American Exceptionalism: Dying with our boots on

American ExceptionalismThis is America dammit, and it is the greatest best country God has ever given man on the face of this Earth.  You can either agree with that, or we will kick your ignorant ass to the curb.

This has been the mantra of the right-wing of American politics for a few decades now, but in varying degrees it reflects the view of a much broader swath of us.  Post-WWII America has enjoyed a prolonged period of global dominance from military might and technological prowess to economic clout and cultural influence.  We were the Jones everyone else was trying to keep up with, and still are, albeit to a reduced degree.

Maybe we’ve earned our arrogance, but that doesn’t lessen the reality that we are, in fact, arrogant.  And with that arrogance has come the belief that no one else on the planet has a thing to teach us.  We are not only reluctant to learn from others, we are adamantly opposed to entertaining proven solutions that are not homegrown.  More so, if those solutions fly in the face of truths we hold to be self-evident—data be damned.

I’ve written in this space before about how single-payer and/or single provider healthcare systems employed in vast majority of OCED countries provide comparable healthcare to their citizens at half the cost of U.S. programs.  Yet we are not remotely entertaining any such options because they are deemed “socialist” and un-American.  Socialized medicine lies in opposition to our belief that government is always the problem and never the solution.  This in spite of the success of Medicare and the VA healthcare programs, each of which is completely socialized and also very popular.  Not to mention a widespread acknowledgement that healthcare is one of the most daunting economic and social challenges in our immediate future.

Now comes evidence that we are again sticking our heads in the sand (or other dark place of your imagination’s choosing) when it comes to education.  Finland has turned in over a decade of consistent top tier performance amongst OCED countries.  Meanwhile, American students rank in the middle of the pack, despite spending about the same per-capita as the Finns.

It turns out, the Finnish model is based on equality of opportunity rather than competition.  There are no private schools in Finland, and all the public schools get uniform funding and supplies, regardless of neighborhood.  There are no standardized tests (excepting a graduation exam), but there are standardized expectations on both teachers and students.  Teaching in Finland is a high competition profession, and teachers are recruited, paid, and viewed as high-end professionals.  Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play.  It is a place where the main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.

Americans recognize we need to fix our educational system.  We even recognize the Finns might be doing something right, and repeatedly invite them to consult with us… on how to improve our tests and better incentivize teachers and schools toward high achievement.  In other words, we’re all ears as long as what you want to say to us is that we need to do just what we’ve been doing, but with more gusto.

In truth, the educational trends in the U.S. could not be more un-Finnish.  Eliminate the Department of Education and decentralize schools.  Provide school vouchers for increased competition from private schools.  Issue more standardized tests, and defund schools not living up to performance standards.  Yet, we cling to these policies because they reflect the American values of capitalism, competition, and more stick, less carrot.

As President Bush asked so eloquently, “Is our children learning?”  In a word, “No.”  But then neither are the adults.  But at least the adults take a perverse pride in their ignorance.  We’re #1, and we want that inscribed on the headstone—data be damned.


The Morality of Capital Punishment

Capital PunishmentThe recent execution of the questionably guilty Troy Davis in Georgia has sparked a lot of discussion around whether or not the death penalty is “right”.  The evidence certainly supports the case that capital punishment is not a cost effective solution, nor is it an effective deterrent.  It is applied with a decided racial bias, and its inherent irreversibility is problematic given that at least some innocent people are irrefutably being convicted.

Yet the key point would seem to be that this is not a data-driven decision for most people.  It is a moral one.  Or at least that’s how most people seem to rationalize it.

I strongly suspect that the lion’s share of people are not as morally certain about capital punishment as they claim, or at least not as unconditional in their opposition or favor of it.

To be clear, I’m not talking about personal life and death situations here.  A bad guy is holding a knife at your kid’s throat and you’ve got a clean temple shot, do you take it?  For most of us, absolutely.  But that’s a situation of imminent and immediate danger.  And I will contend the morality of that situation is quite different from situations in which a group of people not in present danger make a choice to end someone else’s life.  The question is not whether or not you would ever kill.  Rather, at its root, the question is whether or not society has the right, as a group, to take another life.  (The government being, ostensibly, just a manifestation of society or of a group of people.)

Many people do claim they are morally and unequivocally opposed to capital punishment. The assertion is that government, and by extension, society, doesn’t have the right to kill.  Yet, in a very real sense, we the people make all kinds of life and death decisions.

As a country, we wage wars.  When that happens we know that people on both sides will die.  We may not individually choose who dies, but as a group we are sending other human beings to their death.

The National Organ Transplant group makes more specific life and death decisions every day.  People specifically choose winners and losers, and the losers die.

These may seem like off-topic references, but in these and many more cases, society chooses to sacrifice some people for the greater good.  Clearly, we’re already on the slippery slope, but arguably this doesn’t specifically address death as punishment.  Perhaps we can draw a line there.

