The lure of the West and its subsequent disappointment (for some)

Here’s a thought: the very people who rail the most against the restrictions imposed by the state in autocratic countries, the most vocal opponents of such regimes, the ones who crave an escape to the West, are the ones who fare the worst after emigrating to free, democratic societies such as those in the Western world. You can think of it as an inversely proportional relationship between one’s dislike for a government or a regime and their likelihood of doing well in a freer, Western country that runs on capitalist principles.

They, unlike those who make their own little worlds at home in spite of the surrounding conditions, those who make the best of the situation, these vocal dissidents have let themselves be defined by what they perceive to be the restrictions of those societies. In other worlds, their lives have become dominated by what they criticize; they themselves have become the voice of those restrictions. Their very purpose of being is now defined by those societies: they live to criticize them. Because of this, their transplantation into a Western society would be fruitless. I don’t say this triflingly; I saw this happen first-hand.

These particular people would quickly find the faults in such a society (because they have become wired to do this) and would become dissidents of the West, criticizing the overt commercialism (for example) of such a society. They would find no solace in the freedom offered there and would instead resort to vocal criticism of the faults of that society. They would make poor use of the facilities of that society, they would contribute little or nothing to its betterment, but would instead fill their days with discontented moans. They’d likely pen editorials about the shackles of the West, etc.

If you want immigration success stories, you should look for those who can find the good in any situation, those who in spite of the conditions imposed on them, managed with what they had, provided good lives for themselves and those in their families, and were bright points of light in those autocratic societies. Get those people in the West and they’ll likely do the same, if not more, with the opportunities provided to them in those free societies.

Washington DC as seen from the top of the Washington Monument

Here’s how our nation’s capital looks if you climb to the top of the Washington Monument. It’s… monumental. I love the architecture and the way it’s been laid out. It is a pity that the ranks of the public servants have grown so much in recent times that certain government organizations no longer fit into the buildings originally designed for them. While some growth is understandable, there’s real, lasting value in the idea of a lean, simple government and a republic, not a democracy, as the US of A was originally created.

The pillaging of Romania’s natural resources

The following are a couple of examples of what’s going on in Romania right now.

Romania’s largest petroleum reserves (famous since WWII) were recently sold to OMV (Österreichischen Mineralölverwaltung Aktiengesellschaft).

Petrom, Romania’s state-owned petroleum company, now belongs to OMV, and every time I fill up my car at Petrom, the receipt says OMV Petrom. I talked to someone today who told me OMV sells roughly 4 Billion Euros of Romanian petroleum every year. And they’ve also got a contract to sell Romanian natural gas, of which they move roughly 2 Billion Euros’ worth every year.

That’s about 6 Billion Euros of sales from Romania alone (they have holdings in other countries and their total annual sales are around 23 Billion Euros per year).

Do you know how much Romania makes from these sales of its own natural reserves, per year, according to the contract drawn up by its own government? 100 Million Euros. That’s an incredibly paltry sum compared to the money OMV makes.

Could Romania have made more? Absolutely. Would OMV have paid more for the right to sell Romania’s oil and gas reserves? Absolutely. I think half and half would have been equitable. Did Romania even need to make a deal with OMV? No.

But when the political environment is such that you can pay a few million Euros to a few corrupt politicians and get the contract drafted with much more favorable terms, of course a corporation will take the easier way. Corporations are out to make money, not to watch out for the common good. Governments are supposed to watch out for the common good. In Romania, the government doesn’t do that.

Here’s another case.

You may have heard about a little region in Romania called Rosia Montana. It’s been famous since Roman times (two thousand years ago) for its gold reserves. It still is.

For several years, Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, a gold mining corporation with investors like George Soros, has been trying to get its claws on it. They’ve been promising all sorts of things to the Romanian government and to the local people in Rosia Montana, but they’ve met with unexpected and forceful grassroots resistance against the deal, and rightfully so.

