Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Fake News: Irish Mass Grave

The Weekly Bystander is still enjoying its August break. Below find a popular post from June, 2014 about the so-called discovery of a mass grave at a Catholic orphanage in Ireland that certainly qualifies as "fake news" with a particularly pernicious intent. If you search on google for Irish Mass Graves you will find pages of references to his piece of fake news. At the top of the list is one from earlier this year from Al-Jazeera.

The recent discovery in Ireland of the remains of 796 babies in a so-called mass grave near a former home for unwed mothers run by Catholic nuns has raised a storm of horror in Europe but so far has escaped much notice in the USA. Nevertheless, initial reports in Irish newspapers were picked up by the Associated Press (AP) and subsequently went viral on the Internet.

An Irish researcher, Catherine Corless, had studied records in Tuam, County Galway, and found that from the founding of the home in the 1920s to its close in 1961, almost 800 infants had been buried in a site near the home. Her report was quickly picked up by London tabloids and the story blew out of all proportion. 

It was claimed that most, if not all, of the babies had been discarded in an unused septic tank and that most had died of malnutrition. As one commentator noted, a “Twitter mob” mentality compared the deaths to Nazi era genocide. 

The story also was used as a cudgel to hammer the Irish Catholic church and the doctrines of the Catholic Church in general. It was claimed that the nuns refused to baptize these infants because they were the children of unwed mothers.

Subsequent investigation has shown that researcher Corless had been mis-quoted and that her findings had been blown out of all proportion. In its subsequent correction the AP reported:

When Corless published her findings on a Facebook campaign page, and Irish media voiced, she speculated to reporters that the resting place of most, if not all, could be inside a disused septic tank on the site. By the time Irish and British tabloids went to print in early June, the speculation had become a certainty, the word 'disused' had disappeared, and U.S. newspapers picked up the report, inserting more errors, including one that claimed the researcher had found all 796 remains in the septic tank.
She had not been digging up bones but compiled her list by searching through local records. No children’s bones have been found in the septic tank.

On further investigation, the AP found the claim of massive malnutrition to be baseless.

The most common causes were flu, measles, pneumonia, tuberculosis and whooping cough. Contrary to the allegations of widespread starvation highlighted in some reports, only 18 children were recorded as suffering from severe malnutrition.

County Galway is in the poorest part of Ireland. The period between the two World Wars, when most of the deaths occurred, were years of great poverty and sickness all over the world. There were no modern antibiotics available to keep children alive after they had contacted one of these deadly and contagious diseases. In the twenties and thirties even married women with families in the relatively prosperous USA lost a high percentage of their newborns to disease.

Finally, the original AP story had this to say about Baptism. “In keeping with Catholic teaching, such out-of-wedlock children were denied baptism and, if they died at such facilities, Christian burial.”  Later in their correction to the story the AP admitted its mistake.

Baptismal records have been found for many of the deceased infants. It was not the teaching or the practice of the Catholic Church to deny Baptism to the children of unwed mothers. It was and still is the practice of the Church only to baptize an infant if their parents requested it and promised to raise the children in the Church. 

Ironically, the Church has often been accused of forcing non-Catholic children to be baptized. Critics of the Church during the Holocaust have made that claim. While it is true that priests and others, acting under the orders of the Pope, printed and distributed thousands of baptismal certificates to Jewish children, they never insisted that the children be actually baptized. The certificates were designed to spare the children from almost certain death.

As noted above the AP issued a correction to its original story. Here is a part.

The Associated Press was among the media organizations that covered Corless and her findings, repeating incorrect Irish news reports that suggested the babies who died had never been baptized and that Catholic Church teaching guided priests not to baptize the babies of unwed mothers or give to them Christian burial.
The reports of denial of baptism later were contradicted by the Tuam Archdiocese, which found a registry showing that the home had baptized more than 2000 babies. the AP issued a corrective story on Friday after discovering its errors.

Unfortunately, the damage has already been done. As so often happens, the initial allegations go all over the world but the corrections hardly get noticed.


