Thursday, June 28, 2012

Is “Obamacare” A Moral Failure?

Republican Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney has declared that “Obamacare” (the Affordable Health Care Law) is “a moral failure”. That is strong language but we have come to accept such accusations without wincing these days. The shortest distant to the White House seems to be over the dead body of your opponent. Gone is the day when candidates at least publicly declared that their opponent was an honorable person.

But let us look for a bit at this accusation. It is possible to view all human actions as indications of one’s morality if we believe that all humans have free agency – are able to choose their course of action or speech in all cases. My inhaling of a breath of air – my choosing to inhale a breath of air – deprives all other human beings of the present use of that air. So I have made the moral decision that my gulping down of a particular breath of air is more important than the breathing of that air by all other creatures. I could choose to forego breathing so that others might breathe more deeply. Or, as most young people throughout the course of modern history have been told, I have a moral obligation to clean up my plate because someone on the other side of the globe is going without food even as I enjoy my plate of broccoli.

Mr. Romney’s criticism of “Obamacare” is that the President chose to put his energy into the passage of a health care reform bill at a time that he should have been working to restore the economy and create jobs. (This overlooks the facts that the President has been criticized harshly by Mr. Romney’s party for his support of TARP and a stimulus program that kept the economy from tanking completely in 2009, and that Congress, controlled and cowed by Republicans, have blocked every initiative the President has put forward for job creation. Those actions are seen, I’m sure, by Mr. Romney as morally justified even though they delay the recovery of the economy and the creation of jobs to the great detriment of millions of Americans.)  Thus, Mr. Romney argues, by choosing the lesser need (health care reform) the President fell prey to a moral failure. (Let’s not mention the fact that Mr. Obama’s healthcare plan was modeled after one that Mr. Romney pushed through the Massachusetts legislature when he was governor of that state. That was obviously the morally upright thing to do at that time – but not now, not from this President.)

This morning the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Constitutionality of essentially all of the Affordable Health Care Law, saying by its decision (supported, by the way, by the conservative Chief Justice, John Roberts) that the law, while perhaps “immoral” in Mr. Romney’s opinion, was not “illegal” when compared to the requirements of law. Mr. Romney immediately pointed out that legality and morality are not the same thing. He is right. But in our country we do not establish morality by our laws. We only establish legality or illegality. We allow the individual to determine what is morally right or wrong as long as their actions do not violate our laws.

So it will be up to the people to judge which Presidential candidate they trust to lead us. We expect any President to abide by the laws of the land. But we also, individually, hold them responsible for the morality of their actions. Most Americans want their President to be a morally upright person and to make decisions that reflect their moral understandings. But we do not want them dictating that their morality must be the morality of the nation. This distinction is lost upon much of the population, and apparently upon Mr. Romney as well, but it is an important one.

I suspect that President Obama will shy away from characterizations of Mr. Romney’s proposals – if he gets around to making any concrete ones – as either being moral or immoral. He understands that while the personal morality of the President is important in formulating positions to take, those must ultimately be justified on the basis of utility for the nation and legality under the Constitution.

Mr. Romney has stated that on his first day in office he will begin the process of repealing “Obamacare.” I wonder if he will consider, at that time, the “morality” of stipping millions of Americans of their newly won health insurance, leaving them without coverage either because of their poverty or because of an inability to get coverage due to their present health condition.

“Obamacare”, as Mr. Romney insists on calling it, has been declared a legally enacted program of our government. The decision whether to allow it to continue or fight to remove it is a moral decision. Mr. Romney made the right moral decision, in my opinion, when he was governor of Massachusetts; we must hope that, if he became President, he would exhibit the same moral sensitivity for the needs of our citizens. But if we are to believe Mr. Romney at this moment (he has been known to change his opinion on a dozen or so important matters over the years) it seems to me the man taking the higher moral (and legal) ground is President Obama.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Pit and the Pendulum

In Poe’s memorable story, The Pit and the Pendulum, the prisoner is faced with two apparent inevitabilities: 1) a pendulum which is in the form of a scimitar that descends from an image of father time and will eventually end his life and, 2) a pit filled with water into which he will be plunged by the contracting walls of his cell.

Poe had his own reasons for writing his story; presumably among them was the desire to make a little money by selling it. He also had his own point to make and that is less apparent; more debatable. I’d like to borrow his imagery to set up a point or two I’d like to make in this blog essay.

