Thursday, April 30, 2009

Playing For Change | Song Around The World "Stand By Me"

Playing For Change | Song Around The World "Stand By Me" from Concord Music Group on Vimeo.

H/T Minstrel Boy
This is terrific! Many thanks!

Government-Run Health Care?

Fact Check provides another great report spotlighting yet another scare-mongering piece of disinformation floating around the Web.

A conservative group's ad implies Congress is on its way to instituting a British- or Canadian-style health system.


A group called Conservatives for Patients' Rights began airing a television ad this week that criticizes government-run health care and falsely suggests Congress wants a British-style system here in the U.S.:
  • The ad neglects to mention that President Obama hasn't proposed a government-run plan and, in fact, has rejected the idea.
  • It claims that a research council created by the stimulus bill is "the first step in government control over your health care choices." The legislation actually says the council isn't permitted to "mandate coverage, reimbursement, or other policies."
  • The ad quotes a Canadian doctor who has been critical of his country's system, but leaves out the fact that the doctor has praised other government-funded systems, such as those in Austria and France.

Conservatives for Patients’ Rights is, as its name indicates, a conservative group, and it’s also quite obviously not a proponent of government-run health care. Its minute-long ad was launched April 27 with what the group said was a month-long $1 million buy. (We've seen it on CNN several times this week.) CPR was launched this year and is led by Rick Scott, former head of Columbia/Hospital Corporation of America.

The ad states that government-run health care systems, in particular those in Britain and Canada, take control away from patients and ration health care. CPR is certainly entitled to state its own view. But the ad implies that the U.S. Congress wants to implement a health system like those in Britain and Canada. That's contrary to what President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress have said.

Obama hasn’t called for such a government-run plan, also called a “single-payer" plan. In fact, he has flatly rejected it. The administration has said on the White House’s “Health Care” Web page (and previously on its transition site) that “President Obama and Vice President Biden believe” that government-run health care is “wrong.” And they also believe, the administration says, that the other extreme, “letting the insurance companies operate without rules,” is wrong. (The White House redesigned its health care page on April 30; a cached page with the quoted language is attached to this article.)

Obama has long said he would allow individuals or small businesses to buy insurance through a public plan – like the one now available to members of Congress. But nobody would be forced to drop his or her current insurance, and private plans would exist as they do now. This was the health care plan he promoted as a presidential candidate.

As we pointed out several times during the campaign, Obama's proposal was mischaracterized as a Canadian-style plan by his opponents. In Canada and Britain, all citizens have health care coverage, provided by the government and paid for with taxes. Only two Democrats ran for president on a single-payer platform: Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who called for "Medicare for all," and former Sen. Mike Gravel.

More recently, single-payer advocates have felt shunned by the White House and Congress as the debate over changing the U.S. system has begun. In early March, no single-payer advocate was invited to a White House summit on health care, leading a group of physicians who back such a system to say Obama's message to them and similar groups was to "drop dead." A day before the summit, the White House extended invitations to the president of the group, Physicians for a National Health Program (which had been planning to protest the event), and government-health-care-backer Rep. John Conyers. The Wall Street Journal noted that they were but two out of more than 100 attendees.

Furthermore, some of the CPR ad’s assertions are misleading.

Recycled Stimulus Claims

In the ad, Scott, chairman of CPR, speaks to the camera, saying that "Congress buried an innocent-sounding board" in the stimulus bill, called the Federal Coordinating Council for Comparative Effectiveness Research. He says "it’s the first step in government-control over your health care choices." Actually, the stimulus legislation gives this council no authority to dictate insurance or medical policies.

We’ve written about the stimulus-created council before – and similar claims being made about it. The council is charged with supporting and coordinating comparative effectiveness research (something the government has funded since the late ‘70s). It is scientific research into which medical treatments are most effective and, in some studies, which are most cost-effective. Research may compare different drugs or different types of treatment; it can look at medical benefits, or benefits and costs.

To be sure, this type of research has its supporters and critics (see our previous article for more on that), but saying it will lead to “government control” over health care is Scott’s opinion. The stimulus legislation specifically says the council won’t issue any kind of health care requirements. At the end of the section describing the council, the legislation says:

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009: Nothing in this section shall be construed to permit the Council to mandate coverage, reimbursement, or other policies for any public or private payer. ... None of the reports submitted under this section or recommendations made by the Council shall be construed as mandates or clinical guidelines for payment, coverage, or treatment.
The support CPR sent us for the ad also includes a press release from the Department of Health and Human Services that states: "The council will not recommend clinical guidelines for payment, coverage or treatment."

The group's public relations representative told us that while some critics of the ad have said the law prevents the council from limiting health care choices based on costs, the acting director of NIH had said the opposite. But NIH Acting Director Raynard Kington didn't say anything about putting cost-based restrictions on anyone's health care. Kington told the House Appropriations Committee that "if we receive high-quality applications that meet the definition for comparative effectiveness research that include cost we will fund them." Funding research into which treatments give the best results for the least money is one thing, and it is a big leap from there to a government decree restricting care. Anyway, NIH has been backing "cost-effectiveness research" for years. In a breakdown of funding categories, NIH estimates that it specifically supported about $50 million in such research in both 2007 and 2008.

In the House committee hearing (held March 26), Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas expressed concern that such research would "lead to rationed health care." Kington, a physician, responded: "I certainly understand the concern that any policy effort might severely restrict choices in whatever way. But comparative effectiveness research doesn't necessarily lead to that. Comparative effectiveness research can provide useful information to clinician, to patients and providers that make better decisions about what works under what circumstances for which patients and might actually complement the movement that you noted toward personalized medicine."

A National Health Board?

In the ad, Scott also says the federal council is “modeled after the national board that controls Britain’s health system.” That’s not quite right.

Britain does have a board that conducts comparative effectiveness research. It’s called the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), and it “produces guidance on public health, health technologies and clinical practice.”
But NICE is a part of the National Health Service. And it is that larger board that actually controls the British system.

NICE also has much broader powers than the comparative research council created by the stimulus bill: For instance, NICE issues guidance for prevention efforts and treatment, and it approves drugs for use.

CPR's support for these claims is an editorial from the conservative Investor's Business Daily. The opinion piece repeats several false claims about the stimulus bill that we previously debunked. For one, it states that the federal council will "decide which treatments you should get," despite the fact that the law specifically forbids this.

Suspect Testimony

The CPR ad quotes two health experts from countries with national health care, Britain and Canada, criticizing the way their governments run the health care systems.

Dr. Brian Day, a Canadian surgeon who was president of the Canadian Medical Association last year, is quoted in the ad saying that
patients are languishing and suffering on wait lists" and "actually dying as they wait for care." Day is certainly not a fan of nationalized health care as it's practiced in his country, arguing that it's inefficient and doesn't provide enough care. But he's no fan of the U.S. system, either. "I do not profess to know how to reform the US system other than to opine that, in terms of value for money spent, yours is the only one in the free world that is worse than ours," Day told us. In a statement on his Web site, Day praises the health care systems of countries like Switzerland, Austria, France, Belgium and Germany, all of which have nationalized health care. The quotes CPR uses in its ad accurately reflect Day's opinion of Canadian health care, but the context implies that he opposes national health care in general. In fact, he believes that national health care as it's practiced in Canada needs serious reforms – reforms that will make it more universal, not less.

Britain's Dr. Karol Sikora, who is also quoted in the ad, has written several columns taking issue with the health care system in his country, too. He told us in an e-mail message that the ad was "fine by me."

