THANKS, TOM
Tom O’Connor: “Clearly, the solution is for you to host the first presidential debate, here on your website. Gore would be happy because you work for his party, and Bush would be happy because very few people would see it. No need to thank me.”

Tomorrow, feedback on Investment Clubs. Today, feedback on some lesser issues. (See: August 21 and August 30.)

ABORTION

Eric Batson: “I was a high school debater in the late 60’s, and the statistic that still sticks with me was the deaths of women after illegal abortions. Five thousand women a year died (beyond the number that would normally have been expected), and many more were rendered sterile by post-abortion infections. Given that there were 500,000 to 3,000,000 illegal abortions annually back then (the most accepted number was 1,500,000), prohibition was obviously ineffective — but caused 5,000 excess maternal deaths. Right-to-life means death for thousands of adult women, with only a speculative effect on the number of fetuses not aborted. As unsettling as it is, we have to keep abortion safe and available.”

THE ENVIRONMENT

Parks S: “If the rest of the world that we have to compete with had to abide by the same rules we would place on ourselves at some expense, fine. But they won’t. It’ll be another unfunded mandate placed on businesses and/or individuals that ultimately gets paid by individuals. There will be no hardship borne by the government here, of course. They will grow merrily along. Any additional costs it incurs will be borne by — ah, you’re getting ahead of me — individuals.”

So basically, Parks, you’d like to see us adopt Third World environmental standards so as to be able to compete on an even footing?

My own thought is that rather than regress to lower standards, or even just maintain the (rather successful) status quo, we should keep lifting our standards — sensibly, not zealously or mindlessly — at the same time as we lean gently but firmly on our trading partners to follow our lead, albeit from much lower levels. (It may not entirely surprise you to know that Mexicans, Canadians, Japanese, and our other major trading partners actually have some concern for the environment as well, even if, as you say, it may be a lower priority than it is for us.)

As for us individuals having to bear the cost, that’s true. But do you ascribe any value to breathing cleaner air? To the lower risk of cancer from pollutants? To being able to eat the fish you catch in a stream or drink water from your tap? To knowing that slightly fewer species may have gone extinct? If so, the benefits to individuals, while hard to measure exactly, may outweigh the costs. That’s certainly the intention, anyway.

THE MINIMUM WAGE

Tim: “All this talk about the Minimum Wage made me wonder: How do you think this country would be different if minimum wage laws didn’t exist?”

A little less prosperous . . . an even wider gap between rich and working poor. A little less kind, less fair, less gentle nation.

Parks: “I see signs at the local McDonalds saying that they are hiring ‘entry’ level people at $6 an hour which is more than the minimum wage. Why not let the market decide instead of the government?”

It largely does. But for those who are least powerful and have no collective bargaining power, this serves as a useful floor. And because it applies to all businesses, they can all afford to live with it. If you made it voluntary, no one could hold the line in times of high unemployment . . . if competitors started paying less, they’d have to pay less, too, or be at a competitive disadvanatge. Granted, it’s more complex than this, and there are issues of foreign competition. But that’s why it’s $5.15 headed we hope to $6.15 — not $15.

FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE ACT

Parks, again: “Most Republicans fear the camel’s nose under the tent that that bill started. Get a left-leaning business-bashing President and Congress and watch ‘unpaid leave’ get changed to ‘paid.’ (In fact, hasn’t this already been floated by the left?) Not paid by the government that enacted it, of course. An unfunded mandate (a tax by any other name) foisted upon businesses.”

I don’t know whether paid family leave has been proposed, but I see your point. Next thing you know workers will be demanding paid sick leave. Hell, some crazy day they’ll start expecting paid vacations!

But you seem to be suggesting that the interests of businesses (and, mainly, I guess, of business owners — us investors) are, ipso facto, more important than the interests of working people. Why? (And aren’t many of us both working people and investors?)

Clearly, if business is not healthy, we all suffer. But so long as no one business is unilaterally disadvantaged — so long as all must play by the same rules — where is the harm?

You would probably be among the first to point out that the extra cost of paid Family and Medical Leave — very small, but real — would at least theoretically be passed on to consumers. So investors (except in industries that faced strong foreign competition — read on) would not suffer.

It comes down to . . . would consumers want to pay an extra penny knowing that, in their role as workers (many consumers also work), they or their kids or other loved ones might have this added benefit themselves? My guess is that most would consider this a reasonable deal, just as most probably do not resent whatever tiny portion of their phone bill goes to paying for the group life and health insurance that phone company employees may enjoy.

Or how about this: Would we really want to make our electric bill infinitesimally smaller by removing the cost of safety standards in coal mines?

The government has an important role in imposing standards like coal mine safety and family leave provisions, because often no one company can afford to institute them unilaterally (or at least believes it cannot afford to), yet as a group, they all could do it just fine — and might even want to.

The one place I’d agree there’s some downside is in industries that face significant foreign competition. If paid Family & Medical Leave raised a company’s costs by 10% or even 1%, it would put that industry at a competitive disadvantage that our superior technology might not fully be able to overcome. Profits might suffer. But I don’t think paid Family & Medical Leave would cost nearly that much. And, in any event, I don’t think it’s imminent. Your e-mail was the first I had heard of it.

THE SURPLUS: CUT TAXES OR PAY DOWN THE DEBT?

Paul Stewart: “Washington never met a dollar it didn’t want to spend $1.10 of and start future programs that keep on soaring in cost. Would I like to pay down the debt? Absolutely. Will it happen? No confidence.”

