Saturday, January 31, 2004

Curiouser and Curiouser

Did you know that 8,279 voters in the New Hampshire Republican primaries wrote a Democrat's name on their ballots? In fact,

U.S. Senator John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, who won the Democratic primary, came in second to Bush in the Republican contest, winning 3,009 votes. Kerry name was written in on almost 5 percent of all GOP ballots.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if this presaged the beginning of a new era of sanity in New Hampshire and, cross your fingers, even in the rest of the country? Probably not. But it's always good to dream.

Friday, January 30, 2004

Blog Touring

Here's a short travel guide to the Liberal Coalition blogs and a few others:

First, both Steve Gilliard and Stradiotto are feeling poorly. Best wishes for speedy recovery. You are needed back.

Second, the Democratic primaries are the hot topic as might be expected. Corrente has a good analysis of the treatment the 'cool' media of television gives to Dean's 'hot' candidacy, Respectful of Otters reminds us that Dean is just acting like physicians do, Trish Wilson discusses the Diane Sawyer interview of the Deans and also doubts whether the two parties are any different at all for the majority of voters. Chris Brown reminds us that Dean still has the most delegates, and Bark Bark Woof Woof considers the desirability of a continuing Dean campaign.

Dean is not the only candidate people write about. The Clonecone blog looks at Lieberman's position in the race and wonders if anybody wants him there, and dohiy mir tells us why he doesn't want to vote for Kerry.

Choices for everybody, right? And if you like something more general on the primaries, Amy at blogAmy gives a good assessment of several of the candidates. If this is too serious, go and play the game with the Democratic debate points at And Then...

Third, looking at the policies of president Bush is ever popular. MercuryX23 notes that people in Iraq don't much matter to the administration, while upyernoz at Rubber Hose writes about what does matter in Iraq for the president: the proper timing of shifting power for maximal election benefits at home. Edwardpig urges people to vote against Bush and praises the administration whistleblowers, and Invisible Library tells us why librarians and reading suffer under the current administration. Gotham City13 interprets the Bush interview in Poland for us ordinary folks. The Fulcrum is astonished that a journalist actually pressed Condi Rice for an answer on an important question, though she refused, and Collective Sigh thinks that Cheney will be dumped.

Fourth, humor is also to be had on the LC blogs, or at least good discussions of it. Speedkill watched Dennis Miller's inaugural show on CNBC and it wasn't funny, and Pen-Elayne has a good discussion on why something is funny and why it's not.

Finally, Rook has a wonderful rant! Also, don't miss the interesting discussion on manliness at Alas, A Blog.

The Manly Art of Politics

From one extreme end of the political spectrum (George Will in the Washington Post) to the other (Richard Goldstein in the Nation) the pundits and talking heads seem to agree: Politics Is A Manly Man's Game. Neither writer finds this particularly disconcerting, probably because they are both men. It's nice to have a game all for yourself and to point out that it's because you are better at it.

The only problem with this is, of course, that politics is not a parlour-game, but supposedly the manner in which we take care of our shared concerns. Or is that just propaganda to be fed to the not-so-manly men and all women?

Be as it may, these otherwise completely different political writers are now unanimous in their demands for macho or butch politicians, men bristling with body hair, anger and competitiveness. George Will quotes a writer called Carnes Lord who argues that leadership

"... presupposes some element of "such traditionally manly qualities as competitiveness, aggression or, for that matter, the ability to command.""

There you have it. Woman can't lead because they don't have the manly qualities of competitiveness, aggression or, for that matter, the ability to command. Well, except for the tiny fact that Will provides no evidence of the absence of these qualities in women, and except for the tiny fact that anybody who grew up a girl knows all about womanly competitiveness, aggression and even the ability to lead.

"Can a Democrat be an alpha male?" asks Richard Goldstein in his rambling Nation article. Goldstein sees the popularity of the Republican party among white men as caused by a successful campaign to interpret political issues in symbolic terms as a battle between the white men and everybody else; a war waged to either maintain their supremacy in the society or to end it. And the Republicans are on the side of the white dude, whereas the Democrats are against him. That's why, according to Goldstein, only 22% of white men identify as Democrats.

