Sunday, December 26, 2010

Welcome to the "Inland Empire"

The "Inland Empire" is a vast stretch of land east of Los Angeles County inhabited mostly by cacti and Republicans, characterized over the years by brazen political corruption (the most recent former San Bernardino County assessor used the office as a political headquarters when he wasn't high on meth or participating in rehab) and the intellectual analysis of issues on a level of sophistication that would make any fifth grader proud.

The "West End" of this region -- roughly from the cities of Montclair on the west to San Bernardino on the east -- is served by a daily newspaper called the "Inland Valley Daily Bulletin," which is frequently used by local politicians as a convenient and apparently willing mouthpiece.

Thus, about two weeks after he was sworn in as the representative of the 63rd district to the California State Assembly, Republican Mike Morrell railed in a "Point of View" column (12/16/10) against increased taxes, "out-of-control spending, and looking to big government for solutions" (complete with sentence fragments and plural pronouns matched to singular antecedents). He claimed that "the people" always spend their money more wisely than government; that in the alleged dichotomy between people keeping their money or sending it to Sacramento, "it is our freedom that's at stake"; and that no less a luminary than Thomas Jefferson would certainly have agreed with him.

I would never argue that government is perfect. However, Mr. Morrell's "analysis" fails to mention even the most basic of services that state government is supposed to provide to its citizens -- including such things as public education and prisons (where the aforementioned former County assessor, along with a recently convicted former City Councilman from Rancho Cucamonga, will likely take up residence). One could read his article in vain for any reference whatsoever to any vital service for which any branch of government should accept responsibility. At least, then, he might (if he valued it) claim intellectual consistency; if he believes governments have no legitimate functions, then of course they have no need for any tax dollars. Of course, in order to do so, he would have to ignore the fact that that his alleged hero (other than Ronald Reagan, whom he cited repeatedly in a campaign event I attended) actually described several legitimate functions of government in his acclaimed Preamble to the Constitution.

The day after Morrell's diatribe against taxes and big government, another representative to the State Assembly, 60th District representative Curt Hagman, used an op-ed column (once again riddled with grammatical errors) in the "Daily Bulletin," to defend the e-mail he sent to constituents inviting them to a "Christmas Open House." Apparently he was upset by the fact that some of the residents in his district pointed out to him that he was using government money to pay for an event that was given an explicit religious label. In defending his action, he dug the hole even deeper: "The purpose of my Christmas party was to give people an opportunity to share their views with me on state issues in a casual setting."

I've been to events of this kind, and to the best of my knowledge, very little exchange of views takes place. People network with their friends, eat and drink (presumably at the expense of the government, which, remember, has no legitimate functions), and return to their offices the next bragging that they met an important public official (probably for about ten seconds). But even supposing that the event served as a venue for the casual exchange of views, does the Assemblyman only want the views of Christians?

Earlier this week -- I kid you not!! -- a letter to the editor appeared in said newspaper in response to this controversy, criticizing automobile companies for running a plethora of TV ads for their products in end-of-the-year sales campaigns (which they certainly did!) but failing to mention Christmas in their ads!

I strongly support the right of U.S. citizens to celebrate the religion of their choice (or no religion at all). But would it be too much to ask that they at least recognize the existence of a secular society apart from religion? Secularists are not a threat, as they are apparently perceived. The larger threat to American society is the failure of so many to see that our culture is diverse and can be "unbundled" (religion from non-sectarianism) without the slightest danger to either.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Evolution Continues

As I was discussing the state of the world with one of my liberal friends the other day, a scary thought occurred to me, namely, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the human species as it presently exists.

We all know -- well, those of us who accept evolution know -- that species typically become extinct as a result of failure to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Homo sapiens may be the first species not only to have caused its own destruction but to have had the power to see it coming -- and failed to heed the warning signs.

Of course, climate change is the most dramatic evidence of this trend. And while we will probably adapt to increments of ten, perhaps twenty degrees around the world, despite the enormous disruption to the food supply and the global economic and political systems, will the species survive changes of fifty or one hundred degrees? Who is to say this catastrophic scenario will not occur, as we continue to burn coal and oil to maintain the status quo, knowing all the while that doing so will eventually destroy the status quo?

Human beings like to think of themselves as members of the smartest species that ever roamed the earth. If this is true, it doesn't speak well of the other species. At least in the United States, we are currently witnessing a full-scale attack on logical debate, critical thinking, acceptance of facts as the raw material from which decisions should be made, and the values set forth in the Constitution but constantly ignored by the very people who claim to cherish that document. Hypocrisy runs rampant and apparently undiagnosed among those whose left brains do not communicate with their right brains; how else to explain the simultaneous drumbeat for tax cuts for the rich AND deficit reduction? "General welfare" is derided as "big government" by those who fail to see the relationship between greed on the part of those who already have enough and poverty on the part of those who have never had enough.

No, if intelligence is a virtue and a prerequisite for survival of the species over the next thousand years or so, I'm not very optimistic.

Nobody reading these words will be alive to see the demise of the human race. The process is far too gradual. But we are heading down the path toward our eventual destruction unless the wise somehow wrest power from the wealthy. I fear, however, that the tipping point has already been passed. Our institutions themselves, for the most part, exist to protect the status quo (or worse). When, in history, did the ruling class voluntarily give up power and accede to the notion that common people also deserve a break? When, except for a few years in the late 1700s, did Americans ever think the future was just as important as the present?

Contrarians could legitimately argue that the United States is an anomaly, that in fact most developed countries (Denmark, England, Canada, Sweden -- you know the list) are much further along the path to permanent civilization. While this is true (take the general availability of health care as just one of many possible examples), the United States, mostly by virtue of its geographic size, its population, and its natural resources, unfortunately has a disproportionate influence on the rest of the world. If you want proof, stay tuned to see whether "the greatest deliberative body in the world," aka the United States Senate, approves a treaty that will reduce the global nuclear arsenal and make the world a safer place -- or whether it will be held hostage to the politics of destruction made possible by the 40-vote filibuster and a few opinionated reactionaries.

I just hope that homo sapiens II, which will invariably come along in another couple of million years, will be more successful than homo sapiens I.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

An Uncanny Coincidence

We learn in today's editions of both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times that a deadline of sorts has been set for the pullout of NATO troops from Afghanistan -- 2014! Between now and then, "primary security responsibility" will gradually be transferred from western troops to the government of President Hamid Karzai. Combat operations for the former will gradually cease (or at least be diminished), in favor of training the locals.

But officials from various NATO countries apparently did not reach complete unanimity; some stated that the deadline was firm, while others indicated it might slip depending on conditions on the ground in 2014.

Amazing as it might sound, 2014 is exactly the same deadline I have set for myself for the imposition of a low calorie diet. I've had this objective since 2002, but it's always been part of a long-term strategic plan, not something I wanted to rush into prematurely. After all, my body is pretty accustomed to carrying around excess fat, and who knows what kind of damage an abrupt and significant change could cause. My stomach, for example, could issue a complaint, probably couched in diplomatic language, that could be devastating to my public image.

I think gradual is best. There is no need to go "cold turkey" on large portions of meat and potatoes. If a lot of people did this simultaneously, the result could be devastating to the meat and potato industries -- and heaven knows we need all the jobs we can find these days. Likewise, cutting back too suddenly on the whipped cream I use to top off my chocolate sundaes wouldn't do the dairy industry any good. If my cholesterol stays a little too high as a consequence -- well, that's just the price I have to pay for being a good American consumer and caring more about other people than my own good health.

So, I am reconciled to starting my diet in earnest in 2014 and working towards it incrementally by decreasing my daily caloric intake by 0.048 per year in the interim. Of course, if conditions change between now and then, I reserve the right to modify my position and postpone that diet until such time as the situation seems appropriate.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Supreme Court Overturns Giant Victory in World Series

In a stunning and unexpected development, the United States Supreme Court has vacated the recent victory of the San Francisco Giants over the Texas Rangers, awarding the World Series crown to the team from the Lone Star State.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion, which prevailed on a 5-4 vote in the case known as Bush v. Giants.

Justice Clarence Thomas concurred, and his office issued a tersely worded statement providing supporting rationale: "What He Said."

"In this opinion, the majority rests heavily on its most relevant precedent, Bush v. Gore," Scalia wrote. "In that case, the Court established beyond the shadow of a doubt that the actual results simply don't matter. Just as the number of votes case in 2000 carried little weight in the presidential election in the State of Florida, so too, by analogy, does the number of runs scored by the Giants in the World Series have little bearing on the actual outcome. Umpires are fallible; this Court is not."

"This Court is bound by the Constitution. No other document or set of facts in evidence is relevant -- especially the opinions of the liberal elite sitting in the press box who claim to be witnesses. A careful and thorough reading of this founding document reveals no clause giving the government -- and by extension, any other body that exists within our territorial boundaries -- the power to declare any athletic team located or residing in the State of California to be the winner of any contest that might be remotely construed as coming under the jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce clause. Since there were only two teams vying for supremacy in the World Series, and it is clear that the Constitution does not permit a team from California (and certainly not San Francisco) to be the winner, it therefore follows logically that the title properly belongs to the Texas Rangers."

