Monday, June 28, 2010

Political Potpourri

In no particular order, here's a run down on some interesting stuff you may have missed, but I didn't:

Gun Ban Overturned
The Supreme Court ruled that the total hand gun ban in a Chicago suburb violated the 2nd Amendment right of citizens to regulate a militia, or something like that.  Good, I say.  The outright abolition of private gun ownership seems to me to be a form of extremism; however, allowing the sale of assault weapons at gun shows with a mere cursory check of the buyer's background, and then a failure to maintain those records seems to me to be equally extreme, in the opposite direction.

In a related story by Dan Eggen,  I read this little nugget buried below the fold on page 3 of The Washington Post recently:
"House Democrats reached a compromise that would exempt the National Rifle Association and other large organizations from proposed campaign finance disclosure rules aimed primarily at large corporations, sources said Monday."  The NRA would be excluded from disclosure rules when sponsoring political ads because they are "more than 10 years ago, have at least 1 million members, and receive 15% or less of their funding from corporations."

Lobbying is bad; Advocacy is good.  The only difference I see between these 2 concepts is the spelling.  Wake me up when the Tea Party decides to denounce this behavior and lack of transparency.

In one more related story, I direct you to The Onion:,725/ 

France Raises Retirement Age
Thomas Jefferson wrote a bumper sticker once that said, "When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty."  Well, the French government really fears the people now.  Riots broke out when the French government announced that the age for retirement benefits is raising from 60 to 62.  Pardon me, but with the average life expectancy about 77 years for a man in France, I think a 15 year subsidized retirement is pretty darn good.  By the way, with worker shortages predicted in the coming decade because of the declining birth rate (among other reasons), we're going to need some of those 61 year old Frenchmen in the global workforce.

I find it important to remind people, particularly those who love to idolize Jefferson as some 18th Century Reagan, that his political thinking was influenced heavily by French culture, and its' philosophy of equality for all.

Romney Starting to Piss Me Off
Here's a quote from an email sent to me from Romney's PAC, Free and Strong America (whatever that means):
"Here we go again. Rather than providing much needed leadership on the oil spill crisis, President Obama and the liberals in Congress instead are trying to use it as an excuse to push through a cap and trade program -- yet another big government initiative that will do nothing to stem the millions of gallons of oil spilling into the ocean, and which will have a negative impact on hard-working American families and the economy as a whole."

I have some problems with Mitt's message above.  First, quit pretending you're Reagan with the dyed black hair and the "Here we go again" quote.  Reagan used that quote in the 1980 campaign, and it worked.  You just sound like a copy cat without any signature phrase, or principle, of your own.  Second, the 2008 McCain-Palin Republican platform SUPPORTED cap and trade as a reasonable, free market-based solution.  That was a short 20 months ago, and the only thing that's changed is that there is a Democrat in the White House who supports a plank from the GOP PLATFORM!!!  Third, are you suggesting, Mitt, that Obama and Congress work to pass legislation to close the Gulf well?  Is it that easy?  Fourth, if cap and trade raises the cost of energy, the market forces that you espouse would dictate that demand would go down.  Isn't that the goal?  Lower demand?

Mitt, you are embarrassing yourself.  You're better off setting up a Twitter account and blaming the media for your ignorance.  Looks to be the quickest path to the nomination.


Monday, June 14, 2010

Until It Hurts

I sometimes yell at my son from the sidelines during his house league soccer games.  I send out my words of instruction and encouragement, while his ears pick up the contradictory instructions of several shouting parents and a blend of high pitched, emotionally charged gibberish, followed by his name.  I don't know what Thomas thinks of the yelling.  I never stopped to consider his opinion of all this parental screaming.  It is cathartic for me.  I enjoy it.  It makes me feel like I am part of the action, and to some degree, that I have control over what is happening on the field.  I also love my son, and believe it to be my duty as a father figure to become slightly unhinged during the game - within reason, of course.

Mark Hyman, author of the book, Until It Hurts, caused me to think about my need to experience the games with my son in a new way.  His book deals with how adults have taken over the games of children and have organized them to the detriment of the children they are supposedly helping.  He tells the stories of kids getting Tommy John (ligament replacement) surgery in their teens, or suffering from other overuse injuries, brought on by sports specialization that comes to kids much too early in life these days.  He tells the story of the growth of the Little League World Series from a neighborhood event to an annual ESPN/ABC event, primarily produced for the profit of adults and the ego-feeding of parents who are living life through their children's accomplishments.  The author himself is guilty of becoming caught up in his own son's major league potential, and he laments how this fantasy separated him from his money and ultimately, from the reality that his son was just a boy, and not a professional baseball prospect at the tender age of 10.  The man has some guilt, and he is happy to share.

