The Last Year of the Tiger [UPDATED]

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.

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

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.

What You May Not Know About Your Health Insurance

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.

Them vs. Us

I shouldn’t criticize Granny D. right after she died (she was a Democratic congresswoman, in case you never heard of her), but I happened to see one of her speeches on the Michael Moore website, and it seems like an ideal example of non-centrism and Us vs Them thinking. She was probably a nice and well-meaning person, and I don’t completely disagree with her whole speech. But I want to show some quotes from her speech that I think are examples of someone who seemed to be irrationally and one-sidedly caught up in an ideology.

GD: “Let us consider the self-repression of the political right … Where authority and power flow down from above, from heaven to the White House to husbands and ayatollahs, the free and joyful living of people can be quite the enemy. If you will remember the free spirit of those flower children who grew up in the 1960s, for example, you will also remember the harsh attitude that attended to their joys from the more traditional, often more rural, elements of our society”

So the flower children of the 1960s represent her ideal type of free and joyful person. She must not have noticed that most of the 1960s flower children finished college and got jobs and are now wearing ties and driving SUVs. Flower childhood was not a responsible way to live, so people grew out of it. Maybe those traditional rural people had reasons for not wanting their kids to become free and joyful hippies.

GD: “those in the clan of authority are not given the privilege–the natural right–of living their own lives. They do as they are told, say and think what they are told. Smothered is their curiosity and their healthy skepticism, and also their imagination, joy, freedom, and lust for life itself. When they see others actually living lives, they react with anger, as if someone had cut to the front of a line that, for them, never moves.”

GD:: “the authority clan parades itself as pro-life while it is truly more like a cult of death. Having died themselves, strangled by authority and fear, they cannot wish happy lives for others–they cling only to that magic symbol of what might have been. They relate to the unborn baby selfishly; it is themselves: unborn, unlived, still hoping for a life.”

So being against abortion is actually a symptom of what sounds like a serious mental derangement. Granny D. can’t imagine anyone having any sane reasons for not liking abortion, or being ambivalent about abortion, or being against late abortion.

GD:: “How horrible to be enslaved to the wrong way of thinking at such a time of national crisis! We owe it to our friends and neighbors to free them if we can, so they might stand with us.”

GD: “Imagine that your friend is very much pro-life and pro-war and doesn’t see the illness of her mental conflict … I think you might notice that this friend of yours lives a slipcover-protected life and has not even allowed herself the freedoms of a good fantasy life. Let’s repair that … Let me suggest that we take her to a good arts district, rent her a studio apartment full of art supplies above a good sidewalk café, find her a lover and come back in ninety days to see if her politics have changed. As she lives a real life, as she explores her own potential, she will learn to let others live and enjoy their lives, too.”

So, there aren’t any women who are artists and have lovers, and yet are against abortion? So all you have to do, to make someone think abortion is perfectly ok, is give them art supplies and a lover. Simple.

GD: “She will want to help the young woman artist next door who gets herself into trouble. She will even begin to be amused and impressed instead of angered and depressed by the Clintons and other lively, joyful, free-living people of this beautiful earth.”

So Clinton wasn’t a compulsive tom cat after all. He was just so lively and joyful and free-living he couldn’t keep his fly zipped. And Hillary didn’t mind, no not at all. She just loved the joyful freedom of being betrayed by her husband in front of the whole world.

Is anyone except me thinking “huh?” right now?

GD: “We must help people see the mental traps that they are victim to, and we must do this by telling it like we see it, by asking them to see that the pro-life, pro-war movement is really a cult of death, that fundamental Christianity represents the opposite of Christ’s teachings, that authoritarian control and elite profiteering are the strings of the far right’s puppet show …. Let us indeed believe that all people are equal, but let us not assume that all political opinions are equal, for some are toxic and sociopathic and require our loving intervention.”

Yes the Democrats are the party of lively joyful love and light, while the Republicans are followers of Darth Vader.

Well anyway, I think Granny D.’s world view is quite common these days. If you loved the 1960s and the flower children, and you still love them, then you might agree with her. If you hated the 1960s then, and you still hate the 1960s, then you might be a Republican. And if you sort of liked some things about the 1960s, but didn’t like other things, then you might be an ambivalent centrist today.

Michael

Last night we rented This Is It, the documentary assembled from rehearsal tapes of Michael Jackson’s comeback-concert-series-never-to-be.  The title has many meanings — among others, the earnest notion that this is our last chance to save the planet — some of them sadly ironic.

I’m hovering right on the brink of really trying to express what I felt, watching it.  I’m taciturn and low-energy lately (among other things, there’s stuff going on, or not going on, occupationally that I’m not free to talk about yet), and writing the tribute that Michael’s last performance deserves feels like both work and exposure of a degree I shrink from just now.  It asks for more from me than I’ve got.

