Friday, December 18, 2009

America's drug lords

About fifteen years ago, when I was still living in Canada, I took a railway trip from Seattle to Denver. The person in the seat next to me was a Japanese American. Somehow as we talked through the night, he happened to mentioned that a neighbor of his had recently gone into bankruptcy as a result of medical expenses. The man in the family had had a heart attack, which led to a short stay in hospital. By the time he was released and had had all the interventions his physicians recommended, his hospital bill was considerably higher than all the money he had put into his retirement plan. After losing all his savings, he sold his house, and even then did not have enough to pay all his medical expenses. As I listened to this story, the thought crossed my mind that I was having a conversation with a lunatic who entertained himself by making up unbelievable stories. Surely, I thought, no country could be so primitive and backwards that it would not provide for the medical needs of all its citizens. Since moving to the United States, I have learned that such stories are not uncommon, and that the United States is indeed a country so primitive and backwards that it does not provide for the medical needs of all its citizens.

Recently I had a first-hand experience that demonstrated to me just how dysfunctional the health-care system in the United States is. I was prescribed a medication called Lovenox (enoxaparin sodium), an anti-coagulant that helps the body deal with blood clots. When I went to the pharmacy to pick up my prescription, the pharmacist told me it cost $171. My first thought was that for some reason my insurance plan did not cover this medication. The reality, however, was that my prescription drug insurance plan does cover the cost of this medication. The dosage I was prescribed costs $1300, all but $171 of which was covered by my health insurance. A search on the Internet showed me that the same dosage in a Canadian pharmacy costs $292.

For years I have known about the difference between the costs of prescription drugs in the United States and in Canada. It is not unusual for name-brand prescription drugs to retail for a fraction of the retail price in the United States. (In the case of Lovenox, the Canadian price is 22% of the price in the United States.) What accounts for such a discrepancy? The answer is simple: government regulation. Canadian regulations allow for pharmaceutical manufacturers to make a reasonable profit; they do not allow pharmaceuticals to be sold at a price several times the cost of production. As a consequence, name-brand pharmaceuticals typically cost only slightly more than their generic counterparts.

Pharmaceutical companies in the United States have taken advantage of (and helped promote) the widespread paranoia in American culture about “big government.” By pinning the emotive label “government interference” on all attempts to protect consumers from the kinds of inflated prices that merge in a “free market economy” dominated by a few giant corporations that have squeezed small players out of the game, those with a vested interest in maximizing their profits have managed to convince much of the American public that it is in the interest of all Americans to have unregulated markets. The results of the blind prejudice for free-market capitalism—a prejudice that has prevailed since at least the end of the First World War—have been escalating medical costs, housing bubbles, and massive personal credit-card debt exacerbated by exorbitant interest rates. In the war on the public being waged by unregulated capitalists, the capitalists have won one campaign after another, and all but a tiny percentage of the public has suffered constant defeat and humiliation.

A friend of mine from Vietnam told me once than in his village there was a proverb that went something like this: “By ridding the village of bandits, we make room for the pirates.” He reported that where he grew up there was a sense of fatalism that no matter what one does to try to eliminate rogues, charlatans and crooks, the dishonest are always a step ahead and ready to bend every law to their own advantage. Ordinary people, and especially honest people, were thought not to stand a chance against those who were determined to take advantage of them. Perhaps that comes close to being a universal story of the world. What people often fail to recognize is that the sense of fatalism constantly works to the advantage of those who are out to take care of only their own interests, no matter what the consequences for everone else. Failing to be outraged by outrageous circumstances only serves to perpetuate them.

In my enounter with outrageously high pharmaceutical prices, I more or less got off the hook. I had an insurance plan that absorbed the costs. People without such insurance plans face either a life of untreated medical conditions that shorten their lives or make their lives less comfortable, or a life of financial hardship. And those of us who are fortunate enough to have insurance plans that pay the unnecessarily high medical costs face having to pay higher and higher premiums. Insurance companies are no less interested in making high profits than pharmaceutical companies. And they are no better regulated.

If America were a democracy with an informed electorate, people might be better protected from the drug lords and insurance moguls. Unfortunately, America has not been a representative democracy for quite some time. No candidate who is not backed by big finances has a chance to be elected. This means that almost everyone who is elected is at least as indebted to those who have financially backed their campaigns as they are to the citizens who voted for them. Hardly anyone has an interest in looking after the welfare of ordinary people. There is no money to be made in caring for people and maintaining a compassioante society. Being shameful and dishonorable in our society carries with it no penalty more severe than having to endure the scorn of an occasional blogger.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The war of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate

Oslo - US President Barack Obama has scratched items from the agenda surrounding his upcoming date to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace in Oslo, the Nobel Committee in the Norwegian capital Oslo reported Friday. A previously planned press conference before the ceremony on December 10 is to be cancelled, while a short press conference after Obama's meeting with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg is also likely to be cut.

The US president's various domestic and international political commitments were given as the justification for the cancellations. (US World News)

It would be false to say that I am disappointed in how the first year of the Obama presidency has gone. Disappointment is a feeling that comes about when one was expecting something that did not come to pass. Unfortunately, the Obama presidency has turned out so far to be pretty much as I thought it would turn out. During the Democratic primaries, he seemed to have the least well-thought-out plans for health care reform. He consistently said he would take troops out of Iraq and put them into Afghanistan. His rhetoric on the importance of “finishing the job” in Afghanistan worried me throughout his campaign. His apparent commitment to the notion that “finishing the job” of hunting down Osama bin Ladin seemed naive, superficial, ill considered and ignorant of history. Of all the candidates in the Democratic primaries in the early stages of the campaign, I thought I could probably live with almost any of them, but there were two who worried me and who would, I hoped, be quickly eliminated from the race. Those two were Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. When they were the only two left standing, I backed Hillary, reluctantly at first and then more enthusiastically as I got to know her (and her opponent) better. When Obama was chosen as the Democratic candidate, I began to think seriously about voting for Ralph Nader. If I had not panicked at the possibility of having Sarah Palin as a vice president, I might well have voted for Nader—or written in the name of Dennis Kucinich. I am neither surprised nor disappointed in Obama. I am, however, sick at heart.

Obama's feeble leadership in the the area of health care reform has led to limp bills that, if passed, will result in few positive changes. When House Minority Leader John Boehner speaks of the government takeover of the health care industry, I can only groan and say “If only the government could take the well-being of the American people out of the hands of rapaciously greedy and under-regulated insurance companies and for-profit health-care providers, we might have a chance to design a system in which caring for all people mattered more than caring for a few wealthy shareholders.” As it is, however, gutless leadership has led to a gutted set of measures that will still leave far too many people unable to afford even basically adequate health care, and will still leave insurance companies under-regulated, and will still leave American medical care overpriced and of the lowest quality among all industrialized nations.

Of all the failures of the Obama administration, there is none that matches the sheer folly of his Afghanistan policy. A couple of months ago at Leiden University I saw a poster advertising a talk by a Dutch political scientist, the title of which was "Afghanistan: De oorlog van Obama." (Afghanistan: Obama's war). That title captures a number of perceptions. The war in Afghanistan is not a war of the people of Afghanistan, nor a war of the people of the United States. Nor is it a war of necessity. Nor is it a war that is possible to win, if only because it is not at all clear what winning even means. It is a war that can only produce losers. Many Afghans will lose their lives; many more will lose their homes and their means of livelihood and their dignity and their self-respect. A few Americans will also die; many more will bear for the rest of their lives the psychological scars of seeing what no human being should ever have to see; even more Americans will continue to lose confidence in the ability of their own government to make rational decisions. America as a nation will continue to lose the respect of its allies. The American economy will continue to lose stability as war debts mount to levels far beyond the ability of any nation to pay. The only gain for America will be a gain in enemies, a dramatic increase in the number of people who are determined to bring American influence to an end and to establish their own autonomy. There is no one else whose war this is; it is indeed Obama's war in much the same way Vietnam became Johnson's war and Iraq the war of George Bush père and George Bush fils. It is another in the long series of wars into which America has been led by presidents obsessed by the demons of bad reasoning and a poor grasp of history.

When President Obama goes to Oslo on December 10 to receive his Nobel Peace Prize, one can only hope that he will hear a small, still voice coming from deep within his heart saying “Man, thou dost not deserve this honor.” Whether he will then be man enough to listen to that voice, admit his errors, turn down the prize and insist it be given to someone more deserving—that remains to be seen.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The world as seen from Europe

One of the most interesting (to me) aspects of being in Europe for the past two months has been seeing all the ways in which Europe is connected to the entire world. I have noticed before while traveling in Europe that the news and commentary on the European version of CNN has stories from all around the world. Even the weather reports tell what the weather is and is expected to be in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, the Americas and the antipodes. In contrast, I almost never hear anything about the weather in Chihuahua, the state in the United States of Mexico that borders the state in which I live in the United States of America. As for news coverage, I almost never see anything on American television except what is going on in Washington, DC and in the lives of a few carefully monitored celebrities.

