Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Language Barriers

When I got married in Costa Rica, one of the witnesses to the wedding was the singer who performed each night at the resort. She was very nice, and spoke excellent English, but apparently there was a bit of a language barrier.

That night at her performance, seeing us in the audience, she announced to the audience that we had been married that morning, and dedicated a song to us... and had the band play Careless Whisper by Wham!. (Although she had a great voice, I must say that nonetheless I was happy that she didn't sing along on that particular number.)

That's probably not a mistake that will be repeated after George Michael's wedding.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Hands Off My Kid"

The London Guardian presents a mother's examination of how children are treated in the modern world and argues that a desire to protect our offspring from harm has turned into an even greater threat to society as a whole.

High Taxes Are Good

Or, at least, that's the message I infer from Sebastian Mallaby. You see, high taxes - preferably focused on the working poor - creat a significant pool of revenue which can be used to subsidize products for all of society, and which can be used to devise programs to help the poor. Sure, it would lower income for the working poor, but between the new social welfare programs and lower prices they may well end up better off. And the rest of us would enjoy lower prices!

Well, perhaps he had something else in mind, but that is more or less his argument as to why WalMart should be deemed a "progressive" company. It's just that instead of having the government tax the wages of WalMart employees, Walmart offers them a lower wage, shares the wealth with the rest of society (like a Robin Hood who rejects "class warfare"), and sponsors its own programs to help the needy. (These new programs could be less targeted at the needy than existing programs - after all, why should only the needy benefit from such programs?)

Mallaby presents a former economic advisor to John Kerry, whose analysis is claimed to show that WalMart saves shoppers (not poor shoppers - all shoppers) $50 billion per year on groceries. (That figure is apparently extrapolated from the savings across all retailers the economist attributes to WalMart's prices and their downward pressure on the competition.) Mallaby then variably speculates that this means that WalMart shoppers save between $200 and $250 billion annually on all of their purchases (despite presenting no evidence that WalMart's effect on prices is the same for non-food items as it is for food). Yet if you recognize WalMart's market share of about 15%, give them a generous bonus of 1/3 to reflect their remaining geographic limitations, their direct share of that speculative savings figure is $40-$50 billion, with the rest coming from lowered prices at other retailers, many of which pay better, offer better benefits, and some of which are even unionized.

Mallaby then speaks of the depression in worker wages caused by WalMart, but unlike his prior, wacky and wild attribution of all retail savings directly to WalMart and fabrication of a multiplier to "represent" all WalMart products, he gets cautious - "Arindrajit Dube of the University of California at Berkeley, a leading Wal-Mart critic, has calculated that the firm has caused a $4.7 billion annual loss of wages for workers in the retail sector. This number is disputed...." Mallaby then contends that other retailers also pay employees poorly. By this point in the column, most readers looking for actual data have probably given up in disgust, saving themselves from this additional disappointment. Mallaby presents no data to back up his notion that WalMart doesn't depress wages, nor does he speak to how WalMart's measured effect of causing its competitors to lower prices might depress wages at other stores. (But then, you didn't really think that Mallaby read, let alone understood, the economic paper he cited earlier, did you?)

And, Mallaby assures us, even if workers are down $5 billion at WalMart, that's "dwarfed" by the $50 billion that everybody saves buying food at all food retailers... well, no, he's still not acknowledging that WalMart doesn't sell all of the nation's food. And despite his excess of caution on wage deflation, Mallaby speculates that even lower wages are still a greater good, because low-wage workers can shop at WalMart and may even be better off due to the low prices which result in part from their low wages. Seriously.
Indeed, Furman points out that the wage suppression is so small that even its "victims" may be better off. Retail workers may take home less pay, but their purchasing power probably still grows thanks to Wal-Mart's low prices.
But let's not think Mallaby is "unfair" - while ignoring the effect WalMart has on its competitors' wages, he is willing to look at the wages offered by suppliers:
To be fair, the $4.7 billion of wage suppression in the retail sector excludes Wal-Mart's efforts to drive down wages at its suppliers. "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," the new anti-Wal-Mart movie that's circulating among activist groups, has the requisite passage about Chinese workers getting pennies per day, sweating to keep Wal-Mart's shelves stocked with cheap clothing. But no study has shown whether Wal-Mart's tactics actually do suppress wages in China or elsewhere, and suppression seems unlikely in poor countries. The Chinese garment workers are mainly migrants from farms, where earnings are even worse than at Wal-Mart's subcontractors and where the labor is still more grueling.
Ah yes - the "sweatshops are good, because it is better than starving in the country" argument. Mallaby's next column, I expect, will call for a return to the labor policies of the industrial revolution and praise the positive economic effect of companies like Triangle Shirtwaist. No, wait, it will be about communism as a boon to capitalist markets - how great it is that there are still hundreds of millions of people living in totalitarian communist regimes, where they will continue to provide us with a pool of cheap, invisible sweatshop labor for the indefinite future. And how we can plead innocent to our role in perpetuating that regime by retorting that the Communist Party, not the market, sets the value of labor.

