Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Civilian Reservists, Citizen Soldiers, Civilian Draftees

Civilian Reserves:

Well, The Washington Times reports that President Bush’s call for civilian reservists in the State of the Union address amounted to word salad. The story by Stephen Dinan on January 30, 2007 is “Civilian Reserve just words in a speech,” at this link:

Unlike the pseudo-clandestine civilian reservist programs in the 80s, this program was intended for deployment of civilians overseas, too, to hot spots. Of course, there has been concern about misuse of civilian consultants and the fattening of the coffers of a few companies in Iraq, as documented in the film “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers” (my review is here.)

Citizen Soldiers:

In the meantime, Andrew Bacevich wrote a piece in The Boston Globe, “Time to bring back the citizen soldier,” summarized in The Week, Feb. 2, 2007, p. 14. “We have to reconcile our nation’s ambitions with our willingness to sacrifice for them.”

Drafting civilians (and not just seniors) as poll workers:

According to a short byline in USA Today on January 29, 2007, Ohio is considering “drafting” poll workers (presumably, election judges), so that no worker needs to work more than eight hours (the typical shift is more like 18 hours – at least mine in Virginia as 17 in 2006). Also, they want to bring the average age of a poll worker down from 72.

Of course, one might even consider jury duty as a kind of "draft."

Followup: More civilian workers needed in Iraq

Thom Shanker and David S. Cloud have a story in The New York Times, Feb. 7, 2007, "Military Wants More Civilians to Help in Iraq: State Dept. Cites Shortage of Workers to Bolster Rebuilding Effort." About 1/3 of those state dept positions are filled by military personnel. In addition to the obvious security concerns for any civilians (especially outside the Green Zone), open gays could attract attacks from extremists. However civilian filmmakers have worked in Iraq with comparative security.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Insurance woes: health and property

Julie Appleby, USA Today, has a story today about individual health insurance, "People left holding the bag when policies revoked." The link is here. Small inaccuracies in background questions, especially about pre-existing conditions, have caused insurers to cancel policies retroactively and refuse to cover treatment, leaving people with tens of thousands in debt, subject to collections. Obviously mandatory insurance programs such as those passed in Massachusetts and propsoed in California would need to regulate these possibilities.

Karen Breslau has a story in the Jan 29 2007 Newsweek, "The Insurance Climate Change," about proerty insurance refusals to renew along the East Coast and often inland. While Katrina, Rita and Wilma may have provided the biggest losses (with denial of many flood claims, as in last post), other disasters increase, as the two major midwestern ice storms, tornados, huge brushfires, earthquakes, and the dangers posed by "asymmetry." The availability of property insurance in many areas of the country appears to be in jeopardy.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Gulf Coast still relies on volunteers 17 months after Katrina

Peter Whoriskey has a story on page A3 of the January 28, 2007 The Washington Post, "As Aid Lags: Volunteers Shoulder Rebuilding on Gulf Coast: Local Gratitude Mixes with Frustration Over Government's Failures," at this link.

The article discusses the town of Pearlington, Mississippi, on the Louisiana border, about ten miles inland. 80% of the home rebuilding completed so far has been accomplished by volunteer groups, but apparently most residents are still not back in their original home, even inland some distance.

Relief money seems tied up in state bureaucracy, and most homeowners did not have adequate flood insurance. There has been a lot of controversy over wind and water damage with insurance claims.

The local Habitat for Humanity has rebuilt 19 homes there.

The story would seem to make an argument for libertarianism, as government definitely has not worked here. But it also makes a moral statement about volunteerism and adds to the idea of expected or quasi-mandatory community or national service. All over the country, high-school-age groups of local churches have had manual car washes to raise money for summer vacation trips for rebuilding in the hot, swampy Gulf coast area, including much of New Orleans itself.

It seems surprising that corporate America and the homebuilding industry has not done more to do date to build new housing in higher areas away from the water (although most of that area is under 100 feet elevation; if you look at 1950s World Book maps of the area, it is all in dark green.

I volunteered a bit at the Red Cross call center in Falls Church, VA in September 2005 and found that with most calls we had to turn clients to an 800 number (for FEMA financial assistance) that was always busy.

During September 2005 there were unprecedented demands on individual hospitality, almost of Biblical proportions in southern states, as some people took in multiple families into their own homes.

Picture: from Bay Saint Louis, MS, February 2006.

