Sunday, December 14, 2008

Oaks of justice

The Hebrew scripture reading for the Third Sunday of Advent is from Isaiah 61. When I read the beginning of that chapter, I was struck by a verse that is not included in the reading although its substance certainly is.

They will be called oaks of justice,
planted by the Lord to show his glory.
Is 61:3

Isaiah is telling the people that God will rebuild Jerusalem after its destruction and the removal of Jews to Babylon. He will reestablish his eternal covenant with them and the preeminence of Jerusalem, but this preeminence will be based on justice and mercy rather than worldly domination.

An oak is truly a magnificent tree: slow growing, solid, long lasting, large, and imposing. It stands as a monument to perseverance and strength as well as the peaceful shelter of its shade. What if each of our lives were such a monument, a clear sign of justice for all. This is how God desires to demonstrate God's power and glory. A group of people tried to be those oaks in front of the Border Patrol Office in Rochester. See the story in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. View photos.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bail out of U.S. auto makers is a bad idea

Don't get me wrong. I want all three (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) to continue and to thrive. They are important to our economy and need to become strong and vibrant once again. But let's be realistic. The problems plaguing the industry did not happen over night. Anyone with eyes to see has been aware for the last thirty years that Detroit just didn't get it. It took them decades to understand that U. S. consumers desired high quality and fuel efficiency. They persisted in making lower quality gas guzzlers even to the point of convincing Congress that SUV's were really trucks and therefore should be exempt from the gas mileage standards. Mean while the Japanese manufacturer took quality management to heart and provided the American consumers with the cars they wanted. Later Korean cars did the same thing.

To give taxpayer money to be spent by the people that drove the American auto companies into the ditch just doesn't make any sense. Our economic system has a way for companies to deal with these problems and it is called bankruptcy, specifically Chapter 11. Just look at the way that major American airlines used bankruptcy to realigned its cost structure so it could return to profitability. Auto companies did to do the same. Frankly without going into bankruptcy, I doubt that they can reduced their structural costs and return to market viability.

The problem is that a company going into Chapter 11 needs to obtain financing and they are few financial institutions which would give the massive loans required. This is where the government can play a role by guaranteeing these reorganization loans. This would enable any of the three to go through the bankruptcy process rather than taking money or even loans from the federal government in the hopes that they would straighten out their affairs. The role of a federal bankruptcy judge is to insure that management does exactly that. Accountability to politicians is a weak and ineffectual substitute for this time tested legal procedure.

A bankruptcy is not an easy process. It will require reworking labor and supplier contracts to bring the cost structure in line with global competition. Honda and Toyota have shown that it is possible to build quality cars in the U.S. American manufacturers are not being asked to do the impossible just the difficult. Everyone needs to give a little, perhaps more than just a little. If American consumers end up paying a bit more for quality cars from American companies, that would be a small price to pay to keep this section viable. But just to have the same bad actors burn through more taxpayer money to end up in the same place is unacceptable.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

50th High School Reunion

I attended my 50th high school reunion this month. Pictured here are three of the guys I spent a lot of time with during high school and college: Pat Miller, myself, Terry Noel, and Jim Steffen. In so many ways, they were exactly the same. I felt that same old connection. No wonder I liked them so much when we were teenagers!

We were members of class of 1958 from Rockhurst High School and of 1962 from Rockhurst College, both run the Jesuits and both all male. We reminisced and got caught up on our lives since then. We missed those who were not there.

Naturally I thought back to what it was like when I was 17 and had an unlimited future ahead of me. Of course, it didn't seem unlimited at the time. I only saw a narrow slice of all that life offered me. As I look back I can see opportunities missed and a life that could have been very different if different choices had been made. But I am pleased and blessed to be where I am now. On balance, I have no regrets other than I haven't kept in touch with most of these wonderful guys. I can remedy that.

