Monday, September 14, 2009

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Is health care reform advocated by the Democratic majority of Congress and the President of the United States a threat to the nature of democracy in America?

Leave aside that there is no one health care proposal from congressional Democrats. These are the cats that President Obama is trying to herd. It is not going well. Between the Blue Dogs and the progressives, it is hard to understand how anyone would reasonably think that President Obama and the congressional majority are initiating any one plan, much less a nefarious plan to undermine our constitutional freedoms.

Nevertheless, there are those pictures of President Obama with Hitler's mustache.

And there is an editorial by associate professor of history at Concordia University Wisconsin, Jim Burkee.

For Dr. Burkee the important and ignored question is, "…what happens to democratic society when non-producers can vote themselves benefits at the expense of the producing class?" (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, August 9, 2009)

Is it possible, a class struggle in our republic? Yes, according to Dr. Burkee, but the struggle is not between the working class and capitalists. It is between the producers and the non-producers. It is between those who are dependent on government and those who are independent.

Keep this distinction in mind as we give Dr. Burkee the floor to make his case with history.

Our nation's founding generation was profoundly aware of the relationship between economic independence and democratic participation. In classical Athens, Aristotle had argued that political participation required property ownership, since those who did not own property "have no share in the state." Likewise, our founders largely restricted voting rights to those who owned property, believing that a voter's independence of judgment and desire for liberal self-government was found only in those not economically dependent on others.

This is an odd reading of American history for a professor of history.

The founding generation did not have any consensus on the question of property ownership as a qualification for suffrage. This qualification was indeed popular with some of the founding fathers. It certainly was not supported among the Revolutionary War veterans who did not own property. They felt that their participation in the war to establish this nation earned them the right to participate in its governance.

The Constitution never had property ownership as a qualification for suffrage because there was a diversity of opinion on this question.

Indeed our republic has thrived, not on the restriction of suffrage, but on the broadening of the right to vote, first to freed slaves, then to women, and eventually to eighteen-year-olds.

History professor Burkee should review the history of the amendments to the constitution.

The founding fathers bequeathed to us an amazing founding document in the Constitution that we should be grateful for as long as this country endures. It is a work of genius. However, it is not a divine proclamation.

The founding fathers were mortals with all the flaws of mortals.

Among the landowning founding fathers were men who were dependent on the work of slaves. They were hardly the liberal, independent, enlightened property owners depicted by Dr. Burkee. They were not the high-minded producers that he exalts. Their slaves produced, they profited.

This country has profited from what the founding fathers did right. It also suffered a bloody civil war from what they did wrong.

This brings us to the simplistic distinction Dr. Burkee makes between producers and non-producers.

Dr. Burkee is not too clear on whom he considers the producers to be. He has a list of non-producers. The non-producers, remember, as the non-landowners who "have no share in the state," will undermine democracy in America.

The non-producers are recipients of Social Security checks, recipients of payroll checks from the Federal government, recipients of payroll checks from the State government, recipients of payroll checks from local governments. These, by Dr. Burkee's reckoning, are dependent voters. He has figures for each category for which he cites no source.

It is startling to see how many citizens of our country are dependent non-producers, until one queries just whom Dr. Burkee is fingering as the agents of the downfall of democracy in America.

Begin with Social Security recipients. These are workers, people who have labored throughout their lives to give us the goods and services we enjoy and now are retired. Can these people be justly termed "non-producers"?

Many like to take shots at Federal government employees, as Dr. Burkee does. This broad category includes, naming just one group, the men and women of the armed forces who defend us and the free world. Moreover, among the local government employees are the law enforcement personnel who serve and protect our property and persons.

The retiree, the soldier, the police officer – these are among the agents of big government that Dr. Burkee views as the non-producer threats to our democratic way of life.

On the other hand, there are the producers, like the entrepreneur who is constantly spamming you with the promised benefits of colon cleansers. He is to be valued above the retiree, the soldier, the police officer. He is a producer in a free market economy.

Dr. Burkee admits to one resource for his opinion, "political philosopher Isabel Paterson."

