Though you’d never know it to look at me now, I used to be an avid bicyclist. Since I’m not very fast on a bike, rather than time trials and speed cycling, I concentrated on distance cycling in the 90’s, and completed four centuries in a 26-month timeframe then. In 1990, a bill introduced into the Maryland state legislature by a delegate from Anne Arundel County proposed to ban bicycle helmets.

Let me let you read that statement again and let it sink in: He wanted to ban bicycle helmets.

His rationale? We cyclists can’t hear sirens and other traffic noise.

If you bike, you know that a helmet is your first and sometimes only line of defense against asshole motorists and other bike dangers. As I was hit by a car while biking in 1995, and absorbed the brunt of the impact mainly with my face, I know firsthand the protection bike helmets provide. This jerk wanted to take my only protection away. And yes, we can hear road noise just fine.

This was my first “libertarian moment.” Here is a legislator who is both stupid and powerful. As anyone who lived through the George W. Bush regime administration knows, that’s a dangerous combination.

One of the reasons I left the Democratic Party for the Libertarian Party, and a libertarian point of view in general, is that I saw an increasing reliance by progressives, liberals, Democrats,  the left wing, whatever you want to call them, on government to enforce beneficial behavior. If something’s good for you, pass a law requiring it. If something’s bad for you, pass a law banning it. The latest salvo in this assault on our personal liberties comes to me courtesy of CNN here at UM Hospital, where I’ve been for the past 7 1/2 hours awaiting the outcome of my mother’s brain tumor surgery. (Turns out the channel changer’s locked, so I can’t escape to ESPN.) They’ve carried a news bite about the recent requirement for health care employees of New York state government to be vaccinated against the H1N1 virus (related story here: http://www.newsday.com/long-island/mandatory-flu-vaccination-splits-workers-1.1481242?print=true). Today, a rally against the proposed legislation took place on the steps of the state house in Albany. CNN found a couple of picketers to interview who, honestly, weren’t very articulate. Or, in my cynicism, I suspect their tape editors cut out the good stuff and made those two picketers sound like morons. It’s too bad, because they had a point. Related stories point out the risk of being exposed to impure vaccines or getting sick (or even dying) from the vaccine itself, as some people do.

Getting the vaccine is probably a good thing. The protesters weren’t protesting the vaccination, just the government requirement. Skip the vaccine, lose your job. It was that simple.

Suppose all the states adopted this same requirement. And suppose that the requirement extended to all state employees, not just those with health care-related jobs. There simply wouldn’t be enough vaccine to go around. There is a promise by Kathleen Sebelius that there will be about 75.3 million doses available to the public, which should carry us through the end of December ( http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/07/09/obama.swine.flu/index.html?iref=newssearch ).  She doesn’t have the power to promise that. Besides like being a promise that it will snow on Christmas, who is to say that that will be enough? Making everyone get the vaccine is a sure way to increase demand artificially without increasing supply. And the vaccine production process can’t be sped up. (Most vaccines are grown on a chicken-egg medium, which means that the rate-limiting step is how fast chickens can lay eggs. No government can speed that process up.)

Another danger of making something good a government mandate is that we can’t always predict what will happen in the future. Consider, for example, this description of a drug from the 19th century: “… dull(s) pain, strengthen(s)the pulse, calm(s) nervousness and help(s) the body heal.” Not only did it do all that, wrote a New England doc in the 1870s, “it invariably contributes to the mental cheerfulness.”  Sounds good, right? Suppose such a drug were mandated by the government to be required therapy for everyone?

We’d have a nation of addicts, because that drug was cocaine. A similar pronouncement was made by late 19th- and early-20th-century doctors of heroin, with the result that thousands of people really did become addicts.

Never mind the religious objections people may have to government-mandated therapies of any kind. Those are too numerous to mention here. What if we just find out later that what the government made us do umpty-ump years ago is bad now? What do we do then?

Another example of this bizarre behavior is occurring now in the state of California. In 2007, California passed a law banning incandescent light bulbs, with a five-year phase-in. Just banned ’em. ALL houses and places of business in California are now required to use CFLs. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6316635.stm, among others). Sounds good on the surface, right? CFLs use less electricity and emit less heat than the Edison invention. Using less electricity means less greenhouse gas emission by power plants. All good, right?

