Sunday, August 17, 2014

What Do We Stand for?

Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, and now candidate for the presidency, used an interview with the Atlantic Monthly to distance herself from Pres. Obama. She criticized his conduct of foreign policy for lacking a clear organizing principle. Obama is extremely cautious. His motto is "don't do anything stupid." But Clinton finds him deficient because he has no clear goals and no clear sense of what we stand for.
She is certainly right that foreign policy needs to be guided by more than a desire to avoid stupid errors. You need a sense of what foreign policy should accomplish. How can we tell that our foreign policy is, what it should be?
Clinton's organizing principle of foreign policy is well known. We can put it in fancy language: America must maintain its leadership in the world. (Pres. Obama actually shares that principle.) Or we can put it in the language of the common man: "America Number One."
Such a national chauvinist stance may appeal to many voters but it is, of course, no more serviceable when formulating foreign policy than "don't make any stupid mistakes." It does not tell us what we need to do to maintain American leadership.
The Internet provides us with many rankings of countries with respect to healthcare, education, industrial productivity, and much else. In these rankings, the United States holds the 35st place with respect to life expectancy. We are in 21st place in the educational ranking and with respect to overall happiness of the people, we are in 17th place. In these and other international rankings America is not in a leadership position. If we really wanted to be "Number One" we would struggle mightily to improve our ratings in the international comparisons.
But that is not what Clinton is talking about. What she seems to have in mind is American officials going around the world and telling people what to do and – that's the important part – the other countries paying attention to them. Her view of leadership is thoroughly patriarchal. America is the father of all the countries and what America says, goes. What Clinton really means by American leadership is: 'Be a bigger bully than everyone else, America.'
That is an effective organizing principle but should not be ours. We present ourselves often as champions of freedom and equality and of democracy. You cannot champion those and be a big bully at the same time.
Telling people what to do is, at best, a part of leadership. The other, more important part is listening and being really attuned to what the followers think and need. Bullying is not leading. Good leaders need to be good listeners.
As all parents and teachers know only too well, one does not lead by preaching, one does not lead by haranguing people. One leads by example. If America wants to maintain its leadership position it has to practice what it preaches. If we are really concerned to promote peace around the world, we cannot continue to be the country that spends more per capita on its military than any other country.
It is important to remind ourselves that the sort of leadership Clinton wants to maintain has passed from our hands a while ago. We did not manage to create a peaceful Iraq where different ethnic groups lived and worked together for their mutual benefit. We did not manage to defeat communism in Vietnam and our fighting in Korea left the world with the bizarre state of North Korea and no reconciliation between the two Koreas in sight. Clinton and many other leaders are completely in the dark about the limits of American power in spite of the humongous amounts of money we spend on the military. There is no world leadership to maintain for us.
We pay a high price domestically for adopting Clinton's organizing principle for foreign policy. (To give her credit, she did not invent the principle. Being a big bully has been the ambition of many previous US governments.) Being so concerned that other countries listen to us and do what we want them to do, distracts us from what we should be aiming for. We should put much more energy and money into improving healthcare, improving education and improving the happiness of all of our citizens.
If we did this, others might have more respect for us. They might actually listen to us not because they are afraid but because they admire us.
Now that looks like a good organizing principle for foreign policy to me.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness?

