Friday, July 31, 2009

Homeland Insecurity

"Today, I am proud to make two key personnel announcements for the U. S. Department of Homeland Security. President Obama is nominating David Heyman as Assistant Secretary of Policy and I am appointing Arif Alikhan as Assistant Secretary for Policy Development." With those words, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano put American national security at further risk.

President Obama and his immediate subordinates are continuing a slow descent into accommodationism and false confidence. Starting with a Secretary of Homeland Security who believes in easy immigration and easier citizenship, particularly for illegals, the various departments charged with protecting Americans from foreign and domestic terrorism are being peopled with hacks, one-worlders, appeasers, and worst of all, appointees of dubious loyalty to America.

David Heyman is more of the same in that he appears on the surface to be a well-organized and logical hands-on executive. He has lengthy experience in real-world implementation of security schemes, and is knowledgeable in the area of utilizing local and area-wide citizens in major emergencies rather than relying on state or federal agencies to do the work quickly and efficiently. He was even quite critical of FEMA's handling of the Katrina disaster, and had high praise for the authorities across the state border from Louisiana for their quick and localized action using local citizens and resources.

So far, so good. But Heyman is not being appointed as an administrator of the nuts and bolts of putting citizen groups together to act locally in a crisis. He has been appointed to work in the policy division--quite a different thing. All the planning in the world does no good if you're planning for the wrong disaster. Heyman is a professor with a very academic view of world affairs. His view of the Middle East is more the Chamberlain than the Churchill type. More Carter than Reagan. It's hard to plan an emergency rapid reaction when you are concentrating on planning how to convince the enemy not to attack in the first place. And Heyman is one who believes in international cooperation to resolve all national problems, area-wide negotiation, and denial of any ill will toward us from the Arab/Muslim world.

Planning for tornadoes and hurricanes is all well and good, unless you're in California and the "enemy" is earthquake or fire. Heyman bases his policy on the traditional concepts of national governments conducting clearly-defined wars. None of his policy papers indicate that he is willing to recognize the reality of present day non-governmental terrorism, religious fantacism as a factor in creating terror, and asymmetrical warfare. Nevertheless, as inadequate as Heyman's worldview may be, he is not disloyal, and does seem to believe in America's right to survive and protect itself. He just can't see the real threat in front of his face.

The second appointment of the day is considerably more troubling. Arif Alikhan is a devout Sunni Muslim. Let's make no mistake, there are no valid religious tests for holding office in America, nor should there be. But that doesn't mean we should close our eyes to what appointees say, what they believe in regard to religion and the state, and which social and political organizations they support.

Here's Napolitano's introduction to Mr. Alikhan: "Arif comes from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigoso's office, where he served as Deputy Mayor for Homeland Security and Public Safety. As a key adviser to the Mayor, he has led the City's efforts to develop homeland security, emergency management and law enforcement initiatives, including operational oversight of Los Angeles Police, Fire, and Emergency Management departments. Pretty impressive, huh?

However, Napolitano neglected a few facts about him. Alikhan was instrumental in completely disbanding the Police Department's personnel and trashing plans for monitoring suspected Muslim terrorists in the Los Angeles area. Alikhan is an associate of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). The group was founded in 1988 as an outgrowth of several other radical Muslim groups. It attempts to be the civilized face of more militiant activism. It describes itself as "a public service agency working for the civil rights of American Muslims, for the integration of Islam into American pluralism, and for a positive, constructive relationship between American Muslims and their representatives."

It sounds innocent enough, until you know the rest of it. Its senior adviser is Maher Hathout, who has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and who espouses Saudi-style Wahhabism. Despite its professed desire to work closely with other religious communities, in 2000 the Council severed its ties with the Jewish community as a result of the second Intifada and issued harsh, one-sided condemnations of Israel for its response to the Palestinian violence. It was active in attempts to repeal the Patriot Act, working hand-in-hand with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the American Muslim Council and the American Muslim Alliance. The organizations espouse the belief that the Patriot Act was designed solely as an assault on the civil rights of Muslims. And MPAC opposed vehemently the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the search for Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda leaders.

The Council claims that extremists in Islam are no more numerous in total or per capita than in any other faith. It holds Israel solely responsible for the "pattern of violence" in the Middle East, and declares Hezbollah to be a group of freedom fighters pursuing a liberation movement. Although Alikhan has not publicly espoused these positions since moving into government service, still he has not disavowed them or those who promote them. And we are to expect that a man such as this will influence administration policy in a logical manner, recognizing his duty to protect American national security above all else.

It's not just in the homeland security area that Obama's appointments have been dangerous to American security. The two above are part of a series of frighteningly naive appointments that the Obama administration has pushed. The President's appointments mentioned below (only a partial list) include only one other Muslim, lest anyone think this is an anti-Muslim column. It also demonstrates that one need not be Muslim to be wilfully blind to Islamic fanaticism. By their deeds shall ye know them.

How about Kareem Shora, appointed by Napolitano to the Homeland Security Advisory Council? He is the Executive Director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). Damascus-born Shora is a known associate of anti-Israel professor Rashid Khalili (who is in turn a friend of one Barack Obama), both of whom have praised jihadists as heroes and fight any reference to Hamas as a terrorist group. The President of ADC, Hamzi Moghrabi, stated: "I will not call Hamas a terrorist organization. I mean I know many people in Hamas. They are very respectable. I don't believe that Hamas as an organization is a violent organization." He also said: "I find it shocking that one would include Hezbollah in an inventory of Middle East terrorist groups." Hezbollah is second only to al Qaeda in the number of Americans it has killed in terrorist attacks.

ADC has also actively opposed all anti-terrorism measures such as watch lists, background check delays for visas and comprehensive screening of Middle East countries or specific individuals labeled as possible national security threats. ADC openly celebrated the release of Hezbollah prisoners in Israel in 2004, praising them as "heroes." I guess we know what kind of advice Shora will be giving Secretary Napolitano.

Adviser General Merrill McPeak says American Jewish voters prevent the U. S. from a constructive role in bringing about peace in the Middle East. Robert Malley has urged an imposed settlement on Israel which requires Israel to negotiate with Hamas. NSC adviser Samantha Power advocates imposition of terms on Israel by the U. S. unilaterally. George Mitchell, who in 2000 called for more concessions from Israel before he would demand that Palestinians fulfill their already existing, unfulfilled Oslo obligations. Daniel Kurtzer directly blames Israel for the failure of the 2000 Camp David accords.

And then there's the amazingly devious and chameleon-like Dennis Ross, who is a vocal supporter of Israel and friend of Rahm Emmanuel. Ross even held the Palestinian Authority largely responsible for the 2000 failure that other administration officials blame on Israel. He thereafter repeated his position that Israel could not negotiate with terrorist organizations. Right up untl he became an Obama insider. He now says that he was right all along, but what is different now is that Yasser Arafat was unable to make peace, but his current successor Mahmoud Abbas can. Well, the Bush administration failed at that little gem, so why not let the Obama administration do the same thing? The only difference in approach is that Bush gave the Palestinian Authority $600 million, while so far Obama has given the P.A. $900 million. As we all know, the only reason a peace plan fails is lack of funding. Ross is now Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region (including Palestine, Israel and much of Syria and Lebanon).

Whether it's protection of American troops and personnel in the Middle East, or American citizens at home, Obama has shown a strong predilection for continuing the use of weak old-timers in office, or bringing them back for the sake of appearances. But at least they put up a show of believing that Israel deserves to exist, and Americans at home and abroad deserve to live. His new people who are expected to lead the charge tend to be very weak on American homeland defense and foreign intervention, and some are openly hostile. Those who came in as strong advocates for American national security quickly convert. A fish rots from the head down.

With people like this in charge, Secretary Napolitano is going to need much more than a simple metal detector to protect her and the rest of us from terrorist attacks.
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Film Friday: The Final Cut (2004)

We all know the evils inherent in letting an all-seeing, all-powerful Big Brother spy on every moment of our lives. But could we achieve similar evils without government involvement? Do we have more to fear from each other, than we do from mystery cabals? That’s the question that underlies The Final Cut, a fascinating film starting Robin Williams and James Caviezel. George Orwell meet the camera phone.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
The Final Cut, written and directed by Omar Naim, is a complex movie that takes place in the near future, at a time when many people have recording devices implanted in their brains when they are born. These devices, called Zoe Implants, record everything that happens during the person’s life. When the person dies, the implant can be removed and the footage taken a “cutter.” A cutter uses a device called a Guillotine, to edit the film down to a few minute tribute, called a rememory.

As the story opens, we learn that Alan Hakman (Robin Williams),a skillful cutter whose services are highly prized by rich, immoral patrons because of his willingness to overlook their indiscretions when he cuts the rememories, is haunted by a memory from his past. When he was a child, he watched a friend fall to his death after Williams apparently goaded him into doing something unsafe. Terrified, Williams ran from the abandoned warehouse, never to return. These memories become a recurring theme, as we slowly learn the truth throughout the movie.

Returning to the present, we see Williams’ work on display. He has cut a rememory and receives much praise from the friends and family gathered. But the deceased was not a nice man. As Williams wanders around the reception meeting people, we, the audience, are shown images that Williams removed that relate to the people he meets, such as the woman with whom the deceased had an affair. This gives us our first clue that Williams’ character is not as pure as one might suspect.

As Williams leaves the reception, he encounters a group of protestors. These people protest the very concept of allowing such devices to be implanted. They argue the mere fact that such devices could be inside anyone means we have lost our freedom to be ourselves, as we must always be cautious of being recorded. They further argue that rememories rob people of their memories because the video images can alter long held beliefs which formed our very personalities -- a common theme in sci-fi, the idea that we are the sum of our experiences.

Another charge is made against Williams specifically, by the lead protestor, James Caviezel, who claims Williams is complicit in covering up the evil deeds of rich clients.

Williams soon is called upon to cut another rememory. This rememory will be for an executive (Bannister) of the company that produces the Zoe devices. No sooner does Williams get this contract, than Caviezel tries to buy the Bannister footage from Williams. Caviezel knows the executive was corrupt in some manner (though he does not know precisely how), and he hopes to use the footage to discredit the company and have the Zoe devices banned. Williams refuses and begins to cut the footage.

It is around this time we learn, though we are never told directly, that the executive molested his own daughter. Williams seems appalled but he doesn't stop because he believe everyone deserves a good rememory, no matter what they’ve done. As he cuts, he spots a man in one of the frames at a party attended by the executive. Williams believes this man to be the childhood friend he left for dead in the warehouse years ago. As Williams attempts to find this man, Caviezel plots to obtain the Bannister footage, leading to a series of confrontations with quite a few surprises.
The Review
Before we discuss this film, let me warn you that while this film should fascinate you, and it definitely will keep you thinking for days after you’ve seen it, you will not enjoy it. It’s not to meant to be enjoyed. Like 1984, this film is meant to disquiet you. Let me also warn you there is a trick to watching this film. If you accept the normal Hollywood standards of good and evil, and you try to see Williams as the good guy because that’s what you’ve been taught, you will misunderstand this film. It is only when you let Hollywood’s lessons go and you see Williams as the villain he really is that this movie achieves its full potential.
Why You Might Think Williams Is The Good Guy?
There are three bad reasons you will want to think of Robin Williams as a good guy in this film (aside from any good will you may already have for him). The first, is that Hollywood teaches us that when a person has a trauma in their past, their present is haunted by that trauma and their actions are excused. We are taught, that if only they could resolve that trauma, “the real person” -- a miraculously wonderful human, will spring forth. Williams has such a trauma from his youth. It haunts him. Indeed, much of the film is about him trying to resolve this issue. Thus, according to Hollywood formula, Williams stands ready to be born-again as an new and perfect man.

Secondly, Hollywood tells us that where there is a bad guy, there must be a good guy -- false logic which Roman Polanski manipulates so beautifully in The Ninth Gate. And the villain here is clearly James Caviezel. We know this because he’s a zealot and all zealots are evil. He is obsessed with this one issue; it consumes him. His group even protests at funerals. What more proof do you need? How about an admission that he killed someone to help his cause and a plot that involves him killing again. And since he’s clearly evil and he focuses his anger on Williams, Hollywood teaches us, Williams must be good.

And if that is not enough, the movie itself misleads a bit, by advancing two strawmen arguments against Williams and then beating them up. Do you remember the charge that Williams distorts history by cutting out all of the evil deeds of his clients? The movie points out that this is really no different than what is done in eulogies today. And that’s true. We don’t use funerals to present “fair” pictures of the dead. We don’t dig up and expose all their secrets. So what makes Williams evil for doing to the Zoe footage what we ourselves do with our speeches, our photographs and our video cameras? And what about the argument that it’s wrong for Williams to knowing the secrets of people who have not shared them with him (e.g. the woman who had the affair with the deceased man)? Is that not an unheard of invasion of privacy? Actually, no, it’s not. Lawyers, doctors and priests know these things today. Indeed, when you share a secret with someone, you have no guarantee that they won’t share it with others.

Thus, we see the allegations of evil made against Williams as false, i.e. he is wrongly accused. Ergo, Hollywood law declares him innocent and, therefore, good. But this too is false logic, especially as neither allegation is what make Williams evil. He is evil because he abuses his power.
Why Does It Matter How You See Williams?
But why is it so important to recognize that Williams is a villain? Because the story barely works if you keep trying to shoehorn this odious man into the cookie cutter form of a good guy. If you don't understand that Williams is a villain, you will be unable to grasp the purpose and meaning of the film.

Indeed, many critics just saw this film as a thriller about a man, pursued by others, who hope to obtain video he possesses which might bring down an evil company. And they found this movie to be unfulfilling. Indeed, they complain bitterly about their disappointment in the film. They wonder why the conspiracy isn’t a bigger part of the movie, why the subplot about the molested girl doesn’t turn into chase scenes with men in black suits hunting down Williams and the girl as they head to the sole good agent in the government who can bust the case open and save the day. They wonder why Caviezel doesn’t suddenly reveal that he works for some mystery cabal intent on taking over the world. And they complain that Mira Sorvino is miscast as William’s love interest because she doesn't seem like the kind of woman (too hot, too young, too different) who would be interested this sad little man. . . even if he is the hero.

But if you realize that Williams is a villain, then the movie becomes inspired. Williams portrays a man who thinks he is a decent man, who seems meek and kind on the surface, but who abuses his power without a second thought. For example, in a scene dismissed as an "awkward" romantic moment by the critics, Williams treats Sorvino to a video he has created of recorded dreams -- a sort of greatest hits from people he’s cut. But is this really romantic? If a photo developer kept your best family prints and shared them with his dates, is that romantic or creepy? Is it not an abuse of trust to do this?

And speaking of abuse of trust, here's why Sorvino doesn’t fit with Williams: the only reason she dates him is that he manipulates her. Her former soul mate, a man she loved deeply, died. . . and Williams cut his rememory. In a scene that is truly enlightening of Williams’ character, Sorvino discovers that Williams used the Zoe footage from her dead boyfriend to learn about her deepest feelings and desires, and used that knowledge to present himself as her perfect man. Suddenly, we see abuse of power in a truly vile, invasive form. And while the critics complain that there is no attempt reconciliation (thus making Sorvino irrelevant), smarter viewer understand how truly devastating this revelation was to Sorvino, what an utter betrayal this was, and what it says about Williams that he would do this. They also understand how damning it is that he simply moves on without her.

But there is something much worse. Consider again the comparison to the eulogy. The movie makes the point that a rememory is nothing more than a eulogy, and there is some logic in this. But Williams goes beyond merely turning a blind eye about the dead. When he meets the molested daughter of the executive, the little girl reaches out to him for help. Yet, he initially turns a blind eye to this supposedly on principle.

But after he discovers the footage of his supposedly-dead childhood friend in the Bannister footage, he becomes obsessed with finding out more about this man. When Bannister’s wife refuses to help and orders him to ignore everything except for the few parts of Bannister’s life that are needed to make the rememory, Williams ignores her demand and invades the family’s privacy to satisfy his own curiosity. But even worse, he now exploits the little girl’s plea for help to give himself a chance to use the girl to get information about the man. Thus, he slowly builds up her trust just so he can get the information he needs. And when he has what he needs, and the mother orders him to leave and to never mention again what he has learned about the family (after the Bannister footage is accidentally destroyed), he does so without a second thought -- entirely abandoning the little girl.

