Mike Kueber's Blog

August 25, 2015

Letters to the Editor

Filed under: Media — Mike Kueber @ 11:45 pm
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I am a lazy person who prefers shooting from the hip instead of taking careful aim.  That is why I am more likely to dash off a quick response to a political posting on Facebook than I am to pontificate about something on my blog.  A post on my blog is not a work in progress; it is a final product.  A comment to Facebook is a stream of consciousness, almost.

Letters to the Editor used to be like a blog post – i.e., something fully thought-through and carefully articulated. Because these letters involved a lot of work, I rarely took the trouble unless I was highly motivated, such as when Darrel Royal was not given credit for the Longhorns’ going undefeated in 1977.  In our new digital age, Letters to the Editor have become, like Facebook comments, supremely easy, and this ease is just what a laggard like me needs.

My favorite forum for Letters to the Editor is the local San Antonio Express-News.  Almost daily I comment on an article, usually to criticize the reporter or the paper for taking a liberal position or failing to provide us readers with the necessary information.  To encourage comments, the paper ranks commenters according to a complex formula, and I am currently their #6 commenter, with 351 comments.  My most recent comment to the Express-News concerned the reporting on Jeb Bush’s visit to McAllen.  I was pretty hard on reporter Aaron Nelson:

  • Aaron, you state, “Children born to parents in the U.S. illegally are guaranteed citizenship under the 14th Amendment.” Is this your unlegal opinion, or are you relying on some legal expert to state this conclusion? If so, please cite the expert and refrain from making categorical statements without citing an expert. I challenge you, or any other expert, to cite any Supreme Court decision holding that children born to parents in the US illegally are guaranteed citizenship under the 14th amendment.
  • I find it interesting that Jeb now points to Asians (anchor babies) or Central Americans (border crossers) as the current immigration culprits, although it is undeniable that the vast majority of anchor babies and border crossers have been Mexican. That appears to be a personal bias of his. It seems that Rubio and Jeb want to redefine the concept of anchor babies as limited only to rich people who take advantage of this constitutional loophole. The rich are mercenaries, while poor people who cross the border into Brownsville to have their babies are acting out of love. Talk about populists.

My second favorite forum for making comments is the New York Times.  The power of that paper amazes me.  It is not unusual for controversial articles to receive thousands of comments even though the paper often stops accepting comments after a few hours.  For additional discouragement, the paper moderates comments (i.e., screens them), so that your comment may not appear for hours after you submitted it.

Because of these discouragements, I submit comments to the NY Times probably less than once a week, but yesterday the Times finally gave me some encouragement.  I submitted a comment about an article on an Ivy League analysis of school suspensions of blacks in 13 southern states.  Consistent with my modus operandi, I criticized the reporting as follows:

  • “Surely, we haven’t reached the point where we apply racial quotas to suspensions! I suspect that males are suspended more often than females, but no one suggests sexual bias there. I wonder if there is a racial imbalance in instances of resisting arrest, too. It’s too easy to casually imply causality when actually all we have is correlation.”

Boy was I surprised when only a few minutes later I received an email saying that my comment had been published.  Then when I looked at the published comment, I noticed that it was listed as a “New York Times Pick.”  This designation means that the Times moderator believed it adds value to the commenter discussion of the article.  Of the 262 comments, only ten received the NYT Pick designation.  If a person submits enough solid comments, that person becomes a “verified commenter” whose musings are published without going through a moderator.

I wonder why I feel so good about this seal of approval from this bastion of liberal politics.  Because I respect journalism as much as any profession.

September 20, 2011

Sarah Palin in the news

Filed under: Issues,Media,People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:28 am
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According to news reports, a book being released this week includes allegations that Sarah Palin, while a new sports reporter for an Alaska TV station more than 20 years ago, had a one-night stand with a star basketball player for the University of Michigan.

Many of those in the mainstream media have opined that publishing salacious allegations such as these violates journalistic standards, but they don’t see anything wrong with widely publishing their condemnations of initial allegations.

