Monday, April 24, 2006

It's A Crisis! But Which Crisis?

I called this week's column "An 'Imminent Threat' Rorschach Test" but my editor liked the "Threat-o-Meter" bit, so that made the headline. The Tribune changed the graphics around, but I'm not going to bother converting the italics to bold and the bold to bullet points. Got that? It's the best I could do with 680 words.

East Valley Tribune, Apr. 23, 2006

It’s a looming danger with disastrous consequences if we don’t confront it now. People may prefer avoiding the issue because we don’t have any easy options, but experts with the latest, best information agree that this problem is real.

Wait: Is the threat a nuclear Iran, or global warming? Your answer is a good proxy for your pre-existing biases. Is there anyone who believes that both Iran and global warming either are or aren’t imminent threats? Almost all readers of this page consider one case proven and the other not, and little things like facts won’t affect that belief.

But I’ll try anyway. Let’s strap each problem to the Threat-o-Meter for a global threat smackdown:

What’s the worst that could happen?

Iran: An Islamic theocracy, run by a Holocaust-denying rabble-rouser, develops nuclear weapons. Classic deterrence won’t work with Iranian radicals, who nuke Jerusalem even though it means nuclear annihilation of Iran in return.

Global Warming: Increasing planetary temperatures melt the ice caps, raising sea levels enough to inundate Calcutta, Shanghai, and lower Manhattan, creating millions of refugees; areas not under water are threatened by increasingly violent weather.

What if they’re crying wolf?

Iran: Iran has lots of conventional weapons, but hasn’t attacked Israel with them; it’s not clear the mullahs are less rational than Stalin or Mao, both of whom were deterred. Iran’s $50 million contribution to Hamas is more publicity stunt than real money, evidence that Iran may talk a lot about the Palestinian issue but won’t do anything actually serious. So going to war (much less first use of nukes) could destroy what’s left of U.S. influence in the Muslim world, open our troops in Iraq to Shia-inspired guerrilla attacks, or redouble Iran’s determination to get a bomb. We’re already living with a nuclear Pakistan, we’re about to sign a treaty with nuclear India, and we’re clueless about what to do with North Korea.

Global warming: Changing energy use and restricting emissions in time to stop warming in 40 years would require regulation now; it won’t happen voluntarily. That will hurt economic growth, about 1.5 to 3 percent of GDP growth over 40 years, which will be lost if we really didn’t need to save the world.

What’s the track record of those saying we have a problem?

Iran: The Bush administration has access to secret intelligence on Iran the rest of us can’t see. However, they also had access to secret intelligence about Iraqi WMD that actually didn’t exist, and their history of managing long-term land wars in Asia isn’t exactly stellar.

Global Warming: Pretty much all scientists in the field say there’s a problem, and recent data are confirming the initial theories and models; the skeptics all come from other disciplines, or aren’t really scientists (or write fiction), and are starting to resemble the “intelligent design” folks in their distance from the scientific mainstream.

Yeah, but what’s the cynical view of those saying we have a problem?

Iran: These guys like starting wars in the Middle East; they just don’t know how to finish them. They had no plan in Iraq and invading or bombing Iran would be tougher. Going to war helped in the 2002 midterms, and hey -- there are elections in November! And these days, if you want to bet that what Bush says is wrong, you have to give points.

Global warming: It’s the Michael Crichton view, that there’s a massive worldwide conspiracy of thousands whose religion is environmentalism (or the nuclear power industry) who are making it up. But when ExxonMobil pays its CEO $170 million in a year, couldn’t they scrape up enough cash to bribe a scientist to spill the beans?

My personal Threat-o-Meter says the costs of global warming, if real, are so huge, and the costs of fighting it are less so -- about what costs to fight three Asian land wars simultaneously. We can pay for it with borrowed money, just like those Asian land wars today. Either way, it looks worse than Iran. But either you already knew that, or there’s nothing I can say to persuade you.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Shorter Explanation of "Consumer-Driven Healthcare": Hello, Sucker!

