Tina K. Russell

July 12, 2009

Dignity, honor, and pride

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 1:57 pm

To the Editor:

David Brooks’s search for dignity is misplaced. Dignity, as a social device, didn’t survive World War II.

Yet, while the criteria may be different, there are people who possess that hard-to-define quality called “class,” which is a practical manifestation of kindness, respect for others, proper upbringing and the everyday application of the Golden Rule.

In his day, some derided the joke-telling Lincoln as undignified, yet no president had more class.

What should concern Mr. Brooks is the vanishing of personal honor, in government, business and family, which frees powerful men to cheat on their wives and their taxes, exploit workers, lie to voters and cheat stockholders and consumers with impunity.

Sheldon Bunin

Jackson Heights, Queens, July 7, 2009

via Letters – The Demise of Dignity in America – NYTimes.com.

Pride is your best friend and your worst enemy. At its best, pride forces you to have standards for yourself, to maintain what you’ve invested in so much. At its worst, pride is a sense of entitlement, a shamelessness that you justify with delusions of superiority.

There’s a Yu-Gi-Oh! manga story where Yugi faces the arrogant, cheating Bandit Keith (he of “In America!”), who refuses to play by the rules of the “Duelist Kingdom” island tournament because he’s not an official contestant. However, Keith plans to use his cheating ways to defeat enough players to force the judges to recognize him. In Keith’s mind, the island is a no-man’s-land where the rules don’t apply to him.

When Yugi defeats Keith fair and squire, Keith is dumbfounded. He thought his cheating strategies were perfect. Keith was too pig-headed to examine his own weaknesses before presuming victory.

So, Yugi gives him some advice. “Do you know what the rule of this island is?” he asks.

Keith huffs.

“A duelist’s pride,” Yugi says.

You wouldn’t think Keith’s worst vice was not having enough pride, and in a way, it was not. Keith had pride, but not the right kind.

January 1, 2009

Panopticonomics

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 6:14 pm

Letters – 8th Annual Year in Ideas – NYTimes.com
Robert Skidelsky argues that the “failure” of the efficient-market hypothesis over the last year proves that laissez-faire economics is dead and Keynesian economics should be the foundation of a new economic structure. But the efficient-market hypothesis, as defined by its inventor, Prof. Eugene Fama of the University of Chicago, states an “efficient” securities market is one in which, given the available information, actual prices at every point in time represent very good estimates of intrinsic values.

What has become clear over the last months is that the market did not have all the information to correctly set prices. The government’s role should be to ensure that the markets are supplied all the information to ensure their efficiency — not to pursue its current path of eliminating the market function via subsidies and political meddling.

BOB RAYMOND
Stamford, Conn.

Hmm! As an admirer of Keynes I do tend to favor all that fancy government meddling when times are tough. That is an interesting viewpoint, though. Markets can’t function when information is terrible, and a good responsibility for government would be that of bursting obvious bubbles before they grow too big.

(By the way, next time we’re in such a bubble—oh, those days seem so quaint—remember not to believe anyone when they insist that this time is different…)

(Incidentally, how many of our recent crises began with naïvely believing information that was obviously bad but fitted what we wanted to hear? I’m going to guess all of them.)

(One more thought… perhaps the God that governs the universe has a counterpart in high finance, but he’s a highly vengeful, cynical god who’s kind of a cosmic con artist that we constantly need to stay ahead of. Oh! There I go, revealing my secrets…)

December 23, 2008

Vice precedent

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 2:33 am

Letters – A Tax on Sugary Sodas? – NYTimes.com
To the Editor:

Re “Miracle Tax Diet,” by Nicholas D. Kristof (column, Dec. 18):

It may very well be that a higher tax on sugary soda would shrink Empire State waistlines as it fattens Albany’s coffers. But what ultimate price, in terms of individual freedom, shall we pay if the state starts dictating our dietary and lifestyle choices?

Using the rubric of better overall health as a “sweetener” for government intrusion in citizens’ private lives could damage our liberties in the same way that high-fructose corn syrup may have had on our body-mass measurements.

I’m happy to have government give me information with which I can make informed decisions, but let the choice be mine — untaxed and unfettered, please.

