Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Will Arlen Specter Really Help the Democrats?

The defection of Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter to the Democratic Party caught a lot of people in the national news media by surprise. But for many observers in Pennsylvania, it was just a matter of time before it happened.

In fact, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Sally Kalson offered this op-ed column,
Abandon Ship, Arlen back in February.

Why bother fighting to stay in a party that seems determined to self-destruct, marching ever rightward even as the country moves in the opposite direction?

Does the senator really feel he still belongs in a group that has purged so many moderates from its ranks, that considers it apostasy to work with majority Democrats in addressing the worst economic train wreck since the Great Depression?

Is it possible the time has come for Mr. Specter to disassociate himself from the flaming-torches-and-pitchforks crowd? Should he, at long last, switch allegiance, if not to the Democratic party then to run as an Independent?

But the handwriting was on the wall, especially after Specter’s vote for President Obama’s stimulus program produced a vicious backlash from conservative Republicans who vowed to see him defeated in next year’s Republican primary.

And when Specter saw that he was trailing badly in the polls to former Representative Patrick Toomey whom he barely beat for the Republican nomination last time he ran, he knew that running for reelection as a Republican would be hopeless. Making the decision easier was the massive number of Pennsylvanians who switched their registration last year to be able to vote in the state’s Democratic presidential primary election. The Republicans who remain in the party are more solidly conservative and would not likely support a moderate like Specter.

So it’s fair to say that Senator Specter’s change of party was far more about him winning reelection than any love of the Democratic Party.

And while President
Obama Welcomes Specter to the Party, clearly the expectations by many are a bit much.

The defection of Mr. Specter creates the potential for Democrats to control 60 votes in the Senate if Al Franken prevails this summer in the court fight over last November’s Minnesota Senate election, in which repeated recounts gave him a slight edge over the Republican incumbent, Norm Coleman, that has stood up in litigation so far.

If Democrats could hold those 60 votes together, Republicans would be unable to mount filibusters as Congress moves into the critical phase of acting on Mr. Obama’s ambitious agenda on health care and energy. A last line of defense against a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House would thereby be eliminated.

“This is transformative,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon. “It’s game-changing.”

Is it? I’m not so sure. Just because a politician now has a ‘D’ after his name instead of an ‘R’ doesn’t mean that he is going to change his political philosophies.

Although Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele attacked Specter for his “left-wing voting record”, many of Specter’s positions are in line with orthodox Republican ideology. Although he is well known for his pro-choice stand on abortion rights, he has reiterated his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act angering labor officials. And he has supported the Iraq War along with the Supreme Court nominations of President Bush.

But what about health care? Some have speculated that Specter will be sympathetic to President Obama’s attempts to reform health care because of his recent public battles with cancer. However, I attended a Town Meeting in 2007 hosted by Senator Specter as I recount in a previous posting
Why Not Medicare for Everybody?.

A number of passionate people asked questions of the Senator on when we can expect help from the government to address what is rapidly becoming a health care crisis in America. While he said that something needed to be done, he firmly declared that the government shouldn’t be getting involved in health insurance — which immediately got a huge ovation from much of the crowd.

Specter himself has said that he will not be an automatic part of a Democratic 60 vote Senate majority to defeat Republican filibusters. Indeed as one who doesn’t mind attracting attention to himself, going against the Democratic Party on occasion may well be an opportunity for him to be in the spotlight just like he did while with the Republicans.

So while Democrats are pleased that Senator Specter has publicly given the Republicans a black eye, will he really help the Democrats as much as everybody expects him to? Or will this be another example of why people, in this case the Democrats, should be careful what they wish for?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Should We Ban Cell Phones While Driving?

For those of us who drive a lot, we have all experienced it. A driver in front of us is driving a lot slower than everybody else on the road or is swerving a little. A drunk driver perhaps? But when you get a chance to pass that person, you will more likely see someone with a cell phone yakking away, oblivious to the rest of the world. It is then that many of us wish that we could ban people from using cell phones while they drive.

