Saturday, August 27, 2011

On Pet Ownership

Here's a thought experiment for you: If an animal inhabits your home, and you regard that animal as a pet -- that is, a creature you choose to shelter and care for because you enjoy its presence -- does that make you a "pet owner"?

Be careful how you answer, because that term -- "pet owner" -- really doesn't sit well with a lot of animal lovers.

So I learned in the most recent issue of Best Friends magazine, published by the Best Friends Animal Society. Prompted by the editors, quite a few readers wrote in to opine on what they think of the term "pet owner," and the responses were striking.

"'Pet' implies that animals are not individuals unto themselves, and 'owning' an animal reinforces the practice of treating companion animals as nothing more than objects to be bought and sold," contends Russel of San Francisco. Other readers said they prefer "companion, pet parent or animal lover" to pet owner. (And one lady wrote in to say that she and her husband, who are "childfree," dress their cat, throw her birthday parties and "talk to her like she's a person and we refer to ourselves as Mama and Daddy." This should start to give you a flavor for Best Friends' readership.)

And far be it from me to pass judgment on these folks. In my own, less effusive way, I think of myself as an animal lover too, so I can't complain about anyone who dotes on critters like this. I always had a cat and/or dog growing up, my "childfree" wife and I have a cat of our own now, and I've always been keen on animals in general, either wild or domesticated.

But the antipathy for the notion of "pet ownership" gives me pause. Not because some of these folks come across as slightly batty or over the top. (I mean really: birthday parties?) Somewhere, somebody is missing an important point, and it doesn't bode well for the animals.

Amid the stories about dogs and cats up for adoption, the profile of Best Friends' idyllic shelter operation in Utah, and the indignant denunciations of "pet ownership," this particular issue contains an in-depth article on Chicago's ongoing efforts to crack down on perpetrators of animal cruelty. It's equal parts dreary and encouraging, because enforcement of the city's anti-abuse laws are up markedly, but enforcement is just proof that some people hurt, neglect or wantonly kill domesticated animals.

It's a crime I've never understood, or wanted to understand. Better to cowardly pretend it doesn't happen, rather than picture some dumb, defenseless creature suffering. I'm sure it's the sort of thing that keep Best Friends readers awake at night, and in all likelihood reinforces their contempt for the idea of "owning" pets, as if they're just "things" or "possessions." That notion crops up repeatedly in the letters to the editor; that the very term "pet" relegates animals to the status of "commodities" or other inanimate property.

One young lady, who insists that her toy poodle is her "child" and her "best friend" dismisses the notion of owning the dog as vastly insufficient to express their relationship: "She is not a book, a computer or a cell phone...she is my child, and I am her parent."

But what if all this (completely earnest, well-meaning) insistence on seeing animals as essentially furry humans is part of the problem? These folks attribute human qualities like loyalty, affection and intelligence to their cats and dogs, and love them all the more for it. But apparently they don't ask whether the abusers, in a dark and twisted way, do the very same thing. If the perpetrators of animal cruelty see their pets as merely "possessions," why would they harm or destroy them? To put it another way: When did it last occur to you to intentionally damage a book, a computer or a cell phone that you own?

Answer: It didn't. These are inanimate objects, and assuming we purchased them, they represent some sort of value to us. By and large, they don't evoke feelings either of love or joy, anger or hatred.

As humans, we save those feelings for other humans, because they are "individuals unto themselves," not lifeless things. They elicit feelings within us, both positive and negative, as we interact with them. And those of us who love animals experience something similar in our relationships with cats, dogs and other domesticated creatures, which is why we keep them among us.

But it's not a one-way street. Really loving someone, human or otherwise, creates the possibility of also feeling anger, or contempt, or even hatred for that same being. I, for instance, love my cat. But when she awakens me before dawn, yowling insistently for food, when I'd rather be asleep, I won't pretend I'm not angry with her, or at least annoyed. What (dare I say it) pet owner can't identify with this fleeting emotion? It can feel outrageous; the cat KNOWS I want to sleep. She KNOWS it's early. She KNOWS I'll feed her soon. She's doing this ANYWAY! BAD CAT!

