Sunday, February 28, 2010

Health Reform: Just Do It

It looks as though President Obama and the Democrats in Congress are going to take the next step and try to pass health reform by using the reconciliation process. It's about time. They should get on with it as soon as possible.

Click on the link if you would like to examine the actual facts of the proposal. Click on this link if you would rather see Sarah Palin's hysterical distortions. Or click here if you would like to see a summary of the Republican plan that shows the Democratic plan covers 12 times as many people and saves $36 billion more than the Republican plan over a ten year period.

It's OK to use the reconciliation process, which would allow the Senate to conduct a majority vote instead of needing 60 votes to break a filibuster. That is because both the House and the Senate have already passed health reform bills. The quickest road from here would be for the House to pass the Senate plan. Then the House and Senate versions would be sent to a group composed of members from each chamber to iron out changes like getting rid of the Nebraska preferential Medicare clause. The "reconciled" bill would only need a majority in each House of Congress.

The final product, according to the President's proposal, would increase taxes on singles earning over $200,000 or married couples filing jointly making at least $250,000 by 2.5% and would assess a surcharge on family plans costing more than $27,500 beginning in 2018. That would allow subsidies to be provided to lower and moderate income families and to small businesses so they can afford to buy insurance, which will be offered on large "exchanges" just like the members of Congress select from.

Practices such as denying coverage for pre-existing conditions or dropping people who get sick would be prohibited. It would NOT be a "government takeover of health care." People would, in effect, just get subsidies to help buy private insurance.

Any further nod to bipartisanship will be in vain. The Congressional Republicans present at last Wednesday's Health Care Summit made that unmistakably plain. Republicans and Tea Party adherents will slam the Democrats if they pass any plan that disagrees with their "survival of the fittest" view of human society. Moderates and Democrats will ridicule them for showing themselves incapable of governing if they do not, and with justification. It's time to finish this, make it possible for several tens of millions of people to go to the doctor when they get sick, and move on to jobs.

Monday, February 22, 2010

I Love the Olympics

I love the Olympic Games. I love seeing people of every country from all parts of the world. I love the gripping suspense. I stand in awe at the incredible dedication it takes for someone to qualify and prepare to compete in the Olympics, and I love the personal profiles of the participants. Summer games or winter, Atlanta or Athens, Nagano or Vancouver, I love them all.

I heard an analyst saying the athletes in a certain event (it might have been speed skating) burn 10,000 calories a day. They said that's the equivalent of five pounds of chocolate a day. I saw the feature on the great swimmer Michael Phelps before the last summer games showing what he ate in an average twenty-four hours. It was a good solid four hours a day just to keep himself fueled.

I love the oldster coming back trying to hang on just as much as the sixteen-year-old there for the first time. The poetry of figure skating, the rough and tumble of hockey, the violence of boxing, the nimbleness of badminton or short track and the indomitable endurance of marathoners or cross country skiers are all compelling. We are privileged to see incredibly talented and motivated young people showing us the limits of what the human species is physically capable. We also see those who have no realistic shot at a medal who nonetheless have given all they have for years to get there and participate. I salute them perhaps most of all.

And I also love rooting for my country. The clean competition is a good substitute for international conflict and the unity we feel in pulling for our people and teams is a welcome respite from some of our societal loggerheads. I appreciate the athletes from all nations, but it's been extra special this week to see luminaries like Apolo Anton Ohno, Lindsay Vonn, Bode Miller, Shaun White and the US hockey team bringing home the medals and doing so well.

For eighteen days every two years my wife and I spend a lot of time in front of the television watching the drama of the fastest, strongest, most graceful and best in the world live their dreams. I, for one, can't get enough of it. The Greeks came up with a spectacularly good idea in 776 B.C., and Baron de Coubertain did the world an immense favor in reviving the tradition in 1896 A.D. What a panoply, what a spectacle, what a hoot. How I love it!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Freedom in Society, Part 4

I conclude this four-part series with a reminder of the reason government exists. In Western thought it is part of a social contract whereby the citizens institute an authority with the mandate to protect their natural rights, those of life, liberty and property, or their pursuit of happiness, if you prefer, in the Jeffersonian expression and extension of the third natural right. It is a compact in which the peace-loving and law-abiding seek security against the predatory and destructive.

