Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The real priorities

Again today I will do the entries as a main discussion followed by a bunch of short news clips. I have been calling those "factoids", but that's not a descriptive name, so I will now be calling them "snippets", which is not sexy but is accurate.

We have more to fear than fear itself

As many observers in both the mainstream press and the blogosphere, including me, have noted, coverage of the hunt for the presidency has focussed far more on the horserace aspect of it--who is jockeying whom just now, and how--than on the candidates or the issues or the positions of the candidates on those issues. Both parties seem be focussing on their traditional hot-button positions, plus a few of the crises du jour. Here, I will try to sort out the contenders from the pretenders in critical issues.

#1 has to be global warming. Crisis issues throughout human history have all, no matter how huge their scope in their times, been things of a nature such that folk of the world half a millennium on need a history book to know what it was all supposed to be about. Not so this matter: if we can't put the brakes on now, hard, folk in half a millennium will not need to read a book to see what the consequences were. (If there are folk, and if they can read.)

It is simply dumbfounding that there remain persons outside institutional care who can doubt, much less deny, the reality and scope of the issue. But that, I suppose, is what comes of having a populace incapable of understanding even what science is, much less what it says and does and means: Joe Sikspak thinks that science is opinions no better than his own except for being delivered by some pansy egghead in a white lab coat. (To which point we will recur.) So when politicians who have a hidden axe to grind (such as being beholden to big businesses that pollute a lot) spout off about "snow jobs" and in general engage in less than elegant discourse on the topic, good ol' Joe believes them because they have established themselves in his whatever-it-is-that-he-has-where-other-people-have-a-mind as trustworthy sources (Rush, Fox, whomever).

More generally, we as a nation need to pay more attention to science, which is only to say to the cold, hard facts of reality. A president who could read without moving his or her lips would be a good first step, but it is scarcely sufficient; he or she needs to be able to present the nation with a vision that includes relying on people who know what they're talking about as sources of guidance for policy and action, in many areas.

I wonder how many people realize how badly science is faring in this land, what with bean counters in Washington cutting funding for the sorts of major projects, like the Superconducting Super Collider that was to be built--which was being built--in Texas. You may not know just what the thing was to do, or even what might come of it, but what you should know is that an expectation of the completed project was something that careers were being built around; with it suddenly gone, a lot of young scientists have either gone off physics or emigrated to similar projects in other parts of the world, places where they still understand that basic research is the root of all advances in technology. Our nation is in danger, severe danger, of becoming second-rate or worse in science simply because we are discouraging those who might do good science here.

And to--as promised--recur to Joe Sikspak and his ideas about science: we urgently need to massively overhaul and upgrade our so-called educational system, which is far more system than education. When we can't even teach pupils the most basic elements of using their native tongue--indeed, we don't even try any more--much less something about what science is and how it works, how can we expect them to become competent citizens?

But (as usual) I digress. We as a nation need to take major, and surely unpopular, action on pollution and the consequent global warming, and we need to do it yesterday. The IPCC is saying we have maybe a decade, and they have been shown again and again to be, if anything, too optimistic and conservative in their projections. We need to take action internally, and we need to push the major developing nations, notably China, to follow suit, with assistance, enticements, pressure, whatever; there are numerous credible schemes around for how we can get those nations to go along, but they are nullities till we get our own house in order.

#2 has to be the economy. I don't mean that in an airy-fairy handwaving way as referring to the stock market or mortgages or the quality of life. I mean it specifically in respect to the budget and the national deficit, which is so huge that the numbers are essentially meaningless to the average citizen. Even putting it in a so-many-dollars-a-household form doesn't register, because the gap between that somewhat artificial figure and what happens day to day in the world is just too large. But the consequences to this nation of not very soon stopping the bleeding, and the stupendous borrowing--much of it from places it's not nice to be hugely in debt to (yes, China)--are going to have real, immediate, and harrowing consequences.

I do not intend to here give a lecture on economics. But, as they say, the truth is out there. Read some competent economists on the subject. Once again, hard choices need to be made, and unpopular measures taken. The next president is going to have to be able to lay out the facts, the needs, and the alternatives clearly, comprehensibly, and forcefully to the American public. Simple-minded crap about "no taxes" or "pay as you go" is woefully inadequate.

#3 is the cost of getting medical care, which is closely related to but by no means the same as health-care insurance. Health-care insurance is obviously a profound problem: by now it is almost cliche to trot out the horrifying statistics comparing this nation's health to that of the rest of the industrialized world--and that's health itself, not health costs. But the costs are horrifying, too: in short, we pay far more for far less (Rudy Giuliani's laughably silly wrong numbers notwithstanding).

