Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: March 2011

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Protecting privacy -- and hindering competition?

Google buzz logo The Federal Trade Commission's action this week against Google and its Google Buzz social-networking initiative is largely a reminder that the FTC will crack down on companies that violate their own privacy policies. But the commission went an important step further: the consent order it tentatively adopted says that if Google changes its products or services, it must obtain its customers' permission first before disclosing personal information to third parties in ways not previously contemplated.

Such an "opt in" requirement is much tougher than ordering Google to notify users of changes and give them the chance to opt out. Many privacy advocates prefer the opt-in approach because it's more likely to cause people to consider the implications of a service before signing up for it. In other words, personal information is kept private unless the user chooses to allow its disclosure. With opt out, information is disclosable by default, and users have to take steps to stop that from happening.

But there's a flip side to opt in, as communications lawyer and Technology Liberation Front blogger Berin Szoka points out. The requirement makes it harder for established Web companies to alter their services in order to enter new markets. In this instance, Google tried to shift Gmail users automatically into a new social networking service that aimed to compete with Facebook. But with an opt-in requirement, Google can't take that kind of shortcut -- it has to ask people explicitly for permission to share their information with others in a new way. That's a potentially insurmountable hurdle for a service such as Buzz, where the utility isn't immediately apparent.

Of course, Buzz had problems long before the FTC weighed in. Blowback from the public and privacy advocates led Google to quickly give Gmail users far more control over how much of their personal information Buzz released. But the FTC's action is likely to affect companies far beyond Google. That's because settlements and consent decrees it strikes are often viewed as setting the ground rules for everyone in the field.

As Szoka notes, upstarts don't have to worry about the opt-in rule because they're starting from scratch with their privacy policies. And maybe the next great competitor to such Web giants as Facebook and Google will be a disruptive newcomer, not a member of the tech establishment. Still, it's easier for a company that already has a huge following (and economies of scale) to challenge a company that operates at the scale of a Facebook.

That's not to say the opt-in standard is the wrong one. People should be able to choose how sensitive personal information is shared before it's shared. I just think Szoka is right that it's worth considering the trade-off.


Technology: In living Color

AT&T/T-Mobile merger: But what about consumers?

The Internet: Americans have gone from loving a good deal to loving a good steal

-- Jon Healey

Pension reform isn't as dead as the state budget deal

Brown Gov. Jerry Brown, trying to seize the reform high ground from Republican lawmakers, released today seven specific legislative proposals to curb abuses with public employee pensions and shore up pension-fund reserves. None of them are as dramatic as the Little Hoover Commission's proposal to roll back the future benefits accrued by current state employees, but they're meaningful nonetheless. Brown also indicated that he's developing five more pension proposals, including potentially contentious plans to cap pensions and create an optional "hybrid" plan that combines a smaller pension with Social Security benefits and a 401(k).

The announcement has intriguing implications for Brown's effort to close the state's $26.6-billion budget gap. Negotiations with GOP lawmakers over a ballot measure to extend about $12 billion in temporary taxes broke down this week, all but assuring that voters will not consider the tax extensions in June. Pension reform was of the top items the GOP had sought in exchange for letting voters consider the tax issue. If the legislature moves ahead on significant changes to state worker pensions, that bargaining chip would effectively be taken off the table.

The proposals Brown announced Thursday include ones to bar current and future state and local government workers from buying "airtime," or service credit that inflates their pensions; require workers to cover all the "normal cost" of their pension plans, rather than having their employers pay all or part of it; consider only base pay, not pay plus bonuses or payments for unused leave, when calculating pensions; ban retroactive pension increases; and base benefits on the average annual pay over 36 months, not 12 as in current law. All of these steps would reduce the potential size of pensions or their cost to the taxpayers.

Brown also would bar agencies from waiving their own contributions to pension funds, requiring instead that they cover at least the annual cost. And he would ban pensions for public employees who commit a felony "related to their employment."

