February 28, 2006

Zogby Polls The Military

This is staggering. 90% of the military believes the war in Iraq was a reprisal for Saddam's involvement in 9/11. 77% of the military thinks we ought to have all of our soldiers home from Iraq within the year, rather than following the Administration's policy of "staying until the job's done."

The rank-and-file are clearly not playing off the same sheet of music as the commander-in-chief.

If Microsoft Sold The iPod

A bit long, but quite amusing, particularly with the music.

February 27, 2006

Broccoli and Cheese Quiche

I make a pretty good Quiche Lorraine. So tonight I tried my hand at a veggie quiche with broccoli, onions, and two kinds of cheese. I learned that broccoli emits quite a bit of water when it cooks, so the quiche needs extra time to bake out all the water. That made the crust get really brittle. The Wife also thought I chopped the broccoli up too fine and that there wasn't enough cheese. She didn't say anything but I could tell she didn't like the grenish tint the broccoli gave the custard. So next time -- less milk for the veggie quiche and bigger chunks of the veggies.

February 26, 2006

One of my Favorites

The Romance from Mozart's 21st Piano Concerto is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. I'm not saying that because I've been drinking. I've not been (well, a beer with dinner, but that hardly counts). No, I just really, really like it. The Wife asked to listen to some classical music tonight to wind down from an activity-filled day, so that's what came on and it just struck me how much I really like it.

Beware: The Unitarian Jihad Is Coming!

This quite amusing piece demonstrates why moderates will never take over.

February 24, 2006

No Sharks In Sight

Tonight's episode of Battlestar Galactica was one of the best yet. This is one of the best-written shows I've ever seen on TV and tonight's was particularly thought-provoking. The dualism and use of mirroring in the plot arc was unexpected, powerful, and creative. The show's use of the peculiar aspects of its science-fiction setting as an aid to its story-telling (rather than its focus) and its exploration of powerful and ambiguous moral issues (including religion), is truly impressive.

At the end of the show, I was left with a singularly odd feeling -- of hope that love can truly triumph over hate, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Of course, I'm sure that we'll get plenty more chances to see that love can also be a very dangerous thing, too, which only makes the show that much more fun. I admit that I also liked this particular episode because we got to see some of the Cylon Centurions in action, and they are incredibly cool-looking. But the show isn't about watching the Centurions' eyes go woob-woob-woob back and forth all the time; it's really about the people and this show in particular was about their ethical dilemmas -- and there were no good answers to any of their questions.

The two-part finale begins next week and I can't wait. This is the best show on TV.

An Old Sailor Calls "Abandon Ship"

When no less a conservative icon than William F. Buckley himself announces the inevitability of defeat in Iraq, then you know things have gotten bad. Buckley may no longer the the singular icon of the conservative intelligentsia that he once was, but he's still the elder statesman of the right wing in America, and he still defines what it is to be a conservative.

An astute student of history, Buckley may remember what happened in 1917-1918 in the Middle East. The British Empire, knowing that it could no longer sustain itself in its then-current incarnation, needed to find a way to withdraw with honor and security from its holdings. The clever servants of King George V developed a practical, if Machiavellian, solution to the problem of divesting itself of its imperial possessions. They carved up their holdings to create an ever-shifting balance of power behind them, pragmatically (and not idealistically) setting up a variety of small states that would be perpetually stalemated by one another. They invest ed local elites in the new local power structures, to ensure that each state would remain autonomous by giving the elites a personal reason to keep those states in existence. Then, they got the hell out of there and turned their attention to being British. Is that the way we're going to have to go, too?

Critters!

I've written nine straight posts in a row about political or heavy social topics. It's time to take a break and do something a little bit lighter. So how about our pets?

Today, Ginger, the dean of our brood, had to go to the vet. She cut me up a little bit when I put her into the cat carrier, and cried all the way there and all the way back. Turns out the poor little beast has an infection and needs a course of antibiotics, and she came home shaped like her nickname, "Pumpkin," because the vet pumped her up full of a liquid to jump-start her bladder. Poor little creature! She's a complete 'fraidy-cat; she runs and hides from everything and fights like a little lion whenever something is tried with her (like giving her medication, which we have to do for the next week).

The creature that has been around our family the second-longest is Sassafras. She's become the super-bully of the group, and is jealous of any creature but her getting affection or attention. She's very cute and earns all kinds of praise and love everywhere she goes. She will sleep all day unless I play with her, so I try and find time to do that so she can get sleep at night. She also acts like she's constantly hungry. She distinguished herself by eating nearly an entire loaf of banana bread recently; to the right is the bread, pre-Sassafras.

Sassafras and Karma have been fast friends since the day we brought Karma home from the rescue. Karma got her name because the night we met her, we learned that the woman who runs the dog rescue got her a few hours before she was to be euthanized by a shelter, and as she was running the dog out to meet us at her kennel in Madisonville, she flipped her truck and both she and the dog were nearly killed -- but she escaped with a few scratches and bruises and the dog without any injury at all. So this dog must have had some good Karma. We just got Karma a harness because she loves going for walks so much that she strains at the leash, and after about a hundred yards the poor beast would wheeze like an asthmatic. So today was her first day walking with the harness and she breathed easy and, I think, got more tired by the end of it because I didn't give her any chance to stop and catch her breath.

Finally, there's Jordan the Pest, who eats more than her share of the food (although for the next week, she and Ginger get fed different food) and is either fearless or lacks the intelligence to fear things. Jordan is talkative, playful, and she and Ginger wrestle all the time, which is quite amusing.

I'll try and get some pictures of the dogs and the cats interacting with each other. Ginger tries to ignore the dogs, but they often chase her around the house. When the cats wrestle, Sassafras comes by to referee. In calmer moments, Jordan has been seen grooming the dogs' ears. I don't know what we did to pass the time before we had these animals, but they sure are fun and I can't imagine not having them now.

February 23, 2006

More Film News From Turkey

My hoax detector got a blip on this one. If it is real, it is pirated, since Miramax has not officially released the movie for DVD or VHS distribution, in Turkey or anywhere else.

Anyway, the choice of title says a lot, whether it's a hoax or it was real. In Turkish, "Ibne Kovboylar" translates to "faggot cowboys."

Granted, homosexuality is not well-tolerated in most of the world and in Muslim countries in particular the religiously-motivated taboos seem to be very powerful.

Some friends we've got in those Turks, huh? Turkey -- the country that straddles both Europe and Asia the twenty-first and fifteenth centuries.

Ports, Politics, Profit, and Prejudice

I thought the ports issue would pretty much blow over. It’s blown up instead and it has Republicans jumping ship from supporting the Administration. Another sign that the wheels are coming off over at the White House. What’s funny is that the Administration is probably right on this one -- it's just doing a really shitty job of explaining itself.

The basics: A British company, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., successfully bid for the contract to manage the ports of New York/New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami, and New Orleans (aka South Louisiana). P&O was recently bought out by Dubai Ports World, a commercial arm of the government of the United Arab Emirates, for $6.8 billion (that’s with a “B”). DPW already owns a part of the port operations of CSX, the United States’ third largest railroad. Interestingly, no one within the administration thought to inform the President about his administration's having approved the deal, until after the fact. Whether or not that is evidence of incompetence within the administration is a decision I leave to you. But since then, in the face of mounting criticism of the decision, the President has defended the decision to approve the deal, in part because there were apparently unusual conditions that were attached to it that didn't come to light until just today in spite of a week of national controversy.

