Saturday, December 31, 2005

 

Good News!!!

The Chrobog family was released early Saturday morning.

Everyone is apparently safe and sound.

Very good news as 2004 draws to a close.

A Happy New Year to one and all!


May all your hopes and wishes come true in '06!




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Friday, December 30, 2005

 

Dungy & The 'S'-Word

It was the elephant in the room that, seemingly, no one wanted to talk about. The coverage on Indianapolis Colt coach Tony Dungy dealing with the sudden death of his 18-year old son James was appropriately respectful.

ESPN and other sports outlets focused on how soon would Dungy make it back, how would the team react in the short-term and the long-term, various experts were brought in to discuss whether something positive can come from such a tragedy.

Yet, it seemed out of concern for family "privacy" that there was an active avoidance of the "s"-word -- suicide? Yes, it was mentioned, "apparent suicide." But, there was no desire to grapple with some of the broader implications of that fact.

Obviously, one could read between the lines when Coach Dungy delivered a message to parents during his eulogy to James:
"I want to urge you to continue being who you are because our young boys in this country, they need to hear from you," he said. "If anything, be bolder in who you are. Because our boys are getting a lot of the wrong messages about what it means to be a man in this world. About how you should act, and how you should dress, and how you should talk, and how you should treat people. They don't always get the right message, but you guys have the right messages."
Even the statement that Dungy and his wife released ached for some public context: "We loved our son very much, he loved us and we miss him terribly. James was a good young man with a compassionate heart and we were glad to have him for 18 years...and that God has him now for the rest of eternity."

What was left out of the ellipses -- which may tell you something about the editorial biases of some editors -- was this phrase (picked up from a television camera), " We were also glad that he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior..."

One of the awful aspects of suicide is that some religious denominations consider a major sin -- despair that leads one to turn away from God and end one's precious gift -- and consider that those who commit it can never be in God's presence. Obviously, these are not the types of discussion one expects on cable television at any time. Furthermore, it is clear that Tony Dungy's faith is something that endures with him in the best and the worst times. His faith tells him that his son is with his God.

However, the broader question of a teen committing suicide -- a teen from a successful black family, yet, should have had some context.

Which is why I'm glad Baltimore Sun columnist Gregory Kane
asked this question: "[H]ow common is suicide among young black men? Is it on the rise?"

Kane explores the fact that suicide is a topic oft-ignored within the black community -- particularly so, given that African-Americans tend to be more religious than their white counterparts. He concludes:
Remember that James Dungy was only 18 years old.

If toxicology reports reveal that he did, in fact, commit suicide, then that opens up a critical new area of discussion for black Americans. Why did James Dungy commit suicide? Was it depression? If it was, why didn’t he seek treatment or help?

Help is the crucial word here. Help is what potential suicide victims need. And black demagogues crying lynching when a young black man commits suicide is a far cry from help. That simply compounds the problem.

Within a 17-month period in the 1990s, I lost a brother to homicide, one sister to cancer and another sister to a heart attack, and I’m still sure I have no idea what Tony Dungy has been going through the past week. His only consolation might be that his son’s possible suicide finally starts the much-needed dialogue within black America about why there has been an increase in suicide among young black men.

Amen.



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Thursday, December 29, 2005

 

Wiretaps: Countering One Argument

Volokh conspirator Orin Kerr engages and deconstructs the assertion that the president's authority (under the Constitution's Article II description of the commander-in-chief) to ignore FISA in authorizing wiretaps of Americans.

It's a complicated issue, but Kerr treats the debate with respect and his ultimate concerns are quite valid. In short, defenders of the administration in the area of permitting a broad wiretapping ability -- in the context of an open-ended "wartime" -- need more compelling arguments.







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A Diplomat's Kidnapping...

Juergen Chrobog -- a German diplomat and former ambassador to the United States -- was kidnapped with his wife and three sons while traveling in Yemen. The culprits are reportedly members of Yemeni tribe who have resorted to kidnapping to pressure the main government into freeing members of their tribe jailed on criminal offenses.

Steve Clemons
sums up the case and adds a personal message.

Like Steve, I've become friends over the last few years with Amb. Chrobog's son, Karim, who is one of the hostages. We met courtesy of a transatlantic forum program organized by the
BMW Herbert Quandt Foundation. At the time, Karim was working for AOL Time Warner. Karim and I met most recently at a tenth anniversary event of the program held in Hawaii last February. As Steve mentions, Karim is now in the world of independent film production. Not surprising -- he's a smart and creative guy.

