Sunday, May 31, 2009

Why We Need Empathy and Compassion on the Supreme Court

The recent nomination of Sonia Sotomayor by President Obama has again started a debate on what qualities we should seek in our Supreme Court Justices. In introducing Sotomayor, Obama noted that she has "a common touch and a sense of compassion, an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live." In addition, Obama has spoken of wanting judges with "empathy." But for many conservatives, ‘empathy’ is code for ‘liberal judicial activist’.

In a previous posting
Conservative Activism on the Supreme Court, I recount what candidate Obama said during a presidential debate on how he would pick judges:

I will look for those judges who have an outstanding judicial record, who have the intellect, and who hopefully have a sense of what real-world folks are going through. I'll just give you one quick example. Sen. McCain and I disagreed recently when the Supreme Court made it more difficult for a woman named Lilly Ledbetter to press her claim for pay discrimination.

I think that it's important for judges to understand that if a woman is out there trying to raise a family, trying to support her family, and is being treated unfairly, then the court has to stand up, if nobody else will. And that's the kind of judge that I want.
So we have to ask whether empathy and compassion are what we want from our judges. But first we have to define the terms.


understanding of another’s feelings: the ability to identify with and understand another person’s feelings or difficulties


sympathy for the suffering of others, often including a desire to help

So compassion just takes empathy one step further in the form of wanting to help. Of course it is this wanting to help that the conservatives object to the most. They feel that judges should make their decisions strictly based on the
rule of law rather exercising discretion based on personal beliefs or desires. And for Supreme Court Justices, the rule of law is the Constitution.

This is pretty clear cut when the Constitution explicitly addresses a certain issue. But our Founding Fathers were not willing and able to address every conceivable issue in the Constitution. So they left it to the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution where its authors were silent on a subject.

So what’s this all have to do with empathy? The people we whom we have the strongest empathy are often the best indicators of our personal and political philosophies. And for those who become judges, it gives us an indication of how they are likely to rule in certain situations where the Constitution is silent or unclear. So while President Obama says he wants a judge with empathy, it is safe to say that just about everybody working as a judge has empathy — it’s just a matter of whom a judge has the most empathy for!

For a historic example, there is the issue of slavery.
This story describes an experience of a young Abraham Lincoln.

At age 22, Lincoln floated down the Mississippi River on a raft to New Orleans and worked his way back on a steamer. On that trip, he saw a group of African-American slaves chained together "like so many fish upon a trot line." That pitiful scene helped forge his opposition to slavery.
So we know where Lincoln’s empathy was on the issue of slavery. But since the Constitution was silent on the issue of slavery, the Supreme Court in 1857 showed where their empathy was on the issue of slavery in the infamous
Dred Scott decision.

Dred Scott v. Sandford, was a decision by the United States Supreme Court that ruled that people of African descent imported into the United States and held as slaves, or their descendants — whether or not they were slaves — were not legal persons and could never be citizens of the United States. It also held that the United States Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories. The Court also ruled that because slaves were not citizens, they could not sue in court. Lastly, the Court ruled that slaves—as chattel or private property—could not be taken away from their owners without due process.
Of course one can argue that since the Constitution did not specifically give rights to blacks that the Supreme Court was simply doing its duty in ruling in favor of the slave owners. Indeed, Dred Scott was effectively overturned as a result of the
Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery) and the Fourteenth Amendment (establishing citizenship for former slaves) which were passed only after a bloody Civil War fought over slavery.

And it wasn’t until 1920 and the
Nineteenth Amendment that women were finally given the right to vote! So yes, people by way of amendments can eventually be granted the equal rights that our Founding Fathers did not specifically address when writing the Constitution. But making changes by amendments to the Constitution is painfully slow and difficult by design. Is it showing enough empathy and compassion to those who are suffering from discrimination to force them endure it for perhaps generations before having their rights finally addressed?

Since the Constitution cannot explicitly address every issue that comes before the Supreme Court, by necessity Justices have to make some decisions based on their personal philosophies of what is right and just. We don’t call them judicial
opinions for nothing!

So when viewed in this way, selecting judges based on where their empathy and compassion lies makes perfect sense. Most of us feel that the Supreme Court (along with the presidency until Obama) has been dominated by white males for far too long. Diversity to include women and minorities on the Supreme Court has generally been considered a proper goal to achieve by recent presidents of both parties.

I would like to conclude with Gwen Ifill’s spot-on observation made while appearing on
This Week in response to those who are uneasy about Judge Sotomayor’s ‘empathy’ because of her ethnic and female background.

I never hear people say that for a white male, that it's identity politics if he is shaped by his white maleness and by the things that affected his life, and whether privilege affected his life. That's never considered to be a negative. It's only considered to be a negative when ethnicity is involved or race is involved or gender is involved.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Can We Talk About Assisted Suicide?

A recent news story, First Death for Washington Assisted-Suicide Law has brought this subject up for discussion again.

The woman, Linda Fleming, 66, of Sequim, Wash., died Thursday evening after taking lethal medication prescribed by a doctor under the law, according to a news release by the group, Compassion and Choices of Washington. The release said Ms. Fleming received a diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer a month ago, and “she was told she was actively dying.”

Ms. Fleming was quoted in the release as saying: “I am a very spiritual person, and it was very important to me to be conscious, clear-minded and alert at the time of my death. The powerful pain medications were making it difficult to maintain the state of mind I wanted to have at my death.”

Assisted suicide falls into an interesting philosophical subject called situational ethics where something that is normally considered to be wrong can actually be the right thing to do as in these interesting examples.

So when somebody indicates that they want to end their life, is it ever the right thing to do to accommodate that wish? Some would say no; others would say it depends upon the situation.

If an otherwise healthy person is suffering from depression (unlike in the
strange story from China where an onlooker actually pushed a bridge jumper over the edge) any rational and caring person would want to do all they could to prevent that person from resorting to A Permanent Solution to a Temporary Problem.

The number one reason for suicide is untreated depression, and depression is highly treatable.

For those wishing to explore this subject in more depth, please refer to one of my previous postings, Can We Talk About Depression?

But others who are suffering through a terminal illness, perhaps with untreatable pain, clearly their problem is not temporary. And if the only alternative to more suffering and imminent death is to relieve the agony through assisted suicide, doesn’t this situation require a rational and caring person to help comply with that wish?

When the pets we love are facing a painful and debilitating terminal illness, most of us feel that having the vet ‘put them down’ is more humane than just letting them suffer until the very end. But many of those same people would insist on making a human being suffer until the very end! Does that make any sense?

The American Psychological Association offers
this article outlining the argument for and against assisted suicide for those wishing to explore this further.

An even more difficult ethical dilemma is posed by the 1981 film
Whose Life Is It Anyway? in which Richard Dreyfuss portrays an artist who after suffering an accident that makes him a quadriplegic, wants to die even though he is not terminally ill.

But what about the legal ramifications? Laws on assisted suicide have been traditionally vague about what really constitutes a crime. As this article
Assisted Suicide Laws Around the World explains:

A great many people instinctively feel that suicide and assisted suicide are such individual acts of freedom and free will that they assume there are no legal prohibitions. This fallacy has brought many people into trouble with the law. While suicide is no longer a crime – and where it is because of a failure to update the law it is not enforced – assistance remains a crime almost everywhere by some statute or other.

There are several groups in the US who have been actively involved in the assisted suicide movement — and have gotten in trouble with the law.

After an investigation, four officials of the group, known as the Final Exit Network, were arrested (in February 2009) on charges of racketeering and assisted suicide.

The arrests raised questions about whether the group, which has helped some 200 people commit suicide since 2004, merely watched people take the leap into death, or pushed them over the edge.

Indeed, one of the legal technicalities centers on whether the person assisting is merely providing the means of suicide (with the patient initiating the final act) or actually providing physical assistance. In the widely publicized cases around Dr. Jack Kevorkian, he was able to escape jail time until he aired a video on 60 Minutes showing him fatally injecting an ALS patient who was too incapacitated to do it himself. Although he was released from prison in 2007, he remains a controversial figure who will be played by Al Pacino in a future HBO film.

Clearly what we need is more compassion for those who are facing their final days in pain and suffering as in Washington's recently passed law. Although many of us do not approve of assisted suicide, we do have to ask the question that the movie asked, Whose Life Is It Anyway? and respect that person’s right to make a dignified and painless departure from this life when there is no other alternative.

And although conservatives may cringe at this suggestion, this is something for which we need more clearly written laws and guidelines. We should make sure that each case is reviewed by medical experts to ensure that the person is mentally competent and truly beyond any medical help to provide comfort and/or prolong life. And if so, then physicians who offer their help within the bounds of the law should not have to worry about prosecution as punishment for their compassionate act.

Admittedly, it is difficult to address this issue in a proper way because it is such a delicate one. But for those who along with their affected families need our help in their hour of need, we owe them no less!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Continuing Fight Over Health Care Reform

President Obama and the Congress are finally starting to tackle the issue of health care reform in the US as promised in his campaign. And none too soon! There are an estimated 47 million people in the US without health insurance. Some say that this number is misleading since some of those people have chosen for whatever reasons, not to have health insurance. But even granting that point, there are still tens of millions of people who want and need health insurance but cannot obtain it at an affordable price or even at all.

So whether it’s 47 million or 37 million or even 27 million, the question must be asked what number of uninsured Americans is acceptable? If that number is more than zero, whom shall we decide is not worthy of our making sure they will not die from lack of health insurance? This is not just a bunch of liberal hyperbole. An estimated 18,000 people needlessly die in the US each year not because their diseases are incurable but because they did not have access to health insurance.