In fact, legislation in Pennsylvania to ban drivers from using hand-held cell phones was
narrowly rejected a few days ago.

Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, watched the state House defeat, on a 100-95 vote, his legislation that would have allowed police to stop a car if they see the driver using a hand-held cell phone and issue a $50 ticket.

"There are accidents all across this state as a result of this dangerous distraction," he said, adding that two recent polls show the public supports a ban on drivers using hand-held cell phones by wide margins.

Mr. Shapiro said state records show there have been nearly 7,000 accidents on Pennsylvania roads since 2002 in which the driver was using a hand-held communications device, but only 425 in which they were using a hands-free device such as Bluetooth.
many countries around the world ban cell phones while driving unless a hands-free device is used. So is this all a good idea?

I’m not so sure. It’s difficult to argue against any law that says it promotes more safety since nobody wants to be perceived as being against safety any more than being against mom and apple pie! But are laws that are so intrusive on personal conduct worth whatever benefit they claim?

Is talking on a cell phone while driving inherently more dangerous than talking to passengers while driving? Or listening to or tuning the radio? Or operating a GPS device? None of these are inherently dangerous enough to make us ban these activities. But if a driver allows him or herself to be distracted enough, any of these examples can cause an accident. So maybe it’s a lot more about the individual driver rather than the devices in question. The great majority of drivers can deal with small distractions because they have the discipline and ability to keep their primary focus on their driving. It’s the small number of drivers that don’t have this ability that are causing all of the problems. Should we place restrictions on everybody because of these few people?

While we can’t restrict drivers in general from talking to passengers while driving, throughout the country there are existing along with proposed restrictions that teenaged drivers have a maximum of one teenaged passenger at a time.

New Jersey takes this one step further with the passage of a law that will require
external identification on cars to indicate that they are being driven by teenagers. I understand that teenagers are more likely to die from traffic accidents than any other cause. But how far is too far when it comes to laws that intrude on personal conduct? Just like with the cell phones, do we place restrictions on all teenagers because of the bad judgment of a few?

I realize that I may come across as a libertarian ideologue to some. But I get it that accidents are happening because of distractions like cell phones. It’s just a matter of disagreement on how we should address the problem. If making drivers use a hands-free device to talk on their cell phones really makes a difference, I have no problem with that. But others feel that hands-free cell phones are no safer than hand-held units while driving. And I see no need for people to send text messages while driving. As a freedom loving American, I just believe that we have to be on guard against heavy-handed government getting involved with minutiae in our personal lives like whom we can sit with in our own cars in the interest of “safety”.

And while the Pennsylvania House rejected the proposed cell phone ban, they did vote overwhelmingly to impose an additional $50 fine if someone is caught driving carelessly and was found to be using a hand-held cell phone. In my view, laws like this that do something about the actual offenders instead of needlessly intruding on everybody make a whole lot more sense.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Do We Still Need Public Television?

With states having to decide on how to spend precious funds, state funding cuts are now threatening public television in general along with local public stations like Pittsburgh’s WQED, America’s first community sponsored TV station and the one that brought us Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

In February, Gov. Ed Rendell proposed to eliminate $8 million in funding for public television stations in Pennsylvania. This would mean a $1.1 million cut for WQED, and federal funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is tied to state funding.

Simply put, a loss of funding of this magnitude would require fundamental changes in one of the nation's most treasured public broadcasters -- the home of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

The WQED that the residents of Western Pennsylvania put on the air 55 years ago would no longer exist in the same form.

The media landscape has changed dramatically over the years with the advent of cable, satellite, and the Internet. Questions abound like Can We Save Our Newspapers? and with the tremendous number of cable broadcasters like the Discovery Channel and History Channel out there, it is natural to ask whether we still need public TV.