What is even more striking to me is the advertisements. During the half hour I watched television news coverage on CNN on a Dutch television station this evening, I heard advertisements in both English and Dutch about business opportunities in Nairobi, Singapore, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ankara and Riyadh. It was interesting to hear a man with an American accent talking about all the advantages of doing buisness in Singapore, listing among the tremendous business advantages the health care system that keeps employees healthy with little cost to the company. (Will they ever let this guy back into Kansas I keep asking myself.) On other ventures into watching Dutch television I have seen advertisements for banks and investment firms in Nigeria, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Interestingly absent have been advertisements for business opportunities in the Americas.

The quality of television programming in the Netherlands is not especially encouraging, but when is television ever uplifting? Because the Dutch-speaking population in the Netherlands and Flemish Belgium is relatively small, Dutch television stations show quite a bit of programming from Germany, France, Spain, England, Canada and Australia, sometimes with Dutch subtitles and often without. I have seen very little programming from the United States, except for a bowling tournament and some footage of a NASCAR race (along with scenes from auto races in Abu Dhabi, India and China).

If television programming and advertising in this part of Europe is any indication, the world's economic future belongs to Africa, the Middle East and Asia. One could be forgiven for thinking that Europe and North America are about to go the way of all the great empires of the past. No doubt people will still want to go visit the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, and occasionally set up a factory in West Virginia or Alabama to take advantage of the cheap labor. Perhaps a few lucky Americans will be hired to work as maids, cooks and nannies for billionaires in Mumbai or Damascus. I wonder which artifacts of American and European culture will end up in museums for Asians and Africans to admire with slightly condescending smiles on their faces.

In another month I return to Albuquerque. It will be fun to turn on the television news and get caught up on all the reports of domestic violence, rape and murdered drug dealers, not to mention the ongoing efforts of the Albuquerque police force to break up cock-fighting rings and close down methamphetamine labs. It will be fascinating to hear all the arguments against governments playing a role in providing health care and adequate school systems, and to see politicians looking straight into the camera and saying America already has the best health-care system and education in the world.

A comment I have heard from many Europeans is “I've been to America several times. I love it there. I love the open spaces in the West.” I nod in agreement. I also love the West. No matter where I have lived, the Southwestern United States has always been where my heart is. It's my home. And then the conversation continues: “I like the spirit of the American people. So open! So friendly!” Again, I nod. As I nod, a fidgety feeling begins to come over me. I know what is coming next: “But why does America always seem to have such backwards political leadership?” I smile and shrug. By this time I feel as though I should perhaps be bronzed and placed outside as some European taxi driver's garden gnome to keep unfriendly spirits away from the tulips.

Friday, October 09, 2009


Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politic,…

A few years ago, I attended what was billed as an interfaith event. The first speaker was a minister from a “big box” evangelical Christian church that could boast of having several thousand members of the congregation. The minister quoted the Mayflower Compact, the first few lines of which are cited above. His point in citing that document, written in 1620 and therefore one hundred sixty-seven years before the American Constitution, was to show that America was founded as a Christian country. It was clear from what he went on to say that he believed America should still be a Christian nation and was in peril of losing touch with its Christian roots.

It may be worthwhile to examine some of the assumptions in the minister's claim. The first assumption is that America was founded when John Alden stepped off the Mayflower onto Plymouth Rock. It was not founded by any of the people who had already been living on the continent for millennia, nor was it founded by the Dutch or French or Spanish colonists who were competing with the English to establish European colonies on American soil. Apparently, it was not founded when the American war of independence was concluded, or when the first president took office, or when the constitution was ratified and became the law of the new republic. It did not continue to be founded by the waves of immigrants who migrated in the centuries after the immigrants on the Mayflower. No, it was founded by those passengers on The Mayflower who drew up a pact stating that they had come for the advancement of the Christian faith.

A second assumption is that the intentions of the putative founders of the nation must still be carried out nearly four hundred years later. So even though hardly anyone in America still gets around by sailing ship, and most people no longer wear buckled shoes and knee-length breeches and tall hats that look like inverted flower pots, and few people write sentences as long as the single sentence of the Mayflower Compact—in short, even though the world has changed in technology, scientifiic understanding, literary style and in its perspectives on history—the intention to advance the Christian faith as it was grasped by the Pilgrims is one thing that cannot change. America may now be populated by Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, atheists and people who have no interest at all in any religion, but whatever its population, the assumption goes, it is still a Christian nation.

The first passenger of The Mayflower to set foot on Plymouth Rock was John Alden. He was not among the 40% of the adults on the ship who had gone to America to seek religious freedom. He was not a Pilgrim, if we understand a pilgrim to be one of those who left England for Amsterdam and then Leiden and who took part in a movement of Protestants led by pastor John Robinson seeking separation from the Church of England and who eventually left from Delfshaven, Holland in two ships called The Speedwell and the Mayflower (only one of which made it to the shores of America). John Alden was a ship's carpenter who was hired onto The Mayflower as a cooper, and like many of the 60% of the people on The Mayflower who were not Pilgrims, his primary motivation was probably to find adventure and fortune and not to advance the Christian faith. In his later years, in fact, John Alden was known for his strong dislike of Quakers and Baptists. He did sign the Mayflower Compact, but to what extent he wholeheartedly endorsed all that it is said is impossible to know.

While the advancement of Christianity may have been an undertaking of those who drafted and signed the Mayflower Compact, the signers of the document also sought a

better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony…

The evangelical minister who cited the Mayflower Compact at the interfatih meeting did not even mention the colonist's determination to frame just and equal laws conducive to the general good of the colony. That might have required admitting that honoring the spirit of the intentions of the Mayflower community could best be done by establishing universal health insurance under a government-managed single-payer insurance system. The particular minister in question revealed political leanings in the rest of what he said that would make his endorsement of such health-care policies unlikely.

I find myself thinking about the Pilgrims these days, because I am living in Leiden and walking the very streets they walked and going into some of the buildings they probably entered. I have stood on the very spot where they embarked from Leiden for Delfshaven and then on to America. William Bradford was one of my ancestors, as was John Alden. I have been aware of that connection for most of my life. I even chose Alden as a middle name for my son, but it never occurred to me that I should try to think as my (and my children's) ancestors thought. I still have no urge to take those who formed my DNA as a model on which to base my own beliefs and prejudices and actions.

That notwithstanding, I find myself intrigued with all the ways that these human things change through the years. How does the descendant of a Quaker-hating ship's carpenter become a Quaker? How does the descendant of at least one person who came to America to advance Christianity end up devoting his life to advancing Buddhism in America? How does the descendant of people who chose to leave Leiden end up being invited to help disseminate knowledge of Buddhism in Leiden?

The answer to those questions is simple. I am selective. I take bits and pieces from the past and put them together in a way that I find palatable. In that respect, I am very much like the evangelical Christian minister who carefully picks out a few phrases from the Mayflower Compact and disregards the rest.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Whence the mediocrity?

Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus opened in London in 1979 and was eventually turned into a motion picture that was amusing, but not nearly as provocative and disturbing as the play. Ostensibly about the possibly mysterious death of Mozart, what made the play as powerful as it was was the exploration of the theme of mediocrity. In the play, the Venetian composer Antonio Salieri (1750‑1825) is portrayed as a man tormented by the fact that he has piously dedicated his career to composing music to glorify God and has always been morally upright and of good conduct, and yet he was never able to compose anything as magnificent as the childish and irreverent clown Mozart. Surely, exclaims Salieri, God is mocking me!

The theme of divine justice (theodicy) is as old as the notion of a supreme god who makes moral demands on his or her creatures. The pious and righteous often suffer defeat and humiliation, while the scoundrels often enjoy all the pleasures and comforts that their ill-gotten gain can buy. If God expects righteousness of his creatures, how just can it be that God's well-behaved creatures must endure hardships while the ill-behaved skate relatively effortlessly through life? How can a just god reward a buffoon with arguably the greatest musical genius in the history of Europe and visit nothing but musical mediocrity on a God-fearing servant? That is the question posed in Shaffer's play. (Leave aside the fact that the real Salieri was anything but mediocre as a composer and conductor. It is the character of Shaffer's play, not the real musician, who concerns us here.)