Isabel Paterson had no credentials in political science or philosophy. She had only a couple of years of formal education and no high school degree. Her biography is not in the Britannica. She is not referenced in Macmillan's Encyclopedia of Philosophy. She was an amazing autodidact, to be sure, making her living as a novelist and critic.

Isabel Paterson is regarded as a "political philosopher" only among radical libertarians. She was an influence and once friend of the atheist Ayn Rand.

This is the point at which we should worry about democracy in America. President Obama with a Hitler mustache is the product of those who look upon our time as a struggle between a producer elite and the non-producing masses.

We have little to fear from the Democrats, President Obama, and the reform to health care. We should be wary, however, from the fear-mongers who paint mustaches on the President and make facile distinctions between so-called producers and non-producers.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Is the Opposition Loyal?

South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson has apologized. President Barack Obama has accepted his apology. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has said that despite the violation of House rules, she is satisfied not to press the matter further since the President has accepted the apology.

It would be nice if the matter ended here. But it has not and it will not.

Mr. Wilson's Democratic challenger received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions instantly over the Internet in response to his outburst. The Democratic party is going to make use of this unfortunate incident in its future fundraising.

Mr. Wilson shouted, "You lie," when President Obama stated that the proposed health care reform would not provide coverage to illegal aliens. All authoritative reports have stated that President Obama was right. The proposed reforms explicitly exclude illegal aliens.

Republicans and organizations advocating stronger measures against illegal aliens contend that the proposed heath care reforms, while excluding illegal aliens, contain no measure sufficient for the enforcement of this exclusion. Whatever the merits of their position, it is an issue beyond what President Obama was addressing. He was not lying.

Nevertheless, while Mr. Wilson has become a symbol of Republican intransigence for Democratic fundraisers, he has also become a hero to those who are advocating stronger measures against illegal aliens.

"It is a real shame that the rest of Congress was not on their feet pointing out the president's lie about illegal aliens in his healthcare plans," said William Gheen, president of the Americans for Legal Immigration, a political action committee. (Los Angeles Times)

Without going into all the other permutations of this event, and without detracting from Mr. Wilson's apology or in any way questioning his sincerity, it is important to focus on just what happened and why his action was an offence.

President Obama was acting in his official capacity in addressing a joint session of Congress. There are rules that govern the conduct of the members of Congress in these events. Mr. Wilson and his party have recognized that he violated these rules.

This was not a town hall meeting. This was an official address to the elected members of Congress. It was not a time for debate.

Neither should the customs and rules of this event be confused with the customs and rules of a meeting of Parliament in Great Britain where the Prime Minister is regularly shouted down by the opposition.

We are Americans. We have different rules and customs by which we show respect for the elected head of the executive branch of our republic.

The Republican minority appropriately registered their displeasure with President Obama's speech by remaining seated at the several points when the party of the majority stood and applauded. That is their right. They also have the right to criticize the President after the speech on the floor of their respective bodies and in the press.

What we have here is an instance when the opposition ceased to be the loyal opposition. Mr. Wilson's outburst was not merely an act of opposition, but an act of disrespect for the office of the Presidency. It was such an act, in and of itself, even if – as I suspect – Mr. Wilson did not intend it to be. It was an act of disrespect for the office of the Presidency because it violated the rules and customs for a joint meeting of the Congress.

It is in the observance of these rules and customs that respect for the office of the Presidency is expressed.

William Kristol of the Weekly Standard has advocated that the Republican Party act as the loyal opposition to the agenda of the President and the majority in Congress. This is certainly acceptable and even beneficial for the republic.

The nature of disrupted town hall meetings of August and this incident with Mr. Wilson raise serious questions, however, about the loyalty of the minority's opposition. Unfortunately for Mr. Wilson, his outburst is within a larger context that he may or may not be party to.

To give just one example.

When continued unreasonable questions are raised about the constitutional eligibility of Mr. Obama to be President, and no one in the opposition denounces this absurdity, the question needs to be asked: Does the opposition recognize the decision of the electorate and the legitimacy of this Presidency? Or is this opposition so self-righteously dedicated to its position that it will not let respect for the office or the electorate stand in its way?

It is way past time for the conservative minority to demonstrate the loyalty of its opposition.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Two Ignored Health Care Facts

Tomorrow, President Barack Obama will address a joint session of Congress about the need for health care reform.