An attorney for former President George W. Bush, who sat in the stands during the games played in Texas, lauded the ruling, indicating in a prepared statement that "the President is gratified that the Court has once again seen fit to validate the rule of law in a nation that has violated so many of our basic freedoms over the past two years. Of course, the textbooks in Texas would have reported in any case that the Rangers won, but it's nice to have the formal record correspond with the facts as we know them to be."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a sharply worded minority dissent, claiming that the Roberts Court was distorting the founders' intent. "Neither corporations nor the States of California and Texas were in existence when the Constitution was written," she stated. "How this opinion, and several others within recent memory, can be construed in the context of a 'strict constructionist' philosophy, is totally beyond comprehension."

Justice Anthony Kennedy, siding with the majority, explained his vote by saying "I went with the liberals last time. It was the conservatives' turn to win."

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A (Mostly) Thoughtful California Electorate

Regular readers of this blog may assume that I think the recent election demonstrates thoughtfulness on the part of California voters because mostly liberal candidates won statewide offices. That is not the point I wish to make here.

Voters demonstrated sophistication and thoughtfulness, first, because they failed to allow the onslaught of money to purchase their brains. As we all know, Meg Whitman vastly outspent her victorious opponent, Jerry Brown, yet came up short in the polling booth. Proposition 23, which would have "suspended" air pollution control regulations (probably forever, due to the ridiculous criterion established for lifting the suspension), was supported in large part by out-of-state oil companies. The voters saw through it and defeated it by a hefty margin -- 61.2% "No" to 38.8% "Yes."

Dramatic evidence of careful voting is also exhibited by a comparison of the results of Propositions 20 and 27. The former was designed to extend the mission of the pre-existing Redistricting Commission -- which was created by an earlier proposition to put the post-census redistricting process for state officials in the hands of an impartial citizens' commission rather than the gerrymander-prone legislature -- to federal Congressional seats as well. The latter would have scrapped the Redistricting Commission altogether. Thus, Propositions 20 and 27 were, for all practical purposes exact opposites. It is difficult to imagine a rationale for voting for or against BOTH of them; the more logical approach would be to vote for one and not the other (in either direction).

In fact, most Californians did precisely that -- voted for one but not the other. Statewide, Proposition 20 passed by a vote of 61.4% to 38.6%; Prop 27 failed by a vote of 59.6% to 40.4%.

Clearly, some voters did vote for or against both of these propositions; otherwise, the passage rate for one would have been precisely equal to the failure rate of the other. By subtracting the "No" vote percentage of Prop 27 from the "Yes" vote percentage of Prop 20 (and taking the absolute value, i.e. using a statistical method that ignores the direction of the deviation, which in this case is irrelevant), one can calculate a "discrepancy" score that might be considered a measure of the degree to which voters acted in an intellectually consistent manner. Statewide, that discrepancy score is 61.4 minus 59.6 -- or 1.8. (See last week's post for a related issue on intellectual consistency.)

In mostly liberal Los Angeles County (where Brown trounced Whitman by 62.7% to 32.5%), the discrepancy score was 1.1. Reasonably liberal Santa Barbara County (Brown got more votes than Whitman but not by a huge margin) had a discrepancy score of 1.32. Extremely liberal San Francisco had a score of 2.78.

Conservative counties Kern, Orange, and Riverside, where major statewide contests went Republican by substantial margins, had discrepancy scores of 3.22, 5.35, and 6.09, respectively.

The pattern (did I just see some of you liberals smiling?) did not hold across the board. Fiorina clobbered Boxer in conservative Kings County, with a discrepancy score of 2.28. Fresno County, where both Whitman and Fiorina came out on top, had a moderately low discrepancy score of 2.07. In conservative and tiny Butte County, the discrepancy score was a lowly 0.85.

In liberal Humboldt County, where Brown got 56% of the votes for governor to Whitman's 36%, the discrepancy score was a whopping 10.51. What in the world do you suppose those voters were smoking?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Palin: Professor of Freedom?

Every now and then we read allegations that colleges and universities exhibit a significant bias toward liberal and progressive viewpoints, resulting in a lack of academic diversity and a consequent inability to provide students with a wide range of opinions on critical issues of the day.

So I wasn't surprised when Richard E. Redding, a professor at Chapman University School of Law, in his October 25, 2010 op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times (p. A15), cited statistics indicating that "on average, liberal professors outnumber conservatives and libertarians by about 8 to 1, with the imbalance being much greater at elite institutions."

Redding concludes that "our colleges and universities [are] unimaginative places" and strongly implies that these institutions deliberately exclude and disrespect "a wide range of political ideas."

For the purposes of this discussion, I'll grant Redding's statistics. What I won't grant is his "reasoning" or his conclusion.

Let's stop for a moment and think about what the job requirements are for being an academician. First, one must normally have a doctorate. In order to earn such a degree, one must demonstrate (among other things) critical thinking skills and the ability to articulate an original research project in a comprehensive, rigorous, and intellectually consistent dissertation.

I don't know as much about critical thinking skills as I would like to. But I strongly suspect that articulating one's position using ill-defined name calling and broad over-generalizations does not qualify. Nor does ignoring well-established facts. Nor does a string of nicely alliterated words necessarily constitute a persuasive, well-reasoned argument, regardless of how clever the writing. On the other hand, intellectual consistency would be a virtue.

I have close friends who are conservative, intelligent, and articulate. But they are the exception, not the rule.

Witness George Will's recent comment (2/21/10) on global warming -- which is established beyond a doubt as a factual and potentially catastrophic, largely man-made phenomenon -- accusing scientists of "trying to stampede the world into a spasm of prophylactic statism." Is this argument worthy of academic circles?

Examine, if you will, the statement made on Fox News several months ago by one of George W. Bush's former press aides that no terrorist attack occurred in this country during that President's tenure. Talk about "political Alzheimer's disease" -- this one tops the charts. And this clearly fallacious comment was not even challenged by the Fox News anchors who witnessed it! Do they all deserve academic appointments?

I once encountered California State Senator Bob Dutton at the airport. Since we have a passing acquaintance due to my professional position, we had a brief conversation. In less than two minutes (literally), he was blaming Democrats for every political problem under the sun. (I didn't have the guts to disagree -- I just rolled my eyes and kept my mouth shut.) Would Dutton's statement conceivably be considered an over-generalization? Might it indicate the lack of ability to think in nuances? Is he qualified for an academic position at an "elite" university?

Redding claims that he values innovative solutions, creativity, and quality decision-making. Most conservatives and libertarians probably value them as well. Why, then, does the conservative-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce spend millions of dollars backing political candidates who then devote their careers to protecting the self-interests of existing businesses? Don't they believe in the capitalist dream -- the power of creative thinking and entrepreneurship to guide them through challenging and changing times without the help of the government? Where is the intellectual consistency?

Finally, Redding can't help using a buzzword from conservative circles intended to be derogatory -- the word "elite" -- without bothering to define it. While his transgression is minor compared to Sarah Palin and others who promulgate "freedom" in the broadest possible terms without giving the word a microsecond of intellectual analysis, he is nevertheless typical of the political ilk rapidly gaining a frightening constituency in this country.

Occam's razor -- a philosophical and decision-making principle of long standing -- suggests that, when theories compete to explain a known phenomenon, it is best to select the one that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities while still sufficiently answering the question. In other words, keep it as simple as possible.

In accordance with Occam's razor, I suggest that it is not necessary to postulate bias against conservatives as the reason for the preponderance of liberals in academia. The simpler answer is that conservatives (with exceptions! I don't want to over-generalize!) are less able (or at least less inclined) to engage in critical thinking worthy of an academic environment. People who are unwilling to think carefully, consider all known facts, and construct intellectually consistent arguments don't deserve academic positions. Maybe that's why they don't get them.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Should We Regulate Cities?

I can't help thinking what the "deregulation contingent" of political thinkers would do about the situation in Bell, California, where a corrupt city council, in collusion with a city manager accused of criminal activity, raped the treasury of millions of dollars by paying themselves excessive salaries, sometimes for meetings that lasted only a few minutes.

While most city managers are hard-working, dedicated civil servants who earn upper-middle class wages in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $300,000 per year, the guy in Bell was "earning" more than a million, including benefits -- and Bell is a small city! Four of the five city council members were "earning" more than $100,000 annually -- for part-time jobs.

Now, if we're going to deregulate multi-billion dollar companies, as the capitalist purists would have us do, then philosophically we also have to deregulate cities. I can hear some people favoring this strategy already -- let the citizens patrol their own elected officials and vote them out of office if necessary! And let the elected officials supervise the city employees.

OK, that might work in a perfect world, where people are reasonably honest (if not always intelligent or guided by true public service) and information is available to those who attempt to monitor events. But more and more, we see that such a world eludes us.

Take the banks, for example. First they (and other mortgage companies) screwed members of the lower-middle class by putting them into unaffordable loans guaranteed to fail, in order to make short-term profits. After that little fiasco just about brought the country to its financial knees, we discover that some of the same institutions are now foreclosing without paying any attention to proper procedures -- once again, in the headlong rush to make money. These are the companies we are supposed to trust to regulate themselves?

No, self-interest is a powerful motivator, in the public sector (unfortunately) as well as in the private sector. The founders understood this clearly, by the way -- in a vastly more sophisticated fashion than today's Tea Party members and other deregulatory proponents. At a minimum, we need reporting rules so that enterprising citizens (and fortunately, media outlets like the Los Angeles Times that still perform the valuable service of investigative reporting) can legally demand information that people in charge would rather hide. And yes, reporting is one form of regulation. Without that essential element, we might as well not have laws, because public interest organizations would be hamstrung in their ability to identify and expose malfeasance.

