Sunday, August 31, 2008

Is Sarah Palin Fit to Be Vice President?

I along with many others were stunned at John McCain’s choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. With Barack Obama’s VP choice of Joe Biden — someone known to be an especially good debater — it seemed to me and many others that McCain almost had to pick someone like Mitt Romney to be able to go toe-to-toe against Biden in a VP debate.

As I stated in one of my recent blog postings,
Redefining the Vice Presidency, this office is finally being taken seriously as an important government function — but McCain’s choice has provided a setback in that regard.

With Palin having less than 2 years of experience governing a state with a very small population following her time spent as a small town mayor, the experience issue has understandably been raised again. Even despite her extraordinarily high approval ratings in Alaska, the two top Alaskan newspapers are
questioning her fitness for the VP position.

To try and sort this all out, it is important to note that there are two types of experience in the political arena most often used to judge candidates and each has its own strong and weak points.

One is legislative experience. Those who serve in Congress deal with national and international issues as a regular part of their duties. But those who serve as part of committees like for example, the
US Senate Foreign Relations Committee have even stronger expertise in these areas.

The other is executive experience. Governors, for example, have to actually run a government along with balancing its budget.

So while legislators in Congress are generally more experienced on national and international issues, they typically have no experience actually running a government. And while governors do have experience running a government, they are typically weaker on national and international experience. With the notable exception of former Democratic candidate New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson who has experience in both areas, each candidate has to work on accentuating the strengths of their experience while downplaying their weak points. This explains the tactic used by those defending Palin’s lack of experience by saying that she has more executive experience than Obama and Biden combined.

So which experience is better? That’s hard to say. But governors have done far better in presidential elections than legislators when you consider that the last legislator we elected as president was Senator John F. Kennedy back in 1960. Why have legislators fared so poorly? I feel that the nature of Congressional business requires a fair amount of compromise and deal making in order to get anything accomplished. Sometimes it is necessary to resort to
vote trading and thus vote in favor of a bill that a legislator may find some fault with in order to get a similar deal from another legislator in support of his own bill. Especially for governors who have no similar record to attack, this makes it easy for them to spot voting inconsistencies on the part of their Congressional opponents that they can use to their advantage in the campaigns.

But I believe there is an overlooked third type of experience that is extremely desirable for a prospective VP choice. And that is presidential campaign experience. For one thing, just to get on the ballot as a creditable major party presidential candidate requires a certain amount of experience. Can you imagine Sarah Palin as a creditable presidential candidate? Or Spiro Agnew? Or Dan Quayle? Me neither.

Some would say, but they’re only running for vice president, not president. Again this shows a lack of respect for the value of the VP position — something that McCain has exhibited in the past. This is especially odd considering McCain’s age (72).

A presidential campaign is in itself, a brutal examination for a candidate. That person is vetted by both the national media and the public in ways that a someone like Palin has never had to experience. For example, it is now in the national media since the VP announcement that Palin is
under investigation by the Alaska legislature as to whether she abused her powers of office in the firing of a public official. Will this turn out to be a problem? Probably not, but if she was in the campaign spotlight beforehand, this likely would have been made public and perhaps resolved before the VP decision instead of risking major embarrassment to the party after the choice had already been made.

So if experience was not the reason McCain selected her, what was? There were most likely two main reasons. One is Palin’s evangelical conservative credentials to appeal to that part of the GOP that hasn’t quite trusted McCain as a true conservative. And just as important, there is the attempt to attract the female supporters of Hillary who are unhappy with their girl being left off the Democratic ticket.

But other than both being women, the pro-choice liberal Hillary Clinton and the pro-life conservative Sarah Palin can hardly be more different which would make this a really tough sell to Hillary supporters. And the age and health issues surrounding McCain now that he has such an inexperienced number two will again come to the forefront. Many will picture Sarah Palin someday sitting across the table from Russia’s Putin or maybe Iran’s Ahmadinejad — or even debating foreign affairs issues with Joe Biden. The Obama/Biden team suddenly doesn’t look so inexperienced.

And there are likely some former presidential candidates on the GOP side who privately are not happy about all of this. If McCain somehow manages to win this November, it is Sarah Palin who will be next in line for the party’s presidential nomination whether it would be at the end of a McCain first or second term — not Mitt Romney or the other contenders.

It’s early. Let’s give her a chance to show her stuff. But in the end, we may look back at this risky choice as having sealed John McCain’s defeat in November.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Moving On After Hillary's Loss

Hillary Clinton gave a magnanimous speech at the Democratic Convention to rally her troops around Barack Obama. It was a powerful speech that ironically made her look all the more presidential at a time when it really hit home among her many supporters that not only will she not be the president this time but also probably not in the future for the 60-year-old if Barack Obama occupies the White House for the next 8 years.

As moving as Clinton’s speech was, the most moving moment of the evening was a CNN interview with
an emotional Hillary Clinton delegate after hearing her speech in support of Obama.
Hillary Clinton proved to me tonight that she would have made an excellent president…Experience speaks to me. I ask everyone all the time; would they take a CEO of a company right out of Harvard?
In any competition like this, there can be only one winner. The others can only lick their wounds and hope for better luck next time (if there is a next time). But unlike the others who lost pretty convincingly and were able to move on, Hillary not only lost by a very small margin, but she also lost a nomination that by consensus was hers to lose. Given this, the criticism she received for taking a few days after Obama clinched the nomination to give her concession speech was more than a bit harsh.

