Saturday, February 21, 2004

“Show Me the Numbers”

Patty pulls together our annual budget, and then we try to fit into it. It’s like my putting on the swimming trunks I wore in high school—an ugly picture. I was really stewing about this year’s budget, with the cost of everything going up and neither one of us getting a raise.

“How’s it look, Patty?” I asked.

She stopped chewing on her eraser for a minute. “Not too bad,” she said. “I think I’ve got it finagled so we can still eat.”

“That’s a joke, right?” I said nervously.

“There’s nothing humorous about this budget,” she grunted. “We’ll have to borrow some to make it work, but it could have been a lot worse. If I hadn’t had the White House budget for a guide, I don’t know how we could have done it.”

“Show me what you’ve got there,” I said.

“Okay,” she said. “First, under medical care, I’ve put the cost of our insurance premiums, as well as what we usually spend on co-payments and deductibles. That usually runs us in the neighborhood of $8,000, so I estimated $6,000.”

“If it’s likely to cost $8,000, why did you put in $6,000?” I asked.

“Well, that’s what the administration did with the costs for the new Medicare bill,” she said. “It makes the budget more manageable.”

“Oh, okay,” I said.

“Then I just set aside housing expenses—the mortgage, maintenance, repairs, home owner’s insurance, that kind of thing—until 2005. That way it doesn’t throw this year’s budget out of whack.”

“Can you do that?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “That’s what the administration did with the cost of the war in Iraq. They didn’t include it in the budget at all.”

“But don’t we still have to pay for housing expenses as we go along?”

“Of course,” she said, looking at me as if I were an idiot. “You don’t think the bank is going to sit there while we skip our payments, do you? We just don’t show any of it until next year. Got it?”

“Boy, I’m glad it’s you doing this,” I confessed. “It’s all too complicated for me. If you had asked me, I would have said there was something screwy about this budget, and we ought to be really worried about all those expenses you aren’t showing.”

“Well, I did have to cut some things,” she admitted. “The food budget is down, no braces for the girls’ teeth, no more dance lessons, church and charity contributions, trash disposal, museum membership, vet services, septic system cleaning, things like that. But I really upped money for the burglary alarm system, your gun collection, and a trip abroad.”

“At least you’ve got your priorities straight,” I said with relief.

“And think of the jobs we’re helping to create,” she said.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” I admitted. “The economy can use the help. What kinds of jobs are we giving a boost?”

“Bill collectors, gun dealers, and loan sharks.”

© Tony Russell, 2004

Saturday, February 14, 2004

“Parallel Universe”

“Thanks for meeting with me, Dr. Zweistein. My editor thought that having a Nobel Prize-winning physicist in town was an opportunity too good to be missed.”

“It is my pleasure, Mr. …”

“Ace. Just call me Ace.”

“Fine. How may I help you, Mr. Ace?”

“Well, maybe you could just explain to me what your research was about. And could you kind of keep it simple? My last science course was in the 9th grade, and I got a ‘D’ then. After that I sort of majored in football and girls.”

“I see. I’ll do my best. Um, first off, my research is still ongoing, so your reference to it in the past tense is misleading. But that small detail aside, I would say, generally speaking, that the Nobel committee was intrigued by my pioneering work in an entirely new scientific field, where physics intersects with psychology.”

“Doc, that doesn’t say a whole lot to me. Could you break that down a little bit?”

“Certainly. My studies in physics early on were of a theoretical nature, dealing with the possibility of parallel universes. My interest in the political dimension was aroused by the complete mismatch between what we might call the ‘historical record’ –that is, the document trail, the photographic and audio archives, and the observations of a variety of participants—on the one hand, and the pronouncements of the Bush administration on the other. What I came to realize was that most of us, most of the time, live in what I have called ‘the real world,’ while the Bush administration does indeed operate in a ‘parallel universe.’ To find this tangible illustration of my physics theories was an incredible stroke of luck.”

“I’m not sure I follow you, Doc. Could you give me a ‘for instance’ or two?”

