Monday, July 25, 2011

Here we go again...


After bombing 7 and shooting 86 people dead, now we learn through his lawyer, Geir Lippestad, that Anders Behring Breivik "... feels that what he has done does not deserve punishment" - adding, "He has been politically active and found out himself that he did not succeed with usual political tools and so resorted to violence," - and concluding with: "I await a medical assessment of him,".

Hey Geir. Here's a clue. The guy's nuts.

From all indications, we're going to get another one of those "He Didn't Know What He Was Doing Was Wrong Because He Was Off His Rocker" legal defenses, and I can just picture it. Months of delays will pass while a team of head shrinkers determine the guy's a nut job. Finally we'll get to a long trial, during the first five minutes of which the defense will concede the only important fact: that, well, yes, yes he did murder those people...

Then, everyone from the judge on down will try to look all serious for the next three months as the Mr. Breivik's lawyers try to drum up sympathy for the poor wretch. Eventually, on account of Mr. Breivik being out of his mind and all, the charges will be reduced to something only slightly more sinister than tipping over trash cans. He'll spend maybe a couple of years in minimum security, during which time he snags an interview Anderson Cooper. When he gets out he'll sell the book rights for a million five and marry a Swedish model.

OK OK, maybe I'm being a little sarcastic here. But really, do you honestly believe for one millisecond Norway will ever even consider doing to Anders Behring what Anders Behring did to 93 people without a moment's regret?

Hey Norway, wake up! This jerk killed 93 of your own people! Have your fancy trial. Then give this animal a chance to see what a bullet in the head feels like - first hand.


Thursday, July 21, 2011


An interesting graphic can be found here. It shows deficits by year, 1980 through 2010, in both dollars and as a percent of GDP. Most interesting.

From the ideological side of the fence, I notice that Clinton's surplus did not happen until after the Republicans took over in 1994. I also note that after W's 'monster deficit' in 2004 - which is no where close to where we are now(!) - was followed by a steady decline until 2008. IMHO, the 2008 deficit was predominately caused by the economic collapse, although the budget was most certainly bloated (and first pure Democrat budget in a decade or so). This trend continued into 2009 and 2010, when spending *really* took off. I also think the projected reductions in the deficit in the coming years are woefully optimistic.

All of this ideological analysis means nothing.

Whether Democrats or Republicans get proportionate blame is meaningless. Congress writes the checks, Presidents cash them. Everyone's finger is in the pie with the ONLY goal of "getting re-elected".

We both agree that we have a spending problem. Right now, it appears BOTH SIDES are trying to find a way to push things into the next Congressional cycle so THEY won't have to deal with the very hard decisions which are looming. Rest assured that I'm just as ticked off by the Country Club Republicans as I am by the Wacky Left. Everyone is on a spending spree, and the head-in-the-sand pronouncements that things are not as bad as they could be, hides the problem (and the solution).

Fundamentally, I think either you believe in economic liberty – which is to say that government IS NOT the optimum means of allocating investment – or you don’t. I am hopeful that an increasing number of people realize how we REALLY got in this mess (and who was at the controls, e.g., all of the self-serving 'power brokers'). Unfortunately, this is counter-balanced by an increasing number of the "dumb-masses" who are accepting the argument that government ought to take any money lying around to spend as government wants, and this is OK (e.g., ‘fair’) just so long as it soaks ‘the rich’.

I don’t want to fix blame, and I don't want to shift the burden from Peter to Paul, and I don't want to waste time trying to manipulate who gets the credit... I want true economic freedom to make a Real Comeback.

If I may paraphrase Jerry Pournelle again, "Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free. And the universe is not fair."

- Steve

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A new fantasy writer is born...


Have you ever heard the old saw about how if you put a hundred monkeys in a room with a hundred typewriters, given enough time, eventually one of them will type out the Gettysburg Address?

Well it looks like The Washington Post has decided to run this very experiment, and today's article: "Five truths about the deficit and the national debt" appears to consist of the first day's output.

No, I take that back. Comparing this article to what a monkey would randomly peck out on a typewriter would be an insult to both the monkey and the typewriter.