The experience also helped me realize that my life now is not some point but rather a continuing process. I face a future that is filled with more opportunities that I might realize. I am not 17 but I am still in the process of becoming the person that God intended me to be.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

September Delegation to Migrant Workers

On September 21, I and three others participated in another Rural & Migrant Ministry visit to migrant workers in in Orleans County. they work on the muck farms planting and harvesting onions, potatoes, cabbage, and other vegetables. We learned a great deal about the life and struggles of these workers. Most disturbing was the story of a mother of ten month baby. She has been fitted with an ankle bracelet while she waits for her adjudication and deportation back to Mexico. Her son was born in the U.S. and thus is a U.S. citizen. When she is deported, she cannot take him with her immediately. Eventually he too will be sent to Mexico but there will be, apparently by law, a period of separation.

On this trip, we also met two married couples who left their children in Mexico and came to work in the fields here. One mother talked about her four children, one of whom was only two when she left three years ago. Her story and others point up the desperate conditions they face at home. How bad would things have to be for me to choose to leave my young children as the better of terrible options I would face. it is inconceivable to me and most Americans. Our country needs to do whatever we can to assist Mexico in improving living and working conditions for these rural workers. To the extent that NAFTA has made conditions more difficult for farm workers in Mexico, it has created conditions that drive immigration to the U.S. Building a wall and increasing "border security" is no match for underlying economic conditions that causes parents to make such awful choices.

In a very small building that has housed as many as 25 workers in some seasons, we found some remarkable art in one of the bedrooms. The workers living there this season had left that morning to journey to Florida as the season here comes to an end. The three female figures are actually angels. You can see wings. Although hard to see in the photo, each figure had a halo as well. At some point, all the walls in the room were covered with drawings and poetry.

The drawing of Jesus is particularly interesting because it includes the well known Serenity prayer in Spanish. Even in the midst of this barely tolerable living condition, artistic expression provides a sense of hope and beauty.

View more pictures of this delegation.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The smartest guys in several rooms!

I believe that anyone who would understand the latest developments on Wall Street stemming from the sub prime housing debacle should watch the documentary: The Enron Story: The Smartest Guys in the Room. This documentary can be understood on several levels but the message to me was simple: The desire to bend the rules in order to amass huge amounts of money and power cannot be kept in check by professional canons or by regulations that are not kept up to date with the latest sophisticated financial innovations.

The boys and girls at Enron concocted a financial house of cards that seemingly generated unheard of profits. Anyone whose judgment was not clouded by the opportunity to personally and corporately profit would have seen it as something that was too good to be true. Almost no one on whom the rest of us rely for information was able to see it for what it was. Law firms, accounting firms, financial institutions, investment bankers, Security and Exchange Commission, and the corporate officers themselves, all of them went along. Some even actively participated by providing opinions (financial and legal) that were perhaps narrowly correct but substantially inaccurate. They went along, it seems to me, because each of them had its percentage piece of the pie. When billions of dollars are involved, it doesn't take much of a percentage share to amount to real money.

One could simply lay the blame on the greed of those involved. The housing crisis, however, helps us see that there is a systemic problem with greed that requires some type of systemic solution. While the Enron manipulation affected millions of people, it involved a relatively small number of people in the actual manipulation. In the housing crisis, the financial institutions found a way of implicating those millions in the manipulation itself. Not only were business organizations involved (real estate developers, home builders, real estate sales) but this time millions of individual citizens. This last feature insured that if (or when) the house of cards came crashing down, the government could be counted on to bail out the system. The fact that main line financial investment institutions took the bait of exotic investment instruments based on the sub prime mortgages only sweeten the deal and made government back up all the more inevitable.

This arose not just from the greed of individual actors but from the sense of entitlement to ever increasing wealth among the wealthiest Americans. Over the alst eight years, the gap between the wealthiest five percent of Americans and the rest of us has been widening. Those top five percent have seen their incomes and wealth appreciate markedly while the rest of us have been barely able to keep up with inflation. It has gotten to the point where the wealtheist feel that they not only ahve a right but a responsibility to become a wealthy as possible regardless of what happens to the rest of us. How else can one explain the making of millions of loans to people who did not qualify? This could only happen because of a real estate bubble; in fact, it continued and accelerated that bubble. All bubbles burst! What the weathiest know and knew was that they are relatively immune to those busts. They play with wealth money not income money, the money the rest of use to pay our living expenses: mortgages, transporation, education, health care, food expenses. They could make money by stimulating the desire of those less wealthy to live as though they were wealthy. Once the bubble burst, the wealthy walk away with their earnings and outsized bonus payments while the rest of us sink back into the reality that we are not and probably never will be wealthy and we do this in rental housing.