The additional bills still under development would, in addition to capping pension benefits and creating an optional hybrid plan, limit the ability of state workers to hold public jobs while collecting a pension and make unspecified improvements to pension-fund governance and the financial health of the state teacher retirement fund.


Both sides must get back to the negotiating table, or the state will suffer

Two ways to a tax vote

Fixing a harebrained tax system

Holes in the safety net

-- Jon Healey

Credit: AP Photo / Rich Pedroncelli

Where are the literary boy geniuses?

Time magazine's website profiles Jacob Barnett, an 11-year-old genius, a Doogie Howser without the medical degree, who may be about to disprove Einstein's Theory of Relativity. The kids knows his stuff -- I guess, since I'm a mathematical semi-literate. If you want to see the little know-it-all in action, Time has a video of him teaching calculus II techniques.

I always have the same question when I read one of these stories: Where are the verbal prodigies? A 12-year-old who can disprove relativity is pretty special, but so would be a 12-year-old who wrote a sublime sonnet or the great American novel. Yet you almost never see that sort of wunderkind on TV.

My theory: Producing great literature requires experience and reflection, not just an IQ of 170.

-- Michael McGough


Debate: Are children better off with older mothers?

Birth Rates A new report released by the National Center for Health Statistics finds that birth rates fell 4% from 2007 to 2009. Our health blog Booster Shots lists some of the most interesting facts including: "Birth rates fell for all women except those 40 and older." Which raises an important question: As society changes, are children better off with older mothers?

In January, Elizabeth Gregory, author of "Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood" contributed an Op-Ed article on the subject, in which she cheered for "tighter belts, later bumps."

Holding off on kids, women have discovered, provides a shadow benefits system in a nation whose policies aren't very family friendly. Waiting to have children until we've finished our educations and established ourselves at work translates into higher wages long-term (one study found a 3% wage boost per year of delay, and others have found even greater returns). Gaining job experience and your employer's trust pays off in more of the flexibility that helps families thrive. In addition, kids benefit from increased maternal education and clout. And, handily, the later your age at first birth, the longer you're likely to live (higher wages buy better healthcare), so chances are good you'll see your kids grow up. [...]

Delaying children has allowed a "trickle up" of women into policy-making roles in business and government. As a result, for the first time in history, women are getting a say in the shaping of the nation's rules and priorities. Women's presence in the business world has led to more family-friendly work options. Once a critical mass of female policymakers who support families is achieved, they should make it easier for all parents, at whatever age they start their families, to combine raising a family with fair wages and a career. The women delaying now could make it less necessary for women to delay in years to come. But we're not there yet.

Monica B. Morris, author of "Last-Chance Children: Growing Up with Older Parents," took another view. In a rebuttal to Gregory's article, she argued:  

Among the perceived disadvantages were that their parents were less energetic than younger parents and less able to be physically active with the children. These parents were likely to be afflicted with age-related problems when their children were not yet middle-aged. Older fathers were especially more likely to die when their offspring were in their teens or even younger.

Late parenting brings a double generation gap. Older parents are farther removed from feeling young and newly aware of one's sexuality. Less important, perhaps, but real to children, is their embarrassment that their parents are often mistaken for their grandparents. Children born to older parents are more likely to be in two-generation families rather than those that have grandparents or great-grandparents. This means that many children will not have grandparents for long, if at all. [...]

My research indicates that the late-born children who felt most happy as children -- who never thought about their parents' ages -- were those whose parents spent a lot of time with them, even if they couldn't roll around on the floor with them. Mothers who have attained "policy-making roles in business and government" will certainly need support, other than financial, to fulfill this precious need.

Now here's another stat to mull over: Fewer families are having more than two children.


Big ears and big kids

Milking parents in La Cañada

What's behind our obsessive Amy Chua disorder?

Pope Benedict and children's names: Britney doesn't have a prayer

Mixed messages for today's schoolchildren

-- Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo credit: Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times

March 31, 2011 buzz: Obama doctrine; California budget mess; presenting Vin Scully

Most viewed: Obama flirts with a doctrine

President Obama and his aides wave off the idea that an Obama doctrine is developing before our eyes, but it sure does seem that way. In his Thursday column, Doyle McManus points to all of the indicators.

