Tuesday, November 09, 2010

To the Honorable John Boehner:

First of all, congratulations on being re-elected to another term as the Congressional Representative of the 8th Congressional District of the State of Ohio. Given that your party will once again have a majority in the House of Representatives, it is very likely that you will become the Speaker of the House of the 112th Congress. Given the importance of that office, I am delighted to hear you repeat your promise to listen to the American people and to take the beliefs of the American people into consideration as you guide legislation through the House.

Listening to the American people, as you are fully aware, is a complex process, because there as so many views and convictions among the American people, and on many issues the views of some Americans seem to be incompatible with the views of other Americans. Honoring the views of all Americans therefore requires seeking an underlying agreement that reconciles the apparent differences of opinion that exist on the surface.

One issue on which Americans of all political persuasions seem to be in fundamental agreement is that measures must be taken to reduce the national debt, which requires bringing expenditures down to a level where they are no more than income. Otherwise, the effects of the deficit will have to be borne by future generations. All Americans seem to be in agreement that there is something unjust in having future generations pay the consequences of the careless and reckless behavior of the generations now living on the earth. Therefore, some combination must be found of increasing the income of governments and decreasing governmental expenditures.

If one examines the areas of greatest governmental spending, it is evident that the largest single drain on the American treasury is the military budget. If one takes the basic allocation of monies dedicated to maintaining military bases in the United States and abroad—the US has military bases in more than 130 countries—and adds the infusion of funds, all of them borrowed from our children and grandchildren, needed to meet the expensive military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and occasional operations in Pakistan and Yemen, and then adds to that the amount of money needed to service the debt generated by those operations, and add to that the expense of taking care of the men and women who are physically or psychologically damaged by those operations, it turns out that a little over 40% of the dollars that Americans pay in taxes goes to the military.

It is not obvious that all these military operations are serving the interests of the American people, nor do they seem to be serving the needs of the people in the countries in which these operations are taking place. At the very best, we can say that the results are mixed and that a good deal of damage is attending any good that is being achieved. So one area where enormous savings could be made would be eliminating the maintenance of an unnecessarily large military presence around the world.

Some of the money now being wasted on the development of weapons and on military operations could be used more effectively to secure the safety of the American public by creating an atmosphere of good will towards Americans through service projects that reduce poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, environmental degradation and economic disparity and injustice. The good will of thousands of American helping hands can be destroyed by a single drone missile attack that kills innocent civilians. Creating good will through benevolent service projects would cost only a small fraction of what it costs to mount military operations. Most of the money now being spent on the military could be saved and used to pay down the deficit. Surprisingly, that was not a campaign issue in the recent elections, but that is no reason to continue ignoring it as a major factor in the economic ruin this country is now facing, thanks to the lack of vision of the past five—no, ten—Presidents.

The economic malaise of our country is not restricted to the government and its policies. Individual families are also carrying burdens of debt that weaken our collective economic well-being. Often families face financial disaster because it is impossible for them to meet the expenses of providing housing for their children, nutritious food for their families, education for their offspring and medical care for members of the family who fall ill, sustain injuries or enter into the infirmities of old age.

As you have often observed, the cost of health care is climbing steadily. This is true everywhere in the world, partly because our expectations of having highly complex and technologically sophisticated available is much higher than it was in the time of our grandparents. In most industrialized countries, people are living longer than people lived in previous generations. It would be nice if longevity were sustainable.

Let me share something of my own personal experience as an American. I have lived for years in two countries other than the United States, and in both of those countries (Japan and Canada) the quality of health care was at least as high as what we have available in the United States, in some areas much better than what we have in this country. And the costs in those countries are much lower. In Canada, for example, I underwent a medical procedure that was necessary to treat a condition that was undermining my overall health. The procedure was paid for entirely by the health plan of the province of Québec—as I'm sure you know, there is no Cnadian health care plan, but each province in Canada has a health care plan, and in no province are the premiums for insurance policies more than a fraction of what it costs to carry insurance here in the United States. (I know that, because I have lived in five Canadian provinces as well as in five of the United States). Costs are kept low in Canada, because the insurance plans and the billing procedures are simple, and because limits are placed on the amount of profit a doctor, a hospital or a pharmaceutical company can make. One pharmaceutical product that I have been prescribed to take costs about one-third as much in Canada as it costs in the United States. The surgical procedure that I underwent cost the provincial health plan about $1500, and it cost me nothing above the basic cost of my insurance premiums. I recently had a less complex procedure in the United States that cost me several hundreds of dollars in co-payments and that cost my insurance plans over $10,000. The exact same procedure that cost $1500 in Canada would cost, I am told, between $15,000 and $20,000 in the United States. Because the procedure was necessary but not an emergency, I had to wait about one month for an operation room in Canada; in the United States I waited for about six months for a less complicated procedure.

I have heard you say several times that America has the best health-care system in the world. In my own experience, the health care available here is both of lesser quality and much less affordable than equivalent health care in Canada. The United States has much to learn about health care from Canada, Japan, Great Britain, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries. It does not have much to learn from ideologues in this country. It is time for the United States to cultivate and manifest the most important of all the Christian virtues: humility.

I am in complete agreement with those who say the health care reform put into place by the 111th Congress fails to address some of the most serious obstacles to America's having affordable insurance for every man, woman and child in the country. Insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and individual physicians all tend to do everything they can to maximize profits in this country. Health care is a business in this country, not a service; it is a privilege, not a right. As a result, very few of us are free. We are slaves to debt and to fear of losing what we have striven to acquire and to keep and to pass on to our children. The health care reform bill passed this past year did nothing at all to change that culture of profitability that undermines the physical health of Americans and leads too many families into economic disaster that results in their having little or no money to leave to their offspring and, worse, results frequently in bankruptcy. The price too many families pay for fleeting health is permanent financial ruin. In no other industrialized country is that true.

