Monday, December 14, 2009

Of Hot Air And Changing Climates

It's a little late to chime in on the subject of climate change, but since I do this primarily to vent opinions and notions and not because of any deluded belief about making a vast difference, it hardly matters that this would have been more timely a few weeks or even a few years ago.

As with most issues, I fall between no clearly set boundaries and hold to few if any absolutes...we have plenty of partisans who can handle that task just fine without my assistance. I have plenty of venom to spew in both directions, and it's well deserved, since both factions in the climate debate are dominated by spin-doctors and buzzword purveyors who routinely avoid facts the way allergic diners avoid peanuts. I'd just like to cut through the fog of BS that clouds the air around the subject, just for my own peace of mind.

Let's begin with my complaints about the Global Warming True Believers (with a brief reminder that I have just as many problems with the other side, the Conspiracy/Denier Drones, shortly to follow).

Global warming is a phrase loaded with less than subtle meaning, which has been jackhammered into the public subconscious as an image of a dark future involving a swampy, tropical earth, riddled with mosquitos and disease, with most of our borders altered by rising water until the population of the earth is limited to tiny outposts on the tips of mountains. The doomsayers of global warming are many, but what wounds their cause is their own choice of advertising, which is the deceitful and wildly inaccurate portrayal of global warming as a purely man-made, reversible situation primarily driven by CO2 emissions.

Even at the surface level, this simplified version of events which has been packaged and marketed to the developed and underdeveloped world alike is so laughably riddled with holes that Swiss cheese looks at it in envy. Even in the scientific models used for prediction, there are efforts made to calculate for naturally occuring variables (volcanic output, solar activity etc)...but this goes unmentioned because it would unnecessarily confuse the poor, stupid people of earth, and the situation is so dire and important that a convenient white lie or two is excusable.

Naturally, I beg to differ. I'm just contrary that way.

There are both natural AND man made contributary factors at play, and lying about it, even for a theoretically good cause, only diminishes people's respect and trust for the institutions and individual scientists involved, as well as for science in general. While the deniers are lambasted for using junk science and hyperbole instead of hard facts, the painful truth is that there would be very few deniers if the advocates of climate change had chosen a more honest and direct route by which to inform people of coming changes.

Further, CO2 is being targeted as the primary emission in need of restriction, and the means of restriction is so ludicrous that almost defies imagining...unless you happen to be one of the lobbyists who cooked up a market for intangible 'carbon credits' that will make a few people very rich while allowing major polluters to buy their way out of being regulated. CO2 is the least of the pollutants that we should be worrying about, but remains the much ballyhooed source of all ills. Is it any wonder that a sizable block of U.S. citizens have no faith in the concept of global warming, when abundant evidence in certain areas of the United States indicates that either nothing is measurably changing, or that the few blips of change on the radar over the last decade seem explainable via means other than doomsday scenarios?

Again, it comes down the the openly disingenuous stance taken by people who ought to know better. If the bulk of the scientific community can be so easily gulled into backing an ad campaign built by swindlers marketing an ineffectual and contemptible concept that ignores the real need for preparation, then how can they expect the trust and respect of the general public?

Before I move to the deniers, let me explain a few observable and measurable phenomena that can't be whisked under the rug for the sake of convenience. These are the issues that link to the heart of the matter, and they are the things that both sides ought to be thinking about more carefully.

There is a Northwest Passage opening in the Arctic Sea. It isn't subject to debate. The entire Northern hemisphere is jockeying for control of newly accessible mineral rights and for control of once non-navigable waters. Governments do not hire herds of international and maritime law experts because they need to bluff the rest of us. They are moving to make their cases in courts around the world, in the Hague and elsewhere, to establish claims that will reap financial rewards for generations. The ice is melting...and it isn't coming back the way it once did.

If you know anyone who has visited the Swiss Alps or who lives in a place where they are in close contact with glaciers (and some of us do), the number of glaciers shrinking quickly vastly outweighs the number that are spreading. There are anomolies, and this is undeniable, but that only distracts from the fact that people with a wooden stake and a tape measure can count the difference between one years ice cover and the next...and around the world the results keep coming back in the negative overall. You can't spin the people who live there, they've watched the changes that have accumulated in just a couple of decades, and they can do the math on their own.

The permafrost soil of northern Russia is turning into muck. Paved roads and building foundations are sinking, oil and gas extraction efforts are complicated by this with every passing spring, and no one on the ground there is in doubt that it's a little noteworthy when ground that has been frozen since mammoths walked the earth starts turning into soup. It isn't just a fictional complaint and a handy photo op for the Left, it's a mess that costs money and resources to compensate for, and it's nothing to laugh about if you're in a business that sees the bottom line shrinking because of rising costs from equipment damage and vehicular wear and tear.

Ocean salinity really is dropping, with freshwater melt and runoff ever so slightly changing both the level of acidity and the salinity of the ocean. Skeptics are sometimes accurate, when they mention that the change has been very, very small, but then the same skeptics quickly hustle on before anyone brings up high school level science class material and mentions that when dealing with millions upon millions of gallons of water, even a change of 0.001% is sufficient to shift patterns of evaporation and alter rainfall dramatically.