Mark A. Kellner
Columbia, Md., Dec. 18, 2008

I may have mentioned this before (I don’t remember), but John Stuart Mill had a few things to say on this in his essay, On Liberty. He spends good chunks of the essay condemning government attempts to limit individual choice, even bad choices, if they do not affect others. But, on the subject of vice taxes (see chapter 5, paragraph 9), he notes that governments have to raise money, that taxes are best levied on items that are nonessential, and that a vice is, by definition, nonessential. If it’s actively harmful to us, it’s something we can spare from our budgets, and therefore a good option for a tax.

As it happens, government actively subsidizes candy and fast-food through our ridiculous farm subsidy system, and a subsidy is a reverse tax. Government already influences our nutritional habits, and the question is whether or not they’re doing so in good faith.

November 21, 2008

Market failures

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:32 pm

UPDATE: The letter-writer responds in a comment below! How cool. Just so you know, people who are addressed, directly or indirectly, in my posts should totally leave a comment, because those comments are awesome.

Letters – Rescuing Detroit – The Great Debate – NYTimes.com
To the Editor:

I agree that letting the Big Three domestic automakers collapse would result in a catastrophic loss of jobs, but find the terms of your proposed bailout counterproductive (editorial, Nov. 15).

Companies as large and complex as automakers simply cannot afford to replace top management in the middle of a crisis. Doing so would also be pointless when the industry’s troubles stem primarily from the temporary spike in oil prices and the continuing financial crisis, not poor management.

After all, the Big Three did not specialize in trucks out of shortsightedness or social irresponsibility, but because that is what the market demanded.

Pah! I found that statement amazing. The trouble isn’t that they were following the market’s demands; the trouble is that they thought, arrogantly, that those demands would last forever. And, when the market stopped demanding SUVs and trucks the size of small moons, the automakers didn’t notice. Now they’re on the brink of collapse, and they want us to bail them out.

Forcing automakers that accept a bailout to produce only micro cars that get 50 miles per gallon would deprive Americans of the larger, sportier vehicles they prefer, while placing the rescued automakers at a competitive disadvantage when gas is cheap.

Oh, my Lord! Has this person seen an SUV dealership, lately? There’s one near my apartment, and its signs now shout loudly, “Fuel-efficient cars here!” (or somesuch) and hope the message is loud enough that you don’t notice row after row of gas-guzzling tanks. The SUV market is a disaster; nobody wants to buy a heavy car in this market. I give that SUV dealership six months, tops.

This brings me to the really depressing part of the bailout, and the whole act of legislating more fuel-efficient cars: it’s a failure of the market. No, not us; we want more fuel-efficient cars, we buy more fuel-efficient cars, and it just so happens that they’re made by foreign automakers (which, by the way, often have factories in the US). In a just world, in a world where the CEOs of the Big Three car companies had more than half a brain, we wouldn’t need fuel-efficiency standards; companies would simply compete on fuel efficiency until America produced cars that ran on little or—get this—no gasoline at all. It’s in vogue; everyone would want to buy a Chevrolet or a GM hybrid. It just so happens that they missed the boat; well, more accurately, they missed the boat, denied there was a boat, and are lobbying the government for their right to continue failing.

That’s the depressing part: we have to legislate that these companies make cars that people will buy. We have to demand that Detroit’s car magnates make money. Why are they so arrogant? Why not jump on the fuel-efficiency bandwagon when there’s so much money in it? I can only imagine it’s sheer obstinance, and if the jobs provided by these car companies are important enough for the government to step in and help the company out, they’re important enough for the government to step in, change the rules, and fire the management.

The federal government must help the Big Three weather the current financial crisis; they are truly too big to fail. But such assistance should not be used as an excuse to dictate the types of cars that Americans can drive.

Karl von Schriltz

Washington, Nov. 15, 2008

Ha! More like we have to force the automakers to make the cars Americans want.

November 16, 2008

“Capital punishment,” in more ways than one

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 11:11 am

Letters – Easing the Burden of Public Defenders – NYTimes.com

To the Editor:

Re “Citing Workload, Public Lawyers Reject New Cases” (front page, Nov. 9):

The assertion that despite increasingly overwhelming workloads, public defenders must “tighten their belts” during these times of severe reductions in state and local revenues is an affront to the constitutional guarantee of effective assistance of counsel for indigent criminal defendants.