Americans, no matter what their political allegiances, do not want to face financial ruin because of medical costs, insurance costs, pharmaceutical costs, the costs of servicing debts, and the costs of financial fees associated with mortgages. Americans want solutions to their problems. They do not want political dogmatism and doctrinaire rigidity that stands in the way of co-operation in state capitals and in the District of Columbia. We all win when there is co-operation and compromise. We all lose when there is political stalemate.

The recent elections show that the American people are angry right now, and the anger is growing to levels that could become dangerous to us all. But as one of America's founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, wisely observed, “Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame,” and “Anger is never without a reason but seldom with a good one.” Good policy cannot arise from antipathy and stubbornness. Recall the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca: “To err is human; to persist is diabolical.” The Roman Empire did not listen to his advice. It fell.

Everyone seems to have a different account of what the American people want. As far as I can tell from listening to my friends and neighbors, Americans do not want to see two more years of diabolical stubbornness and stiff-necked refusal to compromise and to listen to the ideas of those who think differently from someone's party line and to leave the slogans behind and to seek workable policies. We are hurting out here, and we appeal to you, the people we have elected to represent our needs and concerns, to work with one another to find policies that will relieve our pain. I know you will do your best; I saw the tears in your eyes as you spoke on election night about your personal pursuit of the American dream.

The task before you is in some ways dauntingly difficult, for our country is broken in so many ways. And yet the task before you is beautifully simple. All you need to do is to keep your promise to listen. Carefully. To everyone.

I wish you and your colleagues in the House of Representatives and in the Senate every success as you go forward and lead our nation forward into better times.

Respectfully yours,

Richard Hayes
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Monday, September 27, 2010

Priorities: Where to Spend 42¢

The people's hunger is because those above are eating too much in taxes—
This is why they are hungry.
The people's lack of order is because those above manipulate them—
This is why they are not properly ordered.
And the people's scoffing at death is because those above are exacting so much from life—
This is why they scoff at death,

Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation
chapter 75.

On September 13, the CBC radio program Ideas published a podcast entitled “Speaking Truth to Power, Part One”, which was a selection of talks by and interviews of people who had attended the counter-summit held in conjunction with the 36th G8 Summit in Ontario, Canada. One of the speakers made the observation that 42¢ of every dollar that the government on Ontario spends is for health care. In contrast, only 0.3¢ of every dollar is spent on environmental issues. The speaker expressed alarm that such a minuscule part of the budget of Ontario is going into research into and finding possible solutions for the strains being placed on the environment by industrialization, expansion of human habitation and climate change—all of which are bringing alarming changes to the water resources and wildlife habitats, not only in the most populated regions of Canada, but also in areas far from where the human population density is the greatest.

As a citizen of both Canada and the United States, I am interested in the budgetary priorities in both countries. In Canada, health care is the responsibility of the provinces, and Ontario has a provincial health insurance system that provides coverage for everyone. The amount that an insured person pays for health care coverage is determined by the individual's annual income. According to the table of rates published by the Ontario health insurance plan, a person making an annual income of less than CAD$20,000 (about US$19,425) pays nothing. A person earning $75,000 pays $750.00 a year ($62.50 per month). Anyone earning $200,600 and over per year pays $900.00 a year for medical insurance ($75.00 per month). Someone earning in Canada the Canadian equivalent of what I earn in the United States would pay CAD$600 (about US$585) a year for health insurance. In contrast, I pay US$3,791.52 per year, and my employer pays another $5,687.52. So the insurance company that covers me receives $9479.04 a year. Whenever I visit my primary care physician, I pay $20 for a co-payment; the balance is covered by my insurance plan. During the thirty-six years I lived in Canada, I never paid anything to a doctor or a hospital, even when I had two complex surgeries. When I first returned to the United States and was asked to pay a co-payment, I had to ask “What's a co-payment?” and the receptionist looked at me as if I had just come from outer space. She explained a co-pay is the patient's share of the cost of a medical procedure. I couldn't believe it. I was paying about ten times for medical insurance what I had paid in Canada, and I still had to pay more at the doctor's office, and at the pharmacy; it was beyond my wildest imagination. Welcome back to America, my home and native land.

A friend of mine has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Cancer is one of the many conditions that causes blood clots, so he must take an anti-coagulant. The anti-coagulant he has been prescribed costs $8,800 per month in the United States, 80% of which is covered by his health insurance plan. Exactly the same treatment costs about US$2000 in Canada, and about €120 (US$160) in the Netherlands. Those differences in price reflect the difference between health care as a profit-making free-market business (the US and to a much lesser extent Canada) and health care as a public service (most of Europe and Japan). It costs a lot of money to become ill in a society that is more committed to keeping wealthy people wealthy than to keeping everyone healthy. Health care in the United States costs a lot more than many people can afford, which may have something to do with the the number of people who die for lack of medical attention or go bankgrupt getting medical attention they cannot afford.

According to an article in the Washington Post, the recent census in the United States shows that one person in seven in the United States lives in poverty. In my state, New Mexico, the figure is closer to one in five. Only Mississipi and Arizona have a larger percentage of their populations living in poverty. The New Mexico state legislature has recently made budget cuts across the board, resulting in a dramatic reduction in the amount of medical coverage available to the those living in poverty.

Part of what makes health care so expensive in the United States is the conviction, shared by many of the very people who are most disadvantaged by the polices they believe in, that freedom is valuable and that people are most free when the wealthy are neither heavily taxed nor restrained in their pursuit of further wealth. And part of what makes so many people poor is the conviction that what keeps people free is a robust military that has bases in more than 130 countries around the world and is almost constantly involved in military campaigns on foreign soil. Both of those convictions are at the very best questionable. At the worst they are tragically false.

As mentioned above, the government of Ontario, spends about 42¢ of every dollar it spends on health care. In the United States, about 20¢ of every dollar spent is on health care. About 42¢ of every dollar the federal government spends is on the military. About 20¢ of every dollar spent every year goes directly to standing military defense expenditures, which does not count special appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the other 22¢ in that 42¢ figure goes to taking care of veterans of military service, and paying interest on the money borrowed in past years to wage wars—we are still paying for the long, wasteful, unnecessary and illegal war in Vietnam, a war waged before many of the people now living in the United States were born. Details of how the budget is broken down can be seen on a website put up by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.)