A little over a year ago, in a flush of exuberance I began The Cottage on the Moor blog with a resolution to write one blog per day for one year. Although I haven’t done a detailed check to assure that I didn’t miss a single day in that first year, I think it is safe to say that I fulfilled that resolution as well as humanly possible. Since then I’ve been writing as time, strength, and inspiration have allowed, hoping to add something once or twice a week. I’ve probably not fared as well in that endeavor as I did during the first year, and for a couple of reasons. First, I may have let myself off the hook by relaxing the standard – “once a day” is much less ambiguous than “a couple of times a week,” although even the latter seems to require a bit more than I’ve accomplished in the last few months. Second, I’ve become a victim of the “Pit” and the “Pendulum.” I’ll explain.

Health concerns that I’ve been constrained to deal with, while not necessarily making me anymore likely than other of my fellow creatures to land in the “Pit” have none the less made me aware that we all will land there. And if the walls pressing in upon us (ill health and other hazards of living) do not force us into the “Pit” eventually the “Pendulum” of aging (and all its attendant infirmities) will do its work. Or, to say it more bluntly, we all are progressing toward the end of our earthly lives. And, to say it most bluntly, I am progressing toward the end of my earthly life.

The morbidity of those statements may offend some. I’m sorry about that. They do not offend me, and never have. One of the consolations of my Christian faith is that this earthly life is only the slim beginnings of the everlasting life I’ve become heir to in Christ. So the words of that great first century Christian, the apostle Paul, “to live is Christ, to die is gain,” are as meaningful to me as they were to him. To continue echoing Paul’s words, “I know who it is that I’ve put my trust in, and I’m persuaded that He will keep all the promises of everlasting life that he has made to me.”

But all of that doesn’t negate the fact that I’m a prisoner in a “Pit” (mortality) with a “Pendulum” (limited earthly time) hanging over me. And in these last months I’ve realized, as never before, that I cannot fully set my agenda for the weeks that lie ahead of me. There are days when things more pressing than the writing of a blog essay decree that I’ll have to let that go this time. There are days when I have plenty of time to write but little physical energy to do so. And there are days when I seem to have both time and physical energy but the muses are not blessing me with inspiration.

It would seem that, this morning, all the stars necessary to the writing of a blog essay have arrayed themselves in my sky and I’ve produced one. But don’t look for that to happen as often as once a week any longer. I’ll do my best as long as those pesky walls don’t press too hard upon me, and until that imposing pendulum finally does its work.

You understand, I’m sure. We’re all in this thing together.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What Is A Citizen To Do When Given So Little Power?

It is a good thing that there is more to life than the U.S. economy – or the world economy for that matter. Economies have existed even before Esau traded his birthright to Jacob for a pot of stew. They have always been important and have provided the framework within which some become rich and powerful and others beg for food.

But, as I say, it is good that there is more to life than the mere exchange of goods. There are a million human encounters each day that involve kindnesses and inhumanities with little or no connection to economics. For most people, most of the time, those are the meaningful events of their lives and, to the degree that they are agreeable human exchanges, they become the stuff of which “happiness” is made. Happy is the woman, happy the man whose life consists mostly of those non-fiduciary associations.

All that being said, it is nonetheless true, as stated earlier, that finances and economics provide a framework within which all of our non-economic activity occurs. So it is important to all of us that the economy of our community and world thrive. And that is why, ultimately, most elections in the U.S. and elsewhere are decided by the candidates’ actual or perceived ability to create a thriving economic community.

It seems to me that we are in a particular bind as our November elections approach; particularly because neither President Obama nor Candidate Romney would appear to have any chance of effecting a positive change in our current economic crisis. It is irrelevant to even consider whether either man has a viable solution to the problems that plague the economy. What they believe would be effective is hedged in so thoroughly by the constraints of politics that they may as well not even discuss it. Thus much of the political “discussion” centers on the trivialities that the media obsesses over in the nightly reports, mis-statements, faux pas of every variety, prognostications by pompous correspondents whose opinions correspond to exactly nothing, and the ever changing “picture” painted by the polling experts.

It is a sad fact that if President Obama is re-elected he will face the same intransigence and obstructionism from the minority party – use of shameful parliamentary procedures to prevent his policies from being enacted – as he has faced in his first term. Meanwhile the economy will continue to drift toward the precipice that European economies seem poised to plunge over soon.

If Mr. Romney is elected he will be tied to a rack that threatens to tear him in two. If he were to chose to govern the nation with the moderately conservative policies he followed as Governor of Massachusetts the Tea Party Republicans would eviscerate both he and his policies. The stalemate would be equal to the one we have seen in the last four years. And, of course, if he were to choose to follow the Paul Ryan Tea Party solutions he would succeed famously in getting his proposals through Congress but the economy would very likely plummet as it has not done since the Great Depression. Rather than following Europe over the precipice the United States would lead it in the plunge.

Is there a solution? Does either party have the solution; either candidate?  One thing seems certain; whichever man is elected he will succeed only to the degree that he receives the support of his own party and the party of opposition. For that to happen there must be a spirit of cooperation and a willingness to compromise; to incorporate the best ideas from all quarters. There are no hopeful signs that those conditions will exist any time soon.

Some people hope for a total collapse. (Remember the declarations of Rush Limbaugh and Mitch McConnell in the days right after President Obama’s election? They wanted him to fail so that he would be a one term President.) They foolishly believe that good will arise from the ashes of our crashed economy. History cries out loudly against that hope. Tyrants arise from the ashes of fallen economies more often than saviors.

In reality it may not matter as much who is elected President as who is elected to the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both of those bodies have shown themselves capable of frustrating the wishes of the Obama administration and would do the same to a Romney administration if they continue to possess the power to do so and are composed of members who are disposed to do so.

Our greatest hope for economic improvement is to elect reasonable men and women, capable of seeing complexity. and able to deal with it; men and women of good character, good will, who make good faith efforts to meet their opponents half-way, understand their positions, and accommodate their needs (and fears) while working to achieve the best economic environment for all of us. Any hint of demagoguery or self-promotion should send us seeking someone else to put our trust in.

Alas, we each have, at most, three votes to cast: one for President, one for Congress, and in some cases one for the Senate. That limits our ability to create a government of reasonable men and women. But we have at least that much power. We can do our part and only hope that others will do theirs.

Meanwhile remember that real happinesses are to be found somewhere other than in the success and failure of economies.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Time Now For A Wrap-up

Now that the Wisconsin recall election is over it might be useful to look at the candidates one last time. I’ve used the truthfulness ratings of – perhaps the most unbiased and reliable fact-checking website – to follow the candidates during the long and painful campaign. It has been clear, all along, that absolute truthfulness is rare in a political campaign. And absolute truthfulness – though perhaps an impossible dream – should certainly be the goal of every worthy candidate. It is the wish of every worthy citizen.

Allowance needs to be made for some slippage, however. All people sometimes misspeak. All candidates rely upon aids and other sources for their information and may not always be well served by those sources. So no one deserves to labeled a liar because of an inadvertent slip-up, later acknowledged and corrected, or for passing on incorrect information, later retracted or corrected. tends not to rate statements later retracted or corrected. It is concerned about those claims made and repeated in the face of evidence showing them to be wrong, or those which the candidate resists correcting or makes no effort to correct, as well as those true statements that have become critical to the campaign.

I do not always agree with the manner in which parses its analyses but I think it is impartial and applies the same standard to all candidates.  So let’s look at the final statistics from for the Governor Walker and Tom Barrett.

Walker’s Ratings:

True               6 (11%)
Mostly True    5 (9%)
Half True        10 (19%)
Mostly False   10 (19%)
False              19 (35%)
Pants On Fire 4 (7%)

Barrett’s Ratings:

True               2 (11%)
Mostly True    4 (21%)
Half True        4 (21%)
Mostly False   1 (5%)
False              5 (26%)
Pants On Fire 3 (16%)

I am willing to grant a “Straight Shooter” award for the categories of “True” and “Mostly True”. In those categories Tom Barrett is the clear winner with 33% of his claims achieving that ranking. Walker stands at 20%. Neither 33% or 20% is a very good record of truthfulness but there is a clear difference in the candidates.

In my book, anything less than “Mostly True” smacks of either an attempt to deceive, using just enough truth to mask some untruth, or an outright attempt to purvey false information, or a pathological urge to tell a lie when the truth would serve everyone better.

