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Welcome to STop, the Seattle Times Opinion blog where our editorial writers and editors share their evolving thoughts on a variety of issues. STop is a place where opinion writers and readers can exchange views and readers can learn more about how editorial positions are formed.

The opinions you read below are those of the individual writers, not necessarily views that will become formal positions of The Seattle Times. Respond to STop
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Currently, STop cannot automatically post readers' comments on the blog. However, the editorial staff will regularly post readers' comments. Your comments are sent directly to the individual editor or writer.

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Jim Vesely
Jim Vesely
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Lee Moriwaki
Lee Moriwaki
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Joni Balter
Joni Balter
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Eric Devericks
Eric Devericks
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Lance Dickie
Lance Dickie
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Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
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Kate Riley
Kate Riley
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Lynne Varner
Lynne Varner
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Ryan Blethen
Ryan Blethen
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August 31, 2005

A Fructose Tax?

A reader reacts to my statement that I don't want my government trying to manage my weight:

Fatness is killing people and ruining their quality of life. I would rather see the government investing millions of dollars in health clubs, free gym memberships, and nutritional education instead of spending billions of cholesterol drugs, insulin, open heart surgeries, and innumerable hospital stays resulting from chest pains. Oh, by the way, the government spent $47.5 billion on obesity in 1998 (CDC, Finelstein, Fiebelkron, Wang, 2003).

However, the federal government can, and should, intercede without superseding the sovereignty of the individual. Federal and state governments have the freedom to tighten control over the food that is sold in stores and restaurants across the states. Perhaps it is time that companies who produce and use high fructose corn syrup (a cheap sweetener with links to cancer, diabetes, and obesity) are taxed heavily for the inclusion of the ingredient. One columnist even suggesting listing the health risks associated with foods high in trans and saturated fats on the packaging to remind individuals of the potentially deadly medical conditions tied to Big Macs. There are myriad options available to the government that would not expropriate fat people from their cars and their rambling, air conditioned,personal-movie-theaters-and-sports-stadiums-we-call-houses in the suburbs.

One could say sales of fast food indicate the consumer demands the product but one cannot say for certain that consumers would be reluctant to shift preferences if healthier options were available or if awareness increased about the dangers of some ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup. So, yes, Uncle Sam, Doctor Diet, feel free to complete your examinations and diagnose obesity so that we may have an idea of how to fight it, not to interfere with the power of the individual, but the ensure that the individual simply lives.

Josh Vitulli

Respond here.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 05:10 PM

August 29, 2005

He Who Pays, Controls

Objecting to the previous entry, a reader writes:

I would agree with you that government should stay out of it provided that you agree with the following: when you have your heart attack and stroke, become disabled, then unemployed, lose your health insurance, declare bankruptcy and need medical care that you agree to die rather than apply for Medicaid, because I'll have to pay for you. You, of course, apparently think that Ebola is more likely to get you and that you need protection from that. Get real.

I was not arguing that Ebola is more likely to get me than stroke. I was arguing that Ebola is the kind of disease we need government for—an infectious disease for which the victims are not responsible, and which by its nature has to be dealt with collectively. SARS was also like that. There are many other diseases which may be partly like that.

Obesity is not. Being fat is an individual problem. One may be fat mainly from bad behavior or bad genes, but my fatness is my problem, not yours. My fatness does not cause you to be fat. Therefore, I think, my fatness is none of your business—and, that being so, is none of the government’s business.

The other argument here is about the power inherent in socialism.The writer pays taxes for Medicaid, which pays the doctor bills of the poor. He is saying that I may become poor and become a burden upon the program into which he pays (never mind that I also pay), and therefore he has an interest in how I live, and therefore his government shall give me instructions in right living. I have heard this argument before—about motorcycle helmet laws, antismoking laws, etc. Now this. The people who make it think of themselves as liberals, but it is a profoundly authoritarian argument. Basically it says, “You used to be free to run this aspect of your life, but now we’re paying for it, so you have to accept our management—or, at least, our annoying propaganda.”

I don't want it.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 02:35 PM

August 25, 2005

Uncle Sam, Diet Doctor

Now we know that Mississippi has the greatest percentage of fat Americans. (How we know that is unclear: Wednesday’s story doesn’t say.) How does the government count fat people?

Politically, the question is whether the percentage of fat people, or whether you're fat or not, is any of the government’s business. The group that trumpeted the study, Trust for America’s Health, thinks it is. It wants government to manage our fatness and fitness by such things as steering development away from suburbs and toward compact cities, on the theory that people in town walk more. I think that’s a reach. I agree with the Cato Institute, which says it’s none of the government’s business how much people walk, or exercise, or how many plates of pasta they eat. We need the Centers for Disease Control to protect us from the Ebola virus, not from pizza.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 03:46 PM

August 24, 2005

I Want My New ID

A reader of my column on the Real ID Act responds, in part:

Anyone who cards me gets and extra big tip! (I am 63.)

