Archive for July 2013

America’s Social Conscience

July 10, 2013

On the east coast, it’s pretty hot.  Other parts of the country experience 90+ degrees routinely and nothing much happens.  When New York or Philadelphia get to enjoy this type of weather, its time for reflection.  What’s hot in the news?

Oh, there are stories about Syria, Afghanistan, and don’t forget Egypt.  But the “hot” new story is that Elliot Spitzer is running for elected office again.  Why would anyone who had resigned as Governor, then decide years after to run for a lesser position like New York City Comptroller?

This is a puzzling question since Spitzer is already wealthy and has been very successful in elected office.  What does he have to prove?

It could be that Spitzer is angling for some future run for Senate or even Mayor of New York, and it is necessary to get elected again to put his scandal behind him.  And what say ye, “scandal”?

As most TV pundits are quick to point out Elliot Spitzer resigned after it was disclosed in an FBI investigation that Spitzer (and his money) were partaking of a high class call girl service.  Oh my!

The first hoot was how much money the FBI wasted on the investigation where Spitzer willingly parted with his money for a woman who willingly offered her services.  The FBI agent in charge must now have a sought after resume.

The second hoot was the damage control Spitzer took.  He resigned and apologized publicly to his wife and family.  The hoot is not about the necessity of apologizing to his wife, but rather about the need to do it in public.  The public part was simply the first step in running for public office again.

The third hoot was the string of TV shows that Spitzer was featured in.  He became an instant pundit and show host.  The viewing public, however, did not like his TV presence and after a while, Spitzer was off the air.

Now the fourth hoot is all the experts who are rendering opinions on whether Spitzer is fit to hold any job.  You know he cheated on his wife, and prostitution is illegal, so he broke a law too.

Surprisingly, a lot of pundits are discounting the prostitution law breaking, in effect saying regulated prostitution is akin to marijuana use.  With respect to his wife, these pundits wisely say that is between the two of them and the public has no say in it.  I wonder what David Vitter would say on this subject?

The hot weather must be especially bad this year in Texas.  The Texas legislature is back debating a bill to restrict a woman’s right and access to abortions.  These pious lawmakers claim they are trying to make things safer for women.  Who’s asking?

The only way I will know Texas (or any other State that tries to restrict abortion access) is serious about trying to help women is when the bill contains rules that make Viagra (and its cousins) available one hour, once a week in one city, and only when the purchasers presents an official photo ID.


Immigration Misinform

July 8, 2013

Congress is wrestling with what to do about immigration reform.  Congressional efforts are giving new meaning to “disingenuous”.  Both parties have gotten so confused on what needs to be reformed and why that their legislative proposals make little sense.

The Senate bill calls for roughly doubling the size of armed security along the boarder.  These provisions would eclipse the famous Berlin Wall and would cost tax payers a smal fortune.  Democrats have willingly pandered this Republican requirement.  Why is this necessary?

Securing the boarder, on the other hand, at least gets to what the immigration problem is really about.  The estimated 11 million undocumented residents are mostly Mexican and until Congress proposes “Mexican Immigration Reform” there will be great difficulty in proposing sensible legislation (even if the legislators are truly interested in passing anything.

The root of the problem is that there are more jobs, admittedly low paying and manual, which American citizens either do no want or when employed in them are not productive enough.  These jobs supply the US with necessary services and foods.  Attempts to keep Mexicans out is costly and encouraging US employers to hire citizens falls on deaf ears once productivity is considered.  Mexicans are great workers.

There has been much talk about demographics.  Republicans find themselves in a crack with their mean spirited efforts to block a path to citizenship.  Undocumented Mexicans living here consequently see Democrats as more sympathetic to their cause even though the Republican mantras of family, anti-homosexual, and hard work generally describe the aspiration of most Mexicans.  So, why?

It is clear that most Congress members see their personal fortunes (like getting reelected) as more important than any single issue.  In districts where residents are fearful of America’s ability to assimilate immigrants, voting against reform is an easy (but unfounded) call.  In districts where voter sentiments are not clear, procrastinating seems safer (but gutless).