When viewed in this way, many more people here in the US are finally starting to see that
Healthcare Is a Right! instead of arguing about who should have the ‘privilege’ of not having to worry about needless death or bankruptcy just because they get sick or injured.

So once we agree there is a problem to fix, the next step is to figure out what to do. The present system of private health insurers is obviously not working. And that brings us to a major fork in the road for our elected officials to navigate.

1. Do we keep the system of private insurers intact but impose government reforms to try and fix the problems?

2. Or do we blow up the private health insurance system and have the government assume the role of a ‘single payer’ of health insurance claims (like we presently do with Medicare for those over 65)?

Before we answer this, it is important to point out that health insurance companies are major contributors to both parties. And any alternative that would put the private health insurers out of business would result in a bloody fight to the death — a fight that most of our elected officials have no stomach for.

So first and foremost, our most of our politicians feel they have to make sure they don’t anger the insurance companies like Hillary Clinton did back in 1993 when she pushed for health care reform. Back then, the insurance industry sponsored the infamous Harry and Louise ads that helped to sink the Clintons’ plan.

While Republicans have an easy road to satisfying their base by simply crying Socialized Medicine! and perhaps denying there even is a problem, President Obama and most of the Democrats in Congress are choosing to walk a tightrope by trying to fix this mess while at the same time not alienating the health insurance industry. To try and accomplish this, they have decided on the first option from above which is to keep the private insurance system intact while making reforms. Hillary Clinton, who learned her lesson from 1993, suggested a very similar plan during her presidential campaign.

But this obviously wouldn’t satisfy the Democratic faithful so they decided to put in a little zinger in the form of a ‘public option’ for insurance which incorporates part of the second option listed above. Those people who are happy with their private insurance can keep it. But others who have been left out in the cold under the present system could buy into government issued health insurance at an affordable price. So in effect, the private health insurance companies would be forced to compete with government issued insurance to stay afloat.

For most of us, this seems reasonable. After all, the health insurance companies have had it their way by essentially choosing to insure healthy people and rejecting others who may generate too many losses. It’s a great way for them to make money, but it doesn’t serve the needs of those millions of Americans without health insurance.

Somewhat predictably, The Wall Street Journal offered this op-ed piece
The End of Private Health Insurance.

This public option will supposedly "compete" with private alternatives. As President Obama likes to put it, those who are happy with the insurance they have now can keep it -- and if they happen to prefer the government offering, well, gee whiz, that's the free market at work. The reality is far different. Not only will the new program become the default coverage for the uninsured, but Democrats intend to game the system to precipitate -- or if need be, coerce -- an exodus to government from private insurance. Soon enough, that will be the only "option" left.

And in Paul Krugman’s NYT op-ed article, Blue Double Cross, it appears that the fight that President Obama and Congress had been hoping to avoid by placating the health insurance industry is coming anyway.

…the insurance industry is busily lobbying Congress to block one crucial element of health care reform, the public option — that is, offering Americans the right to buy insurance directly from the government as well as from private insurance companies. And at least some insurers are gearing up for a major smear campaign.

On Monday, just a week after the White House photo-op, The Washington Post reported that Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina was preparing to run a series of ads attacking the public option. The planning for this ad campaign must have begun quite some time ago.

The Post has the storyboards for the ads, and they read just like the infamous Harry and Louise ads that helped kill health care reform in 1993.

Here we go again!

When private insurers say they cannot compete with public insurance and still make a profit, aren’t they unwittingly making an argument in favor of going with a pure single payer system? If indeed healthcare is a right for all citizens, shouldn’t that take precedence over the need for profit by the insurance industry?

A recent Bill Moyer’s Journal had a discussion of the recent events in health care reform with a couple of single payer advocates which you can watch online in this link. Most significantly, the guests said that a proposed hybrid public-private insurance plan cannot work and has never worked anywhere else. But perhaps the most interesting part of the show was a 2003 video of then Illinois State Senator Obama.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care plan.

BILL MOYERS: That was State Senator Obama, who said there was just one big obstacle standing in its way.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We may not get there immediately, because first we've got to take back the White House, and we've got to take back the Senate, and we've got to take back the House.

What this all says is that President Obama’s present resistance to supporting single payer health insurance is far more about avoiding a fight with the health insurance industry than any perceived shortcomings of single payer.

This is underscored in a video at the very end of Moyer’s program showing an exchange between NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner and Senator Max Baucus who presided over the recent Congressional testimony exploring health care reform.

JULIE ROVNER: The supporters of single-payer health care point out that their plan is not on the table.

SEN. MAX BAUCUS: That's true. They do. They make that quite clear.

JULIE ROVNER: And, as they... so what do you say to them as they point out that they have significant support, and yet their plan is the one thing that is not on the table at the moment.