This week, it's a populist health care wonkfest! My proposed title for the column was "The Solution For Health Care Costs Is For You -- Not Me -- To Be More Responsible," but the editor was briefer. It is interesting, however, that these titans of industry, who are paid these gigantic sums because of the economic value they supposedly add, can't be responsible for figuring out their own "consumer-driven" health care. It's a wonder that those who should be most capable of navigating the morass of different prices, coverages, and plans are instead asking their employers to pick up all of the costs, for all of their life. In other words, "consumer-driven" for thee but most certainly not for me. Anything strike you as wrong about that picture?

East Valley Tribune, Apr. 16, 2006

Ah, the private sector, where the market’s ruthless realities root out excessive executive compensation, punishing those who abuse their shareholders. Except in most cases, not so much -- so think twice before swallowing the ‘winger rhetoric about how to fix health care costs. If it’s good enough for you, why isn’t it good enough for them?

While companies cut retiree benefits and making employees pay more of their health care expenses, those moves don’t apply to top executives. Ellen Schultz and Theo Francis of The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) reported that many companies, even in the hard-pressed airline industry, have promised “lifetime” free health care to retired CEOs and other senior officials.


Continental Airlines provides free health care to retired board chair Gordon Bethune and his dependents. (That’s on top of his other perks, like free flights, 10 years of free office space, and a $22 million lump-sum pension payout.)

Northwest Airlines has two sets of rules, one for top executives and another for everybody else. For everybody else, employees need 23 years to qualify for retiree coverage at age 55, which terminates with Medicare eligibility at age 65. Top execs, however, get lifetime health care for both themselves and their dependents after only three years -- and Northwest pays all out-of-pocket medical and dental expenses.

Northwest justifies these lavish health benefits as necessary to retain top executives and that the total cost is “fairly low” when compared with the total compensation for executives in other industries. Thus, a bankrupt airline compares itself to other (non-bankrupt) businesses solely for awarding executive benefits, something Northwest doesn’t do in any other evaluation of its performance.

Citigroup pays not only all health care costs for Chairman Sanford Weill and his wife, but also all taxes on the imputed income; naturally, he’s the only Citigroup employee with that benefit. AT&T Inc. pays up to $100,000 per family for top execs’ out-of-pocket health care costs. Northrop Grumman Corp. requires regular retirees to pay more of their own health costs as inflation increases, but top executives can get a special plan that absorbs all increases in medical costs.

Cooper Tire & Rubber has agreed to fund a special trust to pay for top executives’ lifetime health benefits in the event of an acquisition or bankruptcy filing; meanwhile, they’ve increased the amounts all other retirees must pay for health coverage, and don’t provide any coverage at all for employees hired after January, 2003. Qwest Communications pays all costs for coverage on the company’s health plan for 18 months after departure for top executives, but not for regular employees, who have to foot the entire bill.


Part of what’s going on is the compensation consulting racket, where Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times reported that the supposedly independent consultant which approved nearly $20 million in compensation for Verizon’s CEO -- for a year when Verizon’s credit rating fell, net income declined by 5 percent, and the company froze pensions for its managers -- is also Verizon’s benefits manager, reaping over $500 million from its Verizon work in the past 10 years. It’s enough that in this year’s proxy statement, Verizon no longer described its consultant as “independent,” merely “outside.”

But the other part of what’s going on is, as noted by Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic, is that the Bush administration and conservative ideologues think that the U.S. health care system costs too much because people have too much insurance. They think insurance “insulates” people from the actual costs, so we use more medical services than we “should.” The only way to control costs, say these hard-nosed free marketeers, is to make everybody pay more medical costs directly.

That’s the theory, except that these same folks aren’t willing to have it apply to them. Business leaders are working hard to insulate themselves from all health care costs, permanently. And if cutting retiree benefits, eliminating health insurance for workers, and making everybody pay more of their costs is such a recipe for success, why won’t top executives eat their own cooking?
Spirit of St. Louis Half Marathon

You got your Arch and historic courthouse in the background, and it's early enough in the race (mile 6 or so) that I don't look really, really angry yet. So it's a nice photo.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I Almost Forgot To Brag About My Half Marathon Time. Almost.

