Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Eating Seafood as Penance

It’s easy for even the most secular person in America to notice that Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season has arrived. Everybody is talking about fish! Just about every restaurant is all of a sudden promoting its fish specials. Churches and fire halls are promoting their fish fry events. Even McDonald’s instead of their burgers and chicken is promoting their Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.

As a serious foodie who was raised in a Catholic household with meatless Fridays, I still wonder about all the sense of all of this.

When I was a child, I used to dread those meatless Fridays. Instead of ‘good’ food like hot dogs, hamburgers, and the like, dinner was some yucky bland bean dish…or lentils, or Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks. Seafood back then was tuna fish out of the can or mystery breaded fish from the grocery freezer section. It was edible, but not as good as the food I really liked. But I guess that’s what penance is all about.

Then in my teenage years I had an epiphany on the subject of seafood. I was hanging out with a buddy who wanted to go to a seafood place that sold fish sandwiches. As I saw him order a fish sandwich, I wondered to myself, “Why would he order a fish sandwich when it wasn’t even Friday?” “And he wasn’t even a Catholic!”

The breaded fresh piece of fish was unlike anything I had ever tasted until that day. For those who say that they don’t like a particular food, I argue that there are two possible reasons. One is that the person really doesn’t like that food. But more likely it is because that person has never tasted a good example of the food in question. For me and seafood, the latter clearly applied to me and to this day, seafood is high on the list of my favorite foods.

But what’s with this idea of seafood and penance? It was interesting to hear mentioned on a couple of travel shows on Ireland Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and Food Network's Tasting Ireland that despite being a country that produces some of the world’s best seafood, the Irish people have been notable for their dislike of seafood. Why is that? Supposedly, it is because in the Republic of Ireland, its population is predominantly Catholic and eating seafood is looked upon as penance. By contrast, neighboring England with its Protestant population loves its fish and chips.

Before the mid 60s when meatless Fridays were all year round instead of just during Lent, the rules around this created a lot of interesting situations for Catholics as described by comedian George Carlin in his observations on
Special Dispensation!

I think I was troubled too at the time by the fact that my church would keep changing rules. I mean, they would change a rule anytime they wanted. "THIS LAW'S ETERNAL! Except for this weekend! SPECIAL DISPENSATION!" Magic words.

Yeah, like eating meat on Friday was definitely a sin — except for the people in Philadelphia; they were number one in the scrap iron drive, yeah! They would give it away as a prize, y'know? If your parish gave the most money to the bishop's relief fund...Hamburgers on Friday, yeah! Wow.

But since the law was changed, Carlin wondered about the fate of those who died after committing the mortal sin (at the time) of eating meat on Friday.

It's not even a sin anymore to eat meat on Friday but I'll betcha there are still some guys in Hell doing time on the meat rap, right? "I thought it was retroactive! I had a baloney sandwich! This guy had a beef jerky, right? Tell 'em what you had." How'd you like to do eternity for a beef jerky. Yeah, 'cause Hell wasn't no five to ten, y'know. Hell was LATER!
But the number one problem I have with requiring the eating of fish or other seafood as ‘penance’ is that it affects poorer and more affluent people a lot differently. Really good seafood that is a pleasure to eat and not a penance tends to be expensive. Fresh seafood is perishable and requires more costly transportation to get it to market quickly while it is still fresh.

So for those who make rules like this, I can’t help but wonder if they have considered that while the less well-to-do have to resort to choices like canned tuna, frozen fish sticks, and maybe peanut butter or beans to observe meatless Fridays, more affluent people can dine on among other things, shrimp, crab, or even lobster. Some penance!

Unfortunately, once the Lenten season ends with Easter, fish and other seafood will be forgotten by many of us until next Ash Wednesday. Most restaurants will go back to offering mediocre seafood as an obscure secondary offering. For example, instead of offering a mediocre (at best) Filet-O-Fish that people only want to eat because they have to during Lent, why doesn't McDonald's offer a really good fish sandwich that people will want to eat all year round? As long as seafood retains its stigma by many as a food one eats only as penance, too many of us will never discover the pleasure (along with the health benefits) that really good fresh seafood has to offer. And that’s a shame!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Let's Work to Live!

Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.

— Genesis 2:3

To try and make sure that we all got our day of rest (whether we wanted it or not) religious groups got behind the enactment of so-called blue laws to restrict activities or sales of goods on the sabbath day (Sunday for Christians).

Fortunately, these heavy-handed rules of conduct have been mostly repealed. But an amazing number of these laws are still on the books and enforced in many states in the US. These laws mostly restrict alcohol sales but others restrict other activities from selling cars to hunting on Sunday.

Since these laws are clearly written around religious doctrine, it is hard to understand how they have not all been struck down as unconstitutional. Clearly the separation of church and state is taking a beating here.

But there are also secular concerns especially in the US about whether we are getting enough of those days of rest. While repealing most of the blue laws now allows most businesses to stay open on Sundays so we can shop, it also means that many of us now have to work on Sundays. (Chick-fil-A Restaurants has notably bucked this trend.)

And with many businesses now staying open on more holidays, it also means that — you guessed it — many of us now have to work on holidays.

There is nothing wrong with working Sundays and holidays for those who wish to do so — especially if premium pay is offered. And with our present recession, businesses that used to be closed on Sundays and holidays are now opening on those days to try and drum up more business. But when people are forced to work Sundays and holidays in order to keep their jobs, we lose opportunities to spend quality time with family and friends which slowly but surely erodes our quality of life. Interestingly enough, some of the blue laws are actually supported by the industries they regulate. For example in my state and a few others, automobile sales are prohibited on Sundays. And that’s just fine with most of the auto dealers who like their Sundays off. After all, if the law were repealed, a few of the dealers would likely start Sunday sales forcing everybody else to give up their Sundays to compete.

Even more distressing is how vacation time is shrinking for many people in the US which is already among the countries whose workers get the least amount of vacation time.

Compared to almost every other country, Americans work longer and harder and vacation the least. But before you get bent out of shape about the inhumane ways of U.S. employers, know this: Your boss isn't obligated to give you any vacation time. Why? Because the U.S. is one of the very few industrialized countries where the government doesn't regulate benefits in the private work sector.

Americans work two weeks longer than the work-till-you-drop Japanese, and two months longer than the Germans, who sometimes receive up to 15 weeks paid vacation each year, according to the Hay Group, a human resource consulting firm.

Unlike other countries that have mandatory minimum vacation times for all workers, Americans need to spend many years at a single employer to earn the same amount of vacation time that is routinely available to workers in other countries. But with many companies now laying off employees, that is being lost too. It’s bad enough that US workers are getting shortchanged on the quantity of vacation compared to many other countries. But in many cases, they are also being cheated out of the quality of what vacation time they do spend.

With staffing cut to the bone in many places, many workers feel they have to bring their laptops and cell phones along on vacation to avoid having to dig out of a massive hole after their return to work. And while many companies have ‘use it or lose it’ vacation policies, they also make it difficult to get away when it is busy (which is conveniently for the employer, just about always). The result is that instead of using the vacation days for a nice summer getaway or two, the days are often burned off during the winter downtime at the end of the year or given back to the employer if there are too many days left untaken.

The growing lack of leisure time in the US is a quality of life issue that has been overlooked for too long now. Comparing life expectancies by country, it appears that most of the countries in Europe do better than the US. While some of this may be due to Europe’s better availability of health care to all regardless of social class, I think a lot of it is due to a ‘work to live’ mentality that is predominant in Europe as compared to a ‘live to work’ mentality that is so prized by ambitious workers in the US and often encouraged by their employers. In contrast, leisure time is an indispensable part of most European cultures whether it is time off from work or just spending quality time with friends or loved ones over a leisurely meal.

But perhaps the extraordinary amount of leisure time that Europeans enjoy can be too much of a good thing. Critics feel that the output of European workers compared to American workers has been slipping because of this. But clearly the other extreme is in place in the US workplace where productivity has been steadily increasing but the rewards in the way of wages and leisure time have been stagnant. And all too often, US workers have found that working so hard to the point of possibly compromising their health can still result in them being laid off in today’s economy.