“Of course. Take the issue of the weapons inspectors in Iraq. Now, in the ‘real world,’ we know that those inspectors were there, working hard, and only left because the U.S. was preparing to attack. We have their reports, we have their names and credentials, we have lists of sites they visited and inspected. But President Bush said that one of the reasons he had to go to war was that Saddam Hussein wouldn’t let the weapons inspectors in. And Senator Pat Roberts, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the same thing. Remember, these are people in the highest levels of government, briefed constantly on the latest developments, dealing with life-and-death issues. Now, what would a person in the real world conclude from Mr. Bush and Mr. Roberts’s statements?”

“Gee, I don’t know. I guess I’d have to say they were either totally clueless about what was going on, or they were so cynical they thought they could say anything and it wouldn’t come back to bite them.”

“Aha! That’s a typical layman’s response. But I began to see so many examples of this phenomenon that I told myself, ‘Surely no one in such responsible positions could possibly be that ignorant or that cynical. There must be an alternative explanation.’”

“I think I’m starting to see where you’re headed. Could you give me any more examples?”

“Easily. Take the questions about Mr. Bush’s National Guard service during the Vietnam War. Now in the ‘real world,’ it appears that Mr. Bush simply, as young people would put it, ‘blew off’ his obligation for about a year. His commanding officers say they never saw him; nobody can turn up anybody who says he was ever around. But he has pay stubs for some of the time, and an honorable discharge. How do you square those things?

“Well, before we started talking, I would have said that he never showed up, and he got paid and an honorable discharge because his connections pulled strings. But if I understand what you’re saying, he did fulfill his obligation—not in the ‘real world,’ but in that ‘parallel universe.’

“Bravo, Mr. Ace! Let’s look at one more example. This one is a little more complex—the
budget deficit. Mr. Bush says that the deficit is caused by having to respond to the terrorist threat after September 11, and by drops in income after the stock market fell. That’s the view from the parallel universe. In the ‘real world,’ –for example, in reports by the Congressional Budget Office—the picture is entirely different.”

“Different how?”

“Well, in the ‘real world,’ the primary cause was something that Mr. Bush didn’t mention at all. His tax cuts for the rich. The government’s revenue from individual income taxes was actually less in 2004 than it was in the year 2000. Can you imagine that? And that decrease accounts for almost 60 percent of the shift from a surplus to a deficit.”

“So somehow the way those tax cuts are killing the budget just doesn’t get into Mr. Bush’s explanation?”

“That’s right. But as a scientist, I must always ask ‘Why?’”

“Well, I’m no expert here, Doc. I guess I’d have to say, ‘It looks like the tax cuts were terrible policy, and he won’t admit it. He thinks we’re too dumb or apathetic to actually look at the budget.’”

“There you are again. But once more I told myself, ‘No President could possibly be so irresponsible as to deliberately cut revenues and then attempt to mask the effects.’”

“So if we rule out ignorance or cynicism or irresponsibility as explanations for things like these, we’re left with ….”

“Yes! This is where my ‘Parallel Universe Theory’ comes in! The ‘parallel universe’ looks like the ‘real world,’ but the rules of logic and evidence are totally different. They intersect at many points, so studying the areas where they touch and interact has been fascinating from a scientific viewpoint. Just fascinating.”

“How are the rules of logic and evidence different?”

“That’s the elegant part of my theory. Both worlds have the appearance of functioning logically. And in fact, they both do. But in the Bush world, logic flows in the opposite direction. Instead of starting with facts and working toward a conclusion, as things operate in the ‘real world,’ they start with the conclusion and work backwards to create the facts they need. ‘Facts’ and ‘evidence’ are created or disappear, based on whether they support the conclusion with which they began.”

“I think I’m getting it. So that’s the whole ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ thing!”

“You do get it! Right! They started with the conclusion—they wanted to go to war—and created the facts and evidence they wanted. Tons of chemicals. Nuclear weapons. Anthrax and botulism. Iraq was full of them—in the parallel universe.”

“And once they had the war, and our soldiers were on the ground, we were in the real world, where none of that stuff existed!”

“You do understand! It all works out in a way consistent with my theory!”

“Wow! Thanks, Doc. I can’t wait to get home and explain this all to Patty! She always accuses me of lying about where I go on Saturday nights, and here I’ve been entering a parallel universe!”