For whom does the regulation Bell toll? It tolls for all of us. Because if the capitalist system that thrives on self-interest were "free" to operate unfettered, corruption would be even more widespread than it is now.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mining the Disaster for an Important Lesson

Like millions of people around the world, I followed the effort to rescue the 33 miners trapped below ground in Chile, and I rejoiced in their rescue. Talk about teamwork -- drilling crews came from near and far with the best technology available. NASA contributed knowledge gleaned from the space program to promote the physical and mental health of the men both before and during the rescue -- men who faced a life-threatening situation through no fault of their own.

It was a modern, global version of neighbors helping neighbors put up the barn on the family farm.

Tragedies can and do (sometimes) bring people together in noble ventures. But not always.

Remember Hurricane Katrina? More than 1,400 people were killed; more than 200,000 homes were lost. The government response was tepid and incompetent -- not surprising under the "leadership" of President George W. Bush, but nevertheless "unAmerican" in its lack of caring for fellow citizens. We didn't help rebuild the "barn" in any organized sense of the word. We didn't tax ourselves to provide the resources required to generate the massive rebuilding effort that would have been worthy of the term "community." No, what resources we did expend we borrowed from the next generation, so we wouldn't have to burden ourselves with higher taxes. And more than five years later, the wounds are still inescapable.

According to the Los Angeles Times (10/19/10), more than 21 children have died so far in 2010 at the hands of the County foster family "system" -- adding to the 26 tragic deaths in 2009 and 18 in 2008. (That's if you believe the "system" is reporting accurately.) Small numbers, perhaps, by comparison with the number of children served, and not entirely the fault of lack of resources, as the primacy of "family unification" seems to be playing a role (at the expense of the children). Nevertheless, can we truly say we have successfully addressed the plight of those who, through no fault of their own, face life-threatening situations? I think not.

Why is it that we sometimes respond to tragedy in a helpful, resourceful, and generous fashion, and other times we circle the wagons? I suspect it has to do with the perceived magnitude of the problem and the degree of sacrifice required to undertake a meaningful response.

Did it really require sacrifice for us to "care" about the 33 miners trapped in Chile? To the best of my knowledge, no American risked his life for the cause. It didn't cost anyone a cent. All we had to do was watch TV, read the paper, and hope that things would turn out OK.

In contrast, many of our other problems are both massive and personal. They are not easily resolved. They overwhelm the ability of the organism to respond in a manner that seems helpful but is not excessively painful, either psychologically or financially. They require time, effort, and resources -- in short, sacrifice. And that doesn't seem like something most Americans are prepared to do anymore.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Discouraging News

A lot has happened since my last post. There have been five well-publicized suicides -- one a generally admired public school teacher whose students' test scores (published by the Los Angeles Times) were low, and four gay teenagers who were bullied and/or "outed." These occurred in what we loosely refer to as "civilized society."

But behind the headlines are other stories -- if not as dramatic or tragic, at least discouraging, especially when placed in juxtaposition. Michael Hiltzik reports in the LA Times (10/3/10, page B1) that the pay of American corporate CEOs has risen from 24 times the pay of the average worker in 1965 to 411 times the pay of the average worker in 2005.

Careful Times readers (9/28/10, page B4) also learned that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed two bills intended to reduce corporate theft of wages earned by those average workers, which has been estimated in a recent UCLA study to amount to $26 million PER WEEK in Los Angeles County alone. The Governor claimed that these bills, one of which would have created a MISDEMEANOR crime for employers that willfully fail to pay wages due within 90 days, were unnecessary. (Why wouldn't it have been a FELONY?)

So, will someone please explain to me how CEOs getting wealthy and average workers being cheated out of hard-earned wages is part of the American dream?

As a salaried employee, my earnings are subject to income tax withholding. I don't have the opportunity to pay bills with money owed to the State of California and then tell the tax collectors that, oops, I already spent it. But guess what some businesses are doing -- exactly that! According to the Times (9/28, page A1), businesses are NOT required to remit sales taxes collected from consumers immediately; they pay either monthly or quarterly. Not only is that unfair because money invested can earn more money (and heaven knows the State of California needs it!) -- but it also results in default if a business goes bankrupt (or claims to) before the taxes are paid. Especially egregious, apparently, are the auto dealerships. One such dealership owes the State about $1.2 million but cannot pay because "the money was mixed in with the revenue from car sales and was not sequestered in a tax only account" (according to the Times). Of course, the dealers themselves defend the practice. According to the spokesman for their trade association, "if you shorten the time you have to remit sales taxes, that has a huge effect on the cash flow of dealers." Wow, no kidding. Since it's such a good deal, I think I'll just take a little longer to pay my state income tax and purchase an extra package of hot dogs.

Finally, we find (LA Times, 9/30/10, page AA3) that three former LA County Sheriff deputies lost their jobs because they beat an inmate, fracturing his cheekbone and causing injuries to his rib cage and his ear. Are they in prison now -- like a poor guy probably would be if he stole a loaf of bread to feed his family (maybe not on a first offense, but certainly if it were a "third strike")? Nope. All three got probation -- two of them "unsupervised" -- which is apparently what they were when the incident occurred. And it would never have been discovered (or at least proven) had a fourth deputy not recanted his previous false testimony during a subsequent job interview.

OK, nobody promised Americans a rose garden. But I just don't get the "...and justice for all" thing. It simply isn't true. Not even close.


Special thanks to those who missed my posts and contacted me about my absence. No, I wasn't sick. Maybe I was just sick of discouraging news.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tale of Three Bureaucracies

Herewith, I provide the first-hand experiences of calling three different organizations for customer service. Two of them are large private-sector companies operating, allegedly, in a competitive, free market environment that forces them to be both efficient and effective. The other is a large governmental bureaucracy that one expects, if one believes everything one hears, to be riddled with the inefficiency characteristic of the public sector.

Tale #1 -- DSL with Verizon

This happened quite a few years ago. I was up-grading from my interminably slow dial-up Internet connection. I called Verizon, provider of DSL service. I don't recall the process of signing up to be anything other than routine. However, the service never worked. I called customer service several times and talked with technicians at great length (having been patient enough to be "on hold" at even greater length). Although I didn't keep time, I'm certain that I spent, in the aggregate, over a period of several days, close to two hours talking with technicians. Finally, as exasperation crowded out patience, I decided just to cancel the service. After the usual litany of "dial 1 for this, dial 3 for that," etc. I was lucky enough to get a live person on the line, who tried to talk me out of canceling. "According to my records," she said, "you haven't yet talked with the highest level of technical support available." I replied, not very tactfully if I recall, that having already spent many hours on the phone, if they hadn't yet connected me with their most skilled technicians, I had no desire to talk to them now, and the service was duly canceled. [Note: my cable Internet service usually works fairly well.]

Tale #2 -- Cable TV with Time Warner

This happened a few months ago. After several years of successful service with this company, suddenly the cable started going out on a regular basis for no apparent reason. Naturally my first step was to call customer service. To make a long and frustrating story short, after several visits from technicians, sometimes with temporary success that lasted anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours after they left, I gave up and returned my cable box to the nearest Time Warner office. The lady behind the counter kindly accepted it and canceled my cable TV service without asking me why I was doing it. [Note: Direct TV is working just fine.]

Tale #3 -- Social Security Administration

This happened a few months ago also. Because (confession time!) I was nearing the age when certain things needed to happen, I called the government (you know, Ronald Reagan's "I'm here to help you" guys) to ask a few questions. I got a voice recording explaining to me that I could hold, and the estimated hold time was 8 minutes. Or I could leave my name and telephone number and someone would call me back. I chose the latter, hung up, and pursued other tasks. Sure enough, about 8 minutes later, my phone rang, and a nice lady with the Social Security Administration talked with me about 5 minutes, answering all my questions. [Note: according to a recent LA Times article, this government agency spends about 0.9% of its resources on administration, with the remainder going to actual program benefits. Compare this to the approximately 20% of total revenue that insurance companies claim they need for administration and profit, crying bloody murder if anyone suggests that they be required to spend more than 80% of their premiums on actual benefits for policyholders. Could it be that we might actually get 19.1% better insurance coverage if we allowed the government to run the program? I don't know; you tell me.]

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On Reading the Sunday Paper

Like many people, I get some of my news these days from blogs. But I still read a daily newspaper. Had I not, I might have missed the brief report (all of three paragraphs on page A4 of today's Los Angeles Times) on the hunger crisis in Niger, the story about Haiti on page A11, the recap of China's recent flooding disaster (page A6), and the drama unfolding about Donald Bren on page A33.

Niger is a land-locked nation in western Africa about twice the size of Texas (Wikipedia), with a population slightly in excess of 1.5 million. Frequently beset by droughts, parts of the country have recently witnessed temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the Times, nearly half the population is now in desperate need of food. The country has the highest infant mortality rate in the world. Niger is a member of the United Nations and receives some economic assistance from the United States and a few other countries.

On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit the already impoverished country of Haiti (ranking 149 out of 182 nations on the Human Development Index). According to Wikipedia, the quake killed an estimated 230,000 people, with an additional 300,000 injured and 1 million made homeless. Six months later, 98% of the rubble remains, presumably including thousands of bodies. Almost no transitional housing has been built for 1.6 million people living in relief camps that have no electricity, running water, or sewage disposal systems.