The national security concern is whether, with ownership of port management contracts, the UAE government might figure out a way to smuggle in nuclear bombs or anthrax or some other bad thing into the U.S. But the sale of the port management contracts is not related to the ability of the bad guys to do that. That’s a matter for having the appropriate security precautions in place. Those security precautions are taken by the government, which scans and inspects each one of the more than 40,000,000 cargo containers entering the U.S. every year. A daunting task, to be sure, but security is directly handled by the government already. The management of a port has more to do with staffing it with longshoremen, acquiring and maintaining the facilities, getting concessionaires to service the ships, and other nuts-and-bolts kinds of operations like that.

Eight years ago, where was the media coverage, where was the political outrage, where was Senator Shumer, when the Chinese military, through its commercial front company COSCO, took over management the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach? And are we going to do about the fact that the Chinese still own and control most of the West Coast port management contracts? Of course not. For the same reason that we are ought to wind up allowing Dubai Port World to buy the port management contracts for the East Coast ports. For the same reason that we didn’t care that it was a British company that ran them before they were bought out. The reason is this: profit. COSCO cares about making money. DPW cares about making money. Both these companies have managed, through other resources, to make a lot of U.S. dollars. Rather than suffer the expense of converting those dollars into a foreign currency, and not being particularly interested in buying and importing U.S. goods to bring back to their own countries, they have chosen to reinvest those dollars in the U.S. It makes sense that they would want to invest in matters of commercial interest to them, where they have some expertise and knowledge and contacts with the Americans that they are working with. They could invest in any number of business activities here in the U.S., but these are both shipping companies. So they invested in an industry related to shipping cargo.

So, the Chinese now control the Los Angeles/Long Beach port. That port handles more than a third of all traffic for the United States – more than twice the traffic seen in the five or six ports affected by this proposed deal. Between all of these ports, we’re talking about more than half of the cargo capacity of the United States in the hands of two companies, both of which are more or less directly controlled by governments of which we have good reason to be suspicious. But their commercial operations are not the same thing as their governmental masters. Commercial operations are driven by profit.

I’ll concede that the government of the United Arab Emirates has had some pretty fishy dealings with our enemies. But it’s also the case that we have never before allowed national security concerns of this nature to get in the way of a good transaction. Nor should we. The security issue is a phantom; security is handled now by our friends at the Department of Homeland Security and would continue to be handled by them even if Osama bin Laden himself held the port management contracts.

Now, the money does ultimately find its way back to its masters in either China (thereby underwriting the Chinese military) or the UAE (thereby underwriting… the lavish lifestyle of the Emiris). Indirectly, this is a benefit to non-Americans, both of whom have some questionable motives. But directly, there is no particular threat. Whether it was wise of us to allow these commercial opportunities to companies with such ownership interests is an entirely different question than whether changing the management of the port makes it more likely that the port will be used to bring weapons of terror into the U.S. The bad guys’ odds of pulling off a stunt like that will simply not be affected by the identity of the manager.

We sold our port management rights to the British. Who have been bought out by the Emiris. Either we have to take management of the ports back into the government’s hands or we have to deal with the consequences of privatizing them, which is what has been going on.

Here's the dichotomy: either the Emiris want to make money by providing us with this service, or they want to kill us. They've parted with $6.8 billion to buy a service contract here in the U.S. If they kill us, they can't make that money back. If they try to make their money back, they've demonstrated to themselves that they're better off with us alive and putting money in their pockets than dead and without active ports to generate revenue. So I think I know which way they're leaning on that question. So why all the fuss? Is it racism? Probably not. But “discrimination” may be more accurate; we don’t particularly like the Emiris because they have some friends who are our enemies. But if we stopped doing business with everyone who has had fishy dealings with our enemies, we would have no trading partners at all.

What’s really going on here is a simple political attack on the Adminstration. Schumer started it and now he’s got lots of Republicans on board along with his fellow Democrats (who were in power when we sold the West Coast ports to China and no one in either party said a word about it). Like I said at the start of this piece, it’s simply a sign that George Bush and Dick “Deadeye” Cheney are losing control of the government, which would appear to be a good thing except for the fact that no one is taking over.

Bush's Conservative Bona Fides

I heard a very interesting interview on NPR yesterday with Bruce Bartlett. Bartlett is an economist who worked in the Reagan and Bush (the Elder) administrations, was plugging his book, Impostor. The imposter referred to is George W. Bush; and Bartlett claims that Bush is impersonating a conservative.

I think he’s right; hear me out on this. Bush is a Republican, but “Republican” is not synonymous with “conservative.” I still consider myself a Republican, but I stopped considering myself a conservative about eight years ago. The reason was that what it means to be a conservative seemed to have changed – particularly if Bush the Younger is the definition of what it means to be conservative. Whether you want to say the President is conservative or not, Bartlett convincingly demonstrates that Bush is not made of the same stuff Reagan was in all but a few characteristics.

To evaluate this, I suppose you have to define what bein a "conservative," or more accurately, a "Reagan conservative," means. And doing that requires thinking back over a quarter century. When I came of age politically, Ronald Reagan was President. To me, Reagan will always define American conservatism. Its defining characteristics, in descending order of attractiveness to me, were:

  1. A healthy distrust of the exercise of governmental power and doubt as to the efficacy of the government to accomplish social objectives.
  2. Commitment to a robust military capable of projecting American power to anywhere in the world and sustaining major combat operations in two theaters of operation simultaneously.
  3. Engagement in the international arena with a goal of combating and defeating that brand of totalitarianism called “communism” by the Soviet Union and leaving the United States as the sole superpower in the world.
  4. Fiscal restraint, particularly with government social welfare programs (in part because they are largely ineffective if not counterproductive, see point #1).
  5. A dislike of deficit spending and a commitment to reduce, if not eliminate, the government’s borrowing money to finance its operations. (Note that Reagan singularly failed in this regard; he preached it but did not practice it. It took Bill Clinton, a tax hike, and a very robust economy despite the tax hike before a so-called “balanced budget” would be enacted).
  6. A desire to stimulate the economy through removing economic restraints on private enterprise. In Reagan’s day that meant a tax cut, but it also meant a devaluation of the dollar, re-directing governmental stimulus spending from social programs to defense, and a loosening if not outright deregulation of many major segments of the economy.
  7. Lower tariffs and greater economic engagement with foreign nations.
  8. Caution, if not outright aversion, to alteration of the social fabric of the country. Pay lip service to, but do not actually govern strongly in favor of, the social agenda of deeply religious people.

So how does Bush the Younger stack up on this list of conservative priorities?