Except, not. She doesn't know any of those things, in the human sense of the word, which implies a moral understanding of right and wrong. She's just hungry and wants breakfast. She's not doing something wrong because she has no conception of "wrong." She's not human enough for that, and never will be.

So, dressing your cat up and baking her a birthday cake is all well and good, in itself, because it's merely hyper-affectionate. No doubt such a cat, though occasionally mortified at wearing a little kitty tutu, is well cared for.

But if you can swing too far to one extreme, and lavish love and affection at a human level on a non-human animal, someone else can go the other way, and savage an equally unwitting animal for its apparent disobedience, or defiance, or ill behavior. An "unreasonable" dog that barks incessantly might be beaten, or left out in the rain, because the owner has mistaken the behavior for something willful or conscious.

In such a case, attributing human impulses to the poor animal creates the illusion that some sort of reprisal is justified. We as a society punish human criminals, not just to prevent future crime, but because it makes us feel good. The criminal knew he acted wrongly; our outrage demands a commensurate punishment.

We do not, as a society, punish animals for wrongdoing, because we understand they lack the moral capacity to understand the concept of punishment. At best, we punish them to teach them not to do bad things in the future.

That is as it should be. No creature should suffer in ignorance, feeling only pain without understanding the reason for it. But to the extent that we allow ourselves to see pets as embodiments of our own best traits, we also run the risk that someone will project their distinctly human moral failings onto some poor, helpless animal, and act accordingly.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reflections on Tuscon

When I first heard that a gunman had killed six people in Tuscon last weekend, apparently as part of an attempt to assassinate an Arizona congresswoman, I had no intention of writing about it. The early news coverage was spotty, but the initial picture had all the familiar hallmarks of yet another senseless massacre, the kind that happens all too regularly in schools, offices and public places. To me, it was yet another reminder that the world is often a chaotic, tragic place, and that much of human existence is ruled by the random hand of fate. In short, it was not an event I wanted to dwell on.

But the response to the Arizona shootings from the media in general, and from the liberal commentariat in particular, was too polarizing to ignore. Within hours of the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords that also resulted in six deaths, prominent left-wing pundits like Paul Krugman of The New York Times were announcing that the shooting was "probably political" (in Krugman's words) and that the shooter was acting on the "violent rhetoric" coming from conservative, anti-Obama politicians.

And even when the narrative of the attacks and the background of the shooter became better known, and when it became apparent that Jared Loughner in fact had no tangible connection to Rush Limbaugh or the Tea Party, or for that matter any discernible political motivations whatsoever, prominent opinion-shapers on the left refused to back peddle, insisting that a "climate of hate" (Krugman again) had somehow impelled Loughner to commit mass murder, even if he had no literal connection to any political movement or figure. In fact, even the mounting evidence that he was in fact mentally deranged has done little to dispel that foggy narrative.

It was a shameful episode: a case of naked political opportunism without the slightest whiff of factual evidence to back up the charge. Hopefully the reputations of those who engaged in the smear will be tarnished accordingly.

But no one needs me to catalog how unjustified the "blame conservatives" campaign was. The Internet is already full of repetitions, so I won't bother arguing what's already been proven, such as the complete lack of political motivation for the shooting evident in the mountain of reporting being done on Jared Loughner, based on his own Internet postings and eyewitness accounts of people who knew him for years. I won't bother demonstrating that the infamous map created by Sarah Palin's political action committee during the 2010 elections showing the Tuscon congressional district under a gunsight's cross hairs is standard election imagery employed by both Republicans and Democrats. I won't catalog the instances of liberal politicians using violent or martial (and harmless) metaphors equivalent to the right-wing "rhetoric" that allegedly led Loughner to kill six people.

I will, however, offer a few brief observations regarding last weekend's killings that I haven't heard elsewhere, and which I think bear noting. Make of them what you will.

The behavior of the Tuscon sheriff coordinating the response to the attack was completely unbecoming for a law enforcement official.

