Saturday, May 30, 2009

Air Cars and Constituent Anger

May 30, 2009, 5:20 p.m.

Weekend Edition
(brought to you by*)


The Prior Post: "Summertime Blogging"
Another Prior Post: "School Boundaries" and Roosevelt
Leave No Congressman Behind
Transportation Innovation: 65 mpg Fords and Air Cars

You may be looking for . . .

The Prior Post: See "Summertime Blogging," May 23, 2009, for a list by topics of links to numerous entries March-May 2009, and an explanation of the summer schedule.

For a start on the currently hot School Board efforts at elementary school boundaries, the demolition of Roosevelt, and a new high school, see links contained within, and text of, "School Boundaries," March 30, 2009.

And, of course, there's always the internationally ever-popular "Random Thoughts on Law School Rankings," April 29, 2008.

But now . . .

Today's Quick Takes

Leave No Congressman Behind. My mother used to tell my baby sitter, "Go find Nicky, see what he's doing, and tell him to stop it."

Is that how you feel about your congressman? You have no idea what he's up to, but you're sure it's no good. Are you part of that "Half of all voters (50%) [who] say the legislature [Congress] has not passed anything to significantly improve life in America?" The 33% who "say most members of Congress are corrupt"? Or the 87% of voters unaffiliated with either party who refuse to join the 13% of their number who "give the legislature positive ratings"? (And these are "Congress' Highest Ratings in Two Years"!) "Congressional Performance," Rasmussen Reports, May 29, 2009.

Think there is nothing we can do about it? Think again.

Just as we can look to the example set by all the largest, most successful industrialized nations to find the answer to our health care crisis (an answer Congress is bribed (campaign contributions) to reject: universal, single-payer), so we can look to one of the world's leading examples of how to manage elected officials. Can you guess which country I'm talking about?

Uganda. Yes, Uganda. "Uganda MPs issued with scorecards; An independent Ugandan think tank has published performance scorecards for every MP in the country," BBC News, May 28, 2009. They're measured from "AAA" to "F" on various aspects of their job (e.g., participation in committee meetings and debates, constituent services), and it's really making a difference in their performance.

Meanwhile, the Brits are taking things into their own hands over the recent revelations that MPs may have been abusing their expense accounts -- a story broken, and driven, by London's Daily Telegraph. Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University and author of the just-published The New British Constitution, writes in The Guardian's series on "The New Politics" of the widespread "anger against the abuse of expenses" he calls a "scandal." He, and many others -- including some MPs themselves -- believe strong medicine is in order. As he says, "The expenses scandal has shown how remote many MPs have become from the electorate. Even without it, the case for a second era of constitutional reform would be strong. With it, the case is overwhelming." Vernon Bogdanor, "Parliamentary Reform: We Must Go Beyond a New Constitution," The Guardian, May 26, 2009. (The Guardian devotes an entire Web site to the charges, resignations and reforms: "MP's Expenses," The Guardian.)

So what were these awful things the MPs were doing? Were they taking millions in campaign contributions from special interests and then returning the favor with billions -- or even trillions these days -- of taxpayer dollars, the way our elected officials do? No. Were they accepting personal gifts (like Alaska Senator Ted Stevens' home improvements, or Senator Chris Dodd's "special" mortgage rates)? No. Were they putting in for expenses they never incurred? No (with perhaps one exception).

Our elected officials have taxpayer-funded expense accounts that are multiples of those available to the Brits. But one item the MPs do get is help with their second home requirements, which can be very expensive in London. The problem was that they were stretching a bit, including items as to which their constituents are looking askance and would rarely come up for a Congressman. Like what? Like reimbursement for having a moat cleaned out.

It kind of puts "the best Congress money can buy" into perspective, doesn't it? The Brits are near-rioting over a moat cleaning, and we are calmly accepting the money changers in the temple of government, voting to require us to go on paying health insurance premiums, and giving our grandchildren a multi-trillion dollar debt for what Congress and two administrations have passed along to Wall Street.

On balance, I'd rather pay to have a moat cleaned out that to be left with the sensation that I'm being cleaned out.

Transportation Innovation. Managing our errant members of congress is not the only thing we have to learn from our global neighbors abroad. Our gasoline mileage goals are "27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 24 miles per gallon for light trucks" (which constitute over half the vehicles manufactured). Micheline Maynard, "Obama Criticizes Automakers on Fuel Economy," New York Times, May 8, 2009.

Talk about "thinking small" -- by continuing to manufacture big. We need something more than these baby steps.

By contrast, consider Ben Mack, "Ford’s ECOnetic Fiesta Gets 65 MPG. You Can’t Have One," Autotopia, Wired, February 10, 2009 ("The ECOnetic Fiesta that Ford sells in Europe is a sporty little five-passenger hatchback that gets 65 mpg and emits less CO2 than a Toyota Prius. It is the greenest family car sold in Britain and just the thing to boost Ford’s sales - and image - at home. But Ford has no plans to bring it to America for one simple, stupid, reason. It’s a diesel. . . . European customers . . . snapped up more than 42,000 of them since the car’s debut last fall. But we can only look on with envy.").

We could have 65 mpg cars -- Ford cars -- instead of 24 mpg trucks and vans (with no additional invention whatsoever), and they're not going to be available to us because they're diesel?! And this is America's, and the Obama Administration's, way of freeing us from dependence on imported foreign oil? This is the most ingenuity Americans can muster? Whatever happened to "the difficult we'll do right now, the impossible may take a little longer." Come on, America!

Moreover, if we continue to insist on everyone operating their own transportation system -- rather than investing in railroads -- and reject the health effects and savings to the environment and our pocketbooks from bicycling, we also have the option of fueling our cars with air. With air?! That's right.

"The technology behind the car was developed by the French race car engineer Guy Negre, head of Motor Development International." Associated Press, "Entrepreneur pushes idea of air-powered cars," MSNBC, May 25, 2009.

It uses the same kind of air compressor you now use at the filing station to improve your gas mileage by putting more air in your tires; and the same compression principles that enable the pistons in your engine to power your gas-fueled car. Except you carry the compressor on board, and you don't mix the air with gas.

Short-sighted engineers point out that with the electricity it takes to compress the air you could drive further with an electric car. But what that analysis fails to consider are:
o the initial cost of all those batteries in an electric car (embedded in the car's price).

o the total monthly cost of an electric car when the initial cost is amortized over its life (the Chevy Volt sells for $40,000; the Zero Pollution Motors (ZPM) air car is $18,000).

o the inefficiency, the energy consumed, in just moving an electric car's heavy set of batteries everywhere the car goes.

o the energy it takes to build and ship those heavy batteries to auto manufacturers (or retailers, as replacements).

o at some point all those electric car's batteries' must be replaced, at a significant replacement cost.

o the recycling, disposal and landfill problems, costs, and environmental impact that are caused whenever the electric car owner does have to replace batteries (or ultimately the car is junked).

o and of course, if the electric is a hybrid it will continue to require gas, oil and antifreeze.
(Thanks to Gregory Johnson for some of these points.) I'm not an engineer, don't have the numbers I'd need if I was, and haven't run them. It may be these additional costs for an electric car are more than offset by some other additional costs for the air car.

Finally, there's no magic, one-option solution (with the possible exception of the creation of a massive passenger train network, similar to those available in Europe or Japan). Obviously, compressed air cars also have their drawbacks. And even at 65 mpg Ford's answer is still polluting the atmosphere, just less.

All I'm arguing is that there are solutions. Options are available to us -- even if air cars and 65 mpg Fords prove not to be among them.

We have a lot to learn from the countries, cities, institutions and individuals living all around the world before we reject universal, single-payer healthcare, before we start a war with North Korea, continue to kick campaign finance reform down the road, or demand no more than the baby steps the auto and oil special interests are willing to walk with us toward true transportation (and environmental) reform.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

# # #

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Summertime Blogging

May 23, 2009, 9:00 a.m.

Summer Reruns
(brought to you by*)


o Chronological Listing Three Years' 650-plus Blog Entries

o March-May 2009 Listing of Sample Entries by Topics

o Planning for the Fall Semester

Summer's coming. From the 80-degree days we've been having, and how well the garden's doing, it seems like it's already here.

So while summer is certainly no reason to be closing down the blog it is a time for slowing down the pace of blog entry writing. Or at least that's my intention. When it comes to blogging I find my challenge is not how to keep writing but how to keep from writing.

