Thursday, December 2, 2010

160. Take responsibility for health

The nutrition people say people are not exercising enough; the exercise people say that people are not eating right. Either way, they both agree that what is happening in this country regarding diet, exercise, obesity and sickness is not working.

Simply put, America is the fattest nation on earth.

One consequence of being fat is death by heart disease, cancer and other obesity-related illnesses. Two-thirds of us are overweight; half of us take a prescription pill at least once a week. More than 100 million Americans have high cholesterol. Some scientists believe that our kids might be the first generation not to outlive their parents.

Another consequence is that we spend far more per capita on health care than any other society in the world. We have a health care system that is failing and that is being used as a source of political contention. Some corporations and many small businesses cannot afford to offer their employees reasonable health care; other corporations are making billions in selling the food that makes us sick and the pills we use to treat our sicknesses. Health care costs are growing at an unsustainable rate, costing taxpayers millions.

What if we could reverse this trend-a trend that is projected to see the amount of overweight people in America rise to close to 75 percent by 2020? What if we could prevent heart disease, cancer and diabetes? What if by changing our diet, we could save our companies millions and our country billions in healthcare costs? What if we could be healthier without taking a pill or without asking the government to subsidize our food costs? What if we could be personally responsible for our well-being-making the change ourselves, rather than relying on the government to regulate everything or pharmaceutical companies to develop a magic pill?

Increasingly, scientific evidence says we can, but it takes a personal commitment-changing what we know and believe about our diets. It takes some personal sacrifice, like true patriots, for the betterment of ourselves and our country. It takes some research, some dispelling of myths, and looking past years of brilliant marketing. It's not easy, but it can be done.

There is a growing community of scientists, nutritionist and doctors that are strongly advocating, based on the research, a plant-based diet-that means a diet where all or nearly all of our calories come from whole plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, starches and legumes.

In The China Study, authors and researchers Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Thomas Campbell II found more than 8,000 statistically significant associations between various dietary factors and disease. Their research focused on comparing countries and cultures with their corresponding diets and rates of illness. Campbell found that, "People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease ... People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest and tended to avoid chronic disease. These results could not be ignored."

What they and others also found was when countries and cultures started changing their diets, that is to say started adopting an American diet, they started suffering the consequences. In the documentary "Eating," Mike Anderson subtly notes, "When people start eating like Americans, they start dying like Americans."

A diet of meat and dairy increases the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Total cholesterol levels, one cause of heart disease, are highest in the standard American diet- an average of 210. In comparison, the average total cholesterol level of vegetarians is 161, vegans 133.

It is estimated that 70-80 percent of all cancers are diet and behavior related. Compare breast cancer, which inflicts 22.4 women out of 100,000 in the United States, but only 6.3 in Japan and 4.6 in China. Similar associations are found with other cancers-such as prostate and colon.

In a plant-based diet, you get fiber, cancer fighters, anti-oxidants, low fat, low saturated fat, no cholesterol, low pesticides and no hormones. In a meat and dairy-based diet, you get exactly the opposite.

As for concerns regarding a plant-based diet, unfortunately the information is often financially driven by the meat and dairy industries. We do not need nearly as much protein as we have been led to believe, the World Health Organization states we need 4.5 percent of our calories from protein; the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition only 2.5 %. Billionaire Steve Wynn, who not only became a vegan after watching the video "Eating," but also ordered a copy for each one of his 10,000 employees, called the idea that we needed animal protein one of the biggest conspiracies of non-sense by our government.

Calcium is heavily promoted by the dairy industry, but it is interesting that the countries with the highest rate of calcium consumption (United States, Finland, Sweden and England) also have the highest rates of Osteoporosis. A lack of exercise is more responsible for Osteoporosis than a lack of calcium.

Dr. Campbell wrote, "The science in clear. The results unmistakable. Change your diet and dramatically reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease and obesity." What Dr. Campbell is saying is that we need to stop treating illness and start preventing illness.

This change, however, requires more than just voting someone out of office. If Americans changed to a plant-based diet, we would be much healthier, save on healthcare and insurance costs, be able to feed more people, reduce the costs of government subsidies and regulation (make government smaller), reduce the environmental impact of farming, reduce the political influence of health care corporations, and be a little kinder to animals. It would solve so many problems.

As Mahatma Gandhi said, you have to "Be the change you want to see in the world."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

159. We want "big" where it helps us

How the argument is framed can sometimes cloud an idea, and it is unfortunate that so much time needs to be spent backtracking to explain what should be obvious. While there might be exceptions that I am not aware of, I do not think anyone really favors "big" government. It is all relative, and while it sounds good to campaign on a "small government," the truth is that everyone picks and chooses where they think government should be involved.

Some people support social services, others, infrastructure and national defense. Most favor socialist programs like Social Security and Medicare. Agribusiness and consumers enjoy the many subsidies that keeps food cost low, and most people support education. People want a free market version of capitalism, but then complain when it does not interfere enough to create jobs. Legislatures denounce government stimulus, but then take credit for it when it supports their district. Nearly everyone supports funding safety. Businesses hate regulations, unless those regulations protect their interests. Consumers hate the cost of regulations, unless it protects them from business. Finally, government is constitutionally bound to stay out of the realm of religion, to the dismay of many.

It gets to the point that these arguments become circular--a measure of grandstanding-that really does not offer any solutions to our biggest problems. It is purely political and nearly everyone questioned in this regard ends up conceding that point.

How big do I think government should be? I think it should be as small as it needs to be.

Americans spend 15 percent of their monthly budget on food-compared to Europe at 30 percent and Indonesia at 60 percent. Without government water subsidies, beef would cost about $35 per pound. Would small government people be willing to pay that for beef? (I love the idea . . . fewer animals would suffer, and people would be much healthier).

In 2009, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated the United States military budget at $663 billion. The next closest nation is China at about 100 billion; in fact, we spend more on our military than nearly the rest of the world--combined. By analogy, in a language some of us speak, we are worse than the New York Yankees. Yet, most small government people do not want to decrease our national defense, somehow convinced that it is necessary to protect our freedoms.

Most of us that favored healthcare reform did so for one reason--private insurance had become a failure. The public outrage should not be directed at the government for wanting to get involved on healthcare; they should be outraged at the insurance companies and employers that necessitated government involvement. Had they cared for people as much as they cared about profits, and not abused their power and let people die or go bankrupt, the idea for government healthcare would never have surfaced. Government steps in, or only should step in, upon market failure.

The argument is the same for environmental regulations. Every business that complains about the cost of government interference (such as the creation of the environmental protection agency) only has other businesses, those that abused the environment for profit, to blame. At some point, the government has an obligation to protect its citizens from wrongdoers.

Ditto for the financial industry, employment laws and consumer protection. And so on and so on.

Finally, in some instances, it just makes sense that everyone contribute for the betterment of society. When it comes to safety, such as police departments and fire protection, it is more efficient to be government controlled. Most were disgusted to learn about the house that burned down in Tennessee because the homeowners had not paid their subscription fee to the private fire department.

At the end of the day, the sad fact is that expansion of government beyond what it "should" be, such as some safety net social services, national defense and infrastructure, is a product of the failure of the American people. It is ridiculous that we need libraries full of laws and regulations to protect us from ourselves. If Americans could be counted on to live honest, fair and reasonable lives, we would not need so many rules. These rules exist to control the greedy and unethical, to set minimum levels of acceptable behavior and close loopholes. They exist because people lie, cheat, steal and exploit everyone and everything that is available for exploitation.