When you look at the facts, the deal they want the Romanian government to sign is this: they get 96% of the finds and Romania gets 4% of the finds.

Someone’s getting thoroughly shafted and I bet it’s Romania itself. The Romanian government is ready to sign on the deal, because they’re thoroughly corrupt and select politicians stand to make millions, but lots of Romanians (and foreigners concerned with the environmental impact of the project) are saying no, so for now, the deal’s hotly debated.

Romania’s own president, Basescu, wants the deal to go through, because the gold found there will supposedly “replenish Romania’s gold reserves”. He’s either a moron or he stands to make a personal fortune if the deal goes through. If there’s “gold in them thar hills”, then for goodness’ sake, get some unemployed Romanian miners in those mines, take 100% (not 4%) of that gold and get it into the state vaults, pronto. What do you need Rosia Montana Gold Corporation for? Say you do need a foreign investor to help you mine the gold? Then make the revenue sharing more equitable! Again, half and half would be the right choice.

Naturally, the Romanian government would disagree, and TV pundits are talking the issue to death on all the news channels. Talk solves nothing. Ever since 1989, Romanian newspapers and independent TV and radio stations have been uncovering corruption after corruption in Romania’s political dealings, and oftentimes, they’ve given clearcut financial proof of the wrongdoings. Have any of the truly guilty gone to jail? No, some of their cronies went to jail, while the real bastards have gotten richer and re-elected. The judicial branch has never been able to convict and send to jail powerful Romanian politicians, in spite of all their corruption, theft of government money, manipulation of government contracts and… the list of crimes goes on and on.

On the other hand, and this is the saddest part, if these contracts with foreign corporations were equitable, do you think all that money would benefit the Romanian people? Do you think it would be used to rebuild Romania’s infrastructure and to spur innovation and small business growth? You’d be a fool to think so. After all, this is Romania, not Sweden, Norway, Iceland or New Zealand. Logic and rational thinking have no place here, nor does equitable behavior. All that extra money, all those gobs and gobs of extra money would likely line the pockets of the same bastards who are screwing the country right now.

I don’t know what’s to be done. Well, I do know, but my solution involves legal superpowers and weapons and I’m pretty sure it’s illegal in the EU and most of the countries in this world…

Modern lawn care: a lot of hot air

One of the things I strongly believe in is the need for manual labor, especially during these highly industrialized times. I believe such work yields better results and it keeps us grounded, in touch with the earth from which we ultimately draw our living. I dislike the “modern” methods of lawn care, where one uses hedge trimmers and leaf blowers to do a job which can be done much more adequately by simpler, manual tools such as a broom and a pair of hedge scissors.

Don’t mistake me for a luddite. I use lawnmowers when they’re justified, like when a lawn requires it, because of its size, or because it can’t be cut by a push-mower or a scythe. The scythe in particular is a great way to cut grass, and it’s also a great workout for one’s back and abdomen. It’s been around for millennia. It’s only been replaced by machinery during the last couple of centuries.

If you live in the suburbs, then this next picture should be familiar to you.

That, of course, would be landscaping day, or if you happen to live within a larger community that has a lot of lawns, this would be part of landscaping week, which would happen every month, or worse, during frequent rainfall, every couple of weeks. Every day of that period, the maddening roar of the leaf blowers would be heard all over the compound, gnawing away at your brain, making it impossible to take a nice afternoon nap, or to concentrate on a project.

I find it so inefficient to blow leaves around all day, for hours on end, when a pair of men with a couple of good brooms and some rakes would make short work of those leaves, with no noise at all, no pollution from two-cycle engines, and much less dust. I’ve often seen landscaping teams use tractors to mow little patches of grass where a push mower would have done just fine, or use hedge trimmers to walk for entire yards and trim little weeds here and there, when a man could have simply pulled them up by the roots.

I associated this sort of inefficiency, expense of petrol, noise and air pollution with the US, because so much gets wasted there these days, by people who feel entitled to everything the country has to offer, even though they offer little to nothing in return. So I was surprised to find the same waste had arrived in Romania, where my wife and I currently reside.

