Friday, May 8, 2015

Addressing the Super-Rich Problem, II (essay)

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On March 26, I reminded everyone that the key problem facing the United States today is the massive disparity between the wealth controlled by a tiny fraction of the population - the Super-Rich, the top 0.5% - and the wealth controlled by all the Rest of us. This enormous gulf threatens all our most fundamental goals as a nation: Peace, Prosperity, Equal Opportunity, Freedom, and Justice for all.

We should consider supporting candidates for office only those who explicitly recognize that our first priority must be to put in place policies and practices that will begin to reduce the vastly unequal distribution of wealth that most surely will lead our country to moral, political, and economic ruin if we do not get it under control soon.

The key policies to put in practice first, I said, might be -
     1. Add a strong, steeply graduated inheritance tax,
     2. Tax capital gains the same as earned income, and
     3. Fund all public schools equally and adequately.

But what about adequate access to quality health care for all? Adequate security in all neighborhoods?  Comparably respectful, fair, and just treatment for all Americans in the judicial system: by the police, by the legal system, by correctional officials?  Without a far better balance in all these areas, the U. S. will forfeit its claim to hold as self-evident that all people are born equal with the same innate human rights. 


Without equal education and health care, we have no chance of providing approximately equal opportunities to succeed.  But what can be done to equalize access to high quality health care for all?

This is a complex issue, involving at least three different things:

     (1) the cost and effectiveness of health insurance,
     (2) the cost and availability of drugs and medical supplies, and 
     (3) the accessibility, quality, and cost of health-care facilities.


Everyone of us must be insured, even if the cost of insuring the Poor must be covered entirely by public funding.   Decades of experience have proven conclusively that uninsured people are less healthy than insured people.  Unequal health means, if nothing else, unequal opportunity for advancement.

The uninsured do not have regular check-ups.  They do not seek medical care until long after their symptoms have become acute, if they ever seek help at all.  The uninsured Poor can't afford to be as careful about their health as anyone should be.  If we mean it that each of us has an inherent right to equal opportunity, we need to secure at least basic health insurance for everybody.

Also, policies must be clear and firmly enforced that prevent a few giant insurance corporations from keeping health insurance costs high by making it difficult for new companies to enter the health insurance market to compete at lower prices.  In any case, in order to seek equal opportunity for all, we must not elect any legislator or executive who does not fully embrace the principle that good health insurance is necessary for all of us.


Generic and other relatively low-cost drugs available in other safety-conscious countries, like Canada, the European nations, Japan, and others, must be available in the U. S. as well.  When a widely used drug's patent protection runs out, it must become available as a generic in America, rather than being replaced by a new, slightly improved version of the original drug.  Both the proven and the new should be available.

For example, insulin derived from animals was used safely in the U. S. for generations and is still used in other countries at relatively low costs.  This type of diabetes treatment should continue to be available here at a drastically lower cost than the newer and more expensive human-derived insulin.  Generally, if any safe, low-cost drugs are not manufactured and sold in this country, their importation must be legalized now. 

If additional funding to prove the safety of the lower-cost alternatives is required, it must be made available in order to provide equal access to good care for all: Rich, Poor, and In-Between.  We need to ask, Why do many drugs cost more in the U. S. than they do in other countries?

Finally, strict enforcement of commerce laws against monopolies and cartels in pharmaceuticals, as elsewhere, must be demanded by our elected representatives.

Health Care itself:

Quality health care is expensive.  It just is.  It requires expensive supplies and equipment.  It demands highly educated and skilled personnel, and it is labor-intensive at all levels.  Even the poorest among us, however, have a right to receive at least the quality (and quantity) of health care available on the average to the others of us.  So, the public funding providing health care must be adequate, without being wasteful.

This is a difficult balance to reach.  But we need to be sure our policies and practices are based on the principle that it is better for the health care available to all to be adequate, accepting the risk of once in a while over-paying slightly, rather than undermining equal access to good health for everyone.

In the health-care field as in all others, we need for all those we elect to represent our interests to show us they are committed to the principle of equality of opportunity for all.


Big money makes a big difference in the judicial system.  In a free and democratic society, until proven guilty of any legal wrongdoing, an individual is presumed too be not guilty.  Wealthy people in fancy neighborhoods or posh offices are indeed presumed innocent, and they have excellent lawyers at their beck and call to protect them and all their legal rights and prerogatives if their actions should ever be called into question.  The rest of us are more likely to be exposed to personal and regional bias, and many have to depend on meager legal resources for support.

And besides, many - especially, it appears, especially young African-American men - are presumed to be guilty unless they can prove they are not.  Treatment is not equal.  As good Americans, we can't feel good about this, but what can we do about it?

A beginning would be to eliminate the "bail or jail" system.  In many, perhaps most courts, if an accused person can't afford bail, she or he goes to jail before trial.  If you can pay, you go home until trial; if you're too poor to pay, you go to jail.  This seems to contradict so obviously the motto above the door of the U. S. Supreme Court "Equal Treatment Under the Law" that it is astonishing that this practice has been so widespread so long.  But the right solution to the problem might be to keep in custody anyone - no matter how rich - who has been credibly accused of a truly serious crime.

A second step would be to prevent judges from being elected.  Having judges elected is an obvious way to promote corruption: since big money controls elections, judgeships go to the highest bidder...  Okay, that's an exaggeration, but it's got a germ of simple truth.

How can we improve the quality of public defenders?  We need more of them, and we need to improve the quality of the public defense system overall.

We should not support any candidate who doesn't agree with us that basic reforms are urgently required in the justice system in order to improve equality in America.


And speaking of Big Money in elections:  we've got to find a better way to fund elections.

A basic first step would be to clarify the law:  Corporations - large or small - are not "persons."  They do not have the civil rights guaranteed to persons.  It is not unconstitutional to limit (or eliminate) the amount of corporate money that can be contributed to election campaigns or to political action groups during campaign seasons.  

Second, campaign donors who give more than $5,000 to any candidate must be publicly disclosed.  There is no good reason for not requiring disclosure and many good ones for requiring disclosure.


