Sunday, January 30, 2011
In the footsteps of Saul Alinsky
Unlike the Tea Party Movement, we can't vent our frustration with the system and at the same time advocate fundamental changes that will, if enacted, simply reinforce the things about the system that we hate. Fortunately, we are not that disciplined and not that inclined to listen to demagogues who use our frustration and energy to promote their own selfish interests.
Let's start with agreeing on what needs to be changed.
- A great deal of wealth has been created in the past thirty or more years. Most of it has gone to a tiny segment of society. Most of us have not participated in becoming more wealthy. CEO's of large companies typically receive salaries and other forms of remuneration 400 times that of the average worker. In the rest of the industrialized world, excepting perhaps China, the ratio is only about 20. Some of this wealth needs to be redistributed, starting with the tax code.
- We no longer have a system of representative government. Our elected Representatives and Senators do not accurately represent us. They represent the interests of those individuals and organizations who have money to spend on election campaigns. This situation needs to be changed. The supreme court decision a year ago simply verified what was already in effect; namely, that organizations with money have political influence.
- Our country has blundered into several needless wars: Viet Nam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. None of these wars was started in the constitutional way by a simple declaration of war by Congress. None of them would have been started if the American Public had been consulted. We can debate the question of whether we obtained any of our objectives in these wars, but in general the situation in each case has settled our of probably will settle out to be just what it would have been if there had been no war.
- We need to do a great deal more than we are doing about global warming. It is too late to discuss the question of whether human activity is a cause. We have to plan for a warmer environment, a rising sea level, more frequent and stronger hurricanes, and other undesirable changes in the weather. Our government is doing practically nothing. No reputable institution is advising us on how we must change our ways of living to cope with the coming climate changes.
- We put too many people in prison. We require long prison terms for minor offenses. Prosecutors use the threat of long prison terms to try to induce drug retailers to rat out their suppliers. The retailers don't talk - they don't dare - and accept the long terms to protect their lives and their families' lives. We should rely much more on a system of probation for minor offenders. Probation is cheaper than prison.
We can not depend on favorite candidates for office to make these changes. We need to use techniques recognized in the constitution itself: public protest and petition. History teaches us that peaceful protest is more effective than violent protest. Look at Russia! The people rose up and violently ended the rule of the tsar. What replaced it? The rule of Stalin. In these days, the rule of Putin. It is not sufficient to overthrow a government that is oppressive. There must be a profound change, not only in the government, but in the people. Peaceful, if rowdy, demonstrations eventually wear down the prejudices of the people and bring about changes in the government. I am talking here about an effort that will take two or three generations. It isn't going to happen in the election of 2012.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Vinegar and Honey
Mr. Obama has already demonstrated his style of governing. He's not confrontational. He recognizes that while confrontation would be very satisfying to those of us who are perpetually angered by Republican lies and misrepresentations it would not produce useful results, especially with a divided Congress. Even when we Democrats had a majority in both houses there were enough Democrats in Name Only (DINO's?) from districts that normally elect Republicans to make progress on a progressive Democratic agenda very difficult. We forget, especially here in California, that the United States is a deeply conservative nation. Americans are more religious than the people of almost any other country. Around 90 percent of our fellows attend church services at least occasionally. No other nation has as large a percentage of nominal believers in some religion. Religious belief naturally goes with conservatism. Religious people of all faiths believe things written in their holy books, things that were written down thousands of years ago. The same believers in the wisdom of ancient writings follow ancient writings and ideas about economics, about the responsibilities of government, and about self reliance rather than dependence on systematic help from society.
Our successful presidents have been those who choose honey rather than vinegar. My mother told me that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar. A similar principle applies to dealing with other humans. Mr. Obama understands that bit of ancient wisdom and applies it to his job as President.
Labels: folly of confrontation
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Intransigence and Bias
Israeli intransigence I understand and accept as the way things are. What amazed me was the spin that the radio announcer was giving to this damaging leak. He (or she?) asserted that the leak would be very damaging to the Palestinian leader! This leader would find himself in trouble with his own people for being willing to concede so much!
That was the way the story was reported in NPR. Until then I had considered NPR to be relatively free of bias in the way it presented news. But here was a story, presumably true because no one denied it, that to me was very damaging to the government of Israel. Israel has been claiming for many years that the Palestinians do not want peace and are not willing to make any concessions, etc., etc., etc. The story reveals that it is Israel that has been unwilling to make any concessions or even to accept important concessions from the Palestinians. The way NPR reported the story reveals a strong pro-Israel bias among its news reporters.
Later on, either the same day or the next day, it was reported, again by NPR, that many governments had reacted to the story by changing their attitudes toward Israel. That is, they were becoming more inclined to blame Israel for the continuing conflict than before. In fact, the leak has been damaging to Israel.
Friday, January 21, 2011
More about Values
Getting back to thrift and frugality, it is good for an individual to be thrifty and frugal. It is also good for society for individuals to be thrifty and frugal. We live on a crowded planet with limited resources. If I am thrifty and frugal I am leaving resources for others to use. I am convinced that thrift, frugality, and avoiding waste is a value that every individual should cherish.
