Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The FCC's Censorship Campaign

A recent New York Times editorial The Censors Lose in Court again raises the question of how much or even whether the Federal Communications Commission known as the FCC should be in the censorship business.

But what does the FCC do? A look at the FCC’s
organization with its seven bureaus and especailly the ten staff offices looks like a prime example of government bureucracy run amok. How much of all of this is really needed? Who knows?

But I think that most of what the FCC does can be categorized into two roles:

One is to regulate how the airwaves are allotted to its many users by licensing. Without someone to do this, it would be chaos with people fighting for broadcast frequencies and interfering with one another. Part of this regulation was to allow adequate diversity of licensees to help ensure enough media choices by consumers. More on that later.

The other and more controversial role is to ensure that broadcasters are ‘serving the public interest.’ With such a subjective guideline, an overzealous bureaucracy can have a field day meddling into our viewing choices. More importantly, when an organization is run by a group of 5 commissioners appointed by the president, 3 of which are normally from the president’s own party, political ideology can trump practicality — especially when it is conservative ideology.

If I have one gripe more than any other with conservative ideologues, it’s with their insistence on smaller government and minimal government interference in our daily lives — except when it comes to enforcing their ideas of moral values.

The FCC has long been involved in promoting ‘decency’. A most notable example is their efforts to regulate the use of George Carlin’s
"Filthy Words" on the radio. And especially under President Bush, the stakes have been raised with the large fine the FCC attempted to levy against CBS for Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during a 2004 Super Bowl broadcast. And later, we got the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 which resulted in a tenfold increase in fines against broadcasters. The results are as the New York Times editorial states:

The F.C.C. rulings have had a serious impact on free expression. Because the agency’s rules are so vague and the penalties so great, artists, writers and broadcasters have been censoring themselves. Last year, PBS offered two versions of Ken Burns’s documentary “The War,” one deleting the coarse language often used in war for stations reluctant to risk fines.

If you look at the FCC's side of the argument, they are just regulating “indecent” programming that is broadcast before 10 PM. If I were able to at least watch late night TV without censorship, I would be happy with that. But probably because a broadcast that is late night for me in the Eastern Time Zone may not be so late for others elsewhere, these shows have no less censorship than ones shown at other times. And I’m sure that the FCC is showered with complaints from people who don’t approve what they are watching and listening to. But instead of enabling people who want to impose their moral values and tastes on others, these people should be gently reminded that their TVs and radios are equipped with on-off and channel selector controls!

Indeed, some people do find some language and sexual/nudity content to be offensive. And just like I don’t want others to impose censorship on my viewing choices, it is just as important that we respect the feelings of others so they are not unnecessarily subjected to what they feel is offensive. Also as parents, we want control over adult content that we feel is unsuitable for our children. So can we keep everybody happy at the same time? With modern day technology in the form of the
V-Chip, the answer is mostly yes.

Just like the MPAA movie ratings that were introduced many years ago, TV shows now have
Parental Guideline ratings that using the V-Chip technology on most TVs manufactured since 2000 allows parents to block shows that they feel are inappropriate for their children. But just as importantly, this rating system can be used (and with programs blocked if desired) for adults who may find some shows to be offensive.

This doesn’t solve the problem of ‘fleeting expletives’ that occasionally creep into live programming but overall, it addresses the need for offering programming without unnecessary censorship. The only real
criticism of the V-Chip is that it is rarely used due to not knowing about its existence or laziness about learning how to use it. But whose fault is that? To address this, the Ad Council has been running its You're The Boss commercials to help make people aware of the V-Chip.

But there are other alternatives that people are using to get away from censorship. Pay TV services like HBO do not have their content regulated for ‘decency’ by the FCC although their programs do have the Parental Guideline ratings to allow subscribers to be informed of their programming choices. And satellite radio is a refuge for those like Howard Stern who have fought censorship issues on broadcast radio. But hey, that’s not fair! Why should free TV and radio be so regulated while pay services are not? And why is uncensored programming only available to those who can pay for it? But fear not! The FCC feels your pain! If they had their way, they would
regulate pay services too!

There are many more communications issues besides censorship that are affecting us. For example, the conservative movement toward business deregulation now allows single owners to own several radio stations in one city which critics say has lessened competitive choices in both programming and news. And if the current FCC chairman has his way,
more loosening of restrictions for the ownership of media outlets will be coming. And satellite radio which formerly had only two competing companies, Sirius and XM, have just received formal FCC approval to merge creating now just one!

For those who would like to learn more about important communications issues affecting us, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports offers one of their websites

So what can we do about agencies like the FCC which are run by people who do not directly answer to its citizens? Our next president will get to nominate the next 5 FCC commissioners who will run the agency. Who we elect will determine which party will get that crucial 3-2 majority that makes its important decisions. So this is still another reason to get out and vote this November!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Can We Talk About Depression?

One of the most noteworthy articles I have read in the last month was Smiling Through, a New York Times blog by former talk-show host Dick Cavett recounting his battles with depression. But as touching as the article was, many of the comments, some 500 of them sent in by readers were even more so. More than anything else, the common theme was that depression is still widely misunderstood by those who have never experienced it. Cavett gives his credentials as “Having been there myself.” Me too.

Depression is a lot more common than most people believe.
It has been estimated that about 4.3% of the world's population is affected. Indeed, there are a number of famous people past and present who have suffered from either depression or bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder also known as manic depression can be an equally debilitating condition where abnormally low (depressed) moods alternate with abnormally high (manic) moods. You would think that such a common and serious problem would be discussed more openly if for no other reason but to encourage those who suffer to seek treatment. But sadly for many, depression (along with other mental illnesses) remains a dirty little secret most of us can’t talk about.