To punctuate this point, we see the girl’s reaction as she knows she has been abandoned by Williams to the uncaring (and likely complicit) mother. Interestingly, we also see, momentarily, footage from the Zoe device implanted in this girl. The implications of this are very disturbing, though they are not openly touched upon. Consider that we cannot see this footage until she has died. It is possible this glimpse is just for our benefit, as a sort of -- “someone will know one day” type moment. But at the end of the film, there is a strong implication that everything we’ve seen in the movie was being witnessed by a cutter, whose identity you will learn near the end of the film. Knowing that Bannister’s footage was lost to them, could our seeing this footage mean that the little girl was murdered so the zealots could obtain this footage? There is no direct evidence to support this, but there is a suggestion to that effect at the end of the film. I can say no more, but this is something to consider when the film ends.

In any event, this level or evil and selfishness by Williams is truly staggering, and should inform our view of Williams’ performance (which is much stronger than the disappointing One Hour Photo (2002)) -- unless you insist on trying to make Williams into the hero.
So What Does This Film Tell Us?
Ultimately, this film tells us that it doesn’t take government to create the kind of dangers we were warned about by civil libertarians. It tells us that we must tread cautiously with new technology that gives people significant power over the lives of others. It tells us that we must develop a code of ethics for all to follow, and that some inventions, even those that don’t seem significant, are perhaps, a genie we should not be let loose from the bottle.
Finally, Compare Williams To Depp
Finally, as an interesting aside, compare the portrayal of Dean Corso by Johnny Depp with the portrayal in The Ninth Gate of Alan Hakman by Robin Williams. In many ways, at their cores, the characters are identical. They are both nihilistic, self-centered, remorseless, shameless, evil beings, and both are mistaken by the audience for good guys. Yet, the two characters are played very different -- and yet both are believable. Depp plays Corso as confident to a fault. He is disorganized and ruffled, but he takes what he wants without hesitation. He is aggressive. But Williams plays Hakman as passive-aggressive. He must trick others out of what he wants. He is cowardly, fastidious and sniveling.

One wonders, how these movies would have changed if the characters had changed places? I doubt the devil would have been interested in Hakman, and I can’t see Corso caring about having killed a childhood friend. Thus, while they are identical at their cores, they are entirely different people who can’t be exchanged for one another -- unlike any two villains from your typical mainstream Hollywood film. It is an interesting comparison that shows once again, that evil can come in many forms. . . unless you’re in a mainstream Hollywood film.

Check out the new film site -- CommentaramaFilms!

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tell Me About Yur Mozzer. . .

Dear reader, there has been an outrage in the psychiatric community. I read about it in an obscure regional journal called the New York Times, and since likely none of you have heard of this journal, I thought I should fill you in. Apparently, a Dr. James Heilman from Moose Jaw, Canada has destroyed the Rorschach test. Of course, in his defense, what else are you going to do in Moose Jaw during the summer. . . without hockey.

The Rorschach test was created by Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach after he wrote his 1921 book “Pyschodiagnostik” -- a real page turner. Rorschach died a year after writing the book, when he misinterpreted some signs that warned of approaching danger.

For those of you who don’t know, the Rorschach test involves showing a series of ink blots to crazy people and using what they claim to see in the ink blots to determine their inner motivations. If you see your mom, you have mommy issues. If you see your dad, you have daddy issues. If you see your sister, you live in West Virginia. To put this in technical terms, a “real” doctor would tell you: “the underlying assumption is that an individual will class external stimuli based on person-specific perceptual sets, including needs, base motive, and conflicts, and it’s covered by insurance.”

Many skeptics consider the Rorschach test to be pseudoscience and they suggest that it is akin to cold reading.

[Which reminds me, we want to send a shout out to a certain reader who has an "a", an "s", or an "e" somewhere in their name, who works in a thankless but important profession, and works harder than everyone else in their office, but who doesn't get the recognition they deserve. . . you're our favorite reader. . . but let's keep that between us -- we wouldn't want the others to get jealous. ;-)]

So let’s get back to Dr. Heilman. Several months ago, Dr. Heilman, an emergency room physician, infuriated the psychological community when he posted all 10 original Rorschach plates, along with some common responses to each image, onto the Wikipedia (a division of Wikimedia, a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Intelligence Suppression Group, Inc.).

According to Gottfried Nussjob, of the Psychological Analysis Normalization Integration Center (PANIC), a trade group, posting these images on the Wikipedia is the equivalent to posting an answer sheet to next year’s SAT, something recently suggested by Joe Biden to raise student performance. Nussjob, thinks this is bad.

Dr. James Heilman
-- Worse than Hilter?

Nussjob initially stated, “The more test materials are promulgated widely, the more possibility there is to game it.” But he then backtracked, when he realized this implied that psychologists could not see through obviously fake answers. He thus stated, “forget I said that.” His attorney later wrote, “The process of making sense of one’s experience is gratifying. To take Rorschach’s test is to make sense of ambiguity in the context of someone who is interested in how you do that. It is dangerous to use these materials without proper guidance. . . like using a Ouija Board alone on Halloween.”

Dr. Heilman responded that posting these plates was no worse than posting the Snellen eye chart: “Yeah, eh. You can go to the car people and you could recount the chart from memory, sure, and you could get into an accident. . . what was your point again?”

Well the point is that we at Commentarama are all about helping our readers cheat on tests. So with that in mind, we’ve taken the liberty of reproducing the offending images below and providing you with a few, good safe answers which will help you fool any court-ordered psychologist.

Let us begin. Take a look at each image and then memorize our explanation below. . .

Bad Answer: Bat, Butterfly, Moth

Good Answer: This test throws you a real curve ball right out of the gate. They want you to answer Bat, Butterfly or Moth -- all caught with nets. See the problem? In reality, this image is an electromagnetic depiction of the human soul, after being crushed by a bus. Tell the reviewer, “I see dead souls.”

Bad Answer: Two Humans

Good Answer: Humans? Like, two hairdressers playing patticakes? Not likely. This image in fact represents three distinct personalities, buried deep within one mind, desperately struggling not to surrender to their urge to kill again. Just repeat that to the reviewer.

Bad Answer: Two Humans

Good Answer: Do you see two waiters with both male and female genitalia? Really? Seriously? Wow. . . how’s that whole crossdressing thing working out for ya? Listen, whatever you do, don’t mention genitalia and don't mention the waiters. Do you remember those silver, perpetual motion birds, with the top hats -- the ones you tip over and they would bob up and down, pecking the ground over and over? That’s what this is. . . just two silver peckers.

Bad Answer: Animal Skin, Massive Animal

Good Answer: This image shows the despondence of being unable to reconcile the relationship you had with your mother with the need to develop a fully mature super ego. . . or it’s a troll riding a motorbike, either answer is acceptable.

Bad Answer: Bat, Butterfly, Moth

Good Answer: This one probably is a bat or a butterfly, but if you tell them that, they will write: “patient lacks imagination, possibly bed wetter.” The better answer, according to the Psych Manual, is to tell them you see your mother. . . in a wig. . . holding a beer.

Bad Answer: Animal Hide, Rug

Good Answer: Don’t fall for this one either, there are no animals hiding here. This is a flattened violin. Your best answer, “It’s the day the music died.”

Bad Answer: Human Heads, Faces (or was that ‘feces’? I’m too lazy to check.)

Good Answer: Some will tell you that this is two dancing American Indians who have bumped buttockses. And you can probably see that, can’t you, you sick pervert! What it really is. . . actually, it does kind of look like that. Ok, run with it.

Bad Answer: Pink Animal

Good Answer: Just tell ‘em its pink. . . only pink. . . and that makes you kind of angry.

Bad Answer: Orange Human

Good Answer: Orange Human? Like orange beef? Don’t tell them that. . . that road leads to thorazine city. This is two dragons, riding on hippos, crushing a herd of pigs.

Bad Answer: Blue Crab, Red Lobster, Spider

Good Answer: Blue crabs? Red Lobsters? Yellow stars? Forget the lucky charms. This is two gay British cops in Paris, near the Eiffel Tower, and they have crabs.