Increasingly, it is simply false to describe American government as government of the people, by the people, for the people, the kind of government that Abraham Lincoln said “shall not perish from the Earth.” The kind of government that now prevails in the United States is so diametrically opposed to the well-being of those who are governed that it is sure to perish from the earth. It cannot last. We are watching it die at this very moment. All that remains to be seen is how much of the earth the perishing American government will take along with it when it falls.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Perspective

A few days ago I listed to a podcast from The Economist with an episode on doing business in Toronto. Having lived in Toronto for about sixteen years, I was interested in hearing what business people from around the world would be told about visiting the city. One piece of advice that particularly interested me was the warning not to tell Torontonians (or Canadians in general) that they are very much like Americans. To fail to see that Canadians are not like Americans, the commentator said, is likely to make the rest of one's business dealings in Toronto go rather poorly.

It is axiomatic that the more closely two people (or peoples) resemble one another, the more eager they are to have their differences acknowledged. Seen from the perspective of Europe or Asia or Africa, Canadians and Americans probably do look much more alike one another than different from one another, just as from a North American perspective Dutch people and Flemish people seem quite similar; after all, they both speak Dutch, and the fact that some of those Dutch speakers live in the Netherlands while the others live in Belgium does not seem like a difference of much significance. The closer one gets to that part of Europe, however, the more it matters to notice subtle differences.

When I was a boy growing up in New Mexico, it was of vital importance to me that people from, say, New England or California know that New Mexicans are not to be confused with their neighbors, the Texans, Arizonans, Coloradans and Oklahomans. Even when I was nearing the age of sixty, I winced every time the friends I had made while living for some fifteen years in Montreal said they imagined I must be very excited to be moving back to my native Arizona. Distinguishing between Arizona and New Mexico was not nearly as important to my dear Canadian friends as noting the vast cultural ocean that divides Montreal from Toronto.

As a general rule, when people are viewed from afar (whether the distance is geographical or cultural), the distance at which they are perceived blurs distinctions that are more apparent from a closer perspective, and there is not much of a price to pay for that blurring. Sometimes, however, failure to notice differences can have disastrous consequences.

An example of a disastrous failure to notice important distinctions that we are all witnessing these days is found in the reaction to many Americans to the proposed Islamic cultural center being planned to be built two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center. In the minds of too many Americans, the fact that the people who attacked the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 were Muslims is sufficient reason to be deeply offended that the people proposing to build a cultural center dedicated to world peace are also Muslims. In the minds of some Americans there is no need to distinguish one Muslim from another or one kind of Islam from another. The failure to make that distinction, however, is a tragic triumph of ignorance and prejudice over knowledge and reason.

On the August 27, 2007 podcast edition of the CBC radio program As It Happens there is a segment in which a man who identifies himself as progressive Muslim argues that Canada (and the United States and much of Europe) is endangering itself by failing to find a middle way between two extremes forms of ignorance. One extreme is to regard all Muslims as essentially peace-loving people who are doing their best to fit in and who are entitled to have their differences from everyone else in a pluralistic and tolerant society. The other extreme is to regard all Muslims as belligerent radicals intent n destroying the West and returning civilization to the twelfth century.

The first of those extreme forms of ignorance, associated with the classical European liberal tradition, fails to take into consideration that some people really are malevolent and have every intention of doing harm and who feel morally justified to do harm to those whom they see as the enemies of God. Not everyone is equally enthusiastic about democracy and tolerance and freedom of speech.

The second of those extremes, associated with the so-called far right in Europe and the Americas, manifests as the xenophobic fear-mongering that lies behind the virulent opposition to the proposed Islamic cultural center two block from the site of the World Trade Center.

The middle way consists in recognizing that there really are Muslims who subscribe to a doctrine of armed jihad against forces of unwelcome modernity—just as there really are bellicose Christians who regard abortion as a form of genocide and who feel called by God to bring death to those who provide legal abortions, and just as there really are biblical literalists in Texas who feel obligated to do everything they possibly can to keep scientific hypotheses out of textbooks used in public schools, and just as there really are people so fundamentally frightened and insecure that they believe that homosexuality poses a danger to traditional marriage and immigration poses a threat to American values.

The middle way consists in saying “Yes, Virginia, there really are ignorant people, and ignorance really can be as dangerous as it is ugly, and as tragic as it is laughable, and it really would be a worthwhile undertaking to eliminate ignorant people, not by eliminating the people themselves but by removing their ignorance. ”

The middle way consists in looking at issues and events from as many perspectives as possible and recalling that what looks indistinguishably similar from a safe distance can be importantly different when viewed up close, and that sometimes the nature of that difference is precisely the distinction between safety and danger.

A site to visit is http://www.facebook.com/FaithfulAmerica

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I miss getting stung

The first letter I remember writing was a postcard to my father. Written in the scrawl of a three-year-old, the message took up the entire writing space on the card. The message was “I got stung by a bee.” That was a big event and seemed worth writing to my father about. These days, I suppose a three-year-old kid with such an important message would send an SMS on her mobile telephone.

A couple of days ago, I was walking in a nearby city park and admiring the many heads of white clover growing in the grass, and my mind turned back to the painful lesson I had learned at the age of three about walking barefoot on a lawn filled with clover. The prospect of getting stung by a bee freighted the adventure with the thrill that goes with risk. But as I looked out over the clover in the city park a few days ago, I noticed something very odd. There was not a bee to be seen anywhere. Where there should have been hundreds or thousands of bees, there was not one to be seen.

Absences always get my attention, and the absence of the bees in the clover made me go looking at flowering shrubs and bushes that usually attract the critters, and I saw no bees anywhere. Their absence seemed ubiquitous.