Within days of the shooting, Tuscon Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was neck-deep in the political controversy when he announced that "vitriol" coming from, specifically, Rush Limbaugh had something to do with Loughner's motivation for the shooting. That this particular opinion is stupid and baseless is too obvious to belabor further; but that it was announced by the chief law enforcement officer responsible for responding to the aftermath of the attack is disgusting.

As sheriff, this man's sole, and weighty, responsibility is to determine what happened at Saturday's attack, what laws were broken and by whom. It is one thing for a newspaper columnist to rashly assign blame for a killing for political purposes; it is something else entirely for a police official investigating the attack to do so. That Dupnik, a liberal and an avowed Rachel Maddow fan, couldn't refrain from interjecting his (completely groundless) opinion of the attack in the course of doing his very serious job is indicative that he is unfit for office. It is a reminder that government officials everywhere, whether elected or appointed, exercise considerable influence over the lives of the citizens they're supposed to serve, and that as such, they must be held accountable when they abuse their positions.

Many liberals have become hyper-sensitive to criticism after two years of defending Obama's unpopular legislative agenda.

For many of the left-wing commentators at The New York Times, the Washington Post and other bastions of liberal opinion, Loughner's rampage was just the latest in a growing list of politically tinged acts of violence supposedly fomented by the angry rhetoric emanating from the right. As proof, they invariably trot out the same set of examples to prove their point, including the 2009 murder of a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington by an elderly anti-semite (which I wrote about at the time), the nut who flew a small plane into an IRS building last year, again killing an innocent employee, and not least, the vandalism of Rep. Gifford's Tuscon office last year, during the height of the health care reform drama.

Somehow, these events constitute a pattern of violence motivated by conservative outlets. Yet the pundits connecting the dots never seem to mention that the Holocaust shooter, James von Brun, was a rabid, unbalanced anti-semite, and that anti-semitism plays no discernible role in the conservative opposition to Obama (who is supposed to be a Muslim anyway, according to crypto-conservative conspiracy theorists); that the IRS attacker had a personal feud with the agency over his own taxes and that his rambling manifesto criticized George W. Bush without mention of Obama; or that the petty vandalism at Gifford's office pales in comparison to the bullet fired through Republican Congressman Eric Cantor's office window in Richmond, also during the health care frenzy.

Details, details.

The sad, unsatisfying truth is that a small minority of people commit acts of violence for a whole host of often inscrutable reasons, and innocent people from all parts of society are liable to find themselves in the cross hairs. Attempting to shoehorn these chaotic, often inexplicable crimes into a coherent pattern of politically motivated violence that just happens to impugn your opponents is the tactic of a charlatan who cannot or will not evaluate each episode objectively.

The Arizona shooter is part of the tragedy.

Lost amid all the blame games is the man actually behind the killings, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner. Opinion writers of whatever political persuasion tended to give him short shrift when weighing in on what the attack really meant. Sure he was "deranged" or "ill" and his actions were "monstrous," but that's about all we heard about him from the people trying hardest to sum up his actions. Almost all of them wanted to move on the "real" lesson; Loughner himself has been almost a bit actor. (The straight journalists who have documented so much of Loughner's life have, by contrast, unearthed an enormous amount about the man.)

To me, this is perhaps the least-discussed aspect of the attack. While I'm no mental health professional and don't wish to speculate on his condition, it seems apparent from much news coverage that Loughner suffers from some type of mental illness that impelled him to commit murder. According to Internet postings he was deeply paranoid about the government controlling the minds of citizens through "grammar." He sufficiently frightened students and faculty at a local community college with his violent, offputting classroom comments that he was eventually kicked out. He posed weird, dark questions to online forums. He had a history of petty, drug-related brushes with the law. People who knew him for years before Saturday's attack described him as increasingly isolated and angry.

In short, he appears to have had problems that required some sort of treatment. And now it's too late for that, and for him. Whether Loughner is found guilty of first degree murder as a completely sane defendant, or some lesser charge resulting from clinical insanity, his chances of a normal life have been completely destroyed at age 22. Whether he's executed, or imprisoned, or committed to a psychiatric facility, he'll never be part of mainstream society and all its opportunities again.

