Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Do the Wealthy Have an Obligation to Spend Less Conspicuously?

The economic crisis has put a break in America’s consumption culture to put it mildly. And that is not just because people don’t want to spend their money on the latest gadgets, it’s also because they can’t. Credit has frozen up meaning that people can’t charge that plasma TV for the time being.

But before, a nice house, car, and vacations to Hawaii were becoming a norm. The reason is rich people. The top 5% of the population has far more control over setting norms than say the middle 50%. Popular TV shows like Sex and the City were replete with wealthy people living the good life. When people go to malls, they see wives of corporate lawyers and investment bankers buying the latest handbags and fur coats from department stores. Sooner or later, people think they should have those things too.

Now, people have always wanted to imitate the wealthy to some degree. But that desire has gotten more acute in the past several years for two reasons. First, there is a proliferation of information about the wealthy and famous on blogs and news shows that didn’t exist before. People can find out exactly what new car some actor is driving, and how much his new mansion cost to build. Second, increased use of credit has made it possible for the middle and working class to imitate the wealthy…at least until the month’s credit card bill comes due.

What is the solution? Perhaps having wealthy people be less conspicuous about their consumption would be a start. Now, you might say the wealthy earned their money, and are entitled to spend it as they see fit. Putting aside people who inherited the money because of someone else’s work—a substantial number of people—it is true that people can spend their money how they want within reason. But saying that people have a right to do something is different from saying that doing a certain action is desirable or even right in the first place.

Wealthy people have influence over how everyone else perceives the world around them. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, but it is unfortunately. The wealthy may even have a moral obligation to tone down the consumption. Take a professional athlete. He gets paid millions of dollars a year for playing a game. Or the wife of the corporate CEO who doesn’t work. She’s not doing anything great, but she still gets a nice mansion and vacations whenever she wants them. The point here is not to denigrate these people or say they should feel bad for their wealth. But surely with all privilege those people get, some responsibility comes. And if the wealthy and famous stop the hyper consumption, it’s a signal to everyone else they should stop to.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Discrimination and Health Insurance

The healthcare bill the senate passed prohibits discrimination based on preexisting conditions or gender. It seems unconscionable that a woman might have higher premiums than a man or that someone who has diabetes could be denied insurance.

Yet, this is a principle we follow all the time in other circumstances. The example I’ll use is car insurance. Young male drivers face the highest premiums because they have accidents at higher rates than other groups. The fact that young males as a group are worse drivers lets insurance companies treat individual males who are safe drivers differently than it would another driver. But there are no protests in Washington. No one describes the different treatment as sexist, or discrimination against the young.

If it’s reasonable to charge someone different rates for car insurance, why isn’t it reasonable to charge someone different rates for health insurance? A woman can’t control the fact that she’s a woman, but then again, a young male can’t control the fact that he’s a young man. The only explanation I can think of is that health insurance is a more serious issue, which is true. But that doesn’t justify the principle behind discriminating against different groups. It appeals more to our emotions.

And car insurance is not a laughing matter by any means. If you don’t have insurance, you can’t drive since most laws will fine you or impound your car if the police find you driving without it. In many parts of the country moreover, a car is the only feasible means of transportation. Is it any fairer to make a young male risk breaking the law, or spending all of his disposable income so he can drive to work than it is to make a woman risk getting breast cancer because she can’t afford the higher insurance premiums that let her get her mammogram?

Insurance companies charge the higher premiums in both cases so they can turn a profit in spite of insuring risky segments of the population. So what do you think? Is it ok for an insurance company to charge a man higher insurance premiums than a woman, but not for a car insurance company to charge a woman a higher premium than a man? Why or why not?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Senate Passes Healthcare Reform

On Christmas morning, there is a strong possibility that we will awaken to healthcare reform. On Hardball the other day, Chris Mathews rightly noted that watching the healthcare debate is a much truer reflection of the backroom dealing and vote rounding than any political party’s convention. The “Louisiana Purchase,” reminds of Otto Von Bismarck’s adage that people who love sausage, and people who love laws shouldn’t watch either being made.

All of that aside, it remains to be seen how much good this bill will actually do. The bill will mandate that people pay for products from private insurance companies who will still be bent on raking as much in profits as possible, and paying as little out in benefits as is possible. Sure, there are more regulations, but these companies will find a way around in many instances. Even worse, there is no public option in the senate bill to keep private insurers honest. I have a feeling that the cost of subsidies to the federal government will continue to rise as private insurers raise prices. As costs go up, some Americans will find themselves unable to afford premiums even with the government subsidy, and will either have to be exempted from the mandate, or punished for not “obeying” it.

Despite these severe misgivings, I think the bill is worth supporting for exactly one reason: For the first time in American history, the principle, if not the actuality, that every American deserves access to healthcare regardless of his ability to pay is enshrined in law. That is worth a lot.

I laid out my ideal bill here, and noted that it would not happen. In the meantime, I'll take what passed today. In years ahead, hopefully the system will be tinkered with and improved.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christianity and Suicide

For centuries, many Christians have taught that suicide is an unpardonable sin. The Catholic Church maintains that teaching to this day. But is it Biblical?

Here are a couple of passages cited as justification:

(1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NIV) [19] Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; [20] you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.
(1 Corinthians 3:16-17 NIV) [16] Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? [17] If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple.

I’m not sure this proves suicide is enough to send a person to hell though. The point about the body being God’s temple is well-taken. But presumably other sins would represent a defilement of God’s temple as well. Adultery is a good example. Yet in the Bible adultery does not automatically consign a person to eternal damnation. David whom the Bible referred to as a “man after God’s heart” famously committed adultery with Bathsheba, yet we are not led to believe he is in hell. In fact, he is celebrated as a hero of faith.

Another argument for sending suicides to hell is that the person can’t repent. But if we apply Biblical standards for sin, then it’s clear people sin many times over without realizing it. They are jealous, look at women to lust after them, and harbor grudges. Would God send someone to hell who’s given his life over to Christ and tries to live a moral life because he fails to repent for every sin he’s committed?

Christianity is based on salvation by grace. That is, God can allow the worst sinners into heaven including murderers and thieves. If God is willing to be merciful to someone who spent their life killing but one day repented, are we really to believe that he would have no such compassion for someone who committed suicide to escape a life of misery and suffering? How about someone dying of an awful illness which makes him feel pain every day but with the prospect of several terrible months to live? Would a loving God really expect them to continue suffering every day until they die?

None of this is to say that suicide wouldn’t be a very serious sin. One could reasonably compare it to murder or killing. But again, even those sins aren’t enough to automatically send a person to hell. Consider the following example: a good, churchgoing man who believes in Christ. When his daughter is raped and murdered, he shoots the murderer in anger upon seeing him. As soon as the police see him with a gun, they shoot him, and he also dies. He has committed murder, yet most of us would expect God to be merciful in the above situation even if he hasn’t had the opportunity to say a prayer asking forgiveness for this specific sin.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The 2000s: A Lost Decade

The 2000s are coming to an end. My first reaction is “thank God!” I think historians will write about this time period as a lost decade of sorts.

That’s certainly true economically. The standard of living for the middle class didn’t change much. The growth we did have largely benefited investment bankers and bond traders. And much of that growth was built on bubbles: real estate and inflated consumer spending due to ever increasing amounts of debt. At least in the 1990s when we had the stock bubble, we got the internet out of it. What did we get this decade? Credit default swaps? Some of our smartest minds weren’t developing microwaves or computers as in decades past. Instead, they were figuring out how much they should pay for mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

I think that’s true of government and politics too. After 9/11, George W. Bush had a chance to rally the world around the US and encourage a new spirit of patriotism, self-sacrifice and bi-partisanship. Instead, we ended up with a costly war in Iraq that divided Americans along party lines. We had a record budget deficit even before the TARP bailouts and the stimulus package this year. None of this is to say that Bush is a bad man. He is plainly a decent one. He deserves credit for the generous aid he gave to Africa to fight HIV for example. But on net, I think his term will be judged a failure.

I can’t really think of anything to make this decade really memorable culturally either. The 1990s had the internet, impeachment, Michael Jordan, and Tupac. The 1980s saw the fall of communism and the rise of conservatism. The 1960s saw John F. Kennedy tell America to “ask now what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The 1940s saw America beat back fascism and become the world’s preeminent superpower. Come New Year ’s Day, I suspect that not only will many Americans not find this decade memorable, they’ll do their best to forget it ever happened.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christianity and the Enlightenment

Evangelical Christianity and modern enlightenment ideals are often thought to be in direct contradiction. But I’ve come to think the opposite is true.