I listen to quite a few science programs on the radio, broadcast by National Public Radio and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (a radio and television network funded by the Canadian government and based on the belief that there are people scattered around the country who would actually like to be informed and to hear intelligent discussion on important issues—think of it as the antithesis of Fox News and MSNBC). A few weeks ago on one of the several science programs I regularly listen to, there was a feature on an Australian biologist who has dedicated his life to studying all kinds of bees. He was talking about the dramatic worldwide drop in the populations of just about every species of bee. Whether one looks at North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Europe or Australia, bees are dropping like flies.

The decline of bees is very worrying, given that a large percentage of the food crops that the human race has become dependent on growing and eating are pollinated almost exclusively by bees. While it's true that pollen attaches to the hair of cats and dogs and other furry quadrupeds, nothing is as efficient as bees at delivering pollen to where it does the most good in fertilizing plants. It's not just that bees are fun to watch and add a touch of adventure to walking barefoot through the clover. Our lives depend on them. We will miss them, but not for long. Most of us will die before we have had a chance to cultivate protracted nostalgia.

So what accounts for the silence of the bees? There are numerous theories. Some say they are succumbing to pesticides. But pesticides have been around for many decades without having dramatic effects on the bee population. It could be that pesticides have cooperated with the general degradation of the environment to produce a critical mass of stress factors that have finally overwhelmed the bees. The Australian scientist I heard suspects something else: cell phones. All over the world there has been a steady rise in the use of mobile telephones, and in most parts of the most heavily populated parts of the world, transmission towers are popping up every few hundred meters. As a result, all of us are being exposed to large amounts of electromagnetic radiation and frequencies that are no doubt having some effect on our health, although we may not know how exactly the waves are affecting us until the damgae has been done.

Meanwhile studies have been done that suggest that the frequency of waves used to transmit all those terribly important text messages and telephone conversations being conducted via mobile telephones has a serious effect on the biological navigation systems of most kinds of bee. Because of impaired navigation abilities, bees are unable to find their way back to their colonies. They are not reproducing as frequently as they used to do, and they are not able to care for their young. One account of this effect is on the website of Institute of Science in Society.

There is so much to worry about these days. Will Sarah Palin attend her daughter's wedding with Levi? Who can worry about bees while such major issues as that are weighing on our minds? Still, one can't help hoping that the word will gradually get out that our addiction to cell phones is helping our addiction to oil to make our current way of life untenable.

May I request that if you do decide to help spread the word about the possibly deleterious effect of cell phones on bees, you use some medium other than an SMS?

Monday, July 12, 2010

A sign of the times

A few days ago I saw a bus on the streets of Albuquerque bearing a large sign that read “Abortion is an Obama Nation.” Being a fan of country music, I enjoy clever plays on words and puns, so I had to admire the play on the word abomination. On the other hand, I am also a fan of accuracy, and I prefer information to distortion. Whatever one may think of the morality of abortion, there is no truth whatsoever to the claim, implied on the sign on the bus, that President Obama is promoting or facilitating abortion. It is not true that the health care bill passed this past winter is going to enable tax-payer dollars to pay for abortions. That claim is another of the many examples of shameless emotional manipulation that has taken the place of rational political debate in the United States.

But what if the new health care bill did provide funds for women seeking legal abortions? Would that be any reason to oppose the bill? It is in the nature of health insurance policies of all kinds that people who require medical attention and who have insurance policies can have legal medical procedures at least partially paid for through their insurance plans. This means that careful drivers help pay for the medical procedures needed by those who are injured in accidents caused by careless drivers. It means that non-smokers pay for the illness acquired by smokers, that thin people for for diseases acquired by obese people, that joggers and people who routinely work out at the gym pay for the illnesses of couch potatoes, that vegetarians pay for medicare care of meat eaters, and that pacifists help pay for people who are wounded as a result of participating in wars they have volunteered to fight. That is how insurance works. It ceases to work as soon as some policyholders refuse to allow their premiums to pay for medical care needed by other people with different lifestyles, political views or social values.

Public health insurance, such as Medicare, does not and cannot allow non-smoking teetotaling contributors to opt out of the plan because their contributions are paying for smokers and those who have used alcohol. Public health insurance schemes work just like all other health insurance schemes in this respect. Those who opt to be covered for medicare care they may need someday cannot elect which other people can receive medical care, nor can they determine the circumstances under which other subscribers will be covered.

The fact that it has come to be seen as a legitimate issue that some insurance policies may cover medical procedures that some policyholders do not approve of is one of the many signs of the decline of skill in thinking clearly. This decline has reached epidemic proportions. Clear thinking is hardly encouraged by anyone in the commercial world, because people who think clearly do not buy products they do not need or really want, and when people stop buying what they do not need, many an unnecessary business enterprise suffers.

Clear thinking is also not encouraged by politicians of any major party, since clear-thinking people are unlikely to support politicians who are mostly funded by commercial enterprises that encourage policies that serve the interests only of the stockholders who invest in businesses and neglect the interests of consumers, workers, the environment and people in general. Sloppy thinking is essential to the maintaining the status quo in American commercial and political life. And so slogans replace discussion; implications replace evidence; and deception replaces information.

Just about everything in contemporary American has become an abomination. The United States is a country in steep decline. There are some of us who are still waiting for the Obama nation that the Democratic party promised us during the election season of 2008, but to hope for a liberal or progressive government is to hope against all evidence. Sadly, the Obama nation has proven to be more of the same old abomination we came to expect under the leadership of Presidents Reagan, Bush pére, Clinton and Bush fils.

At least we still have country music filled with clever wordplay to amuse us as we slip steadily into the abominations of mediocrity.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Sanitized at last!

Readers of The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will recall the reference to telephone sanitizers—people whose task it was to keep pay telephones clean so that no one would pick up a dreadful disease from the earpiece. The advent of the mobile telephone has pretty much eliminated pay telephones from the landscape, so professional telephone sanitizers have gone the way of steam locomotive engineers.

