Friday, March 30, 2007

Convention Politics -- When it Meant Something

"I don't expect Senator Harding to be nominated on the first, second, or third ballot, but I think about 11 minutes after two o'clock on Friday morning of the convention, when 15 or 20 men, bleary-eyed and perspiring profusely from the heat, are sitting around a table some one of them will say, 'Who will we nominate?' At that decisive time the friends of Senator Harding can suggest him."

Campaign manager Harry Daugherty's words were prophetic; that is almost how it happened. I will be the first to admit that Warren G. Harding is not the best example of the argument I am proposing in this and the previous article, but it is an excellent example of the process that hammered out the best for the party and the people in the years following the civil war. This process was dying by the mid-20th century, and has now been replaced by the boring, expensive, and ineffective system of primaries that, like sheep, all states have adopted.

It might sound un-American to suggest it, but "majority rules" has never been the best way to select a leader. One reason is that the majority changes its mind so often. Riding the wave of Desert Storm I, George H.W. Bush saw his approval rating soar to record heights. Most Democrats of presidential caliber saw Bush as unbeatable in 1990 and decided not to expend the obscene amounts of money and energy that are necessary for a slalom through the primaries, and opted out. This left room for second best, and an obscure former governor of Arkansas decided to at least get his name on the ballot. By the time Bush's numbers were plummeting, it was too late for anyone else to stop the Clinton express. He won on the unpopularity of a man who had had an 80% approval rating less than two years earlier. In 1972, Nixon came close to sweeping all states in the presidential election. In 1974, he wouldn't have been able to win any of them, possibly. Majority does not always work. The framers of the constitution knew this. While allowing for popular election of congressmen, they did not provide for that in the Senate or the Presidency. Senators were chosen by state legislators, and the president, by electors. Ideally, both groups listened to their state constituents, but they knew that they had been put in their positions because they also knew how to choose.

It's not un-American to designate others to make the crucial decisions for us. That's still what's supposed to happen with "representatives." Over the years, we have cheapened the other ideas that the Framers of the Constitution set in mind. The Senate is now just a long-play compacted version -- a "CD" of the noisy house of representatives. They are selected the same way, they campaign the same way, and they end up, sadly, working the same way. It was not supposed to be that way. That's why only the Senate is entrusted with the crucial issues of politics, such as the approval of cabinet nominees and supreme court justices, the making of treaties, and the ultimate removal of unelected -- and elected -- officials. The electoral college is not just a system "in code" that helps us find out, in a shortcut manner, who won the presidency. Both of these roles were determined to assert the supremacy of the states -- over national parties and politics -- to get things rolling.

Whether you like him or not, Woodrow Wilson stands as an influential president, the first one to assert American involvement in foreign affairs (at least not covertly). If there had been primaries, Wilson would not have been our president. When you consider that he was probably not the best for the job at the time (Teddy Roosevelt, angered by Taft's "conservative" policies, ran as an independent and managed to siphon enough of Taft's votes to give Wilson the victory), but he was probably the best his party had to offer. In the Democratic convention of 1912, he began as a minor player. William Jennings Bryan was the heart and soul of the Democratic party, but the minister and attorney (of future Scopes trial fame) had lost the national elections before, and settled into the postion of "conscience" of the party, as many also-ran candidates have tried to do since in both parties. He wanted Wilson or Champ Clark, a Missourian who was the speaker of the house. Tammany Hall, the corrupt wing of the Democratic party, favored a northern conservative from Ohio, Judson Harmon -- possibly, but not certainly, because they felt he could be the most easily controlled. Most southern conservatives wanted Oscar Underwood of Alabama. The Progressive Democrats were divided between Wilson and Champ Clark, and if he had only had a long, torturous string of primaries, he could have already been the nominee instead of having to go through the smoke-filled hall.

Bryan probably could have given more support to Wilson, but the latter had written a private letter, made public (like today), that expressed a desire to see Bryan toppled from his pedestal in the Democratic party. Wilson, a highly educated man, was also a master of wit and did not hold back on his criticisms before he formally entered politics. Because he did not have Bryan's support, the first ballot ended with 440-1/2 votes for Clark, 324 for Wilson, 148 for the Golden Boy of Tammany Hall, Harmon, and 117-1/2 for Underwood. There was some wrangling and behind-the scenes action, and it appears that some deals were made. Suddenly, on the tenth ballot, Tammany Hall caused Harmon to throw his support to Clark, and with 556 votes, Clark needed only 170 more to go over the top. Wilson was ready to concede, but Bryan decided that he could swallow his pride and ignore Wilson's insult -- it would be worth it to stop Tammany Hall. Before the 14th ballot, Bryan endorsed Woodrow Wilson. Did that seal it? No, it took 14 more votes, Wilson gaining steadily in each one, and on the 28th ballot he finally took the lead, which he would never relinquish. On the 45th ballot, he had 633 votes, which broke the back of most of the opposition. Bryan's candidate carried the 46th ballot with 990 votes.

I must add that America didn't really want a Democratic president at the time. However, because the popular Teddy Roosevelt was poised to split the Republican party, any Democrat would have won, with the possible exception of Underwood. Wilson was the best possible candidate for the party that would win. It was as close as Tammany Hall would ever come to invading the White House, and with their money and influence, they would have done so with primaries in every state. I don't think it would have been President Clark; it would have been President Harmon and a VP hand-picked by the bosses of Tammany Hall.

By the way, the Republicans finished third overall in popular and electoral votes. Roosevelt's Bull Moose party came in second. It is interesting to notice some of the progressive planks of Roosevelt, signals of the changing political scene:

  • Direct election of senators (which we have now, of course)
  • Easier amendment of the Constitution (an erosion of states' power, actually)
  • Graduated inheritance and income taxes
  • A system of "social security" (yes, that...)
  • National health insurance!
  • Primaries for all state and national offices

--So it was already the "beginning of the end." Our nation was being moved away from Jefferson's model of a federation of sovereign states with peer rule, to the aristocratic model of John Adams, who believed that the federal government knew better than the states what we should do. It is a paradox that continues to this day: as the "power of the majority, the rule of democracy" is exalted, the actual power of people of conscience to influence the course of our nation is diminishing.