Low lying islands really are losing ground, displacing populations and making it clear that, in certain areas, just an inch or two of water makes an enormous difference. Doesn't mean much for Idaho, but if you live on a coral atoll in the Pacific, things are looking pretty grim. More relevant to the U.S., parts of the coastal South are already experiencing increased saltwater intrusion into freshwater wells. In areas with high concentrations of population, losing even a few percentage points off of available water supplies means citywide shortages and rationing. Ask Atlanta, Georgia and the smaller towns on its ouskirts. Drought isn't a rare spell of bad luck, it's a way of life with a few pleasant breaks when the rainfall is just right.

The concept of micro-climates goes almost unmentioned in the press. It's a little too complicated for the average reader, or so they must think, since they're the ones sticking to the party line and leaving out the, if you'll excuse the term, "Inconvenient Truth". The earth is a collection of micro-climates, small areas that have unique individual weather patterns and atmospheric conditions, and many of these are experiencing change. Sometimes that change isn't consistent 'warming', which trashes the whole concept of 'global warming' and fuels skepticism, but once they started on the journey by picking a simple concept that could be easily communicated, they just wouldn't back off, largely for fear of being ignored entirely. Now, as they sit in gridlock, spinning wheels in Copenhagen, I hope that at least some of them look back and wonder if they were right to hitch themselves to Al Gore's snappy line of patter and familiar song and dance.

For the deniers, I can't spare enough venom for all the idiocy I've witnessed. Some believe that God Almighty is their personal Merry Maid service, and will clean up any mess that humans make, because a divine being would never let his planet be harmed by mere humans. Yeah...sure...that's why the city dump should shut down tomorrow. God will make trash, refuse and pollutants magically disappear because he loves us. He also makes my bed in the morning and does my dishes at night. Please, dump your used battery acid in your vegetable garden...God will make it disappear so your food will still be safe to eat. Don't kill the messenger, but even pre-asssuming the presence of a divine Creator, God has a long track record as a hands-off manager, and historically speaking, He hasn't been in the business of fixing our mistakes for the last two thousand years, and any God worth worshipping would expect about the same level of discipline from his flock as most of us would expect from an unruly teenager. (You break fix it. Whining will get you nowhere. Do you think your room is going to clean itself?)

Another category of idiot is needed just for the partisans that aren't really interested in any measurable data, but are drawn to the fray because the party or pundit they hate said something, which apparently completely justifies spewing froth and bile at every opportunity. The issue itself is irrelevant to them, but the opportunity to hurl barely coherent invective at their hated enemies is their life's solitary joy. There are days when I pray that Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and Barack Obama would join hands and announce publicly that they support the breathing of air and the use of lungs for dispersing oxygen to the blood, because that would be more than sufficient to drive herds of retards into gluing their noses and throats shut to defy such obvious nonsense. These are the kind of people that could be drowning neck deep in water and swear they're in the desert, as long it was an enemy of theirs who claimed there was too much rain.

Less offensive, but equally ridiculous, are the buzzword drones that sagely repeat the same lies they were spoonfed, never questioning the motivation of a think tank representative that recieves his pay because dozens of corporations spent a fortune finding ways to spin a few words that showed the most potential to stick in people's minds. Is it really so unlikely that, facing regulations that would shave a percent or two off the bottom line for a few years, corporations would use staggering amounts of cash to pump the airwaves full of contradictory noise and hope that as long as the issue was 'undecided', no one would get back to them with any solid expectations for changed behavior? I find this crowd less offensive only because innocence and naivete are excusable...up to a point. There is, however, a point at which people stop merely being accidental dupes who wrongly placed their trust, and start being responsible for choosing to stay a sucker for the long haul. If you weren't aware that corporations fund the creation of almost all think tanks, or that the think tanks provide the 'research' that coincidentally matches those parent corporations' interests, or that the hired speaker who represents them on TV or radio is hired primarily for his or her ability to put forward the information said think tank agrees with in a convincing and believable way...well...I'm not sure anyone down here can help you without divine start praying.

Enough of the deniers (I won't even go into the conspiracy theorists, because they're half right that lies are being's where they go with it from there that leaves the rational mind staggering), and back to a point worth summing up, which applies to both sides of the spectrum. You can find hacks on both sides that deserve nothing but complete contempt, and who deserve a special hell, just for sowing discord when the world needs thoughtful and decisive action.

The special hell shouldn't be reserved for those who cheerlead BS from the sidelines, the special hell should be for those who labor to bend numbers and find irrelevant anomalies to quibble over, knowing full well that this doesn't disprove that things are rapidly changing. The lobbyists and pundits who know it's just a game with a score that's scrupulously kept, politics as usual, and that the people displaced by sudden changes in their environment are far less important than keeping their political foes at loggerheads. The politicians who gladly gloss over the visible impact on the daily lives of people, because the party line doesn't allow for realism or pragmatism when partisanship is on the line. The sellout who knows that real efforts are called for, but who meekly accepts a toothless compromise because 'it's better than nothing', or 'it's a start'. These are just the souls to fill that special hell...the pied pipers that piped a merry tune all the way to destruction and chaos, because the suffering of others was somehow acceptable, as long they had enough cash to insulate themselves from the troubles that others would have to face.

