Tuesday, September 16, 2014

On the impertinence of others


My lifelong friend is Bob Levin.  He always says that when we were young we didn't like each other. I always answer, Well, I liked you.  He is actually a sweetheart.

Today Bob has written in his new blog about his adventures in local establishments trying to stand up for order, as others push themselves forward in competition over very little.   Check it out at http://www.theboblevin.com/?p=245.

I have had my own difficulties with the trespasses of others. I have always thought that saving a place - like, coming down at 7 AM and plopping your bags onto a couple of poolside lounges that you will then occupy physically from 10 AM to 11 AM and 2 PM to 3 PM, was typical New York (or LA) behavior, and that resorts should be forced to post, much as McDonald's has to post calories, a New Yorker Quotient, so we could avoid high NYQ hotels.

My belief in this thesis, I believe, conforms also to my seeking to identify gender and ethnicity of the latest terrible driver, driving 50 MPH in the left lane so it's all clear ahead and people driving a normal speed have to pass on the right.
It seems, however, that the NYQ and the bad-driver identification do not provide usable results.  The reserve a seat behavior spreads to all groups because it works, since most hotels don't enforce a limit -- some do, and good for them!  Likewise, police enforce mostly a speed limit rather than competence and courtesy.
So there you are.  I believe this lack of enforcement is lamentable and anti-social.   By the broken windows thesis, it's a short step from these misdemeanors to ISIS. 

Such a world!

budd shenkin

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Racial Makeup of Police Departments -- Check Out Berkeley

The Ferguson, Missouri problem has located an underlying problem of American society that many of us whites were not well aware of.  Police departments are predominantly white, and are not changing in step with the demographic changes of the country. 

I see this as a problem with two dimensions: employment and authority.  Immigrants cluster in specific places according to their homelands -- you go to where you have friends and family who paved the way, so that, for instance, Ethiopian communities are strong in Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Oakland, and Jews came to the Lower East Side.  Employment patterns are similar -- Merrill Lynch, for instance, was well known as the Irish financial institution.  So police departments recruit the familiar as well -- whites (but I don't know why they all appear to be so beefy).  Especially in days of an employment squeeze such as we now have, these corridors to employment will be especially prized and difficult for outsiders to penetrate.

But there is also the authority dimension.  Official America and moneyed America is still pretty white.  Keeping the "other" in their place is still the role of law enforcement.  Official America is thus very happy with a white police force.  It seems that police forces act in the expected way, with covert racial profiling hassling the "other."  I'm not sure I accept all the statistics about who gets stopped, since minority populations are generally poorer and possibly less inclined to follow the law and thus more liable to be the subject of a righteous stop.  On the other hand, the accounts of black men being pulled over many times and having to keep their cool are very convincing.  Very.  So the authority function of white cops keeping minorities in subjugation seems pretty obvious.

I hadn't focused on all this well because I am looking to relax, to say that things are much better than they used to be.  But Ferguson has helped me see that I was just being lazy.  In fact, there is so much racism in our country, and it is so unfair, that it makes me depressed to think about.  OTOH, I am more and more satisfied that I insisted that our practice, Bayside Medical Group, serve all groups equally and with respect, taking Medi-Cal patients unlimitedly.  At least to a certain extent, we were part of the solution and not part of the problem.  I remember that one of my patients said about me, "Dr. Shenkin is a good doctor!"  By emphasizing the word "good," she divided the profession into two, and if you were "good," it meant you were someone who cared and gave patients respect.  I'm hoping not all of that goes down the drain now that I have sold Bayside.

My wife and I often ridicule the city of Berkeley, where we have chosen to live.  There are so many idiots, and so much trendy crap, and so much PC.  But we choose to live here.  And here below is one of the reasons why.  In today's NYT there is a wonderful article that exhibits the racial statistics of police departs throughout the country.  It's generally pretty dreadful.  But here in Berkeley the PC influence has actually worked.  It makes me happy and proud.  And sad to see the rest of the Bay Area lagging behind, perhaps more in tune with the rest of the country than with us.  The statistic "+__%" in the list below describes how much more the police force is white than is the community they serve.