© Tony Russell, 2004

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

“Return of The Emperor’s New Clothes”

It’s not true that everyone admired the emperor’s new clothes. Oh, Fox News ran nightly specials with its correspondents praising the emperor’s fashion judgment. The Wall Street Journal declared that he had “grown into his new garments.”

But occasionally a boy or girl would glance up from a computer screen and say, “What are you all talking about? He’s as bare as the day he was born!” Adults were shocked at the young people’s cynicism. “Every generation seems worse than the last,” they would complain, and throw up their hands.

And in the Senate, venerable Sir Robert would rise to point out that, despite all the hoopla about the emperor’s clothes, one could still tell the size of the Jockey cup he needed, and could still see the scar where he had had his appendix removed. When Sir Robert began to speak, however, the other nobles would yawn, stretch, and look at their watches. “Let’s go read the polls,” they would say, and walk out of the chamber, leaving Sir Robert talking to empty seats.

The emperor’s friends and staff attacked the critics of his clothes. “Jealous,” they said, “and unpatriotic as well. Those garments are made out of our nation’s flags and sewn with threads of gold.” They trotted out tailors who swore they knew where the thread and material had come from. “The evidence for the existence of these garments is massive and undeniable,” they trumpeted. The Prime Minister of an ally declared, “These new garments are fantastic! I must have a set for myself!”

The bill for the new garments was astronomical, but the emperor was unconcerned. He decreed that taxes on the nobles be radically reduced. The peasants cheered, although the burden of paying the kingdom’s bills now fell more heavily on their shoulders.

The emperor’s brother, Prince Neil, and his uncle, Lord William, made their fortunes as “consultants” to companies that worked on the clothes. Billions of dollars of no-bid contracts went to the vice emperor’s old firm, which cleaned, maintained, and repaired the imperial garments; transported them from place to place; and fed the army of tailors at work on them.

Nonetheless, the emperor seems less inclined now to parade his new clothes. “I was given bad advice on the selection of material and on piecing the sections together,” he explains. Only this week he announced that he is creating a committee of inquiry to determine how his tailors could have made something so shoddy.

Of course, the emperor had commissioned the new garments. He and his vice emperor had demanded a certain design and specific materials. They had refused to wait for the royal inspectors to examine the pattern and cloth. “We can’t wait,” they had declared. “The emperor is throwing a big party; it’s been in planning for years.” When some of their tailors and seamstresses had looked at the material and complained, “There’s nothing here to work with,” they had been dismissed, or told to be quiet and get busy spinning and sewing.

There has been no single moment when a child exclaimed, “But he’s not wearing any clothes!” and the whole charade collapsed. Enlightenment has been slow. In fact, 45% of the empire refuses to believe to this day that a “born again” emperor would wear nothing but his birthday suit in public. Millions still look at his goosepimpled skin and see silk and ermine, with golden thread gleaming so brightly it blinds their eyes. One partisan declared, “Of course he’s dressed in new clothes. The proof is the weather. If he were trotting around naked in this freezing cold, he’d catch his death of pneumonia!” Imperial spokesmen have announced that coughing, sneezing, and wheezing heard coming from the palace are caused by allergies. “He’s allergic to criticism,” they explain. “He always has this reaction.”

© Tony Russell, 2004

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

“Security Comes With a Price Tag”

Our Friday night bridge club met at the Cobbs’ this week. We pulled into their place at five after eight, and Patty let out a gasp. “What have they done?” she said. She was staring at a bulldozed strip between the parking lot and their gate. Not so much as a blade of grass stuck up from the frozen dirt.

“Webb must have been working on his perimeter defense,” I said. “Created a little no-man’s land.”

“But I loved that patch of woods,” lamented Patty. “That pretty little creek, and all the shade where the wildflowers grew in the spring. Spring beauties, violets, trillium, wild irises . …”

We climbed out of the car and headed for the tall block wall surrounding their compound. Searchlights swept the air, and I could hear their guard dogs snarling; the other card players must have got there just ahead of us.

“Have you emptied your pockets?” worried Patty. “You know what happened with Hazel and Ray.”