What do I believe? I don't believe in any comprehensive theory of 'global warming', but I do believe that climate change is happening. The evidence isn't manufactured data from a lefty think tank or a movie with Al Gore. The evidence is in the Arctic Sea, the Alps, Greenland, Atlanta, Siberia, The Himalayas, Florida and in micro climates across the globe. The evidence is the eyes of friends who have been alive long enough to notice that these aren't incredibly gradual changes that took decades to notice, but sharp sudden changes that became noticeable within a few short years.

'Man made' or naturally occuring' is irrelevant as well. I may have a hearty distrust of corporations and a cynical certainty that their ultimate goal is always to extract profit without any reasonable responsibility for the consequences of their actions, but that doesn't change the need to focus first and foremost on how to cope with changes that might very well be disastrous...if we allow them to be that way through total inaction. Industrialization and rising population have played a part in changing the world, but the world also changes of its own accord, ignoring our pleas for stability and normalcy. Having a plan to deal with change is better than having a long argument about who flushed while we're all spiralling downward.

I hold freshwater resources to be the most important resource of the 21st, or any other century. As long as potable water is plentiful, most other problems can eventually be overcome, but if you really want to see a world gone mad, by all means, please take no actions to ensure that existing water supplies are protected and bolstered. A few countries are already pushing forward with coastal desalinization plants, but the scale is still fairly small and the process complicated and costly. Still, much better than nothing, and attempts at self sufficience are always better than waiting for the rest of world to ship water to you in little plastic bottles. I'd applaud Al Gore or Dick Cheney, if either one of them stood up and spoke comprehensively about securing potable water against future shifts of rainfall or seawater intrusion, but most of what I've heard so far has been equally pathetic bleating about whether anything is happening or not.

Sustainable food sources, diverse enough that sharp changes in temperature or rainfall (in any direction, be it more or less, hot or cold, wet or dry), instead of mono-crops that leave entire economies crumbling when the weather shifts or hiccups, would go a long way toward enhancing my confidence that change would be easily survivable with very little suffering except for a few minor changes of diet. Try to remember that in the course of recorded human history, deserts have grown out of what were once lush grasslands where endless herds grazed. Those bedraggled people on TV who hike miles to fetch water for their tiny flock of half starved cattle...are the descendants of empires that once knew overwhelming plenty. The pyramids were not built in a nation of sand and dust, they were erected near a fertile flood plain with arable cropland close at hand. Change happens, and it doesn't set appointments for our convenience. If we aren't ready to adapt quickly, we will become irrelevant.

That covers food and water, and shelter makes up the last of the important triangle of human necessity. Shoring up vulnerable coastlines may well be staggeringly costly, but there are certain areas where it wouldn't take a left wing nutjob's overblown prediction of a twenty foot wave to wreak would only take a few creeping inches over half a decade to transform a modern community into a swamp. It doesn't take wild eyed, hysterical rants about worst case scenarios to make real estate an issue, because it is an issue, especially to the millions of people dwelling near or directly on coastlines in this country alone. It really shouldn't take that much of a struggle to agree on a level of encroachment that is generally regarded as unacceptable, and keep plans for the preservation of coastlines at the ready until we draw too close to that level. The operative words are 'shouldn't be', but until people detach themselves from the politics and start operating on principle and observable fact...we still have problems.

Just to round things out lets throw in power as well, and I really don't care what kind. It would be wonderful if we had solar power and wind power and wave power all worked out in advance and ready to roll in plenty of time for hasty change, but since that doesn't seem especially likely, the pragmatist in me wants the cushion of knowing that current sources of energy, be they fossil-based or otherwise, are properly protected, with suitable contingency plans made to compensate for disruption. It would be uncomfortable in the extreme to find yourself moving to higher ground, well fed, water handy and a place to stay waiting for you...but no light handy that doesn't involve burning wood or animal fat.

Maybe it sounds crass and vaguely exploitative, but clarity of purpose can seem that way in a world where clarity is scarce. The goal should be simple: to make those adjustments which are necessary in order to allow the greatest number of people possible to transition smoothly through periods of change to their environment, with as little human suffering as possible along the way.

The blame game can come after the fact. If nothing happens in the next twenty years and everything returns to familiar seasonal averages from decades past...hey, great! We can hold a party and use 'green economy' fans as pinatas! On the other hand, if seawater drives you out of your beachfront condo...and it isn't even storm season, you should be able to request a free voucher to rabbit punch Rush Limbaugh until your arms get tired (assuming of course that he hasn't OD'd or just plain exploded by then). What really matters is that we have firm, workable plans in place and ready for implimentation, giving us the ability to prosper and thrive in an uncertain future. Playing the blame game first, as we're doing now, would almost be excusable, if it wasn't just an exercise in trying to pin the price tag for a planet-wide game of financial three-card monty on the loser. Whether it's the blame game or the 'global warming' game, in the end, the loser winds up being everyone who isn't hauling a few million bucks around to cover the cost of a comfortable life.

Cutting 'emissions' sounds all well and good, but CO2 be damned, I'd sleep easier if we just managed to keep the heavy metals and petro-residues from saturating every neighborhood and every store shelf. Maybe it's just a gut instinct, and this isn't backed by any personally observed facts, but I've got a strong suspicion that cancer wouldn't be half so prevalent in this new century if we could be bothered to outlaw just the substances we already know beyond doubt to be lethally poisonous and carcinogenic...and when I say outlaw, I don't mean politely request that companies properly dispose of the leftovers after using the forbidden substances anyway, I mean outlaw, complete with lengthy sentences to the kind of prison where you don't quibble with your cellmate over who gets to use the squash court Wednesday afternoon, but generally spend each day praying that you aren't shanked during a mealtime dispute.