Joe Robinson, author of the book Work to Live, has outlined a number of worthwhile suggestions in
Bring back the 40 hour workweek -- and let us take a long vacation. In addition to some suggested changes in corporate culture to help prevent burnout, other suggestions advocate that the US enact some laws to guarantee some basic benefits in among other areas, vacation time and sick leave that workers presently take for granted in many other countries in the world. In a country like the US where corporate profits normally take precedence over the welfare of the workers who helped to produce those profits, this goes against the grain. But with an Obama presidency that promises to be more pro-labor as opposed to the previous administration that seemed to look out only for the interests of business, things may finally change for the better when it comes to the American worker. They deserve no less!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

We Need Safer Food

As the recent NYT editorial Dangerous Food in the wake of the recent salmonella tainted peanut butter opines:

The more investigators look into the latest food-safety scandal involving the Peanut Corporation of America, the worse it gets. It now appears that as many as nine people have died and 19,000 have been sickened after eating cookies, crackers or institutional peanut butter tainted with salmonella from a plant in Georgia owned by the company.

This is far from an isolated case. It wasn’t that long ago that people got sick from E. coli in spinach and at Taco Bell, green onions.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), food borne illnesses infect about 76 million Americans every year, of which 325,000 become hospitalized and 5,000 die. The estimated total cost to the nation, including pain and suffering, medical expenses and lost productivity is between 10 and 83 billion US dollars a year.

Compared to other issues like the economy that President Obama has to deal with, food safety may not be at the top of the list. But it certainly needs some urgent attention.

In the US, it is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that has jurisdiction over both food and drug safety. But with the FDA’s inability to keep our food safe, along with their problems in being slow to react to unsafe drugs like Vioxx, something clearly needs to be done to do a better job of protecting the public.

How did we get into this mess? Much of it was due to that same anti-regulation philosophy with the belief that government is not needed to protect its citizens from harmful business practices. After all they say, companies want to protect their good name and this will be enough incentive for them to do well by us.

But how is that working so far? Although the
Peanut Corporation of America has now been put out of business, it had a widespread reputation in the industry of the unsanitary practices for some time before the recent episode. And the FDA inspection of their Georgia plant in January 2009 gave us this:

FDA inspectors reported, following a two-week inspection of the Blakely, Georgia plant in January 2009, that the company had information that its peanut-butter products were tainted with salmonella but shipped them anyway after "re-testing" them. This occurred at least 12 times in 2007 and 2008. FDA inspectors also found mold growing on the plant's ceiling and walls, foot-long gaps in its roof, dead insects near peanuts, and holes in the plant big enough for rodents to enter. The company also didn’t clean its equipment after finding contamination and didn’t properly separate raw and finished products. In 2007 the company shipped chopped peanuts on two occasions even after salmonella was confirmed by private lab tests.

But most incredible of all:

The company had previously refused to divulge production test records until federal officials invoked the food safety provisions of a federal anti-terrorism law (the 2002 Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Act).

I think this proves conclusively that we need far more than industry self-regulation to keep our food supply safe. And it also proves that the FDA clearly because of indifference and/or lack of manpower was not there to protect us until after the major salmonella outbreak that could have clearly been prevented.

In fairness to those in the food industry, I don’t believe that the great majority of them would ever consider criminal acts in knowingly shipping contaminated products. All it takes is a mistake somewhere in the process for something to go wrong leading to contaminated food being shipped out. But if companies knew that the FDA was regularly checking up on them like they are supposed to be, they would be motivated to be extra careful and fewer incidents would happen.

With the FDA having a lot on its plate in regulating both food and drug safety, maybe the agency should be split into separate ‘food’ and a ‘drug’ agencies. Nicholas Kristof back in December wrote an interesting article Obama's 'Secretary of Food'?

A Department of Agriculture made sense 100 years ago when 35 percent of Americans engaged in farming. But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat.
But his article shows the regulatory reform in food safety is more complicated than simply dealing with the FDA. The FDA which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services regulates food products that are mostly or totally non-meat. So looking out for dangers like mad cow disease in our meat supply falls under the Agriculture Department. So perhaps a ‘Department of Food’ can be made up of what each of these departments does in relation to food so that our food supply will all fall under one cabinet official responsible for the safety of all of our food.

While that may all make sense, at this writing, Health and Human Services does not yet have somebody to lead them with Obama nominee Tom Daschle having to withdraw because of problems with unpaid taxes. And even when somebody is finally installed there, the number one priority will understandably be health care reform.

But we all have to eat.
And we need our government to do a much better job of protecting the food supply which President Obama has acknowledged. Hopefully, we can get some badly needed reform before too many more people get sick or die from tainted food.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ethical Questions About 'Octuplet Mom'

So the world has been asking what ‘Octuplet Mom’ Nadya Suleman was thinking about when she had 6 embryos implanted that resulted in the birth of 8 babies (2 embryos resulting in twins) to go along with the 6 babies that this single, unemployed mother already had.

NBC Today interview shows a person who appears to be warm and loving but also with self-admitted psychological issues.

“How did an only child end up with 14 children?” (Ann) Curry asked Nadya Suleman.

“That was always a dream of mine, to have a large family, a huge family, and I just longed for certain connections and attachments with another person that I really lacked, I believe, growing up,” she replied.

NBC contributor and psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz opined that Suleman’s statement reveals emotional issues.

“I think she’s in a bit of denial here and quite defensive, because in fact she does talk about the fact that this has been her life’s mission: to have babies, have babies, have babies. There’s an obsession to this, and I think it’s quite disturbing,” the psychiatrist said.

“When you don’t have a connection in childhood, you go see a therapist,” she added. “You don’t have 14 babies.”

I couldn’t have said it better!

There are a number of ethical questions surrounding this story. First and foremost is whether there was something that could or should have been done to keep this woman from doing what she did. After all, the financial and physical requirements to for a single person to provide quality care of 14 babies are unimaginable. In many ways this resembles animal hoarding where people with emotional problems collect far more animals than they can possibly care for.

In her interview, Ms. Suleman said that the same physician who was responsible for the in vitro fertilization of the previous 6 children was also responsible for implanting the other 6 embryos resulting in the octuplets. And while he was just doing what his patient requested, an ethical physician who is looking out for the best interests of his patient and her resulting offspring should have questioned whether Ms. Suleman was mentally fit to make such a radical decision. Economics aside, there was a great risk to her in carrying this many babies to term along with the future health risks for the premature babies. Did he at least recommend against all of this? Did he at least recommend that she seek counseling to see if she was mentally fit to make this kind of a decision? Admittedly if her request was refused, she could have simply gone to another physician but who else would have agreed to such a request from a woman who already had 6 children? Reportedly, the Medical Board of California is investigating the clinic involved which may receive
disciplinary action.

“I know I'll be able to afford them when I'm done with my schooling.” (a master's degree in counseling) Even if that were true (how many would go to her for counseling?), the care of the infants would have to be delegated out to others while she is at work. And the medical bills alone for these 8 premature infants may run into millions of dollars. According to NBC chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman:

“They’re going to watch these kids very carefully for eating problems, growing [problems], and then seizures, jaundice, heart problems, lung problems, blindness, developmental delays — there’s a laundry list of things. Long term, because some of these children will be physically or mentally challenged, there’s a looming price tag out here. The hospital bill alone will run $1.5 to $3 million. Forget about getting to college; just to get through special-needs stuff — it’s going to have to come from somewhere, either the taxpayers of California or her family or her church or the hospital. But she can’t do it alone.”