But even death as punishment gets a little fuzzy.  Consider that today the U.S. military executed Anwar al-Awlaki.  The guy was a very influential al-Qaida operative, but he was also a U.S. citizen.  Remember back in May when Seal Team 6 famously dispatched Osama bin Laden?  How were these not examples of capital punishment?  Either of those guys could have been captured, returned to the States for trial, and held for life in a maximum security facility.  Yet very few people advocated for that.

The practical matter remains that the objective of removing dangerous people is the increased safety and security of our citizens.  Sending a local serial killer to prison for life accomplishes that.  Capturing bin Laden does not.  His followers would have created additional threats for Americans were he only in jail.  We are safer if he’s dead.  Many people who are adamant the death penalty is immoral would acknowledge that.  Therefore, it seems clear that, with the exception of true pacifists, moral opposition to capital punishment has its limits.

At the other end of the spectrum, people finding the death penalty morally sound tend to find boundaries somewhat more easily.   It’s a pretty rare person that advocates capital punishment for jay-walking or shoplifting.  Even the most ardent Evangelical stops short of arguing for stoning people who picks up sticks on Saturday as commanded by the Lord in Numbers 15:32-36.  There are arguments to had with regard to how heinous the crime should be to warrant the death penalty, but basically everyone agrees there are limits to its application.

My personal position is that I do not consider myself morally opposed to capital punishment.  I do find there are rare but real situations in which it is the sentence that achieves a demonstrably greater good for society.  And I do firmly believe that society gets to make decisions in its collective best interest, and that such decisions may extend to the well-being or even the life of individuals. However, in large part, I do find the death penalty is expensive, ineffective, and impractical.  It is very nearly almost never the best solution.

That said, I also believe it’s morally reprehensible to support the death penalty out of a sense of vengeance.  And whether they admit it to themselves or not, many, if not most, advocates will find vengeance at the core of their motivation.  They may cite religious morality in terms of Old Testament support for retributive punishment, or they may talk about justice and how the person deserved to die for what they did.  Regardless, it all comes back to some form of Godly or personal vengeance.  And I can’t abide that.

While it’s important to understand your position, it’s perhaps more important to have explored the boundaries of that position as well as the underlying motivations that led you there.  So where are you?  And why?


Women at Gunpoint

Planned ParenthoodWe narrowly averted a government shutdown Friday over what basically boiled down to funding for Planned Parenthood.  What’s clear from the guests on the Sunday talk shows this morning is that this issue will rise once again when we get to debate the debt ceiling in the coming months.

The notion this is remotely a fiscal issue is beyond comical.  The total Title X outlay for Planned Parenthood is about $80 million per year, which is not even noise in the scope of the federal budget.

To their credit, the GOP has been reasonably direct about this being an attempt to restrict abortion.  Yet abortion only amounts to about 3% of the services provided by Planned Parenthood, and the Hyde Amendment already makes it illegal for any federal funds to be used for any abortion related activity.

To that end, opponents have been arguing that defunding Planned Parenthood to keep federal monies from being used for abortion is redundant.  The Republican response has been that the funds are fungible.  That is, once Planned Parenthood gets the money, they can’t assure how it will be used.  And while Planned Parenthood could certainly be held accountable after the fact for misusing funds, they need to make 100% sure up front that there is no illegal use.

The right’s desire to prevent loss of life at all costs rather than prosecute it after the fact is laudable. So it can only be assumed they would also support banning guns.  After all, much like the Planned Parenthood funds, guns have legitimate and beneficial purposes.  However, it’s possible to use them illegally as well.  Once guns are out there, their use is fungible.  In order to be 100% sure no one does anything illegal with a gun, clearly they must be banned.

After all, a good argument is a good argument.  If this is the game they want to play, let’s go all in.


Single Payer Health Care is a Conservative Policy

Doctor
Health care costs are the elephant in the room (Photo by Lauren Nelson on Flickr)

Medicare for all, or other incarnations of the idea of federalized universal healthcare funded by tax dollars, is seen as a far-left liberal policy. Yet from a strictly financial point of view, it should be the policy true fiscal conservatives are advocating for.

Looked at economy wide, the biggest problem facing America is the cost of health care.  At present it is 17% of our total economy.  It also represents over 20% of our federal budget, amounting to some $800 billion a year.  Further, these costs are borne system wide.  Companies pay for it in their employee benefits costs, States pay for it in Medicaid, and individuals without insurance or who have moved to high-deductible plans feel the pain as well.  To add insult to injury, costs are rising at a rate of about 6.3% a year, which is a rate far exceeding inflation or GDP growth.

If these costs could be dramatically reduced it would mean a significant reduction in federal deficits and relief to cash strapped states.  It would mean more corporate profits available for growth and investment or worker wages.  And it would mean more money in everyone’s pockets as well.  No one whose priority was fiscal responsibility and economic growth could possibly stand against such an opportunity.  Yet that is where we find ourselves.