Hillary has done just about everything that can be done to be a team player for the Democrats since her defeat. She has promised to actively and enthusiastically campaign for Obama and did her best to persuade her former delegates to vote their interests and go with Obama instead of a spite vote for McCain.

But not everybody is going along. This commentary by Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson,
Hillary's Speech Outshines Sulking Supporters discusses organizations like PUMA.
Holding two opposing thoughts in your mind at the same time is essential to belonging to PUMA. What is PUMA you ask? That shows you don't watch cable television, where PUMA -- Party Unity My Ass -- is starring along with sister organizations of the same ilk.

These are women who so love Hillary Clinton that they will abandon her policies to vote for John McCain, who believes in none of them.
Then there were the naysayers that reluctantly agreed that Hillary’s speech was OK but weren’t sure about whether Bill would come out with a strong endorsement of Obama.

Until the beginning of his speech as described in this New York Times article.
“Last night Hillary told us in no uncertain terms that she is going to do everything she can to elect Barack Obama” Mr. Clinton said. “That makes two of us.”

Mr. Clinton proceeded to do precisely what Mr. Obama’s campaign was looking for him to do: attest to Mr. Obama’s readiness to be president, after a campaign largely based on Mrs. Clinton’s contention that he was not.

“I say to you: Barack Obama is ready to lead America and restore American leadership in the world,” Mr. Clinton said. “Barack Obama is ready to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Barack Obama is ready to be president of the United States.”
And then there was the final reservation about whether the Clintons were really sincere about it all. The main thrust of Hillary’s campaign was that she had more experience than Obama. There were only two ways of dealing with this issue and both are admittedly subject to second-guessing by their detractors. One was for the Clintons to repudiate their previous remarks about Obama’s inexperience. But that would be obviously phony. Or do what Bill did which was to praise Obama’s judgment in picking the experienced Joe Biden for VP to give them an experienced team.

Gail Collins in her New York Times op-ed column The Torch Passes. Really. sums it all up this way:

All week…we’ve been having a long-running and complicated transfer of the first lady mantle from Hillary Clinton to Michelle Obama. “No one has been more gracious and more forthcoming and more helpful to me,”
Michelle said at a joint appearance with Hillary on Tuesday.

Do we believe this? People, it doesn’t matter a whit. The Clintons did everything they were supposed to do here and in politics, like so much of life, feelings are irrelevant to everyone except the persons doing the feeling.

We’re ready to move on. The Democrats in Denver have answered the call for unity…

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Redefining the Vice Presidency

The anticipation around Barack Obama’s VP selection of Delaware Senator Joe Biden was unlike any most of us have ever seen. In the final days before the announcement, news networks on cable like CNN and MSNBC were reduced to repetitive talking about the anticipated event and surveillance of those said to be on the short list just waiting for some clues as to the identity of who was (or wasn’t) in the running.

Although some of this was to try and fill the need for 24/7 news programming, much of this signals that the vice presidency is finally being taken seriously as an important function.

It wasn’t always that way. For many, a stint as VP was a frustrating and demeaning job that involved little more than being around in case something were to happen to the president. Back in the 60s, political satirist Tom Lehrer offered
this song to describe the predicament of LBJ’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey.
Second fiddle's a hard part I know.
When they won't even give you a bow!
I especially enjoy reading articles about our political process in the US written by outsiders like A Political Signal recently published by The Times in the UK.

The (VP) decision will be important both in attracting votes and - for the new president - in managing the Administration.

It was not always so. The first vice-president, John Adams, described his role as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived”. Writing in 1974 the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jnr concluded that “the vice-presidency is not only a meaningless but a hopeless office”.

And so, for most of its history, it has been. When Vice-President Harry Truman succeeded to the Oval Office in April 1945, he was entirely unaware of the project to develop the A-bomb, whose use he authorised four months later. When Dwight D. Eisenhower was asked what important decisions of his Administration his vice-president had taken part in, he replied: “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”

You would think that filling a position that exists almost solely for the purpose of replacing a president with a qualified person for that office would have that as its top priority. I’m sure that our Founding Fathers had this intention when creating the vice president position in the Consititution. But the big flaw in the creation of this position is that the vice president has little else to do in the way of formal duties. The VP presides over the US Senate, but that is a mostly ceremonial job with the exception of breaking the occasional tie vote. It’s hard to imagine someone of the caliber to be president wanting to assume such a nothing job — unless the president is willing to give that person a substantial role in running its administration. For better or worse, the signficant power wielded by current VP Dick Cheney has likely changed the VP job forever.

The story of how Harry S. Truman
was selected as FDR’s running mate — little more than back room political negotiations — is astounding when you consider that we were still in World War II and Roosevelt's health was known to be failing (at least by those on the inside of his administration). And although he suffered from low popularity ratings while in office, Truman's handling of an incredible number of difficult decisions (most notably the use of the atomic bomb on Japan) has earned him almost universally high praise from presidential historians.

We were lucky that Truman turned out to be so good for the job. In addition, it is good that we had a very experienced legislator in Lyndon Johnson to take over after JFK’s assassination — even though LBJ was reluctantly picked by Kennedy as his running mate to try and carry the state of Texas (which worked). And if Spiro Agnew
was not forced to resign as a result of criminal charges, he would have become president instead of Gerald Ford after Nixon’s Watergate resignation.

