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Saturday, August 20, 2005

The last word on Mexico

Blogger Mark in Mexico is an American, who has been living in Mexico for over 8 years. He has just written the definitive post on Mexico, which he calls The last word on Mexico. Wow. It's definitely a must read.


We have added NYgirl, a fellow Homespun Blogger, to the blogroll. She has just written a thoughtful piece on addressing the illegal immigration problem. We love immigrants, in fact we're married to one, but there needs to be a workable, legal, visible process. The rate of immigration needs to be matched to the country's needs and to their ability to become Americans in every sense.

If you are up for another article on Japanese misconduct in WWII from a different angle, read this story about POW mistreatment.

Legal Extortion

A Texas jury in a 10-2 vote has awarded a woman over a quarter of a billion dollars in the death of her 59-yr-old husband. We don't know if this sets a new record for outlandish liability verdicts, but, if not, it must be close. | 08/20/2005 | Merck liable in Vioxx death lawsuit:
"The jury broke down the award as $450,000 in economic damages -- Robert Ernst's lost pay as a Wal-Mart produce manager -- $24 million for mental anguish and loss of companionship and $229 million in punitive damages.

But the punitive damage amount is likely to be reduced as state law caps punitive damages at twice the amount of economic damages -- lost pay -- and up to $750,000 on top of noneconomic damages -- mental anguish and loss of companionship.

That would give Ernst a maximum of $1.65 million in possible punitive damages, meaning her total damage award could not exceed $26.1 million.

''This case did not call for punitive damages,'' Skidmore said in a prepared statement. ``Merck acted responsibly, from researching Vioxx prior to approval in clinical trials involving almost 10,000 patients to monitoring the medicine while it was on the market to voluntarily withdrawing the medicine when it did.''

After the verdict Friday, Merck shares dropped $2.35, or 7.7 percent, to close at $28.06. Merck lost almost $5.2 billion in stock market value."
Today if anyone suffers harm then we must find a scapegoat with deep pockets to be punished. A "victim" cashes in, the trial lawyers make a big score, more sharks smell the blood in the water, and a fine, reputable, innovative company is pushed toward financial ruin. Even the "mere" $24 million for "pain and anguish" is absurdly large. To make matters worse, it's not even clear that his fatal heart arrythmia was caused by Vioxx.

If the Merck board of directors had gone to Ernst's house and shot him to death with a gun, the liability would be much lower. Instead the company spent years of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars to invent, develop, test, and gain approval for a drug that helped hundreds of thousands of patients. Obviously, they should be punished for that.

The average cost of developing a new drug and taking it through the FDA approval process is about $800 million. So if one person taking it dies, the cost should go up another $250 million? Do we want any new drug treatments for illness? Do we think medications are too cheap now? If you were a brilliant young student, should you choose medicine/science as a career, or should you go to law school to get your own mansion on Easy Street paid for by productive people?

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Friday, August 19, 2005

How Not to Run an Energy Policy

No one likes paying the much higher gas prices we are seeing lately, and it's small consolation that Europeans are still paying more. One thing that is a relief is that the US is avoiding many of the foolish, counterproductive policies used in the last energy price crunch by the Carter administration. The price controls, import/export rules, and "Windfall Profits Tax" enacted then badly distorted the market. The government rationing caused local shortages and long lines at gas stations around the country. The new regulations and taxes eliminated the incentives and the capital to produce more energy. Billions of dollars were squandered on programs like the Synfuels Corporation that never were economically viable.

At least the Bush administration has not repeated these mistakes. Athough the urge of politicians to "do something" by throwing money at a problem remains irrestible, there is progress.

Not so in China. The Wall Street Journal (subscription only link) sees a connection: - China Does Carternomics: "We don't know if the Chinese have suddenly appointed Jimmy Carter as their energy czar, or whether it just seems that way. The two- and three-hour long gas lines now stretching down city blocks in many provinces in China are certainly an unwelcome reminder of the 1970s when U.S. policies caused a similar energy panic.

So let's think of this as a teaching moment. In China today, many of the same Carter-era policy prescriptions for high energy prices have incited the unprecedented gas lines. The government has imposed price controls on oil and gas in an effort to fight inflation, just as the U.S. did back then, and in the last few weeks it has even resurrected another Carter-era gem, a 'windfall petroleum profits tax' on oil and gas producers. Perhaps Chinese President Hu Jintao will soon deliver a televised speech to the nation wearing a cardigan."