I have recently discovered where all those unemployed telephone sanitizers have gone. Yesterday, as I was getting my shopping cart at the local grocery store, I noticed a small red basket filled with discarded plastic wipes. Above the basket was a dispenser of little plastic rags, apparently saturated with some chemical that presumably proves lethal to germs, or at least renders them temporarily stupid. On the dispenser was a neat sign explaining to shoppers that they could use the wipes to clean the parts of a shopping cart that some part of the human body might touch. I stood by and watched several shoppers carefully wiping down the push bars of their grocery carts so that they could enjoy the experience of shopping without having to worry about acquiring some fatal or debilitating disease from germs carelessly left there by previous customers.

I felt a slight adrenalin rush as I embarked on the risk-filled adventure of shopping without a sanitized grocery buggy. The thrill of the adventure was muted somewhat by feelings of dismay as I thought of all the plastic being added to landfill sites by chemical-saturated plastic sheets that were used once and then thrown away. Surely, I thought, shoppers who are worried about picking up contagious diseases from shopping carts might be advised to purchase their own hazmat suits before entering the grocery store. It is probably only a matter of a year or two before we are treated to the sight of shoppers wearing ventilators and astronaut suits as they pick their way through the potential dangers of the produce section.

A few months ago, on one of the science programs I listen to on the radio, I happened to hear a scientist talking about how much more compromised the natural immune systems of Americans are compared to those of Europeans, Asians and Africans. The prime suspect in the decline of the ability of Americans to fight off infections and viruses, said the scientist, is our collective obsession with sanitation. Everywhere one goes these days, dozens of precautions are taken to shield customers from stray germs. People preparing sandwiches wear latex gloves, plastic caps covering all their head hair, and even plastic cups to contain their beards, if they be beard-sporting sorts of people. Salad bars and buffets are covered with Plexiglas shields placed at a height making the fetching of a leaf of spinach require performing awkward contortions for anyone more than 125cm (49 inches) tall. Americans proudly pay for their food with germ-laden paper money bearing the slogan “In God We Trust”, by they are careful not to let any stray bacteria land on their dinner plates, just in case God can't be trusted to protect them from contagion. Ironically, it could well be precisely their unwillingness to let their natural immune systems have a bit of a workout that is making their immune systems too flabby to fight off the common cold.

Every now and then someone from the Tea Party manages to say something that almost makes sense. A couple of days ago I heard a Tea Party-backed candidate say that what is wrong with America is that Americans have become so obsessed with innocuous trivialities that they overlook the truly dangerous factors of life. I could not agree more, although I suspect the Tea Party and I might have some disagreements about details as to what is an innocuous triviality and what is a true danger. (The candidate from the Mad Hatter's Tea Party did go on to say that one of the gravest dangers facing America is illegal aliens from Mexico, whereas I would be more inclined to say that the most serious threat to America is the people who are already living here legally and who established their hold on the land by a skillfully executed combination of genocide, treachery, larceny and environmental devastation, all fueled by unrestrained greed and selfishness. But aside from that silly little detail, there is room for broad agreement between me and the Tea Party analyst of the American condition.)

There is more to say on this topic, but I find myself growing faint as I consider all the germs that are no doubt entering my immunity-deficient bloodstream through my fingertips as I touch the keyboard of a computer that may have been walked on, or perhaps sneezed upon, by one of the cats while I was out shopping. The cat might well have caught and eaten a mouse carrying hantavirus and then slobbered on my space key. I can't write any more before I check myself into the emergency care unit at the nearest hospital.

Pray for me, eh?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

"Spill, baby, spill!"

The world has failed to meet its target to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010, set under the 2002 Convention on Biological Diversity, according to a report released Monday by the convention secretariat.

Based on about 120 national reports, the third edition of Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3) acknowledged the failure to meet all 21 specific goals, including "status of threatened species improved."

In grades of 1 to 5, the best score was 3 for four targets. Three targets were given 1. (Asahi Shimbun)

As the world has helplessly been watching oil spurting upwards from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico at alarming rates, reactions from various quarters have been spewing into the airwaves. Some have sought to minimize the disaster—the most notorious being from Rush Limbaugh who first opined that since petroleum is a natural substance, there is no reason to be alarmed by an oil spill, and then recommended that the Sierra Club should be made to pay for the clean-up, since it was the lobbying of environmentalists that had pushed the oil companies off the land into the ocean. Others have pushed the point that oil spills are extremely rare and that the failure to continue drilling for oil wherever it is found would be, as one spokesperson put it, “to wave the white flag of surrender to countries in the Middle East that hate freedom.” Still others have said the calamity in the Gulf of Mexico is a wake-up call to Americans, a warning that we must find less environmentally damaging sources of energy; some have even offered the questionable suggestion that nuclear power is a source of energy that should enthusiastically be pursued.

As all these suggestions and counter-suggestions were being aired on radio, television and the Internet, a report was released by the Convention of Biological Diversity that not a single one of the twenty-one recommendations made eight years ago as part of a strategy for reducing the loss of biodiversity by 2010 has been met. This report prompted the producers of Science Friday on NPR to begin their May 14 program with this observation

As we sit here on this pleasant Friday afternoon — I hope you are having a pleasant afternoon — something is happening out there. Plants and animals are disappearing at an alarming rate, or some of them very close to disappearing.

Researchers say that about one-third of the world's species are now threatened with extinction. Nearly half of all bird and amphibian populations are declining, wildlife habitats are being overrun, and the march of invasive species is increasing on all continents in all kinds of ecosystems.