It ends with the word 'priorities', because those are what vanished in the din as soon as each side's Pied Pipers started playing. One side marched off ditzily, 'visualizing whirled peas', when they could have been concentrating on concrete steps to get rid of 100% deadly, kill-you-if-you-breath-it, genuine poisons...and lowering other emissions as a bonus byproduct of an ironclad cause, while the other side marched off the deep end to defend the status quo, on behalf of people who have plenty enough cash to survive the inevitable end of said status quo, all the while happily forgetting that when the stink hits the fan...those same wealthy folks who paid to provide people with ready made doubts and distractions won't be sharing their umbrella with the clods they used as cannon fodder to buy themselves a few more years of unhindered profits.

Stop listening to the pied pipers, and you might suddenly be able to see the priorities.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol"

Don't worry, this will post isn't a matter of spoilers and inside info for those who haven't read the book yet, but it is a musing on some of the notions that have been put forward by the publication of such a book, by such a very popular author. No major plot revelations will be unveiled, but there will be some affectionate examination of key concepts. All good? Then let's go!

Most people have likely never heard of Noetic science, which has only recently gelled into a coherent scientific discipline, but more than a few of us drifting along the fringe of scientific and spiritual thought have already run into many of the precursors and crude early experiments that eventually blossomed into Noetics.

Mr. Brown, by virtue of his popularity, has achieved something very like one of the experiments put forward in his book. He has released a concept into the minds of a wide audience and, simply by introducing millions of people to Noetic science, he has altered human consciousness by a very small degree, with results that we can only guess at as time moves on.

If thought possesses mass, even though that mass may be so small as to seem inconsequential, then it certainly interacts with its environment in accordance with measurable laws that haven't yet been fully determined. What impact will millions, or tens of millions, of people have, when all their minds are trained upon the same concept for the first time? And how much of a difference will it make, when people realize that thought really can have a measurable impact on themselves and the world around them?

Ours is a world split between the rational and the instinctive, the Id and SuperEgo, the spirit and the flesh. Superstition routinely trumps science, especially among those who need a less complicated way to make the world an orderly and understandable place. Science can be damned complicated, and speaking frankly, most people will never be completely comfortable with science, because the technical language and the frustrating requirements for neutrality don't sit well with minds that want a simple answer.

People want a side to choose, a team to play for, a country to belong to and a way of life that ideally suits them. What people don't want, in general, is brutal self examination and introspection. Naturally, being a contrary sort of person to begin with, I went for the hard route.

Long before Dan Brown's novel, for which I am grateful, and long before I'd ever heard of Noetics, I studied the religions of the world to find answers to my own questions. I was searching for common truths, things that spoke to the heart in every language and every culture. I wanted to bridge the gap that seperates one religion from another, and understand what motivates people to divide endlessly even while they all move toward the same expression of truth.

I studied religion, and non-religion, Thomas Aquinas and Bertrand Russel, philosophy and non-philosophy, The Blue Rock Record and Neitzsche, science, psychology, poetry, art, history, myth and legend...always searching for the same underlying truths.

What gratifies me now is this: that in an information friendly age, others like me have been inexorably moving toward the same conclusions, and that, leaving aside good stories with secret societies and winding plots, the long work of moving into a state of being where we accept that science and religion are simply faces of the same coin, the search for truth and understanding, and that we are capable of changing our lives and our environment through the power of our collective will, is stronger than ever.

I don't have a monopoly on truth. I have no wisdom that can't be found elsewhere. I do have a few good ideas, and some gut instincts that haven't failed me yet, so here are just a few thoughts that might strike a chord with others.

There is only one road...and everyone is on it whether they like it or not. Everyone is born, loves or hates, laughs or cries, and dies. The beginning and ending have no exceptions, everything in between is up to us. We are all in this together...and we are all ultimately alone. You will have no peace outside yourself if you have no peace within. We're all flawed...including you, including me...get over it and just do your best. We're all special and unique...but not so special or unique that we're excused from the laws of nature, so be special and unique...but do it with humility and grace instead of naked arrogance. Things happen...most of them you can't control, but how you deal with them is entirely within your power, so don't shortchange yourself with reactions that only make things worse. Do as little damage as possible along the way, and you can be nearly certain about looking back at your life with fewer regrets. Enjoy being alive while you won't last as long as you want. Indulge...but in enough moderation that you don't make a fool of yourself. Tell the ones you love what you love about them...and try not to concentrate on the negative, trust me...they'll appreciate the effort

And read more books. I've never been sorry for reading a book that was good enough to keep me reading to the last chapter.

If you're inclined to read a book by Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol has twists and turns and an underlying truth that is important to us all, and if you aren't...that's okay too. Enjoy.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Remembering The Future

It's startlingly easy to let my natural cynicism overwhelm me, since we live in a world almost deafened by a cacophony made up of angry voices. We are scared of the future, and what it might hold for us, or for our children, or for their children. War is an everyday fact of life, impoverishment and disease are just as problematic as they were decades ago, and it isn't hard to look at declining opportunity and standards of living and feel that our greatest days as a nation are behind us.

