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Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Maybe This Explains His Attraction to Saddam

Apparently, marrying oneself to a dead partner is something of a French pastime:

Dressed in a demure black suit, a 35-year-old Frenchwoman has married her dead boyfriend, an exchange of vows that required authorization from President Jacques Chirac. ... Such marriages are legal if the living spouse can prove the couple had intended to marry before the other died. The French president must also authorize it.

I don't know what's more disturbing (with apologies to Mme. Demichel) -- that a woman would pursue such a course of action when her "groom" has been dead for 17 months, or that approval of such unions is an official duty of the French President. I hadn't realized how ingrained the notion of useless marriage was to the French, but it does explain why they insist that we are still partners even after they've plunged the knife in our backs.

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Friday, January 23, 2004

Saluting A Better Captain, Gone To a Better Place

Sadly, an icon of children's entertainment has passed away; Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo, died at age 76:

Bob Keeshan, the television producer who created and ultimately became beloved children's personality Captain Kangaroo, has died. Keeshan, who was born in Lynbrook, Long Island, was 76. Keeshan began his career by creating the character of Clarabell the Clown for the 'Howdy Doody Show.' He used that children's show experience to mold Captain Kangaroo, winning over generations of children and their parents through innovative approaches to interesting topics.

As the easy-going Captain with his big pockets and his bushy mustache, Keeshan lured children into close engagement with literature, science and especially music, adopting an approach which mixed pleasure and pedagogy. Keeshan's approach represented a rejection of pressures towards the increased commercialization of children's programming as well as a toning-down of the high volume, slapstick style associated with earlier kid show hosts.

I don't recall spending a lot of time watching Captain Kangaroo when I was younger, but I was in the stark minority for my generation, and small wonder. Keeshan devoted his life to entertaining and educating children, in the same mold (but different style) as Fred Rogers. Keeshan's devotion to children is aptly demonstrated in this review of his early efforts at presenting high-quality entertainment:

Leaving the series in 1952, he played a succession of other clown characters, such as Corny, the host of WABC-TV's 'Time For Fun,' a noontime cartoon program, where he exerted pressure to remove from airplay cartoons he felt were too violent or perpetuated racial stereotyping.

Farewell, Captain, and Godspeed. (via The SmarterCop)

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Thursday, January 22, 2004

NY Times: Choice Is Bad

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, penned an article for today's New York Times op-ed section warning against the pitfalls of too much choice:

[T]here is growing evidence that the emotional logic (the psycho-logic) is deeply flawed. Indeed, for many people, increased choice can lead to a decrease in satisfaction. Too many options can result in paralysis, not liberation.

You may want to think of this as the "Moscow on the Hudson" syndrome; in that movie, a Russian refugee has an anxiety attack when asked to go to an American supermarket for coffee ... and sees an entire aisle of choices. In fact, Schwartz uses similar examples when making his case:

• Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, psychologists at Columbia and Stanford respectively, have shown that as the number of flavors of jam or varieties of chocolate available to shoppers is increased, the likelihood that they will leave the store without buying either jam or chocolate goes up. ...

• In a study that Ms. Iyengar, Rachel Elwork of Columbia and I are working on, we found that as the number of job possibilities available to college graduates goes up, applicants' satisfaction with the job search process goes down.

Why did the Times decide to print this today, or at all? Well, this isn't just an exercise in psychology, as the beginning of the article demonstrates:

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Bush elaborated on a theme that is near to his heart: the virtues of personal choice.

"Younger workers should have the opportunity to build a nest egg by saving part of their Social Security taxes in a personal retirement account," the president said. "We should make the Social Security system a source of ownership for the American people." Mr. Bush also made clear that "any attempt to limit the choices of our seniors, or to take away their prescription drug coverage under Medicare, will meet my veto."

Schwartz argues that more personal choice decreases the quality of life, causing anxiety and depression. People are happier, he says, when choices are limited and responsibility for decision-making processes rest elsewhere than completely on the individual. In Schwartz's view, the sense of missed opportunities puts too great of a stress on an individual, who will likely second-guess their decisions and always wonder if they would have been better off with different decisions.

Schwartz's solution -- no bonus points for you if you saw this coming -- is to reduce or eliminate choices, especially in government-entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Nothing better encapsulates latter-day liberalism (which means socialism, as opposed to classic liberalism) than this condescending and patronizing pop-psychology fingerwagging. Choice makes some people miserable, so the solution is to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator so that we can make sure everyone is equally miserable. You can't decide on a jam when you have 24 choices? Let's make only six varieties so everyone can feel good about themselves. Unable to analyze various medical plans to determine what's best for you? No problem -- let the experts in the government come up with a single plan. Too many investment choices? Let's fix it so that there is only one government-controlled investment choice; that way if it tanks, everyone is equally damaged.

All of this mischief comes from a misunderstanding of equality. To most people, it means equality of opportunity and treatment, but to the left, it means equality of results, and that is the essence of socialism. It's not that we wouldn't like to see everyone get rewarded equally, but not everyone has equal talent, not all talent is fully realized or even fully utilized, and not all production has equal value. Use jam as an example: most people might be satisfied with only six flavors of jam and may never try all 24. That does not mean that most people wouldn't enjoy more choice or prefer a flavor not included in someone's arbitrary selection of the six "allowed" flavors. And in the case of Social Security, the single "choice" given is mandatory extraction of a healthy chunk of individual income placed in a fund that will not even pay back the principal deposited, much less keep up with inflation or grow in any way.

The research Schwartz sites applies more to retail marketing than it does to public policy, and the Times' publication of this paternalistic propaganda reveals their sympathy to socialism. (Certainly you will have never seen the phrase "choice tyrannizes people more than it liberates them" in a Times article on abortion, where "choice" arguably equals the ability to kill another individual.) It's designed to appeal to those who are willing to surrender their freedom for the illusion of comfort and tranquility. For me, I'd much rather second-guess myself than allow others to dictate a paucity of options based on their opinion of what's best for me.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2004


From the land of blue-sky lawsuits, the Pioneer Press reports on one of the sillier examples to grace our court system:

Joanne Borgerding was sitting in a packed Eagan McDonald's at lunchtime, eating a chicken sandwich and reading a book when something moved beneath her booth. Dancing in the air by her legs were "little movable eyes" that were attached to a dark, 2-foot-long snake.

"I looked face to face at it," Borgerding said. "I know people in the drive-up heard me — I screamed that loud."

Borgerding also flew out of her booth and in the process injured her foot so badly that she says she has permanent nerve damage. She asked McDonald's insurance company to pay her medical bills, but the company denied her claims, she said. Now she is seeking in excess of $50,000 in a personal injury complaint that she expects to file in Dakota County next month.

A garter snake somehow got into the restaurant and got under Borgdering's booth at McDonalds -- no doubt, a startling and upsetting experience. But she stumbles while getting out of the booth and claims permanent injury, and blames it on the restaurant? How is that the fault of McDonalds? Do they have a snake-friendly door? Not likely here in the Upper Midwest; most if not all business use a double-stage entry to save on heating costs.

Borgerding said she pushed off on her right foot to get away. She didn't fall, but twisted her body trying to escape. She said her whole body ached for a couple of days, and she had shooting pain in her foot. ... Borgerding said no McDonald's employees came to her aid that day, and messages she left for the owner were not returned.

"We didn't do anything right away because we didn't know what to do," former McDonald's employee Neil Urbanski said on Monday. "Because we didn't know what type (of snake) it was, we didn't want to touch it. … The lady got mad at us because we weren't helping her. … No, she wasn't hurt at all."

Oh, so she's mad because McDonald's doesn't train all of their employees in snake control, despite the obvious need to do so. That makes more sense. From now on, every McDonalds will have a McSnake McCharmer. And since the booth tripped her up, they'll get rid of all booths from now on; everyone can stand up while they're eating instead. That should make her happy!

Borgdering simply sees an opportunity to play legal Lotto and is taking it as far as she can. Why should we care? For one reason, lawsuits like these drive up costs both at McDonalds and for insurance overall, even when they get thrown out of court (and they're more likely to be settled). Silly lawsuits like these caused McDonalds to turn down the heat on their coffee, which now gets served slightly warmer than tepid these days because some idiot didn't know better than to stick a cup of hot coffee in her crotch while driving. They also waste court time that could be used to expedite lawsuits with merit and criminal cases that take forever to work their way through to conclusion, costing us plenty of money for the high-priced talent that occupies. Finally, these lawsuits deter people from operating businesses, resulting in lower capital investment into the economy and fewer jobs.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2004

It's Your Fault I Was An Idiot

Sometimes I wonder what attraction a nanny-state society holds for people who think for themselves ... and then I'm reminded that some people don't think things through at all, and want a big mommy to make everyone give you do-overs:

A 55-year-old man is suing a local church because it won't give back a $126,000 donation he gave during a deep depression five years ago. ... After five months of antidepressants and counseling, Mager said he asked for the money back. But leaders at the Cloquet Gospel Tabernacle church said no. They had already used the money for new family ministry space. ... Mager's change of heart is confounding to church leaders because the letter he sent with the cashier's check seemed so genuine, Doebler said.

"He felt some remorse for some past actions and he wanted to make it right with God,'' Doebler said, recounting the letter. "At the time, we were taking it on good faith that this is what he wanted. It was hard to know what we were dealing with since it was anonymous.''

Mager gives a church $126,000 -- anonymously, so there's no question of duress or undue influence -- and then five months later changes his mind and demands the money back. Why? He says he suffered from depression and couldn't be held responsible for his actions. The church is somehow supposed to know this despite the anonymous submission and not spend the money for five months on the offhand chance that the donor would be tacky enough to ask for it back months later. Of course the church refuses, saying that the money had already been spent, and of course Mager runs to a lawyer to sue them.

Nice guy, Mager.

This is exactly the kind of dispute that should have taken no more than an hour in court to dismiss. The function of the tort system should not be to protect people from their own stupidity, nor to make charitable organizations vulnerable to refund requests based on the whim of the donor. Instead, Mager has tied up valuable court time and has wasted the church's resources (not to mention his own) on legal fees, resources that I am sure are scarce enough as it is.

Note to the plaintiff: grow up and take some responsibility for your actions. I'm sorry you suffer from depression, but next time, get help before you start writing checks. It's not the church's fault you sent them $126,000 anonymously -- it's yours. Your action, your fault, your responsibility. Stop wasting court time and taxpayer resources.

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Sunday, January 11, 2004

What's The Rush?

Over the past four decades -- from the Summer of Love to the Bratz Kids -- our children have been under increasing pressure to become aggressively sexual earlier and earlier. Little girls who aren't even in middle school start wearing makeup and getting expensive hairdos, and now parents are taking it to another level:

To celebrate her birthday, Lauren Potter decided to spring for a day at the spa. She and a friend, Ana Zdechlik, spent an afternoon getting facials, manicures and pedicures. They ended the day by having their hair spiked. Such birthday luxuries are not uncommon, except for one thing: Both girls are 11. ... [T]eens and "tweens" (10-to 12-year-olds bursting to be older) can get a French Upgrade or Glitter Topcoat for their nails, a chin wax job, Blemish Blaster Facial, eyelash and eyebrow tint or paraffin foot dip. They can also get a temporary henna tattoo or step into a glass shower and get a sunless "Magic Tan" that will last a week. If mom decides to hang around, there's a mother-daughter day special for $195 per person.

While Freud correctly notes that we all are sexual beings, overt sexuality had traditionally been postponed until mid-teens at the earliest until the 1960s and 1970s rolled around. Ever since then, overt sexuality has been pushed further and further back into childhood, until it seems that the entire period after toddlerhood has become an extended adolescence. The problem with sexualizing young children is that they inevitably start acting sexual, experimenting with sexual contact and obsessing on physical image and popularity with the opposite gender. Far more than boys, the pressure on young girls to sexualize has increased tremendously.

Now we have preteen girls spending $100 or more to get henna tatoos and paraffin foot dips instead of playing board games, getting eyelash coloring and fingernails painted instead of playing soccer or swimming, and basing their self-esteem on make-up and "shimmer body exfoliations" instead of their intellect, their personality, and their souls. After that, who can wonder why HBO then airs shows such as "Middle School Confidential", where 13-year-olds casually talk about oral sex on first dates with their 14-year-old boyfriends? Is it any wonder that abstinence-only sexual education proves no more effective than traditional methods? Why would we be surprised when eating disorders strike girls at adolescence and even younger now?

Shame on the parents who allow their daughters, in the article as young as five years old, to be indoctrinated into such a shallow set of values. They're selling a typical American illness: if it feels good, do it. One parent said:

[She] brought one daughter in for a faux tan earlier in the day, then had to bring her other daughter in. "Expensive day," she said. "I think it's a good idea," [she] said. "Teens have so much expendable money now. What else are they going to spend it on?"

Maybe that's part of the problem, too. Maybe our children get too much money too early. Because if that's the justification for allowing them to turn their daughters into shallow, self-obsessed, precocious targets for exploitation, then I guess you can't blame them for buying drugs, either.

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