SEN. MAX BAUCUS: Well, just to be honest, it's not on the table - the only thing that's not - because it cannot pass. It just cannot pass. We can't squander this opportunity. We can't spend - we can't waste (political) capital on something that's just impossible.

Well maybe it’s finally time for President Obama to revive that rallying cry that candidate Obama used so effectively to inspire so many to support him all the way to the presidency, Yes We Can!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Better Way to Pick Judges

In Pennsylvania where I live, it is the day after the primary election. For most of us, the only way we could tell for sure that there was an election were the countless number of candidates’ signs up and down the road for judges — most of whom we have never even heard of let alone know whether they would make good judges.

And for sitting judges who are seeking reelection, besides the lawyers and others who are part of the trials, who has seen these judges at work to make an intelligent decision on whether they are worthy of retaining in their positions?

So if the great majority of us do not know the judges we are being asked to vote for, what determines who gets elected? Usually, it is someone who is well known enough to have name recognition — or through spending enough money can establish that name recognition by advertising. Keep in mind, it is mostly about getting you to remember their names when you walk into the voting booth. Issues don’t normally enter into it. Usually, all they can talk about is how they are in favor of law and order. Many times, you can’t even tell which party they are with since judicial candidates in Pennsylvania often cross-file so they appear on both parties’ primary ballots.

So it can’t be surprising that the turnout for these elections is dismal resulting in judges being selected by a politically active minority. Isn’t there a better way to pick judges?

If nothing else, there is another way to pick judges. And that is through a system called merit selection. It varies from place to place but a proposed system is outlined in this article
Merit Selection Explained.

The (proposed) selection process has four steps:

1. screening and evaluation by a citizens’ nominating commission that recommends the most qualified candidates to the governor;

2. nomination by the governor of a candidate from the commission’s list;

3. confirmation by the senate; and

4. retention in a nonpartisan yes-no vote by the public after an initial term of four years on the bench (and every ten years thereafter).

Of course the main objection to a merit selection system is that it goes against the principle that in a free democracy, it is better for voters to pick their public officials instead of having them appointed. But while this may work in principle, it doesn’t always work out that way in practice.

For example, people in dictatorships get to vote for their leaders. But when voters only have one choice, elections don’t mean so much.

What if voters do have a choice of more than one candidate — but the names of the candidates are covered up? That election wouldn’t mean so much either! But when you have an election like what we have for judges where we don’t know who they are, isn’t that just about the same thing?

While picking people who serve the public through the ballot box is worthwhile, clearly there is a limit on how many positions we can actually fill through elections.

For example, in a public school, we do not ask principals and teachers to seek our votes to get their jobs. We vote for a school board who then normally hires the principal and/or the teachers.

Federal judges, including the most powerful Supreme Court judges are appointed by the Executive Branch and then approved by the Legislative Branch of our government. But even this still gives us indirect power in the selection process. For example, in selecting Barack Obama as our president, we can expect more liberal judges as a result. Those who preferred more conservative judges voted for John McCain. Similar arguments can be made for governors’ appointments of state judges.

Of course, any process that relies on political appointments can become political or sometimes, downright corrupt (see: Blagojevich, Rod). But judicial campaigns financed by special interests can be just as bad as described in this Slate article What's the Best Way To Pack a Court?

It's no secret that many chambers of commerce and trade associations and their foes, plaintiffs' attorneys and unions, have become the Itchy and Scratchy (from The Simpsons) of judicial campaigns, willing to do whatever it takes to prevail. Since 2000, these rivals have spent millions to elect judges that they hope will rule their way, smashing funding records in at least 15 states. (As an Ohio AFL-CIO official put it: "We figured out a long time ago that it's easier to elect seven judges than to elect 132 legislators.")

The question is not whether merit selection is perfect (it’s not). It’s whether it is an improvement over the system used by a minority of states who still have partisan elections for judges. Here in Pennsylvania, a number of groups, individual politicians, and newspaper editorial boards are supporters of merit selection for judges. The present system we have of electing judges has become a joke. Isn’t it time we all finally give this idea some serious consideration?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why Did Elizabeth Edwards Write That Book?

When the news last year came out about former presidential candidate John Edwards’ affair, many people were shocked but more were feeling terrible for his wife Elizabeth who is fighting incurable cancer. For as bad as cheating on ones wife is, the thought of him doing this to a wife who was so sick made the act even more reprehensible in the eyes of many. Many said that he should never again be considered for public office. I argued in a previous posting Can We Give John Edwards a Break? that others such as Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain (while married to his first wife) had extramarital affairs without any apparent damage to their political careers.

But having said the above, this was all about more than just John Edwards’ lack of judgment in having the affair. It was also about the way it was covered up in the middle of a presidential campaign. Did John, along with Elizabeth after she found out about the affair really think that the affair would not be uncovered and made public later when the revelations could be even more damaging?

