April 08, 2006

WEEKEND SPECIAL: DENNY DIMWIT ON HEALTH CARE


Goat Rope is once again pleased to present another learned commentary by bantam rooster and noted free market economist Dr. Denton “Denny” Dimwit. Dr. Dimwit is director of the Goat Rope Farm Entrepreneurship Center, which is not yet directly affiliated with the WVU Entrepreneurship Center but has made infinitesimal but significant progress in that direction since last week.

It is our policy to provide space for opposing and non-human viewpoints to give our readers fair and balanced coverage of vital issues and promote civil discourse.


THE DIMWIT DISPATCH

What’s all this stupid stuff about health care? Who needs health care? Nobody needs health care. Everybody just needs to be like me. Yeah. Just like me.

Oh…Wait a minute…If everyone was like me, we’d all be roosters. That would be terrible. OK, forget that part. Just follow the Denny Dimwit health plan and let the market do the rest.

Here’s how it goes. OK. First, get up early in the morning. I mean real early. Way before the sun. How else do you think the sun knows when to get up? Then make a lot of noise. Over and over. Say anything you want but ERRRRKKKK ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRKK ERRRRRRRKKKK works for me. If the neighbors don’t like it, they can kiss your tail feathers.

Then follow the Dimwit diet, which is to walk around and pick things off the ground. Doesn’t matter what. It’s free enterprise. Got it?

Finally, you need to get a lot of exercise. If you check out the picture, the little handsome guy is me. See what’s next the me? Yeah man. That’s my favorite exercise equipment. Jeez, that’s one BIG hen. She’s huge!!! Isn’t that great? Yowza! I gotta go. It’s market time.

That’s the truth. You bet your cloaca.


GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

April 07, 2006

HEALTH CARE AGAIN

Massachusetts made headlines this week with its new health care plan, which aims at universal coverage by essentially requiring it. The program involves federal, state and private insurance programs. The jury is still out on the legislation. Moving towards universal coverage is a good thing, and the program appears to do a good job of covering low income families. However, some groups have expressed concern that the cost of the plan will fall hardest on working and middle income families.

While state progress in health care, such as that recently made in West Virginia, is important, ultimately the federal government needs to play a positive role. This is unfortunately unlikely in the immediate future, given the current administration and leadership in Congress. The administration's beloved Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), this year's version of Social Security Privatization, would only make health care less available and more expensive for those who need it most.

Meanwhile, the lack of universal coverage is causing problems for individuals, families, and businesses across the country. A few numbers:

*Nearly 46 million Americans, or 16 percent of the population, lack health insurance, a number that has increased annually since 2000. Many more have bad or unaffordable coverage;

*Around 250,000-290,000 West Virginians, mostly working age adults, are uninsured;

*As many as 18,000 Americans die unnecessarily each year because they lack appropriate health care, according to the Institute of Medicine.

*The United States spends more of its gross domestic product (GDP), 16 percent in 2004, on its inefficient health care system that other industrialized nations--and gets less for it;

*US businesses spent $448.3 billion on health benefits in 2004;

*The lack of universal care makes it difficult for US businesses to compete. In the auto industry, health care costs account for $1,500 of the price of each care made. By contrast, according to former Senator Tom Daschle in the current Business Week, "BMW pays $450 per car in Germany and Honda $150 in Japan."

Talk about a goat rope...

The market god isn't going to solve this problem, but democracy might.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: BEYOND WORDS

April 06, 2006

PRISONERS OF ZARATHUSTRA

Imagine you are on Jeopardy and this “answer” comes up: “Religion which sees world as struggle between good and evil that will ultimately be won by a good God, followed by a day of judgment for all people where the good are rewarded and the evil are punished.”

Most people would probably say “What is Christianity?” or “What is Islam?” or “What is apocalyptic Judaism?” While those guesses are partially true, the best answer would be “What is Zoroastrianism?”

Zoroaster, aka Zarathustra, was an ancient Persian prophet who founded a religion based on dualism, or the struggle between good and evil. While Zoroastrianism has relatively few adherents today, the basic tenets of that religion passed on to other faiths. It influenced Judaism after the Babylonian exile, early Christianity, Islam, and much of western culture, even though it is largely forgotten.

When the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche attempted to overturn the Western legacy of morality, he used the ancient Persian prophet as his mouthpiece in Thus Spake Zarathustra. [Full disclosure: El Cabrero first read Thus Spake Zarathustra in high school, where it messed with his mind almost as much as the gasoline he sniffed in junior high.]