Here people still use scythes to cut the grass in the countryside. It’s a wonder to behold a good scythe-handler. A single man can make short work of an entire hillside in an afternoon. And it’s even more beautiful to hear the noise a sharpened scythe makes as it cuts through long grass: a metallic whoosh, coupled with a slight singing of the blade at the apex of its swing. Every other noise of nature is perfectly audible: the birds, the bees, the distant bleating of sheep, the breeze blowing through the grass and the edge of a forest nearby… It’s wonderful!

And yet, the noxious use of leaf blowers and hedge trimmers has found its way into Romanian cities, probably brought here through the export of popular American culture. Here, too, we can see workers parading through our street and through the city center with leaf blowers and hedge trimmers, making a huge noise of it all, for days on end. It’s such a pathetic (and polluting) spectacle. The noise is unbearable. Here we have tall brick buildings, built by the Saxons. These cities seem made for echoes. The wall of noise obliterates everything around. It bounces off the walls and can be heard hundreds of yards or kilometers away. It’s such a waste.

It was but a few short years ago that the city would hire scythe-men to come and cut the grass. In a few short hours, with a few swoops of the scythe, they’d be done, and someone would come after them to gather up the cut grass. It was peaceful and quiet. Now, we’re polluted with noise, and the blasted filthy smoke from the blowers and trimmers.

The sad part is that here, the public lawns found on streets and in city parks are not of the scale found in the States. They’re small. And Eastern European grass is soft. If one must use more modern machinery, they could easily switch to push mowers and be done in the same amount of time, without all the ridiculous noise and smoke.

Save the data!

Some of the most important technology programs that keep Washington accountable are in danger of being eliminated. Data.gov, USASpending.gov, the IT Dashboard and other federal data transparency and government accountability programs are facing a massive budget cut, despite only being a tiny fraction of the national budget.

Help save the data and make sure that Congress doesn’t leave the American people in the dark.

15 things about marijuana

I’m one of a growing number of people who think marijuana ought to be legalized. I don’t use it, but I just don’t think a substance less dangerous than coffee and alcohol ought to be illegal.

See the infographic below for some facts about marijuana. Here are a few:

  • It’s nearly impossible to overdose on pot. You’d have to smoke more than 800 joints, and even then, you’d die from carbon monoxide poisoning, not marijuana poisoning.
  • The American colonies grew the hemp plant to make clothing, sails and rope. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. Through the 1600-1800s, the production of hemp was encouraged and even required by law at times.
  • Studies done in the 1940s have shown that there is no link between marijuana and violence, sex crimes, insanity or addiction.
  • Marijuana is already legal in a number of countries such as Australia, Czech Republic, Finland, Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, Argentine and Belgium.

15 Things Your Should Know about Marijuana

Audit Defense may not be worth the price

Just a quick note to let you know the Audit Defense service offered by TurboTax in recent years is probably not worth the price. It’s run by a company called TaxResources, Inc., and they say they’ll represent you to the IRS in case you should have any problems with your return, for the low price of only $39.95.

Someone close to me got to find out exactly what they give you in return for that $39.95 “peace-of mind” fee, when an irregularity popped up on their tax return. They’d made an accounting error, found it out, wanted to report it to the IRS on their own, but contacted these folks because, after all, they did pay for the service.

In the meantime, the IRS also found out about the error and contacted them. This is where the Audit Defense service should have shined. Instead, my contact got the run-around. The Audit Defense team weren’t willing to help them in a timely fashion, didn’t want to contact the IRS on their behalf like they should have done, and only ended up helping them — if you might call what they got help — after several written requests. In the end, my contact lost out on precious time, got extra stress they didn’t need, and will need to pay the IRS additional penalties.

It looks to me like the Audit Defense people failed on three of their basic promises: they didn’t step in right away to deal with the IRS, they didn’t handle the entire tax audit, and they didn’t keep IRS penalties as low as possible.