The first public talk about depression that I can remember goes back to 1972 when Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern selected
Senator Thomas Eagleton as his running mate. Shortly after, newspapers exposed Eagleton’s dirty little secret that between 1960 and 1966, Eagleton checked himself into a hospital three times for physical and nervous exhaustion, receiving electric shock treatments twice. The thoughts of a depressed Eagleton receiving electric shock treatments must have conjured up images of a science fiction monster which was apparently too much for the media and many others to take. So McGovern reluctantly had to replace his nominee. However, it should be pointed out that although Eagleton’s depression made him apparently unfit to be a vice president, he served successfully in the US Senate from 1968 until 1987. And one of Abraham Lincoln’s biographers Joshua Wolf Shenk, wrote these words in
Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life, and if he were alive today, his condition would be treated as a "character issue"—that is, as a political liability. His condition was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation.
But it is most important to point out that many effective ways to treat depression like anti-depressant drugs were unavailable to Lincoln. Today, enduring depression without treating it is needless suffering!

So what is depression? Is it the same as sadness? While a depressed person can obviously feel sad, interchanging the two words is what causes the confusion.

Sadness is something we feel as a normal reaction to some of life’s events. And for losses that are especially painful, we grieve. But while sadness and grieving can last for a period of time, a normal person will eventually recover and be able to function as before.

But some of us are unable to mentally recover from events like this even after a longer period of time. And some people feel sad for long periods of time with no apparent event that triggered it. These are the people suffering from a medical condition called depression.

For those who experience it, depression is so much more than just sadness. It often robs us of the will to do anything about it. As Dick Cavett relates:
Apparently one thing I said on “Larry King” back then hit home hard. It was that when you’re downed by this affliction, if there were a curative magic wand on the table eight feet away, it would be too much trouble to go over and pick it up.
And at its worst, it can even rob us of the will to live.
The most extreme problem that depression presents is suicide. It’s the reason you don’t dare delay treatment. Don’t mess with it. Run for help — whether it’s talk therapy, drug therapy or the miraculous results of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy, erroneously labeled “shock therapy”). The shock involved is closer to insulin shock than electric shock. It’s a toss-up whether more people have been scared off it by “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” than have been scared off medication by Tom Cruise’s idiotic braying on the subject on “The Today Show.”

Suicide rarely happens when you are all the way down in the uttermost depths. Again, it’s too much trouble. Perhaps the saddest irony of depression is that suicide happens when the patient gets a little better and can again function sufficiently. “She seemed to be improving,” is the sad cry of the mourners.
For those well-meaning people who suggest to those who may be suffering from depression to just “Snap out of it.” or “Cheer up.” I hope the preceding paragraphs have given you a better understanding of what these people may be actually feeling.

But help is available! For a professional but very readable overview of depression, you can check out this link from the American Psychiatric Association on Depression which includes the following:
For many people, depression cannot always be controlled for any length of time simply by exercise, changing diet, or taking a vacation. It is, however, among the most treatable of mental disorders: between 80% and 90% of people with depression eventually respond well to treatment, and almost all patients gain some relief from their symptoms.
I suffered from depression and got professional help. My anti-depressant medication helps me to now live a more normal life (but I have had some relapses). And while some brand-name medications can cost hundreds of dollars a month, some drugs that may well be just as effective are available as generics for a little as $4 a month at Wal-Mart in addition to Sam’s Club, Target, and some supermarket chains. This is worth noting because unfortunately, many health insurers still place more stringent limits on mental health benefits — something that needlessly prolongs the stigma around receiving mental health care.

As a practical matter for most of us with mild to moderate depression, a visit to the family physician is a good place to start so that any other medical conditions can be ruled out. The family physician can then refer the patient to a psychologist or psychiatrist if needed. Talk therapy is often effective either in place of medication (especially for mild depression) or in addition to it.

For those who may be suffering from more severe depression especially with
suicidal thoughts, these options are available to you:
  • Dial: 911
  • Dial: 1-800-273-TALK (the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline)
  • Check yourself into the emergency room.
  • Tell someone who can help you find help immediately.
And please consult this link if someone you know is suicidal.

In closing, I would like to offer these concluding words from the above Depression article to not only you the reader, but any friends or loved ones who may be suffering from depression.

Depression is never normal and always produces needless suffering. With proper diagnosis and treatment, the vast majority of people with depression will overcome it. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, see your family physician or psychiatrist, describe your concerns and request a thorough evaluation. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Do We Need a Minimum Wage?

With the US minimum wage scheduled to rise this week, the debate over its merits will start up again. In fact, there seems to be no better way of finding out where someone is on the political spectrum than asking them their views on the minimum wage.

Generally someone of a liberal mindset will feel that a minimum wage law is necessary to keep the working poor from being exploited by “greedy businessmen” while those on the conservative side will feel that laws of supply and demand should decide wage levels and that the government shouldn’t interfere.

Within each side are more extreme viewpoints. For example some liberals believe that the minimum wage should be raised high enough to allow the working poor to escape poverty no matter how high the wage has to be raised to accomplish that.

Then there are some conservatives who feel that there should be no floor whatsoever on what people are paid — even if it’s a quarter an hour! For those who think I am exaggerating on this point, check out Stephen Colbert’s July 15 interview of Jason Riley from the conservative editorial board of the Wall Street Journal in this
video link.

For those unfamiliar with The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, it is a comedic parody of news shows but with interviews featuring real people in the news. I would like to share a transcript here of the video starting at the 4:48 mark:

Colbert: How do you feel about minimum wage, sir?

Riley: I’m a free market advocate. I don’t believe in the minimum wage.

Colbert: So we get all these people who come from a country making 25 cents an hour; they come here, we can pay them 25 cents an hour? That’s a good bet. Wait a second! You’ve just sold me. You’ve just sold me sir! This was just a trick Mr. Wall Street Journal!
This will be cheap labor! They’ll be like indentured servants!
(Audience laughter)

What is obvious from the video (but not the transcript) is that Colbert is using comedic exaggeration about people being paid like indentured servants to get some laughs — which he did. But Riley either didn’t get the joke or ignored it and just matter-of-factly responded:

Riley: As a consumer, you want businesses looking for cheap labor because that results in lower prices.

Colbert: No matter how cheap it is?

Riley: Well, cheap labor results in more business profits, which results in more capital investments, which results in more business expansion and more jobs.

So in this far right view, it’s all about business profits no matter how much the workers may be getting screwed in the process. And while our subject here is the minimum wage, it is impossible not to include some consideration of our immigration problems when addressing this issue. According to this thinking, if companies can get away with paying what most of us would consider to be slave wages to immigrants, especially illegal ones who are not in the position to complain, why not? So when the New York Times on July 21 came out with an editorial Pushing Back on Immigration which included the following excerpt, I couldn’t help but be cynical.