Footnote: In the ad, Dr. Day correctly refers to a 2005 Canadian Supreme Court case,
Chaoulli v. Quebec, in which the court found that "delays in the public health care system are widespread, and that, in some serious cases, patients die as a result of waiting lists for public health care." The United States also has preventable health-care-related deaths, though not necessarily from delays. A Commonwealth Fund study found the U.S. leading 19 industrialized countries in the number of deaths that could have been prevented by better health care – 110 deaths per 100,000 people, versus 103 in the U.K. and 77 in Canada. For more on U.S. versus Canadian health care speed and quality, see our Ask FactCheck on the subject.

– by Lori Robertson and Jess Henig

More at this link, including bibliography and example of misleading agitprop.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Itzhak Perlman plays Klezmer

April 17, 2008

Jews will observe another Passover Holiday in a couple of days. Happy New Year, ya'll!
Joyous music here from a truly great musician having a campy good time.

April 29, 2009

Reposted from last year. This year April 29 is Israel' Independence Day. The date is not the same every year but the observance continues. See the Yom Ha'atzmaut Wikipedia article for more information. You Tube is better this year, having added the full-screen option. Enjoy!

Tomorrow Marks Obama's First 100 Days

Jonathan Alter - Jonathan Alter is a senior editor at Newsweek, where since 1991 he has written an acclaimed column on politics, history, media, and society at large. He is also an analyst and contributing correspondent for NBC News. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with his wife and three children.

Lou Cannon - Louis Cannon is an American non-fiction author and biographer. He is the most prolific biographer of US President Ronald Reagan, having written five books on him.

Robert Dallek - Robert Dallek, born May 16, 1934, is a prominent American historian with a specialism of American Presidents. He is a Professor of History at Boston University and has previously taught at Columbia University, UCLA and Oxford. He has won the Bancroft Prize and numerous other awards for scholarship and teaching.

My comment: He's moving the Overton Window in a manner that no president has done in my lifetime.

Obama and Science

Evan Robinson notes the president's appearance at the National Academy of Science.

President Obama spoke yesterday (2009.04.27) at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC. While he highlighted several specific policies and budgetary priorities, I believe his most significant contribution was, as Woody Allen famously said, "just showing up".

We of the progressive left feel that science has been under attack in America for decades. From James Watt to Rush Limbaugh, the Republicants and their media allies/masters/attack dogs have routinely belittled science, bent science, or just dismissed science. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they derided those of us who believed in science as hopelessly "reality-based".

And now here comes Obama, who shows up at the National Academy and delivers a few thousand well-chosen words (and as Ben Fry says, "did our former President spill that many words for science during eight years in office?"), laying out a 3% of GDP target for R&D, establishing a new ARPA for energy, and talking about the necessity of basic research!

As portions of our reality-based world seem to spin out of control via potential pandemic, peak oil, species loss, ocean dead zones, and the seemingly endlessly accelerating consequences of climate change, it's nice to have someone on board who gets it.

"What does that have to do with an economic stimulus package?"

From digby

Anyone who thinks that a pandemic in the middle of a global financial crisis isn't something to worry about is crazy. We have known for years that it was only a matter of time before something like this happened and everyone knew that public health and research into the problem had been neglected for years in order to spend lots of money of Dick Cheney's wet dreams. When the economy went into a tailspin, Democrats thought that it would be a good stimulus (scientists, public health and homeland security agencies spend money too...) but that it was also necessary to plan for what might happen in this fragile economy if a pandemic hit. The GOP made fun of it and knocked it out of the bill for no reason other than the fact that Susan Collins had decided that pandemic funding wasn't important.

The Republicans thought it was cute to label spending on things like this and honey be research and volcano monitoring as superfluous and silly. But these are exactly the things that Americans think their government is supposed to do, once they think about it. (Who else will do it?) What they aren't so keen on is kick-backs to wealthy Republican contributors and endless military adventures for no good reason.

Come to think of it, those snide remarks about money to study hog odors do not seem all that crazy now. Once they get closer to the subject they might discover more problems than than bad smells from CAFO's.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Should Your Coworkers Know How Much You Make?

For the last few weeks I have been tracking Harvard Business Publications' group blog. The item that caught my attention was a reflective piece raising an obvious question: In the aftermath of a global financial meltdown what part, if any, did business schools play in the cause? Navel Gazing at Hahvard was inspired by the question and links to an outstanding (if dry) lecture explaining in tedious detail the form and growth of what have come to be called "toxic" or "illiquid" assets. "The Economics of Structured Finance" is not for the feint of heart but is an air-tight hour of information. Yes, I sat through it, and no, it didn't make me feel any better. In fact, I came to realize that the magnitude of the problem is far greater than sub-prime real estate mortgages. It seems all kinds of credit obligations from credit card debts to jumbo business transactions seem to have been sliced and repackaged in the same chain-letter manner. Even if the practices (derivatives, CDO's, etc.) were to stop at once (and I haven't read anything insuring that they have) the consequences would take decades to unwind.

But that is not what this post is about.

A different writer, Tammy Erickson, posed the question repeated as this post title, Should Your Coworkers Know How Much You Make? and spun out some provocative ideas aimed at getting readers to think before answering. She ended with questions inviting comments from readers.

What do you think? How transparent are compensation levels in your organization? How would you feel about knowing what everyone else makes? Would you want to set your own compensation? I'd love to hear your views.

Her essay was apparently meant for a sophisticated peer group which didn't include me. The content of the extended question as well as the comments thread seem to be the work of a highly-compensated group of people with little or no experience in the plebeian world of hourly workers.

Being a natural born blabbermouth I had to leave a comment intended to poke a little life into the ivory tower, so I popped off a comment before the post was twelve hours old. You can find all this at the link. As is my habit, I returned to the site from time to time to see how my comment was faring in that crowd. One day passed. Then another. When it had not appeared two days later I decided my comment had not passed moderation. I wanted to try again, but yesterday, forty-eight hours after the post was published, my comment appeared.... in sequence as second in the thread. But by then it was too late. Comments threads are like the dead letter office of the Web. Occasionally someone will take time to plow through then, but comment threads are are as stale as last week's popcorn still sitting on the table.

I still have no opinion about whether workers should know each others' wages, but my instinct is that they should. One of the commenters was clearly chaffing at the notion that as a newcomer with more impressive academic credentials he thought he was being paid less that someone who had been around a long time and didn't have as many classrooom notches on his belt. I could talk all day about that kind of ignorance, but I don't have the time or energy. I only wish my comment had been up thread for him to have read before posting what he did.

Perhaps the blogmistress smelled an ulterior motive in my comment that she didn't want to be distracting. After all, it was not exactly on topic. But in a larger sense it is. Not wishing my prose to be lost forever I am repeating it here for my two or three readers.

Did [my subordinates] need to know that I was paying more in taxes than they were earning? I don't really know.

What I do know is that there are vast numbers of hard-working people who have no idea that their bosses and executives above them have an annual cap on their Social Security contributions which sometimes kicks in soon enough every year for their earned income to increase just in time for summer vacations and fall shopping.

And what I know further is that there are a helluva lot more six- and seven-figure incomes now than there were twenty-five years ago, the gap between the extremes has become wider and continues to grow, and the only way the country will dig its way out of the current hole into which we have fallen is to do what was done in the past to repay the costs of the Depression and WWII: return to a truly progressive income tax.

No one wants to be heard speaking about "income redistribution" out loud, but that is what has happened during the last twenty-five or thirty years. With the top one percent of the population earning about a fifth of all income, it's time for a "correction." That's what the stock market people call it when a bull market has a blip. I don't know what they call it when a bubble bursts, but we're about to find out. And from what I read in the papers, a "wage correction" (see Lilly Ledbetter and your great line "you're wise to behave as though any inequities will eventually come to light") is long overdue.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Britain's Got Talent / Shaheen Jafargholi

Simon Cowell may be a cold-blooded ass but he knows when someone's got potential.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Abusus non tollit usus -- the abuse does not abolish the use

Time to repost this from November, 2005.
Arguments about torture are not going away.
It is a sad commentary that so many otherwise decent people cannot say without reservation that torture is wrong and we don't do it. Period. What's not to understand?

