Friday, January 25, 2008

The Best Political/Economic System Money Can (and does) Buy

I've been watching the gyrations of the stock market and the feeble minded responses to our 'economic crisis' with fascination--the same fascination with which one witnesses a car crash that happens to someone else. I have witnessed two such car crashes and there was a surreal quality to them. I saw them happening. I knew people were hurt. But I couldn't prevent them; I couldn't help; and, they didn't really affect me in any long lasting way.

As I watched the stock market over the last decade, it's ups and downs had the same quality. Whether the market went up or down, my economic situation has remained fragile. Jobs have become harder to get and harder to hold on to. I have yet to find a job that will pay for my life and I don't live extravagantly. Most of those jobs paid so little, I ended up resenting the time I spent doing them. And the situation has gotten worse over time no matter what the stock market did. Tenuous jobs, few pay raises that didn't even reach the inflation rate no matter how low that was, reduced hours when I did get pay raises. I know the whole trickle down theory says that when those at the top profit some of the benefits will 'trickle down' to the people below them. Unfortunately, it isn't benefits that have been trickling down but a couple of bodily excrements I won't name.

Of course, I am not one of those Americans who have retirement accounts or brokerage accounts or investments on which I am depending for income. However, from what I have been reading and hearing, many of them don't feel very secure or well off at the moment. I wouldn't either if the portfolio I depended on lost between 11% and 20% (depending on where you start counting) of its value. Does anyone remember when President Bush was pushed for the 'privatization' of Social Security and promised a much better return on retirement funds if only people could take control of the money they paid into Social Security? I do. And I remember the stories concerning who would be handling those investments. Because of the volume of transactions and the amount of money involved, only a few of the largest banks and investment houses would be able to do the job. Just the ones that have taken massive write-downs because of the housing melt-down or have taken a big hit on the stock market drop. 'Oh,' you say. 'The market will bounce back. See, it gained back 300 points over the last two days.' 'But,' I say. 'How long will that continue? And do we really want to gamble what we save for our old age, if we are lucky to have the surplus to save, on what is a legalized crap shoot?' That is all the stock market is--a legalized crap shoot.

It amazes me how quickly the President and his minions (including Fed Chairman Bernanke) decided the economy, heretofore described as so strong and robust, needs to be stimulated. And then the package that came out of bi-partisan negotiations (but has yet to be voted on) is something beyond belief. Tax credits to business, which one news story said will be spent on new equipment? Point one--most of our equipment is now manufactured overseas. Buying new equipment will boost other economies not ours. Point two--new equipment usually means companies will be able to reduce the work force, which means fewer Americans will be working and, therefore, fewer will be paying their mortgages, credit card bills, or shopping in the malls.

The Democrats initially proposed expanding food stamps and unemployment benefits as the quickest way to get spending power into the hands of those most likely to spend the money--the poor and the unemployed. But that is something Republicans don't ever want to do. Does anyone remember the scene between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle's father in 'My Fair Lady' where Doolittle responds to Higgins' suggestion that Doolittle was one of the 'deserving' poor? Doolittle tells Higgins that he is one of the 'undeserving poor' and likes his condition just fine, thank you very much. The notion of the 'deserving poor' is a very nice Victorian concept. Some of the poor deserve help and some don't, it is just a matter of deciding who belongs in which group. How this concept works in the current political climate can be seen by the fact that the Democrats dropped extending either program in exchange for the Republicans agreeing to limit the rebate program to middle and lower income people. The unemployed and food stamp recipients are the undeserving poor.

A further example of how this works is the story on MSNBC today involving the State of Mississippi and its intention to divert funds supposed to rebuild public housing, rebuild poor neighborhoods and small business damaged during Katrina. What do they want to do with those funds? Completely renovate and modernize the port area and include, while they are at it, casino and resort facilities. I don't think it is an accident that the amount they want to divert is exactly the sum originally earmarked for rebuilding facilities that benefited the poor. Nor do I think it is accidental that funds earmarked for rebuilding more affluent neighborhoods and benefiting wealthier citizens has already been disbursed. Again, the poor and marginal people are 'undeserving.'

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Medical News, Elders in Film and Novels

Last night on the ABC local news there was a brief snippet. It seems some doctors (unnamed) have come to the defense of Zetia and Vytorin (which combines Zetia and Zocor (I think?)). In the check-out line at our local grocery store, Mom was in her usual conversation with one of our favorite clerks when the talk turned to the cholesterol medications. Our clerk recounted the predicament of a friend who had been placed on Zetia and whose doctor was very unhappy with her progress. "She has lost 85 lbs. and she is taking Zetia but her cholesterol has not gone down. They can't figure out why." Mom told her about the story that was on the ABC Nightly News Monday night in which cited the results of a study concluded two years ago and only released that day. The drug company's own after-release study concluded that Zetia was basically ineffective. They did not lower cholesterol any more than placebos (sugar pills). In other words, THEY DID NOT WORK. According to the news reader, the company had held the results back to examine them further. Now, as I understand the procedure, the drug companies last steps to approval involve clinical trials during which they are supposed to test the drugs for efficacy and safety after which the results are sent to the FDA for testing. Questions: How did they test these drugs in the clinical trials? and Why did the new statistics show such a disparate result? That is a kick in the head, isn't it? You pay all that money, trust the doctor who is prescribing the medication and get no results.

Thinking of this situation I remembered a story from a couple of years ago in, I think it was, "60 Minutes" that featured a hospital that tried to get a handle on both the diverse studies on drug safety and effectiveness and on the medication prices. The hospital set up a review board of staff physicians whose job was to collect the data from the various published studies of drugs, compare and critique the results and answer some very basic questions. How safe and effective were the drugs? Were the new drugs safer and/or more effective than older drugs? The committee found that new drugs, usually more expensive and still under patent, were often less effective than older, generic drugs and if they were as effective as the older drugs they often had more pronounced and serious side effects. In other words, new does not necessarily mean better.

On another note, sometime ago Ronni at 'Time Goes By' added another installment in the old saga of older actors who find good roles for them are scarce and getting scarcer. Among those quoted was Dustin Hoffman who mentioned that he might have to shift his efforts to Europe where an Oscar winning actor of any age could still find worthy roles. In the comments, one person suggested elder bloggers start listing
movies featuring elder actors and provide mini-reviews. I think we can go that one better and include books as well because the number of books that feature older characters are also few and far between. In that spirit, here are 'a few of my favorite things.'

Space Cowboys--I am not a great Clint Eastwood fan and most of the films he has done that I would include in my favorites are of the quirky nature. He is in wonderful form as a former test pilot whose dreams of going into space are derailed when the NASA takes over the program and shuts him and his buddies out. Thirty years later as an engineer with specialized knowledge of an obsolete system he blackmails an old nemesis into putting all four back in the game. Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner and Donald Southerland round out this wonderfully eccentric group.

The Crew--Burt Reynolds is also not one of my favorite actors. The only other film he has made that I like includes two of my all time favorite actors, Jackie Gleason and Sally Fields. That would be Smokey and the Bandit, for those of you who couldn't guess. In this film he teamed up with Seymour Cassel, Richard Dreyfuss and Dan Hedaya. The boys portray aging 'wise guys' retired to Miami who find their comfortable if not affluent life is being threatened by 'gentrification' for lack of a better term.

Brother Cadfael--almost any of the films and definitely any of the books. The only one of the films, featuring Derek Jacobi as Cadfael, I did not like was the Pilgrim of Hate in which the story line changed in a way that made it unpalatable as well as, in my humble opinion, historically inaccurate. Cadfael started adult life as a Crusader and, after spending more than 20 years abroad, returned to England were he became a Benedictine monk. Most of the books are set some 15-20 years after he entered the monastery making Cadfael 60+. He uses the knowledge of healing, herbal remedies, human nature and wounds and injuries to solve murders set during the long civil war between King Steven and his cousin, Empress Maud, daughter of the late King Henry I.

I will have to do more another time because I am running out of steam.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Blog Hopping, Politics, and other random things

I have neglected this for a while. Not intentionally. I just go through silent spells when I just seem to have nothing to say. However, some rambling thoughts do come to mind.

Marian at Elderwoman put up a new post asking why more people aren't going green and why those who have made a stab at it aren't getting greener? Good questions. I can think of a number of reasons. One major one is simply inertia. We get into habits and don't easily get out of them. When I was a kid my father would constantly tell us kids to turn off lights. I am no longer a kid and haven't been for many many years but Mom still reminds me to turn off lights. We buy things because we have always bought them and continue to buy those same items without thinking. We do what we have always done without exploring the alternatives. We just don't expend the energy.

Marian described an encounter with another woman which rang some bells with me. The woman complained that a local food store was going to close but all the while she clutched a plastic bag full of food purchased at a large chain store. She never connected the dot between her own shopping and the demise of an alternative store. I have seen the same thing myself several times over the last few years. In one case, I worked at the store that closed. Over the three years that store was in business, I marveled at the number of people who visited the store, raved about our service, prices, and selection and then walked out never to return. Were they being just polite? If they meant what they said, why did they not come back? Others loved our service and selection but complained about the prices. They were the Wal-Mart or Dollar Store 'gals.' They never connected the low prices at Wal-Mart with the lack of selection and service offered at Wal-Mart. During the 'going out of business' sales we saw many of those people come to take advantage of the sale prices that were still above the Wal-Mart prices. It was all I could do to remain civil.

Granny Geek has a couple of really nice pictures of miniatures her sister-in-law creates. I especially like the one that is an office, compete with antique Coke machine and computer in an empty computer monitor. My own hobby is needlework but I love to see what other people do with their hobbies.

Barbara Ehrenreich has a post which notes that the official definition of what makes a recession has very little meaning for the ordinary Americans who are hurting in these times of economic uncertainty and hardship. You will have to scroll back a bit. I noticed that she just has a new one I will have to read when I am done here.

Ronni Bennet has a new Time Goes By post which should terrify anyone who is getting on in age and is without close friends and relatives. She tells the story of a 73 year old woman who went into the hospital with a broken ankle expecting to go home after a short stint in a re-hab hospital but never got out. Instead, she is a prisoner in a nursing home with a radio anklet that alerts the nurses if she sets foot out of the building. She was committed as mentally incompetent even though she had a long history of managing her own affairs on the terse and illegible diagnosis of a doctor that was not even her primary care physician. This frightens me far more that anything Al Qaeda could do. This is terrorism aided and abetted by law and social prejudice.

On the environmental/political scene, I found a nice article on Grist which tries to deal with the issue of urban sprawl, transportation policy and our current silly season (aka presidential primary season.) Bill Richardson mentioned it once during the debates and it has been since forgotten like so much else in the primary races where the focus has been on personality clashes and non-issues. I would give you a link but haven't figured out what is the matter with the address I have. I will try this again some other time.

I think I will call it a day. I am going to have to start taking better notes so I can link to the right articles more easily. I wish I knew of an easier way to do it than typing the address each and every time. Oh, well!!!