We have seen that there are frequently tradeoffs to be made when conflicting liberties collide. It has long been recognized, for instance, that freedom of speech does not include the right to incite deadly panic and that property rights no longer confer an "owner" with the right to bind fellow human beings to unpaid service and deprive them of their liberty. One's freedoms become limited when they begin to detract from those of others.

The level of essential protection and necessary restraint is in the eye of the beholder. These are often questions to be determined by the political process. In the times of the Robber Barons of the late nineteenth century, for instance, a laissez-faire understanding of freedom meant that the strong and powerful had license to employ and house workers under appallingly unsafe and unsanitary conditions and to keep them in such penury that many felt forced to risk sending their young children into mines and factories to earn a few extra pennies a day. The rise of the Populist and Progressive movements, however, led to the adoption of child labor laws, building codes and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The "right" of the bosses to cruelly use their laborers and tenants and bilk consumers ran into the countervailing rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of their victims.

So it is today. We see extremists who hold that their right to property means the government has no authority to tax them. Others maintain they have a right to bring loaded firearms to political events. Others yet contend that while a national program to defend citizens' health and lives against foreign enemies is warranted a national program to defend citizens' health and lives against disease and infirmity is impermissible. And there are those who say that rights to things like fair trials with evidence must be dispensed with in certain cases to be determined by them.

These arguments are not new; there have been such since the early days of the republic. The boundaries have always been a bit fuzzy, and the voices of the extreme and the self-serving have usually been the loudest and always the better funded. Yet over time the advocates of decency have advanced nonetheless. As Dr. King put it, "The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice."

Freedom does not mean the right of the cruel and unscrupulous to take advantage of the honest and innocent. Quite the contrary, it means the right of the latter to defend themselves against the former.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Freedom In Society, Part 3

In the last two blogs I have been examining the development of the social contract theory as introduced by Thomas Hobbes and further developed by John Locke. Their view of freedom under law, particularly in the case of Locke, with his "life, liberty and property" formulation of natural rights, restated by Jefferson as "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," was integral to the founding ethos of the United States.

As we look at the concept of freedom in action there are always gray areas and special considerations to take into account. For example, Jefferson's "freedom is not license" and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's famous "freedom of speech does not give one the right to shout 'fire' in a crowded theater" exemplify the principle that it is inadmissible to exercise one's own rights by denying them to others.

That is why one person's right to enjoy loud music in the middle of the night gives way to his neighbor's right to enjoy quiet during normal sleeping hours. That is also why the property owner's right to the labor of his slaves was eventually overturned in favor of the rights of the slaves to their liberty. The general principle is that human rights trump property rights.

These principles lie at the heart of many controversies in contemporary society. If the data show that talking on one's cell phone while driving is equivalent to driving drunk then do the people have the right to legally ban the practice? In other words, does the state's responsibility to protect the lives of its citizens carry greater weight than a driver's freedom to talk on a hand held phone, just as it does with the drunk's freedom to drive a car? I would agree with the eighty percent who say yes, it does.

The same consideration is at the heart of environmental disputes. When a certain level of air pollution is shown to cause a certain number of cases of asthma, heart disease, stroke and the like, is there a point at which the need to protect people's lives and well-being outweighs the right of drivers, fireplace owners or industries to pollute the air without restriction? Of course it does. The question is where to draw the line.