My favorite Sunday morning talk show, Reliable Sources, claims an unfettered pass to discuss salacious stories because the show’s stated objective is to analyze the American news media, and moderator Howie Kurtz took full advantage of the pass on Sunday.  His lead story was the book on Sarah Palin, and he started by reciting all the allegations – not only the hook-up with Glen Rice, but also cocaine use, marital problems, and Trig not being her biological baby.  He then raised the following journalistic issues:

  • Can you report on the allegations with independently confirming whether there is a factual basis?
  • Should Palin be treated as a serious person or as a celebrity?
  • Does it matter whether she is a serious person vs. a celebrity?
  • Does it matter whether the story is being published in a reputable magazine or a nondescript website?
  • Does a newspaper have higher standards than a book publisher?

I believe that a biographer of any politician certainly should include stories such as the Rice hook-up in a biography.  That information is relevant to understanding the type of person Palin was at that time.

The tougher question is whether the American news media should repeat the story.  Most people in the media don’t think that a politician having pre-marital sex more than 20 years ago is newsworthy.  But as a guest on Reliable Sources noted, this is the type of thing that drives ratings and internet clicks, and the various news outlets are competing for business.

The famous standard at the New York Times is “all the news that’s fit to print,” and the Times maintained that standard by choosing not to discuss the Palin allegations.  In fact, it reviewed the book this past Sunday and simply noted that the book contained a sprinkling of tangy, scandalous morsels.

But other media outlets don’t have the financial strength of the Times, and they obviously find it difficult to turn away business.  Their standard is to give the people what they want.

June 28, 2011

Exploding medical costs because of unlimited coverage

Do you wonder why health-insurance premiums are going up so fast?  President Obama likes to blame the insurance industry.  Two recent newspaper articles, however, suggest that there are other systemic intractable causes:

  1. An article in the NY Times today reports that there are three promising new drugs that can help a man with late-stage prostate cancer live an additional six
    months – i.e., his life expectancy can be increased from 18 months to 24 months.  The problem is that the drug therapy could cost as much as $500,000 over the course of treatment.  Of the potential patients, 80% are on Medicare, and although Medicare is running out of money, the article reports that the expensive treatment will probably be covered.
  2. An article in the NY Daily News last week reported that New York had become the 26th state to require “that health insurance cover the screening, diagnosis, and
    treatment of autism spectrum disorders.  Such coverage would include toddler screenings, speech, physical and occupational therapy – and behavioral treatment.”

Sarah Palin warned about Death Panels and Republicans rail against rationing, but there is no way to get medical costs under control unless we start limiting coverage.  America can’t afford unlimited coverage.


March 31, 2011

Gabby Giffords – a political status report

Filed under: Issues,People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 5:41 pm
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Because we haven’t heard much about Gabby Giffords lately, the New York Times decided to bring us up to speed – not on her recovery from the Tucson shooting, but on her positioning for a Senate race in 2012.  Although the rampant speculation in the article is decried as crass opportunism by many on-line commentators, it is completely in line with what the public thinks about the integrity of people associated with politics.

One of the on-line commentators, however, made a comment (tangentially related to Giffords’ recovery) that I have often uttered, but never written down.  To save me the effort, I will simply quote from Ekeizer4 from Oregon:

  • It disturbs me to hear people say things like, “if anyone can recover from this, Gabby Giffords can.” These people may mean well, but it suggests that victims of trauma and injury are entirely in control of their own recovery. It reminds me of those who insist that a positive attitude and a ‘kick butt’ mentality are the keys to recovering from cancer — implying that when one does not recover, or when the disease proves too daunting to overcome, that it is somehow the fault of the patient. I dearly hope that Ms. Giffords recovers completely, but if she does not, that in no way diminishes the effort, hard work and character that it has taken her to survive. We can only play the cards we are dealt, and perhaps the best way to support Ms. Giffords is to be happy with whatever makes her happy, whether or not that happiness includes politics. She has spent years in service of her country, and now perhaps her country should ask itself how it can best serve her.”