And then there's WalMart's high percentage of workers on Medicare. Mallaby presents yet another astounding claim - progressive and capitalist thinkers alike should applaud the fact that its workers are government-subsidized:
Wal-Mart's critics also paint the company as a parasite on taxpayers, because 5 percent of its workers are on Medicaid. Actually that's a typical level for large retail firms, and the national average for all firms is 4 percent. Moreover, it's ironic that Wal-Mart's enemies, who are mainly progressives, should even raise this issue. In the 1990s progressives argued loudly for the reform that allowed poor Americans to keep Medicaid benefits even if they had a job. Now that this policy is helping workers at Wal-Mart, progressives shouldn't blame the company. Besides, many progressives favor a national health system. In other words, they attack Wal-Mart for having 5 percent of its workers receive health care courtesy of taxpayers when the policy that they support would increase that share to 100 percent.
Is Mallaby the world's dumbest man? No, more likely he is regurgitating a set of speaking points he received from WalMart. (One wonders at time if he is paid to produce nonsense like this, or if it is just so easy to regurgitate a memo or press release somebody hands to him that this is typical of his output.)
Companies like Wal-Mart are not run by saints. They can treat workers and competitors roughly. They may be poor stewards of the environment. When they break the law they must be punished.
Let's be blunt. Companies like WalMart do as companies are wont to do. They seek to maximize market share and profits. In the absense of regulation, we see the industrial revolution, we see Union Carbide's plant explosion in Bhopal, we see children and other workers working six or seven long days per week in sweatshops throughout the developing world, we get mercury poisoning in Minamata bay, we see a fifty-mile long benzene slick flowing downstream from a 100 ton benzene spill.... And, as Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and similar companies have demonstrated, some companies will actively defraud their customers, clients and shareholders, and will permit management to treat the corporations assets as a personal piggy bank to support excess that even the Shah of Iran and Imelda Marcos might have denounced as debauchery. Now I recognize that some people will look at all of that and say "It's still better than having government regulate business," which is a point where we will have to agree to disagree.

All of that said, my objections to Mallaby's idiocy do not mean that I hate WalMart. WalMart wishes to open a store in an armpit of a small town north of Detroit, where despite its wages it will be one of the better paying employers in town, and will provide jobs in an area of high unemployment. If it opens it will cause some local businesses to close, including a small, dismal, run-down K-Mart, the owner of which is putting a lot more energy into fighting WalMart than into measures which might make his business more viable. It will also probably cause the local grocery store to close, but they sold out to a regional chain a number of years ago, and many locals already travel out of town for the better prices and selection available at larger grocery stores in nearby towns. On the whole the net impact on the town and surrounding community will likely be positive.

But that doesn't mean I have to buy into Mallaby's "with friends like these" defense of WalMart.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Why Do We Pretend?

The New York Times shares with us the alarming news that student athletes are finding ways to inflate their high school GPA's such that they qualify for sports "scholarships":
The New York Times identified 14 [graduates of 'University High'] who had signed with 11 Division I football programs: Auburn, Central Florida, Colorado State, Florida, Florida State, Florida International, Rutgers, South Carolina State, South Florida, Tennessee and Temple.

University High, which has no classes and no educational accreditation, appears to have offered the players little more than a speedy academic makeover.
Let's say that a student attempting to enter one of those schools on the basis of academic merit submitted a made-over transcript from "University High"... how many seconds do you think it would take for the admissions officer to stamp "REJECTED" on the application?
The school's program illustrates that even as the N.C.A.A. presses for academic reforms, its loopholes are quickly recognized and exploited
If by "loophole" we mean a way to cheat the system, with the colleges accepting athletes knowing full well that their high school GPA's are works of fiction, then yes, it's a "loophole". But if you were to require even a modicum of good faith action on the part of the colleges....

At least in relation to the "big money" sports, why are we still pretending that college athletics are somehow about academics?

David Brooks Takes On His Irresponsible War Coverage

Today's column by David Brooks (Heroes Abroad, Unknown at Home; It's behind the "Times Select" firewall... sorry) is critical of the war coverage - no, not of the rationale for war or whether there was a distortion of the evidence, but of the scant media attention given to soldiers. His argument boils down to this:

* I have done a terrible job sharing the heroic stories of individual soliders - in fact, before today, I don't recall a single column or television appearance where I shared such a story. But, to the extent that space permits, I'll introduce such a story. ("I don't have space to describe how Ieva and the other marines fought on that hot spring day, but by the end, about 75 insurgents had been killed and 17 captured.")

* The media should be covering these stories.

* The media's failure to cover the stories is your fault.

As Brooks laments that "most Americans couldn't name a single hero from this war", perhaps he has forgotten that when the Pentagon announces that a soldier is a hero and presents the story line, the press will carry the story. That is why Americans can name Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman. But no... in the world of Brooks, it isn't the media or Pentagon who bear responsibility - it's you:
That's partly because in the post-Vietnam era many Americans - especially those who dominate the culture - are uncomfortable with military valor. That's partly because some people don't want this war to seem like a heroic enterprise. And it's partly because many Americans are aloof from this whole conflict, and couldn't tell you a thing about Operations Matador and Steel Curtain and the other major offensives.
So people like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Charles Krauthammer, Sean Hannity, David Brooks himself, and other leading conservative voices are silent on stories of individual courage because they are uncomfortable with military valor? Because they are aloof from the conflict, and know nothing of individual operations? Because they don't want the war to seem like a heroic enterprise? Or perhaps Brooks, in his inimitable manner, presents another thoughtless, knee-jerk rationalization?

Our nation loves its heroes - when it hears about them. There's certainly room in the media to cover the minutia of the love life of Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson... and, for that matter, to manufacture their fame. Looking at the Fox News website right now, I see no individual stories of heroism from the war, but I can read what Russell Crowe thinks of his now-resolved criminal charge for assaulting a hotel employee, of a statue of the Virgin Mary that is supposedly "crying" a substance that looks like blood... and a teaser for The O'Reilly Factor on the murder of the nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford. (If you go to his main page, he's actually talking about the war, but apparently Fox thinks its viewers are more interested in the salacious and sensational.)

And when Brooks writes,
Every time you delve into the situation in Iraq, you come away with the phrase "not enough troops" ringing in your head, and I hope someday we will find out how this travesty came about.
Has he truly forgotten?