It all creates a dilemma as to how far we can let ‘pro-choice’ go, not in this instance for abortion which seeks to end pregnancies but for choices to become pregnant where the quality of life for the resulting children may be severely compromised. In Ms. Suleman’s case, she made the choice to have these additonal children but the consequences of her choice will have to be borne by many others around her. I don’t believe the government should be able to dictate to people how many children they can have. But is there any way to prevent extreme cases like this from happening again? Perhaps the answer is tighter regulation of the fertility industry.
The more details that comes out about Suleman's pregnancy, the more it screams to me about the need for tighter regulation in the fertility industry.

My outrage isn't directed so much at Suleman, but her doctors. No question, Suleman's judgment seems shaky: Should an unemployed single mother of six children ages 2 to 7, three of whom are disabled, really add to her brood? Suleman's own mother, Angela Suleman, terms the pregnancy as "unconscionable," saying her daughter has no means to support her family.

Still, Suleman certainly isn't the first person to let her heart overrule her head when it comes to having children, and the real scandal here doesn't involve parental misjudgment but medical ethics. It's one thing for Suleman to yearn for more children; it's quite another for a doctor to enable her flawed dream -- and in a fashion where the result is octuplets.

The worldwide fame this case has brought may result in a financial windfall for the family. Ms. Suleman hired a publicist to consider book and TV deals and even started a website to receive comments and donations. But the anger generated has also resulted in a torrent of nasty messages and even death threats causing the publicist to quit.

Whatever our feelings are for the mom, we can only hope her children will live the most normal lives possible. They will need all the help they can get. But let’s also hope that the worldwide publicity this has all brought won’t encourage possible Octuplet Mom wannabes to try and do the same thing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What Is the Future for Michael Phelps?

I was last moved to write about Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps as part of a previous posting Why We All Need Balance. While it was wonderful that he was receiving the world’s adulation at the end of the Olympics, fame is fleeting and everybody sooner or later becomes yesterday’s news. What then?

When I wrote the piece, I assumed that he was retiring from competitive swimming. After all, he had nothing left to prove and was to become independently wealthy from endorsements. And staying in shape for world-class swimming means giving up most of his social life. He already did that throughout his youth to get to where he is. So who needs all of that?

But perhaps to keep his endorsement value from falling too quickly, he made an appearance in London as part of the Olympic Closing Ceremonies to announce that he would compete there in the 2012 games. So while being an active swimmer instead of a retired swimmer has its endorsement advantages, it also brings with it the continued public scrutiny. So when he attended a college party at the University of South Carolina and inhaled from a marijuana bong, someone was there to snap his picture with a cell phone camera and sell it to a tabloid. That he still declared himself an active swimmer made the whole affair far more newsworthy than if he had decided to retire and leave the limelight.

So what do we make of all of this? I guess it has a lot to do with ones attitude toward marijuana and other drugs. On one extreme are those who believe the over-the-top anti-marijuana film
Reefer Madness to be a serious educational movie. (For those who are interested, the complete movie can be viewed by opening this link.) These same people would probably applaud the arrest of eight people in connection to that bong photo as in this Wall Street Journal op-ed piece Arrest Michael Phelps!

The sheriff's office in Richland County, S.C., is investigating a report -- prompted by a photo of the event published in a British tabloid -- that Olympic hero Michael Phelps smoked marijuana there. It's possible Mr. Phelps will be prosecuted. That's right: For those of you who don't know, marijuana is illegal.

Today, not only is it illegal to smoke marijuana, but, most people are surprised to learn, the number of arrests for marijuana use and possession are increasing. In that bastion of liberal values and political views, New York City, close to 400,000 people were apprehended for marijuana misdemeanors in the decade ending in 2007. This was almost 10 times the number arrested in the previous decade. In 2007 alone, nearly 800,000 Americans were arrested for simple possession of marijuana, according to FBI statistics.
To make things worse:

83% of those arrested in New York City in the last decade were African-American or Latino. This occurred even though these groups, while underrepresented among college students, don't actually comprise the majority of drug users.
And speaking of Latinos arrested, there is the example of comedian Tommy Chong who was sentenced to nine months in a federal prison for
selling marijuana bongs.

On the other extreme is a marijuana advocacy group calling for a
boycott of Kellogg's for dropping Phelps as an endorser.