If we really want a small government, the answer is not a "feel good" blanket protest of taxes-for which people pick and choose taxpayer expenditures according to their own interests--the answer is the installation of basic human principles, such as kindness, consideration, hard work and humility, back into the American public. If people would simply act responsibly and occasionally put the interest of others ahead of their own, then maybe, finally, we could stop having this discussion.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

158. Inheritance welfare for the rich

Billionaire Warren Buffett said, "I want to give my kids just enough so that they would feel that they could do anything, but not so much that they would feel like doing nothing."

Not many of our wealthiest share this same attitude, usually opting to leave their fortunes to their families. For example, in the Forbes Magazine 2008 list of the 400 richest Americans, four of the top ten were heirs of Sam Walton and three of the top twenty were those of Forrest Mars. Buffett, however, does not think that this is in the best interest of society, "I'm not an enthusiast for dynastic wealth, particularly when 6 billion others have much poorer hands than we do in life."

What I think it comes to is this: People, particularly wealthy people, want a meritocracy-- right up to that very instant when it becomes their competitive advantage at risk. In other words, people are quick to note that those on welfare are getting "something for nothing," yet viciously fight to keep the fruits of their own genetic good fortune. The truth is that it is hypocritical for those who wish to defend capitalism as a meritocracy, as a system that rewards those that work the hardest, to accept anything that they have not earned-and that includes an inheritance.

Buffett himself noticed a similar hypocrisy, "I love it when I'm around the country club, and I hear people talking about the debilitating effects of a welfare society. At the same time, they leave their kids a lifetime and beyond of food stamps. Instead of having a welfare officer, they have a trust officer. And instead of food stamps, they have stocks and bonds," he said.

The truth, which takes us beyond our capitalistic teachings, is that nobody earns a billion dollars. Many people work hard and make a good living, but great fortune is made ambiguously and exponentially-- often the result of opportunity and chance.

"My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results. . . I've worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate's distribution of long straws is wildly capricious," Buffett said.

Jesse Dukemiller, Robert Sitkoff and James Lindgren in a Wills and Trust casebook succinctly note, "The most powerful argument against permitting the transmission of wealth is that it perpetuates wide disparities in the distribution of wealth, concentrates inherited economic powers in the hands of a few and denies equality of opportunity for the poor."

A true meritocracy depends on equal opportunity, and it is here that the argument is best made against excessive inheritance. Those born into the privilege already attend the best schools, have the best social and professional connections, and probably work in the family business-what more opportunity do they need? Can the privileged not survive on an inheritance limited to, perhaps, a quarter of a million dollars?

I've noted on many occasions the increasing amount of wealth being accumulated in the richest of American families. There was a sharp rise in wealth that began in the 1980s and as noted in "Them That's Got Shall Get: Inheritance and Achievement in Wealth Accumulation," by Melvin Oliver, Thomas Shapiro, and Julie Press, the amount being passed through generations is staggering, "Between 1987 and 2011, the baby boom generation stands to inherit an estimated 6.8 trillion dollars." Among the richest one percent, the average inheritance is about $6 million.

While inheritance has been described as the "ultimate something for nothing," it is important to note the societal concern is that of great wealth; I am not arguing that hard-working families should not be permitted to leave their modest estates to their children. It is not a negligible right that people should be able to do what they want with their money. The concern is the creation of a class of people whose wealth and influence stifle democracy in their own interest-the creation of a class who can politically influence those who were otherwise elected to do what is in the best interest of society as a whole.

De Tocqueville warned that, "What is the most important for democracy is not that great fortunes should not exist, but that great fortunes should not remain in the same hands. In that way there are rich men, but do not form a class."

It is a warning that should not be easily dismissed, lest we trade any hope of a meritocracy for a plutocracy.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

157. Agnostic does not equal unsure

As part of Leadership Lorain County a few years ago, our group visited a beautiful Elyria church. While discussing religion with the preacher, each member of our group was asked about his or her religious beliefs. It might be surprising that someone as open as myself about religion actually froze for a moment . . . wondering how my answer might be perceived by others in my group. I mean, I have a column, a website, and I was president of a Freethought organization-- it's not like there is any going back. Still, the announcement is often met with uncertainty, distrust and confusion-and I feel like there is a time and place where that discussion is best received.

I stuck to what I believe and told the preacher that I was agnostic. His reply, however, was both accurate and a bit offensive. He said, a little surprised and in concerning brevity, "Oh, still searching." His accuracy was tied to the idea that something someday may happen that changes my perspective. However, his inaccuracy was the presumption that maybe I hadn't looked hard enough, that I had not reached a belief system-- when, in fact, I had probably spent more time on the subject than most people.

The common definition of an "agnostic" is one who is uncertain as to whether a god or gods exist. This uncertainty is tied to the premise that it is impossible to prove his, her or its existence, that the concept is unknowable to man. The idea that whether a god exists is unknowable subsequently lends itself to the premise that man cannot, based on current ideology, understand what is beyond the scope of our universe. In other words, the idea that something, at some point, arose out of nothing, is beyond the extent of human understanding.

However, one ought to be careful in the presumption that because I do not know whether or not there is a god that, therefore, I believe that the chances that god exists are equal. Based on my personal experiences, analysis of religion(s), methodology of reason and sheer number of possibilities, I find it more likely that no god exists. At the same time, while I find it more unlikely than likely, to take the assertive step that god doesn't exist moves one closer to atheism. And it's here where the line between agnosticism and atheism (which literally means "without god,") gets blurry-and I've used both terms interchangeably depending on the audience.

Many people do not know what agnosticism actually means, and inquire with genuine interest.

The first question people often ask is if I do not believe in god, where then do I get my morality? It's interesting, because I have never struggled with general issues of morality. Most issues, like the "cornerstones" of the Ten Commandments, are somewhat obvious-and my adherence is the product of being raised by responsible parents.

Other issues, however, like the death penalty and abortion go much deeper-and the freedom I have in my personal morality is that I am able to step beyond the religious teaching of it's right or wrong because god says so. I can consider these and other difficult moral issues from a multitude of perspectives-the principles of science, sociology, philosophy and law. It's actually a liberation to be afforded the ability to consider each issue beyond preconceived notions-- where I can juxtapose arguments and consequences and reach my own conclusions.

The second question I get is what do I "believe" in if I don't believe in an eternal salvation. This is actually my favorite question, because it is what defines me as a person. I believe in life, I believe that we are each afforded one opportunity to experience this that we know as life. For that reason, I hold that life is precious, and should not be sacrificed needlessly (which is why I oppose violence and almost all wars), I think that people should work together to make the world a better place for everyone, not just themselves (which is why I believe in fairness, justice and opportunity). Finally, I believe in kindness, that it is not only our one opportunity here on Earth, but that it is also the only opportunity for every living being on this planet (which is why I am a vegetarian/vegan and environmentalist).

Thus, what I believe in is "life" and that everyone should live it to the fullest and, most importantly that we ought not to waste this life, or sacrifice this life, waiting for the next.

A final question that people often ask me, though there are many more, is what if you are wrong. My response is that I live my life, the life I know exists, to the best of my ability, with kindness and principle, and that if there is a god-- I hope that's good enough.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

156. Recovery won't come overnight

Even though 71 percent of the people still blame former President Bush for the economic recession, over next two months Republicans will drill the economy and the issue of job creation into the heads of the American public. We'll hear, "it's the economy, stupid," again and again.