 Big corporations, if properly managed for the public good, can provide bountiful benefits; but - particularly in their huge, multi-national forms - they threaten every individual.  Their reason for existing is to make money for the relatively few who own them, and they must and will keep their eyes, minds, and vast resources focused on profits.  Easy profits often come from powerless individuals, whether clients, employees, customers, or competitors.

"Too big to fail"? is simply "TOO BIG."  We need laws and law-enforcement institutions devoted to protecting individuals, communities, and society in general from the rapacious corporations that have come to be and will continue to proliferate unless we are ready steer them down the road to progress and not across our property, our rights, and our well-being.

Big corporations making big profits? Fine.  Big corporations limiting the possibility of employees to make decent wages in safe and humane working conditions?  or eliminating the opportunity for new firms to enter the industry? Unacceptable.


The vastly unequal distribution of wealth in the U. S. today will lead our country to moral, political, and economic ruin if we do not get it under control soon. We should all consider supporting candidates for office only those who explicitly recognize that our first priority must be to put in place policies and practice, like those I have mentioned, that will begin to restore a more just and rational and more efficient balance of economic power and control.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Allegiance Owed? Pledged? Cross My Heart!

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One has fewer opportunities these days than when I was a boy to pledge allegiance to the U. S. flag.  But it still does happen, and it would be embarrassing - justly, I would say - if one were not able to behave appropriately, remembering the words correctly, on such occasions.  But that doesn't mean anyone has thought very much about just what the pledge says or means.


"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Let's look at it, piece by piece:

"I" : well, yes.  This is a personal statement.  We never actually say the Pledge (Do we?) except in a group, but we don't say it as a group.  We don't say "We."  No, it is a personal commitment each of us makes individually.  Good.  As it should be.

By the way, we don't make this pledge alone, by ourselves either.  We make the pledge individually in front of a group, a group of "witnesses," we might say.  Our allegiance is pledged to the flag, but the pledge is to those witnessing our making the commitment to it.

"pledge": It isn't common to pledge something, is it?  But it's not uncommon enough to think of using the word as unusual.

In one context I'm familiar with - fundraising - the word is in fact quite common.  "A pledge" is an amount of money a person promises to pay (with a mailed-in check, for instance) by June 30 or December 31 to a particular charity.  Maybe a current student at your alma mater calls as part of the annual fund drive, and you don't want to charge your credit card over the phone, but you "pledge" you will send in $25.00, as you did last year, if they'll just hang up and leave you be.

Come to think of it, another common use - also collegiate - is that "a pledge" is a new recruit to a fraternity or sorority.

So, to pledge something might not be common, but it is doing something we all would understand.  We are making a promise, a commitment.

"allegiance":  Now, this is different.  This word allegiance is not a part of one's daily vocabulary.  What other use does it have?  You "owe allegiance" to something: most often your country, but maybe your state or hometown, your school or team...  But that's it; there are no other variants of the word - "I'm feeling a little allegiant today" - "Let's go alleege ourselves to something worthwhile" - "Go over and pay off that allegiance you owe from last week"...

No.  You "owe" or "pledge" allegiance to something, and that's it.

So, it does not come as a surprise to realize that the root word of allegiance is an obsolete term from the Middle Ages: a person's leige is the person's superior in a feudal social order.  A peasant owes allegiance to the nobleman who owns the land he works.  He would properly address the nobleman as "my lord" or "my liege."  This kind of contractual arrangement goes right on up the social hierarchy too.  A relatively small landowner may be a Baron, who swears allegiance to his leige lord, a Count or an Earl, both of whom would be superior to a Baron.  The leige of a Count or Earl might be a Duke, whose leige lord would be a king.  This kind of loyalty and commitment was sworn or pledged, as in an oath - might we say a pledge - of allegiance.

In other words, the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag is like the medieval oath of fealty (loyalty) that a subordinate swore to his ruling lord.


"to the flag":  Well, yes, the flag is just a symbol, of course.  We are not pledging our loyalty to a piece of cloth...

"of the United States of America":  That's the important part, naturally...

"and to the republic":  That is, the nation.  The USA of course happens to be a republic, where rulers are elected representatives of the people of the nation they rule for a fixed period.  We are glad and proud to be democratic, to have a republican form of government, so we don't just say "the nation" for which the flag stands but remind everyone that our particular nation is a republic.  Fine.

The original 1892 version of the Pledge, by the way, was written for use in any country, so it did not say "the flag of the USA," but "my flag."  That form was changed to the version specifically for the USA by the time it was adopted by the US Congress in 1942.

"for which it stands":  Yes.  Allegiance is pledged to the nation called The United States of America.


"one nation":  Despite having 50 states inside it, the USA is only one single nation. 

Skip, for now, to... "indivisible":  You can see it was necessary to emphasize this point while the illegal secession of southern states from the union was a lively memory.  It still seems worth recalling these days too, when the authority of the national government is sometimes questioned by those who also seem to feel considerable "allegiance" to their particular state.

"with":   The USA, for which this flag stands, has three key features: one - the unity of all states in the one nation - has already been discussed.  The remaining two are spoken of now...

"with liberty and justice":  In common conversation, "liberty" has more or less been replaced by "freedom" - the ability to do as one wishes.  Of course, one's individual freedom is limited by the rights of others.  "Justice" means what it means in ordinary discourse, fairness or fair treatment.  That, ideally, should not been limited.

"for all":  Citizens of the USA regularly agree that it is not one group of people, not a few people, not a portion of the whole population to whom freedom and justice is guaranteed.  It is to everyone.  How great is that?!


We skipped the phrase added 60 years after the originally published version, "under God."  These two words were not included by the Baptist minister who wrote the original Pledge.  His intention was apparently to emphasize patriotism, the commitment to one's home country, and the unity of our nation despite the fairly recent Civil War.  The Godliness of the Republic was not the point at that early time.

In 1954, however, being loyal to the U. S. A. seemed to many to mean, in essence, being opposed to Godless Communism.  One way to emphasize our national anti-Communism was to add "...nation, under God" to the Pledge to the flag.


Some Americans have begun to argue that it's time to eliminate that phrase "under God" again.

I'd say eliminating it is worth discussing - although maybe it's worth reminding the Jihadi extremists of the world that our country has been built by people of a variety of religious backgrounds, with 75% of Americans saying still today that religion plays an important role in their daily lives.  But since it does not play a significant role in my own, this does not seem a big deal to me.

What is a big deal, though - for sure -  is to make certain that our one, indivisible Republic provides freedom and justice for all, not just for some, and not - especially not - only for the Super-Rich Few.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Addressing the Problems of the Super-Rich (essay)

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The most serious problem facing the United States today is the giant - and growing - disparity between the prosperity of the Super-Rich and the middling or even stagnating fortunes of the Rest of us.

The key long-term American goals are peace and prosperity, equality of opportunity, freedom and justice for all.  The imbalance of the riches flowing - or flooding - to the richest Americans clearly impedes progress toward the last four of these five national goals, and may even contribute to threats to American peace, both abroad and at home.

Also, the wealth disparity is so big that it puts the whole U. S. economy out of balance.  In a capitalist market system, it's bad for one small group of individuals to control a severely unequal proportion of the wealth and commerce of the entire country, as President Theodore Roosevelt well knew.

It is most urgent, then, for voters in U. S. elections to select only those candidates whose top priority is addressing our most serious problem, reducing the size of the yawning abyss between the Super-Rich and all the Rest of us.


But what systemic factors, what policies and practices can be changed in order to begin slowly restoring more of a balance in our stuttering economy?

The exaggerated gap between the Rich and the Rest is directly perpetuated by the fact that the next generation of the Super-Rich do not start their own careers at a level anywhere remotely similar to the place where the next generation of the Rest of us start.  The children of the Super-Rich build their whole life-plan on the certainty that at some point they will inherit billions of the wealth controlled by the previous generation.  This is the opposite of providing equality of opportunity.

One measure any political leader ought to be talking about, therefore, is a very significant increase in the graduated inheritance tax.  We should identify a generous base that will not be taxed, in order to reward the older generation for accumulating more than enough to take them comfortably through their old age, no matter what happens (to their health, for instance).   Maybe that amount might be as high as $3 million per estate.  Maybe even more.

The problem to be addressed by improving the inheritance tax, by the way, is not the size of the estate but the amount each next-generation individual inherits. Let others work out the precise numbers, but - for instance - the new system might start at 5% of the inheritance at $3 million, go to 10% at $10 million, 25% at $25 million... up to 95% at $5 billion or more.


A key way the economy gets out of whack when too few control too large a proportion of the nation's wealth and commerce, is that too high a percentage of the country's revenue is made by manipulating finances rather than by producing goods and services.  Income from this kind of financial dealing, therefore, should not be encouraged by attractive tax breaks - as it is currently.

Candidates for election, therefore, should also be making the case that capital gains must be taxed the same as earned income.  Earned income is better for the system as a whole, so why does our tax code impose more tax on income from work than on income from financial deals?


Those we elect must be sure that the added tax revenue from these two systemic changes is spent on projects clearly related to reducing the inequalities of opportunity in our current system.  One of the most glaring areas of inequality, in need of considerably more funding, is public education.

Part of the problem is the traditional method of funding public schools through property taxes.  For one thing, flat rather than graduated property taxes favor the Rich over the Rest of us.  Even more basic is the fact that neighborhood schools in low-wealth neighborhoods cannot be equally funded to those in high-wealth neighborhoods.  Obviously!

Perhaps the funding of all districts in the whole of a metropolitan area should come from all property taxes in the Metropolis pooled together, rich districts and poor districts alike... with, by the way, super mansions of the Super-Rich taxed at a higher rate than the modest housing of the Rest of us.  Then, school districts would be funded on a per-student basis: if there were 100,000 students in all districts combined, for example, 1 student enrolled in a particular district would bring in 0.001% of the pooled property tax revenue, which is 1 divided by 100,000.

In any case, candidates in future elections must tell us how they are going to change the traditional method of funding public schools in order to equalize the quality of schools for everyone, regardless of the socio-economic power of those who live near to or far from the schools getting the funding.  The amount spent per-student should be approximately equivalent everywhere.

That would go a long way toward insuring equality of opportunity in America.


That's a beginning:  
     Add a strong, steeply graduated inheritance tax.
     Tax capital gains the same as earned income.
     Fund all public schools equally and adequately.

We will need to select candidates too on the reforms they propose in order to make high-quality health care accessible for all, in order to reduce the power of big money to control public elections, and in order to improve the judicial system.

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Monday, March 16, 2015

Our Revolutionaries' Rallying Cries (essay)


It's useful sometimes to ponder the inspirational writings of other times which most of us today apparently still revere, in order to think about how well our policies and actions today fit the ideals our forefathers set out before us more than two centuries ago.

Among these are, of course, the inalienable rights articulated in the American Declaration of Independence: (1) the fact that all of us are equal to each other at the time we are born, and (2) that we all equally have - and cannot lose -  certain rights including, but not limited to (a) the right to live, (b) the right to be independent and free, and (c) the right to pursue our own well-being, self-interests, ambitions, and prosperity.

Also worthy of re-examination are the three aspirations in the rallying cry of the French Revolution from about a dozen years after the distribution of the classic American document:  "Liberté," "Egalité," and "Fraternité."


It cannot be entirely overlooked that these two iconic slogans come from quite different kinds of expression - the American document being a sober, closely reasoned explanation for the several colonies along the American east coast to separate themselves and their political institutions from the British state in order to establish an independent nation; and the three-fold exclamation of the French being a rallying cry of the revolutionaries in the streets as they set out to destroy the government and the social order that had been oppressing them.

This difference does not invalidate all comparisons between the two statements, however, although as we try to apply their significance to our own situation today, we should keep in mind the differences in the social and political situations in which each proved vital.


Of course it is tempting to consider, from the Americans, the inalienable right to "liberty" as the same ideal as that espoused on the streets of Paris in 1789: la liberté.  But we should at least pause to note that the Americans were thinking perhaps even more of the one meaning of "liberty" than the other, of the independence of their political state from the mother state across the Atlantic perhaps even more than the individual's personal freedom to act according to her or his own will, without coercion by others.  The latter was the sole preoccupation of the French revolutionaries, whose personal freedom had been much more severely limited in Europe than had the personal freedom of most Americans for several generations.

