August 19, 2006

WEEKEND SPECIAL: DISCUSSING MORAL PHILOSOPHY WITH A GOAT


It is the usual policy of the weekend Goat Rope edition to feature learned commentaries of bantam rooster and noted free market economist Dr. Denton "Denny" Dimwit.

We regard Dr. Dimwit--and indeed most forms of poultry--as much more intelligent than other exponents of the totally unrestrained market school of economics.

However, due to the credible threat of sabotage from other animals on Goat Rope Farm, we are forced to open this edition to other voices. As one may imagine, Dr. Dimwit is quite indignant about this and is consoling himself as best he can with his BIG hen.

Today's post features a discussion with alpine dairy goat Arcadia S. Venus about the moral philosophy of the German Enlightment thinker Immanuel Kant.

THE GOAT ROPE INTERVIEW

GR: Venus, thanks for joining us in this discussion of moral philosophy and of Kant's theory of the categorical imperative, which he believed was the unconditional sense of moral obligation in all rational creatures.

VENUS: I want some alfalfa cubes.

GR: Kant expressed the categorical imperative in two forms. The first was that we should regard our actions as if they were universal maxims. For example, if we are contemplating a course of action, we should ask whether we would want everyone to do the same.

VENUS: That's what I'm screaming. I want everyone to want to give me some alfalfa cubes.

GR: He also expressed it another way by saying we are obligated to regard others as an end in themselves rather than as a means to an end.

VENUS: How are those alfalfa cubes coming?

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

August 18, 2006

HEALTH CARE: WORKERS PAY MORE


Speaking of health care, Seamus McGoogle is taking a rest cure.

The Census Bureau reported last year that there were 45.8 million uninsured Americans in 2004, up 800,000 from the previous year.

Employer-provided coverage fell in 2004, a trend that has continued each year since 2000. Without public programs such as Medicaid--recently slashed by the Bush administration and Congress--the numbers of the uninsured would have been higher.

El Cabrero will be pleasantly surprised if the numbers improve much when new figures for 2005 are released August 30.

Meanwhile, the declining number of Americans who receive health insurance through their employer are paying more for it.

According to the Economic Policy Institute,

Fewer employees receive health insurance through their employers now than in the past, as coverage has declined from 61.5% in 1989 to 58.9% in 2000 and down to 55.9% in 2004 (the latest data available). Less well known is the fact that those who still receive employer-provided coverage are now paying a larger share of those insurance costs.


In 1993, 54% of private sector workers with insurance paid some of the costs. By 2005, the number had grown to 76%. Nearly 90% of workers with family coverage had to pay part of the premium themselves.

The employee share of premium payments grew from 14% in 1992 to 22.1% in 2005. The EPI report notes that "This shift onto employees for basic premium costs does not include any of the higher deductibles or co-pays paid by employees that also have occurred over this same period."

While this shift of insurance costs has hurt working families, it's no picnic for employers who provide coverage either. It's hard for many employers to compete with firms in countries where health care is a right rather than a commodity.

A system of universal health care would not only reduce needless human suffering, it would also make it easier for US businesses to innovate and compete in a global economy.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

August 17, 2006

NEW WELFARE RULES: A POVERTY TRAP


Caption: Even a snake would never think of doing this.

The "deficit reduction" bill passed by Congress earlier this year is a perfect example of the twisted policies of the Bush administration and its rubber stamps in Congress.

Perhaps you remember the bill. It was the deficit reduction bill that increased the deficit. Specifically, it cut around $40 billion from programs that help middle class, working and low income families while giving $70 billion more in tax cuts aimed mostly at the very wealthy.

Interest rates on student loans were increased. Medicaid, which is a literal lifeline for over 50 million Americans--mostly children, but also low income adults, people with disabilities, and the elderly--just got a lot more punitive and confusing.

And the legislation now threatens to undo the progress several states, including West Virginia, have made on welfare reform and will take away the best chance many people have of permanently escaping poverty: access to education.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education

The proposed welfare rules, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued about a month ago, explicitly state that baccalaureate and advanced-degree programs cannot count as work. Up to a year of vocational training at a college would still count, but the new rules narrow the definition of "vocational" training to apply only to programs that lead directly into a prescribed career.