Friday, January 26, 2007

DC ponders "brothers keeper" laws for nightclubs to keep out teens

In reaction to a tragic slaying at or near the Club 1919 in the renovated U-Street corridor in Washington DC, the City is considering a number of draconian measures. One is to ban anyone under 18 from any establishment with a liquor license. A more moderate proposal would require special screening and security training for such establishments. An even more severe proposal would permanently bar any under 21 from entering any club with a liquor license. All of this plays on the natural need to protect minors and to wonder, collectively, "when am I my brother's keeper? When do I have to give up freedom because of someone else's abuses?"

The ABC WJLA TV mid-day news broadcast on Friday Jan 26 reconfirmed the idea that a complete ban of persons under 21 in all clubs with liquor licenses in the District of Columbia was being seriously considered.

The main The Washington Post story is by Keith L. Alexander and Darragh Johnson, "D.C. Clubs Dreading Proposed Teen Ban: Hearing Exposes Easy Alcohol Access," at this link on Friday, January 26, 2007. The link is here.

There has been controversy over whether the measures are intended to target go-go clubs frequented by blacks. The political climate would require neutrality and a measure to apply to all clubs.

Gay clubs have not been particularly associated with any violent incidents. Nevertheless, any such measures would have to be enforced by them. Some clubs allow persons 18-20 to enter on certain nights of the week, with wristbands that identify them as ineligible to purchase alcohol.

In more than one city, however, I have personally observed persons I knew to be under 18 (mostly from churches I had attended) able to enter clubs on youth nights. Some teens look and act older than they are and could convince others that they are older, if IDs were not checked carefully. Fake IDs do exist. (A major episode of the WB show Everwood in Season 2 demonstrated the ease of making them.) A few clubs will sometimes allow celebrities between 18-20 to enter at any time if the individuals in question agree not to drink. I am not aware of any arrests or of any specific incidents or a criminal or harmful nature (that would include DUI) actually resulting from these practices.

In September 2004 I called DC Police about unusual activity about two blocks from the Velvet Nations club, now closed for DC Stadium related real estate development. Persons were panhandling visitors agressively and trying to extort money to "protect" their cars. In one case I observed a weapon about three blocks from the club. I discussed this with both management and police.

In rare cases there have been serious tragedies at nightclubs. In February 2003, there was a deadly fire at the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, RI when the pyrothecnics used by a band called Great White malfunctioned, resulting in at least 96 deaths and dozens of severe burns. The CNN story is here.

Followup, Feb. 6 2007

Keith L. Alexander and Nikita Stewart have a story in The Washington Post, p B1, "Tougher Rules proposed for District Clubs," at this link. Clubs that provide entertainment, serve alcohol, and admit persons under 21 will have strict record keeping and employee training requirements, according to legislation proposed by Council Member Jim Graham.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The never married adults-- the count is growing

Michael McManus has an interesting commentary “Fixing no-fault divorce” in the Wednesday Jan. 24, 2007 The Washington Times, p A16, at this link.

McManus starts with the recent media reports that now over 50% of women live without a married spouse. He traces all the statistical details, including that for people who have never married or tried to marry, and that number is way up, too.

Some of this could be due to the rocky increase in social acceptability of open homosexuality in much of urban mainstream society (though still not everywhere, by any means). But McManus makes a subtle point. Marriage is simply too risky now. Many people don’t want to insure themselves against the “risk.” You see this concern in pre-nuptial contracts. But you see it in the crippling effects of divorce on one partner (it can be either partner) often resulting in tragic results for both adults and children.

That is why many states are taking a hard look at no-fault divorce and sometimes promoting covenant marriage.

Suzanne Fields has an op-ed on Thursday Jan 25 2007 in The Washington Times, p. A21, "The Singles without bliss: women without men" -- another interpretation of the singles and never-married. She points out that women face a biological expiration date for pregnancy, whereas men don't ("Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?") She mentions the Meryl Streep character in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), which gave the actress an Oscar nomination; but she could have discussed the gripping film from the UK, "Children of Men".

Philip Longman indeed made an interesting argument in his book The Empty Cradle that we have, from a “personal responsibility” point of view, made marriage and especially parenting so expensive and risky that in, advanced affluent cultures, populations may not replace themselves. Does this have a bearing on our whole approach to rationalism?

Update 3/4/2007:

Blaine Harden has a story in the Sunday March 4, 2007 The Washington Post, p A3, "Numbers Drop for Married with Children: Institution Becoming the Choice of the Educated, Affluent", at this link. The story indicates that many lower income couples see marriage as confining and leading to conflicts and fights and as bad for children, despite the tax benefits. Robert P. George, Maggie Gallagher and Jennifer Roback Morse will certainly respond to this one!

Update 3/5/2007:

The New York Times Magazine on March 4, 2007, p. 20, has a story by Sharon Lerner, "The Motherhood Experiment: Many advanced countries face collapsing populations. Making it easier for women to work may be the best way to increase birthrates." She comments that in some countries, especially the United States, "the welfare of the family is typically seen as the responsibility of individuals rather than the government" and that countries that have always supported working mothers with paid maternity (and sometimes paterninty) leave like Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland have higher birthrates and better participation of women in the workplace. The U.S. has compensated for its lower birthrates in well-off populations with immigration, which could create "political" problems (even more so in Europe, where some Muslim populations have high birth rates). She notes "morally repugnant" pro-natal practices in the past: Mussolini taxed bachelors (already noted in Crane Brinton's college history text A History of Civilization) and in the 1980s Singapore supported maternity among well-off populations and discouraged it in the poor.

Just a common courtesy?

At a convenience retail establishment near where I live, I usually pay with cash. For a small purchase, it is simply a habit for me to drop or place a $5 or a $10 bill on the counter very quickly, particularly if there are customers in line behind me waiting to be served.

A couple of times, a particular employee has complained that this is rude, and that I am "throwing money" at her. She wants to be handed the money directly. She mentions her race (African American), as if placing money this way without physical contact (through passing the paper money) were an act of shunning or contempt.

I had never heard of this. This is in a southern state (Virginia).

Is this viewed as an expression of contempt or disrepect in the African American community?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

President Bush proposes volunteer civilian reserve corps

In his State of the Union speech last night, President Bush propsoed a volunteer civilian reserve corps. This idea has been known for decades. The the 1980s there was a Civilian Defense Reservist corps that was supposed to help lead society in the event of a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. It was sometimes covered in the newspapers.

Nurses are also forming a corp for nurses to go to disaster areas and live there for days at a time, called Disaster Nurses.

The text of the president's address is here.

The Democratic response from Senator Webb is here.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Bush to propose tax code manipulation to encourage individuals to purchase health insurance

Wire services report today that President Bush, in his State of the Union address Tuesday, will recommend a $7500 tax deduction for individuals of $15000 for families toward purchase of individual health insurance. On the other hand, taxes will be paid by individuals or employers on excessive benefits in the workplace, beyond what is necessary in a basic or catastrophic plan.

The idea is bound to be controversial. It sounds like playing "Robin Hood" and that would offend libertarians. Presumably this is a tax credit that does not require itemizing but that does require actual purchase of health insurance. Perhaps it would be possible to structure such a policy into a "health savings account" strategy championed by many conservatives.

It was not clear if preventive health services, and recommended practices like dental cleanings and, over certain ages, various cancer screenings would be covered. It was not clear if the practice of charging individuals more than members of groups would be stopped.

The CNN story is here.

Op-ed on Medical Debts

On Monday January 22, 2006, The New York Times ran an op-ed by Bob Herbert, "Your Mastercard or your Life: Sick, Vulnerable, and Deeply in Debt." The writer fears that many conditions are simply going untreated because of the extreme expense of individual care, as well as the exposure of individuals to aggressive debt collection. Even when I worked for a debt collector in 2003, I saw the line "you used to services..." (I did not work on medical collections directly.)

Donald Trump has spoken in favor of universal health care on Larry King Live before, as he maintains that it is a travesty that we cannot figure out how to pay for taking care of the sick in a humane manner.

Picture: The surface of Titan (simulated, of course).

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

National Press Club and Business Roundtable on universal health care

Steven Pearlstein has a major story in the Business section of The Washington Post, Jan. 17, 2006, “A New Consensus on National Health Care”, at this link.

At a meeting of the National Press Club in old downtown Washington (Metro Center area), leaders of the Business Roundtable, the AATP, and a major union joined in an emphatic statement for the country to make a commitment to providing universal health care.

Some of the provisions could include
. Mandatory insurance after the model of Massachusetts and what is proposed in California, possibly with employer mandates (like Clinton’s 80-20 rule back in 1993)
. Using pre-tax income to pay for individual insurance
. government subsidies for families up to 300% of poverty level, in various formulas
. pooling arrangements, partly to help prevent the practice of charging individual insurance holders more than groups for the same procedure
. Much more automation of medical records, probably using international data transmission standards associated with XML (in compliance with HIPAA).

Do individual tax-deferred health savings accounts fit into such a plan?