The rapid and massive loss of biodiversity cannot be attributed to a single simple cause, but the scientific consensus is that human activity is a root cause. The human population nearly quadrupled in the twentieth century, growing from approximately 1,600 million in 1900 to approximately 6,000 million in 2000. That alone has been sufficient to push many species out of habitats they had occupied for thousands of years into less hospitable environments. But the population growth has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in the amount of energy that the human race uses to make itself more comfortable. As a result of increased population using more energy per capital, the International Energy Agency reports, global consumption of energy rose from around 1000 million tons of oil equivalent in 1900 to around 10,000 million tons in 2000. (See Janet L. Sawin's PowerPoint presentation entitled Making Better Energy Choices.) In other words, as the human population quadrupled, human beings collectively consumed ten times as much energy. The side effects of that energy consumption have been disastrous to the other species that share this planet with the human race and to the human race itself.

It is regrettable that it takes disasters to make people think of changing their habits; it is even more regrettable that often even the worst disasters are insufficient to make people think of changing their habits. Economist Paul Krugman has written that the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico could be just what it takes to reverse America's backsliding in environmental policies. One can only hope he is right. On the other hand, the fierce opposition to sanity on the part of those who stand to make profits from collective insanity should never be underestimated. Also not to be underestimated is the willingness of human beings to be comfortable and to be spared the pains and fatigue of hard labor. Few of the people who spend their days surfing the web in air-conditioned or heated buildings would voluntarily give that up to make a livelihood hunting and gathering food and warming themselves on a cold winter evening by huddling with others around a fire made of burning buffalo dung. In short, given a choice between unsustainable comfort in an impoverished ecosystem and sustainable hardship in an ecologically healthy system of rich biological diversity, not many would hesitate to opt the former. After all, there are fewer mosquitoes hovering around one's laptop in Starbucks than around one's unwashed body in a mountain forest.

The Chinese Daoist satirist Zhuangzi asked more than two thousand years ago why people kept building bridges over rivers and spoiling the serenity of the waterways with rowboats. Why can't people be content to stay where they are? Why do they build machines to save them from having to work with their own bodies? When we build machines, he observed, our hearts and minds become mechanical, and when our hearts and minds become more like machines, we lose our ability to enjoy the beauties of nature and of loving relationships with one another.

As I sit in my living room staring stupidly at a television set showing numbing pictures of plumes of crude petroleum rising into the ocean like columns of smoke blackening the blue summer sky, my old friend Zhuangzi makes more and more sense. Why, I wonder, am I not listening?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Taxing my patience

I have never understood people who do not like to pay income taxes and estate taxes. It makes little sense to live in a society that provides roads, bridges, control towers for airplanes, a postal service, police and fire services, a national park system and a number of agencies designed to protect the public from insentient entities that have no conscience (such as commercial corporations), without being willing to pay for them. The only time I feel unhappy about paying taxes is when a disproportionate amount of it is spent on things I do not find necessary or useful. The 2009 tax years was one in which I found myself unhappy at how most of my tax dollars were being spent. The following table offers a summary. (The source is The Friends Committee on National Legislation website.

PercentageCategoryExplanation
33% Military 24% of the 2009 budget is for the Pentagon's budget of $767,463,000,000, 6% is paying interest on past deficits, and 3% goes to veterans affairs.
27% Economic stimulation 26% of the 2009 budget went toward bailouts of corporations that were deemed “too big to fail,”and 1% went to such things as job training and various social programs aimed at keeping the economy vibrant or helping those who were suffering because the economy was not vibrant.
17% Health care This covers the budgets for Medicaid, medical research sponsored by the NIH, centers for disease control, public health programs, and Indian health programs. This budget does not include the budget for Medicare, which is not funded through tax moneys but rather through trust funds.
11% Responding to poverty Budget for providing food, housing, utilties, and educational programs to people who need public assistance.
9% General government expenses 7% of the 2009 budget goes to paying the interest on previous deficit spending in civilian programs, and the rest goes to funding the Congress, the judiciary system, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, the IRS, and
the Treasury.
2% Science Scientific and environmental research, environmental protection, NASA, the national park and national forest system, oceanic research, atmospheric research, and most departments within the Department of the Interior.
1% Diplomacy The budget of the Stae Department, support of the United Nations, the cost of maintaining embassies and consolates, support for the Agency for International Development, and all non-military foreign aid.

Several aspects of this budgetary information captures my attention.

  • If one adds the interest paid on past borrowing for military expenditures and the interest paid of past borrowing for civilian expenditures, it turns out that 13% of the tax money that is collected from Americans is paying for past debts. Given that the federal budget for 2009 was $3,184,888,000,000, this means that some $4,140,355,440,000 went to servicing past debts.
  • The percentage of the 2009 budget for the Pentagon was lower (33%) than in 2008 (43%), but the actual amount ($1,039,531,000,000) was higher than in 2008. The president's recently proposed budget call for a significant increase in military soending, which should bring the percentage back up to 39%. The reason the pecentage amount of the total budget spent on military was lower in 2009 was that an extraordinary appropriation was made for bailing out financial institutions that were “too big to fail.”
  • The combined cost of maintaining the three branches of government is relatively modest. What is expensive is the decisions that America's elected and appointed officials make. While I would be perfectly happy if 5% of my tax dollars went to the military, I am not at all in favor of the 28% that is spent to invade and occupy foreign countries, maintain milirary bases in more than 130 countries, and maintain and guard an obsolete nuclear arsenal and an arsenal of illegal chemical and biological weapons. So 28 cents of every tax dollar collected from me is going to military expenses I do not approve, and another 26 cents in 2009 helped pay for a bailout of financial instituions that were being rewarded for unprecedented degrees of greed and stupidity, while the victims of the polcies of those institutions received almost nothing. That is a total of 54 cents of every dollar I paid in taxes going toeward enterprises I consider foolishly wasteful. I would be happier if 54% of my tax dollars paid for reducing domestic poverty, funding education and science, supporting the UN and giving non-military aid to foreign countries and paying for a single-payer government-run health-care system that provided basic medical insurance to everyone in the United States, including visitors from foreign countries.