I do not fear nor object to a national registry card any more than I fear my passport. If a national identity card will cause illegal aliens to quake in fear I say GOOD! If it will help or cause the INS to start rounding up illegals and exporting them, I say GOOD! I know it may cause the necessity of welfare recipients to have to go to work and maybe replace some of the good Mexican farm workers who have will be transshipped back home. What a shame that would be for lazy Americans to have to get off their fat butts and go to work. This would be akin to reverse outsourcing--what a concept!

Sparapani of the ACLU is quoted as saying "this is an important cultural moment," "the first true national ID card." Not so, passports have been around for a long time, these are national identity cards. What this may be culturally is the opportunity for the immigration laws to be effectively enforced.

I don't care if the ID cards cost $85 rather than $58, I want to be the first in Washington State to have one! Where do I sign up!

I replied, in part:

I think the ACLU guy's point was that it is the first internal national ID card for the general population.

The people at the forum said it wasn't designed for immigration control--but clearly it could be used for that. The cards will differentiate between 9 different categories of attachment to the country, including citizen, permanent resident (green card), conditional permanent resident, refugee or asylee, nonimmigrant visa holder, pending asylee, pending or approved application for temporary protected status (whatever that is), approved deferred status, or "pending application for adjustment of status to that of an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence or conditional permanent resident status." (From NCSL web page, here.) Of course now the police, banks, etc., are accepting a Mexican government ID (the matricula consular card) that is available to illegals.

The regulations for the Real ID won't be out until next spring. Then the states gear up. They told me Olympia will have a big PR/advertising campaign about the new licenses. Generally, they expect people to keep the old ones until expired, and the federal government is not supposed to demand the new ones until all the old ones have had a chance to turn over, which in this state is 5 years. The law requires the Washington program to be certified by Homeland Security by May 11, 2008, but it does not require us to all have those licenses by then.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 03:06 PM

Our Man at the F.D.A.

The Times’ page one story today on Scott Gottlieb, the Wall Street analyst hired by the Food and Drug Administration is an editorializing story—a story with a message. We can tell he story straight—and our reporter, Alicia Mundy, tells it pretty straight, but the premise of it, the definition of it as a story, carries a message of the fox guarding the henhouse or “regulatory capture,” meaning an industry influencing its regulator.

Our reporter has put in a resume of Mr. Gottlieb, and so we can have a rough measure of his attachments to Wall Street. He ran a Forbes investment newsletter for about half a year, also participating as a policy guy at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-of-center policy shop. He has previously worked for the FDA in medical policy under the Bush administration. He has worked for George Gilder, who writes about investments and policy from a pro-technology view. He has been a medical internist at a hospital. In the Clinton years he wrote for the Journal of the American Medical Association and worked in the investment firm Alex. Brown. His degree is in economics.

My question is: For a policy job, would it have been preferable to hire a person who had been in the bureaucracy for an entire career? Certainly there are people like that, and probably lots at the FDA. Probably the lifetime regulators are more pro-regulation than Mr. Gottlieb will be. The unspoken assumption of this story is that that’s what the public should want.

It’s not what I want. I want innovation, I want information, and I want choice. I want new drugs to be tested and reviewed, but I don’t want the system to be so safety-conscious that I can’t get the drugs I need. The fact is, people are suffering and dying now. New medicines may be able to help them. If you insist on a drug-approval system of near-zero risk, you delay the new medicines and more people suffer and die. You can die from taking a drug that should have been studied longer and you can die from not getting a drug that should have been approved earlier.

There is also the question of whether people who are sick should be allowed to make these choices themselves. If you have cancer, and it’s going to take five years to review a new drug to a zero-risk standard, maybe you don’t want to wait five years. Maybe you want the drug now. I think the system should allow that—and (judging from one newspaper article) Mr. Gottlieb is more likely to consider that point of view than someone who has been a regulator all his adult life.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 11:07 AM

August 22, 2005

The Boulevard Option

In response to my blog supporting a rebuild of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Cary Moon of the People's Waterfront Coalition writes:

Traffic is a strangely behavioral science, and urban congestion is really really complex. Before you rush to the conclusion that the solution we advocate at the People's Waterfront Coalition will cause a permanent traffic jam, consider these points.

The "reducing capacity will cause gridlock" threat has been around a long time, so some engineers in the UK decided to look into it more thoroughly. They found that of 60 cases of capacity reduction they studied in Europe, the UK, and North America, the expected chaos and gridlock never once materialized. They also found that an average of 25% (and up to 60%) of the trips that had used that facility stopped happening when it was removed. With advance notice and alternative routes, people are a lot more flexible than highway departments think they are.