There are some people who believe that society should not only encourage thrift and frugality but actually enforce it by strictly rationing the resources that members of society can use. This rationing is done by pricing or using "market forces" to allocate scarce resources. This enforcement of limits on the use of resources becomes to some people a value. Just as my own habits of thrift and frugality leave resources for others to use, so this enforced limit leaves resources available to those who can afford them.
I do not view the enforced limit of the use of resources by market forces as a value. That is, I do not think it is a good thing. Rationing may well be necessary but it should not be left to market forces to make the allocation. Resources should be allocated according to need. Every American is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If a person is a diabetic and needs insulin to remain alive, then that person should have insulin. He or she shouldn't be deprived of insulin because the price is too high.
Allocating scarce resources on the basis of need rather than price and ability to pay isn't easy. It isn't automatic. Human intervention is necessary. Human being have to make decision about allocation. These decisions must be made openly so that everyone can see whether they are made fairly and not according to some special relationship between the person who decides the allocation and the person who receives the scarce resource. For example, giving a person the power to determine the allocation of insulin gives that person the power to decide who lives and who dies.
I am trying to show that there is a conflict between individual and societal values in some cases. In my insulin case, one can argue that it is impossible to make sure that an insulin czar will always be fair and will not play favorites. Hence, the only alternative is to let market forces make the decision. To me, decisions made by market forces are obviously biased in favor of the rich. The rich diabetic gets all the insulin he or she needs while the poor diabetic doesn't get any.
I will continue this essay later, with other examples of values in conflict.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
What's next in the health care saga?
First, these compassionate Republicans believe that health care should continue to be paid for by private insurance. They oppose a universal single-payer plan such as the one in Canada or the national health insurance such as the one in Britain. They favor making it possible for everyone to buy private insurance. That implies that the insurance premiums have to be affordable. How does one achieve that goal?
You can not achieve it by simply legislating the size of the premiums. Private insurance companies have to earn a profit. They must set premiums high enough to cover the cost of the money they pay to medical providers. The whole idea is shared risk. The average person is healthy and does not need any expensive medical treatment. A few individuals do need expensive treatments. The cost has to be shared among both groups. That is, it is necessary that every person has insurance and pays premiums. The same principle applies to home insurance and auto insurance. Everyone pays premiums but few collect benefits.
OK. Compassionate Republican principle number one is that everyone must buy health insurance.
Perversely, one of the big Republican arguments against the existing health care plan is the universal mandate.
A corollary of the principal of requiring everyone to buy health insurance is that insurance companies must not be allowed to cherry-pick their clients. A health insurance company must sell a policy to anyone who applies, regardless of the risk that person poses. The company must ignore any preexisting conditions in setting the premium. Otherwise those persons who need insurance the most will be faced with impossibly high premiums to obtain it.
A second belief of compassionate Republicans is that any move toward universal health care should use, as much as possible, existing systems of providing and paying for medical care. The existing system relies on insurance companies that are regulated by State Insurance Commissioners. Different States have different rules and limits regarding premiums, determining what medical costs are covered, and the like. The result is that a person buying health insurance is limited to those insurance companies subject to the regulation by the State in which they live. A resident of California shouldn't buy insurance from a company that is regulated only by the State of Nevada, for example.
It has been proposed, in the name of competition, to allow insurance companies to sell policies in any State, particularly in States in which they are not regulated. If that change were to be adopted it would require that the federal government set up a national insurance commissioner to replace the 50 State insurance commissioners who now regulate the insurance industry. Alternatively, the insurance industry would operate without any regulation at all. Neither alternative seems to be one that truly conservative Republicans would embrace.
Perversely, some Republicans have advocated just such a change.
My conclusion is that the thoughtful and compassionate Republicans are not the ones that set Party policy. The policy of the Republican Party seems to be simply to oppose anything that Democratic President Obama advocates. I join in calling it "the party of NO."
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Those silly Republicans!
Speaker Boehner says that the repeal is being considered because it was a campaign pledge. However, there is no majority among the public, according to recent opinion polls, in support of the repeal. The debate and the vote in the House are not going to win Republicans any additional votes in the next election. Republicans and those few Democrats who may vote for the repeal know that it isn't going anywhere. Perhaps that knowledge gives them cover. They can say they are voting to satisfy some of their constituents, while at the same time they know that, since neither the Senate nor the President will agree to the repeal, they are not doing any harm to national policy. I wonder how the House Republicans would vote if there was a Republican majority in the Senate and they knew the President would not veto the repeal?
The Republicans are off to a great start!
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Fear and Mistrust of Strong Government
The murder of six people last Saturday in Tucson has brought out a discussion of actions that a strong government can and ought to take to prevent such things from happening again. Here are some of the suggestions:
- Impose strong restrictions on the availability of various types of firearm. In particular, ban the sale of weapons with magazines that hold many bullets.
- Tighten laws regarding the sequestering of persons with types of mental illness that may lead them to conduct shooting rampages.