There you go. Follow our plan and they are sure to declare you unbelievably sane. Just remember don’t let them make you change your answers. . . it’s what they want you to do.

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Question: Your Favorite Word?

Humans categorize everything, it’s in our nature. We try to figure out our favorite books, our favorite movies, our favorite foods, even our favorite colors. But have you ever tried to figure out your favorite word? Maybe you should? It could come in useful. . . could be on the year-end test.

And how does one pick a favorite word? You tell us. Some words have really cool meanings, some just roll off the tongue. Some words bring us comfort, others are just plain fun. What’s your favorite word and why? [+] Read More...

San Francisco Diary--Journal Of An Exile

News Item: Floating Island Destroys San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. City Faces Worst Disaster Since The Great Earthquake And Fire! Just kidding. I thought maybe I would occasionally start my Diary with a picture of some landmark other than our iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Of course now that means I need to give you a little background on this bridge.

Completed in 1936, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge never got the respect that her sister the Golden Gate garners. The Golden Gate was built to link two extremely scenic contrasts--the City of San Francisco on the south, and the beautiful Marin headlands to the north. In the process, it spanned one of the most spectacular harbor entrances in the world, with two towers and a roadway reaching dizzying heights. Its more practical purpose was to close the gap on U.S. Highway 101 for automobiles without the necessity of a ferry trip across entrance to the Bay, know itself as "the Golden Gate."

The Bay Bridge (as most San Franciscans call it) was actually started and finished before the Golden Gate, but took longer to build because it covered the longest stretch of water in an urban setting in bridge-building history. The bridge is actually two bridges, anchored near the center on Yerba Buena Island (the "floating island" in my picture). The western span (San Francisco side) is structurally similar to the Golden Gate, with two towers sunk deep into the Bay and one soaring suspension span. It's even a rare San Franciscan who knows that the bridge is legally named and registered as the "James 'Sunny Jim' Rolph" Bridge, after San Francisco's version of New York's Jimmy Walker, both known for their flamboyant mayoral style and questionable politics.

The eastern span (to Oakland) is a mishmash of double cantilever spans, short traditional cantilever bridges, and a raised causeway. Very utilitarian, but it was never as beautiful as the western span, and is fortunately aimed southeast from The City so that we really don't have to look at it much. The eastern section is the one that partially collapsed during the Loma Prieta quake of 1989, and is currently being replaced in large part by a much more attractive section of cable-stayed towers. It is the major artery between San Francisco and Oakland and about a quarter million vehicles pass over it each business day. The two segments of the bridge are connected by the tallest transit tunnel in the world (because it's a double-decker bridge), bored through the rock of Yerba Buena Island. And now you know.

Note: San Francisco has always fancied itself the Paris of the West, so it now has a new regular event--setting cars on fire. Automobile arsons are springing up all over town, just like in gay Paree. There wasn't much of a fuss so long as the vehicles were delivery trucks and clunkers in the seedy parts of the Mission District and the urban nightmare of the Bayview District. But now the vandals have moved up to tourist spots near The Wharf and the more sedate areas of the Outer Richmond District. The final blow was the burning of a Porsche at Powell Street near Pier 39 (also a tourist area).

The underlying cause has yet to be determined (like the fact that arsonists enjoy burning things). Police and Fire Department arson officials are not yet ready to link the latest series of fires to an earlier spate of burnings The City went through a short while back. That might be because they're hoping nobody outside San Francisco will notice we had an epidemic of portable toilet arsons. Not nearly as glamorous as automobiles. But one officer did note that the toilet fires were started by setting fire to a newspaper to ignite the blazes (the San Francisco Chronicle is finally good for something other than lining birdcages). A burning newspaper was found recently under an automobile, but nobody is sure if there is any connection. Investigators say that their best guess is that the fires are being set by "those who are on the youthful side, in their late teens or early twenties." Now if The City wants to be even more like Paris, it can import a few of those "disaffected Asian [middle eastern] youths [of a certain religious persuasion]" who set cars on fire in the Parisian banlieues.

NOTE: The Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) strike deadline is looming over The City and the entire Bay Area. It's been looming now for about 119 days. Most riders are reaching the point of saying "Get it over with, already. Either go on strike or accept the contract, but quit threatening." It boils down to the biggest holdout being the train drivers, who insist on a raise and extra benefits as the state and The City sink into bankruptcy. The drivers are already the highest-paid transit employees in the nation outside the boardrooms and executive offices. And here's the beauty part--the trains are actually designed to run electronically from a central control station, with no need for drivers at all. But BART decided at the time of its original opening that it might scare riders off when they saw a train with no visible person driving. So they set it up with a driver (who is essentially unnecessary) with operating controls which can be overriden from the central operating station.

NOTE: SF Gate contributor Rich "Big Vinny" Lieberman may find himself in trouble with his fellow "progressives" at the Gate and on the street. While taking a potshot at conservative pundits, he accidentally took a stand on free speech which required him to defend Michael Savage of Savage Nation radio fame. Even many of us conservatives find Savage a bit strong for our tastes (his appeal is to an audience which likes its political discourse angry and contentious, which is not a bad thing unless like many of us you already agree with much of what he says, and don't need to have it shouted at you). Conservative television and radio personalities simply seem to ignore him (Hannity, Limbaugh), and TV's Bill O'Reilly has made only casual favorable mention of him.

So what's the beef? Well, unlike the others, Savage has been banned in the UK. A secret set of memos coming out of the government offices in London (they have leaks just like us) described Savage as a Jew who changed his last name (born Michael Weiner). His virulent attacks on radical Muslim terrorists weren't enough to get him banned by themselves. But since Savage is Jewish, it would "upset the balance of Jews and Muslims reporting on British Radio (shades of the "fairness doctrine"). This gave Lieberman the opportunity to attack conservatives for failure to rally to Savage's support. He lets us know that O'Reilly did make a couple of grudging remarks about the ban, but overall, the "conservatives are silent about this intrusion on free speech." Do I need to point out that the UK has no First Amendment, and we've all been down this road before?

So how could Lieberman be in trouble with his fellows? Simple, in order to attack conservatives and appear to be a champion of free speech, he had to say something favorable about Savage. So Lieberman wrote: "He is the third most listened-to radio host in the country. And yes, I enjoy listening to his monologues quite a bit even though most of the time we disagree." Having gotten the obligatory homage-to-the-enemy out of the way, Lieberman goes on to say: "But [as] I listen I find it puzzling that, with the exception of a few, his conservative contemporaries have decided to go down the silence road. Until it happens to one of them, Hypocrites, plain and simple." Lieberman could find absolutely no motivation for the conservative silence other than professional jealousy and right-wing hypocrisy.

Now Lieberman can explain it to his friends who seem to believe that Savage should be banned here, First Amendment or not. Thanks, Mr. Lieberman, but most of us conservatives are busy here in America where we are actually watching a constitutionally guaranteed right being put in jeopardy. We're just not too concerned right now with what they're hearing on the BBC.

NOTE: As is nearly unavoidable these days, I close today's Diary with another article from the noisome Mark Morford. His headline today: "Obama birthers ate my love child! The president is an alien! The Republican nutball fringe wants you! Apply now!" I assume that this was directed at Bay Area residents who are not already busy writing screeds for the 9/11 Truthers.

I can never resist including at least one sentence from Morford's stream-of-consciousness babbling. Most people would consider them paragraphs, if they considered them at all. So, here's today's: "These are the kinds of things that ooze into your mind and infect your consciousness like some sort of unwelcome but fascinating worm, a cute little parasite you didn't notice for the longest time because you were busy doing something far more interesting and engaging--like, say, reading a book, sipping a glass of wine, having sex, breathing, clipping your toenails, picking lint off your couch, or, well, pretty much anything at all because really, who wants to think about oozing, unwelcome worms."

Apparently, Republicans are all worm-infested, ignorant, beer-swilling, sexless, non-breathing, clawed beasts with lint-bedecked couches. But lest you think that all Republicans are simply that loathsome, consider that some are even worse. "Do you know about 'The birthers'? Have you been reading about this adorable little screamin rantin kookaburra ultra-right wing mini-movement that is right now hell-bent and heck-happy on hijacking the entire GOP agenda by questioning the veracity of President Obama's birth certificate?" Well yes, Mr. Morford, we have heard, even if your readers haven't.