Although I am probably slightly to the left of some members of the Tea Party movement, I agree with their claim that government spending is out of control and that neither political party is serving the interests of the majority of Americans. A nuclear arsenal is not in anyone's interest, nor are all the bombers and fighter jets and helicopters parked in American airbases around the world, nor are stimulus packages paid to American auto manufacturers that have consistently built oversized fuel-inefficient vehicles and to financial institutions that grant mortgages to people who cannot afford them and lend money to poor people at usurious rates of interest. But unlike those of like the Tea Party, I do not think the answer is to reduce the size of government. It is not les government that Americans need, but good government. That has been in very short supply for as long as I have been alive. But it is never too late to try to achieve it.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Anyone for a nice cup of tea?

The impetus for the Tea Party movement is excessive government spending and taxation. Our mission is to attract, educate, organize, and mobilize our fellow citizens to secure public policy consistent with our three core values of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets. From the Tea Party Patriots
Mission Statement and Core Values

Who would argue with curbing excessive spending, whether in the household, or in the state legislature, or in the Congress of the United States? And who isn't in favor of curbing excessive taxation? Being against excessive spending and taxation is like being against unreasonable force. The devil, as they say, is in the details, or in the definition of such key words as “excessive” and “unreasonable.” As for the three core values, they also sound like something pretty much everyone would be in favor of, depending, of course, on how those values are spelled out. So let's look into this matter a little further.

Fiscal Responsibility by government honors and respects the freedom of the individual to spend the money that is the fruit of their own labor. A constitutionally limited government, designed to protect the blessings of liberty, must be fiscally responsible or it must subject it's citizenry to high levels of taxation that unjustly restrict the liberty our Constitution was designed to protect. Such runaway deficit spending as we now see in Washington D.C. compels us to take action as the increasing national debt is a grave threat to our national sovereignty and the personal and economic liberty of future generations.

Having the freedom to spend the money that one has earned is a fine ideal to strive for. It is very difficult to exercise that freedom unless a good banking system is in place, preferably a banking system regulated in ways that ensure fiscal fairness. Probably the best way to achieve that is to have a government that both devises those regulations and implements them. Paying for such a government will require raising funds somehow. Taxation seems a good way to raise those funds. So the real question is how those taxes are to be raised. If the Tea Party Movement favors individuals keeping as much of the money they earn through the fruit of their labor, then the main tax burden should be borne by those who earn money through investments. This means that corporations and capitalist investors should be taxed, and so should those who inherit money from their relatives. So the Tea Party Movement appears to be in favor of what conservatives inaccurately call the death tax and what everyone else correctly calls estate taxes. So a system in which capitalists are taxed rather heavily, while laborers are not taxed very much at all, sounds very good to my ears.

Taxing major corporations would go some distance to reducing the amount of money that funds lobbyists; as Tea Party fans love to point out, government of the people by the wealthy and for the corporations is not exactly what is meant by the phrase “government of the people, by the people and for the people”—a phrase coined by Abraham Lincoln (who was not a founding father, and who advocated federal laws abolishing slavery in all states, even in those states that wanted to retain slavery, and whose words should therefore be quoted with care by Tea Party Movers).

On the matter of wasteful government spending, I have been advocating for a very long time for a reduced military. The United States maintains military bases in 130 foreign countries. (See Konrad Roeder's blog.) About 42% of every federal tax dollar is spent on the bloated and unnecessary military, which arguably does far more to make enemies and provoke them into hostility than to keep them at bay. The United States spends 37% of all the money spent on military in the world. (So says Wisegeek.com) That, by my lights, is excessive. If the world wants so much military running around, let other countries pay for it. It is time from the United States to cut its military budget to about 10% of what it now is. That would lead to a dramatic reduction in taxes and government spending and would leave just enough military to deploy to clean up after natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and all the other things God inflicts upon us when we forget that in God we trust. So far, I am liking the kind of tea these folks are brewing. What more do they have to say for themselves?

We, the members of The Tea Party Patriots, are inspired by our founding documents and regard the Constitution of the United States to be the supreme law of the land. We believe that it is possible to know the original intent of the government our founders set forth, and stand in support of that intent. Like the founders, we support states' rights for those powers not expressly stated in the Constitution. As the government is of the people, by the people and for the people, in all other matters we support the personal liberty of the individual, within the rule of law.

Who could possibly argue that the Constitution of the United States is the law of the land? It is somewhat questionable, of course, whether what the original founders believed is what should guide us. After all, most of the original founders believed that only male property-owners should be entitled to vote. Quite a few of them also believed it was morally acceptable to own slaves. The abolition of slavery, and suffrage for women (such as Sarah Palin) and former slaves, were achieved by amendments to the Constitution and were not thoughts of the original authors. So if the doctrine of original intent means the Constitution cannot be amended, then we might have to do away with all the amendments including the Bill of Rights. Eliminating the Bill of Rights, of course, would wipe out most of the freedoms that the Tea Party Movement folks would like to preserve, so some method of allowing some deviations from the original intent of the male property-owners who wrote the Constitution may have to be found. Perhaps something like having a Senate and House of Representatives empowered with making new laws, even laws that deviate from the beliefs and practices of the original authors of the Constitution, could be put into place. Wait a minute. Those mechanisms are within the Constitution already, so I guess we can conclude that the original intent of the authors of the Constitution was to create a nation in which people were free, even encouraged, to move on in ways that do not reflect all the original intent of the founding fathers. So it looks as though what the Tea Party Movement favors is something like the status quo, that is, a government that changes its own laws and guidelines as a result of learning from the collective experiences of the citizens of the country.

Somewhat more promising is the principle that the federal government should not interfere in state laws. It would be a relief to see states able to pass laws allowing same-sex marriage without fear of having those laws overturned by the federal government, which has no constitutional power at all concerning marriage laws. It would also be a relief to see states given free reign in determining whether their own citizens can produce, sell and use alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, LSD, heroin, cocaine and other medical and recreational products. There is no point in having federal agencies controlling drugs and alcohol and firearms. Perhaps even states should not have jurisdiction over such things. Those are clearly local matters, best left to counties, municipalities and neighborhood associations.