To answer that, we need to ask whether public TV offers enough unique quality programming that is not available anywhere else. Unfortunately, ‘quality’ is a very subjective term since we all have different tastes. But determining ‘unique’ is a bit easier.

Here is a sampling of the PBS network evening
primetime programming:

· Fine arts (
Great Performances, Live from the Met, Live from Lincoln Center, and Evening at Pops)
· Drama (
Mystery!, American Playhouse, and Masterpiece Theatre)

When it comes to fine arts and drama, public TV definitely offers programming that is not available elsewhere. And while the networks are still producing some drama shows, they are dissapearing in favor of cheaper-to-produce reality and variety shows. For example, Jay Leno will soon take up NBC’s 10-11 o’clock (ET) slot Monday through Friday.

Science and history shows are available on channels like Discovery and History but for the real science and history wonks, Nova and American Experience usually explore their topics in much more depth, partly because they don’t have to devote time to commercials. By the way, it should be noted that the landmark nature series, Planet Earth on the Discovery Channel here in the US originally came from the BBC, public TV in Great Britain.

This is where pubic television really proves its value as far as I am concerned. Documentaries on network television are few are far between. HBO produces some excellent documentaries for its pay subscribers. But Frontline does the best job in consistently producing top-notch documentaries of anybody. And who can forget
The Civil War and other great documentaries by Ken Burns? While the commercial networks present fine political interview shows on Sunday morning, Charlie Rose presents many interesting interview guests every Monday through Friday you would never see on commercial TV.

Other outlets like Nickelodeon offer childrens’ programming but in my opinion, nobody has ever produced anything to equal Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (whose reruns have regrettably been discontinued by PBS) and the show that pioneered combining childrens’ education and entertainment in a single show, Sesame Street. And just as important, these childrens’ shows are presented without commercials and are available on free over-the-air TV.

And with local commercial TV being driven by ratings, the local public stations can instead concentrate on providing much better community affairs programming.

So a case can be made that public TV does indeed provide unique programming. But do enough people appreciate the 'quality' programming presented by public TV enough to want to keep it on the air? Should it be financed at least in part by tax dollars? Financing TV with tax dollars creates problems when the programming (especially documentaries) is seen as being too controversial to some points of view. But on the other hand, it’s hard to see how public TV can survive in its present form on viewer contributions alone.

It’s easy to take a resource like public TV for granted especially with all of the other media choices we now have. But as the expression goes, you never miss something until it’s gone. With all that public TV has given us over the years, I hope we will never have to find out whether that's true.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Susan Boyle - Not Just Another Pretty Face

I have to admit that I have never been into the reality show contests that have populated the airwaves. Many of them have a somewhat sadistic element to them when the show’s judges are expected to pass judgment and sometimes even heap ridicule on contestants who are pouring their hearts and souls into making the best of an opportunity to pursue their dream.

But when everybody started talking about Susan Boyle stunning the world with her recent performance on Britain’s Got Talent that transformed her into an
Unlikely YouTube Sensation, I had to check it out.

Miss Boyle, 47, confounded a multitude of stereotypes by unveiling her gorgeous singing voice last Saturday night. Part of the joy of watching her performance was seeing the obnoxious, smarmy grimaces disappear from the faces of Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan, two of the show’s judges, and seeing the audience shift, in an instant, from tittering condescension to open-mouthed admiration.

Miss Boyle is unmarried (and unkissed, she told the program), has no job, lives with her cat and has until now sung mostly in her local church. But she has become a heroine not only to people dreaming of being catapulted from obscurity to fame but also to those who cheer her triumph over looks-ism and ageism in a world that so values youth and beauty.

Watching the video of Miss Boyle’s performance stunned me the moment she broke into song and moved me to tears. I must admit that it affects me the same way each time I see the video. But my feelings are about so much more than her voice, as beautiful as it is. It was a lesson to those who found her performance to be so ‘unexpected’ because of her plain looks and relatively advanced age. It was noteworthy in the video how judge Simon Cowell rolled his eyes when he heard that Miss Boyle was 47. No need for him to worry about that on American Idol where the upper age limit is 28.