The leader of one of the biggest legalize-pot organizations, the Marijuana Policy Project, called Kellogg’s action “hypocritical and disgusting,” and said he had never seen his membership so angry, with more than 2,300 of them signing an online petition.

“Kellogg’s had no problem signing up Phelps when he had a (previous) conviction for drunk driving, an illegal act that could actually have killed someone,” said Rob Kampia, the group’s executive director.

But what really sets me off is the talk on sports shows comparing what Phelps did to New York Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez in recently admitting that he had taken performance enhancing steroids. To me there is no comparison.

As opposed to A-Rod, Phelps did not take a performance enhancing drug to cheat. In addition, he is not even presently competing in his sport.

While taking a libertarian stance questioning whether steroids should be illegal for adults to take (it’s their body and they are taking the risk), I fully endorse sports leagues and associations cracking down and banning steroids. The reason is simple. Steroids are dangerous and athletes should not be forced into using them to be able to effectively compete with those that do take them.

As for Phelps, he has some decisions to make about his future. Staying active in swimming up through the 2012 London Olympics will mean more endorsements assuming he receives no further damage from this recent scandal. But this all has its price. In addition to all of the training, there is the scrutiny of his private life that endorsers will want in exchange for their dollars. After all, endorsers want to put their money into whom they feel are positive role models. But maybe Phelps just wants to be a regular 23-year-old guy instead of somebody that people want to see walk on water.

Not surprisingly, Phelps has now recently announced that
he is undecided about competing in the London Games. Who can blame him?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Partisanship - It's Their Nature

In the hours immediately following President Obama’s historic victory when everybody was holding hands and singing Kumbaya, I couldn’t help asking Is This the End of Partisan Politics? After this last week of hardcore partisan ranting over the proposed stimulus bills in Congress, it’s clear that we needn’t have worried.

The election of President Obama gave so many of us hope for two reasons. One was that conservative ideology that had a stranglehold over US politics over the last 8 years was finally going to be overturned in favor of more progressive policies. And secondly, the hyper partisan atmosphere in Washington D.C. was going to be replaced by an atmosphere of cooperation between the Democrats and Republicans. After all, we are in an economic crisis and everybody wants to see our new president succeed, right?

Maybe not. In my mind there is still a powerful disincentive for bipartisan politics for the party that is out of power. Just suppose that President Obama with bipartisan support turns out to have a wonderfully productive four years. That would be great for America, but how would the Republicans ever recapture the White House? Or any of the seats in Congress they have lost.

And even though Republicans have suffered serious election losses of late, there is still a hard core group of conservatives who need their daily ration of red meat from conservative media stars like Rush Limbaugh. Any hint of bipartisanship by somebody like Rush would likely mean the loss of most of his audience.

Perhaps the most egregious example of hyper partisan politics is former VP Dick Cheney’s
interview with the political website Politico.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney warned that there is a “high probability” that terrorists will attempt a catastrophic nuclear or biological attack in coming years, and said he fears the Obama administration’s policies will make it more likely the attempt will succeed.
Former administration officials criticizing a present administration is usually considered bad form even in Washington. But something like this after Obama is only on the job for two weeks is a bit much. And to prove that no partisan criticism is too trivial to pass up, we have Bush Chief of Staff
Andrew Card criticizing Obama for (horrors!) not wearing a suit jacket while working in the Oval Office.

Now President Obama has an economy in crisis that
shed 598,000 jobs in January. Obviously something has to be done quickly and most mainstream economists agree that in this dire situation, the government has to be the spender of last resort which has led to the stimulus plans that are being considered by Congress.

“Businesses are panicked and fighting for survival and slashing their payrolls,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s “I think we’re trapped in a very adverse, self-reinforcing cycle. The downturn is intensifying, and likely to intensify further unless policy makers respond aggressively.”

So while Obama has pursued bipartisanship in trying to pass a stimulus bill to try and rescue the economy, he has underestimated how entrenched the partisanship is in the opposing party.