In Arizona, home to some of the most rabidly anti-immigrant politicians and advocates, a business group had huge success gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would soften some of the most stringent employer punishments enacted last year.
An example of a much more sympathetic view of the minimum wage comes from this New York Times editorial
After 75 Years, The Working Poor Still Struggle for a Living Wage which also gives an interesting history of how the US minimum wage laws came about.

But what is the minimum wage law supposed to be accomplishing? Basically it is two things. One is to try and prevent businesses from exploiting some workers by paying them an ‘unfairly’ low wage. In theory at least, the law of supply and demand will set what is a ‘fair’ wage that both employer and employee agree to. Indeed, in some locations where there is ample competition for labor, some companies offer more than the government set minimum to be able to attract workers. But in many other locations, especially rural areas, there are fewer employers to choose from. For example, in some rural towns, a single company like Wal-Mart may have almost all of the employment opportunities. Without a minimum wage law, a company in that position would have workers in that town at its mercy in the way of offered wages. And one must also consider that with $4 per gallon gasoline, the practical distance one can drive to what may be a better paying job becomes quite limited.

The other thing most proponents want from a minimum wage law is to help fight poverty for the working poor. Many of us who are middle-class and above think of minimum wage jobs as ways for teens to get spending money or perhaps help pay for college. But it is often overlooked that there are people trying to raise families on jobs like this. If nothing else, we need to at least see that these people will not continue to lose spending power because of inflation. For example Social Security payments are automatically adjusted for cost-of-living increases, but minimum wage rates are not. So unless Congress decides on raises at somewhat regular intervals (which they haven’t) the working poor and others are falling further behind each year due to inflation.

Let me offer a personal example. Back in the early 70s when I attended the University of Pittsburgh, my $2.25 per hour minimum wage salary as a restaurant worker was enough for me to pay my $1,000 per year tuition at the time and even have a little money left over to save. But by comparison, today’s minimum wage is only about 3 times my salary back in the 70s, but that same college tuition has increased about tenfold to over $10,000 annually!

But even most liberals realize that there is only so much that can be done to fight poverty through the minimum wage which is why another method is also used to try and lend a helping hand to those struggling with poverty in the form of the
Earned Income Tax Credit which through tax policy attempts to target those who need help the most.

So when we think about our minimum wage laws, we need to think about those living
life at America's bottom wage. Most fair minded people would agree that there should be a reasonable balance between the interests of the workers and those who employ them when making government policy. But with a political climate in the US that has in recent decades been decidedly pro-business, the working poor have been getting the worst of it as evidenced by the steadily declining minimum wage when adjusted for inflation. If we are to be a nation of compassionate people we need to give a helping hand where needed to people who are working to stay out of poverty. And we need effective minimum wage laws as an important part of that effort!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Renewable Energy May Be the Answer

Al Gore on July 17th delivered a truly remarkable speech outlining his vision for a proposed energy policy that would not only mitigate global warming but also make the US energy independent by generating 100% of our electricity from non fossil fuel sources. But if that weren’t enough, he wants us to get there within the next 10 years! I have included some of Gore’s speech excerpts below, but for those who are interested, here are links to the video and the transcript of the speech.

We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that has to change.

For those who admire Gore, this was a long awaited good thing. As much as they praised his Oscar winning documentary on global warming An Inconvenient Truth, one of the problems with the film is because so much of it is about convincing us about the reality of global warming, he gives little in the way of practical suggestions on what we can do about it until the ending credits are rolling. But now this speech finally addresses that missing element of the film.

But ironically, what is also most discouraging is that it had to come from Al Gore. That means that there is a significant portion of those mostly on the political right who will dismiss what he had to say without even bothering to find out what the speech was about. And that’s a shame because I believe what he has said at least deserves to be heard.

For those who didn’t notice our energy crisis before, $4 per gallon gasoline here in the US got their attention. And while there are a number of reasons for this, the most likely is the increased demand from emerging industrial nations like China where more and more people are giving up their bicycles for automobiles. And because oil is often needed to produce and transport food, prices at the supermarket are rising too. So we have to do something! The main choices are to either look for more oil to try and meet the ever growing demand. Or look for alternatives to oil.

But in addition to the rising cost of energy, we also need to address the issue of global warming a.k.a. ‘climate change’ which although it still has some (mostly) conservative skeptics has finally been acknowledged as a problem by both President Bush and Republican presidential candidate John McCain. However, the good news is that there may be an answer to BOTH problems — the expanded use of renewable energy.

Renewable energy is energy generated from natural resources — such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides and geothermal heat — which are renewable (naturally replenished). Renewable energy technologies range from solar power, wind power, hydroelectricity/micro hydro, biomass and biofuels for transportation. Right now, the lion’s share of our electricity and transportation needs come from coal and oil respectively with a small (but growing) share coming from renewables. There are two main reasons for this. One is that coal and oil have historically been relatively abundant and cheap. This made renewable energy impractical from a cost standpoint. But things have changed. Coal, while still being abundant is a major environmental offender and the price of oil has skyrocketed. While the short term effects of high oil prices may hurt like hell, it could be a blessing in disguise if it forces us to seriously look for alternatives to break our addictions to oil and other fossil fuels.

When I first went to the Congress 32 years ago, I listened to experts testify that, if oil ever got to $35 a barrel, then renewable sources of energy would become competitive.

Well, today, the price of oil is over $135 a barrel. And sure enough, billions of dollars of new investment are flowing into the development of concentrated solar thermal, photovoltaics, windmills, geothermal plants, and a variety of ingenious new ways to improve our efficiency and conserve presently wasted energy.

The second reason for the relative lack of renewable energy use is the perception by many that it is only useful for small scale uses and will always be a bit player compared to power plants to produce our electricity. But this is changing too. For example, when we used to think of windmills, we would think of the charming Dutch windmills. But many of us who have traveled around the country have now seen wind farms with collections of modern wind turbines for generating surprisingly substantial amounts of electricity. Likewise, solar electricity was once seen as a gimmicky idea of ‘green’ homeowners who wanted to show the world how environmentally conscious they were. But solar energy is now our fastest growing form of energy production.