This culture of entitlement wasn't created by government action but it has been given steroids by the Bush tax cuts, the gutting of oveersight regulation, increasing tax favored treatment for corporations, and blathering about the "ownership society." Clearly this is time for a change.

Friday, September 12, 2008

New York State Fiscal Mess

With all the attention given to the presidential campaign, I have only recently focused on the New York State races. There is no gubernatorial race but our assembly persons and senators are running. In the vast majority of cases, incumbents are re-elected. Surprise, surprise. Each year both incumbents and challengers rail against the broken New York government and promise the voters that they will lead the effort to "clean up Albany." Nothing much happens except finger pointing a variety of scapegoats. In my twenty plus years in New York, I have distinct impression that our elected representatives are powerless even if motivated to change things.

Now, however, the situation has become so desperate that those running for office must come up with workable solutions to a worsening fiscal problem. Here is an outline of the situation:

  1. New York routinely ranks first or second among the states in the percent of personal income paid in state and local taxes: income, property, sales, and others.
  2. New York ranks far from second in the basic social indicators of a healthy state: poverty, health, and education.
  3. This year the governor called the legislature into special session to deal with projected deficits in the billions of dollars. When an agreement was finally reached, the governor and the leaders of the legislature proudly announced that they had made progress without raising taxes. They made that progress by drastically reducing state funding for health care, child care, education along with most other social services. The governor has indicated that more cuts will be needed and clearly these same areas will be hit the hardest.
  4. New York's total tax burden is highly regressive. The lowest twenty percent of families int terms of income pay 12 percent of their income in state and local taxes while the highest twenty percent pay 6.5 percent. The tax cuts of the late nineties massively benefited the highest income families while providing almost no relief to low income families and marginal benefits to middle income families. This is consistent with national tax policy that provided massive decreases to the wealthiest. As is true at the national level, New Yorkers in the low and middle income levels have seen very little growth income while costs continue to rise. Over the past year, this situation has worsened appreciably. The situation is even worse if state sponsored gambling is included. Given the demographics of participation, the state lottery is simply another regressive tax on lower income families.
  5. In fiscal 2007 the budget included $200,000,000 in what are called "member items." This is the New York terms for "pork barrel" or "earmarks." In New York, this has been raised to a high level. The budget includes a single comprehensive item. $80 million goes to the head of the Assembly and $80 million to the head of the Senate. These funds are allocated in some mysterious fashion to individual members and are major factors in party leaders maintaining control over members in each body. The governor received another $40 million to allocate in some equally mysterious fashion. There is no publicly available list of projects. When information is sought under public information laws, only individual grants are disclosed, not the name of the legislator responsible. These funds are used for very specific organizations/projects. This allows them to tell constituents that they have delivered funds back to their home district. There are no guidelines, no priorities, and no accountability. In fact, I have heard that some legislators have had their names placed on structures as though they had contributed their own money. My own state senator lists his member items on his web site. This is a step in the right direction. However a reform is needed so that this $200 million can be allocated in some rational way to address major state priorities rather than multitudinous local projects.
My concern in this state election is not how much money someone delivers back home but what will he or she do to right this precarious fiscal ship. We must elect people who have the courage to think anew about the way in which New York government and governments are funded. To continue tinkering and cutting will only make matters worse. I have not yet heard any one address the above issues in a realistic way.

If we think we need change in Washington, we clearly need change in Albany.

Friday, September 5, 2008

McCain showed me a lot and not so much

I watched John McCain's acceptance speech last night and was impressed with his story which I had never really heard before. I knew about the war record, the prisoner of war experience, and his public service but I was not aware of his conversion experience during his imprisonment. He told that story in a convincing and touching way. In the Christian tradition, it was a story of death and resurrection. He was forced to confront his radical individualism by being placed in a position of weaknesses and utter helplessness. His fellow prisoners kept him alive since he could not even feed himself. He learned that going it alone was not the path to a full human life, a life of meaning. Even when his captors broke him, he found through another prisoner the strength to continue on with the full knowledge that he was human and thus breakable. Out of those horrid experiences, he came to a realization that his life had meaning only in service to others. His life since then has certainly been consistent with that realization. He is a true hero, not because he served his country so courageously but because he faced his own humanity in a way that resulted in commitment to service, compassion, and honesty. This is a story that speaks to all of us and the ways in which each of us must likewise confront our humanity and grow because of it.