And watching
the video of Paul Potts, “a tubby, dentally challenged, cripplingly shy Welsh cell phone salesman” singing opera in an earlier 2007 show is no less moving.

When it comes to performing along with being in the corporate world, looks and youth all too often count more than anything else. But that is nothing new when you consider
Cyrano de Bergerac, whose love for Roxane had to be lived vicariously through the handsome Christian since he felt that Roxane could never love someone with Cyrano’s plain looks and large nose.

Although many versions of this classic have been performed before and since, my favorite is the 1950 movie version which resulted in a Best Actor Academy Award for José Ferrer. Those who have seen it will never forget the beautiful Balcony Scene along with the ultimate tear-jerker ending My White Plume where Roxane discovers that she "had never loved but one man, but lost him twice." But hey, if Cyrano were good looking, there would be no story!

Perhaps what is saddest of all is that there are countless other talented people like Susan Boyle and Paul Potts out there who will never be discovered often because are not young or have pretty faces. Despite
this recording from 1999 showing off Susan’s incredibly beautiful voice, it still took her another 10 years to become an overnight sensation. We have all been told many times “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover”. Maybe after seeing Susan's great breakthrough, let's hope that we have finally learned.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Is There Really a Shortage of American Engineers and Scientists?

As a golf fan, The Masters is one of my highlights of the year. But as much as I enjoyed the tournament last weekend, the constant barrage of 30 second ads from ExxonMobil like this one stressing the importance of attracting more young American people to engineering and science made me a bit nuts — especially as an unemployed engineer.

While that seems laudable, it ignores a more important problem that we are having trouble keeping all of our present American engineers and scientists employed. While producing more engineers and scientists may sound like a noble endeavor, are we not doing our children a disservice if they land up with an inadequate number of career opportunities in their chosen fields?

As ExxonMobil points out in an article, The need to invest in math and science:

The U.S. ranks 16th of 17 nations in the proportion of 24-year-olds who earn degrees in natural science or engineering as opposed to other majors; and,

Those undergraduates who switch from science and engineering majors to other majors “are often among the most highly qualified college entrants, and they are disproportionately women and students of color.”
Unfortunately, many are now arguing that this reduction in engineering and science majors is producing a shortage of engineers and scientists. And further, they argue that this shortage requires us to outsource along with bringing in more immigrant labor to make up this shortfall. But on the contrary, this is just a natural reaction to an excess of engineers and scientists in the American market that is being made worse by outsourcing and immigration.

Engineers have historically had good employment prospects. But that has all changed dramatically in the last decade according to
this article from 2003 by Ron Hira for IEEE, the professional society of electrical engineers. It’s fair to say that things have gotten worse since then.

Electrical, electronics, and computer hardware engineers continue to face a higher unemployment rate than the general population, and over double the rate for other managers and professionals. The news for engineering managers is even worse, with an unemployment rate of 8%.

For comparison purposes, the unemployment rate for electrical engineers was 1.2% in 2000, less than one-fifth its current level. And throughout the 1980s, at a time when unemployment rates for all workers got as high as 9.5%, electrical and electronics engineering unemployment rates never rose above 2%.
So the fact that there is far more unemployment in engineering now than in the past suggests that there is something different going on. Many who have been squeezed out of the employment market charge that it is in good part the result of increased H1-B immigrant workers who are willing to work for less money than Americans have been traditionally paid.

That allegation is supported by this provocative article,
The Shortage Myth - The Lies at the End of the American Dream.

Last June a revealing marketing video from the (Pittsburgh) law firm, Cohen & Grigsby appeared on the Internet. The video demonstrated the law firm's techniques for getting around US law governing work visas in order to enable corporate clients to replace their American employees with foreigners who work for less. The law firm's marketing manager, Lawrence Lebowitz, is upfront with interested clients: "our goal is clearly NOT to find a qualified and interested US worker."