“I checked ‘em twice,” I said. “How about your purse?”

When we reached their steel gates. Patty grabbed the phone from a niche in the wall, punched in some numbers, and said loudly, “Stella, it’s us, Alpha Condor and Beta Zebra. Do you read me?”

“What’d she say?” I asked, when she hung up.

“She said she’d call me back in a minute on a secure line.”

A minute later, the phone rang. Patty picked it up. “Okay, Ace,” she said when she was finished. “Listen to me carefully for once. The gates will open in thirty seconds. They’ll only be open for five seconds, so don’t poke along the way you do. Once we’re inside, walk directly to the house on the sidewalk. The dogs won’t bother you if you stay on the walk. If you step off the walk, on the other hand ….” I got the picture.

We made it to the front door and stuck our thumbs in the identification device. I surveyed the house. It sure looked different from the way it had a few years ago. Bars over all the windows. Searchlights mounted on the roof. Gun ports every few feet along the walls.

“Home sweet home,” I said.

“Now Ace, don’t you start,” Patty said warningly.

Just then the door opened. “Ace, Patty, it’s so good to see you!” said Stella.

“Would you put your keys, your purse, and any other metal objects on this tray and set it on the conveyor belt,” said Webb, as he waved a wand over my person, then did the same to Patty.

“Good to see you too, old buddy,” I said. Patty glared and sent a command via marital telepathy: Behave yourself.

“What happened to your arm, Webb?” I asked, staring at the blood-soaked gauze wrapped around his forearm. His face flushed.

“Webb was shoveling the snow off the walk for you all, when he slipped on a patch of ice,” Stella said brightly. “He fell off the walk, and one of the dogs went for his throat. But he got his arm up, just in time.”

“That looks pretty ugly,” said Patty. “Shouldn’t you have a doctor check it?”

“I’m afraid we had to drop our health insurance,” said Stella. “We just couldn’t make the payments anymore. All those electronic gizmos, the electric bill for the searchlights, the food for the Dobermans, the dozer work… it all adds up.”

“I’ll bet it does,” said Patty. “I don’t see how you manage to keep it all up.”

“Well, you know that bumper sticker,” laughed Stella. “We’ve spent our children’s inheritance. Plus all of Webb’s retirement. This place is mortgaged to the hilt.”

“No health insurance, no retirement, and up to your ears in debt. You must be worried sick,” said Patty sympathetically.

“Security comes with a price tag,” said Webb.

“Yeah, insecurity,” I said.

“How are Hazel and Ray?” asked Patty, trying to change the subject.

There was an awkward silence. Then Webb said, “Officially, we don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“But unofficially,” said Stella, “they’re doing fine. Hazel’s lost twenty-five pounds on the soda crackers and water. She says she’d like for us to hold her until she gets down to a size six. Ray gripes about being awakened every forty-five minutes for interrogation, but you know Ray. He’s not happy unless he has something to complain about.”

“Why don’t you just let them go?” I said. “I know Ray was carrying a pocket knife. But lots of guys do. They’re handy. Cut the string on packages, make shavings to start a campfire, all kinds of stuff.”

Webb snorted. “So much for your security IQ,” he said. “I guess you didn’t know they just got back from the Middle East. I have reason to believe he was attending a terrorist training camp.”

“But they went with their church group on a tour of the Holy Land,” I yelped.

“A dummy organization, set up to funnel funds to terrorists,” scoffed Webb.

“Their daughter called me yesterday from Colorado,” said Patty. “She’s worried sick that she hasn’t heard from them for a month.”

“Sorry, but we can’t release any information on the prisoners,” said Webb.

“What about a lawyer?” said Patty.  “Shouldn’t they be able to talk with somebody?”

“This is a whole new ballgame,” said Webb. “In the face of the terrorist menace, all the rules have changed.”

“Which rules are those, Webb?” I asked. “The Golden Rule? The rules of hospitality? The Bill of Rights? I thought those were all still in effect.”

“Patty,” said Stella, “would you mind setting out the bridge mix and plugging in the coffee pot? Otherwise, I’m afraid these men will talk politics all night.”

© Tony Russell, 2004