The name of the employee who “helped” my contact with their IRS audit was Joe Schricker, and the company’s name again is TaxResources, Inc. The service is advertised as Audit Defense on TurboTax, and my advice to you is not to get it.

American airport hysteria

I love this article from Patrick Smith at Salon.com. It’s on the subject of American hysteria when it comes to airport security, and it references all of the overblown and recent responses of the TSA and other individuals charged with security at American airports. Since when have we become such a nation of frightened ninnies?

“This country needs to get a grip. We need a slap in the face, a splash of cold water.”

“What caused the delays and what hassled so many travelers was not the defendant’s actions, but our mindless and hysterical response to them.”

“Here in this proclaimed new “age of terrorism,” we act as if the clock began ticking on Sept. 11, 2001. In truth we’ve been dealing with this stuff for decades. Not only in the 1980s, but throughout the ’60s and ’70s as well. Acts of piracy and sabotage are far fewer today.”

“Imagine the Karachi attack happening tomorrow. Imagine TWA 847 happening tomorrow. Imagine six successful terror attacks against commercial aviation in a five-year span. The airline industry would be paralyzed, the populace frozen in abject fear. It would be a catastrophe of epic proportion — of wall-to-wall coverage and, dare I suggest, the summary surrender of important civil liberties.”

“What is it about us, as a nation, that has made us so unable to remember, and unable to cope?”

Patrick isn’t the only one upset about this. I wrote about our overblown airport security rules in the past — see this article, and this one, and this as well.

All I can say is that hope can be glimpsed across the pond, in Europe. Having flown through multiple European airports this past year, I can tell you things appear more rational there. Even when there are extra security checks, the tone is calm, the demeanor is calm, and you’re not eyed with suspicious eyes, like you are here in the US, where everything is seen as a threat.

Healthcare in Romania

 

There are two options for the person requiring care: the public healthcare system, financed by the government, where one is supposed to be cared for without cost if they hold medical insurance, and the private healthcare system, which is not really a system but is made up of different, unrelated private clinics or hospitals, where one must pay all expenses out of pocket. Let’s look at each system in more detail.

Public healthcare

I believe there are three main problems plaguing public healthcare in Romania:

  1. Widespread corruption at all levels of care. Bribes must be paid to hospital directors, managers, doctors and nurses, and sometimes even to hospital guards, if you are to get any competent care other than a daily temperature and blood pressure check until you check out or expire, whichever comes first.
  2. Incompetent personnel, due to:
    1. An inefficient medical education system, staffed with teachers and professors who care more about furthering their own careers, brown-nosing and getting bribes than teaching students how to be proper nurses and doctors.
    2. An unwillingness on the part of most students and medical personnel to put in the effort to acquire the knowledge they need to do their jobs right.
  3. Old facilities and equipment. Hospitals and clinics lack the funds to maintain the infrastructure properly, so all of them are run-down, cold in winter, hot in the summers, with drafty rooms and hallways where you’re likely to catch pneumonia, with bathrooms that have leaky faucets and leaky toilets, mostly left uncleaned, smelly, wet and old, with metal beds that date way back from the 1st or 2nd world war (I’m not kidding about this), and with mattresses that have seen more than their fair share of human bodies and bodily fluids. When it comes to equipment, it’s mostly non-existent, other than basic X-ray machines.

Sure, there are exceptions. There are some doctors and nurses who don’t ask for bribes. And there are some medical personnel who are competent at their jobs — they know how to do them and take the time and effort to put their knowledge to good use. But if you think the two groups contain the same people, you are probably mistaken. It’s usually the doctors who are the most competent that demand the bigger bribes, though it could be that a really good doctor or nurse may also be the one who doesn’t ask for or accept bribes. There’s no way to tell, really. It’s like taking a potshot in the dark. You’ll go to get some care and may end up with a butcher or a blundering fool who only makes things worse, and you may also end up paying him or her plenty of money for the shoddy treatment.