Well, understandably, it is the economy that people care about. However, Americans need to have a realistic expectation or perspective of what a recovery not only might look like, but also how long it will take.

Unfortunately, Republicans plan to seize the impatience of our "immediate gratification" society to create unrealistic expectations as to how long it takes an economy, which nearly completely collapsed, to realize a quantifiable recovery.  

One interesting comparison is the Great Depression, which began in the late 1920s and did not fully recover until the late 1930s. There are some amazing parallels to this recession, such as the collapse of the stock market, high unemployment, bank failures and an intense concentration of wealth- where the richest one percent owned 40 percent of the nation's wealth.

Currently, the richest one percent owns about 34 percent of the nation's wealth and the top 20 percent own about 85 percent of the nation's wealth. The gap between the country's richest and poorest is at a modern high.

Equally interesting are the taxes levied on the nation's wealthiest. In the 1920s, which was the precursor of the Great Depression, the top tax rate went from 73 percent in 1921 to 25 percent in 1925. It was not until the end of the Great Depression that the top tax rate was back up to as high 94 percent. High taxes on the wealthiest remained consistent until the Regan era, who lowered taxes to as low as 28 percent.

So when President Obama speaks of "spreading the wealth" and letting the tax cuts expire, he has history on his side.  Unbelievably, Republicans don't want the tax cuts to expire-which would provide as much as three million dollars in tax savings to each of America's wealthiest families. Unbelievably, Republicans are able to sell tax cuts to the middle and lower classes-- who consistently vote against their own interests.  

Another area Republicans try to sell the tax burden is on corporations, under the guise that a lower tax would mean more jobs. Interestingly, many corporations are doing remarkably well. And, in fact, while pocketing record profits, some are actually laying off employees. Harley-Davidson is one recent example who plans to lay off another 1500 employees despite recognizing a profit of 71 million in the second quarter of this year. Other companies are following their lead, collectively recording corporate profits as high 1.2 trillion while 30 million employees remain laid off. Companies continue to use temporary employees or pay overtime because it is cheaper and they don't have to pay benefits. If this country is demanding job creation, it should start here-with American corporations.

Economic systems are complicated and certainly if they were easily managed there would never be a recession, let alone the need for a recovery.

The collapse of the housing market, for example, put a considerable strain on the economy and its trail is easy to hypothesize. The financial institutions and government made home loans available to people who were probably not in the positions to afford them-thus increasing the supply of homebuyers. This increase in supply of buyers created a demand for homes and new construction that increased prices (and it did not hurt that many homebuyers were approved for significantly more than they could afford).

This demand drove up housing prices, which created artificial wealth in the homes and both drove consumer confidence, and, much worse, made the equity in homes available for loans or the inspiration of home refinancing. This wealth was often put back into the economy as homeowners performed home improvements, took vacations or paid off credit cards.

But when the financial institutions were finished selling their souls and the economy could no longer support all the new mortgages (and other debt incurred), something had to give. Manufacturing fell, foreclosures skyrocketed, home prices collapsed and auto sales stalled.

The point is that with any economic recession, there are many factors to be considered. Some of that consideration is economic theory-such as how much of a nation's wealth should be tied up in the top percentage of its population. Other factors include the impact of tax rates, the responsibility of the private sector, and the consequences of financial irresponsibility.

More importantly is the realization that our economic system has been severely damaged. There are no magic wands, quick fixes or set recovery dates. Some are calling for a double dip recession, and I think they might be right. However, it is unrealistic to believe, and disingenuous to promote for political gain, that the country should have fully recovered by now. What a mistake it would be to change economic theories now-back to the theory that led to the crisis in the first place.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

155. Free speech has consequences

Most people have heard by now about Dr. Laura Schlessinger's recent use of the "n-word" on her radio show. Dr. Laura had been talking to a black female caller who asked about the racial problems she had experienced in being married to a white man when she used the n-word several times to explain the "hypersensitivity" of blacks in regards to that word and racial stereotypes.

From a social perspective, the exchange was very embarrassing. In essence, Dr. Laura ran out every cliché argument against the hypersensitivity of racism. She explained, in her first use of the word, that "black guys (and comedians) use it all the time." Then she admits, "I don't get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it's a horrible thing; but when black people say it, it's affectionate. It's very confusing."

What Dr. Laura apparently doesn't get is two-fold. First, comedians say lots and lots of things that are not socially acceptable in any context other than their performance of a comedy act. Secondly, and much more importantly, the word represents among the worst atrocities that one race has ever afflicted upon another. It's their word, for now and forever, to be used as they wish-- and inappropriate for whites to use. From my perceptive, at least, it's simply a matter or respect.

Dr. Laura then starts with the "we elected a black president so racism is over" argument, shortly before defending the conversation by saying, "Don't double N -- NAACP me." The only argument that Dr. Laura forgot was the, "I have a black friend" argument. Oh, wait . . . she went there too, saying, "My bodyguard and my dear friend is a black man." All in all, it was a shallow exchange-- even if some of it was taken out of context.

However, what was interesting is what happened after the show. At first, Dr. Laura apologized, saying, ". . . after the call, I was terribly upset about it and after that hour of the program concluded, I pulled myself off the air for the rest of the show." She admitted it was a hurtful word and that she should not have used it even if she was trying to make a point.

Fair enough, and had the story ended there, I probably wouldn't be writing about it.

However, at this point, Sarah Palin decides that she has an opinion on the situation-advising that Dr. Laura, "don't retreat . . .reload!" Palin then suggests that her First Amendment rights have been taken from her by activists. Of course, Palin has more to say-this time incorporating a slave reference-tweeting, "Dr. Laura=even more powerful & effective w/out the shackles, so watch out Constitutional obstructionist. And b thankful 4 her voice, America."

Later, Dr. Laura, apparently rejuvenated from the support decided she was leaving the show so that her "First Amendment rights would be restored."

Dr. Laura and Sarah Palin might to do well to understand that the freedom of speech does not mean that one has the right to speak without consequence. While the legal concept is complicated and has its interpretations and limitations, the freedom of speech as an ideology evolved as a fundamental right to the exchange of ideas-particularly political speech without the fear of government censorship or imprisonment. In other words, it evolved to permit criticism of the government-- to permit dissension and, in essence, democracy.

The freedom of speech did not evolve and does not permit people to say whatever they want, to whomever they want, whenever they want. In addition to slander, some forms of pornography and restrictions on time, place and manner, the freedom of speech does not protect against the natural consequences of one's non-governmental speech. Thus, while you can offer an offensive verbal attack on your boss without the fear of the government sending you to jail, the freedom of speech would not protect you from an impending termination. And like Don Imus, who was forced off of the air temporarily for offensive speech made on his radio show, a socially (or business) consciousness media corporation may terminate those that speak inappropriately according to the station's standards. Finally, one's speech may be offensive to listeners, who could also impose consequences by simply changing the station.

The controversy for Dr. Laura and Sarah Palin is neither their first nor likely their last. The former has said she will retire from her show, but still remain publically active. The latter, unfortunately, will not be leaving us anytime soon-- she has been leading and misleading millions of Americans ever since she was undeservingly thrust onto the public stage. Either way, let's hope that in the future they not only choose their words more carefully, but also take time to really understand the First Amendment that protects those words.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

154. Research issues for yourselves

My wife and I recently visited Colonial Williamsburg, traveling back into time to one of the many places where a new nation was born. We enjoyed the reenactments, which included the patriotic tide that eventually swung toward independence. We also enjoyed the old capital building and governor's mansion, which still portrayed reminiscences of English royalty.