Monday, November 21, 2005

"Bush Drinks Mare's Milk"....

Well, read it for yourself. I just hope that Laura doesn't take inspiration for her next White House Correspondents' Association dinner.

Poorly Chosen URL's

When I warned lawyers about taking care when choosing law firm URL's... If you want more evidence of the danger of a poorly considered URL, while they aren't from law firm sites, see Prof. Volokh's examples.

A Victorian Perspective on Manners

In "iPod's Missed Manners", George Will laments how technology seems to be affecting how people behave in public.
Many people have no notion of propriety when in the presence of other people, because they are not actually in the presence of other people, even when they are in public.
And I don't mean to diminish that thesis, as I agree that some people are oblivious to how their public use of technology affects others. It's a bit overstated to speak only to electronic gadgets - George Will's fear of stumbling across somebody who is watching pornography on an iPod is duly noted, but historically that same person could as easily have been looking at printed pornography. And yes, it is annoying when you are stuck on a bus with a person who has the volume on her music player so loud that you can discern the lyrics, but people can also infringe upon your personal space while reading a newspaper, block you from taking a seat by placing a bag or stack of books next to themselves, and can interfere with your quiet enjoyment by singing. Technology isn't the problem.

Will mentions the fact that some parents object to being told that they need to control their kids in public, or that somebody else might tell their kids how to behave. That's unquestionably true - and pretty much anybody in food service is likely to be able to share horror stories. Will writes,
A thoroughly modern parent, believing that children must be protected from feelings injurious to self-esteem, says: "Johnny, the fact that you did something bad does not mean you are bad for doing it." We have, Truss thinks, "created people who will not stand to be corrected in any way." Furthermore, it is a brave, or foolhardy, man who shows traditional manners toward women. In today's world of "hair-trigger sensitivity," to open a door for a woman is to play what Truss calls Gallantry Russian Roulette: You risk a high-decibel lecture on gender politics.
With all due respect, Will is referencing something other than modernity, although for once he didn't use the "l" word to describe the type of person he intends to describe. (Perhaps that's because if his earlier silliness, that liberals see calls for rigid conformity to grammar rules as fascistic, while conservatives view it as a fight against anarchy. Or perhaps it's because he has encountered "conservative" parents who are raising unruly kids.) If I were asked to identify the person in the nation who best exemplifies "people who will not stand to be corrected in any way", the person who first comes to mind is President Bush.

As for holding doors open for people? I've done that my whole life, without once being lectured. (Although I do sometimes experience the thought, "A thank you would be nice.") I think he should check the date on that particular canard - it's past its shelf life. (Or does Will cling to it as an excuse for not getting the door?)

Why do I reference Will's column as a Victorian perspective on manners? Because much of Victorian "polite society" involved rules for behavior in public, while turning a blind eye to what was happening behind closed doors. Will's similar focus on public conduct ignores how private conduct also shapes manners, and permits him to impeach the manners of others without taking a hard look in the mirror. His columns, to put it mildly, cannot always be described as contributing to polite discourse.

As a knee-jerk reactionary blogger, I make no claim that editorials should adhere to a polite and respectful tone. (Well, maybe they should, but the other way can be more cathartic.) I do think, though, that the conduct of columnists such as Will contributes to the manner of public debate, and that he should thus consider his own contribution when lamenting how impolite the world has become.

The State of The Law in Britain

In a rather eclectic editorial in the London Guardian, Marcel Berlins addresses the new system for appointing Queen's Counsels, the demise of "Underneath Their Robes" (and his desire for a British parallel), and horse racing:
Last Saturday, three legally named racehorses were running, two of them at generous odds (admittedly because they're not much good). Law Maker, Law Breaker and Legal Lover. This was the opportunity for our investments to crash into big profit, following a slightly unsuccessful spell. Alas, Law Breaker was a non-runner and the Wolverhampton meeting at which Law Maker was to run (in the subtly named Live Football Cashbacks At Bet Direct Handicap) was called off because of fog. Still, Legal Lover won, and we had another decent winner last week, Legal Glory at 12:1.
I'll dedicate a song to Law Breaker.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Playing Doctor

Over at MedRants, Dr. Centor expresses concern about the growing number of people in their 20's and 30's who are finding ways to get the prescriptions that they feel they need, without going to a doctor.
This article about young adults trading psychoactive meds does scare me. I do understand their concerns, but I am not convinced that they really understand the implications of medication use. We must learn more than pharmacology in order to do a good job prescribing. We should know all the indications and all the contraindications. We should know what other medical conditions the patient has.
It is interesting to note, first, that many of the people in the age cohort he describes are among the nation's uninsured and underinsured - that is, the people who we are routinely assured are choosing not to carry health insurance because they are in good health and don't "need" it. Trading medicines, or buying them online without going through a doctor's office, may well be about saving money. Particularly if they have had the same condition and prescription before.

But even assuming cost isn't an issue, I think the manner in which doctors and the pharmaceutical industry treat medication contributes to self-prescription. Many doctors prescribe medication unnecessarily because their patients expect to leave the office with a prescription. Pharmaceutical companies tell patients to "Ask your doctor about Drug X", not because it's necessarily the best drug for the patient, but because doctors will often prescribe in accord with the patient's request. (Commercials for Zoloft used to spell out precisely the set of symptoms that somebody could describe to justify a prescription - and odds are, doctors prescribed Zoloft or another SSRI to patients who came in, described those symptoms, and requested Zoloft.)

