Archive for April, 2010


April 28, 2010

Timothy Geithner, Arne Duncan and Valerie Jarrett, in their joint utterance at

, tell us that “most Americans don’t have the knowledge and skills they need to make the right financial decisions for themselves and their families.” Well, yeah. What most Americans will need to know, in the economy now evolving before us, comes down to ten very simple precepts:

1. Never believe anything a lender, a salesman, or a current or potential employer tells you, especially if it includes the words “trust me” or promises some sort of future benefit in exchange for a current benefit foregone or postponed, even if it is presented in a signed, dated written document.
2. But never let this healthy mistrust keep you from doing business with such inherently untrustworthy people. (Who else is there?) Just cut the cards yourself, and get everything in writing, even if you have to write it down yourself.
3. Do anything necessary to avoid taking vacation, maternity, family leave, or sick time, even when your employer encourages you to “take all the time you need” (see #1 above.)
4. Keep your overhead as low as possible consistent with health and safety. This applies especially to fixed costs such as housing, education, and health care.
5. Stay current in your rent and utilities.
6. Avoid using credit for anything other than a mortgage.
7. Never cosign a loan.
8. It is better to be the poorest person in a rich neighborhood/suburb than the richest person in a poor neighborhood/suburb (unless you have ambitions in local politics.)
9. Stay on good terms with your family. You may not be able to afford independence.
10. Be active in your community, and join a church or other religious organization (or the equivalent for atheists and agnostics—yes, there are such things.) Do favors if you can afford it—they may come back to you when you need them most.

The stuff about investments and retirement plans is no longer worth a rat’s patootie to ordinary working (or would-be working) people. This is how Third World people survive. This is the financial literacy we really need these days.


“Teachers’ Pay Not Linked to Success”

April 19, 2010

Thus read the headline on today’s Chicago Sun-Times. As I walked past the news box and scanned it, I could only say “Duuuuh.” Most people’s pay is not linked to success at whatever their jobs require them to accomplish. Harvard Business School does studies on this issue every so often. The last one I recall reading about, which was looking only at salary levels for its own graduates, controlled for all the factors it could measure, and finally concluded that the crucial variable was physical height. People who have ever been unemployed for more than a few months will have lower-than-average salaries for the rest of their working lives, regardless of how well they do their jobs. People who have been notably underpaid at any stage in their work history (women, for instance) will go on being underpaid for the rest of their working lives, because most employers calibrate a worker’s pay based on his/her previous pay.

Well, okay, that probably wasn’t what the headline really meant. I took a look at the article over lunch, and it really defined “success” in terms of the test results of the students. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of whether student test results are a valid measure of teacher competence and dedication.) How, one may ask, is this different from Wall Street bonuses, which fall upon the competent and the incompetent, those who lead their companies into success and failure, with equal frequency?

I suppose it’s different because the Wall Street managers don’t have a union, and have to accomplish this remarkable feat of economic ledgerdemain one at a time, a tribute to the spirit of American individualism. Ain’t free enterprise grand?

Red Emma

The Benedict Arnold Option

April 19, 2010

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” (E.M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy) Sorry about the title—I couldn’t resist it, although Forster is a lot closer than Arnold to what I’m really talking about here. Arnold acted, apparently, out of wounded pride, exasperated competence, and desire to look good in front of the woman he loved. I actually got the DAR award for excellence in American history in high school for writing an essay about him. Most of the major spies and traitors in our recent history were just greedheads, with the possible exception of Jonathan Pollard, who was acting out of what he considered a higher loyalty (although I think money was also involved?) The Brits seem to breed a slightly more elevated and idealistic type.

Anyway, in order to talk about treason and betrayal, one needs to first examine patriotism. Some of my Alexandrian colleagues seem to value tribal loyalty, at least in front of tribal outsiders, above such things as freedom of speech. I think patriotism is different from tribal loyalty. The point of patriotism is responsibility. I try to take good care of my house, my neighborhood, my family, my city, my country, and my planet, to the extent that I can. That’s how one pays rent on the land one occupies and the air one breathes. If I lived somewhere else, I would have the same obligations to that community/country/whatever. And there are certainly circumstances under which I would consider moving to somewhere else. (I once heard somebody point out that the reason most American Jews live on the East and West Coasts is the same reason nervous people choose aisle seats in the theater—for ease of quick exit. I live in the Midwest, but I do keep my passport current.)

I don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I used to just be mildly uncomfortable with it. That was before the 1992 election, in which God’s Own Party lambasted Michael Dukakis because, as governor of Massachusetts, he followed the applicable Supreme Court decisions by allowing teachers with principled objections not to recite the Pledge before class. The temper of that discourse convinced me that, however the Pledge had started out (and it was, after all, written by a socialist), it had now become an act of idolatry every bit as offensive as burning incense on Caesar’s altar. I don’t make a fuss about this. While everybody else is reciting the Pledge, I am saying Kaddish for all those who have been sacrificed to this idol. Nobody notices the difference. Fine with me. I believe that, in slighting the physical form of the flag, I am upholding the values “for which it stands.”