I am happy enough to let better philosophers than I struggle with the issue of theodicy and the relationship between piety and mediocrity. The theme that is intiguing me now is to do with another aspect of mediocrity, namely, how it comes about that a nation can become so addicted to substandard goods and services that it despises all those who try to raise the standards to a higher level.

The question comes to my mind after spending several days in Paris. Like most people who have spent time in Paris, I could not help spending quite a bit of time wondering how even apparently humble and seemingly unpromising restaurants manage to serve such well-prepared meals. It is obvious that they must do so, or else quickly go out of business, because the French will not settle for substandard food. That is not so surprising. What issurprising is that Americans do, for the most part, settle for inferior cooking. They settle for huge servings of mediocre fare, food with little nutritional value despite its overload of calories, food that lacks subtle tastes, food that is heaped upon over-sized plates with no regard to appearance, food that fosters obesity and all the illnesses that go with it. Why?

During our stay in Paris, my wife and I went to museums, took long walks and read. Every evening we watched a little bit of television. We happened to see CNN and were struck again, as we have been before while traveling in Europe, at how much better CNN is in Europe than in the United States. It actually carries news in Europe. It carries stories about Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas (north, south and central). It is possible to learn what is going on in the world by watching CNN in Europe. Why do Americans settle for such substandard news broadcasting, and news commentary representing such a narrow range of opinions and perspectives?

On returning to the Netherlands, where I'll be spending some time, I got caught up on news stories that I had not paid much attention to in France. I read the New York Times on line and was taken aback by how much the American public seems to have turned against Barack Obama's proposed health-care reforms. All across the country there seem to be masses of people protesting against a series of proposals that would go at least some of the way toward beginning to lift the United States out of the mediocrity that they have settled for in health care. It would be difficult to design a worse system than the one that now exists. It delivers substandard health-care at outrageous prices to those who can afford it and leaves the rest of the population to remain sick and injured and eventually to die. No one benefits from the system but a handful of overpaid physicians and directors of for-profit insurance companies. It is worse than mediocre. And yet more than a handful of Americans, the very ones who stand to benefit from an improved system, are loudly insisting that government not tamper with the status quo. To settle for mediocrity is bad enough. To insist on it is nothing short of tragic.

The demand for substandard health care is, of course, intimately related to the substandard access to information that Americans settle for. America has become a nation of political zombies who will follow only the loudest demagogues and most ill-mannered purveyors of vituperation and character assassination. Americans will settle for bad food that makes them sick, substandard health care that fails to heal them, repugnant forms of entertainment that lets them remain savages, and politicians who drive them into deprivation for the simple reason that they do not know any better. They do not know any better because they have no easy access to good news reporting and analysis; to become informed in America takes a lot of work, and the culture of making an effort died with my grandfathers' generation.

The combination of various forms of mediocrity that have become standard in the United States have a kind of synergy that creates a vicious cycle, a downward spiral, a kind of cultural black hole from which no light can escape.

Can the trends be reversed? Events of the past six or seven decades are not promising. All the same, history is full of surprises. The universe is complex beyond our wildest imaginations, so it never unfolds as one would expect. Suffice it to say that if dramatic cultural improvements are visited upon Americans, despite all their efforts to resist them, it will have been a fluke, a series of accidents that will no doubt look to some like divine grace, to others like blind luck. Is there a difference?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Who deserves to suffer?

An American woman reacting to the release on compassionate grounds of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for playing a role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on Dec. 21, 1988, said “He already got his compassionate release when he was sentenced to life imprisonment instead of getting the death penalty.”

The implication of the woman's comment—I should perhaps add that she made a point of saying that she was speaking as a Christian—was that being allowed to remain alive was as much compassion as the man deserved. The fact that he is believed to be dying of prostate cancer was not worth taking into consideration. Apparently also irrelevant to this woman is the fact that al-Megrahi was tried and convicted of murder in the United Kingdom, where capital punishment for the crime of murder was formally abolished in 1969 and abolished for all crimes in 1998. There was no possibility of al-Megrahi's being sentenced to die for any crime in the UK, so his being “allowed” to remain alive was not a question of compassionately releasing him from a punishment that under law he deserved. Rather, it was a question of applying the law of the land.

Megyn Kelly co-host of America's Newsroom on Fox News, may have been unaware of the law of the land in the United Kingdom when she said words to the effect that while the Scottish courts seem to favor compassion, Americans are more interested in the rule of law. In fact, the Scottish court demonstrated that it was quite interested in the rule of law, for the custom in Scotland has been to release terminally ill prisoners so that they can spend their last days with their families. It turns out that in the United Kingdom, the rule of law is not incompatible with compassion. The law itself has provision for the judicious exercise of compassion.

American law, of course, is not entirely devoid of compassion. In contrast to all other industrialized nations, however, there is more a culture of punishment than of rehabilitation. Not only is the duration of imprisonment in the United States longer than in Canada or Europe, but it has increased. It rose by 83% in the 1990s. That trend may be reversed as a result of fiscal difficulties in many states. Already there has been a serious cutback in California in allocations for programs to educate prisoners and teach them trades. These programs, which could reduce the likelihood of recidivism (now more than 70%), are proving too expensive to maintain in the short run. The long-term costs of cutting those programs, along with the pressure to release prisoners from severely overcrowded prisons without their having the benefit of being in facilities that could rehabilitate them, could be very high indeed.

Why are sentences in the United States so long? Why is the prevailing philosophy to throw people in prison and throw the key away? A web site dedicated to the so-called Three Strikes Law explains that the 1994 California law that mandates giving a minimum prison term of 25 years to a person convicted of a third felonious offense grew out of a conviction that some people are simply not responsive to being imprisoned. While it might seem strange to increase the time in prison of people do not benefit from imprisonment, the principal rationale for doing so was that society is made safer by keeping dangerous people in a place where they cannot commit more crimes. Experience has shown that such people often do continue to commit more crimes; it's just that their victims are other prisoners rather than people on the outside. The reasoning seems to be that people already in prison may somehow deserve to be victims of crime more than other people.

That people allow themselves to ask the question of who “deserves” to be a victim of violence or unpleasant treatment is alarming. Once the question is even asked, people can be drawn into thinking that it somehow makes sense to allow other sentient beings to suffer. Animals can be allowed to suffer, some might argue, because they are allegedly not intelligent, and besides they are useful for food and clothing. Poor people can be allowed to suffer, some might argue, because they do not work hard enough to get out of poverty. Jews and gypsies and homosexuals can be allowed to suffer, many Europeans did argue not so long ago, because they make no useful contributions to society. Immigrants can be allowed to suffer, many now argue, because they have not taken the right steps to become citizens, and even if they have, they may not understand our culture.

I do not understand our culture, especially that aspect of our culture that tolerates the suffering of prisoners, illegal immigrants, newly arrived legal immigrants, people living in countries against which we wage declared and undeclared wars. This aspect of American culture–human culture–is repugnant to me.

There is an alternative to the culture of punishment and allowing the suffering of those who allegedly deserve it. For the past several days I have been recalling a speech in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice that my ninth-grade English teacher made the class memorize some fifty years ago. That teacher died about forty years ago, but I hope there are many of her former students who still remember at least the opening lines of the lines we were made to memorize. We need those words.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God's
When mercy seasons justice.

In closing I express my heartfelt condolences to all those who lost loved ones on Pan Am flight 103. I also wish the best for the man convicted of their murder. May all the tormented souls connected with that tragic incident find peace of mind before they go the way of all flesh.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Why do Americans fear government?

Last night I saw a news segment about one of the town-hall meetings around the United States in which citizens are voicing their concerns about health-care reform. One woman, her voice trembling with emotion, asked “Can you name one thing—one thing—that government has become involved in that has not grown wildly out of control and hopelessly inefficient?” I gather that her rhetorical question was meant to be an argument against government being involved in the health-care industry.

Within a couple of seconds of hearing the question, I was thinking of all the government agencies that have done excellent jobs of overseeing and performing tasks that private enterprise would have done much less efficiently and that have not grown wildly out of control. The first few that came to mind were government agencies that I know about because members of my family have worked for them: The United States Geological Survey, the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Health and Human Services. Then I thought of government agencies that have provided funds to scholarly, scientific and artistic endeavors that would not likely be funded by private enterprise: the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation.

Within less than a minute I was able to think of about a dozen or so more national government agencies that routinely do excellent jobs without growing wildly out of control. And of course when I began to think of governmental agencies at the state, county and municipal level the number of exemplary government agencies began to fill me with a deep sense of gratitude for all the things that governments provide the citizens of the United States. So where, I began to wonder, does this fear of so-called “big government” come from?