Various issues remain, like the possibility of eventual rationing to the extreme elderly, and major questions about paying for custodial care, maybe even filial responsibility.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

DC Smoking ban looks good for business

I haven't seen any numbers for the Washington DC complete bar smoking ban, but ad-hoc the crowds were pretty good on Friday Jan 5 at Apex-dc and Saturday Jan 13 at Cobalt-DC 30 degrees. Bartenders and barbacks like it, and the crowds seem a bit healthier. It's nice not to have your clothes reek from the smoke. The dance floors seem to populate a bit after midnight, as usual. The patrons tended to be a bit more intimate because hands were not occupied with cigarettes. (The same was true in Minneapolis where the bar closed at 1 PM, until it extended). JR's was crowded inside, but about 15 people were outdoors lighting up.

I often think about the break dance ritual, as a mock rite of passage. In a community that celebrates freedom from the familial competitive pressures, it seems to like to judge who would make the best ancestor. Back in the "real world", men still feel the pressure to prove that they can compete to prove the biological or reproductive superority of their own genes. That seems to be what the right believes in for a male role model for children, even in 2007. I don't like to step into a world where I am forced to pretend to be a role model and be at a disadvantage. Nobody wants to sign for a losing team.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Minimum Wage Bill in House; Paid Parental Leave in Senate

The House of Representatives passed a bill raising the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour over the next two years. A typical story is by Jonathan Weisman, at the Jan 11, 2007 Washington Post, at this link:

That would raise the minimum to a whopping $290 for a 40 hour week (a good middle school math quiz problem). A typical apartment complex requires that a person make in a week what the rent is a month (maybe a little less now). So in the DC area that is about 1/3 of what it would take to rent an acceptable efficiency apartment on one’s own. No wonder so many complexes have overcrowding and over-occupancy problems, especially with low wage workers (especially when you consider children; generally most complexes can no longer exclude people with kids). Again, this sounds like some practical public school math.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in Nickel and Dimed (2001, Owl), wrote about her experiences masquerading as a low-wage worker, and about the shame we should feel about how little we pay the less fortunate to do our dirty work for us. This sort of observation used to form the basis of the moral philosophy of the activist left in the early 70s when I was still a young man.

When I worked as a caller for a symphony orchestra from 2002-2003, I was paid $6 an hour plus commissions, and that added up to about $8.50 an hour (after retiring, with pension and severance). Later a similar job selling subscriptions for another orchestra started at $6.50 am hour.

Paid parental leave, especially for federal employees

The Federal Diary (Stephen Barr), The Washington Post, Jan. 11, 2006, p D04. “Revisiting Parental Leave” reports that Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has introduced a bill in the Senate to allow up to eight weeks of paid maternity leave for women and five days of paternity leave for new fathers. Five days of paid leave would be paid to Federal employees who adopt children. Stevens offers paid maternity leave to his own employees voluntarily. Stevens is also working on another bill to require companies with 50 employees of more to provide paid maternity leave.

Remember, the childless would subsidize this.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Richmond area teacher fired for his own website offering unconventional art.

A high school art teacher in Chesterfield County, VA (near Richmond) was fired early this week, a month or so after suspension with pay, after students had found his YouTube video on the Internet of his making his abstract art with certain body parts.

The abstract art itself did not contain any content that would be objectionable, and he sold the art on the web. It was knowledge of the way the art was produced that the school board found an unacceptable reflection upon him as a role model for students.

Schools are struggling to balance teacher and student free speech rights against the possibility of disruption of the school environment, after students find the materials on the Web, as with search engines.

The Dr. Phil show recently had a segment in which a teacher did not have a contract renewed because more than a decade earlier she had appeared in porno magazines, which surfaced. There has been an escalation of such incidents over the years, especially involving social networking sites like myspace.

The story by Holly Prestidge appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch Jan 10, 2006, at this link (may require subscription or purchase to view content).

I have wondered if schools will start adopting policies requiring teachers to make their own sites "whitelisted" or inaccessible to search engine robots. But doing so would remove the purpose of publication in the first place, at least when a posting has major political significance; the democratizing effect of the Web on debate can be undermined by these problems.

Designer babies raise respect for life issues

The Abraham Center of Life, LLC, in San Antonio, TX, makes available embryos with known genetic characteristics, for single women and infertile couples. The CEO is Jennalee Ryan. The news story was in The Washington Post Jan. 9, 2007 "'Embryo Bank' Stirs Ethics Fears, Firm Lets Clients Pick Among Fertilized Eggs," by Rob Stein, link here.

The scenario reminds people of Aldus Huxley and "Brave New World." Conservative writer George Gilder had warned of this idea in his controversial 1986 book "Men and Marriage."

One concern is that the social and political situation of disabled persons born naturally would be compromised, or that specific physical characteristics would be given moral value, leading a resurgence of racism--as well known from relatively recent history.