The vast majority of Republicans are very concerned with Obama's tendency to lie, obfuscate, dodge and weave, manipulate, manufacture facts, and generally look like the sneakiest President since Richard Nixon, but we don't start frothing at the mouth about the birth certificate issue. Most of us believe that if there really were anything to the allegation about Obama's foreign birth, even this Chicago con artist would not be able to hide it this long. It's just part of his pattern of hiding the truth solely for the sake of seeing if he can get away with it.

In fact, Republicans really do have better things to do. That's the answer to your question "Who knew? Who knew, in the wake of all those madcap Christian fundamentalists who ruled like drunken virgins over the Dark Days of Bush, the right still had such a cavalcade of intellectual toddlers waiting in the wings to come out and play in the fields of Infantile Fantasyland, and further guarantee the party's merciful irrelevance for years to come?"

We have our "birthers" and you have your "troofers," but at least our fringe can point to a complete lack of any genuine documentation which could easily be provided by the President, while your fringe has nothing but Rosie O'Donnell, a large group of leftists, and a complete lack of logic, evidence and scientific proof. Our fringe points out a lack of easy production of proof to spin their theory. Yours ignores facts entirely and denies what millions of Americans saw with their own eyes. Frankly, I'll take my fringe over yours any day.
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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The "You First" Plan

Maybe you have been hearing about some sketchy plans to overhaul our healthcare system. Even now President Obama, our House of Representatives, and our Senators, are insisting that we must reform our healthcare system by sometime in August 2009 or we will all die. There is much back and forth about how much it will cost, who will be in charge, and how it will be implemented, but very few actual details. The President has assured us that, though the bill will not be perfect, all these pesky details can be worked out at a later date.

Here is my proposal to insure that we get the very best possible healthcare system with the minimum of chaos as possible. I call it the "You First" Plan. It's simple, easy to explain, and it won't cost one cent more. As a matter of fact, I guarantee it actually might save a few dollars in the process. My plan has one requirement: We first implement the President's new system with the healthcare we supply to our Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of our Federal government and their family members including all Federal employees and their family members (excluding Veterans Administration , Medicare and [for now] Medicaid recipients), just to make sure it works. If my "You First" plan works, we will all be happy knowing that at least our Congresspersons have read their own legislation and, as a possible added bonus, it might actually shrink the size of our Federal government in very tangible way [see the "comparative effectiveness research" link below]. Win-Win for all.

In case you did not know, the American taxpayers pay about 75% of the bill for healthcare premiums for all of our federal employees' plans including our esteemed Members of Congress, Judiciary, and the President along with their families. This includes hundreds of thousands of employees, appointees, and retirees of the Federal Government in every state of the Union. In case you have never seen the plans federal employees enjoy, click here and take a look at how generous we hard working taxpayers really are. The Office of Personnel Management website even highlights that "[t]he Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) Program can help you and your family meet your health care needs. Federal employees, retirees and their survivors enjoy the widest selection of health plans in the country." Federal employees in California alone have eleven healthplans from which to choose, employees in Washington D.C. have six, and in the tiny state of Delaware, they have four. Federal employees in most states choose from an average of between four and eight plans. I don't know about you, but it looks to me like there is an enormous amount of wasted tax dollars just administering so many choices.

We have to start the overhaul somewhere, so why not start here. Apply "You First", start by reducing all the plans offered to Federal employees and try out President Obama's public plan on them. Let's see if a single-payer system administered by the Federal Government with the healthcare decisions made by a new Federal super bureaucracy armed with the results of their comparative effectiveness research can really work as touted. They can be our control group to work out all of the sketchy details of the plan that President Obama and our Democrat Members of Congress keep insuring we must have right now, but fail to spell out in any coherent way. They can work out the details on themselves as to what that plan will be, when it will be implemented, how it will be implemented, to whom it will apply, and, most importantly, how much it will ultimately cost. Then they can report back to us in full and comprehensive detail. Maybe even supply a handbook or website.

So let's say "You first, Mr. President and Members of Congress". Let them and their children be the national guinea pigs for our new system. Let's let our elected officials, our appointed policy makers, our Federal employees, and our many, many Czars and their families make a covenant with the American People that because they believe so strongly in this new system that they will be the first to participate solely within it (without any opt out for any private system) for a period of time so as to insure that it will be sound, cost effective, and will meet all of the promises and healthcare demands of the American people. Only this way can we be assured that we will get a plan that benefits all of us with minimal chaos for us and our future. Who knows. If "You First" works for healthcare, maybe it can work on greenhouse gases and lowering the deficit too.
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RTRP: CommentaramaCare Part III, The Coverage Plan

Today we finish the CommentaramaCare proposal. In this article, I will outline how the coverage system should be reformed to reduce health care costs, to save the government a fortune, and to improve coverage. In a second article, to be posted later today, I will summarize the entire CommentaramaCare proposal and outline its costs and cost savings.

The Coverage Plan

CommentaramaCare proposes making health insurance more like car insurance or home owners insurance, where individuals make routine payments out of their own pockets and then use the insurance only as a form of quasi-catastrophic protection. This quasi-catastrophic coverage would kick in after a person has spent $5,000 on health care during the year, and would cover all remaining health care costs that person experiences during that year.

Such a plan should:
• Reduce the cost of medical care by encouraging buyers of health care (patients) and sellers of health care (doctors) to deal directly with each other rather than through a middle man for most issues;

• Reduce the cost of insurance to the average person;

• Break the link between employment and insurance;

• Cover everyone regardless of pre-existing conditions;

• Dramatically cut what the government pays to provide health care to those on public programs (i.e. Medicare, etc.); and

• Allow the government to increase coverage to eliminate the uninsured problem.

Before we dig into the specifics, let us be clear. This proposal does NOT:
• Ban any form of private insurance -- you can continue to buy any type of insurance you want;

• Impose fines to force people to change their insurance plans; or

• Advocate that the government issue insurance -- not one penny is paid to the government by anyone under this plan.

Here are the details:

The Problem With The Current Scheme -- Runaway Costs

There are two broad complaints with the current system: (1) medical costs are out of control and (2) not everyone has coverage. Let's start with costs.

We have previously outlined several significant cost reduction measures, but we have not yet addressed the primary cause of out-of-control costs. There is significant evidence that the current insurance system is the main reason that health care costs are skyrocketing. Indeed, as the following graph from John Stossel shows, there is a dramatic and clear relationship between the increase in medical costs over the past fifty years and the increasing percentage of medical costs that are paid for by insurance:

Notice that as the percentage of health care costs paid directly by patients has declined, the cost of health care has increased. As Stossel states:
This interesting chart from the Goldwater Institute illustrates one of the main reasons health care costs have been skyrocketing: Americans have been paying less and less out of their own pocket. It's basic economics that the less you have to pay for something, the more of it you'll use. And yet the “reformers” keep pushing for MORE health insurance.
And this makes intuitive sense.

In a normal market, sellers want to charge as much as possible. But that instinct is held in check by the need to attract buyers, who want to pay as little as possible. When millions of willing buyers and sellers haggle over price, the resulting consensus tends to set the price most efficiently.

But under our current system, buyers (patients) don’t deal directly with sellers (doctors). Instead, buyers pay a small flat fee, and leave it up to a third party (the insurer) to handle the negotiations and the payments. Thus, the laws of supply and demand don’t work properly. Indeed, what you have is called a “moral hazard,” because the patient wants as much care as possible and doesn’t care what it costs, because they don’t pay for it.

Moreover, patients have no incentive to keep the costs of treatment down: why find a cheaper lab to run your lab work, or why run the MRI without contrast, or why engage in preventative care when it doesn't cost you anything not to bother? And that is the problem. No other field accepts such a pricing model.

The Solution -- Make Health Insurance Like Car/Home Owners Insurance

So do we ban insurance? Absolutely not. Not only does CommentaramaCare firmly believe in letting people satisfy their own consumer choices, but insurance is necessary to prevent serious medical conditions from bankrupting people.