Once the boundaries of civil conduct have been crossed and made acceptable, we are on a true slippery slope to moral depravity. I find it curious that so many people eaten up with righteous indignation about other principles (waging war, capital punishment, abortion) seem not to be struggling with this one.
As a conscientious objector I had to decide at some point that there were principles for which I might die, but killing for a principle and dying for a principle are two very different matters. The torture discussion is but one step removed, but it is no less a matter of principle.
Whenever it comes up the first argument I hear is the ticking-bomb scenario (or some variant or "abusus").
When and if a grave moment arrives that the individual doing the torture is not willing to face the consequences of breaking laws against torture as a matter of civil disobedience, then there is your answer.


Fr. John Neuhaus on torture...

Krauthammer is writing against Senator John McCain’s proposal for banning all forms of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of prisoners, a proposal which has overwhelming support in Congress but is opposed by the Bush administration. McCain has said that in extreme circumstances — such as the familiar “ticking time bomb” scenario — authorities will do what they have to do to extract information. Krauthammer says that means McCain’s proposed rule is “merely for show,” and comes close to saying that its supporters are guilty of hypocrisy.

I am not at all sure. Establishing a principle is not “merely for show.” Recognizing, clearly but sotto voce, that there will sometimes be exceptions to the principle is not hypocrisy. Those who, under the most extreme circumstances, violate the rule must be held strictly accountable to higher authority. Here the venerable maxim applies, abusus non tollit usus–the abuse does not abolish the use.

We are not talking here about the reckless indulgence of cruelty and sadism exhibited in, for instance, the much-publicized Abu Ghraib scandal. We are speaking, rather, of extraordinary circumstances in which senior officials, acting under perceived necessity, decide there is no moral alternative to making an exception to the rules, and accept responsibility for their decision. Please note that, in saying this, one does not condone the decision. It is simply a recognition that in the real world such decisions will be made.

Whether, in fact, the circumstances justified the action must be subject to the rigid scrutiny of higher authority. There will likely be cover-ups, rationalizations, and other forms of duplicity. Where possible, they must be exposed, in the full awareness that in this connection, as in all connections, we are dealing with fallen humanity. As with all rules, the aim is to make sure that the exception to the rule does not become the rule.

McCain is right: The United States should be on record as banning “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of prisoners. The meaning of each of those terms will inevitably be disputed, as will the case-by-case application of the principle. But again, abusus non tollit usus.

In order for the exception NOT to become the rule, first there must BE the rule. That is what McCain's proposal is about. Anyone trying to frame the exception instead of the rule is making a case for obscenity, whether or not that is the aim.

Best quotable line from today's reading is from hilzoy...
If I were Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, the idea that there might be a just God would make my bones freeze with terror.

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole ~ Ka Pua U'i

Here's a lovely video for a Sunday afternoon.
Not a week passes that my other little tribute to Israel (Bruddah Iz) Kamakawiwo is not found by a dozen or so Google hits. The story of his recording of Over the Rainbow is a timeless treasure. The longer my blog stays the more hits he gets, and he's been gone for twelve years.

Sixteen Years of Sobriety

I don't know who Minstrel Boy is, but this makes me want to know him. His testimony is an inspiration. I know a few people too prissy to speak openly of recovery from substance abuse and that is their loss. Maybe this man's testimony can reach one of them.

April 24, 1993

It started, like so many of my days back then, on an airplane. My first memory of the day is that I was sitting on an airplane going home. I was smugly proud of myself because I had only used enough dope to be straight. I wasn't stoned, just functional. That was a lot of my using at this point. I needed a lot to be functional though. A. Lot.

I get to the airport and there's nobody there to meet me. This isn't unusual either. My wife is a dedicated addict herself. (I tend to use the terms addict and alcoholic pretty interchangably. If I'm speaking of being an addict, assume I'm drinking in a pretty dysfunctional manner too.) So, I catch the shuttle from the airport and in about a half an hour I show up at the house. My young kids (there is one older daughter from my first failed marraige but she's an adult in Alaska at this point of the story) are there, and they come running up "Hi Da! Didja bring me anything? What? Cool! Thanks, gotta go!" They really don't care at this point whether or not I'm home. They know that my being home means mainly that their mother and I will be fighting viciously at some point in the very near future.

I go into the house and find lovely wife (even in the throes of addiction she remained lovely in a Kate Moss sort of way) is trying to find a vein. She's been trying since she knew that I was coming home and has been trying hard to get in shape to drive and pick me up. (Scary to think that there are people out there that are incapable of functioning unless they're legally under the influence ain't it?) So, being as good a husband as I ever was (which isn't all that good) I use my experience and skill and get her dose delivered where upon she plants a hello kiss on my cheek and goes about her business. So, here I am. Just got home, after going to all that trouble and expending energy on self control to show up straight and functional rather than stoned and nobody cares.

I know. I'll show them. I dig into my bags and I find a good sized going on stage dose (which at this point involves a 1/2 gram of heroin mixed with a 1/2 gram of cocaine and this is good shit too. The only people that get better dope than musicians are lawyers, judges and narcs) With a minimum of fuss the deed is done and I feel the rush. The problem this time is that even with all this dope on board. Standing there rushing my ass off, I still feel like shit. I know my life is a failure. My kids don't care whether or not I'm home, my wife, once she gets hers really has no use for me.

This is confusing. I have a job that people fantasize about having. I make pantsloads of money doing that job. (for you accountants a pantsload is way more than a shitload approaching the rarified zone of stupid money) I tour the world, playing music, listening to people bang their hands together and shout merely because I deigned to show the fuck up. How can my life suck this bad? I can't escape the fact that it does suck. It. Sucks. Out. Loud.

Now I'm really getting depressed. Refer to the dosages above. It is really impossible at this point to physically get more dope into my body. I'm drinking way more than a bottle a day. Yet, at the upper limits of consumption. Every. Thing. Sucks.

I go and find my lovely wife and tell her that I need to go to the DeTox at the hospital. This isn't unusual behavior on my part either. Generally at the end of a tour I spend a week or two bringing my habit down to managable levels. Not with the idea of living a clean and sober life, but being able to get a buzz off a quarter gram and a double shot of Jameson's.

She takes me, I check in. The journey began. It was the best thing I've ever done. A few days into the detox process, I had a heart attack. If any of you are planning a heart attack I recommend having it while you are actually in the hospital. Survivability is better there.

While they had me at the medical wing of the hospital I got to enjoy lots of disapproving looks and glares from the folks who were trying to do things like find a vein. At one point I finally just said "Want me to do it?" There was also a very earnest young cardiologist who was looking at my readouts. He told me that according to the stuff he was reading this wasn't my first heart attack. I said "I guess speedballs kick the shit outta them."

He didn't even grin. But, you know, a sense of humor is not high on my list of things to look for in a cardiologist. Save that for the shrinks.

Anyway, those little kids have grown up to be pretty damned impressive young adults. I may not be aging all that gracefully, or well for that matter, thing is, since that day sixteen years ago, I've made it a point to be an eyewitness to my own life.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Use and Abuse of Credit

Every passing week sees yet another elegant analysis of "The Disaster" and its causes. Most share one quality: an attempt to blame anywhere but the source: you and I. As Pogo famously said, we have met the enemy and he is us. Package it however you wish, we in America have been drunk on credit -- a binge that has lasted a couple of decades -- and we now have one of the worst damn hangovers ever known.