George Will goes even further:

"New Hampshire confirmed what Iowa intimated. Democrats who are serious about the candidates' electability understand that seriousness requires a retreat from the feminization of politics.

That explains Democrats' short-lived flirtation with Wesley Clark, the empty uniform who, were a Democrat now president, probably would be on the right flank of Republicans running this year. And the Democrats' movement away from feminization explains John Kerry's brisk forward march, with a military cadence.

Kerry's "patrician aloofness" may be manly reticence. But he has embraced today's confessional ethos by making autobiography serve as political philosophy and reducing his narrative to a war story. Riding his Harley, gunning for Iowa pheasants and playing hockey in New Hampshire have expressed his campaign's subtext: manliness."

A retreat from the feminization of politics is what we need now according to Will? Hmmm. What's the number of women in the U.S. Congress again? How many female American presidents can you list? How many are running for the job of the next president? How much feminization of politics would be acceptable to Will? One percent? Or even less?

Goldstein doesn't pretend that politics has somehow suddenly been feminized, but he does have other odd ideas. For one, he thinks that the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center Towers has a clear symbolic significance as an attack on traditional masculinity (never mind that the attackers also were men, never mind that women also died in this atrocity, never mind that this utterly trivializes the real human suffering that took place), and that this attack reinforces our desire for a strong Daddy to lead and protect us. And presumably the new phallic symbol that will be erected in the place of the destroyed Towers.

Because Will is a conservative, he's quite comfortable with a plan to masculinize politics even further. Because Goldstein is not, he adds the obligatory nod to us non-macho readers at the end of his article:

"We may resent the fact that Americans regard the penis and its symbolic projections as synonymous with strength. But the psychic reality cannot be denied. At this moment, most voters are looking for a leader who reassures them with a manly presentation. The trick is to be the man women admire, blacks find credible and white guys bond with. It's a hard job, but someone's got to do it or Bush will ride the backlash to the White House - with a real mandate this time."

And what is the backlash that will take Bush back to the White House? It's not obvious from Goldstein's article, unless he means the need to protect our phallic symbols. I wonder if this bit is from an older article, written about 2000. Never mind, in comparison to Will's feverish ramblings (do read them if you doubt me) Goldstein comes across clear as water. Sort of.

Now, as I have no penis handy myself, I do resent the 'fact' that Americans regard the penis as synonymous with strength. Maybe I should strike Will and Goldstein down with my divine feminine pinky, just to remind them not to make simplistic stereotyping generalizations at the expense of real critical thought. Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Elizabeth the First of England, Catharine the Great of Russia and many other woman leaders in history show that strength is not only a manly characteristic. Women can be competitive, aggressive and ruthless, and men can be cooperative, kind and merciful. Human beings have access to all sorts personality traits, and to assume that they are solely determined by what might be found between the legs is preposterous and insulting. And not only insulting to women, as may have been the intention of these articles, but also to men and especially white men whom Goldstein at least regards as immature teenagers permanently worried about the next erection and its size and unable to differentiate their own human worth from such considerations.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Does This Work?

The next post below this one is intended to reveal my soft side, the subtle feminine touches of appreciating beauty in a snowflake and the admiration one feels when ones long scaly snaketail whips up lovely filigrees in the freshly-fallen snow. I hope it works to balance my public image. It better work, for my future plans for posts are a bit fangy.

An Introduction to Winter

On a winter night when it's snowing, go out, turn your head up and stick out your tongue. Taste the snowflakes melting on your tongue. If there's already enough snow on the ground, lie down on your back and look at the sky. Are there stars? Northern lights? Then move your straight legs and arms up and down as far as they go. Get up carefully, and admire your artwork. You have just created a buttangel! You could make a whole row of these, a chorus to sing the ode to winter. If you are a man, you could also write them a song to sing in the snow.