Monday, August 21, 2017

Socialism and Slavery

The Weekly Bystander is still on break this August but will hopefully resume in September. In the meantime here is a repeat of a 2016 post originally entitles Socialist Ideals and Practice. The post is somewhat appropriate today as extreme left wingers in this country vandalize and tear down statues of Confederate heroes who were associated with slavery over 150 years ago. Ironically, they still revere and lionize contemporary Socialists and Communists like Fidel Castro who have enslaved an entire country, both white and black, for half a century.

The Presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, the Socialist Senator from Vermont, seems to be falling short especially after yesterday’s double-digit loss to front-runner Hillary Clinton in New York. Nevertheless, Sanders continues to attract record-breaking crowds of fervent supporters to his campaign rallies. 

One of his supporters, a self-styled “community activist” from Bridgeport, CT penned an op-ed in the CT Post, my local newspaper, urging Americans to get over their irrational fear of Socialism. For him, Socialism “defines the essence of  ‘civilized’ life by human beings.”

Fortunately, it is possible to test his hypothesis in the many laboratories of human experience over the past one hundred years. We have the example of Socialism in Russia that began with the Communist revolution in 1917. We have the example of National Socialism (Nazism) in Germany that led to World War II and the Holocaust. We have the example of Maoism in China during the great purge that murdered over 20 Million people. We have the example of the various Socialist “republics” set up in Eastern Europe after World War II. 

All of these Socialist experiments began with high-sounding ideals and slogans but all degenerated into police states ruled by a small minority of party bigwigs and their bureaucratic servants. I was reminded of this the other day while viewing a truly great German film, “The Lives of Others.” 

Before the collapse of the Berlin wall, East Germany’s population was closely monitored by the State Secret Police or Stasi.  Only a few citizens above suspicion were permitted to lead private lives. The film revolves around a loyal and favored East German playwright and his beautiful actress girlfriend. When a corrupt government official falls for the actress, an ambitious Stasi policeman is ordered to bug the writer’s apartment to gain incriminating evidence against the rival. It is a good story, extremely well told, and it won an Oscar in 2007 for best foreign film. 

The story plays out against the background of socialism in the German Democratic Republic or GDR with its ruthless and inhumane interrogation tactics, and its constant spying on and surveillance of an incredible number of ordinary people considered to be potential enemies of the Socialist republic. (Use this link to view  the five-minute opening scene of a lesson in interrogation.)

However, the film makes it clear that it was not just the secret police and their tactics that were at fault. The whole system was corrupt. Socialist idealism easily gave way to corruption and cronyism. Party bosses ruled with an iron hand. They ruled by fear. They struck fear into their immediate underlings, who in turn struck fear into their own subordinates.  There was no real equality. The workers’ paradise had turned into hell. The film claims that the suicide rate in the GDR was so high, that the government, which counted everything else, just stopped publishing suicide statistics.

Although we have so far been spared a Socialist revolution in the USA, many aspects of Socialism have crept in by the back door. I live next to Bridgeport, the most populous city in Connecticut. For years, Bridgeport has been a one-party city. It’s Democrat Party leaders not only control municipal government, but also usually manage to bring out enough votes to play a key role in state elections. 

Last year, the Democrat politicians managed to bring back into office a former Mayor who had spent time in prison for corruption during his first administration. He is now cleaning house to balance the budget but also to get rid of political enemies and find jobs for his own supporters. Here’s a couple of examples. 

The Commissioner of Parks, a long time figure in Democrat politics, was told that his position was being eliminated. One of the Mayor’s aides explained that the job was no longer necessary even though the Commissioner had managed to augment his $125000 salary with $50000 of overtime pay in the last year. The Commissioner chose to retire and was given a $15000 bonus, and a couple of years of free medical insurance. I suspect that his already generous pension was augmented by the additional overtime pay in his last year. Another official who was forced out is threatening to sue the City in order to regain his position. He has, however, indicated his willingness to settle out of court for a Million dollars. 

