Sunday, May 31, 2009

Susan Boyles -- "Memories" Semi-Final & "I Have a Deam" Final

This time the video is widely available.
This woman's gentle influence is a blessing to behold. Despite a clear rough opening she made a graceful recovery and finished well. And the judges were for the first time intimidated enough not to mention the opening. At some level they knew that when the world is watching is not the time to sound petty. I wish more people would catch on.


And here's the final performance.
Not a win. She came in second. But does anyone in the world care about that?
I think not. I don't.
And clearly neither do any of the judges.

Single Payer Alone is Not the Best Option

Maggie Mahar changed my mind about the single-payer option.
I still have a bad attitude about private insurance, but not as bad as it was.

We have no way of knowing who will be the majority leaders in Congress ten years from now—or who will be in the White House. It’s not a stretch to assume that if legislators are willing to ban abortion for federal employees they might refuse to cover it in a single-payer health plan that covered the entire nation..

In the first budget that he sent to Congress President George W. Bush even tried to remove contraception from a list of products covered by FEHB. If Jed Bush became president would he nix covering contraception under a single payer insurance plan? (Remember Governor Bush’s role in the Karen Schiavo case) Or maybe he would only ban contraception for women who aren’t married. I don’t want to find out.

Of course, even if we had single-payer national health insurance, it’s likely that private sector insurers would sell “supplemental policies” –covering extras that aren’t included in the government plan. Perhaps private insurers would offer abortion insurance-- for those who could afford a supplemental policy—assuming that those insurance companies weren’t too squeamish about bomb threats. If Congress refused to include abortion in a national plan, I have to think that anyone trying to sell what would quickly be labeled “abortion insurance” would become a special target.

As regular readers know, I firmly believe that President Obama’s hybrid plan for universal coverage should include a government plan that is modeled on a new, improved and reformed version of Medicare. And I am quite sure that this Congress will include contraception in any government plan. . (I doubt President Obama would sign the plan if they didn’t. But I wonder—will government health insurance cover abortion?)

La Raza Fights Racism

Via Group News Blog we have this. I'm doing the same as Maggi Jochild, copying the message in toto.

The nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court was an historic and proud moment for Latinos and the country as a whole. But her ethnicity has proven too much of a temptation for the voices of hate and extremism, who instead of looking at her judicial record have launched a vocal rampage that has reached new heights of absurdity.

Take action to put a stop to it.

Rush Limbaugh, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and others are claiming that Sotomayor is a "reverse racist" because she believes that more judges with diverse backgrounds and experiences would be a good thing for the judicial system. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies (the "think tank" of Tanton's web of anti-immigrant extremist groups) and his pals at the National Review online are just beside themselves that Judge Sotomayor had the temerity to pronounce her own name correctly. They basically said that if she was a real American, she would butcher it. In an article that appeared in The Hill newspaper, Republican insiders are quoted as being "concerned" that Sotomayor's avowed love of arroz con gandules and other Puerto Rican delicacies will cloud her judicial decision-making.

This one, however, takes the cake:

Former Congressman, failed presidential candidate, and anti-immigrant extremist Tom Tancredo, unable to provide a shred of evidence for his assertion that Judge Sotomayor is a "racist," went off the deep end on CNN, saying Sotomayor belongs to "the Latino KKK without the hoods and nooses."

That's what Tancredo called NCLR-a 40-year-old, national Latino civil rights organization that works with community organizations all over the country to help Latino families achieve the American Dream. NCLR has been recognized by members of Congress and the media, has hosted presidents of both political parties, and works hand in hand with other national civil rights organizations in a bipartisan way to
improve the lives of all Americans.

Act now to stop this nonsense.

Raising questions and concerns about Judge Sotomayor's 17-year record on the bench is legitimate. Resorting to outdated stereotypes, defamation of character, and outright falsehoods is not.

Please join us and send a message to Chairman Michael Steele of the RNC, House Minority Leader John Boehner, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell asking them to denounce these statements and restore the nomination process for Judge Sotomayor to a more appropriate and civil discourse.

Fact is also on the issue.

There's a difference between "percent of all decisions she has written" and "percent of all decisions reviewed by the Supreme Court." See how that works?

May 28, 2009
Updated: May 29, 2009

Q: What percentage of Sonia Sotomayor's opinions have been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court?
Have Judge Sotomayor's decisions really been overturned 80 percent of the time as Rush Limbaugh stated on May 26?

A: Three of her appellate opinions have been overturned, which is 1.3 percent of all that she has written and 60 percent of those reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Of the majority opinions that Judge Sonia Sotomayor has authored since becoming an appellate judge in 1998, three of them have been overturned by the Supreme Court.

Our search for appellate opinions by Sotomayor on the LexisNexis database returned 232 cases. That's a reversal rate of 1.3 percent.

But only five of her decisions have been reviewed by the justices. Using five as a denominator, the rate comes out to 60 percent.

We have contacted Rush Limbaugh to ask how he came up with the figure he used recently when he said, "She has been overturned 80 percent by the Supreme Court." We'll update this item if we receive a response. (See our May 29 update at the end for how Limbaugh may have calculated his 80 percent figure, and why we judge it to be mistaken.) In the week before President Barack Obama announced that he would nominate Sotomayor, the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network ran an Internet ad saying she had a "100 percent reversal rate," which is false. (We asked that group for back-up material, which a spokesman agreed to give us but which we never received; since Obama's announcement, the group has taken the ad down.)

In any case, 60 percent of the cases the Supreme Court has reviewed is not a particularly high number. In any given term, the Supreme Court normally reverses a higher percentage of the cases it hears. During its 2006-2007 term, for instance, the Court reversed or vacated (which, for our purposes here, mean the same thing) 68 percent of the cases before it. The rate was 73.6 percent the previous term.

In two of the three Sotomayor reversals, at least some of the more liberal justices dissented, agreeing with her holding.

==> One was a 5-4 decision in 2001 in Correctional Services Corporation v. Malesko, which involved an inmate who sought to sue a private contractor operating a halfway house on behalf of the Bureau of Prisons over injuries he sustained. Sotomayor said he could, but a majority of the justices disagreed.

==> In another case, Sotomayor wrote that under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency could not use a cost-benefit analysis to determine the best technology available for drawing cooling water into power plants with minimal impact on aquatic life. By a vote of 6-3 this year, the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in Entergy v. Riverkeeper.

==>The third reversal, in 2005, was a unanimous 8-0 decision in the case Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. v. Dabit. Sotomayor had written that a class action securities suit brought in state court by a broker/stockholder was not preempted by the 1998 Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act. But the high court's opinion said it "would be odd, to say the least" if the law contained the exception that Sotomayor said it did.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of June on the much-discussed Ricci v. DeStefano case in which Sotomayor took part. It's not publicly known whether she wrote the unsigned, one-paragraph order in the reverse discrimination case involving firefighters in New Haven, Conn., to which all three of the judges hearing the case agreed. (That order later became an official opinion with the same wording at the behest of other 2nd Circuit judges.) The decision, upholding the ruling of the lower-court judge who first heard the case, said the city was justified in not certifying the results of an exam required for firefighters to be promoted after no African Americans scored highly enough to be considered.

(Note: We haven't analyzed cases in which Sotomayor merely voted with the majority, only those in which she is on record as having written the majority opinion. She also may have written some unsigned opinions or orders, such as the one in the Ricci case above, but we have no way of knowing if that's true or if so, how many she may have written.)

— Viveca Novak

Update, May 29: We wrote above that we didn’t know how Rush Limbaugh had calculated that Sotomayor “has been overturned 80 percent by the Supreme Court.” Since we posted, however, an alert reader has pointed us to something else Limbaugh said in the same May 26 show:

Rush: The Supreme Court has reversed Judge Sotomayor in four instances where it granted certiorari to review an opinion she authored. "In three of these reversals, the Court held that Judge Sotomayor erred in her statutory interpretation," meaning she goofed up on the law. She was overturned four times when she wrote the opinion, the lead opinion, and in three of the four cases the Supreme Court held that she erred in her statutory interpretation. The cases are Knight v. C.I.R., Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. v. Dabit, New York Times, Inc. v. Tasini, and Correctional Servs. Corp. v. Malesko. The cases are 2008, 2006, 2001, and 2001. So there you have it.