In a Time article, Elizabeth Edwards: How I Survived John's Affair
Elizabeth explains in this excerpt from her recently released book, Resilience which she has been discussing on the media circuit, most notably on Oprah.

I wanted him to drop out of the race, protect our family from this woman, from his act. It would only raise questions, he said, he had just gotten in the race; the most pointed questions would come if he dropped out days after he had gotten in the race. And I knew that was right, but I was afraid of her. And now he knows I was right to be afraid, that once he had made this dreadful mistake, he should not have run. But just then he was doing, I believe, what I was trying to do: hold on to our lives despite this awful error in judgment.

So if we are to believe her words, John should take far more of the blame for their staying in the race after the disclosure of his infidelity to her.

But this takes us to perhaps the most pertinent question — why would she want to dredge this all up again through a book along with all of the pubic appearances to promote it? And was it ethical to subject her children to this all over again?

Randy Cohen did an in-depth exploration of the ethics surrounding the book in an interesting New York Times blog article Elizabeth Edwards Goes Public which overall was not very sympathetic to her.

She errs by her own standards. In December 2006, when Elizabeth learned about her husband John’s affair, she kept mum about it and continued to work for his presidential campaign in order to protect her children from the tumult she feared would accompany the withdrawal of her support. She reiterated her motive in her book and to Oprah. Surely resurrecting the entire episode will subject her youngest children, now 8 and 11 years old, to just the buffeting she purports to disdain.

So what was her true motive for writing the book? For the money? Certainly this book will make her a lot of money. But she and John are already fabulously wealthy. Was it revenge? Quite possibly. She obviously still shows some bitterness about the affair in her interviews.

Since we have all been speculating on what really went on between her and John, it is plausible that she simply took advantage of an opportunity to tell her side of the story and put it on the record. What complicates things is her incurable cancer. If she had chosen to wait, her health may well have deteriorated to where she would have been no longer able to write the book. But a reasonable alternative suggested by Cohen would have been to write the book now and then delay releasing it until the children are older.

But the pressure from prospective publishers (who most certainly are in it for the money) to get this book out as soon as possible while this is still on people’s minds can’t be underestimated. And then there is the sleaze factor around the affair which the publisher seems to be using to push the book.

At the time of this posting, I have not yet had a chance to read the book. But from the reviews, it appears that much of Resilience deals with past tragedies which were already written about in a previous memoir,
Saving Graces. Despite the affair only being a small part of the book, it is obvious that this sleaze factor is a prominent part of driving interest and sales of the book. I can’t help but ask — is this something for which we should blame Elizabeth, the publisher, or maybe both?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Can Anybody Afford to Take a Sick Day?

The swine flu epidemic that has been in the news has made us all sensitive to what we have to do to not only catch the disease but also to keep from spreading it to others. VP Joe Biden even went overboard by recommending that that we avoid subways and planes — a remark for which White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had to issue an apology.

But then there is the issue of whether we should go to work when we are sick as in this physician authored article
Do Everybody a Favor: Take a Sick Day.

If the swine flu epidemic ever swings into full gear, I will be prepared for the onslaught of ill patients. I will provide symptomatic relief when I can. And I will let them know it’s O.K. to be sick. It’s O.K. to stay home from work, pull up the covers and drink gallons of hot tea all day. Maybe for an entire week.

And believe me: if you show up to work sick these days, you are not going to earn anyone’s admiration.
Fair enough. We don’t want people coming to the workplace when they are sick and spreading the germs to us. And we especially don’t want sick people serving our food. If somebody is sick, make ‘em take a sick day!

But what about people who don’t have sick days? While we have the right not to be infected by those who show up to work sick, do we also have the right to tell that person that he or she must give up that day’s pay?

In extreme cases, people who call in sick can not only lose days of pay but also may not have a job to return to when they get well.

As I explain in a previous posting
Let's Work to Live!, many of us have a hard time even taking vacation time to enjoy time away from work let alone sick time.

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.
Who is going to take over and do the work of an employee staying at home? Often the work will just pile up on the desk awaiting the worker’s return. Just thinking about that is often enough to make workers decide that the lesser evil is to show up at work even if they feel rotten — even if they do get paid sick days.

And while most professional salaried workers get paid sick days, those on the bottom of the economic food chain do not. Many of those people work in the restaurant industry. And for those whose incomes depend on tips, even sick pay to replace the nominal salary part of their wages wouldn’t be of much help.

As is often the case, America is different when it comes to paid sick days compared to
other countries.

At least 145 countries provide paid sick days for short- or long-term illnesses, with 127 providing a week or more annually. One hundred and two countries guarantee one month or more of paid sick days.

Many high-income economies require employers to provide paid sick days upwards of 10 days, including: Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Singapore.
So it’s easy for liberals to suggest that the US also adopts a paid sick day policy for all of its workers like so many other countries. But it’s not so easy.