In my short life, I have never witnessed a president throw himself so vigorously into the work of his administration. It would be unfair to say that Mr. Eisenhower golfed through his presidency, Mr. Reagan slept, and Mr. George W. Bush spent much of his time trying to untie his tongue. Nothing near these caricatures will be made of Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama is faulted for trying to do too much. He has not come near violating the Constitution –an accusation that has been made against a couple of our previous presidents. He is faulted for calling upon the legislative branch of this government to do the work of the people and address the problem of health care. He has vigorously taken his case to the people. Agree or disagree with him – and on many subjects I do disagree with him – Mr. Obama is earning his salary.

Yet, there are two facts central to the health care issue that I predict he will not address. He cannot state the case for reform as vigorously as he should because the nation is in a state of denial about these two central facts.

Health care costs are unacceptably rising for those who have health insurance. There are approximately 45 million who do not have health insurance. Even among those who do have health insurance approximately 25 million are underinsured. These and other figures can be disputed and argued about endlessly.

The two central facts remain.

Everyone gets sick. Everyone dies.

We are dealing with mortality.

President Obama is not the foremost agent feeding our national state of denial on this issue. The fear-mongers on the right ranting about socialism, euthanasia, and a host of other horrors have done the most to keep us from considering the consequences of our undeniable mortality.

Talk to a Republican about health care and he will offer you a tax break.

Hence we have Health Savings Accounts coupled with high deductible insurance plans. This is a great idea on April 15. Unfortunately it does little to deliver necessary heath care.

Taxes do not kill people. Wave the voodoo magic supply-side economic tax wand and remove all the taxes. People will still get sick. They will still die.

We would all like to have the life of Paul Newman. Mr. Newman led a vigorous and productive life for many decades. He was beautiful and gracious. And then he died. His death was relatively quick.

Unfortunately this is not true for most. Some get sick early in life and need care for many years. For others, illness is something that needs little medical attention. Still others need hardly any medical attention for many years, and then there may be years of debilitating illness.

The only bright spot in dealing with our mortality is that we do not all get sick, we do not all die in the same way. The fact that we do not all get sick and die in the same way is, over the years and in the population as a whole, a benefit. It means that financial resources can be pooled. Services can be distributed to those in need from the resources of those who have less need. The morality of this pooling and distribution is that everyone will have some sort of need eventually. Because everyone gets sick, everyone dies.

Our undeniable mortality is exactly why a free market capitalistic economic system fails in the area of health care. To recognize this fact is not to embark on the slippery slope to socialism. Capitalism was not revealed to us by God, and it is, like every human invention, imperfect. There is a time and place to pool our finite resources to deal with life's uncertainties.

Those who say that the United States has the best health care system in the world are living in denial. They are ignoring the rising premiums, the millions of uninsured, the millions of underinsured and the millions who will be losing their insurance in the years to come as our population gets older. They are also ignoring the many other industrially advanced nations that, regardless of their other weaknesses, are in fact doing a better job than the United States in this area.

Capitalism does a fine job of delivering goods and services for our temporal existence. We have the freedom to choose many goods and services we want, ignore what we do not want, save and work for what we desire. In many areas of life where our desires go beyond our means, we can still live and find some degree of happiness.

Health care deals with where we lose our freedom to choose. Illness comes unbidden.

Shopping for a car or a house is a fine activity in the marketplace. Shopping for a cure is an act of desperation.

The failure of free market economics on health care is obvious with for-profit health insurance companies.

The rightful task of any for-profit company is to deliver a profit to its shareholders. For-profit health insurance companies are by definition involved with a conflict of interest. They cannot deliver service to very many ill premium-paying customers without cutting into their shareholders' profits. Yet their premium-paying customers are paying them for exactly that reason –to provide care when illness eventually comes. The several different ways for-profit companies unfairly deny claims will always happen because these companies need to serve their shareholders.

There are many other ways the current health care system fails the citizens of the United States. One does not have to be an economist, a medical authority, a pharmaceutical company executive to see were the problem is.

We need to start with the facts – everyone gets sick, everyone dies.