“When the world is down to the last tuna, someone will be willing to pay a million dollars to eat it.”

March 31, 2010 at 6:56 pm (By Amba)

As noted here, vanishing animals are as good as gold, these days.

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Opinion is Social. [UPDATED]

March 31, 2010 at 4:19 am (By Amba)

Talking to a dear friend on the left side of the political spectrum today (not far left) was painful, not only because politics is exceedingly painful these days (the temptation to hunker down into a stoical — and possibly armed — private life has never been so great in my lifetime), but because it brought uneasiness and alienation into what has always been a close relationship.

She said, “the stupid people on the right.”

She said Rush Limbaugh wanted Obama to fail, and she wished Rush would make good on his threat to leave the country.

She said that Obama had broken his heart trying to get bipartisanship on health care.

[UPDATE I: I remembered later that she also told me she had just heard that it had now been proven that last year was the warmest year ever.]

I recognized that these were tribal signals meant to elicit ritual agreement from me.  Then that would be settled, and we could go on with our personal catching up in a happy miasma of accord.

Except that when she reached out, I wasn’t there.  (Imagine!  I, who think Rush has done a lot of harm, found myself restoring the context of his “fail” remark, explaining that it wasn’t about race but about ideology.)  Instead, I found myself numbly trying to tell her about the different reality that was there behind the scrim of her assumptions.  I felt stupid having to explain why people on the right fiercely resent being lumped together and smeared as “stupid.”  I refrained from telling her what a stupid thing that had been for a smart person like her to say.  But she wasn’t thinking when she said it.  She was bonding.  When I didn’t bond back, it was shocking and disorienting.  Suddenly we were stumbling in this weird, mined DMZ.

It struck me as profoundly anthropological and even biological — like worker ants or naked mole rats comparing scent badges when they meet in tunnels underground.  We touch antennae and find out if the other person is safe and approved and “one of us.”  If not?  We drive them out the nest, or kill them.  If so?  Nest solidarity is reinforced.

What business does this crap have between human friends?  What bewilders me is that the signals that are exchanged (and on the right they would be:  “the elitists and freeloaders on the left,” rah-rah Rush, and something about Obama’s leanings toward treachery and tyranny; I have close friends who reach out to me with those signals, and I can’t return them, either) are the crudest and most stereotyped and involve the least thought.  They are knee-jerk, groupthink slogans precisely because their function is tribal identification in an era when the old identifiers like class and religion have become muted and muddled.

This is so hard to talk about.

Only if you’re jolted out of your original identification can you catch a brief glimpse of the whole picture.  Class is the river that runs through it, class and family history.  If you’re upper middle class and economically secure, a kind of noblesse-oblige indignation on behalf of the disadvantaged is part of your heritage.  (I speak from experience.)  You may be cosmopolitan and Jewish, or descended from the highly educated abolitionist and pacifist strains of Christianity.  If your family was working class but unionized, part of the labor movement, you may have inherited a more collective common-man tradition that once carried a stirring idealism (if it also, in its heyday, veered uncomfortably close to idealizing the Soviet Union).  And if you’re a member of a minority group, you may feel you, or your less fortunate cohorts, started life under a historical handicap that must to be redressed.  On the right, you’re probably from the fiercely independent smallholder/yeoman/tradesman/craftsman class, and the “millionaires next door” that are so many of its sons and daughters; your ancestors’ lives were rooted in skilled labor or farming and hunting, homestead, church, and clan.  (You can see that I still have a much more detailed picture of the left than the right.)

I think the one smart thing Karl Marx ever said was, “The conditions of existence determine consciousness.”  That probably struck me so hard because the conditions of my own existence have changed so much, and because I’ve traveled so much, not only in space, but between worlds.  “Determine” is a little strong, but it’s close.

I suppose it’s natural that these groups of Americans should be set against each other; in many ways, their interests are.  And I can see (having grown up on the left) what drives the right crazy about “us”:  our interests are not direct and forthright.  We always purport to be doing things on behalf of others, often with admirable dedication; but insofar as we didn’t have to struggle to establish ourselves, our self-interest is in our self-image.

