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29 March 2007

American Exceptionalism

One fascinating aspect about political life in the United States is the prevalent notion that the country is somehow sui generis, even though a host of other countries and cultures have similar historical forces acting on them.

It is not always fair to compare Canada and the United States directly, but they share much of their colonial history, as well as a three-thousand mile border. And Canada does prove a useful counterweight to conventional wisdom on many issues. Some of these issues are ubiquitous—it is clear, for example, from Canada's example that single-payer health care can work quite well in an advanced capitalist economy.

And some issues are less so, but still important—it is also clear that the right of prisoners to vote in federal elections has hardly affected the rights of all other Canadians. Yet again, Canada gets it right, or at least more right.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/29/2007 09:39:00 PM

A Reader Writes

To paraphrase one of our dozens of readers, the good side of "March Madness" on American public television stations is that they show lots of Monty Python episodes, back to back.

Yes, this is true. And it is to be applauded. We should encourage stations to show the best of what public broadcasting has to offer. At least then the pledge-break specials will at least resemble normal programming.

In a sane country, of course, public broadcasting would have decent funding sources and could devote its energies to programming and not begging for money.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/29/2007 03:51:00 PM

26 March 2007

Don't Cut There!

Citigroup has announced plans to cut thousands of jobs and outsource them to India. But guess who is immune? The managing directors.

Under pressure from shareholders, Citigroup is planning to shed thousands of jobs and sharpen its focus on its operations outside North America.

The colossal bank will get most of its growth from its international operations, chief executive Charles O. Prince told thousands of employees in India today, as he wrapped up a tour of Asia.

Mr. Prince's stop in India comes just weeks before Citigroup will announce a broad restructuring plan that could involve the elimination or relocation of as many as 15,000 high-cost jobs from areas including New York, London and Hong Kong, several executives briefed on the matter say. The net job loss could be 10,000 to 12,000, some through attrition.

Citi's consumer operations will be hardest hit, with front line and back office operations affected, they say. The corporate and investment banking businesses may be hard hit, with several thousand jobs lost, they say.

Managers in these units have been asked to review highly paid employees and look for places to cut fat, particularly just below managing director level.

Perhaps this means that the executive suite is next on the chopping block, but one ought not hold one's breath.

By the way, the article indicated that Citigroup planned to save $1 billion with the forthcoming cuts. In 2006, five employees of Citigroup—Charles Prince, Sallie Krawcheck, Robert Rubin, Robert Druckin, and Stephen Volk—took in $78.768 million in cash, stock, options, pension benefits, and use of company aircraft. Surely there are 5 worthy Indian executives who would settle for $1 million in compensation apiece. Voiláa! The shareholders could have their value and save hundreds of jobs at the same time. But how many shareholders will actually read the proxy statement, which is "incorporated by reference" into the annual report? Probably dozens.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/26/2007 03:48:00 PM

Medical News Flash

Here is a news flash for anyone under the delusion that the letters "M.D." after someone's name made them automagically the paragon of medical ethics.

First, a tiny sliver of data reveals that lots of doctors make lots of money from consulting for pharmaceutical companies. Not that money would ever, ever, influence their behavior.

Minnesota [was] the first of a handful of states to pass a law requiring drug makers to disclose payments to doctors. The Minnesota records are a window on the widespread financial ties between pharmaceutical companies and the doctors who prescribe and recommend their products. Patient advocacy groups and many doctors themselves have long complained that drug companies exert undue influence on doctors, but the extent of such payments has been hard to quantify.

The Minnesota records begin in 1997. From then through 2005, drug makers paid more than 5,500 doctors, nurses and other health care workers in the state at least $57 million. Another $40 million went to clinics, research centers and other organizations. More than 20 percent of the state’s licensed physicians received money. The median payment per consultant was $1,000; more than 100 people received more than $100,000.

And we also find that the Federal Food and Drug Administration wants to limit its advisers to get only $50,000 from a company to serve on its advisory committees. (For reference, in 2005, the per capita income in the United States was only $25,036.)