When I begin to think of government ventures that really have grown wildly out of control and have swollen budgets for inefficiently doing services that we hardly need done at all, I also notice that it is these government enterprises that we hear about most often and that we encounter more often than we would like. The most wasteful big-government operation of all, of course, is the military, which gobbles up 43% of all monies gained through taxes. When people look back on American military ventures that have taken place since the end of the second world war, the only thing they can see are counterproductive operations that have wasted lives, destroyed property and depleted the treasury. If the military is the most visible arm of the American government, no wonder Americans are so distrustful of government.

Another branch of government that everyone who travels by air experiences is the Transportation Security Administration, which makes sure that no grandmother boards an airplane with more than three ounces of skin lotion and that no child has a bomb concealed in his shoe. At enormous expense and irritation to the traveling public, this highly visible organization asks us to believe it is their work that has prevented further hijackings and bombings of aircraft. When Americans see how many obviously pointless measures are taken by government agencies in the name of airport security, no wonder they are wary of more big government.

Is there any reason to believe that a government-regulated medical insurance program or a government-regulated pharmaceutical industry would be as inefficient and wasteful as the military or the Department of Homeland Security, or as invasive as the FBI? No. It has not proven to be so in other industrialized nations. Why assume that a national health service would be more like the US military than like the US Park Service or the Department of Housing and Urban Development?

Is there any reason to believe that a government-regulated medical insurance program or a government-regulated pharmaceutical industry would be as inefficient and wasteful as for-profit health insurance companies and for-profit health maintenance organizations (HMO)? Again, the answer is suggested by the experience of people living in countries that have government-managed health-care systems. They provide much better care at a fraction of the cost of what is available in the United States in our market-driven system.

The American fear of big government is not entirely irrational. There are very expensive government agencies that return very little of value to society; the military is the most obvious of these. But it is irrational to fear all government. There are also scores of governmental agencies that none of us would want to live without: the National Guard, various police forces, fire-fighting agencies, departments that build and maintain roads and highways and bridges and airports. Who would prefer having to travel on privately owned turnpikes and tollways instead of on the federally maintained system of interstate highways and all the state highways? Who would prefer to live in a society in which every merchant had his own definition of what a pound of weight or a yard of length or a minute of time is, as opposed to a society with a federally financed Bureau of Standards? Who would like to live in a country without a national postal service?

Who would like to live in a country that has a health system in which the people most in need of care cannot afford to pay for it, and in which insurance agencies have no incentive at all to provide coverage to anyone who might make claims that could reduce the dividends or shareholders or diminish the bonuses paid to already highly paid executives? I guess that question has an answer. Sarah Palin seems to be one such person. But why? And why are so many Americans so ready to be persuaded by her careless rhetoric than by a careful study of what would actually be of benefit to them?

Care to study the situation a little more carefully? One place to begin is at the CNN site on health care.

Friday, August 14, 2009

America's love affair with ignorance

There has been a lot of blogging recently about an editorial in Investors Business Daily. A summary of some of the best-known blogs can be found on the BBC website. In addition to what one finds there, a reflective piece occurs as part of a recent post on Bodhipaksa's blog site, Bodhi Tree Swaying

The BBC site notes that a theme in the debates among bloggers is whether the author of the Investors Business Daily was deliberately lying about the British national health care system or simply misinformed. As I have heard some of the questions coming from the audience at town-hall meetings on the proposed health care reforms in the United States, I have been astonished at the level of ignorance being manifested in the questions. As I have written before, it is astonishing to me to hear comments about “the” Canadian health care system. (As I pointed out in that blog posting, Canada does not have a health-care system; each province has one, and the details are different from one province to another.) I have heard almost everything from Americans but accuracy in descriptions of Canadian health care; even Americans who are relatively well-informed about the world in general seem to know very little about their neighbors to the north. In this post I plan to draw attention to a few features of the systems that I personally experienced while living in Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Québec, Canada and to say why I would love to see similar features in the United States.

  • Universal coverage. There may be people living in Canada who are not covered by any health insurance, but it is not because they cannot afford insurance or because they have been rejected as a bad risk by an insurance company. There are various ways to make sure that low-income people are covered. One method is to subsidize people below a given level of income as reported in their annual income tax filings. Another is to pay for health care out of taxes, which automatically means that those who make (and spend) a lot of money pay more into the health care system, and those who earn or spend little pay less into the system.
  • Excellent medical care. Twice when I was in hospital in Canada for surgical interventions that I never would have been able to afford in the United States, I met patients from the United States who had come to Canada for medical procedures more advanced than any they could find in the United States. They were not there only because the price was lower for procedures than the price would be in their own country; they were there because they could get in Canada medical attention that was not available at all in the United States. Canadian medical research is among the best in the world, and it becomes available to the public much more quickly than it would do in a profit-oriented systems.
  • Cost-efficient medical care. Because most medical insurance is provided through government-run plans, billing is simple and can be carried out by far fewer clerks and bureaucrats than is the case in a system in which there are numerous insurance companies, each with its own forms and regulations. Medical procedures are routinely approved in Canada, unlike the case in the United States where insurance companies, motivated by the need to make profits to pass on to their shareholders, spend time and money finding reasons to deny claims. (In my own experience, I never had to appeal a single medical expense during my thirty-six years in Canada. Since moving back to the United States, I have had to appeal several decisions made by my insurance company.
  • Employers do not pay for employee's health care. One of the greatest advantages of a single-payer system is that health care costs are borne by a combination of the person insured and the government, not by the insured person's employer. This means small businesses in Canada are not burdened by having to pay the same high costs as their American counterparts. When the North American Free Trade Agreement first came into effect, this became one of the first major issues of dispute. American small businesses complained that Canadian competitors had an unfair advantage, because they had no health-care premiums to provide for their employees. Strangely, rather than demanding a single-payer system in their own country, American companies insisted that it was only just for them to impose tariffs on Canadian goods and services.
  • Canadian pharmaceutical providers are limited in the amount of profits they can make on a product. If you have an e-mail account, it is likely you (or your spam filter) receive several e-mails a week advertising pharmaceutical products at Canadian prices. Canadian prices are lower than American prices for exactly the same products, because the Canadian government places a cap on the amount of profit a pharmaceutical company can make on a given product. The profit margin is still reasonable, but it is not allowed to become exorbitant as American profit margins are allowed to get.

The Canadian health-care systems provided by the provinces I have lived in are far superior to anything I have experienced in the United States. (Having said that, I have heard enough about the Kaiser plan in California to think it would make an excellent model for health-care in the United States.) What has amazed me most about the debates in the United States is that from the very start the most sensible plan of all—a single-payer system—has been “off the table.” None of the various proposals being considered in the United States would make the US health-care system even close to either the British or the Canadian systems or anything that is available in Europe or Japan. Almost as astonishing to me has been the sheer ignorance that prevails in the United States about why health care is so substandard in the United States. In place of accurate information and careful argumentation, one finds in this debate very little but misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric. If Americans do not wake up and take an interest in matters that are to their own advantage, they will end up with the inferior kind of health care that willfully ignorant people probably deserve.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Medical prostitution

Congressional Democrats and a barnstorming President face deep skepticism from the American public about the details of their effort to change the nation's health-care system, even as enthusiasm for the prospect of reform remains high, according to a new TIME poll.

This story goes on to say that 56% of Americans polled are convinced that health care reform will “offer less freedom to choose doctors and coverage.” That more than half of Americans polled believe such a thing is a testimony to how effective it can be for pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies to spend millions of dollars to encourage people to worry about what might happen if the status quo changes. During the past week I have heard advertisements on radio and television, and I have received telephone calls, all urging the view that if government becomes involved in making decisions about what health insurance will cover, then people will have fewer options to get the health care they need. A favorite mantra concocted to nourish hand-wringing worry is “health care will be rationed.”

Companies whose principal aim is to make profits have done an excellent job of making Americans believe that companies whose principal aim is to make profits for their shareholders are going to be more objective in making wise decisions about what health care should be available than government bureaucrats. The track record of these for-profit companies is that we in the United States have the system we now have. That system guarantees that

  • people with pre-existing conditions are unlikely to be able to have any affordable health insurance at all. (I know someone whose pre-existing condition is old age. He pays $35,000 a year in health insurance.);
  • insurance company bureaucrats will scrutinize every claim and make decisions about whether it is covered by the claimant's policy;
  • pharmaceuticals will cost significantly more than they do in Canada, Europe and Asia—in all those places one can get exactly the same pharmaceuticals that one can get in the United States, but they cost far less there than in the USA;
  • a significant proportion of the population will never be able to afford insurance, and will therefore will never be able to afford health care, thus insuring that they either go untreated or get treatment at artificially elevated costs at public expense.