Three Years, 650 Entries. This blog started in June 2006. So it's about to conclude year three. It now contains over 650 entries -- listed chronologically for you in an online spreadsheet.

For your reading during the next three months, here is a sampling of the topics and entries from the last three months -- roughly one-twelfth of the blog's lifetime (so there's a lot more than this out there!). Even three months involves a fairly substantial and broad range of topics; clearly this is not a single subject blog. Since many of these subjects will continue in importance over time you might want to take a look at some of the entries you initially missed. Moreover, as the listing indicates, many of the entries were chosen because they include a significant number of links to related prior entries and source material you might find useful.

Sampling of Blog Entries Alphabetically by Topic
March-May 2009

Alcohol; Students Binge Drinking; Red Bull. "Drunken Fights and Digital Photos," April 13, 2009 (with links to 8 recent and related blog entries); "Bulls, Bars and Brawls," May 7, 2009

Bicycles; Commuting by Bicycle. "Biking's Many Benefits," May 9, 2009

City Manager (Lombardo) Dismissal; City Council's Handling of. "Lombardo and Mayor McCallion," April 23, 2009 (with links to 3 related prior blog entries)

Economy; Bailouts; Personal Finance. "Economic Salvation Through Marshmallows," May 15, 2009 (with links to 48 related blog entries from September 2008-May 2009)

Fairness Doctrine; FCC. "Don't Fear Fairness Doctrine," March 13, 2009

Gay Marriage; Iowa Supreme Court Ruling. "Iowa's Civil Rights Leadership," April 3, 2009

General Semantics; Susan Boyle. "Susan Boyle as General Semantics Lesson," April 20, 2009 (with links to 17 prior pieces of Nicholas Johnson's on general semantics, and a couple basic texts)

Governance; Lack of City Council Governance Model as Cause of Lombardo Dismissal. "River City Problem: Council-Manager Governance," April 18, 2009 (with links to main governance Web page and "An Open Letter to Regents on 'Governance'")

Health Care. Universal Single Payer and the "Public Option." "Public Option vs. Private Greed," May 18, 2009

K-12; School Boundaries; Roosevelt Elementary. "School Boundaries," March 30, 2009 (with links to the earlier blog entries, "Roosevelt: Valuing Our Schools," March 9, 2009, and "Demolition Disaster," March 10, 2009. The former contains links to, among many other things, seven prior pieces on the issue, some from my time as a school board member, and the latter contains a reproduction of "Long Range Planning Process and Parameters, An ICCSD Board Document," Approved April 11, 2000, which I helped draft)

Newspapers; Economic Decline. "Gannett Shoots Straight -- Into Foot," May 3, 2009 (with links to the related earlier blog entries, "Of Newspapers and Nails," March 8, 2009, and "Newspaper Delivery an Update," March 27, 2009)

Swine Flu. "Smithfield Ham and Flu," April 26, 2009

The Fall Semester. The academic work continues. As a first-time experiment, instead of putting the students' Cyberspace Law Seminar papers online they're working with me and my law school assistant to produce a hard copy version, a book tentatively titled Virtualosity (for reasons to be explained in the book) that should be available in Iowa City bookstores and from Amazon in a month or so. In addition to revising and updating a Fall semester course I've taught before (Law of Electronic Media) I will be teaching for the first time this Fall what is called a "First Year Seminar" at the University of Iowa (small enrollment classes for entering undergraduates, with grades but no exams for the students and no pay for the professors). For mine the focus will be general semantics, and I'm looking forward to it. But it requires the creation from scratch of a whole new course.

So while I continue to have deadlines coming at me, and you have other things to do than read blog entries, I thought I might spare you my 49th essay on global economic collapse.

Hopefully, I've pretty much made my position clear by now: Obama's ties to the financial community, the despicable disparity between the multi-trillion-dollar handouts of taxpayers' money to the guys who brought this on and the trickle down (if that) for their victims, the capitulation to corporate interests generally, the futility of bailouts for GM and Chrysler when bankruptcy was inevitable, the reckless headlong plunge into a future of wild inflation and debt ($70 trillion) our great grandchildren can never pay back, and so forth.

The same can be said for the other topics listed above, and those discussed in the 650-plus blog entries during the 11/12ths of this blog's lifetime that weren't included there.

But I tried once before to slow up the blog entry writing and found that my good intentions -- like those regarding dieting -- were almost immediately overcome with a series of events that simply cried out for my comments (or so I thought at the time). Thus, I won't be surprised if there are events from time to time during the next three months with similar effect.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

# # #

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Is Obama Continuing Gitmo Brutality?

May 21, 2009, 7:45 a.m.

Jeremy Scahill Charges Obama Continues Gitmo "Thug Squad"
(brought to you by*

Is there a “Little Known Military Thug Squad Still Brutalizing Prisoners at Gitmo Under Obama”?

Jeremy Scahill charged as much when Amy Goodman interviewed him for "Democracy Now" on May 19, 2009. Jeremy Scahill: “Little Known Military Thug Squad Still Brutalizing Prisoners at Gitmo Under Obama”.

These charges are serious enough that the Obama administration needs to either (a) come forward with credible evidence as to why they are not true, or (b) if true, provide some explanation as to why this deliberate brutalization is continuing on President Obama's watch.

President Obama has made a great deal of his desire to close the Gitmo prison camp. He will even be speaking on the subject today. He has said we will no longer engage in torture. As a result, either (a) those who brief him on such matters have some explaining to do as to why he was not told of this American "thug squad," or (b) if he was, why he has done nothing to stop it.

What Scahill is alleging goes well beyond mere "waterboarding." His article, on which the interview is based, is Jeremy Scahill, "Little Known Military Thug Squad Still Brutalizing Prisoners at Gitmo Under Obama," AlterNet, May 15, 2009.

Here are excerpts from a transcript of Amy Goodman's interview (available in full from the "Democracy Now" link, above):


While there’s been a lot of focus on torture under the Bush administration, what about under President Obama? In a new article, investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill writes the Obama administration is continuing to use a notorious military police unit at Guantanamo that regularly brutalizes unarmed prisoners, including gang-beating them, breaking their bones, gouging their eyes, dousing them with chemicals.

This force, officially known as the Immediate Reaction Force, has been labeled the “Extreme Repression Force” by Guantanamo prisoners, and human rights lawyers call their actions illegal, Jeremy writes.

Jeremy Scahill is an award-winning investigative journalist, author of the bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. His writing and reporting is available at . . .

Describe what you call as this “little known military thug squad.”

JEREMY SCAHILL: . . . [W]hile much of the focus has been on the tactical use of torture at Guantanamo, almost no attention had been paid to a parallel force that was torturing prisoners in a variety of ways, including waterboarding them, and that is this riot squad of sorts that you referred to called the Immediate Reaction Force. The prisoners and their lawyers at Guantanamo call it the “Extreme Repression Force.”

And basically what this is is a thug squad that is used to mercilessly punish prisoners who show the slightest bit of resistance or who do things that technically they’re not supposed to do, infractions like having two Styrofoam cups in their cell instead of one.

Guards will call in this goon squad. They come in with their Darth Vader outfits, and they literally gang-beat prisoners. There are five men, generally, that are sent in. Each of them is assigned to one body part of the prisoner: the head, the left arm, the right arm, the left leg, the right leg. They go in, and they hogtie the prisoner, sometimes leaving them hogtied for hours on end. They douse them with chemical agents. They have put their heads in toilets and flushed the toilets repeatedly. They have urinated on the heads of prisoners. They’ve squeezed their testicles in the course of restraining them. They’ve taken the feces from one prisoner and smeared it in the face of another prisoner.

And while Barack Obama, almost immediately upon taking office, issued an executive order saying he was going to close down Guantanamo within a year and that he was going to respect the Geneva Convention while his administration reviewed Guantanamo, this force has continued to operate and torture prisoners under the Obama administration.

In fact, in February of this year, about a month after Obama was inaugurated, there were sixteen prisoners on a hunger strike at Guantanamo. The . . . Immediate Reaction Force was used to go in and violently shove massive tubes down their noses into their stomachs. . . . They would use no anesthetics or any painkillers, shove this massive tube by force down their nose into their stomach and then yank it out. . . . [M]any have passed out from the sheer pain of this operation.

This force has received almost no scrutiny in the US Congress or the US media and operates at this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you know about this?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I discovered these teams, because I’ve been covering the investigation being done by Judge Baltasar Garzon in Spain into the Bush torture system. What’s interesting is that the most aggressive investigation at this point into the Bush war crimes is being done an ocean away in Madrid.

