Peak United States

How do we know if we’re in decline? What are signs of slippage? Do mirrors help? What about comparisons to other people and places?

What psychological barriers prevent us from acknowledging our decline?

Why, despite being very well educated and very comfortable with numbers, do I not understand our tax system well enough to prepare my family’s taxes? Why do I have to pay an expert to prepare them?

Why are there 1,000+ deductions? Why is Congress so susceptible to accounting firms’ lobbyists? And realtors’ lobbyists? Why hasn’t there been meaningful tax reform since 1986? Why does our tax accounting system benefit members of Congress more than their constituents? Why do well-to-do, stock owning citizens, pay less in taxes than others? Why do most other developed countries have far more simple, fair, and efficient tax systems? Why aren’t more people agitating for answers to that question? Why have citizens allowed their representatives to defend the status quo for 30+ years?

Why, despite being very well educated and very comfortable with numbers, do I not understand my health insurance? Why am I told what my doctor visit, biopsies, surgical consultation, and minor surgeries all cost a few weeks afterwards? What if restaurants didn’t have menus, but instead, just told you what you owed after you ate? Why are there initial charges and secondary “what insurance allows” charges? Why does Kaiser-Permanente make me go to a “surgery consultation” when the surgeon said it was unnecessary, “but Seattle won’t let us do our own scheduling”? Why was I charged $206 for the unnecessary 20 minute “consultation”?

Why is Congress so beholden to medical insurance lobbyists? Why do many other developed countries have far more simple, comprehensive, and efficient health insurance systems? Why are so many citizens resigned to health insurance pricing and paperwork lunacy? Why do citizens continue to elect representatives who preserve the medical insurance status quo?

How does anyone of sound mind claim that the U.S. is “the greatest country on God’s green earth” when our tax and health insurance systems are fucked up way beyond our compromised legislative body’s ability to fix them?

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When Monopolies Take Over

Businesses grow as a result of superior customer service. As a result, they sometimes come to completely dominate their market, then the quality of their customer service deteriorates. Often markedly.

A congressional committee—I don’t know which one would be most appropriate—should give this audio tape a listen. I’d title it something like “What our post-free-market consumer experience will be like”.

Give it a listen, then forward it to your political reps. I know, naive of me to think Congress might do something.

The caller’s preternatural calm is mind boggling. My favorite line, “Are you punking us?”

Thanks to Ryan Block and Veronica Belmont for lifting the curtain, I’m sorry to say, on my internet provider.

Congress in a Nutshell

And our national debt.

From today’s WSJ:

Rep. John Garamendi is known as a staunch advocate for cutting unnecessary defense spending. But the California Democrat avidly defends one program: a fleet of high-altitude surveillance drones that the Pentagon wants to scrap.

While Mr. Garamendi says the drones are a critical Pentagon tool, there is another reason he is a vociferous defender of the unmanned aircraft: Pilots who control them work at a base in his congressional district.

Three Things I Don’t Understand About the Election

1) Why isn’t anyone describing it as historic? Granted, President Obama’s victory in 08 was more groundbreaking, but it’s as if the historic nature of this accomplishment is lost on the chattering class. President Obama’s election in 2008 made it more likely we’ll see a series of non-white male and female candidates from this point forward. His reelection makes that even more certain.

2) I understand why many on the right despise President Obama’s policies. Reasonable people can disagree about the optimal size of government, the strengths and limits of free markets, and how best to provide healthcare, strengthen the economy, and conduct foreign relations, but why are so many conservative critiques of Obama petty, personal, even pathetic?

Exhibits A and B from consecutive comments attached to an election article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Charlene Larson, who assumed Romney would win (in response to another commenter): You’re right, of course. Obama will go back to doing the only thing he’s a success at: creating a racial divide. He will try to undermine the Romney administration. He will violate the gentleman’s agreement that states no past president will speak ill of his successor. Because he’s no gentleman. He’s a bitter, delusional child. Michael Bukowski in response: I believe Charlene is rightly referring to the fact that not once in his Presidency has Obama ever acted like a grown man (see: leader). He does nothing but complain about what he “inherited.”

I’m not in the habit of accusing anyone of racism, let alone faceless names in a paper, but given the nature of Larson’s and Bukowski’s attacks, the onus is on them to prove they’re not racist. My conservative friends will accuse me of selective perception, correctly pointing out that some liberal ideologues routinely criticized “W” in ways that were also petty, personal, and at times pathetic. For example, making fun of the times he misspoke, jokingly labeling them “Bushisms”, the suggestion being he wasn’t nearly intelligent enough to govern. Certainly, some leftist ideologues demonstrated elitism and arrogance, but racism? A pox on anyone that hasn’t outgrown the grade school playground.

Exasperated with his incessant personal attacks on the President, I asked a close conservative friend whether his criticism was motivated in part by race. He said he’d vote for Walter Williams in a heartbeat. Nice return of serve, but still, the onus is on those whose attacks are especially personal to prove they’re not racist. I won’t hold my breath.