During the past two weeks there has been an excellent summer course taught at University of New Mexico called Traditional medicine without borders: Curanderismo in the Southwest and Mexico. One theme that has emerged as the various Mexican and Native American healers have spoken of their practices is that a true healer never has a customer. Customers pay. If they don't pay, they do not get services. Traditional healers treat anyone who requires treatment. If the person treated is able to make a voluntary donation, then a donation is made. But patients are never turned away simply because they are not able to make a donation, or do not wish to make a donation.

A second theme that emerges is that all healing is done in a spirit of love. People who are suffering from physical and emotional stress tend not to heal as well or as quickly as people who are more tranquil and at peace. The American for-profit health-care system is not based on a spirit of love, nor is it a system that makes people calm and at ease. It is, therefore, not a system that does a very good job of curing people of illness. It is the antithesis of a healing system.

Why Americans settle for one of the worst and most expensive health-care systems in the industrialized world would be a mystery if it were not for the fact that people motivated by a craving for money are very good at manipulating beliefs. The American medical establishment has carefully manipulated both the beliefs and the emotions of the American people. They will continue to do so until Americans stand up and say “Enough!” It's an easy word to pronounce. Let's just say it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On owning a hole in the ground

When I was a child of ten, my father and I drove from Albuquerque, New Mexico to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Along the way, we stopped to see the Meteor Crater about twenty miles west of Winslow, AZ. I reckon we were warming up for seeing one of the world's most magnificent canyons made by a river by looking at a smaller, but not unimpressive, hole in the ground made by a meteor. As I remember it, the meteor crater was just a big hole in the ground which a person could view by standing at the rim and looking down. My father, a geologist, explained the meteor crater to me in his own gifted way of explaining geology to a child. A few days later, he explained a good deal of the Grand Canyon to me. I still cherish those explanations. The geological time-frame and the astronomical scale of space became part of my life-long worldview, along, of course, with the theory of the evolution of species through random mutations. It was, and still remains, a worldview in which God was never seen as a necessary hypothesis.

I mention this background information to set the stage for the sense of dismay I had last week when I went to see the Meteor Crater again, this time with my wife, this time not as a lad of ten but as a man of sixty-four. The current site is quite a bit different from how I remember it. Now it's in a big enclosure surrounded by high fences with barbed wire on top. There is a museum, a gift shop, a Subway sandwich vendor, and a big wall commemorating all of America's astronauts, some of whom reportedly had some lessons there in geology in preparation for viewing craters on the moon. There are several viewing decks equipped with viewing tubes aimed at interesting sights. One interesting sight is a cardboard cutout of an astronaut down at the bottom of the crater.

There are other differences. These days there are guided tours. It costs $15 per person ($14 for seniors 60 or over) to view the crater. The ticket sellers and tour guides and clerks in the gift shop all wear uniforms that make their wearers look as though they might be US Park Service employees, but they are not. The uniforms have a big American flag on the sleeve, but there are no official US government insignia. Where such insignia usually appear on a real US Park Service uniform, the employees have various pins attached to their shirts. One pin I managed to read said JESUS SAVES. My wife and I listened in on one of the guided tours. At one point the tour guide said “To my mind, the only thing more interesting to study than this crater is God himself.” There were several other references in his talk to Our Maker, the Big Guy in the Sky, the Man Upstairs and our Lord and Creator. (The tour guide also mentioned Geraldo Rivera, for some reason.) He made a point of pointing out that early geologists had been “spectacularly wrong” in their hypotheses about how the crater got there; some reportedly thought it was a volcano. The reason for poking fun at the mistaken hypotheses of geologists seems to have been to set the stage for the telling the crowd that the person who first realized the hole was made by a crater was the businessman who eventually bought the property on which the crater is found and whose family still owns the property. The underlying message seems to be that scientists get things wrong and so perhaps should not be trusted as much as businessmen who know how to turn a hole in the ground into a steady source of revenue.

The whole thing leaves me with a sense that the meteor crater is a symbol of so much that is profoundly wrong with American society as it has evolved. It strikes me as wrong that the meteor crater is privately owned, just as it strikes me as wrong to think that any parcel of earth can be owned. The entire earth surely belongs to all of us who are passing through, not to any individual or corporation. The very idea of private property is surely delusional to the point of being almost psychotic.

It is especially offensive that the people employed to sell the crater to the public so openly invoke references to God. Surely anyone who seriously believes in God must know that natural wonders of the world can never be owned by creatures. The land and the sea and the waterways and the sky are all of them public domain that should never be allowed to be seen as private property.

At least the museum at the Meteor Crater wasn't too bad. It was, however, certainly not worth $15 a person (or even $14) to visit it. Similar facilities run as national monuments by the US Park Service would probably be free or maybe up to $5 apiece, and I think Park Service tour guides could probably manage to talk about the geology and astronomy of a meteor crater with considerably less theology mixed into their talks. If the Park Service managed the site (which they cannot do, because National Monuments cannot be operated on privately owned land), it would be educational, not an infomercial for a business entrepreneur. If the Park Service managed the site, it would be about meteors that fall to the earth and the moon and other planets from space, not about human pilots who go into space as part of a massive propaganda enterprise of a nation obsessed with patriotic sentimentality. If the Park Service managed the site, it would not be allowed to become just another commodity. Calling the site Meteor Crater Natural Monument and dressing the tour guides and ticket sellers and gift-shop clerks as much like US Park Rangers as possible is clearly intended to create the impression that one is visiting a National Monument managed by the US Park Service, but all the basic values of the US Park Service are in fact being mocked.

It so happened my wife and I visited the Meteor Crater, with its wall commemorating all the American astronauts who have been into space, just a few days before the fortieth anniversary of the first human landing on the moon. Visiting the Meteor Crater left me feeling heartsick in many of the same ways the first moon landing left me feeling heartsick and discouraged back in 1969. The first moon landing happened when America was being torn apart by a pointless and immoral war, and when people who were fighting for the exercise of the most basic rights of American citizenship were being beaten, sprayed with high-pressure fire hoses and killed. The moon landing distracted a nation into celebrating its collective wonderfulness at a time when there was very little going on in America that was worthy of celebration. The moon landing was not celebrated as an achievement for human science, but as a monument of American prowess and domination. It was shameful when it happened, and it is shameful now. Seeing the Meteor Crater turned into a monument of the American space program reminded me of that shame. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to be reminded of that shame.

The only thing symbolically appropriate about the Meteor Crater Natural Monument and all it has come to celebrate is that it is a big hole in the ground that was until fairly recently officially known as Canyon Diablo.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The spiritual side of health care

On June 14, 2009 on Face the Nation the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell (Republican, Kentucky) said to the host, Bob Schieffer, that most Republicans would oppose any plan that included government-backed health insurance. (More details about his interview can be found on a Face the Nation blog posting.)

This seems to be another case where the Republican Party stands in opposition to the spiritual foundations that guide most people in the United States. According to Rabbi Akiba, the most important teaching in the Torah is the injunction in Leviticus 19:18 to love one's neighbor as oneself. Jesus took this teaching to heart, and it became a summary of the most important teaching in Christianity. Similar teachings can be found in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Confucianism. It is also found in the traditions of many North American native peoples. It would be hard to deny that in the United States, a country in which religious faith and practice is central to the lives of the majority of citizens, that tending to the needs of the sick, the poor, the weak and the downtrodden is at the very core of what most Americans profess. Why is it not at the core of the values professed by Republicans?

