Monday, February 28, 2005

I'm Mad As Heck and I'm Going to Write About It!

Here's another angle on Social Security privatization--want to bet that the credit-reporting agencies wind up interfacing with you about your "personal" account?

These agencies are a classic example of an economic externality. There's no upside for a credit reporting company having good customer services for consumers or spending money on data security. We don't purchase their services; we don't have any say over which service any merchant with whom we do business chooses to use. Any money they spend on us raises their costs and lowers their profits.

When I talked with the nice lady at Social Security, I complemented her and said that I'd been treated miserably by the credit reporting agencies. She said that well, they were the only game in town so no wonder you got bad customer service. I had to tell her that no, she was the only game in town; there were three different reporting agencies that compete with each other and the government gave much better service because the government, in this case, actually cares what service citizens get, while the economic incentives are exactly the opposite for the private sector entities.

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 27, 2005

If I hadn’t already thought Social Security privatization -- oops, personalization -- was a bad idea for policy reasons (plus, after the Medicare drug benefit debacle, why would anyone take a Bush administration fiscal projection seriously?), my personal experience with the private -- oops, personal -- sector this past week would have converted me.

I’m trying to open a mutual fund account for our youngest child. Thanks to the PATRIOT Act -- don’t get me started on that -- the fund company must go through a verification process for every customer’s identity, even kids. They sent an inquiry to the three big credit registries. Thus began my descent into the lower circles of private-sector database purgatory.

Two of the companies -- I reached a real live person at TransUnion, who confirmed that it wasn’t them, so the evildoers here are Equifax and Experion -- sent a report about a different individual tied to my kid’s Social Security number. But the companies don’t keep records on minors, who can’t get credit. Having my kid’s number call up a stranger’s credit history was clearly a typo; the stranger’s number was miscoded in their records. This is apparently not the first time this has happened.

Unfortunately, it’s a mistake that might cause future problems if this stranger’s record remained mixed up with our child’s. As the agencies keep data for seven years, our kid will turn 18 (and need a credit history) before this mistake disappears. The fund company representative recommended that I contact each credit reporting company and the Social Security Administration to fix the error.

So I did, and in this competition between Big, Bad Government (the Social Security Administration) and the Efficient, Miracle-of-the-Market Private Sector (Equifax and Experion), the private sector stunk.

Anybody who claims that private enterprise always gives better customer service than government should try to fix a mistake by a credit history company. (Again, TransUnion fixed their problem with a phone call. They are not nearly as dreadful, difficult, burdensome, and downright nasty as Equifax and Experion. No wonder they’re in third place.)

Social Security’s voice-mail system got me to a real, live person after only two menus; I had to wait on hold for a few minutes -- but it was still less time that it took me to keep getting back to the recording, buried deep in their system, where Experion listed the seven types of information and documents they required, plus the mailing address; I had to call three times to get all of the information because you can’t get the list of items repeated. It was also less time than I spent flailing around the Equifax web site, looking for any mailing address and information about what they needed to fix their error. Equifax shunts you to an online form, which took time (and several screens) to complete, only to have the form rejected because our kid’s birth date was too recent; only then would Equifax divulge a mailing address.

By contrast, Social Security provided a real person, who quickly confirmed my identity and that my kid’s Social Security number was correct, and that nobody else was working, paying taxes, or collecting benefits under that number. (As a bonus, the rep was downright nice; she even laughed at my jokes.)

This is on top of the ChoicePoint debacle, where the marketing-research company finally notified California residents of theft of personal information that occurred last October, only because California law required it. Everywhere else, the company wasn’t going to bother, until Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard beat on them to do the right thing here. After all, spending money on data security hurts profits. These companies are happy to sell you stuff you don’t need, but will improve security and customer service and fix their mistakes only if forced by law. There’s no market pressure consumers can bring.

