Thursday, August 17, 2006

Be Careful What You Wish For

     You know the rest of the title quote. "Because Republicans just might get it." In the July/August Issue of "Washington Monthly", Alan Wolfe wrote a piece called, "Why Conservatives Can't Govern". This piece was widely talked throughout the summer, mainly because of its stunningly obvious, yet largely unspoken thesis. That is, Conservatives can't govern because their basic philosophy is that government doesn't work. Read the piece - it's very interesting.
     Since liberal Democrats ruled the country for something like 40 years, Republicans have formed themselves into the party of opposition. The Conservative wing (which has recently gone wacko, BTW) became extremely strong. Among its tenets: government should butt out. Less is More, at least when it comes to government. Of course, a nation of 300 million people needs a government. And a nation of 300 million people that is highly sophisticated, with some of the best transportation systems, mandatory schooling, and well-run cities needs more government than you'll get in, say, Lebanon.
     "All Politics is Local", said Tip O'Neill. And today's article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution does not disappoint. Under the headline, "Tech students endured threats in free speech crusade" (free login), Andrea Jones tells the sob story of Conservative Georgia Tech students Ruth Malhotra and Orit Sklar. Ruth and Orit sued Georgia Tech to remove an anti-harassment rule for Tech's dormitories. The rule barred verbal assaults and harassment in Tech's common living spaces. Ruth and Orit, two of the people for whom the rule was originally designed, fought to have it struck down in the name of free speech.
     Hey, maybe they're right. The rules were put in place originally because "good old boy" group were harassing women and minorities, hoping to push them out of what had been all-male, all-white schools. By the way, today, Georgia Tech is less than 28% female and less than 25% non-white. This in a country in which 51% of the general population is female and nearly 37% is non-Hispanic White. Just saying. Anyway, maybe Ruth and Orit are right. The country was built on free speech. If women and Blacks can't handle the pressure, they shouldn't be in school in the first place, right?
     So it should be no surprise that after they win their court battle, and Tech is forced to repeal their anti-harassment rule, Ruth and Orit are...harassed! Surprise! Congratulations, ladies. You've gotten what you wanted. Except... you didn't really want this? You wanted to harass dirty liberals and those Southeast Asians that keep populating your dorms? Not good, White American red-blooded Conservatives? Better call the newspaper. Conservatives broke government again!
     Just as a note... Ruth Malhotra is a self-described "conservative Christian". Orit Sklar's name sounded familiar. When I looked her up, I remembered why. I'm embarrassed to report that she's the President of the Georgia Tech Jewish Student Union, an organization I helped found in 1997-98. Oh well. I can't be responsible for my successors. Imagine how Bill Clinton must feel right now.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


     So the month-long war against the terrorist army Hezbollah has come to a halt. Predictably, everyone involved is declaring victory. Israel, Hezbollah, the UN, the US. They can't all be right, right?
     Right. What the hell does "victory" mean, anyway? Nasrallah thinks it means surviving against Israel. He's wrong. Israel thinks it means destroying Hezbollah. They're right, but when they didn't accomplish that, they changed their tune. The UN thinks it means we stop harassing poor, innocent terrorists. I can't even begin to assess that. George Bush thinks victory means everyone hates you and people are about to die. Mission Accomplished!
     Clearly, Israel did not come out of "Operation Change Direction" with a true victory. Hezbollah is still entrenched in southern Lebanon, is still being fed arms and money from Syria, Iran, and from terrorist sympathizers worldwide, and is still hell-bent on destroying Israel. However, Israel did do a lot of damage to Lebanon. And that sends a very clear message to every one of Israel's less-than-friendly neighbors. It says, "We'll do the same to you if you allow terrorists to attack us from your side of the border." It's a clear message to Egypt. It's a clear message to Jordan. And it's an especially clear message to Syria.
     Almost unanimously, the media highlight Hezbollah's burgeoning public image in the Middle East and points to it as Israel's failure. Israel wasn't fighting a public affairs battle. It especially was not trying to win "hearts and minds" in Lebanon. It was trying to tell governments - governments that actually care about the well-being of its citizens - that it will not stand for their tolerance of terrorists in their midst.
     The Anti-Semitic press screams about "massacres", most "proof" of which has been manufactured. But the world knows that Israel has been mightily restrained. Obviously, it really could have leveled Beirut. Obviously, instead of a few hundred casualties, there could have been a few hundred thousand. The reason there wasn't was because Israel wasn't fighting Lebanon. It was fighting a terror organization that happened to be inside Lebanon. Once Lebanon takes responsibility for its border, that won't be the case.
     Israel accomplished what it meant to do. It stopped the reign of terror in the north. It disabled Hezbollah's ability to make war without authorization from a sovereign country. Is Hezbollah gone? No. But that's a job for another day, for another country to handle. Ultimately Hezbollah is Iran's expeditionary force, and only a nation willing to take on Iran can stop them.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Life Insurance Racket

