Threaten Me, Please…

HTF__Threatening_Base_by_FlameBunny700As an atheist, I have a recurring conversation with many believers. They can’t understand why I bother to try to be a good person without the impending fear of judgement and damnation. If I don’t think God is watching me and keeping score, why don’t I just go on a hedonistic binge of barbarism?

I always try to patiently respond that my motivation is mostly internal. I want to judge myself to be useful, productive, helpful, and caring. There is an external aspect to it as well. I want my family and friends to judge me positively. I don’t believe in life everlasting. My only shot at living beyond my mortal years is in the recollections of those who might remember me. And for reasons of my own making, I want that legacy to be based on fondness, respect, and maybe even admiration, not on infamy. That is what I aspire to, and what inspires me.

What I don’t usually share is that their question frightens the hell out of me. The implication (or in some cases, the outright admission) is that the only thing standing between them and a life of raping and pillaging is belief in some exogenous force poised to reign retribution down upon them. They are not a tamed animal, they are a caged one.

Of late, I’ve begun to wonder if this same need for external fear-based motivation extends beyond the realm of religion and morality. In economics, I hear the repeated notion that minimum wages, guaranteed health care, food stamps, unions, and any other program designed to help the poor or the working poor is inherently destructive. It removes the incentive to work harder, train harder, or even to work at all. The underlying assumption seems to be that absent the fear of homelessness and starvation, no one would get out of bed in the morning. It isn’t enough to have a sizable carrot in front of you unless there’s a big angry stick behind you to keep you moving.

This same attitude seems to bleed into foreign policy as well. The notion that the USA must remain the preeminent military power on the planet because otherwise we’ll lose our ability to influence other countries seems predicated on the notion that our power comes from fear that we instill. We repeatedly demonstrate that fear of terrorism will motivate us to actions we would otherwise never consider. In fact politics has largely degenerated into a game of which party can paint the scarier future if the other guy wins.

It even strikes me that much of our gun-culture stems from fears that everyone else, left to their own devices, would pose a threat. It is only by being a bigger threat yourself, that you’re able to keep them at bay.

I do believe that most people view others through their own life-lens. That is, they project their own desires, tendencies, and morality onto the behavior of others. People who worry about the downside of atheism, economic security, and world peace are reacting from the awareness that they themselves realize that in such a world, they would rapidly fall into an existence of varying degrees of unfettered sociopathy.

That there exist so many people contained only by a variety of fears is more than disconcerting. And it would be one thing if there was a recognition that fear-based motivation was destructive and there was a collective consensus to mitigate it. Conversely, what we’re seeing is a resurgence in the idea that fear-based motivation is essential and good.

I had hoped for better, but in the end, maybe we are just barbarians with iPhones.


GOP senators to feds: Leave the Internet alone

12217_large_neutral-bits.pngIt’s this sort of thing that really pisses me off. The intention is exactly right. The Internet should be free of interference. It should continue to be accessible by anyone, empower content and service creators, and foster innovation. Yet excluding all government regulation of the Internet is exactly contrary to achieving that goal.

In fairness, the issue of Net Neutrality is a bit complicated.  Most people don’t know how the Internet works. And this leaves open the opportunity to exploit that lack of understanding through politi-speak gems like this

“There are exceptions of course, but far too often, when you hear someone say, ‘We need regulations to protect the Internet,’ what they’re actually saying is they don’t really trust the entrepreneurs and Internet technologists to create the economic growth and to increase public welfare.”

Net Neutrality regulations don’t stifle entrepreneurs and technologists. Rather, they keep the network available for them. Net Neutrality reigns in big ISPs from exploiting their effective monopolies for increased profit and offering preferential treatment for other large companies who can afford to pay to play. It protects the consumer and the entrepreneur from big business.

In a very real way, keeping the government from regulating the Internet is simply paving the way for a few large private business to regulate it. There’s no way that ends well for small businesses and consumers.

All regulations are restricting someone else’s freedom. That doesn’t make them all bad. Net Neutrality regulations are all about preserving the freedom of the Internet. If you would rather trust AT&T, Time Warner, Verizon, and Comcast to keep your network a free and open egalitarian network… you’re more than a little naive.


The budget problems are all healthcare related

Fix ItHealthcare spending in the U.S. accounts for 17.6% of the economy, and is projected to be 20% by the end of this decade.  These are not federal budget numbers, this is the whole economy.  $1 out of every $6 that’s spent in this country is spent on healthcare.

For context, that’s double the percentage spent in the average OCED country.  In absolute dollars, we spend 2.5 times more per capita than average, at $8,650/person.  And for all that money, we rank just under the average for life expectancy and infant mortality.

This is a pointless drag on the entire economy.  Not only for the government and private employers, but for workers as well.  One of the reasons wages have been so flat for the last decade is that money available for employee raises has gone into preserving medical coverage rather than increasing take home pay.

Yet this is also a big issue, perhaps the only issue, for the current budget problems faced by the federal government.  Government spending on healthcare (including employee plans, veterans benefits, as well as Medicare and Medicaid) is $1.17 trillion each year.  And this is projected to double over the decade.  Granted, these numbers are inclusive of state and local government spending as well, but this is still paid for with our tax dollars.

In other words, considering our 2.5x cost premium, there’s $700 billion/year sitting on the table if we manage to get our healthcare costs in line with our global peers.  Even assuming the federal portion is only half of that, the numbers dwarf any of the cost savings currently proposed by either party’s budget plans.  Couple this with the already planned savings for drawing down the wars, and our deficit goes away by 2020.