The American right to "liberty," then, was more complex semantically than the French "la liberté," and - we might add - more coolly and rationally experienced too than the passionate French cry in the streets.

But it is fair to say that the personal freedom to live as one chose was a core value for both the American and the French revolutionaries.


The concept of equality at birth in our Declaration of Independence seems exactly the same as the French call for "égalité" generally throughout the population.  Both in France and America, sentiment was strongly opposed to rigid social hierarchy, to a ruling aristocracy of the noble and rich in a social order in which it was virtually impossible for a person to move from a lower social position into which she or he happened to be born into a higher class of wealth, respect, and power.

Yes, the American colonies themselves had already provided "new beginnings" for many to move upward in social wealth and class while France had not provided such opportunities.  But for both the French and the Americans, it was considered an essential good that no one born into poverty or financial insecurity and absence of social distinction should be entrapped at the bottom for one's whole life.


So in regard to personal Freedom and Equality of opportunity, the French and American revolutionaries were espousing and pursuing the same elevated goals.

Incidentally, it was also a shared value to claim these as natural rights, rights with which a person is endowed merely by virtue of being a living human being, rights which do not need to be earned and which may not be lost.  To the Americans, as we can all recall, it was "self-evident" that life, equality, freedom, and the pursuit of one's own good are "inalienable" rights, rights that may not be "alienated" or separated from the individual.  The three-fold French rallying cry was soberly articulated in "La Declaration universelle des droits de l'homme [The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man] in which one's sacred rights are called "impréscriptible" - a legalistic term meaning "indefeasible," that which cannot legally be annulled, cannot be given away by or taken away from the individual.

Indefeasible and inalienable are very nearly the same.


So Freedom and Equality are for both American and French leaders innate, sacred rights.  That leaves undiscussed, from the American document, Life and "the Pursuit of Happiness" and, from the impassioned French motto, that perhaps puzzling ideal of "Fraternité."

The natural right to Life seems easy enough to understand.  It is not listed by the French presumably just because it was presumed.

"Fraternity" (sometimes translated as "brotherhood") is a state of mind in which the individual considers every other individual as an equal member of her or his own family, as an equal sister or brother.  It is not a right to feel this way toward all others, not a right to treat all others as though they were equal members of your own family.  It's the other way around.  One's right is to be considered and to be treated as though one were an equal sibling of everyone else.

This is a powerful French moral commandment, perhaps not mentioned among the American inalienable rights only because consistent faithfulness to such a rigorous moral imperative seems unrealistic.  Wouldn't it be something if every American today could live knowing that all other Americans would consider him a brother or her a sister!

By the way, modern French culture is considered among the world's most secular, but this fundamental French ideal seems about as Christian an aspiration as one could imagine.


What did our forefathers mean by "the pursuit of happiness"?  It is an inbred right for an individual to seek to achieve his or her own "happiness."  We are not talking here, in other words, about seeking a good thing for everybody else or for all people.  That's not prohibited, of course, but it it not the natural right being considered here. 

"Happiness" also seems not to be something superficial either, a state of pleasure that quickly passes away.  It would seem out of place to mention seeking sensual delight along with life and liberty, wouldn't it?

On the other hand, it might be going too far to recall that for the educated elite of the 18th century, it was commonplace to say the greatest happiness is achieved by maintaining the highest virtue.  That kind of preachy platitude would also seem out of place here.

But our forefathers did want to guarantee that everyone would feel empowered to pursue the basic things needed to make anyone happy: enough money, adequate shelter and food, security - that sort of thing - along with the freedom to go where one wants and to do what one thinks best, and together with an equal chance at success as everyone else.

So I would paraphrase "the right to pursue happiness" as "the right to strive for our own well-being, our own self-interest and ambitions."

This kind of concept is not articulated in the French call for "Freedom, Equality, and 'Brotherhood,'" but in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mankind, both "security" and "property" are listed as "natural rights."  In the largely agricultural economy of 18th century France (or America), assured ownership of land ("property") was considered the key to one's well-being, and the pursuit of happiness might usually consist of one's seeking to own property.  The more general formulation of the American Declaration  - "the right to pursue happiness" rather than "the right to own property" - helps apply the principle to more varied times and conditions, but is not significantly different in meaning from the French document.


Assuming, then, that we generally understand the foundational ideals of both the American and the French revolutionaries, how are we doing today in our attempts to live up to their ideals?

First, I suppose someone might point out the contradiction between early Americans' saying that Life itself is a right that cannot be taken away from every human individual and, on the other hand, the practice of capital punishment in 32 American states today.  Most of those executed are African-Americans or Latinos, or mentally ill, if not both.

Also, I don't think we need to point out that the French revolutionaries' call for all of us to consider everyone else as our brothers and sisters is a noble aspiration but perhaps a naive expectation.

But what about the rights of Equality, Freedom, and the Pursuit of one's own well-being?  
8 - The Pursuit of "Happiness"

The curious thing to us might be the felt need in 1776 to even mention that a person has a right to seek his or her own good.  It seems only normal: of course, a person would try to secure advantage for oneself and one's family! What else can we expect?  That the individual has an innate right to strive for what's needed for one's own well-being is today so non-controversial as to seem to many of us as not even worth mentioning.

It is striking, then, to recall that indeed both in France in 1789 and in British America in 1776, it was controversial to say that seeking one's own advantage is a sacred right for any person regardless of birth, wealth, or social class.  Without even mentioning the dark-skinned slaves in America - who had no rights at all, natural or legal - we have to remind ourselves that most people in the world in the 18th century were considered to be right where they should be, doing what they should be doing, and it was considered not normal but something close to criminal for a peasant to try to make himself into an artisan or a merchant, or for a house servant to seek to go out on her own, or for a farm laborer to work toward buying his own farm, or for anyone just to move to a different community where conditions might be better.   

So it was a bold, indeed a revolutionary statement in 1775-1790 to claim that every human being, just by being human, had an irrevocable right to pursue his or her own well-being, and was not forced to depend on the largesse (or the whim) of someone else just to get along.

But today, that right is granted by everyone to all.  Success!

9 - Equality

But let's not get carried away.
How are we doing in insuring that all men and women are treated equally by all?  Does a Latino born to a poor family in an unhealthy, crime-ridden neighborhood have an equal chance to succeed in America today?  An African-American?  A recent immigrant with a Muslim-seeming name?  No one would seriously make such a claim, would they? 

a.  The quality of schools in poor neighborhoods is lower than in richer neighborhoods, not to mention in the most expensive private schools that only the richest families can afford.  

b.  We seem to discover more every day how unequally law enforcement officers and court systems treat minority and poor Americans.

c.   High quality health care is not as accessible to the poor, the working poor, or even those solidly in the middle-class in our country and time as it is to the wealthiest around us.

d.   Even quality nutrition is unequally available to various subcultures in America today.

I don't know about France, but in America today in our laws, policies, and practices we are clearly failing to honor the most basic truth which was self-evident to the founders of our nation.  All men and women are created equal.  But we don't mind treating others as though a few of them were better than we are, and many of those others are probably inferior, beneath our notice.

We don't mind that the families and the neighborhoods into which boys and girls are born are far from equal and that the probabilities are stacked against them in modern America just as surely as they were against the poorest peasants in feudal Europe centuries ago.

Do we need revolutionary cries in the street to wake us up again?
10 - Freedom?  

The very heart of the revolutions in America and France almost 250 years ago was to overthrow the rigid regime of a brittle social order unfairly and brutally imprisoning men and women who were willing to work hard and to be responsible, imprisoning them in positions of weakness, insecurity, moral hazard, and relentless oppression.  To free one and all from the strictures of a super-rich aristocracy whose wealth and power put everyone else in their less-lofty places and held them there till they died: that was the goal of our revolution.

We claim to agree with our founders' basic values, with their views of the most fundamental self-evident truths.  

But we have created systems and institutions and have inculcated cultural values that have made a mockery of our professed convictions about our natural rights.  The extraordinary chasm that today divides the Rich from the Middle-Wealthy, and the Super-Rich from all the rest of us has stolen from the vast majority of Americans  any realistic possibility to move from a position of relatively low wealth and power higher up in the social-political order.  Like the lower classes in the 1600s and 1700s in America and Europe, Americans today are destined by the accident of their birth into a particular social stratum to remain there or nearly there despite all their efforts to better themselves, to strive for their own self-interest and ambitions, their own well-being.

We have succeeded in taking from them their inborn right to the pursuit of happiness by denying that all of us are equal, deserving equal respect and social privileges, equal opportunities to move ahead.

And by denying their right to equality, we have cut them off from the freedom that they deserve and that they need in order to go after the social mobility all Americans have been promised since the Declaration of Independence.

Let's begin today to make the changes necessary so that we as a people can return to the paths of virtue and honor put forth for us by our ancestors.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Another Medical Adventure


What does it mean when all the anecdotes you have to relate deal with health problems?   It means YOU'RE OLD! That's what it means.


This time, it started when S----- and I were headed home after our regular day taking care of our grandson, at his house.  It was just about our usual dinner time, and S----- was already hungry even through of course we hadn't even gotten home to start making dinner.  We don't eat out much, but we did know where our Interstate crosses a big road where there is a mall and lots of restaurants.

We stopped at an O'Charley''s.  S----- and I would often share an entree at such a place, but she was really hungry this time... Okay, so was I.

She ordered a simple hamburger, the safest thing on the menu for her delicate digestive track.  (She later told the waitress it was the best hamburger she'd had in her life.)  And - what the hell, I thought - I had the chicken-fried steak and sausage gravy.  You have no idea how far a departure that is from our regular fare.  S----- couldn't believe it.  I knew if anything went wrong, I'd never hear the end of it.

Portions were huge.  We could easily have shared S-----'s burger, but instead ended up taking three little white boxes home.  Well, we did share a brownie with ice cream too.


Along about midnight, I had the first diarrhea blast.  I figured it was just the jolt to my system from the fatty meal.  When I couldn't get back to sleep, feeling a little hot, I surmised that there was a load of caffeine in the brownie concoction.  About every hour, I spent a few minutes in the bathroom.  (No nausea, by the way.)  I drank a full glass of water after every time, wanting to avoid dehydration.

The next morning, I confessed to S-----.  She didn't heap me all over, but the tone of our interactions that morning - still punctuated with hourly sit-downs on my part - said: "I KNEW this would happen." 

I had an egg and toast for breakfast, and chicken soup with saltines, and bananas for dessert, was lunch.  And we were still convinced my problem was dietary malfunction or bone-head use of an alien menu, something like that.  I kept pushing the fluids, took Immodium, drank Gatorade too.

By mid-afternoon, the hourly blasts were over.   I was feeling okay and sat down in our bedroom's upholstered wing chair to kill an hour watching a re-run of Law and Order: Criminal Intent.  S----- was concerned by my kind of blank expression, and my continuing to look a little gaunt and grey-skinned.  She'd discovered the Urgent Care about a half a block away from our house several weeks before, pleased by its efficiency.

So late in the day, she said we should go over there and have them check out my fluids.


Well, the funny thing was I couldn't stand up.  My arms were strong enough to lift me from the chair arms, but my feet and legs couldn't do anything.  When S----- and I tried to discuss our alternatives, I found I couldn't put together a coherent sentence.  The dehydration, despite my best efforts, had gotten away from me.  Time for 911.

We figured that the ER at our favorite hospital (where our grandson had been born almost exactly one year before) would pump me back up to normal with I-Vs, and we'd be home again in a few hours.

But after 3 litres, although I was thinking, talking, able to move normally, my blood pressure for some reason was stuck down around 51 over 38.  My BP varies these days, but only between a high of about 135 over 95 and a low of around 90 over 60.  The ER's readings were downright odd, and my temperature was 103.  So I was sent up to ICU for an overnight, the I-V pumping away.

Food poisoning was a possibility the doctors were considering, so blood cultures had been started and two broad-based antibiotics were added to my saline drip. For the fever I'd had Tylenol.


By Saturday morning, I was feeling good and ready to go.  The temp was normal.  My blood pressure was something like 90/70, so it seemed to me that I was good to go.  But wait just a minute, Buster, my General Care Physician's colleague said.  It was too early for the blood cultures to develop, and besides, my troponin level seemed a little erratic.  This can be caused by atrial fibrillation - a permanent condition for me - or congestive heart failure or a heart attack.  By Sunday the level was still just a little elevated, and the blood cultures still needed more time.

My marvelous cardiologist works at a different hospital, so the hospital cardiologist right there on staff had to be consulted.  Late Monday, he said my troponin level was no doubt caused by the somewhat sustained low blood pressure itself, so now that was okay, I was good to go.

It took until Tuesday morning for the discharge to be completed.


All this time, all of us were thinking I just couldn't tolerate the chicken-fried steak with sausage gravy, or maybe that dish was infected with bacteria.  The third alternative - intestinal flu - had not been in the running...  But at 6 a.m. Tuesday, S----- called me up in the hospital room.  She was calling from the Emergency Room, where she had been receiving treatment for nausea, diarrhea, and dehydration since 2 a.m.  In other words, my problem was most probably viral too.

S----- was released in time to meet with our GCP and me around 7:30 a.m.  She went home to rest and returned to take me home about 11.


S----- was now worse off than me, for another two or three days.  My only problem was that I'd been pumped up so much on I-Vs that my feet, legs, even arms and hands were swollen.  I could function fine, though, and the swelling gradually disappeared.  S------ got better daily too.

Despite ruling out bacteria and the shock of fatty food, let me make it clear: there shall be no sausage gravy ... OR chicken-fried steak... in my future.


Saturday, February 28, 2015

Poem in February


Leave the door open
the smell
will fade faster
in the cold.

With no light
in the cold
we could not
the darkness.


At My Current age... (a personal reflection)



At my current age, my Dad's father had been dead for two years.  Born in rural west Georgia in 1879, he lived in Savannah, Ft. Worth, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Seattle, where he died in 1950.

When he was my age, my mother's father, whom I knew as "Grandad," had thirteen years still to live.  He was born in 1875 outside Paris (Paris, Texas, okay?), lived in Pottsville outside Hamilton (yes, Texas!) and Cleburne (TX), where he eventually died in 1961.

And my Dad?  Well, at my age he was told he had inoperable cancer and had three-to-six months to live.  This was in 1977, and in fact, he was leading a relatively normal life until his peaceful death in 1980.  His was thought to be an unusual form of chest cancer, adeno-carcenoma, which responded well to an experimental drug.  I went with him once for a chemo treatment, and the doctor showed me the original chest x-rays.  Instead of a tumor in a lung, many wispy thin strands looking like Christmas tree icicles swirled around inside his chest cavity.  Dad felt a lot of nausea during and after the chemo.


I'm feeling pretty well myself, thanks for asking.

I've been retired for six years, eating wisely and exercising regularly.  I weigh almost 40 pounds less than I did while still working.  I get about the same amount of exercise now as before retiring, but much more systematically.  My wife and I walk outside every morning between 6 and 7 am for about twenty minutes, and eight or nine months out of the year I spend probably 20 hours or more each week outdoors, puttering around the yard.


I have several health conditions that my wife and I monitor carefully, and which are under control.  I have a cataract growing in my right eye that will need to be taken care of before long, but my ophthalmologist says the time for intervention is "not yet." And it won't be a big deal when the time is right.

I have a touch of asthma.  Before we moved, I had an annual conversation with a pulmonologist in our former hometown, but now my General Care Physician herself just renews my inhaler prescription whenever I need it.  I take two puffs before bed each night.

I took medication for osteoporosis for ten or fifteen years.  Our GCP in the 90s was trained as an endocrinologist and had me run the tests that showed my bones were thinning the way many women's bones do.  The old generation of meds for osteoporosis have now run their course, and I had a severe reaction to one drug of the new generation (FORTEO), so I am not taking anything now - other than outsized amounts of calcium and Vitamin D.  My bones seem to be holding up all right, and we'll keep testing from time to time.

The most significant of my health conditions is in my heart.  I have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.  This is said to be a genetic condition, although I can find no one among my ancestors who seems to have had it.  The walls of my heart muscle have become too thick for the heart as a whole to function efficiently.  The muscular contraction of the ventricle - the DUB part of the ol' lub-DUB routine - can be so strong that all the blood is squeezed out and the ventricle doesn't have time to refill before the next contraction.  Without medication, especially after eating, if I walk fast upstairs or uphill, insufficient blood is pumped into my brain and I am in danger of passing out.

Fortunately, there is a whole regimen of drugs available to help.  The condition was under control for years in our former hometown where I had a great cardiologist, and - after a big scare just as we were moving 18 months ago - my great new cardiologist has found a new regime of drugs that is working fine again.

I used to have to be concerned about irregular heart beats (atrial fibrillation) and took medication for that.  Since my scare in April 2013 we have been just letting that go on.  Dr. M-------- put me on an old-fashioned drug (my favorite kind) which keeps the ventricular beats from coming too fast, down from 120 or so per minute to 75 or so per minute.  I take diuretics to combat congestive heart ineffectiveness...  And I'm feeling vigorous and robust.


I'm not addressing the one of my health conditions that may eventually become the most serious.  For decades I have been a little unsteady on my feet.  In his final decades, my Dad was too.  Shortly before I retired I finally consulted a neurologist about this situation.  After many tests, some of them having me walk across the room "tippy-toe," it was known that my cerebellum is very slowly shrinking.  That's a small segment on the bottom of the brain at the back.  Yes, my brain is shrinking.

This affects my balance but can affect much more if it advances far enough before I join my ancestors.  I don't seem to be much different today, though, than I was 15 years ago.  So, there's no real cause for me to be concerned.


Nonetheless, it would be silly to deny that I am living now in the final stage of my life.  I haven't counted the stages of my life I've lived through so far, but this one is my last.  It might be shorter or longer, but there it is.

Soooo...  what?

I mean, does recognizing this mean anything?  Maybe it should?  I don't know.

I heard recently that many studies have shown that what most old people want more than anything else is to be remembered after they are gone.  I have to say that strikes me as accurate; many people openly or secretly do seem to want to be remembered.  I never talked with my parents - or anyone, in fact - to know if they particularly wanted to be remembered.  It would probably have seemed silly for my Dad to have been thinking about "being remembered," since he was quite well known and had an important place in the history of the University of Texas, and in journalism education nationally.   Mother maintained a posture of great humility and would probably never have thought about "being remembered."

I hadn't thought about it but to be honest, I guess I would like to be remembered.  One thing I have always liked about writing is imagining, as I am putting the words together, someone's reading them at some time, at some place.

But maybe not.  I know my immediate family and close friends will remember me - the way I remember my own parents - but others...?


Perhaps a more interesting question, rather than asking myself IF I want to be remembered, is to ask HOW do I want to be remembered?

In other words, how do I like to think of myself (without indulging in mere fantasy)?

Well, I 'd say I'm smart, articulate, well-educated and interested in many things, from famous great paintings, history and literature, and classical music to sports, especially baseball.  I know how to enjoy myself, but work hard and exercise self-discipline.  I'm even-tempered and cool-headed, and I have a good sense of humor.  I speak and write well, better than most (if I do say so).  I'm pretty good with numbers too, by the way.

I'm a leader, sensitive to others' feelings.  I am responsible, morally and socially; family, friends, employers can count on me... and do

Is there any sign of realism in this goody-goody self-appraisal?  Okay: I'm short.  And at times my facial expression makes others think I'm feeling gloomy when inside I'm feeling fine or even quite content. I also experience some stress in perfectly ordinary situations, such as ordering something by phone, or calling a tech-support line, or even just interacting with people whom I know but with whom I don't often chat.  That's so silly, but I guess I've always been like that.


So - like most others, at least in my age group - do I want to be remembered?  Not especially.  It's not something I have thought about.

But just in case someone who has not seen me for a while does remember me, then I'd like to be remembered as a guy with some of the traits I have mentioned.

And if that doesn't happen, well, I won't know anyway, will I?


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A 1964 Answer to Conservatives Seems True Today (essay)


In the 1968 California Democratic Primary, I was able to vote for Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose campaign in New Hampshire had led to Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election, because of the quagmire in VietNam.  I should have read McCarthy's 1964 book, A Liberal Answer to the Conservative Challenge, back then in 1968, but I have been glad to read it recently.  It is surprisingly relevant in 2015, when liberals might think an "answer to the conservative challenge" is as much needed as it ever was.

Many of McCarthy’s statements about the “challenge” from conservatives and about the 1964-68 state of affairs turn out to be relevant to conservatives’ values, initiatives, and actions of today.   Many statements about his own time, in other words, could be made with equal force in our own time.

This is true, I think, for two reasons: (a) the fact that Gene McCarthy's statements in 1964 were so very perceptive in their own time, and (b) the fact that the tension between liberal principles and perceptions and conservative principles and perceptions is an enduring – if not permanent – feature of American culture.


McCarthy’s “Answer to the Conservative Challenge” is divided into several parts:

Introduction: The Banner Yet Waves
I.    The Scales of Economic Justice
II.   Of Payrolls and Property, and
III. The Responsibilities of Responsible Government.  

Along the way, throughout his 1964 book, McCarthy mentions several universal principles:

"The idea of 'survival of the fittest' does not apply to human society... ." [p. 35]

"Technical processes, which includes business and economic processes, must be directed to human ends." [p. 35]

“It has been argued that once the federal government moves to meet a particular problem, complete federal control or operation inevitably follows.  The overwhelming weight of evidence in our national history is against this assertion.” [p. 65]

“When we see the misery and hopelessness in which too many of our people now live, economic theories should not divert us from the simple, positive response that justice demands.  Evasion of their just claim for help is faulty democracy as well as bad economics.” [p. 45]

"To oversimplify and to misapply slogans is to do a disservice to the whole decision-making process in a democracy." [pp. 28-29]

 “Basic to the operation of the legislative branch of the government is … rule by majority vote.  Frustrating the majority by prolonged debate was in no way sustained or supported at the Constitutional Convention...” [p. 89]


McCarthy contrasts Liberals and Conservatives generally:

“Liberals have been accused of being materialists - conservatives of believing in economic determinism; liberals of lacking faith - conservatives of having no trust in human reason; liberals of perpetuating and sharpening the class struggle - conservatives of advocating unlimited competition, the survival of the fittest as the dynamic of life and progress in society.” [p. 8] 

"In political campaigns it is customary for liberals to charge that government has not done enough for the economy, and for conservatives to charge that the government is attempting to do too much."  [p. 32]

“The basic ideas or concepts [in the American founding documents] are self-determination, equality, liberty, and the positive role of government.  Of these basic concepts the only one subject to serious debate is the last – that of the role of government.  It is on this point that liberals and conservatives in the United States come closest to ideological or doctrinaire – as well as practical – disagreement.” [p. 10]


McCarthy addresses a few topics in some detail, contrasting for example liberals’ views to conservatives’ positions on Economic and Fiscal Policy:

“…The federal government should stand ready with emergency public works programs to help meet the very special problems of recession or unusual temporary disturbances in the economic life of the country.” [p. 47]

"There are three widely and strongly held conservative ideas which bear importantly on [the discussion of economic and fiscal policy]:  One, that a balanced budget is an ultimate good; two, that absolute control of inflation is not only an economic good but also a moral good; and three, that government expenditures by their very nature are wasteful and noneconomic." [p.19]

"A balanced budget may be good or it may be bad." [p. 20]

"Is a balanced or an unbalanced budget good or bad?  The answer must be that neither is economically or morally good or bad in itself, but that each budget must be judged in relation to the whole pattern of facts and forces." [p.28] 

"...Liberals are not in any absolute or moral sense in favor of unbalanced budgets... [or] inflation - galloping or creeping – and...liberals do not believe that governmental expenditures are never wasteful." [p.20]

"In the years between 1953 and 1960 - the Eisenhower administration - the budget was unbalanced in five out of eight years, and the national debt increased by roughly $20 billion." [p. 21]  Note: In all eight Reagan years, the federal deficits were high.