And after the obvious tragedy of the people he killed and the loss for their families, this strikes me as the real pity of the Tuscon attacks. Judging from his voluminous comments and postings online, Loughner was a deeply unhappy person, burdened by the stigma of rejection by women, by employers, by the Army that wouldn't have him (all on understandable grounds, given his apparent condition). He posted discussion threads on an online gaming forum like "Talk, Talk, Talking about Rejection" and "Does anyone have aggression 24/7?"

It all reads like an ill young person making vague signals that he needed help, in the wrong place, to the wrong people. The right treatment might have gotten his problems under control in time to avoid last weekend's atrocity. That he didn't get that treatment doesn't appear to be anyone's fault; it only compounds the tragedy that took six lives and irreparably wasted a seventh.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Road to Hell is Paved with TSA Body Scanners

"How far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without?"
~Dwight David Eisenhower

I haven't taken a commercial flight in approximately forever, but even I know there's quite a flap at airports these days due to the installation of new "body scanner" machines that reveal boarding passengers in varying degrees of nudity, depending on the sensitivity of the scanner. And apparently, passengers who are apprehensive about undergoing such a revealing procedure (and the accompanying X-rays) haven't been thrilled by the Transportation Safety Administration's alternative: a pat-down by a same-sex TSA employee that outdoes many first dates for physical intimacy. Not long ago, one such aggrieved passenger summed up the opposition to the new rules for boarding an aircraft with his now-famous rallying cry, "Don't touch my junk."

Hence the protests, the "opt-out" movements and the resulting arguments playing out on blogs and newspapers' opinion pages everywhere. Criticisms of the scanners and pat-downs have largely boiled down to two main strands: that the high-tech imaging still doesn't prevent would-be terrorists from bringing dangerous substances onto airplanes; and/or, that the new security measures are invasive of personal privacy and in violation of the Constitution.

I'm sympathetic to both arguments, particularly the latter (which was recently laid out quite articulately by George Washington U. Professor Jeffrey Rosen). But I'm also sympathetic to the more nuanced observation, made by the New York Times' Ross Douthat, that opposition to new security measures often depends on one's support for or opposition to whichever political party is currently setting the agenda on national security. After all, good policy is good policy, whoever occupies the White House.

But I posit that there is a much simpler, much more elemental way to view the whole controversy, one that doesn't depend on upholding constitutional principles or staying loyal to your narrow political affiliation. The scanners and pat-downs are a mistake, for the simple reason that they seek to reinforce the idea that the government can do something that is patently impossible: methodically eliminating every conceivable method of committing violence. The longer that fallacy is official TSA policy, the more severe will be the public consternation when the next terrorist strikes.

Airport security in America is an utterly reactive enterprise. The hijackers on the 9/11 flights used simple box cutters to take over their airplanes; so now the TSA throws a fit if you happen to have a nail clipper in your carry-on bag. A few months later, a would-be terrorist tried to smuggle a bomb onto a flight in his shoe; so ever since, passengers must remove their shoes and send them through X-ray scanners. A few years later, a group of terrorists almost succeeded in smuggling explosive chemicals onto multiple flights and blowing them up mid-air; so now all liquids are treated as contraband and severely restricted (as I learned first-hand when Scottish security at Glasgow airport wouldn't let me bring half a bottle of blue Gatorade on my flight home three summers ago).

And now, because a Nigerian terrorist tried to blow up a plane last Christmas with a bomb sewn into his underwear, the TSA wants to see (or feel) what's inside your underwear. Is this starting to feel like the old arcade game Whack-a-Mole to anyone else yet?

When a pattern emerges, there are only two possibilities: the pattern will continue, or it won't. Either the TSA will continue trying to ban whatever method of attack the last terrorist used, with ever-greater intrusions into the privacy of air passengers, or they will be forced to draw the line somewhere, and admit they can't stop every form of attack.