Scientists have confirmed that enough solar energy falls on the surface of the Earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world's energy needs for a full year. Tapping just a small portion of this solar energy could provide all of the electricity America uses. And enough wind power blows through the Midwest corridor every day to also meet 100 percent of U.S. electricity demand. Geothermal energy, similarly, is capable of providing enormous supplies of electricity for America.

And to try and replace oil, most of us are now familiar with biomass in the form of corn ethanol as a supplement to our gasoline supply. Because of political considerations, corn was chosen as the main crop for our government to subsidize into the making of ethanol. But the law of unintended consequences prevailed and the price of corn for food skyrocketed. However, there are believed to be superior non-food ethanol alternatives we can grow like switchgrass which can be grown on prairie lands.

There have been a few other false steps in the development of alternative forms of energy. For example, some wind farms are in locations where many consider them to be eyesores — but there are plenty of windy locations both on land and off the seacoasts that are remote enough that they should not bother people.

As appealing as many of these alternatives may be, no single one can be the answer to all of our energy needs. But they can well work together as pieces of the complete energy puzzle. Although nuclear power is safely used throughout the world and doesn’t contribute greenhouse gases that are considered to be the cause of global warming, it is still controversial to many. So one solution could be to provide as much of our energy needs by renewable sources and then go with nuclear for the remaining needs if necessary.

And let’s not forget about conservation as an essential piece of the puzzle. Insisting on fuel efficient automobiles and energy efficiency for lighting, heating and cooling helps a lot too!

But do we really need an energy policy? With all of the complex and sometimes interacting pieces of the energy solutions puzzle, we need a coordinated effort to make sure all of these pieces fit together properly. And in addition, many of the renewable energy sources can have relatively high up front costs. But with proper policies, these sources will eventually pay off big time! For one thing, the demand for this renewable energy infrastructure will create a tremendous number of needed jobs here in the US. And instead of drilling in environmentally sensitive locations for increasingly harder to find oil or dangerous coal mining we can get our raw materials from agricultural sources or maybe even unwanted waste. And once we have paid for the wind turbines and solar cells, the wind and the sun are free forever after that!

But is Gore realistic about the 10 year time frame to get this all done? It’s hard to say but about 10 years from now is believed to be the ‘tipping point’ after which we may find the consequences of global warming to be not only devastating but also unstoppable no matter what we do later if we do nothing now. Sending a man to the moon within the decade of the 60s was accomplished because JFK felt it was important enough to be a national priority. Is the saving of our environment for us and our future generations any less important?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A State of Denial

This Sunday, 60 Minutes presented a story that they originally did back in March titled US Health Care Gets Boost from Charity. For me, it was one of the most memorable and touching stories in the many years of 60 Minutes stories and it affected me no less on the second viewing.

I must admit I had a number of powerfully conflicting emotions while watching this piece. On one hand I was moved to tears to see the seemingly endless line of people needing medical, dental or vision care attention — some of them in obvious pain but not being able to afford care because of either inadequate health insurance or none at all. And then you see the massive amounts of medical equipment being brought in along with a group of doctors and dentists who volunteered their weekends before going back to their regular jobs the following Monday.

But what was the most gut-wrenching was to see the people who because of the limited time and manpower for the volunteers to do their work, had to be turned away at the end of the day on Sunday. Even so, I felt so good about
Remote Area Medical (RAM), its founder, Stan Brock and the tireless volunteers that I just wanted to give them all a hug if I could only do it through the TV screen.

But the other strong emotion I felt was anger. Anger at the people still in denial about the suffering of so many people like Joanne Ford.

Late Sunday, Joanne Ford's number was among the last. (Correspondent Scott) Pelley found her sitting by a stairwell. She's retired, living on disability with no insurance, and her glasses don't work anymore. She got in only to find out the vision care line had closed.

Asked what she was going to do, Ford told Pelley, "I don't know. I have a lot of friends and I have a lot of church support. I was very active in my church and I have a lot of friends in church. I just hate to ask. I've worked all my life. I hate to ask. That's why things like this are so wonderful."

"There is no shame in seeking healthcare," Pelley remarked.

"No. You're right. You know...I am sad that we are the wealthiest nation in the world, and we don't take care of our own. So. But it will be okay," she said. And it did turn out okay after all. Someone at RAM noticed Ford's situation. They put her in the vision care line and examined her for a new pair of glasses.

But at the gate, many were waiting when the weekend ended.

One of the noblest parts of the political process (when it works) is the ability of either a couple of individuals or groups to work out a way together to solve problems. They often do not share political philosophies. They may not even like each other. But if they can at least agree that a problem needs to be solved, they can likely find a way to compromise and get the problem solved.

But when one side sees a problem and the other side is in denial about the problem, there is no middle ground for compromise. And that’s an even bigger problem because two sides that are deadlocked cannot accomplish much of anything outside of pointing fingers at each other.

I commented on the US health care problem — and it is a problem — in a previous posting
Why Not Medicare for Everybody?. But what I find so frustrating is not people who just disagree with my proposed solutions but people who are in denial that there really is a problem.

For example, there is the argument often made that the 47 million uninsured in the US is a “phony” number because some people choose not to have health insurance and others are only temporarily without insurance. So maybe this number is somewhat inflated. But there is no denying that there are tens of millions of people in the US without health insurance. And
people die because of this. What part of that isn’t a problem?

And then there is the argument that getting government involved with health insurance puts us on the path to socialized medicine. But I then ask people making this argument, How do we make affordable health insurance available to those with pre-existing conditions the private health insurers don’t even want to touch? Usually, they have no idea how to answer this. It’s one thing not to like my proposed solutions. But for those who not only don’t have a better solution but haven’t even looked for one, isn’t that just another form of denial?

And a word about charity especially since that was the lead-in subject. Charity is obviously a wonderful thing as the 60 Minutes story shows. But it is very much a hit or miss proposition especially for rural areas that are remote from many of the social resources which are usually based in urban areas.