(To my friend, the opposition to Obama is self-evidently racist.  It would be crazy to deny that any of it is.  But to me, now, it seems evident that the convenience of being able to tar all opposition as “racist” was a major strategic weapon in the Democrats’ bid for power.  Race jiu-jitsu.  How racist is that?)

I’m going to have to leave this inconclusive.  I need some sleep.  My instinct is to reconcile, to find common ground.  And there is some:  it’s called America.  The divisions are real, but those who exacerbate them for sport or profit, on both sides, will deserve the blame for what’s to come.  Right now everybody feels warlike and heroic.  Hardball is admired.  Revolution is commended.  Unyielding enmity is intoxicating.  Compromisers who actually want to accomplish something that everyone can grumble and accept, rather than rant about some never-never-land Utopia of the pure left or right, are booed off the field.  These are the signs of a country that hasn’t had a real war in too long.

UPDATE II: Sure enough, today I had to cut short a close friend on the right by saying that talking about politics makes me sick.  While I could almost agree with her on “Throw the bums out — all of them,” she was seeking my agreement with the suspicion that the election of Barack Obama was only possible if “there was a plan” — a sinister, global plan, was the implication.

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MegaBank

March 30, 2010 at 6:21 pm (By Realpc) ()

I got a phone call from MegaBank the other day — they were taking a survey of customers who had recently closed their accounts. The purpose was to find out the reasons, and to see if they could entice these customers to come back. I wouldn’t usually take a telephone survey, but I had a horrible experience with MegaBank, after being a loyal customer for 10 years, and I thought this might be my chance to curse them out.

The survey guy (I’ll call him “S”) said the survey would only take 10 minutes to complete, and would be recorded and listened to by the MegaBank management.

S: Ok, we’ll get started. The first question is about age. What age category are you in — are you under 18?

Me: No.

S: Are you between 18 and 20?

Me: No.

S: Are you between 20 and 25?

Me: No.

S: Are you between 25 and 30?

Me: No.

S: Are you between 30 and 35?

Me: No.

S: Are you between 35 and 40?

Me: Whoa! Hold on a minute. Wouldn’t it be easier to just ask me what my age is, and then put it in the right category?

S: MegaBank says we have to ask it this way.

Me: This survey is a perfect example of why I hate MegaBank and why I left.

S: I am so sorry you feel that way. Shall we continue?

Me: On with the torture. When do I get a chance to tell them why I hate them?

S: Just let me get through this question, please. Is your age between 40 and 45?

Me: No.

S: Are you between 45 and 50?

Me: No.

S: Are you between 50 and 55?

Me: No.

S: Are you between 55 and 60?

Me: Bingo! You must be psychic!

S: Next question. This one is about education. Did you complete kindergarten?

Me: Yes.

S: First grade?

Me: Yes.

S: Second grade?

Me: Yes.

And so it went on, and on, and on. It took 20 minutes instead of 10 because I spent so much time cursing and swearing and explaining how much I deeply despise MegaBank.

It turned out that the motivation for the survey was to find out if disgruntled customers would come back to MegaBank for a bonus of $200 and some free gifts. A feeble attempt to get back some of the customers who have run screaming out their doors.

But who needs customers anyway, when you have the American taxpayers to pay your mega bonuses?

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Today in Shoddy Journalism

March 26, 2010 at 1:19 pm (By Maxwell James)

From a WSJ article, “Middle Class Starts to Drift From Obama” (subscribers only):

“Yes, we need health-care reform, but why couldn’t we have taken it step by step?” asked Kitty Rehberg, a 71-year-old farmer from nearby Rowley, who held a colonial-era American flag as she protested near Mr. Obama’s speech. She said the president’s policies would cost her “a lot from my pocket book” to help people who “just want freebies.”

If that’s the same as this Kitty Rehberg from Rowley, Iowa, she’s a Republican State Senator, and has been for some time [CORRECTION: She's a former state senator - her last term ended in 2005]. She’s also a recipient of a fair amount of farm subsidies.

It’s called Google, guys. Look into it.