  1. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security – reorganizing governmental agencies and creating a whole new layer of bureaucracy on top of them. He authorized warrantless monitoring of communications between U.S. citizens and is a strong advocate of the USA PATRIOT Act. Conservatives do not expand governmental power at the expense of individual liberties; they restrict governmental power to preserve individual liberties because they don't like the government exercising any more power than is absolutely necessary. Bush pushed for, and got, a tremendous expansion of Medicare in the part "D" coverage for prescription drugs. Whether it was a good idea or not, whether it was needed or not, is not the point -- the point is that expanding a welfare program is not a conservative thing to do, and this is the most massive expansion of welfare since Medicare was invented.
  2. Bush has failed to expand U.S. military capability upon assuming office, despite an attack on U.S. soil taking place less than eight months after he took office. It is debatable if the U.S military needed expansion, but it is clear that the regular military cannot operate in Iraq without substantial assistance from state National Guard and Reserve units. At the same time, we have restricted our operations in Afghanistan to little more than airstrikes and special operations; we have sunk thousands of soldiers into the endless job of babysitting people in the Balkans who can’t wait until we’re gone to start killing each other wholesale again. We have no apparent ability to respond to military aggression by China against Taiwan or North Korea against South Korea (with whom we have nuclear defense treaties) and we have vacated ourselves from Europe (where we are not really needed anymore, it is true).
  3. The U.S. no longer looks like it either can be or deserves to be a superpower. Strike the prefix "super" and you've got a better picture. Geopolitics has created a multipolar world, not unlike Metternich's Concert of Europe created in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat. The U.S. is now one of several roughly co-equal centers of military and economic power, which also includes China, Russia, the European Union, and India; we may have to make room at the table for Iran soon. The “nuclear club” includes a lunatic in Pyongang. Still, we could have kept the ability to pretty much call all the shots up until 2003, when we squandered our international reputation by invading Iraq on what apparently turned out to be bad intelligence.
  4. Bush the Younger has turned in budgets with record deficits since taking office. Social welfare programs remain effectively unaltered from the Clinton Administration, which singularly failed to end “welfare as we knew it.”
  5. Chinese and European banks now own more of our government’s interest payments than ever before. There seems to be no way out of deficit spending at this point, thanks in large part to the Bush Administration's willingness to spend money the government does not have.
  6. In 2001, Bush rammed through Congress a tax cut of debatable wisdom, but this has been the extent of his “stimulus” to the economy. The tax cut was not targeted to achieve any particular economic or social goal; it was intended only to buy Bush some badly-needed political capital after a razor-thin election in 2000.
  7. Bush’s significant actions with respect to foreign trade were imposition of tariffs on Canadian timber and Asian steel. Both proved remarkable failures – Asian steel manufacturers and Canadian timber suppliers are now selling more of their products in the U.S. than before, for lower prices than they were before. All these measures achieved were short-term profit spikes for the U.S. industries at home (in 2004, when Bush again needed help with his campaigning).
  8. Bush, unlike Reagan, does walk the walk with the religious – even more than he talks the talk, it seems. We’ll have to see how his two Supreme Court appointments turn out, but keep in mind that he picked two darlings of the social right, both of whom had substantial experience working under Attorney General Ed Meese.

Bush is no liberal, that's for sure, but he is also certainly not carrying on the political legacy of Ronald Reagan. Either that, or there has been a significant re-alignment of issues and interest groups and both the “right wing” and the “left wing” of American politics have been changed from what they were in the 1980’s.

I’m not entirely sure that the second possibility is the case, though. Liberals seems to still want now what they wanted in the eighties – more social spending to relieve problems, intervention in private economic decisions to achieve social goals, guaranteeing the right of access to abortions, joint operations with our allies overseas but a restriction in military power, and higher taxes to pay for it all.

That’s one set of priorities, and it’s more or less internally consistent. Whether that agenda would work out in practice or not is an entirely different consideration. Conservative priorities, outlined in list above next to Reagan's picture, also are more or less internally consistent, and demonstrated an ability to achieve most (not all) of its objectives after being attempted in the 1980's and early 1990's (it failed to restrain the deficit but succeeded in bringing down the Soviets and creating a monopolar world). What the “W” is doing, though, is not internally consistent. You can’t a) cut taxes, b) not expand the military, c) maintain fiscal responsibility, d) fight foreign enemies in admittedly protracted military conflicts, and e) implement protectionist policies – and still call yourself a “Reagan conservative.”

I’ve thought this for a long time and considered debating it with others, even before I heard Bartlett on the radio today. Bartlett beat me to the punch, but that’s OK; he was there when it was all happening and I was just a kid. I’ll have my opportunities down the road. In the meantime, I’ve already gone on record as saying that I’ve ceased giving even lukewarm support for the Bush Administration. There’s Republicans who are on the team because of ideology, and that’s not me anymore since the only ideology left over from the Reagan era is one of social control, which I never bought into in the first place. There’s Republicans who are on the team because it’s “their” team, which rationally makes as much sense as my affection for the Green Bay Packers. So that leaves only Republicans who are on the team because there’s something in it for them if the team wins. That kind of corruption has no place in my ideology – in part because I’m not “in” the circle that profits and in part because I think profiting from the public benefit is not the right reason to be in public service in the first place.

The only arenas in which Bush is solidly conservative are social issues like abortion, religion, and opposition to same-sex marriage. Issues upon which I find myself solidly at odds with contemporary conservatives. I can't remember why I voted for this guy six years ago. Oh, wait... it was because Al Gore was at least equally repugnant.

February 22, 2006

Iraq's 9/11

Yesterday, Sunni terrorists blew up one of the holiest sites for Shi'ite Muslims in Samarra, Iraq. To the right is a picture of the Golden Mosque before the destruction. The Golden Mosque housed the tombs of two of the founders of the Shi'a sect of Islam, descendents of Mohammed himself, and is reputed to be the site of the disappearance of the Imam Mahdi, who is prophecied, Messiah-like, to return to the Earth shortly before the Muslim equivalent of the Apocalypse to cleanse the world of evil. So this is kind of like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or St. Peter's Basilica to a Shi'ite.

To the right is the BBC's picture of what the famous golden dome atop the mosque looks like now. The shell of the building is still sort of standing. For those amongst the Loyal Readership who are people of faith -- imagine if this were your church. You'd be just a little bit upset, so you can understand how the Shi'ites feel.

President Bush has pledged aid to rebuild the mosque. (CNN, the previous link, has a good picture of the destruction, too.) So has Tony Blair, on behalf of Britain. These seem like appropriate gestures to make, but it occurs to me that perhaps the Iraqis might not want Western help to do this. I can see, with no difficulty, the fledgling government of Iraq saying to the US and the UK, "Salaam and thank you, but we will take care of this ourselves." If they did, a part of me would say, "Good for you." Iraq is, or has the potential to be, a rich nation and it has cause to want to control this rather sensitive cultural and religious task free from the appearance of Western involvement.

My man Michael Reynolds has a few thoughts on the continued restraint of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the face of continued attacks on majority Shi'ites by minority Sunnis in Iraq. It's worth reading, but kind of moot, because it appears that despite Sistani's call for restraint and calm, Shi'ites are taking retribution on Sunnis -- three Sunni imams and several other clerics have been killed as Shi'ite gunmen have stormed nearly thirty Sunni mosques. Again to put this in American parlance, imagine if Baptists blew up a St. Patrick's cathedral in New York, and Catholics across America responded by raiding every Baptist church and shooting any Baptist minister in sight.

One thought that I had was that if everyone were atheists, none of this would be happening. Atheists don't kill each other because of differences in religious doctrine. But upon further consideration, I realize that atheism is not the real solution -- if we humans didn't have religion to get worked up enough to do things like this to each other, we'd find something else, like politics or race or age, to justify this kind of barbarism.

What's more interesting -- and quite unsettling -- is to see how Iraq reacts to this. Yesterday, Iraq was a newly-reborn nation still struggling to assume a coherent identity and teetering on the brink of fragmenting into three countries at war with one another. Today, it looks like Iraq has begun to slide into that pit rather than rallying around the response to this. There is not the same sense in Iraq that blowing up the Golden Mosque was an attack on all Iraqis -- only the sense that it was an attack on Shi'ites. Kurds and Sunnis do not feel the loss very keenly; for the Kurds, this is a major inconvenience and for the Sunnis, this is a victory.

On 9/11, there was no sense that "New York" was the victim of an attack. All of the U.S. was. We reacted to the attack not as New Yorkers or Pennsylvanians or D.C.'ers or Californians (remember, the planes were all headed to California destinations) but as Americans. Iraq lacks the same cohesive nationalism that the U.S. enjoys. That kind of nationalism probably didn't exist even under Saddam, although he sometimes forced his subjects to present a nationalistic fa├žade to the world.

So the result of this will not be a rallying cry to form a new nation, like the Boston Massacre was for the United Stations or the storming of the Bastille was for France. After Boston and the Bastille, the Americans and French had heroes and leaders who turned the energies unleashed by these acts of violence into forces that built a nation. There's no one like that in Iraq. So, contrary to Mike Reynolds, I predict this will mark the point when Ayatollah Sistani, the only man capable of restraining the Shi'ite majority from slaughtering its Sunni enemies, began to lose control over his congregation and sectarian violence turned Iraq into a basket case of a region. Unless something unexpected happens, Iraq will cease to be a nation in any sense of the word but the West's insistence that it is one despite all evidence to the contrary.

There was an area of the world that we used to call "Yugoslavia." Now, we have to call various portions of it "Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Slovenia, Kosovo, and Vojvodina." In a few years, if things keep going the way they are, we'll be able to say that there was also an area of the world once called "Iraq" but now variously called "Kurdistan, Najaf, Samarra, Basra, Anbar, Diyala, Karbala, Babel, and Maysan." Kurdistan will split oil proceeds with the Sunni states, and scheme against the Shi'ite states that are the pawns of a nuclear-armed Iran.

February 21, 2006

A Heartwarming Story

I take shots at Pat Robertson. I do it because Pat Robertson has an appreciable following, which makes him dangerous.

But there's little need to take cheap shots at Fred Phelps; he's so obviously a lunatic and has so few followers that it's not worth the effort. What is worth the effort is combatting Fred Phelps and his idiocy when he brings his "God Hates Fags" circus to a military funeral and to explain to anyone who will listen why he thinks God is showing his vindictiveness on America for tolerating homosexuals (who were, the last time I checked, still a pretty unpopular and disfavored minority who do not have the same civil and legal rights as heterosexuals and who only two years ago got assurance that having sex with their lovers would not land them in jail).

Look, Fred Phelps has every right to hold and preach whatever bizarro theories he wants. But freedom of speech is not the same thing as requiring others to listen to you. To say Phelps is breaking no law is not the same thing as approving of what he says and does. And he has no right to not be drowned out by others who have something to say themselves, mainly, that respect for the dead and patriotism are better than bigotry.

Seeing bikers travel for hundreds of miles to accompany a grieving family about to bury a son or daughter killed in the war, sporting military and patriotic patches, waving hundreds of flags, and most of all, drowning out Fred Phelps' inexcusably tacky and bigoted rants, is a remarkable thing. It is a good argument that Americans are fundamentally good people. At least, the Patriot Guard Riders are fundamentally good people. They don't show up unless invited by the families, and they don't engage in acts of violence with the Phelpsies. They chant "U-S-A!" and sing "God Bless America." And the phenomenon is spreading to everywhere that soldiers' funerals are being protested.

February 20, 2006

Do We Need More Medical Malpractice Reform?

The Tennessee arm of the AMA says yes. The Nashville Tennessean says no. The data in favor of that argument is pretty compelling.

In 2004, there were a total of six medical malpractice judgments, totaling $1.9 million. In that time, the insurers collected $327 million in premiums, and 444 claims were settled by insurance companies totaling $108 million. According to the report, 81% of malpractice claims in Tennessee resulted in no payment. (This per the Tennessean's recital of data from the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance.) The TMA actually says the failure ratio for claimants is closer to 88%, and claims that there were 1,534 lawsuits with defense costs totalling "more than $16 million." These numbers vary with the official reports from the state government, so I will use the state government's statistics when there is a conflict.

A little math: 444 claims were settled in 2004. 6 resulted in plaintiff's verdicts. That was 19% of all cases resolved in 2004, since the other 81% resulted in no recovery for the plaintiff. 444 plus 6 divided by 19% is 2,818 malpractice cases resolved a year. (Note, the TMA says there were 1,534 lawsuits, and the state's data is that there were 2,818 claims. That suggests that nearly half the claims tendered to insurers never were abandonded based on insufficient merit or insufficient damages. This seems about right to me based on my own experience.)

The Tennessee Department of Health Services states that in 2004 the population of Tennessee was 5,897,306. In July of 2005, there were 18,137 valid licenses to practice medicine in Tennessee outstanding, and 13,562 doctors actually did practice in Tennessee.

So first, we see that there is only one doctor for every 435 Tennesseans. The number seems low at first glance, but consider: if a doctor takes two weeks of vacation a year and doesn't work weekends, she works about 250 days. Her "fair share" of patients is 435, meaning an average of less than two patients a day. Not so bad from the doctor's point of view.

By way of comparison, let's look at California. There were 92,852 California-licensed doctors working in California in 2004, serving a state population of 36,591,000, for a ratio of one doctor for every 394 Californians. Tennessee has fewer doctors, but not by much.

Second, we see that there are .208 claims made against the average doctor per year. I can attest from personal experience that virtually every doctor I worked with, sued, or deposed in just under a year working for The Law Office of the Great Man had not been the subject of a malpractice complaint in fifteen, twenty, or more years of practice. It seems that most of these complaints are going to a smaller segment of the medical profession. However, this is not evidence that I can readily verify with statistics. But, we do know that 81% of all claims result in zero recovery to the claimant. So that means that there is slightly less than a 4% chance that any malpractice claim will produce any money.

On that subject, the third point is that the total amount of money paid out for all this activity seems both quite low and quite high, depending on how you look at it. Verdicts in 2004 were $1.9 million and settlements were $108 million. Rounding up, that gives us $110 million paid out on 4% of the 2,818 claims in 2004 -- an average of $39,000 per claim, or put another way, $975,000 per successful claim. That's claims, not verdicts. There were only six verdicts, and they averaged $316,666.67 each -- less than a third of the average pre-verdict settlement. This math looks pretty scary to a plaintiff's attorney, let me tell you. Then add to that the fact that before filing a medical malpractice lawsuit, the attorney needs to have an expert witness lined up already, so that's effectively a five thousand dollar filing fee which the attorney personally risks -- in pursuit of that one-in-twenty-five case that will actually produce money.

Fourth, subtracting "claims paid" from "premiums collected" gives us total gross revenue for the insurance companies of over $217 million in 2004. From that, of course, we must also take away defense costs. According to TMA, insurers incurred "more than $16 million in defense costs" in 2004. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say it's an even $17 million -- that's still a bulk profit of $200,000,000, a fifth of a billion dollars, representing a profit margin of more than 61%. So even after the cost of defending against all these "frivolous lawsuits" is taken into account, sixty-one cents of every dollar paid in premiums by doctors in Tennessee end up in the insurance company's coffers -- not paid out to defense lawyers, not paid out to settle claims, but put in the insurance company's operating and investment accounts.

Insurance companies need to make profits. And doctors paying those premiums have a right to demand that the insurance companies do their jobs, and do them well, when they are sued. But doctors also have a right to pay reasonable premiums, not extortionate ones.

I tell my business law students that an insurance company is an animal with four legs. First is sales -- the people who go out and deal face-to-face with the insureds, finding customers. Second is underwriting -- the people who assess the risks that the customers represent and set the premiums at the rate necessary to make it worth the company's while to absorb that risk. Third is claims -- the people who deal with first- and third-party claims and pay out the reasonable value of losses resulting from the risks that the company has agreed to assume. Fourth is asset management -- between the time that premiums are collected and losses are paid, the money does not sit idly in a bank, gathering 1.2% interest. The money is invested in real estate, stocks, bonds, and business ventures.