I believe that a person who has previously run for president (or VP) should receive special consideration for the VP job. At least these people have received some serious scrutiny by the media and public. It really bothered me to hear speculation about both presidential candidates selecting some obscure person for reasons that had nothing to do with their ability to assume the presidency if needed. With the number of experienced candidates competing for the Democratic nomination, it would make sense that Senator Obama would seriously consider a number of them. And according to this recent
NYT article, this appears to have been the case.

But while the selection of Joe Biden has received praise because of his vast foreign affairs expertise, I wonder if he wouldn’t have been a better pick for Secretary of State. Indeed while Biden had difficulty getting strong voter support for his presidential run, a number of people told him during his campaign appearances that he would make a good Secretary of State.

But Obama obviously felt that he needed Biden on the campaign trail to get him elected in the first place and his role as his VP candidate fits the bill. But I can’t help but wonder — would Biden be competing for attention with Obama’s eventual Secretary of State choice if the Democrats are successful this November?

Thinking outside the box, one idea to address this possibility would be to give Biden most if not all of the Secretary of State duties. After all, the VP position has a very limited number of official duties. Why not take full advantage of someone’s expertise and experience while they are serving in this position?

The laws as written today would likely prohibit someone from serving in more than one position at a time. And the president may indeed want the VP to assume enough duties as an adviser or administrator to make it a full time job in itself. But an alternative that offers a possible cabinet position suitable for a particular VP choice would go a long way towards attracting top-notch talent that wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in such a position. This means that we would not only give the VP something more fulfilling to do during his or her term but also help to ensure that the person who may have to take over the presidency will truly be ready to lead. Just something to think about!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Why We All Need Balance

Without taking anything away from all of the other athletes’ accomplishments at the 2008 Olympics, the unprecedented achievement of Michael Phelps winning 8 gold medals will be the most celebrated accomplishment of these games. It will be wonderful to see him basking in the glow of endless appearances at events and on TV shows along with the financial windfall from endorsements that will be surely coming his way.

What makes this even more of a feel good story is that Phelps seems to come across as a regular guy without the overbearing ego that many of those who are so accomplished seem to have. But I hopefully won’t come across as a
Debbie Downer (see video) in wondering how Phelps will be able to deal with a future without competitive swimming.

To have any hopes of being the best in the world at anything, besides extraordinary talent it takes a life of tireless work and devotion to that pursuit to try and get an edge over the many other talented people who just as badly also want to be the best. At the very top, the difference between first and second can be as little as one hundredth of a second (as it was in one of Phelps’ gold medal finishes).

As Phelps responded on his website
to a question asking him about the sacrifices he made for swimming:
Growing up in high school, I wasn’t hanging out with friends every day or on the weekends. Doing normal high school kid things was something I was willing to give up. I know I won’t have opportunities like this in the sport for the rest of my life.
It has been said that fame is fleeting. But for those like Phelps who have reached the absolute summit of their field, life after the extraordinary amount of fame they get can present its own challenges. If the fame of achievement is an upper, these people can get an overdose that can be especially difficult to cope with when it wears off — and it always does.
But fame is fleeting as the wind and glory fades away;
There were no wild and woolly cheers, no glad acclaim this day.
- Grantland Rice in Casey's Revenge (1907)
The previous record of 7 gold medals in one Olympics that Phelps broke was set by swimmer Mark Spitz in 1972. The fame he enjoyed back then was probably similar to that being enjoyed by Phelps today. But since swimming is not a widely watched spectator sport between Olympic Games, it was difficult for the 22 year old to stay in the public eye for very long and he even tried an unsuccessful comeback at age 41 to compete in the Olympics. Incredibly, Spitz was not even invited by the Olympic Committee to be on hand to witness the possible breaking of his record by Phelps.

How do you top walking on the moon?
Buzz Aldrin struggled with that answer after his retirement from the space program at age 42 that led to a number of personal problems including depression and alcoholism.

Bobby Fischer ever wanted to do was to become the World Chess Champion. But after achieving that by defeating Boris Spassky in 1972 at age 29, his life went into free fall. He never defended his championship and after emerging from obscurity to play a 1992 exhibition rematch with Spassky in the former Yugoslavia (violating a UN sanction) he was on the run from US justice until his death at age 64 earlier this year.

But on the other hand, there is the story of
Bobby Jones who in the 1920s emerged as the greatest golfer the world had ever known at the time. Many experts still consider him among the five all-time best. In 1930, he captured all four of the major titles available to him at the time. After accomplishing everything possible as an amateur golfer and being honored with his second NYC ticker-tape parade, he then chose to retire from competitive golf at age 28!

But Jones’ life was about
so much more than competitive golf.

Jones was successful outside of golf as well. He earned his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech in 1922, where he was a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and played for the golf team. He then earned a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard University in 1924, where he was a member of the Owl Club. After only one year in law school at Emory University, he passed the bar exam. Jones was married in 1924 to the former Mary Rice Malone. They had three children, Clara, Robert Tyre III, and Mary Ellen. When he retired from golf at age 28, he concentrated on his Atlanta law practice. He did in fact turn professional at golf after he retired from competition, in order to accept fees. In addition, he made eighteen instructional films, worked with A.G. Spalding & Co. to develop the first set of matched clubs, co-designed the Augusta National course with Alister MacKenzie, and founded The Masters Tournament, first played at Augusta in March 1934.
Clearly, despite reaching the summit as a competitive golfer, his life afterwards was at least as fulfilling. So what’s the secret? As Mr. Miyagi explained to his karate student Daniel in the movie The Karate Kid, it’s about balance!