One of our favorite speakers was Thomas Jefferson, who eloquently spoke of our constitutional history. He spoke at length about the rights of man, the many immigrants that found asylum in this country, the notion of religious liberty and the controversial topic of slavery.

While listening, I remember thinking how this forty-five minute reenactment provided more constitutional law than three months worth of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Here we were, hearing from the "horse's mouth" the thoughts and arguments of Thomas Jefferson. Gone were the political spin and cherry picking-here he was speaking directly from a compilation of his own writings.

While I was sitting there, I knew what had been bothering me recently-it was encompassed in the simple words, "his own writings." It seems that we've lost our dedication to research for ourselves-to read and discover for ourselves, to decide for ourselves. We've become too dependent on others-those with a partisan perspective, or economic interest, or social agenda. We have a whole political movement based on propaganda and emotion and entertainers.

While I admire the political activism of the Tea Party, as would some of our Founding Fathers, there remains a significant distinction-the Founding Fathers based their passion on intellect. Our Founding Fathers were highly educated and based their political perspectives on philosophy, history and law. They studied and wrote and debated. They were, dare we say, progressives-they had the ability to think forward, to break away from the "traditional" social and political norms of Royal England.

It remains a fact today that many Americans are not well educated in philosophy, history, economics, law or literature. Americans have an opinion about everything, but how much time do we spend reading and studying the writings of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Locke, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin or John Marshall? If not from the source, where do these opinions come from?

Unfortunately, leading the charge and subscribing to the idea that if people hear it often enough they will start to believe it are the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Glen Beck and Sean Hannity-the Fox Entertainment group. These opinions are often slanted, spun, cherry-picked, exaggerated and geared to appeal to the emotions of conservatives. Unfortunately, the reception of these opinions is analogous to church goers who think they understand religion without ever reading The Bible and studying other faiths.

As a Newsweek article highlighted, we live in a time when sometimes people simply believe what they want to believe. According to the article, almost 20 percent believe that Obama is a Muslim, 61 percent do not believe in the theory of evolution, 25 percent believe in astrology, 41 percent believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in September 11, barely half knew that Judaism is older than Christianity, 25 percent could not name two Supreme Court justices, 60 percent could not identify the three branches of government, and, finally, get this, 40 percent still believe that the Health Reform Act creates Death Panels.

I know that it is not very politically correct to propose, but this suggests that a good 20-40 percent of the American population is utterly clueless.

It might not be realistic to expect that Americans devote a couple of hours a day to the study of history or philosophy. However, I do think that it is fair to suggest that if you are going to take the time to attend a Tea Party rally with a sign depicting President Obama as the devil, which labels him a socialist or adds a Hitler mustache to his photograph that you know exactly what you are protesting. There are some ideological principles to the Tea Party which I respect-even if the libertarian aspect appears somewhat selfish-but the anger and name calling is quite unbecoming.

When our Thomas Jefferson completed his reenactment, he took questions from the audience. Immediately, an obvious member of the Tea Party stood up and apologized for the state of our country. In his apology, he said that the schools no longer teach the Constitution. While I am not sure that is true (and I bet he meant The Bible), Jefferson's response was classic and typical of the times, he said, "Well, pull out the Constitution and read it, how difficult is that?"

Thursday, September 2, 2010

153. Humane treatment is long overdue

In a stunning turn of events, those that support the ethical treatment of farm animals claimed a small victory when the Ohio Farmer's Bureau recently agreed to make some improvements in the way animals are raised on their farms. The deal was brokered by Governor Strickland, which immediately suggests the deal was more political than ethical. In fact, the deal was only made after the group Ohioans for Humane Farms had collected enough signatures to put the initiative on the November ballot as a constitutional amendment.

The ballot initiative would have instilled ethical standards similar to those passed by voters in other states across the country. If you recall, farmers feared these changes were coming and tried to circumvent the process by passing Issue 2 last year as an amendment to the Ohio State Constitution. Issue 2, which created the so-called "Standards Board," was largely supported by the Governor and Ohio Legislature, including Representative Boose, a member of the Huron Farmer's Bureau who consistently misrepresented the issue, and Senator Morano, who proudly notes her endorsement by the Ohio Farmer's Bureau and is on the agriculture committee.

The changes do not do enough for animal welfare, and take years to be implemented, but it is an improvement to Ohio laws, which were largely considered among the weakest in the country. The deal includes the banning of veal crates by 2017, a ban on new gestation crates starting in 2011, and a ban on the strangulation of farm animals.

When a written standard is needed to stop the strangulation of farm animals, it suggests that it is not like factory farmers across the state suddenly got a conscience and decided to treat animals better. Farmers had just spent millions last year in an attempt to preserve their ability to set their own farming standards by passing Issue 2, and even though their leadership tried to spin the agreement, the responses left on Ohio Famer's Bureau website by members expressed their rage.

The agreement also comes on the heels of video released by Mercy for Animals of an Ohio dairy farm, which received national attention because of the graphic abuse. In addition, the award-winning documentary "Peaceable Kingdom" recently premiered in Cleveland. The film presents a powerful moral and ethical look into the world of factory farming-told by the famers themselves. In one moving scene, a farm owner tearfully stated, "I am not worthy of forgiveness." When this film is available, I hope that anyone who is concerned about the ethical treatment of his or her food will watch it.

As I emphatically tried to communicate with voters last year, there is a misconception among the general public when it comes to farming in this country. Many share a traditional view of a farm, where animals live long lives on acres of pasture. In fact, factory farms are defined as Concentrated (or Confined) Animals Feeding Operations (CAFO). On these farms, more so than the local farms, animals live short, confined, force-fed lives where they are injected with hormones and antibiotics to grow as quickly as possible to return as much profit as possible. While it may provide affordable meat, it comes at an ethical cost-as well as health considerations.

Unfortunately, dairy farms are just as unpleasant, and many people do not realize that in order for a cow to produce milk, she must be lactating from the birth of a calf. The calf is immediately taken from her (the males are often sold as veal) and the milk is collected from the grieving mother cow. This happens repeatedly until the mother cow is sent to slaughter. I am not sure why this tradition of drinking cow milk survives-it's cruel and unnatural.

Finally, when it comes to eggs, another documentary "Foul Play," has been released detailing the egg industry and may soon be available on Netflix. Many do not realize that male chicks on egg farms are immediately suffocated or otherwise killed because they are of no use as a rooster (chick culling).

The governor made a gentlemen's agreement, and Ohioans for Humane Farms can use the signatures collected this year in next year's election if the agreement is breached. The proposal will soon be heading to the Standards Board for approval and I hope the governor keeps his word. In the meantime, consumers can demand the ethical treatment of farm animals with their spending-by becoming educated and choosing meat and dairy products from local farms.

Some of video from "Peaceable Kingdom" literally shocked the crowd, leaving them horrified and in tears. It is inexcusable that in 2010 sentient animals are treated with such disregard. While it might be unreasonable to ask people to go vegetarian or vegan, it is not too much to ask that they act responsibly. Maybe we can even start with our legislatures; after all, it is their job to be informed.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

152. Don't confuse profits, morality

Community Health Partners (CHP) joins other Ohio employers, such as the Cleveland Clinic, Medical Mutual and Summa Health System, as the latest to implement a policy that will refuse employment to smokers.