Or in other words, either body imaging scanners will give way to body cavity searches after some enterprising jihadist inserts a bomb in some private bodily orifice; or the government's dedicated travel safety agency will have to admit there are some lines it cannot cross, some forms of attack it cannot prevent, and that there are no absolute guarantees of safety it can make. Neither is a particularly appealing prospect, but in the long run, those are the only plausible outcomes.

If today's security lines and procedures make travelers irritable and cranky, just wait until the day when a terrorist uses a previously unheard of method to blow up an airplane that TSA cannot or will not defend against. Irritation will quickly turn to widespread fear if the agency has to concede that the government security blanket has holes that can't be patched.

Not that I favor some sort of laissez-faire approach that abandons airport security entirely. While there are limits to the scrutiny the government can or should apply to passengers as they board airplanes, I see no reason to make the terrorists' lives easier by removing metal detectors or other sensible, unobtrusive measures. But we as a society ought to be able to distinguish between metal detectors that might reveal a harmless belt buckle or wedding ring in the process of screening for guns and knives, versus X-ray machines that reveal (and potentially, save, and disseminate) low-grade centerfolds of law-abiding travelers who already have enough reasons to resent the experience of flying in coach.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Someone Buy This Man a Shovel

The most important thing I learned in 10th grade honors U.S. history wasn't the Marbury v. Madison Supreme Court ruling or the causes of the Civil War. It was the importance of always carrying a reliable bullshit shovel.

I will never forget the image of my teacher, the laconic, popular Mr. Chemerka, stopping the girl who would go on to become my graduating class's valedictorian in the middle of a long, vague, rambling attempt to answer a question that had caught her flat-footed. "Hold on a second," Mr. C interjected, "let me just get my bullshit shovel out." And, to much good-natured laughter (including from the future valedictorian), he pantomimed digging a hole with an imaginary spade.

And ever since, I've tried to apply the bullshit shovel test to every argument and opinion I run across, as a quick gauge of soundness and simple factual accuracy. Most of the time it works remarkably well, alerting me to certain statements and ideas that don't stand up to even cursory scrutiny. But when I read Tom Friedman's latest New York Times column today, I had a sea-captain-from-Jaws moment: "I think I'm going to need a bigger bullshit shovel."

In case you need a reminder, Tom Friedman writes a twice-weekly column for the Times lamenting the fact that he's not in charge of everything. He is obsessed with "green" technology, and he wishes the United States could be more like his idol, the People's Republic of China, so the federal government could impose his environmental vision on the country without little details like democratic governance getting in the way. When Obama was bailing out GM and Chrysler last year, Friedman wanted the money to come with strings, including a mandate that the companies converted all their models to hybrids, pronto. In 2008, he nearly wet himself when the Chinese put on a glamorous opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, without bothering to wonder why the Chinese have such a hard time staging simple elections. (I had words for him on that occasion.)

(If you're starting to wonder why I even read the man's work, you have a fair point. It's sort of a ritualistic self-flagellation exercise, and probably indicative of some deep-seated sense of guilt I'm trying to exorcise. Maybe my friends and family need to stage an intervention.)

Today's column might just plumb a new low for Tom, something I would have considered physically impossible since whenever I last read him. Concerned that a bipartisan Senate plan to impose prices on carbon-based forms of energy could fall apart because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would rather pass a bill pandering to Hispanic voters in his home state of Nevada, Friedman frets that America will lose out to China in the race to claim "the next great global industry ... energy technology."

If you're confused, here's the CliffsNotes explanation:

China already builds a lot of renewable energy equipment, such as solar panels, wind turbines and electric motors for hybrid cars: stuff that's in high demand in places like Europe, where renewable energy production is mandated by government and encouraged through heavy subsidies. Friedman wants American companies to build all that cool stuff, but right now they generally don't, because the U.S. government doesn't punish conventional sources of energy like oil and coal and because renewable energy isn't cost-effective without some sort of carbon tax or cap-and-trade system to make fossil fuels more expensive. No climate bill in the Senate means no shiny new "green industry" in Detroit or Pittsburgh.