Underneath the health-insurance problem, however, is the core crisis: the costs of health care are going up fast, too fast. The share of our national income that gets spent on health care rises much faster than inflation, year after year. There was, for reasons still not well understood, a brief hiatus some years back in that otherwise-relentless climb, but the numbers are back on their old track again. Following the trend out (which is always meaningless except as a harbinger of big changes coming), sometime within the next century health care would eat up the entire national income. No schools, no army, hardly any food: just health care. Well, that is obviously a self-limiting process, but where and how does the breakdown happen? What gives when?

The problem is worldwide, but much less severe in almost every other nation. The crux seems to be not any of The Usual Suspects, but rather the simple fact that we pay doctors an awful lot more than anybody else does. Do we get better doctoring as a result? No one else (except maybe the U.K., where incompetence is a treasured national heritage) thinks so, nor does the evidence contradict them.

That is, with painful obviousness, not going to be a simple matter to deal with. But deal with it we must, else we either collapse into virtual bankruptcy or have almost no medical care save for the very wealthy. But while we address the root problems, we also need to get something into place so that the millions of Americans who get no medical care at all save perhaps a visit to the emergency room when things have gotten wildly out of control can be properly given reasonable medical care.

We evolve socially. What was considered a reasonable entitlement (long before that hideous buzzword actually surfaced) has grown as humans have become, as a species, richer and more powerful. The "right" to an impartial judicial system; to vote; to receive an education; each was once no "right" at all. As we became richer, we could, literally, afford to consider those things "rights" that every citizen has a valid call on.

Have we not yet reached the stage when essential medical care can justly be considered the right of every citizen? Each contributes to the wealth of all. We do not share all wealth equally and indiscriminately: communists purport to do that, and look where it got those foolish enough to believe that there are free lunches. But there is a world of difference between the communistic "everything for everybody" and a basic web of securities for the average citizen to which one is entitled simply because one is a citizen, a member of and contributor to the commonwealth. When we are as rich as we are as a nation (and as most or all of the industrialized nations of the world are), we can, as a people, afford the relatively modest costs of being decent to our neighbors (and ourselves).

Universal coverage is not some namby-pamby giveaway scheme, no "tax and spend" nonsense. It is buying insurance, exactly and literally. What the right-wing nut doctrinaires try--so far, successfully--to hide is that on the whole a decent universal-coverage plan does not have to cost much, if anything, compared with our present way of doing business. We already pay, in numerous ways, some overt and some hidden, for the poor state of health care we seem to cherish: the uninsured make use of the grossly more costly emergency facilities (far more costly than is timely care); there are working hours lost that cost the national economy sums of money that stagger the mind. One would think that conservatives, who worship the bottom line--in dollars only, thank you--would, did they understand the numbers, be ecstatically in favor of universal health care, preferably single-payer health care (which is the most dollar-efficient). The next president urgently needs to make both the moral and the economic cases to the nation.

#4 is our relations with the Muslim world. Part of our problem, a large part, is that both political parties keep trying to reduce this issue to a few 12-second sound bytes. That is not how important issues work: they are complex and nuanced. The very phrase "the Muslim world" is deceptive: there is a surprisingly diverse range of politics in the Muslim nations of the world. And we aren't going to get anywhere till we have a leadership that can itself grasp those nuances, and can also present those nuances to the American public in a comprehensible way that justifies reasonable policy decisions. (How many Americans, I wonder, realize that Iranis are not Arabs, and that the distinction is important to them?)

We need, urgently, to isolate the extremists in the Muslim world, and to pry them apart from the general support they now receive in too many places. We can only do that, in a world of realpolitik, by making ourselves politically palatable to such progressive elements as there may be in the Muslim world, by making it plain that we are not, generically and by reflex, enemies of Muslims per se, but only of those who would wreak havoc on us--or anyone--in the name of the "religion of peace".

A shift of that sort requires something a lot better than the dictator-of-the-week approach that has characterized American foreign policy for a century or two. We need to look past momentary expediency (usually based on a mindless knee-jerk reaction to presumed "socialism") to seek what constitutes effective self-interest in a larger world. If we had not propped up the degenerate Shah for so long in Iran, do you think we would have the problems there that we have today? Would there be a Castro if there had been no Batista? None of this is rocket science: competent foreign-policy experts have been saying these things for nearly as long as we have been doing the opposite. But today, with the horrific sort of guerrilla operations possible to even a handful of dedicated fanatics, we need a leadership that can break with the past and work with those who will work with us to marginalize the crazies.