Republicans, I think, are missing a bigger issue.  Without a path to citizenship for these 11 million, the GOP is still on the wrong end of the demographic trend line. The Hispanic minority is growing strongly and they will vote what they see happening.

In addition, Hispanic voters do not understand why it is so wrong for people who have labored for years, raised good families, and now want to become citizens, should be denied this opportunity.  Elections do have consequences.


Old News

July 7, 2013

Syria is no longer front page news.  The killings and woundings continue.  They just don’t seem so newsworthy anymore.

The forces loyal to Bashar al Assad seem to be gradually regaining much of the land lost to the insurgents.  Syrian killing Syrian, Shiite killing Sunni (and vice versa), and a country decaying before the our eyes is no longer  qualify as new information.  With no end game in sight, this war’s 15 minutes of fame has come and gone.

And besides, there is Egypt.  The rich Egyptian fabric of social confusion offers much new to write about.  Like many third world countries, the discrete but powerful military is a cut of society all to itself.  The brass may speak of civil order, but behind those words is the unmistakeable intention to remain in power and in control of their way of living… (regardless of what some clerics say Allah wishes).

In Egypt, there are secularists and Islamists.  Some see modernity as the curse and others see the Koran as positive if balanced with western dress and technology.  The poor, like the poor everywhere, want bread and a place to live.  The young want jobs and then they will worry about Islam (isn’t it, Allah helps those who help themselves?).

Many Egyptians distrust the US and envy the paternalistic approach US foreign policy has taken.  On the other hand, those who hold the strings of power realize that US aide is essential to keep Egypt from blowing up in civil war.  The US quietly supports the Egyptian military and the military hold the reigns of power (new type of democracy?).

The intrigue of establishing an interim Egyptian government and the squashing of the inevitable street demonstrations will fill front pages and evening news reports for weeks to come.  Lost in this attention will be the gradual Assad consolidation of power.  The justice or lack there of concerning the continued rule of Assad will be lost.  Many Americans have thought it just sounded so right to want the insurgents to over throw a minority government.  Hmmm.

My guess is that when President Obama goes to sleep at night, his pragmatic mind dreams of Egypt finding some stable compromise between the Muslim Brotherhood and an Islamic but religiously impotent government.  More of what Mubarak brought but this time without Mubarak.

Instead of counting sheep, President Obama thinks of Syria settling down with Assad at the helm.  This outcome is not ideal since there will continue to be Iranian influence (fueling Hezbollah for mischief in Lebanon and Israel) but the Sunni religious extremists who populated much of the insurgents don’t portend a great future either.  The President dreams that Iraq is too complex to even worry about, but an insurgent victory in Syria almost certainly would foretell of new Sunni versus Shiite trouble in Iraq.

What a mess the Middle East seems to be.  If there was anything in modern experience which is reminiscent of “pandora’s box”, the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq certain makes my list.  Oh, for the good old days.


Leading By Standing Still

July 6, 2013

The New York Times today seemed to criticize President Obama for taking up an “aloof” stance versus the mess taking place in Egypt.  There were no suggestions as what a more active role might be.  The Times did say there was probably little the US could do given its relationship with Egypt.  So, what other relationship would serve to influence this Muslim country?  Hmmm.

The press refers to the Morsi Government as the only freely and democratically elected government Egypt has ever known.  While factual, one wonders what the meaning of that statement is?  Does the press mean that the US should be more involved in saving the fledgling democracy regardless of where this “democracy” was heading?

It is difficult to know what the Obama Administration is thinking.  You can be sure that if Israel thought the US should be intervening, AIPAC would have their Congressional spokespersons on the talk shows already.  The absence of any rhetoric traceable to Israel probably means they think the overthrow of Morsi is the better of two poor options.