Budd Shenkin


San Francisco
Minorities make up more than half of suburban San Francisco towns like Daly City, Hayward and Fremont, but their police departments are heavily white. Berkeley has more black officers than white, and the share of white officers in the department is on par with the share of whites in the city.
San Francisco
Department
WHITE
BLACK
HISP.
ASIAN
OTHER

Daly City, Calif.
Pop. 101,123
108 police officers
Residents
Police
Police Dept.
+52 pct.
pts.
more white
than residents
Hayward, Calif.
Pop. 144,186
191 police officers
Residents
Police
+50 pct.
pts.
more white
Fremont, Calif.
Pop. 214,089
185 police officers
Residents
Police
+48 pct.
pts.
more white
San Bruno, Calif.
Pop. 41,114
48 police officers
Residents
Police
+47 pct.
pts.
more white
San Mateo, Calif.
Pop. 97,207
114 police officers
Residents
Police
+45 pct.
pts.
more white
Sunnyvale, Calif.
Pop. 140,081
207 police officers
Residents
Police
+36 pct.
pts.
more white
Santa Clara, Calif.
Pop. 116,468
137 police officers
Residents
Police
+34 pct.
pts.
more white
Redwood City, Calif.
Pop. 76,815
91 police officers
Residents
Police
+33 pct.
pts.
more white
San Jose, Calif.
Pop. 945,942
1,386 police officers
Residents
Police
+31 pct.
pts.
more white
Richmond, Calif.
Pop. 103,701
161 police officers
Residents
Police
+31 pct.
pts.
more white
San Rafael, Calif.
Pop. 57,713
73 police officers
Residents
Police
+26 pct.
pts.
more white
Albany, Calif.
Pop. 18,539
27 police officers
Residents
Police
+25 pct.
pts.
more white
Alameda, Calif.
Pop. 73,812
99 police officers
Residents
Police
+23 pct.
pts.
more white
Oakland, Calif.
Pop. 390,724
725 police officers
Residents
Police
+18 pct.
pts.
more white
El Cerrito, Calif.
Pop. 23,549
42 police officers
Residents
Police
+18 pct.
pts.
more white
San Francisco, Calif.
Pop. 805,235
2,303 police officers
Residents
Police
+12 pct.
pts.
more white
Palo Alto, Calif.
Pop. 64,403
87 police officers
Residents
Police
+9 pct.
pts.
more white
Berkeley, Calif.
Pop. 112,580
181 police officers
Residents
Police
+1 pct.
pts.
more white 
   

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Obama's Foreign Policy Makes Medical Sense


In medicine, sometimes we have to wait. “Tincture of time” is a traditional strategy. You have to let the body react, you have to see what is going to happen, you have to resist the temptation to treat right away, because it might not be necessary, and because treatment later on might work better. Yes, it's most often best to catch an ailment early, but when you do, the judgement of the clinician is sometimes just to wait. And when the time comes to act, sometimes the best intervention is not dramatic, but just a well-aimed lance, perhaps; boom boom and it's done.

And sometimes you just don't know what you're dealing with. When I was a senior medical student I made rounds with infectious disease specialist Sam Katz. He would be called in for a case of infection on the wards of Children's Hospital in Boston. Often it wasn't clear what the infection was. So he would say, take the child off all antibiotics and reculture in three days. The housestaff (residents) would protest – this kid's sick! I know, Sam would say, but we need to know what we're dealing with. Take him off all antibiotics (it would take time for the antibiotics to clear from the system so we could get a good culture) and we'll see if we can find the bug after three days. Have some confidence here that the kid is not going to expire – if he gets a lot worse, we can restart early.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I am one of the apparently few defenders of Obama's foreign policy. Everybody's dumping on the guy with I told you so's. As though it's obvious that an earlier intervention would have prevented the ISIS Syria-Iraqi insurgents from coming this far this fast, and as though it's obvious that this is far too dangerous a place for us to be. Hillary opened her big mouth to distance herself from a sensible policy once again – she claims to have learned the lesson of Iraq, but I doubt it.

Myself, I think Obama, in his very understated way, did the subtly courageous thing to do, he let the infection come to a boil that could be lanced. While doing it, he effectively got rid of the noxious Maliki side infection. Don't want us? Fine, we're out of here. Let's see what will happen. Let's be confident we can handle it in the future. Let's not let ourselves be wagged by the noxious tail.

Now the body has reconstituted itself, we have started to mobilize our forces with a better constituent body to wage the counter-war, and we'll supply some medicine while that tail won't be wagging us any time soon. We also found another functional organ to support in the north, the Kurds. They want us, they have a state that is working (Erbil has a Jaguar dealership), their army will fight. Obama has been quite right to say that they have to want it at least as much as we do – we'll just have to see if the Iraqis do or don't.