--And it's why, no matter who wins in 2008, our next president will not be the best person we could have had. Our next president won't even be in the top 10. And we will have to live with it. We need the smoke-filled convention hall again.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Would Seward be on the Penny?

Take a good look at him. If our current method of selecting party candidates for president had been in effect in 1860, this man's image would be on the penny -- maybe. He was the front-runner for the 1860 Republican nomination. Have you ever felt like you had no choice in a presidential election? In the last one, I never heard anyone say anything positive about John Kerry, yet he made a pretty strong showing. Most of the people who campaigned for him did so to protest President Bush. I had a similar feeling in the 1996 election. I had to ask myself several times, "Is Dole the best we could do against Clinton?" Actually, the wrong Dole in that household ran for president. The other one could have changed history. Our sad state of affairs is that we have an overblown, expensive, inefficient, and ineffective way of choosing the major candidates for a presidential election. No offense to Mr. Bush, but was he really the best Republican for the job in 2000? Was Gore the best the Democrats could do? The Democrats seem to currently be stuck with Hillary Clinton as a front runner, and no one knows why. No one seems too proud of her, and on the other hand, the names Giuliani and McCain do not make people tremble with admiration and devotion; Obama, Edwards, and others -- Is there anyone on the "leader board" of either party that anyone is actually excited about? Again, that's what lost it for Kerry in '04. I remember a conservative radio talk show host (no, not the one you're thinking of) asking anti-Bush callers to tell him what they liked about Kerry. In an hour, no one had anything positive to say about him except, "He's not Bush." If Kerry could have inspired even 5% of the American electorate, he would be president today, but he was (and is) incapable of it. If Gore could have inspired even 1% of the American electorate (or his neighbors in Tennessee), he would not have needed Florida. Both campaigned with an "I'm not Bush" slogan. Most people campaigned for Dole with a "He's not Clinton" mindset. Those are loser mindsets, but I'm really digressing here.

The point I'm trying to make is that people never get to vote for someone they are excited about. With the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, that's been true for at least half a century, and maybe longer. Why? I blame the primaries. With California and other states moving to an even earlier date, we find that the major candidates are boringly selected several months before a convention. As a result, conventions are coronations, where favorites of the already-accepted winner posture themselves to impose their favorite planks in the party platform. They are the venue of campaigning for the candidates four years later. Political conventions are "after the fact" and ineffective in doing anything productive. They help maintain the boring party status quo, and preclude the soul-searching and modifications that keep parties honed and current.

Of course, the original designers of the Constitution did not even allow for political parties. As a result, there is no tradition or constitutional law to say how a party elects its candidate. Parties were not in the original idea. The best potential presidents were presented to the states, who decided how to choose their own electors for president. Later, the electors would appear before the senate and cast their votes. The man who won the majority was president; second place was vice president. If there was no majority, the House of Representatives decided who won. That lasted for all of one administration. Washington, the only truly non-partisan president, was succeeded by John Adams, who let it be known he was a "Federalist," the pre-cursor of the "Whigs," which would later be replaced by the Republican party, whose first winner would be Lincoln. Adams won, and his bitter opponent, Thomas Jefferson, came in second. Here's the wonderful irony of political parties. Jefferson is hailed as the founder of the Democratic party. However, he called himself a "Republican." Historians call the party "Democratic Republican." Most of Jefferson's political values were Reagan-like and beyond -- states' rights, limited federal government, etc.

Needless to say, Adams and Jefferson, former friends, did not get along well. Adams felt that strong federal control would not be too bad. He did not totally object to maybe being more like a king than a prime minister. When elections came around again, Jefferson ran against him, and it was a polarized election: the Federalists versus the Republicans. Jefferson was the first to choose a "running mate," Aaron Burr. Everyone knew that he was a VP nominee but Burr himself. When Jefferson and Burr got the same number of electoral votes, Burr decided to stake a claim for the Oval Office himself. Through the help of those who knew what was going on, Jefferson was made president and Burr was declared vice president. The constitution was changed to the current method of selecting a VP, and Burr, angry at Alexander Hamilton who had helped topple his vision of grandeur, shot him in the brisket 180 years before anyone ever heard of Dick Cheney.

From that time, party candidates were chosen by a caucus of congressmen of each party. For instance, in 1816, a caucus of "Republican" congressmen chose James Madison as their party's representative. While not a perfect system, it was replaced as the choosing of a president moved closer to the hands of the popular majority. James K. Polk was the first to experience it. In the Democratic Convention in Baltimore in 1844, Polk wasn't even a gleam in anyone's eye. They were looking at former president Martin van Buren. In fact, van Buren got the majority vote on the first ballot, though not the 2/3 needed. Polk got zero votes. There were other names -- Lewis Cass, Richard M. Johnson, and future president James Buchanan. By the 5th ballot, van Buren had slipped, and Cass was in the lead. By the 8th ballot, Polk got a vote. On the ninth, he won with 233 votes, and was the first candidate selected this way.

That brings me to William H. Seward. In the 1860 convention, he was the front-runner for the nomination. In all fairness, the Republicans (not to be confused with Jefferson's party which had evolved into the current Democratic party) had not yet had a valid candidate. They had run Fremont against Buchanan four years earlier, and he had made a fair showing. The Whig party had self-destructed, and would soon be gone entirely. Most of the Republicans had been Whigs, including Lincoln. On the first ballot, Seward led Lincoln 173-1/2 to 102. On the second ballot, both candidates gained votes, but Seward's lead had shrunk to 2-1/2 votes. On the third ballot, Lincoln won. If there had been primaries in every state, we would have never heard of Lincoln. Seward had the political organization. He had the savvy necessary to run a good campaign. He had the name recognition, and of course, Lincoln had no public presence. He had no financial base. There is no way Lincoln could have sustained the long, dragged-out, monolithic campaign that others could have. In fact, Lincoln's opponents in his second nomination, Benjamin Wade, Salmon P. Chase, and Horace Greeley, would probably have been the front-runners in the 1860 primaries, had they existed. Lincoln would never have won a southern primary, and the border states would have been much more enamored of Greeley or Seward. By the time they got to Chicago, it would have been a "done deal," and Lincoln wouldn't have even been given the opportunity for a nominating speech. No VP offer, no cabinet positions, nothing. He would have died in his home in Springfield, an obscure lawyer.