On some level, I understand why the corruption exists. Salaries for government-paid doctors and nurses are very low — janitors at profitable private businesses usually make more money than doctors in government hospitals — but that’s still no excuse for the endemic corruption. While salaries are low, medical personnel have also gotten used to asking for money from each and every patient, to the point where they expect it for the littlest thing and won’t help you if you don’t pay. There’s a ridiculous, infuriating sense of entitlement among most, if not all of them. Somehow they’ve gotten to think you owe them money simply for looking at you. That’s not right.

If only they’d take the time to study more, to get better at their craft, I, along with the millions of Romanians who visit hospitals, would feel better about paying extra to get care, but most are ignorant of any new developments in their fields. They only know enough to get by on routine matters. As soon as there are complications, they’ll take your money for a consultation, then tell you to go see this other doctor, who’ll ask for his share, then send you along to another, and so on and so forth until you’ve seen seven, eight, nine, ten doctors, have spent a month’s or two months’ salary on bribes, and you’re still no closer to getting treated right or cured. They’ll all nod their head, promise to help, take your money, run their tests, then scratch their heads and say they’re not sure what’s going on, that you’ll need to come see them again in a little while, etc., while happily fleecing you.

When it comes to government nurses, they won’t administer the injections or infusions or obey the doctors’ orders if you don’t slip them a bill, or some coffee, or chocolate, or whatever. It has to be something a little more expensive than just some candy or a trinket, and let me tell, when you’re being seen by four or five nurses and you need to make sure each of them gets something, it gets expensive. It’s so sad to visit hospitals and see all the old people on small pensions walk about with sad looks on their faces, mostly ignored by the nurses who are supposed to care for them, simply because they can’t afford to bribe them.

Private healthcare

There is hope when it comes to Romanian healthcare, and as is usual in a free enterprise system, it’s found in the private arena, where there are financial incentives for those willing to take some risks and make some investments in buildings, medical equipment and qualified personnel.

There are private clinics and hospitals, completely separate and unrelated to the government, where you can get competent care if you have the money to pay for it. Truth be told, it may end up costing you less than government healthcare if you add up all the extra costs involved with bribing government personnel.

Only the best doctors and nurses get hired in the private clinics and hospitals, are paid good salaries, are forbidden from taking bribes, and these facilities are equipped with the latest devices needed for proper patient care. There are entire hospitals and sanatoriums placed in beautiful locations in the mountains, where you can go to spend a few weeks to relax and get allopathic or natural, holistic treatments. There’s an entire gamut of options available to those willing to pay out of pocket.

For example, let’s say you need to run a whole battery of tests to see how your body is doing. You can go to the local government hospital, see and bribe a doctor to get some tests, then go to five or six different labs inside the hospital to run those tests, bribe your way through each place, then come back to the doctor in a few days to give him or her more money to look at the test results and tell you what’s going on. Or you can check into a private clinic, where for a fixed cost, you will spend a few days in a clean, private room with proper heating and cooling, pick your food from a menu, have your meals served to you, be able to take showers in a clean bathroom, be seen by caring, competent doctors and nurses, and get accurate test results interpreted properly. That’s the difference.

I should mention that private doctors’ offices aren’t the same thing as privately-run clinics and hospitals. Many government doctors also keep private offices, and will actually force people who come to see them in hospitals to go to their private offices and pay out of pocket to get the same care they could get for free in hospitals, but the care patients get there is just as bad as inside hospitals, and the facilities are usually just as unhygienic and inefficient. No, you must seek out professional private clinics and hospitals if you want to get the serious care I mentioned above.

Possible solutions

I think you know by now which option I would pick if I were to get sick in Romania, and for good reason. That’s not to say public healthcare can’t be fixed. In recent years, there’s been a serious push against corruption in Romania, at all levels of government, not just in healthcare, driven by the EU, but they haven’t made much headway other than talking about it and putting up posters in government agencies. Much more needs to be done, and it needs to start first with better salaries for medical personnel, probably double or triple what they are now.