Not long ago I experienced something purely incidental, an accident of timing that made me feel a sense of what is possible even in an era of limited prospects and diminished hope. I thought it would be well worth mentioning, because it's exactly the kind of thing that happens every day, all across the country, in every town and city, but goes unnoticed precisely because it IS the kind of thing that happens everyday, everywhere.

I was on the way to work, and I parked outside the downtown building that contained the client's apartment. It was a Sunday afternoon, and a cloudy, grey one at that. Rain was falling, more of a soft patter than real drizzling rain, but it was still kind of day you wanted to spend indoors if you could.

When I got out of my truck, I couldn't help but notice one lone figure on the local high school's track field. Out there, in the rain, on an unremarkable Sunday afternoon, there was just one lone teenager running hurdles.

There was no one cheering him, and no one watching him that I could see in any direction. He was alone and had to move the hurdles into position on his own, and put them back into position whenever he knocked one over. There were no coaches and no parents, no pressure to achieve from any angle. It was just a kid who was willing to spend his weekend afternoon alone, in the rain, striving to be better, to be faster, to be more ready to compete against his peers.

If that spirit is alive in just a few people in every town and city in this country, then I know that whatever comes, politically or socially, can be dealt with in good order. In that kid lived proof that there are people who are unafraid of hardship to achieve a goal. People who are dogged and determined, require no pushing from others to achieve great things, and who can rise above petty interests to reach toward victory.

That young person was the face of the future I sometimes forget. It was a sobering reminder that the torch is always in the process of being passed, and that it never remains still. As I am aging and growing slower, another generation is at its peak, and yet another is only just beginning to hit its stride, and another, younger still, is preparing for a time when the torch will begin to pass into their hands.

If we turn away from the television and the computer, shut off the dizzying, deafening thunder of our media, and look to our own cities and towns, it is there that we will find the future, struggling in the face of adversity, silent, stoic and brave. It is not televised or sponsored, not advertised or ballyhooed, and oftentimes it isnt even rewarded with praise. It isn't a product or a dogma, and it can't be counted or quantified in convenient formulas, and so it slips past us, largely unnoticed, while we glumly assume that the world is doomed for lack of capable hands to manage its future.

I'll rant and fume another time, but I will remember the future, and remember that somewhere, someone is ready to take up the tasks that will face them, and I will be at peace.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Truly Surreal Patriotism

The word surreal comes into play a lot these days, at least for me, and it generally comes into play when I observe other people's inexplicable one-sidedness in the pursuit of the right to express themselves politically. I'll grant that I'm exercising the same right, and that I support the right to do so unilaterally and without condition. However, I find myself amazed at times like this, when I realize just how many have formed fierce opinions with nothing to back them except the spurious claims of hired pundits and spokespersons. It's one thing to have a fierce opinion built on a principle that has served you a lifetime and which, after careful thought, merits ferocity, it's another thing altogether when a person rushes to judgement based on the patently manufactured outrage of a hired political pundit that hands you a string of catch phrases to repeat.

This behavior isn't limited to one party or philosphy, to one region or religion, but can be observed everywhere, and provides a great source of interesting news clips and sound bites for the media grist mills that pass as news in the US. At the moment, the ball has fallen into the court of the aggrieved, out-of-power GOP, and we find ourselves treated to a spectacle that harkens back to the worst moments of the 1960's and 1970's. The reactionaries in our new era are largely comprised of lower middle class whites, but the single-minded determination to ignore inconvenient facts is shockingly familiar.

I sympathize greatly with every person who is sickened by political inaction, misinformation, thinly veiled lies and deliberate obfuscation...BUT, I find an alarming number of people focusing on a single party, just as the left and many Democrats did for the last eight years. The same one-sidedness and careful avoidance of information that might conflict with a dearly held view is in place, this time for the right. I challenge this way of thinking almost daily, because I too am a person frustrated by politics in the United States, but I am ALWAYS striving to question the information I take in, and to weigh what can be trusted and what cannot. My beliefs don't come from a limited number of trusted sources, and are not dictated to me by friendly televised faces, and I strongly believe that others should accept the hard task of constantly examining their media, their beliefs and the potential consequences of their actions. For the most part, this is the high price of adulthood in a democratic republic. It is your responsibility to sift fact from fiction, instead of depending on others to do it for you.

I can afford a certain freedom to criticize without hypocrisy, because I have a critical view of both major parties, no lasting political alliance to any organization or persons thereof, am financed by no one, and I withhold my criticism from no one. The most unbearably common technique of the informed political hack, when faced with critical questions about the point of view or representative they champion, is to dodge the issue at hand by shouting about the perfidy of the other party. This is irreverant and ignorant conduct. It simply proves beyond doubt that a person possesses no credible defense for the actions of their party or its leaders, and that they have no choice but to scurry to a different topic rather than facing the harsh and unpleasant possibility that a treasured faith in a party or person may be unwarranted.

This stands for Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal alike. Where was the psuedo-left and the DNC during the Clinton era? Mostly applauding loudly or defending every inept or inadequate decision. The same held true for eight years of the Bush administration, with stolid, traditional Republicans keeping a tight lipped silence and marching in lockstep instead of demanding accountability from their own party. This brings us to the current day, in an era where tension is rising fast and tempers are fraying, with one party paralyzed by internal wrangling for lobby dollars and another descending into pandering to paranoiacs and lunatics.

