Saturday, June 30, 2007

98. Movie sparks healthcare debate

Michael Moore has created another stir with his latest documentary, "Sicko." I was quick to both see the movie and engage in a number of debates concerning the ideas it suggests. And from the conversation, I think most would agree, that regardless of how you feel about national healthcare (and Michael Moore), it is both a movie worth watching and a topic worth discussing.

The movie brings forth a number of issues that currently affect our private healthcare system and compares it to national healthcare systems in Canada, Great Britain and France. It, admittedly, shows the worst of our private system while attempting to dismiss many of the myths propagandized about national healthcare systems.

Moore's movie is not about the 50 million Americans that do not have healthcare, it is targeted at the 200 million Americans that do- but have had to suffer through the system. Health insurance, despite employer contributions, is often burdensome on individuals and families. Repeatedly, the insured face steep co-pays, deductibles, premiums and prescription costs.

However, much worse are the procedures that are denied as unnecessary, experimental or part of a pre-existing condition. For these individuals, they must either finance the medical need, sometimes to the point of bankruptcy, or face the consequences- which might include disability or even death. Insurance companies, as testified before Congress by medical reviewers, are more profitable when care is denied. In other words, it is in their financial interest to, by any means possible, find a reason to reject health claims.

The argument against national healthcare is based on a few premises. The first is obviously the financial standing of those profiting in the current system, such as doctors, pharmaceuticals, insurance companies, and those that receive the large political donations. Investors have a lot to lose with a national healthcare system, and will not go down without a fight.

Another argument is the idea of government involvement, by either libertarians or those that want to extrapolate the idea to socialism. Since we already have tax-financed primary education, and safety (police and fire departments) systems - health seems like a similar social issue that would guarantee Americans education, safety and health. Unfortunately some are terrified of paying more than their fair share. Of course, this already happens in education- based on the value of your house and the number of kids you have accessing public education. As an American, despite my personal needs, I want kids to get an education, the fire put out down the road, criminals caught and put in jail, and, finally, people to get the healthcare they need.

Finally, some arguments focus on the perceived problems of government healthcare, and point to ideas like waiting periods for service. The fact is that despite some shortcomings, the proof is in the outcomes. Canadians, as well as those in many other countries, live longer than Americans and have lower rates of infant mortality. Clearly, the poor and uninsured, as well as the lack of preventive medicine, drive the statistical outcomes in these areas. Considering the wealth enjoyed by Americans, these numbers are nothing less than pathetic.

Moore's movie should not decide the issue, but bring it up for debate. National healthcare has no chance until Americans demand debate from their legislatures. And considering the influence of healthcare lobbyers, it might only be accomplished through the election of public officials dedicated to do what is best for Americans- not what is best for their reelection. The healthcare system, as it is now, is unmistakably in shambles. It is costly, ineffective, and driven by financial interest rather than care.

The irony of our private system is that most of the people that work in healthcare are hard working, underpaid and care deeply for their clients. Unfortunately, this mission is destroyed by the few, those at the top of the food chain, that care more about their investments than providing services to those Americans that are forced to rely on their employer's choice of health insurance. Private industry loses its integrity when its success, and profits, are not built upon the market place and competitive efficiencies, but rather the extraneous lobbying of politicians. Certainly, not even the staunchest capitalist will surmise that private healthcare is working, nor could they deny the effect of health insurance corporations, pharmaceutical companies and physician group on Congress.

Personally and powerfully, the fact of the matter is that nobody in national health care systems is ever denied care because of pre-existing conditions, because they cannot afford the co-payments, or because they do not have insurance. Furthermore, nobody declares bankruptcy or loses their home because of medical bills (medical bills are the number one reason for filing bankruptcy). Ensuring that everyone has healthcare is not any different that ensuring that there are fire fighters to put out a fire, or a policemen or policewomen to arrest criminals. It is the use of American taxes for the betterment of society.