More than just health care has been a casualty of denial in this country. For years there has been much denial by the political right about the poor state of the US economy until things got so bad, they just had to change their tune to avoid looking like total fools. But that is a subject for another day. And while I do not agree with his proposed solutions, it is still encouraging that presidential candidate John McCain in his positions on
health care and the economy at least abandons the denial his party has had about these issues for so long. Unfortunately, he forgot to get the message in time to his top economic adviser Phil Gramm before he went on his latest denial rant to pander to the conservative Washington Times.

Especially for those of you who haven’t seen the 60 Minutes story, please open
this link where you can not only get the transcript but better yet, if you have access to a high-speed Internet connection either at home or at a library or a friend’s house, you can watch the video of the story on your computer. And then you can make up your own mind whether the subjects of the story are just a bunch of whiners — or represent an urgent problem we need to solve!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

What Would Overturning Roe v. Wade Accomplish?

Of all the reasons for US citizens to go out and vote for a presidential candidate this November, the one at or near the very top concerns the nominations our next president will make for the likely future Supreme Court openings during his term. While the people we vote for in Congress make the laws, the Supreme Court which consists of lifetime appointees, may have a more profound influence on the lives of more people as the result of their decisions.

One of the most well known and controversial Supreme Court decisions was
Roe v. Wade which back in 1973 declared that restricting abortion rights at least in the first two trimesters of pregnancy was an invasion of privacy and thus unconstitutional. The result of the decision of course applies to not only the federal lawmakers, but also the state and local ones too. Those who are ‘pro-choice’ opposing laws restricting abortion, hailed this decision. But those who are ‘pro-life’ believing in restricting abortion for moral purposes, condemned it and vowed that they would do all they could to eventually get Roe reversed by supporting the appointment of conservative Supreme Court justices. With the conservative appointees of President Bush, the Supreme Court is in a precarious liberal-conservative balance that has caused some bitterly divided 5-4 decisions. The next president will almost certainly tip the balance decisively one way or the other with his appointees which will then likely determine the outcome of a number of important Supreme Court decisions, not the least of which would be the fate of Roe v. Wade.

Of all the social issues facing this country, abortion is the most hotly contested because no other issue so often blurs the distinction between personal morality (behavior somebody believes is right or wrong for oneself) and political morality (behavior somebody believes should be enacted into law).

Social conservatives especially have a habit of combining these two concepts into one. But there IS a difference between the two! Let me provide an example:

Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney for religious and presumably personal morality reasons does not drink alcohol. But he has never advocated the return of Prohibition to restrict others from drinking. The reasoning is simple; although he may strongly feel that drinking alcohol is wrong, I’m sure he accepts that reasonable people can disagree on this so trying to pass a law to restrict others from drinking would be unwise.

Fair enough? How about one more example:

Many of the most visible ‘pro-choice’ political figures like
John Kerry among others are not only personally opposed to abortion but are also practicing Roman Catholics — a religion that condemns abortion in no uncertain terms. Why can’t we use the same logic about reasonable people disagreeing in the Romney example to laws on the restriction of abortion? When life actually begins along with whether abortion is truly murder are most passionately held views of many. But nonetheless, reasonable people do disagree on these points! In fact, those who don’t accept these disagreements may themselves be unreasonable!

For those who would like to read more about this subject, a legal/philosophical article published by MIT,
The Political Morality of Abortion is well worth a look. Indeed the free online course materials offered by MIT represent one of the most powerful and beneficial uses of the Internet.

But a primary focus of a John McCain presidency would be the overturning of Roe v. Wade as detailed on his
Issues webpage. Morality issues aside, a pragmatic question needs to be asked — what would reversing Roe v. Wade accomplish?

Many believe that this would make abortion illegal. Even former Pennsylvania gubernatorial and ‘pro-life’ candidate Lynn Swann mistakenly said this during a Sunday morning news interview show. But this is not true. Reversing Roe only means that individual states would then have the right to pass laws restricting abortion as they see fit. As McCain’s site states: “These important (pro-life) groups can help build the consensus necessary to end abortion at the state level.”

End abortion? Really?? It’s nice to think that we can “end” things we don’t approve of by simply making them illegal. But how realistic is this especially on an issue like abortion where there are passionately held views on both sides?

It has been estimated that there are roughly 46 million abortions performed worldwide every year. Of these, 20 million happen where the procedure is illegal. In the US, the annual number of abortions has been estimated at about 850,000.

One has to wonder how many of the people who are advocating making abortion illegal in the US and around the world are aware of such staggering numbers. Do they advocate arresting and jailing all of these women — along with presumably those performing the abortions? We are already building prisons as fast as we can to try and house the drug offenders as part of our War on Drugs. Do we build even more prisons for the upcoming War on Abortion?

And how do we go about enforcing these laws? Do we have law enforcement officers posted outside of doctors’ offices checking out women suspected of having an abortion? Now that would really be opening Pandora’s box!

There are some pragmatists among the ‘pro-lifers’ who will agree that although we can’t stop abortion everywhere, we can at least stop or maybe discourage it in the states where it is illegal. But who does that really affect, if anyone? For those with the means, it would just be an overnight stay in a neighboring state where abortion is legal. And for those who are thinking about the unlikely possibility of a constitutional amendment banning abortion in the US, there is always Mexico or Canada. As for the poor who want an abortion, they will either have to find a way to scrape up the money to travel elsewhere — or stay home to have an illegal abortion with the risks that entails.

Indeed, historical experience in other countries with the great difficulties of enforcing anti-abortion laws has led to a general trend of liberalizing those laws. What this suggests is although there are many things that can be done to try and reduce the number of abortions, by far the most effective ones are those used before pregnancy happens. But unfortunately, the people who are the most in favor of anti-abortion laws are the same ones who are most likely to be against the most effective preventative measures like sex education and contraceptives. But despite their moral dislike for these options, wouldn’t it be a worthwhile compromise for them to give in to those ‘lesser evils’ to avoid the far greater evil of having an abortion that quite possibly could have been prevented in the first place?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

When Gambling Becomes a Sucker's Game

I have no moral objections to gambling in general. As long as someone can afford to lose what they gamble and don’t have an addiction, it’s OK by me. But I do have a moral objection to the way some games of chance are offered to the public as I’ll explain.