Instead, we need to remake health insurance along the lines of car insurance or home owners insurance, so that people again begin to care what their treatment costs.

Thus, CommentaramaCare proposes encouraging Americans to abandon their current insurance in favor of obtaining a quasi-catastrophic policy that kicks in once a person has spent $5,000 on health care during the year, and which would cover all expenses thereafter through the end of the year.

Such a plan would give people an incentive to keep their costs down to reduce the amount of the $5,000 that they pay. But at the same time, it would also ensure that no one would be bankrupted by a sudden, serious illness.

What Would This Cost The Average American?

Right now, the average American spends $7,500 per year on health care. As just mentioned, we are proposing a deductible level of $5,000. Ergo, if the cost of the insurance works out to less than $2,500 a year, there will be no net cost increase to the average person.

My sampling of catastrophic plans has found that most plans currently run between around $100 per month to $200 per month, i.e. $1,200 a year to $2,400. Therefore, even if we take the high end estimate, the average American would save $100 a year under this plan.

And keep in mind, this assumes that you have more than $5,000 in medical bills during the year. Anything less than that will result in direct savings to the individual. Thus, a person who has no medical bills at all during the year, would save $5,100 over the current average. Likewise, a person who was on a flat rate plan (like the one discussed in the last article) and who had only routine medical issues, would have yearly medical expenses of only $3,600 ($200/month insurance + $100/month flat rate plan). This is less than half of the current average cost.

Further, it is more than likely that the cost of such insurance will fall significantly when the rest of the reforms kick in. As you will see in the summation, the savings under this plan could be vast. Presumably, some portion of that would be reflected in a reduction in the cost of insurance.

How To Encourage People To Switch Over

Now, it is easy to say, “encourage people to rethink”, but how do you actually get people to switch over to the new system? To encourage (NOT FORCE) people to make this switch, CommentaramaCare proposes:
• Making the premiums on the catastrophic policy tax deductible to the individual (I would suggest treating them like an HSA);

• Making medical debts non-dischargeable in bankruptcy; and

• Making the first year deductible limit $10,000 rather than $5,000 to discourage people from waiting until they are sick to sign up for the insurance. (This would be implemented in the future, after the plan is established and people had the chance to switch over.)
Moreover, to encourage (NOT FORCE) people to give up their current plans, which are distorting the pricing mechanism in the current system, we also recommend eliminating the tax deductions for any coverage that exceeds the catastrophic coverage. This would not prevent individuals from obtaining coverage that is superior to the catastrophic coverage, it simply won’t be tax deductible.

How Such Policies Would Be Created

Now comes the tricky part. To make this plan work, such insurance must exist. In fact, three things must be guaranteed:
• That such catastrophic plans, which cover all expenses after the $5,000 deductible, will exist and will be generally available to anyone who wants such a plan;

• That persons with pre-existing conditions can obtain such coverage, and at reasonable rates; and

• That providers cannot terminate individuals who experience high medical costs.
This could be achieved by imposing such mandates on the insurance industry. However, CommentaramaCare opposes mandates because people should be free to buy whatever insurance they want, on whatever terms they wish. Imposing coverage requirements violates that principle. It also could be achieved with a government-run option, but CommentaramaCare opposes that for obvious reasons.

So we favor a third alternative. Under this method, the federal government, through the Health Care Administration (“HCA”), will procure such insurance and make it available for the public. Here’s how this would work:

The HCA will divide the United States into geographic districts. For each district, HCA will open a series of $0 contracts for competitive bidding. A $0 contact is one under which the government promises no money. Any insurer in the country could bid on any of these contracts, without regard to state licensing requirements (subject only to obtaining HCA certification).

These contracts will require any insurer who submits a bid to agree to cover a certain number of people (specified by the insurer) at a fixed price (specified by the insurer). The contracts will specify the precise coverage terms, which would include the requirements detailed above, plus whatever other coverage requirements are deemed necessary by the HCA administrator to effect the coverage plan.

By bidding, insurers agree to accept any person who signs up for the plan (up to the number of persons specified in the insurer's bid) at the fixed price, without regard to age or medical condition or any other factor (although family plans should be allowed).

HCA would then accept all conforming bids, and would publicly list these providers and their fixed prices. After that, any member of the public can contact these providers directly and sign up at the fixed price bid by the insurer until that plan is full.

Here are the benefits of this plan:
• This method ensures that anyone can get access to such insurance, regardless of employment status or pre-existing condition;

• This method reduces insurance costs through the use of competitive bidding and large scale pooling;

• No money is given to the government under this plan; and

Private insurance will continue to exist. Indeed, not only does this plan rely on private insurers, but it leaves private insurers free to offer superior or inferior (and presumably cheaper) coverage as they see fit. If you want more coverage than the minimum, you can buy it. If you want less coverage than the minimum (e.g. a $10,000 deductible or a plan with co-pays or limited coverage), you can buy that too. You can even continue under your current plan and ignore the new system entirely. And since there is no government-subsidized insurance to compete with, the government will not crowd out private insurers.

(** The government currently does something similar for its own employees.)

Saving The Government A Fortune AND Expanding Coverage

This biggest surprise in this program comes in the remake of government insurance, i.e. Medicare/Medicaid/Tricare, etc. CommentaramaCare proposes eliminating these programs entirely and replacing them with one program to be run by the HCA. This can save the Government a fortune, if done right. . .

Rather than trying to develop a separate insurance plan for these recipients, as is currently done with Medicare/Medicaid, etc., the HCA should use the money that would have been spent on such insurance to instead (1) buy these recipients commercial catastrophic insurance, as just discussed, and (2) provide some level of subsidy for the $5,000 deductible (depending on income-level, age, military status, etc.).

Consider this. . . if the cost of the new catastrophic insurance remains around $2,400 annually, and (for the sake of argument) the government chooses to pay the full $5,000 deductible for each of these recipients, and they all use the full $5,000 deductible, it would cost the government $7,400 per recipient to pay all of their medical expenses during that year. The government currently spends $11,093 per Medicare/Medicaid recipient. Thus, by switching to this plan, the government could save $3,700 per recipient. With 81 million recipients, that means a total saving of $299.7 billion dollars -- and this is an annual figure, not a fake 10 year projection.

Moreover, still assuming the projected cost of $7,400 per person, this means that the government could ADD another 40.5 million people to this program without spending a penny more than is currently spent. Since only 7.3 million Americans truly can’t afford insurance, this allows the government to extend coverage to those persons and still generate cost savings of $245.7 billion per year!
(** This assumes full 100% subsidies and full use of the program -- thus, the savings figure likely will be higher. It also does not include any cost savings from eliminating vast amounts of bureaucracy at the state and federal level.)
Finally, to make the deductible subsidy work, HCA would pay the insurers directly on behalf of those receiving subsidized policies, and HCA would issue a health insurance credit card directly to the covered individuals. Those cards would allow the holders to acquire only health care products and services (using product codes). And depending on the level of income subsidy desired, each card could contain any amount up to $5,000.

Illegal Aliens

Lastly, on the issue of illegal aliens, it is clear that these costs should not be borne by the states or by individual providers, as only the federal government has the power to stem the flow of illegal immigration and to deal with foreign governments. Thus, CommentaramaCare proposes (1) that the federal government fully reimburse providers for the costs of providing such care, and (2) that the federal government seek to charge the home countries of these aliens for the costs they have incurred.


Without forcing anyone to participate, without raising taxes, and without endangering anyone’s current plan or private insurance, this plan should reduce the cost of medical care within the country, reduce the cost of insurance to individuals, reduce the cost of providing care to persons on government assistance, and ensure that everyone in the country who wants coverage can get it at reasonable rates.

For further analysis, particularly related to costs, see the next post. . .

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Through The Legal Looking Glass--Divorced Dads Aren't All Bad

Over the years, most of you have been treated to newspaper and TV horror stories about "deadbeat dads." You know, those guys who abandon their wives, leave their children destitute, and refuse to pay child support. It's a tale straight out of Dickens (and Gloria Allred), but the simple truth is that it's largely untrue, and a whole lot more complicated than the radical feminist-driven mainstream media would have it.