Four out of five – as we noted above, Sotomayor has had five appellate decisions reviewed by the Supreme Court – is 80 percent. But Limbaugh is wrong on his cases, and thus wrong in his calculation. First, in Knight v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Sotomayor’s decision wasn’t “overturned” at all. In fact, it was upheld unanimously, though the justices faulted her reasoning.

Second, New York Times v. Tasini was one of Sotomayor’s 442 rulings as a district court judge. Limbaugh is correct that the Supreme Court upheld the appellate court ruling that had reversed her decision.

But we have not dived into her lower court jurisprudence, as opposed to her appellate majority opinions, nor have we seen a reliable analysis of it done by anyone else. We don’t know how many of her decisions in district court were appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, or what their disposition was. And third, Limbaugh didn’t include Entergy v. Riverkeeper, which was a clear reversal by the justices. Eliminating the cases Limbaugh shouldn’t have included and adding back in the one he should have brings us back to 60 percent.

Posts such as this should be so unnecessary. It is a telling commentary on our time and the durability of racist thinking that we still talk about this stuff after all these decades.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Look at the Af/Pak Adventure

This short piece by Carlo Cristofori in Counter Punch looks at the Afghan/Pakistan/Pashtun/Taliban Conflict through a different lens than most. Simply stated, the Pashtuns predate either of the two modern nations sharing their historic roots. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan, the modern names we have for two post-colonial geopolitical constructs, were constructed without proper consideration for the Pashtuns. I am reminded of how Kurds have been regarded by modern geopolitics.

The Latest AfPak War

By Carlo Cristofori

The June, 2002, National Assembly (Loya Jirga) held in Afghanistan to select the head of state was rigged by the Bush administration, forcing the former king, who had majority support among the delegates, to withdraw from consideration*. This shows that the "Bush freedom agenda" was basically a sham--a political gimmick, a phony; and that Karzai is a U.S. puppet. Once he was installed, the subsequent elections, held without established political parties, were little more than a rubber stamp.

However, many Americans think that the U.S. brought freedom to Afghanistan, and cling to the notion of Afghanistan as "the good war." The original U.S. sin behind the lack of legitimacy of the Karzai regime, although factually incontrovertible, has remained almost unnoticed.

The result is that blame for the situation tends to be placed on other factors, such as corruption and poor governance. Both are essentially a function of government weakness. But a puppet regime is weak virtually by definition.

The decision to sideline the king aggravated the disenfranchisement and oppression of the Pashtun tribes (the majority political element in Afghanistan) occasioned by U.S. support for the Northern Alliance and other warlords. Northern Afghanistan, for example, has been brutally ethnic-cleansed of Pashtuns since 2001--another fact that has remained almost completely unreported.

But as Vartan Gregorian, the great historian of modern Afghanistan, warned in 2001, "Pashtuns won't easily relinquish two centuries of memory and power. Without a major Pashtun role in the future of Afghanistan, there will be no viable peace." Gregorian also noted that the king was welcome, but not as a U.S. puppet.

It is sufficient to take a look at a map of the insurgency to see that it is practically the same as an ethnic map of Pashtun areas (including the Pashtun areas of Pakistan).

This is why throwing more military forces into the cauldron, and killing more Pashtuns, is not the best solution--and it is hardly a freedom and self-determination solution. It will perpetuate and, indeed, exacerbate a disastrous internal contradiction in U.S. policy.

As for tribal militias, so-called "Arbakai"--villagers armed with rifles--are not much to keep the Taliban at bay. Large scale, heavily armed and lavishly financed militias, like the Uzbeg militia led by the infamous General Dostam, were organized by the Soviets before their pullout in 1989, and proved effective in staving off the collapse of the Soviet-supported regime--until they turned against it.

What is needed is not handing out wads of cash, but a political solution based on reconciliation with the Pashtun tribes. In the words of a British colonial statesman, "An Afghan ruler rules only by the goodwill of the most powerful Afghan tribes" (Sir Olaf Caroe).

It is the fundamental compact of allegiance between the tribes and the central government that needs to be reestablished. Such a compact is not a pipe dream, but something that actually existed as the historical basis of the Afghan state, and which, under the monarchy, afforded Afghanistan generations of progress and peace.

In fact, bribing tribal leaders is utterly incompatible with a genuine political process, just as bribing voters is incompatible with a democratic election. And if the bribing is done by foreigners, the affront is even worse, and the bribes are not likely to work, except on a very short-term basis.

Strange and anachronistic as it may seem, even at this late date the royal family are probably the only ones who can hope to do it--although not necessarily any of the king's sons, and within a republican, not a monarchical framework. The political capital accumulated by the Musahiban in the last century still hasn't dissipated, nor been appropriated by anyone else, least of all poor Hamid Karzai.

The most suitable forum is likely to be a new Loya Jirga, hopefully to be convened by the end of the current presidential term. To have a chance of success, any arrangement will require a fundamental rebalancing of power away from the non-Pashtun actors who have dominated the scene since 2001.

Those actors will resist, if given a chance: and it is precisely by deterring and preventing such resistances that the American military will find more fruitful employment than in savaging the tribes.

However, now that both the old king and his senior cousin, General Abdul Wali, are no longer around, everything will be harder, and the prospects more uncertain.

Carlo Cristofori was Secretary of the International Committee for Solidarity with the Afghan Resistance, set up by members of the European Parliament following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In that capacity, he worked closely with a number of Afghan resistance organizations, becoming personally familiar with many Afghan political figures. He has analyzed Afghan politics for thirty years.

H/T 3 Quarks
Notes and references at the CounterPunch link.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Girls Rock A Giant Piano

Spengler on Iran's Future -- Bleak and Desparate

M. Simon points to an Asia Times piece about Iran by "Spengler."

...efforts to isolate Iran from the cultural degradation of the American "great Satan" have produced social pathologies worse than those in any Western country. With oil at barely one-fifth of its 2008 peak price, they will run out of money some time in late 2009 or early 2010. Game theory would predict that Iran's leaders will gamble on a strategic long shot. That is not a comforting thought for Iran's neighbors.

Two indicators of Iranian morale are worth citing.

First, prostitution has become a career of choice among educated Iranian women...

...Second, according to a recent report from the US Council on Foreign Relations, "Iran serves as the major transport hub for opiates produced by [Afghanistan], and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime estimates that Iran has as many as 1.7 million opiate addicts." That is, 5% of Iran's adult, non-elderly population of 35 million is addicted to opiates. That is an astonishing number, unseen since the peak of Chinese addiction during the 19th century. The closest American equivalent (from the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health) found that 119,000 Americans reported using heroin within the prior month, or less than one-tenth of 1% of the non-elderly adult population.

This provocative article may be from the nether edge of journalism but it is worth noting. Asia Times Online is the cyber-child of another newspaper of the same name, and "Spengler" is a pseudonym designed to protect the writer from being made the target of a fatwa.

Wikipedia has an article on Spengler.

Spengler is a pen name (after Oswald Spengler) of David P. Goldman, a columnist for the Asia Times Online. Writing the first "Spengler" column in 1999, Goldman only revealed his identity in April 2009, although Philip Weiss and others had earlier argued that he was the author. In 2009 he was hired as an associate editor at First Things, for which he had previously written under the pseudonym "David Shushon."

A religious Jew, Goldman writes from a Judeo-Christian perspective and often focuses on demographic and economic factors in his analyses; he says his subject matter proceeds "from the theme formulated by Rosenzweig: the mortality of nations and its causes, Western secularism, Asian anomie, and unadaptable Islam."

It's a longish article elaborating on how Iran's economy is wasting while the national birth rate declines, two trends which may soon converge to put Iran in the "nothing to lose" column, therefore more likely to go to war. I take note of it more for future reference than current importance. My own impression is that Iran may have problems but not of the magnitude indicated by this writer. But just as Americans cannot reliably know or understand a lot about what really matters abroad, I have no reason to say this piece is not credible.

"More than 90% of Tehran's prostitutes have passed the university entrance exam, according to the results of one study, and more than 30% of them are registered at a university or studying," reports Der Standard. "The study was assigned to the Tehran Police Department and the Ministry of Health, and when the results were tabulated in early January no local newspaper dared to so much as mention them."

The Austrian newspaper added, "Eighty percent of the Tehran sex workers maintained that they pursue this career voluntarily and temporarily. The educated ones are waiting for better jobs. Those with university qualifications intend to study later, and the ones who already are registered at university mention the high tuition [fees] as their motive for prostitution ... they are content with their occupation and do not consider it a sin according to Islamic law."