To the extent that we view the world in terms of the struggle of good vs. evil, and it’s hard not to, we are children—and sometimes prisoners—of Zarathustra. It’s hard to deal with evil, either theoretically or practically. Here are some common problems:

NOT ENOUGH ZOROASTRIANISM. One problem is not taking evil seriously enough. A danger of an overly optimistic theology or world view is that it leaves one defenseless against evil. In the real world, life feeds on life and there is a LOT of deliberate and unconscious cruelty. To ignore this is to encourage evil to grow and thrive. Imagine a body without a defensive system to ward off predators or resist infections. Or imagine giving out your credit card number to total strangers…

BAD ZOROASTRIANISM. More common is bad or na├»ve Zoroastrianism, of which a leading exponent is President Bush, who apparently sees the world in terms of a struggle between good and evil in which he is the leading, and perhaps the only, example of the former. The problem with locating evil totally in the other is that it blinds one to one’s own evil, which hypothetically speaking, might include starting unnecessary wars, legitimizing torture, eroding civil liberties, damaging the public good to enrich the greedy few, etc.. Hypothetically…

There is also a version of bad Zoroastrianism among the so-called “left.” This consists of seeing the United States as the only source of evil in the world. People who fall victim to this delusion generally haven’t had the opportunity to live under Stalinism or Taliban-type rule.

GETTING IT RIGHT. A more promising approach is to recognize that every person and group has a tendency to see him/her/itself as the center of creation and to view that perceived good to it as good itself, regardless of the consequences to others. Individuals and especially groups are very good at justifying their own injustice and unrecognized violence. The tools can include self-deception, religion, ideology, or culture. When people can’t impose their will by force, they often achieve the same results through manipulation.

People in power are not necessarily more evil than those who aren’t—they just have more opportunity to do harm. Further, bureaucracies, governments, corporations, i.e. the “principalities and powers,” have a momentum and force of their own that coerce and constrain even those highly placed in them. And the most insidious kinds of evil are those that mask and view themselves as holiness and righteousness.

A STUDY OF EVIL. This view is supported by research as well as tradition. As social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister wrote in his masterful study Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, “Evil usually enters the world unrecognized by the people who open the door and let it in. Most people who perpetrate evil do not see what they are doing as evil.” Baumeister found that some of the cruelest kinds of evil are perpetuated by those motivated by idealism and often by religion itself: “The usual effect of religiosity is to make war more brutal, not less…When the perpetrators are driven by idealism, the victims do not get much mercy.”

THE BETTER WAY. There’s a better way and most of the heavy lifting has been done for us by the proverbial Founding Fathers (with a Founding Mother or two thrown in). They realized that, as the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr later said, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Hence, they designed the remarkable system of checks, balances, and liberties that has carried us this far. Recognizing that every person, system, and interest is capable of abuse, they designed a government where each major branch of government checked the others and where all branches and powers were checked in turn by a populace guaranteed the basic freedoms and the right to free speech, a free press, freedom of religion, due process, and the right to assemble and peaceably petition for redress of grievances.

In their time, the principle danger was concentrated political power or tyranny; in ours, it is concentrated economic power or oligarchy. But the insight remains valid.

In the inherently ambiguous world we inhabit, the best we can do is to recognize the potential pervasiveness of evil and develop mechanisms of countervailing power by which we each limit the amount of damage that we can do to each other. And ourselves.

Thus spake El Cabrero.

April 05, 2006

CELEBRATING A LITTLE WIN

Yesterday, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin signed a bill raising the state minimum wage in three steps to $7.25 by June 2008. I like to attend the signings of bills for which I worked--not that it happens very often-- mostly to make sure the whole thing wasn’t just a dream. At least now I have an official state pen to prove it happened…unless I dreamed that too.

(El Cabrero is the kind of boxer who would demand a rematch if he was declared a victor.)

“I’m so proud of this legislation,” Governor Manchin said. He acknowledged that some people viewed the legislation as symbolic, but said it was a good symbol to have. “It says we treat people right in West Virginia.”

As faithful followers of the WV minimum wage struggle know, the symbolic factor is due to arcane language in the state code which exempts most businesses from the law. This was something that was not apparent from reading the legislation. At this point, only about 1,500-2,000 of the state’s estimated 20,000 minimum wage workers will benefit.

Legislation has already been drafted to fix the problem and cover more workers, although this will probably have to wait until the next regular session of the legislature. The bill passed by a wide margin in both houses and some of those who voted against it claimed to do so only because it didn’t cover everyone. In a logical world, that should mean there’s a pretty good chance of success next time. Not that we necessarily live in a logical world…

The coalition which supported the increase included labor, religious organizations, and advocacy and community groups. The struggle here is part of a much larger one to raise the minimum wage in other states and ultimately at the federal level. The Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign (see link) is an umbrella of many groups working for this.

Although we didn’t get everything we wanted, it was a good start. It will help some people right away and we’ll work on the rest. Most victories in the long struggle for economic and social justice are incremental. And, really, only spoiled brats expect to get everything they want right away all the time (although that would be cool).