Steve is philosophical and solicitous in trying to reach out to the Yemenis who took the Chrobogs. While hopeful and prayerful for the family's safe return, I am angry. Even if these tribesmen are "friendly" and may have legitimate claims against their government, there is no excuse for taking hostages, terrifying them and inflicting untold pain on their loved ones miles away.


Enough said for now.



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The "Hart" of American Conservatism

In assessing the state of American conservatism, Dartmouth scholar Jeffrey Hart channels Edmund Burke and has some sobering observations on both the Bush administration and the modern Republican Party:

Wilsonianism. The Republican Party now presents itself as the party of Hard Wilsonianism, which is no more plausible than the original Soft Wilsonianism, which balkanized Central Europe with dire consequences. No one has ever thought Wilsonianism to be conservative, ignoring as it does the intractability of culture and people's high valuation of a modus vivendi. Wilsonianism derives from Locke and Rousseau in their belief in the fundamental goodness of mankind and hence in a convergence of interests.

George W. Bush has firmly situated himself in this tradition, as in his 2003 pronouncement, "The human heart desires the same good things everywhere on earth." Welcome to Iraq. Whereas realism counsels great prudence in complex cultural situations, Wilsonianism rushes optimistically ahead. Not every country is Denmark. The fighting in Iraq has gone on for more than two years, and the ultimate result of "democratization" in that fractured nation remains very much in doubt, as does the long-range influence of the Iraq invasion on conditions in the Middle East as a whole. In general, Wilsonianism is a snare and a delusion as a guide to policy, and far from conservative.

The Republican Party. Conservatives assume that the Republican Party is by and large conservative. But this party has stood for many and various things in its history. The most recent change occurred in 1964, when its center of gravity shifted to the South and the Sunbelt, now the solid base of "Republicanism." The consequences of that profound shift are evident, especially with respect to prudence, education, intellect and high culture. It is an example of Machiavelli's observation that institutions can retain the same outward name and aspect while transforming their substance entirely.
The other "modern Burkean", George Will had similar worries more than a year ago in a speech delivered to the Manhattan Institute:
Now America is engaged in a great exercise in nation-building. America invaded Iraq to disarm a rogue regime thought to be accumulating weapons of mass destruction. After nine months of postwar searching, no such weapons have as yet been found. The appropriate reaction to this is dismay, and perhaps indignation, about intelligence failures—failures that also afflicted the previous American administration and numerous foreign governments.

Instead, Washington’s reaction is Wilsonian. It is: Never mind the weapons of mass destruction; a sufficient justification for the war was Iraq’s noncompliance with various U.N. resolutions. So a conservative American administration says that war was justified by the need—the opportunity—to strengthen the U.N., a.k.a. the “international community,” as the arbiter of international behavior. Woodrow Wilson lives.

It is counted realism in Washington now to say that creating a new Iraqi regime may require perhaps two years. One wonders: Does Washington remember that it took a generation, and the United States Army, to bring about, in effect, regime change—a change of institutions and mores—in the American South? Will a Middle Eastern nation prove more plastic to our touch than Mississippi was? Will two years suffice for America—as Woodrow Wilson said of the Latin American republics—to teach Iraq to elect good men? We are, it seems, fated to learn again the limits of the Wilsonian project.

Make of this what you will.



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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

 

Veni Vedi Veci Vinny!!!

Eric McErlain outlines the likely NFL Films elegy for Vinnie "From Brooklyn" Testaverde of the New York J-E-T-S Jets! Jets! Jets!

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Monday, December 26, 2005

 

Health Costs: A New "9-1-1"

Certain stories are too important to remain "buried" on the federal holiday after Christmas.

Such is the New York Times front-page report in its Monday editions that a
new accounting rules change portends ominous fiscal problems for the New York City and state budgets:


The city currently provides free health insurance to its retirees, their spouses and dependent children. The state is almost as generous, promising to pay, depending on the date of hire, 90 to 100 percent of the cost for individual retirees, and 82 to 86 percent for retiree families.

Those bills - $911 million this year for city retirees and $859 million for state retirees out of a total city and state budget of $156.6 billion - may seem affordable now. But the New York governments, like most other public agencies across the country, have been calculating the costs in a way that sharply understates their price tag over time.