I want to blame the rest of the world. After all, they are as much a part of the problem as we are. It's a global economy, you know. It takes a village to mess up a child so everyone must have been part of the mess. Well, yes. But the rest of the world is complicit in the same way that every abuser has enablers furnishing the abused substance and protecting the abuser from the consequences of the behavior.

Here's how it works.

Credit is a way of using tomorrow's money today. Stated another way, when we use credit we are creating money. Although we don't actually have it yet, credit is a convenient way to secure whatever money will eventually buy, whether it is this week's gas and groceries, the family car or the house in which we live. Most of the "little stuff" gets paid off pretty soon. Cars and "middle-sized stuff" like the lake house, cars and RV's fall into the five to ten year range and the "big stuff" (capital for a business enterprise or mortgage for the house) runs out twenty to thirty years.

Generally speaking, those are the rough edges and kinds of credit, but they vary from person to person because we don't all have the same incomes, ambitions or habits, so it's not possible to lay down strict rules for all cases. Generally speaking, credit is a convenient way of making the economy work to every one's advantage. New businesses made possible by credit make jobs and lifestyle options available for others. Credit is the lifeblood of economics. It's how "value" is created. Switzerland found out long ago that a pound of watches was more valuable than a pound of steel.

But just as alcohol can be included in a balanced diet, we cannot live on alcoholic drinks alone.** Likewise, healthy economies need a balance of credit and cash or they will be living so far into future revenue they may never live long enough to see it.

Ask anyone facing foreclosure (you won't have to look far) and you will learn how easy it is to exhaust all available credit. In the same way that someone out of drinking water in a lifeboat may be driven by thirst to kill themselves by drinking sea water, breadwinners feeding children are willing to use any credit available, even if it means facing bankruptcy. Desperation drives a financially perishing person to use savings, then credit cards, then home equity, then personal loans from friends, family charity, church charity, then loan sharks and pawn shops and finally, public assistance as long as it is available. That is why tent cities and increasing numbers of people living in cars are beginning to make the news.

The sad part is that the national appetite for stuff has been satisfied by credit for so long that there is nothing left to spend. Never mind toxic assets and the real estate bubble. Those are symptoms, not problems. The real problem is that America is broke. Flat broke. We have spent all our assets and lived on foreign credit for so long that now in our time of need we have no savings, no equity, no reserves, no financial safety net to catch us at the end of a financial free fall. Just as the drunk looks into the mirror and sees a bleary-eyed, disheveled mess needing a bath, shave, haircut and fresh change of clothes, the US financial community is about to the tent city stage.

In this case the "real thing" is not real. It's MORE CREDIT, but that is part of the drunk's recovery. People who work with alcoholism understand that someone who has been on a binge is at risk for sudden death if they stop cold turkey. In the old days the method was to "bring them down" by giving them a little less whiskey for a few days until their body made the adjustment. These days they "detox" under the care of medical professionals who use prescription medicines to guard against heart arrhythmia, strokes and hear attacks. (Unfortunately there is little to be done for liver damage but the good news is that the liver can heal itself if it's not too far gone.)

The CREDIT we are now forced to use is all that's left because the rest of the world has nothing left to contribute. In fact, if China had not been socking away a national SURPLUS (Remember that? They call it savings when families do it. When countries do it is's called a trade surplus.) we would have arrived at this sorry state of affairs some time ago. I heard last week that in addition to being the largest foreign holder of American treasury notes, China now has the world's fifth largest gold reserves.

America's smartest economists are down to the pawnbroker stage of borrowing. The government is printing money because the real thing is all gone. They are already aware that this is a last-ditch effort to get the motor running again. It's like getting a quart of gas from down the road and pouring every last drop into a dry tank, hoping that will be enough to get the car to the next pump. Pawnbroker credit works in the same way that the quart of gas works. But when the engine starts again the risk of runaway hyper-inflation will be waiting to attack on the way to "recovery."

Not to put too fine a pint on it, the next threat to economic stability will be in the velocity of the money supply. No one that I have come across has mentioned this next pitfall, and this is not the time to discuss it. Lets hope that the same smart people who decided to inflate the money supply are principled enough to put the brakes on inflation soon enough that the old smoke and mirrors fiscal policy (repaying debts with inflated dollars) is truly obsolete and not another tool waiting in the political toolkit. If that happens, we have no one to blame but ourselves. That's the downside of representative democracy. After all is settled, we create the problems as well as electing the people who either repair them or don't.

The good news is that on the way to recovery a lot of former credit drunks are climbing on the wagon as they discover how liberating it is to live on a cash economy. There is something deeply satisfying about starting the next month a few bucks ahead. In time, we may return to a time when people had enough savings to survive financially for six months to a year after losing a job. Many have known for years how beautiful a paid-for second-hand car is when compared with a "new" one with sixty months of payments reaching way into the unknown.

**Actually, one can live on alcohol alone, but not for long. Alcoholics in the terminal stages actually stop ingesting food and live solely on the caloric intake of alcohol, but their bodies begin losing muscle mass, starting with the buttocks and thighs, digesting stored protein and fat, as they approach death.

Harvard on Susan Boyle and Other Moral Dilemmas

The Susan Boyle phenomenon has reached Harvard.

...there's something else Susan Boyle awakens in us as we watch her come out of her shell. Our own selves. Who among us doesn't move through life with the hidden sense, maybe even quiet desperation, that we are destined for more? That underneath our ordinary exterior lies an extraordinary talent? That given the right opportunity, the right stage, the right audience, we could shine as the stars we truly are?

We all have that sense to one degree or another. And it's a great opportunity for managers. How we handle that opportunity is what distinguishes the great managers from the merely good ones.

Good managers help their employees succeed in whatever role they happen to be in. Great managers see the unique talents of each employee, and then create the role that's a perfect vehicle for those talents. Great managers remove the obstacles that prevent their employees from unleashing their talent. And they make sure each employee has the right opportunities, the right stage, the right audience, to be fully appreciated.

No comment.


Another post by a different contributor looks at Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire by Rafe Esquith, a career school teacher whose teaching gifts are to education what Susan Boyle's voice is to music. (Andrea Ovans explains "The title is a reference to the time he was so intent on explaining a chemistry experiment to a curious fifth grader that he didn't notice that the Bunsen burner had set his bangs ablaze.")

The post caught my eye by this.

...he's adapted a framework from psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg called the Six Levels of Moral Development. In some ways, Esquith's formulation is more useful, translated as it has been into something a fifth-grader can relate to. Here's Esquith's channeling of Kohlberg:

  • Level 1: "I don't want to get in trouble."
  • Level 2: "I want a reward"
  • Level 3: "I want to please someone"
  • Level 4: "I follow the rules"
  • Level 5: "I am considerate of other people"
  • Level 6: "I have a personal code of behavior and I follow it"

Not all of his students reach level 6--which is also known as the "Atticus Finch Moral Compass" level--but they do make it up to level 5. And that's mainly because Esquith has stopped giving his kids incentives to remain at the other levels.

He has not set up a stick (level 1) and carrot (level 2) reward system. He discourages the kids from doing their work to please their parents or for him (or some other charismatic boss). He actively encourages them to think, to question what rules are for. Far from making his young students into a bunch of subversives, this effort is the basis for getting them to see why anyone might benefit from reaching level 5, and why being considerate is clearly essential if they are going to reach a point where they can ask themselves "What would Atticus do?"

Questions follow suggesting that business schools might take another look at teaching morality
Last line: Either you're an ethical person or you're not. Is that true? Is it too late to become good if you're older than 10?.

Jesus as Atticus Finch.


While we're connecting dots, am I the only one who thinks the Atticus Finch Moral Compass might also be applied to business school graduate level courses as they prepare our best and brightest to enter the world of business?

This other dot is a big stretch, but the same lessons might apply in averting future moral dilemmas regarding torture and the like.