My question is, "How many Lincolns have we missed in the past 40 years?" The monolithic, non-committal stand that candidates must take as they run through the expensive, bloated, inefficient process of primaries assures us that the cream will not rise to the top. The best drop out because they are human beings -- they have obligations to family and work. They live in the real world. They have real opinions, and not all of them are popular, but they are the stuff the person is really made of. When I see a pro-life Democratic candidate like Richard Gephardt change his views on abortion because he can't win nationwide primaries with what he really believes, I see a compromised candidate. For that matter, George H. W. Bush became pro-life and adopted Reagan's "voodoo economics" for just the opposite reasons -- votes in the 1988 Republican primaries. The candidates are so heavily influenced by the whims of their financial supporters, the demands of the press, and the need to say what all the states want to hear, that we don't really know what they mean. Instead, we get Hillary Clinton, preaching in a Baptist pulpit with a thick southern accent, and we all know she doesn't mean a word of it, but the votes are what are most important.

Is there any way to forego the primaries? We are settling for the worst possibilities by putting ourselves in that system. I'll go one step further with a stunning paradox -- we will never have another popular candidate until we get rid of popular elections. The best candidates we ever had were those who emerged from midnight deals that were hammered out in smoke-filled rooms. The convention halls were hot, crowded, and uncomfortable. People wanted to go home, and they were willing to wheel and deal in order to do it. From those crowded convention halls came some of our best presidents -- and some of the best also-rans, like William Jennings Bryan and Samuel J. Tilden.

As I look at the crowded field, I see no one that I feel will ever be on a coin. These homogenized, pasteurized, monolithic candidates are devoid of new ideas and owe favors to too many people to ever do anything historic. The final two will be the ones with the most votes, and we will know who they are, maybe six months before their respective political conventions. This means six extra months of partisan politics, mud-slinging, and character attacks. And before long, someone is going to pay a billion dollars to sit in a chair in the oval office.

We have no hope with "primary" presidents. I don't know if anything can be done.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Kindler, Gentler Version of the Last Post

Putting aside the personal information and the hysteria of the last post, let me see if I can say things in a more diplomatic manner:
  • While insurance companies are not pristine castles of virtue, it is silly to think they are the main problem. The premiums are high and the insurance is difficult to get because hospital-related expenses have gone "through the roof."
  • When people have to pay high prices for insurance, they try harder to get back their "investment," so they are much more likely to file a claim. When an expense is "out of pocket," people will not go to a doctor for a hangnail; when it is not costing them, they will demand a single occupancy room and a specialist for that hangnail.
  • Doctors, hospitals, and health care professionals should be adequately compensated for the service they do for all of us. Healers and protectors have always been the most respected and honored people in our society (look at all the doctor and police TV shows), but when a night's stay in a hospital costs three month's salary, and a routine visit to the doctor's office costs two day's wages, something is wrong.
  • Government-backed health care is a monstruous pool of borrowed and imagined money that can be obtained with a valid Medicare or Social Security card. There's a lot more money to be had by tapping into this treasure house than by charging the normal, traditional channels (such as family funds, etc)
  • Medical institutions are "harvesting" those who have government-funded health care with myriad testing, unnecessary surgeries, and ill-advised replacement processes.
  • If we get universal health care, we will all be treated like they are treating your grandmother right now.
  • The money will run out if we continue to operate in this system.
  • The only way to control the high cost of medical care is to re-insert the most important part of the equation -- the patient himself. Right now, medical institutions deal directly with government and private health care insurance companies to squeeze as much as they can, and when its all gone, then they go to the patient. The patient should be there from the start.
  • No medical institution should be allowed to receive one cent from anyone unless that money has first been handled and processed by the patient.
  • Hospitals have provisions for caring for the uninsured and the poor. I smile every time I hear about one that "lost" several thousand dollars in indigent care. The nearest comparison I can think of would go something like this: I buy some apples and set up a stand on the street corner. I sell the apples for 50 dollars each. If anyone is gullible, dumb, or ignorant enough to buy one, I make my profits. Some people are on corporate expense accounts, and simply slide their credit cards at my corner stand. It doesn't cost them, so why bother worrying about it? One day, a poor, starving family begs me for apples. I give them five, and then I tell everyone I have "lost" 250 dollars through indigent care. Actually, the apples were only a quarter each for me. I was making $49.75 on each one. I "lost" $1.25 when I helped the family, but of course the profits I had made easily accounted for that. Still, I felt it necessary, when I bought my next load of apples, to raise the price to $60 to offset my losses.
  • I somewhere learned that if I sent a $100 bill to the companies with the expense accounts, I could get them to settle for $75, and come out ahead. I also learned that I could then bill the individuals for the other $25, since their coverage only took care of 3/4 of the price I had billed them.
  • My customers, though disturbed, were still relieved that they had "insurance," and that those apples had only cost them $25. They somehow overlooked the fact that I might be getting them for a lot less than that.
  • In the meantime, I had plenty of cash to "expand" my facility. Most customers had to walk around the construction to get to my apple cart. What was I building? More apple display room? No, I was building an apple research institute, a headquarters for meetings with other apple vendors, and a health club where my wealthier customers could slide their cards and enjoy some finer things of life.

When we get "Universal Health Care," the bloated beast that is currently the medical industry is going to grow a hundred times larger. Sure, there will be lots of new jobs, more markets for medicine, and a perceived "growth" in the economy.