Next, make a snow lantern if the snow balls easily in your hands. Make nine snowballs and set them in a tight circle on the ground. Place another seven snowballs above the first eleven, slightly inwards and inbetween the first balls. Continue with five and then three. Slip a lighted candle or tealight down through the whole that remains, and cap the whole with one perfect snowball. You could have a row of snowlights leading to your door, inviting the spirits of winter in, or just partyguests if you prefer.

Find a piece of corrugated cardboard and a hill where children go sledding. If you are shy, wait until they have gone to bed. Sit on your cardboard and slide down the hill. Don't forget to scream. Then try it on your back, head first.

Go home and make a SnowBush. The principle is the same as in making snowmen. Use pebbles for eyes, nostrils and teeth. Use larger stones to pelt the SnowBush down.

On a clear winter morning, take a walk. Look at the architecture of nature, its spare, elegant bones, the beauty of the bodies of trees, the contrasting plushness of winter animals and birds. Notice the colors that hide in what first seems starkly black and white: the silvers and faint burgundies, the pinks and icy blues, the colored shadows of tree trunks and boulders, and then the sudden thrill of the blood-red berries on bare branches.

Then go back to your warm home, anticipating a hot cup of chocolate or a glass of cider with a cinnamon stick, and the warmth that will slowly seep back into your fingers and cheeks while your eyes will retain the shine and brightness of winter.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

The Jobless Recovery Is Just Fine!

So says an editorial in the Washington Post, a central player in the great liberal media conspiracy. Such editorials are a goddess-send to us weary bloggers, even when they are anonymous as this one is. And no, I didn't write it just to have something to laugh at, but I almost wish I had.

The editorial tells us to look at the bright side of the jobless recovery. It points out that the current unemployment is largely structural rather than cyclical (i.e., based on a mismatch with the changed needs of the economy and the existing skills and education of the workers rather than on a drop in aggregate demand caused by recessions). It then interprets this as joyous news:

"But the bigger question is whether jobless recoveries are a bad thing. They are, after all, the flip side of good news. There is less cyclical unemployment these days, so recessions are milder; fewer jobs are being created now because fewer jobs were destroyed during the downturn. Moreover, a jobless recovery means, by definition, that each worker is producing more. Higher productivity, in turn, is the best promise possible of higher wages and employment in the future."

The first two sentences in this quote are equivalent to saying that it would be a good thing if cancer was a larger percentage of all illnesses and if the relative percentage of influenza sufferers decreased correspondingly. We could then avoid getting the flu every winter, because we would all be dead from cancer or barely surviving chemotherapy. Whatever will the so-called liberal media say next?

Well, the editorial says next that it's great how each worker still working in a jobless recovery is producing more, or rather, working harder. Then it makes a subtle shift to a different reality, and continues by stating that:

"Higher productivity, in turn, is the best promise possible of higher wages and employment in the future."

That each worker might be producing more does NOT necessarily mean that worker productivity per hour of work is up. People may simply be working much longer hours just to keep their jobs. And no, dear Anonymous, higher worker productivity does NOT mean that earnings will automatically rise. There's a large number of workers out there who'd like a stab at any job, many of them in places like India and China, and this reserve will keep wages low. Besides, employers have market power in many labor markets, and they can use this power to keep wages and employment lower. Workers, on the other hand, have very little power, what with us having gotten rid of the evil trade unions.

Read the whole thing tonight instead of the cartoons page in your local newspaper. It's worth it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Poetry For Today

The New Hampshire primaries have taken the limelight away from George W. Bush. I want to give some of it back to him. Here it goes:

This following poem is composed entirely of actual quotes from George W. Bush. It was compiled and arranged by Washington Post writer Richard Thompson.

Make the Pie Higher

I think we all agree, the past is over.
This is still a dangerous world.
It's a world of madmen
And uncertainty
And potential mental losses.

Rarely is the question asked
Is our children learning?
Will the highways of the internet
Become more few?
How many hands have I shaked?

They misunderestimate me.
I am a pitbull on the pantleg of opportunity.
I know that the human being and the fish
Can coexist.