According to the Declaration of Independence we are endowed with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government actions are thereby delimited as well as government obligations defined. Governments may do nothing to limit their citizens life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. On the other hand governments must secure these rights as far as possible. They must protect our lives and liberties and safeguard our pursuits of happiness.
We do not often reflect about what that means. I shall try to do that here. Our "inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness" is not straightforward at all; it raises questions we may find difficult to answer.
The right to pursue one's happiness, we believe, implies that one is free to follow one's own desires and ones own beliefs about a good life. For many of us that means that we should be able to marry whom we please. No one else should be able to force us into marriages we do not want. We should be free to follow occupations we choose for ourselves. No one, whether family members or government agencies should be allowed to choose for us what work we do.
We should each be able to shape our daily lives as we consider best. This family says prayers before and after every meal. In that other family everyone eats at different times what ever they please. There is no private or public agency that should be allowed to criticize the way of life we choose. It is a task of the government to protect us against anyone who would interfere with how we choose to pursue happiness.
So the government needs to guarantee for us the freedom to choose life partners, to choose occupations, to choose where we learn and what style of life seems best to us.
No doubt questions come to your mind as you read this. Some people choose lives that are clearly destructive of the lives of their family members: they take drugs, they drink too much, they lead a life of crime, they are violent and coercive. Should someone not try to stop them and protect their family?
The government's duty to protect our pursuit of happiness is very unclear and full of difficult decisions.
Are there other ways in which we can expect our governments to protect our pursuit of happiness?
Children who are unable to go to school are severely limited in their life choices. We therefore restrict child labor and we believe that educational opportunities should be available to everyone. (It is another matter that we do not always act on that belief.) Ill health restrict life choices and many of us believe that everyone is entitled to the best health care that is available.
I have recently, purely by accident, read several novels that describe in excruciating detail the suffering war imposes on its victims. One novel describes the terrible struggles against PTSD of a young woman Iraq war veteran. Another follows a German and a French child through the crucible of World War II. In a third we hear of the brutality practiced by both sides in "The Troubles" in Ireland. The experience of war, whether as a soldier or a civilian, if we survive at all, leaves us overwhelmed by our losses and consumed by fears and regrets, by guilt long after the hostilities have ceased.
What future is ahead for the children in Gaza who emerge from the shelters to find the streets blocked by the rubble of their houses? Their parents, if they survive, are consumed by grief and hatred. Their chances for choosing a life they want are severely limited.
If it is true that one role of government is to protect and foster our possibility to choose the best life for ourselves, then governments surely may not engage in the violence of war. Our government has fought a number of major wars since the end of World War II. In each we sent massive troops and airplanes into foreign countries. In each case the wars ended with many Americans dead and many veterans whose lives continue to be seriously afflicted. In each war we left foreign countries in ruins, we affected the genetics of the population that survived so that after several generations their children remain frequently afflicted by terrible genetic diseases.
The wars we have fought left masses of people whose lives will never be freed from the burden of terrible loss, people would never be able to feel completely safe again, people who would always struggle with profound despair, with guilt and horror.
If all human beings have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, if governments are to protect that right, must governments not abstain from violence?
The temptation is to reject this question as silly, to say that we needed to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Korea and Vietnam to protect ourselves and our liberties. But before you soothe your conscience with that bromide, think hard about the victims of war, both of the wars we have fought, and the wars we have enabled by supplying military hardware to one or both sides as happened in the conflict in Gaza. The cliché that governments take refuge in, that they must wage war in order to promote peace, is laughable. Governments have killed and plundered for thousands of years in order to promote peace. So far that hasn't worked. Why should it suddenly begin to work today?
If governments are to protect our right to pursue happiness, they must dedicate themselves above all to an end of all violence.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Violence in America

