Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What happened in Wisconsin?

Unless you were in Wisconsin during that campaign, it is difficult to assess the precise meaning of this defeat. Many commentators tell us that Gov. Walker's victory was a bad omen for President Obama's reelection. That may well be true. But what else can we make of this?
The country's move towards the right, in this case to hostility to government, labor unions, to paying taxes has not yet come to an end. That is distressing for those of us who are not on the right of the political spectrum.
But much more upsetting is the general air of unrestrained emotionalism and sheer craziness that we can see everywhere. Educational authorities in Arizona continue to purge the libraries and classrooms of books they regard as unsuitable. The state legislature of North Carolina has ordered its climate scientists to ignore the powerful evidence that ocean levels will rise and threaten the Outer Banks. Ignoring facts has now become official state policy in North Carolina. These and many other moves on the part of elected officials are not just conservative – they are plain crazy.
The right-wing agenda clearly has different strands. There are businesses who want to assure continued welfare for big business and, since money is in short supply, agitate to cut benefits for the poor, the elderly, retired people. There are religious Christians filled with hate for gays, appalled by abortions, who want to put women back in the kitchen and the nursery. And then there are millions of people who are not in business and who have no serious religious commitments, who accept the program of the big business-reactionary Christian alliance. Under ordinary circumstances these folks would recognize how crazy the remedies are that they now put their faith in. But today they are willing to give any of them a chance.
If we look at the last century of public decision-making, we see times when the country does well, is aware of the demands of our political ideals, is inventive and forward-looking and generous towards those who suffer. Then there are the times when we all seem to be pointing fingers at each other, and blaming each other for whatever is wrong, when citizens seem to be filled with hate, when groups circle the wagons to defend themselves against threats—both real and imaginary.
It seems clear that we are in one of these periods. We have had some difficult years between the attacks of 9/11, between two failed wars and now a financial crisis that will not go away. Our schools seem to be in a shambles. Health care costs are rising precipitously. What will we do with a rapidly aging population? It is not surprising that people are afraid.
What is worse, no one seems to have any good ideas of how to improve the situation. The fight against abortion rights, the war against contraception unleashed by the Catholic bishops, whose parishioners all practice contraception, the hysteria about immigration, none of them will put people to work or deal with the problems of education, of the environment, or resolve the crisis in health care.
Then there is the enthusiasm for the free markets. For one thing, the anti-immigration movement is saying that we do NOT want a free market in labor. The persistent attacks on labor movements send the same message. In addition, a free market does not tolerate monopolies or government subsidies but free market enthusiasts have no problems with either. What else is cutting taxes on business and their rich owners but a subsidy? Their praise of the free market is not a reasonable economic policy; it is an emotional symbol, it is pure superstition.
With everyone unsure of how to solve our problems, the snake oil salesmen have a field day. When in trouble, we are likely to want to try any weird thing. "Let the free market handle it" some say, "shrink the government" say others. "Lower taxes for the rich, " "ban gay marriage," "make it harder for people to vote," "reverse the gains made by women in the last 50 years," and on and on. Some of these remedies will not work; others are morally repugnant. None of them will solve our current problems.
The real lesson of Wisconsin is this: the country is scared and at its wits' ends.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Shooting ourselves in the foot

In business, there is considerable advantage in bringing a new commodity to market. After a while the competition will succeed in producing similar or better products. But for a while the company that has a new gadget will profit substantially. Just look at Apple.
This same thing seems to be true with respect to weapons. The United States was the first country to have a functioning atomic weapon. For a number of years that gave us a significant advantage in world politics. But in the case of weapons, the short term advantage gained by finding new ways of killing and destroying is far outweighed by the long term damage done by new weapons systems.
David Sanger, who writes for the New York Times, recently published a book – Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power – in which he points out that a new kind of warfare is now being conducted by our government. Its chief weapons are drones and, more recently, computer viruses. Everyone knows about the drones. Not everyone knows that the US government succeeded in infecting Iran's computers with viruses that blew up a significant number of centrifuges producing weapons grade uranium. Some terribly clever people here, and in Israel, have discovered a way of interfering with the production of weapons of other countries.