CEO and CHP president Edwin Oley said in a statement, "In order for us to instill healthy habits in our patients, we must first lead by example."


Well, that is not entirely true and it is time to put an end to the charade. This is not about "healthy habits" or "leading by example."

The truth is that patients really could not care less whether their caretakers smoke or do not smoke. Patients want nurses and doctors who care-who take their time with them and clearly explain their medical situation. Just as importantly, they want doctors and nurses who are smart and experienced- those that patients would be willing to trust with their health.

So if the issue is not setting an example for patients, why has CHP chosen to implement this policy? Two reasons. The first reason is because they can, Ohio is one of 20 states that leave smokers unprotected from discrimination by employers. The second reason, and the much more important reason, is money--specifically in health insurance costs.

Undeniably, smoking is a dangerous addiction that causes significant harm to one's health. The numbers are staggering: Each year upwards of half a million people die prematurely from smoking, smoking is the primary cause in 30 percent of all cancer-related deaths, and smoking costs nearly 100 billion in employee productivity. Health insurance is more expensive; life insurance is nearly double. I've personally witnessed its destruction, and fearful of its addictive properties, I never smoked a single cigarette.

However, the question that most people have is why are only smokers targeted-if CHP is really trying to instill healthy habits, should not CHP also address other risk factors?

Obesity and other diet-related deaths, such as heart disease, strokes, cancer, and diabetes, are similar to smoking in terms of fatalities-killing 380,000-510,000 people each year. Wouldn't a hospital that did not have overweight employees create the same healthy example? Taking it a step further, of those within their healthy weight, the healthiest seem to be vegetarians and vegans-those that have shed the meat addiction.

In fact, the American Dietetic Association published the following statement in 2009: "The results of an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates."

But let's not stop there. We all know that exercise is healthy for both the mind and body. Exercise helps combat obesity and chronic diseases. It can relieve stress and even improve your mood. So why doesn't CHP create some fitness criteria for new employees. After their screening for nicotine, why can't applicants change into their gym shorts and be asked to run two miles under sixteen minutes, do fifty push-ups and one-hundred sit-ups?

Let's also not forget the health benefits of vacations. The Researchers from the State University of New York at Oswego found that "men who take vacations every year reduce their overall risk of death by about 20 percent, and their risk of death from heart disease by as much as 30 percent." I wonder, is CHP increasing vacation time for employees to keep them healthy?

In general, I find slippery slope arguments to be somewhat lame, but I think these are fair questions. And there are more-what about drugs and alcohol, genetic predisposition, and mental health? Either way, I think CHP should stop following the shallow lead of other organizations and really commit to leading by example with their "healthy habits." I think CHP should be the first organization to hire only non-smoking vegans who are within their healthy weight and can pass a physical fitness test-- and give them several weeks of vacation each year. With such healthy habits, I don't even think they would need to provide health insurance for employees-and the charade can finally come to an end.

Of final note is the issue of employers controlling the legal activities of employees while they are on their free time. Certainly if all employers suddenly decided not to hire smokers--they would all be forced to quit smoking, or live in poverty. As a society, maybe it is time to abolish smoking, but I don't know if it should be the actions of organizations and corporations. However, that is another debate and another slippery slope.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

151. Global summit determines fate

Recently there was a Summit held somewhere inside the Andromeda Galaxy and attended by some of the most influential figures in the history of the world. The Summit was convened to decide the fate of the human species. Among those in attendance were Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Gandhi, Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, Zeus and Buddha. Representing the earthly species were a cow, chicken and dolphin. The meeting was presided over by the Almighty God, and I was lucky to get my hands on parts of the transcript.
Almighty God: I hereby call this Summit to session to determine the fate of human beings on planet Earth. We’ve all read the report depicting human activity over the last two thousand years. Would someone please provide a quick review?
Gandhi: I will, Sir Almighty. Over the past two thousand years, human beings, who once foraged peacefully around the African continent, have been working steadily to destroy planet Earth and its biosphere. On its own species, it has engaged in wars, slavery, terrorism and genocide. It turns out that human beings will fight over almost anything—most notably religion and the Earth’s natural resources. Human beings are also destroying ecosystems at an alarming pace. Species are going extinct faster than at any other time in history—about 120,000 per year. The cruelest engage in factory farming, canned hunts and slaughter of baby seals. Should I continue?
Almighty God: Please do.
Gandhi: Human beings have also been polluting the air and water to the point that more than a billion people do not have clean drinking water. Glaciers are melting, rain forests are disappearing and there has been an increase in the frequency of extreme weather. Undeterred, the human population keeps growing at an environmentally and economically unsustainable rate—globally adding a net of 200,000 people per day. Human beings act as if they’ve never heard of Thomas Malthus.
Almighty God: What about government and economic systems?
Gandhi: Human beings have struggled to develop an uncorrupt form of government, one that acts in the interest of their people and is free from the influence of money. American capitalism is poisoned with greed and corporate manipulation. Many other governments, such as communist China, are ruled by heavy-handed totalitarian regimes that continue to commit human rights violations. Nazi Germany committed some of the worst crimes in the history of humanity. Countries in Africa kill each other over diamonds. Would you like to hear more?
Almighty God: No, to recount the atrocities of every corrupt government over the last two thousand years might take awhile. What are people doing about it; doesn’t anyone care about what is happening? What about the “power of the people”?
Buddha: I’ll take this one, Sir Almighty. About two billion are too poor or too ignorant to make a difference as they spend their days at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Another billion really just don’t care, they are willing to waste their days without ever offering a deep thought about anything. Another two billion are working two to three jobs to make ends meet and even if they understand the issues, they have no time or energy to do anything about it. Another billion understand the issues, but are perfectly happy living their middle class lives. They donate a couple hundred bucks each year to clear their conscious and let other people worry about it. Finally, a few hundred million know exactly what is going on, but they are responsible for the exploitation and spend most of their time working to preserve their wealth.
Almighty God: I see. At this point, I think we should take comments from the floor. What about morality and religion?
Jesus: Many Christians engage in what is called cafeteria religion—they pick and choose what to believe based on what best fits their life-style. Basically they do what they want and then find a way to justify it. Others seem to have a propensity for anger and violence, as evidenced by the Crusades and Inquisition. I think some Christians in America are more worried about their guns being taken away than they are about providing healthcare to poor Americans.
Mohammad: Guns? That is the least of my problems. I have extremists stalking cartoonists and flying planes into buildings. I appreciate that they pray to me five times a day, but the mistreatment of women makes me sick.
Jesus: Five times a day! I see my followers only a few times a year and the only time I hear from them is when they hope to win the lottery or when their favorite football team lines up for a game-winning field goal.
Sir Isaac Newton: I was myself a devout Christian when I lived, but we know now that praying doesn’t solve problems. Science solves problems and human beings have all the science they need. Yet, many still dismiss the Big Bang, evolution and global warning as “theories.”
Zeus: Aren’t they just theories, no more plausible than say the belief that Greek Gods exist?
Sir Isaac Newton: I know it’s confusing to some; scientific theories arise only after there is a near consensus reached by scientists working in the field. Scientific observations to the contrary are all that is needed to disprove a scientific theory.
California Cow: Not to change the subject, but you should rejoice that you are not an animal. They take away my calves and then have the nerve to run those ridiculous happy cow commercials. They still haven’t figured out that what they are drinking is the breast milk of a cow—seasoned with antibiotics and growth hormones. I guess I am happier than those that live on factory farms who are forced to gorge on corn before being led to slaughter. Have you seen the video from that Ohio farm?
Mor Chicken: Lett’s not git starrted on factory farmms. Thay pack us so tight thaat we want to kill each otheer and trim our beaks so wee don’t. Not easi to talk with haf a beak. They kill 8-9 billion of us per year.
Japanese Dolphin. Speaking of videos, have you seen the inhumane butchery perpetuated by the Japanese on my species as depicted in the documentary, The Cove?
Charles Darwin: I know, it’s bad, but can’t we give them a second chance; maybe they are not yet completely evolved.
Almighty God: This is their second chance; I initiated a sin-cleansing flood upon the Earth a couple of thousand of years ago. They have not learned from their mistakes.
Charles Darwin: Aren’t human beings created in your image?
Almighty God: Don’t push it Mr. Darwin, you’re responsible for much of this mess. People were just fine believing in a variety of gods and spirits until you came along.
Charles Darwin: Trust me, people still believe. And aren’t there some good people on Earth?
Almighty God: Absolutely, there are lots of socially-conscious people that work very hard to improve the lives of others. However, in general, humans do not do enough and most of what they do is self-serving. For example, many people feel good about themselves or believe themselves to be environmentalists simply because they recycle their aluminum cans each month. While the premise that every little bit makes a difference is true, it is also a crutch for those unwilling to really examine their lives and the impact it has on the other sentiment beings that share planet Earth. Human beings have been unable to get past their smugness and make the personal sacrifices necessary to sustain their existence on Earth.
Mother Nature: Not to be rude, but can we wrap this up, I’ve got my hands full with those idiots who are trying to solve the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. These people are more worried about money and political impact of the spill than they are about cleaning up the oil that is polluting the sea and killing animals. If anyone wants his or her life back, it’s me. Before human beings, my biggest concern was an errant asteroid.
Almightly God: Let’s vote then, all those that believe that planet Earth would be a better place without human beings signify by saying “aye.”
All: Aye
Almighty God: So be it. The Summit has ruled that human beings have acted with reckless disregard toward each other, other species and the environment. By this motion, human beings must cease and desist all activity on Earth and vacate the planet immediately. It is so ordered.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