Most commented: California budget breakdown

If the two sides can't get back to the negotiating table, writes the editorial board, neither Republicans nor Democrats will realize their goals -- and the state will suffer.

According to readers, the state will also suffer if:

-- The 3rd Great GOP Depression continues (Whittier5)

-- Republicans won't come around to caring about issues outside of their own interests:  selfishness and greed (affableman)

-- California produces an uneducated workforce because the state can no longer afford to provide adequate public education (Archibald)

-- Gridlock continues to interfere with democracy (maximusb30)

-- The glut of bureaucracy and infrastructure strangle the state’s entrepreneurs (sean7k)

-- If unions continue to wield power over Gov. Jerry Brown (edwardskizer)

Most shared: With Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, it's always more than pleasant good

On the occasion of Vin Scully beginning his 62nd season as the Dodgers' announcer, the Op-Ed pages feature this lovely tribute written by contributor Jon Winokur.

Baseball is a quotidian game, and moments like a Koufax no-hitter are so rare as to be statistically insignificant. Most of what happens between the lines is unremarkable by any objective standard. But game by game, inning by inning, Vin makes it all special. He paints a picture, and his signature expressions are the brush strokes.

Read on for some of Scully’s famous one-liners and the Vin Scully lexicon.


Newt Gingrich’s loaded sentence

Disclosing calories

Helping women abroad

Rethinking the death penalty

L.A.'s prostitution hub

-- Alexandra Le Tellier

Food safety: Should canned foods come with a warning label?

Canned Foods Although smokers may not like reading the warning labels on cigarettes, at least they know that they're consuming a product that comes with health risks. Should consumers of canned goods also get the benefit of a warning label? Most might not realize that their canned food has been bathing in BPA, a chemical linked to breast and prostate cancer, as well as infertility, early puberty in girls, obesity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. (A recent study found Del Monte Fresh Cut Green Beans to be the worst offender.)

Those in the food industry argue that they follow food-safety regulations and that there really aren't cost-effective substitutes to cans.

And maybe BPA isn't as bad as it seems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website, "Finding a measurable amount of BPA in the urine does not mean that the levels of BPA cause an adverse health effect." It says "more research is needed to understand the human health effects of exposure to BPA."

Jon Entine, author of "Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health," adds to the conversation, saying that the public ought not to be fueled by anxiety created by advocacy groups and "the breathless media":  

It's critical to examine the consequences of banning a particular chemical. Among its myriad uses, BPA can be found in can liners that increase the shelf life of food and prevent botulism, which is a genuine health threat. There are no effective substitutes. Ban BPA and people are likely to die. …

Tofu is more estrogenic than BPA. …

[S]cientists must remain open to new evidence. We are developing sophisticated tools to evaluate exposure to chemicals, including examining their impacts on genes and hormonal system. If the weight of evidence shifts, we have to be prepared to tighten regulations.

This is reassuring, especially considering that BPA is in plastic bottles, on receipts, even on money. Still, I'm in favor of warning labels on cans so that consumers can make informed decisions.

If you're among those who are nervous about long-lasting harms caused by BPA in canned food, Los Angeles Times reporter Susan Carpenter has good news over on our environment blog, Greenspace ("Want to reduce BPA exposure?").

-- Alexandra Le Tellier

Decoding Vin Scully

Vin Scully In Thursday's Opinion pages, author Jon Winokur pays tribute to Vin Scully, who begins his 62nd season as the Dodgers' announcer.

Vinny -- the fan intends no disrespect -- is gifted with such powers of description that he is called "the poet laureate of baseball." But he knows when to keep quiet: He uses crowd noise the way a painter uses negative space, silently letting the energy resonate. He also knows precisely when to start talking again in that genial baritone, speaking just to you.

Winokur also nods his hat to some of Scully's one-liners, such as: Bob Gibson "pitches as though he's double-parked." That's not all. Click after the jump for the official Vin Scully lexicon.

Continue reading »

How hard should it be to form a union?