Once again we are the first to be able to wield this new form of causing mayhem. At the moment that clearly gives us an advantage. But when it comes to armaments, being the first to use a new weapon is in fact a very bad idea.
The conflict with Iran illustrates this forcefully. When we succeeded in building an atomic bomb some people thought that we needed to use it, even though many people believe today that Japan was about to surrender even before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Almost 70 years later, many countries have atomic weapons, even such precarious states as Pakistan. Others are trying to build atom bombs, as for instance North Korea and Iran. Our eagerness to be the first to use this new weapons has cost us untold billions trying to protect ourselves from other countries that now have nuclear weapons. It has contributed significantly to make the world a whole lot less safe. It has now made an Iranian nuclear program a real threat.
No country ever can monopolize a new form of destruction. If one country has a new weapon, all the other countries will try to get them also. It will not be long before other countries will fly drones perhaps against targets in the United States. Other countries have technically ingenious computer people who will figure out how to infect computer systems in our country.
What will happen next? Will your computer blow up in your face? Will children die when their Xbox explodes? Will atomic power plants explode because some enemy managed to infect its computer control program with a virus?
It is clearly a mistake to introduce new weapons. The worry about Iran's nuclear program is the best example of that. Had we kept the atomic secrets to ourselves, would Pakistan be armed with nuclear weapons? Would we now have to unleash new ways of warfare on the Iranians in order to slow down their program of becoming a nuclear power? 
Instead of learning from past mistakes, our government has chosen to unleash a new weapons system. All of us will pay the price for this latest, short-sighted policy.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Check before you talk
Most of us tend to have fairly simple diagnoses of problems and similarly simple prescriptions for resolving those problems. But every now and then we get our nose rubbed in our own ignorance. We are reminded that simpleminded diagnoses and similarly simpleminded solutions are often destructive. Such simplemindedness is the common coin of political rhetoric, especially during political campaigns.
But politicians are not the only ones to oversimplify.
These reflections were occasioned by a recent debate about the morality of selling body parts. Should kidneys for transplants be assigned by lottery or should they be for sale in the open market? Michael Sandel of Harvard University opened the the debate by arguing that selling organs for transplants is morally reprehensible. Some things, Sandel believes, may and should be traded in a free market. Other things should not become commodities for sale, kidneys among them.
An economics professor in Montana, and visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute argued the conservative line against that. If kidneys could be bought and sold, then some people who were really short on cash might be willing to sell a kidney and thereby save the lives of people who now died because no transplant kidney is available for them. Once again the free market comes into play to save lives and make the world better.
But this pro and con selling kidneys argument ignores important facts and therefore is seriously oversimplified.
Here is one set of facts:
"Many people seem to think that donating a kidney is like giving a pint of blood. It is not.
- 4.4 kidney donors die each year in the US within 12 months of surgery.
- 20% experience complications, some of which are life-long and painful.
- 20-30% of living donors suffer from depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
More to the point, EVERY study from ALL countries with legal or illegal kidney sales has concluded that organ donation is highly detrimental to the person relinquishing the kidney. They experience more health problems, greater financial difficulties, increased psychosocial woes, and a general decreased quality of life. " (
Here is another interesting perspective on the kidney transplant debate:
Trichakis (a professor at MIT) and his colleagues decided to try to figure out how to balance fairness and efficiency in kidney transplants. They spent last summer building a sophisticated computer model that included thousands of variables and decades of data on organs and patients and medical outcomes.
At the end of the summer, they ran their model against the formula doctors currently use to allocate kidneys. Trichakis' model was just as fair as the current system— and enormously more efficient.
If you used their model to match patients and kidneys for one year, and you totalled up the extra life expectancy patients would gain, you'd get 5,000 extra years of life, according to their results.”
What do we learn? We should not argue about allowing people to donate kidneys before we are informed about the side effects of organ donation. Nor should we argue about the economic attractions of organ donation without having any understanding of what kind of difference kidney donation will actually make. Before we get into this free market vs. morality argument we had better find out whether there are more effective ways than organ donation of solving the problem of a shortage of kidneys for transplants.