Families is where our nation finds hope
Where our wings take dream.
Put food on your family!
Knock down the tollbooth!
Vulcanize society!
Make the pie higher!
Make the pie higher!

Malpractice Awards - The Cause of High Health Care Costs?

You may be forgiven for believing so if you listened to president Bush speak on Monday in Arkansas. He blamed the malpractice system for high medical care costs. One of his main arguments was this:

""Hear me out on this: (unnecessary lawsuits) drive docs to prescribe drugs and procedures that may not be necessary, just to avoid lawsuits. That's called the defensive practice of medicine.""

And all this defensive yet unnecessary medicine costs more, thus causing the health care expenses to rise. Or so says the president.

What to do about this? The Republicans and the American Medical Association, AMA (sort of like a trade union for physicians) favor caps on malpractice awards, or at least the part of the awards that goes to compensate the victim for pain and suffering. Bush also seems to believe that there are too many:

""junk" lawsuits [that] cost taxpayers because they drive the federal government's health care costs up by $28 billion a year."."

Does this mean that we should reduce the patients' ability to sue their providers and limit the total awards to some smaller sum than is currently possible? In other words, should we get rid of 'frivolous' law suits and 'excessive' awards? And would this then reduce the costs of health care?

To answer these questions, it's good to know why we have a system of medical malpractice suits in the first place. Its major goals are to compensate the victims of medical malpractice and to discourage doctors, hospitals and other medical providers from committing acts of malpractice; malpractice beind defined as acts of omission (not doing the correct thing) and acts of commission (doing the incorrect thing). If we make suing doctors and hospitals harder, and if we reduce the awards going to the victims, we'll cut back on the probability that the victim will be adequately compensated and we'll increase the probability that a negligent doctor or hospital will get away with this negligence altogether. What other safety precautions would the president apply to protect the victims and to deter future malpractice? I see none in the proposals.

Oh, but we are told that many of the current malpractice suits are frivolous. Maybe then it would be acceptable to cut back a little on the patients' rights and the providers' restraints? Maybe. But consider the results from a study carried out by the Harvard School of Public Health in the 1990s: The researchers retrospectively studied the actual medical records of hospital patients in New York state during the mid-1980's, and found out that medical malpractice had taken place in one admission out of each one hundred. Only a tenth of those affected by malpractice had actually sued their practitioners, and less than one half of this tenth won their cases. In summary, only five per cent of those with a good case had actually been awarded malpractice compensation.

Now, it's possible that many patients also sue without proper cause, given that roughly 40% of all doctors will be sued at least once during their lifetimes. Some suits are indeed frivolous, and some frivolous suits get awards because of the inherent randomness of the legal process. It would be nice to reduce these suits while retaining and even encouraging the rights of those with a real grievance to sue. The trick is how to do this.

What about the large court awards for medical malpractice? The average award size has grown over the years, that's true. President Bush sees the cause for this in the greedy trial lawyers who take cases on contingency basis (client pays nothing if the suit is unsuccessul, then a certain percentage of the total award for successful cases): the bigger the award, the more the lawyers get paid.

"Lawyers walk away with up to 40 percent - 40 percent! - of every settlement and verdict," Bush said."

The legal system is indeed a pretty inefficient way of compensating the victims. The problem is that the Bush alternative would not only reduce some of these inefficiencies but also reduce the patients' ability to seek compensation. As an example, if contingency suits are banned, poor patients will find it very hard to procure legal help, as they need to be able to pay whether the suit is successful or not.

The president may have spoken against trial lawyers for political reasons, but he was silent about other reasons for the high malpractice awards for reason of ignorance, most likely. The awards are not high simply because lawyers are seeking maximal payments for themselves. They are also high because doctors and hospitals carry insurance against malpractice awards, and the juries know that the money they allow to the victims is not coming from the pockets of the individual provider standing in the dock, but from anonymous, big and wealthy insurance companies. No need to cry for the lost educational opportunities of the poor doctor's children, or to fear that a small local hospital will shut down due to the financial problems of paying the award.