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Iraqi Constitution Birthing Pains

The group writing the constitution for the new Iraq missed the deadline this week for completing the draft. We would have preferred it was finished on time, but getting it right is more important than meeting a date that is rather arbitrary. Kira Zalan has a thoughtful post about the situation on her blog, Us and Them: The Painful Birth of Iraq's Constitution:
"The Iraqi parliament voted to extend the deadline on the charter for another seven days. The problem is not with taking a few days to agree on an extremely important document. Instead, it is the mentality with which negotiations are being approached. The unsettled issues are apparently the role of Islam, distribution of oil wealth and federalism. These are not insurmountable questions.

What is insurmountable is the mentality of 'us and them.' One Sunni member of the constitutional committee stated yesterday, 'There were big points of disagreement, not between us and others but between the others themselves.' This mentality of 'us' and 'others' is precisely the problem.

All three of the aforementioned issues (Islam, oil and federalism) are just the outcomes of a mentality of trying to grab the biggest piece of the pie based on tribal identity. This mentality is prevalent in societies where ethnic, cultural or religious diversity have been exploited for political gains. The direct outcome is usually a quest by the exploited for reparations or revenge. Instead of moving on to create a new start with a strong foundation, embattled societies often wallow in their pain and miss their chance at success."
We're not so pessimistic about the outcome at this point, but she has a good point about the nature of the underlying problem. The difficulty in getting the Iraqi military up to speed and the problems of corruption in general are part of the same package. For Iraq, like the rest of the Middle East, power has long been seen as a license to enrich yourself and your friends. Many Iraqis are not succumbing to this, but it's hard to overcome old habits.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal has a more optimistic view on the prospects for compromise on the Iraqi constitution:
"At least the last-minute brinksmanship doesn't appear to be about religion, despite repeated alarms in the U.S. about the rise of a Shiite 'theocracy.' Most of the Iraqi framers seem to agree with constitutional language asserting that Islam will be 'a'--not 'the'--principle source of legislation. This is not so different from the vague appeals to divine providence found in some of America's founding documents, and certainly is no reason to fear Iranian-style clerical dominance. On both family law and women's rights, as well, compromises appear to be within reach.

The really tough disputes are over federalism and its corollary of sharing oil revenues. 'Get those right and everything else falls into place,' one Iraqi insider tells our Robert Pollock, who is reporting from Baghdad. By federalism we mean a political system modeled more or less on the United States of America, in which power is shared between a central government and the provinces. The name 'United States of Iraq' was actually proposed inside the Iraqi meetings, and no wonder given the terrible experience that Kurdish and Shiite Iraqis had under Saddam Hussein."
The very fact that these differences are being hashed out peacefully, at the negotiating table is almost astounding, given the history of the region. Strong regional governments and a weak central government would not necessarily be A Bad Thing. That's the way the USA began, after all.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Muslim Women

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, under a death threat herself since the murder of Theo Van Gogh has a column in The Wall Street Journal on the danger of second class status for Muslim women in Iraq and in Canada. Here's a small piece of it (free link):
OpinionJournal - Featured Article: "It seems strange to associate the context of Canada with that of Iraq, but a closer look at the arguments used to reassure the demonstrating women in both countries reveals the similar ordeals that Muslim women in both countries must go through to secure their rights. It shows how their legitimate and serious worries are trivialized, and how vulnerable and alone they are. It shows how the Free World led by the U.S. went to war in Iraq, allegedly to bring liberty to Iraqis, and is compromising the basic rights of women in order to meet a random date. It shows how the theory of multiculturalism in Western liberal democracies is working against women in ethnic and religious minorities with misogynist practices. It shows the tenacity of many imams, mullahs and self-made Muslim radicals to subjugate women in the name of God. Most of all, it shows how many of those who consider themselves liberal or left-wing see their energy levels rise when it comes to Bush-bashing, but lose their voice when women's rights are threatened by religious obscurantism."

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Another Manhole Fire

In Boston on the bus from the hotel to the train station the driver had the radio playing. The newscaster said, "... and there's another manhole fire in the North End." This struck us as peculiar. We'd never heard of a manhole fire before, but apparently in Boston they're an everyday thing, as common as threatening messages from al-Qaeda.

The CBS affiliate in Albany, NY, provides the details on this particular incident, which actually involved multiple flaming manholes:
"BOSTON - Up to a half-dozen manholes are burning in the North End. Power has been shut off to much of the area along Hanover Street as a result of the fires, and some residents have been evacuated.