The last time I put some money into gambling, I contributed to an office pool for a multi-zillion dollar Powerball lottery. As much as I knew it was a total rip-off with impossible odds, I could never live with myself if everybody else in the office got filthy rich and were able to quit their jobs, leaving just me behind. Highly unlikely, but I just couldn’t take the chance!

I still abstain from gambling mostly because I hate the idea of losing any of my money. But I fully understand that for many, it is a welcome fun break from the drudgeries of life. And I have to admit that I am fascinated by all of the blinking lights and sounds and excitement of the players enough to enjoy a walk through a casino — but not enough to want to place a bet.

But as strange as this may seem, although I do not play, I still enjoy reading and learning about different games of chance along with which ones give the best chance of winning and which ones give the least. After all, for those who play, it’s a lot more fun to win, right?

But when figuring out which game to play whether it’s in a casino or otherwise, one needs to first find out if the game is both honest and fair — which are not the same thing when defined here.

Honest means that there is no manipulation of the game like for example, loaded dice. This is what most of think of as sucker’s games. But in general, casino games and state lotteries can be trusted to be honest since they are so heavily regulated. Casino operators are already making good money so there is no need to risk getting caught cheating and lose their licenses.

Fair means that there is an adequate payoff to the player in relation to how much is wagered. Games can be honest while at the same time not be fair. Just about all games of chance are unfair for the player in different degrees since the game exists first and foremost to make money for the house. The players are allowed to make enough money to give them a delusion that this is not so. But when the game becomes overly unfair, then it too becomes a sucker’s game that quickly drains the money of its players. And this is where I have a moral objection.

To illustrate these definitions, you and I can play coin toss. Each time you pick the toss correctly, I will give you a dollar; and you will give me a dollar each time you are wrong. As long as we don’t have a way to influence whether it’s heads of tails, the game will be honest. But in this case, the game will also be fair since while there may be some lucky streaks going both ways, the laws of probability say that in the long run, neither of us will win any significant money from one other.

But let’s change the rules a bit. If you pick the coin flip correctly, I will give you 75 cents; but if you are wrong, you still pay me a dollar. I think you can understand that after a while I am going to make money out of this arrangement at your expense.

Hey, wait a minute, that’s not fair! Now you are starting to understand. In the first example we were just playing for fun; in the second example I am running the game with the intent of making money off of you — just like the people who operate the casinos and lotteries. The difference between me paying you 75 cents or a dollar for winning determines my house advantage (or house edge).

All games of chance have some house edge. Without it the people running the game cannot make a profit. But the larger this house edge gets, it more it becomes a sucker’s game where the player is quickly drained of his or her money with little real chance to win.

Check out the following simplified chart on various games of chance from this site. Just remember, the smaller the House Edge, the more fair the game is; the larger it is, the more of a sucker’s game it is.

House Edge (with proper play)

Craps, 1x Odds
Video Poker
Slot Machines, flat top
Slot Machines, progressive
State Lottery, typical

As you can see, the two most popularly played games, slot machines and the lottery are among the most unfavorable for gamblers!

Slot machines have different house edges depending how they are set up but the overall average is believed to be about 10% which means that slot machines are considerably more unfavorable for the player than table games like blackjack and craps. In fact, most gambling guides like this one will “…recommend that you don't play slots very much, if at all.”

But casinos LOVE slot machines! No human dealers are required. So hundreds (or in the larger casinos thousands) of these money collectors can do their thing tirelessly 24/7. But there is an even better reason for loving those slots and it has to do with that house edge. The more wagers that are placed, the more likely the house edge will result in the player running out of money. Unlike table games which take more time to place bets, players can feed slot machines machine gun style if they like.

Even more troubling is how governments love slot machines. Some places like Pennsylvania, have reluctantly agreed to allow casino gambling but ONLY slots since table games are more like real gambling and are presumably more immoral.

For years, governments had made gambling illegal in most places mostly based on morality arguments. So the average guy on the street who wanted to gamble found a bookie for placing his bets. Most popular was playing ‘the numbers’ where you picked a three digit number and got paid around 600 to 1 for a hit, usually determined from one of the closing bell stock index numbers that day. But in addition to being illegal and presumably immoral, this was an even bigger rip-off than casino games and often took advantage of poorer people who had no other forms of gambling available to them.

So our governments came to the rescue and gave us The Biggest Sucker's Game of Them All the state lotteries! Instead of the immoral scourge of illegal numbers games that paid 600 to 1 for a hit, you could now play The Daily Number (or a something with a similar name) and only get paid 500 to 1 which is apparently OK since after all, it benefits senior citizens or maybe the state’s general tax fund. Since then, state lotteries have added a mind-boggling choice of seductively packaged games to choose from. And to make it more convenient, some lottery games are even offered in vending machines! But the one thing these state lottery games all have in common are the very unfavorable odds for the player.

When I have walked into convenience stores, I have often seen people in line waiting to place a wager on a state lottery game. If it’s a relatively affluent neighborhood, it doesn’t bother me too much. But I have also seen lines of people in poorer neighborhoods who judging from the old ragged clothes they were wearing are wagering sometimes substantial amounts of money that could be better spent on necessities. But sadly, many of them are chasing that elusive dream of hitting the big payoff and a better life.

Especially when thinking of these poorer people we need to be reminded that gambling is a zero-sum game. To me, the moral issue of gambling is not black and white but rather shades of gray. All games that exist to make money must have at least some house edge that makes the game unfair to a certain degree for those who play them. But the higher the house edge is for the casinos or the lottery, the more of a sucker’s game it is for the players and thus more immoral. So while a lottery game with lousy odds may be doing a good thing with the money it brings in, it is balanced by the fact that the people who are playing it are getting screwed.

So what can we do? Especially in localities where slot machines are the only casino game option, the government regulating agency should ensure that these machines are set to provide a lower house edge, similar to what is offered at most table games. As a result casinos will still do just fine, thank you, and players will have more fun for a longer time and with more of an opportunity to quit while they are ahead or not too far behind.