There is an extensive trade in poor Iranian women who are trafficked to the Gulf states in huge numbers, as well as to Europe and Japan. "A nation is never really beaten until it sells its women," I wrote in a 2006 study of Iranian prostitution, Jihads and whores.

Prostitution as a response to poverty and abuse is one thing, but the results of this new study reflect something quite different. The educated women of Tehran choose prostitution in pursuit of upward mobility, as a way of sharing in the oil-based potlatch that made Tehran the world's hottest real estate market during 2006 and 2007.

A country is beaten when it sells its women, but it is damned when its women sell themselves. The popular image of the Iranian sex trade portrays tearful teenagers abused and cast out by impoverished parents. Such victims doubtless abound, but the majority of Tehran's prostitutes are educated women seeking affluence.

Only in the former Soviet Union after the collapse of communism in 1990 did educated women choose prostitution on a comparable scale, but under very different circumstances. Russians went hungry during the early 1990s as the Soviet economy dissolved and the currency collapsed. Today's Iranians suffer from shortages, but the data suggest that Tehran's prostitutes are not so much pushed into the trade by poverty as pulled into it by wealth.

A year ago I observed that prices for Tehran luxury apartments exceeded those in Paris, as Iran's kleptocracy distributed the oil windfall to tens of thousands of hangers-on of the revolution. $35 billion went missing from state oil funds, opposition newspapers charged at the time. Corruption evidently has made whores of Tehran's educated women. (Please see Worst of times for Iran, June 24, 2008.)

The writer then moves on to the sad and growing problem with substance abuse with opium as the drug of choice. After elaborating on a parallel observation of a decline in the national birth rate, he concludes with these bleak paragraphs...

A better explanation of Iran's population implosion is that the country has undergone an existential crisis comparable to encounters of Amazon or Inuit tribes with modernity. Traditional society demands submission to the collective. Once the external constraints are removed, its members can shift from the most extreme forms of modesty to the other extreme of sexual license. Khomeini's revolution attempted to retard the disintegration of Persian society, but it appears to have accelerated the process.

Modernity implies choice, and the efforts of the Iranian mullahs to prolong the strictures of traditional society appear to have backfired. The cause of Iran's collapsing fertility is not literacy as such, but extreme pessimism about the future and an endemic materialism that leads educated Iranian women to turn their own sexuality into a salable commodity.

Theocracy subjects religion to a political test; it is hard for Iranians to repudiate the regime and remain pious, for religious piety and support for political Islam are inseparable, as a recent academic study documented from survey data.

As in the decline of communism, what follows on the breakdown of a state ideology is likely to be nihilism. Iran is a dying country, and it is very difficult to have a rational dialogue with a nation all of whose available choices terminate in oblivion.

This is one of those "I report, you decide" posts.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Health Care Behind the Scenes

Maggie Mahar's book Money-Driven Medicine, has been made into a 90-minute documentary. It will be screened in New York June 11. I'm thinking about going.

Damien Walters Showreel 2009

Thanks Abbas

Just Dropped In

I woke up this mornin' with the sundown shinin' in
I found my mind in a brown paper bag, but then...
I tripped on a cloud and fell eight miles high
I tore my mind on a jagged sky
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in

Nouriel Roubini's newsletter [different link with more and different information] reminds us that there may be silver linings but the cloud is still damn big. For some reason the dark lyrics of the Kenny Rogers' classic played in the background of my mind, along with "It ain't over til it's over..."

Today we take a look at the health of residential and commercial property markets around the world. Slowing economic activity and a credit crunch contributed to a decline in housing activity, prices and construction in most major economies. Eastern Europe and the Baltics, as well as the U.S. and UK, have endured some of the sharpest declines. In many countries, not only in the U.S., the bottom of the property markets still seems far off, with sales, prices and starts forecast to continue declining, albeit at a slower pace, through much of 2009.

In fact, many European economies (and Canada) tend to have housing cycles that lag behind the U.S. by about 2-3 years, suggesting that their declines could also persist beyond a U.S. housing stabilization. Sounder lending standards and lower incentives to invest in residential property in some countries may allow them to avoid the depths of the U.S. property correction but others may suffer more severely. The liquidity resulting from quantitative easing has contributed to a slower deterioration of the housing markets. Yet with high inventories in many markets, it may take some time to absorb the excess. This will continue to erode the value of asset-backed securities and banks' balance sheets and defer the revival of construction activity, a major driver of growth.

The decline in retail trade and contraction of the financial sector has worsened the commercial property outlook. Commercial vacancy rates are on the rise in almost all major centers in Europe and North America and net effective rates have declined by 25-30% in major cities in Asia, suggesting that new investment is unlikely as these cities try to absorb overcapacity in retail and hotel trade. Meanwhile, still tight corporate debt markets pose obstacles for corporate finance. Despite the weak fundamentals, REITs and other property investments have benefited from the renewed risk appetite and have been climbing off late. These property investments might well be vulnerable to any reversal of risk appetite.

Despite the ongoing global meltdown I still hear loud voices preaching with stiff-backed righteous indignation about the beauties of the "free market" and the horrible effects of "government interference." Many still advocate pulling the TARP rug from under the whole house of cards and letting the chips fall where they may. Curiously, the same crowd that embraces fear as the glue that holds together a political, military and philosophical value system reveals no hint of fear when discussing the need for improved regulatory oversight. It reminds me of the good old boys here in Georgia who complain about motorcycle helmets and seat belts. "Hell, if I want to take the chance at becoming a vegetable after an accident it ain't none of anyone else's business."

Yeah, right. So for those who think no one else is affected, Roubini goes on....

United Kingdom

The housing sector is one the most important factors affecting the economic slump in the UK, which is similar in many ways to the difficulties facing the U.S. economy. The latest data on the UK housing sector continues to be mixed but some analysts are tentative to call the bottom in Q2 2009...

Western Europe

The European housing cycle lags the U.S. cycle by about 2 years but the extent of house price increases, as well as the extent of over-construction, exceeds the U.S. experience in many countries. Starting from the mid-1990s, house prices in the UK, Spain, Ireland, Scandinavia and France exceeded the price increase in the U.S. whereas construction as a percent of GDP expanded to unsustainable levels, especially in Spain and Ireland. This severe construction overhang in the latter countries will take several years to unwind thus retarding a return to balanced growth as suggested by the strong housing-consumption correlation in these countries...


The Australian housing market downturn is likely to be milder than in the U.S., UK and EU in 2009. Australia's house price correction had a head start going back to 2003. Furthermore, housing demand from migrants to the commodities-rich west and the chronic housing shortage in eastern Australia will keep prices from stabilizing back at pre-boom levels unless Australia fails to avoid a deep recession. Indeed, building approvals and housing loans to owner-occupiers began to recover since October 2008 after the government doubled grants for first-time purchases of homes until December 2009. Mortgage interest rates fell to their lowest level in four decades after the Reserve Bank of Australia cut the overnight cash rate 425bp within a year to 3% in April 2009, the lowest since 1960. Tax cuts, government handouts and lower petrol prices will also raise the affordability of housing....

New Zealand

New Zealand's housing market is in worse shape than Australia's but is also likely to avoid as deep a correction as in the U.S. and Europe. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand has cut 575bp since July 2008 to 2.5% in April 2009 but longer-term, fixed mortgage rates have recently begun to rise again due to expectations of a quick recovery and higher interest rates. Fiscal policy has been laissez-faire towards the recession, opting merely for tax cuts as the government would rather not stand in the way of the economy's structural adjustment...

Central and Eastern Europe

Like other parts of the world, property prices in most of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have taken a beating and further price falls are expected in 2009 and 2010. In addition to tight credit conditions and economic contractions across the region, collapsing demand from Western European buyers is also having a negative impact on prices....


Despite government investment, Russian construction activity, which previously boosted growth, has fallen in 2009, given the contraction of credit and reduced affordability of housing following the drop in real wages and increase in real interest rates. Banks curbed lending to developers who had begun delaying projects in mid-2008 as higher project costs limited profits...

Middle-East and Africa

Slowing growth, tighter liquidity and some slowing of supply shortages has reversed the Middle East property boom of recent years, raising the risk of a bust in countries most reliant on external credit. Almost all markets are witnessing price correction, lower sales and slowdowns - if not cancellations - in real estate and construction projects as speculative buying is falling, in the face of financing difficulties....