The endeavor to adopt a more successful healthcare system, whether it is a social healthcare system, an improved private system or some sort of hybrid, even without the protected interests, is a daunting task. Moore's movie may have started the debate, but any chance of success depends on the insistence of Americans that changes be made.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

97. Are peons really least valuable?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, wrote "If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is; but if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be." Corporations are defined in many ways, but I believe one of the most revealing is a simple analysis of how it treats its employees. When I say employees, I am of course not referring to how it treats its chief executive officer, or senior management, rather I am referring to how it treats what is regarded as its least valuable employees. For non-profit organizations, this might even, surprisingly, include its volunteers.

The question is, do corporations view, and treat, their least important employees as uneducated, interchangeable necessities, or do they treat them as well as they treat all other employees- from middle management up? You will often hear from very dedicated employees that they feel like they are just a "peon." (To digress for a moment, the term peon is used colloquially to mean a person with little authority, often-assigned unskilled or drudgerous tasks; in this sense, peon is often used in either a derogatory or a self-effacing context. It is widely thought that a peon is so named because they are so low in standing as to be urinated upon, hence pee-on. This is a false etymology and has no factual backing. Source: Wikipedia).

More than just assumingly, "peons" feel, as exemplified in its self-effacing, that they do not matter. They believe that their work does not matter, that their opinions do not matter, and as already mentioned, that they can easily be replaced. In the age of the fallacious ideology of "employee empowerment," many corporations offer lip service more than a coherent change of action. The worst do not even discourage this feeling among their employees, a fact most evident by the lack of investment.

To be sure, the issue is about money, and corporations invest in those that will make them money. They will invest in new technology or in the hiring of those executives who are perceived as the most talented or have significant financial or political influence. The corporate culture, and more to this discussion, the treatment of the least important employees, is regarded as a business expense. Business expenses also include sick days and company picnics. The recent trend has been toward the use of temporary employees, those obtained for service without the investment of benefits, such as healthcare. Furthermore, these employees work "on call," absent of unemployment insurance, to be added and discarded as needed. On the opposite side of the spectrum, many executives, even after failing, ride away in "golden parachutes."

Unfortunately, a similar analysis can be made with not-for-profit organizations. The "red carpet" is rolled out for those that make large donations, while others are largely ignored- regardless of the effort and passion. While grassroots supporters might be offered a dinner or two at national events, the premise of the event is the mobilization of a fund-raising machine. Passionate pleas and informal appreciation might be expressed only so far as it inspires a rededication to the task at hand.

For those that make large donations, organizations often engage in social pampering. This egotistical petting includes special meetings, networking opportunities, public recognition and, of course, private business meetings. The wealthy have developed an array of behaviors and considerations in which the end result is money being passed back and forth.

My wife and I once attended a leadership conference with several volunteers from the Cleveland area, including a past president who had consistently made large financial donations. This particular year, we had donated significant amounts of time, essentially serving as president and secretary. While at dinner, the organization's well-known founder approached our table, assumingly for a moment of appreciation. However, without even making eye contact with anyone else at the table, he picked out our previous president and escorted him away. When my wife made mention of his rudeness and lack of gratitude, the past president, who should have said, "Wait, let me introduce you to some very dedicated volunteers," quickly defended the action by noting how much money he donates. Later, in discussing the issue, the past president again defended the well-known founder by noting his age. As elderly as he was, he was not so senile as to not know which of us at the table made the most significant donations. I do not know which was more pathetic, being shunned by the organization's founder or the egotistic defense made by the past president in light of his apparent expectation for the "red carpet" treatment.