If one looks carefully at the different disagreements between advocates and enemies of gun control, one finds that each side has their own reading of history and their own set of facts. Appeals to history and appeals to facts therefore will not serve to resolve this disagreement. At issue are deeply buried attitudes, ancient themes in our culture. The pressing question is what we can do to weaken the influence of those cultural themes.
The disagreements:
1. The Second Amendment to the Constitution reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed. "
Advocates of gun control claim that this Second Amendment refers only to militias and not to the rights of individuals to carry weapons when not serving as members of a militia. (Today we call that the National Guard.) It is unclear what makes Gun Control Advocates so confident of their reading of the Constitution.
Opponents deny that. They provide a detailed history of England in the 1600s – a history that was very much alive in the minds of the authors of the Constitution. According to that reading of English history, the opponents of monarchy and of what they called "tyranny" insisted on the rights of individual citizens to own and carry weapons as a necessary defense against dictators, tyrants, or absolute monarchs.
But this is a tendentious reading motivated by a belief that there is an individual right to bear arms. That belief precedes rather than being supported by the actual history.
2. There is wide disagreement about the facts with respect to the usefulness of private ownership of guns. Gun advocates cite between 2 and 3 million cases a year where someone managed to protect themselves and their family by the use of guns. Owning a gun makes a real difference, they say, in enabling citizens to protect themselves. Opponents believe there are somewhere between 60 and 70,000 such events per year. They cite, instead, large numbers of casualties of privately owned guns. Millions of guns owned by citizens make us less rather than more safe.
The people who collected these facts approach the matter with their minds made up. Each side believes that guns save lives or that, on the contrary, guns take lives. The facts do not convince anybody.
3. The debate over guns is in part a debate over the extent to which the federal government controls the lives of citizens today. One does not have to be a flaming conservative to see evidence of overreaching by the federal government wherever you look. In medical care, in education, in day care new rules are constantly being imposed and the individual practitioner is more and more under the supervision of bureaucrats.
But on the other hand, life is becoming more complex by the day and there are more opportunities for people to be ill treated, defrauded, or humiliated. The government has good reason for stepping in to protect citizens.
In each situation, defensible limits on government regulation are not easily established. More often than not choices for or against more government regulation will respond to some deep seated values which some Americans share and others do not.
What are those values? Here we need to look back at our own history. The original immigrants pretended that the North American continent was uninhabited. Europeans came and settled it, they said, and made it yield abundant crops. But that story falsifies the actual history: about every 10 years since Europeans first came to this continent, warfare erupted between whites and Native Americans. The feeling that one needed to carry a weapon at all times rests on the reality of whites stealing the land against the determined, often violent, resistance of Native Americans.
Add to that, the history of 200 years of slavery and another hundred years after the Civil War when African-Americans were regularly lynched with impunity. The history of slavery and Jim Crow is, above all, a very violent history. The condition of the slaves and the regime of Jim Crow could only be maintained by regular and unrelenting violence. It is a history of whites imposing their regime by force of arms. To maintain themselves they needed to carry weapons and always to be ready to do violence to the people they enslaved.
This history is still alive in the very basic attitudes of many Americans. They still feel that they need to be armed in order to be relatively safe. The imminent need for armed self-defense is a strong theme in our culture. That theme is not weakened by arguing about the Second Amendment or the usefulness or a danger of everyone carrying handguns.
We inherit our gun culture from our history. Our task is to weaken those traditions by resisting the glorification of violence in all aspects of our lives: in sports, in movies, in computer games, and, yes, in the debate about going around armed.
But the enemy is not the Second Amendment. Statistics about self protection or injury by handguns are beside the point. America must acknowledge it's terribly violent history and resolve to put it behind us.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Undocumented Children and the War on Drugs

With children, often quite young, flooding the border with Mexico the media are having a field day with heartrending stories about the little ones coming here unaccompanied by parents or close relatives. But there is little interest in asking why parents are willing to send their children across thousands of miles of dangerous, illegal travel. What happened to make life in Central America, in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador so terribly unsafe?
The short answer is: war – the war on drugs.
That war begins with strong and sustained demand for cocaine and other illegal drugs in the United States. Our inability to face up to this national epidemic is where the crisis for small children begins in Central America. Why is drug use so very common? Why are there so many Americans for whom ordinary, everyday life is so abhorrent that they can bear it only when they are high? We not only have no answers to these questions. We are afraid to ask them.
While administrations in Washington come and go and different "experts" advise the different governments, the war on drugs continues unabated and is being fought with progressively more sophisticated weapons and larger outlays of money. America responds to the continuing demand for drugs by buying more helicopters and guns and sending more troops and narco-agents to Central America and Mexico.
Until 2007 or so most drugs were moved by air or by sea. Then the war on drugs became intensified and drugs needed to be moved, often in small quantities, overland through Central America and Mexico.
As a consequence we have brought what amounts to a civil war to several Central American countries and to Mexico. The war on drugs consists of pitched military battles between different governments and their police forces and the heavily armed drug cartels. So far, the battles seems to be a draw at best. Certainly government forces are not winning. Police and military units are often subverted through lavish bribes which far exceed what their governments can afford to pay.
The economies in Central America and in Mexico are feeble at best. There are not nearly enough jobs. Poverty rates are very high. For many, working for the drug cartels seems to be the only or, at least, the best option. They join the army of the drug traffickers. Their job is to kill or be killed. The war on drugs destroys local economies and thus forces more people to join either side in that conflict. They become professional killers.
The continued ability of drug cartels to hold governments and the US financed and supported militaries at bay undermines the legitimacy of governments. Law-enforcement becomes feeble. Murder rates rise precipitously. Citizens hide anxiously in their houses and are afraid to go out at night. At the same time, many of the most notorious drug gang members were at one time members of Central American militaries. As such the United States government trained them to be efficient and cold-blooded killers at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, GA.
All of this increasing violence is not only planned and financed in large part by our government. But there are persistent reports that American Marines and DEA agents actually conduct raids in Central America. We are a major partner in this civil crusade in Central America and Mexico.
As this war over drugs continues, levels of violence only go up. In recent years, during the presidency of Felipe Calderon, a joint US – Mexico anti-drug effort managed to arrest or kill the heads of several important drug cartels. But what may have appeared to be a success, only resulted in the splintering of drug trafficking organizations and with it a much intensified warring between different groups, each aiming to expand its reach. At the same time, criminal organizations discovered a new source of income: kidnapping and ransoming of the wealthy. The public reacted with the formation of citizen militias aim to protect themselves and violence escalated more.
The children flooding the Mexico – US border need help today. But we need to also consider the larger context of this crisis. It is a clear indication that the war on drugs conducted by the military and the intelligence apparatus of the US government and its industrial suppliers is a colossal failure.
It should be ended immediately.
The money given to Central American militaries should be diverted to services for addicts at home. Many of them, today, who would like help breaking their habits cannot find the services they need. We must do what we can to reduce demand for drugs here here at home and reduce the violence to the war on drugs.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Americans and Class