When one of these legs weakens, the others have to become stronger to hold the animal up. Three of them are interrelated. Sales' success is driven largely by the willingness of underwriting to accept low premiums. Underwriting's success is dependent on claims' ability to keep the magnitude of risks down. Claims' success is related directly to the ability of underwriting to carve out unacceptable risks and deny coverage whenever possible, which in turn is affected by the promises made by sales. Asset management's performance depends, however, largely on how well the stock market and real estate market do. Lately, both have been doing quite well.

Now, it's true that the insurance industry has had a real bad run of it for the past fifteen years or so on the claims side. Big earthquakes in California, floods all over the midwest, hurricanes in the south, terrorists in the northeast, fires all over the west. And for a while, asset management couldn't help much when the market was in the tank. But that's not the case anymore. The animal can stand on its own quite nicely, thank you very much; asset management is no longer weak, so underwriting no longer needs to overcompensate for the run of bad luck claims has been experiencing. Sales would sure appreciate it if you lowered the premiums, guys; ever hear of "market share?"

Fifth, two out of every thousand claims filed results in a successful verdict. There is only one way to interpret this, and that is that Tennessee juries are reluctant indeed to find against a doctor under all but the most egregious of circumstances. Tennessee is a very conservative state with a lot of rural areas; most people know the defendant doctors socially at one level or another, and simply cannot be relied upon to be objective in weighing the evidence no matter how much they assure the court and the attorneys to the contrary. And that's the way it is.

So. Will the TMA's suggested reform -- similar to California's MICRA, a $250,000 limit on general damages and a structured attorney's fee schedule mandated by statute -- produce the results they claim to be going for, namely, lower premiums? Doctors in California are entering their tenth straight year of dramatic malpractice insurance premium hikes, and MICRA has been around there since the eighties. A look at the revenue and expenditures shows you why -- litigation defense costs account for 3-4% of premiums, and claims payments account for 33-34%. The rest goes to the insurance companies themselves.

Yes, doctors are paying too much for malpractice insurance. But it isn't the lawyers' fault; it isn't because doctors are being sued too much. Lawyers know the odds, and they are only going to push a case to trial if they think they have a realistic shot at a big verdict. Even then, they lose much more often than not. The odds clearly favor the doctors; the TMA admits as much. The reason premiums are high is because the insurance companies are funnelling the premiums to other areas of operation. Maybe they're making up for revenue shortfall resulting from higher than expected claims. Maybe they're trying to re-seed the investment pools. But whatever they're doing, they're keeping sixty cents on the premium dollar -- so maybe they're just greedy, which is an indisputable truth to a point; the question is whether the desire for profit (which is not necessarily bad) has gone beyond a point where broader social utility is being realized. Finding that balancing point where insureds, claimants, stockholders, and society as a whole all have their interests realized to an acceptable degree is why insurance companies are regulated in the first place.

When I sat down to start writing this piece ninety minutes ago, I hadn't intended to write so much. But there it is -- and I'm pretty confident in this. Doctors are free to rally against lawyers politically if they think it is to their advantage to do so. But it's not. They should be lobbying for meaningful insurance premium regulation, at least as significant corrolary to their desire for tort reform.

I guess the last piece in the puzzle to check out is -- where does the TMA get its funding? Is it all member-supported? Or do insurance companies themselves provide money to make the TMA's lobbying and political efforts work? That, I don't have the answer to and don't care to research at the moment, since it is rather late at night.

Where I Stand


I confess, taking the survey, I didn't think it would work out to be very accurate, that it didn't ask enough questions. But the results are pretty much what I thought they would be, and the way I would describe myself. Right of center, but not all that much, and libertarian, but not to the point of being crazy about it.

For me, that's a result of:
Personal: 60%
Economic: 71%

The web page also said the politician who comes closest to my own way of thinking about things is John McCain, at 40% agreement. That's... not all that much, when you think about it.

So where do you Loyal Readers stand? (After completing the quiz, click on the "political philosophy" link.)

Best T-Shirt This Month

Poor Dick Cheney. You know, I've actually heard left-wing conspiracy theories that the whole shooting thing was a set up. A set up? Puh-leeze. Harry Whittington was a personal friend of Cheney's, a loyal member of the Texas Republican apparatus, and a proven fund-raiser for an administration obsessed with raising funds. And a lawyer, who is more than capable of filing a tort lawsuit on his own behalf.

A set up, you say? How do you figure it went down? Maybe it starts with Cheney saying: "Harry, we've been taking it in the shorts in opinion polls because of Iraq. I'm in hot water over this Valerie Plame thing. And people in our own party are starting to hand it to us over the domestic wiretapping. So, we need to distract them. Harry -- dude. I need you to take one for the team."

If you believe that, then you don't even possess the critical thinking skills of Michael Moore.

February 18, 2006

On The Outside Looking In And Really Hoping

In a recent contributing op-ed to the Los Angeles Fish Wrapper, a Muslim professor at Cal State Los Angeles publicly wrings his hands at the rioting and violence appearing in the wake of a few innocuous and generally unremarkable cartoons.

I am not Muslim and at the end of the day, I cannot tell Muslims what to think, believe, or feel about attacks on their religion and that which they hold sacred. I am an advocate of free speech and individual liberties, and in that capacity I have some standing to say what they ought to do about that which they find offensive -- which is not to riot, kill, or destroy but rather to demonstrate the falsity of that which offends them; to change the hearts and minds of their critics with good deeds and by living ethical and moral lives. It is heartening to know that some Muslims seem to agree with me that this is the right way to go.

Still, I really wish and hope that 99.94% of all Muslims feel the way this guy does (and the way this guy does, too) and that the world is really only dealing with a really small minority of fanatics and sociopaths. I fear that the percentage is somewhat smaller than 99.94%, but it still seems reasonable to hope that the percentage is quite large.

February 17, 2006

What Would You Do?

It seems that the Power Ball lotto has reached a new record, $365,000,000. That's a million bucks for each day of the year. The odds of winning are one in 146,107,962. Someone with sufficient capital at this point could, in theory, invest in the lotto, and in essence play the "Don't Pass" option that no one else would win it all. But the fun in thinking about the Lotto is thinking about what you'd do with all the winnings. Oh, sure, you can listen to good advice and be prudent and all that. But that's not a very fun fantasy.

No, the fun fantasy is all about buying luxurious houses, cool cars, taking awesome trips, and eating lots of great food. And sure, I'd buy The Wife and me our dream cars (I think The Wife wants a Jaguar XK but I'll have to ask) and we'd get ourselves a pretty nice place. In San Diego. Or Cambria. We'd travel; I'd get to fulfill my dream of diving the Great Barrier Reef. Our parents would not have to make mortgage payments again. Student loan payments and other forms of debt would also become a thing of the past. But once we did that, then what?

Oh, who am I kidding? We'd figure something out!

Laptop Problems Solved?

A few days ago, the laptop seemed to go out of commission. A stop at Best Buy to visit the Geek Squad revealed that the problem was the power cable or the power converter. A call to Gateway produced a $75 hold on my account and today, a replacement cable showed up. No converter. The cable had a sheet in it indicating that Gateway considered the part "expendible" and that there was no charge for it. There was also a return sticker. So I don't get it. They're getting their old cable back and I want my $75 back.

Anyway, I'm back to using the laptop again -- the adventure made me realize how much I missed the wide screen. I've kept the speakers from the desktop computer because they're better. Another thing to disconnect and reconnect later when I "go mobile," but that's not happening with so much frequency anymore. Another legacy from this adventure is my switch to Firefox. It's faster and I like the tabs instead of twelve different windows down on my taskbar.

And, I'm going to look into an external hard drive for data backup.