My parents didn't come to many of my Little League games, and I can hardly blame them.  I was awful.  In one particularly haunting memory, I stole 2nd base.  My big moment of glory was shattered by my teammate, Kevin, who already occupied 2nd base at the time.  In fact, I had been so happy to have finally reached 1st base (I think I was hit by a pitch, which was as good as a hit for me in those days), that I neglected to notice that the bases were loaded with no one out...yet.  My base running enthusiasm quickly changed that scenario.  My signature blunder led to a triple play, a rare feat in the Little League, as I recall.  I am certain that the parents there to witness this spectacle were yelling fitful shouts of gibberish, followed by my name.  I can't say for sure.  To this day, the only discernible sound in my memory is Kevin Berrigan, looking down at me sliding into his feet as he stood on 2nd base, screaming, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING???"

On the occasions that my father did attend my games, he often reminded me with his special brand of emotionally charged gibberish, followed by my name, that I should stop "stepping in the bucket" when at the plate.  I was too embarrassed at the time to ask what the hell the bucket was, and apparently, it should have been so obvious to me what the hell the bucket was that my dad never saw fit to explain it to me.  No matter.  I was never destined to suffer from overuse injuries or a loss of childhood innocence because of my athletic prowess.  And I figured out what the bucket was approximately 15 years after my final Little League at bat.

Mark Hyman's book did make me wonder, however, about the other kids, the ones with talent and promise.  Are we too tough on them, or are we teaching competition and perseverance and team work and commitment?  Where is the line between indulging kids, living our lives through their accomplishments, and teaching valuable life lessons through sports?  According to Hyman. the line is somewhere just before the doctor recommends Tommy John surgery for your 15 year old, and well before the point where you as the parent begin to consider it.  That seems to be as good a line as any.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Let's Read a Book!

There is very little upside to a missed flight connection and 24 hours of stand-by hell, but one important benefit of this recent unscheduled trial for me was time to read, specifically The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care.  The book follows reporter T.R. Reid and his bum shoulder joint on a search through all the major health systems on the planet for adequate care and relief.  His account is instructive to the non-economist (like me) and simply told for non-medical personnel (like me).  I highly recommend.

The story of his travels parallels his investigation of health care delivery and financing in a personal and a national way, in the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Japan and India.  What he details for us in this MUST READ are that most of the wild accusations and dubious claims about health care in other countries over the past 18 months of echo are based on elements of truth.  Put another way, both sides of the argument have legitimate points to support their positions and to discredit the opposition.  Both sides.  That's what makes this such a vexing issue.

The key takeaway from this book for me was an understanding of the four major health care systems in the world, how they operate, and why they operate in that fashion:
The Beveridge Model:  Free health care for all, financed by taxes.  Classic "socialized medicine".  Countries that uses this model, or a variation, include Great Britain, Italy, Spain, and most of Scandinavia.
National Health Insurance Model:  Providers are all private, but the government runs the insurance side of the business.  Single payer system.  This is the program in Canada, as well as Taiwan and South Korea.
The Bismarck Model:  Health care providers and payers are all private, and the program is usually financed through employer and employee contributions.  There is choice and competition in this model, but the system operates as a non-profit.  Germany, France Japan, Belgium, and Switzerland fall into this category.
Out-of-Pocket Model:  The rich gets care.  The poor get sick and die.  This is the program in the Third World, and the United States.

All 4 models exist in one way or another within our hodgepodge delivery system.  According to Reid:
If you are a working person under 65, we're most like Germany.
If you are a member of the military, a veteran, or a Native American, we're Great Britain.
If you are over 65, we're Canada.
If you are among the 45 million uninsured, we're Cambodia.

Throughout the recent rancor and angst over health care reform, I often wondered why 3 points were not emphasized with more passion:
1.  Access to health care for all citizens of the world's richest nation is a moral imperative.  Profiting from the denial of treatment is evil.
2.  Our country spends 17% of its' GDP on health care, and yet does not deliver the best results in the world OR cover everyone.  Our global competitors spend less and have a healthier workforce.  Health care access is an economic imperative, and we are LESS competitive in a global economy without universal coverage.
3.  We are foolish jingoists not to openly embrace the successful elements of the models in place in other countries, be they friend or foe.  In fact, for our elderly, government workers, and military members, we have already enacted "foreign" non-market based programs.

I do not know if the recently passed health care reform will work, or be embraced by the populace.  I do know that the debate and the resulting legislation would be healthier and more based on facts than fictions if everyone had read this book.