Perhaps the most eloquent statement of enlightenment ideology comes from our own declaration of independence when Thomas Jefferson wrote “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Let’s consider Jefferson’s claim of equality. If you notice that closely matches ideology that emerged from the protestant reformation in Europe. A person didn’t need a priest or bishop to reach out to God for him. He could read and interpret the Bible himself. He needed to develop his own personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He had the same intrinsic worth as a bishop or cardinal.

That commitment to fundamental equality helped inspire many evangelicals to fight for the abolition of slavery, and the black church to play a leading role in the civil rights movement. To be sure, Christianity was invoked to support slavery, but then many secular reasons were given in defense of the system as well.

Commitment to rational inquiry is another distinguishing feature of modern thought. That has led to the development of science and capitalism among other things. But I think rationalism can be at least partially attributed to the development of protestant Christianity. Instead of simply accepting Rome’s teachings on scripture, Protestants were supposed to analyze scripture for themselves. The habit of continually questioning and interpreting the Bible for oneself surely carried over into other parts of life.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why Study History?

“I've never understood why history is taught grades 1-12, and then in my case, 2 more history classes were required for my college degree. I enjoy history class when it is done right, but only because its fun to sit around and talk about past events, debate stuff, etc. But I find it to be very impractical in comparison to the other 3 subjects within today's society. What can you do with a history degree? Teach history? Write history books? Work at a museum?”

Partly as a result of the difficult economic times, people are reevaluating which subjects students should study in school. Many suggest we should make more time for practical subjects like math and science which produce doctors and engineers, who in turn most directly add to things like GDP. I too have sometimes fallen for this line of thinking. But the more I think about it, the more I think history is one of the most valuable subjects a student should study in school. Let me lay out some reasons why:

1. History inspires

Learning about the life of Abraham Lincoln can inspire kids to aspire to a life in politics when they see how a man like him of modest circumstances could become President and change America. Learning history can also inspire a healthy sense of patriotism when kids learn about what has made America special historically, and the noble traditions of liberty and equality that form the basis for the country. This sort of pride gets people to enlist in the military, or as I mentioned earlier, go into politics. These are benefits you simply can’t get from studying chemistry or biology.

2. History provides practical wisdom

One of the most important things on people’s minds right now is economic policy, which is something science classes would have little to say about. A math class and an economics class might. The problem though, is that it’s often theoretical. You can create a mathematical model to predict the effects on the economy if inflation spikes up. You can even use past instances of inflation to inform the model. But a good history class can make the consequences of certain economic policies more real. For example, reading about German beggars burning money outside in the winter to keep warm during German hyperinflation in the 1920s is a gripping tale that most people will never forget. Even if you insist that other disciplines like economics could teach these lessons, the fact is they could not. In order to use mathematical models on historical data, economists need to know which data to trust. That usually means that a historian must look through government archives and primary sources to establish the veracity of different sources and data to provide accurate data to work on. And as I said, history can provide insights into how hyperinflation actually affected people in their every day lives, instead of just telling us that GDP went down.

3. History is vital for citizenship

In fact, it’s vital in a way that science and math are not. A firm grasp of American history is necessary to understand how government works. For example, in Supreme Court cases about affirmative action and busing, the 14th amendment will be used to make all sorts of claims. To better understand the 14th amendment and the constitution, it’s critical that people know about the civil war and reconstruction. The same is true on other controversial cases like abortion. During elections, politicians make all sorts of claims based on history. They accuse people who want increased engagement with hostile nations of being “appeasers” like Neville Chamberlain (just listen to a conservative talk show for a few days if you don’t believe me). Instead of just mindlessly accepting this version of history, it would be good if citizens spent some time learning about the conference at Munich and what really transpired, and whether Chamberlain talking to Hitler really caused world war two. Others on the left argue that Afghanistan is the new Vietnam. It would be good if citizens have studied the Vietnam War and understand the similarities and differences between the wars in the two countries. That way, citizens can engage meaningfully in the debate about foreign policy, which seems like a good thing. I don’t see how math and science class will help people engage better in the democratic process. There is no equation that will tell you whether we should appoint judges who believe in originalism or the living constitution.

4. History lays the foundation for justice

Most countries have some injustices in their past. In the US we have the shameful treatment of Native Americans, slavery, segregation, and Japanese internment among others. Studying history can show us how past actions harmed certain groups, and how we can potentially help. For years, Native Americans have been portrayed as witless primitives who beat drums all day who were lucky that white people came in and decided to civilize them. But when historians reexamined the era, they gave greater attention to the atrocities committed like the trail of tears, and the confinement of, and then neglect of Native Americans on reservations. Having learned the real history of Native Americans, there is more attention given to how to recognize past wrongs, and more support to provide for opportunity for today’s Native Americans. You don’t get this benefit in science or math classes.

That’s all great you might be saying to yourself, but what practical skills do I gain by studying history? Plenty it turns out:

1. Research skills

To write a research paper in a history class, you need to find a bunch of primary and secondary sources. Then you have to narrow down your source base as you narrow down the topic of the paper. Finally, you have to use your sources to create a coherent product. If you’re going to be a lawyer, journalist, consultant, or a member of many other professions, you’ll be doing this sort of thing in varying degrees. As a lawyer you have to research laws and statutes to write up memos for a judge laying out your case. The ability to gather and collect evidence is not something you will do much—if at all—in a math or science class.

2. Analytical skills

In order to do good history, you need to be able to look for bias in sources to find which ones are appropriate to use. When writing a paper about the American revolution for example, you’d have to decide whether to use British or American sources to write about the revolution, or whether you should use them together. British and American accounts might give different causes for the revolt and different reasons the British lost. As a historian you have to reconcile the accounts. To be a good historian, you need to be willing to question established wisdom. For example, reconstruction was viewed as a failure during the late 1800s and first part of the 1900s. But eventually historians critiqued the arguments made and looked for other sources on reconstruction to tell a different story.

3. Writing and communication skills

Writing a history paper requires, well, writing skills. Students learn to write coherently and succinctly, come up with an argument, and then persuade someone it’s true. This is a valuable skill in real life. Let’s say you’re a doctor researching a cure for cancer. You need a grant to actually do the research. You have to convince someone to fund your project. Learning to write persuasively will help you accomplish this goal.

4. The ability to work with complexity and uncertainty

In most math and science classes, there is an equation that solves the problem. That soon teaches you that there is a quick, mathematical way to solve every problem. But in the real world there is complexity and uncertainty in situations. How ought a judge interpret a certain law? What is the real reason x company’s profits are down this years when there are so many competing factors? History deals with complicated questions all the time. Did slavery cause the civil war? Did the authors of the 14th amendment intend to outlaw segregation?

So in sum, I actually think history, far from being a meaningless distraction, is one of the most important subjects a student can study. And it is right that we require students to study it all throughout school, and that we have people study it extensively in college. The problem today is not that people know too much history, but that they know too little.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How Much Are You Worth?

How should we decide how much occupations are worth? In the US we use a market system. The greatest determinant therefore of what the highest worth professions are is simply what people are willing to pay for the services a profession provides.

It can’t be productivity or number of hours worked. Because there are some awfully productive fry cooks and barbers out there. At the same time, it’s questionable whether people on Wall Street, or in Law firms are producing anything in a meaningful sense in the same way that a factory worker produces cars.

And it can’t be that those professions are most useful to society. Military officers keep the country safe from foreign attack. Police officers keep the streets safe so lawyers and doctors in the office need not worry about thefts or vandalism. Without elementary school teachers to teach us reading and math, there would be no engineers, doctors, or lawyers.

Let’s compare some professions. The average salary for a starting lawyer at a corporate law firm is around $150,000. The average salary for a police officer is around $50,000. It’s undoubtedly true that we need some lawyers to function as a society. But is a corporate lawyer who spends 60 hours a week making sure every last comma is correctly placed in a business transaction worth three times as much as a police officer? On what grounds?

You might be tempted to say based on the number of hours worked. But that runs into a couple of problems. First, it’s not clear that lawyers work enough extra hours to justify the tremendous pay gap. After all, if the argument is that we should pay lawyers more for hours worked, they would have to work three times as many hours as the police officer. Assuming the officer works a regular 9-5 job (he probably works a lot more), the lawyer would have to work 120 hours a week! I know corporate lawyers work alot, but I seriously doubt they work that much.

Second, we’ve established that number of hours worked doesn’t equal wages. Or else single mothers working multiple fast food jobs would also make $150,000 a year. Some pundits on television would be paupers.

Perhaps that corporate lawyer is making somebody a lot of money. And that may be. But it’s always hard to know for sure. A company that is able to merge with another may make millions in profits the next year, or it may go bust. Besides, the lawyer isn’t actually making the profits. He’s a middleman who doesn’t produce any good or research that eventually makes the new company money.