But the money is going to have to come from somewhere. I think I know where.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The High Cost of Universal Health Care, Chapter I

I listened to Hillary on "Good Morning America" today as a friendly press threw her a few softballs so she could publicize her campaign and get Obama off her back. I felt like the painting "The Scream" as she guaranteed that "universal health care" would soon be a reality. Of course, by that, she meant "free" health insurance for everyone. Please realize that no federal program is ever really going to be "free." It was implied that such coverage would not result in more taxes, so I'm really wondering where the money machine is located that is going to pay the already horrendous medical bills that even more Americans will have when Utopia arrives.
My point is that "coverage," or "insurance," is not the remedy, but the cause of the obscenely high price of health care we have in this country. I'm not talking about a responsible adult seeking to transfer some of his own risk to a respected provider or a benevolent corporation offering to help with the medical bills of its employees. I'm talking about a perceived bottomless lake of money that must go through paperwork and other channels to pay providers. Government funded health care is dangerous because it does not allow for interaction by the most important party in the process of health care: the patient. It is an intimate bargaining interaction between a designated provider (e.g. Medicare, etc) and a designated consumer (such as the hospital, clinic, or doctor).
The first mistake was taking health insurance decisions out of the hands of the insured patient. It seemed "convenient," at one time, to let the hospital and the insurance company "duke it out" while the patient, with other fish to fry, waited for the remainder of the bill that would arrive. As a result, most patients are not even aware of the horrendous bills that are sent to insurance companies. I'm not saying these companies are innocent and without blemish, but blaming the health care crisis on insurance providers is like blaming global warming on your thermometer out on the back porch.
Just recently, we had to take my son to the emergency room at 6:00 AM for what we had feared was appendicitis. The sign at the emergency room -- conveniently in English and Spanish -- says that there is a 200 dollar charge for that room. My insurance company says they will cover up to 200 dollars for an emergency room visit. Fair enough? Sounded good to me.
Three months later (that is not a typo) the bills started to come in. Our part of the emergency room bill, according to our insurance company, would be 250 dollars, since they had paid the first 200 of the bill themselves. Because we had turned in our insurance card, we got the "special rates." That 450 dollars was just for being admitted. Then there was the bill from a doctor who was not even physically present in the small town we visited -- his office is 200 miles away, but he somehow did the X-rays and interpretation of them. $450. Then I got a letter from my insurance company that they had paid all they were obligated to pay and would pay no more. I was angry with them until I realized they had paid 400 of the 1500 bill for other incidental charges. I steeled myself for the 1100 dollars the hospital and doctor would bill me for the balance. Two more months later, and the charge never came. Why? Because it was a bill for my insurance company alone. They never expected me to be able to pay that one "out of pocket." At least I'm hoping.
Need I add that my son did not have appendicitis? There was no surgery. The doctor who billed us never examined him -- only the on-duty physician at the emergency room. There was no hospital stay. We paid for the prescription out of our pockets to resolve a minor problem. As best I can tell, that brief encounter was billed at about 2500 dollars, and my son wasn't even sick. I am grateful they could tell me that, and am willing to pay. But was it worth 2500 dollars? Did we need three doctors and four offices with staffs to tell us that?
I came to the realization that I could have saved myself a ton of money if I had not told them I had insurance. Those ER rates are for the uninsured. I am currently paying 700 dollars a month for insurance that is primarily benefiting medical institutions.
A beloved aunt of mine spent her last two days of her life at a major hospital recently. They mainly kept her comfortable for her suddenly diagnosed inoperable cancer. Gave her a place to die. The bill for that two-day stay was $66,000, not counting doctor's expenses, etc. Don't feel sorry for me for paying for it. You helped. Medicare covered it. I'm trying to figure how many people, working and giving 15% of their income to social insecurity, were necessary to pay for that two-day stay that did not involve surgery or heroic intervention of any other type. And she was only one of maybe a thousand who died like that in one day.
If we get "universal health care" we will all have that coverage. At first look, it seems wonderful. I wouldn't have to pay 700 dollars a month to insure my family against something that's never happened and I hope never will. But I realize someone has to absorb that money. How many families are there in the US? How much money is that if we multiply it by 700?
Hillary and others say that this will help the poor. Well, I've lived where she hasn't. In Costa Rica, everybody pays 25% off the top of their check for health care. As a result, they get "free" medical coverage in the "free" medical clinics, and they are proud of it until they have to wait 36 hours to get treated for a stab wound. In Ecuador, there was also "universal" health coverage. I helped drive friends to the hospital at 3:00 AM so they could stand in line and get in some time during that day to an overcrowded facility. The rooms had five or six people in each of them. You hoped they had not lost your folder. There had to be a record of your eligibility.
In both countries, I did not have to suffer through this. Why? I did what the Rich People did (and if you are in the US and reading this, you are one of the Rich People). I went to the private clinics and the private hospitals. They saw me right away, and we got the best medical care, while my friends lost children or died waiting for a doctor to show up. I watched people die in emergency rooms. But they had their folders.
In the US, "universal health care" will crowd the emergency rooms even more. It will make a six-figure visit to the doctor a probability. Meanwhile, the rich will continue to be first in line at clean, private clinics, where the best doctors go. In South America, there never were enough doctors, because they were usually on strike. But don't blame them. There wasn't enough money to pay them. The private doctors always were there for you, because they were paid out of pocket instead of through a government dole.
This will not be the last thing I have to say, but I want to make this clear. The problem is not "evil insurance companies" or "oppression of the poor." Affordable health care is out the window because health care providers have found the golden goose.
Ideally, we could solve the health care problem in America in one day. If all Americans cancelled their insurance policies tomorrow, and announced that they could only pay "out of pocket," hospital costs would plummet. But of course, I know that's a silly fantasy.
What I recommend is making an arrangement with our own insurance companies. We pay the bills we can afford, and then send the receipts to our insurance companies for reimbursement.
Yesterday, I got a letter from my insurance company, telling me they were not going to pay for the second billing they had received on my son's treatment. Of course, they won't have to. The fact that a hospital can even send out a double bill, and no one calls it corruption, is amazing to me.
The last thing we need is to turn health care funding over to the government. The greatest need we have is personal responsibility -- we need to be in the middle of the equation in every medical transaction that involves us. When those commercials for free motorized buggies and hospital beds, meds-to-your-door and chairs that rise up to meet you come on, notice that they want to take care of it themselves. Is that because they love you? Actually, it's because your Social Security number is another key to the golden door that is American bureaucracy that, in the last generation, paid 800 dollars for a hammer or toilet seat in a military contract. Now, they are paying 20,000 a night for a hospital bed.
And we let them.