There is widely accepted evidence that the existence of a transpo facility can cause trips to happen that might not have happened if it weren't there. The inverse may well be true as well.

Lots of smart transportation planners suggest that many market and demographic trends point to a future society that drives less. This report recommends that it may be better to anticipate these conditions, and start investing in less car-dependent transportation systems now.

Our proposal suggests fixes elsewhere in the system to accommodate most of the viaduct trips. Some trips move to improved arterials, some move to improved I-5 express lanes, some move to transit (improved, and new) and some stop happening. Freight trips are accomodated with freight only lanes on important freight routes, and perhaps special accessto the express lanes on I-5. It is bold, and admittedly people will chafe at such a big change all at once, but it's not that radical. All of these elements have been tested and proven effective in other cities. This solution was developed in collaboration with the former lead transportation planner from PSRC, who understands Seattle mobility at a deep level.

This decision about the viaduct shouldn't be made in a vacuum, as if preserving the convenience of existing car trips were the only goal, and came without any costs or lost opportunities. Our civic leaders want to make downtown dense and family-friendly, which will require great parks and public amenities. Our Mayor has pledged to reduce our greenhouse gases to below 1990 levels -- which entails aggressively reducing production of emissions, and probably car use. We've recently learned that car emissions are the #1 problem for the devastated marine ecology of Elliott Bay. Gas prices are expected to keep rising, and people will eventually be searching for alternatives to driving. The number one culprit in the current public health crisis (obesity, childhood asthma, etc.) is our drive-everywhere culture.

Before we invest more money than we've ever spent on anything to retain a 1.5 mile stretch of highway, we should consider a cheaper, more sustainable alternative. Especially since we may not even have that money, and many local leaders are of the "over my dead body" opinion of the aerial alternative.

Cary Moon
People's Waterfront Coalition

Respond about the Viaduct.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 12:24 PM

August 21, 2005

The Posner Theory

Federal appeals judge Richard Posner has a smart and cynical critique of the news media in the New York Times. After referring to a number of books on the media, both from the left and the right, Posner offers a synthesis using the following method:

Strip these critiques of their indignation, treat them as descriptions rather than as denunciations, and one sees that they are consistent with one another and basically correct.

In other words, each side in the political debate, each growling dog, has a piece of the truth in its teeth. Yes, the news media is mainly operated by liberals. Certainly that is true; there is no doubt of it. Journalism also tends, for operational reasons, to suck up to sources, and government being Source No. 1, we tend to suck up to government. When we have a Republican government that declares that Saddam Hussein has Weapons of Mass Destruction and is a threat to the United States, the news media will report that, and if it comes after an event like the 9-11 attacks, it will report that uncritically. Later it will get even; but when critical thinking is needed most, the media’s bravery will not be up to the mark.

(There are some other things that Posner leaves out. Much of the media is lazy, most of it is sharply limited in how much money it can spend and all of it is in a hurry. All of these degrade the product.)

Posner, who is famous for combining economics with law, has an economic theory of media bias—that is, that we give the people the bias they want. He says:

The increase in competition in the news market that has been brought about by lower costs of communication has resulted in more variety, more polarization, more sensationalism, more healthy skepticism and, in sum, a better matching of supply to demand. But increased competition has not produced a public more oriented toward public issues, more motivated and competent to engage in genuine self-government, because these are not the goods that most people are seeking from the news media. They are seeking entertainment, confirmation, reinforcement, emotional satisfaction; and what consumers want, a competitive market supplies, no more, no less.

Posner’s cynical comments about the public were denounced in the NYT’s letter’s page, including a letter from the NYT’s executive editor. It is an old rhetorical tactic—‘You hate the public, you bad person’—but Posner has a big piece of truth between his teeth there, too.

One question regarding Posner’s economic theory of media bias: Why, if my industry is so intensely capitalistic, so economically motivated, does it hire three liberals for every one conservative? (So say the statistics Posner quotes; I would have guessed five or six to one.) There is an answer to that, too: the bias is inherent in the hiring pool. By and large, conservative college students don’t major in journalism. The composition of the hiring pool is not under control of the media, the government, the academy or any institution, and probably is not going to change.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 10:16 AM

August 19, 2005

The Gaza Evictions

The tearful Israelis being torn away from their homes in Gaza are described as “settlers.” Their settlements are between Palestinian towns on Palestinian territory. Some Palestinians live in Israeli territory, but they are in Israel, under Israeli government. The “settlers” are not in Palestine under Palestinian government. They are outposts of the Israeli state. They are making not only the personal claim of a landowner but the sovereignty claim of a state.