When welfare reform first went into effect in West Virginia in 1997, many recipients (typically single mothers with children) were told to drop out of GED and post-secondary programs to do work activities in exchange for benefits that provided little or no opportunity for lasting employment or upgrading skills. In communities where jobs were scarce, the influx of unpaid workers threatened to displace people who worked for wages.

This didn't make any more sense then than it does now. There is a direct link between educational attainment and higher incomes and lower unemployment.

To view the data, check page 26 of this report.

If benefits have lifetime limits, it only makes sense for people to make the most of their time by taking part in activities that can help them get out of poverty and stay out.

It took a while, but a diverse coalition formed in West Virginia to push for changes in state law to ensure that welfare recipients got a fair chance to pursue their education.

In 2000, the legislature passed a bill that allowed education from the literacy to post-secondary level to count as a welfare work activity as long as parents attended an accredited institution and made satisfactory progress.

This was a real step forward that opened the way for many women to move into a better situation. It was viewed as model legislation for other states.

Now this progress is threatened. Rather than helping people move up and out, the new rules, if allowed to stand, will defeat any purpose beyond punishing poor people.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

August 16, 2006

WEST VIRGINIA: A STATISTICAL ODDITY



Caption: Some people are stumped by West Virginia's demographic trends.

West Virginia is something of a statistical oddity, which will come as no surprise to most West Virginians. On the one hand, it's a very rich state as far as natural resources go, although its people are among the poorest in the nation.

(Actually, that's not so unusual, but that topic will have to wait for another post.)

Secondly, we are a pretty heavily armed poor state with a low crime rate. Those three traits don't often go together.

Third, while we're at or near the bottom in terms of median income we're also at or near the top in terms of home ownership, although many of those homes don't keep a whole lot of the weather out.

The latest area in which we buck national trends has to do its immigrant population.

According to an Associated Press report on the latest Census data:

From South Carolina's budding immigrant population to the fast-rising number of Hispanics in Arkansas, minority groups make up an increasing share of the population in every state but one, according to figures released Tuesday by the Census Bureau.

"This is just an extraordinary explosion of diversity all across the United States," said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "It's diversity and immigration going hand in hand."

West Virginia is the exception, with its struggling economy and little history of attracting immigrants.


(It would be more accurate to say "little recent history of attracting immigrants." In the past immigrants from Italy, Central Europe, and elsewhere contributed greatly to WV life and culture.)

The report also notes that "West Virginia, meanwhile, was one of only two states in which the percentage of white people grew. The other was Hawaii, where whites are an increasing minority."

Don't tell Lou Dobbs, but El Cabrero is a little disappointed about this. I have been painstakingly trying to learn Spanish, partly because they have some great swears and party because any language in which it's grammatically correct to use double negatives and say "y'all" (ustedes or vosotros) is a friend of mine.

I like nothing better than to torment native Spanish speakers. A Latina friend once told me "You've taken a perfectly good language and run it into the ground."

It looks like I'll have to hit the road to find fresh victims...

On a more serious note, lack of exposure to new and different people could put West Virginians at a disadvantage in an increasingly interconnected economy and a smaller world.

A while back, I spoke with a group of young people here about diversity. I figured they were tired of being preached to, so came up with four pretty practical reasons why it's a good thing.

1. In biology, diversity can mean survival. We learn from observing nature that any population that is homogeneous can be more vulnerable to changes in conditions or other threats than one that is more diverse. While arguments by analogy that jump from nature to society can be dangerous, that one seems pretty safe.

2. In life, not being exposed to things and people that are new and different is a good way to stop living at a very early age, even if death doesn't come for decades.

3. Groups that are homogeneous and isolated tend to share the same knowledge and information. New and useful information and ideas often come distant and/or different groups. The more plugged in people are to diverse networks, the more chance there is of learning. And

4. Open societies have a better chance of adapting and changing than closed ones. There are plenty of examples of this from history, but one that comes to mind at the moment is imperial Spain.

In 1492, while Columbus was sailing the ocean blue and preparing to unleash death and destruction on natives of the Caribbean, Spanish rulers began a campaign to drive out different people at home, in this case Jews and Muslims (even if they converted to Catholicism). Using methods that included horrible persecution, they "succeeded"--and paid for it with stagnation for the next several hundred years.