If, as McCain's campaign manager had said, this election were not about issues, the choice between Obama and McCain would a difficult one for me. But this campaign and election is about issues and policies. Both men are deeply devoted to America and the promise it holds for us and the world community. Both men place "country first." To suggest that only McCain does is frankly an insult to Obama, to his supporters, and to me. Let us differ about policy and direction but not about our commitment to our country.

When both candidates are such exemplary human beings, it is even more essential to be guided by the political parties of each. The Twentieth Century brought us Social Security, Medicare, federally funded health research, space exploration, rebuilding of Europe and Japan, federal aid in so many ways to education, the end of segregation, expansion of civil rights, etc. because democrat presidents led the way. Harry Truman's 1948 acceptance speech reads as if it could be given today in terms of the issues he saw as important to our country. The democrats have remained largely faithful to that heritage. The republicans have typically been the opposition in those fights. They continue today to argue for a lessening of the government's role in these programs and the impact they have on ordinary people. The result has been a definitive increase in income inequality during the Bush years; the rich have gotten even richer and the lower and the middle classes have fallen behind.

Regardless of the enthusiasm of party loyalists on both sides, it is incumbent on us to be clear headed about the policies and issues. This is too important an election to be ourselves be swayed by personal stories, clever slogans, and appeals to our fears.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Vice Presidential Choice of Palin Will Backfire

McCain has made a serious miscalculation in his choice for vice president.

There is very little that qualifies her to become a potential president; given McCain's age and health history this is much more serious that bush's selection of Dan Quail who was also unqualified. Palin has no foreign policy experience and to date has demonstrated very little foreign policy knowledge. She has served as mayor of a small town. For two years she has served as governor of a small state and one that faces almost no fiscal issues. Any state that has enough money to pay people to live there does not have the kind of fiscal issues that plague larger states and the federal government. She is largely unknown to the leadership of the national Republican party and thus has little ability to be a player in governance. Even trying to envision her as president of the Senate is a stretch.

Politically this gamble will not pay off. I cannot imagine a female supporter of Hilary Clinton rushing to support an inexperienced woman with retro position on women's right to choose. Her actual gun-toting membership in the NRA may energize the far right but will be a huge negative with women in general. Several female members of my own family--Republican and Democrats alike-- find it disconcerting that a mother of five, including a special needs infant, would presume to devote her time and attention to politics, especially national politics. She is young and has time to put her family first and then engage in the demanding challenges of national politics.

By choosing her McCain will actually alienate most women who will see this as an affront to the role of women pioneered by Hilary and others. Hilary gained support from women not just because she was a woman but because she was a QUALIFIED woman! This is clear evidence that McCain just doesn't get this issue as he fails to get so many others. With so many qualified and experienced Republican women to choose from, why would he select someone with no experience? Her only plus seems to be ideological. Haven't we had enough of that from the current administration?

This choice is just one more piece of evidence that McCain does not have considered judgment and is subject to impetuousness based on his view that he alone knows best. How else to explain the fact that she did not go through a careful vetting process?

Of course, a cynical view would be that the Republicans don't want to waste a competitive candidate in a race they are doomed to lose.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Obama, Mybama

Throughout the primary campaign, I supported Hilary Clinton because I believed that she would be the strongest candidate against John McCain. Were it not for his inexplicable choice for vice president, I would still believe that. More on that is a subsequent blog.

As a result perhaps of my support for Clinton, I had not paid a lot of attention to Obama. Of course, I would vote for him and support his campaign but perhaps with a bit less enthusiasm than I would a Clinton campaign. Thus it was with great interest that I watched Thursday night. I must say that I was tremendously impressed, not with the style of his speech, but with its content. More than anything I learned more about the person, his history and commitments. Despite the obvious differences of race and color, I found that Barack Obama and I have much in common. Because of his background I believe that he has an emotional as well intellectual grasp of the major issues of the economy and the war. He can connect with the experience and struggles of ordinary citizens and in that connection finds his energy and commitment. Joe Biden re-enforces that dynamic.