Meanwhile, for the situation just a little north of there, Obama refuses to speak out dramatically against the posing-against-the-sky-as-background Putin. Patiently and privately, he says, you don't want to do this. He counters every bishop move with a pawn blocker, and moves his pieces behind the lines of attack to more powerful positions. He has a sense of proportion.

I have been quite critical of Obama in the past, and maybe I'm just the kind of guy who looks for an opportunity to take the other side. Nonetheless, let's see what happens. My sense is that his caution and his subtle risk taking will prove in the end to be admirable and effective.

Budd Shenkin

Friday, August 1, 2014

An Electoral Strategy


Yes, there are huge questions facing our country. War or peace, renewal of the cold war? Immigration? Economics? All important. But we know enough to understand that elections don't often hinge on important questions; they hinge on feelings, emotions, and immediate concerns. As in, abortion, gay marriage, giveaways to the lazy poor.

Thus comes my proposal for a cogent electoral strategy. Hear me out.

Last week, my security was breached. My bank was contacted for a transfer of funds to a third party. All my financial institutions were contacted in a similar manner. Later, all my email contacts were spammed for information, and false invoices were mailed to them (and to me.) And yesterday my bank was presented with a check with my wife's forged signature that was cashed at a Southern California credit union (my corporate account was defrauded via a credit union too, some years ago. What is it with credit unions?) The fraudsters have not received any money from me that I know about, and I have taken the laborious but necessary steps of changing my bank account number, changing all passwords and User ID numbers, cleaning up my computer, etc. A pain, and emotionally disorienting, but so far, so good.

I am not alone. Everyone I have talked to has told me I am only one in a long line. Many of my friends who have been spammed have recounted their own family's misadventures. Anyone who has visited Target knows the feeling. The amount of resources expended by institutions on this sort of fraud must be enormous. I wonder what the total population impact and total cost is. It's got to be huge.

At the same time, it is excruciatingly difficult to identify the miscreants in these frauds, and difficult even to report them. I can't find a way to tell Google that someone created a new email address called budshenkin@gmail.com – one “d,” such an insult and abomination! There is no fraud unit ready to jump into action. The bank said originally that their major function would be to deny payment on the fraudulent check, and leave it at that. They said I could do something personally if I cared to. I demanded to see a senior officer who said he would contact the FBI. I doubt that this will lead anywhere; after all, I haven't even lost money. My wife's identity was stolen last year. Amazingly they caught the people involved trying to charge on her account in a Sacramento store – and the Sacramento police let them go! WTF?? In essence, there is precious little enforcement.

Now let's look somewhere else in the public policy sphere. We know that the prisons are overflowing, and needlessly so. The failed War on Drugs is a major source of all the incarceration; everyone knows that. Why the War on Drugs has not been able to be shut down and replaced is a mystery of the usual public policy and bureaucratic stagnation. (In my own field of pediatrics, the self-maintenance of the bureaucracy around lead poisoning – an affliction that sank to very low levels decades ago as soon as gasoline was made unleaded – has been absolutely astonishing. The public health bureaucracy employs thousands. But I digress.) But there is clearly movement as marijuana is being legalized, despite the entrenched interests who benefit from maintenance of its illegality.

So, let's put this all together. My proposal is this: Let's take the money from the War on Drugs and devote it to the War on Credit Care and Online Fraud. And let's do a Prisoner Exchange – let the marijuana offenders out of the clink, and refill it with the Fraudsters. That should keep the Prison Guard Union happy. I'd call it The Great Pivot, “Out of drugs and into fraud!”

Sounds like good public policy to me. If someone were to run on this platform, can there be any doubt it would be an overwhelming winner? Any doubt at all?

I thought not.

Budd Shenkin

Monday, July 28, 2014

The World at War - Foreign Policy and Priorities


The attentive reader will recall that I opined on Putin and Marxist thought last week. Today, I'd like to focus on Obama and the United States.

The world now finds itself with violent and dangerous brush fires raging widely – Israel-Hamas, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran negotiations, and our friends in the Ukraine. ( Not to mention Ebola in West Africa - wow!  But we'll keep that out of this discussion.)  The role of the President at this time is to sort out priorities – what do you do with whom, in what time frame, and how. The role of all our opponents is to take advantage of the chaos to use the distractions to sneak off and do what they want to do.  So while making priorities is hard under duress, doing so also presents an opportunity to show the world where you will put your resources, and what you care about the most.