How many ordinary people can claim such benefits when their jobs are eliminated? Examples like the above are typical of what is going on throughout the country as politicians and so-called public service employees rack up benefits and pensions that are busting budgets from Connecticut to California. I call this back door Socialism where all are equal, but some are more equal than others.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Hiroshima and Nagasaki 2017

The Weekly Bystander is still on its August break so here is a post from 2015 about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought an end to World War II. It is sadly relevant given the current heightened threat of a nuclear disaster.

This August marks the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II after the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Commentators are still debating the legitimacy of the decision to drop the bombs but no one questions the horrible devastation that was visited on the population of the two cities.

Thankfully over the last seventy years , despite the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam and the apparently unending conflicts in the Middle East, the world has avoided another nuclear catastrophe. Nevertheless, despite a shrinkage of the large nuclear arsenals of the USA and Russia, other nations have joined the list of those possessing nuclear weapons.

I do not want to comment on the Hiroshima/Nagasaki decision. Others, more informed than I, have long debated the pros and cons. Nor do I want to discuss the pending deal with Iran since no one as yet has anywhere near the information that the President and his advisors have.

PBS recently ran a documentary on the bombing of Hiroshima. In the re-creation a lone B-29 bomber is seen flying over Hiroshima, and in the next minute almost 100000 people are killed, maimed, or disfigured for life. They were people like us. Oddly enough, it made me think of Beethoven’s great symphony #9 with its magnificent choral ending, the Ode to Joy, based on the poem by Schiller.

The notes on my album claimed that Beethoven had considered putting the ode to Joy and Brotherhood to music for over twenty years.
We are all familiar with the opening strains in German.
Freude, schoner Gotterfunken.Tochter aus Elysium.Wir betreten, feuertrunken,Himmlische, dein Heiligthum.

Here is a full English translation of the text from this greatest of symphonies. It culminates in an affirmation of the brotherhood of man under one Creator.

Joy, thou gleaming spark divine,
Daughter of Elysium.
Drunk with ardor, we draw near,
Goddess, to your shrine.
Thy magic unites again
What custom sternly drew apart.
All mankind become brothers
Beneath thy gentle hovering wing.

He whose happy fortune grants him
Friend to have and friend to be.
Who has won a noble woman,
Let him join in our rejoicing!
Yes—even if it were one heart only
Beating for him in the world!
But if he has never known this,
Let him weeping steal from out our ranks.

Joy is drawn by every creature
From the breast of Nature.
All men good and all men evil
Walk upon her rose strewn path.
Kisses gave she and the ripe grape,
A good friend, trusty to the last.
Even the worm can feel pleasure,
And the Seraph stands before God.

Glad as suns that He hurtles
Through the vast spaces of heaven.
Pursue your pathway, brothers.
Be joyful as a hero in victory.
Millions, be you embraced!
For the universe, this kiss!
Brothers—above the canopy of stars
A loving Father surely dwells.
Millions, do you fall upon your knees?
Do you sense the Creator, world?
Seek him above the canopy of stars!
Surely He dwells above the stars.
Click here for a five minute flashmob doing the end of the chorale or just go to the video below.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Health Care Mortality Rates

The  Weekly Bystander is taking a break for the rest of August. For the rest of the month I will repeat some of the most popular posts since the blog began back in December, 2011.  Below here is one from 2013 that compared the U.S. Health Care system with that of the rest of the world by examining mortality rates, a standard measuring tool. The figures and the WHO chart might be a little dated but even after four more years of Obamacare, I think the conclusions in the post are still valid. Even before Obamacare, the U.S. Health Care system was working remarkably well. Click on the chart to enlarge.

Despite the fact that the United States spends more money per capita on health care than any other country in the world, many critics argue that health care in this country is inferior to what can be found in many other developed countries, especially those with National health systems. These critics are also proponents of a sweeping conversion of health care in this country to a single-payer or national system. 