We must not shortchange our Constitution regardless of our economic woes. There are, however, huge savings to be had that would substantially reduce the financial burden on public defenders’ offices and other components of our criminal justice system while maintaining our constitutional commitment to ensuring that all defendants receive quality representation.

As has been established by numerous studies in numerous states, including California, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey and Tennessee, the repeal of capital punishment would save taxpayers many millions of dollars a year.

The time has come for Americans and their elected representatives to seriously consider whether we can afford our error-prone, discriminatory and bankrupting death penalty system.

John Holdridge
Director, A.C.L.U. Capital
Punishment Project
Durham, N.C., Nov. 10, 2008

I’m Tina Russell and I approve this message.

October 25, 2008

Would you prefer wild abandon?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 4:21 pm

Letters – Reaction to the Obama Endorsement – NYTimes.com
To the Editor:

The New York Times endorses Senator Barack Obama for president. Shocking! Of course, the utter predictability and lack of suspense regarding your presidential choice has completely negated the value of your advocacy.

Paul Marasciullo
Laurel Hollow, N.Y., Oct. 24, 2008

?! This is the strangest thing I’ve read all day. Would you prefer the NYT to put some totally random endorsements in there to increase the “suspense”?

I read the New York Times editorials because I’m interested in their opinions, not for thrill-a-minute action, thank you very much.

October 24, 2008

Economics is applied common sense

Letters – Twists and Turns, Finish Line in Sight – NYTimes.com
Re “The Real Plumbers of Ohio,” by Paul Krugman (column, Oct. 20):

I know a real Joe the Plumber, and yes, his name is Joe. He’s married to my cousin and lives in Massachusetts. He even has a real plumbing license.

A few years ago, he was doing well, but with this growing recession, people have stopped calling him. The thing is, when people don’t have money, calling the plumber drops way down on their list of priorities.

Joe has four kids, and his second child is entering a local college. He thought he could afford her tuition, but with these bad times he’s not so sure anymore. Since his business has shrunk, he needs to cut back, too.

So my question to people who still feel that giving tax breaks to the wealthy will ultimately benefit the economy is this: I get the trickle-down effect, I get what you say by giving corporations power and freedom to really do business. But if we give the middle class a little bit more money, too — not the lines of credit and risky mortgages that have been handed out like Halloween candy and that have made us feel rich even though we’re not, but real money in the form of tax cuts and pay raises — doesn’t that allow us to hire people like my cousin Joe and keep his business going?

Doesn’t the trickle-down effect also have to trickle back up for capitalism to really work?

Susan Porretta
Westport, Conn., Oct. 20, 2008

The poor, the humble, the workers of modest means are what you might call a “growth industry.” In them is the biggest disparity between potential and actual output, which is the disparity that causes and maintains recessions. (Economic downturns are natural, but recessions are when they overstay their welcome, and depressions are when they’ve laid down roots.)

Money, like any commodity, has a diminishing marginal value. That is, the more money you give to someone, the less each dollar is worth. It’s obvious that $20 in the hands of a humble plumber means more than $20 in the hands of a CEO. Nevertheless, there’s a constant drumbeat that more money to the rich will help improve the living conditions of the poor. (I’ve always found that funny; if you’re admitting that money to the poor is the goal, why not bypass the middleman? I’m glad, of course, that Americans have recognized the folly of “trickle-down,” and its true meaning: diverting wealth to the rich will turn a torrent of hard-earned revenue into a trickle.)

Rich people, bless their hearts, hoard their money. They buy yachts and mansions. They invest in start-ups with catchy names and no business plan. That may benefit the manufacturers of yachts and mansions, and you never know, maybe the recently-graduated engineering student who helped design the yacht, or the construction worker who helped build the mansion, might make a little bit of solid cash. Poor people, however, spend that cash right quick. They pay rent on their house or apartment, helping the landowners, janitors, construction workers, material suppliers, and everyone else involved. They buy food, helping farmers, grocers, truckers, everyone.

Instead of buying one big mansion, giving good work to people who need it, they buy lots of more modest housing, giving the same work to far more people at a lower price. (Price of labor is price of labor; you don’t get paid more for working on a more expensive house, unless for some reason the construction company needs more specialized workers. Anything above that, management will pocket.) They’ll buy tons of food at the local farmers market rather than a serving of caviar from a far-off land for the same price. I don’t blame rich people for what they do with their money—if I had lots of money, I’d get started on my dream house right away—but it goes without saying that a little money means more to you if you’re poor. It also means more for the economy.

(There are some idealistic rich people—Bill Gates, George Soros, Mark Shuttleworth—who spend their personal fortunes making the world a better place. They’re wonderful, but we cannot become dependent on them, or expect every rich person to be like them. They’re only human.)

Money spent on the poor, of course, is even better when it’s a tax credit to supplement earned income, a (good, fair, transparent) loan to build their business, or help with going to school to learn new skills. These are investments that not only encourage good behavior, but come back many times over in the form of tax revenue that can then be spent on helping even more people. It’s true to a large extent what conservatives say about the numbing effect of welfare; it encourages dependency and lessens the incentive to work. That isn’t to say people on welfare are happy that way, though; it’s to say we need solutions that help poor people be able to do what they want most and do it better: to work, to take care of their families, and to achieve their dreams.

The central pillar of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” in 2000 was that people who are already trying hard should get help from the government so that they may achieve their goals. It’s a sentiment I strongly believe in, and it’s a shame Bush abandoned it the very second he was appointed President. Barack Obama, meanwhile, is the quintessential compassionate pragmatist, willing to do whatever it takes, whether the idea comes from the left or the right, to help those who are struggling and those of modest means and big ambitions. After all, these are all conservative as well as liberal values: you work hard, you serve the country, and you don’t let hardship get you down. Investing in the poor is something everyone can get behind, and not just in election season.

Home ec: how to survive after graduating

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 4:03 pm

Letter – Home Ec, Alive and Well – NYTimes.com
To the Editor:

Re “Thriftiness on Special in Aisle 5” (Business Day, Oct. 14):

Home economics is not a “lost art.” It is alive and well, living under the name of family and consumer sciences education.

Every day in New York State alone, where family and consumer sciences education is mandatory at the middle-school level and an elective in high school, hundreds of thousands of students receive instruction in valuable life skills like financial literacy (budgeting and money management), nutrition (how to make healthy food choices) and consumer resource management (how to be an educated consumer).

For many of the reasons stated in the article and as someone studying to be a family and consumer sciences teacher, I believe that this course of study, now more than ever, should be supported and expanded in our public schools to help prepare future generations for the economic challenges we will all face.

Betsy Jordan

West Nyack, N.Y., Oct. 14, 2008

As somebody with a complex over not having taken home ec (or “family and consumer sciences education,” which seems entirely too long-winded), I wholly endorse this letter to the editor. By now, at the higher education level, my only choice for cooking classes is non-credit “Party Dishes to Wow Them” drivel.

I know it’s my responsibility to be a better homemaker, but I kind of wish I had some help. Yes, I mentioned before that I’ve been to almost every kind of alternative school there is (except for Montessori, dammit), and it seems they all had one thing in common: the fervent belief that their children will be fine if they grow up without having learned personal finance, wise consumption, or, you know, cooking. Apparently kids from alternative schools can subsist on frozen waffles all their lives. @#%$!

I blame it on my alternative education out of spite, sure (and as I’ve noted before, I’m extremely grateful for an offbeat education; a “real” high school would have eaten me alive, licked my flesh from its teeth, and spit out my bones before letting out a satisfied braaaaap), but I’d imagine plenty of schools are cutting family and consumer whatever from their budgets these days. So as long as students never have to buy anything, or maintain a house, or take out a loan, or take care of a family, or eat, they’ll be fine!

August 29, 2008

When buying equipment for the disabled, don’t use price as a crutch

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 1:29 am

Letter – Medicare Bidding – Letter – NYTimes.com
In your Aug. 22 editorial “Medicare’s Claims,” you refer to the postponement by Congress of a new competitive bidding system for durable medical equipment. Such a system might sound great, but it does not serve or help people with disabilities. It can literally kill us.

I use a $20,000 power chair for mobility and a $15,000 vent to breathe. This equipment has allowed me to drive, teach, write books and plays, and enjoy a full life. Allow competitive bidding, and I’d be using inferior equipment and my quality of life would be compromised.

I really loathe this argument. “You get what you pay for” is kind of a myth; you don’t get anything with a Rolex, save for the status symbol of having paid hundreds of dollars for a wristwatch. Meanwhile, it’s kind of a no-brainer that you should choose the least-priced option that meets your prescribed standards of quality. If you’re not getting the right quality, the answer isn’t to pay more money, it’s to raise your standards.

And, you know, if you’re supposed to pick not the most expensive option, but not the cheapest, either… than what? Should we pick something somewhere in the middle? The second-cheapest option? Third-cheapest? Whatever arbitrary meaning we give to prices is waiting to be manipulated by manufacturers that will put their prices right where we want them, regardless of the quality of the product.

The best option, of course, is to remember that price has utterly no bearing on the quality of the product, and we should rate the product on its own merits instead. But, that’s just me. And since you’re reading this blog for free, and not paying me hundreds an hour as a marketing consultant, my opinions are clearly worthless. I should learn to charge more for the same service.

Oh, and buried in my ellipsis is this gem:

Moreover, surgical suppliers of such advanced and often custom equipment are already working on an extremely low profit margin. If the government starts awarding funds to the lowest bidder, it would reduce the ability of surgical suppliers to stay in business.

Yes, remember that the government is a charity organization for unprofitable businesses! Seriously, if those hardscabble mom-and-pop surgical supplies operations, surviving on sheer pluck and spunk, are just so much gol-darn better than the cheaper competition, that should be the reason to select them, not for being the next-most expensive. Remember: cost of manufacture is a baseline for the final price, and sometimes not even that. (Sony loses money each time you buy a PlayStation 3, for instance.)

Price is what companies think you will pay, not necessarily what the product is worth. If you’re afraid of the shoddy work of the theoretical lowest bidder, that means that quality standards must be raised, not that quality should be judged on how expensive the product is. In fact, I have some swampland in Florida I’d like to sell you. It’s just $493,000 an acre.

August 13, 2008

Siné qua “Non!”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 6:24 pm

Letters – When Speech Is Hateful, How Free Should It Be? – Letter – NYTimes.com
Re “Aux Barricades! France and the Jews,” by Roger Cohen (column, The New York Times on the Web, Aug. 4):

Mr. Cohen defends Bob Siné, a columnist-cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, citing free speech issues.

But Mr. Siné’s editor, Philippe Val, did not prosecute him or arrest him for his anti-Semitic column; he merely fired him.

Just because I believe absolutely in free speech does not require me to publish any hateful screed that comes across my desk. Mr. Siné is free to publish, at his own expense, any bigotry he likes. But a journal aspiring to be respectable has no legal or moral obligation to participate in such hatred, and it may well have political and moral reasons not to.

(Rabbi) Jonathan H. Gerard

Easton, Pa., Aug. 4, 2008

Yeah, but even before the outcry over Siné’s hateful column, everyone already knew that he was an anti-Semitic jerkwad. For me, the puzzle comes down to “why now?” I could be charitable and say that the editor merely felt, given the outcry, that Siné no longer merited any kind of public standard (as he does not), that the French people had outgrown his childishness and it was time to move on. But I cannot help but hang my head and sigh at the editor’s decision to fire Siné in direct response to the outcry. He was fully aware that Siné was a cantankerous bigot. Why hire him (if, indeed, he was the editor who did)? Why keep him on so long? And why fire him amidst a storm of controversy? Perhaps they realized (correctly) that they never should have hired him, but I do not like the chilling effect of hiring known provocateurs and then firing them when they provoke, nor am I fond of writers and cartoonists being fired to placate an angry mob, or editors making such key decisions in a tense emotional environment.

Then again, I’d be on cloud nine if Michael Savage got fired one of these days for his hateful shtick (he makes Rush Limaugh look like a Care Bear). My question is… if Siné is so bad (and it sounds like he is), why wasn’t he fired before? And why would a responsible editor fire him in the heat of controversy?

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