From the Valley of the Wolves

It seems that for many years, a very popular television show in Turkey, whose title translates to Valley of the Wolves. The show chronicled the adventures of a team of Turkish commandoes. It was cancelled but has returned in movie form. And now, the most popular movie in Turkey is Valley of the Wolves - Iraq. It's broken every Turkish box office record in history and is preparing for global release.

In the movie, evil American soldiers led by a born-again Christian commander (played by Billy Zane) humiliate a group of their supposed allies, Turkish soldiers helping patrol northern Iraq. One of the Turks is unable to reconcile his humiliation at the hands of the Americans with his honor, and suicides. The hero of the movie then ventures to Iraq to seek revenge, but uncovers many more foul misdeeds by the Americans, culminating in the military disruption of an Arabic wedding (in which the groom is killed, thereby creating a love interest for the hero) and the survivors are captured and shipped off in trucks to be sold to a Jewish doctor who will harvest and sell their body parts to wealthy Europeans and Americans. The evil Jewish doctor is played by Gary Busey -- I wonder how the producers managed to sneak enough booze and drugs to him while in the country that inspired Midnight Express.

American soldiers selling kidnapped Iraqis to a human "chop shop" run by an evil Jewish doctor. This (not Brokeback Mountain) is the hottest movie on Earth right now. Check out what some IMDB users (mostly Turkish) are saying about the movie. You get the idea that maybe Americans are not well-liked, even by our allies.

It's not particularly bothersome to me to see a movie made in which Americans are the bad guys. American filmmakers do that often enough for movies intended for U.S. release, although the plot usually involves an American citizen who thwarts the government's evil intentions. And I will readily concede that American soldiers have from time to time committed acts of atrocity. This happened even in Iraq -- what those seven idiots in Abu Ghraib did was well beyond the limits of what civilized society can tolerate. But the level of atrocity attributed to Americans in this movie is somewhat hysterical, and it conveniently ignores that Americans who do these things -- like those seven idiots from Abu Ghraib and the perpetrators of My Lai -- are punished, harshly, by our own military justice system.

And no one in America is rioting in the streets, burning Turkish flags, or destroying Falafel Hut because of this movie. For some reason, no American thinks that this movie threatens them in the least. We will dismiss the movie as a work of fiction, and probably not a very good one at that.

The same cannot be said of Pakistanis. Or Syrians. Or Afghanistanis. A Pakistani cleric has put a million-dollar bounty on the heads of the Danish cartoonists. By the way, although the offending cartoons were published in a Danish newspaper, it was the U.S. flag, not that of Denmark, that was burned in the recent riots in Islamabad, Peshawar, and Lahore. And in Peshawar, a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant was burned out of its building.

KFC? Not exactly a bastion of Danish cultural imperialism. That restaurant was owned and operated by Pakistanis -- who were also its customers. It sold nothing that violated dietary restrictions found in the Koran. Or are these guys upset that the United States did not somehow censor a Danish newspaper? We can't. They've got their own country there in Denmark, it's got nothing to do with us. It's really quite cute and quaint.

Obviously, this is just an excuse to rally people against the United States. How we as a nation respond to this is a really good question. We're certainly not going to censor Valley of the Wolves: Iraq here, although I predict that it will not do very well and will not prove a credit to the resumes of Billy Zane or Gary Busey (in Busey's case, he probably didn't have that far to fall anyway). We would no more censor an anti-American movie than we would the cartoons that started all this in the first place. What we do need to do is figure out a way to re-assume the moral high ground, so maybe we will one day again be thought of as good guys. Whatever good works we are doing in Iraq or elsewhere are simply being ignored by the rest of the world.

(Granted, the Daily Show covered this same ground earlier this week. But it's worth commenting on nevertheless.)

February 16, 2006

If This Doesn't Scare You, Nothing Will

Every once in a while we get a reminder of just how powerful and capricious nature is. And how utterly vulnerable we are to nature's whims. Being humbled that way is not necessarily a bad thing, for an individual or a group. Still, it is a little daunting to realize that this sort of thing could happen with essentially no warning, and obliterate us all.

A Claymation Punk Rock Fairy Tale of Greater Metropolitan Los Angeles

I heard about youtube.com on NPR the other day. I picked a particularly silly video to link to. Enjoy. (Not kid-safe; contains a particularly funny drug reference and cartoon violence.)

February 15, 2006

Late, Late At Night

What's the way to end to a sucky day? In my case, that would be not being able to fall asleep.

Laying down didn't work. Reading hasn't worked. Watching TV hasn't worked. A beer didn't work. Having to share a bed with two cats who somehow manage to take up more space each than both dogs put together isn't helping, either.

I don't dare get in bed with The Wife. All my tossing and turning will just wake her up and then neither of us will have any rest. Maybe now is a good time to look up those statistics on untreated sleep apnea that my doctor told me about.

I really want to fall asleep. It's after two in the damn morning. And sleep seems as far away from me as the Seyschelles. Hey, Drawn Together is perfectly fine for tasteless late-night TV. But I can't make a steady diet of this.

Crappy Day

Everyone has crappy days from time to time. Today was my day for a crappy day.

I had an interview with a recruiter today, so that meant I had to get out one of my nice shirts and iron it and put on a suit. Well, my suit was absolutely covered in dog and cat hair so it took me some time to get it all brushed off.

I got the dogs to go outside by bribing them with biscuits. No sooner than I pulled open the dog-biscuit jar than the Fat Cat, Jordan the Pest, began plotting her escape. The little creature shot out faster than a 28-gauge shell on a Vice-Presidential quail hunt -- running through the dogs' legs and out to the screen porch -- her gateway to freedom. So wearing my underwear in the chilly late morning air, I had to herd the dogs outside, pull the screen porch door shut, and try and convince the cat that there were evil, scary things out there in the big wide world that wanted to get her.

On my way out the door, I noticed that the tie I had selected to wear had sustained some damage and threads were hanging down off of it. All I could do was stuff the threads in the seam on the back side of the tie, and hope for the best.

Then, I got a speeding ticket. The cop wrote me up for 60 in a 55, which was probably a little less than what I was really doing. I thought that segment of the 640 was a 65 zone, but the next sign I saw said it was 55, so I guess I was wrong. Oddly, the cop did not seem to care about my registration or proof of insurance. I guess the junker just isn't worth checking on.

Then, while I ate lunch, one of my best friends called. I felt bad about putting off taking his call, but it seems that every time I sit down with hot food these days the phone rings. So I called him back and we did touch base briefly later, but I would have liked to have taken more time to talk with him.

I tried to do some of my contract work at lunch, but McDonald's was too distracting and I couldn't focus or make myself productive in any way.

By the time I got to the office to meet with the corporate recruiter, I recalled that the junker is the vehicle we use to haul around the dogs. Despite my efforts to fastidiously pull critter fur off my suit, I was still absolutely covered in animal hair.

My talk with the recruiter went well enough; she was about my age, a CPA from Illinois, and every bit as frustrated with Tennessee's strange regulation of the professions as well as the persistence of the Old Boys' Network that locks up every economic opportunity in the area for friends and family of the elite. I'm pleased that she works on commission, and that she has made some in-roads to local businesses to gain their trust for references.

But the thing is, as soon as I walked into the office building, I was itching all over. I wasn't nervous -- I was just itchy. I thought I had all the allergies licked thanks to a half year of those damn allergy shots (and yesterday's booster shots still have my arms sore) but my nose and eyelids were itching something fierce. I hope that I was discreet about the unconscious scratching that takes place when in that kind of discomfort.

So when I got home, I was worried about whether I'd made an unhygenic fool of myself, and I sat down to plug the computer back in to the power outlet and maybe get back to my contract work. The computer did not turn on.