Meanwhile, for the latest Census snapshot of the state, click here.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

August 15, 2006

OF THE ESTATE TAX, MINIMUM WAGE, AND GOOD GOAT BEHAVIOR


Caption: Current events have driven this man to drink.

West Virginia Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito was recently quoted in the New York Times defending a House bill that linked a small minimum wage increase to a virtual repeal of the estate tax which affects a small number of people who inherit vast sums of wealth:

“Unlike some of my colleagues, I see this tax relief and minimum wage bill as complementary,” said Representative Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, one of the Republicans who has joined Democrats in pressing for a wage increase. “The sustaining of small businesses by keeping their vital assets will allow those making the minimum wage to continue working. This is a jobs bill.”


While it is commendable of Congresswoman Capito to support a minimum wage increase, El Cabrero must respectfully disagree about the links between estate tax repeal and minimum wage job creation.

They have about as much to do with each other as goats and good behavior.

Only a tiny handful of small businesses would be affected by the estate tax, which would only go into effect, if at all, after the business owner has died. It would thus have virtually nothing to do with day to day business operations.

Paris Hilton, the real poster child for estate tax repeal, probably didn't have too many minimum wage employees at the time she inherited her fortune.

For more on estate tax repeal and the minimum wage, here is an op-ed by yours truly from Sunday's Gazette-Mail.

Here's hoping that the next time the minimum wage comes up for a vote, it will be a clean bill and will enjoy the support of WV's entire congressional delegation.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

August 14, 2006

CONDUCT UNBECOMING



Caption: This is something to howl about.

This is hard to believe (well, maybe not), but Congress voted to slash funding in half for research and treatment for brain injuries caused by bomb attacks, a frequent source of injury for US troops serving in Iraq.


USA Today
reported last week that

House and Senate versions of the 2007 Defense appropriation bill contain $7 million for the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center--half of what the center received last fiscal year.

Proponents of increased funding say they are shocked to see cuts in the treatment of bomb blast injuries in the midst of war.


Traumatic brain injury due to blasts has been called "the signature injury of the war on terrorism."

A spokesperson for the Senate Appropriations Committee is quoted as saying, "Honestly, they would have loved to have funded it, but there were just so many priorities. They didn't have any flexibility in such a tight fiscal year."

El Cabrero would beg to differ:

*If Congress and the administration had not been addicted for the last five years to slashing taxes for the very wealthy; and/or

*If Congress and the administration were not spending billions on expensive new Cold War era weapons systems largely irrelevant to dealing with terrorism (see the New Yorker link in Friday's post "Lessons") and/or

*If the Defense Department's privatization mania had not created such a largely unmonitored gravy train for military contractors (see the Business Week link in the "Lessons" post) then

there would have been plenty of money to fund this vital program of research and treatment.

Regardless of the politics of the Iraq war or the bad leadership that led to it, the men and women who have put their bodies on the line deserve better treatment.

As many as 10 percent of US troops in Iraq and 20 percent of those on the front line suffer blast-related concussions during combat tours which can cause headaches and/or sleep, memory, or behavior problems. Frequent sources of concussions are mortar fire, rocket-propelled grenades, and roadside bombs. Multiple mild or moderate concussions can cause permanent damage to the brain.

The center has previously proposed a program to screen all troops returning from Iraq to set up a brain injury data base and treat symptoms, a move resisted by the Pentagon.

A GOOD CRITIQUE of Friday's post on the London plots can be found in a comment to the post by HillbillyEno. I will respond to one point by referring readers to an earlier Goat Rope post on the question of whether the invasion of Iraq has reduced terrorism world wide. This is from the May 6 Goat Rope:

One of the frequently given but constantly changing rationales for the U.S. invasion of Iraq is that it would make us and the rest of the world safer from terrorism.

It doesn't seem to be working out that way. The Los Angeles Times reported April 29 that the annual State Department report on global terrorism "concludes that the number of reported terrorist incidents and deaths has increased exponentially in the three years since the United States invaded Iraq, largely because of Iraq itself."

There were 11,111 attacks that caused 14,602 deaths in 2005. According to the Times, "Those figures stand in contrast to prior State Department reports, which cited 208 terrorist attacks that caused 625 deaths in 2003; and 3,168 attacks that caused 1,907 deaths in 2004." Thirty percent of the attacks and 55 percent of the deaths occurred in Iraq.


Click this link to access State Department reports.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED