Archives for category: United States
We’ve painted ourselves into a corner with the outbreak of Covid-19 (aka Coronavirus). How much manufacturing previously done in the West is now (not being) done in China and other countries in Asia? We made a decision in the 80s that American manufacturing was too expensive and that we’d do better as industrialists and consumers to move production to Mexico and Asia. This, I suppose, is fine, save that we stopped paying living wages to America’s (former) manufacturing employees and increased their credit lines as a sort of compensation.
That’s three of several dozen problems that have been building up in the US over the last 35 years or so. How we handled American purchasing power is a different part of the discussion. China raised its own game in the years following the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989. You can’t have democracy but if you’re a Chinese citizen you are entitled to some more of these trappings of capitalism. And it seemed to work. Many Chinese got filthy rich, casinos opened on Chinese real estate, for example, and if you weren’t used to democracy, it did work. Hong Kong? Different question. (Fairport Convention’s Jewel in the Crown seems appropriate.)
Anyhow, US and to a lesser extent, I think, European purchasing power went up, because a lot of Chinese made a lot of stuff very cheaply. So it didn’t matter that real wages in the US haven’t shifted much in 40 years. The decline of unions in post-Reagan America pushed workers into so-called service industries where real wages are kept artificially low much of the time.
Bottom line: We don’t MAKE anything, and as a result we’re in a position where the place that does make all our stuff is on lockdown for we don’t know how long. And creating a manufacturing sector out of whole cloth can’t be done so easily anymore. (It could be done if we were willing to pry a little bit of money and commitment out of the 1%. Not in the cards at the moment.) The same is true in Europe. We have the tools to create that self-sufficient situation, but it means retraining the populous to buy what they need and a lot less of what they want. We’re going to learn mighty soon that the old watch, phone, and TV will last a little longer. (A little less of the planned obsolescence would go a long way.) Clothes and everything else we buy might be more expensive, but part of what we need to do to recover, sustainably, from this crisis is to rebuild the industry and rework how we as people and consumers and industrialists relate to industry.

I know that I’m extraordinarily blessed in that I live in a country with a safety net and that my health insurance costs are capped by law. There are a lot of complaints about Dutch medical care, and I’m sure that if I delved deeply enough, I’d find some horror stories. However, in the Netherlands, and in most of Europe, catastrophic illness doesn’t bankrupt the insured. Note that no one here is uninsured – the benefits system is such that a person in straits for whatever reason is still covered. If you’re not in straits, the system requires each person to pay for a basic level of coverage. At the moment, that basic level costs something like EUR 110 per month. (I don’t know the precise number because I take advantage of a higher level.

I don’t know how to address things like GoFundMe pages for people who suffer catastrophic illnesses or emergencies or simply get blindsided by insurance companies that cover ambulance company X, but not ambulance company Y. Too bad that company Y was sent when you called 911. No, it’s not that I don’t know how to address these things, it’s the fact that we’re still stuck in the situation that people aren’t covered for illness by default. When the Clintons tried to work out some kind of universal health coverage in the US in the 90s, they were beaten back by the insurance industry. When Obama tried the same thing, he was beaten almost from the get-go. The fact that he managed to eke some success out of all that political capital, and all that bloody opposition is a credit to the man.

I worked in healthcare for several years in the 90s. My mother was a medical secretary and my stepdad was an EKG tech before he moved into fundraising at the same hospital. So I’ve always had some input and insight as to how these systems work. For an idea, see the history section of the Wikipedia article on health insurance in the US.

Because Franklin Roosevelt sidestepped the issue at the time he was pushing for various reforms in social policy, the medical industries were able to consolidate their efforts against any kind of socialized medicine. By the time Truman took up the gauntlet in 1949, the AMA was prepared. And for 80 years they and the various for-profit healthcare organizations have fought tooth and nail to prevent any kind of socialized care in the US. And because everyone with full-time employment in the US has an insurance option through one of these plans, the money keeps flowing up to the healthcare industry. Woe be to you if you have to work multiple part time jobs to make ends meet, because it’s unlikely any of them will provide you with a company-subsidized option. So no matter what you do, you’re in deep to the industry should you need care. Of course, those who are uninsured or underinsured will hesitate to go to the doctor when there’s something seriously wrong. Heaven forbid the coronavirus gain a foothold in the US, but even without it, those at greatest risk for spreading communicable illnesses are those least able to take the time to get care for them. Even in my office (software company, generous work from home options), I have colleagues who feel compelled for whatever reason to come into the office when they’re seriously ill. (I shared a crowded train with one a couple of weeks ago – he’d been home for a few days, and was obviously still sick, coughing into his hands and rubbing his eyes. Alas, the drug store was all out of hand sanitizer because of the latest rush on the stuff.)

So not a week goes by that I don’t see a GoFundMe call on Facebook from someone whose friend is needing money for catastrophic healthcare costs. One level of compassion is to give something to each of those. This is reasonable, but also ridiculous, given how much money should be in the system but isn’t. Ridiculous because it’s somehow easier and better for those with little enough money already to help each other than for the obscenely wealthy to ease up on the greed in the system. It’s another version of the rich guy, working class guy, and immigrant/poor guy looking at a plate of cookies. As the rich guy takes all but one, he says, ‘Look out, the immigrant’s gonna take your cookie.’

I honestly don’t know what to say anymore about this situation. For several years now, I’ve seen the comment that this is the point at which the French started building guillotines. I think on a gut level we know that in France politics suddenly became bloodsport and didn’t stop until the engineers of the Reign of Terror were themselves sent to the scaffold. We also seem to have sufficient bloodsport/bread/circuses/entertainment to keep us looking the other way as the things we deserve as members of this society, as contributors to the social contract are taken away.

It’s not a just matter of someone less fortunate than we are taking our cookie, it’s that along with all of the other basics that are part of surviving and thriving together, compassion calls on us to fund as individuals what should be funded by society as a whole.

Edited to add this link, posted to the same day I posted this entry:

“You wouldn’t think you’d go to jail over medical bills”: County in rural Kansas is jailing people over unpaid medical debt

My thoughts on compassion boil down to the question, ‘What do we owe each other?’ What do we with privilege owe to those without? What do the powerful owe to the powerless?

This isn’t original- it’s the entire premise of The Good Place. Have you watched The Good Place yet? Really, go and watch it. (And if you haven’t seen it, don’t read too far into that Wikipedia article – the twist at the end of season 1 depends on you having no idea. Most of the cast had no idea. But watch it.)

From a recent episode of the Allusionist podcast:

And the etymology of compassionate? It’s late Latin for com plus patti, so to suffer together. And yes, the root of passion is to suffer. But compassion is ‘to feel the pain of others,’ which is terribly moving.

Back when they still taught civics and government in American high schools (showing my age, I know), we learned that America’s founding fathers didn’t invent the documents on which the country is based from whole cloth. Teachers referenced and sometimes even assigned material from France’s Age of Reason. I’m sure one or two referenced Jean Jacques Rosseau’s Of the Social Contract. At 15, I’m sure I couldn’t actually have absorbed much about it. If one had boiled it down to this sentence (from the introductory essay of the Penguin edition (Quentin Hoare translation), I still would have zoned out:

‘Rousseau’s central aim in Of the Social Contract is to explain how the freedom of the individual can be reconciled with the authority of the state.’

What did stick with me was this: Rousseau argued that the members of a society owe certain things to the group, and can expect certain things, by virtue of all participating in the same society.

And so, reminded that we are all in this together, I started reading the source document. Rousseau is addressing not just any society but a certain kind of perfect direct democracy in which Citizens engage in public deliberation as the legislature of the State with the complete understanding that harm to other members harms the body of the State and that harm to the State directly affects the other members of it.

That’s a poor paraphrase of a very small part of Rousseau’s philosophy, but it’s something like this that the writers of the Constitution were after when they wrote ‘in order to form a more perfect union,’ into that document’s preamble, this idea that we form a government in order to do better by all of the members of the society.

Rousseau is philosophizing a utopia; the folks at Philadelphia were keen to put Rousseau’s principles into practice. It’s unlikely the founders had that much compassion on their minds, given that a few decades later we had to fight the Civil War over their abject failure to abolish slavery (for a start). They did, however, consider the need to have the branches of government independent of both one another and of the voter.

One of these things we learned in those Civics classes was that the amendments to the constitution were generally advancements towards that more perfect union. A sort of ex cathedra of the people. (Rousseau, I think, would have approved of the idea of the general populous acting as a single pope.) As such, the 17th amendment, which provided for direct election of senators, was an advance. I was listening to a political podcast a couple of days ago (It might have been WNYC’s Impeachment: A Daily Podcast – 22 January, but I wouldn’t swear to it) in which there as an assertion that the founding fathers couldn’t have foreseen a senate as craven as the current one because the original version of the Constitution called for state legislatures to elect the senators, avoiding certain issues regarding who senators might be beholden to.

There were a few good reasons to address the process for the election of senators, including periods during which at least one state failed to send any senators at all to Washington because of deadlocks in the state legislature. On the other hand, we can probably guess that a call for the direct election of senators led by William Randolph Hearst (yeah, the newspaper magnate who successfully agitated for war with Spain in the 1890s) might be suspect. (Note: I’m well aware that the issue is a lot more complicated than that and that for a few decades, the benefits of direct elections outweighed the disadvantages.)

This, of course, isn’t the first time I’ve questioned the truisms that a 1980s LAUSD education implanted in my brain, and that a couple of college poli-sci classes tried to remedy. For a long time I held to the idea that many of our steps were a step towards that more perfect union. To paraphrase Dr. King, the arc of our democratic experiment was bending towards some kind of perfection.

Of course it doesn’t, and the gravitational pull of so many things in our society has bent the arc towards indifference (at best). There doesn’t seem to be a Latin-rooted antonym for compassion that includes that root of suffering. Indifference is one of the clearer opposites – a complete lack of suffering with those nearest.

What am I getting to with this discussion: The question of what we owe one another relates directly to how we vote. I’ve talked about voting with compassion. I believe we owe one another a government that isn’t cruel, capricious, or beholden. At the moment we suffer all three, and the one thing that’s least helpful in these discussions is belief.

I don’t know if this statistic belongs in this blog entry or another, but I’ll leave it here for the moment:

Federal immigration officials told a judge last week they believe they’ve finally settled on the number of children separated from their parents by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. The number is 4,368. (Los Angeles Times, 18 January, 2020.)

During the Watergate hearings, Congress asked for several years of Nixon’s tax returns and the IRS immediately complied. When it was found that Nixon had underpaid his taxes for several years to the tune of almost half a million (1973) dollars, they asked for a couple of years more. In their hands the next day. But the new normal is that our elected representatives are treated the way Trump treated his contractors for decades. Pay my bill? No, you get bupkes.

I saw that bit about Nixon in the two minutes I looked at Facebook while best beloved made tea the other morning. And it filled my head with politics. Whatever I’d been dreaming before that whispered off into the ether.

William Barr’s announcement the other day that the administration was reinstating the federal death penalty after a hiatus of something like 16 years is another indication. Five executions are scheduled for (if I recall rightly) December and January. (I’ve been thinking about the death penalty a bit the last couple of days anyway because an American colleague mentioned she’d nearly been converted from her pro-DP position over lunch by a co-worker of ours from Croatia. (I have no idea if her being American and his being Croatian have any bearing on things – I was at another table and heard none of their conversation.) I hadn’t talked to her about this particular element of our politics before, though neither of us shy from discussing hard topics including faith and belief.)