Those four things are, I deeply feel, the elephants in the room for current American policy. But along with them are a couple of gas-filled balloons that will loom just as large unless someone sticks a pin in them and lets the hot air out.

First fraud: immigration reform. This is entirely a creation of fear-mongers. It is the universal standard tactic of all governments when times are tough (usually through that government's failings): blame the outsider. Lost your job in a decaying industry? It's them illegals. Getting crunched by an oversold mortgage you can no longer afford? It's them illegals. Your hemorrhoids acting up? It's them illegals.

Whenever anyone without a gross bias looks into the economics of illegals, the conclusions are virtually identical: nearly no net effect, and not even much of a specific effect in any sector. Having cheap labor available doesn't drive others out of the same jobs: it creates new businesses and new jobs based on that availability of cheap labor. That's not some idea of mine, it's what the surveys show, over and over. Illegals, who often cannot initially command much in the way of wages, have almost no effect at all on the middle- and upper-scale earners, except the small positive one of making most goods and services they buy cheaper. But even on the lowest-scale earners, they have little effect because of the counter-balancing creation of jobs.

As the wonderful Casey Stengel famously said, "you could look it up." But politicians who have no interest in illegals--because illegals can't vote against them--find them a very convenient punching bag, with which they can avoid the real problems and issues. So long as they can keep fooling Americans about the facts, for so long can they get away with scapegoating folk who are not only harmless but helpful to the nation.

We should ask ourselves whyever we would want to stop anyone from moving here from anywhere. First, we want to keep out foreign agents, whether of a government or a movement, who intend us harm. Second, we want to exclude the grossly unfit: the criminals, the seriously ill, and suchlike; that may be a hard saying, but it's realism. But beyond those, what and why? The usual answers do us no credit. One is to keep out "them furriners", with their alien ways, meaning Anybody Not Just Like Me. The Statue of Liberty is engraved with the answer to that one.

Another is the bizarre idea that an increased population is necessarily a bad thing. Granted that we need to control the population of the world, shuffling people about from here to there is irrelevant except to the particular here and there involved. Just about every county and town in the U.S.A. has a governmental or quasi-governmental body charged with seeing to "growth". You don't grow much with a flat population; you grow by providing more jobs and homes for the people who will then migrate to your county or city. Therefore, a nation cannot "grow" in that dollar sense without an expanding population. The only alternative is to increase the productivity of the existing population. The U.S. has been pretty good at doing that, but there is very obviously some limit to how much one can do.

Sure, we need immigration policies that meet those two real needs for control. And maybe we need to think about some overall limits so as not to grow too rapidly. But to say or think that immigrants, legal or not, are in some way hurting this country is to just flat-out refuse to see or to think about what is before one's eyes.

Second fraud: Social Security. Let me make this simple, folks: Social Security is just fine. Leave it alone. It is not in any "danger", there is no risk of "failure" or "bankruptcy", there is not even much risk of reducing promised benefits or raising the retirement age. What there is is the danger of believing the pompous windbags who, either through ignorance or calculation, are trying to tell you that the sky is falling.

Again, you could look it up.

And now the snippets . . . .

Gee, who'd have expected this?

From The New York Times:

The Citizenship and Immigration Services agency is telling legal immigrants that applications for citizenship and for residence visas filed after June 1 will take about 16 to 18 months to process. The agency's director had promised this summer that a whopping increase in fees that took effect July 30 — an average of about 66 percent across the board, with naturalization now costing $675 per person, up from $400 — was about to make his agency fit for the 21st century. One immediate result was entirely predictable: people rushed to get their paperwork in. The agency received nearly 2.5 million naturalization petitions and visa applications in July and August, more than double from those months last year. But an agency spokesman said “We certainly were surprised by such an immediate increase.”

Of course, 16 to 18 months after last June 1st means sometime a little after the 2008 elections. Gee, you don't suppose that any of those soon-to-be citizens now to be denied a chance to vote might have voted, um, not Republican?

Remind me what the war wasn't about?

From CBS News:

President Bush on Monday signed a deal setting the foundation for a potential long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq, with details to be negotiated over matters that have defined the war debate at home - how many U.S. forces will stay in the country, and for how long. The agreement between Mr. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki confirms that the United States and Iraq will hash out an "enduring" relationship in military, economic and political terms. The proposals are to offer the U.S. a continued military presence in Iraq, as well as favorable business interests (such as investment opportunities for American companies), in return for guarantees to Iraq's future security.

Preferential treatment for U.S. investors could provide a huge windfall if Iraq can achieve enough stability to exploit its vast oil resources.

No, really? Gosh.