These are religious fundamentalists. They believe all of Palestine is theirs, not so much theirs individually but theirs collectively as Jews, by the will of God. Basically, the claim they make of their fellow man is that of someone who walks onto your land and says, “God says this belongs to my people, not yours. God wants you to move. Your government, too.” What God wants is not a claim that can be verified; you either believe it or you don’t. The situation does not lend itself to compromise.

I don't believe God draws national boundaries or lends His name to land claims, and so I side here with the Palestinians. Gaza is part of the land that will someday become the state of Palestine, which means the Israeli settlers had to get out. Some Palestinians, in their infinite cynicism, are saying that this is just a gambit by the Israeli state to cement control of the West Bank—and maybe it is, but I prefer to take it at face value: an Israeli pullback. It is really the first one, and is an historic event. It took political bravery to force settlers out, and the Sharon government is to be complimented for it. The problem is that the Gaza settlers are a small number compared with the Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and they have to get out of there, too. For any sort of fair division of Palestine, these scenes of eviction will have to happen over and over again.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 06:43 PM

August 18, 2005

Tunnel, Monorail, 912

Seattle councilmen Peter Steinbrueck and Tom Rasmussen came in today to talk about the mayor’s downtown plan. But I couldn’t allow them to leave without a comment on the two big-ticket projects in the public spotlight: the Alaskan Way Tunnel and the Seattle Monorail Project.

“The tunnel is dead in the water,” Steinbrueck said. The message had come from Sen. Patty Murray, and it was clear to him. He said it was time to think about the rebuild alternative.

Rasmussen was reluctant to say that. “I’d love to have a waterfront free of that viaduct,” he said. Well, so would Steinbrueck, who said he was also willing to consider the surface-street option of the People’s Waterfront Coalition. I think it would be a permanent traffic jam—and it would be worse for pedestrians, who can now walk under the Viaduct without any problem.

(There is another option officials don’t talk much about, which is to shore up the existing structure with steel, as was done with the Magnolia Bridge. I have talked to several retired engineers who say this is quite feasible, but the state says it is not because of the continuing risk of failure. I hear this idea often from members of the public, but officially it is not on the table.)

I also asked the two councilmen about the Monorail. Steinbrueck said he was pleased that Mayor Greg Nickels had given the Monorail board a mid-September deadline to come up with a plan to save the project.

Someone asked him if that was an impossible deadline.

“Perhaps,” Steinbrueck said. He added, “I have lost confidence in having a Monorail-type system.” He said he did not see any sense in two different rail technologies, each expensively running through downtown. He said if the city wants to connect Ballard and West Seattle to downtown by rail, it will make more sense to add extensions to light rail and use the bus tunnel to get through downtown.

Rasmussen said, “Every day monorail seems less and less possible,” not only because of its financial and bidding problems, but because of the substantial rise in the cost of concrete and steel.

Both of these projects are doomed, I think. And the establishment around here should accept that, and act on it before Nov. 8th, if they want any chance of defeating Initiative 912, which would roll back the gas tax --because when voters think of the increase in the gas tax, they think of these two projects. And, yes, I know, there is no gas tax in the Monorail, and gas tax only for a replacement Viaduct, not a tunnel. Doesn't matter. People vote on what they think and feel, and they think and feel they are paying for extravagances.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 03:45 PM

August 15, 2005

The Forbes Standard

Forbes magazine, which recently judged Seattle to be the most overpriced city in the United States, has another calculation for American consumers. This is their judgment on what it costs to live well—"a nice, but not opulent, life."

What does it mean to live well? Forbes assumes you have a 4,000 square-foot house with four bedrooms, and a weekend cabin at the beach. You have two cars, a BMW 325i and a Lexus RX330, both of them this year’s model. You have a fancy dinner out with a “nice—not amazing—wine” once a week. You take three vacations a year: the parents have a week in Palm Beach and three days in Paris (at the Hotel Ritz), and the whole family has a seven-day ski vacation at a fancy resort. You send your two children to private school and private college.

For this lifestyle, Forbes calculates that you need $370,000 a year, or more than $7,000 a week, after taxes.

One other assumption is that you save just 1 percent of your income—about three days’ pay per year. What the magazine doesn’t say is that saving only that much, and counting financial assets only, and no other windfalls, this family spending $370,000 a year would not be millionaires, meaning they would not have accumulated $1 million in wealth. They would almost be living paycheck to paycheck.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 05:32 PM

August 12, 2005

'No Protection Whatsoever'

Another reaction to my column on private-sector unions, from the union that represents workers at the P-I and Times:

When employees try to exercise their rights under the National Labor Relations Act, employers retaliate and violate the law without any fear that they will be held accountable. It's easier to organize in the public sector, where elected politicians can be targeted if employees' rights are violated. In the private sector, employees have no protection whatsoever. It's a formidable hurdle to overcome in organizing, believe me.

