired as to the problem. A rather annoyed intern looked up from his chart and replied, "Oh, good - you're here. We need you to make the patient in room four a no-code. He has metastatic lung cancer and is going to be admitted."

Like Saul, the scales fell from my eyes and needless to say, the view from this formerly lofty perch was not inspiring. Since that day I have harbored a smallish but powerful nugget of skepticism about the prestige of the oncologist in the grand array of specialists.

Nevertheless our work, our search for the cure, will continue - even to the Gotterdammerung of medicine. The final outcome will not be revealed in my lifetime nor in the lifetime of my grandchildren, but when it does occur I will wager that the legions of oncologists who spent their lives toiling against cancer will be pleased to see their names finally added to the register of heroes.

We can all breathe a prayer of thanks and praise for this man. I have no idea who he is, but he writes like a caring professional. His blog is worth a look. He has been blogging since September. His first post is most revealing. I, for one, have no problem with the phrase "practice" of medicine.

The internet allows complete strangers to share their most important feelings and experiences. I always knew that there were many people who are articulate, sometimes great, writers. But I had no idea until the last few years how many there are. I am humbled to think about it.

The Anchoress lost her brother. Her typically incisive blogging has been punctuated from time to time with deeply personal glimpses into the sad, loving scenes she shared along the way. I have no idea what took him, but that is very much beside the point. Today's post is a memorial to her brother, as well as a testimony to her own remarkable strength. She shares practical advice about what to do and what to avoid when the time comes.

Do you know that when a brother dies, even though you expected it, you suddenly can't remember how to dial a phone? You attempt to call the funeral director who has been so incredibly helpful, but you can't manage all those crazy digits in that tiresome, necessary order. You can't remember your husband's number at work. The phone just stops making sense.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Speaking with forked tongue

When we're for a free press, but against al-Jazeera, people conclude that we're not really for a free press. Again, not because we're not communicating our message, but because we're actually hostile to the essence of the idea of a free press -- that the powers that be and their agenda may be subject to criticism, including overly-harsh criticism, by the media. When we say that we can't have diplomatic relations with Iran because it's a dictatorship, and Israel can't have relations with the Palestinian Authority until it becomes democratic, but we have no problem dealing with the existing regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, then democracy looks like an excuse rather than a reason for US policy taking the shape that it does. Again, we're not failing to communicate the sincerity of our desire for democracy. We're failing to be sincere. Or, at least, we're failing to take actions that would be consistent with a sincere belief. I'm sure that in some sense the president's subjective understanding of what he's doing is perfectly genuine, but communicating the contents of his heart isn't the issue. To effectively communicate the message that the United States is a force for good, we need to act like we are. To effectively communicate the message that we don't have a hidden agenda in Iraq, we need to not have hidden agendas. To effectively communicate the message that we're on the side of freedom, political reform, and justice, we need to actually be for these things, even when it creates short-term inconveniences.

Couldn't have said it better myself.
Well, actually, I didn't. Matthew Yglasias did.
That, and a good deal more.

Pretty smart observer in the comments thread, too. Bush will not have an instrument of foreign policy in Condi Rice. He will have a spokesperson.

Next target: Iran?

All the people who might know are in denial, but a good many signals point to Iran as the next target of opportunity in the Middle East. Google "regime change Iran" and you get a bunch of speculation. Seymour Hersh's piece in The New Yorker has triggered a volley of criticism from Washington, but as late as last night's evening news, no denial that there is another war in the making. Or should we call it the Next Phase of the War on Terrorism?

I dunno. But Wampum actually lays out a plan in some detail that seems likely, if not necessarily desirable. After all, [i]f cab drivers in Baghdad know that it is only a matter of time before the Americans attack Iran, how credible is it that political actors don't know that they are conducting, among other things, a holding action in the American rear area?

In Iraq...
The strategy of the Occupation Authority is to acquire the political asset of "legitimacy" without substantive recourse to International Law. As no shortage of strategists have observed, since Sun Tsu, the way to defeat the enemy is to defeat the enemy's strategy. The Americans initally chose the mechanism of ministerial appointments, which did not have the intended outcome of "legitimacy", followed by the mechanism of civic religions ritualism -- the "transfer of partial sovereignty", which also did not have the intended outcome of "legitimacy", and are now committed to their third choice, the plebecite ritual in pursuit of "legitimacy".

In Iran...
Iran needs time to choose the principle focus of its leadership going into a war that will bring down the military dictatorship in Pakistan and put the Pakistani and Indian nuclear arsenels into operational readiness, that will close the Straits for the duration (War of the Tankers, part 2), and will take the GCC states [Gulf Cooperation Council] into the conflict as well.

The Blackfive Exit Strategy from Iraq and Afghanistan map may have been an effort to be cute in November. I didn't find it funny then and I haven't changed my mind. Many of the comments left there reveal a breezy carelessness that is frightening. Some seem to be salivating for another fight.
There's more at Wampum if anybody is interested. Comments there are interesting, too.

How many Americans have a clue about what could happen next?
Of those who do have an idea, how many have any inclination to look at what is unfolding with a critical eye? Have we come to a point yet where words of criticism are regarded as a lack of patriotism on the part of the critic? Or do we still have to wait a bit until we get to that point?

Oh, and how long will it be until Israel gets involved? Talk about "end times"!
Dr. Rice has her work cut out for her as Secretary of State.