Floods have killed an estimated 2,000 people in China this year. The worst occurred on August 7, and authorities are still attempting to rescue people crying for help and pulling bodies from the mud. Numerous cases of dysentery will probably claim more lives, as access to fresh water is limited.

Donald Bren is a wealthy man who is probably more responsible than any other single person for the development of Orange County, California. In 2008, Forbes Magazine estimated his personal fortune at $12 billion. Court records describe a lifestyle that includes at least three residences, a fleet of 5 jets, a 240-foot yacht, and a large staff of servants. Bren is also a noted philanthropist, having donated at least $43 million to the University of California alone. According to Business Week (2008), Bren's total donations to education, conservation, and research exceeded $1 billion. Two of his children are suing for retroactive child support payments of $400,000 per month, claiming that the $10,000 per month they did receive for awhile was insufficient and did not last as long as it should have.

I know, you're waiting for the hammer -- the moral of the story. I don't intend to provide it. It's just a commentary on the nature of today's world, culled from the pages of a single day's newspaper. You want a hammer -- supply your own! :)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Checks and Balances, Part II

Last week I discussed the balance of power between the people and the government. Here I reveal how a coalition of sub-populations cutting in an entirely different direction (connecting selected people with powerful segments of government) can become destabilizing -- possibly even undemocratic (dare I say dictatorial?).

First, I must confess that I still remember something from college physics. Trust me; this will actually be relevant.

Envision a metal object in the shape of the letter "U" with an internal groove, so that a metal ball placed inside will roll up or down but not fall off the edge. Because of gravity, the ball will inevitably settle at the bottom of the "U" unless it is disturbed by an outside force pushing it up one of the sides. However, the gravitational force will oppose the outside force, resulting in a "stable equilibrium."

Turn the "U" upside down, however, and imagine placing the ball on top, perfectly balanced so that the forces pulling to the left and the right are exactly equal. The ball will remain at rest -- until any force disturbs it. In this configuration, gravity is destabilizing; once set in motion, the ball falls precipitously, and unless something exists outside the system to remedy the situation, it falls permanently off its previously stable perch. This is an "unstable equilibrium."

While the analogy may not be perfect (they rarely are), the societal counterparts to this old physics lesson should be reasonably obvious and at least mildly instructive. The American way of life has a built-in inertia ("gravity") that tends to produce equilibrium -- at least in the long term. The principle of stare decisis formalizes this, incorporating the concept that courts (especially the Supreme Court) should not overturn previous decisions without overwhelmingly convincing rationale. Equilibrium is also evidenced by such expressions -- representing, perhaps, the "conventional wisdom" -- as "don't rock the boat" and "if it isn't broken, don't fix it." The tendency to re-elect public officials in perpetuity -- often in the face of evidence that would easily justify a change -- may also be considered relevant evidence.

So far, the system has worked fairly well. Extremism is generally not tolerated in this country, and "political mistakes" are often corrected. Witness, for example, the reversal of sedition laws (multiple times!), the eventual repudiation of legal segregation, etc.

The question before us now is whether our system of stable equilibrium is in danger -- and I maintain that it is.

The wealthy and the powerful have and always will have a vested interest in controlling the functions of government that can either assist or hinder them. As long as a balance of power exists between these entrenched interests and the "general welfare" -- either through a sense of justice among elected officials regardless of political affiliation or through a distribution of control as a consequence of fair elections -- then a stable equilibrium will be maintained. But if the wealthy and the powerful are successful in gaining overwhelming control, along with the election machinery required to maintain that power in perpetuity, then "the people" will have only one recourse -- the decidedly destabilizing recourse of revolution.

According to the Los Angeles Times (8/2/10, p. A1), conservative organizations (thanks in part to the recent "Citizens United" decision of the Supreme Court) are preparing to spend up to $300 million on the elections that will take place this fall. Given that this money will be spent selectively in key races and that people are known to be influenced by political advertising (especially when the real source of the money is concealed), $300 million is a scary number.

Just suppose (and granted this is a worst-case scenario) that Congress eventually falls into the hands of people who lower tax rates on wealthy individuals and corporations to next-to-nothing and raise tax rates on the middle and lower economic classes. Suppose further that government programs to help the poor (food assistance, for example) are dismantled, partially because they would no longer be affordable and partially because of philosophical opposition. Suppose further that the election machinery falls into the hands of partisan-oriented public officials who use their positions to influence the outcomes. (You say that already happened? Forget Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 -- old news!) Suppose further that regulatory machinery and anti-trust laws are eliminated, allowing corporations to raise prices on essential products, thereby in effect taxing (yes, I said "taxing") the common people to guarantee a continuing flow of money that would perpetuate their omnipresent, self-serving, multi-million dollar political messages.

Does this irreversible condition strike you as a recipe for disaster? But what stands in the way of it actually happening? Unfortunately -- at the moment -- not much.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Checks and Balances

Every reader of this blog -- by definition, educated and intelligent! -- is familiar with the internal checks and balances written into our Constitution, to ensure that no one of the three branches of government amasses excess control.

I maintain that we have not given sufficient thought to that other important balance -- the one between the people and their government.

Now, in order to argue that any sort of balance of power should exist between any two entities, it is necessary to assume or demonstrate that both of those entities have a rightful place in the world order. If either entity did not, then no balance of power would be necessary, or perhaps even desirable.

Let's take first the case of the people. That's only fair, since people -- individuals -- are the most essential building block of society. To claim that they should not have political power (in extreme cases, including the power to overthrow the government) would be ludicrous and contrary to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. It would also, as a practical matter, condone despotism, a force that has been responsible for many mega-tragedies in the world -- since individual dictators frequently find allegedly legal ways, through established governments, to compel their will on subjugated (although sometimes willing) people.

Secondly, let's examine government. At least in theory, it is simply the institutionalization over time of the collective will of the people at any given moment, established with at least one essential objective in mind: the prevention of the inevitable chaos that would result in its absence.

The Founders clearly understood this. Having declared independence from Great Britain, did they move toward anarchy (not used in a pejorative sense) and deliberately set out to organize no government in its place? Quite to the contrary. They recognized a purpose for government in the Declaration of Independence. When the Articles of Confederation proved to be too weak to hold the original colonies together, they scrapped it and wrote the Constitution -- a document generally recognized as providing a stronger central government than its predecessor. To my knowledge, no historian or political scientist (or even Tea Party activist) is today reviling President George Washington for calling up the militia in 1794 to enforce the laws of the United States when a group of people (I use that word deliberately) in western Pennsylvania decided they didn't want to abide by an excise tax on whiskey that had been duly adopted by the established government.

It appears, then, that people and government should share power, the former retaining the ultimate right to rebel if the latter exceeds the boundaries of common sense and humanity, and the latter retaining the right to impose democratically established rules and regulations on its citizens in an attempt to avoid chaos and to, umm, "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." (Did any of those words appear by accident? I doubt it.)

But I see that the word "impose" may be a red flag to some, perhaps even a call to arms. Should the government have more than the power to persuade? Is it really necessary to hand over our guns (figuratively, of course) and grant the collective will authority over individual behavior? Unfortunately, human nature being what it is...yes. If the carelessness (and probably criminal negligence) of BP fails to convince you of that, exemplifying as it does the widespread tendency of people (and corporations) to operate ONLY in what they perceive as their own best short-term interests (which ironically, in our complex society, is frequently also detrimental to their best long-term interests and those of people in general not associated with their special causes), then possibly nothing will.

The Founders were way ahead of us, as usual. Witness Alexander Hamilton in Federalist #15: "Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint."

Wisely, there are constraints on that constraint. Constitutional Amendment #9 says that "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." And Amendment #10 reserves powers "not delegated to the United States by the the States respectively, or to the people." The many will always prevail over the few, using either ballots or bullets, if and when the few perform sufficiently egregious acts, regardless of whether such acts are condoned by allegedly legitimate government.

Today -- every day -- the inevitable irony unfolds in a dynamic and complex nation, home to well over 300 million people, who have very little alternative but to trust a collective authority -- which itself is governed and implemented by fallible human beings -- to safeguard their individual rights and their personal well-being (at least in the physical sense of that term). All things considered -- although some improvements are definitely desirable -- maybe it's not working out all that badly. So far.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Avoidable Tragedy?

Today's Inland Valley Daily Bulletin carried an Associated Press story, reported originally on the front page of yesterday's Los Angeles Times, of an 11-year-old boy who killed himself one afternoon in June despite having alerted school officials earlier in the day that he felt suicidal.

Did it have to happen?

My experience as an executive tells me that disastrous incidents occur for any one of a number of reasons. There may be systemic problems: policies and procedures may be inadequate or even non-existent; required equipment may be lacking or in a state of disrepair. Personnel may be inadequately trained. Personnel may be placed in jobs they could not perform regardless of training because they simply do not meet basic qualifications. Or the system itself maybe overwhelmed due to understaffing.

At first glance, the incident at hand appears to fall primarily into category number one. The school counselor with whom the boy spent the morning crying, reporting that he didn't want to live anymore because of people hitting him all the time, did the right thing by promptly calling appropriate Los Angeles County authorities. Shortly after the boy returned home from school, he was visited by a social worker, accompanied by the police. The social worker, based on information available (which turned out to be incomplete), decided not to remove the child from the home. Shortly thereafter the little boy used a jump rope to hang himself.