I just posted this week's column a day late because I just returned from the second annual daddy-daughter weekend in St. Louis with America's Favorite College Sophomore. We checked out the latest and greatest in museums, restaurants, and the St. Louis Marathon. This year I opted to run the half marathon, not the full, because I also wanted to hear the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under David Robertson at a matinee that afternoon and it wasn't likely I could manage that after running a full one. So culture won out over blisters.

The half was a new PR for me at 1:52:31, which is an 8:36 pace, which ain't at all bad for an old guy and meant I could get my post-race bagel and drinks without waiting in a long line like all those 2 hour people. For results click here and enter my last name.

I also bring you a good report about the Pulitzer Foundation's minimalism exhibition (it being minimalism, the less said, of course, the more authentic) and Niche, Terrene, and Blueberry Hill for the restaurants, the usual report (which is still perfect) about Ted Drewes, and the SLSO was simply fantastic; it's now one of the five best orchestras in the country and probably in the top 20 or 25 worldwide. If you're anywhere near St. Louis, go.
What If John McCain Waved A Mexican Flag?

Here's this week's column, which tries to deal with the 675-word op ed format by being 2 340-word columns.

"Straight Talk" Means Nothing of the Sort
East Valley Tribune, Apr. 9, 2006

It’s “Then-and-Now” week for The Tribune’s “house liberal.” Let’s start with Arizona’s senior senator, who is redefining “Straight Talk” as “Politically Useful Talk.”

Yes, it’s John McCain, whom Grant Woods once called “the maverick who despises all other mavericks” because in McCain World, only one guy gets to march to a different drummer.

Maybe you managed to overlook it when John McCain endorsed teaching “intelligent design,” or when he said he would have signed the new South Dakota abortion law (the one without any exception for rape or incest), or when he watched passively when the Bush administration said the prohibition on abuse and torture really doesn’t mean anything, or when he threw in with the House GOP anti-reformers on loosening campaign finance limits on funny money in state political parties coordinating with national campaigns.

But what really defined John McCain (for those in the slobbering national press corps who don’t have to live with him) was his willingness to stand up and tell off extremists on both sides, like this quote from Jan. 28, 2000:

“Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.”

Well, that was then; in 2000, it was useful to campaign against Falwell when trolling for votes in open primaries. In 2006, the path to power is a bit different; now McCain needs to pander to highly partisan Republicans, so he’s just agreed to give this year’s commencement address at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart called McCain on what, if a Democrat had done it, would be a “flip-flop” at best and more likely a total collapse of character:

Stewart: You’re not freaking out on us? Are you freaking out on us? Because if you’re freaking out and you’re going into the crazy base world -- are you going into crazy base world?

McCain: I’m afraid so.

Sure, it was a comedy show. So why aren’t you laughing? And can Democrats now do favors for Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton and be every bit as beloved by the media as John McCain? Probably not, but I had to ask.

Then there’s the Mexican flag business. Boy, are people steamed about pro-immigration demonstrators carrying Mexican flags. The mushy centrists are tut-tutting about the lack of public relations savvy shown by the demonstrators, who should have known how off-putting foreign flags would be -- even though they pay as much attention to our media and spokepeople as we do to theirs. The ‘wingers are just happy to have another outrage against which to vent, pointing out that no loyal American should ever wave a foreign flag.

Well, last week I wondered why those same people don’t get upset at displays of the Confederate flag -- and some of them are indeed upset that the Country Thunder music festival has banned that flag of insurrection. But maybe the better example is the Israeli flag, which is prominently displayed at lots of U.S.-Israel solidarity events (and which I’ve carried myself.) So why are the Confederate, or Irish, or Italian, or Israeli flags OK, but the Mexican flag isn’t?

And you might be interested to note that not everybody thinks carrying the Mexican flag is anti-American. In 2004, the Bush-Cheney campaign distributed and mailed a video to Hispanic voters which included a clip of Bush, as Texas governor, walking in San Antonio’s Mexican Independence Day parade while carrying and waving -- yes, the Mexican flag.

I’m sure ‘wingers see no contradiction, because when an Anglo politician panders to Hispanic voters, carrying the Mexican flag is fine. It’s a problem only when immigrant-rights demonstrators forget that their job is pandering to Anglo voters.