If an American somehow survives the weeding out process, "have the manager of that specific position step in and go through the whole process to find a legal basis to disqualify them for this position--in most cases there doesn't seem to be a problem."

No problem for the employer he means, only for the expensively educated American university graduate who is displaced by a foreigner imported on a work visa justified by a nonexistent shortage of trained and qualified Americans.
In the comic strip Dilbert, one of the characters is Catbert - Evil HR Director as a parody of the “evil” of some Human Resources departments. If you watch the above Cohen & Grigsby video you will see that the evil committed by the lawyers and human resources people to screw qualified American workers out of earning a living is no parody. And it is no laughing matter.

What is saddest is that the shortage of American engineers and scientists will indeed eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. College students are deserting engineering and science for more lucrative degrees like law and MBAs. And who can blame them? Engineering and science degrees are among the most difficult fields of study — and now yield comparatively mediocre pay and job prospects to boot.

When Congress considers immigration reform, they need to examine what percentage of different companies' hires (especially the larger ones) are foreign workers brought in on H1-B visas. If the percentages are high especially for jobs where domestic unemployment is high, it may suggest that these companies are indeed gaming the system to squeeze out qualified American workers in place of lower paid foreign ones. It is a common practice for many states and localities to provide tax subsidies and other sweeteners for businesses to locate there because they are said to be providing local jobs. Can’t we at least make sure that US workers are getting a fair crack at all of those jobs?

It’s great that we are the Land of Opportunity for those around the world who come to our shores. But we must not neglect our own workers in the process!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Time to End the Cuban Embargo

When it comes to US foreign policy, one of the hardest things to make sense of is the embargo against Cuba that was started during the Kennedy administration back in 1962 because of Fidel Castro’s alliance with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Since then, the Soviet Union and the Cold War have ended. And Fidel Castro through his brother Raúl still rules Cuba despite our attempts to force him into a more democratic government. Talk about the classic definition of insanity!

Much of what has maintained this policy towards Cuba has been a number of politically active groups consisting of Cuban exiles and their families. Presidential candidates of both parties have dared not openly question the value of the embargo out of fear of losing the Florida electoral vote and with it, possibly the presidency.

But more rational thinking is finally taking hold. According to a recent CNN poll
Three-quarters favor relations with Cuba.

A new poll shows that two-thirds of Americans surveyed think the U.S. should lift its travel ban on Cuba, and three-quarters think the U.S. should end its five-decade estrangement with the country.

The Obama administration has signaled that new rules on family travel and remittances to Cuba may be announced before President Obama goes to the Summit of the Americas on April 17.

A group of senators and other supporters unveiled a bill March 31 to lift the 47-year-old travel ban to Cuba. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, a sponsor of the bill, issued a draft report in February that said it was time to reconsider the economic sanctions. Lugar is the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

So it is understandable that reporters asked VP Joe Biden during a recent summit in Chile about
lifting the embargo.

When asked by reporters at a summit in Chile if Washington plans to scrap the decades-old embargo, Biden replied: "No."

He and President Barack Obama "think that Cuban people should determine their own fate and they should be able to live in freedom," Biden said after taking part in the Progressive Governance Summit of leaders from Latin America, Europe and the U.S.
Insanity lives on!

It’s awfully hard to find any plausible reasons to continue this embargo. The only reasoning I see is the viewpoint that ending the embargo signals our approval of the Castro regime as in this
op-ed article by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Lifting the embargo will confer unmerited legitimacy on the communist regime of the Castro brothers. Raul may lack Fidel’s charisma and ego, he may be more tolerant of dissent and he may be less of a primadonna, but he will call the plays using Fidel’s playbook.

Raul Castro won’t relax the rules of the totalitarian political game. Until he does, the U.S. shouldn’t remove its primacy sanction. The embargo remains as much as ever a matter of basic principle, a proportionate response to Cuban repression.