While most of us need our work to pay the bills and (hopefully) provide some fulfillment, when our careers start to totally define our identities, we are especially vulnerable if something happens to that career because of a forced retirement or layoff. When I lost my job several years ago, even worse than the financial blow was the perceived loss of my identity which led to feelings of worthlessness and depression. I needed to rediscover that family, friends, and especially for me, the pursuit of other interests were equally important in achieving that needed balance in my life.

And while I am still actively seeking work in my previous field, I have expanded my horizons into passions like food and cooking which lead to writing and publishing a cookbook along with my newest passion, sharing my thoughts with you by way of this blog.

As for Michael Phelps, with the passion he has shown at the Olympic swimming competitions for sharing the joy of his successes with his mother and sisters, it appears that he is on the right track for achieving that needed balance in his life. Not everyone in his situation has been so fortunate; all we can do is to thank him for all of the enjoyment he has brought us in watching his incredible athletic feats and wish him an equally fulfilling life following the end of his competitive swimming career.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Can We Give John Edwards a Break?

Now that we have had a little bit of time since the John Edwards adultery scandal has been at the top of the headlines, maybe we can try to look at this whole story with a little more perspective and a little less over-the-top emotion.

While I do not wish to condone adultery, the extreme shock and outrage that some give to something that is
relatively prevalent — for example, pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey found in his studies back in the supposedly more conservative 40s and 50s that 50% of males and 26% of females had extramarital sex — is a bit much in my view.

And considering that politicians who wield status and power that undeniably lead to more potential sexual opportunities than the ordinary person can even dream of, it’s hard to understand how anybody nowadays can be shocked in disbelief when we hear of a politician exposed for sexual indiscretions. Indeed, so many of our politicians present and past have been associated with affairs that we seldom mention those affairs when we evaluate that person’s political future or legacy (with the notable exception of Bill Clinton and his impeachment).

So given this, why has the media in particular been so unforgiving of John Edwards while so many other politicians seem to have gotten a free pass? Three reasons immediately come to mind. One is that this recent story is still very fresh in our minds. Affairs from years ago, especially long ago, tend to fade from our consciousness. The second is due to the very prominent and public role that Elizabeth Edwards had in her husband’s presidential campaign. And third, Elizabeth is an especially sympathetic figure due to her public battle against incurable cancer.

Again, I do not wish to condone Edward’s cheating. But while most people would agree that the most hurtful thing one can do against a spouse is adultery, in my book, people who cheat on a wife and then dump her are not only hurtful but downright cruel! And in this category are at least three examples of politicians who are or were part of the presidential campaign or seriously considered running. And the outrage (if any) directed at these people is nothing like what Edwards is now receiving.

Newt Gingrich served as the Speaker of the US House of Representatives
from 1995 to 1999. As a prominent voice for conservative politics who was part of the impeachment process of Bill Clinton for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, he was widely encouraged to run for president and announced his interest in competing for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination if the necessary money could be raised. His personal life includes this sordid account:

He married Jackie Battley..(and)..they had two daughters. Jackie worked to put Newt through graduate school and was a loyal political wife during his two unsuccessful campaigns for Congress in 1974 and 1976. Gingrich had an affair in 1977 with Ann Manning, then the wife of a West Georgia professor. Gingrich walked out on Jackie in the spring of 1980. That fall, while she was in the hospital recovering from surgery for uterine cancer, he appeared at her bedside with a yellow legal pad outlining the details for their divorce. The divorce was finalized in 1981.

Gingrich refused to pay both alimony and child support. The local First Baptist church took up collections for support of Jackie and their children.

In 1981, six months after his divorce was final, Gingrich wed Marianne Ginther. He remained married to Ginther until 2000, although he had a six year affair with a then 33-year-old Congressional staffer, Callista Bisek. This affair was going on during the Clinton impeachment probe.

Former presidential candidate and New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani’s personal life included public appearances with future wife number 3, Judith Nathan before the very public dumping of wife number 2, Donna Hanover.

In early May 2000, the New York Daily News and then the New York Post broke news of Giuliani's relationship with Nathan. Giuliani first publicly acknowledged her on May 3, 2000 stating that Nathan was his "very good friend."

On May 10, 2000 Giuliani called a press conference to announce that he intended to separate from Hanover. Hanover, however, had not been told about his plans before his press conference, an omission for which Giuliani was widely criticized.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s first wife Carol also has a compelling story to tell that is not well known. In June, the UK's Daily Mail published The wife John McCain callously left behind, the story about how McCain came home from Vietnam to a once beautiful wife who had become disfigured from a near-fatal car crash. (Thanks to blogger John McIntire aka MacYapper for sharing this article.)

In 1979 – while still married to Carol – he met (his present wife) Cindy at a cocktail party in Hawaii. Over the next six months he pursued her, flying around the country to see her. Then he began to push to end his marriage.

Carol and her children were devastated. ‘It was a complete surprise,’ says Nancy Reynolds, a former Reagan aide. ‘They never displayed any difficulties between themselves. I know the Reagans were quite shocked because they loved and respected both Carol and John.’