Americans do not like to think about class. If you raise a class issue, conservatives will accuse you of preaching class war. The left lumps all different classes together under the label all the "99%". Very important differences between different segments of the American population are thereby being obscured and ignored.
College graduations still being in recent memory, I can draw my illustrations from different college graduates. There are the young men and women whose family have a bit of disposable income. After they graduate college, they could look around for work they really want to do. They can spend a year or two trying to make a documentary, or perhaps traveling widely. They can accept unpaid internships in Washington, D. C. that may pave the way to interesting future employment but leave them, in the present, depending on money from their parents.
Compare them to other college graduates who have been studying and working part-time or even full-time jobs and have always been on the edge of being flat broke. I recall a student who explained his absence from class by saying that payday was still two days away when he ran out of gas money. He didn't have the money to drive to school. These students must get as well-paying a job as possible as soon as they graduate. Whether it is work they like to do is clearly secondary, as long as it pays a decent salary. No unpaid internships for them.
Then there are the students who failed to graduate because halfway through their college years, major illness or unexpected unemployment in the family demanded that they get a full-time job immediately and therefore end their studies.
Different again are the young people who do not only struggle with very limited finances but also confront by racial hostilities and distrust. Many of them have to struggle with family and social challenges unknown to some of the other groups. Their rate of unemployment tends to be much higher than that of more affluent white young people as is the likelihood that they spend time in prison.
These are just a few examples of the distinctions between different class groupings in our population. They grow up with very different ranges of opportunities. Their needs are different from those of the other groups, as are their problems and what they can hope for. The young men and women who aspire to a political career or to work in the public sector can move in that direction if they can afford to work for nothing as interns. Those with more limited finances or those faced by racial prejudices are more likely to advance themselves by entering the military. If they survive, their future may be more stable than that of their parents but "fulfilling work" is still very hard to come by.
Seeing the diversity of the American people clearly is extremely important in many different contexts. It serves to show up the dishonesty of our politicians who constantly talk about "what the American people want" or ho lump all of us together as the "middle class." Different parts of the American people want very different things because their lives are affected by the problems of belonging to different class segments.
Hence also projects to create more jobs, for instance, by cutting taxes on the rich, are badly thought out. These different class segments tend to have different sorts of jobs. Different kinds of jobs are created in different ways. There is no way in which we can simply "create more jobs." We need to be clear for whom jobs are to be created.
Crime rates fluctuate. When they go up, politicians will come up with crime-fighting projects. But those have very different effects on different classes. They tend to come down hardest on the people whose lives are most difficult and leave those whose life prospects are better relatively unaffected. There are no crime-fighting projects that affect all citizens equally.
Yes, there are these small number of Americans who own large chunks of the economy and then they are the rest of us. But the life chances among the rest of us are very different for different groups. The likelihood that we may have some influence on the political process is very different for different groups. The probability that the government will alter institutions in our favor is very different for different class segments. The likelihood that we will have jobs that are satisfying to us, is very different for different class sections. The likelihood that we can live pretty autonomous lives rather than be constantly supervised by parole officers, social workers, and other government employees are much better for some of us than for others.
Lumping the 99% together obscures the many different and very real ways in which different subgroups experience their fiscal and social lives. If justice is your concern, you need to pay close attention to the many divisions in our populace.

