Parallel universes

The Sunday Doonesbury strip nailed the problem:

The 400 richest families in America now hold as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the country combined!

So, in the midst of an economic crisis, how do our leaders (nearly every Republican and most of the Democrats, including the President) make use of this information?

They celebrate two things:

  1. Cut that “waste” in government, especially the bit going to spending on job training, education, food, housing, and healthcare for that no-good 150 million, and
  2. Absolutely, under no circumstances, allow any new taxes, especially on those 400 families, who provide so much for the rest of us.

There is an parallel universe, one with people just like us, an economic downturn, and people out of work. But there are two differences: People there believe that increased spending now is actually vital to get the economy going, put people to work, and in the long run actually reduce the deficit. (This by the way is the view of most economists, liberal or conservative in both of these universes.) So, point #1, austerity now, is considered an extremely dumb and ill-timed idea.

Second, those people think that the short-term deficit and the long-term debts are very real problems that need to be addressed intelligently and comprehensively. That means management of spending, but also fair contributions from all, including what middle class we have left and even those 400 families. They don’t believe that all of the economic sacrifice ought to fall on the bottom 50%. So, point #2, no new taxes ever, is also viewed as a wacky idea.

In that parallel universe, people would like to

  1. Get the economy going.
  2. Develop a thoughtful plan for revenues and spending, one that involves shared commitment from all.

Is that parallel universe possible?

Evolving thinking in Afghanistan

After the earlier counterterrorism (CT) strategy failed in Afghanistan, the US began to emphasize counterinsurgency (COIN). Now that COIN has been shown to fail (e.g., as in WikiLeaks’s Afghan War Diary in ), we’re switching to CT again. This is called “evolving thinking.”

When President Obama announced his new war plan for Afghanistan last year, the centerpiece of the strategy — and a big part of the rationale for sending 30,000 additional troops — was to safeguard the Afghan people, provide them with a competent government and win their allegiance.

Eight months later, that counterinsurgency strategy has shown little success, as demonstrated by the flagging military and civilian operations in Marja and Kandahar and the spread of Taliban influence in other areas of the country.

Our evolving thinking should be showing us that there is still no clearly articulated and shared goal for the US enterprise in Afghanistan. Without that, it’s difficult to say which of these two, or some other approach, does work or to recognize success once it’s achieved. As Andrew Bacevich writes (2010), there’s growing evidence that western way of war itself has failed.

Harry Paget Flashman (see book cover above) had difficulty separating fiction from reality in his own exploits in Afghanistan. Apparently, reviewers of the Flashman books had the same problem. But we can’t afford to do that any longer in Afghanistan.

References

Bacevich, Andrew (2010, July 29). The end of (military) history? Mother Jones.

Cooper, Helene, & Landler, Mark (2010, July 31). Targeted killing is new U.S. focus in Afghanistan. The New York Times.

Kaplan, Fred (2009, March 24). CT or COIN? Obama must choose this week between two radically different Afghanistan policies. Slate.

Whitman, Alden (1969, July 29). Gen. Sir Harry Flashman and aide con the experts. The New York Times.

The endless war

There’s some dispute about whether the war in Afghanistan has become the longest war in US history, but there’s no question that it’s gone on a long time and that it shows little sign of heading toward even an end, much less a successful resolution.

When people talk about WWII, there is sometimes disagreement about the means–were the atomic bombs and fire-bombings necessary? There is less debate about the outcome in terms of ending Nazi terrorism and the Japanese expansion. And even during the war there was a sense all around that an end of some sort would be achieved; there would be a surrender or at least an armistice. The fighting would eventually stop, one way or another, and it did.

But we’ve now entered the era of the endless war. Can Kandahar be secured? Maybe, maybe not. But what then? Do the shifting alliances of enemies–Al-Qaeda, Taliban, the Haqqani network simply walk away? Is there a version of Hirohito to say “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” and then surrender? Will young Afghani’s ignore the poverty and devastation and choose to move on? Will ordinary people forgive the occupation, the drones, the collateral damage, the cultural insensitivity, the broken promises? Where are even implausible scenarios of how that will happen?

