Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Save the world?

When I was young my father used to ask me, "What did you do today to make the world a better place?" Or it might have been, "What did you do for mankind today?" In any case, it was a call to serve a higher purpose than personal gratification or even personal salvation. He wanted me to think globally. He never specified which humans or whose specific world I was to improve by my presence.

Maybe I was supposed to figure out the narrowing parameters for myself. In that case he failed completely.

Some people who serve what they call goodness feel they do their best work by exterminating the agents of badness. This category produces holy warriors.

Some people serve goodness by drawing power to themselves, so that they may have a powerful influence on human affairs.

Some people serve goodness by eschewing power and wealth. They try to lead by example. Some of them through the centuries have generated compelling legends over which later generations argue bitterly, further slicing the concept of goodness into narrow strips of turf turned into battlefields and homelands of the One True Faith.

True Believers of any sect regard nonbelievers as disposable. We are not all in this together. No one will unify a human race made up of exclusive divisions. Only if every single human identified with its own unique existence and the shared experience of being human would the race have any chance at unity. And without unity we are doomed to die in blood and fire, as the holy warriors fervently hope.

Unity does not mean uniformity. Uniformity would mask differences and lead to internal stresses that would eventually break out in civil strife. Unity requires an easygoing attitude and thoughtful cooperation. Such an attitude does destroy zealotry. This frightens zealotry no end, leading to the saber rattling that threatens us in every age. The weapons of war get more horrific as technology advances. The horror deters humanity from flinging itself so readily into war, but some ideologies consider it more important to die for the right reason than to live for easygoing unity. If it really looks like the majority will choose to learn to get along, some true believer will be ready to push the button to send us all to judgment.

The current state of the Republicans illustrates the power that zealotry has gained over a nation once supposedly proud of its ability to give people of many backgrounds a place to flourish under the warm sun of freedom. The truth is darker, of course, but for a very short time around the early 1970s it did look like we meant it. Immigrants and strivers had risen during the 20th Century to make the mythical American Dream very gradually somewhat more inclusive.

In good times people tend to graph those rising curves of prosperity right up through the roof. The same is true of inclusiveness and social freedom. The social turmoil of the 1960s led to a nice party in the 1970s. The party atmosphere masked the fact that bitter resentment was festering in the darkness outside the various circles of light in which happy people danced. The forces of division and exclusion would not be denied. While the celebrants graphed their happiness up toward an amazing future in which a unified humanity cleaned up its own planet and then journeyed to the stars, the frustrated bigots marshaled their forces.

Force is the key to conflict. If the argument is not going your way, whip out a gun and shoot your opponent. Change the basis of discourse to one that suits you. If God is on your side you cannot lose. Even in death you will be exalted because you were doing the right thing. The other side claims God as well? Blasphemers! Theirs is a false god or a sinful misinterpretation of holy word. See how easy it is to keep the bloodletting legitimate?

As long as we praise warriors as the best among us we will remain locked in a death spiral. Thus the world cannot be saved. Humanity is doomed by its own idealism that extends even beyond death. As long as we force each other to prove our devotion by facing extermination we will continue to treat each other as prey.

How do you end hatred when so many people love it so much? Even people who claim to be tolerant will rise to some bait and show themselves willing to fight the ultimate battle, to end some other person's all-too-brief span or have their own ended, just to prove a point.

So what's to save?

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Free Market Military

The defense of our nation and its interests is of such crucial importance that we devote upwards of 600 billion dollars to it annually. It is considered an indispensable service although its budget is theoretically almost infinitely variable based on present and projected future needs. Military spending has been part of the total federal budge for a couple of centuries. It's not going away any time soon.

The defense of the health of individual citizens is largely left up to the individual. The fact that "a good job" included "benefits" during the later half of the 20th Century masked the fact that individuals had no guaranteed protection. During a time when jobs with benefits seemed plentiful and easy to find, anyone changing jobs would expect to hear about the new coverage replacing their old coverage as a routine part of the transition. People did fall through the cracks, but the cracks were masked like snow-covered crevasses. The glacial metaphor is apt because, as the system fails, the ice coverage shrinks drastically, leaving more and more people either on thin ice or standing disconsolately on the mud.

As victims of a market-based system we are told we can shop around. As private insurance is reshaped we will get to select from a much wider menu of flawed solutions worded in confusing ways to mask the corporate profit that motivates insurance companies to dabble in medical care in the first place.

For various reasons, most of them not good, a lot of people are tempted to turn national defense over to private contractors because the private sector is ever so much more efficient than the dumb ol' government. It works as a metaphor but not as a real-world solution. For it to work properly as a free market, we would have to shop around for the best deal. When the country was attacked we would have to send out a request for bids, sift through the applications and choose what appeared to be the best one. It's perfectly analogous to the process of shopping for medical care and coverage when faced with a serious disease that might be advancing rapidly, like a hostile army.