I repeat, the computer did not turn on. Panic. That computer is my livelihood now -- between contract work for another one of my close friends back in California and online teaching, that's how I'm making money to support my family and household without regular employment. Several checks confirmed that the power was indeed flowing from the outlet, but the computer would not turn on.

So I used The Wife's computer to find the closest Best Buy -- where I'd bought the laptop only a few months ago. I fed the critters, and while doing that The Wife called. Between trying to dodge all the hungry animals, hold up the phone, and put food in the bowl, I managed to rip out one of the elbows on my dress shirt. So that's another article of clothing ruined.

Best Buy is about three minutes from the recruiter's office. If only I'd known that there was a problem then; I had the laptop with me and could have taken care if it without driving all over Knoxville twice.

At Best Buy, the dude from the Geek Squad tested the computer and the power cable, and announced that both were shot. The power cable was not something they serviced at all; I'd have to deal directly with Gateway for that. The computer they had to send to Gateway's service center, and that would take about three to four weeks for a turnaround. I gasped and asked if there was any other way we could check whether the power supply on the computer was still functional. Fortunately, another guy working at Geek Squad happens to own exactly the same model of laptop as me, and brought out his battery and power supply. Using his, we confirmed that the computer was fine -- it's only the power cable.

So I guess that could have been worse.

But it's still going to be a week or more before the replacement cable gets here. So in the meantime, I need a computer. The Wife doesn't mind if I use hers, but there are times we both want to be on a computer so that means we need two. That meant a drive down to The Estate At Louisville, where The Wife's old desktop -- the one that essentially had to be rebuilt from the ground up -- was sitting idle. It now is on my desk at La Casita, and is working fine. Its default browser is Firefox, which so far I'm liking better than IE -- it's much faster.

That doesn't solve my problem of not having access to all the data on the laptop, including the new class I was building. I'll have to improvise for the next week, but hopefully I can get through it.

With all of this running around and computer panic, the doggies never got walked today. And it was a beautiful day for walking the dogs -- it got up to 65 degrees this afternoon. So that's a missed opportunity.

Hopefully I don't have to leave the house at all tomorrow. No good came of doing that today.

February 14, 2006

Valentine's Day Dinner

TL's famous steak -- The Wife's favorite dish -- is prepared by marinating it for several hours in a mix of teryiaki sauce, dry red wine, chopped green onions, garlic, and black pepper, and grilled over fire while cold to sear the outside and keep the middle rare. Always get a cut at least an inch thick, and remove from the grill after the outside starts to char but the meat feels squishy. That means it's rare and juicy inside, and if you've marinated it long enough, it'll be full of flavor.

TL's famous mashed potatoes are first boiled in a broth of garlicky chicken stock, and then mixed with sour cream, chives, butter, bacon bits, and fresh milk.

TL's lemony asparagus is steamed with dill weed and parsley, with a splash of lemon juice.

TL's REAP (Ridiculously Easy Apple Pie) is made using pre-made pie crusts, with apples sliced by mandolin (leave the skins on). Add in some brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange peel or lemon zest, and ground ginger. Brush the pie tin and the top of the crust with shortening. Bake at 350 degrees for an hour. The mandolin-sliced apples come out thin and layer themselves within the pie, and produce tremendous amounts of juices that carmelize with the sugar and become tender and flavorful. Tonight, The Wife got pie with her favorite kind of apples, Granny Smiths, although I usually use Fuji or Pink Lady apples.

Tonight's red wine was 2002 Dynamite Cabernet, a prince of its mid-range price mark. Our wine graveyard, containing all the soldiers who have given to the cause, is growing thick on top of the kitchen cabinets.

I also dropped off a dozen roses at The Wife's office. She had already gone to lunch, so I left the flowers there, and went to where she was having lunch with a lawyer and another paralegal from her firm.

Other men may have done more, other men may have done less. But that's what I did for my sweetie today.

February 13, 2006

It Sucks To Be Dick

No, read the headline again.

My point is, Dick Cheney is not having a real good year. To begin with, he's the Vice-President. No politican worth his salt wants to be Vice-President. You wind up being thought of as an intruder in your only Constitutional duty, presiding over the Senate, and defending yourself any way you can.

Anyway, about a month ago, he had some problems with his breathing and his heart. That's serious business, folks; the man is on a pacemaker for a reason.

Then, his right-hand man gots indicted for being suspect #1 in the spy leak scandal. When you get indicted for things like that, you have to step down, and when it hits that close to you, people start to wonder if maybe you didn't have something to do with it, too. That kind of puts your own job in jeopardy.

And the big news today is that he shot his buddy while they were out quail hunting. Not only is this enormously embarassing to him (the guy is apparently doing okay; he got hit with a 28-gauge, which would be a pretty small blast, but still) He is being criticized for being a careless hunter. His staff is being criticized for sitting on the story. And, it appears he was hunting without a license. There's fines associated with that, Dick, and you can't expense that.

At least I'm not the only one having a rough time of it.

An Atheist Refutes Objectivism

As one might expect, a group like the Rationalists of East Tennessee attracts a number of Ayn Rand adherents. Sunday, The Wife and I got to deal with quite a few of these sorts in an otherwise-fascinating discussion of how the Montessori Method works in the education of young children.

For those of you unfamiliar with Ayn Rand and her philosophy of "Objectivism," it examines human relations, ethical questions, and in particular the concept of freedom. Objectivism is avowedly atheist in its world view: we are here on this earth, now, and that's it. It further posits that humans are, fundamentally, reasonable and logical beings who, with enough clear thought, will behave reasonably to realize one's own happiness, and she takes a generally Aristotelean view of what happiness is. Thus a reasonable life, Rand argues persuasively, is a productive one; an idle life is both unhappy and contrary to logic. There is only this life and what we do with it; to have the life and do nothing with it would be foolish and wasteful.

But that's all internal. Political philosophy is the enactment of these ideas to the state and to human society, and in that respect, the Objectivist holds that there is ultimately only one right that impacts anything external to oneself: the right to own property. Since there is only this life on this world, what do we do with our time? At the end of the day, Rand says, the only thing that we can do is acquire and dispose of things that is what property truly is. Even life itself a property right because one begins life owning one's own body. Liberty, too, is a form of a property right because it involves the ability of one to do with one's property (including one's own body) as one pleases. So since life is about being productive, and being productive requires society to enforce property rights, society is therefore all about property and should be structured to maximize the freedom to use that property.

In terms of a productivity and property-centered society, the real question for modern Americans is whether you own your things, or whether you are owned by them. Acquiring material goods simply does not make people happy. And to be fair, Rand does not claim that it does; materials, property, possessions, and wealth are utlimately to her the byproducts of a productive, rational, happy life.

Rand's philosophy strongly objects to the redistributionist state as antiethical to liberty and human happiness. I think that Rand raises an important objection to the modern state-run social welfare system by pointing out that in practice, the well-meaning system seems to create more poverty than it eliminates, and therefore is counter-productive. Her concepts also have a natural appeal in that human nature seems to incorporate capitalism on an instinctual level. Capitalist activity occurs in all human societies, during all phases of history. That is people people naturally do things that they believe will make them better off for having done them. Rand runs with that ball, claiming that when people freely engage in a transaction, it is to their mutual advantage to do so, and therefore the transaction is morally good. The converse of this idea is that if a transaction were leave one worse off than they were before, the transaction would morally bad -- but if a voluntary transaction, Rand would say that the transaction was irrational and therefore both contrary to man's fundamental reasonable and logical nature as well as non-productive (since a logical, rational person chooses to be productive).

