Dynamist Blog

The Toothpaste Threat

Blogger Jim Hu links to a detailed Baltimore Sun article on how businesses are helping air travelers navigate the liquid ban, and he wonders why duty-free perfume and alcohol are considered a threat.

Kidney Blogging Cont'd

A Presbyterian minister in New Jersey has donated his kidney to one of his congregants. According to this account from the Home News Tribune, Rick Oppelt was quick to volunteer, but his congregation was shocked by the decision.

Trapp's 60-year-old brother offered to donate one of his kidneys, but he wasn't a blood-type match. As she updated a friend about her condition after Sunday services at the Oak Tree Road [sic] Presbyterian Church last summer, the Rev. Rick Oppelt, the church pastor, overheard her say she was an O-postive blood type.

"He said, "I'm O-positive. You can have one of my kidneys, Carol.' I thought he was joking," Trapp said.

So she shrugged off the offer. But the prospect of grueling hours of dialysis kept her up at night.

Trapp called Oppelt and asked him if he was serious about donating a kidney.

"He said he was, but when I asked him if he had told his family, he said he told them "in passing,' " Trapp said. "I said you better think about this and you have to talk to your wife.' "

Oppelt's wife, Jo, called Trapp, telling her she thought her husband's offer admirable. Tomorrow, Oppelt will undergo surgery to give Trapp his left kidney....

Oppelt said he only announced his decision to donate his kidney recently.

"The whole congregation let out a collective gasp," he said.

In the near future, I hope such decisions will not produce gasps. Kidney donation is not only a life-saving act but, compared to many other risky things people do, a reasonably safe one. Donors with O-positive blood like Oppelt's are especially needed.

Unfortunately, as is all too common on the kidney-donation beat, there were many stories about Oppelt's donation before the surgery but so far I haven't seen any followup reports. UPDATE: According to this news story, both Oppelt and Trapp are doing well--despite a nurses' strike at the hospital where the transplant took place.

The Rocky Mountain News argues for incentives for organ donors.

The medical establishment has long considered it anathema to allow donors or their survivors to "profit" from their beneficence. The worry is that poor people will sell their organs out of financial desperation and thus in some cases compromise their health. But there are ways to minimize the risk that such a fully open market might pose.

For example, Washington could alleviate the shortage by considering pilot programs. One idea is federal income tax relief along the lines of laws operating in eight states, including Utah. Those states offer up to $10,000 in income-tax deductions to repay donors' travel expenses and lost wages.

Another possibility: "futures" contracts, in which recipients would pay up front some of the funeral expenses of those who elect to donate organs at death.

And the medical establishment should drop its objections to organizations like MatchingDonors.com. This site lets organ recipients find willing live donors and make transplantation arrangements privately.

We're certainly not comfortable endorsing a full-fledged market in organs, a regime that would allow donors to auction kidneys on eBay. But the current system is not compassionate; it amounts to a death sentence for thousands of Americans each year.

Ethicists and medical professionals need to acknowledge that fact and consider life-affirming alternatives.

On a lighter note, my three-kidneyed friend Sally Satel passes on this link to a transcript of a very funny fourth season South Park episode featuring less-than-voluntary kidney donation and a spoof of quack medicine.

Price Check, Aisle 3

This A.P. feature profiles a price checker for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, giving just a few hints of the difficult issues involved.

She enters the price for each item into her computer. In the case of the bologna, Gaffney is perplexed. She took down the price as $2.49. But her computer tells her that on her last visit the price was $1.99. After some investigating, Gaffney realizes she grabbed the wrong item this time -- the higher-priced all-beef light bologna.

The price of Boston lettuce had increased from $1.69 on Gaffney's last visit. She hunts down one of the store's produce workers to find out why, but he does not have any insights.

Stores let Gaffney and others collect price information on a confidential basis.

What are some of the more challenging tasks for the price hunters? They include the price for a pair of eyeglasses, for leasing or repairing a car, or for anything related to health -- because of all the details involved. Clothing can be complicated, too.

"If it is a seasonal item, most likely it is going to be gone the next time you go there. You got to look all over for it and make sure you got it," Gaffney says.

If the store is out of the item, Gaffney has the tedious and often time-consuming task of finding a substitute product that is as close to the original as possible.

For instance, Gaffney might be forced to find a substitute for a woman's blouse with the following specifications: sleeveless, 85 percent cotton, 15 percent rayon. Made in Malaysia for a national brand. Does it have any special features, such as appliques, embroidery or beadwork? What's the hip length?

Determining the inflation rate requires a lot more subjective judgments than the precise numbers you see in the paper might suggest. I discussed some of the complexities, especially regarding quality improvements, in this NYT column and, more recently, in this Forbes column.

Free Agents Have Job Security

As journalists all over the place face layoffs, Cathy Seipp explains the advantages of diversifying your employer portfolio:

But I've always felt more job security as a freelance writer than I did as a newspaper staffer. And even [Barbara] Ehrenreich admitted at the PBS press conference that as a freelance writer, she's probably better off now than most of the traditional media types in the audience.

I know how she felt. If I were to lose one of my regular gigs, for instance, I'd be unhappy; but unlike the laid-off staffer, my income wouldn't suddenly plummet to zero. In a world of constant corporate downsizing, anyone who doesn't realize this is sadly out of date.

Several years ago, as it happens, a veteran editor doing some consulting work at a local mid-sized newspaper offered me a staff job. Knowing the paper's legendary cheapness, I explained that I doubted they'd be able to come up with as much money I made freelancing - and it would have to be a LOT more for me to even bother thinking about it.