Flames and thick black smoke can be seen shooting out from at least one manhole on Hanover Street. N-Star electric company is on the scene to investigate. A spokeswoman says it appears that today's explosion was caused by a cable failure."
So "today's explosion," eh. Not just a fire, but an explosion, and again it seems these sorts of incidents are a dime a dozen. Apparently these Bostonians take their cable TV service very seriously, if a simple cable failure can cause such chaos.

Perhaps there is a more sinister explanation. It has long been known that Cleveland is atop a hellmouth, so could Boston be in the same situation? What's the real reason for all the money being poured into The Big Dig? Could the Feds be looking for something? Has all the earth moved in the process disturbed some ancient evil, something worse even than John Kerry and Teddy Kennedy?

Chief Frank Montagna of the FDNY provides the official explanation for the manhole fire phenomenon:
"This is the electric manhole fire season in those areas where cold weather, snow, and slippery roadways necessitate the placement of ice-melting salt onto roadways to make them safe. When the salt is put on top of slick roads, the result is a melting of the ice and snow that coats them. As a result, the roadway becomes safely passable but at a price. The mixture of salt and melted snow and ice filters into manholes, coating the underground electrical wiring and equipment. This salt-water cocktail is very corrosive and causes the wiring, transformers, and other elements of the underground electrical delivery system to deteriorate, sometimes resulting in arcing exposed wires. The arcing, burning wire generates various toxic and combustible gases including high concentrations of carbon monoxide and neoprene gas. These gases are contained in the black noxious smoke billowing out of the manhole at a manhole fire."
That may explain the situation in New York. However, we couldn't help noticing there was a distinct lack of snow and ice on the Boston streets in mid-August. There is also this from the Chief:
Firefighters responding to these incidents should be aware of the many hazards that may accompany this phenomenon.
1. The black smoke can at any moment suddenly ignite, exposing people and vehicles nearby. A person inside a car parked over such a manhole would be severely injured or killed should the smoke ignite as he tried to move the parked car away from the manhole.
2. The ignition can be explosive, sending the 300-pound manhole cover flying into the air. Manhole covers have been blown onto the roofs of six-story buildings and have gone up in the air only to come crashing down through the roofs of passing vehicles.[...]"
So we don't think the hellmouth theory should be discarded just yet. Those flying 300-lb manholes could indicate some demonic tiddlywinks game.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Special Day

Actually there are at least two reasons today is special. It is the 60th anniversary of the surrender of Japan, ending World War II. It is also our 53rd birthday. Oddly enough there has not been much play about VJ Day, at least not compared to the hoopla surrounding the Hirsohima and Nagasaki anniversaries. The Washington Post has this offering, and the NY Times has a similar one, both emphasizing the Japanese Prime Minister's actions and statements today. The Asian press has coverage of that as well.

We can understand the US media downplaying our birthday, but one would think VJ Day would be worth remarking upon. It was certainly a very big deal at the time. Have there been no commemorations of the date here in the US at all?

On the birthday front, our mom joined us and the rest of the family for dinner tonight (ribs). We returned yesterday from our Boston / Maine trip just in time.

Update: VJ Day is officially Sept 2, when the Japanese formally surrendered on the battleship Missouri. On Aug 15 Emperor Hirohito capitulated to the allies, effectively ending the war.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

NY 'Pirrotechnics'

Hilary Clinton will be facing an opponent in her attempt to extend her tour in the US Senate. Republican Jeanine Pirro, the Westchester County District Attorney, is not given much chance to slow down Hilary's march to glory, let alone win. However, at, Tony Blankley thinks the campaign could hold real dangers for Sen. Clinton:
"While the junior senator from New York holds an impressive opening poll advantage of 63 percent to 29 percent over Pirro, this is a campaign well worth vigorously fighting. Hillary R. Clinton has nowhere to go but down in her re-election bid -- and how far down is yet to be determined.

Moreover, her re-election campaign result will inevitably be seen as either an impressive or not impressive launch of her presidential campaign. Hillary is likely to grow to hate that 63 percent-29 percent advantage she currently holds, because any win much under 60 percent will likely be something of a letdown. Anything under 55 percent will be judged a near disaster -- inevitably resulting in the obligatory campaign shake-up just as she enters the 2007 presidential launch. And, of course, if lightning strikes ..."
The main danger is the "play it safe and run out the clock" mode that any campaign tends to get into when it has a big lead. Forcing an actual campaign may imperil Sen. Clinton's 8 year plan to become a "polarizing centrist" for the 2008 presidential race.

Read the rest