I’ve written both Equifax and Experion to try to fix their mistakes, but I’m not holding my breath. But anybody who wants to privatize Social Security -- well, I hope your private account is managed by Equifax, Experion, or ChoicePoint. You deserve that "posh" private sector treatment.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Former Senator Larry Pressler (R-SD) and I visit with voters in rural Odessa on Election Day in Ukraine, Dec. 26, 2004. Larry demonstrates that once you're on the Senate Ag Committee, you're always on the Senate Ag Committee. Posted by Hello

Monday, February 21, 2005

Tragedy, Farce, Rinse, Repeat: The Return of the Fifester!
Plus Special Watch-The-Republic-Do-The-Republicans'-Bidding Bonus

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a Fife Symington trial balloon! You think I'm kidding? They're taking it oh-so-seriously at The Republic.

Speaking of which, The Republic did a major piece on Tim Hogan, Executive Director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, on Sunday. It billed him as "The Most Powerful Private Person in Arizona," which is an interesting description of a lawyer who is dependent on the courts taking his side in litigation. The articles--one labelled as "news" and two op-ed pieces by state legislators on opposite sides under that incendiary headline--never really mentioned the fact that it's the courts who agreed with Hogan's arguments and if the legislators don't like the results, why are they going after Hogan and not changing the laws that let Hogan win the court victories? The news article credited/blamed Hogan with the Students FIRST capital program, without managing to mention that it was the legislature and Gov. Hull that came up with the program, that Hogan criticized it at the time, and that he didn't have a vote in the process. There were different ways to resolve the school funding issue that would have satisfied the court--and isn't that ultimately the point, that it was up to the judge, not to Tim Hogan?

The reporters examined Hogan's motivations, but never made explicit the legislators' motivations that they want to spend less on education and English instruction than the law requires and don't have the guts to change the law. The reporters never managed to examine the role and the motivation of the courts. It's a basic regurgitation of the current right-wing spin, which requires a boogeyman, and they've picked Hogan, for now. But the articles really begged the question. What I want to know is who is the truly most powerful private person in Arizona, who got The Republic to frame the issue this way?

Thanks to several readers for suggested Fife jokes. All jokes funny or your money back. Newsprint version available for two weeks here.

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 20, 2005

What was that saying about how life repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce? But then what comes after farce?

Unfortunately, we in Arizona may find out, this year’s hottest political story drops into our laps: Fife Symington’s potential comeback as the GOP nominee for governor in 2006. He’s tan, he’s rested, he’s ready, and he still doesn’t really have eyebrows.

You know how political cartoonists root for the candidate with the double chins, because it’s easier to do caricatures? Well, we dabblers in political humor are absolutely drooling at the thought of Fife getting his discharge from political Chapter 11.

You might think that some things are just too perfectly funny to joke about, but the editorial geniuses at the other daily newspaper are taking this leaden trial balloon oh-so-seriously. So repaying my debt to society requires mining Fife’s triumphant potential return from pastry-chef duties with the sarcasm it truly deserves. Here goes:

Yes, when the news hit that Fife was considering running for governor again, Democrats breathed a “Sy-mington” of relief at the prospect.

So where would Symington hold his campaign kickoff? Which of so many failed world-class mixed-use developments would he choose for the event? You could ask all the media to “meet at the Mercado” because it’s more convenient, but if Donald Trump really does get permission to build some “toupee tower” next to the Esplanade, I say hold the announcement there. For the event, with Trump and Symington together at last, Phoenix could rename Camelback Road “Bankruptcy Row.”

Of course, Symington would want to campaign with his secret weapon: Bill Clinton. It’s a win-win situation for both former officeholders. Fife gets to trot out the story of saving Clinton from drowning; Clinton gets to hang out with a politician with an even spottier moral history than his own.

But politics these days is all about personality, and the Fife Symington saga is a classic American riches-to-rags story. Like Horatio Alger's evil twin, Fife pulled his lenders down by his own bootstraps.

This would be the eighth chapter in the Fife Symington story; that’s what usually follows Chapter 7.

Of course, if Fife runs, it means that J.D. Hayworth isn't running -- and I know that truly disappoints thousands of Arizonans eager to hear loads more about stomach-stapling surgery.