A typical CFL manufactured for consumer use contains about 3-5 mg of mercury. Imagine ten or more years from now, when spent CFLs need to be disposed. That mercury goes right back into the biosphere. (Not to mention the millions of incandescent bulbs that suddenly need to be disposed of because they’re now illegal in California. The glass, perhaps, is recycleable. But the rest of the bulb’s anatomy is not.) If all the CFLs in the US were dumped, it would contribute about 104 tons of mercury to the biosphere. And what did the EPA recommend? Double-bagging the bulbs before disposal. I am not shitting you. (http://www.epa.gov/mercury/spills/index.htm#flourescent, and yes, the government spelled “fluorescent” wrong) Someone pointed out that a plastic bag was a piss-poor idea, since plastic could still allow mercury vapor to leach out. I’m saying plastic bags are a piss-poor idea because—hello? McFly?!—plastic bags are made with petroleum derivatives! So much for protecting the environment.

I have a better idea: how about if we decide what’s good for us, and buy and use accordingly?

By the way, although this number is a bit out of date, the site http://www.swinefludeathtoll.com/ puts the total death count from swine flu at 1,154 as of this May…less than 1% of all diagnosed cases worldwide. Not exactly a cause for alarm. And certainly no reason to mandate getting vaccinated.

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I’m sitting in a hospital waiting room in Florida while my mother undergoes surgery for a (thankfully, benign) brain tumor. In fact, as soon as I get done typing this, I need to go visit her in her room. The family waiting room, happily, has wireless Internet access, as well as a big-screen TV that’s been permanently tuned in to CNN. I don’t know if that’s because the staff have the remote, or simply because none of us has the stones to get up and change the channel.

So all day, we’ve been subjected to saturation PSA’s from the President about what the “public option” plan he proposes is not: It’s not a slippery slope to a single-payer program. It’s not a method of taking away your choice. “If you have a private plan,” he’s said all day, “you get to keep it.” He’s promised that the plan he proposes will prevent insurance companies from denying applicants coverage based on pre-existing conditions. He promises that this plan will compel the insurance companies to pay for basic preventative measures “such as regular checkups, mammograms, and colonoscopies.”  He’s also saying in this PSA that finally, regular families will be able to get the care they need without going broke.

As my friends at Camden Yards would say: Negro, please.

I know this President is ten tons smarter than his predecessor, so I’m confident he understands what he is saying is simply not true. So I have to wonder: Is he trying to convince himself of what he’s saying, or is he hoping we are too stupid to discern that these things are simply not true?

First and most important: Having coverage does not guarantee access to care. I’ve been saying this for a long time, but I’m by no means unique. Many others have said the same and presented the statistics to back it up, as have I. There is a shortage of providers nationwide. You cannot increase demand artificially without increasing supply. The result is rationing. Ask anyone in Canada or England.

Second, from a liberty-minded viewpoint, government forcing companies to do its bidding is just as bad as, if not worse than, government forcing individuals to do its bidding. Mr. Obama plainly stated in this PSA that insurance companies would be prohibited from denying applicants coverage, dropping sick customers from current coverage, raising premiums when someone got sick, imposing caps on coverage, and raising the patient’s share of required out-of-pocket expenses. So basically, the government is telling the insurance companies how to do business. The above regulations cost these companies money. What will they do? …Pass the increased costs, especially the costs of being forced to accept applicants who are very sick, on to the rest of us. Individuals and employers. To some smaller companies, the added cost may prove to be too much of a burden. Some people will lose their jobs as a result.  Not quite the result he was shooting for, I’m sure. Remember, liberty for businesses is just as important as liberty for individuals, and this is a great laboratory on why.

Third, and this isn’t just a government thing, mammograms and colonoscopies are not really preventative. Mammograms, by definition, detect. Therefore, they work only when there’s something there to detect.In other words, they don’t prevent; they only detect what’s already there.  (I remember being cynical when mammograms were heavily promoted as being the “latest and greatest” in breast cancer care. I was cynical because at that time, about twenty years ago I guess, I felt that research on a true cure for a women’s health issue was being given short shrift. While millions were being spent on cures for men’s health issues, the best they could do for women was early detection.) Colonoscopies, of which I’ve had one, are basically the same thing: they can’t prevent, only detect what’s already there. In the PSA, Mr. Obama promised these services free to low-income folks. My fear is that they will be overutilized and even abused, which costs all of us money, because guess who’s going to be paying for it?!

