Monday, September 12, 2011

Miscellaneous musings

Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Palestine, in spite of U.S. opposition, has taken its case for statehood to the United Nations, asking the U.N. to condemn the Israeli building of settlements on the West Bank. The Palestinians have acted correctly. U.S. opposition is primarily a function of U.S. politicians fearing repercussions from the Israeli lobby if the politicians speak the truth about Israeli expansion into West Bank territories that the various parties had previously agreed were part of any future Palestinian state. Israel is stalling, wanting more land for settlements and wanting to finish construction of its apartheid like fence to separate Israel from a Palestinian state. U.S. complicity in aiding Israel’s efforts will potentially strengthen the Islamist elements among Palestinians, add fuel to Islamist’s terrorist recruiting campaigns, and unhelpfully postpone the possibility of peace in the Middle East.

Economic Reinvention: Gardens are sprouting across America as people plant, consume, and sell vegetables, often at substantial cost savings over grocery store prices. (Sabrina Tavernise, “Vegetable Gardens Are Booming in a Fallow Economy,” New York Times, September 8, 2011) People are discovering that without full time employment, gardening not only offers potential cost savings or even an income, but also can provide relaxation, good exercise, and other non-financial benefits. Wendell Berry would be pleased!

Economic Stimulus: Economists generally seem to approve of the majority of President Obama’s proposals for putting people back to work, predicting that if Congress enacts the necessary legislation the proposals will increase employment by 1% to 3%. (Phil Izzo, “Economists React: Gauging Impact of Obama Jobs Proposal” and “More Economists React: Gauging Impact of Obama Jobs Proposal,” Wall Street Journal, September 8 and 9, 2011) Congressional reactions varied more, meaning that passage is far from certain.

Avoiding a “double dip” recession will benefit everyone in the U.S., triggering positive ripples broadly around the world. As I’ve argue in this blog previously, government spending (pace John Maynard Keynes) can create jobs; balancing the budget will require revenue increases (Warren Buffet and other billionaires have boldly acknowledged they pay too little in taxes); and solutions to some problems (e.g., Social Security) are relatively painless (cf. Ethical Musings).

The Arab Spring: The spring uprisings in Arab countries against despotic rule have yet to produce the democratic governments many in the West anticipated. In some cases, Islamists dominate and are working to establish Sharia (Yemen, probably). In other countries, the military appears to hold the upper hand and may act to reestablish a dictatorship (Egypt). In still other countries, the revolt continues (Syria) or verges on success without an effective new government having yet emerged (Libya). None of these uprisings has brought a group linked to al Qaeda to power or prompted calls for establishment of a pan-Arab nation.

Democracy is always the result of a nation’s citizens struggling. Progress is often slow and achieved in phases (e.g., in the U.S. the franchise that began with white property owning males has expanded to include all races and both genders with no economic requirement). Democracy is the form of government that most respects individuals and is most congruent with Christianity. Christians and other pro-democracy advocates can best assist nascent democratic movements by consistently applauding and supporting visible progress toward greater respect for rights and the principles of democratic government.

New York’s 9/11 Commemoration: A mild furor erupted because New York City did not invite any clergy to join in leading the City’s main observance of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Like New York’s Cardinal Archbishop Timothy Dolan, I have no objection to the omission. Contrary to the response of the Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, the United States is a secular nation. Inviting one or more representatives of religious groups creates a real conundrum: which groups and which representatives to invite in order to appear appropriately inclusive. The National Cathedral encountered this problem with its interfaith memorial service, receiving criticism from evangelical Christians and others for inviting a Buddhist nun and not a Baptist minister. (Laurie Goodstein, “Omitting Clergy at 9/11 Ceremony Prompts Protest,” New York Times, September 8, 2011) My guess is that the Buddhist nun is closer to the beliefs and thinking of most Episcopalians than is the average Baptist minister. For example, the largest group of Baptists, the Southern Baptist Convention, does not recognize the ordination of women, an insult to our Presiding Bishop.

Healthcare Costs: Primary care doctors earn more, pre-tax, in the United States than in any other nation according to a recent survey. The average $186,500 is almost twice as much as in the two countries where primary care physicians earn the least, $92,800 in Australia and $95,500 in France. (Robert Pear, “Doctor Fees Major Factor in Health Costs, Study Says,” New York Times, September 7, 2011) Tax rates are also higher in both Australia and France, yet neither country has a shortage of primary care physicians. This study provides one more piece of evidence than healthcare in the U.S. needs fixing. We pay more than people do in any other country for less than optimal results.

Unfortunately, the recent healthcare reform legislation falls far short of the needed reforms. Multiple payers (i.e., private insurers and various government programs) ensure excessive administrative burdens will continue to plague providers. Fee for service gives providers an incentive, enhanced by trial lawyers ready to sue at every opportunity, to order multiple tests and treatments, ignoring costs and outcome data. In short, healthcare in the U.S. is a pricey, dysfunctional hodgepodge rather than an effective and efficient system of prevention and care.

Money and Politics: This column, “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult,” written by veteran Republican Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren, offers an insightful and disturbing picture of why Congress is ineffective (Truthout, September 3, 2011). I find the analysis resonates with everything that I, an outsider, know about the internal workings of Congress and an ill omen for the future of democracy in this country. As much as I support free speech, this column makes me think that the time has come to stringently and rigidly limit the amount of money that an individual can spend or contribute to political causes and campaigns. The unintended consequence of not limiting this spend has been to severely erode the ability of poor and middle class Americans (i.e., the vast majority of citizens) to participate meaningfully in our political process.

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