The documentary restores Michael because it shows an artist doing what he’s here to do — working, hard and brilliantly — rather than paying the human price for that in his off hours.  There may be some law of compensation at work:  the life ransacked for the superhuman energy to make the art may be as ugly as the work is beautiful.  The lotus grows out of the mud, and all that.  You can’t excuse geniuses’ exploitation of others, but neither can you expect them to be nice, normal people.  Whatever he did or didn’t do in bed with children, out of a toxic combination of need, narcissism, and entitlement, Michael paid heavily for it, probably ultimately with his life.

But watch him work.  First of all, to move from the outside in, watch him collaborate.  This concert series was set to be an incredible extravaganza, but unlike so many special-effects-heavy lollapaloozas, substance and Shazam! were married hand in glove.  The effects are wowzers, but they enhance rather than crush the emotional impact of the songs.  The new take on “Thriller” will make you laugh out loud with incredulous delight, even as the flying “dead kings and queens” designed to swoop through the auditorium are grim omens in retrospect.

The team, headed by Michael, director Kenny Ortega (who obviously had a warm friendship with Michael), and choreographer Travis Payne, auditioned and chose the best dancers, musicians, and aerialists from all over the world.  (These scenes are A Chorus Line to the nth power.)  The amount of talent, professionalism, and enthusiasm on display around Michael is stunning.  And Michael is so gentle and generous with them all.  Of course, if he ever did have a temper tantrum or prima-donna fainting spell, it landed on the cutting-room floor; this is a tribute, not an exposé.  But moments of the opposite kind were clearly easy to find.  Even when he pushes his musicians and dancers hard for an effect he wants and isn’t getting yet, he does it softly.  When he asks for less volume in his earpiece or indulgence for his need to protect his throat, he is respectful and grateful.  One of the most touching moments in the film is when Michael is egging on the blonde girl guitarist with the Greek name, possibly the chick with the hottest licks on the planet, in her solo.  Michael’s headset picks  him up saying to her (so softly that subtitles are needed), “This is your moment to shine. . . . This is your moment to shine.  We’ll all be right there with you.”

As for Michael’s own performance, well . . . as if he knew it would be his last, it is a performance, not a rehearsal.  Even though he knows he should save it for the concerts, he’s mostly unable to hold back.  At 50, and as frail as we know he was, his dancing is as electric as ever; the stamina seems to pour from someplace beyond physical, part will, part thrill.  Songs from the Jackson Five and Thriller eras are filled with fun and mischief and nostalgia.  And as far as I can tell, little if any of the rehearsals were lip-synched; Michael is singing into a headset, and for all the amps, curiously, you can often understand every word.  He so obviously loves the songs, and the emotion encoded in the ballads is still fresh-cut for him.  As someone who enjoyed but never studied his music, I was surprised by the artistry with which he shapes his voice, especially in the bluesy melismatic codas at the end of songs, which go beyond pop.  I couldn’t help wondering whether he would have done more of that — simplified, stripped down, unplugged — as he got older.

Probably the most breathtaking moment in the film is less than halfway through:  his exquisitely poignant and defiant performance of “Human Nature.”  If ever Michael had a signature song, an apologia, a credo, this is it:

If they say –
Why, why, tell ’em that is human nature
Why, why, does he do me that way
If they say –
Why, why, tell ’em that is human nature
Why, why, does he do me that way
I like livin’ this way
I like lovin’ this way

Pollster Cassandras Warn Dems of Tragic Flaw

Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen, “pollsters to the past two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, respectively,” issue a devastating warning to hubris-blinded Dems.  Their WaPo op-ed sums up the facts on the ground more succinctly and stingingly than anything else I have read.

Bluntly put, this is the political reality:

First, the battle for public opinion has been lost. Comprehensive health care has been lost. […]

Nothing has been more disconcerting than to watch Democratic politicians and their media supporters deceive themselves into believing that the public favors the Democrats’ current health-care plan. Yes, most Americans believe, as we do, that real health-care reform is needed. And yes, certain proposals in the plan are supported by the public.

However, a solid majority of Americans opposes the massive health-reform plan [… and] believe the legislation will worsen their health care, cost them more personally and add significantly to the national deficit. Never in our experience as pollsters can we recall such self-deluding misconstruction of survey data. […]

The notion that once enactment is forced, the public will suddenly embrace health-care reform could not be further from the truth […]

Second, the country is moving away from big government, with distrust growing more generally toward the role of government in our lives. Scott Rasmussen asked last month whose decisions people feared more in health care: that of the federal government or of insurance companies. By 51 percent to 39 percent, respondents feared the decisions of federal government more. This is astounding given the generally negative perception of insurance companies.

CNN found last month that 56 percent of Americans believe that the government has become so powerful it constitutes an immediate threat to the freedom and rights of citizens. When only 21 percent of Americans say that Washington operates with the consent of the governed, as was also reported last month, we face an alarming crisis. […]

[T]he issue, in voters’ minds, has become less about health care than about the government and a political majority that will neither hear nor heed the will of the people.

This would be Greek tragedy if it weren’t such a farce.  You know what happens to those who don’t believe Cassandra.