I can only offer an amateurish response to my own question. For as long as I can remember (which is a span of time going back to the late 1940s), Republicans have been identified as the party most concerned with fighting what they perceive as enemies of American values. In the 1950s, the principal focus of Republican concern was communism. Communism was routinely depicted as anti-Christian and atheistic. It was an easy, albeit fallacious, step from that premise to the conclusion that anything communists favor must be in some way contrary to the basis teachings of Christianity. On the principle that any friend of my enemy is my enemy, and any enemy of my enemy is my friend, anti-Communists (both Democrats and Republicans) came to see labor unions as a threat not only to the American way of life but to the core values of Christianity. Not only organizations that sought to improve the working conditions of paid workers, but organizations that sought any kind of economic justice, or any other kind of justice, came to be regarded with suspicion. People working for the abolition of racial segregation, or for international peace, or for nuclear disarmament all came to be seen as enemies of the state. People seeking racial equality or gender equality could be (and were) dismissed as Communist sympathizers seeking to undermine the core foundations of the American way of life. Those who sought to maintain the systematic injustices against which labor unions and other social activists fought, on the other hand, were depicted as the pillars of American democracy. Those who opposed racial equality and gender equality and most other forms of social justice were those who had something to lose if justice were to prevail. Those who had something to lose were the wealthy and the powerful, not only individuals who were wealthy and powerful but corporations. What they had to lose was their material wealth. And so it came to be that many Americans, in the name of standing against godless Communism, came to stand for the very forces that were least interested in fighting for the sick, the poor, the weak and the downtrodden. In the name of defending Christianity, many (perhaps even the majority) of Americans ended up supporting the principal forces working against the realization of Christian social values.

The same skewed logic that drove the anti-Communist fervor of the McCarthy era and the Cold War era continues to drive the policies favored by Senator McConnell. Rather than working tirelessly for programs that would bring affordable and efficient health-care to the millions of people who now cannot afford the artificially high prices of medical care in the United States, McConnell and his fellow Republicans work tirelessly not for the sick and the weak individuals who require compassionate care but for the powerful insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies that have made a lucrative commercial enterprise of health care and that have, in so doing, driven medical and pharmaceutical costs higher in the United States than in any industrialized nation. Americans pay far more for significantly inferior health care than do Canadians, Europeans, Japanese and Israelis. Many Americans get no health care at all, not even of the inferior kind available in the USA, because they simply cannot afford it. Many Americans who do get the health care they need face financial ruin as a result of getting the care they need. This is hardly what one would expect of a nation run according to Christian (or Buddhist or Confucian or Hindu or Islamic or Jewish) religious principles. It is what one would expect of a nation run according to callous materialistic values pursued in utter contempt of spiritual values of any kind. It would be difficult to find a more godless nation on this planet than the United States of America as it has evolved under the influence of powerful politicians claiming to be operating on Christian family values.

Turning anti-spiritual nations around has traditionally been the work of prophets. Prophets are rarely loved by the generations that they seek to heal. As recently as 2004, the American Friends Service Committee, which has worked for prison reform and more justice in immigration policy and more humane policies in governmental relations with native Americans, was declared a “criminally extremist organization” by the Denver police department. Other organizations founded by Quakers and other religious communities—organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Friends Committee on National Legislation—are under constant surveillance by the FBI and Homeland Security. Acting in accordance with the Christian principle of loving one's neighbor as oneself, and actually trying to do something to lessen one's neighbor's suffering, is regarded as criminal conduct by many of the politicians who claim most loudly to be defending the Christian heritage of this country.

It is time to call their bluff. It is time to make them ashamed of their hypocrisy. We live in a time that has been brought to ruin by those in pursuit of profits. We live in a time that can be brought back to harmony by listening to prophets.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Lest we forget

On the last Monday of May, people in the United States celebrate a holiday called Memorial Day. Originally, Memorial Day was a day set aside for remembering those who had died fighting in the Civil War. Days of remembering those who had died in that war were celebrated in various locations, and eventually there was a consolidation into a single day of remembrance. It was not until 1967 that the day was officially called Memorial Day. Until 1971 Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30. In 1971 it, along with numerous other holidays, was turned into an occasion for a long weekend, and so moved to the last Monday of May and the first long weekend of the summer.

Memorial Day appears to have been hijacked by patriots and made into a holiday for honoring people who have died in the course of military service. That is an unfortunately limited selection of the dead to honor. The day should be a time of remembering all those who have died whom one wants to make sure not to forget.

An expression that one hears often during Memorial Day with reference to those who have died in wars is the phrase “those who gave their lives for their country.” One might as well refer to people whose houses have been robbed as those who gave their property to theft. People do not give their lives. People join the military for any number of reasons—at many times in the history of the United States they were required by law to do military service—and politicians send armies into armed conflicts in which people's lives are taken, not given. Referring to a killed soldier as someone who gave his or her life to his country is a way of trying to distract everyone's attention from the ugly and tragic and unnecessary waste of life that invariably takes place in war.

Memorial Day is a time to be ashamed. It is a time to hang our heads in shame for being part of a society that sends people to their death as part of serving the selfish interests of the powerful and the unimaginative. As long as we are recognizing our shame, let us remember that war has many more victims than those who die in uniform. Everyone on the planet is in some way or another a victim of every war that takes place. Wars devour resources, destroy habitat, create shortages of food, and disrupt the natural economy in countless other ways. Not only human beings but creatures of all species suffer from the environmental degradation that takes place in wars. As Edwin Starr sang about war, “it ain't nothin' but a heart breaker, good only for the undertaker.”

It is worth remembering that war is not the only form of human incompetence that leads to suffering and death. We should also hang our heads in shame for allowing people to live in poverty, and for using products (such as computers and mobile telephones) that place strains on the environment by using energy that must be generated and by concentrating toxins that eventually return to the earth and endanger life in ways we can barely comprehend. Memorial Day is a time for not being forgetful of all the ways we contribute to death and devastation through our incessant craving for short-term comfort and convenience. It would be good if we had an entire holiday set aside for nothing but remembering that, but until such a holiday is declared for that purpose, we can use Memorial Day.

Shame is only part of life. Memorial Day is also a time to celebrate, a time to be grateful. It is a time to recall all the positive contributions made to the world through noble thoughts and noble actions. It is a time to reflect on contributions made in the past by all the peacemakers, philosophers, holy people, artists, authors, actors, painters, sculptors, music makers, scientists, engineers, philanthropists, mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncle and neighbors who have enriched our lives in obvious and in subtle ways. To forget all them while remembering only fallen military people would be tragically narrow and short-sighted.

Life is possible only through death. The dead literally provide the living with their food. On most days of the year we forget the everything that sustains our life is something that was itself at one time alive. We forget that we ourselves are food, that our bodies will eventually sustain the lives of creatures who find ways to eat us. Memorial Day is a time to remember that, in the wonderful words of the Taittirīya Upanishad “Oh, how wonderful it is! I am food. I am food. I am food.”

I wish everyone a Memorial Day spent in fruitful reflection, a bit of shame, a lot of celebration and a recollection of our place in the food chain.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Laws in a land of outlaws

The city of Albuquerque passed a law some time ago against using a hand-held mobile telephone while driving a motorized vehicle. The intention of the law is clear enough, and the motivations behind it are a mystery to no one. Holding a steering wheel with one hand and holding a telephone up to the ear with the other hand gives a driver less control in case of an emergency, and being distracted by a telephone conversation is more likely to get one into an emergency situation than if one were devoting full attention to driving. (The Insurance Information Institute has a web site with information about cell phones and driving.)

I have not conducted a systematic or scientific investigation of the matter, but as a pedestrian walking several miles daily along busy streets, I have amused myself by making observations of how many drivers I see talking on cell phones as they turn corners, change lanes, approach intersections and perform other maneuvers that require a combination of paying attention and keeping a vehicle under control. I have seen drivers hurtle through red lights, apparently unaware that they did not have the right of way. I have seen truckers negotiating a tractor-trailer through a left turn using one hand on the wheel and one hand to the ear. I have seen motorcyclists holding a cell phone to an ear as they drive; since wearing a helmet would interfere with talking on the telephone, they wear nothing to protect their heads in the event of a crash or a spill. I have seen drivers holding to the wheel with the little fingers of both hands while the rest of their two hands were holding a telephone as their thumbs poked keys to dial a number or send a text message.

While looking at people driving while using cell phones, I have also seen drivers doing other potentially dangerous things while driving, such as eating or drinking or lighting cigarettes. I saw a car weaving back and forth across a divider line on a busy city street as the driver used both arms to pull a sweater over her head. Watching what people do while driving is a good method of witnessing a number of astonishing practices.

In observing mobile telephone booths, I have counted the number of cars traveling along a stretch of road for a period of time and also counted the number of drivers ignoring the law against driving while using a hand-held cell phone. Sometimes only 3% of the drivers are observed breaking the law. Sometimes it's 12%. Whatever the percentage may be, it is clear that the law is being ignored. The law seems to be as difficult to enforce as it is necessary. And this raises an interesting observation one could make about laws in general: common sense has degenerated to such an extent that one needs laws to protect people from their own foolishness, but the laws are unlikely to be capable of doing what they were designed to do. Virtues cannot be legislated into existence, and folly cannot be legislated out of existence. As soon as government is necessary, it is too late for government to do any good. Laws do not make idiots wise; they only make idiots outlaws.