Heath Care Costs per Capita

Health care costs per capita in the US are currently about double what the rest of the industrialized world pays.  While some might argue this is because we have access to superior care, the evidence doesn’t bear that out in aggregate.  Our life expectancy, infant mortality rate, and other indicators place us as a below average country for quality of care.  Even allowing for a bit of American exceptionalism here, our “superior” care doesn’t warrant double the investment.

So why do we pay so much for care? We are the only country not providing centrally managed care, and one of only two who do not provide for universal coverage (Mexico and Turkey are the others).   No one insurance company is currently responsible for you from cradle to grave, and hence there is little incentive to prevent future medical conditions or mange chronic conditions.  The incentive is to spend as little as possible until you can pass the patient on to the next carrier.  Patch ’em up and move ’em out.  And in addition, everyone in the current system needs to make a profit.

Medicare currently controls costs better than private insurance in this country.  And recall that Medicare was created entirely because it became impossible for seniors to afford private coverage.  There is no evidence that further privatizing medical insurance will result in better, cheaper, or more universal coverage.  There is no model anywhere else in the world, or even in our own history where that has worked.  On the other hand, federally managed universal care is proven to work in dozens of countries around the world—at half the price.

Conservatives are by nature risk averse.  Choosing between a solution proven to work and an alternative unproven solution at double the cost should not even be a debate in those circles.  Yet anything that even smells like single-payer is a non-starter. It is not even open for discussion.

I don’t favor a single payer system because I have some lefty liberal bias that assumes everyone has an entitlement to be be healthy and well cared for.  I favor it because I’m cheap.  I favor it because I’m pretty sure (but not quite certain) we won’t entertain walling off the Dakotas and tossing in all the indigent old and sick and leaving them to die in their own filth.  I’m pretty sure we wind up providing them some level of care at some point.  And given we’re stuck with that societal obligation, let’s do it as cost effectively as possible.

I understand the social justice or social Darwinist side of this issue.  People who didn’t earn their way and can’t provide for themselves don’t deserve to sponge off people who worked, saved, and did prepare.  But people with such views fail to look at the larger picture.  Unless we’re really okay with the Dakota Internment Camp, those people wind up being a “burden” somewhere on someone.  You may think you’re ducking being saddled with that burden, but issues as pervasive and large as health care are an economic drain on us all.  If you live, work, and pay taxes here, you’re saddled.

So here’s a plan with a proven track record to take half the load off us all.  That’s $400 billion a year off the federal budget alone.  Are you in?


Would Jesus be a Conservative?

WWJDI’ve been having a protracted email discussion with someone who’s a very fervent Christian and also a staunch conservative.  Anyone paying any attention to American politics will be quick to observe this is not exactly a rare breed—a point which I have trouble reconciling in my feeble brain.  It seems to me that Christian Conservative should be an oxymoron, at least within the context of what the conservative agenda has revealed itself to be in this country.

To that end, I posed the following question to my pen-pal this morning, and I’m posing it here as well in the hopes of generating some conversation and insight.

Presumably a Christian’s worldly politics are aligned with what they feel Jesus would advocate for if he were here today.  In essence, WWJD?  Yet most of the fundamentalist Christians seem strongly aligned politically with the conservatives.  I would go so far as to say there is a pretty strong correlation between those who profess to model their lives on Jesus and those who vote conservative.

It strikes me that in his day, Jesus was a flaming liberal.  He advocated for the poor, the downtrodden, and the sick.  He accepted everyone. He turned the other cheek. He taught to give away your worldly possessions, help your neighbors, and love everybody. He was persecuted precisely because he stood as an organizer of the people and was seen as a threat to the power structure of the day.

While I can understand Jesus might be strongly pro-life on abortion, most of the remaining conservative agenda seems to me to be against what Jesus would do.

  • Reduce or eliminate social security (meaning many elderly will live in poverty)
  • Reduce or eliminate Medicare/Medicaid (meaning most poor and elderly will not receive adequate medical care)
  • Place the tax burden disproportionately on the backs of the non-rich
  • Eliminate unions (removing the voice of the people)
  • Eliminate environmental regulations (leading to pollution, extinctions, ecosystem damage)
  • Reduce spending on education
  • Reduce spending on assistance for the poor
  • Increase militarism, don’t negotiate with our enemies

Note that all the bullets above are references to policy positions, proposals, or legislation backed by conservative politicians within the last year.  This is not about what they are saying, but about what they are actually doing.  (It seems Jesus would be big on the whole doing part as opposed to just giving lip service to high ideals.)  I can’t fathom Jesus entreating his followers to get behind any of this.

In that light, if good Christians are truly trying to create a world Jesus would be proud of, why are they primarily standing behind people and policies it seems Jesus would have reviled?  I don’t get it.