For one thing, there are employees who will take advantage of the system as in the Sick Call Excuse Generator or How to Call in Sick when You Just Need a Day Off. We have all heard of workers who say they need a “mental health day” and call off sick.

Some employers have tried to address this by simply lumping in vacation and sick days together under the category of Paid Time Off (PTO). Before, while many employers offered sick days, they did not specify how many. So many workers would simply take the number of days they needed and as long as they didn’t overdo it, there was no problem.

But when employers introduce a maximum of paid days off for either sickness or vacation, whether they like or not they are also introducing a minimum of sick days that if not taken for illness can then be taken as vacation days. And since many employers especially in the US hate the idea of giving out extra vacation days, that is not an easy pill for them to swallow.

An excellent article Sick Leave vs. Paid Time Off (PTO) points out another major problem that can occur under the PTO system.
Sick Employees Not Using Sick Leave
One of the most costly abuses of PTO is sick employees not using sick leave. Many employees begin to view all paid time off (PTO) as vacation time. So when they are sick, they don't want to spend any of their "vacation" time so they come to work and spread germs. This makes other workers ill and productivity drops as more and more of the work force gets sick.
Of course this all defeats one of the main purpose of sick days which is to protect others from getting sick!

Perhaps it is time for the US to finally get in step with the rest of the world and establish mandatory employer standards for sick days.
Despite the opportunity for abuse by some (as in any system) we need to recognize that sick days are not only a necessity for workers to get better but more importantly a public health issue to keep disease from spreading and making others sick.

When employees show up at work when they are obviously sick, companies need the compassion along with the common sense to make the boss send that person home to get better. And if the only way to make that work is to make sure that the employer will grant paid sick days, it is a price we need to pay!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Can We Talk About Priests and Celibacy?

Everybody it seems, loves a good scandal! One of the most recent involves a celebrity priest in the Miami area as described in 'Father Oprah' Caught in Photo Scandal.

Faithful supporters of Father Alberto Cutié have expressed shock and disbelief after photos of the celebrity priest in a Spanish-language magazine showed him kissing and fondling a woman on Miami Beach, CBS Station WFOR-TV reports.

On Tuesday the Archdiocese of Miami relieved Father Cutié of his duties at St. Francis de Sales parish on Miami Beach and at the Catholic radio station Radio Peace and Radio Paz.

When it became a national story, even
Time couldn’t resist this racy account of the scandal.

Over a three-day period, the pictures also captured him kissing her in a bar. In one of TVnotas's "in fragranti" shots the woman wraps her legs around Cutié; in another, Cutié has a hand down her swimsuit, fondling her rear end.

Some were wondering if this could all be true. Maybe the photos were fake. But unlike others who have been caught in scandals, once the photos were published, Father Cutié made no attempt to hide anything and admitted he was in love with the woman.

The Rev. Alberto Cutié acknowledged Friday that he was in love with a woman and has no regrets about the relationship, even though the romance has jeopardized his career as a Catholic priest, the Miami Herald reports.

''Do I feel bad about it? . . . No,'' he said emphatically in a televised interview with Spanish-language network Univisión.

''I can say, with sincerity, that she's a woman I love,'' he said, noting he had known the woman, Ruhama Buni Canellis, a 35-year-old Miami Beach resident, for 10 years.
Of course this raises the age old question of whether the celibacy rule for Roman Catholic priests should finally be changed especially with the ever increasing shortage of priests as suggested in this commentary.

New York Cardinal Edward Egan stunned but pleased many Catholics when he asserted recently in a radio interview on celibacy, "It's a perfectly legitimate discussion. I think it needs to be looked at."

This is a breath of fresh air on an issue the Vatican has considered a closed subject for a thousand years.
But there is still extreme resistance by conservative Catholics even in the form of denying there even is a shortage. And in What to Do About the Priest Shortage, we have this exchange.

During a 1997 interview, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, now Pope Benedict XVI, was asked about the declining ranks of the Catholic priesthood. "Mustn't celibacy be dropped," the questioner asked, "for the simple reason that otherwise the church won't get any more priests?" Ratzinger demurred. "I don't think that the argument is really sound," he said, noting that the trend had less to do with strict rules and more to do with family size and priorities.
But then again, this is from the same person who recently said during a recent trip to Africa that the use of condoms will make the AIDS epidemic worse!

All those attempts of denial aside, here is an interesting video showing how one diocese is resorting to a practice that many in corporate America have adopted — bringing in immigrants to do the jobs that “Americans won’t do”.

But I think the arguments about celibacy for priests leading to shortages misses a more important question. And that is, what attitude towards sex is the Catholic Church promoting? Is it to be looked at as something dirty? Or something beautiful that allows our species to survive!

Maslow's hierarchy of needs includes sex as a physiological need even though one doesn’t strictly need sex to survive as with other needs such as food and water. But nonetheless, denying the power of our biological sex drive is at odds with nature.