The Gaza crisis certainly grabs headlines and strums heartstrings. Kerry is spending a great deal of time there. This is a mistake. Although there is a humanitarian crisis, there is really little for the US to do. If you look at the Middle East, the conservative forces there see the threat of radical Islamism and are starting to act accordingly, as on the other side Turkey and Qatar try to take advantage (a couple of years ago when we were in Turkey we read that Erdogan was doing some Holocaust denying – that's the kind of guy he is.) They will all sort this out. In the meanwhile, it is in our interest to let the Israelis clean out the tunnels and do whatever else they want to do with Hamas. They will live with the results. Even if we were to be fully, fully engaged, who can predict what efforts will yield what result? It's just unpredictable. The Israelis' long term problem is not so much Hamas as the demographic challenge of their own Ultra Orthodox and other Rightist-enablers, and once again, there's not a whole lot we can do about that. So, as a matter of priorities, I would reassign Kerry and leave this firefighting to someone else. Perhaps Susan Rice – why let only the Israelis and Hamas be abrasive? We are concerned, we are willing to be helpful, but it's a little bit down on our list.

Libya is going to pot with internecine warfare. Again, what are we going to do about that? The US has done the right thing by just getting our people out of the line of fire. Again, the Arab world has the most fish to fry in this situation, let them see what they want to do, and if we can help, we will. Our main task should be to avoid making enemies.  This is even further down on our list than Israel-Hamas.

Iraq is another place we can only do so much. We have called Maliki's bluff very well, and the Iraqis are now sorting it out themselves, trying to develop a new government that may or may not be able to govern and to include Sunnis properly. They can't do worse than Maliki. It's true that a new state run by extreme Islamists could in time be a threat, and even if it would not threaten us directly, it is worthwhile blocking Islamic extremists from having a state of their own. But as threatening as it would be to us, it would be much more threatening to the regional powers. We should stand by ready to help, but that's it. I would continue to have this area staffed at the Assistant Secretary level. 

On the other hand, although it is less spectacular than the wars, the Iran negotiations are in reality more important. What is at stake is the balance of power in the region and actually in the world, and how that balance will be addressed. We are trying to maintain the rules as they have been, with nuclear weapons increasingly restricted, not proliferated. It would be very useful if the US could show the importance of this issue by having the President address this personally from time to time, and having Kerry stop running around the world and instead concentrating on the negotiations personally. The Iranians would be pleased. Everyone wants respect, and attention despite the distractions would show them lots of it. The President would certainly be taking a chance with his prestige, but that's the game. It's a better big goal to have than the stupid one that W attempted. This should be the President's very strong priority number two.

Finally, number one priority should be the Ukraine. The stability and prosperity of the world hinges
on a certain level of trust and stability. If a country is going to revert to 19th or 18th century land grabs, neither trust nor stability will be possible. Thus, the collective world needs to enforce this modern norm, just as they did when Iraq invaded Kuwait – no land grabs.

What is Putin after? Territory, of course; a sphere of influence; prestige. I believe he can't have been anything but severely stung when Obama dissed Russia as a “regional power” in a Romney debate. “Regional Power, eh?” you can hear Putin saying. How'd you like this Regional Power crawling up your ass?

This is really the most difficult of the tasks. The EU should be concerned, but France still wants to sell Russia the superships, Germany wants to keep trading, and even England doesn't want the Russian money to disappear. It's probably about time for Obama to send them black umbrellas. He should do this with style, making personal visits and instructing Kerry that this is his first priority. Kerry should do what Jim Baker did in the run up to the First Gulf War – globe trot for money and troops. Forget globe trotting for a cease fire – that's for Susan Rice. Maybe Obama himself should visit the Ukraine. Certainly the US should be giving the Ukrainians targets in real time – as long as they do everything we want them to do to construct a government that works and doesn't steal. The risk of a shooting war should be a danger to everyone, and Obama shouldn't do his favorite negotiating with himself to dissuade him from taking the risk.

Just as with the Iranians, making this the highest US priority would give Putin the center stage as a World Power, not a Regional Power. Respect is a precious commodity, but unlike other commodities, it doesn't deplete any coffers. Like love, there is always more available. So give it freely. You don't need to protect your resources of respect. And in giving respect, be prepared to receive it as well – after some more violence, probably and a minor game of chicken.

So that's my recommendation. Make your priorities, Mr. President, and don't bargain with yourself the way you did domestically. Maybe it's very simplistic. As my friend Michael Nacht, who actually did negotiate with the Russians, likes to say, "What do I know?"  But that's what I think.