And there is no good reason for state lotteries to be run with the terrible odds for the people who play them. If these lotteries need to rip-off the players in order to make enough money for their intended purpose, we need to rethink whether at least some of those proceeds should again be raised out in the open through taxes.

Let’s face it, gambling is here to stay. But whether our governments are directly running the games as in the lotteries or regulating others like in casinos or other games of chance, we have to speak out and demand that they Just Say No to Sucker’s Games!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Can We Talk About Legalizing Drugs?

Just this last Wednesday, The New York Times ran an editorial titled Not Winning the War on Drugs. As editorials go, it was a very ordinary one that just about any liberal leaning editorial staff could crank out. If you open the link, you will find a position that says that we are not winning the War on Drugs and that we have to do more about the demand side instead of the supply side. Yawn.

But out of this, something extraordinary happened. The folks at the NYT gave its readers a chance to E-mail their comments on this editorial and have them all displayed on a message board. And did they ever! In a time frame of about 11 hours, 227 comments were collected and displayed until the NYT decided to no longer accept comments. But was really so extraordinary was the absolutely overwhelming number of these comments declaring the so called War on Drugs to be a farce that needs to be ended in favor of legalizing or at least decriminalizing drugs. I think this really shows how far we have come on this issue.

Admittedly, some of this can be explained by a NYT readership that is likely more liberal than most because of the paper’s editorial views. After all, it would be hard to believe that a just as many Wall Street Journal readers would be on the same side of this issue. But it wasn’t so long ago that legalizing drugs was just ‘crazy talk’ by some civil libertarians or potheads. And while this view of legalization has not yet found acceptance by the mainstream media or politicians, the increasing number of people who are speaking up against this ‘War’ is hard to dismiss.

All one has to do is to Google ‘War on Drugs’ to get a list of sites that appear to be predominantly negative on this issue. And there you will also find an article listed by 91 year old retired CBS news anchorman
Walter Cronkite “Telling the Truth About the War on Drugs”.

OK, so a bunch of liberal E-mail writers, a retired news anchor and even some noted conservative political commentators like William F. Buckley, Jr. and Milton Friedman have all come out for legalizing or decriminalizing drugs. But surely, we can rely on our law enforcement officials — those who have been on the front line in our War on Drugs and actually doing the drug busts — to reassure us that throwing more drug users in jail is going to make our country a better one. Or maybe not. Since 2002,
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition or LEAP has been speaking out against US drug enforcement methods that are putting more and more non-violent drug offenders behind bars in a futile attempt to arrest our way out of this mess.

Like many of my generation, I took a few puffs when the joint was passed around during parties way back when but have never had the desire to try anything else. It had nothing to do with it being illegal; it just wasn’t right for me. But since I don’t feel I have the right to impose my personal choices on others, I have long been one of those ‘crazy talk’ libertarians who have had a hard time understanding why drugs were even illegal for adults in the first place. So trying to convince me about legalizing drugs is essentially preaching to the choir.

But having said that, I ran across what I believe is one of the best and most comprehensive articles to present a case for drug legalization that may well be quite persuasive for all but the most hard-core social conservatives. The writer, Jack A. Cole, spent twelve years as an undercover narcotics officer and is undeniably qualified to offer an informed opinion on this issue. Although the PDF article in the link below has about 19 pages of text, I hope you will at least someday take the time to read this most informative and worthwhile article

[Since posting this, the PDF link has been removed. In its place, here is a YouTube video link to a presentation by Mr. Cole with the same title It's Not a War on Drugs - It's a War on People]

But I’d like to highlight some especially noteworthy passages from the original PDF article here:
…in the United States…people like me will not only arrest your sons and daughters for possessing so much as one joint but we will take away their driver’s licenses (even if the arrest occurred in their bedroom). That means if they live in rural America or the suburbs where there is no public transportation, they can no longer get to schools or hold gainful employment. If they reside in urban centers that have public transportation but happen to live in government-subsidized housing, we will not only throw them out of the house but their whole family will be evicted — and if they live with their grandparents, those old folks will also have to hit the street, because the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 2003 that this kind of massive punishment is OK. It is OK, according to them, because, “We are fighting a war on drugs” and when you fight a war nearly anything is acceptable.

Also, thanks to the “zero tolerance” attitude fostered from years of prohibition, when this punished child finally gets free from the lockup and wants to better their condition by going back to school, the State tells him or her they can’t get a government educational grant or loan for that schooling. However, in another crazy paradox of fighting a war on drugs, if they were simply convicted of murder or rape there would be no problem for them. Just apply for it and the loan would be available.

More than a thousand people were arrested as a result of my undercover work. I can’t tell you how many of those young folks would have gone on to have a perfectly productive life had I not intervened but I am sure the number is huge. We have a saying at LEAP,
“You can get over an addiction, but you will never get over a conviction.” A conviction will track you every day of your life because it is on a computer. Every time you go to get a job it is hanging over your head like a big ugly cloud.
But the part of the War on Drugs that is the most mind-boggling for me is the claim by its adherents that they are successfully raising the price of drugs with the idea of making them less affordable. For one thing, most studies have determined that while some drugs like marijuana have become less affordable, they are often replaced by other more dangerous drugs that are harder to detect and can be produced more cheaply. But even if we were successful in making drugs less affordable, wouldn’t this likely drive addicts to steal from others to help maintain their drug habit?

I firmly believe that more and more people here in the US will begin to see the futility and harm in our present methods of drug enforcement. Perhaps the mainstream media will eventually come on board but for now, this issue is apparently still too politically incorrect for them to take a chance.

The same goes for our two major party presidential candidates. We can’t realistically expect an orthodox conservative like John McCain to sign on to such a liberal idea. But
it is disappointing to some that Barack Obama who has openly admitted to experimenting with marijuana and cocaine in his youth isn’t more outspoken about the harm that our present drug policy is inflicting on today’s youth — especially black youth in disproportionate numbers.