But even if we grant that the lawyer brings some money into the economy, that’s true of much lower paid professions too. A teacher in an inner-city school could have a tremendous impact. Let’s say he has a class of 30 kids, and only five will go to college where they will learn a profession and most will drop out when they’re able. If he presents his class material in a really good way to engage students, and provides encouragement and support, he might be able to get five more kids to stay in school and then go to college. Let’s say one becomes a teacher, one becomes a lawyer, one becomes a doctor, one becomes a college professor, and one becomes an engineer. Over fifty years, they’ll all probably make over a million dollars each, and pay hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in taxes. It seems like the teacher should be compensated more highly for bringing this money into society, but the average teacher salary for a beginner is often around $30,000. Is it fair to assume there’s an economic benefit due to the teacher? It seems as fair as assuming that a doctor added to the economy because he treated a patient who then went on to be a productive employee or that a lawyer who wrote up the contract added to the economy because business ended up booming.

Not even supply and demand is a complete explanation. It’s true that there aren’t enough doctors, so in a way it makes sense that the small supply coupled with a high demand for services would lead to higher wages. But is there really an excess supply of quality teachers in inner-city or rural schools? If so, then those schools wouldn’t have trouble staffing certain subjects. Moreover, a great teacher can change the trajectory of a child’s life and inspire him to do something better while giving him concrete skills along the way. Trust me, there are probably fewer people who can do that than there are doctors who can diagnose strep throat, or lawyers who can write up contracts.

The only logical grounds left to justify these disparities is that people are willing to shell out money for legal services or stitches in a way they aren’t for safe streets or quality schools. Paying a doctor more to prescribe cold medication might make more sense than paying someone a lot to produce a candy bar. But it’s far from clear to me that it makes sense to pay him more than a science teacher who gives the doctors the basic knowledge and curiosity to succeed as a doctor in the first place.

Now some people might be tempted to say “tough.” Instead of complaining about low pay, go to law school or medical school to get a higher paying job. But it wouldn’t be in the best interest of society not to have quality teachers, soldiers, or police officers. In fact, society would cease to function without these professions. Perhaps salaries should change to reflect that obvious reality.

Over time, a market system has proven the best—though flawed approach—toward organizing a society. I much prefer it to communism or the stifling socialism in much of Europe. In some of the instances described earlier though, I’m not sure the outcomes the market produces are fair, or even desirable.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Is Pax Americana Over?

No. Over the past year there has been a great deal of handwringing about whether America will soon have a diminished role in the world, or even lose its superpower status.

It’s true that these are tough times. We have a large deficit that concerns people across the political spectrum. Countries like Iran appear as intransigent as ever. Mostly though, I think the worry has to do with the economy. Millions are out of work, and millions more are unemployed. Young people are having a tough time grabbing hold of the bottom rung of the ladder.

But these times aren’t tougher than the worst ones America’s faced by any means. We went through a civil war where a different result during Picket’s charge could have divided the country permanently. We’ve experienced a great depression far worse than this great recession. Our darkest days might have come during Valley Forge when it seemed like the continental army might not outlast winter. If we could overcome all that, we can overcome our present difficulties.

Besides, what country is really doing better than us right now? Most of the world is suffering economically, same as us. European countries are struggling with high debt and unemployment. China, despite its growth, has all sorts of social ills, and a weird fusion of capitalism and repression that’s unsustainable in my view.

We have plenty of things to draw upon: abundant natural resources, large amounts of human capital, and a standard of living that’s still the envy of the world. Fear not. America is still number one.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Overhaul of the Financial System

A sweeping financial regulatory reform passed the House last Friday without a single Republican vote. By no means a sexy issue, but a very important one, which is why I write about it. A look at some key previsions:

• establish a council of regulators to police the financial landscape for systemic risks
• initiate oversight of the vast derivatives market
• give the government power to wind down large, troubled firms whose collapse could endanger the entire financial system
• give shareholders an advisory say on executive compensation

At first glance, the legislation seems to do some worthy things. Regulation of derivatives for example is long overdue. I’ll write soon with a more detailed analysis hopefully. The bill is after all 1,279 pages long! In any case, the bill now goes to the Senate for consideration. I think something will pass, although some provisions will have to be watered down to please the Lieberman/Bayh/Landrieu moderate camp. I expect moderates to object to giving the government power to wind down firms on the grounds that it’s too much of a government intrusion into the marketplace.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What is a Friend?