Monday, July 14, 2014

What free market?

A significant number of the elderly suffer from macular degeneration, a gradual destruction of the retina of the eye ending in blindness. As persons age, more blood vessels develop in the retina and disturb the eyes' visual functioning.
In some cancers, similarly, new blood vessels develop to enhance the growing cancer. Pharmaceutical researchers have developed some medications that stop this development of blood flow to the growing cancer. Virtually the same drug in much smaller doses, has proved useful to retard the progress of macular degeneration. It inhibits the progressive loss of visual acuity in the patient.
All of this is an encouraging story of the contribution of pharmaceuticals to maintaining the quality of life in the elderly.
This story is also interesting from an economic point of view. It turns out that one of the big Pharma firm, Genentech, sells the drug that is to be injected into the eye at 100 times the price of what they charge for the same drug to be used, in much larger doses, on cancers. Yes, you read that right: for virtually the same medication, this company charges 100 times the price for an application to the eye from what it charges when the drug is used in combating cancer. The anti-blindness injection may cost as much as $2000.
As a consequence, Medicare is said to spend between one and $2 billion a year for this treatment, "roughly 10% of Medicare part B drug expenditures." (JAMA, Journal of the American Medical Association, July 2, 2014).
How can they get away with that?
Here is the story economists tell us about free markets: in a free market everybody competes with everyone else to get a high return on the capital they have invested in their business. If someone has an exorbitantly high rate of profit, someone else will enter this same line of business and so will more entrepreneurs until the profits in this particular business are at just the same level as anywhere else in the economy. Extraordinary profits are temporary phenomena, soon to be cut down to prevailing profit rates through competition.
But pharmaceuticals are not sold in a free market. To begin with you cannot sell medications without government approval. In other words entry into a particular market is restricted by government protections for consumers. You may be the only firm able to sell this drug because no one else has the FDA permit. In that case you can do what Genentech does and charge absolutely outrageous prices.
In addition, medications are protected by patents. Competitors who would like to ride the same gravy train as Genentech, will have to develop a drug that does not violate Genentech's patents. It must be essentially the same drug but enough different to avoid patent problems. In the pharmaceuticals trade that's known as a “me-too” medication.
Both FDA supervision and patent protection are eminently sensible. But they create a situation where medications are not sold in a free market.
None of this has to be a terribly difficult problem. The bulk if not all of the macular degeneration medicines are paid for by Medicare. Medicare is therefore in a very strong position to negotiate a more sensible price for these medicines. After all if Medicare said: these macular degeneration drugs are much too expensive. We we can no longer afford to pay for them, Genentech would lose most if not all of its business. It is very much in their interest to come to an accommodation with Medicare.
Other countries such as Canada or some of the European health services regularly negotiate favorable prices for the medicines they buy in very large quantities.
The problem with that approach is that Congress, in its infinite wisdom, and ignorance of the most basic features of our economy, explicitly forbade Medicare to negotiate drug prices. That, they thought would harm the free market.
That's how much Congress knows, or how much of our representatives were paid to allow the pharmaceutical companies to continue to make sky high profits.
As long as our representatives are, in fact, for sale, large companies, such as drug companies, will be able to rob the taxpayers blind for the sake of their own stockholders.
That's robbery, not the free market.