Liz Brown, Administrative Officer
TNG-CWA Local 37082

Respond to this posting.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 04:21 PM

Unions, from the Labor Side

Two other readers respond to my column on the decline of private-sector unions.

I was a labor attorney for the government for a number of years, and have generally followed their path since. I would beg to differ with your analysis as to the basis of Union's failures. It is not that there isn't employee fear and desperation--it is out there--see “outsourcing” for example. No, the Unions did this to themselves by taking the easy way-- they relied on politicians to make their agenda. Instead of bargaining minimum wages, safety, discrimination, etc. etc.-- they lobbied the Labor Department to enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act; instead of bargaining to get safety, they got Congress to pass the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); Instead of hitting the bricks for pensions--they lobbied through the Employee Retirement Income Securuity Act (ERISA); the list goes on. In doing so, they also put all their eggs in the Democratic basket, which to no ones surprise is not always the party in power. To the victor go the spoils, and the victor lately has been Republicans, who promptly de-emphasized OSHA, Fair Labor Standards, etc. - and the Unions don't know what to do about it. Well, actually some do. Witness the recent rift in the AFL-CIO, with one faction saying let’s go act like unions and organize and demand benefits, the other traditional factions sticking with the failed policy of courting politicians.

Ed Nichols

I had a phone call from a retired business representative of a local craft union that had friendly relations for many years with the Teamsters. He recalled a luncheon when Teamster leader Dave Beck, then retired, spoke about the problems of unions. By this man’s account, Beck said, “The problem with unions is that the business reps are too lazy to get off their butts and go organize. You’ve got to organize! Organize anything! But organize!”

Organizing is hard work, and the benefits mandated by law to all employees, organized or not, make it more difficult. So do the benefits in the nonunion sector, which are better than they used to be. Maybe that’s why the SEIU (Service Employees International Union)—the union that left the AFL-CIO—concentrates on organizing some of the lowest-paid workers. Yet it has always been tough organizing the bottom.

Respond here.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 11:18 AM

August 11, 2005

Business Unionism and Political Unionism

A reader who describes himself as a labor-relations professional who has been on both sides of the table, and who is now in academia responds to my column on the decline of private-sector unions.

You mentioned the leftist lean of many union pioneers. I believe that this has added to organized labor's woes today, especially as John Sweeney has put more emphasis on political action than on organizing. The result has been the very close association of the AFL-CIO with the Democratic Party. While this makes sense given the populist message of the Democrats, many blue-collar workers are quite conservative -- pro-gun, nationalistic, anti-socialism, religious, anti-environmentalism. While they may have gripes with the privileged nature of rich Republican families, the “elites” of the Democrats have been attacking many of the institutions that the blue-collar foundation of Big Labor identifies closely with. I've met more than a few Teamsters and other union members who despise the college-beatnik attitude of the Democratic elites towards the blue-collar community and its cultural ideals.

I think John Sweeney has tied the movement too closely to the Democrats and their social causes, and that many workers are ill-served by this. If the AFL-CIO could restablish its core premise as securing better contracts for workers rather than the raft of unrelated causes it has become ensnared in, I think more potential union members would give it more thought.

The liberal alliance of Big Labor and the Democrats also creates dissonance when you consider that left-leaning environmentalism is often in conflict with the kinds of industries that have been heavily unionized. Auto manufacturing, coal and mineral mining, timber, oil, shipping and transportation, mill workers -- these are all targets of the greens who operate in conjunction with the Democratic Party apparatus, and the jobs lost when environmental activism drives these companies away -- such as in Montana's mining towns and the timber industry along the West Coast -- come straight out of Labor’s power base.

Another problem for Big Labor is the savvy of the business and legal establishments. Managers and management lawyers are smarter than ever, and can find ways to diffuse potential conflict before it causes enough bad blood to make workers desire a union vote. They have also found loopholes which allow them to put workers into slots where they can’t unionize, through “payrolling” or permanent part-time status or varying jobs just enough to make bargaining unit determination difficult. Syndication and franchising have also played against union interests; many jobs have been reduced to “rest stops” for unskilled teenagers wanting to earn a few bucks. How can a union organize a McDonalds when most of the employees there won't be there this time next year anyway?