Similarly, we maintain a military defense to protect citizens' lives against foreign enemies. The property right some might prefer to control all their money is superseded by the need to collect taxes to pay for this defense. Is it so much different to hold that the need to protect citizens' lives against disease is an issue of the same kind? It is difficult to see why one is accepted by practically all while the other is styled an alien concept by some. The under girding principle is the same, that the people acting together are obligated to protect the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of society's members.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Freedom in Society, Part 2

Last time we took a look at the inception of social contract theory in Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes taught that civilization required a bargain between people and government wherein citizens give up some freedom to do as they wish and live under legal authority in order to enjoy some security. The ruler enforces order and the people obey the laws. Once such a civil society is established, he believed, the bond is irrevocable.

John Locke accepted the premises of Hobbes' argument for the necessity of giving up some freedom in exchange for security but came at the question from a little different angle. In his Second Treatise of Government, written in 1690, Locke asked some new questions. What interests would have been so essential to a people that they would have yielded some of their freedom of action in order to see that these were protected? Locke came up with three such interests, which he termed the "natural rights." He identified life, liberty and property as these three rights.

But where Hobbes saw submission to lawful authority a one-time event which bound people to obedience thereafter, Locke saw a reciprocal social contract. In his view the governmental authority was established to safeguard the three natural rights. The government was responsible for protecting the citizens' lives from foreign armies or murderers, their liberties from oppressors or kidnappers and their property from thieves. The citizens were obliged in return to obey laws against murder, kidnapping and thievery. Now if a citizen "broke the contract" and stole, then the government could rightfully take away that person's rights by imprisonment, for instance.

That was as far as Hobbes went. But Locke asked, what if the government was the one taking or failing to preserve its people's lives, oppressing their liberties or despoiling their property? In that case, he declared, it was the one breaking the contract and the people would have the right to replace it and establish a new one to better preserve their natural rights. Locke thus made the social contract mutual and reciprocal. The check on the people was to obey the law and the check on the government was to serve their interests.

Where Hobbes' one-sided social contract served as a justification for constitutional monarchy, Locke's formulation instead promoted liberal democracy as the preferred structure to protect liberty under law. That is liberal in the original sense of liberal meaning freedom, a democracy in which civil liberties are protected.

It is in the Lockean sense, of course, that the founding ethic of the United States was established. In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson echoes Locke in the, "inalienable rights" of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and in holding that, "when a long train of abuses" has proven the government remiss in its part of the bargain that the citizens may of right, "erect new safeguards for their future security." In other words, they may change it or even overthrow it violently if there is no other recourse.

I'll explore some further ramifications for rights and the state in my next post.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Freedom in Society, Part 1

The question of freedom is an important one. Freedom is a cardinal value in America, and much of our civic debate centers on what should be regarded as inviolable freedoms and what can or should be subject to limitations. The question has an important bearing on our conception of civilization itself, its standards and its bounds. Must we give up any freedom in order to live in society? And if so, how and where should we set the limits?

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes began thinking and writing about these ideas in the seventeenth century. His great treatise Leviathan (1651) hearkens back to a time before organized society when humans had perfect freedom. Imagine a nomadic Stone Age type of existence before either law or government. Without institutional restrictions on behavior there was perfect freedom. Hobbes refers to this life as the "state of nature." Yet at some point people decided to abandon this perfect freedom and live under the rules and restrictions of society. Why?

That is because though there was perfect freedom there was no security. In the state of nature the prevailing mode of human intercourse was "the war of all against all," resulting in a life that was typically "nasty, brutish and short." If I enjoyed perfect freedom to kill you and take your food I stood under similar threat from you to do the same to me. At some point, Hobbes surmised, people decided to put an end to this dog-eat-dog existence by setting up a leader with the authority to enforce order.

Thus was born what Hobbes called "civil society" under what is now termed the "social contract." The Leviathan would protect the persons and properties of the citizenry and punish evildoers. In return the people would obey his laws. People would not be as absolutely free as before, but they would be more secure. They would enjoy general liberty to conduct their own affairs so long as they refrained from preying on others or disturbing societal order. It was an arrangement freely entered into, Hobbes felt, and unbreakable once formed.

Thus was established the intellectual foundation of constitutional monarchy and liberty under law. It wasn't perfect but it was a start. I'll discuss how the concept was extended in my next post.