When I hear the screams from barely articulate right-wing hacks about the erosion of our personal liberties and the certain doom of our way of life and the freedoms enshrined in our constitution...well, mostly, I want to vomit explosively to vent that bile and incredulity that comes from hearing concentrated idiocy. What forms in my mind after the urge to hurl has passed is a single shining question: WHERE THE HELL WERE YOU A YEAR AGO? OR FIVE YEARS AGO? OR TEN YEARS AGO? OR FIFTEEN? OR THIRTY?

Were these people living in a cave for the last decade? Did they not notice the multiple power-grabs by the executive branch that dominated the past few decades? The court stacking and gerrymandering? The fraud and graft and collusion by both parties? Did they just now FINALLY notice that, since the president isn't an elderly white man, that the infringement of government into our personal lives is at an all-time high?

Here's a free clue, just for those who might need it. If you paid your taxes without complaint for eight years while the federal deficit skyrocketed, but proudly "teabagged" the minute the other party was in office, before any changes were even made to our system of taxation by the new administration, you are the person who needs to wake up and think about your role in a democratic process. If you feel that you have no voice, it's because you didn't use it until the slime that passes for today's pundits told you to start feeling that outrage.

For every person who spent eight years in silence or loudly defending the corrupt and inept Bush administration, here's your new marching orders. March home. Go to the woodshed. Beat yourselves silly for being so damned permissive about your party's behavior that you allowed it to acquire greater and greater heights of executive authority, which now rests in the hands of another party, because the rest of the country reacted in horror and disgust at your party's excesses and chose to elect anyone other than the status quo. Then shut up and sit down...we don't need you if you can't educate yourself sufficiently to make rational judgments about your own party's conduct.

For every person who maintained radio silence during the Clinton years, but suddenly had the heart to speak up about the wicked nature of the GOP as soon as George W. entered office, here's a new set of marching orders for you. Find a VW Bug with flowers on it to the hospital...then walk in and have a doctor to examine the contents of your skull. Then go home and stay stoned and quiet long enough for another generation to take over. Your silent complicity and refusal to hold the DNC's feet to the fire is the precise reason that wind up wondering why you never get the results you want. We are better off without you.

The people who herd you on command are not afraid of you (as they rightly OUGHT to be). They expect and receive your cooperation every single time they come calling. Your outrage exists for one party only, and you have the nerve to call yourself patriots because you are surrounded only by voices that agree with you utterly and won't challenge you to think or question. When you run across a contrary opinion, it's more likely than not that it's a person from the 'other side', your natural enemy, and they are just as poorly equipped and as sadly misinformed (and comfortable with it) as you are.

Nothing can be solved or even marginally changed by brain dead herds of rabid followers spewing the same empty phrases from the same collection of talking heads. That isn't debate...that's sports...and at least in sports something is actually decide based on visible, recorded, measured performance. In politics we're down to people just lying and saying that something was accomplished, and with enough blind suppoprt from partisans they make it true in the history books, even while nothing tangible changes.

I freely call this stupidity. Engaging in that kind of conduct is antithetical to patriotism. It is what patriots should oppose at every turn. Let me share a beloved quote that has guided my political thoughts like an unerring rudder for almost two decades now.

"The deadliest enemies of nations are not their foreign foes; they always dwell within their borders.... The nation blessed above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks." -William James

So here is my most reasonable request. If you are uninclined to bring accountability to anyone save the side that opposes your own, if you cannot speak and respect the right of others to speak, if you cannot abide that sometimes your chosen side will find itself in the minority, if you cannot bring yourself to listen, even momentarily, to an opinion that contradicts your own, and if you cannot conduct yourself in a civil manner because the absence of genuine facts must be compensated for by the weight of your ire...stop voting. Now and forever. Just stop and stay away from even the simplest of debates.

Get out of politics entirely, and leave it to people who are willing to endure the discomfort of hard questions and cautious consideration. You are the plague of locusts and the rain of frogs that warn the rest of us of ill times to come. You are the embodiment of all that chokes the life from good government. You are the problem because, allegorically speaking, we are struggling to repair something delicate, and you are wielding the axe that broke that delicate thing in the first place.

Let me say in parting only this: should you find yourself questioning your own party loudly, should you realize that only by demanding the highest levels of accountability and transparency from all parties and persons can we hope to regain control of runamuck leaders, then by all means join us in the long struggle to put this country back together, so that we might rebuild a little of the greatness of spirit this nation once proudly cherished, and which our children deserve to inherit.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bad Medicine

Don't be fooled by the thoughts on health care in the U.S. can't be easily pigeon-holed into a convenient slot...and in truth, most people's thoughts on the subject are the same...hard to classify, but that's not the impression we draw from the current news storm that drenches us daily with platitudes and misinformation.

I'll admit plainly that I oppose most of what is being proposed on Capitol Hill, not because I oppose the concept of health care reform, but because the choices being laid out before Congress today are largely toothless, hideously expensive and will likely only help a sparse few persons at a cost that most cannot afford.

To be brutally honest, if I thought that we were being presented with a choice that would make a large scale difference in the quality of care that America's working poor receive, I would support the effort and applaud it loudly, but like most people who fall into the category of independant voters, I feel a wave of suspicion creep over me when I hear the actual reform plans being discussed.