More later. I've not even started on this one.

Friday, March 23, 2007

I Couldn't Have Said it Better

Henry Payne is the master of "a picture is worth a thousand words." I wish every paper would carry his work, or at least, every city had access to his work somehow. Ask your local paper if they would consider him.
I'm still working on my own statement on health care and its sad state in this country, but Payne's recent comic is prophetic. I'm afraid this is our future. Some day we will be going to Walter Reed-style hospitals ourselves.
Just be honest with me: do you really think the government can do anything better? Do you really want to let them take over your health care? I think I'd feel safer in one of those frame building "clinics" that used to dot the countryside of rural America.
More later...

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Sane Alternative to the Bloodbath

Something has to be done about murder in this country: it is bloody, unsanitary, and hurting millions of innocent people. Often it is done with the crudest of materials, and at the most unexpected and inconvenient of times. I feel that this is something that should fall into the capable hands of our own government. Allow me to modestly propose some ways to deal with the murder situation in the United States. First, some things should be clear to everyone:

  • Murder is going to happen. No laws can stop it. We must live with the fact that murders will happen.
  • Some cultures and codes in our multicultural society do not accept the commonly-held Judeo-Christian concept of "thou shalt not kill," and it is certainly not the government's venue to force that belief on everyone.
  • The best thing our government can do for us is alleviate the misery and human suffering that comes from these acts of desperation.

I propose that murder be legalized in the United States, so it can be carefully controlled. Specifically, we should fund the building of Murder Clinics in every significant city in the United States. I think these clinics are the answer because they can be funded, staffed, and controlled by capable professionals. In the peaceful environment of a sanitary, private facility, the stigma of murder can be removed forever from America's list of problems. What advantages would Murder Clinics provide? Here are only a few:

  • It would immediately stop the occurrence of "back alley" murders. All murders come through a dispute, a difference in values. What better than to approach a calm professional with our conflicts, and have them resolved by capable professionals. Instead of rusty daggers or cheap pistols, baseball bats and crowbars, we would have the painless, ethical euthanasia that only a government-sanctioned medical professional could provide.
  • It would curb the illegal trafficking of murder. Granted, some "hit men" have done the job cleanly, but how can we be sure? There is no agency that regulates them. They are often hard to contact, and there is no consistent price structuring, and many citizens are forced to "free-lance" and do the killing themselves. That is the beginning of the terror that amateur murders always bring.
  • It would take some burden off of law enforcement. How many man-hours are wasted every day investingating murders, and then classifying them: 1st or 3rd degree? Manslaughter or negligent homicide? The caseload in the courts is horrendous and unequally enforced.
  • It would take murder off the streets, making our alleys and neighborhoods safer. Those sparkling white Murder Clinics would protect us from the terror of the asphalt jungle.
  • Bodies of murder recipients could be harvested for organ transplants, medical research, and stem cells. Their blood could be harvested, taking a load off blood banks and ineffective blood drives. Perhaps even illnesses like ALS and Parkinson's disease could be treated more efficiently.

An Action Plan for Murder Clinics

These clinics could be adjunct to existing clinics, utilizing the expertise of medical professionals. Those needing to commit murder would contact one of these clinics with the complaint. After approving the complaint, the clinic itself would contact the murder recipient and give him/her a timetable leading up to the appointment. This would give the recipient ample time to make peace with his/her deity, get insurance records and financial affairs in order, and say good-bye to family and friends. On the appointed date, the recipient would enter the clinic for an appointment, and be treated with the utmost respect, regard, and gentleness possible.

Of course, not all people could afford this clinic, and in order not to favor the rich, there would need to be a federal funding structure that enabled people of all socio-economic classes equal access to contracting legal, safe murders. This funding could be received through a portion of the Medicaid allotments, but also, many expenses could be alleviated with the cash generated by the harvesting of murder recipients.

I realize that some fanatics are going to thump their Bibles at me about this, but you can't legislate morality. Of course, murder is an extreme choice, and should only be a last resort. Ideally, a people and a culture would want to avoid it at all costs, or at least investigate creative alternatives. I, personally, am against murder, but I think that it is wrong to violate an individual's right to choose. The fourth amendment guarantees that right. My situation makes everyone happy. Jobs are created, resources are harvested, and the streets are made safer: no bloody daggers or broken bottles. Murder clinics would take murder out of the hands of amateurs and put it where it belongs: with capable, educated, board-approved, government-sanctioned professionals. Some would argue that many murder recipients would have their rights violated, but we must only realize the gruesome alternative -- to be gunned down or beaten to death in a dark, filthy alley. I'm sure most would opt for a quick, painless, loving termination, administered by a calm, trained medical professional.

Write your congressman, or join my organization: Citizens for Terror-Free Termination. Act before it's too late.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Lost Opportunities

How can any of us every forget that day? We all remember just what we were doing when we found out that blatant acts of terrorism had occurred on American soil. I remember watching the second tower fall, and being numbed to the idea that hundreds were dying at that very moment. I look back and realize that a plane was still aloft over Pennsylvania at that time, but it would soon come crashing down as well.

Of all the feelings of horror, sadness, regret, and later, patriotism that I felt that day, one thing disturbed me above all others. Outside of the usual "bad boys" that we expected to celebrate in the streets, most of the nations of the world mourned with us. I remember hearing American patriotic songs being sung in a British accent, and thinking how unique that was. Tony Blair, an ideological opposite of our own President Bush, became an overnight kindred spirit.

I was surprised by the number of non-Americans who cried for us, who expressed genuine sympathy. I can't figure out what went wrong, and how we lost that moment of intense heartfelt grief that other nations felt for us. What happened?