Both newspaper reports indicate that a lack of information hampered the social worker from performing his/her job thoroughly. The stepfather who answered the door had been legally barred from living there -- but due to the inability to search computer records from the field, the social worker didn't know that. The social worker apparently also did not know that the child had a history of living in foster homes and homes characterized by violence and drug use. The social worker used a cell phone to make inquiries of relevant Los Angeles County departments that might have provided useful information, but those calls went unanswered and unreturned.

So -- based on facts available at the moment -- this is not a story about incompetence at the operational level. It may be a story about the failure of top management -- given that the County had purchased computers that might have been helpful but not issued most of them to field workers because management failed to purchase the wireless devices required to make the computers useful in the field.

I propose two additional reasons for what might have been a preventable tragedy. First, our society has become so large and complex that specialization governs the manner in which we respond to practically everything. Just suppose that the school counselor with first-hand information on the boy's complaints, not a separate social worker, had been the person to go to the boy's home. Would it have made a difference? We'll never know. But that wasn't the counselor's job. Had the counselor been at the home and made the determination that the boy was not safe, he most likely would not have had the authority to take the appropriate action. Suppose that an inter-departmental case manager had been assigned to the boy from the time he was an infant -- someone who would have known the relevant history and been in a better position to make a judgment. But no such person existed. And in our mobile society, it is unlikely that any such person could have existed over an 11-year period of time. We are stuck, instead, with a fragmented written record -- that was mostly inaccessible.

There is one more reason for tragedies that I deliberately left out of paragraph three above: the people in charge -- the leaders -- have not established the proper guiding organizational philosophy and mission, a creed that governs the actions of every employee every minute of every day. Apparently "NO MORE TRAGEDIES" is not something the leaders have communicated in strong enough terms. Los Angeles County Supervisors have been aware for years that several of their largest departments -- Juvenile Probation and Children and Family Services among them -- are dysfunctional. They claim to care -- but the problems persist. There is one thing a leader does in urgent times -- take urgent action!

I am not naive enough to believe in a perfect world. Sh*t happens. But it could happen a lot less often. We are still waiting for Los Angeles County Supervisors to take urgent action. And while we wait, we weep.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Grand Fourth

We've just celebrated our 234th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. There's nothing wrong with a good holiday, a little beer, one hot dog too many, and some fireworks to help it all settle in. Yes, freedom is a good thing.

FDR spoke about "four essential freedoms" on January 6, 1941, naming 1) freedom of speech and expression; 2) freedom of every person to worship in his own way; 3) freedom from want; and 4) freedom from fear -- which he explained was related to a reduction of armaments and the lack of physical aggression against any other country in the world.

We're actually doing pretty well with #1. Thanks to the Supreme Court, corporations are doing pretty well, too. Expect lots of "free speech" this coming fall, just prior to the general election. Only it won't really be "free" -- all of us will pay for it in higher prices for everything we buy.

Americans are doing pretty well with #2 as well -- far better than people in most countries. I wish we were doing half as well in recognizing the freedom of people not to worship. (Well, it's true, nobody can make us pray. But if we need to interact with certain elements of society, we can be made to feel uncomfortable if we choose that option. Try belonging to a Rotary Club! Try attending a City Council meeting!)

In regard to #3 -- not so much. What FDR was referring to was "economic understanding which (sic) will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants." Right now economists worldwide are debating the merits of stimulus vs. deficit reduction -- without giving much thought to methods of reducing the deficit that are politically unpopular. As a result, people will go hungry, which usually is not consistent with "healthy."

Freedom from fear -- unfortunately not. Physical aggression -- between nations, between people -- continues unabated, even when it's unnecessary, unproductive, and unpopular. Tell the Marines getting their limbs blown off in Afghanistan that they possess "freedom from fear."

My birthday is coming up soon. If you're thinking of getting me a present, consider the following: 1) freedom from deregulation where the potential (no, the LIKELY) result is higher profit at the expense of unnecessary loss of life (e.g. mining and oil extraction operations); 2) freedom from people who use "no taxation without representation" as an excuse to promote their actual philosophy, which is "no taxation at all"; 3) freedom from any more deaths resulting from stupid wars and government agencies that don't do their jobs (e.g. child protective services, juvenile probation departments, etc.); and 4) freedom from rigged elections, anywhere in the world, but especially here in the good ol' US of A.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Discrimination: Alive and Well

Let's just suppose that an organization existed that didn't permit gays or atheists to join. Regardless of whatever good qualities this organization might have, would it be worthy of a formal legislative commendation?

A couple of Inland Empire politicians see nothing wrong with legitimizing this insidious form of discrimination. Assemblyman Curt Hagman and would-be assemblyman Mike Morrell have written the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin to condemn Democrats for refusing the pass a resolution honoring the Boy Scouts of America on its 100th birthday.

I don't quarrel with the Boy Scouts' right to determine its own membership qualifications, although I think what they've done is short-sighted in the least and actually downright bigoted. (Other organizations serving young people -- the Girl Scouts, Campfire, Boys and Girls Clubs, and probably a host of others -- have seen the light.) What I don't understand is the desire to celebrate and applaud discrimination, unless of course you approve of those views yourself.

Unfortunately, the Boy Scouts have lots of company when it comes to discrimination against atheists. During the past six months, I have had occasion to attend four meetings of public bodies. Three of them began with a sectarian, Christian prayer. Since I was there representing my employer, it would have been inappropriate for me to state openly what I felt -- namely, I felt unwelcome. More recently, the City Council in Ontario has voted to add "Under God" to the display of the City Seal in the Council chambers. [Note: Council meetings are presided over by a Mayor who has openly admitted to adultery.] I wonder whether they also plan to hang signs on all the roadways leading into town, announcing that "Atheists Are Not Welcome."

Some people claim that gays and lesbians should not be discriminated against because sexual orientation is not a choice. Personally, I've never been real happy with people who do (or believe) the right thing for the wrong reason. Gays and lesbians should not be discriminated against regardless of whether it's a choice or not. But this misguided line of reasoning, albeit somewhat helpful in a crooked way with regard to the sexual orientation issue, is clearly not helpful to atheists, who are making a deliberate choice. I feel confident in predicting that, at least in the United States ("the land of the free...with justice for all"), atheists will continue to experience discrimination for many generations -- long after gays and lesbians have been received into conventional society by everyone except members of the Flat Earth Society.

Will the Boy Scouts be accepting either type of person when it celebrates its 200th birthday? Only time will tell.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fight Them Over There, Not Here?

The attempted terrorist bombing by Faisal Shahzad in New York City May 1, 2010, conclusively disproves the theory that "if we fight them over there, we won't have to fight them over here."

The truth is, apparently, that fighting them over there has little or nothing to do with fighting them over here. All of our efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, now spanning about eight years (twice the time it took to win World War II), have not resulted in an ability to keep would-be terrorists outside our borders or foil their plots in advance (no doubt with some exceptions).

Meanwhile, we continue to lose American lives -- for what? To prop up a corrupt Afghan government (NY Times, 6/13/10, p. A1) that puts the most flagrant of American political disasters to shame (ok, with the possible exception of Watergate)? To curtail violence in a country in which suicide bombers continue to wreak havoc not only on American soldiers but on their own indigenous population (LA Times 6/12/10, p. A8)?

Let's put things in perspective. This country was outraged, with good reason, when 2,976 people (not including the hijackers) were killed on 9/11/2001. Since then, approximately 4,400 members of the U.S. military have been killed in Iraq, and another 1,000 have been killed in Afghanistan. CNN estimates that approximately 50,000 NATO soldiers have been wounded in both areas combined (most of them American, no doubt, since we supply the vast majority of combat troops). Meanwhile, peace is still not at hand in either country.

Is this an intelligent course of action?

Might we not be spending our precious resources (both lives and money) more intelligently to improve border security and beef up real-time investigations of people who rent vehicles with cash and purchase large amount of fertilizer (the ingredient of choice in home-made bombs -- used, if you recall, with devastating impact in Oklahoma City)?

I know, these things are supposed to be complicated. But there comes a time when your gut should overrule your cortex (even presuming that a thinking person can still believe these efforts to be worth the cost), and you should just conclude "This makes no sense. We should get the hell out of there."

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Awkward Confluence of Capitalism and Democracy

California's Proposition 16, on the ballot for the June 8 election, provides an interesting case in point for a discussion of the merits of unfettered capitalism in a democratic nation that values free speech and extends that right to corporations.

Basically, this proposed "initiative constitutional amendment" would require, with a few exceptions, a 2/3 approval from voters in a selected geographical area before a governmental entity could start offering electric service to its constituents. It is being bankrolled primarily by PG&E, one of the largest investor-owned utilities in the state, which (so far, according to the LA Times 5/28/10, page AA3) has sunk $46 million into the "Yes on 16" campaign. The money is being used to purchase a mind-numbing number of TV ads, plus home mailers.