Asia has witnessed sharp real estate correction led by the Asian Tigers, plus China, India and Vietnam. All these markets saw declining home and office prices and rentals, lower sales and rising vacancies. Prices are approaching fundamental values and slowing construction activity might somewhat close the estimated excess supply. But further price and rental correction are imminent. This because household and corporate demand will remain subdued in 2009 despite policy measures such as interest rate cuts and fiscal incentives as well as attractive discounts offered by realtors. Slowing or contracting consumer spending and rising job losses in most economies are hitting residential and retail markets....

I left Canada and Brazil off the summary because they were the only two economies whose wounds seemed more superficial than critical. Dare I suggest that better central control and oversight may have had something to do with their being spared the blood-letting that seems still to be affecting the rest of the world economies? When I allow myself to wonder what might be happening if the GOP were in control it blows my mind.

Someone painted "April Fool" in big black letters on a "Dead End" sign
I had my foot on the gas as I left the road and blew out my mind
Eight miles outta Memphis and I got no spare
Eight miles straight up downtown somewhere
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in

I said I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in
Yeah yeah oh-yeah

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Va Pensiero from Nabucco

One of my favorite melodies, a new rendition.

This world famous melody from the opera Nabucco was written in 1842 by Giuseppe Verdi and has been performed worldwide for many years. We wish to add our version of Va Pensiero to the list of distinguished performers. All artwork is original and painted by Anita Sorelle. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day Weekend, 2009

Four years of blogging have stacked up several links for all the major holidays.
Last year's Memorial Day post was a repository for half a dozen links for readers who have time to visit and read.

This year I'm adding another piece collected in June, 2005, from a soldier blog, Ramrod's Blog, from Iraq. This man's words capture the strength, spirit and pain which are the price we ask our young people to pay when we send them in uniform on missions that often take their lives or leave them damaged when they return.

The Memorial Service for SPC. Anthony Cometa was held today at 1500 at the Chapel in Zone 1 at AJ.

Alot of other people from other units were there, a lot of high brass was there too. They had the typical Rifle in the ground with Kevlar and Dogtags hanging from the buttstock. The service went with a singing of the national anthem and an opening prayer. Then the commander talked about Cometa. After him, his 3 of his friends; 2 of em were the bandmates, talked about Tony.

Even at that point it didn't quite hit me. It was sad, the whole ordeal, no way around that. I mean, he was a friend, someone I personally knew, and someone that I would not see for a long long time. Yet; it still seemed unreal.

But then the Final Roll Call came. I've never been to a memorial service before, so I didn't really know what to expect. I didn't really think much of what the Final Roll Call would be like.

The 1SG of our unit came up to the front; we were all called to the position of attention, and he shouted out the names:

"SGT. Allman! HERE, First Sgt"

"SPC. Collins! HERE, First Sgt"

"SPC. Cometa......"at that point, for some reason, I broke.

"SPC. ANTHONY COMETA" tears starting welling up....

"SPC. ANTHONY S. COMETA... Final Call... Dropped from Roll Call"

In my head, my mind was yelling out, Answer up Tony... but I knew why there was no answer....

They then proceeded to play "Taps" while the 21 Gun Salute was performed.

I haven't cried like this for as long as I can remember.

When we finally sat down, I got ahold of myself, wiped the tears off, and collected myself.

We had a final prayer and the procession was over. All the people at the ceremony then proceeded to walk by Tony's picture and Rifle display for a final rendering of the salute. Our unit went last. I walked up, looked at Tony one last time, Saluted my fellow "ex-PV2" and said goodbye.

That was that...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Defense Budget Snapshot

Recommended reading by Peter Howard, at the Duck:

The War That Matters

There is a massive fight simmering just below the surface here in DC, one that looks to get really ugly, really quick, and with major long-term consequences for national politics. No, its not the pending SCOTUS confirmation fight, but the battle over the Pentagon budget. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has taken on one of the most powerful and entrenched political forces in Washington, the Defense spending lobby, and as Eisenhower had warned, "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist." How right he was, and its taken a SecDef as powerful as Gates to launch the fight to bring this to the foreground.

...the services and Congress are notorious for thwarting Pentagon budgeting plans. Congress sees the DoD budget as an unchallenged lard-fest, where government subsidies can be thrown to companies in a local district. Contractors facilitate this by actively distributing weapons system production in key Congressional districts, gaining allies for particular programs on the Hill. The Services have long had back-channels to lobby Congress to save particular weapons systems or insert new procurement that the Administration did not request. Gates seeks to end this practice.

The stakes are high. Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake. Contracts, careers, and jobs are on the line. And, somewhere in there, the idea of American National Security almost matters. ...

"...somewhere in there, the idea of American National Security almost matters."
History and details at the link for anyone who is interested. Lots of money at stake here. I'm not naive enough to imagine some of it might be redirected elsewhere, but maybe, just maybe, the beginnings of more rational decision-making can be set in motion.

H1N1 Pandemic -- Case Study in Human Behavior

As of this writing the H1N1 flu experience has led WHO to adjust the official definition of the word "pandemic" to reflect not only the spread of a disease but the seriousness of the health consequences as well.

Epidemics and pandemics can place sudden and intense demands on health systems. They expose existing weaknesses in these systems and, in addition to their morbidity and mortality, can disrupt economic activity and development.

The world requires a global system that can rapidly identify and contain public health emergencies and reduce unneeded panic and disruption of trade, travel and society in general.

The revised International Health Regulations, IHR(2005) provide a global framework to address these needs through a collective approach to the prevention, detection, and timely response to any public health emergency of international concern.

In other words, had the morbidity and mortality been greater a far different response would have been triggered. So when the next global disease comes along the management and control mechanisms recommended by WHO will be adjusted to fit the seriousness of the threat as well as the prevalence.

Meantime, a couple of smart researchers from academia have noted how quickly and remarkably alike thousands of public responses occur.
As two Stanford University researchers described their experience watching public reactions in the initial days of the swine flu outbreak, it sounded like one of those nature films in which tiny fish dart back and forth in perfect unison.

The researchers were tracking thousands of Twitter posts pouring into an Internet site. With every twist and turn of the flu reports, the researchers noticed, the mass of tweets swung this way and that as if they were one, even though most of the individual Twitterers had no contact with one another outside of the website.

It was a rare window into the public psyche amid an explosion of information about a potentially dangerous disease outbreak.

The researchers -- James Holland Jones, an associate professor of anthropology, and Marcel Salathe, a biologist -- had devised an online survey to gauge people's anxiety about the H1N1 virus as it unfolded.

Posted early in the outbreak, the survey generated about 8,000 responses in a matter of days, but as doomsday predictions did not come to pass, responses dropped off -- a development that worried Jones.

"Swine flu is still out there and will be back next flu season," he said. "We've dodged the pandemic for now, but I think it's a very open question whether we have really dodged it."

The shifting reactions to H1N1 suggested that as the country has become more wired, people may move from indifference to anxiety and back in the blink of an eye.

After flu cases in Mexico soared at the end of April, U.S. government officials took to the airwaves, declaring a public health emergency as the World Health Organization raised the global threat level to 5 -- the second-most severe.

With little known about the virus, people's reactions were immediate: Travel to Mexico fell dramatically, pork-belly futures collapsed, and protective masks flew off the shelves. Mexico City virtually shut down -- closing gyms, restaurants, movie theaters and other nonessential businesses -- costing the already teetering economy $2.2 billion in 10 days, according to the nation's finance secretary.

But as the number of deaths in Mexico attributed to the disease plateaued at about 60 -- and as widespread U.S. fatalities failed to materialize -- the media coverage backed off, causing public interest to flag and some experts to fear that the early warnings may make it harder to get the public's attention in the future.

"We've cried wolf one too many times here," said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

"I actually think this situation has set us back. It really is two strikes, and now we're almost out," he said, referring to initial panic and then loss of interest in recent outbreaks such as SARS and avian flu.

More than 4 in 10 people followed news about the H1N1 outbreak very closely, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Even in a week filled with news of President Obama's first 100 days in office and Chrysler filing for bankruptcy, attention to news of the swine flu was so great, Pew found, that it became one of the top stories of the year to date.

Osterholm said the media had to be a crucial part of how health and government officials communicate during such an event. "We need to take a step back and see what we can learn from it -- how we should do it in the future," he said.

Initial public reaction to H1N1 was way out of proportion to the magnitude of the disease, said Richard Thaler, professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago.