Expert advisers to the government who receive money from a drug or device maker would be barred for the first time from voting on whether to approve that company's products under new rules announced Wednesday for the F.D.A.'s powerful advisory committees.

Indeed, such doctors who receive more than $50,000 from a company or a competitor whose product is being discussed would no longer be allowed to serve on the committees, though those who receive less than that amount in the prior year can join a committee and participate in its discussions.

A "significant number" of the agency's present advisers would be affected by the new policy, said the F.D.A. acting deputy commissioner, Randall W. Lutter, though he would not say how many. The rules are among the first major changes made by Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach since he was confirmed as commissioner of food and drugs late last year.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/26/2007 02:07:00 AM

Self-fulfilling Promises

Avedon Carol reminds us that the Republican Party, so fond of reminding Americans of the fallibility of government is, perhaps not so coincidentally, particularly good at fouling up governance.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/26/2007 02:01:00 AM

Top Notch Nominees

James Capozzola at the Rittenhouse Review makes a vital point that I should have noted last week. The brain trust behind the United States Attorney scandal represents what President Bush deemed to be worthy of Supreme Court nominations. Once upon a time, being mentioned as a candiate to fill a Supreme Court vacancy meant that one really was smart and competent and respected.

What is obviously most incredibly unbelievable about the latest Bush administration scandal—that surrounding the proposed Saturday Night Massacre of every single U.S. attorney around the country—is that the two "minds" behind the effort, the utterly incompetent, even back in Austin, Alberto Gonzales, and the quintessential Avon Lady, Harriet Miers, were considered by this very White House to be Supreme Court material.

Unbelievable. And yet, well, "par for the course," trite as that sounds, are the first words that come to mind.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/26/2007 01:55:00 AM

March Madness II

In the United States, March is one of the pledge months for the Public Broadcasting System, and pledge month means incessant "specials" in prime-time featuring such wonderful fare as "Elvis Lives" (Elvis Presley on tape but with a live backing band), Suze Orman and her magical financial blamefest, and Nicholas Perricone and his amazing dermatological cures.

What is odd about pledge drives is that they feature so much atypical PBS programming. One might expect that pledge drives might show the best of Masterpiece Theatre or a Ken Burns retrospective. And indeed, this sort of program does appear. But what one would consider the odd birds tend to dominate the programming.

PBS stations would not feature Orman or Perricone or Presley is they did not rake in the pledges. But why do they work? Are there really viewers out there who expect that Suze Orman will appear on PBS all the time? Or perhaps are they waiting with bated breath until the next time the pledge drive comes around so they can hear more about Doctor Perricone's magic elixirs? Are they disappointed when April arrives and the prime-time hours are filled with public affairs programs and dramas and science?

The television audience is truly a wonderful thing.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/26/2007 01:45:00 AM

22 March 2007

March Madness I

I do not want to pick on Greg Oden; for all I know, he enrolled at school early and took linear algebra, French literature, and comparative government in a particularly rigorous stretch of summer school. But I fear that his fall course load is more the rule than the exception for the "scholar-athletes" at major college football and basketvall programs.

College life, at least academically, has not been strenuous. Oden took two courses last semester—sociology and the history of rock 'n' roll. He acknowledges it is hard to go out in public without being bothered, or at least noticed. "I like going to the movies," he said. "I can just sit there and watch and no one bothers me."

For most students at actual institutions of higher learning, a course load like that in one's first semester means only one thing: academic probation.

The problem, of course, is that at Ohio State (and many other "colleges"), academics are far less important than athletics. How can you tell? Follow the money, as USA Today did late last year in examining the salaries and perks extended to football coaches. Adjunct professors for the students, but top salaries for what really matters!

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Posted by Tim W at 3/22/2007 06:55:00 PM

12 March 2007

The Welch Way: Out as in Outsource

We continue our almost-weekly analysis of the back pages of Business Week with the analytical stylings of Jack and Suzy Welch. Today's question is about China and India.