Saturday, July 5, 2014


About 180 years ago, in the early 1830s, Alexis DeTocqueville, a French aristocrat, came to the United States to watch a democracy being constructed from scratch. A new country was being built by immigrants mostly from western Europe. They were indebted to their home countries but were also much more independent in constructing a new society than were the Europeans who remained behind.
This country, DeTocqueville found, was obsessed with the idea of equality. Because all were equal, everyone's decision had the same weight. Everyone was entitled to participate in collective decision-making. Decision-making was democratic and everyone was busy participating. DeTocqueville keeps commenting on the "hustle and bustle" of American life. Everyone came to meetings; between meetings everyone was talking about local improvement projects or issues of national policy. A new country was being built and everyone participated.
The level of participation in our country has changed a great deal for many different reasons. But obviously equality is still a major concern, witness the struggle for racial equality, for gender equality and now for equal treatment regardless of sexual preferences. Equality is not only a central theme of our national life. It remains a continuing challenge. We all know that.
But equality does not only promote democracy, it also promotes conformism, the strong pressure for everyone to have the same opinion, to live their life along the same patterns, to embrace the same values and opinions. The high value placed on equality producers the tyranny of the majority. Wherever there is a disagreement over policy, over morality, over the rules governing individual behavior, the majority will feel justified in criticizing and rejecting what a minority of citizens believes.
The high value placed on equality therefore moves us in contradictory directions. On the one hand, it encourages everyone to participate in public affairs. On the other hand, it disenfranchises any views which are not those of the majority.
This pressure for conformity in America used to be a topic of public conversation. Sinclair Lewis documented it in novels such as Main Street (12920) and Babbit (1922). During the 1950s a number of widely read books like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit occasioned much public complaint about the pressures for conformity.
Interestingly enough that concern about the pressure to conform was quite halfhearted. While conformism was a topic of public conversation, conservatives conducted a successful campaign for rooting out Communists and other leftists from government service, academia, the movie industry. No one regarded this campaign to eradicate one kind of political view as an example of the tyranny of the majority.
It is not hard to see why the high value placed on equality produces such contradictory phenomena. Yes, we are all equal and therefore entitled to our own beliefs and values. But the community has a right to not only disapprove of certain values and behaviors but also to prohibit and punish them. While each of us has the right to shape our lives as we see best, our community has the obligation to prohibit certain kinds of behavior. Molesting small children, defrauding unsuspecting investors with securities that are worthless, overworking and underpaying one's employees and many other destructive behaviors are unacceptable and should be punished.
But that only intensifies the internal contradictions of an egalitarian society. As a group we have an obligation to protect our children, or to protect the elderly against fraudulent investment counselors. Is the rooting out of communists a legitimate exercise of community self-government? What about the laws passed in many states which defined marriage as between one man and one woman? When is a community exercising its political rights at legislating acceptable behavior and when is it illegitimately imposing the opinions of the many on smaller groups who have a perfect right to choose for themselves how to act and how to live?
This is the dilemma a country experiences when it values equality above everything. DeTocqueville proved himself very perceptive when he identified this dilemma.
At the same time the problem is not insurmountable. In a democracy public debates not only concern the policy issues of the day, but also the very meaning of equality. Specifically, citizens must decide in what respects we are all equal. The Tocqueville, for instance, speaks in laudatory terms about "universal suffrage" in the United States, oblivious to the fact that, at the time, only white men were allowed to participate in political decision-making. We have since then, after a great deal of conflict,--a good deal of it bloody-- decided that everyone, irrespective of race or gender, should be able to vote and run for political office. Similarly, what areas constitute a person's private domain, and what areas are to be regulated and supervised by public authorities, must be decided by a people which allows everyone equal rights of political participation.
The central task equality imposes on all of us is to define what that equality means which we regard as so important.
Many Americans ranging from ordinary citizens to presidents and their cabinet members do not understand this. High government officials from the United States regularly travel abroad and urge other countries to adopt an electoral democracy like ours. But if we took the idea of equality seriously, surely we would understand that other countries must decide for themselves how they will govern themselves. That is what a democratic stance demands. But we act as if equality meant that everybody must be like us, that we must all be the same.
It is time for us to be serious about equality and to acknowledge that it allows different people to lead their lives in different ways. We can all agree that terrorism is an unacceptable policy choice. But we must recognize that electoral democracy is not for every one. If we value democracy we must allow others to govern themselves, and to do that in ways of their own choosing.