First of all, let's get a few things out of the way. There are genuine horror stories out there. In today's society, as marriage becomes a weakened institution largely devoid of its traditional roots, the centuries-old concept of a man as the provider for wife and children who is an equal partner with his wife who cares for home, hearth and children, fathers have come to be treated as cash machines after a divorce. Society accepts that marriage is between one man and one woman (gay marriage is an entirely different concept with its own set of problems). But today, the rule seems to be "one spouse at a time." Fathers in large segments of society are not necessarily the husband of the mother of his children. Yet as society changes, the rules surrounding a father's financial responsibilities haven't changed appreciably in decades, and where they have changed, are routinely ignored by the courts.

Second, this is not an anti-mother or anti-woman screed. You all probably know, or know of, a woman who has been treated miserably by her husband, and left alone to raise the kids when he got the seven-year itch or found a trophy wife. The wife often had few or no job skills which would allow her to support herself and the children. Frequently, the father disappeared, and if he stuck around, she was unable to shame him into doing his fatherly duty. So her only recourse was the courts. There are many similar stories out there.

So let's start with the following facts that every family law attorney and most non-lawyers actually know. When the rancor and bitterness of the initial divorce action are set aside, in the vast majority of cases the marriage simply went sour for some reason. Most fathers are willing to pay what they can to support their children, and most mothers are ready to accept whatever he is reasonably able to do, while attempting herself to do what she can to lessen the burden. Even feuding parents are usually prepared to set aside their differences when it comes to the well-being of the children. Both are usually fully aware that she is going to think the support too low, and he is going to think it too burdensome, and both will simply live with it. And then come the friends, neighbors, officious intermeddlers, TV shows, legal advisers, radical feminists and finally the courts to add their two cents (or take it away, if you will).

In the majority of states, determination of the ability of the father to pay for his children's support while keeping his own head above water is completely separated from any real, moral, or mathematical standard. Most courts are still operating under concepts that apply to the traditional marriage of fifty years ago which ignore the realities of the real or potential earnings of the parents during the marriage, and the employment prospects of the mother after the marriage dissolves.

Courts largely award child support by a formula that assumes the mother has never worked and never will, and the father was the sole wage-earner during the marriage who could afford to pay for his children at the price of a minor reduction in his living circumstances. That sounds fair, but it bears little resemblance to modern realities.

In those states which use mathematical formats to determine child support based on seeming modern reality, the child support is awarded by a cold mathematical formula which usually assumes the father can spend large sums for child support which vastly exceed his actual remaining income after basic living costs. Mom and the kids end up with the family residence, under mildly reduced circumstances, while dad moves to a cheap apartment in a bad part of town, driving an ancient automobile, and occasionally living in it. This isn't mom's fault--it's the fault of legislatures and courts. (Note: California, for instance, uses a disc authorized by the legislature called DissoMaster, which was put together by computer whizzes, not by anyone who has ever actually tried to comply with the mathematical results that come out of the computer after inputting the financial information of mom and dad)

Alimony (spousal support) is a major issue, but as more women have moved into the higher strata of the work force, it has become less of an issue as more families live on two-parent incomes. So more than ever child support, which is a right granted to the children rather than a right of either of the parents, has become increasingly a tool to bludgeon fathers with. A huge proportion of so-called deadbeat dads are doing the very best they can, and frequently the courts, the district attorneys, or worst of all the welfare departments are the ones seeking the "back support" rather than mom herself. Again, ladies, nobody is blaming this on you.

So here are some of the things that send fathers into the wilderness of non-child support despite their genuine desire to do the right thing. Once a father has gotten behind in his child support, often through no fault of his own, the court clock starts to run. Frequently he gets so far behind that he just gives up because he's in an utterly impossible situation vis-a-vis the courts and the enforcement agencies. Men who would not ordinarily cross a street against the don't walk sign are turned into major scofflaws overnight.

I'm sure that you are all aware that our Founders eliminated debtor's prison early in the history of the Republic. But failure to pay child support in full each month is treated as if it were a crime rather than a civil matter, either by way of contempt proceedings or district attorney family support enforcement provisions. So the dad might not only go to jail, his support will not be reduced while he is in the slammer. When he gets out, he will be just that much farther behind, assuming he still has a job. In most states, this is done without even the right to a trial by jury.

And then there are the welfare folks. If mom is genuinely unable to work, or chooses not to, the next step is federal, state or local public assistance (or a combination of them). But this adds another wonderful layer of overweening public authority. The law has evolved to the point that a father can show that during the period he was in default, he was factually unable to pay, or there were changed circumstances which both parties agreed to but never formalized in court (e.g. mom says the kids are happier with dad, voluntarily hands them over, then sits for five or ten years while the unmodified child support accrues). If the father can show the changed circumstances to the satisfaction of the court, he may obtain a retroactive modification of the child support order relieving him of that burden. However, and it's a big however, this rule does not apply to welfare payments.

And it goes downhill from there. A mother can collect welfare without the father's knowledge, lie through her teeth about trying to get him to pay, collect public assistance for a child or children who are not the former husband's, and when he's finally caught up with by the welfare police, he is going to be liable for all those payments. Many courts will not even consider conclusive DNA evidence that the former husband is not the father of the child who was being supported by welfare without his knowledge.

Once the welfare has been cut off, the dad can still be required to pay chld support for that same minor child who is not his (fortunately, many states are changing that rule). And add to that the fact that the court only orders the support, it doesn't in any way monitor how the support is spent. Mom can live like a queen while the kids are in rags and provided only with bare minimum food and shelter (so as to avoid child protective services), and the courts will not do a thing about it. In many states, it doesn't even matter if mom shacks up with or marries another man who throws money at her--the child support goes on. In some cases the former husband ends up paying for the children of the new unemployed husband in order to avoid reducing the total amount of money available for the original children (his own). And even when the state allows for inclusion of the income of the new boyfriend or husband, the courts tend to be very lax in investigating the income of the new guy in the house, unlike the deep investigation the father often goes through to make sure he isn't cheating.

Well, the dictum is "for every wrong, the law provides a remedy." The theory is good, but the practice is weak. The father who finds himself unable to pay the ridiculous amount ordered, or loses his job, or suffers a pay cut can petition the court for a modification based on changed circumstances. Sounds good. But most states have a limiting provision. Child support can be modified only just so often. In California, except in an extraordinary petition (very limited in scope), the father must wait six months between chld support modifications. He is now able to get a retroactive order plus a future order which will reduce the order from impossible to merely improbable. But, again, if mom rushed to the welfare office or the district attorney's family support division at the first instance of non-payment or reduced payment, bye-bye retroactivity.

Well, then, surely there's always bankruptcy. Alimony is dischargeable in bankruptcy. Child support is not. So the simple rule of thumb for lawyers and angry ex-wives is to jack up the child support and worry about any alimony as a side issue. And, oh, those damned lawyers. In most cases, there are no simple provisions for awards of attorney's fees, but the husband is likely to end up paying the fees of both attorneys. And after he has been reduced to meager survival, and can no longer pay the full child support, mom can toddle off to the welfare office or the district attorney's support division, and get herself a nice free attorney. Dad, on the other hand, has no such right unless criminal or quasi-criminal charges have been brought against him which could result in his being jailed. And even then, in most states the public defender can be used only for the limited purpose of keeping dad out of jail, but not for anything relating to the divorce, custody, or ongoing child support.

So ladies, before you jump on the bandwagon about deadbeat dads, consider the above, and give a thought or two to whether the stories your friends are telling you are the truth, or at least the whole truth. Consider also who is most affected by this disparity in treatment. The rich can afford their feuds and interminable squabbling. Poor women get free attorneys and poor men have free services available to them such as legal aid and volunteer poverty groups. As usual, it's the reasonable, hardworking and generally civilized middle class that gets burned. And the ones who are injured the most are the ones the court is charged with protecting--the children.