When George Fox was challenged on his interpretation of the Bible and asked whether he could read Hebrew or Greek, he responded that a knowledge of the languages of scripture are not nearly as important as having the spirit that inspired the scriptures in the first place. If a person is already filled with love and generosity, then he can easily understand a text urging people to be loving and generous. If a person is not filled with love and generosity, then a text urging people to be loving and generous is unlikely to be understood or followed. Scriptures are effective and inspirational only for those who do not need them. Those who have the spirit have no need of being inspired. Those who are uninspired can only make a travesty of texts and institutions meant to inspire them.

My idea of a utopia would be a society in which people are so spontaneously aware that they would avoid dangerous activities without being prompted. People would simply not do such stupid things as driving while talking on a telephone. They would not become intoxicated. They would not enrich themselves by cheating or stealing from others. They would be truthful. In such a society there would be no laws, because there would be no need for them. (Recall Bob Dylan's observation (in the song Absolutely Sweet Marie): “To live outside the law you must be honest.” Living outside the law, however, is not the same as being an outlaw. Living outside the law is having such an elevated degree of integrity that one has no need for laws. Being an outlaw is having such a diminished degree of integrity that laws are incapable of altering one's behavior. I would love to live in a utopia filled with people who live outside the law. Alas, I live in a dystopia filled with a bad combination of laws and outlaws who cannot benefit from them.

Monday, April 20, 2009

What a waist!

In an editorial entitled Universal Healthcare and the Waistline Police in the Christian Science Monitor dated January 7, 2009, Paul Hsieh describes a policy in Japan whereby citizens over the age of 40 have their waists measured by the government. If the citizen's waistline is large enough to indicate obesity and its attendent health risks, the citizen is required to undergo dietary counseling. Paul Hsieh finds this policy “nightmarish” and sees it as just the sort of evil that is bound to occur in a government-run health care system. As an advocate of a single-payer government-run health care system (because I have had the benefits of living under several such systems in several Canadian provinces over the course of more than thirty years), I cannot seem to find the Japanese system in any way nightmarish. Indeed, I would heartily welcome such a program in the United States.

The issue that seems to terrify Americans is the prospect of paying money into a system that takes care of people who have not taken care of themselves. People who stay slender resent paying into a system that takes care of obese people. People who exercise regularly resent paying for the health costs of couch potatoes. People who don't drink or smoke resent paying into a system that cares for the health costs of drinkers and smokers. People who oppose abortion are unhappy about paying for legal abortions. Vegetarians do not like having to pay for the medical costs of those who get cancer as a result of eating animal flesh. In a society that loves its fantasies of self-reliance and personal responsibility and especially freedom, the very idea of paying for those who are not blessed with good physical and mental health seems all but intolerable. Why, Americans ask, should I help anyone who does not think and act in exactly the ways I personally approve?

I understand the resistance. As someone in favor of banning all ownership of firearms, I am not happy having to help pay for people who get shot by pistols and rifles. As a pacifist, I do not like having 43% of my tax dollar paying for America's unnecessarily bloated military. During the twenty-five years of my adult life when I did not own or drive a car, I thought it would be nice if my hard-earned money was not paying for those who were injured in traffic accidents and for those who were made sick by air pollution coming from burning fossil fuels. But I also realized that such resistance was petty and selfish. On the balance, I wanted my fellow citizens to be healthy, and I was very happy to pay into a system that helped people retain their health. The more money I earned, the more taxes I paid, and the more I helped support the tax-based health care system, and the more I felt good about doing my share to keep the nation healthy.

Part of keeping health care costs under control is practicing preventive medicine. Taking measures to keep employees healthy makes good sense. At the place where I work there are numerous programs for helping people stop smoking, stop using alcochol, stop taking drugs, get enough exercise, stay slender and keep their blood chemistry within healthy tolerances. I am deeply grateful for those programs. I get my waist measured, and I gladly participate in exercise and diet programs. I would appreciate the programs no less if they were run by the government. (In fact, they are government programs, because my place of work is paid for by the state.)

Those who claim to love freedom but who are unwilling to pay for those who experience the consequences of exercising their freedom show that they do not love the freedom of others. They love only their own freedom. But not to love the freedom of others is not to love freedom at all. The cry of freedom is hollow and meaningless unless it is expressed in the form of helping one's neighbors when they have made their choices.

The Paul Hsieh's of the world have little reason on their side. They appeal to emotional argumentation and other fallacious methods of persuasion. Most of all they appeal to an irrational fear of government. Read his editorial for yourself. If you find anything of value in it, report back to me. A discussion on health care is something the United States of America needs to have. I'm happy to participate in that discussion with anyone who is interested.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Is Buddhism obsolete?

In a recent conversation with a group of Quakers, a Friend made the observation that the Quakers may have become obsolete, because most of the radical changes in religion they stood for in the seventeenth century have become realities in the twenty-first century. Quaker values that have not become realities, such as disarmament and prison reform, are also the values of so many other religious and secular organizations that the Quakers are no longer distinct. Whatever the answer to the question about the current relevance of Quakers may be, I have often mulled over to what extent Buddhism still has a role to play in the modern world.

In the fourth century, Vasubandhu argued that Buddhism was unique among the religious philosophies of India in that it denied that there is a permanent and unchanging self. This denial of a permanent self, said Vasubandhu, made Buddhism the only reliable path to liberation from suffering. Modern Buddhists—at least the ones I am familiar with—are rarely inclined to think that Buddhism is a uniquely effective path to liberation. Some Buddhists, influenced by modern psychology, question whether it is possible to eradicate the root causes of suffering at all and so would question whether Buddhism can actually deliver what it promises. Others, who have confidence that Buddhism is indeed a way to eliminate the causes of distress, see Buddhism as only one of many possible paths to the goal. I am not sure which of these two stances I take; I tend to waver between them, although I probably spend more time in the camp of those who think no one ever has and no one ever will attain nirvana or become fully enlightened in the way traditional Buddhism promises.

Setting aside the question of whether anyone has ever actually been a buddha or an arhant, there are modern Buddhists who question how unique Buddhism is in today's world in taking the position that there is no permanent self. I frankly have never, to the best of my knowledge, met anyone in the modern world who believes in permanent selves. Buddhism seems to me like a remedy for a disease no one has any more. Buddhism has a penetrating analysis of delusions that may have been common two millennia ago, but they are not common any more. We suffer from other diseases these days. We need other kinds of penetrating analysis.

Taking all this into account, I suppose I have to say that I do not see anything of importance in Buddhist theory and practice that makes Buddhism unique or even particularly distinctive in today's world. That could account for why my missionary impulses have always been rather feeble. On the other hand, it has never been at all important to me to be part of a unique system of religious philosophy and practice. Much more important to me has been to do the best I can in following the precepts that Buddhism has in common with most other philosophies. I am familiar with Buddhist thought and practice, and I try to be competent at it. Insofar as I succeed in being competent, it turns out that I end up also being equally competent at being a Stoic and a Quaker.

The truth of the matter is that I'm not very good at being a Buddhist, a Stoic or a Quaker. I am a man of many shortcomings and failings. I fall far short of the ideals of all the world's religions and philosophies. As long as that is the case—and I expect it will be the case for as long as I live—I will need the guidance of everything and everyone that can provide it. It would be foolish to limit myself to just one guide. In short, as long as I am in the condition I am in, neither Buddhism nor Quakerism nor Stoicism is obsolete. In me they will always have a loyal customer.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What on earth is authentic Buddhism?

A few months ago on a discussion group managed by Unitarian-Universalist Buddhist Fellowship, there was a discussion of E-Sangha. Most of the comments were critical of the perceived mission that E-Sangha has set for itself of preserving true and authentic Buddhism. E-Sangha posts a list of guidelines for its current and prospective members. In these guidelines we learn that E-Sangha describes itself as having the following mission:

E-sangha is a world-wide virtual community where Buddhists from a variety of traditions, and those who are interested in Buddhism, are able to meet together to discuss and come to a correct understanding of Buddhist teaching and learn how to reap the immense benefits of Buddhism in their daily lives.

E-Sangha's intent is to keep the Buddhist tradition alive and flourishing, and to help bring peace, harmony, and happiness into everyone's life.