Sara Robinson's homily at Dave Neiwert's place ties these threads together as she takes Barack Obama to the woodshed. Readers are urged to read the whole piece, but here is the part I like best:

I don't have research on this, but I'm pretty sure that after eight years of the most lawless presidency in history, most of us had "restoring real accountability" fairly high up on the Hope and Change list when we cast our votes for Barack Obama. We were craving that even-handed, reasonable, cleansing moment—a season of transparency that would show us where we went wrong, let some air and light into the wounds, and allow us to begin to heal. He sounded for all the world like the kind of morally serious person who understands the difference between right and wrong—and between that kind of old-fashioned even-handed inquiry that simply finds what it finds and deals with miscreants without fear or favor, according to the demands of the law; and a partisan witch hunt that's conducted for no higher purpose than terrorizing your opponents into submission with naked displays of unchecked power. He seemed like just the guy to do it.

So the last thing we expected was to hear him warbling that same terrified-Democrat line, starting within days of his inauguration. Fortunately, as outrage over the torture memos spreads, both the President and Congressional Democrats seem to finding their moral feet again. And not a moment too soon, either—because if they blow this one, it's nothing short of the end of America as we know it.

When the administration says that "we're not looking backward" and "we're not out to assign blame or punish anyone," what it's really saying is that there no longer any real relationship between cause and effect in our government. The very idea of consequences has absolutely no meaning. If you have access to enough money and/or power, there is nothing you can say or do, no amount of money you can steal, no lie perfidious enough, no fraud brazen enough, no treason heinous enough, to get you so much as called up before a hearing to explain yourself.

And that's a truly frightening development. A government that cannot fairly, honestly, transparently hold people to account—where, in fact, nobody can apparently even imagine that such a thing might be possible—is by definition, no longer a government of laws, because the law depends on a strong relationship between cause and effect. When our leaders have so thoroughly internalized the idea that the only possible use of justice is to use government force to seize political advantage or economic power over other people, we've pretty much irrevocably passed the point where we are now a government of men. When even liberals resign themselves to those medieval conservative ideas about justice as our new national norm, they have failed the country—and we have ceased to be America.

The truth about consequences is this: There can be no restoration and reconciliation until people are reassured that the outcome will actually matter, that the real story will be told, and that people will be held accountable for their choices. They are also the very definition of justice, and the necessary precondition of freedom. The most important change we need right now is leaders with a quickening sense of liberal discipline—including the self-discipline and moral courage to stop looking the other way.

Alyssa Peterson (1976-2003)

[First published November 3, 2006 and reposted last year. This post is part of the reason that I am enthusiastic about Barack Obama. His principled opposition to the war in Iraq, all that I have read by and about him, make me believe that tawdry stories like these would not be swept under the rug if he were president. The deaths of Alyssa Peterson and Ted Westhusing are tragic reminders of the moral bankruptcy of the Iraq adventure.] [With the torture issue again in the news, the Alyssa Peterson story is again timely. Here is what I collected several years ago.]

She would be the same age as one of my children. She died in Iraq under conditions that are still unclear. This is from an article now three five six years old.

Friends say Army Spc. Alyssa R. Peterson of Flagstaff always had an amazing ability to learn foreign languages.

Peterson became fluent in Dutch even before she went on an 18-month Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission to the Netherlands in the late 1990s. Then, she cruised through her Arabic courses at the military's Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., shortly after enlisting in July 2001.

With that under her belt, she was off to Iraq to conduct interrogations and translate enemy documents. Then, for reasons still being investigated, Peterson became the third American woman soldier killed since the war began on March 19. President Bush declared the end of major combat operations on May 1, but clashes have continued, and more than 150 U.S. soldiers have been killed since then. Since hostilities began, 297 U.S. soldiers have died.

Peterson, 27, died of a gunshot wound to the head Monday from what was described as a "non-combat weapons discharge," said Martha Rudd, an Army spokeswoman. The fatality occurred near the northwestern Iraqi town of Tel Afar, about 50 miles southwest of the Turkish border.

Rudd and other Army officials said that a number of possible scenarios are being considered, including Peterson's own weapon discharging, the weapon of another soldier discharging or the accidental shooting of Peterson by an Iraqi civilian.

Notice the number of casualties at the time of her death, 297. It seems so long ago.
I cannot find it now, but as I woke up either yesterday or the day before I heard the closing words of a story on NPR's Morning Edition. Through the cloudy consciousness of waking up I remember the voice of the reporter telling of a woman soldier who objected to interrogation techniques she had witnessed. I didn't pay close attention as he told how she had been transferred to another unit...the military reported that the facility had been done away with..."all records were destroyed"...and she had killed herself with her service revolver.

I immediately regretted not having paid closer attention. I think they were reporting a followup on the story of Alyssa Peterson who died three years ago. The case has recently received further scrutiny.

This is a column by Greg Mitchell from Editor and Publisher.

(November 01, 2006) -- The true stories of how American troops, killed in Iraq, actually died keep spilling out this week. On Tuesday, we explored the case of Kenny Stanton Jr., murdered last month by our allies, the Iraqi police, though the military didn’t make that known at the time. Now we learn that one of the first female soldiers killed in Iraq died by her own hand after objecting to interrogation techniques used on prisoners.

She was Army specialist Alyssa Peterson, 27, a Flagstaff, Ariz., native serving with C Company, 311th Military Intelligence BN, 101st Airborne. Peterson was an Arabic-speaking interrogator assigned to the prison at our air base in troubled Tal-Afar in northwestern Iraq. According to official records, she died on Sept. 15, 2003, from a “non-hostile weapons discharge.”

She was only the third American woman killed in Iraq, so her death drew wide press attention. A “non-hostile weapons discharge” leading to death is not unusual in Iraq, often quite accidental, so this one apparently raised few eyebrows. The Arizona Republic, three days after her death, reported that Army officials “said that a number of possible scenarios are being considered, including Peterson's own weapon discharging, the weapon of another soldier discharging, or the accidental shooting of Peterson by an Iraqi civilian.”

But in this case, a longtime radio and newspaper reporter named Kevin Elston, unsatisfied with the public story, decided to probe deeper in 2005, "just on a hunch," he told E&P today. He made "hundreds of phone calls" to the military and couldn't get anywhere, so he filed a Freedom of Information Act request. When the documents of the official investigation of her death arrived, they contained bombshell revelations. Here’s what the Flagstaff public radio station, KNAU, where Elston now works, reported yesterday:

“Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners. She refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage. Army spokespersons for her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques Alyssa objected to. They say all records of those techniques have now been destroyed. ...".

She was was then assigned to the base gate, where she monitored Iraqi guards, and sent to suicide prevention training. “But on the night of September 15th, 2003, Army investigators concluded she shot and killed herself with her service rifle,” the documents disclose.

The Army talked to some of Peterson's colleagues. Asked to summarize their comments, Elston told E&P: "The reactions to the suicide were that she was having a difficult time separating her personal feelings from her professional duties. That was the consistent point in the testimonies, that she objected to the interrogation techniques, without describing what those techniques were."

Elston said that the documents also refer to a suicide note found on her body, which suggested that she found it ironic that suicide prevention training had taught her how to commit suicide. He has now filed another FOIA request for a copy of the actual note.

Peterson's father, Rich Peterson, has said: “Alyssa volunteered to change assignments with someone who did not want to go to Iraq.”

Peterson, a devout Mormon, had graduated from Flagstaff High School and earned a psychology degree from Northern Arizona University on a military scholarship. She was trained in interrogation techniques at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, and was sent to the Middle East in 2003.

The Arizona Republic article had opened: “Friends say Army Spc. Alyssa R. Peterson of Flagstaff always had an amazing ability to learn foreign languages.“

Peterson became fluent in Dutch even before she went on an 18-month Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission to the Netherlands in the late 1990s. Then, she cruised through her Arabic courses at the military's Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., shortly after enlisting in July 2001.“

With that under her belt, she was off to Iraq to conduct interrogations and translate enemy documents.”On a “fallen heroes” message board on the Web, Mary W. Black of Flagstaff wrote, "The very day Alyssa died, her Father was talking to me at the Post Office where we both work, in Flagstaff, Ariz., telling me he had a premonition and was very worried about his daughter who was in the military on the other side of the world. The next day he was notified while on the job by two army officers. Never has a daughter been so missed or so loved than she was and has been by her Father since that fateful September day in 2003. He has been the most broken man I have ever seen.”

An A.W. from Los Angeles wrote: "I met Alyssa only once during a weekend surfing trip while she was at DLI. Although our encounter was brief, she made a lasting impression. We did not know each other well, but I was blown away by her genuine, sincere, sweet nature. I don’t know how else to put it-- she was just nice. ... I was devastated to here of her death. I couldn’t understand why it had to happen to such a wonderful person.”

Finally, Daryl K. Tabor of Ashland City, Tenn., who had met her as a journalist in Iraq for the Kentucky New Era paper in Hopkinsville: "Since learning of her death, I cannot get the image of the last time I saw her out of my mind. We were walking out of the tent in Kuwait to be briefed on our flights into Iraq as I stepped aside to let her out first. Her smile was brighter than the hot desert sun. Peterson was the only soldier I interacted with that I know died in Iraq. I am truly sorry I had to know any."

Thanks to Truthout blog for the link.

I'm not sure why this story resonates so sadly with me. I'm not a conspiracy nut and have no patience with those who would treat such a story as though it suggested some kind of conspiratorial spin. Too many people involved. Too unlikely.

But having said that, I also know that individual people in prominent positions are perfectly capable of putting a lid on what might be considered bad publicity or something they don't want to get out. I have witnessed and experienced that kind of deception in my own life and I imagine most adults can recall similar, less dramatic examples themselves.

The case of Col. Ted Westhusing comes to mind.
I'm not the only one who raises questions about cases such as these.

But even though we may never know all the details of what happened in these two tragedies, one fact is clear. Whether they committed suicide or died in some other manner, both of these people are gone. Their deaths witll be remembered for generations by all who knew them. And both are casualties in one of the most disgusting conflicts in American history.

Yesterday at work there was a bit of conversation about the Kerry remark. I used to be amazed how the most inane stories get the most attention but I got over it long ago. All one has to do is study crowd behavior at an outdoor rock concert or sports event and no human behavior will seem shocking. Anyway, after the one-liners and jokes had been said, one guy said seriously, "We really do need to get out from over there. Those troops need to come home. I don't see why they are still there..."

I tried to give him a larger picture of how if that happened the results might be even worse for the country than what we now witness. A wholesale civil war in which the mad and well-armed forces inside and outside Iraq could come together in a bloodbath of unimaginable dimensions, with other stronger countries such as Syria, Iran, Russia and Turkey being sucked into the mess with devastating results.

His eyes started to glaze over as I spoke, and I knew that I had got out of his depth in the first sentence or two. All I could do was end with "Nobody has anything but good solutions. The reason that the first President Bush stopped pushing into Baghdad when he did, after getting the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, was that no one knew what might happen if Saddam Hussein were no longer in control. He was an evil man, and it's a good thing that he is no longer in control. But now we see what happens when no one is in control."

We both went back to work, glad to push aside such unsettling thoughts...

Update, Monday, November 6

This story seems to be picking up interest. Here is another link to a couple of excellent comments by Scott Horton at Balkinization.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tom Ricks Torture Note

Thomas Ricks (author of Fiasco, whom I have been following ever since I saw him on C-SPAN) is in the FP stable of gifted contributors.
He found this.

Another Ricks post, May 12: Torture: A National Guard officer responds to Krauthammer

Here is a note an Army National Guard lieutenant colonel I know sent to the columnist Charles Krauthammer, who didn't respond:

Mr. Krauthammer,

I don't usually make a point of responding to the talking-head proselytizers in my Sunday paper but your column prompted me to do so.

I'll make this simple. There are NO circumstances under which torture is acceptable. Jack Bauer's "24" makes for great TV but even in a ticking timebomb situation such behavior is inappropriate and illegal. Torture is counter to our moral code, a violation of the Geneva and Hague conventions to which we subscribe and perhaps least understood, but most significantly, counterproductive and ineffective. Nothing else really needs to be said, but if you want more details read on.

I have friends who have been to SERE and instructed SERE students and acted as interrogators. All agree that waterboarding and other such 'enhanced' techniques are good for training (in a strictly controlled environment) our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on what to expect in captivity. They also agree that it is torture to anyone outside that training environment. Finally, they all agree that torture rarely results in actionable intelligence, as the victim is willing to say most anything to end the torture.

So you must wonder, by what authority is this letter writer speaking? Well, as a Lieutenant Colonel and Combat Arms Battalion Commander in the Army I am responsible for the welfare, training, good order, and discipline of my soldiers. I am responsible for everything they do or fail to do. I am also responsible to follow and issue only those orders that are legal, ethical and moral. Torture of another human being is illegal, unethical and immoral, and I would be duty bound to disobey any such order...just as PFC Lynndie England and SPC Charles Graner (and their many counterparts, senior officers and NCOs at Abu Ghraib) should have done...just as any of my soldiers should disobey should I give such an order. We all have the lessons of Nuremburg to rely upon anytime such questions come to mind; "I was just following orders" is never justification for committing crimes against other human beings.

Before deploying to Iraq last year, I explained these things to my troopers. It is difficult to explain to young (practically) kids, with little experience, and poor knowledge of the world...but if you are caring and committed, and repeat yourself often enough they learn and understand. I told them the most important thing they needed to take away from all their preparations was that while it would be terrible to lose one of them or have one of them seriously physically injured, it would be worse to have them come home physically well and mentally broken because they had somehow lost their humanity. Torture destroys our humanity, and any equivocation (feel free to exercise the Kantian absolutist vs utilitarian argument to your heart's content) on the matter is just bullshit.

. . . If captured I would honor our Armed Forces Code of Conduct to the best of my ability and go to whatever my fate, resolute in the knowledge that our nation remains a last bastion of what is right (or ought to be right) in the world. Torture has no place in America, and Americans have no reason to employ it. War ain't fair, but we have to fight it while maintaining a level of dignity and humanity, jus in bello. This is rough work for people bound to a code of Duty, Honor, Country. Proselytizers, who say but do not act, need not apply.

To summarize: Those who endorse torture need to think twice about the effect it has on the moral and discipline of our troops. Also, think about his point that torture has two victims: the person suffering it, and the person inflicting it.


In this discussion I always give the last word to Fr. Neuhaus:
Abusus non tollit usus -- the abuse does not abolish the use

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Layman's Look at Economics

I heard it again this morning, a brief reference in a radio report to the "real economy." It is tucked in an obscure story about the economics of "developing nations," the proletarian footnotes in the global financial meltdown. A point was being made that the economies of countries in the developing world (that's what we call today's equivalent of colonial holdings) lack the depth and sophistication of the world' bigger economic engines, the global financial meltdown threatens to harm their REAL economies, which has measurable impact on the global economy. Those "real" economies are distinct from their respective FINANCIAL SECTORS. In other words, the financial sectors can do all kinds of tricks with money, credit and the like, but real value derives not from crunching and tumbling numbers on paper, but from actual work and production by real people going to real jobs producing actual goods and services being paid for by real customers contributing to actual profits which reward the original producers of those goods and services.