Family law courts are courts of equity, charged with implementing the law, but more importantly with doing the "right thing" even if the law appears to say otherwise (many would call equity "justice," the concept of fundamental fairness). They need to start enforcing the laws that actually serve the children's best interest rather than outmoded habits of bending the law nearly to the breaking point to satisfy the mother's supposed need for child support whether the father can afford it or not. They need to throw out their computer-generated child support orders and start looking at the real facts and the real math. They need to start recognizing what every human being knows--that in the average divorce, everyone should expect that things are not going to be as good as they were financially, and distribute income and support realistically in accord with that fact. The courts need to pressure the legislatures to pass legislation which recognizes twenty-first century realities instead of outmoded mid-twentieth century fantasies. And most of all, they need to perform their primary duty--protecting the best interests of the children, which includes treating both parents fairly and equally and without forcing the children to choose sides or believe that their father is a deadbeat.

Note to our readers: Each week, we post an article on the law which is meant to be topical or interesting. But what we find interesting, may not be what you find interesting. Feel free to suggest a legal topic that you would like us to discuss. Please be aware that we are bound by certain rules which prohibit us from addressing the specifics of current or future litigation in which you may be personally involved.
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KEEPING IT REAL: When Research Is Essential

By Writer X

When I wrote the last post about Book Slogging, one of the Commentarama regulars asked about the research involved in creating a novel. The answer: Not all books require massive amounts of research; it kind of depends on your story. And you.

Even though I write fiction and most of my characters and plots come from my admittedly warped imagination, that doesn’t mean I get a free pass on research. For example, what if I wanted my novel to take place in an outpost somewhere in, let’s say, present-day Antarctica. Well, I’ve never been to Antarctica. That doesn’t mean I can’t write about it. It will mean, though, that I’ll need to research the place so that I can write about it authentically. How cold or warm does Antarctica get? What does it look like, exactly? What about vegetation? Penguins? People? And doesn’t Santa Claus live somewhere around that area? For me, pictures are preferable to words and seeing a place up close and personal is always best but that doesn’t always happen. Thank goodness for Al Gore and his Internet. And National Geographic.

And, let’s say my main character at my Antarctica scientific outpost is from New Orleans. Maybe I might need to research New Orleans to get a better feel for my character’s background, speech, or favorite restaurants. Not all of your questions can be answered from research but the more you know, the more authentic you can make your story. And I’m not advocating that you create a completely clichéd character either; in fact, I would encourage you to create anything but a clichéd character. A lot of times I model characters after quirky people I meet—like in airports, at restaurants, malls, even waiting in line at the post office. Still, a little research can get your juices flowing and jump-start your writing.

When you’re writing fiction, you’ve got to reach a point where you can “see” your characters. They’ve got to become real people; you should have conversations with them, although not in public. And the more real they are, the clearer your story can become along with dialogue that will move your story along in a compelling way. (Creating believable dialogue as opposed to drivel is another topic completely.)

I spent about two months doing research before I sat down to write my last book. I had a rough outline of the plot and a few of the characters but the story had a historical setting, and I needed to learn more about the time period. Then as I wrote each chapter, I continued to do more research to ensure my descriptions—from everything to clothing to how food was prepared—were accurate. As an example, I wrote a scene where my main character had to start a fire without matches (matches hadn’t been invented yet). After researching it, I’m now fairly certain that I won’t freeze to death if I ever get stranded in the wilderness. And the character in my book didn’t freeze either.

I do most of my research online, although sometimes I venture to the public library. It’s quite helpful living close to a university, too. Sometimes, though, books don’t help and you might need to talk to an expert or even allow one to read your manuscript or parts of it if he is willing. While it helps to know your experts personally, most of the time that’s not the case. Again, any experts you choose depend on you, your book, and how deep you want to go with the development of your characters and your story. Example: If you want to write a thriller about a police detective, it might be helpful to talk to one. As an aside, I have found that most people usually love to talk about what they do. Finding experts isn’t as tough as you might think.

Finally, just because you do a lot of research doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to include every detail in your story. Not every bit of research will advance your plot; remember that you’re not writing a term paper. But you are attempting to create a page-turner, something that a reader will pick up and not want to put down until he’s devoured every last word of your story. And then cry crocodile tears because it had to end.

Learning that fine line that exists between over-writing and “just right” (like the porridge) will come with practice. I still struggle with it and work to perfect it each and every day. You must weave the researched details into your story as if they’re meant to be there. Your pages shouldn’t read like a throat-clearing.

For example, back to the Antarctica example, I wouldn’t just write an entire chapter describing the place. That would be throat-clearing and that’s usually rather boring. Instead, I might drop details about this frigidly cold and desolate terrain in lots of places—like in the dialogue between characters or a character’s actions (e.g. rubs hands together) or maybe it’s reflected in the tightness of the air or the wool caps they wear or the wispy clouds that float out of their mouths every time they speak…

See what I mean?

It just takes practice and some imagination. Even a little research can go a long way to helping you create a compelling story.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Omigod! They Painted Our Bridge White!

Last night while San Franciscans were sound asleep, some wise guys with very large paintbrushes painted our beautiful Golden Gate Bridge white. Is there no end to the sheer perversity of human beings? OK, it's a spoof, as BevfromNYC surely recognized immediately. It's actually the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. But I included the picture to point out that San Francisco is not the only big city with beautiful bridges and crazy politicians.

San Francisco is infamous for its elected officials ignoring the genuine business of The City while passing multiple resolutions that have no legal effect, and darned little effect of any kind anywhere outside the Bay Area. But an item in Sunday's New York Post caught my eye. While San Francisco has passed resolutions demanding the immediate withdrawal of U. S. troops from Iraq, New York City felt it had to go us one better and nominate a council candidate who wants the U. S. to withdraw from South Korea.

Local politicians are supposed to run on platforms like "free food for the masses," and "bread and circuses for everyone," and "elect me and I'll solve the downtown traffic and parking problem in my first five minutes." They're supposed to make high-falutin' statements with no actual meaning like "Where would this town be without this great city of ours?" They're not supposed to include in their platforms matters that the municipality can do absolutely nothing about and has no business talking about in terms of municipal legislation anyway.

But it is comforting to know that San Franciscans aren't the only ones who have to put up with this nonsense. It's equally comforting to know that other cities have politicians who are as out-to-lunch and disorganized as ours. New York would be electing its first Korean-American city councilman. We could have done that years ago, but our Korean community is concerned largely with city real estate development. Still, the Superintendent of San Francisco's failing school system is Korean-American, so that has to count for something. John Choe is one of six candidates trying to succeed Councilman John Liu in Flushing. Flushing is located in the New York City Borough of Queens.

Candidate Choe said: "Korea is at the front line of the liberation struggles against imperialism." This was reported in the Workers World newspaper, which is sort of like the San Francisco Chronicle, only not as left wing. He was also reported by the New York Times to have said in 2006 at a city conference on "Preparing for the Rebirth of the Global Struggle for Socialism" that "From the very beginning, when the U. S. intervened and occupied Korea, the Korean people have been resisting and struggling. And I urge all of you here to help us in our dark days trying to win back freedom and independence from the United States and its military."

Choe now wants to bring his initiative into the agenda of the Council as a sitting councilman. But alas and alack, this seems to offend a few people (or a few thousand), so Choe has sort of denied that he believes what he said. Or maybe he was denying that he said it at all. It's not entirely clear yet. But his campaign supporters have rushed to the closest microphone to claim that Choe is the victim of a smear campaign. Of course there is the additional problem that as recently as a week ago, Choe told the Post: "I may have said something like that. Korea, I believe like any other country , should be given the right to self-determination and independence and not have the military of other countries on their soil." He neglected to mention if he thought the army of North Korea would be "an occupying army."

His predecessor Chiu, for whom Choe worked as chief of staff, is presently running for City Comptroller. He has stated that Choe "is being stigmatized by McCarthyism. There's no way he made those comments, no way." Somebody forgot to tell Chiu about Choe's more recent recantations of his denials. To add to the brew, Choe has already received the endorsement of the Queens Democratic Party. However, if the Queens Democratic Party is anything like San Francisco's, a little bolshevism isn't going to do any damage.

If Mr. Choe is somehow unsuccessful in his attempt to turn the New York City Council into an arm of the U. S. State Department planning foreign policy, there's always work for him out here on the left coast. If Gavin Newsom is successful in his run for California governor, we will have an opening for a new mayor. Mr. Choe would fit right in. Now re-paint the bridge gold, OK?
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