The whole existence of medical malpractice insurance is an anomaly. Insurance is supposed to protect us against unforeseen random events outside our influence. Surely malpractice is none of those things. Strictly speaking, malpractice insurance makes no economic sense. Its existence protects doctors, hospitals and other medical providers, true, but we don't in general sell people insurance against their own mistakes or crimes.

One unintended consequence of the malpractice insurance system is the protection it offers to the true 'rotten eggs' in the medical professions. Only a small number of doctors, for example, is responsible for most large awards; yet all doctors help them out by subsidizing them through malpractice insurance. This is not good for the goal of discouraging providers from committing further malpractice, and it makes nonnegligent doctors and hospitals take the side of those who actually should not be allowed to practice any longer. Something that should have been seen as a fault-based approach to compensating the victims and punishing the offenders has now been transformed into a general business problem for all doctors and hospitals.

So yes, the system does need urgent reforms. Whether the ones president Bush is backing are in fact the right ones is highly debatable. I believe that we are at risk of throwing away the baby (compensating victims and deterring further malpractice) while keeping the bathwater (high health care costs).

And what about the bathwater? According to the president, we would save lots of money if physicians no longer had to practise defensive medicine. Actually, studies have shown that whatever is said by the politicians, doctors don't practise that defensively to begin with. This makes sense as most malpractice studies are not about something the doctor didn't do (omission), but about something the doctor may have done wrong (commission). Doing more things on top of something that's wrong isn't going to reduce the likelihood that a provider will be sued. Given the absence of evidence on any current costs of defensive medicine, we can't assume that the health care costs would be lowered by changes in the malpractice awards system.

Reducing the size of the payments could decrease the doctors' insurance payments, of course. It's a totally different question whether doctors would pass these savings to their patients or not.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

On Shopping

I have a sin to confess: I don't like shopping. No, I don't just not-like it; I HATE IT! Have hated it for years.

I wish I were a man. Men are not given the commandment to "shop until you drop", men are not held to blame when the economy collapses due to "loss in consumer confidence" (read: due to women buying less). Nonshopping men are not regarded as evolutionary failures. Rather, men have the much more pleasant duty to make up bad jokes about shopaholic women. I wish I were a man.

But the fact is that I am a woman who hates shopping. We never have any food in the house. We have a house we have long since outgrown. I wear my clothes until they fall into shreds, when my long-suffering husband goes out and buys me some new ones in varying, approximately correct sizes. And still I will not repent or reform. Not even when our president told us that the war against terrorism depended on my shopping.

Oh, but I tried! I tried. But I never got past the first step in my twelve-step program: admitting that I hate shopping. Medications failed to work; having the prescriptions filled would have meant going out to buy them. My Freudian therapist thought that I suffered from insufficient consumption envy, my cognitive one urged me to rethink shopping until I realized I had a previously unrecognized phobia concerning internet sales sites. At last I could no longer face the thought of shopping for a new therapist.

This can't go on. I am falling apart under the pressure. My husband, loving and supportive all through this unending ordeal, is developing ulcers from the unnatural, unmanly position he has been forced to take as the main consumer in the family. My friends seldom visit us anymore, and when they do I hear them whispering to each other, pointing out the absence of bunny-decorated kitchen towels, dried flower arrangements, food.

I have a recurring nightmare: There is a knock on the door, presaging the entry of the stern agents from the Consumer Interest Association. Gigabites of their computers are filled by my case: the Public Enemy Number One, a woman denying her proper womanly role, a consumer abstaining from consumption, a citizen refusing to participate in this most sacred sphere of our shared capitalistic concerns. I wake up screaming:"What are you going to do with me?"

What they might do with me doesn't bear thinking about. Oh, don't doubt for one moment that I wouldn't accept whatever fate it might be; I know that it is people like me who are slowly destroying the country our founding fathers made so great. If they ever come for me I shall go without resistance.

But in the meantime I still hate shopping.