The authority with which doctors pass out prescriptions, coupled with the "miracle cure" depiction pharmaceutical companies give in advertisements for their patented medications (before listing potential side-effects in a rapid, low monotone) contributes to an attitude that pretty much any human ailment can be cured with a pill. And yes, part of the problem is that in reality there are a great many effective medications for conditions that would have been treated ineffectively in the past, and modern medications (particularly psychotropic medications) tend to carry fewer side-effects than the ones they displace, contributing to a perception that if it comes from a pharmaceutical company, it is safe to take.

Woodward's Source

I'll give credit to Vaughn Ververs at CBS News for my favorite "Deep Throat" variation to date - deeming Woodward's newest confidential informant "Sore Throat".
This morning on Don Imus’ show, Post media writer Howard Kurtz described the controversy being inflicted on news organizations from Time magazine to The New York Times, and now the Post as a “virus” spreading from one to the next. He also said he’s taken to calling Woodward’s latest secret source as “Shallow Throat.” I’d take it a step further and say it’s the media’s addiction to unnamed sources that is the virus and it’s giving the entire profession a “Sore Throat.” And if it goes untreated, it could turn into something much more serious to our health.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Roller Coasters

I'm not a huge fan of amusement parks, but my wife adores roller coasters.... So it's probably a good thing I don't have a heart condition. (Right, Forbes... tell us something we didn't already know.)

The Epcot Mission Space ride, mentioned in the article, is quite intense. During the simulated lift-off, it's more like being in a centrifuge than on a roller coaster. The article should also add that it's not for the claustrophobic, or for those predisposed to motion sickness. (The ride is pre-stocked with the paper airsickness bags that you normally find on airlines.) It is interesting to note that, as intense as the liftoff feels, it's at a significantly lower G-force (and is shorter in duration) than an actual liftoff. Although you may not believe this after taking the ride, you'll experience more force (but with much less duration) on a typical roller-coaster. I'm writing it, and I'm not sure that I believe it.

Anyway, that's my first, and probably my last, word on roller coasters. (The literal kind, that is - proverbial roller coasters are still fair game.)

He's Smarter Than This....

Isn't he?

Samuel Alito said, when applying for a job with the Reagan Administration, "the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion." He described that as a strong, personal belief.

He now defends himself by contending that when he made that statement he was "an advocate seeking a job" and according to unnamed Senators now "thinks he's a wiser person" with "a better grasp and understanding about constitutional rights and liberties." Those two claims are not necessarily inconsistent, but there is tension between them.

If Alito's contention that his statement reflects his advocacy as a job seeker but not his actual belief, he is expressing that he would lie to get a job. If his original statement accurately reflects his views, but he is trying to avoid admitting that he still holds that view by suggesting that his past, unequivocal statement on abortion rights was something other than a true statement of his beliefs, he is lying about why he made the original statement. How is this good for him? He's setting himself up for a Perry Mason moment before the Senate - "Were you lying then, or are you lying now?"

As for the Senators' assertions, are they really stating that Alito has approached them in private and expressed that he does think that the Constitution protects the right to abortion, they should be more forthcoming. That would be a highly relevant fact which should be made public. If Alito has not explicitly retreated from his earlier statement, they have no business suggesting that he has.

Further, as I said, there is tension between Alito's claim and the Senators' assertions - if Alito did not believe what he said, but was lying or exaggerating to get a job, his better developed wisdom and sense of Constitutional jurisprudence has no bearing on his position on abortion rights - as he would have had to believe at the time he denounced Roe v Wade that there in fact was some level of constitutional protection of abortion rights.

This isn't (or shouldn't be) part of a litmus test on "choice". We've previously had nominees on both sides of the abortion debate who, although never stating their positions, were expected to advocate for one side or the other, and in fact have done so. The issue, at least to me, is the explanation, which does reflect on the credibility of the witness. (And yes, he is smarter than this, but then even smart people sometimes trip over their own two feet.)

National Stereotypes - Perception vs Reality

Although superficial, this article suggests that while some national or gender stereotypes have a basis in reality, others do not.
In Robert McCrae's most recent study he asked people to assess not their own personality, but a "typical" member of their community. The stereotypes were certainly there: Germans rated themselves as highly conscientiousness; Australians considered themselves to be extrovert, and Canadians thought themselves to be more agreeable than most. But these projections of stereotype had more or less no relationship with the actual personality profile of average citizens of each country.

Germans rate themselves as highly conscientiousness but they score just about the same on this trait as Turks, who consider themselves to be rather unreliable and lazy. Puerto Ricans consider themselves highly extrovert but they are apparently no more so than the French Swiss who consider themselves introverted. These results indicate that such perceptions are social constructs, based on hearsay and prejudice.
It would be interesting to read something more complete about the U.S. than "Americans were similar to Canadians".... The original article is available online, but it doesn't fill in many of the gaps.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Physician Self-Referral

Newt Gingrich has taken note of a problem that has been growing for some time - physician self-referral. The problem is larger than Gingrich depicts, as he speaks only of referrals to physician-owned hospitals. The problem also exists for medical testing facilities, and even for equipment within an individual doctor's medical practice.

Gingrich attempts to avoid tripping over his own feet toward the end of the piece, where he explains that either barring physicians from practicing in hospitals in which they have an ownership interest, or requiring specialized hospitals to take all cases within their specialty, is consistent with his being a "free-market conservative":
As a free-market conservative I strongly favor competition. In fact, I think Adam Smith's description of markets creating more choices of higher quality at lower cost was one of the great breakthroughs in human productivity. His publication of "The Wealth of Nations" in 1776 was as liberating as our own Declaration of Independence the same year.