And let me be specific...I do not fear 'death panels', which are a genuinely pathetic twisting of words to misrepresent an actually useful initiative proposed by a Republican, transforming it into a scare tactic used by the lowest intellects in the GOP and believed by the lowest intellects everywhere else. Neither do I fear seeing private insurance forbidden to those who can afford it. This is another fiction that makes the GOP look foolish and inadequate as guardians of common sense and fiscal sanity. Given that the insurance lobbies are piling dollars into influencing both sides of the debate, it seems extremely unlikely that any bill that emerges will do anything more harmful than offering them a state sponsored opportunity to enroll millions of new customers who can look forward to the abuse the rest of already endure when trying to get a claim paid.

This is where my real distrust lies. Based on the partisan wrangling that passes for debate now, it's easy to draw the impression that anything useful, thoughtful or helpful will almost certainly be snuffed out of existence long before it could reach the Oval Office. What we'll likely be left with is a patchwork quilt woven from pure pork, transforming billions of tax dollars into a minimal service boondoggle that leaves millions underinsured. This isn't that different from what we have today...but it will cost oh so much more.

This in no way defends our current system, which amounts to a philosophy of "pay now or go die". For all the screams for the fringe that health care reform will result in poorer quality care for a majority of Americans, the irony is in their silence regarding the inequities of the system we have now. Medical debts are a staggering burden, since even fairly common treatments cost more here than in other developed nations. It is disgusting to watch relatives and friends pour hours of labor into getting a claim paid, stressed to the limit of their ability to cope WHILE dealing with illness as well. Our 'system' of health care is broken...badly...and just because the solutions being offered are ineffective half-measures, it doesn't mean that we don't have a problem.

Our spiraling costs for health care may have their roots in the dawn of nuisance-based malpractice suits, and while litigation and insurance to protect against it are costly, they are not the end all and be all of expenses. Stripping the right to sue for legitimate redress of grievances from all but the wealthiest of clients is not the answer, because wasteful litigation is a matter better handled by careful scrutiny of proposed cases, not the elimination of the right to sue. On this matter, left leaning lobbies (not surprisingly featuring many lawyers) favor suing the pants off of anyone who even looks like they might deserve it, and those lobbied by industry favor being made immune to any scrutiny or accountability for malfeasance; both wrong, both ultimately horrible extremes, both unworthy of being taken seriously. This is exactly why I wind up finding myself in the middle...and like it there.

More influential in the advance of high costs for health care was the switch from non-profit service mode to for-profit service mode. The fundamental philosophy behind administration of a hospital has shifted radically in just a few decades. We are living (and dying) with the effects of that change. No matter what people may claim, for-profit health care corporations unfailingly find themselves in the position of answering to shareholders...not patients. Sagging profits and share prices eventually add up to leadership necks on the chopping block and fresh new faces at the helm. To avert this, every half decent executive will labor to shear away costs and bolster share value. "Commitment to Quality Care" is a great phrase...but phrases mean nothing. Profit means a lot more than any string of syllables ever will. The patient has become the customer, and the customer is really just a source of income. With medicine there are always other customers, and every one of them is expendable. This is not a recipe for great care.

For decades, employer sponsored insurance has been the gold standard, but as costs rise and numbers of retirees grow, each requiring longer, more expensive care than ever before, even basic coverage has become incredibly burdensome for business, small and large alike. Just a few generations ago it wasn't an unreasonable expectation to demand solid, comprehensive insurance in exchange for a comparatively small contribution, organized and managed through one's employer. Unfortunately, margins are leaner these days, contributions have grown larger and larger and the coverage that smaller business can afford to offer is very nearly not worth the cost for the average lower wage employee.

Wages have also taken their toll on the concept of health care. Specialists are costly, and medicine is no longer practiced as a general body of knowledge, but rather as a collection of niche markets, each commanding a higher wage per hour than in days gone by. This isn't to say that demanding work that requires extensive education and training doesn't deserve higher pay, but when the luxury and elective specialists earn noticeably more than men and women who save lives daily, we've moved toward a system that prioritizes all the wrong things. To reduce staffing costs, nurses, physician's assistants, LPN's, CNA's and MA's are becoming overtaxed substitutes expected to work outside their purview in exchange for lower wages. This is one of the root causes of strikes that plague corporate hospitals today, and the solution is more staff, but that inevitably drives prices up and profits down. Where is the answer? Honestly, I don't have one either, but acknowledging that health care is subject to unique needs that aren't easily answered in a purely for-profit system is a good start.

Now we come to drug costs, which are a racket that easily puts running numbers to shame. Speaking for those who have seen production cost vs. sale price comparisons, most businesses only WISH they could mark up their product like that and get away with it! Can you imagine a drop-forged hammer, made (theoretically) for a dollar, and selling for $30, $300, or even $3,000? And what are we getting for these exorbitant prices? A list of side effects that take up so much space that flyers have to be attached to every bottle! Prescription drug deaths, intentional and unintentional, are becoming a rising problem, both in terms of lost lives and in terms of malpractice and class action suits that wouldn't even be necessary if drugs weren't so poorly regulated and heavily prescribed. Again, lobbies from either side of the political spectrum, industrial or public safety-minded, overstep with answers too extreme for easy compromise, and we remain at an impasse, unable to navigate our way toward safe and affordable care.