I’ve been grumpy about this whole issue lately because I feel powerless to do much about it, my Congressman being on the committee that drafted the House bill. So he’s not going to vote against it. Not to mention that his constituency largely favors it. That’s ok; I can live with him representing his constituency. But it would be spitting into the wind to ask him to vote no.

Today, the Senate Finance Committee voted down the “public option” compromise: http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/09/29/senate.public.option/index.html For now, I breathe a sigh of relief.

There are ways to provide for poor sick people without the government making us all pay for it:

  • In 2007, I did some consulting for two pharmaceutical companies. I won’t name them, but they are two of the biggest players in the industry, and you’d recognize their names. Both of them have “compassionate” programs to make sure poor patients get the drugs they need at little or no cost to them. It’s a good PR move for them, and because the patients are getting proven drugs, not experimental ones, the cost of R&D has long been absorbed and the cost to the companies to provide the drugs is lower than you would think. In fact, the cost can be part of the marketing budget, precisely because it is good PR.
  • In 1998, I worked for a small non-profit that provided advocacy to seriously ill patients. For the indigent, a co-pay of $1 was all they needed to get a prescription filled. In a minimal-government scenario, charitable donations would cover the remainder of the cost. And let’s face it: If you had more in your paycheck because of lower taxes, wouldn’t you contribute more to charity?
  • Looking at the model of the pharmaceutical companies I mention above, I could see insurance companies doing the same. In the name of free-market competition, they could offer similar programs to folks who have trouble paying for simple services like checkups, mammograms, and colonoscopies. Perhaps some companies would ally with teaching hospitals to do patient outreach in low-income areas. (Maybe some do already!)
  • Some doctors accept no insurance. That leaves them free to charge whatever they want. Including $0, if they so choose. I do allow that this is a better strategy for doctors who have paid off their student loans and have established practices than it is for new med school graduates. I currently see a specialist who meets this description for an ongoing condition I have. I pay his full fee because I can. Others may not pay his full fee.

It’s too bad Mr. Obama chose this issue to tackle first in his administration. He’s alienating a lot of people. I understand he wants to demonstrate that he’s a take-charge kind of guy, but he would have won more points with another issue the American people are less divided on, like bringing our troops home from Iraq. As of today, I don’t think it’s too late for him to switch gears. If he continues to beat this almost-dead horse, people will remember in 2012.

For the love of the game

September 29, 2009

I’m sitting here listening to the Orioles post-game radio show, as has been my habit this season  (they lost to the Red Sox, 11-5). Gary Thorne is interviewing Dave Trembley, who, interestingly, has never played professional baseball. (He’s really an educator. He has a master’s degree in education. I think his value to a team comes from his experience in coaching adult athletes and knowing how to  motivate them, not so much from actual techniques. That’s what his coaching staff is for.) Trembley mentioned that earlier this week, Brooks Robinson popped his head into the clubhouse, and the younger players gathered around for autographs, advice, and stories. Trembley himself had never met Brooks until this week. He talks about a “presence,” which I find amusing,  but that’s his opinion. Trembley retold a story Brooks told about a season in which, after a very good season (did he ever have any other kind?), he held out for more money during spring training. Brooks didn’t mention the year, but he did say that  Harry Dalton was the O’s GM at the time, which would put it in the 1965-1971 timeframe, a very successful period for the Orioles indeed. Eventually, Brooks got what he was asking for. The disputed sum? An extra $500/week.

I hear a lot of baseball clichés thrown around and misconceptions passed on, in both the national and local media. One of the ones that bugs me the most is the following: Today’s baseball players are in it for the money. Not like the old days, when they were in it for the love of the game.

This is—how can I put this politely?—total bullshit. Let’s deconstruct this, shall we?

1) Many of today’s fans forget what baseball life was like before free agency. From listening to some of them, I gather that they think that guys like Brooks Robinson were routinely offered salaries similar to today’s salaries, and turned then down. “Naw, I don’t need millions,” they must have said in this alternative universe. “Just give me $23,000. I’ll play for the love of the game.” The reality is that baseball’s reserve clause, along with decades of owner collusion, depressed salaries. In a nutshell, the reserve clause stated that when a player’s contract with a team expired, the team nevertheless retained rights to that player. If you’re thinking, gee, that doesn’t sound like any contract I know, you’re right. The player had two choices: demand a trade or release, or sigh and trudge back to the same team to sign another contract. In addition, the team losing the player in question had the right to demand “equal value” from the team eventually signing the player. So, for example, let’s go back to Brooks Robinson. He won the American League MVP award in 1964. Let’s suppose he decided to ditch the Orioles in 1965 in search of more money and sign with, say, the Tigers. (And Lord knows the Tigers could have used him at third base instead of Don Wert…but I digress.) The Tigers would have been obligated to, not so much reimburse, as compensate the Orioles for Robinson’s departure, in players, cash, or a combination. So there was no real advantage to a player to go elsewhere, as a team would be reluctant to try for such a player knowing they’d have to compensate his old team.