Debit-card swipe fees and campaign contributions

I remember Nancy Pelosi famously saying that Congress needed to pass ObamaCare to find out what was in it.  That is often the case with 2,000 pages of legislation, and another good example of this is the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, which became law last summer.  One of the provisions in the Dodd-Frank bill directed the Federal Reserve Bank to set limits for debit-card “swipe fees” in April and put them into effect on July 21.

Historically, the debit-card swipe fee has been a percentage of a transaction, and in the past decade the fee has more than tripled to $.44.  In response to the Dodd-Frank directive, the Fed has tentatively determined that the fee should be no more than $.12, regardless of the amount of the transaction. 

Obviously the banks are not taking this reversal lying down.  According to Time magazine (paper edition only):

  • Faced with the prospect of losing swipe swag, the bankers started dialing their lobbyists, who started dialing their employees – oops, their Senators.  Soon enough, a letter from a group of solons fretted about ‘replacing a market-based system for debit-card acceptance with a government-controlled system.’
  • “The banks warn that swipe fees subsidize things like free checking and that you can kiss those things goodbye if the new flat fees take effect.”

The author of the Time article, Bill Saporito, concedes that this is not a David v. Goliath fight, but rather Goliath v. Goliath, with retailers like Wal-Mart on one side and big banks on the other.  Nevertheless, Saporito takes the side of the retailers and attempts to refute the banks’ arguments by suggesting that (1) the current system is not really “market-based,” but rather the duopolistic pricing of Visa and MasterCard operates more like a utility; thus, the tripling of the fee in the last decade; and (2) retailers should not be required to subsidize free checking account, but rather banks should charge whatever its retail-banking products are worth.  Saporito makes sense to me.   

The Fed handling of swipe fees has also been addressed by recent articles in USA Today and the New York Times.

The NY Times article on the Fed’s swiping fee was the least opinionated.  Instead of evaluating the merits of the new fee cap, the article simply reported that the nine senators (not 17, as reported by USA Today) who were proposing a two-year delay of the Fed cap faced long odds against success.  The provision had passed in the original bill by a vote of 64-33, and there was no evidence that Tester could pick up the necessary 18 votes. 

The article in USA Today focused on the intense lobbying being conducted by the banks to delay the implementation of the Fed-mandated fee.  It reported that a bipartisan group of 17 senators, led by John Tester (MT-D) have characterized the proposed cap as “price-fixing by Congress” and warn that consumers will be hit with the elimination of free checking and the increase of ATM fees.   

According to the USA Today article, “Tester, who serves on the Senate banking committee, counts the political action committees and employees of Wall Street firms among his top campaign contributors, according to a tally by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.”

Tester denies that he is serving his Wall Street master, but instead says “he’s pushing to delay the new limits to protect community banks in rural states. ‘I’ve never been about the big guys on Wall Street. They are big enough to fend for themselves,’ Tester said. ‘This bill is about protecting consumers and protecting small businesses.’”

From my perspective, John Tester has no credibility on this issue.  Although he can make good arguments for either side of this issue, how can his constituents be confident that those buckets of money from Wall Street didn’t influence his decision?  That is why politicians shouldn’t accept large contributions from companies, especially those outside of their district.

July 28, 2010

Is France getting a bum rap in America?

In recent years, France has been treated as a laughingstock in America.  Its reluctance to assist America in Iraq has been attributed to it being a nation of weak, effeminate people.  Its welfare state, with universal health insurance and month-long summer vacations, is considered to be an example of a socialistic economy.  I have probably been guiltier of this anti-France bias than most, but recently I experienced an epiphany. 

Last week, an article in the New York Times reported that the French were interested in increasing the opportunity for disadvantaged students getting into their finest universities.  See http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/01/world/europe/01ecoles.html?pagewanted=1.  Although admission to these universities is based solely on testing merit, social critics complained about the absence of diversity and “a self-perpetuating elite of wealthy and white, who provide their own children the social skills, financial support and cultural knowledge to pass the entrance exams.” 