If I had to sum it up in one sentence, it would be that we never really said "Thank you" to anyone. We decided, instead, to be tough, to live up to our reputation as the only superpower, and maybe to refuse any true gestures of compassion.

I've known people like that -- too proud to accept help. Once, living 3000 miles away from the USA, I was at a meeting and brought out a small package of snack crackers -- that kind available at any American convenience store. My friend seated beside me looked with wide eyes, "Where did you get that?" he asked.

"In Texas," I smiled, and quickly offered him one out of my stash -- I had brought back a whole carton of them. His wonder had changed to disappointment.

"No, thanks," he said. "I thought you had bought them here." Even though I repeatedly assured him I would love to share with him, that I had more than I needed, he continued to refuse. Why would he turn down something he obviously wanted? At the time, a long time before September 11, I deduced the reasons my acquaintance had spurned the good gesture:

  • He wanted to get them himself. To acquire a rare delicacy like I was holding (and that we took for granted in the States every day) would have been like climbing the Matterhorn or scoring the winning basket at the buzzer. To take something without that fanfare was anticlimactic.
  • He didn't want to "owe" me. Some people's greatest fear is that they might "owe" someone. I offered the small gift with no strings, but he was sure there must be. Maybe he would have expected some. To take a free gift like that would obligate him to do something for me, and it might be something he didn't want to do, or occur at a time he didn't want to do it. He might even have to say "Thank you!"
  • He had his own idea of how things should be, and did not like alternative outcomes or surprising endings. I was supposed to answer him, "O, the little store just around the corner," and then he could have slipped out during the next break, and bought his own snacks with his own money. He wasn't ready for a scene he had not orchestrated.

In its own strange way, I think those same reasons tell us why American never said "Thank you" to the world. We wanted to take care of it ourselves, we certainly didn't want to "owe" anything to anyone, and we wanted to write the script and the ending. Nothing else would do. We never told them how much we appreciated the sympathy, the tears, the compassion they showed just by wanting to "be there" for us. Rather, we geared up to go after the "axis of evil." The same thing happens to us. We distance ourselves from people when we really need to get closer. There is something to be said for showing our weakness, for letting someone see our tears, and for allowing people who love and respect us to get close to us when we hurt. It's much too easy to be negative, to lash out against what we don't like, and to resent when others don't see things like we see them.

Maybe that's one thing that bothers me about these blogs. I seem to dwell on my own "axes of evil" that threaten my own values and lifestyle. Maybe there are times I just need to look around and say "thank you" to those who have been there for me, just because they liked being around me. Maybe I ought to be grateful to those who disagreed with me, and even found flaws in my own logic and reasoning, but were too polite to point them out in public.

I wonder if five years later or more is too late to say "Thanks for being there. We appreciate your thoughts." We might have more people on our side today if we had shown more gratitude when we should have. I know; we were hurting; we were wrapped up in ourselves; we were out to teach the "bad guys" a lesson. That was okay; everyone understood.

But a simple, verbal gesture of gratitude would have been nice. To anyone that's listening, "Thank you!" Thank you to the British, the Italians, the (gulp) French, the Russians, the Brazilians, the Chinese, the Australians, the Kenyans, the Argentinians, and to everyone else who cried for us on that day. We really meant to say thanks, but things happened. We didn't say "thank you," and maybe that's why we've never heard, "You're Welcome!"

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The First Amendment Upside-Down

Everybody likes the First Amendment. It is a more versatile tool than anything advertised on any infomercial. You can make it mean anything you want! Take the "freedom of religion" part of it. When the framers of the constitution were bargaining over the final wording of the actual document, they felt it necessary to put this limitation on the federal government: "Congress shall make no law..." This phrase would be prevalent until the gross violations of the 14th amendment negated the first ten (but that's for another discussion some day). The fear of the states is that somehow the federal government would impose its own version of religious preference on the individual states. Thus the wording of the first amendment. Amazingly, that very amendment is now the means by which the federal government can impose its will on the states. Thus, if the entire Colorado legislature were to unanimously decide to post the Ten Commandments at the entrance of their own chamber, someone in Washington could override them all and take it down.

The worst thing about misinterpreting a law or freedom is that the distraction serves to take our eyes off the originally intended protections that were included in the provision in the first place.

Freedom of Speech is another example of a First Amendment freedom that has been set on its ear. Try to imagine how some people see our framers putting together this amendment:
  • Jefferson: "If we're not careful, someone is going to keep us from putting cuss words in books (they didn't have movies yet)"
  • Franklin: "We can't let that happen. It would destroy our freedom."
  • Paine: "You're all a bunch of *%^#$! idiots anyway."
  • Jefferson: "I see what you mean, Ben. We've got to protect Tom. While we're at it, let's include nudity and pornography, since these are guaranteed rights as well."

Hard as it may be to believe, none of them were thinking of indecent speech, pictures, or materials when the "freedom of speech" clause was added. They were coming off a time when, even in their own colonies, people had been limited in their opportunities to voice differing political opinions. Their heritage in England had been to be sent to the stocks when someone bad-mouthed the wrong noble. The writers of the 17th and 18th century had learned to carefully disguise their satirical remarks to avoid imprisonment and endangerment (Swift's Gulliver's Travels is not primarily about "tiny people," and Carroll's Alice in Wonderland was not aimed at children).

Our own forefathers wanted to see a guarantee to speak out politically, to speak against kings, presidents, congressmen, church officials, and employers. Surprisingly, the chief concern of the first amendment is the one that now gets the least protection. People lose jobs, churches lose tax deductions, and elected officials are censured for exercising the right that our forefathers had in mind. Every law that speaks against free political speech violates the actual intent of the first amendment.

Get it out of your minds that it has to do with internet porn, with R-rated movies, with wardrobe malfunctions at the Super Bowl, or with publicly-funded explicit and blasphemous paintings in art galleries. No one was thinking of these things on the day they penned the first amendment. They were thinking of the responsibility to examine and change one's own government and leaders. They were attempting to avoid totalitarianism.