Brooks Robinson’s salary in 1965, according to http://www.brooksrobinsontribute.com/, was $50,000. Think about that. Fifty thousand dollars. That’s it. I make more than that now, for crap’s sake. That’s what he was able to squeeze out of the Orioles’ front office after winning the MVP award.  

The fact is that players didn’t play for millions back then because millions simply weren’t there. Even Mickey Mantle, a near-god on a very rich team in the biggest market in baseball, never made a base salary of more than $100,000 in a season. 

Consider also the June 11, 1969 entry in Ball Four by Jim Bouton:

In the bullpen it was can you top this on general managers. Bob Locker told this one about a contract argument with Ed Short, general manager of the White Sox. This was after Locker had had his best season in 1967—77 games, 125 innings and a 2.09 ERA. It was a year after Phil Regan of the Dodgers had had his super year—14-1 and a 1.62 ERA—in relief. [Blogger’s note: The save statistic was not introduced to MLB until 1969.] Short had offered Locker $16,000 and he was asking for $18,000. Short said he was asking a lot and that what the hell, Regan had just signed a contract for $23,000. “If Regan is making only $23,000  then I’m asking too much,” Locker said. “You check that. If he signed for $23,000 I’ll sign for $16,000.”
The next day Short called him and said, “I called Buzzie Bavasi (the Dodger GM) and he told me Regan was making $23,000 this year.”
“All right,” Locker said. “I’ll take the $16,000.”
After he signed he got to thinking about it and just for the hell of it he wrote Regan a letter. He asked in Regan would mind telling him about what he had signed for. And Regan wrote back saying he’d signed for $36,000.
“You know, you don’t mind a guy deceiving you a little during contract negotiations,” Locker said. “You get used to it. The all do it. But when a guy just outright lies to your face, that’s too much.”

Ball Four is full of anecdotes like this. Ever since receiving the book in original hardcover edition as a birthday present, I’ve been influenced by the looks Bouton provides us behind the scenes, and no influence is greater than that of my opinion on player salaries, as well as my opinion of people who think baseball players (but, oddly, not football or basketball  players) are paid way too much.

2) For many ballplayers of the 20th century, baseball was their ticket out of a dismal life prospect otherwise. Mickey Mantle is the canonical example here. (Babe Ruth, of course, was another.) Growing up in rural Oklahoma in a family in which cancer ran, Mantle expected to work in the mines like his father, and apparently also expected to die young. Except he could run like the wind. And his father, determined to insure a better life for his son, taught him to hit a baseball from both sides of the plate. Mutt Mantle died at age 39 of Hodgkin’s disease. Would we rather his son have had the same life?

3) Today’s players don’t need baseball to make a good living. Many of them have college degrees. In the local media, Mike Mussina is held up to us as the canonical example here. He has a degree in economics from Stanford and could easily have had a career in finance, banking, or even as an economics professor. His Orioles teammate, Jeff Ballard, also graduated from Stanford, his degree being in geophysics. Ballard had his day in the sun, and last I heard is a seismologist in Montana, which I guess can be a pretty cool job if you’re interested in earthquakes. And Jim Poole, another Oriole from that era, has a degree in engineering from Georgia Tech. And those are just a few of the guys I know about. You no doubt can think of players on your favorite team who would have had a great career without baseball.

Okay. So, if the players of forty and fifty years ago didn’t play just for the love of the game, and the players of today aren’t in it for the money, what motivates players today?

In a word: WINNING. Dan Patrick held focus groups with MLB players some years ago, and their raison d’êtrewas nearly unanimous: winning. It’s all about the ring. These are highly competitive people. And, as Roger Clemens or Brett Favre can affirm, winning is addictive. You win one, you want to win another. To these guys, the thrill is like no other in the world.