Not even the most fervent advocates of normalizing relations with Cuba approve of Castro or his government. It’s a question of what we hope to accomplish by the embargo. And more importantly, are we harming the good people of Cuba more than we are harming Castro in the process?

While the embargo may indeed be helping to cripple the economy of Cuba, instead of the people blaming Castro, they are more likely to heed the word of Castro that instead blames all of their misery on the US.

But what is more absurd than anything else is the huge double standard we have on the issue of dealing with totalitarian nations. We not only don't threaten embargoes to other totalitarian nations, we often grant them
Most Favored Nation trade status. Notable examples are China and Vietnam which are no less communist than Cuba. In addition, monarchies can also stifle personal freedom as much as communism. But we haven’t threatened not to buy oil from Saudi Arabia, have we?

Indeed there are those who feel that ending the embargo would not only help the innocent Cuban people who have economically suffered under Castro’s rule but would also
be good for the US economy.

By ending the Cuban embargo, President Obama has the opportunity to help both the Cuban and American people. By allowing travel to the island nation, Cubans can get a taste of the freedoms we as Americans take for granted. Cubans will be exposed to our fashion, music and technology which will stimulate a desire for freedom and personal wealth.

Travel to Cuba will also generate much needed dollars for the Caribbean Nation which was devastated by four hurricanes last year.

Castro had previously refused all aid from the US for its hurricane victims due to the embargo against his country. But when Hurricane Katrina struck, Castro offered aid to the victims, a humanitarian gesture that could well have paved the way for more normal relations between the countries. But sadly, the Bush administration
never responded.

Even George P. Shultz, who served as Secretary of State under Reagan, in a 2005 interview with
Charlie Rose has gone as far as to call the continued embargo "insane". We can only hope that the Obama administration will someday soon see the light and end the insanity!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Guns and Mental Illness - A Recipe for Disaster

It’s happened again. Still another gun massacre. The most recent one was in Pittsburgh where Richard Poplawski is being held for the killing of three policemen in a shootout at his home.

Investigators said Mr. Poplawski, 22, showed no remorse when describing the deaths of Officers Mayhle, Sciullo and Eric Kelly, who were all killed as they responded to a 911 call placed by Margaret Poplawski, the suspect's mother.

Investigators said Mr. Poplawski maintained a cold demeanor as he answered their questions, occasionally yawning.

Mr. Poplawski engaged in a lengthy gun battle with police, firing an AK-47 from his bedroom window and exchanging hundreds of rounds of gunfire with SWAT officers before surrendering.

The gunman later told investigators he had planned for police to kill him. But he changed his mind and agreed to surrender, hoping to go to prison so he could write a book.
The question always comes up afterwards as to whether there was anything in the way of gun control that could have been done to either prevent or lessen the tragic consequences.

In the interest of disclosure, I am not a gun person. I don’t own a gun and likely never will. I don’t hunt and certainly never will. I fired a .22 rifle many years ago at a Boy Scout camp target range and once shot a pistol with some friends in the woods at some tin cans just to say that I did it once in my life. That was enough for me.

Having said that, I can fully understand that firearms are important to a lot of people for hunting, target practice, and protection. The first two are not controversial for most; it’s the thing about protection that causes the most trouble.

Although we have an armed military along with armed civilian police to protect us, they can’t be everywhere all the time so for those who feel they need a gun as protection against those who threaten them, having one is reasonable — as long as the person isn’t mentally deranged like Poplawski obviously is.

It has been said may times by pro-gun people that “Guns don’t kill people, people do”. But clearly it’s both when the ‘people’ who have the guns are mentally insane as argued in
Guns Don't Kill People, Bullets Do which was written after the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007.

Here we go again. We're going to have the tired old debate about whether it was the guns that killed the kids at Virginia Tech or the clearly disturbed guy who used them. The answer is so obvious that I can't bear to go through another round of this debate. Of course, it's both!