People of my generation (which someone once labeled as “Gen X”) are very savvy people, we're good at running numbers, and we aren't much into the romanticism of the George Meany days. We have seen communism implode, socialism fail, and organized crime chased out of the ranks of the Teamsters. We don't care for class war. What we want to know is how having an organized voice is better than having profit sharing, how seniority is more valuable than performance bonuses, and how security is better than mobility. We need to see numbers, and our media-saturated youth has made us, I believe, more skeptical of rhetoric and cynical about emotional claims than the old guard of Labor might think. From where we're sitting, Labor hasn't done much to demonstrate its value, and until it repositions itself as being business-centric rather than politically-focused (and produces some hard numbers on how collectivism can deliver better quality of life for workers than individual betterment), there will continue to be a decline in unionism among the younger generations who should be forming the core of the labor movement.

Respond to this reader.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 10:37 AM

August 10, 2005

President Cheney...

Bob Woodward thinks the presidential nominees in 2008 will be Hillary Clinton and Dick Cheney. The Clinton prediction is no surprise--she is ahead in polls, though she has high negatives. But Cheney? Cheney is Mr. War. Americans are going to be real tired of the war by 2008. Maybe we will have pulled out; I don’t know. But ... Bush is a regular guy. Reagan was a genial guy. Cheney is … Oil. Halliburton. War. The man who said, “F--- yourself” to Sen. Patrick Leahy. Is Woodward serious? I don’t think so. He’s just making stuff up to entertain rich people in an off-season ski resort.

Reply to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 01:49 PM

Unions in India and China

In response to my column today about private-sector unions in the United States, a reader writes:

Nowhere in the world is there a greater need for unions than in places like China, India and South America. The workers in those countries are crying out for fairness. Unfortunately, the unions aren’t fighting the good fight in those countries. Instead, they focus their efforts on trying to unionize Wal-Mart, which sells the goods these countries produce. I don’t understand this thinking at all.

Why don’t the unions do what the corporations have done and make the jump to Asia, Africa Eastern Europe and South America? That’s where they are needed. I think Americans – even non-union conservative republicans – would have a lot of respect for the AFL/CIO and other unions if they took the fight to the areas where workers are truly being exploited instead of spending their time trying to unionize Wal-Mart cashiers.

Why don’t the unions go to work in China and India? Before you answer “It’s because the governments there won’t allow it” consider history. When the union movement started here in the U.S., the government did everything possible to crush the effort including using the military and local police and National Guard.

First of all, I think he exaggerates the hostility from the government here. There were some attempts to crush labor, —the Pullman strike in 1894 was crushed by U.S. Army troops sent by President Grover Cleveland, on the pretext that the strike interfered with the U.S. Mail. In general, government was more tolerant than that. It did not encourage unions (until World War I, and then again in the New Deal), but there was no sustained national effort to crush them.

The main question is India and China, on which I am no expert. A couple of observations. First, there are unions in India. Tooling around the web, I found this page for a (socialist) union federation, and this (communist) center. I have no idea how many members these organizations have, but have a cautionary thought: India is really poor. Productivity is low. Unions cannot do a whole lot about that. It takes investment to raise productivity, and investment comes from capital.

As for China, independent trade unions are forbidden, for political reasons. China is not going to allow in American union organizers to go about creating unions in China. On the web I found a story about China blocking a delegation of Western trade-union people—and not organizers, either. You can be sure foreign organizers would be stopped. (And maybe in India, too.)

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 12:31 PM


Greg Robinson, the academic who wrote the fine history By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans, has made one of the more intelligent comments about all the argument over the bombing of Hiroshima 60 years ago. He is not particularly supportive of the bombing of Hiroshima, nor am I, but in his web log, he says, “To me, the United States committed a far greater crime in the dropping of an atomic bomb on Nagasaki than on Hiroshima.”

The strongest argument for bombing Hiroshima was to raise the ante of destruction and death and thereby shorten the war. It wasn’t just to show we had the atomic bomb, because we could have done that in someplace other than a city, and maybe saved 100,000 human lives. It was to show we had the bomb and were willing to kill 100,000 people, most of them civilians, with one explosion. I am not proud of this decision (or others like it in that war, including the firebombing of Germany), but I do acknowledge that there was an argument for it.

That argument is much weaker for dropping a second bomb. The argument for Nagasaki bomb is, “well, we had to show them we didn’t just have one.” Were the Japanese going to think that? In all of World War II, or any other war in human experience, was there ever an explosive of which a belligerent could make only one? And it does not matter that the Nagasaki bomb was of a different type than the Hiroshima bomb. The political leaders of Japan were not going to know or care about the difference between uranium and plutonium, and it really didn’t matter that we knew how to make both kinds. One kind was plenty.