UnionA new front in the battle over union power opens this week in the House of Representatives, when lawmakers debate the ability of labor unions to organize railway and airline workers. And though some recent GOP efforts to rein in labor have seemed like partisan politics masquerading as government reform (e.g., the bids to eviscerate public employees' collective bargaining rights), on this one I think the Republicans are right. But as usual, it's not as clear-cut an issue as advocates on either side would have you believe.

The dispute centers on the National Mediation Board's decision to reinterpret a provision of the 1926 Railway Labor Act regarding the right of employees at railroads and air carriers to unionize. The law states, "The majority of any craft or class of employees shall have the right to determine who shall be the representative of the craft or class for the purposes of this chapter." The federal government had long interpreted "majority" in this instance to mean a majority of the workers who were eligible to vote on whether to form a union. But in mid-2010, two Democratic appointees on the board pushed through a new interpretation, over the objections of the board's Republican chairman. From that point on, "majority" meant just the majority of those casting ballots.

The change made it easier for workers to form unions by effectively reducing the number of votes needed to win an election. Under the previous rule, every eligible voter who didn't cast a ballot was effectively counted as a "no" vote. The new interpretation confines the "no" votes to those who actually cast a ballot against the union.

This outraged some airlines ...

Continue reading »

March 30, 2011 buzz: Taxing sugary drinks won't work; calling foul on Newt Gingrich

Most viewed and commented: The soda tax fallacy

Levies won't deter consumers from sugary drinks, writes David Gratzer, a physician and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Just look at the Big Mac, he says:  

Follow the Big Mac's history over the last quarter-century and you'll find a trend. While the Big Mac never changes — two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun, as the old jingle reminds us — its price often fluctuates. Occasionally, the price drops. Yet over time, modest price increases of as much as 10 or 20 cents a year outpaced inflation. In 2010, the Economist priced the sandwich at $3.58. Adjust for CPI, and that's a 12.5% real increase over Big Mac prices in 2000.

Despite frequent price increases, America continues to have Big Mac attacks, with the company selling more than 550 million of the sandwiches every year. If customers aren't buying these burgers, it's often because they're ordering other McDonald's products — like the Angus Bacon and Cheese burger, with 45% more calories, 35% more fat and twice the sodium of a Big Mac.

Read on for what might work instead.

Most shared: Gingrich on the radical Islamist wing of secular atheism

Will Newt Gingrich will say anything to fatten his base? That’s the impression he gave with a triple whammy sentence he recently uttered about his biggest fears concerning the future of the United States.


Disclosing calories

Helping women abroad

Rethinking the death penalty

L.A.'s prostitution hub

A nonviolent, effective way we can all protest Wisconsin

-- Alexandra Le Tellier

Immigration: Review of jail fingerprint sharing program underway

Napolitano An outside expert has been hired to review the Secure Communities program.

A statistician has been brought in and is working with Department of Homeland Security's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which investigates complaints and assists in policy evaluations. Both are said to be looking at data already collected.

Under the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Program, state and local police must check the immigration status of people who have been arrested and booked into local jails by matching fingerprints against federal databases for criminal convictions and deportation orders.

Secure Communities has come under scrutiny over the last two months, after thousands of documents, including internal agency memos, were made public indicating officials were unsure if cities and counties were required to participate, or could opt out.

Concerns were also fueled by DHS own numbers that indicate more than half of the 87,534 immigrants deported under the program had minor or no criminal records, even though the program was aimed a dangerous criminals.

Secure communities was launched in late 2008. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano is asking Congress for $184 million to expand the program in fiscal year 2012.

Napolitano is right to seek outside help in crunching the numbers. It would help bring transparency and could quell critics.

Immigrant and civil rights groups oppose the program because of concerns it encourages racial profiling and pretextual arrests. At the same time, some local police chiefs and sheriffs have said they worry the program will damage their efforts at community policing in cities with large immigration populations.


Let police pursue criminals, not immigrants

-- Sandra Hernandez

Photo: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Credit: Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images



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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

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