A taxpayer-funded, government-run military service is accountable directly to the citizen government in ways a free-market pool of militaristic contractors is not. We tell our fighting forces to take pride in their training and the traditions of excellence attached to each branch of the service. Why not call on a similar devotion and fighting spirit in our medical forces? Create the image and then live up to it. Fund it as a social necessity like defense. Let medical contractors vie for lucrative government contracts. Make the war on ill health as high a priority as the war on real and imagined adversaries around the globe, for which we develop sophisticated weapons apparently with little regard for the cost. Huge salaries and bloated retirement packages in any part of the private sector can't be used as incentives for much longer. A solid income and a decent retirement as a government doctor or nurse might start to look pretty good to the medically inclined. And ordinary citizens would not have to make the decision to commit slow or rapid suicide rather than get regular medical checkups and take care of things in a timely fashion as they occur.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

On Wheels

If you want to turn someone into a complete asshole, just put them on wheels. Look no further than the chariot race in Ben Hur for the perfect example of what I mean.

The flow is insidiously intoxicating. You don't have to be a very aggressive person to get addicted to your own smooth progress through space on the flying carpet of your well-suspended automobile. You and I develop a sense of entitlement. I'm driving, here! Step aside! I am the captain of this ship.My decisions are unquestionably correct.

Plenty of wheelers have more of a fighter pilot mentality. And not all rollers exhibit sociopathic tendencies. But sociopathic is not too strong a word for the unconscious but pure self interest that so easily takes over a driver's mind.

It may seem like the opposite of self interest when a driver sets aside safety and traffic law to magnanimously wave another driver into traffic from a driveway or side street, but it shows how sovereign each driver feels to be able to grant this boon. In some traffic-choked locales it is necessary, but frequently it is just a bad idea that balls up the orderly flow.

As someone who frequently gets around on foot or by pedaling a bike I can tell you that no motorist questions that the motor vehicle and its driver belong at the top of the chain of command. I fall into the trap myself, especially during the season when I have to drive a lot. I want to get where I'm going at the speed I choose without a lot of crap from anyone in front or behind me. If I did not have a lot of experience being smaller, slower and more vulnerable I could easily drive in my own little selfish bubble until some impact jolted me out of it.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mitt's Messages

Way back on February 1, Mitt Romney made his careless remark about not being worried about the very poor. It's been analyzed to death and sped off into the murk and dust of dead news cycles. But words have a life of their own. In this case, they conveyed Mitt's message to the named groups: the very rich and the very poor.

To the rich he's saying not to worry, he'll care for their interests. To the very poor he's saying the tiny scrap of threadbare rug they're on won't be yanked out from under them. To those in the middle he's saying, "go one way or the other."

The American Dream was based on the illusion of unlimited resources waiting to be exploited by bold men. Bold men did exploit resources and become wealthy. Other smart guys exploited bold men. By the 20th Century the model worked for fewer and fewer people, especially as the century progressed. Anyone who could see this too soon had to decide whether to play along or start looking for the new way. But the old way has put up a complex and determined resistance.

Whether he meant it or not, Mitt laid out a method by which the struggling masses, unable to rise, could simply drop into the waiting arms of the support system. If you'll be okay very poor and it's just an endless, pointless slog to reach up for the nonexistent rungs of the economic ladder to climb to the shining summit, let go. As the monks and nuns of old believed, our salvation lies in poverty. Right, big guy?

Of course the mass of surrendering humanity will collapse that supposedly fine "safety net." But the germ of an idea lies in the notion that regular people have to construct their own economy and quit playing the rich people's game by the rich people's rules. It means dumping the 401K and all the other tempting investments in the heavily manipulated markets and putting the actual cash money into the new economy we create for our own good.

I haven't imagined it in detail, but it's going to involve a lot of cottage industry and local agriculture. It may require some changes to zoning ordinances in urbanized areas where local agriculture has been out of fashion for many years. Sure, cash earns practically nothing as savings. You'll have to discard the concept of saving for retirement during a career doing things you don't really like. It would be nice if we could preserve the better aspects of civilization, but we may have to settle for living shorter but fuller lives. I don't mean any forcible end to life, only that the fairyland of hospitals and medical miracles is already too expensive for most of us and may not survive conversion to the new economy.

Investment has to take on a different character as well. Big returns are abnormal. They're not impossible but they are unusual. That goes for a small percentage paid to a vast number of investors as well as a big gouge paid out to a small handful. In other words, the stock, commodity and financial markets as currently conducted can't work. The economy has to be built around the middle, not hung from the top or rooted in the squalor of a rotting mass at the bottom.

I know it's doomed to fail because of simple population pressure. But it's more fun to dream a nice dream and tell myself a nice story than to think only about growing old or dying young in the cold, dirty world that really exists.