"Psychologists say we have two brain systems, the old and the new," Thaler said. "The old one is fast and emotional. When we react by jumping in response to a snake, that's old. The new one is analytic. But often we don't get past the first emotional system."

The country is a bit on edge, Thaler said, and people on edge are less likely to react in a rational way. "It's hard to imagine a time when so much was going [on] on so many different fronts," he said.

He added that the Internet "is bad enough," but that the "velocity of rumor and gossip" had increased exponentially with Twitter.

Dan Ariely, author of "Predictably Irrational," invokes the concept of learned helplessness to describe how people behave when conditioned by a series of seemingly random, harmful events.

"When we have all these unexplained shocks, we just do what we're told," said Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at MIT.

When people don't know how much risk to take in stressful situations, Ariely said, they look around to see what others are doing. But "if other people are doing foolish things," he said, many times "we do it too."

Now go back and read it again. This time forget the subject is the spread of a flu virus and imagine how easily public reactions are tweaked by media reports of, say, political or social issues. I'm not a conspiracy nut, but I'm also not indifferent to how politicians, marketeers, and others who pay the rent by influencing crowd behavior deliberately do all they know to massage as many public reactions as possible to move or react a certain way.

Joe Biden was onto something when he said that Mr. Giuliani made all his sentences using a noun, a verb and 9/11. As Vice-president Cheney spoke last week I thought the same thing. Someone counted. He referred to 9/11 dozens of times in the short space of a few minutes.

Not to be picking just on the last administration, it should be remembered that Rahm Emanuel was the source of that now famous line about never wasting a good crisis. He may have said it out loud but politicians have known and acted on this principle through all of history. I heard a talk show host contrast fascism with democracy thus: fascism is when the people fear the government... democracy is when government fears the people. My own take is the as long as the word "fear" is in the formula neither is particularly desireable. Wouldn't it be great if we could realize that government IS the people, and fear need not be part of the formula? And wouldn't it be great if talk show hosts were in the business of calming fears instead of stoking them?

Thanks to Crof for the link.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Bankers Will Be Boys

I stole James Kwak's headline because it is too good not to steal. He points to yet another bit of navel-gazing trying to splain the recent unpleasantness in the financial world.

Greedy bankers are getting most of the blame for the current financial crisis. This column explains bankers did behave badly for mainly three reasons. They committed cognitive errors involving biases towards their own prior beliefs; too many male bankers high on testosterone took too much risk, and a flawed compensation structure rewarded perceived short-term competency rather than long-run results.

Kwak comments....

In a fascinating and innovative study, Coates and Herbert (2008) advance the notion that steroid feedback loops may help explain why male bankers behave irrationally when caught up in bubbles. These authors took samples of testosterone levels of 17 male traders on a typical London trading floor (which had 260 traders, only four of whom were female). They found that testosterone was significantly higher on days when traders made more than their daily one-month average profit and that higher levels of testosterone also led to greater profitability – presumably because of greater confidence and risk taking. The authors hypothesise that if raised testosterone were to persist for several weeks the elevated appetite for risk taking might have important behavioural consequences and that there might be cognitive implications as well; testosterone, they say, has receptors throughout the areas of the brain that neuro-economic research has identified as contributing to irrational financial decisions.

Let’s say you could provide reasonably convincing evidence that you would get better long-term results by using a team that had an even balance of men and women. Could you get away with an affirmative action policy that instituted a quota for female traders? According to the Supreme Court’s extremely mushy and frustrating “intermediate scrutiny” standard for gender discrimination, you would have to show that the policy is “substantially related” to the achievement of “important governmental objectives.” (I assume that there’s enough of a state-action component here, since we’re dealing with major, federally-regulated financial institutions.) Reducing systemic risk sounds like an important objective to me.

I'm reminded of a pamphlet handed out to a young people's group at church, "If the Devil made you do it, you blew it!" There's no excuse for what happened. I chalk it up to the most recent reminder that the only limit to human greed it how quickly it can be caught and punished.

If you want an extended exercise in watching otherwise intelligent adults speaking seriously about this nutty idea, go to Naked Capitalism's post "Why Did Bankers Behave So Badly?" In language that makes me think Read. My. Lips. they reprise the other piece, underscoring all three points.

I especially like Number Three: "Bonuses distort behaviour"

No kidding? Who knew?

And the comments thread is just as tedious.

Side-by-Side Comparison of Major Health Care Reform Proposals

The Kaiser people have put up an interactive database allowing comparisons of the various health care reform proposals.
Very impressive and a little overwhelming. Hat Tip David Harlow's Health Care Law Blog

Achieving comprehensive health reform has emerged as a leading priority of the President and Congress. President Obama has outlined eight principles for health reform, seeking to address not only the 45 million people who lack health insurance, but also rising health care costs and lack of quality. In Congress, a number of comprehensive reform proposals have been announced as the debate begins over how to overhaul the health care system.

This interactive side-by-side compares the leading comprehensive reform proposals across a number of key characteristics and plan components. Included in this side-by-side are proposals for moving toward universal coverage that have been put forward by the President and Members of Congress. In an effort to capture the most important proposals, we have included those that have been formally introduced as legislation as well as those that have been offered as principles or in White Paper form. This side-by-side will be regularly updated to reflect changes in the proposals and to incorporate major new proposals as they are announced.

A seventeen-page pdf document is also available with the whole ball of wax.

"Nasty, Brutish, and Long" Ira Rosofsky on Eldercare

Ira Rosofsky is a psychologist working the nursing home scene. He's sixty-two and the author of a book next on my to-do list.
I just listened to a podcast interview with him and can tell from what he says that he knows what he's talking about. I can relate because of personal experience with my mother during the last three to five years, and because my post retirement vocation for seven years is in the world of old people.

Nasty, Brutish and Long
is not heavy duty reading. I have not read it yet but I sense it will be a quick read you can pass on to someone else when you're done. I got a heads-up from Christina Castro who has a marketing desk at Penguin Books. They got my email somewhere and I'm one of their targeted bloggers. As long as they don't start spamming me with all kinds of junk I'm keeping the mailbox available.

In nursing homes across the country, members of the Greatest Generation are living out their last days. No matter how exciting or mundane their lives, they’re now occupying a hospital-style room—a public space where you can’t lock your door and strangers come and go. Life is a succession of pokes and prods, medications, TV, bingo, and, possibly, talking to Ira Rosofsky.

Nasty, Brutish, and Long is a candid, humane, and improbably humorous look at the world of eldercare. With a compassionate eye but mordant wit, Rosofsky, a psychologist charged with gauging the mental health of his elders, reveals a culture based not in the empathy of caretaking, but rather in the coolly detached bureaucracy of Medicare and Medicaid.

A portrayal of what is increasingly becoming the last slice of life for many, Nasty, Brutish, and Long is also a baby boomer’s poignant meditation on mortality, a reflection on his caregiving for his parents’ final days, and an examination of the choices that we, as a society, have made about healthcare for the elderly who are no longer of sound mind and body.

Before I forget, we need to explain the title for readers who may not remember their history or political science classes. Thomas Hobbs was a Seventeenth Century philosopher and thinker who was an early architect of what has called the social contract principle of civilized people. This description from Wikipedia summarizes it thus:

Hobbes postulates what life would be like without government, a condition which he calls the state of nature. In that state, each person would have a right, or license, to everything in the world. This inevitably leads to conflict, a "war of all against all," and thus lives that are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

To escape this state of war, men in the state of nature accede to a social contract and establish a civil society. According to Hobbes, society is a population beneath a sovereign authority, to whom all individuals in that society cede their natural rights for the sake of protection. Any abuses of power by this authority are to be accepted as the price of peace. [We could talk all day about how that same discussion took place this week between no less a couple than our current president and former vice-president, but that is for a different time and place...]

Here is a snip from the little blog the Penguin people furnished the author.
Pay attention to the questions he poses and consider how the answers might be part of the solution to the bloated costs of what passes for health care in America. This is a very timely book for anyone of any age thinking about that discussion.

In 1651, during a brutal civil war and just after Parliament cut off the head of King Charles I, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called life, "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short." Life expectancy was 40.

Fast forward three and a half centuries, and thanks to medical science, life expectancy is 80. Life is longer. Yet is it any less nasty and brutish?

My book, Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures in Old Age and the World of Eldercare considers that question, and wonders whether the dinner-party host who declined to put cut flowers in water was right when he said, "It only prolongs their agony."

Are the institutions in which we place the frail, elderly anything more than water for cut flowers-only prolonging the agony.