Stem Cells

Another related item is that some stem cells can be found in amniotic fluid of pregnant women, and could conceivably be used to treat disease with no possibility of aborting an embryo. President Bush had taken a strong position against stem cell research early in his presidency, in August 2001.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

States start experimenting with mandatory health insurance; could mandatory long term care be next?

States are stepping in and proposing quasi-mandatory health insurance, following the paradigm of auto insurance. Massachusetts passed a law in April 2006 requiring everyone to purchase health insurance. Singles making less than $9500 a year will have insurance with no premiums or deductibles. Similar provisions would apply up to 300 percent of the poverty level for families. People already with insurance and employers are supposed to have lower premiums as a result, and the temptation to surcharge the uninsured would go away. Here is the link to the AP story in the Boston Globe. April 6, 2006.

Vermont and Maine also passed such a measure. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, Republican, is proposing a similar law for California. Penalties, including garnishment, could apply to those who do not comply. The universal coverage law would apply even to illegal aliens. Insurance companies would not be able to exclude people with pre-existing conditions. The detailed story is in the Washington Post by Sonya Geis and Christopher Lee, Jan. 9, 2007. One of the biggest problems with such plans is the effect on small businesses.

Presumably these provisions stop at age 65, when Medicare takes over. Persons not quite of Medicare age could be burdened, as the premium for someone my age (63) in Virginia seems to be up to $700 a month (BCBS may have one for $400 a month).

California, as well as many other states, has also considered universal coverage for children. Indiana and Pennsylvania have reportedly passed children's universal coverage. Missouri wants to use federal money to subsidize insurance coverage from small businesses. (Dennis Cauchon, “States expand health coverage: Legislature seek to help uninsured,” USA Today, Jan. 8, 2007.

One wonders if later proposals will be developed requiring purchase of long term care insurance, perhaps in conjunction with filial responsibility laws. Custodial care is not covered by Medicare (except for brief stays in Skilled Nursing Facilities when the patient is expected to get better).

Universal care within a state does reinforce respect for life and encourages everyone to maintain a certain standard of preventive care.

Picture: French Quarter, New Orleans, Feb. 2006, just before Mardi Gras.

Wal-Mart update

A story by Ylan Q. Mui and Amy Joyce, "Many Wal-Mart Workers Don't Use Its Health Plans, 43% Covered Elsewhere" appears in the January 11, 2007 Washington Post, here. About 90% of Wal-Mart workers have some health care coverage. Wal-Mart has been accused of shifting its health care costs to the taxpayer indirectly, as with a recent bill in Maryland.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

How much, at 63, health insurance costs

Well, I looked at my first pension stub in 2007. I see that my out of pocket premium with United Health Care with a high deductible is about $194. The company's contribution (for retirees with UHC) is $529. As an insurance company, they are doing right by us. That is a whopping $723 a month ($8676 a year). That means that the expected expense for someone in my situation is probably something like $10000 a year, even after getting the insurance company discounts from most providers (and the discounts on procs like cat scans are huge) in a managed care environment. Last year I spent 0. The year before I spent about $650 after discounts and referrals.

What is going on here? Is that because I just might someday need corornary bypass surgery, or something more radical like an organ or bone marrow transplant?

How much are we willing to spend to give everyone the chance to extend life as long as possible?

Moral hazard is an unpleasant notion. But health savings accounts, at least for younger people on a go forward basis, would make everyone take stock of himself or herself. But then how do we share the risks we cannot prevent?

They tell me that in Britain and Canada, with single payer, the waiting lists for many procedures over a certain age are still long.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Nat Hentoff rails Newt Gingrich's plans to shut down much of the First Amendment

This is a holiday for light reading and college bowl football games (complete with two point conversions), but Nat Hentoff has an editorial today ("Fear Itself") on Newt Gingrich's proposal to put the reins on the First Amendment. The text appeared in The Washington Times on the opinion page, Jan 1, 2007, here.

Hentoff was in sync with Gingrich a year or so ago on the campaign finance reform, and agrees with Gingrich's assessment of the unique nature of the "threat" that radical Islam can represent. However, apparently Gingrich wants to give a three judge panel (of federal judges) the authority, without much appellate review, to shut down websites that could incite WMD use. Another indirect problem, not mentioned in the editorial, could be steganography (already well known with computer worms), as well as the social phenonenom that I discussed in the preceeding blog entry ("chutzpah" v. family and tribal or religious values). It's far from clear what Gingrich means by "dangerous" or enticing, and that gets back to the issue of implicit content that has been raised with COPA.

I do urge visitors to check out this important op-ed today. Ray Bradbury may not have been too far off the mark decades ago with his sci-fi book and movie "Fahrenheit 451."