I am reminded of an early George Carlin monologue about growing up in a Catholic school called
The Confessional.

In fact, WANNA was a sin all by itself. "Thou Shalt Not WANNA". If you woke up in the morning and said, "I'm going down to 42nd street and commit a mortal sin!" Save your car fare; you did it, man! Absolutely!

It was a sin for you to wanna feel up Ellen. It was a sin for you to plan to feel up Ellen. It was a sin for you to figure out a place to feel up Ellen. It was a sin to take Ellen to the place to feel her up. It was a sin to try to feel her up and it was a sin to feel her up. There were six sins in one feel, man!
Of course The Pope runs the Catholic Church and can impose any rules he chooses to — but people are also free to follow their own conscience and decide if those rules are right for them! As much as Father Cutié may well believe in celibacy on an intellectual level, I believe that even if it was subconscious urge, he wanted to get caught to bring this internal conflict of his out in the open. Why else would a well-known public figure do what he did on a public beach where someone was bound to see him with his woman friend sooner or later? Remember, he didn’t deny being seen and later defiantly proclaimed his love for the woman.

I think this will lead to Father Cutié leaving the priesthood. And why not? The qualities that led him to become famous as a priest will no doubt serve him well in the secular world. The question is how long will the Catholic Church stubbornly continue on this path and lose more good men like Father Cutié?

MIAMI (June 16) - A telegenic Miami priest who left the Catholic Church amid an uproar over published photos of him kissing his girlfriend on the beach made the relationship official Tuesday, marrying the woman he was involved with for about two years.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Time to Reform the Credit Card Industry

President Obama is now tackling the issue of abuses by credit card companies. Obama Pressures Credit Card Issuers on Rates.

Following up on pledges he made during the election campaign to curtail the high fees and rates, the president called the top executives from the nation’s largest credit card companies to the White House to pressure them to take steps that officials say would reduce abusive practices.

And indeed this was a prominent issue with candidate Obama while campaigning in Iowa back in December 2007. Obama Targets Credit Card Industry

Obama (accused) credit card companies of deceptions.

"Many credit card companies are tricking Americans into agreements they can't afford because that's how they make big profits," he said. "Well, no company's bottom line should come before what's right for the American people."

He said many consumers are squeezed twice, with credit card debt forcing them into bankruptcy, where the odds are also stacked against them.

In addition he said that much credit card debt comes from consumers who have been forced to use credit cards to pay for medical costs. This is another example of how so many of the issues President Obama is addressing are related to each other and need to be tackled at the same time. While the topic here is credit card practices, it needs to be pointed out that if Americans had universal access to affordable health insurance, they likely wouldn’t need to use credit cards to help pay for health care and possibly be forced into bankruptcy.

What’s not to like about credit card industry practices? For one thing, there are those really high rates of interest they charge at a time when the cost of money for these institutions is so low. While we hear about how credit is tight, companies like Capital One bombard the airwaves with endless commercials for their astounding array of credit cards charging from about 14-15% interest for those with “excellent” credit to 23-25% interest for those with a “limited” credit history. It is also worth pointing out that these rates are ‘variable’ so they are subject to change (usually upwards) for any number of arbitrary reasons like being late paying other bills. PBS’s Frontline documentary Secret History of the Credit Card explores issues surrounding industry practices in depth and can be watched online in its entirety.

And while one can say that some people who use these cards may be gullible, there is no denying that the persuasion to use these cards through advertisements is enormous with its enticements of cash back rewards, points, and teaser rates. And now Capital One gives you the ability to design your own card with a photo of your choosing as in that thoroughly annoying
"Spaghetti Jimmy" commercial.

And to make sure that as many young people as possible will be hooked on credit cards, the credit card companies have arranged some sweetheart deals with colleges as I wrote in a previous posting,
Colleges and Credit Cards.

Not surprisingly, The Wall Street Journal offered this much more industry friendly perspective in
Senators Sort Out Curbs on Credit Cards.

Faced with mounting losses, credit-card companies have changed terms for large swaths of customers. They are trying to avoid bleeding more money -- or to make up for losses -- as many cardholders lose their jobs and see their incomes squeezed in a recession.

Many Senate Democrats want stricter limits on card companies' ability to raise rates on consumers who are paying their credit-card bills on time. But most Senate Republicans want credit-card companies to have the right to establish a price for credit based on risk. That means adjusting terms if a consumer's credit quality has deteriorated -- even if that consumer hasn't been delinquent.

This is a form of double-dipping that auto insurance companies benefit from. If someone has an accident, they can then raise the rates. But even if a driver doesn’t have an accident, they can still raise the rates based on a supposed increased risk.