3) When will Republicans come to grips with changing demographics, embrace immigration reform, and seriously contend for nonwhite voters? An illuminating sentence from yesterday Wall Street Journal, “Romney thinks his path to victory is to win 61 percent of white voters as long as white voters comprise 74 percent of the vote—and the Obama camp agrees.” Add age into this mix. People between 18-44 tilted heavily for the President. As long as Republicans slight young Hispanic and African-American voters, sell your Republican stock.

What I’m Reading

Just finished “Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It” by Lawrence Lessig. If you plan to be, are currently, or ever were a political science major, you’ll lap it up. Lessig is whip smart. I was drawn to the book after hearing Double L interviewed on NPR. An expert on internet law, he said something to the effect of “Scholars should switch topics every ten years.” The higher ed world would be a far more healthy, invigorating, interesting place if profs universally applied that notion.

If you don’t keep a copy of the U.S. Constitution on your nightstand, you may find it slow going. The writing dragged at times. It would have been an even better book if L2’s editors had required him to reduce it by 25%.

Lessig explains why it’s understandable that 89% of the public doesn’t trust Congress. In short, every member of Congress spends 30-70% of their time fundraising because their primary objective is to get re-elected. Also, many see their Congressional work as a means towards an end of becoming high paid lobbyists. Important issues get short shrift and members’ compromise their ideals all in the name of campaign fund raising. The details depress.

Props to LL for eschewing academic norms and offering solutions to the problem. One major contradiction in his otherwise insightful treatise was this—he acknowledges that the public’s passive resignation is a rational response to the dysfunction while at the same time  he argues citizen involvement is the key to his proposed solutions. I appreciated the specificity and boldness of his fixes, but didn’t find them realistic enough.

Unintended effect no doubt, I’m less interested in politics as result of reading the book.

Needing a break from academic social science writing, I just started The Orphan Master’s Son—A Novel by Adam Johnson. Read some great reviews and saw Johnson interviewed on the NewsHour. I keep getting drawn back inside the Hermit Kingdom.

On deck, my first ever cooking/food book—An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler. Awhile back I posited that people don’t change. I hereby amend that, people don’t “Change”, but they can “change”, by which I mean personal attributes don’t change much over time, but interests can. I’ve always been an “eat to live” kind of guy, but in the last year or two, I’ve started to enjoy cooking, eating well, and spending time in the kitchen. Maybe it’s the long-term effects of the fem-vortex. Anyways, look for me to starting cooking with even more economy and grace real soon.

In the hole (baseball term for the sports challenged), the Happiness Hypothesis—Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt. I’ve downloaded the first chapter, just casually dating at this point, so I’m not committing to marrying Haidt (although that may soon be legal in Washington State, but I digress).

In related news, I sent Nineteen this link to Jonathan Franzen’s screed against e-books. She loved it because she’s also hopelessly nostalgic about the printed page. Maybe someday in the distant future Franzen and she will realize you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Politics Stream of Consciousness

• Just like her opponent, Senator Murkowski from Alaska says she wants to reduce spending and reduce the national debt. And then in the same breath she says she will work hard to maintain all of Alaska’s federal funding because one-third of Alaskans’ jobs depend upon it. And she might win as a write-in candidate. So what she meant is she wants to reduce federal spending in the other forty nine states.

• Newsflash, President Obama is ordinary. The problem of course is that he was an extraordinary campaigner. ARod isn’t supposed to hit .255, Tiger isn’t supposed to be a Ryder Cup captain’s pick, and Meryl Streep isn’t supposed to make bad movies. He’s a victim of unrealistic expectations. I’m cautiously optimistic that he makes the necessary adjustments and steadily improves throughout years three and four.

• In a recent Washington State Senate debate Dino Rossi and Patty Murray were both asked two times if they would raise the minimum age for full social security benefits. Neither answered. Four non-responses. Are any politicians willing to tell constituents what they need to hear and not just what they want to? Why couldn’t Rossi or Murray say what’s so painfully obvious, “Yes, for the well-to-do at least, we’re probably going to have to raise the minimum age for full social security benefits again. More generally, we have to make serious changes to our entitlement programs to have any hope of balancing the budget and reducing the national debt.” I’m sure their non-responses are based upon political science research. By desiring honest, straightforward, specific, succinct answers, guess I’m in the minority.

• Juan Williams has been fired by NPR for comments made on Bill O’Reilly’s show. I met him once in Kyoto, Japan. I agree 100% with this commentary on his firing. As the Quakers say, “That Friend speaks my mind.”

• Get a load of French high schoolers. When I taught high school I struggled to get my students to think beyond Friday night’s game and dance. In contrast, these adolescents are protesting something over forty years down the road, having to work to 62 instead of 60. Talk about long-term thinking. Guess they anticipate hating whatever they’ll end up doing for a living and maybe they already have detailed plans for when they’re 60 and 61.

• Favorite campaign development. . . multimillionaire candidates spending tens or hundreds (in the case of Meg Whitman) of their own millions and still looking like they’ll lose.

Christine O’Donnell

This is funny. From wikipedia:

She attended her university’s commencement ceremony in 1993 but did not receive a degree, due to outstanding unpaid tuition.

Her apparent familiarity with debt means she might do well in Congress. One wonders though, what are the odds if she loses (the special Senate election in Delaware) on November 2nd that she attends the swearing in of newly elected Senators anyways?