Critics of the U.S. health care system point to statistics compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO) that rank the United States thirtieth in the world in life expectancy. The accompanying chart shows that in 2007 the average life expectancy in the United States was 78.06 years. Actually, that was not too far behind #1 France with an average life expectancy of 80.59. (click on the chart to enlarge)

I recently came across an excellent article* that attempted to put this statistic in perspective. The article was based on a book by Scott W. Atlas, entitled “In Excellent Health, Setting the Record Straight on America’s Health Care”, that argued that the U.S. health care system before Obamacare was “ the best system in the world.”

How could this be given the mortality statistics? Atlas argued that the WHO statistics were skewed by a number of factors, and that they should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. The most important element in the low ranking of the U.S. mortality rate would appear to have no connection with health care at all. It is the extraordinarily high rate of murder and automobile accidents in the U. S.
“Murder and accidents account for the majority of deaths among young adults in the United States, and deaths at young ages substantially impact life expectancies.”
If murders and auto fatalities alone were factored out of the statistics, the U.S. would have the highest life expectancy in the world. Murders and automobile fatalities are serious but they are not a health care problem.

Other factors are almost as important in lowering life expectancy. The United States has a much higher rate of obesity than other developed countries and obesity reduces life spans by up to eight or ten years. Also, while smoking has dramatically decreased in the U. S., the residual effects of a long history of smoking in this country will continue to impact mortality statistics for years to come.

Finally, differences in record keeping also impact mortality statistics. Scott Atlas noted the more stringent reporting requirements in the U.S. compared to Europe in the matter of infant mortality figures.
“considering that roughly half of all U.S. infant mortality occurs in the first twenty four hours, the single criterion of omitting deaths within the first twenty four hours by many European nations generates their falsely superior infant mortality rates.”
Rather than blaming the U.S. for higher infant mortality rates, Atlas argued that, 
“The United States health care system should be applauded for its efforts to save premature babies rather than write them off as stillborn, as many other countries do.”

A proper evaluation of the health care system in the U.S. should be based not on flawed mortality statistics but on actual medical care, especially the diagnosis and treatment of important diseases. Here are some facts that Atlas unearthed.

1. Prolonged wait times are commonly found in health systems with government controlled nationalized health insurance. Numerous countries with single payer systems had to create policies to address prolonged wait times, including Canada, England, Italy, Sweden, and Spain.

[I saw this myself  when I visited my cousins in Italy a few years ago. They had purchased individual insurance policies to pay for things or procedures not covered by the national system. For example, government doctors would routinely say that you could wait four months for a procedure, or visit them in their private office for the procedure in the next day or two if they would pay on their own, The above chart indicates that over 90% of people in Italy have purchased private insurance policies.]

2. In the United States, referring doctors book CT and MRI appointments within days. In other countries people wait. In 2010, the average wait time for a CT scan was 4 weeks and for an MRI 10 weeks. A 2011 study in the United Kingdom indicated thousands of people waited over six weeks for an MRI scan. With respect to breast cancer biopsies, another survey indicated that only 1% of U.S. patients waited three weeks or more while 44% of Canadian and 20% of U.K. patients waited that long.

3. No elective cardiac bypass patients in the United States were known to have waited more than three months, while 47% in Canada and 89% in the United Kingdom waited that long.

4. The United States tends to have the highest percentage of screenings for breast, cervical, prostate and colon cancer.

In conclusion, the availability of state of the art medical technology, timely access to specialists, the most effective screening, the shortest wait times for life changing surgeries, the newest, most effective drugs for more accurate, safer diagnosis and for the most advanced treatment are all superior in the United States.

In 2008 one study showed that up to 85000 patients sought in-patient treatment outside their home country, and 87% of them traveled to the United States. 


*The article was written by Charles P. McQuaid, President and Chief Executive Officer of Columbia Wanger Asset Management. and appeared in the 2013 semiannual report of the Wanger International Fund. It was based on the book by Scott Adams mentioned above, as well as a book by Robert Ohsfeldt and John Schneider, "The Business of Health."