150. Inconsistency invites criticism

When people say, "Don't judge me," I wonder what they are really saying, or, I suppose more importantly, why they are saying it.

In the purest form, I suppose they are saying that you do not understand the extraneous circumstances for their actions. In other words, do not hold me accountable for my actions, or my hypocrisy, because I have a good excuse.

In a way, asking not to be judged is a defense mechanism. It is a process where the criticism is actually placed back on the judger. It is a process where rather than perhaps explaining one's actions, the judged replies that they are offended by the criticism--in other words, shame on you for holding me accountable. Thus rather than offering an excuse or explanation, the question is what gives someone the right to note the inconsistency . . . essentially saying, "I'm going to do whatever I want and it's none of your business to note otherwise."

What I think people are really saying is not "don't judge me," as so much as they are saying don't "criticize me." It's not the actual judging process that bothers people--it is the conclusions drawn. For example, do people complain when a judgment leads to a positive comment? If I said to someone "You are really doing great a thing volunteering at the food bank," would anyone ever respond, "Hey don't judge me!"?

Either way, and regardless as to why people ask not to be judged, it is a pointless request. In fact, I think the mere request only increases the judging.

The reality is that we are all "judged" (and we can debate what that really means) all the time whether we like it or not. We are judged by the way we look--whether we are in shape or overweight, or whether we have piercings or tattoos. We are judged by the kind of car we drive, the food we eat, the house we live in, the way we talk, our political affiliation and who are friends are. The list of things for which we are judged goes on for pages. It is pointless to attempt to live a "judged-free" life. It happens instantly, all the time, consciously or subconsciously.

And, whether we admit it or not, we all do our fair share of judging--that is, forming an opinion about people based on stereotypes, associations or previous knowledge about the individual. We do it quickly and often unfairly. Consider the differences in type of car and bumper sticker--the first a Toyota Prius, with "Obama" and "Coexist" bumper stickers on it, the second a Hummer with "gut buck" and "Honk for Jesus" bumper stickers. In just that description, and without even seeing the drivers, we've probably already formed an opinion regarding his or her values and morals.

I suppose as a columnist who focuses on social criticism, I do more than my fair share of judging. While I certainly have engaged in a life philosophy, the brunt of my criticism falls upon those who are "inconsistent" in their life philosophy. Individually, and in person, I think people are much more reasonable than their views--compromise is surprisingly easy at times. However, I think there is often a disconnect between people's life philosophy and the way they live their lives. In this way, I often have more respect for fanatics--those with whom I might disagree, but live in accordance with their beliefs. I have a much greater difficulty with those whose philosophy changes with their self-interest-people who do not stand for anything other than what benefits them the most. While we all stray from time to time, I believe in a "principled life."

I think living a principled life means never having to worry about "being judged." Criticism largely comes from inconsistency and hypocrisy. If one lives according to his or her principles, then there is a simple explanation--based on our personal values and morals, for which there should be no apology.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

149. Hope can't create miracles for us

As the Cleveland Browns participated in the NFL Draft, I recalled the power of hope. Hope not only gives us something to look forward to, a potential to rejoice in, but it also helps heal the current unpleasant situation. For Browns fans, the connection is obvious-the draft helps us put the past behind us. For Browns fans, it is a chance to look forward to something better, even if it is maybe a little unrealistic or exaggerated.

In the last election, hope was a powerful message-one that was central to President Obama's campaign. People were hurting-from the economy and jobs to the lack of healthcare and other social issues. Hope worked to relieve some of that pain, to bring passion to a depressed country . . . to bring the prospect of a better tomorrow. While we will debate the realization of that hope, its power as a political message is explicit. It is a pseudonym for change-for we do not want to change that which we are not hopeful to achieve.

However, there is more to the idea of hope-a pretentious side.

Hope can also be used as a measure of justification- ironically even delaying that which we are hopeful to achieve. When I was a child, my father, like most of us, was always either on a diet or ready to embark on one. Growing up, I cannot even count how many times we had that last unhealthy meal or made that last trip to the ice cream stand. Like nearly everyone trying to start a diet, there is that tendency to start a diet tomorrow, or on a Monday. Nobody ever starts a diet on a Friday night, right? Today, as an adult always on a diet or ready to embark on one, I can't help but laugh at myself each time I pledge to start my diet tomorrow. It's easy to do and I sound just like my dad.

Nevertheless, as much as there is hope that I will lose weight and look better, the crutch of the premise is that I am really looking to eat what I want today-without guilt. And not only can I eat guilt free, I can usually justify eating as much as I want. Hope allows me to shed that responsibility of eating healthy today; hope becomes that justification for doing the wrong thing-rather than doing that which will lead to the result that I actually seek.

We find this idea, not just in weight loss, but also in many endeavors of our lives. We use hope to start financial diets, or make commitments to our family. We may not always call it hope, most of the time it is a promise to ourselves or even a resolution. The idea that we will stop going out to dinner so often, stop smoking, quit drinking, or commit to spending more time with our family allows us to get through the day-and enjoy one last fling. It's a promise to ourselves that we hope to keep.