Thus, taxes are morally bad for two reasons, not just because the government extorts taxes through the threat of force, but also because the taxpayer receives less benefit back from the government after paying taxes than the value of the money paid in taxes. An enlightened taxpayer may consent to pay a certain amount of taxes to fund a minimal government necessary to enforce property rights, but no more than that.

Thus, the most evil and destructive figure in all of history, to Rand, is Robin Hood. Because he made the poor dependent on his largesse, they did not do the things they needed to do to lift themselves out of poverty. Because he stole from the rich, the rich become poor as well. And he did it all through the threat of violence.

So Rand proposes an atheistic world view that is based on the premise of maximizing personal liberty. Sounds like a great fit for me, and yet I reject it. Why?

Understanding both Rand's background (as an young girl, she was a refugee from Soviet Russia in the days when the Bolsheviks were running the show and things were starting to get really bloody) and when she was active as a writer (in the late forties and fifties, when Communism as an ideology appeared to be growing in power globally and forming itself as the diametrical opposite of the United States' capitalist ideals) helps understand the vituperative tone of much of Rand's writing. Unfortunately, her absolute insistence on doctrine seems to be the most enduring facet of her teachings: you are either for freedom or you are against it, she wrote, and there is no middle ground. And at the end of the day freedom really means property.

And people find things to exchange for greater value all the time, Rand says. No one is really poor; they just don't participate in the exchange of goods and services properly. Take friendship, for instance. Viewed economically, friendship is a transaction, a barter of services: I will be your friend if you are my friend in return. The value of having friendship from another is exceedingly high, while the cost of giving friendship, is very low. Thus, viewed through Rand's moral lens of economic value, friends are engaged in a mutually beneficial exchange of services, and therefore friendship is a good and desirable thing. Everyone has the ability to sell their labor, and if you sell your labor for its true maximum value, you will find that you quickly find yourself in a position to start accumulating material wealth. Your ability to use that wealth to boost your earning potential is limited only by your desires and abilities to do so, and through the magic of Adam Smith's invisible hand, your entirely self-motivated and greedy efforts to amass wealth, you have made a valuable contribution to society! Therefore, society should be structured to maximize the ability of everyone to engage in those kinds of transactions, because they are ultimately to everyone's benefit.

This is all so much hogwash, if you ask me. Man's fundamental nature is not purely logical or reasonable. We are not Vulcans or computers. Like any other living thing, Man's primary instinct is to survive. Because we are evolved from reactive forms of life, we make unreasonable decisions from time to time, motivated by emotions like fear and love. Fear and love are fundamental parts of human nature, and Rand rejects them. So Rand is doomed from the start because her premise about human nature is incorrect.

Sunday night, after briefly summarizing the concept of Objectivism to The Wife and explaining how Rand's system worked at the denouement of Atlas Shrugged, The Wife asked why I, someone who considers myself to have a strong libertarian take on the world and how it should be organized, would reject such a belief system. My answer was that not everything in life could be examined though an economic lens and not everything can be understood in terms of property rights. By playing only that one note, over and over again, Rand misses out on the fact that human existence is about more than the accumulation of wealth.

The example of this I came up with was to imagine that I had the super-surgical brain eraser, and I wanted you to sell me the ability to read. I would pay you "X" dollars, and in exchange, you would allow me to use this science-fiction device to permanently erase the ability to read from your mind. Never mind why I would do such a thing -- I would't propose it if it weren't to my advantage to do so. So how much money would I have to pay you for you to agree to do that? The answer any rational person would give would be, "I would never consent to that, no matter how large a figure 'X' is." The ability to read conveys value and enriches life in ways that cannot be reduced to quantifiable units of utility, much less of money.

Obviously such a device does not exist. But there are analogues which do. Personal liberty does exist. And like everything else, that liberty can be sold -- and indeed, it should be, at least in small parcels of time. Selling one's labor is, in effect, selling one's liberty. I sell my time, and my ability to do what I please in that time, to my employer in exchange for a certain quantity of dollars. So, after agreeing to the transaction, my employer gets the right to tell me what to do, and I have to do it. That's the employment relationship to Rand, a labor-for-money contract. Rand lived in an America where labor was scarce enough, and economic opportunities plentiful enough, that she did not seriously question whether a worker's ability to earn a living could exist in the first place.

So normally labor is sold in eight- to nine-hour blocks of time. But Rand would object, strenuously, to putting a limit on the amount of time for which labor could be sold. If I can sell my time from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., why not sell it until 6:00? Or midnight? Or for a week, or even a year, in a single transaction? If I can realize greater value for the sale of my time or, rather, the liberty to do as I please in that period of time, in larger and larger blocks of time, then the law should not stop me. Rather than working for $15 an hour, I might agree to accept an annual salary of $45,000. If I work 2,000 hours a year, I'm better off taking the salary than the hourly wage, after all -- and if my employer offers me the salary, then it must by definition be to our mutual advantage to do that.

All well and good, but what then is to stop a person from literally selling themselves into slavery? For a lump sum of money, I might sell all of my time to an employer. The pure Objectivist ultimately cannot object to such a transaction. Now, I would only contemplate doing such a thing if my circumstances were sufficiently desperate -- and a desperate seller of labor will not only sell an unreasonably long block of their time, but also will do it for an unreasonably low price and permit an unreasonable degree of intrusion into his liberty, all out of desperation. And the ultra-minimalist state that Rand would permit to exist will do nothing but enforce the terms of the voluntary transaction. Randians them must stand back and explain how this isn't really slavery since it was originally a voluntary transaction, and the real solution is for people to be educated about the true value of their liberty so they won't engage in transactions like that. To which I say, who will provide that education, since it sure isn't going to be the state?

Rand wrongfully pooh-poohs objections like the Tragedy of the Commons. If a scarce resource is overexploited and becomes unavailable to future generations, someone will be clever enough to think of a substitute because of the potential to become wealthy selling it. This is no longer a valid way of looking at the world, if indeed it ever was. What is the substitute for clean air or clean water or a functional high-atmosphere ozone layer? Iodine tablets, sunscreen, and respirator masks? Certain kinds of environmental goods simply cannot be replaced. There is no acceptable substitute for food. And when environmental resources become scarce, the wealth of a society dwindles and the society risks collapse.

Indeed, liberty itself will become a scarce resource in a hyper-libertarian society, and for all of Rand's disclaimers to the contrary, she advocates a microscopic government, so minimal a state apparatus as even Robert Nozick would discard the model as ineffective. So there must be limits on the exercise of economic liberty, or else there will be no liberty at all. Finding the social and legal balance point which maximizes liberty and wealth, while still preserving and sustaining it, is a very tricky business which defies simple, dogmatic solutions.

Leaving aside the fact that Ayn Rand's utopian ideals are ultimately every bit as self-destructive as the collectivist states to which she was so vehemently opposed, I also object that that the value of life cannot be reduced to the simple accumulation of wealth. This reduces life to a game, and a cynical, exploitative, and ultimately unhappy game at that. There's more to it than that.

Like I said before, there are values that become badly distorted when viewed exclusively through an economic lens. Friendship and love are not economic transactions or service barters. Knowledge and enlightenment are not commodities which can be bought or sold -- education can be sold, true, but the ability to translate the knowledge into enrichment of life is incapable of sale. And liberty itself is something that, ultimately, ought not to be put on the auction block. Putting a price tag on freedom makes it no different than toothpaste, and freedom is something better than that, something with a value that is not readily quantifiable. That which is not quantifiable is not a good subject of analysis, and at the end of the day putting a moral gloss on economic analysis itself is kind of bizarre.