- Provide personal protection and a degree of isolation for all elected public officials, not just the President. Screening would have removed the assassin's weapon before he was anywhere near Representative Giffords.
- Tone down the poisonous rhetoric from both sides of the political spectrum. Such rhetoric may inspire an otherwise peaceful but mentally unbalanced person to undertake an assassination.
It's politically impossible to impose a sufficiently strict ban on firearm sales and ownership to prevent another lunatic from obtaining a gun and setting out to kill an elected official. Conservatives would object loudly to such severe restrictions.
It is politically impossible to put every person with mental illness in an institution. There is the danger that unscrupulous judges may put innocent and sane individuals away because of political opposition. Liberals would object loudly to laws that enable judges to put people away because of fear that they might do something, whether sane or not.
Screening and metal detectors for every member of Congress doesn't sound practical. It is important that a member of Congress be approachable by any constituent, even one who disagrees with the member.
Toning down the rhetoric is a nice idea and I'm all in favor of it. How do we square limitations on what can be said about a political opponent with the first amendment?
It's a quandary.
Labels: Tucson shooting
Saturday, January 08, 2011
What will Brown do?
- Jerry Brown is a Democrat. As a Democrat, he has no use for the Republican mantra that the only way to balance the budget is to cut government spending - cut it back, way back, waaaaaay back.
- Candidate Brown pledged not to raise taxes except by a vote of the people. Well, that was a pretty easy promise to make. The legislature isn't going to raise taxes because of the 2/3 vote requirement. The only way to get a substantial tax increase is through the initiative process.
- Jerry Brown has been in State government as one official or another longer than almost anyone else - certainly longer than any other person now in State government. By now he knows how the system works, where the levers of power are, and how much he can realistically expect to accomplish.
- Brown is noted for being frugal. He won't hesitate to cut the spending levels of may State functions.
- Brown as a candidate promised to turn over the funding of many local services to the counties and cities. If he does this, he will be able to make a substantial reduction in the cost of State government. Of course, local cities and counties may have to struggle and squirm to raise the additional revenue needed for the services - hospitals, fire departments, police, street repair, libraries, schools, etc.
Wednesday, January 05, 2011
Con vs. Lib - What's the Difference?
My thought is that the difference between conservatives and liberals is that the two groups do not recognize the same problems as matters that ought to be addressed in legislation. Consider the health care bill enacted by the previous Congress. The House, with a Republican majority, is going to spend several days debating the proposition that the bill should be repealed and replaced with something more to the liking of Republicans. This debate and the final vote will be taken in spite of the fact that we still have Mr. Obama as President and a Democratic majority in the Senate. It would be a true miracle if the repeal were to be achieved. (I write "miracle" instead of "calamity" because miracles do not happen in my world, certainly not in the last two thousand years.) The vote is purely symbolic, a waste of time to please a few constituents.
We geezers still wondered why there are such strong feelings on the two sides. One reason, I believe, is that conservatives and liberals are concerned about different problems. Consider American health care. It is very good. If you need the latest advances in medical practice, you can get them here - if you have the money to pay or if medical providers will provide them pro bono. However, a significant part of our population can not afford medical care at all. This part comprises people without medical insurance to cover expensive medical treatments. In Canada and in many European countries such care is provided under a system in which the cost is paid by the government. In other words, the cost of medical care for all is borne by taxes which everyone pays. In addition, medical practice in these "socialist" countries is less expensive than medical practice in most American communities.
I have written extensively by e-mail to my conservative friends about universal health care. Neither one of them supports the idea. One argues that we already have universal health care because hospital emergency rooms are legally obliged to treat everyone regardless of ability to pay. The other argues that we simply can't afford to provide free medical care for everyone; the government is running big deficits as it is and there isn't the money to provide free care. My point is that conservatives do not recognize uneven health care as a problem that government should do anything about.
On the other hand, my conservative friends are very much concerned about what I call the "Andy Cap" fraction of society. Andy Cap is a cartoon character who lives in north-central England. He lives on the dole and sedulously avoids doing work for money. Conservatives see any public benefit, such as free health care for the poor (or for all) as a chance for "Andy Cap" or lazy freeloaders to get something of value without working or paying for it. A related concern is the malpractice situation. Conservatives see that malpractice lawyers encourage dissatisfied patients to sue their doctors and hospitals. These lawyers earn enormous fees from successful lawsuits. In addition, most trial lawyers are Democrats and contribute heavily to the Democratic Party.
We talked also about the influence of money, especially corporate money on elections. In our country a successful candidate for office has to raise a lot of money. Two candidates competing with each other vie for money. The one who can raise the most money usually wins the election. It is no surprise that the successful one will, in office, support legislation that benefits his wealthy supporters. As a result, we have a plutocracy, not a democracy, even though the new Republican majority in the House intends to have the federal constitution read to the members.
Naturally, we talked about the "Tea Party" faction in the Republican Party. Most of us think the Tea Party people have some quaint ideas. They are sincere and angry. In my view, they are angry about many things that make me angry but their anger is directed at other things than mine. I think they are being misled and I hope that in time they will realize that their leaders are using them for some ends that are not good for the country.