I don’t think this will be the first time I’ve blogged that I am vehemently anti-death penalty. I’ve stood on the other side of this argument and long ago came to the conclusion that we as humans should not have the final say in the matter. There are practical issues regarding the expense associated with the appeals process that have bearing. There’s also the matter that justice is complicated and lawyers and judges and juries get it wrong, by accident and by design.

Increasing the use of the death penalty, especially at this juncture of the president’s precarious position with regards indictment or impeachment, seems to be another way of inciting the public’s blood lust. I have this feeling that if he could televise the feeding of death row inmates (not to mention members of Congress who aren’t Republicans) to the lions as a means of distraction, he would do so.

But it’s not just the greed and incompetence and distraction, or the sheer amount of self serving and double dealing of every one associated with the president. No, it’s the sadism. It’s the joy they take in the cruelty they inflict. Trump’s insistence that anyone who isn’t of his class and outlook be locked up, with no actual recourse (or understanding) of the laws that should protect all of us. The so-called Central Park Five, long since exonerated and whose guilt Trump proclaimed on the pages of New York’s newspapers 30 years ago have been hauled out again and declared guilty ex cathedra.

Yesterday it was the sliming of the city of Baltimore where his slumlord son-in-law can’t be bothered to call in the exterminator for the dozen plus apartment complexes he owns where the tenants suffer under 200-plus code violations. ‘Cleaning up the building I own? That’s for the little people to deal with,’ or so I imagine him saying.

Is that sadism or just willful negligence? Is there, in fact, a difference? Certainly not from the point of view of his tenants.

Or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rejecting 99% of applicants to a program to forgive the student loan debt of public service workers. I’m not sure where the following the money gets us with regards to this issue,

But revoking 72 guidance documents of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services which outlined the rights of disabled students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act would fall under the category of sadism to me. As does revoking guidelines for the reporting of sexual assault on college campuses. Like much that this administration has done and promised, there’s no effort to put in place something that would be more successful at alleviating harm, just effort after effort to undo any effort (especially if that effort was made by the previous administration) to do less harm to the general populous.

That, it seems to me, is a textbook definition of sadism. And it sickens me more each day.

And I haven’t even started with the detention camps. A few people on different sides of the discussion have taken issue with the phrase ‘concentration camp’. Before 1945, this wasn’t so loaded a term, but there’s a valid argument that that term belongs solely to the Nazis. Fine. We’ll call them detention centers. The reports about the suffering inflicted on migrants held in the various centers, the separation of children from their parents, the lack of hygiene. These are all bad enough, and reflect something awful at the heart of the current iteration of the American system. The diversion of taxpayer money to the Trump donors who are running these camps (or who are the major investors in the companies running these camps – the degrees of separation simply make the handwashing more sickening) is also bad enough. I feel like I’m easing into a bad parody of Dayenu. There’s a certain sadism at the heart of the entire operation, that those tasked with holding these people while their applications for asylum go unprocessed feel that they must hold them in such sickening conditions. What will follow me to my grave is the image of Vice President Mike Pence nodding his head when shown hundreds of men behind a chain link fence who had no access to shower facilities or cots to sleep on. A cursory look at Pence’s history as governor of Indiana shows that suffering is easy to stand by and not worth bothering to stand against. Actively trying to prevent Syrian refugees from settling in Indiana and declining to declare an area poisoned by lead and arsenic a Superfund site. (Does the East Chicago, Indiana’s 51% Hispanic/Latino and 35% African American population have anything to do with it?) His stoicism doesn’t seem to be a facade; he may not actually care. Is that sadism or just offhand cruelty?