And while there is room for disagreement between the Democratic view of what a stimulus should be (mostly government spending) as opposed to a Republican view (mostly tax cuts), voters knew on Election Day that the next president would have a failing economy to deal with. And if they wanted the Republican solution of mostly tax cuts, they would have elected John McCain. So maybe it’s time for President Obama to dispense with the excessive bipartisanship efforts that are getting him little or nothing in return and use his Democratic majorities in Congress to pass the Democratic policies he was elected to give us.

But finally, one has to wonder why the Republicans are resorting to such obstructionist tactics when our economy so urgently needs to be rescued. After all, if we fall into a depression because we did nothing or not enough, both Democrats and Republicans would be doomed to suffer. Maybe it’s just their nature like in the fable of
The Scorpion and the Frog.

The story is about a scorpion asking a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion reassures him that if it stung the frog, the frog would sink and the scorpion would drown as well. The frog then agrees; nevertheless, in mid-river, the scorpion stings him, dooming the two of them. When asked why, the scorpion explains, "I'm a scorpion; it's my nature."

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Slippery Slope of Bailouts

It was American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote:

Let me tell you about the very rich.
They are different from you and me.

When we are deciding what, if anything, we can do about the behavior of those running the corporations we are bailing out with taxpayer money, this is something that we have to keep in mind.

For them, the multi-million dollar bonuses and the extravagant lifestyles are a normal part of their careers and lives. And until recently when it was decided that the government had to be there to bail some of these companies out, nobody was there to look over their shoulders to see how they spent their money. After all, it was their money.

But for better or worse, it was decided by almost all mainstream economists that some of the financial companies, despite the foolish way that they were run, had to be saved by government money since their demise would hurt so many other people.

What makes this so different is that the free enterprise system that we are supposed to be practicing says that the government is supposed to stay out of the affairs of businesses. So making the painful first decision to bail out businesses because of the law of unintended consequences leads to a more painful decision on whether to have the government micromanage the businesses they bail out in effect telling them among other things, how much they can pay their executives.

Right now, President Obama is proposing a law putting a
$500,000 cap on executive salaries at companies receiving taxpayer bailout money. So is this a good idea? And will it work in the way we would like? The first question is about morality. The second question is about practicality.

From a moral standpoint, it seems most unfair to reward people at the top with bonuses when the poor performance of a company doesn’t justify it. Even worse, it hurts to see regular working people laid off at a company when at the same time those at the top are being showered with money. I would have a hard time sleeping at night knowing that others had lost their jobs so that I could get those extra millions.

But as we know, there are different rules for the very rich at the top of the food chain and everybody else. When times are good, those at the top get bonuses and those at the bottom — get little more than the opportunity to keep their jobs with little or no pay raise. When times are bad, those at the top still get bonuses and those at the bottom — suffer pay cuts or lose their jobs altogether. Even worse is when people lose their jobs at companies that we are bailing out. So we not only use taxpayer money to subsidize salaries and bonuses for those at the top, but then have to use more taxpayer money to help those additional people at the bottom who are put out of work.

So in the interest of fairness, it seems like government intervention is the right thing to do. But when the government tries to meddle into how companies work, will we get consequences that are even worse than what we are trying to cure?

A $500,000 salary is for most of us, beyond our wildest dreams. That's true but it misses the point. We need to ask if companies that received bailout money limit their compensation in this way will be able to attract and keep the best talent — especially when competing with other companies not receiving bailout money? After all, we are supposedly bailing out these companies to bring them back to health. Too often, we look at salaries solely from our own perspectives as to whether they are fair. But in the free market, a fair salary is what somebody can command on the open market — even if it is a ludicrous amount of money by most of our standards.

And where do we draw the line? If bailout recipient Bank of America invests money in a Super Bowl exhibit like they did, is it wasted money or a company advertising to attract business? If a company receiving bailout money decides to have a “business meeting” for its executives at a posh resort, should we put a restriction on that? Should we tell bailed out companies how much they can spend for renovations in response to stories about over-the-top office and bathroom renovations?

