Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Self-Defeating Business Model (with a side order of guilt)

Over the Christmas holidays I saw a commercial on TV that I thought was absolutely shameless.

It showed a bald-headed young girl in a hospital bed on the sidewalk of a busy city street pleading to those walking by to make a contribution for Hodgkin’s Disease research, only to see all of them walk right on by without a glance, ignoring both her and her pleas.

The message – complete with its triple helping of guilt – was that Hodgkin’s Disease needs more money for research. I don’t doubt that it does; but then again, who doesn’t “need” more money? I have yet to see any business, organization, government, non-profit, or charity hold up their hands and say, “Okay, you can stop now. We’ve got all we need.”

How many non-profit organizations exist today whose stated purpose is to “find a cure” for whatever medical condition they represent? I have no idea, but there’s a bunch, and many of them have been around for a long, long time.

Pick your condition – cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, AIDS, etc.; Have you ever thought about how much money the organizations “fighting” these conditions collectively rake in every year? Year after year? Decade after decade?

And yet, for all of the money pumped into them, can you name one that has actually come up with a cure for anything? Just one?

The short answer is that none of them have, and the reason why is exactly the same reason why GE will never sell a lightbulb that won’t burn out and Duracell will never invent a battery that actually lasts a really long time, because if they ever do, we won’t need them anymore.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that these organizations don’t do anything to help – they do – but finding cures is not one of them. If you’re looking for a cure for cancer, for instance, don’t look to the American Cancer Society to find one. What possible reason could the ACS have for finding a cure for cancer?

The ACS has over 3,400 offices nationwide, thousands of employees making a nice living, and tens of millions of dollars pouring in each & every year. It’s a pretty cool business model as business models go, but it does have one tiny little flaw: If a cure for cancer is ever found, the ACS goes away.

Make no mistake, the ACS is in it for the long haul – 96 years and counting; an organization doesn’t advertise “careers” on their website unless they honestly believe you’ll have plenty of time to have one. Finding a cure for cancer isn’t even one of ACS’s corporate goals. Why would it be? It would put them out of business.

So am I saying that you shouldn’t give money to the ACS and organizations like them? Absolutely not. Just don’t be under the misconception that your donation will actually help find a cure, because it won’t, no matter how much guilt is thrown your way.

Upton Sinclair is credited with stating, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

I would suggest that with the tweaking of only a few words, Sinclair’s statement could describe every medical non-profit organization in the world: “It is difficult to get an organization to find a cure for something when their very existence depends on not having one.”

If that makes me a cynic, so be it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Gitmo Bait & Switch

The AP reports this morning that a significant step in closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay has been taken. The article is below, but to cut to the chase, the prisoners currently held in Gitmo will be moved to an underutilized prison located in Illinois.

AP sources: Ill. prison to get Gitmo detainees

This is being painted, of course, as good news. Moving the facility to the U.S. will bring much needed jobs to Americans, and the President, no doubt, will throw this achievement on the table as a flagship campaign promise that he kept.

There are just two little problems.

First, the whole issue with Gitmo was not that there was a prison located there; it was – and still is – what was happening at that prison:

Hundreds of “suspected terrorists” were being rounded up, arrested, and held there indefinitely. No charges were being brought against them, they were not told what they were arrested for, and they had no right to an attorney or a speedy trial or anything else that we afford to even the most base of criminals.

Oh, and we tortured many of them repeatedly, in a variety of new and exciting ways, kind of like they did during the inquisition except that 1) since we are the “good guys” it’s ethical now, and 2) because of improvements in torture technology, any confessions we gained were 100% viable.

The fact that these things were done on a military base located in Cuba is what really made all of this remotely acceptable, because Cuba isn’t the United States, and the prisoners weren’t really criminals in the ordinary sense; they were military combatants, and since – conveniently – there was a war going on we could hold them as prisoners of war for as long as we wanted.

The outcry about Guantanamo was that people wanted it shut down, not moved. What sense does moving it make?

Imagine a wife being angry at her husband for having a long-standing affair with “Lucy”. She wants the affair to end. What has been accomplished if her husband stops seeing “Lucy” only to start sleeping with “Susan”? Would this make the wife happy?

No? Then why would we be satisfied, because that’s exactly what is going on here with Gitmo.

But it’s actually even more ridiculous – and damning – than that, because there is a second problem with this Gitmo solution, and it should make every American bristle with alarm.

To continue with the “affair” analogy for a moment, not only is the husband merely dropping one mistress for another, he’s actually moving her into his own house! Again, should the wife be happy about this?

Think about this for a second: We are moving the Gitmo prison into the United States.

What does that mean? It means that it is now acceptable to the American people to have a prison within our own borders where people can be arrested, held without being charged with a crime, afforded no rights, given no trial, and – if a confession is needed to validate the whole thing – tortured.

And it's okay with us!

We have created a war that is unwinnable, and can therefore be “fought” indefinitely. We have made it acceptable to arrest people based on what they might do. We are continuing to broaden the definition of “terrorist” to include almost any group of people who might speak out against the government.

And now we have our very own U.S. “terrorist” prison to lock them all away.

Well, let me rephrase that; we have our first U.S. “terrorist” prison. We can certainly build more of them if we need to, because we’re setting a precedent here, and once a precedent is established, it’s simply a matter of repeating it over and over and over.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

We’ll Tell You Everything, But First We Need to Talk About What We’re Going to Tell You

I read this article the other day and thought it was laughable:
Yahoo, Verizon: Our Spy Capabilities Would ‘Shock’, ‘Confuse’ Consumers

Basically, the story is about Yahoo! &Verizon refusing to divulge information that should be available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Verizon's justification for not providing it is that the information “might confuse” the American public. Their concern is touching. But shouldn’t the public be the ones to make the determination of whether or not it is confusing? After all, if it “might confuse” the public, it also “might not”. Either way, is that a legitimate reason to say “No” when the law says “Yes”?

Even more ridiculous is Yahoo!’s stance: “'Therefore, release of Yahoo!’s information is reasonably likely to lead to impairment of its reputation for protection of user privacy and security, which is a competitive disadvantage for technology companies,' the company writes.”

So, let me get this straight. The American People have the right to information unless it will make an organization look bad.

Oh. Okay.

I was scratching my head after reading that, wondering where these guys get off coming up with this kind of stuff. And then I read the below article and suddenly I remembered; they learned it from the United States Government: PROMISES, PROMISES: A closed meeting on openness

To spare you from having to read the entire article, it basically describes how the government is having a meeting about “openness”, and as proof that they are both serious and that they know what they’re talking about, the meeting is closed to the public.

“The closed conference will provide tips for FOIA public liaisons on communicating and negotiating with people who make requests, and introduce the new Office of Government Information Services to them, said Melanie Ann Pustay, director of the Justice Department's Office of Information Policy, which takes the lead on government openness issues.”

Really. And what “tips” would be needed to respond to a FOIA request? Hey! Here’s one: provide the information. And what needs to be “negotiated”?

“Pustay said she planned to say the same things at the private workshop that she would say publicly. She offered these reasons to explain why it was closed: She wanted government employees to be able to speak candidly, and the conference would be in an auditorium at the Commerce Department, where she said a government ID was required to be admitted. The AP and others news organizations routinely enter government buildings to cover the government.”

Well, if she really planned to say the same things, what would it hurt to have a couple of reporters there? And what would government employees not be able to talk about in an open session that they would be able to discuss in a closed one? Perhaps, oh . . . . I don’t know, things that they don’t want to discuss in front of the public? You know, things that might “lead to impairment of its reputation”?

“Pustay said she is looking for ways to improve how the government responds to information requests, which costs roughly $400 million each year.”

Maybe the public would be able to provide some “tips” on how to do that. If they were allowed to attend, that is.

“The director of the new Office of Government Information Services, Miriam Nisbet, said the event was closed to make sure there would be room for all the government employees attending.”

This just sounds like a bad joke:
Q: How many government employees were at the meeting?
A: All who attended.

Sorry, there’s just no room. Can’t fit even one more person in. Nope. Not even one. Not a square to spare.

"I can understand skepticism anytime a meeting for government people is not necessarily open to the public," Nisbet said. "However, everything that is discussed there is absolutely available for the public to know about."

“Not necessarily”? Are you kidding me? What kind of people even say things like that? Do they actually think it makes any sense?

No worries, though. Ms. Nisbet has assured us that everything in the closed meeting - er, . . . I mean, the "not necessarily open" meeting - will be available for the public to know about.

Unless it won't.