This is not rocket science. I don't know how many different ways to state it, but this economic sinkhole has been recognized from pre-history. The sacred texts of most of the world's faiths refer to an economic abuse quaintly referred to aw usury. The term has a number of different definitions, all of which are meant to draw a line between good lending and bad lending, but no matter wnose definition you choose, good lending usually means that which I do and bad lending means what I am not permitted to do, although I would love to be getting a better return doing the same thing.

Here is a great line from Judge Posner I came across this morning.

“If you’re worried that lions are eating too many zebras, you don’t say to the lions, ‘You’re eating too many zebras.’ You have to build a fence around the lions. They’re not going to build it.”

That's from Americans for Fairness in Lending (AFFIL). I don't know anything about it, but they seem to have their head on straight.

My time is more limited this morning than my already tiny influence, so rather than drone on to make myself feel better, here are some links that taken together make for a good rant. Today's economic meltdown didn't sprout into being last year. (It is the global economic equivalent of the "dead zones" now blooming at the ends of most of the world's rivers as they dump various toxic blends of chemicals into the world's oceans. The chemicals, remember, are all generated with the best of good intentions, in some cases preventing starvation and/or disease among many of God's children. Unfortunately, when allowed to drain into rivers which deliver them into oceans, the effect is that large and growing sections of those oceans become uninhabitable by the seal life that once flourished there. Yesterday was Earth Day and this is my little recognition of that fashionable observance. Something like an obscure jouornalist's reference to "real economies." Sadly, way under most radars.)

Four years ago when the Social Security System was under discussion and smart people in Washington were seriously contemplating what they called privatizing the system, I put up a rant pointing out the difference between SOCIAL security ann INDIVIDUAL security. No one seems to know the difference. This was part of that rant...
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. [quote from Will Wilkerson. See link for context.]
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.

When the market crashed last September my first reaction was a flashback to this post: Where would the country be now if part of the Social Security System (ersatz) money were linked to securities?
Considering the wounds and scar tissue done to private plans that will not recover until inflation has gutted their respective losses1, the question still gives me cold chills.

In September, 2004, my rant on Outsourcing which mentioned mergers and acquisitions seems now to have been prescient. If you go to this link, let the reference to the "real economy" mentioned at the start of this post ring quietly in the background.

It's not fashionable to ask where profits come from, however. It's like asking if someone has had cosmetic surgery or was fortunate enough to come into a lot of money following the recent death of a loved one. We want the dealership from which we get our car to be profitable enough to keep up with the warranty service, but we don't want any profit to that dealer from our purchase, and we sure as hell don't want to pay dealer prices for service. Profit is what happens when a company makes a good deal with someone else. When I have to make the same deal, however, they are taking advantage of me.

Not everyone thinks like this, of course. There are lots of people who cheerfully pay a dear price to be the first or latest in their peer group to see a movie or own a certain fashion or travel to some wonderful destination. Big tips, ostentatiously bigger than the norm, are sometimes found by delighted service people who don't care that they say more about the ego needs of patrons than the quality of their service. And I think there are a few people who take a balanced view of profits and don't get disturbed about their contributions to someone else's pofit.

In the face of all this resistance on the part of customers, clients and patrons to cut them out of reasonable profits businesses are forced to be imaginative about being able to report ever higher profits. The word "bubble" comes to mind first, because that is the easiest track to profits in the short term. We have seen it many times, from the famous tulip bulbs to the California Gold Rush to the explosion of dotcoms. In the end the bubble bursts (hence the term) but there are what I would call "serial bubbles" (see "serial monogamy") in real estate, fashions, entertainment and advertising. I heard a couple of weeks ago that insurance stock prices go up when a hurricane hits because historically that is when premiums go up, not only to cover "losses" due to weather, but improved profits as well. Why do insurance companies jack up the prices at just the time that their policy holders can least afford to pay more? Because they can.

A few years ago, and to some extent continuing today, the phenomenon of "mergers and acquisitions" yielded breathtaking "profits". When two companies in the same line of work merge it is a win-win situation (except for the people whose jobs are sacrificed for the deal) because the new, stronger company has one less competitor in the marketplace (whew!) as well as a more efficient operation, because the payroll departments, accountants, ad agencies and other support operations can be performed by one department instead of two. All this improved efficiency translates into profits.

Speaking of accounting, now there is the toolbox from which a lot of profits can be made to flow. When they get the cooperation they need from operations there is practically no end to the profits that can result. Just ask the people at Enron how easy it can be.

Have you noticed that so far that nothing has been mentioned about productivity? That is my point. The only real source of profits haas to be that something has been produced. Moving the furniture around does not produce anything, unless you are paid to be an interior decorator. Mergers might squeeze a few cents from the economy of scale, but they real improvements, if you can call them that, is that there is more to report for profits because fewer people are being paid.

The post was about outsourcing, but you get the idea.
Come to think of it, outsourcing is nothing more than a miniature version of a merger/acquisition.

Here is Elizabeth Warren for your amusement.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Elizabeth Warren Pt. 2
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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Inspired Bicycles - Danny MacAskill April 2009

This is why I will always check 3Quarks, even when the rest of the Web starts to look like a thousand miles of bumpy road.
Abbas is a reincarnation of P.T. Barnum, impresario without peer.

Filmed over the period of a few months in and around Edinburgh by Dave Sowerby, this video of Inspired Bicycles team rider Danny MacAskill features probably the best collection of street/street trials riding ever seen. There's some huge riding, but also some of the most technically difficult and imaginative lines you will ever see. Without a doubt, this video pushes the envelope of what is perceived as possible on a trials bike.

Credit to Band of Horses for their epic song 'The Funeral.' You can find out more about the band and their music at or

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How Many Medical Devices Do We Need?

A Times article today announced "Study Backs Specialists Implanting Heart Devices."

Silly me. I thought it was already only "specialists" who did that stuff. The headline suggests maybe plumbers or barbers branching out into medicine. Looking more closely it's about electrophysiologists versus other types of heart specialists.

Over all, the study found that the rate of serious complications like heart attacks or internal bleeding that occurred during the implant of a heart device was lowest — about 1.3 percent — when the procedure was performed by an electrophysiologist, the name for a cardiologist formally trained in device use.

Most implant procedures, about 70 percent, were performed by electrophysiologists, the study reported. The remaining implants were done by other types of cardiologists or other kinds of doctors, including thoracic surgeons. The study found that the highest rate of serious complications, about 2.5 percent, occurred when the implant was done by thoracic surgeons, who accounted for only 1.7 percent of the procedures reviewed.

I'm not good with percentages, odds and stuff, but it looks to me -- a simple layman -- that if seventy percent of the procedures are already being done by the right people and the only measurable difference between those guys and the rest is the almost trivial difference between 1.3 percent of seventy percent and 1.2 percent more of the remaining thirty percent. If my calculations are close, if 100 percent of all procedures were perfoemed by electrophysiologists the resulting improvement would be something in the neighborhood of less than one percent.

That doesn't strike me as statistically significant. So what's this story all about? Is it possible this is a bait and switch smoke and mirrors release aimed at feeding journalists grist for the health care debate?

A big part of health care inflation, it seems, is too many unneeded devices, procedures, and medications. "Unneeded" does not mean "worthless" but that the outcome may not be different. In some cases, implanting technologically wonderful new devices may even be worse for the patient. Consider this from last September. the last two years the number of patients receiving defibrillators has actually declined, as more doctors and patients decide the risks and uncertainties the devices pose may outweigh their potential benefits.

This trend — the first decline since implanted defibrillators were introduced in 1985 — has spotlighted a shortcoming that health experts have struggled with for years. Simply put, there is no adequate tool or test to predict which of the heart patients who might seem good candidates to get the expensive devices are the ones most likely to ever need their life-saving shock.

Same device, different story, and with a very different message.

What makes many doctors and patients increasingly wary, though, is a string of highly publicized recalls in recent years, along with mounting evidence suggesting that a vast majority of people who get a defibrillator never need it.

Industry estimates and medical studies indicate that defibrillators have saved the lives of 10 percent of the more than 600,000 people in this country who have received them, at most. While survivors would no doubt take those odds, 9 of 10 people who get defibrillators receive no medical benefit.One big long-term medical study indicated the odds of a defibrillator saving a patient’s life might be even slimmer — about 1 in 14, over the five-year period studied.
Compare numbers and statistics in these two stories. Has medicine had some great leap forward since last September? I think not, or this morning's article would have talked about that improvement instead of the minuscule difference between electrophysiologists and their cousins in the same field.

Not mentioned in this morning's story is the money involved.

Defibrillators have undoubtedly saved the lives of tens of thousands of Americans. That is why insurers still typically pay for the devices and the surgical procedure to implant them, which can top $50,000 for each patient.

That little nugget was found in last years article focused on the questionable efficacy of so many ICD implants rather than the cost.


Unless something dramatic comes along, I plan to stop posting so much about health care debate and move on to other subjects that interest me. It is clear to me that lots of smart people are on the job that know far more than I about the complexities of the many fields involved. It is equally clear that powerful financial and political forces are engaged in one of the epic struggles of our lifetime as the insurance and drug industries, medical device manufacturers, and professional groups on all sides struggle for control.

My work now as a caregiver for seniors is adding to my knowledge of how the system works for them. It is not remarkable for seniors to take from three to twelve prescription medications up to four times a day. Nearly all I have seen have had at least two or three surgeries, not counting cataract removal or dental procedures. Medical equipment is almost as ubiquitous as corrective lenses, but the difference in cost is breathtaking. And most of it is paid for by Medicare. I learned this weekend that Medicare will pay for one oxygen concentrator per patient but not two (for the convenience of having a second one in another part of the house when a longer oxygen line will do the same thing). One of my clients last year with a broken ankle rented a wheelchair, but when his representative went to return it he was told to keep it because Medicare would not authorize a second rental, and besides the rent had paid for the chair and everyone always kept them instead of turning them in to be reused.

When my mother returned from the hospital on hospice I was asked to choose among five different companies that typically do business at that particular nursing home. I had no idea what a big business it is. She only lived another three weeks but Medicare paid upwards of a thousand dollars for hospice over and above what the nursing home, hospital and other doctors received. From the time it was determined she had inoperable lung cancer until she died the system was able to collect (or pay, depending on one's perspective) thousands of dollars in a few weeks.

I saw somewhere that government pays about fifty cents of every health care dollar. I wonder if the voices yelling for lower taxes but no government involvement in health care have been able to connect those two dots.

Most of the rest is picked up by the insurance industry, embedded in corporate America collecting premiums from the healthiest of us while the unemployed, chronically sick and others with preexisting conditions fend for themselves And of course the same people complaining about government involvement with health care get equally defensive if anyone suggests their company insurance should be shifted elsewhere besides their employers, doing business in a world where competitors from other countries don't have to pay more for steel than for health care (as do US auto makers) or more for coffee than for healthcare (Starbucks) etc.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Tom Watson on April 15 -- Jackie Robinson and Teaparties

The Radio Republicans showed out on April 15. Rag-tag assortments of talk radio malcontents did what they do best, expressing amorphous outrage in loud but incoherent rhetoric.
Simultaneously the world of baseball commemorated, yet again, the memory and greatness of Jackie Robinson.

Tom Watson juxtaposes these two observances in a must-read essay.

The most beautiful view last night at Citi Field, the Mets' new ballpark in Queens, was the pre-game shot on the massive centerfield video screen of Rachel Robinson, resplendent at age 86 and a glowing, regal presence during the opening game ceremonies honoring the 62nd anniversary of her late husband's gift to the American nation. On a day that saw thousands of dead-enders, 9/11 conspiracy fanatics, immigrant haters and keyboard revolutionaries "rally" against the American form of representative democracy in so-called "tea parties" around the country, you got the feeling that Rachel Robinson could walk into any of these surly mobs in Cincinnati or St. Louis or Pasadena and part the waters of intolerance by the force of elegance and history alone.

Some conservative bloggers think baseball's annual tribute to Jackie Robinson is "over the top" and has "reached the point of absurdity," and perhaps they've got a point: teams should stick to their increasingly corporate business plans and steroid-damaged product, rather than pausing once a year to recognize the one true American hero who first suited up in Major League flannels 62 years ago yesterday. Let April 15th merely pass as tax day, when all ballclubs can cheer their anti-trust exemption and most can toast their tax incentives and stadium construction deals paid for by the American dime.

Yet last night, from my modest seats in the relatively modest and intimate taxpayer-assisted Citi Field - built on the Fitzgerald's Valley of the Ashes next to the No. 7 line in the former parking lot of the now-deceased Shea Stadium - the Robinson-flavored celebration was perfectly pitched to our times: a relatively subtle yet urgent tug on the sleeves of younger generations. That tug suggests a pause to consider the ideals Robinson embodied, as well as his evident humanity and brilliant baseball skill. Sketched around the outside wall of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, the Mets' main entryway built to evoke Ebbetts in the neighboring borough, is the man's famed epitaph: "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."

Robinson was famously a Republican, of course - but more of the Rockefeller variety, and he destroyed William F. Buckley on his own Firing Line program in 1964 by arguing forcefully (and accurately) that the John Birch wing of the party was dominated by racists. The former Dodger remembered the encounter with pride: "A man who prides himself on coming out of verbal battle cool, smiling, and victorious, he lost his calm, became snappish and irritated, and, when the show was over and everyone else was shaking hands, got up and strode angrily out of the studio."

April 15th was the day Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, but the entire 1947 season was his long trial, and into retirement he continued to civil rights and tolerance in tough but civil discourse. As his widow spoke about his legacy in Queens to a crowd of Mets fan that included my son (who reveres Jackie Robinson as his hero and raced down the aisle to snap a shot of Mrs. Robinson on the field) the recalcitrant and long-growing roots of American intolerance sent up a few shoots into the spring sun shine. You probably saw some of the "Tea Party" signs, and reached for your trusty weed-wacker (or felt the sudden need for a shower):

  • "Wake Up! Fresh Prince of Belair (sic) is Destroying Us -- Stop Drinking the Red Koolaid."
  • Obama's Plan: White Slavery
  • Somewhere in Kenya a Village is Missing itsw Idiot
  • The American Taxpayers are the Jews for Obama's Ovens
  • Obama Socialist Pig

Ostensibly an anti-tax movement in the long tradition of anti-tax movements in this country, yesterday's pathetic teafest was in reality just an excuse to vent: frustration at the failure of the conservative movement and the end of Reagan revolution, anger at the incompetence of the Republican leadership and the rise of the Democrats, some legitimate frustration with massive corporate bailouts - and a whole lotta good old-fashioned Confederate flag-waving American intolerance, keyed to the inescapable fact that the President of the United States is not a white man.

I don't think Jackie Robinson would be particularly surprised that one corner of mainstream Republican political action is still driven by intolerance. I do think he'd be gratified how that small that hate-driven movement is.

Baseball's "corporate business plans and steroid-damaged product." I love it! Wish I'd said that.

There's more at the link, including a Nate Silver link. I've been wondering for two days how to couple Nate Silver's wonderful neologism "Radio Republicans" with the teaparty tantrums. Tom Watson did it perfectly, contrasting the smallness of their gestures with the timeless impact of a truly great American hero. And if his essay is an ice cream sundae, the Nate Silver link is a cherry on the top.