     Now that we live in a 2-income house (as opposed to a house that either my wife or I could afford on a single salary), we're investigating life insurance options so that in the case of the untimely demise of one of us, the other does not have to move.
     So far, I'm fairly disgusted by the industry. I mean, insurance is a scummy business as a whole, but life insurance has more obfuscations and fear-mongering than I'd expect outside a Republican election platform. When you buy car insurance, it's pretty straightforward. If you pay $X per month, the insurance company will fix your car, pay off anyone you damaged, and possibly pay for your own injuries in the case of an accident. Different policies cover different things, but it's not complex. I thought property insurance was as straightforward, but since reports came out from Katrina of insurance companies playing games and not paying for destroyed homes, it turns out that that sector is about as trustworthy as Mel Gibson producing a Holocaust movie. (The whole "wind" vs "water" debate is crap. People clearly believed they were buying hurricane insurance, and the insurance companies were happy to let them think so.)
     When I bought my first house, I purchased a "home warranty". That was probably the most worthless thing I've ever spent money on. It was supposed to cover anything that broke in the house, with a few small print items that were excluded. So when a pipe burst in my crawl space, I called the insurance company. "Not covered." Why? Well, the part of the pipe that broke is excluded in the small print. My A/C died. "Not covered." Why? The way it broke was excluded in the small print. After 2 years of having Every. Single. Claim. denied, I cancelled the stupid policy. I started getting warning letters. "This is your last chance!" I read. A month later, I got a letter saying, "This is your final chance to cover your house!" I got phone calls weeks after that offering discounts. I'd rather send my money to a deposed Nigerian prince.
     Which brings me back to life insurance. There are 2 types of life insurance. They're called "Term Life" and "Cash Cow". The insurance companies usually give prettier names to the second, calling it "Whole Life", "Universal Life", "Premium Guaranteed Life". And they talk down the first, calling it "Rental Insurance". Term Life is insurance. You pay the company $X, and if you die, they pay your beneficiary $Y. Permanent Life (Perm), what textbooks will call the Cash Cow, is actually a hybrid product. It's a mix of Term Life and investment account. Perm Life premiums usually stay constant over your entire lifetime, while Term Life premiums go up. But this is misleading. Term Life payments stay constant, while the insurance payments in Perm Life go down. They don't tell you this, because the dollar amount on the check will be the same. What they don't clarify is that part of the money comes from your own investment account. If you wanted to buy Term Life with a declining payout, your premiums could stay constant too. Think of your mortgage. Your payments stay the same, but behind the scenes, more of your money goes to pay down principal instead of interest, as time goes on.
     So where's the scam? After all, what's wrong with saving money? Nothing, if your retirement plan is to buy 40 year CD's that you can only cash after you die. Life Insurance companies pay really crappy returns. If all you're interested in earning on your savings is 6% annually, a CD will take care of that for you. Better yet, you can actually use a CD before you die.
     Now, I do have to mention that there is one huge benefit to Life Insurance - payments after death are tax-free. It's like a Roth IRA that pays out when you're dead. This is a good way to avoid estate taxes if you want to pass down money to your children. Since there are no estate taxes on spouses, however, nobody gains anything if your spouse is the beneficiary. Except for the insurance company, who's been making tons of interest on your money for 30, 40, or 50 years. Anyway, that's estate planning, and unless your estate is worth millions of dollars, you don't have to worry about it. (If it is worth millions of dollars, there are other ways to shelter the money before dealing with life insurance.)
     On the New York Life webpage, the insurance company tries to help you with the confusion. It's heard the saying "Buy Term and Invest the Difference", so it wants to give you a Fair & Balanced analysis on which is right for you. The page has headlines like "Do You Prefer Renting or Owning?" and "Invest the Difference in What?". Translations: "You prefer owning to renting, and we say Term is like renting", and "Do you really want to go through the hassle of planning for your future?"
     Maybe some of you who are older and wiser than me can cut through the bull that the insurance companies are feeding us. Explain to me a good reason why Perm is not a ripoff. If I'm disciplined and responsible with my savings, I figure I'm always better off buying Term, until the day comes when I no longer need Life Insurance (house is paid off, kids are through college). Why is someone always trying to steal my money?