It’s not enough to say that there are people on the other side who have done or want to do bad things. There must be a vision of change. Yet all we hear is that top operatives have been killed, some place has been temporarily conquered, or that we have a timetable for success.

Writing in Mother Jones, Ann Jones says,

It goes round and round, this inexorable machine, this elaborate construction of corporate capitalism at war, generating immense sums of money for relatively small numbers of people, immense debt for our nation, immense sacrifice from our combat soldiers, and for ordinary Afghans and those who have befriended them or been befriended by them, moments of promise and hope, moments of clarity and rage, and moments of dark laughter that sometimes cannot forestall the onset of despair. —Jones (2010)

Obama has been a good President in many ways, and still has the potential to be a great one, but his continuance and expansion of the war, now across a wide swath of Africa to Asia, reveals a spiritual deficiency in the American polity. Rev. Martin Luther King’s words from the Vietnam War time are even more relevant today.

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. —King (1967)

References

King, Rev. Martin Luther (1967, April 4). Beyond Vietnam: A time to break silence. Speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.

Jones, Ann (2010, July 2). Counterinsurgency down for the count in Afghanistan…. Mother Jones.

The New Jim Crow

Writing in Mother Jones, Michelle Alexander  has an excellent article on The New Jim Crow. It’s about how the War on Drugs has led to a permanent American undercaste. Similar ideas came up in my class yesterday as we discussed equity and excellence in education. As with many other topics we saw how making progress within education cannot be separated from addressing the same problems beyond the walls of academia.

Here’s an excerpt from her article:

Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.” Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America.

Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.

She offers some important information that should make us all question how America deals with race today, starting with:

There are more African Americans under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

The article addresses the obvious questions that some readers may have, such as “well, shouldn’t we be locking up criminals?” or “aren’t we at least improving in the ways we deal with racism and poverty?”

It’s worth noting that Alexander’s just saying that the absolute number of African Americans under correctional control today is greater than the number enslaved in 1850. In a sense that makes it less horrific. One might also qualify the claim by pointing out that being on parole is very different from being a slave.

Nevertheless, some aspects of the modern system are even worse and less justifiable. Many people would be surprised to learn that the absolute scale of the institution is now greater. Unlike slavery, it’s now pervasive in every state, and stands out as inconsistent with other contemporary practices. And the current prison system doesn’t even produce goods; it simply drains scarce resources to destroy lives.

The bottom line in health care

healthIn my previous post on Single-payer health care: Why not?, I talked about our family’s experiences with health care in France, UK, Ireland, Italy, China, Australia, and other places in comparison to that in the US. This included health care for children and the elderly, and both minor (blood donation, physicals, skin growth removal) and major (broken hip, eye infection) procedures.

Thinking a bit more about this I realized that there were four essential facts that emerged from this wide variety of experiences. In every industrialized country except the US,

  1. Equitable: Everyone has the right to health care.
  2. Effective: People live longer, healthier lives.
  3. Economical: They spend less on health care, as much as 50% less.
  4. Efficient: There is much less bureaucracy, fewer forms, less running around, less waiting.

dollarI might add a fifth point, too: The scare stories that we hear (“you have to wait forever!” “you can’t choose your doctor!”) are simply false, or they index issues that are the same or worse in the US. The information we get about health care promotes profit, not health.

There are many issues–changing demographics, new technologies, new medical knowledge, changing standards, globalization, and more–which affect health care. But the fundamental difference in the current US situation is that health care is driven by the bottom line. Insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, media corporations, hospitals and clinics, doctors and other health care professionals, and all others involved in health care operate in a system in which rewards bear little relation to the overall quality of care or efficient use of resources.

One can debate each of the points above, but the evidence from OECD, UN, WHO, WTO, and other international organizations is overwhelming in support of them. Other systems offer health care that is more equitable, more effective, more economical, and more efficient.