Where to begin? The first "truth" starts out by defining the word "deficit" (Hooray!), and ends with this head scratcher:

"Think of it this way: There are rich people who borrow a lot of money, and there are poor people who live within their means. The question of whether someone is rich or poor is separate from the question of how much money they borrow."

Steve, call me unsophisticated, but I always thought the question of whether someone is rich or poor depends on net worth, which is assets minus liabilities. In this simple equation, "liabilities" is short-hand for "how much you borrow". What person in their right mind would not understand this?

Don't bother, I checked. The writer is one Neil Irwin, whose resume includes "an MBA from Columbia University, where he was a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economics and Business Journalism." What was this guy's thesis on, Tantric Healing? Wicca? Let's move on...

Truth 2 starts out well, in this case pointing out that the national debt "accumulated over 200 years", thus clearing up a little confusion for those of us who thought it was racked up a couple of weeks ago. But then we learn, "The good news is that there’s really no need to eliminate the debt entirely." because doing that would be "problematic".

For who? Let's see, A: The government has no debt, therefore B: The government pays no interest on the debt, therefore C: The government can lower taxes, therefore D: us taxpayers get more money to spend on Ronco Pocket Fishermen and Suzane Somers Thighmasters. Sounds like a good deal to me. What am I missing here?

Truth 3 wastes no time going off the rails, by remarking: "Not all debt is bad. Some debt is good." No. Debt, like whooping cough, might be a money maker for the doctor who treats it, but hardly a good thing for the guy who suffers from it. Mr. Irwin opines that borrowing money for " a house or for a child’s education" could "pay off handsomely." Why sure it could! But wouldn't it pay off even more handsomely if you were able to pay for that house or that education in cash? After all, you would still have the same house and the same education, but then not have to send off checks to some lender, each heavily larded with interest, afterwards.

Next, take my word for it here, Truth 4 was lifted, with little modification, from the New Car Salesman's Handbook, Chapter 2, "How To Talk A Sucker Into Buying The Most Expensive Car On The Lot." In that handbook, salesmen are taught to say, with a straight face, "Sir, you make a good living. Don't you think you deserve to drive the Zorch 6000X with the gold plated cup holders and 200 horsepower windshield wipers?"

Irwin aligns this strategy with his version: "Not only would a stronger economy make the deficit lower — it would broaden the nation’s capacity to handle a large debt. Just as a $1 million mortgage would be ruinous for a poor family but easily manageable for a wealthy one, the United States can handle a larger amount of debt the greater our national income."

Translation: "You make a lot of dough, spend it." Steve, why? Why does making a lot of money automatically mean you need to borrow a lot of money? Don't get me wrong, I can see the guy who owns a successful business making hand buzzers going out and borrowing money so he can make more hand buzzers. After all, General Electric wouldn't be ripping the public off today with crummy coffee makers and clock radios if old Tom Edison hadn't borrowed a few pesos to get the whole thing rolling.

However, NEWSFLASH: the government isn't the same thing as a private individual or business. Now you and I may disagree on the extent of what exactly we expect government to do - but don't you think that, having arrived at a reasonable set of parameters, shouldn't we assume that government stay within those parameters? I mean why, if by some miracle, government collects enough money to pay for what we want it to do, should it then go out and borrow money so it can do even more? What kind of crazy logic is that?

Finally, as if waking up from some sort of trance or spell, in Truth 5, Mr. Irwin absent mindedly proceeds to contradict everything he has said so far. Possibly by accident, he discovers "debt dynamics". What is that? Glad you asked.

"Debt dynamics" is: "...the concept that deficits and debt have a built-in feedback loop. So when debt levels rise too high, interest rates can rise, making the debt problem all the more onerous. Debt dynamics are the reason that, even though interest rates are very low now, it is worth worrying about current U.S. debt levels."

Well what do you know. Somehow, while wrapping up two pages of naive generalizations, this Columbia University graduate stumbles on the essential truth which every high school drop-out is going to learn the hard way: when you owe a lot of money, it costs more to borrow it. Solution? Try as hard as you can not to go into debt in the first place.

What do they teach over there at Columbia anyway?