Which country has the best business prospects in the long run—China or India?—R--- P---, Bangalore, India

Don't we wish we knew the definitive answer to that question! Doesn't everyone? That's why there are so many books, articles, speeches, research papers, and even blogs on the topic. It seems that everyone not already playing in the global market is trying to figure out which of the two emerging powerhouses to bet on.

Our opinion is neither. Or both. Or either one. What we mean is, the choice between China and India is entirely situational. Both countries have advantages and disadvantages. The only way to pick between them, if you must, is to find the right match for your business. That means figuring out which country is best equipped to help you win. It's as simple as that.

O.K., maybe determining that match isn't so simple. There's tons of information out there, lots of it contradictory, and most big companies have already sorted through it all for their own conclusions. But for a small or midsize company still in the process of considering globalization, we would offer a four-part framework as a way to think through the China-India conundrum. It's based on the assumption that economies have four ingredients that facilitate success: political stability, infrastructure, local and export markets, and the "human grrr factor"—not a technical term, but you know what we mean. China and India each have some portion of these ingredients. The question is not which has more. It's which has the right amount for you.

I was merciful on you, our dozens of readers, by not quoting the passage that comments about the "sheer ferocity of the Chinese" as if there were some sort of inverse Yellow Peril. But what is particularly awesome about the full-page, logorrheic answer to the simple question is how amazingly it demonstrates the allure of outsourcing.

China and India are countries with millions of desperately poor persons, but also with millions of enterprising, driven, smart men and women. Surely there are well-versed and educated Indians and Chinese who would jump at the chance to write an "Ideas" column for Business Week every week for a fraction of the current cost to the publishers. I think that Business Week ought to spend a bit of time to recruit candidates and have them write a few guest columns each.

The experiment could only improve what is there now.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/12/2007 01:17:00 AM

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Privatization of government services has proven so effective in other aspects of efficient, accountable government that it was inevitable that the Bush administration would do the right thing by letting tax lawyers write some tax rules.

The Internal Revenue Service is asking tax lawyers and accountants who create tax shelters and exploit loopholes to take the lead in writing some of its new tax rules.

The pilot project represents a further expansion of the increasingly common federal government practice of asking outsiders to do more of its work, prompting academics and other critics to complain that the government is going too far.

They worry that having private lawyers and accountants draft tax rules could allow them to subtly skew them in favor of their clients.

Of course lawyers with clients would would like to take advantage of tax loopholes would never leave such loopholes open. Doing so would be putting their clients interests first, and in order to do that they would need to be following years of industry practice. It would never happen that way in real life.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/12/2007 01:10:00 AM

Don't Ruin It By Talking

It is a good thing for his bank account that Cincinnati Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo employs an egent to negotiate his contracts. Otherwise, he might do something stupid.

Reds starter Bronson Arroyo says he's often asked by other pitchers to describe Jason Varitek. "It's hard to describe it any other way than you say if you're going to go on a hunting trip in Antarctica, and you're hunting grizzlies, and you don't know much about it and you're kind of tagging along, you always want that one guy that you know can get you out of any situation," said Arroyo.

Good luck finding any bears in Antarctica. And if you're "tagging along" in such a situation, do make sure that the guys you are with are not close personal associates of the local loan shark.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/12/2007 01:04:00 AM

09 March 2007

The Second Time Is Not the Charm

You would think that Israel would have been more cautious in invading Lebanon in 2006, especially given how well that intervention in the 1980s went.

And you would think that having seen how the American pretext of war in Iraq—alleged bad acts by Saddam Hussein—led to an increasingly bloody and useless conflict, the Israeli government might be a tad cautious.

But then you would not be as skeptical of rational-choice theory as we are here. The counterexample of the day is the Israeli government.

Olmert has told the Winograd Commission [that is investigating the 2006 invasion of Lebanon] that his decision to respond to the abduction of soldiers with a broad military operation was made as early as March 2006, four months before last summer's Lebanon war broke out....