A perfectly sane individual isn't going to kill those kids even if you gave them a thousand guns. And that same mentally-ill guy isn't going to be able to kill 32 people with a bow and arrow.
So while we cannot realistically keep all weapons from the mentally disturbed, can’t we prevent or at least mitigate the damage by controlling the most efficient ways for them to kill people?

Weapons range in efficiency from say, the pea-shooter all the way up to nuclear weapons. I don’t think that anybody in their right mind would argue the right for individuals to own and use a nuclear weapon (if that were possible). So that means that we have to draw the line somewhere in between these two extremes.

How about so-called
assault rifles like the popular AK-47 used by Poplawski to kill three Pittsburgh policemen? We certainly don’t need these for hunting and unless one is in a war zone, far less potent weapons would provide adequate protection. So that leaves target shooting. Which is just fine as long as those ‘targets’ are at a shooting range and not people.

So here’s an idea — why not require everyone who wants to own an assault rifle to keep it under lock and key at the shooting range when not in use? I’m sure those who believe in the absolute right to own and control their guns wouldn’t like it. But by making it illegal to even possess this kind of a weapon other than at a shooting range, we can search for (with probable cause) and take away these ultra-lethal weapons from mentally unstable people before they use them on people instead of after a tragedy when it is too late.
Just like combining drinking and driving, combining guns and mental illness is a recipe for disaster. All too often, we find out after the fact that a person had a troubled history like Seung-Hui Cho who killed 32 people and wounded 25 others at Virginia Tech.

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine convened a panel consisting of various officials and experts to investigate and examine the response and handling of issues related to the shootings. The panel released its final report in August 2007, devoting more than 30 pages to detailing Cho's troubled history. In the report, the panel criticized numerous failures—by school administrators, educators and mental health professionals who came into contact with Cho during his college years, who failed to notice his deteriorating condition and failed to help him. The panel also criticized misinterpretations of privacy laws and gaps in Virginia's mental health system and gun laws.

And in a Time article, Boom in Gun Sales Fueled by Politics and the Economy, we have a similar example of neglect.

The mother of the Pittsburgh man who shot and killed the police officers said her son had been stockpiling guns and ammunition "because he believed that as a result of the economic collapse, the police were no longer able to protect society."

Trying to solve this problem with laws alone just isn’t going to work. The more talk there is of controlling guns, the more people are buying guns out of fear of losing them.

More importantly, we also need to get more involved on a personal level with others when we see them having serious struggles with life. It is not a stretch to say that if someone had gotten involved enough with Cho and Poplawski to see that they got professional help, these tragedies may well have been avoided.

So the story has a surprise ending. The best way to try and prevent future tragedies like these may well be to treat this as a mental health issue instead of strictly as a law enforcement/gun control issue. For those individuals with anger issues, depression, or are paranoid, we can either choose the solution of trying to provide these people with professional help (along with doing our best to keep guns out of their hands) — or wait and take the chance that they will choose their own solution by using a gun.

I can only hope that we will start to make the right choices. After all, there are many more disasters like these just waiting to happen!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Protecting Justice in the American Workplace

I already knew that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had become a joke but this story takes the cake!

It sounds like a grim sweatshop joke, but the federal agency that’s supposed to enforce justice in the American workplace has been found in willful violation of its own workers’ rights. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been blithely violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to an arbitrator who found that the agency has been forcing its employees to work overtime and not paying them for it. Instead, according to the arbitrator, the agency concocted a “fiction” that its workers “requested” only compensatory time instead.

The E.E.O.C. — once a credible investigator of workplace grievances —lost about a quarter of its staff across the Bush years. The commission shed investigators, lawyers and labor specialists — even as it was increasingly swamped with complaints from workers in the private sector. In 2008, there were 95,400 allegations of job bias, a rise of 26 percent in just two years. Given the current economic agonies, the toll continues to rise.