So whether it is a new quarterback, a new president or a new diet, hope is there to lead the way. It makes today more bearable as we look towards tomorrow. We all need hope from time to time. We just need to be careful not to make hope less likely or less available because of what we do today. We need to understand what hope is, for it is not capable of creating miracles-just believing something won't make it come true. Finally, we need to carefully consider the power of hope when we use it as justification to do what we want to today because each day we push into the future is one day less we'll have to enjoy the outcome.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

148. Little efforts by all have big impact

Just how much do people hate paying taxes? Right down to the nickel, according to a new law in Washington D.C. that created a five-cent tax per plastic shopping bag. The result of the tax was astonishing--after one month, the number of plastic bags used by consumers decreased from 22.5 million to just 3 million.

Plastic bags might seem to be a bit insignificant because they are so freely distributed; they are thin and handy when used to carry our groceries from the store to the kitchen. However, the reality is that over one billion plastic bags are handed out, for "free," each day. Of course, in reality, nothing is free, and plastic bags cost retailers about $4 billion dollars each year-resulting in higher prices for consumers.

Beyond the cost, plastic bags are notorious in the environmental realm. A single bag, made from petroleum, toxic chemicals, and energy, takes up to 1,000 years to degrade in a landfill. Those that do not make it into the landfill are often found littering our neighborhoods. Remarkably, only about three percent are actually recycled. In addition to the human impact, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of animals, often sea turtles, whales and even cows and goats, are killed each year when the bags are mistaken for food and ingested.

This is one situation where I don't care how we get there, as long as we get there. It is a shame that it takes a five-cent tax to inspire people to act responsibly--that a lowly nickel is all that it takes to overcome the inconvenience of carrying around a reusable bag. Really, is the environment not worth a nickel on its own merits?

I would be in favor for any measure that "taxed" people for their waste-whether it is the use of plastic bags or it is a per bag charge for garbage placed on the curb each week (in places that have not adopted the blue bins). While punitive measures may be more effective, I would also be in favor of rewards for those people who produce less waste. At Target, they give you a five-cent credit when you use a reusable bag. Again, while people might be inspired by financial reasons, more than environmental ones, I would subscribe to "whatever it takes."

We often hear, from both political parties, of the incredible debt we are leaving to our grandchildren. Is there a similar concern over the environmental debt we are creating or the continued waste of natural resources? Which might we find to be more difficult to repay?

The scale of change is immaterial; a little can make a big difference. Oberlin continues their environmental push and there is no reason why Amherst, or Lorain, or Lorain County cannot follow their lead-and the lead of other progressive cities. Everyone, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, want clean water, healthy air, and un-littered neighborhoods.

Washington D.C. is using the tax revenue to clean up the Anacostia River, which is an obvious use of the tax dollars. And while that makes sense, I would not really care what the money was used for-let competing interests fight it out. It's about doing the right thing, no matter how we get there.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

147. Opposition to Obama is baffling

The real winners in the healthcare debate are not the Democrats, but the millions of previously uninsured Americans that will now have health insurance, as well as those with pre-existing conditions, those who might max out their benefits, and the small business owners. The losers, quite obviously, are the insurance companies and those making more than $250,000 per year.

However, moving beyond the winners and losers, it's a political debate that has spiraled out of control. Political allegiance has become so entrenched that people have nearly lost their minds in protesting something that benefits so many Americans. Many of the arguments against healthcare are puzzling, and the people protesting, remarkably, are often protesting against their own interest. Tomorrow it could be them that loses their job (and subsequently their healthcare insurance), or them that becomes uninsurable due to a pre-existing condition. Do the social conservatives of the Republican Party really believe that thousands upon thousands of fellow Americans, and fellow Christians, should die because they do not have access to affordable healthcare? I don't think they do and the tantrum being thrown by some Republicans is difficult to understand.

While incited during the healthcare debate, the ramifications of this political allegiance appear to go much deeper.

A recent Harris poll showed that 67 percent of Republicans believe that President Obama is a socialist, 57 percent believe he is a Muslim, 42 percent believe he is a racist and, among other things, 38 percent believe he is doing the same things as Hitler. While people have a right to "believe" whatever they wish, at some point we must be concerned when more than a third of Republicans are completely separated from reality. I mean, Hitler, really? More concerning than what people believe, however, is how they have come to have those beliefs. I think the case can be made that if you say it often enough, people will start to believe it-particularly if it is something that people want to believe.

There are many good political and philosophical debates that can be had between not only Republicans and Democrats, but also among all political parties, such as Libertarians, and, yes, even Socialists. I find that many issues have excellent arguments on both sides, and their discussions intrigue me. While I am steadfastly a liberal, more than a "Democrat," I always enjoy a good philosophical argument.

The problem today is these arguments are evaporating into sound bites full of exaggerations, purposeful misinformation, name-calling, myths, lies and, now, even threats of violence. While the problems certainly exist on both sides of the aisle, conservative television and radio, as evidenced by the Harris Poll, have reached unprecedented levels of influence. The assertion, for example, that Obama is a socialist is pounded into the minds of viewers and listeners, obsessively, repeatedly, day after day, month after month. The near hatred that the people have for Obama is not only disrespectful-it is scary.

Believe it or not, that is a difficult perspective for me to not only undertake, but also to suggest. I fear my own biases and prejudices in making that assertion; however, it seems to be undeniably true. The comments made by Republican congresspersons, the name-calling and racial slurs made by their followers, and now the threats of violence over the healthcare bill have brought out the worst in American politics.

To experience this, all anyone has to do is read the comments following a story about healthcare on the Internet-the comments are not about actual problems in the healthcare bill, they are personal attacks on Obama. It is a steady diet of socialist, Hitler, terrorist, Marxist and so on. Here are just a few from about the possible repeal of healthcare, "The arrogant communist has spoken," "even hitler was more subtle," "This guy truly is a Marxist!" "Nice try, you make Castro and Karl Marx proud." "Long Live Our Democratic Republic....we will do whatever it takes to bring down this democrat administration which is full of communist, fascists, and terrorists." This goes on and on, for pages.

The ironic part about this learned attack is the presumption that Obama is extremely liberal (or any of the other things he is called). As I said, I am a liberal on most issues-and I know lots of liberals - and many of us are unhappy with some of President Obama's policies. Advocates of the public option are unhappy with him, so are environmentalists, and civil rights activists. Dennis Kucinich, Michael Moore, Bill Maher and many others have criticized him. The great civil rights activist and pacifist, Howard Zinn, called Obama a great disappointment before he died. There is no blind allegiance, rather there is some understanding that there needs to be room for compromise. While President Obama is certainly not a conservative, he is not the unapologetic liberal that he is accused of. Nor is he a socialist, Muslim or anything resembling Adolf Hitler.

The perspective held by political followers is obviously subjective and easily influenced. I think people have picked a side more than they have invested themselves into objectively understanding the issues. At some point, the inflammatory speech needs to end, and talk show hosts need to be held accountable for their actions, or, at the very least, inspired to have some honest conversation. In what should be the marketplace of ideas, these hosts only seem to be trying to antagonize their audience-taking it up a level to see who can garner the most attention for his or her commentary.

Unfortunately, the healthcare debate is not over . . . Republicans have declared war and promised to repeal it at first instance. Each and every problem with the bill will become a "sky is falling" rallying cry. However, one headline about the first bill introduced to repeal it made the point that people seem to be missing, it said something like, "Republicans introduce bill to uninsure millions of Americans." At some point, conservatives need to calm down and regain their composure. While this bill is not perfect, it is also not Armageddon-no matter what Beck, Limbaugh and Hannity proclaim.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

146. Democracy now for sale, cheap

Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, in a blog for the American Constitutional Society, wrote this about the decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, "The decision will unleash unprecedented amounts of corporate "influence-seeking" money on our elections and create unprecedented opportunities for corporate "influence-buying" corruption. With a stroke of the pen, five Justices wiped out a century of American history devoted to preventing corporate corruption of our democracy."