On reading further into the guidelines, one learns a little more about what a “correct understanding” involves. For one thing, it involves refraining from mentioning or posting a link to any website that promotes false Buddhism. On the banned wagon are the New Kadampa Tradition, the Dark Zen website of Master Zenmar, and the True Buddha School website that promotes the teachings of a Taiwanese monk named Ven. Sheng-yen Lu, modestly billed as the greatest tantrayāna teacher of all time. Not exactly on the banned list but coming in for regular criticism on E-Sangha is the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, described as an organization founded by a man with “a sexually criminal mind.” (A comment on this characterization of the FWBO can be found on Out of a Living Silence, another blog site that I maintain.) Also not allowed on E-Sangha is any post that questions such core Buddhist doctrines as karma and rebirth. Nor can one post a link to a website promoting any religion other than Buddhism. Under the Right Speech guidelines, E-Sangha prohibits using the term “fundamentalist” with reference to any Buddhist teacher. Failure to comply with the twenty-eight guidelines may result in being banned permanently from E-Sangha (thus showing that there is an exception to the Buddha's observation that nothing is permanent).

To any Buddhists whose early exposure to Buddhism included a reading of what is commonly called The Kalāma Sutta, the insistence on doctrinal correctness at E-Sangha might seem a little strange. In that sutta of the Pali Canon of Theravāsa Buddhism we encounter the Buddhas saying this to the Kalāma people:

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them.

The sutta seems to be an invitation to discover for oneself which teachings are viable, being guided by the wise but not necessarily beholden to everything that the wise approve and censure. Plenty of essays have been written suggesting that the sutta is in fact not an invitation to free-thinking and open-ended interpretation, but many Buddhists in the West read the sutta in that way anyway. I confess that I read it that way and that I might lose much of my interest in Buddhism if it were to turn out that discovering for oneself which practices are fruitful and which counderproductive is not a core principle in Buddhism.

On March 17, 2009 the following observations by Stephen A. Evans on the Kalāma Sutta were posted on an academic Buddhist studies discussion group:

The commentary on this sutta is minimal and it is hardly mentioned elsewhere before around 1900. It seems to have been siezed upon by the British in their project of interpreting Buddhism as a modern-rational religion fully compatible with the ideals of the European enlightenment (The Buddha as the Bertrand Russell of Benares). That project, in my opinion, was misguided and has led to a century of misreading Theravada that forms a formidable barrier to comprehension. Buddhist scholars in traditionally Buddhist countries, esp. Sri Lanka, have largely jumped on the British bandwagon, seduced, it would seem, by the possibility that their tradition is more modern than modern, more western than the west. However, these representations of Buddhism have little or no resemblance to Buddhism as actually practiced (often by those same scholars).

Presupposed, if not directly stated, in Stephen Evans's observations are a number of principles that strike me as problematic.

  • If a text did not receive the attention of Buddhist commentators before 1900, it does not deserve the attention of scholars or Buddhists now.
  • British and other Western people have a “project” that distorts their understanding of Buddhism, while the projects of Asians in their own periods of history did not distort their interpretations of Buddhism.
  • Deviation from traditional Theravāda understandings of Buddhism is better described as misguided than as progressive or even simply as different.
  • Asian Buddhists who see value in Western interpretations of Buddhism are being “seduced” rather than enabled to see traditional teachings in a fresh and perhaps fruitful light.
  • Buddhism as actually practiced in Asia is somehow the authentic Buddhism, and looking for alternative possibilities in transmitting or discussing the theories and practices of Buddhism is somehow inauthentic, misguided and misleading.
  • Finding something of value in formerly neglected texts, or coming up with innovative interpretations of often-cited texts is best described as building an obstacle than as making a new window.

Taken together, these presuppositions sounds like a prescription for turning Buddhism into a mummified remant fit only to be displayed in a museum of dead religions. They certainly do not sound like a formula for keeping Buddhism vital by being adaptable to the needs of yet another culture in yet another time. Indeed, there is almost nothing in Stephen Evans's observations of the possible importance of the Kalāma Sutta that is keeping with the spirit of Buddhism as I have come to know it. At the risk of embracing a Buddhism that is not correct or authentic by the canons of those who make it their business to preserve the purity of traditions, I am more interested in experiencing Buddhism as flowing river than as a block of ice.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Shedding religious identity

An American Religious Self-Identification Survey reported in The Christian Science Monitor concludes that the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christians has declined to 76%, a drop of 10% since 1990. The number of Americans declaring themselves to identify with no religion has increased to 15%, a rise of 10% since 1990.

Interestingly, only 10% of those who identified with no religion declare themselves to be atheists or agnostics. This could suggest that Americans are not abandoning some of the core beliefs of religion as much as they are abandoning identification with a particular set of dogmas and practices. Perhaps what these people are abandoning is labels, and the sorts of things that labels often lead to, such as pride on the individual level and fund-raising campaigns on the institutional level.

I cannot help seeing the rise of the “No Religion” response as a sign of health and vitality in American culture. Institutional affiliation can come at a high price to those who indulge in it. A sense of communal belonging can rarely be acquired without at least a slight reduction in the willingness to speak critically and to act authentically. Speaking one's deepest and most sincere convictions is, in all but the rarest of communities, the shortest route to the margins of acceptability.

The only kind of community I have ever been attracted to is a community of people who are wary of organized and institutionalized communities. Over the years, I have found myself in several such communities. My experience has been that when such anti-community communities form by some freakish accident, one of two things happen. They either fall apart quickly, or they begin taking themselves seriously as communities and take on organized institutional structures—such things as by-laws, compliance with governmental regulations concerning non-profit organizations, a hankering for institutional recognition within the broader public, and perhaps a physical presence, such as a building or rented space with a sign outside telling the world that the community has a name and therefore exists. When the development of institutional structures happens, the people who are most allergic to organizations quietly (or sometimes noisily) leave. Hard feelings make the rounds of both the stay-ins and the drop-outs. It's often a sad situation.

Paradoxically, despite a fairly robust allergy to organized religion, I have become a member of several of them. Not only that, but I have gone pretty far out of my way to take the various steps that membership requires. Perhaps I enjoy the self-discipline involved in the pursuit of membership. The membership itself, once acquired, usually ends up feeling like an ill-fitting uniform. Shortly after becoming a member of a religious organization, I tend to become one of those who responds No Religion when asked about my religious self-identity.

Perhaps people with my temperament should pursue a catch-and-release approach to religion, like some of my friends who love the process of catching trout but quickly return their prey to the stream before anyone has to do any killing, cleaning, frying or eating. Whatever the case may be, I couldn't help feeling a surge of solidarity and kinship with the 15% of Americans who identify themselves as having no religion. I only pray that we can remain disorganized.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Justice by disaster

A Reuters news agency story dated February 10, 2009 reports that Federal judges have tentatively ordered the release of up to one-third the prison population is the state of California. If implemented, this could result in the release of as many as 57,000 prisoners. The immediate reason for the possible release is that California's prisons are dangerously overcrowded; moreover, the severe budget crisis that has emerged in the early months of this year has led to doubts as to whether the state can continue to pay the high cost of imprisoning approximately 170,000 inmates.

Part of the reason for the severe overcrowding in California's prisons is the policy of giving very long sentences—often life sentences—to repeat offenders. Although some prisons in California have educational and rehabilitational programs for inmates, the number of inmates seeking such programs far exceeds the numbers who can be accommodated. As a result many inmates receive little or no rehabilitative help while in prison. Once released, many prisoners lack the resources to become re-established with honest gainful employment on the outside. As a result California has the highest recidivism rate in the United States; according to a California government fact sheet, 70% of men and 40% of women return to prison after being released. When the state lacks the policy to ensure that all inmates have an opportunity for education or job training, it is almost inevitable to released prisoners will commit further crimes; when the state has a policy of giving very long sentences to repeat offenders, the prisons are sure to become overcrowded and expensive. The entire system is in serious need of reform.

While the situation is worst in California, the difference from other states is only a matter of degree. The United States as a whole leads the world in the percentage of its citizens who are in prison. I have written about this before. It is not only California but all the other states, and indeed the federal government, that must take a serious look at its policies in imprisoning those who have broken laws.

There is no doubt that the economic crisis the world is facing will have terrible consequences for many people—it is probably no exaggeration to say that nearly everyone alive will suffer at least some negative consequences. But not all the consequences of the economic disaster will be bad; some will lead, in odd and unexpected ways, to improvements in human society. Wasteful habits of producing and consuming goods and services are likely to be revised, perhaps helping to heal some of the deep wounds the human race has inflicted on the planet's ecological systems. Another unexpected consequence of the economic downturn could be a return to a more sane and humane set of policies of justice. The overcrowding of California's prisons, and those in most other states, is surely an injustice. The release of prisoners for whatever reason is a correction, even if an unintended correction, to that injustice. And for that we can all rejoice.