from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The US is no longer the greatest nation - what will we do? 

crossposted from dailykos

Hubert H. Humphrey told us
It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.
I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that we live in a nation whose government fails all three criteria of that moral test. As a teacher I have wrestled with aspects of how we deal with our children. Last night, belatedly, my wife and I saw “Sicko.” I have no choice but to conclude that we also fail our elderly and those in the shadows. Shall we say that the implications of that conclusion are shattering, requiring radical reorientation of my thinking?

I will not recapitulate nor review the movie. I was sitting with my spouse, Leaves on the Current, who had recently spent several days in Prince Edward Island for an extended family reunion. Her Canadian relatives are in large part politically and personally conservative. Yet without dissent they all were strongly supportive of the Canadian national healthcare system. She has also live in England both as a child when her father had a Fulbright to Cambridge and again as an adult when she attended Oxford on a Marshall, and thus has experience with the National Health System which some American politicians and others who profit from our system have denigrated: she knows how wrong those aspersions are. On our honeymoon when one of us developed a medical condition while in French Polynesia, we were able in a small town to go in to a pharmacy and obtain relatively cheaply the non-prescription materials necessary to address the condition. I remember noting the lack of non-medical material sold in the store, which was far smaller than even the average independent drugstore here.

During the student riots that spread across much of Europe in 1968, I had been surprised to read that Frenchmen had the right to free university education: no need for Pell grants because of one’s low income, nor Stafford or other loans to encumber those who attended with massive amounts of debt.

We sometimes have great inequities within our school systems due to race and economic status, and clearly our perverse financing system, based on the value of the real estate within the municipality or county in which the schools are located merely exacerbates and extends the preexisting economic – and hence often social –- disparities with which our nation seems permanently infected.

We are unwilling to move towards a livable wage floor because our business interests do not want to lessen their profits.

We allow dumping of pensions through the bankruptcy process, thus impoverishing some elderly – and that is only if there were a defined benefit pension in the first place.

Our solution to many social problems is to criminalize behavior on an inequitable basis. Thus we have a 100-1 disparity in sentencing between crack and powdered cocaine although we have known for years that they are pharmacologically equivalent, and the person most likely to become our next – and first female – president does not seem inclined to challenge us to move to parity in sentencing, but merely to lower the disparity to 10-1. And the consequence of our criminalization of social problems gives us the highest incarceration rate in the Western world. In many cases we use that as an excuse to further push people into the shadows of life by lifetime sanctions even after those convicted under such a approach have completed their terms: they permanently lose voting rights in many states, and for a single juvenile drug offense one can potentially be permanently barred from Federal benefits such as the ability to obtain the aid so many need in order to better themselves by a post-secondary education.

On ancient maps, when people did not fully understand the world around them, we might encounter a text and illustrations of that lack of understanding: “This way be dragons.” Mariners were supposed to fear going into that “unknown” although sometimes a few did, and others might have maps that showed lands and currents that belied the scary words on the more commonly used maps. For too long Americans have been told – by their government, by their media, by those who profit from the madness and inhumanity of much of our current system – that to go beyond the boundaries they are willing to place on our maps is not to be risked. We were told “this way be dragons.” Those dragons had scary names: socialism, communism, and the like. Our schools are mandated to teach that the capitalist free-market system of economics is the only acceptable way. Except we have never fully had a capitalist free-market system. Our Constitution recognizes protection of patents and copyrights, we require government-issued licenses to enter many businesses and professions, and in some cases we set quotas – on how many cabs a city will license, or how many acres of hops can be planted – that guarantee a profit for those lucky enough to benefit by those quotas while passing on the costs for those profits to the rest of us, who have no choice, who are limited in the competitors from which we can select.

In the movie Moore muses about those things that are “socialized” like police, and fire, and libraries, and public schools. We have not always considered these as public goods to be provided for from the general revenue – there are many historical examples of how such services were provided through private, subscription only (and sometimes for-profit) exemplars. Increasingly in the past few decades we have seen an effort to privatize many of these functions. Even in some cases where things are nominally public, we have the disparity of wealthy communities with well-equipped schools and public libraries, and police and fire with the latest equipment adjacent to those whose tax base has shrunk so that the schools are decrepit, the fire equipment obsolete, the police insufficiently trained, and the libraries closed and shuttered.

I noted at the beginning that I have been shattered. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that my illusions have been shattered. I wrote that I needed a radical reorientation of my thinking. The etymology of the word “radical” are from the Latin, radix, for root. We need to get to the roots. And that takes me back to one famous tale from the Classical period. Alexander the Great encountered a famous challenge, one of which it was said if he solved it he would rule the world. It was the massive Gordian knot, which many had tried to unravel but failed. Alexander took his sword and cleaved it asunder. One might argue that he took a radical approach.

I have no sword, no instrument except my thought, which is far from perfect and limited in the experience from which I can draw. And as I write this it is less than 12 hours since I departed the movie theater – I have not yet finished the cogitation and reflection which is within my power to offer. I will nevertheless offer my as yet far from complete and most assuredly incomplete thinking, in the hopes that other may be able to build upon what I share. And I will do so within the frame of quote from Humphrey with which I began.