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Connecticut: Democracy or Aristocracy

This week the Connecticut State Senate narrowly approved a package of labor concessions that had been negotiated by Governor Dannell Malloy in a last ditch effort to close the State’s enormous budget deficit. The whole process should be examined as a lesson in how democracy really works in Connecticut, the State that used to brag that it was the first colony to govern under a written constitution.

Connecticut is one of the bluest states in the country and the legislature has been dominated by Democrats for years. This year, however, while the House of Representatives is still largely Democrat, the State Senate is split equally between Democrats and Republicans 19 to 19. For almost a year the Governor and the Legislature have been struggling to close an enormous budget deficit but although the State constitution requires that the budget be balanced, they were not able to come up with a solution. Somehow, it was possible to ignore the State’s constitution and let the Governor govern by executive order.  

As a result, the Governor called the Legislature back into session and presented them with the public service union “concession” package that had been negotiated behind closed doors by his staff. Details of the package were not shared with the people of the state or with their representatives until the various unions involved approved them. In other words, the union members got a chance to review and vote on the package while the people of the state were kept in the dark.

Apparently the various bargaining units approved the “concessions” by a margin of over 80%, a sure sign that their leaders realized that it was a very good deal despite the so-called concessions. Although Governor Malloy is not running for re-election in 2018, he has effectively tied the hands of his successor with a five year, no layoff agreement. Moreover, the deal extends the union contracts for a full ten years. Control of the public service unions has been effectively taken out of the hands of the legislature for the next ten years.

In return, the unions agreed on temporary wage freezes, some furlough or no-pay days, and slightly higher pension contributions. The union members were not required to accept any fundamental changes to their very generous pension plan. They did, however, agree to throw new union members or public service employees under the bus by creating a defined contribution plan for them. After years of railing about the horrors of defined contribution plans, the current union membership overwhelmingly accepted them for new state employees, as long as they could keep their own privileged defined benefit plan.

This defined benefit pension plan is the elephant in the room that no Democrat politician wants to see or touch. The vast majority of Connecticut’s citizens who must pay for the pensions of their so-called public servants do not have retirement benefits even close to those enjoyed by the State’s union employees. The Social Security benefit of ordinary citizens is based on their average pay over 30 years, not on the average of their highest three years pay. Moreover, an ordinary citizen cannot get the full Social Security benefit until age 67. State employees get a fill pension at age 60 or after 35 years of service.

Union leaders often argue that pensions need to be generous since their members do not participate in Social Security. However, the mere mention that they switch from the Connecticut system to Social Security is enough to send them into shock. Does anyone ever realize that ordinary citizens pay for the pensions of State employees but that these same employees do not pay a dime into the Social Security system?

So, if the Governor can negotiate behind closed doors and keep the legislature in the dark, can this really be called a democracy? If the Governor must go hat in hand to the unions and beg for concessions, who is really in charge? Does the Governor ever submit his proposals to the people for their approval? When he threatens to cut services does he seek anyone’s approval? When he threatened to force the towns to pay for State employee pensions, did he ask the towns to approve the plan?

Actually, Connecticut is more an aristocracy than a democracy. The aristocracy are those members of the public service unions who enjoy benefits that are out of reach of most ordinary citizens.  These aristocrats do not have titles of nobility but they have become the ruling class. The newly approved concessions package guarantees that they cannot lose their jobs or their benefits for the foreseeable future. In retirement many of them will even be able to move to Florida to escape paying State income tax on their pensions.

The Social Studies curriculum in Connecticut’s schools should be changed to indicate that the government of Connecticut is an aristocracy; a government by the privileged few and for the privileged few. The unit could include a comparison with France on the eve of its Revolution. Governor Malloy is planning to leave office before the full impact of his concessions will hit his successor. He could easily be likened to the French King who supposedly said, “Apr├Ęs moi, le deluge!”***


***Click on this link for a witty portrayal of pension aristocrats or just view  the video below.