But it’s worth considering that while pundits talk about population shifts to the Sun Belt, apparently much of that growth isn’t reading or listening or thinking like the usual readers of this page. Better stop with that “them” stuff -- because “they” are a lot of “us.”

Friday, April 07, 2006

Praise from an Unlikely Quarter

Charles Peters is a frequent email correspondent after each column gets published--and unlike many, he's both civil and thoughtful, even though we disagree strongly about almost everything. He sprang to my defense in the Tribune letters to the editor on April 5th:

In defense of Coppersmith

Tribune columnist Sam Coppersmith has received a good bit of criticism of late. Frankly, this reader thinks he does a first-rate job of representing his point of view, which, to no one’s surprise, represents the Democratic Party’s left wing. What I appreciate about Coppersmith is he formulates an interesting argument without ad hominem attacks on those with whom he disagrees. Further, he is an excellent writer who packages his ideas in lively and accessible prose. In short, he’s a smart guy who spins a interesting yarn every Sunday morning.

Am I just another liberal sticking up for his ideological buddy? Hardly. I am a right-of-center Republican who Coppersmith would no doubt consider a “’winger.” And I almost always disagree with his conclusions. I do, however, always enjoy “the journey.”

The Tribune doesn’t need to get rid of this controversial columnist, as one reader suggested. Rather, the newspaper needs to find a polemicist on the other end of the political spectrum who is as rhetorically skilled and enjoyable to read as the talented — albeit wrongheaded — Sam Coppersmith.

Charles E. Peters, Scottsdale

Given our society's priorities, where being entertaining is compensated so much more highly than being right, this is high praise indeed.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Your One-Stop Quote Shop on Electronic Health Records

Beth Schermer and Kristen Rosati are both quoted in today's Arizona Republic article on the Governor's Arizona Health-e Connection Initiative to encourage the shift to electronic health records. It's a CGSON two-fer.
It's Not The Money, It's The Prestige

Why do I bother writing a weekly column for The Tribune, when they pay me what Calvin Trillin once described as "in the low two figures"? I do it for the fun of driving the 'wingers batty, as evidenced by this letter in today's paper:
Coppersmith Not Worth Reading

I like reading both sides of the fence on issues because it gets me thinking. I stopped reading Sam Coppersmith. The only thing he makes me think about is how mean spirited and crazy he is. His opinions are off the wall. Is he the best the Tribune capable of getting in the East Valley? Get rid of him, increase the credibility of the newspaper.

Marilyn Burke

I take it when Ms. Burke says she likes reading "both sides of the fence" she means she likes to see a variety of opinions in the paper ranging from Bill Frist to, say, Tom DeLay. Tee hee (that's Yiddish for "heh").
Not Insane, Not Responsible

Finally, after four years, a Firesign Theatre reference!

This week's column was inspired by a letter to the editor that apparently just ran in the Scottsdale edition, not the full panoply of East Valley Tribunes. While normally I don't respond much to letters to the editor--I figure if I'm not riling them up, I'm just not doing my job--but this letter was so jaw-droppingly at odds with reality that I couldn't let it pass. If you want to read J.F.'s letter in full, it's here. Still, while you can get the flavor without clicking from the column anyway, it's still worth quoting J.F. in full:

Publication:East Valley Tribune; Date:Mar 25, 2006; Section:Scottsdale Opinion; Page Number:52

Dems helped facilitate profligacy

Sam Coppersmith almost got it right with his column in Sunday’s Tribune. His comments about the spending habits of the Republican Congress were not far off base, but he failed to point out that the basic cause of this spending spree was due to the action of the Democrats.

Some time ago, when the Democrats had control of the Congress, the Republicans, in an attempt to regain control, introduced the “Contract with America.” Promises were made to the American public outlining, among other things, fiscal responsibility of a Republican Congress.

The effort was successful in electing a Republican majority. As a result, a principal architect of the “Contract” became the target for removal by the Democrats. The conditions of the “Contract” without the principal architect, diminished and the “Contract with America” no longer had the intended impact.