Instead of all this piecemeal micromanagement of companies, perhaps the best way is for the government to at least temporarily take over the companies, which leads us to another painful decision. Is this an appropriate thing to do in a free-market economy or are we on the slippery slope to socialism as some critics charge?

There are a lot of tough questions that have no easy answers. I agree we had to reluctantly bail out these companies to save the overall economy from going into an even deeper tailspin. But we also have to be aware that taking this first step of government bailing out companies may well lead us to a slippery slope to someplace we may like even less.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Ted Haggard - Still in Denial

Ted Haggard has been making the rounds on the talk show circuit to promote a new HBO documentary about him. For those of you who forget who he is, this article Ted Haggard: I Deserve What I Got sums it up:

Ted Haggard's fall from grace made national headlines. As president of the National Association of Evangelicals, he had millions of followers.

But in 2006, his career as a spiritual leader ended abruptly when it was revealed that he'd had a sexual relationship with a male prostitute. Haggard seemed to be a devoted husband. He was married with five children and pastor of Colorado's New Life Church. But he was living a double life.

In a goodbye letter, read by another pastor, Haggard made this confession: "I am guilty of sexual immorality. There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I've been warring against it all my adult life."
Yes, he had been guilty of adultery. But to his Evangelist congregation, he was guilty of something far, far more shameful — having gay sex.

A new HBO documentary titled
The Trials of Ted Haggard (available to HBO subscribers on-demand through February) tells a compelling story about how destructive homophobia can be. Not only by the members of Haggard’s former church toward him but even by Haggard toward himself. Despite openly admitting that he still has sexual thoughts toward men, he still refers to himself as “a heterosexual with complications” instead of being gay or even bisexual. Or more accurately, still in denial.

Haggard was not only banished from the church he helped to found, but was also as part of a severance agreement banished from his home state of Colorado. So without a job or even a home to call his own, he and his family are constantly on the move looking for a place to live while Haggard for the first time in his life looks for employment outside of the church.

At least for me who is a 50-something struggling for some time to find work in my previous field, watching the HBO documentary showing a 51 year old man looking for work after his livelihood has been stripped away is disturbing. His experience and education have virtually no value in the secular world as he is seen trying to (unsuccessfully) sell health insurance door-to-door in a commission only job. The only saving grace is that his wife decided to stay with him so he at least has her love and support. Without that, Haggard who admitted to suicidal thoughts might not be with us. For all we know, many in the church he founded would probably say “good riddance”. To forgive is part of being a Christian, but for these people — including Haggard himself, forgiving someone for being gay or bisexual is apparently asking a bit much.

But maybe accepting his sexuality is indeed the first step to leading Haggard out of the wilderness. Openly gay and bisexual people serve in many positions like in Congress (Barney Frank) but those like Haggert and
Larry Craig who deny their sexuality have been constantly under destructive media scrutiny. But more important for Haggard, there are some Protestant denominations like the Presbyterians who accept openly gay clergy members. If Haggard were to finally come clean on his sexuality, perhaps he could find a home preaching in a more tolerant church like this instead of pursuing a futile return to a church that will likely forever reject him for what he is.

Totally coming out of the closet does have its risks. There is a chance that his devoted wife who has stayed with him through thick and thin may be finally pushed over the edge and leave him. But if she has stayed with him through everything else that has happened, chances are she will still accept him and be there for him. But most important, he has to finally make peace with himself for who he is as
Andrew Sullivan so eloquently writes:

I feel for Haggard - because he is trapped between who he is and his internalized belief that God cannot love him for who he is. But God can love him for being gay. And does love him for being gay. This is hard, I know. Accepting God's unconditional love for me was the hardest part of keeping hold of my Christian faith. My childhood and adolescence were difficult to the point of agony, an agony my own church told me was my just desert (sic). But I saw in my own life and those of countless others that the suppression of these core emotions and the denial of their resolution in love always, always leads to personal distortion and compulsion and loss of perspective. Forcing gay people into molds they do not fit helps no one. It robs them of dignity and self-worth and the capacity for healthy relationships. It wrecks family, twists Christianity, violates humanity. It must end.