Once again neither candidate comes out looking very good. What we heard from Scott Walker during the campaign was less than “Mostly True” a whopping 80% of the time. Barrett has nothing to brag about at 68%.

In two lowest categories of truthfulness – “False” and “Pants on Fire” – both candidates scored a 42% ranking.

This pitiful picture does not offer much hope for good government. Both men will continue to serve in offices of high responsibility – Walker as governor, Barrett as mayor of Milwaukee. Even granting the fact that a political campaign is a frantic and desperate scramble in which decisions about what to say and do must be made quickly, little can be said in defense of such pathetic records of truthlessness. Perhaps those who readily lie in the heat of a campaign can be cooler heads when it comes to governing. I would hope so. No, I would like to hope so. I do not, in fact, have any hope that such is the case.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What Does It Mean For the 48 percent? Or, "Let Them Eat Veggies!"

A great controversy erupted last year at one of our major state universities. A large part of the student body became aware that the food service was serving eggs from chickens raised, from shell to soup bowl, in tiny enclosed cubicles. Further their hamburgers were laced with pink slime from cows that had been inhumanely killed. A campaign was initiated to remedy these, and other culinary crimes. A student protest organization (Students for Humane Treatment of Non-Human Creatures [SFHTONHC]) called for a ban on any animal products in the food prepared and sold by the university food service.

After many protest marches, hundreds of hours of class time lost, the resignation of three university chancellors, and several shootings in the cafeterias, it was decided that the issue would be decided by a state-wide referendum. After all, the entire population had a stake in the outcome of this controversy; many stakes for that matter. It was only fair to decide what students should eat by a democratic vote.

The vote was very close, nearly a tie. Of the citizens voting, 52% favored a vegetarian diet, 47 % wanted inclusion of animal products in their food, and 1% followed the lead of a wild-eye Libertarian, Lonnie Paul, who wondered why they couldn’t offer a choice of different foods on the menu and let every diner decide for themselves.

But the vote was clear. The vegetarians had won with 52% of the state-wide electors favoring their solution. Careful analysis showed that of the actual students affected, only 47% favored the vegetable diet with 47.5% wanting some sarx on their plate. 5.5% had agreed with the Libertarian that they should be allowed to decide for themselves what to eat.

But the state-wide Citizens for Vegetable Diets (CFVD) (with the help of money poured into the campaign from a national PAC, Local Grown Vegans International [LGVI]) had clearly won the election. The people had spoken. So the students at our university of interest sat down to veggie meals day after day. Some students simply dropped out or transferred to other universities only to find that the trend had spread to that campus too. Many of the drop-outs began hanging out at nearby fast food joints creating fears of conflicts between Vegans and Carnivores.

LGVI has now provided state legislators with model legislation to deal with the looming crisis nation-wide. Laws – and even constitutional amendments – will soon be introduced to assure that the Vegan victory is not soon reversed. It will become a crime to produce, transport, sell, or be in possession of any products containing animal products.

Recently Lonnie Paul was arrested. He was shown on the evening news, hand-cuffed, and being dragged off to jail, plaintively asking why the wishes of 48% of the population had to sacrificed to those of a mere 52%. “Can’t we all just get along?”  he said. A witness who asked not to be identified said that Paul had been caught smuggling a tuna fish sandwich on campus.

Over-all it is widely agreed that the current, winner-take-all (WTA), approach to problem solving is far superior to the old piece-meal-compromise-with-your-opponent (PMCWYO) system. Now everyone knows the rules. And, as Lonnie Paul’s case illustrates, they know, too, what to expect if they break the rules.

It is good to have certainty, even if nearly half the population is gagging on it. And besides . . . Jesus was Vegan – wasn’t he?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Planning Ahead For Father's Day

A Father’s Day Gift
by Jim Rapp 

What to do for man approaching eighty years old,
to serve as his gift on Father’s day?
He intends, none to offend, when they’re told,
“The best gift is to come, visit a while,
                and when you leave, haul something away.”

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Avarice Attenuated
by Jim Rapp 

There are sins to avoid;
sins too freighted
for Christian men and women
to openly embrace.