More important, the victory here gives momentum to efforts in other states and sends a message to Congress that it’s long past time to raise the federal minimum.

Here’s the link to the article from today’s Charleston Gazette:
http://www.wvgazette.com/section/News/Today/2006040419

(Coming next: thinking about evil)

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

April 04, 2006

IT'S HOW YOU COUNT IT THAT COUNTS

There is some good news and bad news about the poverty rate from a Feb. report of the Census Bureau. The good news is that the rate dropped by about 1/3; the bad news is that the drop occurred not because people are better off but because they counted it differently. This reminds El Cabrero of the old jokes about voting in his beloved state of West Virginia, where the most important thing is the way they were counted, not the way they were cast. (To view it, check
www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/effect2004/effectofgovtandt2004.pdf.)

The new methodology has been challenged in a joint report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute called "POOR MEASUREMENT: New Census Report on Measuring Poverty Raises Concerns." According to CBPP and EPI, the new measures contain some features which are flawed, such as not sufficiently accounting for expenses such as child care and health care and for counting home ownership as a source of income. In addition, the Census report does not include recommendations on poverty measures by an expert panel of the National Academy of Sciences, which may be more complete than their the old or new methodology. Rates under the NAS measure are higher than the official rate. For the report, go to (www.epinet.org/issuebriefs/222/ib222.pdf).

Meanwhile, a recent article by John Cassidy in in the April 3 New Yorker draws attention to the long known but often neglected fact of relative poverty, or deprivation as measured by comparison to other people living in the same society. Social scientists have long known that relative poverty can be at least as damaging as absolute poverty.
(http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/060403fa_fact)

A completely different way of approach the question was developed by Dr. Diana Pearce of the University of Washington. Rather than asking where poverty begins, she proposes focusing on where self-sufficiency begins. This method calculates self sufficiency standards for specific geographic areas and family compositions which show what kinds of wages are needed to provide for basic needs without relying on public or private assistance. Self-sufficiency standards have been adopted by many government and other agencies as benchmarks and as tools for policies and counseling. For more on this, check out www.sixstrategies.org.

Meanwhile, the point to keep in mind is that, regardless of how you count it, the growing gap between rich and poor, between the rich and everyone else, and the related middle class squeeze is something that concerns many people today. A strong middle class makes for a stable society.

As Goat Rope's old friend Aristotle pointed out long ago, "it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered, in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes, or at any rate than either singly; for the addition of the middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant. Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme..."

The Golden Mean gets lost when people get mean about gold.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

April 03, 2006

POTENTIAL

El Cabrero ranted a good bit last week about the connection or lack thereof between the economy and human happiness, but, like a cat with a stubborn hairball, he didn’t quite get it all out yet. So here goes…

It is a basic fact of our world that economic forces rule over people rather than vice versa. This is neither good nor necessary. No matter how much we worship it, the market god will not reward us with happiness. The most it can offer is the “hedonic treadmill” of endless desires and satisfactions that retreat with the horizon—and it isn’t even delivering this to millions of people.

The cult of the market god has led us farther away from an ancient but modern idea of happiness as the fulfillment of our potentialities over the course of a lifetime. This view, first articulated by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), is inherently political since the good life can only be achieved in a just political system and the main goal of a just political system is to promote the good life. Economic well being, as in being secure in the ability to meet basic material and social needs, is a necessary element of a good life but is only a small part of it.

Recent scholarship and research support this ancient theory of happiness as development. Philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002), whose book A Theory of Justice has had enormous influence, talks extensively about what he calls “the Aristotelian Principle,” which states that:

“other things being equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and that this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity. A person takes pleasure in doing something as he becomes more proficient at it, and of two activities which he performs equally well, he prefers the one that calls upon the greater number of more subtle and intricate discriminations.”

For example, a child may enjoy drawing stick figures but will not be content with these as skills and creative abilities increase. Playing guitar becomes more enjoyable as one gets better at playing chords. Athletic endeavors such as martial arts are awkward and painful at first but become more enjoyable with practice.

In all of these, as skill increases, one enjoys most performing techniques that require more refinement, even if you never become an expert. The important thing is the process and the challenge of a task that isn't either too easy or too difficult. This a source of much of the progress in the arts and sciences as well as of simple enjoyment.

This theme has been further developed by the empirical research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (and owner of a cool last name) and others who study positive aspects of human psychology and performance.

This is a kind of happiness that people can experience in any number of areas of human endeavor throughout a lifetime—provided that they have the opportunity to find and develop their talents. And as people develop their potential, the lives of others are inspired and enriched.

Tragically, because of poverty and economic injustice, millions of people never get the chance to develop their capacities.

That’s what the fight is about.