A free market is the economic consequence of personal liberty. The founders believed that personal and economic freedom were indivisible, as do we. Our current government's interference distorts the free market and inhibits the pursuit of individual and economic liberty. Therefore, we support a return to the free market principles on which this nation was founded and oppose government intervention into the operations of private business.

From what I have been able to read, the founders had quite a diversity of opinion on the extent to which markets should be free. So if we are going to adhere to the principle of original intent of the founders, we should be prepared to continue having healthy debate on how much markets should be free. So once again, it looks as though the Tea Party Movement advocates something very much like the status quo.

This issue of learning the intent of the founding fathers bears just a little more investigation. It would be difficult to understand what their intentions were if we did not read what they read. I am very much in favor of this aspect of the Tea Party Movement. We should encourage reading Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, John Locke, David Hume and many of the other great thinkers whose writings shaped the thinking of Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Hamilton. Reading those classical authors and all the figures of the European enlightenment (Bacon, Voltaire, Rousseau) would do us all good (not to mention keeping philosophy departments in business)—arguably reading the classics would be almost as edifying as listening to speeches by Sarah Palin. And like the founding fathers, we would want to enourage a healthy skepticism about religion. Perhaps having every American read Thomas Jefferson's version of the Bible would be a good first step toward understanding more about the original intent of the framers of the Constitution.

All things considered, if the Tea Party is for dramatic reduction in wasteful and unnecessary military spending by closing foreign bases; and if they are for heavily taxing corporations and investors and those who inherit money rather by earning their money through honest labor; and if they are for ensuring the individuals are free from predatory lending practices that lead to massive credit card debt and mortgage foreclosures; and if they favor liberating people from onerous medical expenses by implementing a single-payer universal health-insurance plan; and if they favor a return to classical education and an education based on a thorough familiarity with the authors of the European enlightenment, an education tht enables people to write and read very long sentences such as those found in David Hume and other authors whose ideas shaped the original intent of the founding fathers—then I am all for the Tea Party Movement.

As the Canadians say “It's tea time. Put on the kettle!”

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Empire Strikes Fat

Every time I spend a couple of weeks outside the United States I am stunned on returning by how many seriously overweight people there are in the country. We fat people are everywhere to be seen. At a time when the country's politicians are pondering health care reform and looking for ways of cutting back on constantly rising costs, it is painfully obvious that one starting point would be do to put more effort into educating the public about all the diseases associated with obesity. Education is a place to begin, but clearly more than education is required. This is an area in which Americans need a government that interferes in their personal lives and limits their misspent, squandered and abused freedom.

As obvious as the oversized people in the United States are the oversized servings put before them in restaurants. In Europe or Asia, a fairly common size for a serving of a soft drink is 200mL (about 7 fl. oz.) On the campus where I teach I frequently see students walking around with 16 ounce or even 32 ounce containers filled with sugary soft drinks. It is not uncommon for restaurants in the United States to offer as many free refills of a large container of Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola or Dr Pepper as a customer can drink. A European or Asian can expect to pay approximately the same for a standard serving of Coca-Cola as an American pays for a serving several times as big. The same thing can be said about coffee and about solid foods. Europeans and Asians pay about the same for a standard serving as Americans pay for a much larger standard serving.

According to the McDonald's website, a McDonald's Happy meal consisting of a cheeseburger, small french fries and 8 ounces of 1% chocolate milk adds up to 700 calories. According to the Nutrient Facts website, chocolate milk has 157 calories, so if you are on a diet, you might want to replace 240 mL of chocolate milk with 240 mL of Coca-Cola, which has only 97 calories according to a page on the Coca-Cola website. On the other hand, going for a double cheeseburger, a large serving of French fries and a 16-ounce Coke will bring the caloric intake up to around 1134—about the same as five slices of vegetarian pizza or 100 spears (38 cups) of broccoli or 10 large apples.

It is not only the people and the servings of food on their tables that are oversized, but also their vehicles. The majority of automobiles on European and Asian roads are fuel-efficient compacts and sub-compacts. In some countries, the number of automobiles on the road is considerably smaller than the number of bicycles, motorbikes and scooters, not to mention pedestrians who get from one place to another with no vehicle at all.

Americans eat and drink too much for their own good, they drive too much and they walk too little. Is there any way to coax them into eating and drinking less and walking more? One fairly obvious answer is to follow European and Asian examples. Make prices much higher. Imposing heavy taxes on sugary and fatty foods would discourage their consumption. Levying at least a 200% tax on a McDonald's Happy Meal ™ while leaving fruits, vegetables and whole grains untaxed would go a long way to helping people make better food choices.

As for exercise, Americans are not at all likely to volunteer to drive their unnecessarily big cars less as long as fuel prices are as ridiculously low as they are in the United States. The price of gasoline in most European countries is about triple the price in the United States, while Canadians pay about $1 per gallon more than Americans. Mexicans pay about the same as Americans, despite the fact that the minimum wage in Mexico about 55% of the minimum wage in the United States. According to Nation Master website, a starting salary for a school teacher in Mexico is around $10,465 per year, in contrast to $25,707 in the United States. A starting salary for a school teacher in the Netherlands is $25,896. What this means is that a Mexican school teacher has to work 2.5 times as much as an American to earn enough money to buy one gallon of gasoline, while a Dutch school teacher has to work three times as much to earn the cost of a gallon of gasoline.

If fuel prices in America were comparable to those in Europe, Canada and Mexico, there is no doubt that Americans would walk more and be more healthy (while, as a bonus, contributing much less to greenhouse gases that cause climate change). The best way to achieve those prices is to levy substantially higher taxes. The effect would be to make Americans less prone to expensive obesity-related illnesses, which would bring down health costs. It is time for Americans to consider the advantages of being a physically and morally healthy nation instead of a degenerate empire of lazy and sick fat cats. The extra revenue raised by those taxes could then be used to fund a government-run single-payer health-care system providing universal coverage. It would make living in the United States a little more like living in a civilized country.