The case was the result of a movie about Hillary Clinton produced by the conservative group, Citizens United, that it wanted broadcasted on cable channels during the 2008 Democratic primaries. However, the federal courts thought the movie was more of a political advertisement and applied political campaigning regulations.

The case evolved slightly to consider whether the ban on the purchase of political ads placed on corporations and labor organizations, which prevented the infusion of even more corporate money and influence on government, should be overturned.

In a 5-4 decision, the conservative segment of the Supreme Court ignored precedent and opened the door for the use of corporate profits to further corporate interest by influencing elections. In many cases, campaign spending wins elections and the pressure will be on both Republicans and Democrats to secure corporate support. This support, of course, comes at a price-one paid by the American public.

The court used the First Amendment to make the argument of free speech under the pretext that a corporation has the legal right of a "person." Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, stating, "If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech."

However, what sounds democratically engaging is actually a license to corrupt, which is why the regulation existed in the first place. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote of such in his dissent, "The court's ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation."

What it really means to the American public is that their hard work for a corporation, and the profits realized therein, may be used by corporate officers and directors to help elect candidates or support issues that they adamantly oppose.

Daniel J.H. Greenwood, Professor of Law, Hofstra University School of Law, in his blog for the American Constitutional Society, agrees and takes it one step further, "Most importantly, if corporations - which are not citizens and many of which are multi-national organizations with interests that may be radically opposed to those of ordinary Americans - are allowed to freely intervene in our elections, then each citizen must have a corresponding decrease in influence. My contribution means less if I must compete with BP-Amoco and not just my fellow Americans' money."

What is also means for voters is that they will have to sort through the interest of corporations and labor unions who choose to engage in political advertisements. The advertisements will likely lead to more misconceptions, more half-truths and more negative campaigning. Those that will spend to win elections will be counting on an uninformed public, one that will subscribe to marketing over education in casting their votes. After all, who has the time to research each and every political assertion?

It seems that America is willing to continue down this dangerous road, one that avoids the interest of ordinarily middle class Americans in favor of industries that need bailed out because they are "too big to fail" and corporations who are given the green light to run roughshod over our economic and political systems.

We do not fight. The wealthy are dominant and united, the rest of us are powerless-divided into conservatives and liberals, fighting over things like immigration and abortion. We not only succumb to the ideologies that created this system, but we march it forward. We patriotically raise our fist for capitalism while our political systems become corrupt, the poor get poorer and the sick die. We've sold out democracy. I don't know how much clearer the picture needs to be.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

145. Healthcare reform is necessary

That healthcare stocks rose in anticipation of Republican Scott Brown's victory in the Massachusetts Senate race says everything one needs to know about who benefits from the present healthcare system. It is this corporate interest in healthcare that has prevailed-one that thwarts progress, denies coverage and lets people die. Consider the following address to Congress on healthcare:

"Millions of Americans are just a pink slip away from losing their health insurance, and one serious illness away from losing all their savings. Millions more are locked into the jobs they have now just because they or someone in their family has once been sick and they have what is called the preexisting condition. And on any given day, over 37 million Americans -- most of them working people and their little children -- have no health insurance at all.

And in spite of all this, our medical bills are growing at over twice the rate of inflation, and the United States spends over a third more of its income on health care than any other nation on Earth. And the gap is growing, causing many of our companies in global competition a severe disadvantage. There is no excuse for this kind of system. We know other people have done better. We have no excuse. My fellow Americans, we must fix this system and it has to begin with congressional action."

You might be surprised to know that these are not the words of President Barack Obama; rather, they are the words of former President Bill Clinton made on September 22, 1993.

It's been over sixteen years and almost nothing has changed.

In 2000, the World Health Organization ranked the United States 37th in healthcare in comparison to other healthcare systems in the world. In 2004, Timothy Stoltzfus Jost wrote this in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics:

"All other developed countries of the world (other that the United States) including developed countries in Western Europe, Asia, North and South America, and on the Pacific Rim, provide healthcare for all or most of their residents. Although private health care products are available for purchase on a voluntary basis in virtually every country, no other developed country relies on private insurance as does the United State to provide coverage for its population. All developed countries have recognized that voluntary private insurance cannot cover everyone, and have developed some form of public health insurance."

Well . . . every developed country except one.

There is no denying that reforming healthcare is a difficult, even an overwhelming task. There are billions of dollars at stake; it's very complicated, with plenty of intricacies and interests. It should not be surprising that those with the most to lose, those that have preyed on the American healthcare system for decades to the tune of millions in profits, would fight the hardest. Healthcare corporations, pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies not only influence politicians (both Republicans and Democrats) through election donations and lobbying, they also make millions for their shareholders through the financial incentive not to pay claims or not to insure those that have preexisting conditions.

It is interesting to note, and maybe surprising to some, that private insurance administrative costs can exceed twenty percent, while government can be as low as three percent. Interesting and surprising, but it makes perfect sense. Private insurance companies have an incentive not to pay claims, to create huge salaries for the directors and returns for their shareholders. Government insurance has no incentive to deny coverage, only to prevent fraud. There are no profits, unreasonable salaries or ridiculous bonuses.

It stands to reason that any piece of legislation so large, and so complicated, would not be completely agreeable to anyone. Obviously, with so many ideologies and interests, it would be impossible to make everyone happy. This realization has been the basis of the Republican opposition to the bill.

With that, I've grown tired of the argument made by Republican politicians that, "yes, we need healthcare reform, but . . ." In addition to the reasonable concerns, there has been an unfortunate amount of political propaganda by Republicans, the right wing media and special interest groups. The propaganda includes not only inaccuracies about specifics like illegal immigration and "death panels," it also provides the normal rhetoric about socialism. The worst from the right has made this debate personal, bordering on hate-directed squarely at President Obama.

The healthcare reform proposed is far from perfect, and there are aspects of it that frustrate me. Personally, I would like a complete overhaul of the system, a start from scratch. However, the question really is whether or not we are better with this reform or without it. Will this reform increase the access and decrease the cost of healthcare in America? Will more people be covered; will there be fewer deaths and bankruptcies?

Arguments about specifics are largely about the politic interest of Republicans and the financial interests of large healthcare corporations. It is not that they are not important, and should not be negotiated and compromised to the extent possible-they should-rather it is that it is being used to create anxiety, misconceptions and anger. It is selfish and, at times, ridiculous.

The most legitimate concern stemming from the proposed legislation is the concern for the national debt. However, it is a matter of priorities and Congressman Dennis Kucinich may have said it best, "The United States is going deeper and deeper into debt. We have money for Wall Street and money for war but we don't have money for work . . . for healthcare. We have to start asking ourselves, ‘Why is it that war is a priority but the basic needs of people in this country are not?'"

The bottom-line is that we have the wealth and ability to provide quality healthcare for everyone. We need Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, corporations and nonprofits, and blacks and whites to put aside their interests, differences and prejudices to get this done.

After World War II, England decided that healthcare would be a right for their citizens. If healthcare reform fails, it is likely that we will spent nearly a century in the dark ages by the time meaningful reform is realized.

But at least healthcare stocks will be up.