Yet Smith recognized that sellers often try to create phony markets. He warned that when businesses get together they are often conspiring against the consumer. Businesses can see a financial interest in rigging the market so that it minimizes competition or sets prices. This same temptation to conspire against the consumer can be found in the emerging specialty hospital movement.
And it is present in the auto industry, oil industry, medical insurance industry... anywhere you find a monopoly or oligopoly. Newt is correct to identify the problem of self-referral, which can raise the cost of medicine and hurt the bottom line of community hospitals, but he's somehow overlooking the forest. (Also, I am not sure that Smith would have endorsed Gingrich's notion that the solution to this problem is government regulation, nor for that matter that he would approve of either of Gingrich's specific proposals.)

I don't think Mr. Gingrich actually hates monopolies and oligopolies. I don't think he's particularly concerned about business collusion or price-fixing. He was a dogged advocate of extending copyright protections for the benefit of major media corporations. He was an avowed enemy of the FCC and proponent of relaxed ownership restrictions for ownership of television stations, to the extent that his subsequent attempt to enter a $4.5 million book deal with Rupert Murdoch resulted in a significant public backlash. He has all-but-declared that traditional health insurance should be abolished in favor of medical savings accounts. He wants to limit redress for victims of medical malpractice, no matter how legitimate their claims. His heart does not bleed for the plight of the little guy doing battle with the big corporation, nor for an uninsured person scrambling to afford medical care.

The best explanation for Gingrich's stance is that the various health insurers, hospital corporations, pharmaceutical companies, and health care industry interests that back his various initiatives fear for their bottom line, in the event that independent specialty hospitals cherry-pick the most lucrative patients and treatments. We may eventually get meaningful health care reform in the U.S., but if Gingrich truly wishes to be part of such a reform movement he should come clean about his actual agenda.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Woe is me!

Poor, poor pitiful me!
Poor, poor pitiful me!
Oh, these boys won’t let me be
Lord have mercy on me!
Woe, woe is me!

(It is actually pretty ripe for parody.)

"Don't Forget To Punch Out"

That's the instruction I gave to an employee, many years ago, when she threatened to quit if I insisted that she... do her job. (I wonder what brought that to mind....)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Digging Yourself A Giant Hole

Several years ago I wrote a simple summary of defamation law, including a discussion of why litigation isn't necessarily a good idea, concluding,
the plaintiff in a defamation action may be required to expend a considerable amount of money to bring the action, may experience significant negative publicity which repeats the false accusations, and if unsuccessful in the litigation may cement into the public consciousness the belief that the defamatory accusations were true. While many plaintiffs will be able to successfully prosecute defamation actions, the possible downside should be considered when deciding whether or not such litigation should be attempted.
The Internet now brings us a case study - Paul Deignan versus Professor Wally Hettle and Bitch, Ph.D..... (Ouch, Ouch.) While some blogs are sympathetic to Mr. Deignan, he gets little support for his belief that a defamation suit is wise, viable, or would result in the $500,000.00 award he guesstimates as the damage to his future earnings (although he has yet to complete his Ph.D. and enter the job market).

As a lawyer, the potential client who declares "I have a great defamation case" sets off an initial set of alarm bells - add dreams of a half-million dollar recovery and my instinct is to conclude the conversation and suggest that they seek counsel elsewhere. It's not that there aren't big money defamation cases - Mr. Deignan mentions Carol Burnett's suit against the Enquirer as an example - but few plaintiffs are Carol Burnett, few defendants are the National Enquirer, and few incidents of defamation are as reckless as that one. Not mentioned, Ariel Sharon's pyrrhic victory against Time Magazine, or Jerry Falwell's unsuccessful suit against Hustler. Or General Westmoreland's suit against CBS which, after costing the General an estimated $2 million, was dropped during the course of trial in exchange for an apology.

What now appears to be happening is that Mr. Deignan's indignation is becoming the focus of debate, as opposed to the offenses he deems worthy of a libel suit. Arguably, had he just let things go, the controversy would have revealed itself as a tempest in a teapot - a few snarky remarks in a weblog and a letter by Prof. Hettle to Mr. Deignan's university which would likely have had no impact on Mr. Deignan or his career, quickly fading from memory.

Instead, Mr. Deignan's placing himself in an awkward position. To maintain his credibility he needs to either find a lawyer willing to file a lawsuit, or state a plausible reason why he has not done so. (A third option, which might not be such a bad idea, would be to declare that he is no longer going to discuss the matter on advice of counsel, and never utter another public word on the dispute.) The more Mr. Deignan expounds on the virtues of his case and the riches he will ultimately recover, the more difficult it becomes for him to credibly say, "I've changed my mind and decided that I don't want to sue." (Am I being premature in my estimate that at the end of the day, no suit will be filed?)

Meanwhile, the attention that he is drawing to himeself and the controvery may have a more profound and lasting impact on his future career than anything that Professor Hettle or Dr. Bitch have said.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The *Horrors* of Divorce

In today's Washington Post, there is an editorial which asks "Just Whom Is This Divorce 'Good' For?" The answer, from the author's perspective, is "Not me!" It's an interesting editorial, not so much for its (lack of) analysis, but for the way it frames the issue, and scrambles data to confuse the reader about its findings.
Before the divorce rate began its inexorable rise in the late 1960s, the common wisdom had been that, where children are concerned, divorce itself is a problem. But as it became widespread -- peaking at almost one in two first marriages in the mid-1980s -- popular thinking morphed into a new, adult-friendly idea: It's not the act of divorcing that's the problem, but simply the way that parents handle it. Experts began to assure parents that if only they conducted a "good" divorce -- if they both stayed involved with their children and minimized conflict -- the kids would be fine.
So we start by misrepresenting the conventional wisdom. That is, we take the notion that "Divorce is going to happen anyway, but by reducing conflict and staying involved we can avoid harming the kids" and distort it into "Divorce is fine if you handle it right." The author doesn't cite anybody as actually supporting her distortion; it would be rather hard to find any authoritative voice who would take the position that on the whole kids aren't best off in a stable, two-parent household. Instead she presents the following claim:
Countless newspaper articles, television reports and books quote therapists and academics arguing on its behalf. A holiday article last year in Newsweek, titled "Happy Divorce," featured divorced families who put their conflicts aside to spend Christmas together. Researchers, it said, "have known for years that how parents divorce matters even more than the divorce itself."
With "countless" examples to choose from, she picks the one example which doesn't actually support her point? (Actual passage: "Although researchers like Ahrons have known for years that how parents divorce matters even more than the divorce itself, some parents still have trouble not putting their children in the middle of conflict".)