And I came across a story of a prisoner named Omar Deghayes, and he is one of the four people that is cited directly in the Spanish investigation as having been tortured by the United States. . . . Omar Deghayes was . . . repeatedly abused by one of these squads. . . . I started to look into it and realized that there has been a multi-year pattern of abuse on the part of this team.

And yet, the only time when it’s really made any kind of a flash in the corporate media was when a US soldier, a young guy named Sean Baker, who was a Gulf War vet, was participating in a training exercise in Guantanamo in January of 2003, where he was ordered, he says, by his superiors to dress up in an orange jumpsuit and play the part of a restive or combative detainee at Guantanamo. . . . He describes them just mercilessly beating him, . . . even after he then said, “I’m a US soldier! I’m a US soldier!” . . .

That young man, Sean Baker, has permanent brain damage, suffers from multiple seizures, and had actually sued Rumsfeld and other officials because of his treatment. . . . As Scott Horton, a military and constitutional law expert I talked to, said, you know, this is one US soldier who received this kind of treatment; imagine what happens to these detainees. . . .

[D]despite Obama’s rhetoric about how he’s going to reform the military tribunal system, we understand that it’s all cosmetic changes. The fact is, torture continues at Guantanamo. . . .

[T]he status quo alive and well, and it’s very, very damaging to the US Constitution, international law and the lives of these prisoners who remain in legal limbo.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, this force, known as the Immediate Reaction Force, or Emergency Reaction Force, IRF or ERF, are they being filmed when they go into these cells?

JEREMY SCAHILL: . . . I’ve been reading the now-declassified Standard Operating Procedures for Guantanamo that were written by Major General Geoffrey Miller, the man . . . who is believed to have started all of this . . . and then Gitmo-ized Abu Ghraib . . ..

In the Standard Operating Procedures that General Miller issued in 2003, he said that all of the IRF teams, when they would go in to restrain a prisoner, that they had to videotape the operation . . ..

So, Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights asks a very simple question: “Where are the tapes?” Presumably, if the Standard Operating Procedures were followed, we could see . . . the breaking of noses and other body parts on the part of prisoners. But in order to do that, we would have to have an administration that was going to come completely clean with the crimes of the past and make these videos available, along with the thousands of photos that show the systematic abuse of US prisoners.

But what we see at every turn is the Obama administration, backed up by the Wall Street Journal editorial board, backed up by the neoconservatives, backed up by the hawkish Republicans, on one side, and then the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and social justice and antiwar activists and human rights advocates, on the other side. This is a sad reality in America today, where you have a president that campaigned on a change that we can believe in continuing the most repressive policies of the Bush administration.
Obviously, I have no personal knowledge of any of this. I am unaware of any independent, confirming sources of Scahill's charges. Nor have I read, however, the response of anyone who is challenging what he is saying.

All I'm saying by repeating some of his allegations in this blog, is that when an independent, investigative reporter with Scahill's credentials makes them I think they are serious enough that they can't simply be left out there with no response.

I'm waiting.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Public Option vs. Private Greed

May 18, 2009, 9:00 a.m., 11:30 a.m. (additional sources and internal contents/links)

We Don't Want Health Insurance,
We Want a Public Option to Obtain Health Care

(brought to you by*)

Links to Contents

Corporate Control

Silencing Public Option Advocates

What's "the Public Option"?

Why is this so important?

...What are we getting?

......Infant mortality

......Life expectancy

......Numbers covered

...What is it costing us?

......Administrative costs


What Americans Think: The Poll Results

Conclusion: Action


If the health insurance legislation that comes out of this year's Congress does not contain a "public option," as it's come to be called, it will be one of the most expensive consequences the American people have ever suffered for our system of campaign finance.

[May 20, 2009: Press-Citizen supports public option. "One of the main sticking points in the national debate is whether to include a government-sponsored insurance plan to compete with the multitudes of private coverage options. We view this option as an essential part of any substantive reform." Editorial, "Health Reform Needs to Include Public Option," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 20, 2009.]

Corporate Control Run Riot. Years ago I documented that those who make campaign contributions in the $100,000 to $1,000,000 range end up getting back from the federal government, in one form or another, something between 1000-to-one and 2000-to-one on their "investment." Give a million get a billion. Nicholas Johnson, "Campaigns: You Pay $4 or $4000," Des Moines [Iowa] Sunday Register, July 21, 1996, p. C2.

I've seen little from this Congress -- or, I'm sad to say, from this White House -- that would lead me to believe things are any better now, 13 years later.

o When the phone companies were found to have illegally spied on American citizens Senator Barack Obama changed his position and voted to give them a base on balls, to grant them "amnesty."

o Senator Dick Durbin has acknowledged that Wall Street owns Washington ("the banks . . . frankly own the place"). The Obama Administration's multi-trillion-dollar give-aways to some of the nation's most generous campaign contributors did little to refute his assertion. After all, these were the very fellows who were willing to risk global economic collapse if it would fatten their multi-million-dollar bonus payments. See, e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "Obama's Potential Wall Street Downfall," April 12, 2009.

o It was obvious to all last fall that Chrysler and GM were headed for bankruptcy. No scenario that could pass the laugh test was found to suggest the contrary. And yet the Administration insisted on handing over billions of taxpayer dollars to the two companies.

o Now the Administration is offering billions to insurance companies that are in such good shape they are refusing to take the money.
So why are we surprised that when it comes to our future health care that "having everyone at the White House table" turns out to mean everyone who makes a profit from hospitals, medical services, the marketing of over-priced proprietary pharmaceuticals, and the premiums on our sickness insurance?

Nor should we be surprised that those who want no more than to discuss the pros and cons of "universal, single-payer health care" are not only not invited to the Senate hearings, but are arrested and escorted out of the hearing room for showing up and talking to a committee chaired by the senator who received more campaign contributions from the special interests before him than any other senator.

Ed Schultz, "Arrested for Fighting for Health Reform,"
"The Ed Show," MSNBC, May 7, 2009 (Dr. Margaret Flowers).

Let me make clear at the outset what I am and am not talking about. Because the effort has already begun to conflate "universal, single-payer health care" and "the public option" -- in the special interests' efforts to ridicule and defeat the latter.

Notwithstanding the truly overwhelming case that can be made for "universal, single-payer" -- even President Obama acknowledges that were we starting all over again it would clearly be the road to follow -- that's not what I'm advocating in this blog entry (though I discuss some of those features, below). The political and economic power of those who profit handsomely from the present, very profitable, "health care is a privilege" system, and the extent to which the people's "representatives" fear those interests, puts the odds of our ever getting the system used by every other industrialized nation in the world somewhere between very, very slim and none at all.

Public Option. So what's the "public option"?

We currently have a patchwork system. Forty-to-fifty million Americans, 15%, have no sickness insurance at all. For most of those who do have insurance the premium costs are split between the policy holder and his or her for-profit (or non-profit) employer.

But public plans are not unknown in our system. We have "Medicare" for the elderly, "Medicaid" for the very poor, military hospitals and doctors for those in the service, Veterans Administration hospitals for those who've returned to civilian life, programs that just cover children, and insurance programs for federal, state, county and city employees.

Notwithstanding the rhetoric of the "public option" opponents, most of the proposals that include a "public option" would not take anything away from anyone, nor impose anything on anyone. Every American could keep the sickness insurance program in which she or he is now enrolled. They could keep their doctor of choice. Nothing would change. But those employers or employees who wished to do so could opt out of what they have, and opt into a new public program modeled on those I've just mentioned that we already have. The "public option" is as American as apple pie and Medicare.

What the sickness profiteers are already attempting to do is to confuse the two in the public mind. By arguing that a "public option" would mean the government would take over sickness care in our country -- take decisions away from doctors, indeed even take away our choice of doctors, putting our health in the hands of incompetent, uncaring bureaucrats, with this communist system -- they both despicably mis-characterize universal, single-payer systems and confuse them in our minds with the status-quo-plus-public-option proposals. (E.g., "'A government takeover of health care will put bureaucrats in charge of health care decisions that should be made by families and doctors,' Rep. Charles Boustany of Louisiana said in the Republican radio and Internet message. 'It will limit treatment options and lead to rationed care. And to pay for government health care your taxes will be raised. . . . That is something we cannot support.'" Darlene Superville, "Changes: Energy, Health Care 2 Areas Obama Cites," Associated Press/Washington Post, May 16, 2009.)