Friday, July 15, 2011

Youth, Maturity, Old Age, Life, and some other stuff


Life is a little bit like baseball. In baseball, our champions are towering monuments of success. Yet in baseball, failure is commonplace. Even the greatest athletes who ever played the game are going to fail most of the time they step into the batters box. Last year, the team which won the World Series won 93 games - but lost 70 - which means they lost 43% of the time.

Life isn't perfect either. No matter how much you want to win, most of the time you are going to fail. Civilizations have accumulated all sorts of adages and maxims about failure - most of which are meant to teach us the hidden benefits of it. Experience teaches us, it seems, that the champions among us are not those who succeed the most, but those who fail the least.

Sometimes I think we go through life carrying our failures like millstones around our necks. We learn to evaluate opportunities in terms of how likely they are to result in failure. Most of us are bench warmers, content to let someone else take the field and suffer the consequences of failure - annoyed, no doubt, in some dark corner of our minds when that someone actually succeeds.

Without consciously realizing it, we most often view success as a matter of mere coincidence. If ten people attempt, but nine of them fail, would not that make the single success sheerly a matter of good luck? What, exactly, did the one winner bring to the table that the nine losers did not?

You disagree? Consider:

The most important job of any parent who ever lived is teaching his or her kids not to take unreasonable chances. The first time my daughter ever drove a car on her own, all I could think of was how many ways it could end in disaster. I doubt if on that occasion I spent a single second thinking about any of the wonderful opportunities which driving a car would present her with. All I could think of was the potential for failure. Hold that thought.

My daughter was just the opposite. All she could think of was how cool it would be to drive a car on her own. I knew that. So, I wanted to temper her enthusiasm with a great big blob of anxiety. As she was driving, instead of thinking about weekend drives and hanging out with friends, I wanted her to be thinking about drivers shooting through windshields and mangled body parts lying on the side of the road.

I wanted her to think about failure, believing, as I did, that this would make her a better driver. And you know, I had all the evidence on my side. Its probably true that over ninety percent of all accidents are avoidable. And those accidents would have been avoided if whoever caused them had been thinking about failure first, last and always. Back to life...

Years ago, before we stopped manufacturing things here in America, I worked summers at the RCA plant in Marion while I was attending school. Being a temp, I got sent around to all kinds of jobs. One job they sent me to was just plain exhausting. A line of overhead hangers, each filled with a really heavy, old style picture tube would come by, next to a line of empty hangers going the other way. My job was simply to transfer the tubes from one line to the other.

I was just a shrimp back then, 5'10" and 155 at most. The first time I got this job I really threw myself into it. But, since the tubes were heavy and awkward to handle, the best I could do was transfer them at a rate of maybe 50%. Man, this wore me out - I mean I was dog tired. But proud. I thought transferring half the tubes from one line to another was something of a feat. At the end of the shift I asked a guy working nearby how many tubes the guy I was subbing for could transfer. Almost casually, the guy said, "all of them.".

The next day I was given the same job. Wouldn't you know it, I went from a rate of 50% the day before to a rate of a 100%. And even at that, after doubling my production, afterwards, I wasn't as tired as I had been the day before.

Bear in mind, I had never seen this rate of production actually done. All I had to go on was the word of a guy who claimed to have seen it done. I had thought that, given my size and strength, this was impossible. Yet the simple knowledge that it was possible was all I needed. I hadn't suddenly become bigger or stronger. The only difference was I was convinced of the actual possibility of success.

Trivial as it sounds, I think of this experience quite often. When I do, it occurs to me that succeeding is not so much a question of ability as it is of belief. I think, probably the best baseball players are not the most gifted, but those who are blind to the possibility of failure. When they strike out, they throw their batting helmets in disgust. They can't believe they could strike out, and hadn't spent a single spare second considering what they would do if they did.

Kids don't know much about failure. In their innocence, they say they want to be movie stars and presidents - and great baseball players. They don't know that of all the millions of kids who start out in T-ball, only a few hundred will ever make it to the big leagues.

But you know, if kids had the wisdom of old men like us, there would never have been a Stan Musial or a Sandy Koufax. Or for that matter an Archie Graham, who played one single inning in the Bigs, and whose brilliant and useful life was immortalized in "Field of Dreams".