But the real loser here is former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, who clearly isn’t clearing Fife from the field. You have Romley, who spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars mailing out full-color pictures of himself and his wife under the guise of an “annual report,” and somebody who’s spent most of the past decade as a defendant simply gives a press interview and -- poof! -- who cares about Rick Romley anymore? Apparently, Republican true believers are less enamored with the former prosecutor than with the former crook.

But every campaign, even a Symington campaign, needs a new hard-hitting slogan. He can’t campaign anymore promising to run government like a business, especially his own. Is he considering returning to politics because you also can’t run a business like he ran government? (You want to know how to make a million dollars in Arizona real estate? Loan Fife Symington $10 million.)

I’m torn between two possibilities. Fife couldn’t go wrong with a slogan that captures the essence of both his business and his political careers: “Symington '06: Because Appearances Matter More Than Reality.”

But as I thought about it more, I think the slogan that’s absolutely perfect for Fife supporters is a quote from Laurence J. Peter, author of The Peter Principle: “There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.”

Don’t find these jokes amusing? Then in that case, as Fife Symington said to Bill Clinton, “I beg your pardon.”

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

You'd Think Readers of The Jewish News Would Resent Holocaust Minimizers

I reworked my piece on President Yushchenko's inauguration in Ukraine for the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, which ran it here. I got one call from a reader, upset that I was way too easy on the Ukrainians. He was going to give Bush a pass for appointing Kuropas to the official delegation, however. He wanted to rail at the foreign country but hadn't conceived of anything he could do about it in his own. Go figure.

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, Feb. 11, 2005/Adar 12, 5765

Last month, Viktor Yushchenko took office as Ukraine's third president. His eventual victory required massive public demonstrations, court decisions and a repeat election; nevertheless, Ukraine's surprising turn to democracy and the rule of law is wonderful news. But while Yushchenko's election augurs a new future for Ukraine, history still casts an ambiguous shadow. That history may evoke entirely different responses in different people.

On his inauguration day, Yushchenko participated in a symbolic Cossack ceremony. The commemoration undoubtedly filled many Ukrainians with nationalistic pride, but as someone whose ancestors fled Ukraine due to those same Cossacks, I found that the charm eluded me. It all turned out for the best; without Cossack "help," I wouldn't be an American today. But celebrating my forebears' tormentors doesn't feel completely joyful.

I saw this dissonance, where one family's pride is another's sorrow, often in Ukraine. Driving around Kyiv, my host pointed out a historic cathedral where, during World War II, Russian commandos set explosives before a meeting of high-ranking Nazis generals. Despite damage to much of the building, most of the Nazis escaped. My guide clearly considered the resulting structural damage considerably worse than the mission's failure.

Perhaps this modern-day Ukrainian's experience with the more-recent terrors of the Soviet system overpowered his revulsion for fascism. Victory over Germany occurred 60 years ago; the USSR didn't crumble until 1991, and those horrors would be fresher. The Soviets used WWII as a political weapon. Perhaps fighting fascism became tainted by its association with communism.

But there are more troubling explanations, too. Ukraine suffered so gravely under Stalin, when forced collectivization led to famines that killed millions, that some peasants welcomed the German Army, approving of any enemy of their enemy. And some Ukrainians (and Ukrainian-Americans), believing that the world little remembers how desperately Ukraine suffered under the Soviets, may minimize the depredations of the Nazis - even going so far as to excuse their collaborators.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration managed to validate this historical revisionism - not quite Holocaust denial, but more like Holocaust excusal.

The same week as the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Bush administration appointed Myron Kuropas as a member of the official delegation to Yushchenko's inauguration.

Kuropas, who claims to be prominent in the Ukrainian-American community, says that Jewish organizations "manipulate" memories of the Holocaust for financial gain. In 2000, Kuropas wrote, "Big money drives the Holocaust industry. To survive, the Holocaust industry is always searching for its next mark. Ukraine's turn is just around the corner." Kuropas complains that Ukraine is unfairly portrayed as anti-Semitic, then argues that Ukrainian cooperation with the Nazis was caused (and justified) by Jewish participation in the Soviet government.

There certainly were Jewish communists, but it's also true that both Hitler and Himmler were Catholics. Somehow collective guilt only applies to Jews.