(Following an Old Creamery performance of "The Totally True Completely Fictional Story of the Mother of Jesse James" -- very much worth seeing, incidentally -- I had a health care conversation with a Canadian economist who had come south to volunteer with the rebuilding of Cedar Rapids. Needless to say, he was a great enthusiast for the Canadian (universal, single payer) system. But he explained that he had long since abandoned arguing with Americans about it, because our understanding has been so infected with the lies and misinformation propagated by our sickness profiteers -- and at least on the part of some, a real stubbornness in the refusal to accept actual data.)

Is the "public option" ideal? No; a majority of Americans -- and their doctors -- agree that the "universal, single-payer" approach of the world's health-care-is-a-right countries would be far better. See, e.g., Single Payer Action ("1,000,000 strong for single payer"); Leadership Conference for Guaranteed Health Care/The National Single Payer Alliance; and "Physicians for a National Health Program. (Many of those single-payer countries also permit the purchase of additional coverage by those who want and can afford it.) But given the power of the sickness profiteers and the elected officials they control it's all we have a prayer of getting.

Why is this so important? In case you're not already convinced that we have a broken, excessively expensive system that is giving us all too little for our money, let's look at some numbers -- with credit to HealthPacOnline for these "Health Care Statistics in the United States" (as well as many more on their site). [Most of the numbers, and language, below, is taken from that source.]

What are we getting?

Putting all the anecdotal stories and 'tis-'tain't arguments aside, there are a couple statistics that make country comparisons possible: infant mortality and life expectancy. You get what you pay for? Not, it turns out, when it comes to health care.

Notwithstanding the fact that we are paying more for our sickness insurance system than any of the "universal, single-payer" countries pay for health care -- both in total, and per capita (and not covering everyone at that) -- we rank far from number one by those statistical measures.

Infant Mortality. "Infant mortality" is the risk of death during the first year of life. It is related to the underlying health of the mother, public health practices, socioeconomic conditions, and availability and use of appropriate health care for infants and pregnant women. Sources: CDC and National Center for Health Statistics.

Ranking from the best (lowest) infant mortality to the worst (highest) the U.S. was 12th from the top in 1960. By 1990 it was 21st. It is now 43rd. Slovenia and Cuba do better than we do. Source: CIA Factbook (2008).

Life Expectancy. "Life expectancy at birth" is the average length of life ahead of each newborn baby. For this measure, obviously the higher the number the better. In the U.S. the average is 78.14 years. That ranks us 47th in the world. Source: CIA Factbook (2008).

Numbers covered. Presumably the more persons entitled to, and able to afford, health care the better. By definition, "universal" systems cover everyone -- usually at no, or very low, cost to the individual. In the U.S. over 15% (47 million) do not have health insurance. Source: US Census Bureau. The United States is the only wealthy, industrialized nation that does not have a universal health care system. Source: Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

In 2005 more than 40 million adults stated that they needed but did not receive one or more of these health services (medical care, prescription medicines, mental health care, dental care, or eyeglasses) because they could not afford it. Source: National Center for Health Statistics. To put lack of health care in a context of the range of challenges confronting the poor, see DeNeen L. Brown, "Poor? Pay Up; Having Little Money Often Means No Car, No Washing Machine, No Checking Account And No Break From Fees and High Prices," Washington Post, May 18, 2009.

The primary reason given for lack of health insurance coverage in 2005 was cost (more than 50%), lost job or a change in employment (24%), Medicaid benefits stopped (10%), ineligibility for family insurance coverage due to age or leaving school (8%). Source: National Center for Health Statistics.

So how does it work in other countries? Do doctors receive adequate compensation? How much do patients have to pay? Here's Michael Moore's interview of a participating physician in Great Britain from Moore's movie, "Sicko."

What is it costing us? The United States spends twice as much on health care per capita ($7,129) than any other country and spending continues to increase. In 2005, the national health care expenditures totaled $2 trillion. Source: National Center for Health Statistics.

The average family health insurance premium, provided through an employer health benefit program, was $11,480 in 2006. Employees paid an average of $2,973 towards the premium amount. Source: Kaiser Family Foundation.

Administrative costs. So how are the sickness profiteers doing under this "marketplace" system? Overhead under their system runs at a whopping 26%! But wouldn't government, or non-profit, systems cost even more? No. Non-profit insurance ends up operating with 16% overhead, and the "government bureaucrats" operating Medicare are able to do it at about 1/10th of the for-profit cost: an overhead of 3%. Source: Journal of American Medicine 2007.

And so how is this "competitive" system doing in getting costs under control? Not so well. From 2000 to 2006, overall inflation has increased 3.5% and wages by 3.8%. Sickness insurance premiums? Not 3.5%, not 3.8%, but by a whopping 87%! Source: Kaiser Family Foundation.

Our high costs of sickness insurance compared with the health care costs in other countries, the much higher costs of for-profit administration than public systems, and the inability of the private system to control costs, could all be cited as good reasons for supporting a universal, single-payer system. Only because of the political realities discussed above, that is not what is being proposed here. Among the many advantages of the public option, however, is the role it could play in helping to control the escalating costs of the sickness profiteers' system. True "competition" can benefit from the benchmarks offered by including public systems in the market. That's a part of what the public option could do.

Externalities. There are other economic consequences of our system. For example, about half of the bankruptcy filings in the United States are due to medical expenses. Source: Health Affairs Journal 2005.

And at least a part of the challenge confronting our auto companies -- and all other American companies trading globally -- is because their workers' sickness care costs must be embedded in the prices for their products. And yet those U.S. companies are competing with companies for which those costs are covered by universal coverage plans. (Among the 84.2% of Americans who are blessed with some form of sickness insurance, 59.7% of that 84.2% had coverage provided by their employer. Source: US Census Bureau.)

What Americans Think: The Poll Results. Although most polling frames the issue in terms of "health insurance" rather than "health care" that is not to say the polls juxtapose the two; the pollsters simply don't give the participants that choice. In the one poll that did ask the "health care" question ("Do you think it's the government's responsibility to make sure that everyone in the United States has adequate health care?") 60% responded in the affirmative in a November 6-10, 2008, poll. (This, and the following poll results, are from

Even when the questions are framed in terms of, say, "universal health insurance," the nature of the questions are such that one can reasonably assume the percentage responses would be similar, if not identical, if the pollsters had substituted, say, "universal health care" for "universal health insurance."

In short, while the questions and results vary, it's fair to say that the constituents are well out ahead of a Congress dependent on contributions from the sickness profiteers when it comes to the public's support of universal coverage, the federal government's involvement, and a willingness to pay more taxes to accomplish that goal -- by numbers ranging from pluralities of one-third to majorities of two-thirds and more.

Here are some illustrations from 2009.

o The goal of "universal health insurance for every American" in 2009 is the "most important," or one of the "top 2-3," national priorities say 58% of those polled April 30-May 3, 2009.

o During April 22-26, 2009, 49% said our health care system needs "fundamental changes" and 38% said we need to "completely rebuild" it -- a total of 87%.

o April 1-5, 2009, 57% indicated they'd be "willing to pay highter taxes so that all Americans have health insurance they cannot lose."

o March 12-15, 2009, 77% said they were "dissatisfied" with "the total cost of health care in this country."

o The largest percentage, though only slightly more than one-third (36%), in a February 26-March 1, 2009, poll believed that the "federal government" should have the "most responsibility for helping ensure that Americans receive health insurance coverage" (24% thought "business," and 31% thought "individuals themselves").

o A larger percentage, 59%, thought "the government in Washington [should] provide national health insurance" (compared to 32% who thought it should be limited to "private enterprise"), in a January 11-15, 2009, poll.

o Asked during February 18-19, 2009, whether they would "favor . . . a program that would increase the federal government's influence over the country's health care system . . . to lower costs and provide . . . coverage to more," 72% said yes.
If Congress and the Senate truly cared about "representing" their constituents our message to them is clear. At a minimum they need to include a public option in whatever health care legislation they ultimately pass.

Conclusion: Action. The "public option" won't solve all these problems, but it will help provide the competition that can bring down costs and prices, and it will enable us to proudly join the community of nations that make health care a right. Moreover, given the sickness profiteers control of our elected "representatives" a "public option" is about all we can hope for.

But to get it we need do more than "keep hope alive." Congress will give us nothing the sickness profiteers don't want us to have. We will have to take it from Congress. Forcefully. Threatening to run candidates against them. Overwhelming them with email, calls and letters. Making clear that "We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore."