Another friend added: ‘Carol didn’t fight him. She felt her infirmity made her an impediment to him. She justified his actions because of all he had gone through. She used to say, “He just wants to make up for lost

Indeed, to many in their circle the saddest part of the break-up was Carol’s decision to resign herself to losing a man she says she still adores.
This may well come back to give McCain problems in the upcoming election campaign if the US mainstream media decides this is worth a closer look. So far, only liberal blogs like this one in The Huffington Post along with Fox News token liberal Alan Colmes in this video have spoken up on this.

In any event, if these three men can be forgiven by the public for their admittedly cruel behavior to past wives to at least be able to still run for office, John Edwards should at least be given a chance to someday serve in an appointed role to contribute toward improving the lives of those suffering the effects of poverty or lacking health insurance (which were more central issues in his presidential campaign than with the other candidates). Or maybe he would do well as a czar reporting to the president and adminstering the long neglected tasks of finishing the rebuilding of New Orleans along with helping remaining Katrina victims to finally get back on their feet. A disgraced man like this would have an especially powerful incentive to make a meaningful contribution in hopes of making amends for the mistakes he made.

I conclude with a passage from a recent New York Times op-ed column by Paul Krugman:

…if we do get real health care reform, a lot of people will owe a debt of gratitude to none other than John Edwards. When Mr. Edwards dropped out of the presidential race, I credited him with making universal health care a “possible dream for the next administration.” Mr. Edwards’s political career is over — but perhaps he and his family can take some solace from the fact that his party is still trying to make that dream come true.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

When the Consumer Gets Screwed

Recently after converting my Internet service to a new carrier, I received as part of my phone bill, a $50 charge for a new modem that was installed. But when I signed up for the service, I was told that there were no start-up charges. What gives? So I called the customer service department to find out why I was being charged for the modem. The response was that there was a $50 rebate as part of the deal. All I had to do was fill out the rebate form and mail it in. But where was the rebate form? I was told that it was included as part of the packet of paperwork inside the box that the modem came in. In this case, since it was less than the 45 day deadline for submitting it, I was able to fill it out and mail it that day before I forgot to do it. In addition, I was given a phone number to call “after 10 weeks” if I didn’t get my rebate check by then. But what was so annoying about all of this was if I wasn’t alert enough to question my bill, I would have likely lost out on the $50. Which I’m sure was alright for the folks issuing the rebates.

But while we all like bargains, many of us are getting fed up with all of the
games and hoop jumping we have to go through on rebate deals to get what is essentially our own money back.

Why do manufacturers and merchants do this?
There are a number of reasons but the most obvious one is that the manufacturer or merchant gets the free use of our money until we finally recover the rebate amount. But the real reason for offering rebates is the knowledge that most people will either forget to or not bother to go through the trouble of filling out and mailing the rebate request within the specified deadline (or neglect to cash the rebate check before it expires). And those offering the rebates know that the more onerous the requirements are for getting the rebate money back, the more likely the rebate will go unclaimed. While the percentage of unclaimed rebates is unclear, there is no doubt that it is significant. And with the value of rebates sometimes being hundreds of dollars for some items, the temptation to cheat can be significant. For example, what keeps a rebate processing center from saying that they never received your rebate form? I’m sure the great majority of them are honest, but for those who aren’t, what recourse does the consumer have?

Tactics like these that aren’t necessarily illegal but are sneaky ways to screw people out of money are sometimes referred to as sharp practices. Probably the most well known of these is the use of
fine print in contracts that consumers may have to sign or simply agree to in using a product or service. While the contract may say that everything is legal, when companies use the fine print to spring something unexpectedly unfavorable on a consumer, it is clearly unethical.

While it may be hard for some to get worked up over rebates, these practices are being used to really hurt people sometimes to the point of getting their homes repossessed.

For example, home equity lines of credit have been actively sold to those who were heavily in credit card debt. This is not bad in itself for people who can afford the debt. Home equity loans offer a lower rate of interest than most credit cards and the interest payments can be tax deductible. But for people in bad financial shape, defaulting on a home equity loan (as opposed to credit cards) can mean the loss of ones home.

Another source of terrible problems has been the active selling of adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs). For the savvy consumer, adjustable rate mortgages may be advantageous when interest rates are at historic highs — although simply refinancing when interest rates drop is safer. But in recent times of historic low interest rates, there’s nowhere for interest rates to go but up. And when this happens, again people can lose their homes if they are unable to refinance.

ARMs are part of a larger problem surrounding
subprime lending where borrowers have access to loans at a higher than market interest rate. This in itself is not bad. Lenders are compensated for their higher risk and borrowers have access to badly needed loans they couldn’t have gotten otherwise. For example, I had personal circumstances that required me to purchase a home while I was out of work and this allowed me to do that. But when this goes too far, we have what is referred to as predatory lending. This can be the offering of a loan to someone who clearly does not have the resources to pay back the loan. Or it can be an industry like payday loans that take advantage of financially struggling people to charge them interest rates that would make a loan shark blush.

A crucial question surrounding all of this is whether we should do something about practices that may well be legal but also unethical. One view is that if people are ignorant enough to get themselves in dire financial situations, they deserve what they get. But while some of these people should know better, many of the people getting hurt the most are the less educated and poor. And even in cases where these people are not ignorant of the financial risks they get involved in, they often have no other choice. Is taking advantage of others, especially those who are down and out on their luck something from which we should just look away?