Hopefully we will someday get a president with the courage to admit the truth — that the War on Drugs has been an unmitigated disaster — and that it's time for all of us to seriously talk about legalizing or at least decriminalizing drugs here in the US.
We need to stop being blinded by ideology and for once look at results!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Lesson to Be Learned from Wal-Mart

I am a regular food shopper at a Wal-Mart Supercenter about 5 minutes away from where I live. In addition to being closer than other supermarkets, the prices there are in many instances dramatically lower than at the other major supermarket chain that competes in my area. Wal-Mart claims that an American family shopping there saves $2,500 yearly which in my experience is believable. That’s a lot of money! — especially for a family that has to struggle to put food on the table. So I think we can all agree that there is at least something good about Wal-Mart.

Or maybe not. With the possible exception of Enron, it would be hard to think of any other company whose mention results in such utter contempt by seemingly so many people. It is a normal happening for communties to pass around petitions to keep Wal-Mart out if word comes out about plans to build there. I have spoken to more than a few people who have said in strong terms that they would never shop in a Wal-Mart. Wikipedia offers a lengthy article titled Criticism of Wal-Mart. But wait! There’s more! You can watch the trailer of filmmaker Robert Greenwald’s scathing 2005 documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price in this link.

Most recently, I read an interesting response to a Web article discussing who may be the one to someday replace Wal-Mart as our largest retailer which I would like to share with you here (with some corrected spelling and typos).

CRR-Pro said...
Anyone who is not afraid of Wal-Mart and their already damaging effect on our economy needs to study more. Vlasic and Hanes are just two of the major companies that are nearing bankruptcy because they made supplier deals with Wal-Mart. Don't let the folksy attitude fool you...once Sam Walton was in the ground, his heirs embarked on world dominance, using economies of scale in ways economists never thought of, paying low wages, and not offering health benefits to employees who need it most. A large number of their employees are also on welfare because they don't make enough to support a family. They destroy local economies, putting mom and pop stores out of business. Any good university business school teaches about the evils of their strategies. Every new store employees 250 people, while eventually putting over 300 local people out of work. As they grow, the local economy slowly dies. It is not jealousy, just business sense. The have taken globalization to new heights, while helping to strengthen the Asian economy, which uses large amounts of crude oil and copper, thus creating demand-pull inflation, bring oil prices where they are today. As they grow larger, and Asia does as well, our economy suffers. 75% of what they sell is NOT made by Americans. They force suppliers to move out of the country, taking jobs with them. Wake Up.

Since this condenses a lot of the complaints about Wal-Mart into a single rant, let’s discuss some of those points along with a few others here.

Buying power is a good thing…to a point. It means that a large buyer like Wal-Mart can negotiate favorable deals with suppliers which are good for consumers if they pass along some of the savings to us. But while we all know about the dangers of ‘monopoly’ where one seller has too much control of the market, there is another term called ‘monopsony’ where one buyer has too much control over a seller. So for companies like Vlasic and Hanes mentioned above who have made deals with Wal-Mart for them to buy a huge amount of their output, they may discover that they have made a deal with the devil where continual buyer demands for lower and lower prices can literally squeeze the life out of them. Or force them to resort to using less expensive labor and materials from outside the US to stay afloat. Critics have pointed out that Wal-Mart which today sells (according to the writer) 75% imported merchandise is a far cry from as recently as the 90s when they had their “Buy American” campaign featured at their stores. But while the loss of US jobs is an important issue, the more we import what we buy from China and third world countries, the more likely it becomes that what we pick up off the shelf may have been produced without any regard to the safety and welfare of the workers — or for that matter the safety of the product itself!

Paying low wages and not offering health benefits may indeed be true for Wal-Mart but is also true for many other companies that may not have the same visibility as Wal-Mart. Just like consumers who want to pay the least they can for what they buy, businesses want to pay the least they can for their labor. And if that means that they can get away without paying for health benefits, so much the better for them. The point here is that as long as they are not breaking any immigration or minimum wage laws, what they are doing is perfectly legal even if many of us find it to be disagreeable.

Effects on local economies and putting mom and pop stores out of business is probably more of an issue in the rural areas where Wal-Mart originally located their stores. Owners of mom and pop stores do not have the buying power of a behemoth like Wal-Mart so there is no way they can compete head-to-head solely on price. Those that still survive have convinced enough consumers that the more personalized service or unique products they offer makes up for what they may lack in price competitiveness. Many years ago, the advent of the supermarket put a lot of mom and pop grocery stores out of business. But small specialty grocery and convenience stores still flourish in many places despite the supermarkets.

But perhaps the biggest source of Wal-Mart’s poor reputation with many concerns their labor relations issues. They have had to face a large number of lawsuits for poor working conditions and are notorious for their anti-union tactics.

So there are more than enough reasons for the critics of Wal-Mart to feel the way they do. But I would like to present an argument that the problem isn’t really with Wal-Mart but rather the system in which it operates. Although some companies choose to care more about their workers than others, for-profit companies exist to make as much profit as they can while not breaking the law. And furthermore, some companies will even break the law if it means making more profit and feeling they can get away with it. So while some people would like to shame companies like Wal-Mart into paying more, providing better working conditions, offering more health benefits, etc. it’s unrealistic to expect them to change their ways just to please our sense of fairness. So this only leaves us to look at the system Wal-Mart operates in.

From the election of Ronald Reagan to the present, the mostly conservative political climate in the US has tended to be considerably more supportive of business than labor. The thinking is that businesses should be able to do their thing without interference from ‘excessive’ regulation and having to put up with those pesky unions. And while laws and government agencies still exist to supposedly provide protection for workers against discrimination, poor working conditions, or illegal anti-union tactics, the chronic lack of funding and manpower to do their jobs effectively have left them as toothless watchdogs unable to protect anybody — and many companies, Wal-Mart included, appear to have taken full advantage of that!

But it appears that the political pendulum is finally starting to swing the other way — especially if the Democrats recapture the White House. For example, instead of trying to persuade or shame companies into providing health insurance for all of their workers, the government may come up with a way for it to help provide health insurance where it was previously unavailable from employers. And a more pro-labor administration may allow more workers to organize with less fear of retribution from their employers if that is the only way they can effectively bargain to get decent wages and working conditions.

So while having “Always Low Prices” is certainly a good thing, we also need to remember and look out for the well-being of those who do the work that makes those low prices possible. More than anything else, that is the lesson to be learned from Wal-Mart.