I recommend picking it up at your local library, and don't wait until your next canceled flight.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Perfection of Civility

Armando Galarraga peers in for the sign.  His heart is pounding.  Each player on the field has muscles taut, pounding his glove, hoping the ball comes to him so he can be a part of history.  The crowd is clapping yet breathless.  There have only been 20 perfect games in the history of the game.  No one is expecting this, not tonight, not from this pitcher.  He winds and delivers, just as he did for the first 26 batters he has faced.  Jason Donald defends the plate and gets some wood on the ball.  It's a bouncer towards second.  Miguel Cabrera moves to his right, grabs the ball on the hop, turns and fires to where Galarraga is headed - the first base bag.  The throw is on target, he taps first base with his foot just ahead of the sprinting Donald, and he'  Jim Joyce blows the call, as replay will prove, and this becomes just another game with 28 batters instead of the perfection of the minimum 27.  Anguish and disbelief.

Baseball as a game can sometimes be unfair, and by extension, sometimes life is unfair, too.  It's a lesson I teach my kids, and it's a lesson that both Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga learned on this early summer evening.  Yes, it's a hard lesson, but sometimes bad things happen to good people.

I wonder how our current political parties would handle such random unfairness.  The Democratic response would be to condemn the mistake, chalk it up to the flawed structure of the game, and demand more oversight, more regulations to prevent another such injustice from ever happening again.  The GOP would argue that mistakes happen, and had the pitcher struck out the batter, the play never would have happened.  He had every opportunity to try harder to place his pitch in an unhittable area for the batter, and he blew it.  The Libertarians would wonder if an umpire is really even necessary, and the Socialists would centralize all judgment calls in a single, all-powerful committee of experts for a determination of each play's result.  Of course, the Tea Party would blame the government and believe that more guns would solve the matter.

At the end of the day, all of these political approaches would fail to address the ultimate issue - life is unfair.

The true lesson for us all might be best demonstrated by the reactions of both the pitcher, Galarraga, and the umpire, Joyce, after the game.  Jim Joyce accepted full responsibility for blowing the call.  Armando Galarraga accepted his apology, and has moved on to prepare for his next turn.  For me, the perfection of the moment has come through the way these two gentleman have handled this matter, not through a mere 27 consecutive outs in a game.  Our leaders should strive for nothing less than perfect civility in a world that is sometimes unfair.

That's what I'll tell my kids.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Play's the Thing

Art Linkletter passed away last week at the ripe old age of 97.  He would have enjoyed this event.

Art Linkletter, for those unfamiliar with his body of work beyond retiree life insurance TV pitchman, hosted a show in the 1960s (could have been the 50s) called House Party, which was the father of Kids Say the Darnest Things, starring Bill Cosby.  The premise was simple.  Ask kids questions about their lives, their beliefs, their families, and let the magic happen.  As any parent can tell you, following the circular logic of a child under gentle interrogation can tell you a lot about life's truths, and often times, a lot about the parents.  The unfiltered innocence and honesty is compelling, and our audience response to such transparency is to love them and laugh with them.  Love and Laughter - the cornerstones of every great TV show.

This event that he would have enjoyed was Lucy's preschool bridging ceremony, a celebration of the successful completion of the designated course of study, and the end of our monthly tuition payments.  Both achievements brought tears of joy and relief to my eyes.

Her preschool's educational philosophy is to learn through play, and the graduates demonstrated their mastery of the curriculum for an anxious audience of parents, step parents, grandparents, step grandparents, siblings, step siblings, nannies, au peres, and other invited guests, all performed with the steady beat of Pomp and Circumstance driving the action forward.  There was the boy who had to yell at the top of his lungs during the chorus of each musical number, clearly proving that he knew the words to the song better than his peers.  There was the debutante, dressed in chiffon, lace, and uncomfortable shoes, wearing a dour look on her round face as she crossed the stage, dour until a camera flash lifted the corners of her mouth to the ceiling and froze her movement into a well rehearsed glamour shot pose.  There was the young gentleman whose dance movements were exaggerated beyond the confines of the original choreography, so much so that nearby children had the good sense to give him a wide berth, partnered with a jealous glare.  And there was my daughter, who lit up once she recognized her mother and me in the crowd with a bright smile that will lit up our hearts for years to come.

Kids playing, making friends, and learning without preconceived agendas, without fear of failure, without the pressures of profit and loss, in a secure environment blanketed in unconditional love.  And look at what they were able to accomplish in language development, social skills and spiritual growth in 3 short years.  It made me wonder when playing and socializing become distractions from learning instead of the primary method for learning.  In play, the task itself is its' own reward, and play has its' own intrinsic value.  We are fulfilled by the process, and the task of play is in itself the result.  Perhaps real success and fulfillment in life is rediscovering that sense of play in everything we do.  Play is an innate activity, and we learn through play.  When elementary school begins, we learn that play isn't learning.  Maybe that's wrong.  Maybe it is unnatural.  Maybe true, deep learning only occurs through play.

Art Linkletter would have enjoyed this event because he understood that the joy and innocence of childhood is something that we should all relive from time to time, and learn from.  He knew that we can learn a lot from kids, if we'd just ask and listen from time to time.