Now here's where the bullshit shovel is so desperately needed. Observe that Friedman first declares that renewable energy technology is "the next great global industry." And then observe that he says America needs to handicap conventional, carbon-based energy in order "to start really shifting the economy to clean-power innovations." In other words, wind and solar are the next big money-making business proposition, the trend that's going to revitalize American industry and create American jobs, so we're missing out if we don't get on board. But first we need to make renewables the next big money-making business proposition.

This is setting the proverbial cart so far in front of the horse it's not even funny. Here's a little nugget from all those economics classes Tom Friedman apparently never took: if there's a big, money-making opportunity out there, capitalists will pounce on it, in all their greedy, self-interested glory. They don't wait around for a green light from the government. But that only works if the business opportunity in question makes sense and adheres to the laws of physics. Creating artificial demand for wind turbines by suppressing cheaper alternatives like coal is akin to creating more jobs in the ditch-digging business by outlawing bulldozers, or boosting the glass industry by throwing rocks through windows.

None of which is to say that some form of carbon-limiting scheme doesn't make sense. I have some major reservations about the current state of climate change science, but if in fact global warming is a serious threat, I'm all in favor of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through some sort of government-imposed system. That will almost certainly include switching from cheap, economical fuels to expensive power generated by wind and solar.

But to hear the Tom Friedmans of the world proclaim that making this costly transition will actually make money is laughable, or it would be if it wasn't so intellectually insulting. Chinese solar panel factories aren't booming because the Chinese economy is "going green." On the contrary, China is now the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and 80 percent of the electricity powering China's industrial revolution comes from ... coal. (The U.S. generates about 45 percent of its power from coal, if you were wondering.)

China builds lots of wind turbines and solar panels because the cost of production in Chinese factories is much lower than in the U.S. or Europe. China builds lots of batteries for hybrid cars because it has a near monopoly on the "rare earth" elements needed to build them, and is willing to permit the tremendous environmental devastation involved in rare-earth mining (devastation that has shuttered almost all U.S. rare-earth mines). China recently surpassed the U.S. as the largest auto market in the world, and it's the fastest-growing market for big, gas-guzzling luxury cars from companies like BMW. In short, China is "green" in the same sense that Ben Affleck is a perennial Oscar contender.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Does Anyone Know Jimmy Carter's E-mail Address?

Because I have an article I'd really like to send him.

Last summer, when "tea party" protests of Obama's recently enacted health care legislation were still an emerging new phenomenon, the ex-president famously wrote off the protesters as crypto-racists unable to accept the fact of a black president. "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African-American," Carter intoned.

And since then, the liberal thought-police at The New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere have largely echoed that sentiment, comparing Capitol Hill protesters demonstrating on the night of the health bill's final passage to Nazi storm troopers or angry, Jim Crow segregationists threatening to lynch southern blacks in the face of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s.

It's gotten to the point where even I, despite never participating in a "tea party" rally, and despite my utter indifference to Obama's race, started questioning myself. "Maybe I just think I object to the health care bill because it's unconstitutional, because it will make health care worse, because it smacks of heavy-handed government and economic illiteracy. Maybe I really object to it because deep down, I'm a huge racist, Nazi skinhead and just didn't know it..."

But then I read this article by Reason Magazine's Michael Moynihan, and I snapped back to reality. "Phew," I said. "Never mind. It really is just a horrible, ugly, misguided piece of legislation after all."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

ObamaCare and My Cognitive Dissonance Moment

Liberals, rejoice; conservatives, despair: After what felt like an interminable, mind-numbing debate, Barack Obama's signature health reform bill is the law of the land. And sadly, we as a country are probably in for months and years of continuing debate, not to mention lawsuits challenging the law's constitutionality and entire political campaigns devoted to upholding or repealing the most significant piece of social engineering legislation of our time. What a dreary prospect.

It's been an exhausting national debate, not least because the various bills, the final law and the underlying issues are so complex and detailed. I've opposed the basic plan all along, on constitutional, philosophical and economic grounds. But now that it's passed, I'm not here to rehash those arguments yet again. Because, having followed the news coverage of congressional Democrats celebrating their legislative victory, I realized I have a much more basic problem with ObamaCare: It makes my head explode.