That brings us to the middlemen who help cushion the cost of these high priced curatives...the insurers and co-ops and HMO's who make up the industry that adds yet another layer of staff and associated costs to an already mind-frying situation. One shining truth exists: you get what you pay for, and this basic truth is seen here like nowhere else. You can get coverage cheaply in this country, right now, even without a health care reform package passed by Congress. There's only one catch...that coverage will SUCK beyond anyone's ability to adequately describe. It's not entirely unlike calling a newspaper 'coverage' when you're outdoors, January.

Insurance doesn't exist to help. It exists to collect money by offering to spread the costs around to a wide pool of people who all contribute at one rate or another. If you don't mind paying the exorbitant rates that aren't too troublesome for high income brackets, you can enjoy knowing that you won't often run into situations where large checks have to be doled out to cover the remaining balance. If you aren't from one of those higher income brackets...well, you might very well be better off keeping those dollars for a rainy day rather than spending them on a plan that might cover the comparatively inexpensive doctor visit or prescription, but almost none of the tests, specialists or follow ups...which is where the bills begin piling up. This is at the root of the working uninsured. That money can't be wasted on a boondoggle that barely covers the start of serious health care, so people do without and allow their personal health to deteriorate until care is required and becomes much more complicated and expensive.

Like many other industries, insurers jumped on the Wall Street bandwagon and owe their allegiance not to customers, but to board members and share holders. This isn't a statement about right or's just an honest fact about doing large scale business. Profits must always increase if possible. Costs must always be driven lower. When the margin is in danger, cut, cut, cut to the bone. This isn't an environment that fosters a sense of responsibility for providing comprehensive coverage. It just isn't. Not because it's "evil" or "good", but because good or evil are irrelevant measurements compared to "profitable" or "not profitable".

To sum up, these are the questions that we aren't asking loudly enough: can ANY purely for-profit system ever deliver the goods to a reasonable majority of Americans, and if it can, what can we do to ensure its profitability and long term survival? Are employers genuinely no longer able to keep up with the rising costs? Is the institutional concept of the insurance company even trustworthy as a component of a system for delivering health care? Can cost reductions be enacted that could make our existing system viable again, or would that only stall for time, pushing the question back to become another generation's struggle? Is a national health care program even viable while we retain so many elements of our existing system? Would greater transparency in the political process allow us a window into how and where the misinformation and confusing numbers come

These are great questions, but the answers won't be found while waving guns outside of town halls. They won't be found by buying into panic-inducing rhetoric from the people on the receiving end of lobby and think tank dollars or by listening to shock jocks peddling anxiety and fear for a quick buck. If answers are ever going to be found, they will be found by careful examination of each issue, by weighing observable facts and by discussing them rationally. There is room for passion in this debate, but there is no room for hysteria or deliberate fraud. If you want answers, they are born of thought and reason, not through howled recriminations and shaking fists. It isn't as fun as shrieking incoherently and muddying the waters with references to totalitarians of bygone eras, but it's a hell of a lot more effective.

By Way Of Introduction

After some lengthy delays and false starts that bogged this process down, here I am at last, starting what should have begun last year, when many relevant issues were only beginning to unfold. Recreated here is the opening blog that was used on the original account, soon to be followed by more serious articles as time allows. Please enjoy.

It only seems appropriate to open this with both something in the way of a proper introduction, as well as a disclaimer. I write because I write, and acclaim is the least of my interests. We live in a complicated time, like many before us, and there are things that well deserve discussion and consideration, politics chief among them. We are fortunate enough to live in an era of unprecedented communication, where many can exchange thoughts and beliefs with relative freedom, and because of this, I choose to blog. Not so much because my opinion is better or worse than anyone elses, but because with so many hats in the ring, mine has just as much right to be there as any other.I might be no more than a white, male, middle-aged, blue collar worker with a penchant for writing and a passion for reading, but it isn't my background that matters as much as my desire to push questions into the forefront of people's minds. More questions, and better questions, ultimately lead to better answers, and in this difficult time many good questions go unasked, and thus unanswered. If I contribute but a single better question to the vast traffic of communication, then I have done as well as I could have hoped.

So, having said a little of myself but not too much, we move to the disclaimer, which is completely called for on a blog that will be dominated by thoughts and opinions on social and political problems.The articles that follow may be controversial, to one group or person or to another, but they are merely opinions, possibilities and notions, and in voicing them I exercise the same right I acknowledge and respect in others, including you. I am largely non-partisan, having grown cynical enough to place faith in almost no one involved in politics, and nothing has yet convinced me that I was wrong to adopt that cynicism. I reject political correctness, but not as an excuse to exercise deliberate acts of hate. I reject the idea that someone who differs in opinion from me is inherently bad, just because they disagree. I reject the notion that there are taboo subjects, because trouble brews in shadows, and turning a bright light to any topic strips it of its power to to sway us through fear. I reject censorship and the restriction of speech and expression, because they are weapons that steal from people of all parties and beliefs the power to speak their mind freely and participate in the governance of their nation.

I am a walking contradiction, a blend of left and right and moderate, conservative and liberal, yesterday and today and tomorrow, and really just a man who thinks too much for his own good. Please don't take any of this too personally, and remember that your opinions have the same value to me, even if I disagree with them. To paraphrase Voltaire, "I may not believe in what you say, but I will defend unto my death your right to say it."