Her "evidence" for the new attitude of "Divorce is cool for kids" is presented from two sources: The first, an exchange between a parent and child from the movie "The Squid and the Whale" - which I suppose is rationalized by the claim that the movie is based upon the director's own experience with divorce. The second,
In 2002, The Washington Post Magazine featured a cover story about Eli and Debbie, a handsome, smiling, divorced couple with three preteen daughters. Although their marriage was, according to Debbie, "all in all, an incredibly functional" one, they divorced when she became troubled by their "lack of connection."
A three-year-old magazine article....

I followed a few of the review links on the book's website to see what others had to say about the author's analysis. The Washington Times observed,
In her study of 173 adult children of divorce, Ms. Ahrons found that most of the children had blossomed into effective adults who were connected to their families. Three-quarters thought they and their parents were better off because of the divorce.
It astonishes me that, to advance her theory of the horrors of "good divorce", she glosses over the fact that 75% of the children of divorce whom she interviewed believed themselves and their parents to be better off as a result of the divorce. Over at its alter-ego, the Washington Post, the reviewer comments,
Given the personal pain that Marquardt spreads through the pages of this book, it's hard to take at face value her claim that she does not intend to write a book against divorce or blame any parents who have subjected their children to it. She certainly makes exceptions for "high-conflict" marriages and circumstances in which a spouse or a child is endangered. But when she quotes a couple who have "an incredibly functional marriage" but divorce because one spouse is "troubled by their 'lack of connection,' " she makes a persuasive case against the culture of casual divorce.
Neither marriage nor divorce should be casual decisions, particularly where children are involved. But we're back to discussing a magazine article she read, and not her research.

In her Washington Post editorial, the author apparently forgot that 75% of the people she interviewed believed themselves and their parents to be better off following divorce:
We found that children of so-called "good" divorces often do worse even than children of unhappy low-conflict marriages -- they say more often, for example, that family life was stressful and that they had to grow up too soon; and they are themselves more likely to divorce -- and that they do much worse than children raised in happy marriages. In a finding that shatters the myth of the "good" divorce, they told us that divorce sowed lasting inner conflict in their lives even when their parents did not fight.
"Doing worse" within this context apparently means giving those responses to questions about their childhood, as opposed to, say, their feelings about the divorce itself, their scholastic or workplace achievement, their encounters (or lack thereof) with law enforcement, or even their own self-assessment of whether they are better off. It's a polemic disguised as social science research.

I'm in the same class of kids as the author - she's slightly younger than me, but our respective parents divorced when we were two. She seems to have come from a significantly more privileged background than I, with a post-divorce level of access to both parents that I did not personally enjoy. I agree with the general thesis that even low-conflict, cooperative divorce, divorce will have an effect on kids, how they relate to their parents, their perspectives on relationships and marriage, and their perceptions of their childhoods. But as they say, you can't unring the bell - and I'm not particularly interested in fantasizing about how much better my life would be had my parents not divorced, or attributing every problem in my life to my parents' divorce. Part of growing up is accepting that bad things happen, and sometimes you just have to deal with it. For that matter, more often than not the unhappiness you feel in your grown-up life comes from your own choices and actions, not the decades-old decision of your parents to divorce.

Given the reality of divorce, it is a very good thing that there are researchers who are finding ways to reduce parental conflict and improve the experience for children. I also encourage efforts to help reduce the divorce rate - not through making it harder to get divorced, but by giving people a more realistic view of marriage and providing the resources and information that can help couples work through their problems and remain married. Beyond possibly getting a few people to take divorce more seriously, exaggerating the consequences of divorce does nothing to actually help kids. (Nor, for that matter, does an argument for allowing civil unions but blocking gay marriage in the name of protecting children from possible harms that the author can't even articulate.)

Buying Seats In Congress

Today, George Will complains in his inimitable style about the apparent evils of Senate and gubernatorial candidates who fund their own campaigns. At least, if they are Democrats and if they are outspending their Republican opponent's similarly self-funded campaign.
But before he can regret purchasing the governorship, he must deal with Douglas Forrester, the Republican candidate who has come from double-digit deficits in polls two months ago to within four points in a recent poll. Forrester, too, is a rich businessman and is largely financing his own campaign -- this is the world that campaign finance reformers have made, with contribution limits that make fundraising more difficult. Since securing the Democratic nomination, Corzine has outspent Forrester by $15 million.
Ah, yes... the evil Democrat self-funds his campaign in order to "buy" seats. The poor, oppressed multi-millionaire Republican does exactly the same thing - but as a victim of campaign finance reform. {sniffle}

Yes, folks, this is the same George Will who has identified the biggest sin of the G.W. Bush as signing campaign finance reform into law:
In addition, the president has forfeited his right to be trusted as a custodian of the Constitution. The forfeiture occurred March 27, 2002, when, in a private act betokening an uneasy conscience, he signed the McCain-Feingold law expanding government regulation of the timing, quantity and content of political speech.
Because, apparently, this hampers the ability of a multi-millionaire Republican to get money from others to fund his campaigns, to combat a multi-millionaire Democrat who has the temerity to actually put his own money where his mouth is....