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The Greatest Drug of All

March 26, 2010 at 1:07 am (By Amba)

People might have in the past loved sex; I think they now love indignation more. Indignation seems to thrill. So a media storm is often driven beyond all reason, people taking offense or people huffing and puffing.

Ian McEwen (via Althouse).

I’ve had much the same thought, ne’er so well and tersely expressed.

(11/09) People will go again and again to have their fears, rages, and preconceptions reliably stimulated and serviced.  It’s our human equivalent of a rat pressing a lever.  It’s a way of getting off, as predictable and sterile as porn.  In fact I’m going to coin a word for the pull of political invective:  zornography (from the German Zorn, rage or fury).

Righteous outrage is a big part of what drives the blogosphere, and there are a lot of repeat customers.  It may be a physiological addiction; Rush pushes the most refined brand, with citrus overtones of intellectual satisfaction.  Addiction is a brain reward system rapid-cycling because the reward has become detached from the actions it is meant to motivate and reinforce.  Maybe we’re built to be chased by a sabertooth tiger every once in a while to clear out our pipes, and in the absence of natural threats to give us that limbic workout, we seek to escalate our sympathetic nervous systems by any means necessary.

Non sequitur: Another true line from McEwen’s interview:

The rhythm of walking can generate fresh ideas.

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Wanna See Me In Pajamas?

March 25, 2010 at 2:52 am (By Amba)

Look.

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Hatred of Hatred of Hatred

March 23, 2010 at 8:27 pm (By Realpc)

I was at the coffee machine at work and somehow another liberal conversation broke out. There were the usual comments about the stupid Christian southerners and about the wonders of diversity, etc. I struggled to keep my mouth shut, while over-reacting inwardly. Why do I hate to hear this kind of conversation? I decided it’s because, in trying to be oh so tolerant and kind, they are actually expressing hatred for the Christian southerners. They are hating the hatred. And I felt myself hating their hatred of hatred.

And I got really confused.

It sort of reminds me of the folk music movement of the 1960s. The folk musicians expressed appreciation of the art of ordinary rural folk. The movement stood for protecting and respecting the ordinary person. But at the same time, the folk music movement’s values were at odds with rural folk values.

The rural folk are mostly traditional, conservative and family-oriented. They are not idealists or utopians or socialists. They are not Marxists or atheists. They are not overly tolerant of “weird” ideas or people.

My liberal co-workers congratulate themselves on their educated open-mindedness and their compassion. And who can disagree with all that? I hate intolerance and bigotry as much as they do. I belong to an ethnic minority so of course I have been a terrified target of hate.

At the same time I believe that hate, in one form or another, is inevitable, and becomes more so as our civilization grows ever more impossibly complex. Progressives see us marching toward ever-increasing tolerance and love, while I see us marching over a cliff.

Well maybe not. I don’t pretend to know where we’re marching to. I just know it isn’t Utopia. And I know we are not growing more loving. We are more tolerant of racial and ethnic differences, and of unconventional sexual orientations. But we have replaced these with other targets for our intolerance and hatred.

Looking down at, and even hating, the ignorant folk that you are supposedly trying to help is an old liberal tradition.

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The Last Year of the Tiger [UPDATED]

March 21, 2010 at 11:52 pm (By Amba)

Asia is celebrating the Year of the Tiger by finishing off what’s left of its decimated wild tiger population, for discredited aphrodisiacs and anti-arthritis potions, floor throws, and . . . tiger-claw jewelry to celebrate the Year of the Tiger.

There’s also now a flourishing wildlife conservation movement in Asia, which distributes these articles, but it seems almost totally impotent compared to the ruddy lust of commerce.  Wild tigers’ rarity, now that they’re poached near extinction, has driven up their parts’ price, and almost certainly sealed their doom.

Tiger parts sold openly as jewellery
Some unaware of ban and penalties; AVA seizes 320 items from 30 shops
Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 20 Mar 10;

JEWELLERS and antique dealers here are openly selling jewellery and amulets made from tiger claws, skin and teeth, an animal welfare group said yesterday.

The Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), which investigated 134 jewellery or antique shops between December and last month, found 59 selling body parts of the highly endangered big cat.