I am a psychologist who spends his days talking to mostly sad, often confused, yet occasionally happy old people in a variety of eldercare facilities across the State of Connecticut.

Alzheimer's, loneliness, chronic disease are my daily fare.

My book presents the stories of the ancient people I meet and casts a cold eye on the culture that sustains them in their final days, weeks, and years.

Their narratives have a compelling intrinsic interest-a personalized oral history of the twentieth century. In the lives of many nursing home residents, I may be the only person who actually sits down, establishes eye contact, and listens.

But no matter how exciting or mundane the narrative arc of their lives, these nursing-home residents have one and all wound up in a corner of a hospital-style room living in a public space where you can't lock your door and strangers walk by and see you lying helplessly in bed. You might be lying next to someone who spends his waking days screaming, "Help! Please help!" Or you might be the one screaming.

Hannah Arendt looked upon the ordinariness of Adolf Eichmann and saw the banality of evil. I look upon the ordinariness of elder care and speak of the banality of banality.

I work both sides of the street. Along with the nursing home residents is the narrative of my and my wife's caregiving to our own aging parents-the personal meeting the professional, the health-care provider as health-care consumer.

In my book, I also move from the anecdotal to the general, and consider these questions.

==> Do our elderly need to be insitutionalized in places that look and feel like junior hospitals-hospital-lite?

==> Why does the government spend $70,000 to keep a patient in a nursing home while declining to spend only $30,000 for an often more appropriate, more home-like assisted living center?

==> Why do we spend billions on demonstrably ineffective anti-dementia drugs when we could be spending it on basic research and higher levels of staffing?

==> Why do the most highly trained staff in nursing homes-as well as most other human-service institutions-spend the least amount of time with residents?

==> Why do the staff in a nursing home view the closed door in a resident's room with the same suspicious eye as a parent viewing the closed-door of a teenager's bedroom?

==> Why can't you use the word "sex" in a nursing home without "offense" as a modifier?

==> Why is it immeasurably harder to get a simple glass of wine than a powerful major tranquilizer or a lethal cigarette?

Nasty, Brutish, and Long is also my baby-boomer rumination-at 62, I'm old enough to cash in my 401K yet too young for Medicare-about intimations of mortality. In the eyes of the people I see is the not-too-distant future of us all, or at least all of us who would like to grow old.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Maggie Mahar on Facing Death

You and I are gonna die.

Get over it.

Now go read Maggie's post.

Did you know that a “living will” is not a legal document in New York State or Massachusetts?

Did you know that environmentalists have created nature preserves where you can be buried? “What we are doing is basically land conservation,” says Dr. Billy Campbell, who has created a preserve along Ramsey Creek in South Carolina. “By setting aside woods for natural burials, we protect it from development. At the same time, I think we put death in its rightful place, as part of the cycle of life. Our burials honor the idea of ‘dust to dust.’” Ramsey Creek is just one place where families can arrange “green burials.”

These are a few of the things I learned yesterday at a “Leadership Connection” lunch for women in business, politics and the non-profit sector. There, New York Times health editor Jane Brody spoke about her new book : Jane Brody’s Guide to the Great Beyond: A Practical Primer to Help You and Your Loved Ones Prepare, Medically, Legally, and Emotionally for the End of Life.

This might sound like a morbid subject, but in Brody’s hands it isn’t. Let me put it this way: the book is illustrated with cartoons by artists who publish in the New Yorker. And Brody herself is, by turns, funny, pragmatic and sensitive to the pain that our death-denying culture causes (“Dying can be an extraordinarily lonely experience for children when their parents do not allow the subject to be discussed.”)

Dying is also big business. Times have changed since Jessica Mitford's American Way of Death. Back then the funeral industry was about the most profitable enterprise connected with dying. Thanks to the spirit of Yankee enterprise the last months and years of life offer a gold mine of opportunity for a whole range of professionals, starting with anyone connected with Medicare, especially the cancer doctors, to hospice providers. I was surprised to learn in January when my mother died that the nursing home let me choose among five hospice businesses they commonly see at that facility, but they made it clear that I was free to chose any other group I wanted. They didn't want to appear partial (perhaps not wanting to be accused of collecting a rebate?). I have no idea how many such businesses operate in the Atlanta area, but I got the idea that there were many more than five. I think that during the three weeks my mother lived they came close to the four thousand dollars allowed by Medicare for hospice.

It's no accident that groups using scare tactics to oppose changes to the snatch and grab delivery system we call health care in America are aiming their message at old people. They and their offspring are the group that would be better served preparing to leave this life in comfort and peace instead of fear and dread. In addition to watching helplessly as substantial estates are consumed in the last weeks and months of life, those final weeks and months could be free of unnecessary suffering, both mental and physical.

This post is about facing death, but part of that package includes arrangements that follow. Readers who are interested should also check into the advent of "green cemeteries." The movement is fairly new, but the idea is as old as pre-history. Also, the notion of home funerals is not out of the question. I put up a post about that several years ago.

Fred Clark on Hell, Edward Yingling and the Credit Card Lobby

The Slacktivist has put up another masterpiece. Fred Clark holds a spokesman for the credit card industry up to the light to reveal a filthy underside.

In yesterday's New York Times, Yingling argued that if banks aren't allowed to continue their practices of arbitrary fees, undisclosed charges on those fees, and usurious interest rates invoked under the cover of the failure to promptly pay the undisclosed charges on the fees on the rate hikes -- if any of that is to be subjected to regulation, then good, responsible, hard-working white people will suffer in order to subsidize lazy, irresponsible crack addicted welfare queens. As a professional apologist for unchecked corporate power, of course, Yingling know he can't state it quite that baldly, so he euphemizes. In the wake of regulation of the debt market, Yingling says:

“It will be a different business,” said Edward L. Yingling, the chief executive of the American Bankers Association, which has been lobbying Congress for more lenient legislation on behalf of the nation’s biggest banks. “Those that manage their credit well will in some degree subsidize those that have credit problems.”

That last sentence is a marvel. We could unpack that for weeks -- the bald-faced threat, the dishonesty, the mythologies reasserted and reinforced. Divide and conquer? Check. Assertion that the poor are morally inferior and therefore deserving of their lower caste? Check. Warning that justice is a zero-sum game and that you will suffer if others are not preyed upon? Check. And let's not even bother lifting the rock of "those that have credit problems" to see what's wriggling and squirming under there.

I have mentioned this before but it's okay to repeat it. One of the proudest moments of my adult life as a parent was when one of my children made the right decision about a moral issue regarding an employer and decided to leave the job. An internship with a real company in a non-academic environment was one of the requirements for graduating with a degree in consumer economics. She was accepted by one of America's most famous finance companies where she was able to see first hand the nuts and bolts of business from the inside. She learned that lending money was only part of their main line of work. The core business, it turned out, was buying and servicing loan agreements made by other companies selling products and services on credit. Vacuum cleaners, swimming pools, club memberships, whatever... the company took over the details of collecting the money and interest following the sale. In other words, the "finance company" storefront was a collection agency.

She learned how the company could make special arrangements for people in debt to ease their burden, perhaps extending the terms of a loan in return for smaller payment amounts (and more interest income for the company). But the real kicker was a company policy to "help people make their payments" by granting them another loan. Of course there are plenty of ignorant people who imagine that they are getting a break as they dig the hole they are in even deeper, but my child was quick to see that what the company was doing was more than poor judgment. It was wrong. Morally wrong. On the basis of this discovery she decided she never wanted to work for such a company. She had seen first-hand how easy it would have been to climb the ladder in that organization. Key people there were into six-figure incomes early in their careers. But she chose instead to look for a different place to work. It still makes me proud to tell the story.

Go read what Fred Clark has written. Those of us who manage our affairs responsibly are in danger of hubris. If you are among that sanctimonious crowd that swells with righteous indignation as you read or hear about others who are in financial trouble during these tough times, he may give you a wake-up call.

Yingling is guilty, after all, of sodomy. "This was the sin of your sister Sodom," the prophet Ezekiel wrote, "She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and the needy." That's Edward L. Yingling and his employers in a nutshell. The credit-card magnates are arrogant, overfed and unconcerned. They sodomize the poor, every day, for money.

Perhaps, then, the world might be a better place if usurers and their lobbyists were convinced in the reality of an eternal, sulfurous torment awaiting the unjust. The idea of Hell might provide some value as a deterrent.