The French approach to diversity, however, is more sophisticated and nuanced than America’s.  Their fundamental ideal is a meritocracy that is blind to race, religion, and ethnicity.  In fact, the French constitution prohibits government from collecting data regarding ethnicity or race.  The French consider affirmative action to be antithetical to their meritocratic ideal, so as an alternative they have developed “a trial program aimed at helping smart children of the poor overcome the huge cultural disadvantages that have often spelled failure in the crucial school entrance exams.”  The program has nothing to do with race, religion, or ethnicity.  Instead the objective of the program is to increase the number of scholarship (poor) students from 10% to 30%.  They are assuming that “poorer citizens will be more diverse, containing a much larger percentage of Muslims, blacks, and second-generation immigrants.”  I remember when various American institutions considered this type of program, but consistently rejected it because it would help too many poor white Americans and not enough African-Americans or Mexican-Americans.  I have never understood why it was more important for Americans to help affluent minorities than poor whites.

With my new appreciation of French political philosophy, I revisited my stereotype of France as a weak, socialistic country.  On the military front, I was surprised to learn that France has the world’s third-largest nuclear-weapon stockpile and that it spends 2.5% of its GDP on national defense, more than any other country in Western Europe.  On the economic front, I was impressed to learn that this country of 60 million people (20th largest in the world) had the world’s 6th largest economy.  It is undeniable that France has a significant welfare state (extended vacations, universal health care, protections against layoffs), but their economy competes in the free market against us and other nations with different economic systems, and it does reasonably well.

America may not want to imitate France, but I don’t think we should automatically reject something just because they do it that way in France.  France and America helped invent liberty, and neither has a monopoly on good ideas.

July 27, 2010

Death knell for affirmative action?

The Republican Party of Texas has taken a lot of heat for some of the extreme positions it has taken in its 2010 platform, especially its position that homosexuality is deviant behavior that must not be recognized as an acceptable alternative lifestyle.  But their platform position on Affirmative Action is dead-on. 

  • Affirmative Action – Inasmuch as the Civil Rights Movement argued against using race as a factor in American life, affirmative action reintroduces race as a powerful force in American life. The Republican Party of Texas believes in equal opportunity for all American citizens without regard to race or gender. To that end, we oppose affirmative action because
    1. We believe it is simply racism disguised as a social value.
    2. We believe that policies that lower standards on the basis of race or gender create a disincentive to excellence and thereby encourage mediocrity.
    3. We believe that rights belong to people – not groups; therefore, we reject the notion of group-rights and policies that grant preferences based on race or gender. Policies of this type apply a blanket remedy before specific acts of discrimination are proven; thus, such policies compound one injustice with another.
    4. Affirmative action falsely casts those who advocate merit as racist.
    5. Affirmative action casts doubt on minority achievement making such achievement as seemingly unearned. We believe that true minority advancement will come from a demand for personal responsibility, accountability and competitive excellence.

Of course, the Republican Party position has been opposed by the liberal left because the left doesn’t think the playing field in America is level and they think a bit of government interference will make for more equal opportunity.

This debate has been going on for decades, ever since Kennedy and Johnson issued executive orders in the 60s requiring some forms of so-called affirmative action.  Conservative opponents called it reverse discrimination and have consistently challenged it on Equal Protection grounds.  In 1978, there was an important Supreme Court decision – Bd. of Regents v. Bakke – that approved affirmative action, but not quotas, in medical-school admissions.  Twenty-five years later, the Court looked at this matter again in Grutter v. Bollinger.  Although the Court in Grutter re-approved racial preferences, it felt such strong reservations about the concept that it stated the preferences must be limited in time and should not be around 25 years later.

Perhaps we won’t have to wait 25 years. 