We dropped the second one because we had it, we were at war, and that’s what you did in a war. There wasn’t a lot of thinking about it. And, 60 years later, that second bomb is very hard to justify.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 11:13 AM

August 09, 2005

Old Men with Scraggly Beards

A reader reacts to an earlier blog in which I criticized the idea of Iraqi women’s groups lobbying the United States for changes in the new Iraqi constitution. The reader writes:

I thought one of the major reasons we're fighting and dying in Iraq is to help bring democracy to that country. Under the Baathists only the Sunnis had any power (both men and women Sunnis because it was a secular society). If we assume that 30% of the population is Sunni then 30% of the country controlled the rest of the citizens. If we now have a country of say 60% women and they end up with no rights then once again a minority controls the rest of the citizens. Then what's the point of my kid and your kid going to Iraq to fight and die? Furthermore, over and over again we hear that women's rights are the backbone of a stable and growing country, so we do have a security interest in pushing this subject. Sheeze, Bruce, do you really think that 60-70% of the citizens of a country can live without basic everyday rights and the country still be called a democracy?

If this reader is right about the purpose of our invasion, then she has a point. If we’re there to promote democracy, as defined by us, we have to make sure that’s what they set up. And democracy as defined by us includes votes for women. No question about that.

I am uncomfortable with this whole project. I don’t think we have any business telling them what kind of government to have. If they want a state according to the rules of Islam, let them have it. It’s their country. We have no “security interest” in telling them who gets to vote in their country. Maybe only old men with scraggly beards get to vote. I don’t care. I want our troops to come home, so that my kid and your kid don’t have to go over there and die.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 01:46 PM

August 04, 2005

No Apologies

I was talking with Trevor Lunn, deputy mayor of Lisburn, Northern Ireland. He was in Seattle on trip to promote trade and investment with the province, has been becoming safer and more peaceful, particularly since the recent annoucement by the Irish Republican Army that it is laying down its weapons.

Lunn is of the Alliance Party, a small grouping that takes a position between that of the pro-Ireland nationalists and the pro-UK unionists. What interested me most was a remark me made about apologies.

The Irish Republican Army recently announced that it is giving up the armed struggle and would fight through exclusively peaceful means. Lunn said that one issue by the IRA’s opponents was that even though the IRA said it was giving up violence, it offered no apology for the violent acts it had done.

Lunn said the IRA’s statement was a hopeful one and that he would take it at face value. As for the demand for an apology, he said the IRA’s opponents, the Ulster Volunteer Force, had given up violence and apologized 10 years ago, and “they still kept killing people.”

What matters most is not apologies, but life. If the IRA really does give up violence, that’s what counts. Let people apologize when the urge strikes them.

I am suspicious of demands for apologies, anyway. When Bill Clinton apologized for slavery, what meaning did it have? He hadn’t been involved in it. No one who acted as a slave owner in America is still alive, or has been alive for probably 65 years. When officials of the government of Japan apologize for what other Japanese officials, long dead, did 65 to 75 years ago in Korea and China—what meaning does that have?

People should only apologize for the things they do that are morally wrong or are errors that hurt people. And other people should stop cultivating the fine and profitable feeling of being offended.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 05:34 PM

Profiling Doesn't Work

Judging from the hailstorm of outraged emails, one would think my Wednesday column proposed letting bomb-toting terrorists board public transportation rather than offend their sensibilities with a little law enforcement.

Not at all.

Authors of those outraged emails: peruse my column again. Or read on for a short recap.

Racial profiling as a mainstay of law enforcement does not work. This is a fact supported by law enforcement itself. It isn't about fairness or political correctness. It is about effectiveness.

We've found too many times that our alleged profiles were incorrect. Our mistakes can cost lives. The Washington, D.C., snipers continued their killing spree while law enforcement searched for a disaffected, loner white man that FBI profilers said was the killer. Turned out the killers were an African-American former military man and his sweet-faced young protege.

I'm not saying pretend race doesn't matter. I am saying don't rely on racial profiles. They are notoriously unreliable. If Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh hadn't made some crucial mistakes, we might still be looking for swarthy, Middle-Easterners for that horrific crime. In the aftermath of the 1996 bombing at the Olympics in Atlanta, law enforcement initially pinned the crime on a nerdy white guy still living with his mother. They were wrong. Time is lost when we make mistakes like that. Erroneous profiles make us close our minds to other possibilities.

The sooner we realize that the virulent form of pan-Islam contributing to a rise in terrorism comes in many ethnic hues, from an East African to a blue-eyed Chechnyan, the sooner we can come up with security solutions that hit terrorists before they can get off their own turf.

A far more effective move than stopping brown people wearing bulky clothes.

Respond to Lynne.