Something like this notion of the deterrent value of Hell is frequently suggested as an objection to my initial statement in this post, that I don't believe in Hell as a place of infinite and eternal torment. "But without Hell," this objection goes, "why should anyone be good?"

To their credit, almost none of the devout people raising this objection really means it. They are not, themselves, shaped and driven primarily by the fear of punishment. Such a fear is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain their own belief in the obligation to be and to do good, to love, to do justice or to correct injustice. The fear of Hell is, for them personally, scarcely a motivating factor at all. Their motivation is more like what 1 John says, "We love God because God first loved us," and not the terrorized and traumatized mutilation of that scripture, "We love God because God will burn us forever and ever if we don't."

So it's telling that the main advocates of the idea of Hell as a deterrent are not themselves influenced by that deterrent at all.

Nor, unfortunately, are those who really need to be -- the usurers, the torturers, the tyrants, abusers, enslavers, despoilers or predators.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Bank executives profiting on the death of employees?"

Clark Howard says it better than me:

Bank executives at Wells Fargo, Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase are benefiting financially from the deaths of their employees, according to a shocking report in The Wall Street Journal.

What they've done is to take out life insurance on their rank and file. This insurance is used as a tax dodge and it pays bonuses to their key executives when an employee dies.

Worse still, American taxpayers subsidize this special tax break that funnels tax-free income to the big cheeses that are named as the beneficiaries. This should be a criminal act of tax evasion, according to Clark.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Bank of America and Wells Fargo both have $17 billion each in these life insurance policies. Chase has $11 billion.

So if an underling dies, do they have a party to celebrate the money they make? The employee's family gets nothing, not a cent.

Last week, there was proposal to take away this tax deduction. That's too little, too late. It should be a criminal offense. Period.

In one recent court case centering on this controversial policy, a former bank employee died after being fired. Then a check showed up at his residence for $1.6 million. But the check was made out to the bank, not the late employee's widow. It turns out the insurance company mis-mailed it!!

Disgusting, reprehensible and unacceptable, according to Clark. The giant banks must be dismantled. We need a serious anti-trust law here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Mayo Clinic Piano Duet

Here is the backstory.

And this was part of the happy ending.

We knew the functional implications this final visit to the Mayo Clinic would bring, but we never anticipated the more subtle — but no less powerful — impact it might have. The prosthesis filled out her jaw and cheek and smoothed the contour of her face. She beamed, and I cried.

Needless to say, we floated through the clinic that day on our way out to her first meal. We giggled, we laughed and as we approached the atrium the sun was shining through the glass and the flowers were blooming. It was as close to a perfect day as we could imagine.

And then we heard the piano and the laughter. From the balcony we could see an older couple sitting side by side at the piano playing together and entertaining a host of people. Some were in wheelchairs, others were sitting with canes beside them or standing. Everyone was smiling with all burdens forgotten for the moment. The joy was absolutely indescribable. When we asked them to play one more for us, Fran and Marlow Cowan, who have been married for more than 62 years, treated us to an exceptional performance that is now a “youtube” sensation.

Libertarians and Conservatives

M. Simon....worth quoting...

A Libertarian believes that government is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.
A Conservative believes this time it will be different.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Barack Obama at Notre Dame

Today the president was at his persuasive and diplomatic best. Much will be written about his speech, but this story stands out as a keeper:

I stand here today, as president and as an African-American, on the 55th anniversary of the day that the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown v. the Board of Education. Brown was of course the first major step in dismantling the separate but equal doctrine, but it would take a number of years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God's children. There were freedom rides and lunch counters and Billy clubs, and there was also a Civil Rights Commission appointed by President Eisenhower. It was the 12 resolutions recommended by this commission that would ultimately become law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

There were six members of the commission. It included five whites and one African-American; Democrats and Republicans; two Southern governors, the dean of a Southern law school, a Midwestern university president, and your own Father Ted Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame. They worked for two years, and at times, President Eisenhower had to intervene personally since no hotel or restaurant in the South would serve the black and white members of the commission together. Finally, when they reached an impasse in Louisiana, Father Ted flew them all to Notre Dame's retreat in Land O' Lakes, Wis., where they eventually overcame their differences and hammered out a final deal.

Years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on Earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered that they were all fishermen. And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake. They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history.

I will not pretend that the challenges we face will be easy, or that the answers will come quickly, or that all our differences and divisions will fade happily away. Life is not that simple. It never has been.

But as you leave here today, remember the lessons of Cardinal Bernardin, of Father Hesburgh, of movements for change both large and small. Remember that each of us, endowed with the dignity possessed by all children of God, has the grace to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we all seek the same love of family and the same fulfillment of a life well-lived. Remember that in the end, we are all fishermen.

The same Father Ted was among those in the audience, looking forward to his ninety-second birthday, the only survivor of the original Eisenhower commission. The university presented President Obama a copy of a photograph of Fr. Ted on the occasion of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as he stood with M.L.King singing "We Shall Overcome."

The courtesy and enthusiasm of the crowd was gracious and impressive.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Michael Steele and Michele Bachmann Comment

"...ACORN is totally the new George Soros."

You gotta go to the site.
There is no way for me to capture the impact in a summary.

Training Our Kids -- This. Stinks.

Via Jotman read this link to the NY Times story describing a program of the Boy Scouts of America to carry guns as they imagine themselves as future government agents confronting illegal immigrants or raiding places where illegal drugs are being grown or produced.

This is really sick.

The Explorers program, a coeducational affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America that began 60 years ago, is training thousands of young people in skills used to confront terrorism, illegal immigration and escalating border violence — an intense ratcheting up of one of the group’s longtime missions to prepare youths for more traditional jobs as police officers and firefighters.

“This is about being a true-blooded American guy and girl,” said A. J. Lowenthal, a sheriff’s deputy here in Imperial County, whose life clock, he says, is set around the Explorers events he helps run. “It fits right in with the honor and bravery of the Boy Scouts.”

The training, which leaders say is not intended to be applied outside the simulated Explorer setting, can involve chasing down illegal border crossers as well as more dangerous situations that include facing down terrorists and taking out “active shooters,” like those who bring gunfire and death to college campuses. In a simulation here of a raid on a marijuana field, several Explorers were instructed on how to quiet an obstreperous lookout.

“Put him on his face and put a knee in his back,” a Border Patrol agent explained. “I guarantee that he’ll shut up.”

One participant, Felix Arce, 16, said he liked “the discipline of the program,” which was something he said his life was lacking. “I want to be a lawyer, and this teaches you about how crimes are committed,” he said.

Cathy Noriego, also 16, said she was attracted by the guns. The group uses compressed-air guns — known as airsoft guns, which fire tiny plastic pellets — in the training exercises, and sometimes they shoot real guns on a closed range.

“I like shooting them,” Cathy said. “I like the sound they make. It gets me excited.”

There is a picture at the link but I don't want it appearing in my blog. And there is more information as well.

A comment at another site pointed out that the Explorer program is an "affiliate" of Boy Scouts of America. I suppose that bit of minutia is important in the same way that in those in the torture discussion loop are hard at work looking for other pots to point at who may be more stained than themselves. (Isn't it interesting how the terms "torture" and "enhanced interrogation technique" are interchanged depending on context and who is talking?)

Readers of this blog already know that I find this story disgusting. This is a problem about adults, not children. Whatever contorted adult imagination put this program together needs counseling, along with all who blow it off as harmless gamesmanship. When I try to say how poorly conceived this program is words fail me. The good news is that as of this writing nearly five hundred comments from readers are an avalanche of negative responses to the story. This one was among the editors' picks.

I am an Eagle Scout, a CEO, a Beirut veteran, and a member of the board of the National Capital Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. I am in, of, and part of the Scouting Movement in a way that many of the commentators are not. I have my 40-year pin from the Boy Scouts and a framed Silver Beaver certificate on the wall over there with the pictures and diplomas.

Law Enforcement Exploring is decades old. What no one's said yet is that this story is not at all new. Please readers, understand that there are those of us in the leadership of the Scouting Movement who are as appalled as you are. And we're Scouting's majority by a long mile. Your beef is with the local law enforcement Explorer Post leaders in Imperial County California, not with the BSA. If you care to study the history and the peculiar sociology of Scouting a little more closely, you will discover that precisely this concern -- an encroachment of paramilitary indoctrination -- has been eschewed by the Scouts in Britain and the USA ever since Scouting's foundation a hundred years ago.