This past Friday, there was an important op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal written by Senator James Webb, D-VA, titled “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege,” and subtitled “America still owes a debt to its black citizens, but government programs to help all ‘people of color’ are unfair. They should end.”  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703724104575379630952309408.html?mod=WSJ_article_related.  This is an important piece because Webb is a well-respected liberal Democrat and powerful African-American Congressman James Clyburn has said he agrees with Webb.    

Webb’s piece followed a similar NYTimes article that was published last month regarding diversity or affirmative action in France.  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/01/world/europe/01ecoles.html?pagewanted=1.  The article reported that the French are trying to create more diversity in their best schools, but, “There is a serious question about how to measure diversity in a country where every citizen is presumed equal and there are no official statistics based on race, religion or ethnicity….  A goal cannot be called a ‘quota,’ which has an odor of the United States and affirmative action….  But the effort is being met with concerns from the grandes écoles, who fear it could dilute standards, and is stirring anger among the French at large, who fear it runs counter to a French ideal of a meritocracy blind to race, religion and ethnicity.”

Thus, we appear to have liberal Democrats, the French government, and the Republican Party of Texas speaking with the same voice regarding affirmative action.  Amazing.

July 15, 2010

Consultants are a luxury the Republican Party can’t afford

In his book Real Change, Newt Gingrich asserted that the Republican Party lost power in the late 1990’s because its leaders were held captive by a swarm of consultants.  According to Gingrich, the consultants (a) led Republican leaders toward safe positions that would play well during the next election cycle, and (b) steered them away from fresh, original ideas that might require some cultivation.  Based on recent developments, Gingrich’s advice is not being heeded.

I had first-hand experience with this concept in my five-person Republican primary earlier this year.  The two candidates with a lot of money to spend spent a lot of that money on consultants even before the rest of us started campaigning.  (Canseco spent over $40,000 and Hurd spent over $30,000.)  When the campaign got going on the ground, I was struck by the similarity of the Canseco and Hurd positions.  In fact, I couldn’t detect any significant difference of opinion (other than term limits, which Hurd couldn’t support because he was only 32 years old, and district residency, which Canseco couldn’t support because he wasn’t a resident).  Even more revealing was their practice of evading tough questions by giving vague, similar responses.  By contrast, the other three candidates took positions that sometimes deviated from Republican orthodoxy and felt obligated to directly answer direct questions.

Today, there was article in the New York Times relating to the extreme reliance on consultants.  The article suggested that Republican Meg Whitman, a billionaire running for governor in California, had given $1 million to Mike Murphy, a popular Republican consultant, to prevent him from consulting for Steve Poizner, Whitman’s main rival.  See http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/12/us/politics/12whitman.html?hpw.  The NYT article went on to say that this practice of buying up consultants is not a novel political tactic, as NYC’s Republican mayor/billionaire Michael Bloomberg commonly retained consultants whom he didn’t need, but didn’t want consulting against him. 

This practice goes beyond politics.  As an insurance-company lawyer, I heard about defendant-corporations who would place the leading attorneys in a small town on retainer as soon as it learned that the small town was the site of important litigation, not because they were going to use the lawyers, but because they wanted to prevent the other side from using them.  And in college football many years ago, the strong teams like UT-Austin would give scholarships to players they didn’t need, just to keep them from playing for rival teams like the Texas Aggies.  College football corrected their problem by limiting how many scholarships a team could give.  Unfortunately, campaign finance is not as amenable to such simple reform. 

