Monday, March 30, 2009

I Told You The Emperor's Naked

I didn't even know Parade magazine still existed until I noticed it in the Sunday editions of the paper where I work. I never much liked that magazine, but this week's cover story almost makes up for all those years inflicting "Howard Huge" on America:
America imprisons 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the world's average. About one in every 31 adults in this country is in jail or on supervised release. Either we are the most evil people on earth or we are doing something very wrong.
That's from Virginia Senator Jim Webb's magnificent piece admitting that the Emperor has no clothes and the War on Drugs is a colossal failure. Of course, I expect he'll be ignored or dismissed as a soft-on-crime crank by his congressional colleagues, but I'll bask in a glowy feeling of hope for awhile. An hour, say.

Ironic anecdote: one reason I moved from Virginia to Connecticut all those years ago was because I had some vague idea that New England was "smarter" and "more intellectual" than the South. So it's karmic justice that, on the same day I read of a Virginia Senator's wisdom, I also read that Connecticut's governor opposes a proposed marijuana decriminalization bill because:
"The governor opposes illegal drug use and possession,'' said spokesman Rich Harris. "Whether it's a little or a lot, marijuana is an illegal drug.''
So it needs to stay illegal because it's wrong to use it since it's illegal. The governor must've been stoned when she came up with that one.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

More Equal Than Others

Please tell me I’m not the only one who finds slightly creepy the new program, introduced by Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families, which my colleague at the paper reported a couple weeks ago:
State officials are hoping a pilot program in New Britain juvenile court will help increase the number of families reunited after a parent’s substance abuse has led to a child being taken from the parent’s custody.

The Recovery Specialist Voluntary Program will give parents facing permanent separation from their children a chance to get them back.
It’s a voluntary program but if you don’t volunteer you’ll never see your kids again, get it? There’s also the question of what, exactly, qualifies as “substance abuse,” and I addressed that question in a column this week:
“Substance” in this context refers to “anything intoxicating.” But how do you “abuse” such things? (Resist the temptation, here, to make tasteless jokes like “I always slap my alcohol around before I drink it.”) Where intoxicants are concerned, there’s two ways to be labeled an abuser.

One is to consume it in obviously harmful ways. If you regularly drink whiskey until you throw up and pass out, most people would agree that you have an “alcohol abuse” problem, and probably shouldn’t care for children when you’re in such bad shape yourself.

But under the right circumstances — or the wrong ones — an alcohol abuser can merely be “someone who drinks a glass of wine with dinner,” if that someone is younger than 21 (or a time traveler from Prohibition days). Any use of an intoxicating substance is deemed “abuse” when that substance is against the law.
I also spoke to DCF and asked for concrete examples of what might qualify one as a substance abuser. The answer’s certain to warm the cockles of any libertarian hearts, so by all means read about it here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Too Big To Fail, Next Stage

You’ve doubtless heard, by now, how Treasury secretary and famed tax evader Timothy Geithner wants Congress to grant him power to seize any big financial firm, if he and the president say the country’s financial system depends on it. The mantra “too big to fail” has morphed into “too big to stay out of government hands.”

Obvious question: Even assuming you buy the argument “Business X is so big it simply must not be allowed to fail no matter what,” why not simply break Business X into smaller entities, a la Ma Bell and Standard Oil, rather than dig our damned debt hole even further?

Obvious answer: Letting the government seize companies at will (namely, the will to say “I’m doing this for the greater good. Honest and for true”) makes for a more lucrative power grab.

The power to break up large companies is by far the lesser of two evils. Think of the War on Drugs: while I of course oppose all aspects of it, a government claiming merely the right to imprison drug users is preferable to the system we have now, where government claims the right to imprison drug users AND confiscate their worldly possessions. The last thing we need to do is provide more financial incentives for government to be corrupt.

Meanwhile, the national debt is over $11 trillion and President Obama’s proposed budget, with its three-quarters-of-a-trillion dollar deficit, will only make that worse. Of course, fans of the president might say the national debt’s nothing to worry about: as a percentage of America’s annual GDP, we owed far more after World War Two. Despite this (the argument goes), America enjoyed fantastic prosperity in the 1950s, so we needn’t worry now.