Aside from the veracity of the "Yes on 16" effort (see below), let's look first at the initiative itself. If a requirement were being imposed that mandated a vote of the people by a simple majority, I wouldn't be writing this post. But imposing a 2/3 requirement makes the motivation for the effort transparent, because everyone knows that a supermajority of that magnitude is almost impossible to achieve. For example, a presidential election is considered a "landslide" if one candidate gets about 55% or more of the vote. President Obama received about 53% of the popular vote in 2008. He won 28 states, not even close to 2/3 of them. Look how difficult it is for the U.S. Senate even to get 60 votes on controversial issues, much less the 67 that would be required to achieve 2/3 of 100.

Personally, I don't think that PG&E (plus a host of supporting Chambers of Commerce) is supporting Prop 16 to advance democratic principles (although that's what their commercials would lead you to believe). No, they are using their right to spend enormous amounts of money (from consumers of their product, of course) to advance public policy that will simply give them more control over their ability to take more money out of those same consumers' pockets (by reducing competition). Students of democracy, tell me where it says that people should be obligated to finance -- without a shareholder vote, of course!! -- the activities of corporations that are diametrically opposed to the best long-term interests of the people footing the bill!

If PG&E believes so strongly in democracy, shouldn't it let its shareholders vote on whether to support a campaign like this? Don't hold your breath. If capitalism thrives because it promotes market efficiency, what's wrong with letting governments operate utilities if they can do it better than private enterprise? (I don't know whether they can or not; it probably depends on individual circumstances. But throwing up insurmountable barriers is not an appropriate way to find out.) What's next -- shall we have a 2/3 vote before we can operate a publicly supported fire department?

Now look at the mailer I received at my house. Does it mention the 2/3 vote requirement? Is a triple fudge sundae good for you? What it says is that "Politicians throughout the state want to spend over $2.5 billion in public funds for government-run electricity -- and they don't want to let you vote on it." The graphic design experts put a big check on this mailer, payable to "local politicians," for "Gov't-run electricity," signed by the "California Taxpayer." Brilliant marketing -- it hits all the usual "hot buttons." Just unfortunately, it seems to omit one vital detail.

Here's the bottom line: most of us believe, to a greater or lesser degree, in the benefits of both democracy and capitalism. What do we do when one tries to destroy the other?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

How Many is "Too Many"?

I've always loved numbers. As a boy, I was well aware that a batting average of .400 (4 hits in every 10 official at-bats) was almost unattainable, even by the best major league stars. The incredible Hank Aaron never ended a season with anything higher than .355.

Following are a few other statistics. Should we be worried, or is this the best our economic and political systems can do? (In other words, how proud should we be of our collective batting average?)

In Los Angeles County, child abuse hotline tips flow in at a rapid clip. Responsibility for investigating them falls to the Department of Children and Family Services. The Los Angeles Times (5/16/10, page A37) reports that more than 18,000 cases are unresolved within the mandated time limit of 30 days, at least in part because there are simply not enough social workers.

Meg Whitman, GOP candidate for governor in the State of California, has donated (so far) $64 million of her personal funds to the campaign (LA Times, 5/16/10, page A43). At an estimated cost per social worker of $75,000 per year, $64 million would supply Los Angeles County with 853 social workers for an entire year.

A careful anonymous reader challenged a statistic I used in my previous post. I claimed that "millions of Americans were dying prematurely because they didn't have access to quality medical care." (Note: I didn't claim that every such case was the fault of insurance companies.) A more accurate number, my reader states, would be more in the range of 18,000 to 45,000 per year. Let's use the higher number, on the assumption that many such cases probably go unreported or undocumented. At that rate, the phenomenon would need to be repeated for slightly more than 44 years to make my statement true.

Well, on November 19, 1945, Harry S Truman sent a Presidential message to the US Congress proposing a new national health care program. In his message, Truman argued that "The health of American children, like their education, should be recognized as a definite public responsibility...About 1,200 counties, 40% of the total in the country, with some 15,000,000 people, have either no local hospital, or none that meets even the minimum standards of national professional associations."

According to Longman and Boshara ("The Next Progressive Era: A Blueprint for Broad Prosperity," p. 118), the New England Journal of Medicine estimates that "uninsured patients receive only 53.7% of the care experts believe they should get." The same book indicates that the journal "Health Affairs" concluded that 10% of the premature deaths in this country are attributable to shortfalls in medical care (p. 105).

A few global warming skeptics have stated that we have nothing to fear from increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because it is a naturally occurring compound (proving once again that a fifth grade education is not sufficient to produce informed public policy). In fact, the atmosphere is about 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.038% carbon dioxide, plus other trace elements and water vapor. At concentrations of 1%, carbon dioxide causes pronounced dizziness; at 2%, we experience reduced hearing and increased blood pressure; 5% causes confusion, headaches, and shortness of breath. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the atmosphere has experienced a 39% increase in carbon dioxide levels since 1800. While plants do use carbon dioxide in photosynthesis to produce sugars, extremely high concentrations actually inhibit the process, and food may eventually become poorer in quality and nutritional value as a result (LA Times, 5/15/10, p. A22).

Speaking of the stratosphere, in 2009 Greg Maffei, CEO of Liberty Media Corporation, earned $87.5 million, from TOTAL company revenue of $10.16 billion (LA Times, 5/9/10). According to its website, Liberty Media Corporation "owns interests in a broad range of electronic retailing, media communications, and entertainment businesses." I was unable to locate information on the total number of people employed by the company; presumably, there must be thousands. However, the CEO alone -- ONE PERSON -- pocketed 0.86% (nearly one of every 100 dollars) of the company's TOTAL REVENUE in 2009.

Had enough numbers for one day? Oh, permit me just one more; you have just read more than 800 words! Thanks for your persistence!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

ALERT! George Will Speaks the Truth (Sometimes)

Read carefully between the lines of the typical conservative invective, and you find that George Will (Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, 4/18/10) actually believes a few things that are accurate.

First, he believes that a Value Added Tax (VAT) has merit, at least under certain conditions. (He doesn't mention that all members of the European Union -- including (gasp!) France!! -- have a VAT. There's only so much truth the average Will reader can bear in a single column.)

Secondly, he admits that the "Great Recession" resulted in a fiscal shambles. (He doesn't mention, of course, that the Great Recession was caused primarily by lack of regulation and capitalists pursuing the American Dream, both legally and illegally. See rationale for this omission in previous paragraph.)

Thirdly (hold onto your keyboards, my friends), George Will admits that "some taxation is necessary." OMG!

Alas, these kernels of truth are sandwiched between the usual poisonous slices of egregious eyesores of expedient and excruciatingly erroneous evasions of rational thought.

Without eliminating the income tax, Will says, "a VAT would be just a gargantuan instrument for further subjugating Americans to government" (emphasis added). In other words, we poor freedom-deprived Americans have already submitted to the giant altar of government control and interference in our lives -- lives that should instead be full of liberty. Yes, every time I drive on a taxpayer-financed road and obey the regulations imposed by traffic signals, I get sick to my stomach.

Manipulating the concept espoused by President Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste" (Wall Street Journal, 11/2/08), Will recklessly charges that the Obama administration believes that "a crisis is a useful thing to create." But I will sleep well tonight, knowing that intelligent conservatives will easily see the difference between taking advantage of a crisis created by someone else and deliberately creating your own.

Democrats pushed health care reform, according to Will, because of liberals' tendency to "lunge to maximize government growth." Presumably, it was irrelevant that insurance companies were acting like bandits, taking policy-holders' money and then withholding services when people got sick, and that millions of Americans were dying prematurely because they didn't have access to quality medical care.

Will refers several times to the "political class" without defining it, but obviously, from the context, he considers it less desirable than, say, the club that backdates stock options. Members of this class "delight" in the "stealthiness" of incremental tax increases, show favoritism (by exempting "green" goods from VAT taxation, for example), and engage in "bossy" behavior by using the government code to regulate social behavior (e.g. taxing cigarettes and outlawing murder).

Finally, catastrophizing beyond the scope of any disorder described in the DSM (that's the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for you non-psychologists), Will claims that introducing a VAT without repealing the income tax "would be the obituary for the Founders' vision of limited government." Presumably he means the government that was created to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." Correct me if I'm wrong, but that sounds like a pretty tall order -- one that requires people who want it to be successful to be willing to help foot some of the bill.

By the way, it is possible to write an article about the VAT that is informative and balanced. Witness "Much To Love, And Hate, In a VAT," by N. Gregory Mankiw, in the business section of today's New York Times.

Monday, April 26, 2010

You May Speak -- But Must I Listen?

According to the Los Angeles Times (3/9/10), the Supreme Court will rule next year on a case in which a religious protester who believes the U.S. is too tolerant of gays and lesbians attempted to crash the funeral of a straight soldier while holding protest signs -- and then followed up on his website with derogatory comments about the deceased. The soldier's father sued the Kansas preacher for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The preacher based his defense on the claim of free speech. This defense was rejected by the jury, which awarded the plaintiff $10.9 million. After a judge reduced the award to $5 million, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the verdict altogether, agreeing that the First Amendment carried the day.

The father appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that he was a captive audience at his son's funeral (and the argument proceeds, presumably, that he could not therefore avoid being subjected to the preacher's "speech").

It's an interesting case, which raises a potent issue: does your right to speak imply that I must therefore listen? If I don't listen, does that risk diminishing the power of your right to speak? If I must listen, doesn't that violate my rights?