A major part of the problem is that some players (candidates or corporations) have virtually unlimited resources to spend on something that they deem to be critical.  An article in the SA Express-News today reported that Sarah Palin’s PAC (SarahPac) had received and spent almost $1 million in the last quarter.  http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/FEC_filing_shows_Palin_gave_87500_to_candidates_98231109.html.  I reviewed the filing and determined that she paid the following consultants in the first six months of this year:

  • Orion Strategies, Washington, DC                 $40,000
  • NorthStar Strategies, Alexandria, VA            $75,000
  • IzzyLene Consulting, Anchorage, AK           $22,500
  • True North L’Attitudes, Anchorage, AK       $10,833.33
  • Aries Petra Consulting, Woodbridge, VA      $28,000
  • Grey Strategies, Columbus, OH                     $45,000
  • Andrew Davis, Sacramento, CA                    $30,000
  • Pamela Pryor, Arlington, VA                         $30,000
  • Kim Daniels, Bethesda, MD                           $26,000
  • 338 Industries, Austin, TX                             $1,500
  • Callisto Consulting, Millville, NJ                    $8,000

Why does Sarah Palin need to consult with so many consultants?  The SarahPac website says it is dedicated to “supporting fresh ideas…  By supporting SarahPac, you will allow Gov. Palin to help find and create solutions for America’s most pressing problems.”  I wonder if Sarah’s contributors know that their money is going to a bunch of Beltway bobble-heads.  By turning to consultants for fresh, creative, original ideas, Sarah is obviously not heeding Newt’s advice – i.e., consultants are a luxury the Republican Party cannot afford.

June 2, 2010

The ongoing mortgage mess

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 6:20 am
Tags: , , ,

Yesterday in the NYTimes, I read the following article about the ongoing mortgage crisis – http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/01/business/01nopay.html.

The theme of the article parallels a “60 Minutes” segment broadcast on May 9 titled, “Are Walkaway Mortgages Going Viral?” – http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=6470176n&tag=cbsnewsMainColumnArea.8.  The major difference between the stories is that the NYTimes focused on examples in Florida, whereas “60 Minutes” focused on examples in Arizona.  I decided to write about this matter, not only because there appears to be important differences from state to state, but also because it raises issues that relate America’s long-term leadership in the world.

The NYTimes article noted the significance of various state laws, such as Florida’s, that allow a homeowner to play this game by delaying foreclosure for months and even years.  According to the article, the average time from delinquency to eviction has gone up from 251 days in January 2008 to 438 days now.  The delay is especially long in the 23 states, including Florida (518 days) and New York (561 days), that require foreclosures to go through the judicial system.  Exacerbating the situation in Florida is the defense bar, which is advertising that it will delay the foreclosure process to the maximum amount allowed by law.  One FL lawyer is charging a flat fee of $1,500 a year for this service.  Other states, including California and Texas, have more expedited extra-judicial process.         

The “60 Minutes” segment noted the significance of state laws in allowing homeowners to play this game without endangering their other assets.  In Arizona, homeowners can go months and years without paying their mortgage and instead pocket their mortgage or invest it in a business.  Then, after eviction, they get to keep their assets without even having to file bankruptcy.  This legal loophole is called a protection against deficiency judgments, and most states provide debtors with significant protection against deficiency judgments.  Although there are probably legitimate reasons for various limits on deficiency judgments, these limits were probably enacted without considering the possibility that debtors would be motivated to ignore their payment obligations for years while pocketing their mortgage payment.    

All of this brings us to the moral issue involved.  The American way of life and generally accepted morality encourages people to be responsible and productive.  The introduction to the “60 Minutes” segment warns about the danger of this immoral mortgage practice “going viral,” i.e., spreading because of disenchantment and disillusionment at seeing other people taking advantage of the system.   

As colonial observer of America Alexis de Tocqueville noted, America was great because Americans are good.  When Americans cease being good, American will cease being great. 

That reminds me of a previous employer, USAA.  I remember my first boss at USAA telling me more than 20 years ago that USAA operations performed exceptionally well because its customer base of military personnel included the best customers in the world, with incomparable honor and integrity.  My boss questioned how well USAA would perform if our customers were the same as other insurance companies.

I feel that way about America.  In my opinion, our country operates exceptionally well, not because of our constitution or our government or our businesses, but because Americans are conscientious, productive, honorable people.  If mortgage foreclosures cause a significant number of Americans to become irresponsible, dishonorable, and unaccountable, it will do serious damage to America’s ability to continue leading the world.