As Jews, we should lead the world in remembering how Ukraine suffered. We should also show that it's not necessary to diminish the Holocaust to remember the anguish of others. The Bush administration shouldn't give a platform to those who contend otherwise.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Even Arithmetic Is Partisan These Days

Fish, barrel, Bush, budget. I know you've heard it before but aren't you tired yet of the Bush administration saying 2 + 2 = 5, and the media quoting Democrats as saying no, it really doesn't, and then going back to quoting Republicans as saying the Democrats are just too partisan? Sheesh.

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 13, 2005

The latest Bush budget shows about the same “intelligence” as we got concerning Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. After going war, we learned they didn’t actually have any; they only pretended.

Similarly, Bush actually isn’t serious about restoring fiscal sanity; he’s only pretending. He’s not only spending money he doesn’t have, he’s now even threatening to default on the bonds in the Social Security trust fund.

Anybody who takes this budget seriously deserves having their Social Security benefits cut.

An “austere,” “serious” budget? No way. You can tell by what’s in it and what’s missing. Its fatuous efforts at cutting spending -- by largely symbolic cuts only in areas previously cut -- are textbook examples of going after weak clients and sparing weak claims by politically-powerful constituencies. The well-connected do fine; the cuts target the disabled, the sick, children, and the poor. It’s “compassionate conservatism” at its most flagrant.

The budget also includes “fake” cuts, which will never happen but make the numbers look better, like cutting farm subsidies. The last time this White House and GOP Congress considered farm subsidies, they wound up throwing more money at them. President Bush, who talked about cuts, was delighted to sign the increases.

The budget also includes fake revenues, like $1 billion from selling oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. The administration has flogged this puppy for four years and gotten nowhere, but they’re counting it as money in the bank.

The budget sort of includes the Medicare drug benefit. You may recall that many so-called conservatives refused to go along unless the cost was capped at $400 billion. So the Bush administration pretended that the cost was $400 billion, initially by suppressing more-honest estimates that pegged the cost at $534 billion. Imagine, that the Bush administration wasn’t giving us the straight fiscal scoop.

Now we find that the administration puts the cost at more like $750 billion -- by assuming some as-yet-unspecified future savings. However, even that number is bogus because the actual benefits don’t start for another year. The original 10-year estimate included three years before the program started and spent essentially zero. Once actual spending starts, of course the number jumps.

And minority budget analysts have looked at the budget, and peg the real cost at more like $1,200 billion over the next 10 years, and growing with each passing year.

What’s also isn’t in the budget is all military “operations and maintenance” funding. Not only does the budget contain zero money for the ongoing war in Iraq, but the administration already announced that they will stuff perfectly-anticipated O&M funding, and money needed for planned Army unit expansion, into “supplemental” budget requests. The budget requests $31.8 billion for Army O&M, which is about half of what the Army actually spent in FY2004 and a 33 percent cut from the $45.4 billion needed last year. The current budget is what the Pentagon spent 5 years ago, when we weren’t at war.

What’s also not in the budget is any money to fix the Alternative Minimum Tax, supposedly a presidential priority -- but a lower one, because it benefits middle class taxpayers, not just the rich. What’s also not in the budget is any money for the president’s Social Security proposals which, if not funded, will shorten the time at which point the trust fund needs to start redeeming bonds from 2018 to 2012. In other words, what Bush has proposed will make the funding imbalance in Social Security worse. Anybody who supports Bush’s privatization plan because they worry about Social Security’s solvency is just as unserious as the administration.

Bush’s budget doesn’t include spending that’s absolutely going to occur next year. It includes specious revenues (fee hikes on airline tickets!) and fictional cuts (drug cost savings!). It doesn’t include any costs for what Bush claims is his top priority for his second term, Social Security privatization. And even with all this budgetary flimflam, they can’t get the numbers right.

When reality hits, the administration will do what it always does; it’ll blame either Congress or Clinton. To the Bush administration and its enablers, that’s what “taking responsibility” means.

Monday, February 07, 2005

If Women Are Underrepresented on Science Faculties Due to "Innate Differences," What About Conservatives?