Fortunately, the readers who offered comments on this article aren’t buying any of this. Here is an excerpt from reader Peter Von Nessi:

What logic is there in allowing rates far exceeding state usury levels, under the guise of providing credit to the less creditworthy, when it is those very people who are judged as likely to have trouble paying back what they borrow? What is this inane insistence on saddling people with debt who are least able to afford to pay it back? It's obvious as to what's going on here. There is a concerted effort to try to extract a profit by charging exorbitant rates and fees by whatever means possible, and the Congress and Fed are duplicitous in their acquiescence.

The dirty truth is that the issuers don't want the borrowed money back before interest and fees kick in. There's no profit in those who pay in full during a grace period. Issuers get into this business precisely because of the frequency of entangling someone in a 30%+ interest net; precisely the people who shouldn't be borrowing in the first place.
Both the House and Senate have
bills in the works and are facing a final showdown in Congress with something expected to be signed into law by Memorial Day. It can’t come soon enough. But unfortunately, even if or when the bills are signed into law, there are provisions that the effective date of the law won’t be for another 9 to 12 months after the bill is signed by President Obama. Why is that necessary? Many fear that the credit card companies will take advantage of this grace period to screw their cardholders out of even more money with more manipulation of rates and terms while they can.

The anti-regulation mentality of the previous presidency towards the financial services industry has resulted in so much pain for so many people. The credit card industry has inflicted more than their share of this pain with some of their abusive practices. It’s about time we have a president who is doing something about it!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Sad Farewell to Pontiac

When it was recently announced that General Motors was pulling the plug on its Pontiac brand, more than a few people who had love affairs with some of their great cars over the years felt a deep sense of loss. Including me.

A number of articles like
What killed Pontiac attempted to make sense of it all.
The Pontiac car brand, once marketed as General Motors' "excitement division," will be killed off by the end of next year, the carmaker announced Monday.

Pontiac's problem was not sales, GM Chief Executive Fritz Henderson indicated during a conference call Monday. In 2008, Pontiac was the company's third-best selling brand behind Chevrolet and GMC and sold twice as many vehicles as Buick, a brand that will apparently survive the changes at GM.
The problem was that Pontiac had become a neglected brand in the GM stable. Instead of the distinctive models of old like the GTO that became legendary, GM more recently sold cars under the Pontiac label that were not distinctive enough from those sold under other GM labels and thus not profitable enough. And some of those models were downright mediocre at best.

While GM put all of their recent efforts into the Chevy Malibu to successfully compete in the family sedan market, they left Pontiac to compete in that same market with their G6 for which Consumer Reports offers this blunt assessment:
The G6 isn't a very good car. Handling gets sloppy at its limits, but the steering has been improved on V6 models. Interior quality is unimpressive.
It wasn’t always this way.
The Top 10 Greatest Pontiacs of All Time takes us on a nostalgic visit to some of the iconic models like the GTO and Trans Am.

Back in the early 80s, Pontiac took aim at the performance sedan market that was dominated by Audi and BMW with the
6000 STE. The tremendous amount of praise from the automotive press coupled with the wow factor in just sitting in the car at an auto show convinced me I just had to own one. So with GM building something like this that excites the automotive community, what do they do? They follow up by making it as tough as possible to buy one, only making about 6,700 of them in its first model year.

But as much as I loved the styling and performance of my STE, like so many cars that Detroit built in the 80s, they were incredibly unreliable. Back then, there were still many Americans who would not even think of buying a Japanese brand car. That changed as people got tired of unreliable US autos and discovered that Honda and Toyota made cars that were reliable and lasted. And many of those people never came back to buying domestic cars. Starting in the 90s, Detroit started to make more reliable cars. for example, my ’97 Pontiac Bonneville was tremendously more reliable that the 6000STE it replaced. But the damage was already done to GM’s market share. And with its reduced market share, it could no longer afford to effectively market all of the nameplates it had so starting with Oldsmobile, GM had to drop some of their brands.

Pontiac again created excitement in the automotive press with the introduction of the 2008

Finally. In 2008, Pontiac once again lived up to its long-forgotten image as GM's performance brand. The new G8, which is currently available at your nearest Pontiac dealer, is an extremely competent vehicle that can be mentioned in the same breath as the standard-bearing sport sedans from Europe, but with a price tag that's considerably lower.
Despite the critical acclaim, the G8 hasn’t sold very well at all. Perhaps it was a result of bad timing in the way of rising fuel prices that made performance cars less attractive. But it is just as likely the result of years of mistakes in GM’s marketing of the Pontiac brand.

Hopefully, some of the know-how that produced some of Pontiac’s better efforts will show up in future Chevy or perhaps Buick offerings. General Motors which at one time had a
near monopoly on the US car market is now fighting for its life so it will need to use all of the resources it has to survive.

So soon, we will have to bid a sad farewell to Pontiac in new car showrooms. And while it may soon be gone, it will not be forgotten by those who remember the ‘excitement’ these cars gave us!