Corruption in Romania is a very serious problem, one that requires an organization with teeth, one that can and does take immediate action against infractors, and where the identity of the person reporting incidents of corruption is kept top secret. Sadly, the system is still stacked against those willing to report it. Think for a moment what happens to someone who wishes to report a doctor who asks for money. First, they won’t get the treatment they need, and they may have an urgent medical problem, and then, if their identity is leaked, word about them spreads like wildfire, and no medical personnel at that hospital will want to treat them — and it may be the only government hospital or clinic in town. So people usually shut up and pay up, because they want to get on with their lives, not cause problems for themselves and for others.

Until the problems of corruption and salaries and public healthcare infrastructure get resolved, I would encourage people to use private healthcare options, if they can afford it. The more people use private healthcare, the more affordable and accessible it will get over time, and the more incentive there will be for the government to fix public healthcare.

Republicans move to block net neutrality

The latest push to get the net neutrality bill passed met with resistance from Republicans and Comcast, one of the large American ISPs. Apparently they think the market regulates itself. It would, in a perfect world, but not in one where politicians working hand in hand with ISP lobbyists move to block any measures that would encourage real competition and require increases in broadband speeds, which is what the US politicians across both sides of the aisle have been doing for the past decade.

Is it any wonder then that broadband internet still sucks in the US? I say 5 Mbps broadband at $20/month or less ought to be legislated as a minimum, and all ISPs ought to be forced to offer it as one of their monthly subscription options. That would teach them a lesson they deserve.

Read the Bill, Congress!

The US Congress recently passed the Cap and Trade Bill without reading through the over 1200-page document, which more than likely contained more pork than a Louisiana farmer’s pantry. It was a bill drafted by lobbyists and edited in closed door committees, paving the way for tons of very lucrative government contracts and taxes that will surely pad many insiders’ pockets for decades to come.

Now they’re getting ready to fast-track the House Health Care Bill, another over 1000-page document, introduced as H.R. 3200, which no one will likely read, except the lobbyists drafting it and the few congressmen whose larder needs refilling as the way for the bill is greased through the inner workings of our illustrious Congress.

What’s to be done about this? At the very least, Congress should bother to read the bills before they vote and sign them. Pretty simple, right?

That’s why the Sunlight Foundation came up with ReadtheBill.org, a website which proposes a simple rule: post all bills online for 72 hours before they are debated. This was introduced as H. Res. 554 — a change to the House resolutions — and is slowly making its way through the approval process thanks to people like you and me, who are bugging our representatives to vote for it. The 72 hour delay would give constituents a decent amount of time during which to read through the proposed bills and see if they need to act.

I endorse the 72 Hour Rule

Let’s not forget President Obama promised his own 5-day delay on signing any new bills during his campaign, but has almost never respected that promise. So we’ve got a Congress and a President that don’t really bother to read all the bills they’re signing, and don’t even want to pretend like they’re doing it — at least not yet. It’s a grand example they’re setting for the rest of the world, isn’t it? They’re passing bills they haven’t read, and they’re telling us everything is on the up and up, and we have nothing to worry about, because they’re hard at work on fixing America. Whoopee!

Please tell your friends about ReadtheBill.org. Go there, sign the online petition, and bug your Representatives to pass the 72-hour rule.

Read The Bill from Sunlight Foundation on Vimeo.

Wondering when California's budget is going to get fixed

One great thing about California is they’re not allowed to go into debt, like the federal government. They must always balance their budget. And yet the California legislature has failed to address this problem and has let deadline after deadline slip by, in seeming mockery, in spite of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s continued pleas and coaxing. When in the world will they get their act together?

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s weekly address, 7/3/09

Governor discusses state budget in weekly address

Anyone from California care to clue me in? Seems to me the legislature’s stalling because they have their own agenda and want to spite Schwarzenegger. What he’s saying makes sense to me. Is there another side to this story that I don’t know about?