THE DAWN OF LIFE – it is simply unacceptable for a nation with the wealth, nutritional knowledge, and medical expertise available within its borders to have an infant mortality rate higher than those of many countries much poorer than ours. Those who survive infancy are often permanently damaged, and thus forever disadvantaged in a society in which we overemphasize competitiveness. For years we have recognized the fundamental inequity of his. That is why we have had programs such as WIC to address the needs of women, infants and children. But like so many other programs, we have rationed the amount of assistance offered on the grounds that full coverage would be exorbitant. And since it is a program for “those people” – the poor, often minorities – we comfort ourselves in the belief that it probably won’t make that much of a difference anyhow. We ignore the long-term cost of not caring for all of our people, a cost which is greatly increased because of our reluctance to expend the necessary funds up front. And then we decrease the effectiveness of the funds we do provide with layers upon layers of bureaucracy and paperwork, all required because of the attitude that people might otherwise get something to which they are not entitled. We try to make a distinction between worthy and unworthy poor, and are prepared to ignore and even punish those we classify as the latter. I know of no great religious tradition that allows for such a distinction in discussing the moral obligations we have to our fellow man, and I see no Constitutional basis for such a distinction in the providing of governmental services. We must as a nation and a society recognize that if we do not fully ensure the necessities for future development of all of our young we belie that founding notion that all men are created equal. We certainly do not fully believe that fetal life is equivalent to those already born if we deny the mothers carrying them complete access to the medical and nutritional care that can ensure healthy development and healthy birth.

THE TWILIGHT OF LIFE – here we encounter issues both of health care and of income security. Social Security and its accompanying program of Medicare are often insufficient to provide the full needs of many of our elderly. They were designed in a context of private pensions through employment, in a time where extended life beyond the employable years was not as extensive as it is today. It is one of the wonders of our health care that we have been able to have so many elderly, an ever increasing proportion of our population. But we have not rethought how we ensure that they are cared for. And again, and as we will see with so many of our service programs, the levels of bureaucracy and the amount of paperwork required because we start with the presumption that people might be unworthy for the services means even the insufficient funds we apportion to these services are not fully expended on services to the elderly, but instead are consumed in the screening, the recording, the reporting. Reduce the bureaucratic aspects and the same funds could provide far greater services. We do not use the power of government to help as effectively as we could. The new prescription “benefit” is an atrocity. Having the government provide for all seniors, and/or using bulk buying to keep down costs could enable complete prescription coverage for all seniors with no donut hole, conceivably for far less than we now spend for incomplete coverage. Of course we would have to address two issues. First, we would not be paying for the excessive profits of PhARMA. And we would not be indirectly repaying the member corporations for the expenses they incurred in lobbying Congress and the public, for the advertising that constantly tells us to ask your doctor,” for the “contributions” to political candidates and parties, and so on.

THE SHADOWS OF LIFE - on this America is immoral, and we cannot justify our inaction, our neglect that is far from benign. We dump poor people out of hospitals and onto the street because they lack medical insurance, because we export jobs, or because they never receive care for treatable medical conditions, physical or mental. They are unemployable because the school available to them are horrid, often in buildings falling apart, thereby telling them even as children that we do not care about them (test scores not withstanding). Their mothers get little or no assistance when they are in utero, or when they are nursing. And our corporations urge those mothers to buy formula rather than rely upon their own milk, which may be insufficient because the mothers receive insufficient nutrition, and whatever problems it may create for them are increased for their unborn children and for those young enough to be nursed. If you have mental or emotional problems and you are poor, if you are lucky you are warehoused – but not treated – in a state hospital. If you are unable to fully function on your own, you are on the streets and the steam grates, unless there is shelter which can take you in. Those who have traveled in Europe with medical systems that we dismiss as socialist, think how often you encounter street people and then compare it to what you might see in major and many smaller American cities. The results of such a comparison will not be flattering to our nation.

There is nothing I have written in this essay that is not fully accessible to every thinking American. And yet we continue with social and economic policies that perpetuate inequality, that waste our human capital, that misuses what limited funds we do apply to fix problems that would be far less were we to take a preventative approach instead of the insufficiently ameliorations we do assay.

We need to recognize that if we are going to be a fully moral society we can longer continue privatize basic social functions. We must assert that every person in this country is entitled as a matter of basic rights to sufficient nutrition to meet basic needs, to the medical care necessary to prevent illness where possible and to care for those illnesses and conditions which cannot be avoided. Each American should have access to free and quality education at least through the equivalent of an Associates diploma from a junior college or its equivalent in technical training and apprenticeships. All American should be guaranteed the income necessary to sustain them when they are too young, too old, too sick, or too disabled to work.

My favorite passage in the New Testament is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. But I think most people misunderstand it. It is framed as two sets of four statements. In each set the lawyer asks a question, Jesus being the good Jew he is answers with a question back to the lawyer. The lawyer gives an answer which shows his complete understanding and Jesus affirms that answer. The first set is straightforward – question, question, answer, affirmation. The lawyer then initiates the second set by inquiring “But who is my neighbor?” Jesus then tell the parable, a teaching story, an illustration, not a recounting of an historical event. Jesus then asks the lawyer who was neighbor unto him set upon by the robbers. The lawyer’s answer, which points at the Samaritan, is of course what Jesus is expecting. And his response of “Go thou and do likewise” should be the point understood in the larger context. It is that we already know what is the right thing to do, the course of action we should take. That parable is for us the sword in Alexander’s hand. The problems before us assume Gordian proportions only if we attempt to unravel them in a piecemeal fashion. If we are willing to think radically, we already know the only possible approach we can take.

This is my response to “Sicko.” It is as yet incomplete, not fully formed, and in need of the insights of others. I hope at least a few of you found reading this far too prolix and inchoate set of ramblings derived some value therefrom. I look forward to being challenged by your responses.

And I wish in the broadest sense possible what I always wish:


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
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