But I vote, even in off-year primaries. Unlike the average self-styled American patriot, I even report for jury duty when called, unless I have a really valid excuse for not doing it, like being in the middle of a trial myself. (In Illinois, lawyers do get called for jury duty. So do judges, in fact.)

And I really do believe there is something uniquely valuable about being an American. Back in my English teacher days, I had a number of foreign students in my classes. In the late 1960s, one of my classes was having a discussion about some recent incidents of long-haired hippies getting forcible haircuts. I asked, at one point, “Well, why should anybody stop a person from wearing his hair long if he likes it that way?” A Jordanian student found that question utterly baffling. “You mean people have the right to look any way they want to?” he asked. He had real trouble understanding, and in that moment I understood, in the proverbial blinding flash, what it means to be an American. We start from the presumption of freedom. We may move away from it for one reason or another, but that is always our starting point. Like it or not (and sometimes I really don’t) I’m an American, by that standard.

But loyalty, like obedience and unity, is a relative value. It is no better than whatever one is being loyal to. I spent the Vietnam War being a draft counselor and Selective Service maven. I felt that putting a conscript army (or any of its individual components) into the hands of the nutjobs running the Vietnam War was no better than putting a loaded gun into the hands of a blind drunk. By the time the war was over, Selective Service had to send out five induction notices to get one man into the Army. That was, obviously, one of the reasons the government finally got out of there. To the probably minuscule extent that my work had anything to do with that, I’m proud of it. As a practical matter, I was probably helping the Army, to some extent. A lot of the guys I enabled to avoid (not evade) the draft, the Army was probably better off without anyway. I didn’t encourage fakery of anything. All my counselees, so far as I know, made perfectly kosher claims for perfectly legal deferments. (Digression here: half of everybody, in every military draft for which the records exist, fails the physical. But during the Vietnam era, a lot of people who should have failed the physical didn’t, because many induction center physicals involved merely a cursory counting of extremities. The only way to make this system work properly was to provide medical documentation, from one’s own physician, explaining the medical problem in question and how it was disqualifying under the applicable Army reg. For the inner-city kid whose medical care, if any, came from an overworked ER doctor whose idea of medical documentation was to write “Sick—No Work” on a prescription slip, this wasn’t much help. My job, in a lot of instances, was to hook up the inner-city kid with a local doc who could provide real documentation. Bona fide documentation. Usually of conditions the Army really didn’t want to deal with.) I’m pretty sure that what I was doing was legal. I am quite sure that it was patriotic. But these days, I probably couldn’t run for dogcatcher without God’s Own Party calling me a terrorist. Needless to say, I am not running for anything.

Do I believe the United States is better than any other country? No. Do I think I could be a good citizen of any other country? Yes, though I probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much. I think I’d be a lousy Frenchwoman, and a pretty poor Israeli. Maybe a reasonably good Brit. But if for whatever reason I lived in France or Israel or the UK, I would feel obliged to try, even if my efforts landed me in jail.

But, getting back to Forster’s Two Cheers (maybe I should have titled this “One-and-a-half cheers for the US”?), there are things that matter more to me than my country, whatever it might be. Justice (like not locking up people indefinitely without trial. Albert Camus said, while France was beating up on the Algerians, “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. …”) Decency (like not torturing prisoners.) The draft board used to ask my conscientious objector clients, as predictably as night follows day, “Would you have fought against Hitler?” It was the wrong question. The right question would be “If you had lived in Italy during WWII, would you have fought for Mussolini?” And the right answer would be, “No. It would have been my duty to Italy not to.”

What all this comes down to is that voting does not exhaust the duty of a citizen to exercise independent thought and action on behalf of the polity. You don’t just vote and then blindly obey whoever wins, whatever he demands. If this be treason, as Patrick Henry says, make the most of it.

Red Emma

President Obama and Visiting the Sick

April 16, 2010

…which is, in case you didn’t know, a mitzvah for Jews and a corporal work of mercy for Catholics. Dunno about the rest of you guys. Anyway, the President has issued an executive order requiring all health care facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid money to honor the express wishes of all patients with regard to visitation and surrogate decision-making, without discrimination by reason of, among other things, sexual orientation.

My experience and understanding is that hospitals have typically dealt with these issues on a fairly informal basis. For instance, they have exercised a lot of leeway in deciding who is “next of kin” for purposes of information and decision-making. If anybody in the patient’s family is a medical or legal professional, that person is likely to get a lot of deference from the hospital, as a way of neutralizing a possible source of litigation and legal hassle, regardless of genealogical or geographical closeness or the patient’s expressed wishes. Aside from that, any relative who turns up and asks a lot of questions is probably going to get answers, unless there is some other relative already on the scene with better credentials. I don’t know that hospitals make any written rules about this (docs please correct me if necessary.) And ordinarily, if the patient is really aggressive about introducing a person as “my medical power of attorney,” regardless of genealogy, the hospital goes along with this. Unless, that is, there are other more “official” relatives already on the scene who disagree with this arrangement.