Criticism from hard line Islamist groups suggest a disgust for Morsi.  They seem to think Morsi tried to play the democracy game (as opposed to outright power grab) only to fail in bringing about stronger Koran influence.  Morsi did not break ties with Israel, he did not denounce the US, and he did not mandate more Sharia law initiatives (some but not a lot yet).

Others might look at his record and say Morsi was just getting started.  He had already changed the Constitution (majority vote, but very close) and by edict, he assumed wide new authorities.  He had already begun to tip “democratic” policies into “non-inclusive” Muslim ways.  These efforts carried a seemingly unrecognized lost opportunity cost.

The street demonstration, however, are all about the economy and jobs.  Hmmm.

Citizens do not place great demands on governments that bring food and work to the poor.  While no one likes corruption, hungry and out of work citizens like that condition even less.  In a country that is almost 100% Muslim, the winning side will be the side which delivers jobs.  This will be a tall order in Egypt.

Leading by standing still might not be a bad strategy after all.


It Could Be Worse

July 4, 2013

Congress seems hopelessly divided and for all intense purposes, dysfunctional.  Members appear far more interested in defending or expanding their personal financial status than exercising the important duties of their elected office.  They spout platitudes designed to sound genuinely constructive and then find ways to thwart any progress towards a resolution.  Fortunately, no Congressional action is often better than action accompanied by unintended consequences.  My worry is “what could this Congress do if it really needed to do something?

We also see in several States, legislative action designed to restrict woman’s access to abortion procedures, or new laws calling for strict voter photo ID laws (when no evidence of voter fraud exists), or implementing actions to curtail the expansion of Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act.  If the current state of events really represented serious problems, one would expect those States to have also debated and then enacted legislation which made safer abortion procedures readily available (not just harder to obtain), or created additional procedures to enable those without drivers licenses to easily obtain acceptable photo ID (not just have to figure out another bureaucratic hurdle), or substituted some other method of affordable healthcare insurance in place of Medicaid (instead of leaving the poor without coverage).  The absence of these alternatives is a clear indication that these legislatures were not interested in solving the problems, but were interested in asserting their social view.

Egyptian President Morsi is possible wondering today whether there were any steps he took (or should have taken) that distanced him from those who elected him a little over a year ago.  During his brief staff in office and the military coup that has disposed him yesterday, Morsi seemed to worry more about advancing religious/ideological causes over clearly thought through measure to help the poor and the economy.  Hmmm.

The good news is that the US’ economy is significantly stronger than the Egyptian one.  A direct analogy on government effectiveness is not appropriate.  Hmmm.

We both have governments which seem concerned about other matters than building or maintaining a strong economy.  And we both seem to have factions who wished to promote their religious or social views and force them on others.  In Egypt or Turkey, women should be able to dress modestly but it is not clear why they should think they can force others to abandon western secular dress?  In the US, no one is (or should be) forced to undergo an abortion and it is just as mind boggling why some should try to make it difficult for others to electively undergo this procedure.

There is a lot of room for reasonable people to debate how best to grow the economy.  Fiscal discipline or the ever helping hand of government can not be judged in isolation.  Economic cycles often demand more liquidity or drastic tightening measure at other times.  Even more perplexing, government interacts with the private sector at many points.  Many who champion government spending do so because the government will buy from their friends.  It is the “difficult to find” balance that our elected officials should be seeking, not the 100% win at all costs.

Today the sun is still shining on America.  Barbecues, beer, and flags galore will mark this fourth of July.  As we think how great the day is, just remember it could be lot worse quite easily.

The Toughest Choices

July 2, 2013

In Philadelphia, an heroic, but almost certain tragedy is playing out.  A 10 year old, born with Cystic Fibrosis is barely clinging to life following two lung transplants.  Compassion and admiration for the child’s parents is all around.  Better patient advocates, one could not ask for.

Unfortunately, new lungs won’t cure Cystic Fibrosis.