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Economic Salvation Through Marshmallows

May 15, 2009, 9:00 a.m.

Links to 48 Blog Entries Regarding Economy, Bailouts and Personal Finance

Winners' Willpower Not Limited To Marshmallows
(brought to you by*)

Contents Links

Tom Ashbrook's "On Point" on Delayed Gratification
The Marshmallow Experiments
Our $963 Billion Personal Credit Cards
"Don't Buy Stuff"
"You Get What You Measure"
Willpower Can be Taught

It turns out that four-year-olds who are willing to postpone eating one marshmallow now in exchange for two in 15 minutes will later score 200 points higher on their ACT test.

I can relate. Not to the ACT score, but to the difficulty in postponing marshmallow consumption. In my case it was the choice to burn, rather than roast, marshmallows. The increased marshmallow consumption the speedy burning made possible more than made up for the mere aesthetics of a marshmallow with a golden brown hue.

It may be that the experiments I'm about to describe may tell us even more about our current economic meltdown than marshmallow meltdown.

Tom Ashbrook, who hosts one of the best talk shows on American radio ("On Point"), addressed the subject a couple days ago [May 13]. "Our Delayed Gratification Era," On Point with Tom Ashcroft, WBUR-FM 90.9 mHz, Boston, May 13, 2009.

As his Web site described his guests, "Science writer Jonah Lehrer is a contributing editor at Wired, and author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. His new piece, in this week’s New Yorker, is “Don’t! The secret of self-control.” Psychologist Walter Mischel is a professor at Columbia University, and author of Personality and Assessment. He pioneered the “marshmallow experiments” in the 1960’s, which studied delayed gratification and self-control in children. Economic historian Richard Sylla is a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and author of The American Capital Market: 1846-1914 and A History of Interest Rates.”

Experiments run by Stanford psychologists in the 1960s tested four-year-olds' capacity for deferred gratification. The kids were offered a marshmallow with a promise of two marshmallows if they could wait (for what turned out to be about 15 minutes). They were re-visited years later in the psychologists' effort to discover what might correlate with a capacity for deferred gratification.
Once [then Stanford, now Columbia, psychology Professor Walter] Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds. . . .

According to Mischel, this view of will power also helps explain why the marshmallow task is such a powerfully predictive test. “If you can deal with hot emotions [e.g., resisting a desire for something set on the table before you], then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television,” Mischel says. “And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.” , , ,

One of her [University of Pennsylvania psychology Assistant Professor Angela Lee Duckworth] main research projects looked at the relationship between self-control and grade-point average. She found that the ability to delay gratification—eighth graders were given a choice between a dollar right away or two dollars the following week—was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q. She said that her study shows that “intelligence is really important, but it’s still not as important as self-control.”
Jonah Lehrer, "Don’t! The secret of self-control," The New Yorker, May 18, 2009.

At a minimum Duckworth's findings suggest those of us in higher education might take another look at our admission standards! But I digress.

The "On Point" guests' opinions tended to square with my own impression: that there has been a real shift in Americans' capacity for deferred gratification, regardless of age.

Most of us are overweight, and a significant percentage are designated "obese." That weight gain is a function of many things. But isn't instant gratification -- the drive to eat both of those marshmallows, or an entire box of cookies or bag of chips, and to do it now -- at least a part of the problem?

Debt, debt, debt. A federal debt of $10-12 trillion -- with perhaps $70 trillion in future, unfunded obligations. Fighting wars for which no one is drafted and for which no one pays increased taxes -- borrowing the money from the Chinese. And then borrowing more money to pay the interest on the last money we borrowed (and cover the lost revenue from tax breaks for the rich). Businesses borrow their way to bankruptcy -- and banks encourage them to do it. And credit cards! "According to the White House, total credit card debt has reached $963 billion, a 25% jump over the last 10 years. The average amount of credit card debt among families holding a balance was $7,300 in 2007." Peter Nicholas, "Obama asks Congress for credit card reform bill; . . . cautions consumers against accumulating debt," Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2009.

The problem is not just with "the politicians" or "the bankers." It is within virtually all of us -- and the economy we have built on the back of "consumer spending;" an economy in which we not only don't regularly contribute to a savings plan but have "negative savings" as we live off of the equity in our homes, and the balances on our multiple credit cards. It's the individual's equivalent of the example set by our federal government -- and encouraged by the manipulative marketing and advertising that sustains our mass media and entertainment industries, and prompts a U.S. president to advise his citizens that the most appropriate response to 9/11 is to "go shopping."

I recently had a research assistant who was going to graduate from law school with an obligation to pay off $150,000 in undergraduate and law school student loans.

When I was in school, so far as I knew loans hadn't yet been invented. I saved for months until I finally had the $80 ultimately spent on an ancient Model A Ford. Before that I simply walked everywhere. Managing the apartment house where I lived, plus two part-time jobs (plus, admittedly, tuition rates designed to educate, rather than merely bilk, the student population) was how I paid bills.

Earlier in life, when I was a young boy, for starters no one seemed to have the income, even adjusted for inflation -- let alone the willingness or ability to incur debt -- that many appeared to have before the current collapse. As children we often heard the adage, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." One small bottle of "soda pop," as we called it, cost a nickle and was a special treat perhaps once or twice a month. It wasn't something consumed by the liter on a daily basis.

Before you were permitted to buy anything you had to first earn the money, something that depending on the item could take months. That pretty much eliminated "shopping" as a leisure time activity with its incentive to impulse buying.

It was the application of what seemed at the time both inevitable and common sense: "if you don't have the cash you don't 'buy stuff.'"

By 2006 this philosophy was considered so bizarre as to be fodder for a Steve Martin "Saturday Night Live" sketch I embedded in an earlier blog entry. Nicholas Johnson,"Don't Buy Stuff; The Sure-Fire Solution to Economic Pain," March 6, 2009 (with links to 39 "Related Blog Entries on Global Economy and Bailouts").

[Credit: "Don't Buy Stuff: The sure-fire way to get out of debt," NBC Saturday Night Live, Season 31, Episode 12, aired February 4, 2006, available from]

"You Get What You Measure"

It may help to provide an incentive for deferred gratification to do a little benefit-cost analysis regarding what our impulses are costing us.

In addition to the simple advice "don't buy stuff" there's a related technique that amounts to a practical application of general semantics: "you get what you measure." What it means is that if you really want to increase, or decrease, anything in your life (or your business, or your university) you need to measure it. Measuring focuses your attention on what formerly lacked mindfulness.

Measurement is the language of science, and it's a language we can use in our daily lives. Some recipes call for a "scoop" of this, a "dollop" of that, and a "pinch" of something else. Scientists deal with liters and milligrams.

o Some dieters aim for "smaller portions." That's helpful, but not as productive as knowing that 3500 calories into the mouth will produce one additional pound of body weight (and 3500 calories of expended energy will consume a pound of body fat) -- and then "counting calories."

o Some drivers say their car gets "pretty good mileage." How do they know? Well, they filled the tank before they left and they still have "about a half-tank" left. OK; that's better than paying no attention at all. But writing down the odometer reading, and the precise number of gallons, when buying gas and then calculating the actual miles per gallon will detect possible problems (or gains) faster and more precisely. Tire pressure has a big impact on gas mileage. Looking at the tires to see if any seem to be going flat is OK. But regularly measuring the pressure in each tire with a pressure gauge will be more effective.
And what is the application of all this to our personal (and national) debt?

I keep receipts, whether for a cash or a debit card payment, and enter them into a computerized money tracker. As I sometimes explain to clerks, "It may not make me any richer, but at least I know why not."

In fact, knowing what you're spending does tend to make you a little richer -- especially if you'll do a little additional math -- because it deprives you of the option of apathy and ignorance.

To help educate some teenagers about the cost of debt I once ran the numbers on two imaginary young drivers. One saves her money for 3-5 years and buys a car, after which she immediately starts saving again for the next cash purchase of a future replacement vehicle. A boy borrows the money, buys the first car, now, and starts paying off the loan. Three to five years later he does the same. Both continue their practice for 50 years. The difference? The woman went without a car for 3 years during her teens, but has otherwise had the same access to transportation as the man. The other difference? The man has spent something between $1 and 2 million dollars more for his cars than she spent for hers -- leaving her, if she invested that difference over the years, a nice additional retirement fund.