True, but today’s situation is different. America in the years following World War two enjoyed an advantage modern America does not: we were the only major industrialized nation whose infrastructure hadn’t been blasted to smithereens during the War. It’s easy to make money when there’s no competition. (America also was a net exporter of oil in those days; rather than depend on OPEC, we could produce all the oil we needed ourselves, and sell some for a profit, too.)

Do you care to make any predictions? Mine are all too nebulous to explain; the only detail I can make out is “We’re screwed.” I can’t describe it more explicitly than that, which is lucky for you because otherwise this post would be NSFW and I wouldn’t’ve remembered to point that out until the very end, as I did here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

He Who Will Not Learn From The Past

TWO-DAYS-LATER EDIT: Link to column added here.

Actual dialogue from one day early last week:

ME: Hi, I’d like a pack of [brand of cigarettes I used to smoke].

STORE CLERK: That’ll be $7.15.

ME: What!?

CLERK: The price of cigarettes went up again.

ME: (after intense five-second internal debate) Never mind. I’ll buy nicotine patches instead.

And I did. It’s been nearly a week now since last I enjoyed a sweet, sweet lungful of nicotiney goodness, but I derive similar satisfaction from knowing I’m denying the state its lucrative cigarette taxes. (Disclaimer: this is something like the fifth or sixth time I’ve quit smoking with the patch. But it’s the first time cigarettes have been this expensive, and also the first time the economy scared me enough to kick my miser instincts into overdrive. Also, the man I live with no longer smokes in my presence, which is always what made me fall off the wagon previous times.)

In other words, I have drastically reduced my consumer spending, which benefits me personally but will only add to America’s economic woes. Though perhaps I should not worry, because President Obama has said: “If we are keeping focused on all the fundamentally sound aspects of our economy, all the outstanding companies, workers, all the innovation and dynamism in this economy, then we’re going to get through this.”

The president thinks our economy is fundamentally sound. Which is very optimistic and might even convince people, if only Herbert Hoover hadn’t said nearly the same thing in late October 1929: “The fundamental business of the country … is on a sound and prosperous basis.”

Yet there are two ways Hoover’s America was on a sound and prosperous basis, compared to ours: In 1929 America was a net creditor, and the rest of the world owed us money. Today we’re Debtor Nation, over our heads in debt mostly held by countries (read: China) who would happily see us go down, so long as their own losses remained in the “acceptable” range. And in 1929 America was the world’s primary oil producer, able to meet our own oil needs and export petroleum to the rest of the world. Now we import most of our oil which, like our debt, is held by countries who don’t like us at all.

I have no politically realistic solutions for our dilemma, but I’m pretty sure “denying it exists” won’t work at all.

P.S. My column this week deals with the deleterious effects of my new, healthy lifestyle on the state budget; unfortunately, it didn’t go online. I’ll link to it once I add it to my online clipfile.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Unasked Questions

The New York Times reports that my state of Connecticut is mulling restrictions on raw-milk sales after last summer's devastating E. coli outbreak which I never heard of before. The story, of course, had the requisite number of quotes from Concerned Parents:
Erin Barringer of West Hartford, whose daughter contracted E. coli from a child who drank raw milk, according to health officials, is helping to campaign for the stricter legislation. “It can be frustrating at times because I think everybody’s lost sight of who the victims are,” said Ms. Barringer, whose daughter, Emma, was 2 years and 10 months old when she got sick, even though she herself never drank raw milk.
This is indeed a tragic case, and nobody likes it when innocent toddlers suffer. But there's something this story doesn't address: E. coli is not airborne-contagious. So far as I know, it's spread mainly through the feces of infected animals and/or people. So what exactly did this little girl do, to come down with an E. coli infection?

If it's what I think it is, it was only a matter of time before the child came down with something nasty, raw-milk sales or no. Instead of lobbying the statehouse, maybe Erin Barringer should -- I dunno -- teach her daughter not to eat feces?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Control Freak

An article in this week’s Time magazine suggests that being laid off from a company is psychologically easier than being among those left behind.
On March 6, researchers at a conference at the University of Cambridge heard data suggesting … compared with people who are straight-up laid off, those who keep their job but are under a constant threat of losing it suffer a greater decline in mental well-being.