But same-sex partners have on occasion been shut out of visitation and decision-making (sometimes even with a properly signed and witnessed health care power of attorney) by antagonistic family members. The news this week contains lots of instances of such gratuitous meanness. If this involves violation of a power of attorney, it was probably already illegal, but stuff like this usually happens when nobody has the time or the energy to go to court about it.

So the president’s order has solved what has sometimes been a heartbreaking problem for same-sex couples, and probably puts him in the Big Leagues of doers of mitzvot and corporal works of mercy. Good on him.


What’s So Bad About Doing Good revisited

April 12, 2010

This time I’m responding to Robert Samuelson’s column in this week’s Newsweek (as opposed to last time.) He’s talking about why our political arena is so severely divided. Essentially he points to something most historians figured out literally centuries ago—that once something is framed as a moral issue, those on either side of it cannot agree to “split the difference.” That was true of slavery, it was true of civil rights (from both sides), true of the Vietnam War, and so on. Not to mention “Cartago delenda est” and the horrendous misdeeds of Catiline. And, most recently, of course, abortion and same-sex marriage. So far, so obvious.

But then he goes a step further, by presuming that the only reason people will refuse to compromise on moral issues is that seeing themselves as moral people makes them feel good.

Normally, I find Samuelson unexceptionable. But this presumption struck me speechless for quite a while. Me, us, the Wired Sisters who, as Mr. Wired is fond of pointing out, have never had an unpublished thought, sitting there with a blank balloon over my/our head/s. (Moro, can you do something with this?)

In fact, there are two problems with Samuelson’s analysis. One is that, at least most recently, American politicians aren’t divided because the issues they fight over just happen to be moral issues on which there can be no compromise. Rather, they are divided because at least some of them are choosing issues to fight over on which there can be no compromise (like abortion and same-sex marriage), to assure that we will be divided. A case can even be made that at least some of these issues weren’t moral or uncompromisable until one side decided they were, like the health care reform bill, which was sufficiently complex to leave lots of room for splitting the difference. Indeed, some people might suggest that if the Secular Socialist Party were to propose a bill declaring that pi is equal to 3.14159265 etc., God’s Own Party might prepare to fight to the death to legislate it down to 3.0 (as the apocryphal state legislature of Indiana is reputed to have done—ever wondered why your wheels feel funny when you drive through Indiana?)

But the other, as previously stated, is Samuelson’s presumption that nobody takes a moral stand except for the fun of feeling good about themselves. This makes feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, refraining from murder and theft, and picking up your own trash no different from skateboarding, needlepoint, pedophilia, and cocaine. And it makes those who prefer the latter pastimes just as acceptable, as neighbors and role models, as those who get their jollies from the former. This is relativism at its most pernicious. If I believed in the Antichrist and were willing to sic the Hutaree on him, I think I might point them in the direction of Robert Samuelson. This is probably not what Samuelson intended.

Jane Grey


April 1, 2010

or, Walter Mitty Meets the AntiChrist

This is maybe not a fair way to describe Hutaree, since apparently most of their members have some real combat experience. But they do sound more like re-enactors than real terrorists. Their alleged plot to kill a cop and then blow up his funeral procession is a nasty one (considerably more so than the Catonsville Nine’s alleged plot in the 1970s to kidnap Henry Kissinger.) But I’m not sure they were any more serious about it than the Merry Band of Berrigans. I’m also not sure that getting married with their guns at the ready is much different from getting married to their guns. And they’re just too upfront to be real, an FBI dream (and possibly an FBI setup, like the Catonsville Nine.) If I were a real terrorist, I would probably use a re-enactor cover for our group, and nobody would notice us until it was too late.

The legalities of prosecuting them may be complicated, too. The closest analogy would be the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to whom the Selective Service (during WWII, I think) denied conscientious objector status because the Witnesses believe they are not merely permitted but obligated to fight in the final battle between Good and Evil, and therefore are not opposed to “all war”, as required by law. The Supremes took the rather improbable position, not that this final battle is a metaphor, but that it is simply not going to happen, so that the Witnesses could, if they wanted to, qualify for CO status. [Most of them, BTW, demanded clergy status instead, got turned down, and ended up in prison. But I digress.] Since, presumably, that is also the battle Hutaree is training for, the case against them may not hold up any better than the case against the Witnesses, unless the Supremes in the meantime have decided Armageddon is a real war.

The “official” Michigan Militia has disowned Hutaree (rather like the “official” IRA disowning the “provisional” IRA) without necessarily denouncing the principles of that group. The spectrum of right-wing dissent seems to have become denser than it was 20 years ago. One hopes that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is the most competent monitor of such groups, recognizes the possibility that government provocateurs are behind the whole thing. Your tax dollars at work.

Red Emma