Avarice is such a sin; devoid
of Christian virtue, yet weighted
with approval when
granted “Christian” grace.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The World Can Get Along Without Any of Us

This is not a political blog piece, believe me. Well, not primarily so. I’ve chosen to use a political hook to get at the point I want to make, but it is the point that is my goal. So please give me a couple of paragraphs to set it up. If you disagree with my political position you know that America is a “free country” and you have the right to your own opinion.

I’m supporting Tom Barrett in the upcoming Wisconsin recall election. And I’m supporting Barack Obama in the fall presidential election. But I am under no illusion that they are the best persons for the jobs they seek. Undoubtedly there are people with more skills and perhaps more integrity than either of them. But I am supporting them because I’m convinced that the alternative that is being offered to each of them, Scott Walker and Mitt Romney, represent real and demonstrated dangers to our state and nation that Barrett and Obama appear not to represent.

It is with trepidation that I label anyone a “danger” to society; I know my own propensities and the danger they pose to those over whom I have power or influence. (It is with even greater trepidation that I declare someone not a danger to society.) But it is both foolish and irresponsible not to call a known danger a danger. Scott Walker’s “bomb dropping,” “divide and conquer,” “hidden agenda” approach to governance is nothing if it is not a danger to good government in Wisconsin. Mitt Romney’s Etch-a-Sketch campaign and political career shows him to be a hollow man with no defined or definable principals upon which the voters can judge him. If that is not a danger to our national wellbeing I don’t know what would be. Our state and our nation will, in my judgment, be better off if neither of those men succeed in their elections this year.

But these two men really stand in for all of us. The world can get along without them. In fact, in my opinion, the world will be a more dangerous place if they are allowed to determine the course of events by virtue of holding the high offices they seek.

But the world can get along without any of us. That is the point of this little essay. The good that any of us can, or may, do can be done by others. In fact it will often be done by others more thoroughly and more effectively than we can do it. I’m not arguing that we should cease to do what we consider good. It is the major purpose of our life to do good. But we should not fool ourselves by thinking that we are “doing good” better than others, or that the good we are doing is unmixed with harms. And it is the harm that we are prone to do that concerns me.

History is replete with examples of those whose good deeds were built upon a foundation of evil. In our own history the “robber barons” of the late 19th century, after destroying the fortunes of their competitors, the health of their employees, and setting up systems to exploit their customers, became, in their repentant latter years, philanthropists (lover’s of mankind). Our history books still tend to emphasize the “beneficial” effects of their lives, suggesting that the harms they brought to millions of people are “necessary collateral damage.” If those “geniuses of commerce and manufacturing” had put their vaunted minds to the task of creating the same products and systems without the collateral damage to their fellow human beings we might be living in a very different society today. But instead we have allowed their methods to define for us the appropriate path to success.

It is an unpleasant fact that all of us are capable of doing great evil. All of us! Great evil! But we are stuck here, given a life to live in company with others equally capable of doing both good and evil. Our tendency is to compliment ourselves on the good that we believe we are accomplishing and ignore (or excuse) the evil we do. Perhaps we would do well to become experts in harm aversion; searching our own hearts and actions to determine when we are doing more harm than good; choosing to invest our time and our lives in those areas where we are least likely to be a danger. (Would Scott Walker, who touts his Eagle Scout status, do better working a 9 – 5 job and being a scout troupe leader in his spare time? Could Mitt Romney’s vaunted financial acumen be used to rescue struggling businesses without destroying them and impoverishing their workers and stock-holders?)

I’m not running for either Governor of Wisconsin or President of the United States. For a variety of reasons which those who know me could easily enumerate, my election to either of those offices would be a danger to our state and our nation. The world can get along without me in either of those positions.

Unfortunately, those who pose a danger to our society seldom sense that they do. They are doing what our flawed humanity has done for as long as records of human behavior exist; they seek their own best interest regardless of the danger their ambition poses to their community, family, or even their own future. It is rare that those who present a danger to society (drunk drivers, burglars, tyrants, unscrupulous business leaders, financiers, politicians, bullies, molesters, etc) reign in their harmful tendencies without the “aid” of laws and law enforcement.

Elections are an opportunity for ambitious people to seek offices for which they are ill-qualified and from which, if elected, they will do much harm. Elections are also an opportunity for those who stand to be harmed by ambitious people to say, “No,” to their ambitions and thus attempt to avert the damage they may cause. Food for thought.