Olmert testified before the Winograd Commission on February 1, and its questions focused on three basic issues: the circumstances surrounding Amir Peretz's appointment as defense minister; how and why the decision was made to go to war on July 12, several hours after reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were abducted by Hezbollah guerrillas on the northern border; and why Olmert decided to carry out a large-scale ground operation in Lebanon, 48 hours before the cease-fire, in which 33 soldiers were killed.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/09/2007 09:41:00 PM

04 March 2007

The Welch Way: Unions R Bad

In our ongoing quest to fact-check the Suzy and Jack Welch column in Business Week, we have this week's paean to a non-union society. And what a load of tripe it is.

Are you at all concerned about American competitiveness in the future? — S---- R----, Irwin, Pa.

Yes. But not for the standard "the sky is falling" reasons, like the twin deficits, low-cost Chinese manufacturing, or intellectual property piracy. We believe those challenges will largely be ameliorated by market, political, and legal forces. No, we're as worried as can be that American competitiveness is about to be whacked by something no one seems to be talking about: the Employee Free Choice Act, which is currently weaving an insidious path through Congress toward becoming law. If it does, the long-thriving American economy will finally meet its match.

Yes, how horrible it would be if unions could get recognized by having a majority of workers to sign on, rather than go through elections in which employers routinely twist arms and delay outcomes in myriad ways, some legal and some illegal.

Another point to keep in mind is that card-check campaigns, which now can happen only with the acquiescence of the employer, do not always succeed. (Otherwise, few employers would accede to them.)

The [union-led] campaign could trigger a surge in unionization across U.S. industry—and in time, a reversion to the bloated economy that brought America to its knees in the late 1970s and early '80s and that today cripples much of European business. If you want to be reminded of what that looks like, drive through Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, as we did last weekend, and take a look at all the shuttered factories. Steel—like coal, autos, and so many other industries in the global economy—paid the inevitable price of unionization run amok.

This might be the most wrongheaded thing to appear in Business Week this year, even more wrong-headed than giving space to three global-warming skeptics. First, the decline of the American steel industry had more to do with cheap imports (and a strong dollar) than with the unionized status or the age of the plants. In the last ten years, many—but certainly not all—old and new steel mills, both unionized and non-unionized, hit hard times. And the wages paid to steelmakers are less important than the Welches might like one to think. (The United States still imports more steel from the European Union than from China, for example.) If unions were the problem, why is the United States importing so much steel from Canada, Italy, France, and Germany?

And the problems with the American auto industry have more to do with getting addicted to building huge, gas-guzzling trucks while Japanese manufacturers were building better small cars. That points to huge problems in management, not huge problems with labor.

MAKE NO MISTAKE. We don't unilaterally oppose unions. Indeed, if a company is habitually unfair or unreasonable, it deserves what it gets from organized labor. But the problem with unions is that they make a sport out of killing productivity even when companies are providing good wages, benefits, and working conditions. It is not uncommon in a union shop to shut down production rather than allow a nonunion worker to flip a switch. Only a union or millwright electrician can do that job! Come on. Companies today can't afford such petty bureaucracy or the other excesses unions so often lead to, such as two people for every job and a litigious approach to even the smallest matters. Yes, managers and employees will sometimes disagree. But in the global economy, they have to work through those differences not as adversaries but as partners....

Now, union supporters will tell you that they won't intimidate employees for votes, and regardless, management intimidates all the time by threatening to fire employees who vote union. But the system as it exists has safeguards, including heavy fines against companies that misbehave and automatic new elections.

If this column is not unilaterally against unions, then I suppose that I am not unilaterally against voting for Republicans; after all, there might be a Socialist who decides to run on the Republican line as a lark. As we all know, the Republican primary in every state welcomes all comers.

I particularly like their assertion that the current election system works well. "[T]he system as it exist has safeguards." Alas, these safeguards are flimsy. Companies intimidate pro-union employees with ruthless abandon.