Often when I talk to people, I’m led to believe they’re among the most popular people in the world. This is because they talk about their multitude of friends. That all has me wondering how exactly we define a friend.

Most people (especially my age) define anyone they’ve had more than a couple of conversations with/hang out with occasionally as a “friend.” But that is more like an acquaintance.

A friend would fly across the country at a moment’s notice to see you if you’re sick, or come to your funeral. A friend would take care of your children if something happened to you and raise them as if they were their own. The sad truth is that most of have far fewer friends than we think. Many of us may have none.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Huckabee Isn't Finished

Mike Huckabee is in hot water for his pardoning of a man who went on to commit murder in Tacoma, Washington. Some people are even saying that the decision will cost him a second chance to run for President. After all, Willie Horton helped do Michael Dukakis in.

I’m not sure Huckabee’s presidential hopes are over though. I have said many times that I think the most important issue in the 2012 campaign will be the economy. Huckabee can point to his relatively successful tenure as governor, and draw upon his working class background to relate to working families taking it on the chin in this economy. In a time when bailouts for Wall Street have drawn so much ire, I wouldn’t underestimate that sort of main-street appeal.

I think there are some important differences between Huckabee and Dukakis as well. With Dukakis, Willie Horton was just part of a devastating critique. He was a card-carrying member of the ACLU who opposed the death penalty and gave a bad, passionless answer when asked whether he would support capital punishment for someone who raped and murdered his wife. He also vetoed a bill requiring kids to say the pledge of allegiance in school. In short, he was a liberal elitist who hated America running against a world war two veteran (who of course was not the most charismatic figure in politics).

By contrast, Huckabee is a former Baptist preacher who carried out executions and supports having kids say the pledge. He is likeable in a way that Dukakis never was. All of this is to say that Huckabee’s leniency won’t necessarily allow certain charges to stick to him the way they did with Dukakis. Moreover, Huckabee’s other likely rivals have their own baggage. Mitt Romney has flip-flopped on important issues like gay rights and abortion in addition to lacking a connection with important working class voters. Sarah Palin has a major gravitas problem, having not even served a whole term as governor of Alaska. Perhaps someone like Tim Pawlenty can take advantage though.

It’s also important to discuss whether showing leniency to criminals is really so bad all the time. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson makes a case that it is sometimes good here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Tiger Woods Revisited

Should we hold Tiger Woods to a higher standard because he’s a celebrity and has so much money? That is a question lots of people are asking as the media continues to focus on Woods’ infidelity.

Part of me wants to agree that Woods should be held to a higher standard, and that he should not get to simultaneously make millions of dollars a year in endorsements and claim privacy. In fact, since he gets fame and fortune all for playing a game, this whole saga almost seems fair. I would love to make 1/100 of what he makes a year, and that feeling is even more acute in this tough economy. It’s as if there’s some perverse excitement in seeing someone so wealthy and successful deal with some hardship for once.

But I also think that’s wrong. Even with his current problems, most of us would love to be Tiger Woods. But that shouldn’t prevent us from trying to put ourselves in his shoes (which most us could undoubtedly not afford). He’s going through a very trying time trying to keep his family together, and all of us should wish him well in that endeavor.

He shouldn’t have cheated of course, but before we throw the book after him, let’s remember that cheating is an all-too-common occurrence in society, and not just among celebrities. Tiger isn’t any worse than us. He’s the same as us. He just happens to make more money and get more attention. Let’s forgive him and move on to more important things.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nurse Practitioners

To make sure patients’ basic medical care is met, hospitals are increasingly turning to “nurse practitioners” instead of doctors, a trend some worry about.

I think there’s a lot of potential for these practitioners though. Their salaries are much lower on average than doctors, so they’re cheaper. And it seems to me they can do much, if not all of the work doctors can do. Usually a nurse practitioner must get a bachelors of science in nursing to first become a registered nurse. Then he or she has to complete a state-sanctioned program in various areas such as family practice. It seems such a person is fine at diagnosing and treating strep throat. I’m just not sure it makes sense to pay someone $150,000 to do that.

Allowing nurse practitioners to take on a greater role might help us solve for the shortage of primary care physicians in many parts of the country and expand access to healthcare. It would also bring down healthcare costs, so more people can afford to go see the doctor or purchase insurance.