Those corporations and organizations that incorporate a social hierarchy within their structure ought to be ashamed to know that many employees feel like "peons." Often these peons are the most loyal employees and dedicated volunteers within the organization, that is, they are the few that are not driven entirely by their financial status. They are often responsible, caring individuals, who sometimes work two or three jobs to support their families. Sometimes these individuals even offer a refreshing bit of integrity- apart from the shallowness that accompanies those looking for special treatment and the arrogance that manifests from the executive suites.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

96. Shouldn't a Christian nation act it?

A large percentage of Americans, I would argue, embrace religion, "just in case." In this manner, it becomes an ideology of convenience. Not only does it ensure a place in heaven, if such a place exists, it provides "moral" guidance when one cannot decide how to explore life, or its consequences, on his or her own. Such is religious convenience, and reluctance to truly live a religious life, that I would propose an opposite theory. I believe that most Christian Americans live their life on earth, in the manner that they do, just in case there is no Heaven.

If I were religious and believed that my commitment on earth would decide my fate for all of eternity, I would not take any chances. How would I be able to rationalize that anything else here on earth is more important than living according to the principles of my religion. If my religion required that I attend church every Sunday, then I would attend church every Sunday- no exceptions. If my religion asked for tithing of 10 percent of my salary, then I would have it automatically deducted through payroll. If my religion declared marrying a divorced woman to be a sin, then I would not even consider dating one. Finally, if I believed our laws to be derived from religion, then I would obey them. In fact, I would have a detailed spreadsheet next to my bed. Each night, I would review my adherence. And if at the end of the day I did not kill anyone, then next to the box labeled, "Thou shall not kill," I would put a big check mark noting so.

It is interesting that this is not how most religious people live. According to the August 2005, Newsweek and Beliefnet poll, 85 percent of Americans claim not only to be religious but also Christians, yet each Sunday morning, not anywhere near that percentage is attending their respective place of worship. In fact, the same poll revealed, according to those interviewed, that only 45 percent attend church services weekly. Other researchers find that number much closer to 20 percent.

One can get to Heaven by simply accepting Jesus Christ as his or her personal savior. Even notorious sinners can reserve a place in Heaven without living a religious life. I find this notion in direct conflict with two religious ideas. The first is the concept of a "good" Christian, since there is not an explicit requirement towards acts of "goodness," only the acceptance of Jesus Christ. The second concept is the inequality among the commitments required to get into Heaven. It hardly seems fair that sinners, that only attend church on Christmas, Easter and other selected events, should be appropriated the same eternal fate as those that, among other things, committed each and every Sunday to God.

I believe Christians are either taking advantage of the ease afforded Americans through Christianity in the pursuit of a heavenly fate or they do not believe in God enough to live the life described in The Bible. For eternal bliss, Christians can pay what they want, attend church when they want and sin as often as they want. More importantly, they do not have to give up their lives on earth- that is to suffer and sacrifice for the ultimate reward. Thus, Christians are active participants in the materialism, greed and the lack of discipline that dominates our culture. Religion is there for them when they want it, to discriminate against homosexuals or protest abortion, but it disappears when one wants a divorce or to sleep in on Sunday morning.

The almost universal answer to the question of how often one attends church is, "Not as often as I should." Such a statement acknowledges both, a recognition that one is obligated to go to church according to his or her religion, and a nonchalant attitude that this lack of commitment poses no great threat to the eternal promises of heaven. If God were to, undisputedly, appear on earth here today, I would guess that his verifiable fear would push church attendance toward 100 percent. The difference between those that do attend church on a regular basis, and those that would upon the proof of God represents those people that are not willing to sacrifice their time on earth based on faith alone.

With arguments concerning the Ten Commandments on government property and the phrase "under God" in our pledge of allegiance, much has been made of the ideology that this is a Christian nation. The fact that 85 percent of Americans are Christian does bode well for their argument. However claiming that we are a Christian nation and acting like one are two completely different things. If Christians want a Christian society, then they should start doing the things that they themselves consider Christian-like.

No longer should they be able to pick and choose their beliefs like the options on a new car. Most choose the options that make their ride to Heaven the easiest. They select the sport-utility vehicle with a personal relationship with Jesus, anti-abortion wheels, gay-bashing V-6 engine, custom Biblical interpretation and forgiveness insurance. God himself or herself must have a hard time keeping a straight face with the combinations of religious justification presented before him at the pearly gates.