The week before the DNC convention I listened to a portion of Harry Truman's 1948 acceptance speech. he spoke of the issues of education, jobs, Social Security, minimum wage, civil rights, and health care and the failure of the Republican congress to act in these areas. For more than six decades the democrats have focused on these issues that matter to ordinary people. Obama continues this tradition with a newly energized electorate.

Monday, August 11, 2008

It has been a busy summer

I have been away from this blog for some months. Life has been busy with trips to visit family and especially with grandchildren. We have 18 with number 19 on the way. Two from Cincinnati visited us for a week and three from North Carolina have been in the Rochester area for almost two weeks. In addition we traveled to Kansas City to celebrate Mom's 96th birthday. Summer is almost over and I will be posting to this blog more often.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

"Do you ever think of us?"

This was the haunting, resonating question put to a group of white, educated, affluent Americans by a 19-year-old migrant worker in Orleans County New York on a cold day in late March. He walked over the U.S. Mexican border two years ago and traveled somehow to Rochester New York area to work in agriculture. He came because there is little work in his home state and what work there is does not pay enough to support a family. He could work a 12 hour day and earn 100 pesos--about $10. But he then pointed to a two liter soft drink bottle and told us that it would cost 20 pesos at home, 20 percent of his daily wage.

And so he came to the U.S. to work those same 12 hour days or more but to make at least U.S. minimum wage, the bulk of which he sends back to his family. His living and working conditions are abysmal by any standard. During the growing season from April through November, he can work 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week. There is no such thing as over time pay or regular breaks. Sunday is not a day of rest if work needs to be done. If he is sick or cannot work, he does not get paid. New York State and federal taxes are withheld from his pay check and because he fears the immigration implications of filing an income tax return, he does not receive the refund to which he is entitled. He pays Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes but there no possibility that he will ever receive any benefits. In fact, the money he pays into social security helps support the payments that I and others on social security receive!

He lives in constant fear that he will be apprehended by immigration and deported back to Mexico. As a result he tends to spend his time in the camps even when there is no work. He truly feels like "an alien in a strange land" and thus asks me the question: Do you ever think of us? The sad truth is that mostly I do not think of them, whose cheap labor puts food on my table. To think of them makes me uncomfortable...and guilty. Most of the workers we met were in their late teens or early twenties. (View a photo album of our day.) A few were older and had left their wives and children behind in order to have a chance to provide for them. As a father myself it was difficult t imagine how desperate their situations must have been to lead them to leave.

None of those we spoke with wanted to stay here more than one or two years. They missed their families and their homes. They lead lives on the margin, out of sight, and all too often out of mind. They are the victims of a dysfunctional economic system at home and a misguided political and legal system here. It is difficult and often dangerous for them to raise their voices to demand the human rights that we all should have. Some of them have traveled to Albany with groups advocating for migrant worker rights. I doubt that I would have the courage to do the same were I in their situation.

Imagine how wonderful it would be if they could enter our country legally to do the work on which we rely for food. They could live among us as the proud and talented people they are instead of hiding from us who too often seem to them to be at worst enemies and at best unaware beneficiaries of their work. They could return home freely and just as freely return for the work that awaits them. They could earn reasonable wages and have the same protections that the rest of us enjoy.

Shortly before 9/11 there was pending legislation that would have provided just such an arrangement. But the hysteria generated by that attack wrecked the political coalition among both democrats and republicans that could have passed that legislation. Creating a border that pretends to be impregnable is no solution to this problem. There is no border in the world that divides such poverty on one side and such affluence on the other. We would all benefit from the free movement of such workers. We certainly need to control our borders but our current system forces honest and decent people to become criminals to provide the basic necessities to their families.

I will be doing more research to understand the changes that can be made to normalize this situation. It is clear to me that this should be an issue separate from the status of undocumented immigrant who are living permanently in the U.S.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

If we have to have an enemy, can we admit it is us?