To elaborate on that a bit, I cannot reconcile the things I hear liberals say about this legislation with other things I hear liberals say about this legislation. For months now, I've been listening to Barack Obama, or Nancy Pelosi, or another Washington Democrat make certain claims about health care and health reform. I hear those claims, and I say "Uh huh...," and then Obama, or Pelosi, or Senator Whoever immediately goes on to conclude something that makes me go "Huh?" It's gotten to the point where no amount of aspirin can cure the headache this causes me.

And so, rather than delving into the minutia of the law, I humbly submit the following list of basic claims about health care reform that I, personally, cannot hold in my mind simultaneously without suffering severe cognitive dissonance. Or a massive stroke.

1) "The present health insurance system is dysfunctional (uh huh...). We need to make sure everyone in this country has health insurance! (huh?)

So health insurance is outrageously expensive, maddening to access and bad at actually doing the things it's supposed to do? And this is a reason to expand it to an additional 30 million people? This isn't evidence that it's a bad system that we should have gotten rid of years ago? This doesn't cause Democrats to pause and ask, "Hey, maybe the reasons the current system sucks for the people who have health insurance are related to the reasons other people don't have insurance at all"?

2) "Our country is facing a serious fiscal crisis due to the unfunded liabilities created by government entitlement programs. (uh huh...). So we need to create a new, bigger entitlement program! (huh?)

I know, it sounds crazy, but I didn't say it. Obama said it: "Make no mistake: health care reform is entitlement reform."

Previous entitlement programs, mostly Social Security and Medicare, are threatening to bankrupt our government, so we need to cut them and put the money into a new entitlement program that's available to more people? Once again, the first part of the statement sounds reasonable: the federal government's current unfunded liabilities (that is, the value of the future benefits it has promised to pay but won't have the funds to afford) is $43 trillion. Toss in the national debt of $12.5 trillion, projected future deficits and some other liabilities, and our country is in a $62.3 trillion hole.

Yet somehow, the solution to entitlement spending is ... entitlement spending? Despite a proven track record of previous entitlement programs growing far beyond our capacity to pay for them? I can just hear the earnest, liberal policy wonk going: "But this time it'll work...!"

(And in case you were wondering just how much money $62.3 trillion is, the total value of everything produced by our entire economy in 2009 was $14.2 trillion. In individualized terms, that would be equivalent to a worker earning $50,000 with debts of $219,366.)

3) This one might be my favorite: "We're going to force insurers to cover people with expensive health problems at the same cost as everyone else (uh huh...), and health insurance is going to become more affordable." (huh?!?)

This, in essence, is what Obama's plan boils down to: Somehow we're going to make sure that the people who need medical care the most are going to get it, while still making sure that insurers stop ripping off the rest of us by keeping costs under control. Both halves of that goal are perfectly noble in and of themselves, but they are what logicians call "mutually exclusive." You can have one, or the other, but not both together. Say, did somebody mention something about baking a cake, eating the cake, and then still having the cake?

I think there might be a 4) and a 5) somewhere on this list, but for the sake of my own (mental) health, I should probably stop there. Besides, I've got a cake to bake.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I Never Thought I'd Say This...

...but for once in my life, I agree with Joe Biden.

After giving a little speech today at the White House signing ceremony for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the vice president turned to his boss, and said, into a live microphone, "Mr. President, this is a big fucking deal."

Chalk it up as yet another of Joe Biden's seemingly endless string of public gaffes (though it still doesn't top my all-time favorite).

Still, this one is worth noting, because today the veep got it right. When you enact a law that dramatically restructures 16 percent of the American economy, on a strict partisan vote, over the objections of public opinion polls everywhere, under the veil of a massive accounting gimmick and completely unrealistic policy assumptions, relying on a series of special deals for individual lawmakers, and you cement in place the worst aspects of a seriously dysfunctional health care system, and create the legal precedent that health care is an entitlement regardless of your ability to pay for it, it's a really big fucking deal.

You hit the nail on the head, Joe.