Much of what drove this attrition at the EEOC was an anti-regulatory, anti-government mentality during the Bush years. Although the Bush administration couldn’t eliminate the agency, they could at least weaken it so that a large part of its political base, big business wouldn’t have to be bothered by pesky employees and job applicants who were just looking for fair treatment.

But even the most limited government advocates can agree that a necessary role for any government is the arbitration of disputes. If a company (especially a large one) chooses to practice discrimination against certain groups of people, without the government to arbitrate and provide a remedy for the injustices, the individual simply doesn’t have a chance.

And make no mistake; discrimination in the workplace is rampant as the steep increase in number of filed complaints shows! There were probably countless other instances that were not reported because the workers felt that nobody was there who cared enough to help.

As I argued in
a previous blog article, older more experienced workers have especially difficult problems in the job market. Because they are paid more than younger workers, when companies are shedding jobs like they are now to save money, you can bet that companies are putting more effort into dumping their larger salaries. Making things worse is that these older workers who lose their health insurance as a result of being laid off are more likely to run into serious health problems that can cause financial ruin and/or endanger these peoples' lives. This is not trivial stuff!

President Obama touched on the E.E.O.C.’s problems in the campaign. Now that he is in the White House, he needs to repair, replenish and demand a major attitude change forthwith. And Congress needs to provide full support to restore the E.E.O.C. to something more than a laughingstock.

That's all we need. Something else to add to the already ridiculously long list of things to do for President Obama.

But even if he and Congress are able to undo this damage from the previous administration, there is still another obstacle that will be more difficult to overcome. And that is the Supreme Court which as a result of the conservative Bush appointments is deciding many cases by contentious 5-4 majorities divided mainly on ideology as I argue in
this previous posting.

A recent
Supreme Court decision continues this trend as opined in this NYT editorial A Blow to Workers' Rights.

When Congress passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, it gave older Americans a broad right to sue for discrimination. But the Supreme Court has narrowed that right with a 5-to-4 ruling that union members cannot file lawsuits when their contracts call for arbitration of age-discrimination claims. The decision, which reversed the court’s precedents, sets back antidiscrimination law significantly.
In these especially difficult times, Congress and the EEOC need to protect American workers more than ever. For their sake, we need to do better!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Please Watch "Sick Around America"

Last night, PBS’s documentary series Frontline followed up on its excellent presentation from last April Sick Around the World with another presentation Sick Around America which is about “Investigating the stories of Americans whose lives have become a quest to find and keep health insurance.”

What is even more maddening for those of us who are seeking health insurance reform in the US is the view by some that we need to fix the economy first before we address health insurance. But with the millions of people in the US losing their jobs and along with it their health insurance, addressing this crisis has never been more urgent.

In my view, the most definitive documentary on the growing health insurance crisis in America is still Sicko by Michael Moore
(see the video preview). The many statements and accusations in the movie are substantiated in this factual backup with links to his sources of information.

For those of a conservative bent I speak to who question whether the healthcare crisis is real, I always urge them to rent the DVD of Sicko and then make up their own minds.

But reality says that the conservatives’ dislike of Michael Moore is only matched by the liberals’ dislike of Rush Limbaugh so their watching of Sicko is unlikely to ever happen. So for those people, I would like to urge them to please watch Sick Around America.

For those of you who missed it, the complete show is available online for those of you with a high-speed Internet connection by clicking on
this link. Then just click on “Sick Around America, 3/31/2009” and the 55 minute program can be watched in convenient 10 or 11 minute segments at your leisure. (For those without a computer or a high-speed Internet connection, a nearby public library should have computers available for viewing this.)

Sick Around America spends most of its time documenting the problems with the US healthcare system. For insights on possible solutions that have been tried by other countries around the world, see Frontline’s
Sick Around the World which can also be viewed online.

But most of all, I would like those of you who do believe in the urgency to reform US health insurance to share this article with those who may not be so convinced. After all, it is hard for us to work on meaningful solutions unless we all at least agree there IS a problem!