Final accountability rests with the churches that have been extraordinary in marketing religious ideology without demanding religious commitment. They have a mobilized a right wing movement that is politically powerful, even if its members are not personally devoted. Of course, they are selling the perfect product. It costs whatever you want to pay, it can be used any way one wants to use it while here on earth and, in the end, it can be traded in for an eternity of paradise.

Still, if it were me, I am not heading up with a BMW, loaded with options; I am taking with me church attendance records, my trusty Ten Commandment worksheet and a long list of good deeds. But that is just me.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

95. To care deeply is to hurt deeply

It is far easier not to care, so much so that I am often envious of those people who seem to wander through life unaffected by the world around us. Perhaps, on some accounts, this is not a completely fair observation; however, I do know that if you do not care, you cannot get hurt.

For those that engross themselves in life, there are a number of injustices that must be reconciled. To care, and debate, about the consequences of each human action can make life a nearly unbearable endeavor. I have written of these instances consistently over the last four years. For example, to eat a hamburger can move some to tears over the life and death of the cow. To wear a diamond ring may bring to mind the wars fought over such luxuries. To read of war wrenches the soul of all the young lives wasted. And to witness the homeless and impoverished can be infuriating when we consider the incredible wealth shared by so few. It is easy to be a social critic; there is much to be critical about.

For those involved with social issues, there is a difference between caring, sharing compassion and offering support. The distinctions that follow are mine, as dictionaries tend to indistinctly blur their interpretations. There are a number of ways to live our lives, but it is a mistake if we do not realize that every decision we make has an effect on a number of other social, political and environmental conditions. On the other hand, to fret over every decision would bring our lives to a mental paralysis. We must consider a balance, one in which we support some issues, and truly care about others.

To care about an issue is to be willing to make a personal sacrifice in order to change things. If one cares about something, the passion is often consuming- to the depth that it affects one's soul. The level of activism nears obsession, as one makes personal sacrifices and works to persuade others. The sacrifice includes opportunity costs, and it may be financial or political as well as a significant time commitment. Many activists are even willing to go to prison in support of their cause.

Compassion is the recognition that an undesirable condition exists. It is cognitive-driven ideology, not an action-driven movement. There is typically an emotional involvement, usually sympathy; however, this emotional state is not strong enough to inspire more than a moderate amount of action.

The support of an issue or condition is generally an agreement that the condition exists and with those taking action. It lacks cognitive emotion, and any action is usually symbolic. The support at this level does not include the willingness to research the subject; much less make any personal sacrifices.

Vegetarianism, in terms of animal cruelty, is a simple example. Some people will support the issue, reacting only to the worst examples- such as those covered through the media. Those offering compassion to the issue may adopt the vegetarian ideology- perhaps also becoming vegetarians. However, those that really care about the issue, not only become vegetarians or vegans, but they also donate time and money to the cause. They attend lectures, inform others and maybe even get involved in picketing or protesting the worst offenders. For these people, it is often difficult to understand why everyone does not share their beliefs.

These ideologies require us to make personal decisions. Individuals must decide for themselves what level of commitment to submit to. I attended a lecture recently in which the speaker made this point, "People often say they love animals, but by eating them, they are supporting the miserable conditions in which they live and die." It is easy to understand that every chicken we eat encourages farmers to grow more chickens, as quickly as possible - often through methods that have proven the most profitable, regardless of the affect on the chickens. And under the assumption that most people know this condition exists, it is unfortunate that more are not willing to put forth the effort to alter their eating habits - because reality suggests that it takes more than the passion of a few to make a difference.

Most commit to their passions and either gloss over the rest or ignore that certain conditions exist. Life can be an overwhelming, but I am convinced that a little effort could make the endeavor better for everyone.