(I did some digging into past self-funded campaigns by Republicans, but Will seems to have been strangely silent on the issue of "buying" seats. On Michael Huffington, for example, who set records for spending in his House and Senate campaigns, Will attributed Huffington's Senate loss to his use of an illegal immigrant as a nanny, and seemed mostly concerned with scolding those who circulated rumors that Huffington was gay.)

And it is somehow emblematic of Will's sneering, elitist "conservativism" that he apparently assumes that the public will vote, like a swarm of proverbial lemmings, for the political candidate who runs the most ads.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Bad Logic and... Lies by Omission?

Not that I would expect more from Tom DeLay, but shouldn't I have a right to expect more?
Our current tax system has been written by and for special interests and is, by design, dizzyingly complicated. It kills jobs, and it simply does not efficiently accomplish the tasks for which it is designed.

The American people are ready for this debate. They are ready for a debate about a flat tax that would gut the Internal Revenue Service and allow almost every American to file his or her tax return on a simple form the size of a postcard.
DeLay isn't a stupid man. He is fully aware that the issues of tax fairness and tax simplification are entirely separate - that you can have an unfair, simple tax code, and a complex but fair tax code. While he is correct that much of the complexity in the present tax code comes from catering to special interests, he is being intentionally deceptive in failing to mention that "flat tax" proposals are backed primarily by wealthy special interests seeking to lower their tax burden.
They are ready, I believe, to learn more about replacing the income-based tax system altogether with a national sales tax, as in the FairTax proposal I have co-sponsored in the House. This plan would allow Americans to choose, based on their spending decisions, how much tax they would pay every year.
Are you sufficiently deluded to believe that the average American could "choose" to avoid paying sales tax? People living paycheck-to-paycheck can suddenly curb their spending in order to "choose" to avoid taxes? If there were an honest bone in DeLay's body, he would devote at least a sentence fragment to the fact that replacing income taxes with national sales taxes would inure almost exclusively to the benefit of the wealthy, and would be exceptionally regressive. (And where is the evidence that in nations which presently employ national sales taxes and "value added taxes" that "planning and budgeting [is] easier for families and businesses"? In which of those nations is economic growth outstripping that of the United States?
Meanwhile, reforming the individual tax system would also provide a long-overdue opportunity to drain the corporate welfare, special-interest morass of our current corporate tax structure.
It would? Please, Tom - tell us how. Oh, I see... out of space.

If a flat tax is so fair, so cheap and easy to administer, and provides massive cost savings and so many efficiencies, why aren't any of the wealthy advocates of a "flat tax" for wage earners (including, of course, Tom DeLay) advocating a "flat tax" for corporate profits?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Future of Search

Granted, this online search involved some paid services, but it provides some interesting glimpses into the future of search and privacy.
Using nothing more than a swab of saliva and the internet, a 15-year-old boy has tracked down his anonymous sperm donor father, according to details released today.

* * *

The boy took the saliva sample late last year and sent it off to an online genealogy DNA-testing service called For a fee of $289 (£163) the boy had his genetic code available for other members of the site to search. Although the boy's genetic father had never supplied his DNA to the site, after nine months the boy was contacted by two men who were on the database and whose Y-chromosome matched his own. The two men did not know each other, but shared a surname, albeit with a different spelling, and the genetic similarity of their Y-chromosomes suggested there was a 50% chance that the two men and the boy shared the same father, grandfather or great-grandfather.
The article observes,
he boy's ability to use publicly available genetic tests and internet searches suggests that police forces could do the same and obtain the surnames of potential suspects with DNA samples gathered from crime scenes.
Absolutely. Rather than comparing DNA to samples from individuals in a state database, the Y-chromosome from any given male suspect could be compared against the growing genealogical database to potentially identify possible suspects (or their families) even when they aren't in the state system.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

More on Work Ethic

There were some interesting comments to the recent discussion of declining work ethic, including:
Now the name of the game is "personal freedom" and "feeling good". (My personal experience being that hard work and civility don't always align well with these things; but that may just be me.) Personal responsibility is passé and hard work is something to be mocked. Actually, pretty much everything that tries to make use do things we don't want to do (take responsibility for our actions, work hard, etc) is to be mocked. To some extent this is no different than most generations "teen years" but for whatever reason (parents had enough money to indulge their children, life got soft, popularity of TV, lack of parental involvement, whatever) this "teen" phenomenon became a cultural norm. It seems to work in both directions, we don't discipline children for behavior that would in the past be viewed as inappropriate (Rude remarks to teachers and other adults), and we see adults carrying on like teenagers (making rude remarks themselves, dressing like their children, etc)

In a nutshell you see a shift from "personal responsibility" to "personal rights" and "governmental responsibility." You also see civility and societal norms go right out the window. To a large extend the cultural norms of today are the adolescent behaviors of the past.
One thing the awful teens today *aren't* saying is that they expect they'll be able to put in a fair day's work for a fair day's pay and raise their family at a decent standard of living.

That's because we've pretty much tanked any possibility of that ideal being reality, and that didn't happen in the 1960s. In the 1960s, it was still possible to believe one could work twenty years in the mill and retire with a modest pension, or that as long as you showed up at the office and did the work assigned to you, you'd have a job.
I am interested in the effect to which today's teenagers are expressing diminishing expectations as a result of changes in the workplace and increased international competition for white collar jobs. If I recall high school correctly, I doubt that many are thinking about it.

I am not one to lament about "those awful kids today" and how they will ultimately ruin the country/world. That song has been sung for centuries, yet here we are. I am one to believe that the behavior of kids reflects the behavior of the grown-ups that surround them, and that the values of kids are most affected by the values of their parents. I think that most kids seek peers who share their value systems, rather than "falling in with the wrong crowd" and being "corrupted" by those kids who don't. Most teenage rebellion ends up being more annoying than harmful. Listening to Ozzy or Alice Cooper or even Marily Manson won't turn a kid into a satanist, nor will listening to 50 Cent or Tupac turn a kid into a gangster.

At the same time, our culture has changed a lot in the past century. On the BBC series, Manor House, an elderly woman who had worked as a maid (starting at the age of 14) in the very house where the series was set was asked by the modern-era persons who were performing the "below stairs" servant roles, why people didn't just quit if they didn't like the working conditions. Despite their having worked for more than a month within a context most modern workers would find unacceptable, it hadn't occurred to them that workers of the Edwardian era may have had no choice - they couldn't afford to be unemployed, couldn't risk leaving an employer without a reference, and some had no place to go if they gave up their room and board. We've now progressed to an era where, as mythago recently pointed out, some people (who should know better) can't even envision a world before OSHA, let alone one where a worker could not afford to quit a dangerous job.

As I've previously argued, with no claim to having originated the idea, within the workplace there is also a top-down element to these issues. It is difficult for workers to remain dedicated and motivated within the context of a workplace where management treats and compensates itself like royalty, while showing little in the way of competence, honesty, work ethic, or loyalty. Where a CEO is siphoning off millions from the company for new corporate jets which are essentially reserved for the CEO and his family (ENRON-style), lavish multi-million dollar parties (Tyco style), multi-million dollar "loans" which are quickly forgiven.... it becomes easy to rationalize taking an extra fifteen minutes for lunch, or spending time surfing the web instead of working. And if you work for a company like Delphi, where management scoffs at the value of your work and demands that you agree to have your wages slashed by two thirds, all the while rewarding itself at record levels.... Well, let's just say that I doubt that worker productivity or morale are at peak levels.

Solutions for the working family? Once you get past his acknowledgement of how hard many people work, Sebastian Mallaby seems to exemplify the management position:
The high-risk, high-reward economy encourages people to put everything into their jobs, with the result that they have little energy left over for chores that might save money. To keep up with their work, two-career couples buy cooked meals, send the laundry out, bribe the kids with toys rather than attention. Perhaps in time the pendulum may swing back. The spend-hard-in-order-to-work-hard family may give way to thriftier behavior.
Is he actually suggesting that if their wages are slashed, workers will muster what little is left of their energy after the workday to spend more time doing their own cooking, cleaning and child care? And what of the service economy that is presently driven in no small part by the hard spending of working families?

Some of our nation's political leaders depict this as the result of an entitlement culture. The Gingrichian-type solution is to suggest that we kick out any social safety net which might catch a falling worker - with emphasis on "worker", not "manager". These individuals advance the argument that employer-provided or employer-subsidized benefits amount to a "welfare state". None of these consequences are to be extended to the nation's wealthy or politically connected classes - which is perhaps the segment of society with the greatest present sense of entitlement.

The movement to strip workers of benefits, privatize Social Security, and reduce job protections goes hand-in-hand with the movement to end taxation of wealth in favor of the taxation of wages. The former position is insincere - the Republicans who wish to deprive workers of pensions and health benefits are part of a majority in both houses of Congress and control the White House, where if they were sincere they have now had ample opportunity to put their money where their mouths are, ending their own generous health and pension benefits. Consistent with their... hypocrisy, they advocate "bankruptcy reform" for individual consumers, while perpetuating a bankruptcy system which permits even profitable corporations to escape their freely negotiated labor contracts and to shift their pension obligations to the taxpayer.

Are there easy answers? I wish there were. It seems likely that reduced opportunity for workers will force an increase in work ethic, but at significant consequence to other aspects of our society which we (meaning, middle class America) deem valuable (and perhaps also at significant cost to the service sector). There seems to be no chance of reigning in the practices at the highest levels of government and industry where cronyism, self-indulgence, and even outright laziness are seemingly accepted as the just rewards of success (even for those who hold their positions only by virtue of an ancestor's hard work or good fortune).

Meanwhile, we'll probably continue to pretend to be a classless society. (In the economic sense, that is.)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Okay, so what is he trying to get at?

In an editorial entitled Do Seniors Need Saving? Sebastian Mallaby carries on at length on the question, "Can we expect citizens to weather the challenge from India and China without some new form of government help, especially when the baby bust is threatening to shred traditional welfare programs?". Which begs the question, exactly who is proposing that we enact "some new form of government help" for seniors? (Is this what happens when he writes a column without the aid of a press release from an advocacy group, or is there actually something behind this?)

Tuckered Out

I caught an episode of Bill Maher's show on HBO with Tucker Carlson, and found myself, well, tuckered out. Oh, he seems dogmatic enough for opinion-based television, but how much of that stuff can you take without choking? I mean, the man actually argued that health care costs in the United States consume a lower percentage of GDP than in nations with national health care plans. (And he actually appeared to believe it.) Note to Tucker: On Real Time, Maher's supposed to be the comedian.

What I found most interesting about him was that everything about him screamed "I was a privileged child", right down to his rant about how it isn't moral to brag about your possessions. (He'll apparently challenge the notion that you shouldn't lie to a grand jury, but don't go bragging about your "bling bling".) So I wasn't surprised to read that "He is the son of Richard W. Carlson, who was president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from 1992 to 1997. His stepmother is Patricia Carlson, heir to the Swanson frozen-food fortune."

How old is his money? Maybe he and Anderson Cooper should have a show together.