Another thing about the detention centers is that this isn’t a new practice for the US – we did it in 1942 and we’ve been doing it to the folks who should have tossed our forefathers back in the ocean for 200 years. That’s not a new thought, but we’ve gone for several decades (those of us who don’t live too closely to the Res) not thinking too hard about Native Americans and their various detentions in the US and thinking that Japanese relocation was an aberration we were rightly ashamed of. As such, we could point to other countries’ use of detention and say, ‘We Americans don’t do that – we’ve moved beyond such horrible things.‘ We could claim (as long as one didn’t look too closely at the topography) a certain moral high ground with regards to folks like the Chinese, who are (claiming to be) backing away from detaining up to a million Uighur in camps in the Xinjiang region. Whether they’re actually doing it is a different matter, but from a PR perspective, Beijing wants the moral high ground.

For those in the detention centers, in Kushner’s apartment buildings, or shouldering student loan debt, the line between sadism and offhand cruelty is very fine. If the US were claiming something like political reeducation, I’d address that too, but that doesn’t seem to be part of the current plan with regards our detention centers.

(ETA: My friend Kevin added the following: ‘I am somewhat surprised you limited this to those affected by his ignoring AIDS. His policies in Central America, both under Reagan and on his own, went far further than was revealed in Iran Contra and resulted in untold deaths, mass impoverishment, and the overthrow of legitimate governments by USA backed and armed narco cartels who persist to this day.  Lastly we can point out that Bush and William Casey were responsible for the perpetuation of the Iranian hostage crisis, which cost Carter the election.’ These things are absolutely true, and any one of them could have earned another 500 words. The AIDS crisis struck closest to home at the time and is much in my thoughts these days for other reasons.)

I’ve been thinking about the death of George Herbert Walker Bush and why I won’t ‘dignify’ his memory by keeping silent. By 1988, HIV had been identified as the source of AIDS and AIDS had been named for three and five years respectively. Bush had remained silent the entire time, as had his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. (Reagan’s silence, even as friends of his such as Rock Hudson died, was despicable enough.) When ACT-UP and other gay groups protested in forms of extreme street theatre and were arrested for it, they were working in the same realm as the Freedom Riders two decades before, and playing for similar stakes. The people who risked and suffered violence and arrest at the hands of police forces coast to coast in many cases could have lived relatively quiet closeted lives, but as soon as they put themselves on the line for queer causes, they risked being disowned by their families (as the price of coming out had always included), firing, often their entire livelihoods. (This is why Harvey Milk pushed for all gays and lesbians to come out – to make it impossible to ignore that we were everywhere.)

s-e-dThis was a fair risk because their friends were dying. (I would so love to be able to say that I took the risks, but I lived safely then and rarely demonstrated, and generally only when it was safe. I won’t rewrite my own history.) Friends and lovers were dying horrible, lonely, painful deaths. Let’s not forget that the opportunistic infections associated with AIDS were slow and had few treatments. And there was no cure on the horizon.

As the leader of the free world, Bush had the responsibility and the duty to speak out, But, I hear you say, it wasn’t politically expedient to do so.

No, butt the crimes and death that result from political expedience are unforgivable. Instead of standing up and saying These are our brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters, he declared a whole segment of the population ‘Other’, a nuisance, and therefore disposable. That nuisance continued to die on his watch at an alarming rate. When he took office over 82,000 cases of AIDS had been reported in the US and almost 62,000 had died of it. When he left office in 1993, those numbers had increased threefold in the US alone. In his time in office, and in the succeeding quarter century, Bush has always been unwilling to stand up and own up and repent and do some kind of good work in this regard.

When his own Department of Health and Human Services produced a report on teen suicide that included the specific risks of gay and lesbian youth, Bush caved to far right groups and suppressed the report. The report was only released when its findings were leaked.

Bush’s successors have blood on their hands too, and I’m not willing to give them a pass, either, but in this moment of hagiography, I must say no. The man was not a saint of any kind. When the crisis was in its infancy, and leadership was required, he continued to do what was expedient. Were I the sort who believed in such things, I’d say that Hell had prepared a room.

ETA: The Rude Pundit has a column on this matter that’s a whole lot less nice than mine.