The complicated part of this story is that there are costs that go with this heroic surgery.  There are real dollars and cents costs which would bankrupt any normal person.  Who’s paying is not clear.  (And, to say the hospital is not charging the parents is only to say the hospital is charging everyone else a little more.    The hospital simply smears these unpaid for costs over all other hospital budget areas).   Hmmm.

There is also the missed opportunity cost.  The two lungs could have gone to someone else had they not been given to the 10 year old.  Would the prognosis for those sick individuals been better?

And there is the question of whether getting on the adult transplant list was a cost or an investment?  Children under 12 have previously been restricted to a child’s list and could get a transplant only when another child donated the lungs.  Apparently this is much rarer than the availability of adult lungs.

The child’s parents went to the media and ultimately to a friendly court and got the Hospital protocol lifted so that the child could be put on an adult transplant list.  The question is was this ethically correct to tamper with a protocol already developed by medical ethicists?

I do not know the answer and don’t mean to imply it was or it wasn’t ethical.  Rather, I want to call attention to where our overall health care delivery system is headed.

Currently the US spends twice as much on health care as other modern countries.  The US health outcomes are mediocre in comparison, and not all residents are covered.  Logically there seems no other future than to fix the amount of medical resources and force residents to make better use of this limited resource.  There will have to be methods of choosing who gets what treatments, where, and when.  Hmmm.

Every time universal health care is mentioned there is a howl about “socialized medicine” ruining American health care.  You are lead to believe hospitals and doctors would be trying to make life difficult for everyone.  And the unstated comment is what happens if nothing changes and each of us has to pay for health care when the current system goes bust?  I suspect each of us will make a lot of medical unsound decision about what procedures to elect and which ones to pass over.  Hmmm.

We are often told this new world is the free market world.  Each of us are free to compete for medical care.  Hmmm.

I wonder in that new world how we would allocate new lungs?   When the operations is simply beyond ones means, I guess like in the free market, the new lungs go to the person with the most money?

Role Models?

July 1, 2013

Watching the beginning stages of the Tour de France, I could not help but think what hard work can do.  The areal views were magnificent, not just in the technical sense of photography but in the artistic sense of strong bodies seemingly synchronized.  Whether they use performance enhancing drugs or not, the race is a thing of beauty.

On an entirely different basis, the New York Times published a list of greedy anti-role models.  The list contained the top public corporation earners.  These CEOs showed once again the cancer that is pervading America separating the wealthy from everyone else.  It also contrasted the rewards others might receive (including those in the Tour De France) for arguably harder work.  I would also venture that this list is pure inspiration for our current crop of Congress Members.

The average compensation package was about $15 million, topping out at $96 million.  Now remember that the jobless rate is still above 7% and economic growth is around 1% per year.  The business fruits, however, apparently are good enough to set the banquet table for these CEOs.

Some took no salary (like $1 per year) but then their Board generously rewarded them with $50 million plus in bonuses of all types.  Really?

One wonders what issues are buried behind these outlandish sums, for example what is the relationship to the renumeration of  other workers in those businesses, or what example does these exorbitant pay awards make for others to follow.  The issue is not that CEOs make a lot of money or that they make more than others in their company.  Rather, the size of these paydays is disconnected from the real work that is done and bares no resemblance to the risks thee CEOs carry.

It does not take long to figure out why these CEOs make the amount of money they do… they earn this much because they can make that much.  There is no rule or law that stipulates how much they can make.  The only risk most run is that if  their businesses perform poorly in the future, they might be replaced and receive a generous golden parachute payout.  Remember when the “too big to fail banks needed a bail out, no one went to jail or personally was fined).

So the model is clear.  Do what is necessary to win the Tour De France.  Do what it takes to increase your personal estate while in elected office.  And for those in corporations, fight to get as high in the organization as you can.  The air is greener at the top.

There is another consequence to this model too.  For those who have no chance of becoming a CEO, and that is most of the nation, why even try?  Trade your vote for government benefits and just adjust to a different life style.  Trade your ambition for the opportunity to cheer others on Reality TV or even the Tour De France.