Brendan Burchell, a Cambridge sociologist, presented his analysis based on various surveys conducted across Europe. The data suggest that employed people who feel insecure in their job display similar levels of anxiety and depression as those who are unemployed. But whereas a newly jobless person's mental health may "bottom out" after about six months, and then even begin to improve, the mental state of people who are perpetually worried about losing their job "just continues to deteriorate, getting worse and worse," Burchell says.
Of course, a study about job loss in Europe might not carry over to Americans; with Europe’s welfare safety net, “I’ll be homeless, without health insurance and living on the street” doesn’t usually make the “consequences of unemployment” list. The article itself addresses this point later. Nonetheless, the study provides an interesting corollary to the old idea that dreading the worst is often worse than the worst itself.

Four of my friends in three different industries lost jobs these past two weeks. It’s nasty out there and getting nastier. Among my friends, and I suspect among those stressed-out workers in Europe, the main problem is the lack of any feeling of control.

Several years ago, a slightly sadistic researcher conducted an experiment on a pair of lab rats. The rats were kept in separate cages sharing an electrified floor and, from time to time, the researcher switched on the current, subjecting both rats to painful electric shocks.

The first rat had a bar in his cage, and could press it to turn off the current. The second rat suffered no worse shock than the first, but had no control over the situation. And after a very short time, the experiment found the first rat in excellent health, while the second rat got skinny and sickly. The two rats felt identical levels of pain, but the pain itself didn’t cause any problems; lack of control over the pain did.

In today’s economy most people these days have zero control over the parts that affect them. Even a stellar employee who does excellent work can lose his job – not because he’s fired, but because the job no longer exists. And there’s no bar in our cages we can press to make the shocks stop coming.

Monday, March 09, 2009

A Basket-Case Economy Is No Problem When We Can Force Taxpayers To Fill The Basket With Money

This Sunday’s column really resonated with some, if the pleasant-surprise number of complimentary messages on my voicemail is any indication. It contains helpful career advice about why you can’t treat your boss the way the government treats taxpayers:
“Hey, you!” I said to my boss. “Yeah, I’m talking to you. You know the money you’ve been paying me? It’s not enough. I want more.”

“Sorry, no can do,” my boss said apologetically. “We can’t afford more than we already pay. You know how dismal the economy’s been.”

“Whether you can afford it isn’t my problem,” I insisted. “My problem is, I want more money and if you don’t hand it over I’ll put a lien on your house or revoke your driver’s license or something.”

These are serious consequences. Most people, when told “Gimme more money or give up your house and driving privileges,” have no choice but to pay. Not my boss, though. He only laughed, and after a few confused moments I realized why.

“Oops,” I said meekly. “Never mind. For a moment there, I thought I was a government worker and you were ‘My Boss’ only in the sense of being ‘The taxpayers who fund my salary.’ But I forgot: unlike a taxpayer, you have the right to say ‘no’ when folks demand more than you can afford, don’t you? Dang.”
Back story: despite the dismal economy, many of my local municipalities are not only raising taxes again this year, but giving pay raises to certain groups of workers while their private-sector counterparts funding these raises see their own salaries diminish or disappear. Of course, if you’re reading here to begin with, you’re probably libertarian enough to not be surprised.

The title of this post is also lifted from the column. Why not read the whole thing here? (Don’t answer that. Just read it.)

Sunday, March 01, 2009


A column headshot I can live with. Major props to my friend Islam (that's his actual name) for taking this and the other 267 or so digital photos I rejected before settling on this one.

I daresay the column's worth reading as well; it deals with proposed changes to the backasswards liquor laws in my state.


Glooooooom. This was one of those bleah New England days you never, ever see photographed in “Visit the scenic northeast” brochures put out by state tourism departments. I slept late and woke up to that bleak bluish-gray light we get in dull overcast winter that sucks the color out of everything and turns the world into a black-and-white picture of itself.

I shuffled out to the living room and found my boyfriend on the couch watching the Weather Channel, with the logo-ized phrase WINTER MEGA STORM APPROACHING ominously onscreen. “Is that for us?” I asked.

“Yes. Tomorrow. I made coffee,” he said.

“That sucks. And thanks.”

I downed some coffee and went online for a quick perusal of the usual blogs and news sites. Summary of what I read: the economy is going to hell, American civil liberties are eroding and celebrities are having romantic entanglements.