An unrecorded, un-reflected-upon daily purchase of cigarettes, designer coffee, or similar purchase -- compared with a regular savings investment of a comparable amount of money -- can also mount up to what might otherwise have been a $1-to-2 million retirement fund. You may very well decide you really enjoy the coffee and want to have it anyway. That's OK. Just know that what it's costing you is not just $3.00 (today) but $1-2 million (over a lifetime).

That knowledge may not totally solve the impulse buying, instant gratification problem, but it sure helps.

Willpower Can be Taught

Lehrer reports scientists find there are mental tricks for building willpower,
such as showing kindergartners a video of a child successfully distracting herself during the marshmallow task. The scientists have some encouraging preliminary results—after just a few sessions, students show significant improvements in the ability to deal with hot emotional states . . ..

He [Professor Walter Mischel] knows that it’s not enough just to teach kids mental tricks—the real challenge is turning those tricks into habits, and that requires years of diligent practice. “This is where your parents are important,” Mischel says. “Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile?” . . . [N]ot snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning—are really sly exercises in cognitive training . . .. “We should give marshmallows to every kindergartner,” he says. “We should say, ‘You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it. You can wait. Here’s how.’”

Well, there you have it. The solution to our personal and national debt problems. Willpower; skillful deferred gratification -- coupled with an awareness that "you get what you measure."

And to think we could have been doing it all along with just a couple of marshmallows!

Related Blog Entries on Global Economy and Bailouts

Nicholas Johnson, "Who's The Reason?" September 5, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "How Much Do You Owe the Chinese?" September 6, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Taxpayer Rescue," September 15, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Global Finance: The Great Fountain Pen Robbery," September 21, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Alternatives to 'The Plan,'" September 28, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Better Alternatives to Congress' Bailout Plan," October 2, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Can We Trust Our Bankers?" October 29, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "It's the Economy," November 7, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Jobs, Not Unemployment, Key to Recovery," November 8, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Trust Your Instincts, Auto Bailout's Terrible Idea," November 14, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Auto Bailout: An Open Letter to Congress," November 19, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "A Trillion Here, a Trillion There," November 20, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "FromDC2Iowa's Weekend Edition," November 21, 2008 ("The Answer to Global Economic Collapse" and "Auto Bailout: 'Show Me the . . . Plan'")

Nicholas Johnson, "Citigroup Deal Stinks," November 25, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Only Select Few Are Thankful for Trillions," November 27, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Auto Loan Makes Too Few Dollars Even Less Sense," December 4, 2008

Nicholas Johnson,"Quick Fix for the Economy," December 12, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "You Know It's Serious When We Start Laughing," December 15, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "A Car in Every Garage," December 16, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Forget Madoff, Focus on Bernanke," December 17, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Of Theaters and Automobiles," December 20, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "There's Bad News and . . . and . . .," December 21, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Et Tu, Toyota?" December 22, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Revolting Developments," December 23, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "First Things First," January 8, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Why We Should 'Point Fingers' and 'Look Backwards,'" January 13, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Fool Me Twice," January 14, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Economic Sorrows and Solutions," January 27, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "No More for Wall Street!" February 1, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Hang Onto Your Wallet," February 5, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Quick Fix: Support Jobless, Not Bankers," February 7, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Geithner's Same Old, Same Old," February 10, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Terrorist Bankers,"
February 13, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Financial Crises for Dummies," February 17, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "They're Back!!" February 20, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "The Burden We Ought to Bear," February 23, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Candid Conservatism," February 27, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Bankers as Arsonists," March 3, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Don't Buy Stuff," March 6, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "The Story of Stuff," March 16, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "What a Mess," March 19, 20, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Punishment to Fit Financial Crimes," March 23, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Don't Trust the Experts," April 9, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Obama's Potential Wall Street Downfall," April 12, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Can Economy Produce Americanized Hitler?" April 15, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Banks Declare Their Bailout a Success," April 16, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "This One's a 'Must Read,'" April 17, 2009

Nicholas Johnson, "Economic Salvation Through Marshmallows," May 15, 2009

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Biking's Many Benefits

For the Week of May 10, 2009; posted May 9, 2009, 5:30 p.m.; May 11, 2009, 6:45 a.m.; May 13, 2009, 7:30 a.m.; May 14, 2009, 5:00 p.m.

Bike for Life
Bike to Work Week

(brought to you by*)

It's "Bike to Work Week," Rob Daniel, "Organizers Push Bike to Work Week," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 9, 2009, p. 3, and time for me to pedal my annual spiel for the wheel.

[And see also, Rachel Gallegos, "Bicyclists Take It to the Streets," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 11, 2009, p. 3A; Mike Kilen, "7 tips for enjoyable biking to work," Des Moines Register, May 11, 2009; and "Why I Ride My Bicycle," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 11, 2009, p. 7A ("Seven Iowa City area women write about why they ride their bikes to work and their riding experiences as we kick off Bike to Work Week." Those seven biking authors are: Susan Beckett, Wendy Brown, Erin Fleck, Diana Harris, Karen Kubby, Feather Lacy and Mary Lohse Shepherd); Rob Daniel, "Biker Beats Car, Bus in Annual Bike to Work Race," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 12, 2009; Editorial, "Working Toward a Bike-Friendly Community," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 13, 2009, p. A13 ("One step in the right direction is the Metro Bicycle Master Plan recently produced by the JCCOG Regional Trails and Bicycling Committee"); ; Brian Loring, "The Advantages of Biking," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 13, 2009, p. A18 ("With so many bicycle owners but so little bike riding in the United States, there is great potential to increase the role that bicycles play in daily commutes and other frequent trips"); Editorial, "Public Bike System Would Unclutter Downtown and be Eco-Friendly," The Daily Iowan, May 14, 2009, p. A6; Rob Daniel, "Biking, Walking to School Nets Rewards," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 14, 2009, p. A3.]

[And here are a couple additional links (among potentially hundreds) to biking resources: Bike Iowa (with links to many resources, including 68 Iowa bike clubs); Bike Cult; and for a couple places to get started in Iowa City, the 30th Century Bicycle; the Iowa City Bike Library; and World of Bikes.]

Think you can't do it? Click here to see why I answer your concerns with "Oh yes you can!"

Thirty-seven years ago I published a book titled, Test Pattern for Living. (Although long since out of print, it is still available for free downloading, and has maintained its own devoted cult following over the years.) The benefits of biking received an entire chapter in that book, and I have been extolling them ever since.

You see, the point is not that there is a single benefit from biking, but a lot of that benefit. The point is that there are so many multiple benefits from biking, each of which provides a lot of that benefit. They are spelled out in this blog entry, so I won't repeat them all here. But examples would include the sheer joy that comes from more oxygen in the brain, the beneficial reduction of obesity and heart attack risks, the greater speed of commuting and ease of parking, and the virtual elimination of expense (compared to operating a car) -- a not insignificant benefit at any time but especially during the current global economic collapse.

As a young boy, I started using a bike to deliver the Des Moines Register to my neighbors (a bike the Register enabled me to buy at a discount with my paper route money). Later, in the 1970s, I rode across the state in the RAGBRAI event with Donald Kaul for a number of years, reporting on it for National Public Radio. That three-speed RAGBRAI bike, with its rod brakes, still hangs in the garage these days. (I was told this museum piece was of a design originally created for the bicycles of postal delivery persons in India, and later for the bicycles that became the backbone of the Viet Cong's very effective transportation system during the war. "U.S. Army Transportation Museum," Wikipedia ("The museum has an extensive Vietnam War exhibit, including . . . bicycles used by the Viet Cong").)

Today my somewhat more modern (but still inexpensive) bicycle is mostly used for daily commuting, as well as exercise and recreation along some local trails. (For years I jogged almost every day as well -- in Washington, through the woods of Glover Park, just outside my door. The toll it took on my knees has eliminated that exercise option in recent years, but for some reason my knees seem to still like biking.)

As life has a way of coming full circle, this past year marked the publication of my son Gregory Johnson's book, Put Your Life on a Diet -- already in its second printing. Although it is compatible in theme with Test Pattern for Living, and also has a chapter on transportation advocating bicycles, it is otherwise unique, very much up-to-date, and grows out of his leadership with the "small house" movement -- as suggested by the book's sub-title: "Lessons Learned Living in 140 Square Feet." And see "Life Mobility Transportation Group - Bicycles, Electric Cars, and Greener Alternative Fuel Modes of Travel," on his Web site.