Surely Jack Welch he remembers that when he was running General Electric, there were hundreds of thousands of unionized workers. Was General Electric hobbled by its union employees? Were they all freeloaders, demanding "two people for every job"? I think not.

Yes, many unionized industries have issues with promises made to unions in the past. Among these promises are health and other benefits promised to retirees. But even these benefits should ring familiar to Jack Welch. The retirement package that General Electric promised to him includes about $10 million in annual benefits, benefits that could go either to retaining employees or at least to the benefit of shareholders. If giving actual employees more money is a bad thing, why is giving a windfall to a rich retired chairman good at all?

Posted by Tim W at 3/04/2007 04:14:00 PM

02 March 2007

Moral (Majority) Relativism

Pity the poor evangelical American Protestants. They so want to be kingmakers in the Republican party. And they do want to be consistent in their public statements. How they reconcile these urges is quite revealing. Today's example is Pat Robertson.

Some Regent University students and alumni are upset that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney will speak at commencement, saying his Mormon faith clashes with the evangelical Christianity of the school founded by Pat Robertson.

"What we're against is the fact that Mormonism is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Christian values and what we believe," said Doug Dowdey, a Virginia Beach pastor who said he graduated from Regent's divinity school last year....

Mormons belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which espouses some scripture, such as the Book of Mormon, and theology that departs from mainstream Christianity.

The Christian Broadcasting Network, which Robertson heads, discusses Mormonism on its Web site on a page titled, "How Do I Recognize a Cult?"

"When it comes to spiritual matters, the Mormons are far from the truth," states the site, which adds that Mormon religious beliefs are "to put it simply, wrong."

The site also says the Mormon church has produced "many people of exemplary character."

Robertson, who is Regent's chancellor, invited Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, to be the keynote speaker at the May 5 commencement, said Sherri Stocks, a Regent vice president.

Another Republican presidential candidate, ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, will speak at Regent's executive leadership program in April. Giuliani is Catholic.

"Gov. Romney is running for the post of Chief Executive Officer, not Chief Theologian," Robertson said in a memo to Regent alumni, staff and students.

Yes, and the difference between Chief Executive Office and Chief Theologian explains why Robertson was so supportive of Bill Clinton when he was accused of poor personal choices.

At the opening session of the [Christian Coalition's] annual meeting, Pat Robertson, the coalition's founder and chairman, thundered to about 3,000 cheering religious conservatives: "For nearly nine months we have been mocked, demeaned, belittled and lied to." The applause grew when he said the office once occupied "by Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln" had become "the playpen for the sexual freedom of the poster child of the 1960s."

That, he said, was only the beginning: "I say to you today we will be silent no longer."

He also called Clinton a "debauched, debased and defamed" leader.

I wonder what he will say when Giuliani comes to town—the twice-divorced candidate lived with two gay friends after his attempt to kick his wife out of the mayoral residence and move his girlfriend in were rebuffed. Or does moral outrage become substantially mute when a big red R lies next to the sinner's name?

Posted by Tim W at 3/02/2007 01:15:00 PM

I'm Not Homophobic, I'm Just Scared of Gay Marriage

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe op-ed page is trying to prove that he's not homophobic again. And it's tying his logic into knots. This week, he pooh-poohs an intentionally absurd proposal by gay-marriage proponents.

Archly calling themselves the Washington Defense of Marriage Alliance, the activists are promoting Initiative 957, a ballot measure that would restrict marriage rights to men and women capable of bearing children.

Couples would be required to have a child within three years of getting married, or their marriage would be annulled. Non procreating couples could stay together if they wished, but their union would be classified as "unrecognized," and they would be legally ineligible for marital benefits....

But ... [the] activists are assaulting a straw man. No mainstream opponent of same-sex marriage claims that having children is the sole purpose of wedlock. Marriages can serve any number of purposes—cementing the bond between partners, guaranteeing financial security, having a legitimate sexual outlet, ensuring companionship, and so on. People get married for various reasons; the desire to raise a family is only one of them.