"Why would it have to be MORE," he asked, sounding genuinely shocked. "What about the SECURITY?"

Now I was shocked. This guy had been in the business half-a-century, witnessing God knows how many tanking media enterprises and in-with-the-new, out-with-the-old staff reorganizations, and he still could use the words "security" and "newspapers" in the same sentence without laughing?

I guess so. But as I explained, he'd have to count me out of that particular deadpan club.

The job market is tough on people who've relied on their employer's brands for security. Tom Peters gets mocked a lot for his rhetorical excesses, but he got this one very right: "We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You." If you're indistinguishable from every other potential employee, why should I hire you? And if I do hire you, why should I pay more than the bare minimum? On the flip side, if you've got a desirable brand, why should you stay in a lousy job situation, especially when the bosses are encouraging "voluntary" departures?

Go With What You Know

The Chrysler PT Cruiser is the classic example of what Mickey Kaus called a cartoon car: "It's a costume, not a car--a prop for people whose lives are so futureless and featureless they'd dress up in '50s clothing and go to 'sock hops.' Costumes are fun for a few hours, but most days aren't Halloween." I'm not nuts about the look either, but it's unique and gives a certain segment of car buyers a reason to pick this car, making the PT Cruiser is a success in the marketplace. Now Chrysler is thinking about dumping the retro look. That, warns Forbes car guy Jerry Flint, would be a very bad idea:

So how can Chrysler screw it up? At last report, the company is trying to decide whether to add a V-6 in the next re-do. The current PT is a four-cylinder. Adding a V-6 would make it bigger and heavier, more expensive and thirstier for gasoline. That does not seem like the right thing to do today.

Such a move would be bad enough, but here's worse news (and I am quoting Automotive News, which usually gets its facts straight): "Another issue is styling. Retro and cutesy are out of fashion. Expect the next-generation PT Cruiser to be more of a straight-up Toyota RAV4 fighter with the retro elements played down."

The word is that Chrysler may even be thinking about changing the name on the new model, which is due in three or four years.

If all this is true, we are talking about wrecking the most original and successful vehicle seen in Detroit in years. It is no secret that designers hate retro. They think that borrowing from the past is an insult to their sensitive talents. Cute is also a problem, because when companies get successful, they believe they are too serious and too important to have cars that look "cute."...

What distinguishes the PT from all the other small wagons--Mazda Motor's Mazda5, Honda's CRV, GM's Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Motor's Matrix or the Ford Focus--is that look. Take it away, and the PT Cruiser is just another small wagon. The truth is, Toyota and Honda still build them better than Chrysler. Eliminate the great look, and the PT--or whatever Chrysler will call it--becomes a second-rater.

He ends with a good tale of how the funny-looking car got designed in the first place.

What Are State Universities For?

This USA Today feature by Mary Beth Marklein highlights the complaints of OK-but-not-great in-state students who find themselves turned down at state universities to make way for better out-of-state students who also pay much higher tuition. Taxpayers are peeved that their kids aren't entitled to the education they paid for, and they're winning some political allies.

"It was anathema to me that this university is funded by taxpayers who are being denied acceptance while out-of-state [students] are allowed to come in," says state representative Jim McGee of Florence. He said he introduced the bill after getting calls from South Carolina alumni whose kids had been rejected. "They're not allowed to go, even if they had a very solid academic portfolio."

This debate isn't that different from the one about racial quotas at state universities: Shouldn't student bodies represent (proportionately, in the case of racial categories) the people who pay the bills? Is a state-funded education a transfer entitlement--between taxpayers and state residents of college age--or is it a public good--a way of raising the human capital of the state and spurring economic growth to benefit everyone? Over the long run, is it politically feasible to fund necessarily elitist institutions of academic and research excellence through taxes?

If a state university system is supposed to be a public good, it should, at least at its flagship, try harder to attract and retain high achievers than to placate every mediocre high school grad. The most promising students don't want, or need, a repeat of high school, and neither do their professors. While I'm skeptical of claims to giant spillovers from state-funded institutions, my natural sympathies lie with the folks trying against all odds to raise the quality of "the other" USC (a task that was much more easily accomplished at the real, private USC, partly because it has fierce academic competition from state-funded rivals).

"We're trying to import intellectual capital," says Dennis Pruitt, vice president for student affairs at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The state faces flat growth in high school graduates over the next decade.

With appropriations steadily decreasing in recent years and making up about 23% of the university's operating budget, he also takes a swipe at lawmakers: "If our state legislators and others would like us to serve the citizens of South Carolina, then fund us adequately."

In fact, the citizens of South Carolina, in my admittedly jaded experience, get exactly the intellectual capital they want--which is to say, a continuing outflow. Maybe South Carolina policy makers should try to get North Carolina and Georgia to stop taking out-of-state students at state universities.

On the public good/industrial question, Austan Goolsbee's most recent NYT Economic Scene column (free PDF) suggests reasons for pessimism.

The Terrorists Have Won

For a two-day reporting trip to Phoenix, I couldn't bear the thought of checking luggage. So I relied on solids for makeup and deodorant and bought travel-size toothpaste, shampoo (better than the hotel's), and lotion at Target when I got in. I went without sunscreen--a hazard in a climate that certainly wasn't intended for blue-eyed blondes with extremely pale skin. I now realize I could have brought stick sunscreen, though only at the risk of making my face break out. What a pain. The NYT's Anna Bahney has advice for traveling women. She doesn't, however, deal with the shaving cream question for men.

It's pretty clear what the next hotel perks will be. Bahney's sidebar reports some early indicators.

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