So, why is single-payer, or national health care not even worth discussing? Why does the Obama plan dismiss it? Why does even public broadcasting ignore it?

A new beginning against extremism

300px-CairoUnivObama’s speech yesterday at Cairo University (photo at left) was beautiful. It represents a new beginning against extremism both in the US and abroad. Even Osama Bin Laden recognized that it challenges a linchpin of al-Qaida’s message.

I don’t agree with many of the current Administration’s foreign policies (escalation of the Afghanistan-Pakistan war, inadequate engagement with the Caribbean, especially with respect to Cuba, and not doing more for Haiti, failure to close Guantanamo and re-establish justice following years of officially sanctioned torture and renditions, etc.), but opening dialogue is a first step towards a rational, humane, and effective foreign policy.

The ending of the speech is classic Obama:

89px-A_Boat_in_the_Nile_RiverIt’s easier to start wars than to end them. It’s easier to blame others than to look inward. It’s easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There’s one rule that lies at the heart of every religion — that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples — a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian or Muslim or Jew. It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions around the world. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today.

We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.

The Holy Koran tells us: “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”

The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.”72px-Barack_Obama_at_Cairo_University_cropped

The Holy Bible tells us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.

Thank you. And may God’s peace be upon you. Thank you very much. Thank you.

See Obama hits a home run, by Robert Dreyfuss.

Single-payer health care: Why not?

180px-Roma_-_FatebenefratelliI’ve been fortunate to have traveled many places, and to have lived for extended periods in China, Australia, France, and Ireland. During those travels, my family has received health care on many occasions, including for our small children in China and Asutralia, my wife in Scotland, and my 87-year-old mother in Ireland.

This health care has come in a variety of forms, including treatment for my ten-year-old daughter’s eyes at the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God or Fatebenefratelli (see left), located on San Bartolomeo, the only island in the Tiber River in Rome. That hospital was built in 1584 on the site of the Aesculapius temple.

clontarfWe also faced emergency surgery for my mother’s hip at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin, Ireland and subsequent rehab at the Orthopaedic Hospital of Ireland in Clontarf (right). In China, we were served in medical facilities with separate queues for Western medicine (our choice) and traditional Chinese medicine (below left). I donated blood many times at the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, founded in 651 on the Ile de la Cité (below right). I’ve also observed, though not had to depend upon, health care in Russia and even in economically oppressed places such as Haiti.

beida_hospitalOn the whole, I’ve received excellent care in a variety of conditions. Individual health providers have been courteous, knowledgeable, and dedicated to their professions. For myself and my family, the experience of care did not depend on the setting or language, but rather on the ailment or the specific people providing care.

And yet, one thing stands out: Among the industrialized nations, the United States is the only one without universal health care. All of the others provide health care for all. They also do it primarily through single-payer systems.

The United States operates instead through a complex bureaucracy of insurance policies, doughnut hole prescription drug coverage, forms and regulations galore, massive administration, unnecessary and excessive procedures, complex and confusing tax codes, leading to escalating costs and unfair coverage. The inequity of care actually costs all of us more in the end, because of lack of preventative care, inefficient delivery (e.g., emergency rooms), and lost productivity. Our system costs much more, even double that found in other countries.

hotel_dieuIf we were to find that spending a few dollars more gave us better care, there might be little room for argument. But in comparable economies, people spend much less, yet have longer, healthier lives (American Health Care: A System to Die For: Health Care for All). Why then, is the system that works in Canada, Japan, Europe, Australia, etc., not even under consideration here?

The answer is unfortunately all too obvious: Americans, unlike citizens in other countries, have ceded control of their own health care to profit-making insurance companies, hospitals, clinics, laboratories, pharmaceutical companies, and other entities. The best we can do is an occasional feeble cheer when someone asks why our government can’t even consider a single-payer system. Then we listen to an answer that mostly obfuscates and lays the blame for it back on our own timidity: