Kidnapped by Japan - How A Mother's Dying Wish Led To A Father's Unimaginable Loss

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Obama's Legacy: Hope On The Ropes

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Barack Obama entered office proposing and then passing a Stimulus Plan that was breathtakingly ambitious. This legislation constituted "the greatest increase in government spending in world history". The explicit goal was to halt the serious and precipitous decline of the American economy. One of the central promises of this plan was to slow and then reverse the unemployment rate that had been creeping up at an increasingly alarming rate. Prior to the Stimulus' passage Obama assured a concerned nation that unemployment would go up to 8% and shortly begin a decline.

And then the American people, comforted by this assurance, stepped back and waited for the magic to happen. Seven months later they are still waiting.

Predicting a President's legacy in the seventh month of his first (and only?) forty-eight month term may seem a bit premature but the momentum of this President's economic policies seems inexorable. In January of this year when Obama entered office the unemployment rate was at a troubling 7.6%. Instead of climbing to 8% and then receding the unemployment rate has gone up every month until it now stands at 9.4%, an increase of almost 24%. According to Mortimer Zuckerman of the Wall Street Journal,

"The cumulative job losses over the last six months have been greater than for any other half year period since World War II, including the military demobilization after the war."

As of this date the Administration and the Democratic Congress are now both saying they expect that unemployment will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. Many economists predict that it may not drop down to pre-recession levels for five years or longer.

Unemployment is usually dealt with in the media as a function of how it is affected by or how it affects the economy. But unemployment can't just be viewed as a dry statistical artifact. Job loss has very real effects on very real people. And as President Obama was largely elected on feelings it is reasonable to assume that his legacy will largely be based on how the American public feels when he leaves office.

Since the Great Depression a large body of research has been compiled on the psychological effects of unemployment. From the seminal works of Jahoda, Lazarsfeld, & Zeisel (1933), Bakke (1933) and Eisenberg & Lazarsfeld (1938) to the recent work of Arthur H. Goldsmith (2008) the deleterious effects joblessness has on the psychology of the unemployed has been well documented.

The recent work of Professor Goldsmith of Washington and Lee University supports and extends much of the previous research about the psychological effects of unemployment in finding that for those who are unemployed,

"...even by five weeks you can see the changes. They begin to question themselves: ‘Why was I selected to be unemployed?' ‘Were my skills lacking?' ‘Is there something about me that's problematic?' And so begins the erosion of self esteem, which is such a very important part of our psychological well being.

In addition to a diminished sense of self, those exposed to a few months of unemployment begin to exhibit higher levels of anxiety, depression, and lack of sleep. If people face prolonged unemploy[ment], six to nine months or longer, the psychological effects often become chronic and have a long lasting effect."

Two points on this subject: 1) Clark, Georgelllis and Sanfey, in their 1999 paper, Scarring: The Psychological Impact Of Past Unemployment (1999) point out,

"...if individuals are unemployed for some time, they may become used to it: we refer to this as "habituation"...Individuals may dislike unemployment, and the memory of a previous spell is a spur to avoid another one, but if unemployment becomes the norm for an individual, then there is a reduced incentive to try to change one's labour force status."

2) According to Mortimer Zuckerman,

"The average length of official unemployment [has] increased to 24.5 weeks, the longest since government began tracking this data in 1948. The number of long-term unemployed (i.e., for 27 weeks or more) has now jumped to 4.4 million, an all-time high."

In other words, the unemployment situation created after Obama's Stimulus Plan is creating a generation of former workers who run the risk of becoming habituated to their new status.
Yet again, the problem is even more distressing than the official unemployment rate indicates. According to economist John Lott,

"If we include the normally counted number of unemployed as well as those who have recently given up looking for work and those who have taken a part-time low paying job because they can't find full-time work, the implication is that the unemployment rate for July would be at 16.3 percent. These discouraged workers will again look for work once the economy starts to improve, but this 6.9 percentage point gap between publicly discussed unemployment rate and these discouraged workers is unusually large. "

In light of Clark's research on the effects of long-term unemployment Zuckerman's belief that discouraged workers will look for work again may, in fact, be wrong. If so, the implications for America could be devastating.

Almost unremarked upon by the major media is the fact that the hardest hit victims of Obama's unemployment explosion are the very people who invested the most hope in him: blacks.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black unemployment is now at 14.5% and again this doesn't factor in the number of unemployed blacks who are discouraged or under-employed, likely pushing the real figure to above 20%. One can only imagine the cries of racism the left (including the media) would direct at a conservative Republican administration that had produced such disastrous results.

In light of the damaging psychological effects of unemployment, its current high rate coupled with its extended length presages a new era of American demoralization. If present trends continue, as now seems likely, Barack Obama, who attained office by lifting the spirits of the American people may have as his legacy a new lost generation. Ironically the only solution may be to add one more person to the unemployment rolls: Barack Obama himself.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

January 20, Year 20 AO

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Early morning sunlight flashed in Bill’s face, which wrinkled in irritation. He rolled on his back, leaving the worst of the light on his shoulder but too late; the sun had done its job. He was awake. He lay there for another minute or two but finally caved in to the inevitable, threw the heavy blankets aside and sat up, dropping his feet to the floor.

Brr. Freezing. He got up, the chill starting to sink in, and looked at his thermostat. 60 degrees. *SIGH* It was on days like this that he missed being able to set his temperature as he liked it instead of having a federally regulated thermostat set it for him. He knew a couple of tech-savvy guys who had hacked theirs and set it so that they were comfortable. Later they said it was almost worth the huge fine they had to pay and the public shaming. Almost. Bill had a sneaking admiration for them but realized, of course that carbon crimes were no small matter.

He opened his small closet and pulled out his robe and wrapped it tightly around himself , walked into his cramped living room and plopped down on the sofa, picked up the remote, hit the Power button and… the TV actually turned on! . Excellent. Thank goodness for sunny days. Since electricity had started to get so expensive back in the early Change days most folks had done the only sensible thing and had gone green. Of course with any worthwhile endeavor there were sacrifices to be made and the fact that most green technologies were a bit, well dodgy, just had to be accepted. On a really cloudy day his rooftop sun collector produced about enough power to keep his refrigerator going and keep his quota of four, 60 watt max energy saver light bulbs on. But today he had heat and TV, too.

The Today Show was on with perpetual hostess Chelsea Clinton looking perky and aging-and-never-perky host Sean Penn looking deeply serious as usual as they announced all the day’s big events.

“This is an anniversary of, continuing on in the grand tradition of, the way things have moved on into an ever more uplifting fashion. Celebrating freeness in the spread of deeply human facts for gay-bi-trans-animi-Earthers everywhere”, intoned the inscrutable Mr. Penn. His rather eccentric syntax used to be a source of some amusement in the past before word came down that anyone mocking Mr. Penn was an agent of the vast-right-wing-neo-conservative cabal that was intent on destroying all that was good, decent and multicultural in the world. Now he was given the serious attention that was his due.

“Well said, Sean.” chirped in Chelsea. “The excitement around these parts is palpable. It is hard to believe that it is twenty years since Change first came to the then-USA. It is almost hard to remember what things were like in the bad old fascist days. We have so much to celebrate and today is, of course the culmination of our week-long celebration. My congratulations to the superb NBC team on this past week’s reporting. Our dean of NBC News, Michael Moore, deserves special praise for his 2 hour long special on the 28th Amendment which made Barack Obama President-For-Life and chief Constitutional Reporter Carmen Diaz’s brilliant reporting on the 29th Amendment which, of course, reworked that tired old original Constitution, scrapping all those negative rights for the far more equitable positive rights that PFL Obama so justifiably and tirelessly had advocated.

It is hard to believe that our wonderful land once was divided into States instead of the much more reasonable Interest Groups that we now have. Of course there still are pockets of intolerance despite the Pro-Tolerance Acts and those so-called Christians still pop up now and again to try to steal our great land back from the forces of good. Fortunately the domestic Tolerance Police, using decent world-citizens as their vanguard, usually make quick work of such anti-progressive criminals. We’ve all felt relief at one point or another after seeing their Strike-Forces making raids in our neighborhoods.

We have to take a quick break now for today’s Apology Moment. Today we have a special Apology Moment guest: Apology Czar Markos Moulitas will be apologizing to cows for America’s long history of bovine abuse.

Back in a moment…”

At that moment Bill’s TV popped to black. Bill looked out his window and saw that the sun was hidden behind a large cloud. Oh well.

Bill stood, stretched and headed into the bathroom, hopped into the shower, set the timer and let the water spray him for his allotted four minutes. He got out, dried himself off, went into the bedroom, dressed and headed out to work. Fortunately, his number had been called last week and he was able to buy the two new tires he’d needed for the past month. He was getting tired of the four mile walk to work every day after his tires had given out so biking into work today seemed like a treat.

He locked his bike into the stand after a refreshing ride and walked into the hospital. He walked past the usual crowds of disgruntled patients, complaining as always about the wait. What was their problem? The average waiting time had dropped down from a day to a comfortable sixteen hours over the past few months. He’s seen a few of the illegal flyers that were making the rounds saying that this was due to so many people just not bothering to seek medical care at all recently. Propaganda. The people who’d printed those things would be taken care of soon enough. It was almost like people didn’t appreciate their universal health care. Ingrates.

“Good morning, Doctor.” said the station nurse, looking more irritable than usual.

“Good morning, Ben. How many we lose last night?”

“Only two. The meds for Ms. Ames didn’t make it in time. We’re expecting them later this morning.”

Bill nodded absently and headed into his office. His desk was, of course, stacked high with the day’s regulation paperwork and with a sigh he sat down to get to it.

About three hours later, Mary Jones stuck her head into Bill’s office, the rings under her eyes more pronounced than usual. Mary was the only other oncologist on staff and every day she dropped by with the latest news.

“They’re cutting our budget by another 5%. Obama says that the Iranians are asking for an increase in reparations and so cuts are in order again. I hear there’s going to be an announcement in a couple minutes.”

Bill sat back in his chair and briefly remembered the event that had triggered the Iran Reparations Policy a few years ago. The explosion of nukes in NY, Boston, LA and Houston had been devastating but Bill knew it could have been a lot worse if PFL Obama hadn’t immediately entered into negotiations with the Ayatollahs resulting in the United People’s Interest Groups’ Plea For Forgiveness for the former US’s sins against the Muslim world and the Reparations Policy that had been part of the deal. Smart move on Obama’s part. Who knows how many more nukes might have been blown without it? Cutting the military’s budget by 80%, the other stipulation in the Plea, had saved a huge amount of money to boot. An added bonus!

“Well, we’ll just have to make do, Mary. We always do.”

Mary made a face and left in a hurry. She was starting to worry him. He had a feeling that she was a real malcontent and not part of the team. He wouldn’t report her just yet but her behavior was starting to look fishier all the time.

He brushed some of his paperwork aside in his search for the radio, buried as it was hidden under the environmentally friendly, biodegradable artificial paper forest and turned it on. PFL Obama was being introduced. He was broadcasting from his compound in Beverly Hills, where he and his most trusted advisors: Spelling Czar Barbara Streisand, Parenting Czar Alec Baldwin, Tolerance Czar Jeanine Garofalo, always spent the winter. He started out with the pro-forma apology-greeting to the People of the World before getting down to business. There was to be an 8% across the board budget cut due for the need for further reparations and also due to the burgeoning $25 trillion deficit. (Hey, the hospital was only getting that small 5% cut. Not bad. PFL had always lived up to his promise to keep healthcare a priority.) He said that his initial plan had been to raise taxes on the rich, those making more than $65,000 a year, but apparently they’d managed to find some way to hide their excess wealth and until PFL Obama could root out where they’d socked it away, a budget cut was the only possible alternative. He was setting up a Blue Ribbon Panel to find out what the greedy rich were doing with their ill-gotten gains so this wouldn’t happen again. The Panel would present their findings to him at his Martha’s Vineyard White House in July. The criminals would of course be dealt with.

Bill turned off the radio and realized that he was hungry so decided to grab some lunch in the cafeteria. He made his way around all the gurneys in the hall filled with people in various stages of one illness or another and entered the food court. He looked at the menu. Everyone had already had their quota of fat for the week so he picked his choice of tofu meals. Not his favorite but what Nutrition Czar Rosie O’Donell demanded for everyone’s health, Nutrition Czar Rosie O’Donell got.

Having eaten about all he could take Bill threw his refuse into the recycle bin, checked his watch and realized it was time for rounds. As the hospital’s medical staff had shrunk so dramatically over the past few years Bill had to handle the full spectrum of patients and their ailments. He was looking forward to PFL Obama’s passage of the Mandatory Physicians Act wherein HHS would choose which students in high school and colleges had the most medical aptitude and were directed into medical schools. That will go a long way towards increasing the number of doctors. Another sensible policy. He realized most of them might not want a career in medicine (it didn’t pay well anymore and the risks of getting hit with costly malpractice suits was overwhelming) but people did have a right to medical care so somebody had to do it.

When he got back to his office he called the desk and asked for the list. He walked down the hall while reading his first patient’s chart. A perplexed look crossed his face as he read it and he looked up at the woman on the first gurney, whose chart it was.

The woman before him was plump (how was that allowed to happen, Bill wondered), gray haired and had a very obvious lesion on her nose.

“Ma’am, I believe there must be some mistake here. It says that you are 68 years old and are here for treatment of skin cancer?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“But surely you must be aware that there are strict government guidelines that state a person your age is not eligible for treatment of your condition?”

“But thirty years ago my mother had exactly this kind of cancer when she was in her ‘70’s, was treated for it and she was fine. I understand that unless I get treatment I’m going to die.” Bill thought it sounded like she was beginning to plead.

“I’m sorry, ma’am but the regulations around this are quite explicit: after the age of 65 treatment for your condition is simply forbidden. The money that it would cost to treat you could far more fairly be used by a younger person with the same condition. Don’t you think a younger person should be given a chance?”

“But Doctor, this is so treatable. I have grandchildren, Doctor and…”

“And that is exactly why you should be willing to forego treatment. Do you want to deny those grandchildren the proper care they may need?” Bill couldn’t hide his growing annoyance.

“No, of course not. But the treatment wasn’t that expensive for my mother and…”

“And that was a long time ago, ma’am. In case you’ve forgotten we have universal healthcare now and that means we have to be much more efficient with the kinds of treatment we can give. Everybody knows this, ma’am. I’m sorry but there is nothing I can do.”

Bill flipped to the next chart and started to move on to the next gurney but the old lady began to get loud, protesting that she could still live a productive life, could live much longer blah, blah, blah.

Bill looked down the hall at the security guard standing at the door. He was already looking alert and Bill nodded to him to take care of this problem. The guard approached the lady, took her arm and escorted her out, with her yelling all the way. Bill made a note to report her.

Unbelievable, he thought.

By the end of his three hour shift Bill had seen forty-nine patients. As always, he was spent. Most the patients were surly and unpleasant. A number of them had been incredibly provocative and he’d had to make notes to report all of them. Sometimes he was demoralized with how selfish people could be.

He went back to his office and threw his new paperwork on top of the stack already there. Forget it. He’d get to it all tomorrow. He checked his watch and decided it was time to call it quits. He lowered his head and made his way through the morass of cantankerous patients.

On his bike ride home he thought that maybe this weekend he might visit one of his exes. He’d heard that his third wife, Winnie, had recently broken up with her fifth husband and second wife and might be lonely so there could be a little potential there. He remembered the days when people could only marry one person of the same sex and smiled to himself that such unsophisticated customs had actually existed.

When he got home he gave Winnie a call, talked about the old days a bit and asked if he might come over for some sex. But she said that she’d had sex with someone she was eyeing as her next wife a little earlier and was tired. Maybe some other time.

He settled back in his sofa and tried the TV. After collecting sunlight all day he had a pretty good charge and figured he’d probably have a good couple of hours before the set ran out of juice, as long as he kept all the lights off. He turned it on to see some of the anniversary festivities.

The ancient Keith Olbermann was intoning about all the extraordinary accomplishments that had been made since the PFL came to office in the old USA. The world loved this country again. The United People’s Interest Groups of America didn’t use up anywhere near the amount of the Earth’s resources that the old USA had. Healthcare was universal. Everyone had a job, even if there was no work to do. There was more fairness across the board than any previous generation could ever have imagined. Olbermann visibly shook with excitement as he read off his remarkably long list.

“Mr. President: Bravo!”

Bill grew drowsy but smiled to himself thinking how much Change had actually occurred over the years. He drifted off to sleep just as the TV blinked off, out of power.

January 20, Year 20 After Obama was over. But the Change, unstoppable, rolled on through the night and into all the glorious days to come.