Excellent, and all on point. Note that any of these purposes do not require one male and one female to be in the relationship. Alas, that sane observation is left in the dust by the Social Conservative Express.

What makes marriage a public institution, however—the reason it is regulated by law and given an elevated legal status—is that it provides something no healthy society can do without: a stable environment in which men and women can create and bring up the next generation, and in which children can enter the world with mothers and fathers committed to their well-being.

Because sex between men and women can result in children, and because children tend to do best when raised by their mothers and fathers, society has a vested interest in encouraging long-term, monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Not all married couples reproduce. But every opposite-sex marriage has the ability to give a father and a mother to any child the couple creates or adopts. That is something no same-sex couple can provide, which is one reason homosexual marriage has never been a social institution.

Of course procreation is not the only reason to marry, but to insist that marriage is not closely related to having children is like arguing, to use an analogy offered by marriage scholar David Blankenhorn, that cars are not intrinsically connected to driving.

When my wife and I were prepared to get married, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts did not require that we procreate, did not ask if we intended to procreate, and did not ask if we were even able to procreate. (We did get checked for syphilis—but that test is no longer required—.)

The small problem with Jacoby's argument is that the research that values two-parent families suffers from a huge selection bias. Most two-parent families have opposite-sex couples heading them. Equating single-parent households to those with a same-sex couple is fallacious on a number of levels.

But the biggest problem with Jacoby's argument is an ironic one. If procreation were valued so highly by the state, one would expect that its laws would somehow value children born in wedlock more than children introduced to a family by some other means.

But this is not the case. Adopted children are protected by every law that protects the offspring of either parent in a marriage. And Jacoby should know this, because he has fathered one child and adopted another.

Posted by Tim W at 3/02/2007 12:09:00 AM

01 March 2007

I'm Not Homophobic, I'm Just Scared of Gay People

I wonder whom I believe in this lawsuit, the plaintiff or the defendant?

A Boston man is accusing Jeremiah Foley, a member of the family that runs the well-known J.J. Foley's pubs in Boston, of assaulting him and physically throwing him out of the chain's bar in the Leather District because he was kissing another man.

Martin T. Keenan says in a civil lawsuit filed this week in Suffolk Superior Court that Foley grabbed and forcibly removed him from the bar in September 2005 and in the process broke one of Keenan's fingers and caused permanent disfigurement....

[Foley] said his family's establishments, which draw a large cross section of people, are open to all, and he doesn't ask or care about his patrons' sexual orientation.

It's none of my business," Foley said.

He said he occasionally has to remove patrons for "inappropriate behavior," but he did not recall the two men kissing. Asked whether he would allow two men to kiss in one of his establishments, Foley said: "Hell no. What would you think?"

So, Foley does not care about his patrons' sexual orientation, unless it becomes obvious.

If I were asked if Foley was a bigot, I might well respond, "Hell yes. What would you think?"

Posted by Tim W at 3/01/2007 10:56:00 AM


In todays's New York Times, page C19, below the fold, is an article about how a doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers is denying that any of the human growth hormone that he purchased last year went to any members of the team.

Richard A. Rydze, who is listed as one of six members of the Steelers' medical team, said Tuesday that federal agents from New York questioned him in December about his purchase in 2006 of about $100,000 worth of human growth hormone from a pharmacy in Florida. That pharmacy is now the subject of a multistate investigation into its online sales of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. Rydze said that investigators had urged him to stop using the pharmacy and that he complied....

Rydze said Tuesday that he never prescribed hormones to Steelers players. He did not return phone calls yesterday....

He is listed as a member of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, a group that advocates the use of human growth hormone to replace the hormone as it declines with age. The group, which has offices in Chicago and Boca Raton, Fla., tries to advise doctors on how to prescribe the hormone legally.

Right next to the article is an ad for Cenegenics, which touts human growth hormone and testosterone as panaceas for older men. The Cenegenics ad shows a shirtless 67-year-old showing off his musculature.

And we wonder why athletes try this stuff.

Posted by Tim W at 3/01/2007 10:11:00 AM

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