What we have today, though, is a new type of totalitarianism. And along with it, we've got dirty movies and filthy books. Because somebody turned the first amendment upside-down.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Uncle Sam's Plans for Your Prosperity

Try to imagine a company. It is an investment company. For a mere 15% of everything you make, they will build you a savings fund that will take care of your retirement and provide you with health insurance when you can no longer insure yourself. Companies like that exist. While the percentage is nominal, if the average American could do this, beginning on the first work day and investing through retirement -- 15% of everything he or she owns -- putting it into a retirement fund, that person would have millions of dollars in reserve for whatever needs arise. Some people have been smart enough to do that.

Now suppose we found a company that demanded that percentage, and had some management problems. First, the money they took was not officially "yours" anymore. Next, they were allowed to dig into your hard-earned savings and spend it on their own interests. Also, once you got into the program, there was no way to get out. The company operated each year in deep debt -- not millions, but billions of dollars. The board of directors responsible for the funds dipped into them for personal projects. Also, you were advised that if you tried to take the money too early you wouldn't get as much. Even if you waited until 70 to begin drawing on the funds, they would not come near what you made as your regular salary when you were working. Then, finally, suppose that you were to die the week before you were eligible to begin drawing on this lifetime fund. Your family would get a pittance to bury you, but all those deductions from your hard-earned funds would just be absorbed into the company's superfund. You probably think that the government has some agency that could investigate such a company and shut it down. Sadly, this company exists, and it is owned and operated by the government. If the Social Security Administration were a private business, the SEC would have shut it down and jailed its directors years ago.

If Americans were allowed to take even 10 percent of their own money and invest it in growth mutual funds, and they began this before they were 25 years old, we would have a nation of millionaires in their 50's. These millionaires could provide for their own needs, prescriptions, and health care -- without all the ugly paperwork and third parties to "handle" such things.

It is interesting to note that the very people who regulate our own mandatory Social Security do not have any confidence in it. Congress has its own federally legislated retirement system that is secure and rapid-growing, and will not run out of money by the middle of this century. Would you eat at a restaurant where you knew that the owners and employees all went somewhere else for lunch? We are being forced to do this.

Perhaps if our own congressional representatives were forced to depend on "Social Insecurity," they would be more careful in their management. Perhaps we could begin re-funding the SSA by using the obscenely huge pool of money that legislators have piled up for themselves. Maybe if legislators would only be given the options that the average worker in America is given, they would open new talks and debate about giving their options to us.

A few years ago, some people bounced around the idea of "privatization" of Social Security. The outrage was heard across America, and I am appalled that most Americans would rather opt for 850 dollars a month when they turn 65 than the millions they could make on their own. The ignorance amazes me, especially since most people my age will not even see that 850 dollars a month. When the baby boomers begin to crowd the geriatric wards and demand their cheap prescriptions, both Medicare and Social Security will be unable to stand their ground because there will not be enough workers in the next generations to give their 15% to pay our bills.

Why do we imagine the government can manage our personal assets? They can't even manage their own. What must we do? First, we should write off that 15%, unless we can figure out a legal way to put Social Security into the hands of the people that should be in charge of it: those that will have to live on it. With the remaining 85%, we should take another 15% and do what Uncle Sam should have done in the first place. At my age and salary, it's probably too late for me to be a millionaire, but I'm counting on my kids making it. By the time they retire, of course, they will need, not millions, but tens of millions, just to match inflation, but it can be done.

We have been gouged and robbed by a giant corporation that we have no option but to join. And instead of throwing the directors in jail, we faithfully re-elect them every 2, 4, or 6 years.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Mailbox Economics

There was a time when a "mailbox" stood on the street corner downtown instead of looking at you from your monitor. Are you old enough to remember when every town had several of those red, white, and blue mailboxes? I remember them only in my mind. I've been looking on the web for one, but can't even find one there. The closest representation I can give you is a "Mayberry" type scene I found in my own picture file.

It's a thing of the past. Now, on every corner, we see the monotonous blue of federal deposit boxes. If we're lucky, they have one pick-up a day (the red/white/blue ones had several pick-up times daily). They also have warnings about what we cannot put in the boxes. Whatever happened to those brightly-colored mailboxes? Some time in the '60's, someone decided that it cost too much to vary all those colors, and recommended a drab, but more economical, blue.

You may think I'm complaining about that, but there was a fiscal responsibility that cost us those prettier boxes: The U.S. Government was actually trying to save money! We were willing to give up some aesthetic pleasantries in exchange for lessening the debt.

I wonder what happened to that government. I am amazed that there ever was a time that the government actually tried to save a few bucks. When I see the out-of-control spending that is going on now, I wonder if there's anyone left who still tries to figure out how to save a few bucks by simplifying a paint scheme. Now, when we sell aircraft to an ally, we round the amount off to the nearest even million or billion (but short the IRS 12 dollars by accident, and they will come looking for you).

Government is paying for education; it is paying for prescriptions and counseling, for electric wheelchairs for senior citizens, and for those lounge chairs that come up to meet you when you're ready to sit. They finance studies on whether money makes you happy or not, on how to get more meat per pig. They pay for art, for scientific research (Would George Washington Carver have been as effective if he had been on the federal dole?), and I hear that in 2009, they are going to pay us paupers who still get TV signals over the air 40 to 80 dollars so we can get the digital TV signals that will be required.

It's hard to believe that at one time, some agency or congressional committee took time to step back, examine the savings, and recommend an economic alternative. Somewhere we changed countries. I used to live in one that tried to save money.

I have a suggestion for whoever is in charge of these things. The red, white, and blue boxes were prettier. I'm sure that they didn't cost but a few million or hundred million or billion more dollars to be that pretty. Hey, that's nothing. We can afford it. Spend the money. It's a drop in the bucket. After all, who's counting? I would love to put my card in one of those pretty boxes as soon as I get my medicare and send off for my free chair that rises up to meet my behind when I want to sit down. Nobody saves money anymore. Why should you?