I have no idea how the Supreme Court will rule. But as an interesting note, not necessarily peripheral to the primary issue, Chief Justice John Roberts has gone on record as believing that a coerced presence (by virtue of tradition) of the Supreme Court justices at the annual State of the Union address by the President of the United States is inappropriate if the President uses the occasion to criticize the Court (see Ruth Marcus' column in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, 3/12/10). "Very troubling," he apparently said.

In other words, the President has the right to criticize, but members of the Court shouldn't have to listen.

If nobody has to listen, then how much is the right to free speech really worth? But if people must listen (in circumstances where they can't escape the environment in which the speech is taking place -- or where the speech is so ubiquitous (blanket TV ads?) that viewing it is practically unavoidable), isn't that a restriction on their liberty and freedom (loosely defined)?

OK, readers, how do you think the Supreme Court will rule...and why?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Buy Stocks and Enter Coal Mines at Your Own Risk

I dislike repeating the same old themes. But when they slap you in the face, it's difficult to ignore.

By now, everyone who reads this blog is all too familiar with the fact that 25 miners lost their lives in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch location of the Massey Energy Company. They also know that the mine has a record of safety violations distinguished by frequency, potentially disastrous outcomes (e.g. lack of coal dust remediation and inadequate ventilation for build-up of methane gas), and the vigor with which the company appeals the citations.

The common wisdom seems to be that executive compensation should mirror performance. It is also the common wisdom that the CEO of any enterprise is ultimately responsible for what happens. Sure, nobody can know everything; operational details frequently escape the notice of top management. But the CEO sets the tone and establishes the philosophy that guides the work of all employees; indeed, that is one of the primary functions of the position. So the logical question to ask is: How much is the CEO of Massey Energy Company compensated for setting the tone and establishing the philosophy that "violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process"?

According to the New York Times (4/7/10), CEO Don L. Blankenship earned $11.2 million in 2008, about twice what he earned in 2006. Apparently he's been earning quite a large sum for many years, because he spent about $3 million in 2004 to influence the outcome of one political race in West Virginia -- a judicial office!

Here's another egregious example of CEO compensation -- an illustration of how badly the system works if you believe that executive pay should correspond to long-term financial stability and profit potential. According to the Los Angeles Times (4/16/10), Kerry Killinger, the CEO of Washington Mutual from 1990 to 2008, earned more than $100 million over a period of years, including $24 million in 2006 alone. What did he do to earn this reward? He bankrupted the institution, leaving the stockholders empty-handed when the company imploded in September of 2008.

The Los Angeles Times also reports (4/17/10) that Leslie Moonves, chief of CBS, earned $43.2 million in 2009. OK, I admit it -- CBS is not bankrupt, and to my knowledge no employees have been killed in industrial accidents. But if I were a shareholder (and I probably am, indirectly, through one or more mutual funds), I would be outraged. I know a lot of people who work hard and are highly motivated to produce excellent results for the employers -- for a lot less money.

Is there a lesson in all this? I'm not sure, but I think it might be: buy stocks and enter coal mines at your own risk.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Stock Ownership: Theory vs. Reality

"Own a piece of the American Dream!" That, essentially, is the philosophical argument for including stocks in your portfolio. "Earn a good return on your investment!" That is the financial argument for including stocks in your portfolio.

While there may be some merit to both points, especially #2, I think the stockholder is being shortchanged in significant ways.

First, let's examine ownership. To own something normally implies a certain amount of control. If you own your car, you're the one who gets to drive it. But if you're an ordinary stockholder in an American corporation, your power to control -- or even influence -- anything about that company's behavior is essentially zero. (OK, that doesn't apply if you own a significant percentage of the shares; but very few people fall into that category.)

Do you want the company you "own" to lobby less -- or more? Do you want your company to operate in an environmentally sound manner? Establish operations (or not) in politically sensitive countries? Adopt employee-friendly personnel policies? Establish a reasonable level of executive compensation? Write a letter. Attend the annual shareholders' meeting. Good luck! Even large and organized groups of shareholders are typically stymied in such efforts.

All right,management by committee is a bad idea -- and totally unworkable if the committee has thousands of members. So we "owners" delegate our power to management. This would be prudent if management legitimately looked out for our best interests.

This brings us to point #2. A good case can be made that top level corporate managers look out mostly (gasp!) for themselves. Most of them even do it legally (i.e. without resorting to backdating of stock options).

Case in point: according to news reports, the CEO of WellPoint -- you know, that giant insurance company (with its subsidiary Anthem Blue Cross)) that doesn't exactly have a stellar reputation -- got a 51% pay hike last year. She earned $13.1 million, up from #8.7 million the previous year. Three other top executives at the company earned, cumulatively, $16.1 million. Goodbye hamburger, hello filet mignon!

Another case in point: according to the New York Times (4.1.10), the top 25 hedge fund managers earned, collectively, $25.3 billion in a single year. How did they do it? The guy who single-handedly earned $4 billion "bet on the country's survival" by surmising that the government would bail out the big banks.

Most people earn a simple living either by helping create a product or by providing a useful service. Hedge fund managers use other people's money to place bets, and it earns them a fortune. Hooray for capitalism!

I own a very small piece of the American Dream -- almost inevitably -- through mutual fund holdings in my retirement accounts. Philosophically, this gives me no grief at all. Being an executive myself, in a medium-sized non-profit agency, I'm familiar with compensation issues, and I don't begrudge hard-working people an acceptable salary. But I can't help wondering how much more I (and millions of other Americans) could be earning from our stock portfolios if the billions of dollars paid in executive compensation (based on rationale that is marginal at best) were distributed to the shareholders. That money must come from somewhere -- and in my view, it comes right out of the pockets of the "owners."

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Putting the Brakes on the Corporate Model

Syndicated columnist and Fox News commentator Cal Thomas wrote a provocative and surprising article that appeared March 3, 2010, in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. The headline reads "Toyota's troubles stem from choosing profit over quality," and Thomas unabashedly recommends embracing excellence over short-term profits.

It is a measure of how far removed this country is from the culture Thomas suggests that the new CEO of Xerox Corporation was quoted recently as saying that "growth" was her number one priority. Not quality copies. Not customer service. Not corporate citizenship. Not exemplary employee relations. Growth, pure and simple. (Sure, these things are not mutually exclusive. But neither are they 100% consistent. Sooner or later, secondary objectives give way to the more urgent, important priority.)

One of the reasons American corporations typically choose profit over all other (competing) objectives is that they are legally required to do so. That's right. Not long after the Supreme Court ruled in 1886 that corporations were entitled to protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, a judge decided in the case of Dodge v. Ford (and the principle has never been overturned) that "a business corporation is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of the stockholders." And what is it that American stockholders want? Dividends and a higher stock price, hopefully sooner rather than later. What produces these results? Profit.

How ironic (and unfortunate) it is that Toyota's massive current crisis was caused, by its own admission, by a switch from the traditional Japanese model of high quality to the Western desire for growth and profit.

Could it be that the speed control mechanisms on American corporations are malfunctioning, resulting in out-of-control self-interest and a consequent loss of quality and service?

Any ideas on how to apply the brakes? Well, for starters, we could repeal the law upon which Dodge v. Ford was based, or better yet require corporations to consider the public interest, as well as the shareholder interest, when making key strategic decisions.

I can hear the screams of the free market capitalists already!! But consider this: under the current system, too many corporations produce negative externalities (that's "bad stuff" like pollution and unsafe products, to you non-economists) because doing so produces higher profits for their shareholders (and not incidentally, bigger bonuses for the top executives). Extrapolate to the not-too-distant future, and this movement, unabated, will result in wealthy stockholders and the homeless alike wondering what happened to the quality of life. Poisoned air is an equal opportunity killer. Ironically, unsafe consumer products mostly kill the people with sufficient resources to buy them.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Unemployment? Or Unwillingness to Pay for Services?

Once again the daily newspaper provides important policy information, if you read carefully and connect the dots.

On Wednesday, March 3 (2010), the Los Angeles Times carried a front page story describing the lack of quality control and discipline in the county probation department -- because there are "too many cases and not enough staff." As a consequence, juveniles under the department's supervision are almost undoubtedly being abused by sworn officers who should be disciplined or fired. And the situations are not trivial. One case that was resolved involved an officer convicted of having sex with three juveniles in confinement. Another case involved an officer directing five teenagers to beat another juvenile suspected of stealing her cell phone.

More front page news: You already know that Toyota is suspected of building cars with major electronic throttle design problems that result in unexpected and uncontrollable acceleration. Why didn't the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration take a more pro-active role in investigating the reports that started coming in seven years ago? There may be several reasons, including coziness between regulators and the industry allegedly being regulated and/or incompetence. However, depending on which report you believe, NHTSA has only two -- or five -- electrical engineers on staff, clearly not a sufficient number to investigate carefully and get to the bottom of a complex issue.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca (according to an article on page AA3) is cutting his budget by $128 million over 16 months through reductions in overtime and reassignment of administrative personnel to field duties.

States all over the country are experiencing their worst financial crises since, well, maybe forever. Thousands of teachers are losing their jobs, as school districts run out of money.

In today's Los Angeles Times, we discover that approximately half of California residents eligible for food stamps don't get them. One of the problems: welfare offices cannot afford the staff members required to process the applicants. Lines sometimes stretch out the doors, and the telephone goes unanswered. Some applicants simply give up.