Anyone who knows me knows the following about me, among other things: I have eclectic taste in men (see Friday’s posts). I’m a sports nut. I’m competitive. I love to shop. I love cosmetics. (I’m one of a few women who’s not out of place doing my nails while watching NFL games on TV.) But here are a couple of seemingly random facts about me which actually intersect these days: I admit to a certain amount of conflict about G-d, and I believe the Bill of Rights is the most important document in human history.

So you can imagine my annoyance when, shortly after September 11, 2001, “G-d Bless America” began replacing or preceding “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” between halves of the seventh inning at some MLB games. I was an employee at Oriole Park @ Camden Yards at the time. Eventually, the song became mandatory listening during the seventh inning stretch at all MLB games on Sundays.

This is so wrong on so many levels. Most of the standard reasons are already out there in the blogosphere, but I’ll put my two cents in anyway:

  • Stadiums are not churches. If I want a sermon, I know where (and when) to go to hear one.
  • Oriole Park @ Camden Yards is one of a handful of stadiums that are actually not private property, but public. In the case of OP @ CY, the owner is the Maryland Stadium Authority, a division of Maryland state government. The Orioles pay rent to the MSA each year, as do the other tenants of the property such as the Sports Legends Museum. Several people have raised the issue of separation of church and state created by playing a religious song in a public building.
  • I worked a few hundred games after 9/11/2001, plus attended several dozen as a fan, and have observed a disappointing but predictable behavior: When the PA announcer tells the audience the song is about to be played, and would everyone please rise “and the gentlemen remove their caps,” everyone does so. Like sheep. It gets dead quiet in Camden Yards. Quieter than it gets for the real national anthem. Folks, I have news for you: “G-d Bless America” is not the national anthem. There is about as much obligation to remove one’s headwear for it as for “Happy Birthday to You.” And of course, removing one’s headwear in a religious gesture is uniquely Christian. Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus all cover the head in the presence of the Almighty rather than reveal it. If these people want to show respect, this churchlike behavior should be exhibited during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” not during the seventh-inning stretch.
  • Has it ever occurred to these sheeple that this ostentatious display of piety is exactly why the rest of the world hates us? G-d is too big to fit into one religion. Even Jesus himself said to pray like no one’s watching (Mt 6:1-18). Wearing one’s religion on one’s sleeve can be dangerous. As long as we’re talking about ostentatious displays, by the way, here’s my favorite quote of late: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carry a cross.” (Look it up, people.)
  • Bud Selig is Jewish, yes. That doesn’t make it right, or persuade me to agree with it. The whole world is so much more than Judeo-Christian. Actually, regarding MLB, the real issue here is that Selig decided and decreed all by himself that all MLB parks  will do this.  (Maybe I should say vill do ziss.) Selig is also the commissioner who unilaterally decreed that all MLB teams will retire uniform number 42, supposedly to honor Jackie Robinson. Insert eyeroll here. I don’t want to get off the topic too much here, but my point here is that Selig is a fascist dictator bureaucrat. No original opinion there.

So this Sunday, when I attended the Orioles-Indians game, I knew exactly what to expect during the seventh-inning stretch, and what I would do. Actually, I had several options: sit quietly, get up and visit the ladies’ room, or leave. I ended up sitting quietly. One fan behind me, apparently an Indians fan visiting for the weekend, also remained seated. Most of the people around me actually didn’t rise at first, but did so by the time the song got to “Stand beside her.” I get the feeling some people stood because they were feeling peer pressure, not necessarily because they were being blindly patriotic. If so, that’s encouraging.

During the song, I made eye contact with a Baltimore City police officer who was standing at the back of the section. He did nothing. Too bad. In a way, I wished he would have done to me what the cops at Yankee Stadium did to Bradford Campeau-Laurion a year ago (http://atheism.about.com/b/2005/04/19/religious-fascism-at-yankee-stadium.htm). I can use the money.

Here are a few other pages that express my feelings on this subject very well.  

http://blog.filmjabber.com/2008/07/08/ban-god-bless-america-at-mlb-baseball-games/comment-page-1/

http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/436602/get_your_god_out_of_my_face_pg2.html

http://deadspin.com/5042588/so-yankee-stadium-takes-this-no-moving-during-god-bless-america+thing-rather-se (interview with Brad Campion)

http://blog.beliefnet.com/windowsanddoors/2009/07/god-bless-america-lawsuit-is-s.html