I've made no effort to update the bicycling chapter from my book, reproduced below.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a different time from today. So you'll need to update the statistics if you want to use them. And the sentiments are very much 1970s' -- though the conclusions, social and ecological conditions haven't changed all that much.

It was a time of political and economic change, and one of my goals was to see if I could help contribute to a year in America in which there would be more bicycles sold than automobiles. (That goal was accomplished, as you'll see from a quote in what follows.)

In the 1970s there was also a good deal of artistic as well as other creative experimentation. It was represented in this book with the fact that the Foreword was sheet music (written by Mason Williams) and the chapters consisted of quotes on the even numbered (left hand) pages, and my text on the odd numbered (right hand) pages. As I described that feature in the Introduction,
[A]ny honest author will admit he has drawn heavily from the writings of others. I have emphasized this fact by the use of quotations from diverse sources . . . [One] reason I have emphasized the quotes is that my search involves the discovery of common themes . . .. When different people start saying the same thing -- when a blue-collar worker expresses frustrations similar to those of college students, when the teachings of Buddha are consistent with the insights of psychiatrists, or when ecologists echo the sentiments of poets -- I feel excitement. If you want, you can just read the quotes, and skip my text entirely -- or read it later.
In today's reproduction of the chapter the quotes are indented and blocked and my text goes to the margin. Page numbers are indicated as, e.g., # p. 110 #.

Antidote to Automobiles
[Test Pattern for Living, Chapter 7]

# p. 110 #

We might have to slow down a little or perhaps even sit quiet occasionally to develop better taste. One can't think very deeply at 70 miles an hour.
-C. E. Warne

My new pattern requires renting new cars at the airports as needed. I am progressively ceasing to own things, not on a political-schism basis, as for instance Henry George's ideology, but simply on a practical basis. Possession is becoming progressively burdensome and wasteful and therefore obsolete.
-R. Buckminster Fuller

When you drive a car, you drive a reflection of your self. And, in the case of the 1971 MGB, it's a reflection of someone very special.
-MG advertisement in Time

# p. 111 #

So far, we have approached alternate life styles almost in terms of hedonism: What feels best for you? What will remove the pain of living in a corporate state -- other than the drug life (whether alcohol, tranquilizers, or others) that only brings more ultimate pain? But what we so often discover is that the very products, activities, and attitudes that make you feel better also have significant social advantages: They use less of our nation's precious natural resources, they pollute less, they make less noise, they add to the pleasure of others, they enable each of us to live in a society in which we can grow in individual worth and fulfillment, they are more aesthetically pleasing, they make for better citizenship, and they are even more economical. Take bicycles, for example.

I ride a bicycle -- not because I hate General Motors but haven't the courage to bomb an auto plant. I don't do it as a gesture of great stoicism and personal sacrifice. I am not even engaged, necessarily, in an act of political protest over that company's responsibility for most of the air pollution by tonnage in the United States. It's like finally giving up cigarettes. You just wake up one morning and realize you don't want to start the day with another automobile. Cigarette smoking is not a pleasure, it's a business. In the same way, you finally come to realize that you don't need General Motors, they need you. They need you to drive their cars for them. You are driving for Detroit and paying them to do it. Automobiles are just a part of your life that's over, that's all. No hard feelings. You've just moved on to something else. From now on you just use their buses, taxis, and rental cars when they suit your

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The most natural form of locomotion, walking has been In use since before the Invention of the wheel and the discovery of fire. Reliable and totally non-polluting, it offers convenience -- no parking, no cost. Invigorating, it promotes health and gives you the chance to think.
-Paul Swatek

Automobiles insulate man not only from the environment but from human contact as well. They permit only most limited types of interaction, usually competitive, aggressive, and destructive. If people are to be brought together again, given a chance to get acquainted with each other and involved in nature, some fundamental solutions must be found to the problems posed by the automobile.
-Edward T. Hall

ANNOUNCER: Sidney spent Sundays shelling at the seashore. Then Sidney started digging the Mustang -- the great original . . .. Now Sidney's making waves all over. Last week he saved three bathing beauties. (And they all could swim better than Sidney!) Only Mustang makes it happen!
-a television commercial

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convenience. You don't keep one for them that you have to house, feed and water, insure, and care for.

You ride a bicycle because it feels good. The air feels good on your body; even the rain feels good. The blood starts moving around your body, and pretty soon it gets to your head, and, glory be, your head feels good. You start noticing things. You look until you really see. You hear things, and smell smells, you never knew were there. You start whistling nice little original tunes to suit the moment. Words start getting caught in the web of poetry in your mind. And there's a nice feeling, too, in knowing you're doing a fundamental life thing for yourself: transportation. You got a little bit of your life back! And the thing you use is simple, functional, and relatively cheap. You want one that fits you and rides smoothly, but with proper care and a few parts it should last almost forever. Your satisfaction comes from within you, not from the envy or jealousy of others. (Although you are entitled to feel a little smug during rush hours, knowing you are also making better time than most of the people in cars.)

On those occasions when I am not able to cycle through the parks or along the canal -- because the paths are rough with ice or muddy from rain or melting snow -- bicycling enables me to keep closer to the street people: folks waiting for buses or to cross streets, street sweepers, policemen, school "patrols," men unloading trucks. Needless to say, you cannot claim any depth of understanding as a result of such momentary and chance encounters, but by the time I get to the office I do somehow have the sense that I have a much better feeling for the mood of the city that day than if I had come to my office in a chauffeur-driven government limou-

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On a different speed scale, bicycles could move 2.8 times as many people per amount of space. If a bicycler can make 10 miles an hour, the car would have to exceed 28 mph to rack up more passenger miles on the same system of streets. But the New York City average speed for cars during rush hour is only 8.5 mph, 13 mph on the feeder roads. It's a fact that today in many cities you can make better time aboard a bicycle than in a car.
-Paul Swatek

Make your second car a bicycle.

Consider the advantages that the bicycle has to offer -- low cost, no pollution, and convenient to park.

For under $50 you can get a bicycle fitted with enough trimmings to make it practical for going shopping and carrying a small child. The cheapest car costs about thirty times that.

A bicycle is also inexpensive to operate, maintain, and insure.

Bicycles are quieter than any form of motorized transportation, produce no pollution, and use up no fuel.

A bicycle takes up about 1/30th the parking space of a car.

In city traffic today, the bicycle is often faster than the car or bus.

Bicycles give the rider the sort of healthy exercise that many Americans usually do not get.

Riding a bicycle makes it possible to get a better appreciation of a beautiful day, or a pleasant ride through the park.

. . . The New York Times quoted a 32-year-old millionaire who pedals up Fifth Avenue to social engagements in a dinner jacket as explaining, "It's much easier than fussing with a chauffeur."
-Paul Swatek

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sine. Although I am willing to brave the traffic and exhaust, I am aware it is dangerous. I think bicycles ought to be accorded a preferred position in the city's transportation system. At the very least, they deserve an even break.

Notice that bicycle riding also has some significant social advantages over the automobile. Cars unnecessarily kill sixty thousand people every year, permanently maim another one hundred and seventy thousand, and injure three and a half million more. The automobile accounts for at least 60 percent of the total air pollution in the United States by tonnage -- as high as 85 percent in some urban areas -- and 91 percent of all carbon-monoxide pollution; it creates about nine hundred pounds of pollution for every person every year. One million acres of land are paved each year; there is now a mile of road for each square mile of land. The concrete used in our Interstate Highway System would build six sidewalks to the moon. Even so, everyone is familiar with the clogged streets and parking problems -- not to mention the unconscionable rates charged by the parking garages. Automobile transportation is the largest single consumer of the resources used in our nation's total annual output of energy. It is an economic drain on consumers -- in no way aided by auto companies that deliberately build bumpers weaker than they were fifty years ago in order to contribute to an unnecessary bumper-repair bill in excess of one billion dollars annually.

The bicycle is a model citizen, by comparison.

The bicycle does not kill or maim; it does not pollute; it does not deplete natural resources; it makes no noise; it takes a great deal less space; and it is very much cheaper. (You can buy a brand new bicycle for

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Commuting by bicycle? Is this some kind of put-on? It may sound like a joke to motor-minded America, but in the rest of the world nobody is laughing. In countries that are willing to take it seriously, the bicycle [is] transportation. Switzerland, for example, which traditionally places a high value on peace of mind and purity of air, has more bicycles than automobiles. In Amsterdam -- a national capital with roughly the same population and climatic conditions as Washington, D.C. -- 150,000 people ride bikes to work every day. Hundreds of thousands more commute by bicycle in other European cities. The same is true in much of Africa and Asia.
-Thomas R. Reid, III

This year an estimated 10 million bicycles will be sold, compared to a projected 8.6 million new cars.
-Friends of the Earth

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little more than what it costs to operate an automobile for two weeks.) Although the bicycle makes a direct assault on four great problems that plague the modern city -- traffic, noise, parking, and pollution -- urban planners have overlooked it in their search for solutions to the urban transportation crisis.