Thank God we can't inoculate kids against failure with the morbid wisdom of old age!

Along the paths to every great novel or painting, every marvel of art and science, every wonderful thing which makes life the stunningly beautiful journey it is, lie the bodies of those who dreamed large dreams, tried and failed.

All of us, I think, can remember that one dumpy kid who entered the sack race at the annual picnic and came in a distant last - way behind everyone else and usually writhing on the ground at the finish line while everyone laughed.

But you know something Steve? That was the kid who crumpled up his doubts, tossed them away, got in the sack and tried. And he really wasn't last either - behind him, unnoticed, were all the other kids who didn't.


Friday, July 8, 2011

Well What Do 'Ya Know...



Yesterday I watched (via On Demand) the HBO documentary, "Hot Coffee". If you have On Demand, I absolutely urge you to watch it. If you don't have On Demand, go to the show's website and check the upcoming schedule. It will air several more times between now and July 28th. Finally, if you don't have HBO, order the show from your cable provider and I will personally pay the fee.

The show is about "tort reform" and revolves around three cases, two of which I have already put up blog posts on. The first is the celebrated "McDonald's Coffee" case, and pretty much mirrors my post from a couple of weeks ago. Some added information which I found just plain shocking:

The show features graphic images of Ms Liebeck's injuries, and they are a great deal more gruesome than I had imagined. I actually had to divert my eyes from the screen. Ironically, this segment featured several "man on the street" interviews about the case. When asked, no one was familiar with the real facts, but everyone considered the McDonald's case to be a prime example of the frivolous law suit. Then, when shown a picture of Ms Liebeck's injuries, everyone instantly recoiled, and immediately admitted they were probably wrong. There's a reason for this:

An intentionally distorted version of the McDonald's Coffee case was repeatedly used by several groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) to urge "tort reform", first, in the U.S. Congress, and second, in state legislatures across the country when the Federal effort failed.

Steve, here's the point. When Americans suffer harm which may constitute a tort, they have the right to sue the offender in court for compensation and damages. Often, the offender is a major corporation which can bring to bear millions of dollars of legal resources to the court room. When you arbitrarily limit the amount a jury can award to a plaintiff, you are also limiting the amount of legal resources the plaintiff can obtain to argue his or her case - since we all know a great many of the most significant cases are handled on a contingency basis.

Steve, really, do the math.

The rest of the show examines the political forces behind the tort reform movement, the actual consequences of tort reform and the constitutional implications of tort reform. Its every bit as absorbing and enlightening as the first segment. I'm not going to do a re-hash of the show here (you really need to watch it yourself), but a few points:

"Tort reform" has come to mean nothing more than legislation which limits the amounts and kinds of awards which jurys can award to the winners of lawsuits. And remember, in such cases the amount of the award is determined by 12 Americans who sat through the trial and heard all the evidence. When it comes to health care, there is ample evidence to indicate that in those states where tort reform has been enacted, health care costs have continued to rise at the same, or even steeper rates (as they do in Texas) than as in states where tort reform has not been enacted. In other words, in the merciless crucible of real life, tort reform does precisely nothing to bring down health care costs! And yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, tort reform is one of the centerpieces of health care reform as posited by the GOP.

Why would a political party back a measure to bring down health care costs, when in fact that measure has been demonstrated to have no mitigating effect on health care costs? Give me a minute here...

A while back I read a nice piece in the Chicago Sun Times by Roger Ebert (the well known movie critic) entitled "The One Percenters". For some reason, the article seemed to tie together a number of disparate issues for me - many of which we have been talking about on this blog - but I couldn't put my finger on why. Then it came to me. From the article:

"What puzzles me is why there isn't more indignation. The Tea Party is the most indignant domestic political movement since Norman Thomas's Socialist Party, but its wrath is turned in the wrong direction. It favors policies that are favorable to corporations and unfavorable to individuals. Its opposition to Obamacare is a textbook example. Insurance companies and the health care industry finance a "populist" movement that is manipulated to oppose its own interests. The billionaire Koch brothers payroll right wing front organizations that oppose labor unions and financial reform. The patriots wave their flags and don't realize they're being duped." (my emphasis)

Perhaps our system of justice has become antiquated and unwieldy, and should be carefully and openly reviewed for areas in which it can be streamlined and made more efficient - all of course within the framework of the Constitution. But "tort reform" constitutes no such thing. It is in fact nothing more than a cynical means by which corporations can limit an ordinary citizen's access to justice, and thereby increase profits.