Gloomy stuff. Especially with the weather. Perhaps that’s why I pondered this: One day last week I attended an early-morning economic forum held by the charitable foundation that’s a major donor to many groups I cover as part of my “arts and entertainment reporter” job description. If not for the lack of details and quotes I could’ve written and filed the story the night before it happened: “The foundation has less money, so they won’t be giving as much away this year. Grant recipients aren’t happy.”

But there was more to it than that. Here’s something the foundation president said at one point, after mentioning the 28 percent decrease in the foundation’s endowment:
It feels like, from everything I’m reading — and I assume everyone’s seen the same stuff — we’re in a time where things are being reset. We’re not in a temporary cycle where we’re just going to emerge, just weather the storm, sweat it out and in six months to a year we’ll be back to where we were a year-plus ago. That’s not what’s happening.
I’ve been feeling the same way, but that’s to be expected for a print journalist in 2009. I know I’m spectacularly lucky to have a job at all. But hearing such pessimism from endowment-manager types is another matter. Just how bad will this economy get? And if we’re in reset mode, what will we reset to?

I can’t find a nuanced answer and am uninterested in one-word labels like “socialism.” I have seen optimistic reports the recession will surely end in a year or so, but their tone reminds me of the “Buy now or be priced out forever!” hype that inflated the housing bubble. Too quirky, and impossible to believe unless you want to bad enough to ignore economic realities.

The stimulus package is supposed to pay for some road widenings and new police stations in my area, though. We'll go deep into debt to pay for this.

Even without the stimulus bill, there’s something seriously unsustainable about the status quo. Speaking on a provincial level: I’ve observed, both as a journalist and as on ordinary citizen, an impossible status quo in my own state of Connecticut. I’d guess the specifics aren’t much different in the rest of America, either. Here’s just a few examples to consider:

1. “Snob zoning” and other laws which essentially mandate a middle-class existence for all; if you can’t afford or don’t want a middle-class lifestyle, too bad.

Warped-but-true anecdote: one night about 18 months ago, I attended a local town council meeting in hope of writing a story about two of the 15 or so items on the night’s agenda. Item one: a proposal to tighten zoning codes, so that anyone who wished to build new houses in town would be required to build a very large house on a very large plot of land. No more small, compact neighborhoods allowed. Naturally, this drives up the cost of new housing.

Item two: a proposal to form a task force on “Why can’t poor people afford to live in town anymore? And how much tax money should we set aside to subsidize housing for them?”


I never wrote the story, since the council tabled one of the issues for another night. No matter what the council eventually “does” about the problem, it’s a safe bet that “rescind the laws keeping poor people out of the market” won’t be it.

2. As a lifelong renter (thanks in no small part to government policy), I paid little attention to homeowners’ property-tax matters until I started working as a journalist and saw what a huge issue it was during budget time every year. And with reason: tax rates have risen higher than inflation every year for at least a decade or so.

These annual tax hikes were viewed mostly as annoyances while people’s wealth grew (at least on paper, as their house values increased). Now that the economy – and the real estate market – is contracting, folks are starting to realize “Having taxes consume a larger percentage of our income each year can’t go on forever.”

Unfortunately, the folks realizing this generally aren’t the ones who run for office and get the power to set tax rates for people in my state. Here, we’ve got city councils expecting fiscal-responsibility awards because they “only” raised taxes a percentage point or two above the rate of inflation.

In fairness to the politicos, many of those costs are mandated by state law or contractual obligations. When the town council is legally obligated to spend X dollars on every schoolchild labeled “special-needs” and Y dollars on health insurance for each pensioner, plus minimum costs for cops, firefighters, streetlights and other unavoidable expenses, and those mandated costs go up every year, the council can’t refuse to pay those bills anymore than homeowners can refuse to pay their property taxes. Not if they want to keep their house.

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? It’s a meaningless question; in a universe where one exists, the other cannot. So which is the stronger in our economic universe: an irresistible force in rising costs of government, or an immovable object in the amount people can shell out in taxes before they simply can’t?

Either way, it won’t be pretty when they collide. What predictions do you have for the nation’s near-term future? Bonus points if you can produce something cheerful that isn’t pure bullshit.
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