It is more than ironic that America can invest so much stock faith and rhetoric in the competitive marketplace of commerce and yet ignore the "marketplace of ideas" (to use a phrase by Mr. Justice Holmes) by tolerating the television monopoly that is used to merchandise Detroit's peculiar dreams of the appropriate automotive life style -- with all that life style's attendant social ills. My own commission, the Federal Communications Commission, has been instrumental in encouraging broadcasters' censoring off the airwaves the messages from ecology groups (like Friends of the Earth) that would cry out against the urban devastation being wrought by Detroit's automobiles. (The FCC decision, fortunately, has been substantially reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals.) In perhaps one of the greatest advertising overkills of all time, we Americans are being grossly oversold an automotive product and life style (bigger, faster, sexier cars) that we neither need nor may really want, and that will surely eventually kill us with its exhaust by-products and lethargy-induced heart attacks, if it does not get us first in a crash. This may serve the corporate profits of the automotive, oil, steel, cement, and road-building industries, but it is shortchanging the American people.

There are other ways to get around.

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You, too, can have a happy Bike to Work Week -- 52 weeks every year! Try it.

Think you can't do it? Here are some suggestions/answers/arguments that say, "Yes You Can!"

1. I'm just not in shape. Bikers come in all shapes and sizes -- physically and in terms of fitness. You can join them. Haven't biked during the last 20 years -- or ever? Start slowly. Don't go out and buy the most expensive one in the shop (even though a perfectly good new bike will only cost you roughly 1% of what a new car would cost). Rent, or borrow, a bike and take a ride around one city block in your neighborhood. Gradually extend your distance -- a half-mile, a mile (10 to 12 blocks), five miles -- over the course of a month. Doesn't it make you feel better? Isn't it kind of fun? Buy a used bike. Make sure it's properly adjusted to your size, and the tires are kept properly inflated -- and that you wear a helmet and follow some simple safety rules (see 6, below). Don't worry about the hills; they will seem to be much less steep with time. Until those leg muscles develop just get off the bike and walk it up the hills that are a little too difficult, even when you've geared down. And remember, there's no shame in walking; every biker has done it on some occasion; and besides they'll just think you had to get off because you have a flat tire.

2. It's too far to my job. What do you mean by "too far"? That it will take longer than you'd like? (It may actually save you time; see 4, below.) That you have to dress up for work and might dirty your clothes? (There are answers for that, too, in 5, below.) That you'd have to bike on unsafe streets? Yup, once again, see 6, below. Bear in mind, I'm talking about biking to work in Iowa-sized towns (up to and including Des Moines); I'm not advocating biking along Los Angeles' freeways from Pasadena to Santa Monica every morning.

3. There are a lot of things for which I need a car. (a) I'm not suggesting you not have access to a car when you truly need one, only that you probably truly need one less often than you think. (b) If you and your partner have more than one car you might be able to share one, and cut your costs in half. Or maybe rent one over occasional weekends for heavy shopping, or trips out of town. (c) The average person expends 1500 hours a year for their car: [1] the hours you must work to earn the money for car payments, repairs, insurance, licensing and fees, gas and oil, [2] driving to, waiting for, going back to pick up your car, and other time consuming efforts associated with those tasks, and [3] the hours you spend actually driving the car for your own purposes. The average distance driven is 7500 miles per year. At 1500 hundred hours, and 7500 miles, that's an average of 5 miles per hour -- a good brisk walking speed, and much, much slower than what you can do on a bike. (d) Many of those "needs" you fulfill with your car may not really be "needs." (e) You'd be amazed how much you can carry with a bike. [1] Small and medium-size objects can be put in a jacket pocket; or, if they won't fit there, in one of the various-sized baskets available for bicycles. [2] Regularly have larger loads? Groceries? Laundry to the laundromat? There are reasonably priced bicycle trailers that are lightweight and easy to pull that quickly snap into and out of their connectors.

4. I don't have the time. Put aside the fact that you're only getting 5 mph out of your car (see 3(c), above). Assume that wasn't true and that the only time required by your car was the time spent getting from one place to another. Traveling by bike is, worst case, not significantly slower than a car, and often actually faster. [See, Rob Daniel, "Biker Beats Car, Bus in Annual Bike to Work Race," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 12, 2009.] Why is that? Bikes' advantages, among others, include the combination of (a) being able jump on your bike and go (without opening the garage, warming up the car, backing out of the drive, getting into traffic), (b) bike trails (with no stop lights), sidewalks and bike lanes (faster than sitting in rush hour traffic), and (c) being able to pull up and park right outside the door of your destination (rather than having to look for a parking place or drive round and round in a parking garage).

5. I need to dress for work. (a) Do you really? Midwestern workplaces are much more casual than those on the East or West Coast -- and more casual than any were in the 1950s. (b) I knew a multi-millionaire in Manhattan who used to bike, in black tie, to formal events. I see men in suits biking in Iowa City. Clearly it is possible to do. (c) There are alternatives. Combine your biking with a stop off at a gym; shower, and keep your good clothes, there. I've often found myself working in buildings that have showers in the restrooms. Many people who walk to work wear one pair of walking shoes while walking and carry (or keep at the office) another pair they wear at work; you might be able to carry, or keep at the office, the clothes you need there.

6. I just wouldn't feel safe. You're less likely to be seriously hurt moving around town on a bike than in a car. OK, I know the data can be debated for hours without reaching agreement. The point is that, with some minimal precautions -- just as with driving, walking, boating, or any other activity -- you're safe on a bike. "Car emissions kill 30,000 people and car collisions kill 46,000 each year in the U.S. . . . 725, 629, 665, 732, and 693 cyclists died per year in 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, and 2000 respectively." Bicycle Almanac. Those are pretty good comparative odds. Actually, most bike accidents are the result of ignoring some of those simple safety practices: biking against, instead of with, traffic; running red lights; biking without a helmet; riding too fast, or going in and out of traffic; biking at night without a headlight and flashing rear red light -- and, of course, OWI. If you're going to ride on sidewalks a bell is a courtesy as much as a safety device.

7. What would I do on days that aren't perfect biking weather? What if it's a bitter cold winter day? Or a real summer scorcher? Or it's raining? Hey, nobody's taking attendance; you want to skip a day, skip a day. But once it becomes a habit you may end up doing what a lot of bikers do: ride your bike every day -- unless it's a safety issue. I never bike in tornadoes; if you wouldn't be safe in a car you probably aren't safe on a bike. It's conceivable fog or rain would be so thick as to impair vision. And when roads are so icy that cars can't stay on them bikes probably can't either. As for cold, the folks who are really cold in winter are the ones standing and shivering at a bus stop, or scraping the ice off their windshield. Biking helps keep you warm. Besides, cold weather is easy to deal with; we midwesterners call it "layering" -- the colder it gets the more layers of clothing you put on (paying special attention to feet, hands, head and face). I once walked across Iowa City in 100 below wind chill weather just to see what it would feel like; it was as comfortable as any other temperature for which I've been adequately dressed. Heat's another matter. There's no limit to how much additional clothes you can put on in the winter, but there are limits to how much you can take off in the summer (though you wouldn't know it to see some summertime bikers). So why do 7000-10,000 bicyclists from Iowa and around the world take a week out of their lives, and pay the costs, to ride across the entire state of Iowa during the peak of summer heat in July? Because it's just that much fun to do. And the heat? If you're moving along at 15 mph or so, and sweating, you have the equivalent of the comfort of a fan blowing on you and evaporating that moisture. You'll be a lot more comfortable that the folks sitting in their lawn chairs along the route. (But you do have to remember to keep taking liquids and electrolites.) Rain? You're not going to carry an umbrella while biking, but there are lots of rain gear outfits to choose from that will keep you warm and dry. (Just remember to keep your bike chain oiled to avoid rust.)

Any other reasons why you say "I can't" to which I can respond, "Oh, yes you can"? Just put a comment on this blog entry and I'll try to give you an answer.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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