Friday, February 25, 2011

Wisconsin: Ideology versus Reality

The libertarian Wil Wilkinson makes the case that public sector unions are not a very good deal; ie, not a lot of bang for the tax buck, and he may have a point. Even union employees seem to agree by their very action of negating their contract and agreeing to pay more for their pension and health care. He makes the argument that public employees are not wrangling with profitable companies for a share of the profits, but rather they are negotiating for a chunk of public funds, the "public commons." This seems like a distinction without a difference, but whatever.

Wilkinson tips his hand, however, with a moment of lucidity at the end of his piece: "Maybe it's true Wall Street schemers are amassing fortunes while contributing little of real value. Maybe the money-sucking pipeline running from the Treasury to the coffers of the military-industrial complex is an indefensible outrage. Maybe your local Toyota dealer out to cough up a few extra grand in taxes next year. Maybe it's all true. That doesn't mean that Republicans like Gov. Walker are wrong. That doesn't mean you're not getting rolled by the public sector unions."

"Maybe" it's all true? Duh. If public sector unions are two-bit thieves, then Wall Street investment bankers are... well... I was going to say Al Capone or Bonnie and Clyde, but that would be elevating the impact of such ordinary gangsters since the most poignant historic example of thievery is actually the modern day con played on us by investment bankers. Public sector unions are not the problem. Wisconsin is not having a budget crisis because teachers make too much money; their pension funds are short because Wall Street banksters took their money. Period.

Robert Reich puts it straight:

Last year, America’s top thirteen hedge-fund managers earned an average of $1 billion each. One of them took home $5 billion. Much of their income is taxed as capital gains – at 15 percent – due to a tax loophole that Republican members of Congress have steadfastly guarded.

If the earnings of those thirteen hedge-fund managers were taxed as ordinary income, the revenues generated would pay the salaries and benefits of 300,000 teachers.

And this says nothing of the trillion dollar fraud perpetrated by AIG, Goldman Sachs and others... and the other trillion dollar fraud that is the Iraq war, but I digress.

The larger plan by the Republican leaders, who have been bought by huge financial players*, as Reich says, is to "pit average working Americans against one another, distract attention from the almost unprecedented concentration of wealth and power at the top, and conceal Republican plans to further enlarge and entrench that wealth and power."

[*When are we going to get these big financial interests out of politics?]

The righteous indignation is easy to stir up over a teacher or janitor with health benefits but let's remember a few things:

1. The financial meltdown of 2008 is the primary cause of the state budget woes and unemployment. And these banksters were not union employees.

2. The credit markets did not seize up because teachers have health insurance. Silliness.

3. Not one Wall Street thief has been indicted, yet their bonuses are higher than ever.

4. There is no evidence that tax cuts to wealthy special interests in Wisconsin will spur job growth. It's a lie.

5. On the other hand, taking money out of middle-class public employees' paychecks WILL reduce economic stimulus and jobs.

6. Gov Walker is a useful idiot to the cause of special interests such as the Koch boys.

7. Even if teachers and janitors in Wisconsin are overpaid-- which they may be-- that is not the prima facie cause of the economic trouble, and even Shep Smith on Fox News admits that Gov Walker's tack has nothing to do with economics since the unions have agreed to pay for their benefits.

8. Who the hell voted for that puddin head governor? SCOTTT!

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Pepsi MAX Commercial

Is this commercial racist?

I have no idea. I do know it's not funny and I think humor was what the marketing geniuses were after. But we're all talking about it, so I suppose some goal has been achieved, Satanic as it is. No such thing as bad publicity.

If you want a Thomistic theological dissection of the ad, see Christopher. As for me, I'll defer to Bill Hicks; while he may not have spent his life co-opting Greek philosophy, he seems to understand the component of the Buddhist Eightfold Path known as Right Intention:

Reagan and Abortion: "it's the parents' fault"

A few points in this video:

1. Ronald Reagan supported his pro-choice daughter Maureen for Congress. No litmus test.

2. Michael Reagan blames parents' judgmental attitudes for teens opting for abortion, but he doesn't mention the parents' neglect in teaching safe sex or virtuous lifestyle... and he's the face of conservatism in modern America?

3. How many of those adopted wish they had been aborted? None. It needs to be said that is is a case of selection bias.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Medical advice: better than WebMD

From the sage Harry Newton:

Don’t use WebMD for medical advice. Use The New York Times Magazine (paywall) says of WebMD: “not only a waste of time, but it’s also a disorder in and of itself — one that preys on the fear and vulnerability of of its users to sell them half-truths and, eventually, pills."