For those of you who wondered how my sister, the incoming Chair of the Department of Physics at the University of Wisconsin, felt about the whole Larry Summers brouhaha, her response was that it was just too depressing to think about. So I hope this response to the blame-the-victim meme helps a bit. The Stossel column, in which he posits that because male infants react to a puff of breath on their bellies differently than female infants, maybe THAT explains why there are so few women at the top levels in science, is here. My column, as it appears in the actual dead-tree version, is here. It's not the greatest headline, but it's a tough column to capture in 7 words. Once again, Harvard hates America (at least the Y-chromosome portion).

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 6, 2005

This newspaper’s latest right-wing media-elite pretty boy, John Stossel, joined Harvard’s President Lawrence Summers in suggesting that one reason why so many fewer women attain top positions in science might be innate differences between men and women.

Now, John Stossel probably isn’t the best authority on things scientific. As Kevin Drum reminds us, in 2000, Stossel, who calls environmentalists “scaremongers,” wanted to air a story fitting his ideological agenda: That organic produce was a fraud and no better (and probably worse) than regular. However, a scientist hired by Stossel for the story, Dr. Lester Crawford of Georgetown University, didn’t actually test produce for pesticide; instead, he tested conventional and organic chickens. His tests showed pesticide residue on conventional chickens, but not on organics.

However, Stossel ignored the actual chicken results, and claimed on air that his tests proved that ordinary produce had no more pesticide residues than organic produce. Environmental groups wrote ABC, reporting that Dr. Crawford himself said Stossel got the story wrong, but Stossel and ABC stonewalled for months; the story aired a second time.

Months later, ABC finally investigated, and found that the critics were right; no such tests existed, and the story was wrong. (Think Dan Rather, but with vegetables instead of documents.) Stossel apologized, insisting that the story was basically correct, and not evidence of bias, but merely “honest confusion” over test results. Like the song goes, you say tomato, I say chicken.

But the guy who relied on nonexistent tests is now lecturing us about science and scholarship, about the need “to ask questions and open our eyes to facts.” Citing studies that male infants startle more readily than females, or that women are more likely to recall items in a cluttered room but less likely to recall directions when blindfolded, Stossel opined that research into gender differences could be useful in explaining the underrepresentation of women in math and science.

Of course, it’s not clear how the ability to be startled as an infant, or to recall directions when blindfolded, might actually relate to aptitude in science and math. And in reaching for evidence any possible gender differences, Stossel managed to ignore the actual studies of socialization factors, which even researchers of brain structure consider far more important.

There actually exists considerable research on socialization issues in science, but you’d never know it from Stossel’s ideologically-driven “plea” for knowledge. One study asked men and women to rate academic papers on a five-point scale. The men rated papers by “John T. McKay” a full point higher than the same work attributed to “Joan T. McKay.” Women also rated the “male” papers more highly, but just by not as much as the men.

Other studies of grant application processes show that women are more likely to win funding when those reading the applications do not know whether the applicant is male or female. And Professors Cecilia Rouse of Princeton and Claudia Goldin of Harvard, in a study published in the American Economic Review, showed that women have a 50 percent better chance of advancing beyond the preliminary rounds in a “blind” symphony orchestra audition, where the player sits behind a screen and the judges cannot see his (or her) identity or gender.

But take Stossel at his word, that he sincerely cares about advancing abstract scientific knowledge, to learn if the woeful representation of a particular group among our best university’s teachers and researchers might be caused by innate differences.

But don’t research just gender differences; that wouldn’t be gallant. Let’s also study the alleged underrepresentation of (gasp!) conservatives on university faculties. If we don’t see the “right” number of right-wing university professors, shouldn’t we examine the possibility that conservatives just aren’t innately fit for work at the top of academia? I’m not saying it’s the reason, and I certainly hope that it isn’t, and maybe social, economic, or cultural reasons matter far more, but doesn’t “Science” require we consider that perhaps ‘wingers just aren’t inherently cut out to cut the intellectual mustard?

Don’t get angry; I’m merely “suggesting an academic inquiry into a question of science.” So hey, John Stossel: Give me a break!