Posted by Lynne Varner at 10:43 AM

August 03, 2005

A Child on Trial

Here’s a story about an 11-year-old girl who has been arrested, detained, stuck with an ankle bracelet and put on trial for throwing a rock at a boy who was harassing her. The rock hit the boy in the head and gashed him, and the police said that if it had hit him more directly it could have killed him. But the boy started it, by taunting her and hitting her on the head with a water balloon.

My take on it is that the police should have acted only as immediate mediators, scolding the boy for starting it, scolding the girl for using too large a stone, and informing the parents. The idea of putting her on trial seems fantastic and weird.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 03:13 PM

Iraqi Women Lobby Here

The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a advocacy group partly funded with U.S. government money, has sent out a press release in support of rights for Iraqi women. Basically it is raising the alarm that the provisional constitution about to be adopted declares that the source of Iraqi law is Islam, and that women are not guaranteed rights equal to men’s.

I have several problems with this. The first is the Foundation, which, in accepting State Department and USAID money, blurs its identity. Is it a private foundation or is it an arm of the government? If it is the government, then it is using taxpayer money to lobby itself. This problem is one reason why government should not fund advocacy groups.

This leads to the second problem, which is whether Americans have any business telling Iraqis what to put in their constitution—particularly if it is not a private foundation speaking, but the U.S. government.

The press release says a delegation of Iraqi women will be having a press conference to demand rights in Iraq’s new constitution. And where is the press conference? In Baghdad? No, it is in Washington, D.C. The Iraqi women are lobbying the occupying power.

What shall the occupying power do? Insist on women’s rights? It is what Americans believe (though, except for voting rights, we do not have an explicit guarantee of gender equality in our own Constitution.) We may cheer if the Iraqis propose an Equal Rights Amendment for their constitution, but to make that choice for them would be to exercise the prerogatives of a conqueror. And, if we do this, do we also insist on Iraqi freedom of the press? Iraqi freedom from arbitrary arrest? Iraqi freedom to bear arms? Separation of Mosque and State? Does conquest give us the right to do this?

I'm aware that the United States basically wrote the Japanese Constitution after World War II, including the famous article that forbids any offensive military capability. But offensive forces have to do with the security of other nations, and those nations had reason to be afraid of Japan. The civil rights of women in Iraq does not concern the national security of the United States, or even Kuwait.

Reply to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 02:25 PM

A Reasonable Retirement

A reader disputes the statement that for a well-off retirement, you'll need a million and a half dollars to reach year 80. He writes:

One CAN reasonably expect to retire at age 65 with $1.5 million currently invested and withdraw $65,000 per year for 25 years or more --with a probability of success of 90% or more. And one doesn’t have to invest aggressively to make it work.

The best free “retirement income” calculator is at the website of T Rowe Price. Go to and take it for a spin. It’s “the best” because it does not rely on constant expected market returns, but something called a Monte Carlo simulation. The simulation creates several hundred future scenarios and counts up the number of times one realizes, or fail to realize, the goal.

As you’ve correctly noted, Social Security will provide a substantial portion of our retiree’s $65,000/year income goal. Perhaps, he’ll need at most another $30,000 from his own investments. In that case, a $650,000 nest egg will likely do the trick. Retirement, still under $1 million!

Rudi Bertschi, Seattle

Reply to this reader.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 01:22 PM

August 02, 2005

Every Man a Millionaire

I received the following email from a self-employed man, age 63:

At little research by your folks would find that none of us can retire today at 65 and expect to live to 80 at about $65,000 a year without $1.5 million in the bank. That means all of us will have to be millionaires to stay off the dole in our old age. My financial advisor has been beating me with this info for five years now trying to embaras me into saving more. She really wants me to save--and I would have to work another 10 years. I just met with a CPA and he told me the same thing. You need to explode this ‘millionaire’ myth. All of us working stiffs will have to be millionaires.

I tried the math on this, and my calculator says this man could live to age 88 on $1.5 million, assuming that interest, inflation and taxes cancelled each other out. By this back-of-the-envelope calculation, this man can get by with $975,000, assuming he expires on schedule at age 80.

That doesn’t count Social Security, which he probably will get, and will reduce the amount he needs to save. Still—if he does not have a defined benefit pension plan in addition to Social Security, he will have to save a lot to retire at 65 on anything like $65,000 a year.

And if he’s already 63, he may have a problem. Especially if he hopes to make it past 80.

All of which reminds me of a language issue—the use of the term, “millionaire.” In my youth, it meant somebody who was rich. Now it merely means someone who’s well-off (or maybe even someone who owns two houses in Seattle) and the word is therefore going out of use. We need a word for ten-millionaire, fifty-millionaire and hundred-millionaire. “Billionaire” is a fine word, but the standard is too high.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 05:45 PM


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