And of the 59, only seven knew of the ban on trade in tiger ornaments; they produced the objects from under the counter, or from a safe, in front of undercover Acres investigators.

One shopkeeper advised: ‘When you take it out of Singapore, just say it is a talisman. Don’t say it is a tiger part.’

Another admitted to having ‘just stocked up’ for the Chinese New Year because of hotter demand for the items this Tiger year.

These retailers either do not know or are ignoring the heavy penalties that come with selling, advertising or buying the parts of such an endangered animal.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) subsequently checked 161 retail outlets, including Acres’ 134, and seized 320 items from 30 shops.

It was the biggest seizure of alleged tiger parts here to date, in terms of quantity netted.

The AVA is now examining the items for authenticity.

Selling tiger parts is banned. All six tiger species are protected under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).

Singapore ratified the Cites convention in 1987.

Under the Endangered Species (Import & Export) Act, importing, exporting, re-exporting or possessing any Cites species without a permit can land one a fine of up to $50,000 per species, with a cap of $500,000, and/or two years in jail.

And here is the rub: Even if the parts are fakes, the same penalties apply.

This is because trading even in fakes drives up the demand for tiger parts, said Acres executive director Louis Ng.

In Asia and some parts of the world, amulets or ornaments made of tiger claws, teeth and skin are carried or worn for protection. Tiger skin, for instance, may be inscribed with prayers and rolled up in glass capsules. Some people believe that wearing such ‘lucky charms’ gives them power and authority.

The demand for tiger parts for ornaments and traditional medicine, coupled with tigers’ loss of habitat, have caused wild tiger populations to plummet worldwide.

By some estimates, only 3,400 to 5,140 tigers were left in the wild in 2008, down from 5,000 to 7,000 in 1999.

Animal conservationists deem this critical, and yet, the continuing demand for tiger parts is fuelling its supply.

Shopkeepers told Acres that they sourced the tiger parts mainly from Thailand, India and China.

The prices for these charms ranged from $3 for a tiger tooth, to $350 for a piece of skin, to $4,800 for a tiger claw set in gold.

Given the rising demand and shrinking supply, these prices can only go up.

Acres’ investigation targeted clusters of jewellery shops and antique dealers in Little India, Chinatown, Geylang and Bugis.

The actual size of the market for tiger parts is unknown, since their sale is not limited to jewellery and antique shops, said Mr Ng.

AVA spokesman Goh Shih Yong said the agency has an ongoing programme to check shops for the sale of illegal Cites species and to educate traders and members of the public.

He said: ‘We must acknowledge Acres for being our eyes and ears on the ground.’

The number of people nabbed for selling alleged tiger parts has been on the rise. There was one case in 2007 and another in 2008, but four last year.

All turned out to be fakes made of materials like horns or hooves and the sellers were fined between $100 and $500.

Those with information about shops selling tiger parts and other endangered species may call the AVA hotline on 6227-0670 or Acres’ hotline, 9783-7782.

As one of Clarence Day’s supercilious super-cats in This Simian World might say:  humans are envious, greedy monkeys who too often think they can appropriate magnificence by destroying it.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, captive tigers starve on Chinese tiger farms and parks as owners continue to breed and feed them at prohibitive expense, hoping for a reversal of the 1993 ban on the sale of tiger parts, which cramps the style of tiger farmers (! what an oxymoron) but not of poachers.  A profound shift is underway in China’s attitude toward animals:

The back-to-back tiger[farm] tragedies have been followed closely in China, spurring calls for greater legal protections for animals. Meanwhile, lawmakers have been drafting the country’s first regulations on animal abuse. The government is considering, among other things, a ban on the consumption of dog and cat meat, a culinary specialty in southern China. Under the proposed law, companies or restaurants that sell cat or dog meat could face fines of up to $73,000.

“Harming animals hurts the spirit of the people, especially the younger generation,” says Chang Jiwen, a professor of law at the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences and one of the key drivers of the legislation. “A ban on abusing animals generally would illustrate that China has reached a new level of civilization.”

But the gears of change grind slowly, and all too often the intended beneficiaries are getting ground up in them.