"Deficit financing and the extension of credit are vital to the American economy.  Credit is one of the instruments which have contributed greatly to the growth of Western civilization and certainly to the growth of the United States." [p. 21]


McCarthy reveals consistent differences between liberal ideas and conservatives’ stands on Taxes:

“The principles of sound taxation have not changed since they were stated by Adam Smith in 1776.  A sound tax system, he said, should raise enough revenue; it should be just; it should be easy to administer; and it should stimulate growth.” [p. 13] 

“The progressive income tax is a special target of the conservatives.  Some even advocate the repeal of the 16th Amendment.”  [ p. 13]

"…Many [of the rich] benefit from special dividend credits and deductions now provided in the law.  Many have changed their investments so as to be able to take advantage of the capital gains provisions of the law.”  [p.14]

“Although there is a continuing debate even among liberals as to whether the [tax] rates themselves are proper or defensible, it is generally accepted by liberals that tax rates should reflect in some degree the taxpayer’s ability to pay; that is, the rate should be higher for those in high income brackets.  The top rate in the federal income tax scale has been, for many years, 91 percent. [p.14] (emphasis added) 
Note: This one statement is not at all true today, when the rich and super-rich pay less than 25% in federal income taxes.  In the 1950s and 60s, when the rich paid such high percentages in federal tax, the economy was booming, the era coming to be known as The Great Prosperity.  And of course, the economy is not booming today.

On the government’s role in Commerce, McCarthy shows key differences between Liberals and Conservatives:

"Leon Keyserling [Council of Economic Advisers, 1945-1953]... insists that reasoned judgment be applied to the economy and the business community and to its problems; and that to leave these problems to nature or to the operation of economic laws (which, with some oversimplifications, is called the conservative approach) is to declare for the irrational."  [p. 35]

"...Some of the early and simple rules of competition, which work well when there are many small producers competing in a free and open market, do not work as effectively when great concentration of economic power is involved.  We must acknowledge that with an increase in power there must be corresponding increase in responsible control." [p. 36]

"... American business is primarily motivated by search for profit and individual or corporate advancement, and cannot be expected to respond to all of the demands of a social or economic nature... . Government, on the other hand, has primary responsibility for the common good and, therefore, must assert itself when private interests seriously threaten or interfere with the efforts to achieve it."  [p. 30]

"Regulatory powers serve a number of purposes:  They may protect the public, insure a free competitive economy, or promote business activity."  [p. 30]

"Almost without exception, federal intervention in the economic life of nation has followed abuse of privilege, or neglect or failure on the part of extra-governmental institutions or individuals to meet the needs of the country."  [p. 31]

"'Get the government out of business" is a popular conservative political slogan.  ...[And yet] the federal government has been actively involved in the business and economic life of the country since the beginning of our nation's existence."  [pp. 29-30]


Likewise, Liberals and Conservatives, McCarthy writes, differ on the topic of Helping the Poor and Unemployed:

“We have been challenged to work out devices and procedures under which every person can have a claim and a share of that which is produced.” [p. 55]

“…The federal government should stand ready with emergency public works programs to help meet the very special problems of recession or unusual temporary disturbances in the economic life of the country.” [p. 47]

 “…There is no doubt that poverty is still a fact of life in the United States.” [p. 37]

“Under such conditions does government have any obligation?  The conservative position generally is that it does not; the liberal position is that it does have a responsibility.” [p. 38]

“When we see the misery and hopelessness in which too many of our people now live, economic theories should not divert us from the simple, positive response that justice demands.  Evasion of their just claim for help is faulty democracy as well as bad economics.” [p. 45]

“Unemployment is in many ways the most difficult if not the central problem of our free economy and our free society.” [p. 42]

“What is the conservative answer? … that there always must be workers changing jobs, industries declining as others rise, and a ready labor supply available for new products or extra shifts…[or] that current unemployment is temporary…[or] that the problem is local [and] it should be left to industry or to the states.” [p. 45]

“The liberal position emphasizes federal responsibility.” [p. 45]

“Work is an activity which for most…is an expression of the human person.” [p. 50]

“In a liberal view, ‘the right to work’ is too closely related to basic human rights to be used as a mere slogan against unionization.” [p. 48]

“In the middle of the 19th century, John Stuart Mill, writing as a philosopher of liberal economics, said that there cannot be a more ‘legitimate object of the legislator’s care than the interests of those who are sacrificed to the gain of their fellow citizens and prosperity – those displaced by changing methods of production.’” [p. 52]


Health Care and Education in 1964, as in our own time, were topics on which Liberals and Conservatives took different positions:

“…[The legislators’] decision may be to establish or maintain national programs of security; to improve the social security program so as to make it more effective, to have a national program of health insurance, to have a more satisfactory unemployment compensation program based upon national standards.” [p. 54]

“There are those who argue that private insurance, together with state aid for the indigent sick, is adequate.  The obvious answer is that, for many, this has not been the case.”[p. 66]

“The state as an institution concerned primarily with the temporal good of man has a right and an obligation to set up standards for education, and the right to require its citizens to meet these standards insofar as it is possible to do so.  The standards, of course, must be reasonable and must leave open great areas of freedom for the pursuit of truth and individual fulfillment.” [p. 74]

“…For the nation, increasing the quality and availability of education is vital to both our national security and our domestic well-being.’ ” [p. 76]


McCarthy’s liberal principles, contrasted with conservatives’ interests, are stated broadly:

“President [Franklin] Roosevelt expressed his view…in his State of the Union Address of 1944: ‘We cannot be content, no matter how high the general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people – whether it be one-third or one fifth or one tenth – is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure. …Necessitous men are not free men.’” [p. 40-1]

“These have been the elements of the liberal program and, to the extent these needs are not met, they remain as essential parts of the liberal program.” [p. 42]

In our own time, conservatives seek to “starve” government in order to prohibit what they see as the liberal inclination to use government as a fundamental tool for pursuing social justice – quality public education, accessible health care, individual civil rights, protection of the average American, and security for the poor and the aging – issues which, my goodness, are the very problems we are trying to deal with in 2015.

Eugene McCarthy's observations way back in 1964 seem true, wise, even prescient.  We can only hope that "the banner yet waves" today.