Where WebMD is a corporation that started as an ad-supported health-alarmism site with revenues of $504 million in 2010, the Mayo Clinic is a nonprofit medical-practice-and-research group that started as a clinic. … Mayo’s storied past as the country’s premier research hospital, in Rochester, Minn., and its storied present as one of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” surface in the integrity of the site itself, which — though not ad-free — is spare and neatly organized, with the measured, learned voice of the best doctors. The byline for most entries is “Mayo Clinic staff.” The integrity of the whole institution is on the line with this site, and the Mayo Clinic has every motivation to keep its information authoritative and up to date. Contrast this with WebMD, which — with every reason to amp up page views, impress advertisers and drive traffic to commercial sites — has the junky, attic-y look of your standard ad-chocked Web site. Amid so-called information about cancer and depression are banner ads for brands like Crest, L’Oreal, Bounce and Clorox.

My experience as well.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Bill Gates: Vaccine-autism link an "absolute lie"

Whatever you think of Bill Gates, I guarantee he's not promoting vaccine use because of his financial interests. I've never seen him more animated about any topic.

As an aside, is Gupta's voice getting deeper?

Christians in Egypt

In my car yesterday, NPR had a radio piece about Egyptian Coptic Christians now living in Florida and belonging to St. John the Baptist Church. They were concerned that the ouster of Mubarek would lead to more oppression of Christians in Egypt; as with most dictators in pluralistic societies, the one common denominator that concerns leaders is their hold on power. Keeping the peace among the various religions seems to be a priority, even if it means tolerance of heretics. If the less tolerant Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas takes control of Egypt, the Christians would have the most to lose.

In a semi-related note, the picture making the rounds on reddit (below) is of a group of Christians in Egypt standing guard with a human chain as Muslims kneel to pray. Kumbaya...
as long as we have a common enemy.

Concert Review; Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt

Excellent evening of their greatest hits. Usually when artists come through on tour it's to promote a new disc, so it was a departure to have such established songsters provide the acoustic treat of their most prodigious hits from the past few decades.

I've seen Lyle Lovett several times before and he never disappoints. His quirky house rules require that nobody can enter or leave in the middle of a song, and he closes the bar after the music starts. I'll admit that I was taken aback the first time I saw him-- "Whaddya mean I can't get another beer!"-- but, you know, it does show a certain self-respect that he doesn't want everyone stumbling around screaming drunk epithets throughout the concert. Lovett is a clean and sober artist, and he demands reverence for his art. Nothing wrong with that. I can say that I knew every precious lyric of his set, which included "North Dakota", "My Fiona", "LA County" and others.

We're all familiar with John Hiatt's songs, but I didn't know that he was such a prolific writer of such genuine lyrics. "Thing Called Love", popularized by Bonnie Raitt, has a different feel when sung by Hiatt. His other biggies: "Drive South" and "Have a Little Faith in Me" were nothing short of outstanding in this setting. Surprising gems were "Lipstick Sunset", "Master of Disaster" and "Memphis in the Meantime." His skill with the guitar and war stories of the old days filled in the crevices. They played for a full two-and-a-half hours.

The structure of the concert was unique, with the two guys in chairs as if sitting in your living room. They would alternate playing their songs, occasionally accompanying the other with guitar or vocal harmony. Between songs they'd engage in friendly conversation, stories and memories, as if we were invited to their home (at $55 a ticket!). A mention should be made of the venue: the State Theatre. This old horse of a hundred year old theatre is top-notch, and I'm sure a major reason Lovett keeps coming back to Kalamazoo. The acoustics, seats and concessions are unmatched.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Crows (Corvids) and tool-making

Two videos from Jerry Coyne's site showing the unique talents of Crows. The first shows how a crow uses a wire to fish out a basket of food.

These crows are the only animals known to make tools from stuff they haven’t previously encountered in nature. Here’s crow Betty extracting a plug from a tube. At about 22 seconds she realizes that she isn’t going to get the object with a straight wire, and bends it into a hook around the tube. Amazing!

And I can’t resist adding this David Attenborough video of Japanese crows dropping nuts on the street to crack them, using the cars to do the job. He claims (and this is unbelievable) that the crows actually drop the nuts at pedestrian crossings, so that they can retrieve the cracked nuts when the light turns red! (Just click on the “Watch on YouTube” line.)

Ezra Klein's blog: Repeal EMTALA!

I know he's being facetious, but point made:

Okay, it's a bit of an awkward slogan. But reader RC is right. A universal health-care insurance program is the logical endpoint of the bill Ronald Reagan signed into law mandating (pretty much) universal emergency hospital care:

If the Republican Party is serious about decreasing government control of health care, they should start by introducing a bill that would repeal the law signed by President Ronald Reagan that mandates free health care for all who seek it. That law, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), was the largest expansion of government mandated health care since Medicare. Remember George Bush stating that all Americans had access to health care? That all they had to do was present to their local emergency department? That is EMTALA. If we are going to mandate that hospitals treat and stabilize patients with emergency medical conditions, we should mandate that individuals purchase insurance to pay for that care. If we don't, then we truly have a health care system where the few pay for the many. I bet that many hospitals in DC collect less than 50% of their emergency department billings right now. The government has been mandating health care coverage for more than 25 years -- only now President Obama wants those who utilize the system to pay for it.

By Ezra Klein | January 27, 2011; 11:30 AM ET