Meanwhile, millions of people look for work. No, they're not all trained to be police officers, probation officers, electrical engineers, or teachers. But many of them could be. And most of the rest are either qualified or COULD be qualified to perform tasks that provide society with useful -- even necessary -- services.

If we were willing to pay for these services, we'd get not only more effective government but lower unemployment. Not a bad combination.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Education, Texas Style

I've written fiction -- but I wouldn't dare make up stuff like this.

According to the New York Times (3/11/10, page A18, and a follow-up article on 3/13/10), conservatives on the Texas board of education are re-writing the social services curriculum in a manner more to their liking.

Ralph Nader -- and presumably therefore the entire automobile safety and consumer protection movement that he initiated -- out! Never happened. Those doggone corporations -- icons of the free enterprise system that don't need any regulation -- would never build a vehicle they knew was unsafe -- would they?

Phyllis Schlafly -- vigorous opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, who once described the United Nations as "a monument to foolish hopes, embarrassing compromises, betrayal of our servicemen, and a steady stream of insults to our nation" -- in!

Martin Luther King Jr. -- apparently he can stay. But references to race when describing how different groups have contributed to the national identity will be forbidden, so presumably the textbooks will not be allowed to say he was African-American. And General Stonewall Jackson will be included as a "role model for effective leadership." Yes, these conservatives have a dream!

A majority of the 15-member board of education wants to "highlight what they see as the Christian roots of the Constitution" -- you know, the document that refers to religion only twice: once in the First Amendment, establishing what has come to be known as the separation of church and state, and once in Article VI, stating that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any public office or public trust under the United States."

Oh, by the way, country and western music will be studied as a cultural movement. High school freshmen will probably be assigned the task of writing lyrics to twangy melodies -- when they're not studying about the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association. Yes, they're all "in."

Since Texas buys a lot of textbooks, this modified curriculum may in fact impact the education of most or all public school students in the entire country.

Well, majority rules. I wonder if they'll tackle the math curriculum next. If they do, will 3 plus 4 be redefined to equal 6?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Good News on Bullying

Every now and then the newspaper contains good news. Such was the case this past Thursday, March 4, when the Los Angeles Times carried an article with the headline "Fewer children bullied or beaten up" (page A16).

A study funded by the Justice Department (our tax dollars at work, in a useful way!) and published recently in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine revealed a significant decrease in physical bullying of children between 2003 and 2008. Sociologist David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, cited as a cause the proliferation of school-based programs to combat bullying following the 1999 Columbine High School shootings.

I jumped on the Internet and quickly located that CACRC site -- a great source for anyone interested in additional background information. Among other things, I found a paper on school-based Victimization Prevention Programs (VPP), which detailed the conditions under which such efforts seem to demonstrate success. Among those conditions are: 1) intervention at young ages (if possible, before undesirable behaviors have a chance to develop); 2) active, systematic, and specific skills training; and 3) intensive programs exceeding 20 hours, repeated if possible over a multiple-year period. (Are you surprised by the latter? I'm not. We study English, math, history, etc. every year!) Lecture presentations alone, and the use of fear tactics, tend not to be successful.

It is difficult for me to contemplate anyone arguing that bullying is a useful or healthy activity. There may be some disagreement, however, about the philosophical justification and the logistical feasibility of including VPP in K-12 schools.

In regard to the former, it could be argued that schools are not the proper venue for "social engineering." This is the parents' function, some would say. Well, of course it is! But with 22% of children reporting bullying in 2003 -- and clearly many more subjected to the phenomenon but not reporting it -- maybe the parents need some help. (And some parents, victims of all kinds of negative childhood experiences themselves, are simply not equipped to provide positive role models.) School is a great equalizer, and it is the one social environment that practically every child experiences. Given the negative consequences of bullying on its victims, it seems a shame to me to pass up a proven opportunity to ameliorate a devastating and all-too-common behavior.

Can schools really implement such training effectively in an era when standardized tests have achieved near-deity status? Apparently some of them can, because they do! What's required is funding, teacher training, well-developed instructional modules, and a philosophy that values appropriate social behaviors as well as pure academic knowledge.

What are the consequences of not providing mature social learning environments for our children? Just observe the overgrown children who populate our legislative bodies!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Continuous Improvement

No doubt some of the "conservatives" (for lack of a better label -- generally I dislike labels as oversimplifications) who read this blog feel that I spend too much energy denigrating our society. I can almost hear them say "If you love Denmark so much, why don't you move there?"

The truth is that I'm a patriotic American. Many wonderful things happen here, due in large measure to deeply-seated values (civil liberties, for example), caring people, and governmental/economic systems that can, in the best of times, facilitate an exceptional way of life. I had the idea once of traveling around the country, Charles Kuralt style, looking for moving stories of people doing noteworthy things, writing about them, and documenting them with photographs. Maybe I'll still do it some day.

But I don't believe that patriotism equates to wearing blinders or denying reality altogether. In fact, a sophisticated definition of patriotism might well include a desire (a responsibility?) to move closer to achieving our full potential as a nation.

In the business world -- and yes, in the non-profit world -- we encounter the philosophy of "continuous improvement." What would be wrong with applying that same philosophy to the country?

I wish it weren't true. But a simple reading of daily news provides many examples of conditions that need to be improved. If they are at all indicative of conditions just as egregious that don't get reported (as I suspect is the case), then we as a nation have some serious issues on our hands.

Take today's Los Angeles Times, for example. Front page headline: "Youths held by county were abused." The story goes on to document a "troubled portrait of L.A.'s juvenile probation system," including inappropriate sexual contact, physical beatings, and a culture that discourages reporting of such incidents by those mandated by law to report. (Thank goodness investigative reporting survives!)

Want more? On page A31, we discover that some corporations in California are opposing a bill (despite some attractive features) because it would impose penalties on corporations and wealthy individuals for improperly claiming tax breaks to which they are not legally entitled. (And the Great Terminator has vowed to veto the bill if passed unless it has unanimous support of the various interest groups -- such "leadership!" Pardon me while I vomit.)

Hmm, I wonder how we would feel about bank robbers establishing a coalition (most likely one that would qualify for tax-exempt status) with the purpose of eliminating penalties on holding up the local Bank of America? ("I'm sorry, your Honor, I didn't really mean to do it, and I promise never to do it again." "OK, try to be more careful. Case dismissed.")

An article on page A25 describes evidence that drug maker GlaxoSmithKline downplayed evidence that Avandia, a drug it markets to diabetics, substantially increases the risk of heart attacks. (Once again -- thank goodness for what little regulation and investigative powers remain!)

OK, where does this leave us? People have genetic tendencies toward both self-preservation (self-interest) and generosity (altruism). The dynamic interface between these dual human traits results in complex organisms that are sometimes virtuous -- and sometimes not. Nationalize this condition, and you have America: a country that is sometimes virtuous -- and sometimes not. Is there any shame in wanting to be a better person tomorrow than you are today? Or trying to make the country a better place tomorrow than it is today?

Monday, February 15, 2010

An International Covenant?

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), a multilateral treaty promoted by the United Nations, commits its parties to work toward stated objectives for all its citizens. As of 12/08, 160 countries had ratified it. Not us. The United States has "signed," but the Senate has never ratified.

Part III, Article 6, of the ICESCR says that the parties "recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in this country in January, 2010, was 9.7%, representing 14.8 million individuals. (Remember that to be considered unemployed, you must be seeking work and not "under-employed"; people working part-time and those who have at least temporarily given up the search are not counted.) This "average" unemployment rate fails to note significant differences among demographic groups. The unemployment rate for teenagers was 26.4%; for blacks, 16.5%, and for Hispanics, 12.6%. Since the start of the recession in December, 2007, "payroll employment has fallen by 8.4 million."

Part III, Article 11, of the ICESCR recognizes "the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions."

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce (Census Bureau), 13.2% of the U.S. population had income below the poverty threshold in 2008 -- 0.2% higher than the previous year. "The estimated number of people in poverty increased by 1.1 million to 39.1 million in 2008." The report notes that the statistics only partially reflect the impact of the recession that began in December of 2007 -- so the picture today is undoubtedly more bleak. Once again, averages mask vast differences among demographic groups. The poverty rate in Mississippi was 21.2%; in New Hampshire, it was 7.6%. In households that included married couples, the poverty rate was 5.8%; in single parent households, the rate was 26.6%. Among Caucasians, the rate was 8.2%; among blacks, it was 24.7%. 21% of children live in poverty, but 46% of African American children live in poverty.

Part III, Article 12, of the ISESCR recognizes "the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health" and "the creation of conditions which would assure to all [people] medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness."

According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, "lack of health insurance causes roughly 18,000 unnecessary deaths every year in the United States." A separate study conducted by Harvard University and published in the American Journal of Public Health cited a much higher figure: 44,800. (Statistics are from Wikipedia.) The U.S. has a higher infant mortality rate than most of the world's industrialized nations, according to the CIA. The life expectancy "gap" is growing between the rich and the poor and as a function of educational level -- but narrowing between men and women and by race. Accoring to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks close to the bottom of nations for which data are available in terms of years of potential life lost due to lack of health care. On the plus side, the U.S. has an excellent record in terms of treatment of cancer.

Do you care to speculate about why the U.S. has not officially ratified the ICESCR? (Please don't tell me it's because the Heritage Foundation officially opposes it -- which it does.) Your comments are welcomed.