Steve, don't you think its a uniquely American principle that "the little guy" has as much right to justice as the wealthiest corporation? Why wouldn't that principle be enshrined, uncomprimised, in our justice system? How can it be a good thing that the informed judgement of 12 citizens on a jury should be altered by arbitrary limitations? Do you think jury's which arrive at these sorts of awards are under some kind of trance, or magic spell, which renders them incapable of deciding which awards are fair and which are not?

One last point. There's a clear and obvious connection between the Republican Party and the Right to Life movement. I couldn't help but think of this connection as I watched the second case which was reviewed in "Hot Coffee". In this case, twins were born to a couple. One of the twins was perfectly normal and the other was severely brain damaged. As it turns out, this condition was absolutely preventable, had the couple's doctor provided the right pre-natal care and the hospital performed the delivery according to well established procedure. This resulted in one of those "frivolous lawsuits" which Republicans are always talking about. Yet the couple won the case and the jury (again, of 12 American citizens) awarded total compensation of 5.9 million dollars.

Yet, in accordance with Nebraska law (a "tort reformed" state), the judge was constrained to limit the total award to 1.6 million. Think about this for a moment. This couple's child is going to require intensive, costly care for the rest of his life, and 1.6 million would not pay much more than a small fraction of the cost. Not only that, but from that award the couple had to deduct their legal expenses, including attorney fees - which left them much less. So, in due course, now that the child has gotten older and the money has long since run out, the boy's care is now being paid for by Medicaid. And how incredibly ironic that is! The very same citizens of Nebraska, who elected the legislators who passed the laws, are now themselves paying for this child's care, instead of the parties who caused this tragic situation to occur in the first place! How fair is that?

But ever so much more important and ironic Steve, Nebraska is one of the states which has become a flash point in the national debate on abortion. In the event, you might just say Nebraskans, by a recognizable majority, would like to see laws passed which protect the rights of the unborn. Some of these laws have even called for restrictions which ultimately criminalize abortion providers under certain circumstances - and there is no doubt the Right to Life movement would like to see abortion criminalized altogether.

Do I have to draw you a picture here? If a person should be outraged, on moral grounds, by abortion, why wouldn't that same person be outraged by the harm done to this child (while unborn) by medical malpractice? Why wouldn't the same persons support laws which not only penalize, but criminalize medical malpractice of the sort which results in a brain damaged child? Why wouldn't they be calling for accountability from the doctors and the hospital which caused that harm, with the same ferocity they brought against George Tiller?


P.S., I'd be remiss if I didn't point out some fallacies of logic and common sense in a few of your comments on this subject.

First, to characterize a subset of trial lawyers as "ambulance chasers" is both unfair and illogical. Certainly, we know from first hand experience that many firms solicit, sheerly for financial reward, citizens who may have been victims of negligence, malpractice or outright fraud. Yet, this is precisely the way free enterprise is supposed to function in American society. A business sees a need, develops a product to fit that need, and either profits or loses according to the success or failure of the product. You might as well call an "opportunist" anyone who comes up with and risks investment in any product. Remember, having obtained a client, a lawyer or law firm must then invest real money and effort in building a case - with absolutely no certainty of being compensated for that investment.

Second, the "loser pays" idea is a canard. It originates from the popular misconception that frivolous lawsuits are easy to file and often cost a great deal more to defend against than simply settling, without any admission of wrong doing, at the outset. Yet, while it is true almost any lawsuit, regardless of merit, is easy to file, the overwhelming majority of those which are clearly frivolous are easily, and at no great cost, dismissed before they even reach trial. Thus, the system has built-in safeguards against meritless lawsuits. "Loser pays" is therefore only going to affect the initial decisions by a law firm as to how much money it would be willing to invest in building a case.