Just another day defending Second Amendment rights....

From KVUE:

Headline: Mall shooting leaves two dead

Story: You've heard it a hundred times before.

Moral: Guns don't kill people, people kill people, but they'd have a helluva lot harder time doing it if they had throw rocks instead.

Maybe they really aren't evil

From CNet:

Search giant Google on Tuesday pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make renewable energy cheaper than coal.

What you don't know won't hurt--much

From injuryboard.com:

Headline: Doctor Performs Brain Surgery on Wrong Side of Brain

Salient extract: This is the third time this--surgery on the wrong side of a patient's brain--has happened this year at this hospital alone.

Judge, are you sure?

From CBS News:

U.S. prosecutors have withdrawn a subpoena seeking the identities of thousands of people who bought used books through online retailer Amazon.com Inc., newly unsealed court records show.

The withdrawal came after a judge ruled the customers have a right to keep their reading habits from the government.

The crux, of course, is that the government of the United States argued forcefully that it does have a right to know people's reading habits.

Hey, a dollar here, a dollar there, it all adds up

From the Seattle Times:

The killer Mitt Romney is slamming his own judicial appointee about was known to Washington State law enforcement, from notices from Massachusetts, as a pretty bad hat, and as wanted under a Massachusetts warrant. But they couldn't do much about him: "We couldn't arrest him because the warrant was nonextraditable," the Pierce County Sheriff's Department said.

Why was the warrant for this convicted killer nonextraditable? The killer reported to Massachusetts probation officials on July 18, but failed to appear for a court hearing on July 23, prompting the arrest warrant; but, reports the Times, the warrant did not include an extradition request from a state as far as away as Washington because of the cost. The two dead innocents will probably not show up on the Massachusetts ledgers, so it seems to have been a fiscally prudent move.

Well, I did tell you so

From today's Washington Post:

"Why he [Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, ret.] has chosen all of a sudden to attempt to return to public attention, and why he would do it in an overtly partisan way, frankly baffles me," said [retired Army officer Andrew] Bacevich, whose son was killed in Iraq. "And why the Democratic leadership would say, 'Yes, this is the guy who is going to deliver our message' is just baffling. He is a largely discredited figure."

More from the folks just like you and me

Again from the Washington Post:

Thousands of Hamas supporters rallied in the streets of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday against the U.S.-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, and a second armed Palestinian movement vowed to intensify its attacks on Israel, saying, "The only dialogue with the enemy will be with rifles and rockets."

Constitution, shmonstitution

From the San Diego Union Tribune:

The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to take up a challenge to a San Diego County program that sends peace officers [except in Newspeak, that's the police] to inspect the homes of poor people who apply for welfare benefits. The program dispatches investigators unannounced and without a warrant. Welfare applicants have to agree to the unannounced visits in order to receive any aid. If they refuse they can be denied benefits.

The [Ninth Circuit] appeals court [the last to hear the case] relied on a 1971 Supreme Court decision which held that home visits to verify eligibility for benefits are not searches, because the purpose of the search is not criminal investigation. After the appeals court panel ruling last year the ACLU asked that a larger panel of the appeals court hear the case again [not a rare procedure]. That request failed – but eight judges on the appeals court wanted the case heard, saying the program amounted to “an attack on the poor.”

Well, dammit, Jim, of course we can enter at any time without a warrant--they're poor.

And last but far from least...

Bob Herbert opines in The New York Times that "This election, the most important in decades, cries out for strong leadership. The electorate is upset, anxious and hungry for change. But 'weak tea' is as good a term as any to describe what the Democrats are offering. . . . Bush-bashing is not enough. Unless one of the Democratic candidates finds the courage to step up and offer a vision of an American future so compelling that voters head to the polls with a sense of excitement and great expectation, the Republican Party could once again capture the White House (despite its awful performance over the past eight years) with its patented mixture of snake oil and demagoguery."

You should read the whole thing. What he says is certainly true, and has been true for too many electoral cycles now, except that it needs to be said in words a deal more forceful than anything The Times would ever publish ("All the news that fits, we print").

Out here in the countryside whence I repine, the handful of non-Republicans to be found (16, I believe, in my precinct, which is many square miles), when they chance to meet and talk politics, are forever baffled by why, year in and year out, no Democrat, from state assembly candidate to presidential candidate, ever goes out there with fire in the belly and fire on the tongue, to say the things that need saying, and that--we hicks all feel, anyway--would vitalize and energize the 62% of the population not mindlessly fixated on the Republican party line.

Hey--Hillary, Barack, John--how 'bout Wake up and smell the coffee? Hm? Please?

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