And for those who have been pushed to the edge of bankruptcy, there is the final insult to injury in the so-called
Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act passed in 2005 in response to those who have abusively used bankruptcy to walk away from debts that they could otherwise afford to repay. But the many criticisms include views that the law was written around the interests of the lenders at the expense of consumers who may really need bankruptcy as the only way out of problems caused by circumstances such as the number one cause of bankruptcy, health care expenses and/or a loss of a job that was beyond their control.

I feel a lot of the problem has been due to a conservative political climate that in recent years has been far more pro-business than pro-consumer. While this likely may not affect anti-consumer practices that are clearly illegal, what is labeled an unethical practice can be more subjective. For example, did the lenders hurt by the subprime lending practices simply get what they deserved or were they screwed by unscrupulous lenders? While there is some truth to both sides, I believe that an examination of the issue would reveal that the latter is much more prevalent. This is especially when one considers instances where
mortgage brokers are rewarded with significantly higher commissions for selling complex ARMs to people who can least understand or afford them.

Some would argue that more laws to protect people from unethical business practices reduces us to being a ‘nanny state’. I disagree. Protecting the interests of consumers from getting screwed by unscrupulous business practices, especially those consumers who are struggling to stay afloat, is simply showing compassion for those who stand to get hurt the most. And indeed, can any society consider itself to be a moral one if it is lacking in compassion for those who need it?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Should the US Ban Prescription Drug Ads to Consumers?

Earlier this year, Pfizer, the maker of a popular cholesterol lowering drug Lipitor was forced to pull its ads featuring artificial heart inventor Dr. Robert Jarvik as its spokesperson. Many people who viewed the commercial believed he was recommending the drug as a practicing physician. But although he is an MD, he does not have a license to practice medicine and write prescriptions so it was agreed to pull these misleading ads.

Even though the Jarvik ads are long gone, more and more people are questioning US laws that allow direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs. Although we are now accustomed to nearly endless commercials on TV for prescription drugs, many of us are unaware that every other industrialized country in the world (with the exception of New Zealand)
bans consumer ads for prescription drugs. And even New Zealand is considering a ban.

Are prescription drug ads a good idea? Before answering this, we should think about why certain drugs are only available by prescription to begin with. Unlike over-the-counter (OTC) drugs that relieve less serious conditions that don’t normally require doctor visits, prescription drugs treat conditions that are serious enough to require a doctor’s diagnosis before knowing what to prescribe, if anything. If indeed a drug is needed, sometimes an OTC drug may well be good enough. And if a drug must be prescribed, a conscientious physician should not only select the most effective drug for the diagnosis but also the most cost-effective one if there is a choice.

At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. But the problem critics see with advertising prescription drugs directly to consumers is that it totally short-circuits this process. To begin with, recommending a particular prescription drug requires the commercial to persuade the consumer of a diagnosis of a condition that their drug will treat (even if they have to make one up). Once that is done, the commercial can then move on to recommending the particular brand of drug the person watching the ad really needs to have.

So the results are that more patients are going to their doctors with the diagnosis they got from the TV ad along with the name of the drug they need to have. Of course the physician can (and should) try to override this with his or her own good judgment. But persuasive drug ads can create powerful brand loyalty even among those who have never even used the product! This can create a dilemma for the physician — risk a confrontation with the patient and the possible loss of business or give in to patient demands even if it is not in the best interest of the patient.

But just to help clinch the deal in their favor, the drug companies have a couple of aces in the hole. For one, they can legally ‘educate’ physicians on the virtues of their brand by way of dinners, trips, or other entertainment. And then there are those free samples that the physician can hand out when the patient requests a certain drug. Once the patient uses the drug in the free sample, they are very unlikely to ever want to change even if less expensive alternatives like generics are available. Generics are never available as free samples (nor are they advertised) because of their much lower selling prices compared to drugs that are still under patent.

Since inexpensive generic drugs do not get the advertising exposure that name brand drugs receive, many consumers do not know of these alternative options when they are available. In the Lipitor example above, the advertising campaign was to build customer loyalty to Lipitor which is still under patent and hopefully keep people from switching to a very similar cholesterol lowering drug, Zocor which is now available as a far less expensive generic drug.

The price of the drugs aside, perhaps the biggest objection to prescription drug ads centers on the newer approved drugs. Even drugs that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for sale can have unexpected and serious side effects that are not discovered until widespread usage of the product reveals them. Perhaps the most famous example is
Vioxx which due to Merck’s aggressive ad campaign resulted in as many as 80 million people using this drug before it had to be withdrawn due to the disclosure of increased risk of heart attack and stroke by its use. To make things worse, the FDA has sometimes taken several months to react to drug ads that were misleading. By then they ad may have already been pulled and done its damage.

The pharmaceutical industry has been under a great deal of scrutiny over their marketing practices. For those interested in exploring this issue in more depth, this
series of video links provides some most compelling viewing.

To help the public with unbiased advice on prescription drugs and other health issues,
Consumer Reports Health offers its Ratings for subscribers but also has a number of articles available for free. Please be sure to check out their AdWatch videos critiquing a number of prescription drug commercials. And Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs is available as a free (and valuable) public service.

Not to be left out, Saturday Night Live offered its own commercial for a fake birth control pill,
Annuale — a spoof of a real drug ad for Seasonale.

I along with many others feel that since prescription drug advertising does considerably more harm than good, we should seriously consider
an outright ban on these consumer ads like most of the rest of the world has already done. But whether things will change will probably depend on who wins this November. Any change will require more government regulation of the pharmaceutical industry and in general, Republicans favor less regulation while Democrats tend to favor more regulation when they feel it is necessary. And while many have expressed their outrage at oil company profits, the pharmaceutical industry has been the most profitable of all US businesses — and they have shown their willingness to use that money to intensely lobby Congress to keep the status quo. The question is — are enough of us willing to stand up for what we feel is right?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Can We Talk About Animal Welfare?

Recently, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote A Farm Boy Reflects, an interesting introspection on his torn feelings between his recognition of the feelings and personalities of some of the animals he raised on a farm and his enjoyment of meat.

Anyone who has read Kristof’s work knows how compassionate he is toward the suffering of other human beings with his tireless coverage of the genocide in Darfur. But when he tried to share those torn feelings about the suffering of animals, many of the huge outpouring of
reader comments from animal rights supporters slammed him mercilessly.

When it comes to issues, those surrounding animals may well be as much of a hot-button for as many people as some of the other more traditional wedge issues like abortion or gay rights. Especially for those of us who have been close to animals either as pets or on a farm, they have a special place in many of our hearts.

But for all of us who care about animals, there is a fork in the road where we must choose where we want to go. Do we choose to support
animal rights?

Animal rights, also known as animal liberation, is the idea that the interests of animals, such as the interest in avoiding suffering, should be afforded the same consideration as the interests of human beings. Although animal rights advocates approach the issue from different philosophical positions, they argue, broadly speaking, that animals should no longer be regarded as property, or used as food, clothing, research subjects, or entertainment, but should instead be regarded as legal persons and members of the moral community.

Or animal welfare?

Animal welfare refers to the viewpoint that it is morally acceptable for humans to use nonhuman animals for food, in animal research, as clothing, and in entertainment, so long as unnecessary suffering is avoided. The position is contrasted with the animal rights position, which holds that other animals should not be used by, or regarded as the property of, humans.

Especially after reading some of the comments by animal rights people to Kristof’s column, I am well aware and accept that there is likely nothing I could say on the animal welfare side that would be persuasive to them. But since this blog is about opinions, I will nonetheless share why I am in the animal welfare camp.

I admit that I like Kristof am torn on this subject. While I am sensitive to the feelings of animals and was especially moved by a beautifully written essay
A Piece of Meat, I am also a passionate foodie who gets tremendous enjoyment from good food — including meat.

In addition, I will admit that there are a number of compelling health reasons to consider giving up meat. But for humans to give up meat or other animal products as a moral way to change the world is to me, ignoring much of the reality of the world. For one thing, in nature the animal kingdom includes a large number of carnivores (who eat meat exclusively) and omnivores (who eat either plants or animals based on opportunity or choice). And even a scientist who is a vegetarian agrees that
Humans Are Omnivores.

So even in the extremely unlikely event that all humans were to give up eating meat and using all animal products, the food chain in nature would still go on. If we are all part of the same animal kingdom, why is it not immoral for other animals to kill and eat other animals but immoral for us?

And since religion and morality are so often intertwined, it deserves a mention here. While some religions forbid the eating of certain creatures, very few take the sanctity of life to the point where the use of all animals is prohibited. For example, the New Testament (John 21) tells us that Jesus
prepared roasted fish for his disciples (and presumably wore leather sandals). And while Hindus especially in India are often vegetarians, the religion does not expressly prohibit meat. In addition, while cows are almost never eaten in India, dairy products from them are an important part of their diet.

For those who would like to listen to George Carlin’s totally irreverant take on the sanctity of life, check out
this video link.

But even for those of us who accept that animals must die to indulge our desire for meat, there is still the issue of whether food animals are treated as humanely as possible given the circumstances of their existence.
Factory farming has drawn a great deal of criticism over questions about humane animal treatment along with their effects on the environment due to the large scale waste problems of handling so many animals in such a confined space. Now California Proposition 2 will be on the ballot in November to follow other states who have enacted similar laws to promote more humane treatment of our food animals.

While more humane animal treatment is something we should all be sensitive about, there are both
advantages and disadvantages to factory farms. As repulsive as they may be, they are providing affordable food to a growing world population. We need to be careful that any changes we make will not result in some food becoming unaffordable for those who are the most needy. In addition, if some states pass laws that put their own farmers’ food products at a competitive price disadvantage compared to those from other states without such laws, some producers may be forced out of business or just move to another state to stay in business. For the worthwhile changes to factory farms we can agree on, perhaps national legislation can address this issue — if we also agree to regulate imported products based on the same considerations.

In many ways this is similar to issues surrounding other products that come to market. We all want the lowest prices possible, but hopefully not so much that we will agree to inhumane labor conditions. For those of us who care about animal welfare, can’t we at least try our best to do away with the inhumane conditions of those creatures we rely on for our daily food?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Why the US Drinking Age Should Be 18

The question of what is the appropriate legal drinking age in the US has often been a lively topic of discussion but even more so in the years since we have been sending 18-20 year olds to war with some of them giving the ultimate sacrifice. Although lowering the drinking age from 21 has never been a popular political position, interestingly enough even some conservative commentators like George Will have questioned the wisdom of keeping our national drinking age at 21.

But when you think about it, a lot of the laws surrounding alcohol consumption are driven by our attitudes towards it. An interesting way to determine a person’s attitude on this subject would be to ask the following question:

Do you believe the consumption of alcohol is more a good thing or a bad thing?

The answers I believe would be most revealing. Some, mostly those who enjoy alcohol would likely say that it is mostly a good thing. Others may dwell on the misery it brings from alcoholism, drunk driving, and sometimes even death. So who is right?

In a balanced view — one that I subscribe to — both views are correct but with the following qualifiers: Responsible consumption of alcohol is a good thing while irresponsible consumption is a bad thing. So by not including the qualifiers, the person answering the question has to put in his or her own qualifiers that reveal ones attitude.

We are bombarded with reminders of what makes irresponsible drinking a bad thing — and with good reason I might add. But especially for those who dwell on what’s bad, the other side needs some equal time. Responsible consumption of alcohol has the capacity to bring pleasure to our lives which for those who choose to drink make it a good thing. For example, alcohol can help to make pleasant or joyous social occasions even more so. And some of my fondest travel memories were my tours of some of the vineyards in California’s Napa Valley where I would sample some of the wines while taking in the incredibly beautiful countryside. But when I found a wine that I fell in love with I then asked the people at the vineyard store whether I could buy it in my home state of Pennsylvania. To which they would usually reply, “Not Pennsylvania — that’s a control state!”

And control is the operative word. For example in Pennsylvania, all wine and liquor stores are operated by the state’s Liquor Control Board. Alcohol is evil you know; we have to control it before it overruns us all!

But in the interest of perspective, we need to ask what percentage of people actually becomes alcohol dependent?
Estimates vary, but it appears that it’s about 5% of the overall population and at least in the US it’s about 8% of the adult population. Without trying to minimize the importance of those who need our help, it should be pointed out that the overwhelming majority of people who drink do so responsibly and without problems. So laws to try and control drinking can be well intentioned. But especially if they are too intrusive, they can become a needless nuisance to responsible drinkers while irresponsible drinkers are just going to do what they want or need to anyhow.

Given all of this, it is easier to understand why experiments with
Prohibition in the US along with just about every other non-Islamic nation in the world have ended in repeal. And while there were enough people in the US in favor of Prohibition to have it passed as a Constitutional Amendment to try and deal with irresponsible drinking, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to bust otherwise law-abiding people who were drinking responsibly. So it was decided that in the interest of treating adults like adults, the repeal of Prohibition was passed.

In my view, the US Prohibition for adults between ages 18-21 is just as misguided. And yes, they are adults by just about any other definition one can think of. One of the principal arguments for lowering the drinking age has been if someone was old enough to go to war, they were old enough to drink. But sociology professor David J. Hanson
in this link expands the argument:

The fact is that citizens are legally adults at the age of 18. They can marry, vote, adopt children, own and drive automobiles, have abortions, enter into legally binding contracts, operate businesses, purchase or even perform in pornography, give legal consent for sexual intercourse, fly airplanes, hold public office, serve on juries that convict others of murder, hunt wildlife with deadly weapons, be imprisoned, be executed, be an employer, sue and be sued in court, and otherwise conduct themselves as the adults they are. And, of course, they can serve in the United States armed services and give their lives defending their country. One of the very few things they can’t legally do is consume an alcohol beverage. They can’t even have a celebratory sip of champagne at their own weddings.
In addition, this creates the absurdity in that someone between 18 and 21 who is arrested for ‘underage’ drinking is treated by the legal system as an adult which means that a conviction goes on his or her permanent record instead of receiving the protected status of a juvenile even though the only reason for the arrest may be based on that person’s youth!

And while many of us in the US can’t even conceive of people being allowed to drink before age 21, when almost all of the rest of the world discusses its problems of underage drinking, they don’t even consider those over 18.

Before the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, individual states in the US were allowed to set their own drinking ages without interference from the federal government. But with those under 21 driving to and from neighboring states with lower age limits sometimes with too much to drink, something had to be done. One solution of course would be to lower the age to 18 everywhere to keep these people near home to drink but due to efforts from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) the age was raised to 21 everywhere based on their belief that our brains do not stop developing until our early 20s and that alcohol retards this development.

But in addition to what was supposedly their charter cause, fighting for the passage and enforcement of anti-drunk driver laws, MADD is also quite active in lobbying for legislation that limits access to alcohol regardless of how responsible the consumer may be. Because of this, there are
those who are critical of MADD for being what they view as a neo-prohibitionist group that has gotten out of hand — with one of the critics being its own founder, Candy Lightner who left MADD in 1985.

Despite the threat of losing some federal highway funding by doing so, there is some legislative action starting up in
some states to lower the drinking age. Of course, MADD is there to doggedly lead the fight against that.

Just like Prohibition from the 20s, Prohibition for those between 18 and 21 is just as difficult to enforce, especially on college campuses where the legal and illegal aged population is mixed together. Rather than the adversarial position between people of this age and authority figures on drinking, some are advocating teaching responsible drinking as in the Time article
Should You Drink with Your Kids? . But although the writer is willing to suggest something like this, he still feels that lowering the drinking age is “going too far”.

But is it really? Right now there are already laws that punish people who drink irresponsibly and drive under the influence no matter what their ages are. And you can be sure that irresponsible people like this don’t care about these laws. All we can do for them is to put our efforts into preventing these people from hurting others through anti-drunk driving enforcement.

So that leaves our present law to do little more than legally prohibit 18-20 year olds who are willing and able to drink responsibly from doing so. And that is not a good thing!