While the Republican Congress has gone overboard in their spending spree, the Democrats must share their part of the blame by having removed the spending restraint offered by the now defunct “Contract with America.”


So much for what actually happened. Now read the column.

The print version of the colum is here. My proposed title was " 'The Responsibility Era' Means Republicans Aren't Responsible For Anything" but the editor's choice was close enough. And maybe the best analogy isn't the Confederate flag, but rather all of the solidarity-with-Israel events where we carry the Israeli flag. So that's OK because Israel is farther away than Mexico?

East Valley Tribune, April 2, 2006

I got a semi-compliment from Scottsdale reader J.F., whose letter to the editor on March 25 called my comments about the fiscal imprudence of the GOP Congress “not far off base.” That’s high praise from a ‘winger. (J.F. is a ‘winger because a past letter to the editor, in the other daily newspaper, urged Congress not to adopt a ban on cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees. That’s how we recognize conservatives these days -- support for torture.)

But J.F. said that it really wasn’t the Republicans’ fault, because the “basic cause” of Republicans’ profligacy was something the Democrats did.

That assertion is quite perplexing to anybody residing in the reality-based universe, so please pay attention. J.F.’s theory begins with the Republicans adopting the “Contract with America,” which promised fiscal responsibility. The Contract succeeded in electing a GOP congressional majority, so “a principal architect” of the Contract became “a target for removal by the Democrats.” Once this guy was removed, the Contract “no longer had the intended impact” and it’s now “defunct” -- all because of the Democrats.

I recount J.F.’s argument in detail because it shows how far Republicans must stretch to avoid the unpleasant reality of their total control of all three branches of the federal government, with its absolutely terrible results. Let’s leave aside for the moment that the “Contract with America” wasn’t a plan but rather a collection of soundbites, which actually had very little to do with fiscal responsibility. J.F.’s attempt to blame it all on the Democrats ignores that the “Contract with America” wasn’t signed by just one guy, but by almost every Republican running that year, including Arizona’s J.D. Hayworth and John Shadegg. If the Contract is defunct, it’s the GOP incumbents who defaulted on it. The Contract didn’t expire when this unnamed “principal architect” did; it’s the Republican incumbents who decided it wasn’t a real contract, merely a campaign gimmick.

J.F. also managed to avoid naming this all-important “principal architect” whose removal supposedly excuses Republicans from keeping their promises. For those with short memories, it was Newt Gingrich. Democrats may have targeted Gingrich, but never could defeat him in his basically bulletproof GOP district. Instead, Gingrich resigned from Congress when several GOP backbenchers refused to support him for speaker after Republicans unexpectedly lost seats in the 1998 midterm elections, ostensibly because Newt wasn’t being conservative enough.

And who played a prominent role in ousting Gingrich? Why, none other than business lobbyist and state GOP chairman (sorry to be redundant) Matt Salmon. It wasn’t the Democrats that got rid of Newt, J.F.; it was the Republicans.

But give J.F. credit for being a “real” Republican, because he shares the GOP core belief that no Republican is ever responsible for anything. That’s how George W. Bush can talk with total bafflement that FEMA isn’t getting trailers to Katrina evacuees, as if he and his appointees somehow have nothing to do with running FEMA. That’s how GOP incumbent Jon Kyl, who’s been in Congress for nearly 20 years, is campaigning yet again against irresponsible incumbents who've been in Congress for nearly 20 years. And J.F. apparently really does believe that the current GOP Congress and the Bush administration can’t be blamed for anything because of a resignation that occurred almost eight years ago (and one that he, in his valiant attempt to make reality conform to his beliefs, blames on Democrats and not the Republicans like Salmon who actually knifed Newt).

There’s a simple cure for Contract default: Had enough? Stop electing Republicans.

Finally, I’ve been asked for my opinion by some folks outraged that those immigrant rights marchers carried Mexican flags. However, I view flying the Mexican flag as less disturbing and improper than displaying the Confederate flag. (Don’t get me started on why the State of Arizona would honor Jefferson Davis by naming a highway after him.) You’d think the flag of an insurrection against the U.S. would be more offensive than the flag of our southern neighbor. Unless there’s something else going on here. I wonder what that could be?