Scouting is a franchise, with each Scouting unit run by its chartered organization -- in this case the Imperial County Sheriff's office. What Ms. Steinhauer and Mr. Krainin discovered in California is an extremism. The article and the slideshow are incredibly well done, and together they are an appropriate illumination fully in keeping with the social responsibility of the media. And frankly, with Scouting's own core principles. I can't in any way defend what's going on in Imperial, but I can defend Scouting's guiding principles and affirm to all of you that what you're reading about is, in my personal experience, a way-out aberration. Unfortunately, the written and visual images play so well for one side of the values wars that -- at least here -- Scouting's genuine values expressed in the Scout Oath and Scout Law are going to be lost in all the noise.

In a movement as broad and, yes, as inclusive as Scouting, you're going to find this somewhere. Imperial's distinctiveness makes it real news fit for the Times. But if you actively seek the same distinctiveness in other milieus, you're also going to find every other expression of America within Scouting, including the most progressive sensibilities and individuals you can imagine.

To any of you interested, here is a permalink to an op-ed in the Allentown Morning Call that I wrote last year, offering a much-different perspective of how "Scouting is yet an exemplar for America."

To my brother and sister Scouts: Don't be enraged at the Times. These people are doing their job.

— Mike Pocalyko, Reston, Virginia

Americablog ran the picture and readers have left comments.

Ultranormal also picked it up.

This story reminds me of the tragic manner by which a growing number of Israeli young people seem to have morphed into feral examples of the law of unintended consequences. It starts at a young age and is nurtured by the best of good intentions but the results are both heartbreaking and dangerous.

Bernard Avishai on Child Abuse and

Dead Palestinian babies and bombed mosques - IDF fashion 2009

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Comparative Effectiveness Research (CER)

This. Is. Important.

I'm not going to explain comparative effectiveness research here. If the reader does not already know what that means, then do some homework. CER is absolutely foundational to health care reform and cost controls.
All these acronyms are making me crazy, but they're unavoidable, like flies at a picnic.
Clearly, point #3 is more important than the others in order for political opposition to reform to be minimized. are five guidelines for the evolution of CER:

1. CER is critically important to filling information gaps for clinicians and patients.

2. If we want to CER to truly help patients, they need to be at the table in CER design to identify priorities and ask research questions.

3. CER findings need to be broadly disseminated, including to consumers, which means that they need to be translated into a way that makes CER findings meaningful to consumers.

4. CER dissemination is not enough to ensure the consumer engagement in care that is so critical to better, more efficient health care.

5. We need to work just as hard (through both innovation design and scientific research) to develop creative strategies — like information therapy (Ix) — to ensure that CER findings are well integrated into the care delivery process in a way that supports shared decision making (SDM) and participatory medicine.

"Life Dances Inside a Circle Made By Living, They Say"

I love real stories about real people, especially when they reveal a sweetness of spirit in unexpected places. This gem from GNB needs no lead-in. I hope it doesn't get lost in the archives. I am making a mental tag with "Apache" in hopes that future Google searches will return the link.

That is a repetitive line in many of the old Apache prayers. For most of my life I figured it was one of those nice sounding, but essentially meaningless things that they put into prayers. Like the poetic devices Homer would use. It was never simply "Hector" or "Achilles," it would be "Hector of the shining helm" and "Achilles, the swiftfooted mankiller." The device allowed the person reciting the poem to conjure up the next line or scene. It buys time for somebody in performance.

My daughter has begun her internship. Despite the grueling march of 72 hour shifts, the endless parade of mind numbing sameness that gets punctuated by something wild and critical, she is loving it.

Her only complaint is that the King of the Docs took a look at her name tag with the Apache name Ga'age Biitsahkesh, tried a couple of times to pronounce it and has dubbed her "Gidget." To her dismay the name has stuck. To the other interns, the residents, and the attendings, she is now "Dr. Gidget." I suggested that she start dubbing her collegues "Moondoggy" and "Ratfink" which provided a tired chuckle but little consolation.

To tell you the rest of the story, I have to tell you this one.

The winter of 1958 on the White Mountain Apache Reservation was hard. Unusually heavy snowfalls, very low temperatures and a sudden freeze all contributed to the dangerous misery there. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was not responding to the pleading of the people for help and aid. They ignored the missionaries who were trying to keep our tiny school going. It was a Mormon year that time. One of the "teachers" was from a Mormon Ward in Mesa.

Their Bishop, his family has asked that I not name him, because they are old school Mormons who believe that doing good, and caring for your fellow human beings is something that should be expected, it is not something to be celebrated, so I'll just call him The Bishop, hearing of the plight on the rez, opened his Bishop's stores. This is something that the Mormons take very seriously. They encourage their members to keep a year's supply of canned and preserved foods, and each Ward's Bishop has control of an even larger storage.

The Bishop opened his stores. He directed the members of his Ward to gather at the storehouse, bringing their trucks and vans. They loaded them down with food, blankets, and warm clothes. They drove 350 miles from Mesa to the rez. They began to distribute those badly needed items. They did this without preaching or doing anything but try to find out where what the greatest needs were. When they had finished, they drove back to their home, loaded up again, and drove back.

Countless times during that bitter winter, they would load up their vehicles and drive the long bad roads to us. The Bishop contacted other Bishops and the Church President and even the Prophet in Salt Lake City. The efforts of those people saved our people. Washington would have let us starve. The government was still crying poor from fighting WWII and Korea. All of our cries for help fell on ears that were turned deaf by lack of funds and the ability to do anything.

The Mormons, but especially the Bishop refused to let that happen. I have my own differences with the LDS church. Even as offshoot sects of Christianity go, they have some really bizarre ass tenets of faith. I dislike the theocracy they have forged in Utah, I object to their meddling in politics.

With all of that though, I must say, the majority of Mormons that I have met were plain old good human beings. They are capable of great compassion, and limitless generosity. They spent an entire winter driving up to our rez to share their bounty and their food with us for the simple reason that we were hungry and they knew it.

Another program that the Mormons had was the "Indian Placement" program. They would take promising kids off of the reservations and house them with Mormon families so that we could attend high schools that had little luxuries, like teachers, and books.

The Bishop, when my cousin, the brilliant attorney, and I were at high school age, made it possible for us to enroll in placement. He went so far as to pull strings which made it possible for us to attend the same high school and be housed in the same neighborhood. He was kind enough to look the other way when my cousin and I would openly defy one of their most sacred rules by speaking to each other in Apache. We lied a little bit, we told him that he had been given an Apache name by the people and that the name was "Inago'it Ditah Tazhii." We told him that the name meant "Give Away Food Eagle," it really meant "Generous Turkey." White people like Indian names that say Eagle. It makes them feel all special and stuff.

No matter what measure of disapproval or even anger I might work up for the Mormons, I know that I owe them, and especially The Bishop, a debt that can never be truly reconciled. I owe not only the measure of the help they gave me and my people. I owe them my life. I owe them for allowing me to get a decent education, which they did after they made sure I didn't starve to death.

I will oppose them when they meddle in politics, but I will never do so without curbing any anger. I owe them that.

So, here we are with Dr. Gidget in one of her 72 hour runs. She goes in to see a patient, it's a 70ish year old man. She recognises the name, and the city he's from. She asks him straight out if he is any relation to The Bishop. The old man tells her "That was my father."

Dr. Gidget says "Your father saved my father's life."

They spent a long time talking about old times. The old man, as a boy, had made that long trip up to the rez many times. He says that he remembers our family from those trips and from when my cousin and I were living with members of his Ward while we went to high school.

My cousin and I sent flowers to his room the very next day. Our card wished him a full and a speedy recovery.

The life that I have lived has been danced truly within a circle made by living that life. Most of the cycles and spirals don't have such a tidy arc. There's a lot more jazz than Bach in my soundtrack.

Even with the reputation that the Apache have as fierce warriors from a ferocious warrior's culture, something that most folks don't know is that to go to war, with neighboring tribes, with other Apache, with anybody, the warrior's first had to get the approval of a council of grandmothers. The grandmothers try, in their council, to consider the impact of present decisions down through five to seven generations.

The rough, tough, badass of the world Apache warriors, wouldn't go to war unless their grammies said it was OK. It worked well for us.

I'm not sure what the meanings of all this are, maybe you can offer some meanings in the comments. I know that I am trying to take more care in the things I do today.

Yexaaiidela, go deyah, tc'iindii.
(having been prepared, he walks, they say)