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“Are we now in a world where there is absolutely no recourse to the tyranny of the majority?” [UPDATED]

March 21, 2010 at 11:09 pm (By Amba)

Writes Megan McArdle.

Because that’s what we’ve just seen — the tyranny of the majority, eked out by bending rules, making deals, breaking arms, buying votes.  As many problems as I have with parts of the health care reform bill, my major problem is with the way it was passed (not that the two are unrelated).  “Majority rule” does not mean that 50.8% of the people(‘s representatives) can simply overpower the other 49.2% without real damage to the country.  (And that’s if the representation were representative, which the polls indicate it is not.)  McArdle spells out the form some of that damage is likely to take:  Republican retaliation.  I guarantee you, tonight’s exulting Democrats won’t like it when they’re on the short end.

As Toby Harnden puts it in the Telegraph:

Never before had landmark legislation – the bill reshapes one-sixth of the American economy – been passed without even a smidgen of bipartisan consensus.

And here are the consequences:  “the beginning, not the end, of a grinding, all-out war.” Conservatives and tea partiers believe they’re fighting the second American revolution — against the narcotizing fate of a soft tyranny, an enervating European-style socialism — and that is a thrilling and energizing mission.  They’re not going to be lulled out of it.

It so happens that in the course of a work assignment, I just reread James Madison’s Federalist X.  Good timing!  Read the whole thing, but listen to this!  How utterly contemporary it is:

The latent causes of faction are [...] sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government. [...]

The inference to which we are brought is, that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS.

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. [...]

By what means is this object attainable? Evidently by one of two only. Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression. If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. [...]

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union. . . .

You’re going to laugh at me; but putting this together with what McArdle said, I just really got for the first time why the Democrats are called the Democrats and the Republicans are called the Republicans.

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What You May Not Know About Your Health Insurance

March 20, 2010 at 7:32 pm (Guest Post, Icepick) ()

A guest post by Icepick

Recently I heard President Obama once again claim that his health care/health insurance reform is needed to stop the growing costs of health insurance. He has repeatedly implied that health insurance costs are rising mostly because health insurance companies are raising rates to increase their profits. This is ill-informed at best. Health insurance costs are rising because health CARE costs are rising.

I know this because of personal experience. I used to have the fancy title of Senior Benefits Planning Analyst at a Fortune 100 company. I did the financial modeling of that company’s employee benefits costs for ~54,000 full-time employees, including the medical costs. Our department did a lot of research into the costs of health care, in part so that we could make decent forecasts, and also so we could give corporate leadership recommendations on how much we should charge for medical coverage. That’s right, the company set insurance rates (sometimes after collective bargaining, sometimes not), not some evil insurance company. That’s because the company was self-insured.

Something that the President never mentions is that most large companies self-insure their medical plans – they pay most or all of the medical expenses of their covered employees and families themselves. Let me explain it another way. If a company purchases insurance for an employee, the company only pays for the insurance which is typically a fixed cost. If that employee’s medical expenses are less than the insurance, the company loses money on that employee’s insurance. In a self-insured plan, the company pays those medical costs itself. Once a certain threshold in size is passed a company often finds it less expensive to self-insure.

Most people working for a self-insured company won’t know that the company has self-insured. Usually a company will hire an insurance company to handle the actual claims. Companies do this for several reasons. First, privacy concerns and HIPAA law mean that a company does not want direct access to its employees medical information. Second, most companies do not have the expertise to handle insurance claims. Third, insurance companies typically have more power to negotiate favorable rates with local providers. So a self-insured company will pay an insurance company to handle the administrative side of things, while the company pays for the actual medical expenses.

When I worked for such a company, we analyzed our medical and insurance costs in excruciating detail. And you know what? Our medical costs were increasing at roughly 9% a year for at least a decade. And the insurance company costs had little to do with it. Our costs were going up at that huge rate because medical expenses were going up that fast.

So all the talk of insurance companies fleecing the public is at best a side issue – insurance costs have increased in recent decades because medical expenses have increased. The current bill, which will no doubt be passed this weekend, does nothing to truly address that issue.

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