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Back when I was a toymaker, I used to attend the annual “Toy Fair” trade show in New York’s Javits Center. As you might imagine, the fair was filled not only with fine toys from around the world, but also with weird characters, strange products, peculiar has-been celebrities (Jaimie Farr at booth 1312?), and MASCOTS. A lot of these capering stuffed shills were selling recognizable dolls, plush animals, or action figures, but my favorite was an anonymous and poorly executed bear mascot with a neutral expression, dead eyes, and a bright blue shirt that said “Hong Kong Fun!” For some reason, I could not find a picture of this defunct character (bear-acter?) and so I have approximated the experience with this stock photo (even if it is a bit less anonymous than the original).

Apparently Chinese factory owners were incensed that American manufacturers were (and still are) designing and selling most of the toys made in China. They hoped to eliminate the middle man by manufacturing their own toys and selling straight to American retailers. Hong Kong Fun Bear was a branding tool in this mission. But Hong Kong Fun Bear not only looked janky, he also had a Chinese minder to keep an eye on him. If you tried to talk to Hong Kong Fun Bear, this apparatchik would sternly explain that Hong Kong Fun Bear was prohibited from speaking. Fun! Near the end of the fair, I noticed that Hong Kong Fun Bear had escaped his PRC escort and was outside having a cigarette with his head removed (inside the bear suit was a scrofulous and wan Chinese acrobat with an incredibly sad face).

Anyway, I tell this story to contextualize the current news from China, where Bing Dwen Dwen the famous and beloved Panda mascot of the 2022 Olympics is mired in controversy (maybe he really does exemplify the 2022 Olympics). According to the South China Morning Post, the beloved mascot appeared on a news program to question a skier and spoke with a deep manly “uncle voice” and a pronounced northeastern Chinese accent. The article (which you should read because it is amazing) describes the unhappy reaction which this breach provoked: “‘People don’t want to know that when they hug Bing Dwen Dwen, they’re holding a strange man,’ [one] outraged person commented.”

Apparently Bing Dwen Dwen is subject to binding contractual agreements between the PRC and the IOC which prohibit him (her? it?) from talking and specify that the character is gender neutral. It sounds like Hong Kong Fun Bear was smarter than the average bear to keep his mouth shut (although, thinking back, I am not sure Hong Kong Fun Bear even had a mouth). All of this is good fun of course and South China Morning Post has already published an article about the delight which Bing Dwen Dwen brings to workers (which also details the Cabbage Patch Kids style shortages of the panda figurines and merchandise). A party spokesperson pointedly noted that there are plenty of figurines of Shuey Rhon Rhon, the unloved lantern mascot of the paralympics.

Here seen standing forlornly in a strange public room

All of this suggests to me that Los Angeles had better start getting its mascot game together before the 2028 Olympics. Pandas drive people into buying frenzies, but if California rolls out a lame star or some kind of grizzled grizzly, South China Morning Post is going to be talking all sorts of trash about us. Just ask Hong Kong Fun Bear.

or Bing Dwen Dwen, if you can separate him from his new army of minders
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Contraception Experts before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

Today I am uncharacteristically writing about a current social issue in American politics–the controversy over U.S. Health and Human Services mandate on contraceptive coverage which has erupted over the course of the last fortnight.

For anybody reading this from the remote future (which will be next week, considering our 24 hour news cycle), the dispute can be summarized as follows.  The current presidential administration attempted to compel religious (particularly Catholic) schools, hospitals, and charities in the United States to provide health insurance which covers contraception for their employees.  These institutions balked at this demand, claiming that the president was trampling on their freedom of religion (Catholics authorities indeed have a well-documented history of objecting to people being able to make health choices and moral decisions for themselves).  Since it is an election year, the president seems to have backed down.

Hi! I can still intrude in American politics!

There has been a great deal written about this from different political/moral/religious perspectives and it is already the subject of much posturing and political theater. Leaving aside the obvious boon which effective contraception provides for individuals and for society (and the fact that the vast majority of American women, whatever their religion, use some form of contraception), I don’t intend to write about the dust-up per se.  If the Catholic Church wishes to force women back to a benighted era of limited reproductive freedom, well, they can make that their (abusive and wrong-headed) position [although the Church has argued that these hospitals, charities, and schools are not solely religious whenever questions of public funding and government assistance have arisen].  There are ways around it, and it doesn’t seem like a long-term winning strategy.

I am troubled instead by the implicit assumptions about health insurance and healthcare which are revealed by this controversy.

The religious (and quasi-religious) organizations claim to be angry because they are forced to pay for a service which is against their conscience.  This implies that they are paying for the service!  Whatever employers claim, health insurance is really ultimately paid for by employees.  It is part of compensation. This is one of the reasons that wages have stagnated in the United States for such a long time. Our salaries are not rising because our health care costs are going up. There is a strong incentive not to leave a job which provides health insurance because an employee can not be guaranteed to find coverage elsewhere, particularly if that employee has a pre-existing condition or works in a field with limited employment options (which is pretty much every field).  Ideally all employees adversely affected by the Church’s paternalistic overreach would quit and move to new jobs.  Raise your hand if you think that is likely or even possible.

Health costs are rising precipitously while health outcomes are getting worse.  People are understandably afraid to leave their jobs in search of better options or to start businesses of their own.  The stagnation of job mobility is hurting the American economy and society as a whole.

The reason that people should be mad is not because health insurance allows Catholic institutions coercive control over the lives of people who work for them.  People should be angry because the structure of health care in this country gives all large employers an undue hold on the people who work for them.  Americans are becoming vassals of their employers thanks to perverse incentives of a broken healthcare system.

I have no answers but here's some bland clipart.

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