This is the only budget problem we need to be addressing.  It saves Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, NASA, Pell Grants, and everyone else currently on the chopping block.  Do the math.

So why aren’t we focused on fixing this?  Primarily because the proven method of achieving the healthcare cost goals, the one used by pretty much every other OCED country we are benchmarking against, is some form of single-payer model.  And for reasons known mostly to powerful corporate lobbies for insurance, pharmaceutical, and medical device  companies, single-payer health plans are socialist Nazi plots to kill Grandma. Instead, we are committed to responsible prudent austerity founded on shared sacrifice… because Grandma prefers be bankrupt such that she is forced to choose between food and medicine.  After all, it is about having a choice.


The country is not broke, but it is broken

Broken ChainPopular wisdom has it that the US is largely now “owned” by China or other foreigners.  That we are basically borrowing from the world to stay afloat.  Thus, ushering in the specter of these lenders calling our loans due and breaking us.

It turns out that’s not quite true.  In fact, it’s not even a little true.  Business Insider actually looked at the data, and the perhaps surprising result is that two-thirds of the $14.3 trillion debt is held right here in the US.

Think of that a little differently.  $9.8 trillion of American government debt is held by US taxpayers.  The same people (well, some of the same people) ultimately responsible for paying off that debt.  The same people who would pay should the government opt to raise more revenue through taxes.

The government is the people in this country.  We hear all the time how the US debt is a legacy of burden on our grandchildren.  Yet, at least collectively, those same grandchildren are sitting on a massive asset which is the notes on that very same debt.  It would be as if you had $70,000 worth of gold buried in your backyard, a $100,000 mortgage you couldn’t make the payments on, and spent all your time whining about how you were broke.

Make no mistake, the current debt crisis is one of choice on many levels.  The government may well be broke, but the country is not.  And the government is broke only because it (or we) have chosen make it run that way.  This leaves us no license to bitch about it.


If the economy tanks, will Conservatives repent?

Debt Ceiling Implications Poll
The scariest debt-ceiling poll results, ever

The debt ceiling talks appear to have stalled and the August 2nd date of economic doom draws neigh.  Wall Street bankers, The Fed, the Treasury Department, and most every economist on the planet believe that hitting the debt ceiling will have dire consequences, and that actually defaulting on the debt would be even worse.  Estimates vary in terms of the degree of catastrophe, but virtually no one in a position to be considered an expert on macroeconomics thinks that hitting the ceiling will be no big deal.

In that light, the poll results depicted here are truly frightening.  53% of Republicans, 43% of Independents, and even over a quarter of Democrats believe hitting the ceiling won’t cause a crisis.  Further, somewhere around 60 Congressmen have vowed to vote against any debt ceiling increase, no matter the deal.  Clearly they aren’t worried either.

Chauncey DeVega, over at AlterNet, thinks the reason is that evangelicals have a strong hold on the GOP, and that the fervently faithful have a mindset that ignores numbers that don’t agree with their ideology.  He posits that the Tea Party and other far right conservative groups are running on faith rather than fact.  While there may be some truth to that, it doesn’t explain the plurality of Independents or the chunk of Democrats beholden to the notion that banging into the debt ceiling is a non-event.

I personally think there’s also an element here of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”.  Political issues have become so hyperbolic in the media that virtually every issue is positioned as a looming Armageddon of one sort or another.  Unless you’re following the minutiae of the debates, you’re bound to get pretty numb to all the doomsaying.

However, presumably our elected officials are above simply blowing in the media wind.  They have access to data and discussions those of us in the cheap seats do not.   They are in the position to be able to discern hyperbole from actual danger.  Yet this would not prevent them from being blinded to facts by faith.

GOP legislators faith-blindness goes beyond the debt ceiling.  Similar faith-trumps-data rationale fuels denial of global warming, belief that tax cuts don’t have to be paid for, belief that progressive tax codes constitute class warfare and destroy jobs, belief that trickle down economics is always the answer, and government regulation is always evil.

The problem is that proving that tax cuts actually lower revenue, or that CO2 contributes to global warming, requires many years of data.  And even then,the results are subject to interpretation and are not readily understandable by the average Joe.

Should we hit it, the debt ceiling presents an interesting test case.  If the experts are right, the impact will be felt in the very short term.  It will be widespread, affecting almost everyone, everywhere.  And the impact will be felt for awhile.  It will be virtually impossible to deny that such an impact was directly attributable to ignoring the debt ceiling.  The Conservatives who claimed it would be no big deal will be demonstrably and painfully proved wrong beyond any reasonable doubt.

Should that come to pass, the question is, will that shake the faith of Conservative politicians and supporters in their other sacred tenets?  Might they be willing to entertain the reality of global warming given the catastrophic impact of their blind faith in the debt ceiling non-crisis?  Or will this be swept under the rug much like the predicted May 21st end of the world predictions.  That was also proved wrong, but the faithful seem to somehow have accepted that failure with no apparent impact on their other beliefs.  Maybe a sufficiently strong faith is even able to overcome incontrovertible reality.

Either way, if the economy tanks, it should certainly cause the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” crowd to pay attention.  Maybe that bodes well for our collective political future if we can at least get the majority of the voters to begin operating from data-based rather than faith-based policies.  Although, it would be a hellish way to learn a lesson.