I hear you, but I disagree. Because we have a surplus, we are RIGHT NOW paying down the national debt, shrinking the supply of publicly-held Treasury obligations. The Democrats propose continuing to do that. The Republicans, who I believe were wrong in calling for a balanced-budget amendment but right in insisting we do what we can to pay down the debt, seem now only to give this lip service. The reasoning seems to be: Let’s not pay down the debt, because . . . well, we wouldn’t. So let’s commit a big chunk of the surplus to a tax cut that goes mostly to the wealthiest among us.

By contrast, the Democrats are saying, and much of the public seems to be agreeing — YES, when times are good, we should be squirreling away resources (in this case, paying down our debt) so we’re in stronger shape when, inevitably, rougher times come.

It’s straight out of Aesop’s Fables. The Democratic leadership gets it; the Republican leadership just keeps pushing to cut Steve Forbes’s taxes.

EDUCATION

Paul: “We don’t need to spend more money. And certainly not more strings-attached Federal money. The public schools will improve when people can walk out of them the same way businesses are forced to improve. I think a lot of a religious private schools would actually spring up. Of course, they would be non-union with no featherbedding and eternal job security. Whoops–there’s the rub.”

Well, you’re right on this one. My old high school — an excellent “country day” school is nonunion, competes vigorously to be the best in New York — and probably is.

Of course, tuition is $19,000, plus the cost of getting there, books, and so on — all in, perhaps $20,000 more than Bush’s proposed $1,500 voucher. And the school is completely full (in part with scholarship students), and so would have no room to absorb any appreciable number of the 94% of kids — or some number like that — who are in public school.

The first problem with widespread vouchers, as I think I said in my column, is that first you have to give them to the millions of parents who already have their kids happily in private and parochial schools. Where are those billions going to come from? Raising taxes? Cutting the defense budget everyone now wants to raise?

But even if you limited the vouchers only to the parents of kids in failing inner city schools, the second problem is: where are those kids, with their $1,500 vouchers, going to go? The private and parochial schools are already pretty full. And starting great new private schools with small class sizes and great teachers and terrific physical plant just can’t be done with the revenue from very modest vouchers.

That said, the idea of competition and choice and charter schools and magnet schools, and standards and real incentives of the type Gray Davis rammed through as soon as he was elected Governor of California — these are all great, and widely supported among Democrats. Take a look at the numbers on charter schools. There were none, I think, or essentially none, when Clinton/Gore came into office. Now there are hundreds and hundreds, with federal encouragement to charter thousands more.

In California, under Gray Davis’ plan, performance is posted on the Internet. Schools that perform at the bottom get closed, principals at failing schools get fired. Teachers at schools that do well are rewarded in some cases with school-wide bonuses of an eye-catching $25,000-per-teacher. There’s much more to it than this — a huge summer school program not just for kids, but for teachers and principals — but the point is: yes, Democrats want competition and incentives.

But we also want to spend money to renovate terribly dilapidated schools, lower the student-teacher ratio, and pay teachers enough to attract and keep really good ones. Bush would spend a lot less, to make room to lower Steve Forbes’s taxes.

ENDANGERED SPECIES

Passed on from someone at the World Wildlife Fund:

GEORGE W. BUSH ACCEPTS TROPHY HUNTING AWARD

WASHINGTON, DC, September 5, 2000 (ENS) – Despite pleas from animal protection organizations, Texas Governor George W. Bush has just accepted the “Governor of the Year” award from the Safari Club International, a trophy hunting group that promotes the slaughter of exotic and endangered species, including elephant, rhinoceros, leopards, polar bears and crocodiles. The Safari Club helps its members find businesses that guide big game hunting expeditions around the world. The club also offers prizes to hunters who kill more than 300 different species. The organization is a defender of “canned hunts” in the U.S., in which the animals are confined to small fenced-in areas. Most of the animals shot in canned hunts are rare species sold to dealers by zoos and are often so tame they do not run away from humans, reports People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

I’m not saying no one should be allowed to slaughter exotic and endangered species for sport — a man’s man’s gotta have a little fun in this crazy world. But to accept an award from this group?

People wonder why Bush polls better among men than women. It’s a hunter/gather, football thing, I think. Men are wired to be hunters. Kill the buffalo to put meat on the table, kill the rhino to show you can do it, tackle hard, talk tough and don’t apologize. Women are wired to be gatherers. Protect the family, worry about education, worry about health care (“are you warm enough?” “wear your rubbers!” — the only time a man would ever thus caution his son is when he doesn’t mean footwear). Men have traditionally, I think, been more likely to start wars and relish contact sports. So the perception may simply be that W. — even though it’s Gore who climbed Mount Rainier recently and Gore who went to Vietnam — is just more of a man’s man. And this award from the Safari Club is one more trophy for his wall.

HEALTH CARE

Paul: “I’d feel a lot better about trying some more of these Great Society-type things if they didn’t have a history of running amok and having nine (thousand) lives.”

I’d feel better too. But not so much better that I wouldn’t try to provide everyone decent health care. We seem to be the only industrialized country that fails to.

Yes, our care is the envy of the world for those fortunate enough to be able to afford it. And yes, not everyone can have the best care. If a certain hospital is considered “the best,” not everyone can go to it. If a certain surgeon is ranked #1, not everyone can have him perform the by-pass. And if a new machine or drug comes on the market, not everyone can be the first to get its benefits. But decent care for all our citizens? Democrats are deeply committed to finding a way to do this.

GUNS

“Granted the NRA is wacko, but I really believe that law-abiding citizens owning guns is a deterrent to crime.”

Could well be. No one is talking about preventing law-abiding citizens from owning guns.

(One proposal would limit purchases to one a month; so a couple could wind up owning no more than 24 guns by the end of the first year. But if 24 guns in a home aren’t enough, proponents of this restriction might argue, “there’s always next year.”)

I still owe you a column on this one.

Tomorrow: Investment Clubs, a Challenge, and Traders who Make $2,000 a Day

 

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