Monday, March 5, 2007

Political Orphan, part 2

I confess. I was once an unconditional Republican. I thought that, when the Messiah returned, He would be a Republican, too. In 1994, I was in the midst of an 11-year sojourn in South America, but was in the States on a temporary furlough. I was there in November when the Republican sweep happened. It was better than any dream I had ever had. The Millennium had arrived. Now everything would be all right. The Democratic-controlled congress had held the American people in a death grip for too long. We were tired of the taxation, the senseless spending, the pork, the corruption, and the media, which seemed to look the other way. We were the group that was tired of special interest groups who got their own way, regardless of how everyone else felt.

Then came the "Contract with America." Term limits. Accountability to the voters. Tax relief. A stop to an overblown big government that was hemorrhaging money. That was all going to come to a stop in January of 1995.

I now look back over these past 12 years, and realize how little happened. The government is bigger than ever. Not only are we paying inflated, obscene prices for health care, but now we're going to pay for prescriptions for everyone as well. Education was a monster that grew three more heads and a dozen new tentacles. Abortion has increased. Homosexuality made inroads.

Republicans were a majority for twelve years, and for half of that time, they owned the executive mansion as well. Yet, looking at what they have done, for all practical purposes they looked like the minority party. They catered to the left side of the aisle, and compromised the Contract with America. Where are the term limits? Where is the line-item veto? What about the balanced budget, the end of partial-birth abortions, and the restriction of the militant gay and lesbian left that wants to invade our churches, our work places, and every aspect of public life? The Republican "majority" did nothing. Every time a judge got shot down, the Republicans blamed the Democrats. The same goes for their inability to pass any significant legislation for the Contract with America. Sure, they cut some taxes, but we, the American Electorate, expected the accompanying spending cuts with that. They never came. It must have been the Democrats' fault. The Republicans lived 12 years in the majority, but they never lost their "minority" mindset.

--And they adopted the same things they had campaigned against. Special interest groups, lobbyists, and corrupt officials just migrated to the right. I once tried to send an e-mail to my Republican congressman. There was a place on his website that allowed that. After sending the message, I was told that I needed to enter my nine-digit zip code because he didn't represent everyone in that zip code, and only answered people in his own district. When I finally got the letter through, I was answered two months later with a snail-mail, mass-produced response that made it obvious he had never seen any part of my letter.

The Republicans lost because they were in violation of the Contract. There was no difference in results. Sure, they still talked the talk, but... It was a pathetic showing. Are there some good Republicans left? Sure! There used to be some good Democrats left, like the one we had in our district. He represented all the values I represent, and it was a courageous stand on his part, given the popular opinion of his party. He lost his seat because some Texas Republicans re-districted and cut his district in pieces (hence my patchwork zip code). Gerrymandering is ugly no matter which party does it. If Texas Republicans had just waited, they could have won more seats due to elections -- in 2006, in fact. But they were in a hurry, and they lost more respect, even in Republican Texas. I'm looking at Libertarians, Constitutional, and Independent Candidates, as well as Democrats who stand for their own district, in spite of the party line. And I will vote for a Republican with guts as well. If I ever find one again.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Political Orphan, part 1

From the beginning, the 13 new states felt that their greatest responsibility was the protection of their citizens; after all, the state was the citizen in the strictest sense of the word. So important was the protection of the individual that most states would not even authorize the federal constitution until a Bill of Rights had been added to the main document. Those rights were for the states, which was equated with the individual. There almost seems to be a dynamic tension in the development of the United States -- on the one hand, the central, federal government being seen as a "necessary evil" for some things, while the states stood for the rights of the people. One reason there is debate on such amendments as the second one, the right to bear arms, is that the individual and the state were viewed as one. Some say that the Second Amendment is a guarantee of the individual's rights to arms, while others say it is only for the states. In truth, the advocates of the Bill of Rights saw no separation.

Actually, I may have much to say about those things later, but the major point I want to make today concerns the feeling I have every time I see a Texas Lottery commercial. It's bad enough that I have to wait in line to pay for my gasoline at the local convenience store while the person in front of me spends the equivalent price of a pair of new shoes hoping to hit the jackpot in the next drawing. The lottery hits me the hardest. Suddenly I realize that the state no longer has my best interests in mind. The "play responsibly" disclaimers make about as much sense as the beer commercials that tell me to let everything go, and then end with "drink responsibly."

Once, states prohibited gambling because they knew it was harmful to families and individuals. The problem is, there is so much money available from the lottery, and money talks. My state, and most others, are feeding an addiction that is killing people and destroying families, while not putting nearly as much in state coffers as they had imagined. Years ago, I read of one grocery chain in California that had quit selling lotto tickets because the owner noticed that sales had not gone up since the introduction of the lotto. People were spending the same amount of money at the store. Since some of it now went to the "ignorance tax," he realized that less was going for groceries. Kids were eating less, because parents were obviously bringing home less edible goods, thanks to the enticement of big bucks from a lottery.

When I see the money my state invests for commercials to get more people to gamble away their hard-earned paychecks, I feel unprotected and insignificant. Of course, in the commercials, everybody wins and dances in the streets. Just in case we need one more enticement, they remind us that lotto players are "contributing to public education." How noble! Obviously, my state also thinks I'm stupid enough to believe that several people are going to win at one time, and that their prime motivation is to help their childrens' schools.

As I see the crowds line up for the lotto tickets on Wednesday and Saturday, I don't see many designer clothes. Most of the cars parked out front are old cars. A lottery is a tax on the poor, and a confession by my state that they do not have my best interests in mind.

This is one reason I feel like a political orphan.


That's what they call it: epiphany. In comics, it might be a light bulb in a thought bubble; for most of us, it's a moment of clarity when we realize something we had not thought about before. It's a "Wow, I could have had a V-8" moment. That's what I want to do on this page. I'm thankful for those who have awakened realizations in me, when all I had were the cookie-cutter thoughts that my mind lazily accomodated because I wasn't willing to think things through.

I'm not a genius. I just want to give every person a chance at his/her own moments of epiphany. If it happens to you, I'm happy.