Of course, we still need all kinds of specialists and surgeons, so there will always be plenty of need for doctors who go to medical school.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Nat Turner: Martyr or Murderer?

In the past few weeks, I’ve done a good deal of reading about slave revolts. In particular, I enjoyed reading accounts of Nat Turner’s revolts. In the course of the revolt, he killed civilians including women and children. So is he a hero or villain?

I think it’s wrong to say he’s a villain, even though he did kill women and children. The reason is that his cause—to eradicate slavery—was just. Let’s consider another example. Most of us would say that Winston Churchill and FDR were in the right in doing their utmost to fight Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Yet they engaged in actions which resulted in the deaths of civilians, such as the firebombing of Dresden, which killed far more people than Nat Turner ever did. Despite this, no one would call Churchill or FDR a villain, mostly because we think their cause was just. And if ending Nazism was just, then so was ending slavery.

I’d also like to consider whether killing women or children in pursuit of a just cause is really worse than killing soldiers. Most of us would be inclined to say yes without hesitation. The reason would be that children can’t consent to a system of government, and neither could women historically. But I’m not sure this is sufficient warrant to say that killing them is more immoral than killing a grown man. Plenty of German soldiers were also killed during the war. Some of them were 18 years old when they went off to the front, and never had a chance to vote. They could only have refused fighting for Hitler by submitting to a gruesome execution. The truth is that they had no more choice than a child or a woman. Yet we are less bothered by their deaths in battle. Why?

Since it’s unclear whether drafted soldiers are more morally blameworthy than civilians, the only explanation I can think of is utility in the case of children. A child who’s killed would have had more years to live than a soldier at the front. He hasn’t gotten to enjoy a full childhood or a full life (although the young soldier hasn’t enjoyed a full life either). But it seems strange that peoples’ strong natural moral aversion to killing children could really be premised on utilitarianism.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sarah Palin Revisited...Again

Sarah Palin is on tour promoting her book. And a few conservatives, such as Matthew Dowd have written that they think she has a legitimate chance to be President one day.

I’ve long been skeptical of that, as I expressed in this post. There is just one way I think she can win the Republican nomination. That’s if Mike Huckabee does not run. As long as he does, I don’t see her getting sufficient number of evangelicals to vote for her to put her over the top. And she needs to dominate that demographic, because I’m not sure pro-business suburbanites will support her.

In his column, Dowd noted that every President that has an approval rating over 51% usually wins, while every President with one below 47% loses. The only time the challenger really matters is when the approval rating is between 47% and 51%. In that case, I really don’t see her winning. She’ll alienate social moderates with her hardline conservative views and rhetoric, and with less than a term as Governor of one of the nation’s most sparsely populated states, she’ll appear to lack gravitas to too many swing voters. They may not be crazy about Obama, but I think they’ll have too many doubts to pull the lever for Palin.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Leave Tiger Woods Alone

As anyone who’s been paying attention to the news knows, Tiger Woods had a crash outside his home. The police want to talk to him. Maybe he was having an affair. Maybe he wasn’t. My reaction: I couldn’t care less.

Is there really nothing else for the media to cover right now? Like maybe the healthcare debate, the economic crisis, the fracas over climate change, or Obama’s actions in Afghanistan. I can’t believe people are so interested in what happens in Woods’ life. Are their lives really so boring that they would rather focus on who Woods sleeps with than on what’s going on in their own lives? Don’t they have kids to take care of, homework to do, or jobs to find?

And I can’t believe the Florida highway patrol is wasting precious time and resources on this. They should be tracking down murderers and rapists. This whole episode frustrates me to no end. Those of you reading for the latest tabloid scraps about Woods, stop. Go do something productive.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Cap and Trade is Done...For Now

I have serious doubts about whether any cap and trade bill will get done this year in Congress, despite how much Obama and some Democrats want it.

Unemployment continues to climb. People are most worried right now about the economy. Anything that can be painted as destroying jobs is simply a no-go right now. The last thing Democrats need in the 2010 midterm elections are ads telling working class swing voters that Democrats doctored global warming data, caused business to fire thousands of people, all over concern for polar bears. This is all before leaked emails, which will only embolden climate change skeptics even more.

That is not to say that Democrats will have to give up on pursuing climate change legislation forever. They will simply have to wait until the economy is better.