Budd Shenkin

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Corrupt Idiocy of Blaming the Victim for Emergency Department Use


This note explains once again that poor people go to Emergency Departments for sick care:

CQ Healthbeat:  More Medicaid Families Sought Emergency Room Care, Statistics Show
Three-fourths of children treated in emergency rooms in 2012 were taken at night or on weekends, according to federal statistics released Thursday. The figures also showed that families on Medicaid were more likely than those with private insurance or without any coverage to use the emergency department. The frequency with which people use pricey emergency department care is getting attention as policymakers struggle to find ways to lower federal health spending. Lawmakers want to persuade people to use less expensive outpatient care whenever possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics released Thursday suggests that families still use the emergency room in part because of convenience, and that Medicaid families may need help in finding a primary care physician or understanding when an emergency visit is necessary (Adams, 7/25).

What would you do if you wanted to really change this situation? It's not so hard. Would you try to change the behavior of poor patients whose kids get sick? They can't change their behaviors for everything in their lives, or they wouldn't be on Medicaid, I guess you could say. What are they supposed to do when their kids get sick and they're worried? They can't regulate when they do things, and where else are they going to go, especially since they have been doing this for years and years?

No, you wouldn't try to change their behavior. What you would do is have services available when and where they are needed, and you wouldn't have them in the emergency department, you would have a clinic very near the ED where they were taken care of by primary care physicians and advanced practice nurses under supervision. It wouldn't be in the most expensive facility imaginable, it would just be a clinic. Unless you wanted it to be the most expensive facility imaginable, because you want to get paid for it at the highest prices available.

Could you afford to run a clinic and get paid Medicaid rates? Probably, yes. If not, you could cut a deal with Medicaid – not that it would be easy dealing with that government bureaucracy, not at all, but it could most frequently be done.

But if you are a hospital, of course, that is not in your interest. In fact, Children's Hospital Oakland years ago had an urgent clinic set up just like that. But they shut it down in order to send the patients to the ED, because they would make more money that way.

Is it the case that hospitals need the Medicaid patients to come to the ED to subsidize maintenance of high intensity services that are not extensively used? Well, the truth is probably that nobody knows. The famous Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter has pointed out that hospitals have such poor accounting that they don't know what anything costs, actually.

No, this whole trope is utter BS. It is a problem that produces nothing but money for the hospitals. Hospitals do what the hell they want and they blame high costs on everyone else, even the poor. It doesn't stop. It is such crap.

Budd Shenkin

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Putin's Weltanschauung, Putin's Gamble


Is Putin still a Marxist? We don't officially know. We know that he is a Russian nationalist-imperialist, but that could skip back over the Soviet time to the Czars. We know he is not a socialist, but then were the Soviets? Kleptocrats, that's more down Putin's line.

But let's ask this question: how does Putin explain the world to himself? Does he still look at the world through Marxist glasses, at least partially? All young Russians from his generation were subject to very detailed, very long schooling on Marxist theory. Marxist theory presents an entire way of looking at the world, much as do religions. The Jesuits said, “Give me a child for his first seven years and I'll give you the man.” World views stick.

Which brings us to today. Putin has embarked on a very risky campaign in the Ukraine. He has invaded a country and ripped off part of it, and is in the process of trying to rip off more. He has to think, will the Western powers try hard to stop him?

The Western powers are capitalistic. Marxist theory tells us that the state is governed by economic forces, and even if it appears that the official leadership is making decisions, it is really the capitalistic forces behind the curtain that are pulling the strings. Their motivation, Marxism tells us, is profit, pure profit.

The facts are that the Western states have extended their markets into Russia. The oil companies especially are intertwined with Russian oligarchs in projects to extract wealth from the Russian land. In addition, something like 40% of Germany's foreign trade is with Russia. The Netherlands (home of Shell oil) are likewise intertwined. London has benefited mightily from capital infusion of Russian oligarchs into the City. Will state interests of geopolitics trump the short term profitability of the companies that make up the backbone of Europe? Will Europe risk recession and a very cold winter or two, simply to protect the interests of a country far, far away, with little to offer them in terms of profits?

Putin might no longer believe in socialism, but I would wager that his world view remains shaped by Marxist precepts. I think he doubts that when push comes to shove, the capitalistic powers will forego profits in favor of the state's geopolitical interests. I think Putin holds the concept of democracy in contempt when it comes to action and power. I believe that Putin is ready to bet his political life on his Marxist precepts. I think Putin will push and push, and gradually concede only a little at the end.

And who can say it isn't a good bet?

Budd Shenkin