Although governments will not have to come up with the cash immediately, failure to find a way to finance the yearly total will eventually hurt their ability to borrow money affordably.

When the numbers are added up under new accounting rules scheduled to go into effect at the end of 2006, New York City's annual expense for retiree health care is expected to at least quintuple, experts say, approaching and maybe surpassing $5 billion, for exactly the same benefits the retirees get today. The number will grow because the city must start including the value of all the benefits earned in a given year, even those that will not be paid until future years.

Some actuaries say the new yearly amount could be as high as $10 billion. The increases for the state could be equally startling. Most other states and cities also offer health benefits to retirees, and will also be affected by the accounting change.
Well, there's the current fiscal "9-1-1" -- "$911 million this year for city retirees" plus an "8-5-9" to boot -- "$859 million for state retirees out of a total city and state budget of $156.6 billion..."

Not much in the big picture, but with outstanding obligations, it is a figure that will metastasize. Furthermore, as the article makes clear, the health-care problems far outstrip -- in terms of immediacy -- the pension issue which helped spark last week's transit strike.

While this is a significant problem facing municipal and state governments -- and private companies -- across the country, it is particularly acute in New York because the city and state know only too well how to put the "large" in "largesse":

The increases will vary from place to place, but New York is expected to be at the high end because it offers richer benefits than many other cities and has many police officers, firefighters and sanitation workers who can retire with full pension at age 50.

At the transit talks, pensions were pulled off the table in the end, and the final settlement is likely to reflect an increased health care payment by current workers, not retirees. But even though New York was pushed to a standstill over proposed changes in transit workers' pensions, virtually no one in government, outside of a tiny group of experts, is talking publicly about the far more daunting bill for citywide retiree health insurance.

....

The city has been offering free health care to its retirees for decades. In the private sector, companies that once offered health insurance for retirees began to stop doing so in the 1990's, for a number of reasons, including accounting rule changes like those now coming into effect for states and cities. Today, only 38 percent of companies with more than 200 workers offer retiree health insurance, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, a group that analyzes city and state finances.

An even smaller number of companies, 9 percent, pay any part of the premiums that can be used to buy optional supplements to Medicare for retirees over 65. New York City and the state both pay the full cost of Medicare supplements for their retirees.

"They've stuck with that, although the rest of the world has changed," said Charles M. Brecher, research director of the Citizens Budget Commission and a professor of public and health administration at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service.

While the private sector was curtailing retiree benefits, New York City and the state have been preserving and even expanding benefits in bargaining with their unions. Both sides focused mainly on the current cost of the benefits. No one was paying much attention to the deferred cost of the benefits that would come due once current workers retired. Meanwhile, health costs resumed rising at double-digit rates, and a large share of the public work force began to reach retirement age. Currently, the city administers a big health plan for its workers and retirees and contributes to dozens of smaller retiree health plans that are run by individual unions and supplement the city's coverage.

That obligation is why it was legitimate for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to say that the billion-dollar surplus that it has on the books is somewhat illusory -- and why it decided to trade the pension issue on the bargaining table for the health-care issue. However, that barely touches upon the size of the problem. The city and the state are on the hook for billions in future health-care costs for retirees and, aside from increasing taxes, there is little hope that either government has any real plan for getting the problem under control.

Of course, this doesn't even touch upon the problem at the federal level. The Medicare prescription-drug bill hardly touches on that -- though proponents of the bill hold out hope that the Health Savings Account will alleviate the fiscal pressures on the program.

Ironically, in the same Times, Paul Krugman (available only to Times DeadTree and Select readers) dismisses the value of HSAs. He may be correct. However, consider his inevitable prescription:

[C]ost-sharing, like H.M.O.'s, is a detour from real health care reform. Eventually, we'll have to accept the fact that there's no magic in the private sector, and that health care -- including the decision about what treatment is provided -- is a public responsiblity.

Um, except, Mr. Krugman, when the bills inevitably come due -- as he will undoubtedly notice reading your own front page.


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A Worthwhile Holiday Message...

...on the dangers of an "imperial presidency".

Of course, the real danger is the combination of an executive branch insisting on virtually unlimited "wartime" powers -- when the war in question is, itself, unlimited because there is no definable foe from which peace can be sued.

That combination means, ultimately, a reworking of the Constitution in a manner that has never before been contemplated.

Anyone ready for that debate yet?



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