Retired General Anthony Zinni and retired Admiral Leighton Smith have penned an important op ed piece in today's USAToday: A Smarter Weapon. They call for an expansion of and greater reliance on non-military means to address international problems and issues. They note that they, like most of us, came to age and developed careers during the Cold War. By definition, the United States faced an enemy, the USSR. With collapse of the USSR and thus the end of the Cold War, we were left with no enemy to face...until 9/11.

Since that event, Al Quaeda specifically or extreme jihadists have come to assume that role. Eventually perhaps we could have developed a world view that did not need an enemy to make sense, but if that process was underway it was short circuited by Osama bin Laden and his followers. While this "enemy" has been used to structure our view of the view and to justify national actions that are clearly not in our best interests, the real danger has been a failure to recognize, as the General and the Admiral say, that "today, our 'enemies' are often conditions--poverty, infectious disease, political instability and corruption, global warming--which generate the biggest threats. By addressing them in meaningful way, we can forestall crises."

As I have commented before, the role of the United States in the political and economic sphere often creates or makes those problems worse. Our failure to be part of the Kyoto Treaty, our continued gross overconsumption of energy and food, our failure to act or to lead action to address horrendous human devastation, all these contribute to conditions that breed the anger and resentment that can generate enemies. Does it not make more sense to address the root causes, rather than symptoms fo social and economic stress?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Acid Test of Discipleship

"Acid test" is an interesting term. It originated in the 19th century and referred to a test to determine if what appeared to be gold was, in fact, gold. A drop of nitric acid would leave real gold untouched but would turn blue on "fool's gold" which contains some element of copper. By the 20th century, it had entered general usage referring to whatever kind of test would distinguish the real from merely the apparent.

As I was praying with Sacred Space this morning, I reflected on what would be the acid test for a Christian. Would an objective observer conclude from the way I live my life that God exists? Or would such an observer conclude that my "espoused values" were Christian but that my "values in action" reflected the prevailing values and attitudes of my culture? Am I a thoroughly acculturated 21st century American who espouses Christian values or am I a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ who lives a life "in but not of" this 21st century world? This is a constant question for anyone, regardless of religious belief or engagement. The terms--"espoused values" and "values in action"--are from the work of Chris Argyris, noted organizational behaviorist. He uses these concepts to analyze the very human trait of saying one thing (usually what we think people want or need to hear) and then doing another (usually what we want or need.) We have all heard the same thoughts expressed in different ways:
  • Values are not taught; they're taught.
  • "If I had ever met a Christian, I might be one." Ghandi
  • "Children pay more attention to what parents do, not what they say." Most any parent.
  • "The good that I will, I do not. The evil that I do not will, that is what I do." St. Paul
While Christianity is inherently counter-cultural, I know that it is impossible for me to act outside the culture of which I am a part. But I know that I can live in tension with that culture or in a barely conscious complicity with it. Setting aside overt religious observance, could an observer look at my behavior this past week and at least get a glimmer that there is something at work in my life other than the prevailing values of my culture? If so, what would those be exactly? Such an examination is an uncomfortable exercise but one that I want to make part of my life.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

What's wrong with this picture?

Apart from being a little fuzzy, this presents Americans with a dose of reality. Among the 26 developed, industrialized countries of the world, the United States is roughly average on a set of socio-economic indicators that measure quality of life. To see more detailed information, go to OECD Factbook. The above chart is taken from a presentation on the short and long fiscal crisis facing the federal government prepared and presented by Controller General David Walker. Click here to see this and other avaialble presentations.

Monday, February 18, 2008

What a mess we have made of health care!

Why can't we just face the truth? For a variety of reasons, we have wrecked our health care system under the guise of a free enterprise, market-driven approach. Somehow we believed that using the market would result in better health care, that is, better care to more people. After close to 30 years, the results are shameful:
  • We spend more money on health care per capita and a higher percentage of gross domestic product than any other developed country and yet on several key measures such as infant mortality and life expectancy we rank embarrassingly low.
  • 40 million Americans have no health insurance and thus basically no way to cover the expenses of maintenance health care let alone of serious illness.
  • Lack of access to preventive and ordinary care means that more routine illnesses present in more advanced and often chronic form by the time the health care system is accessed.
  • Those of us who have health insurance live with an illusion of security since HMO's achieve their business success by restricting access to care.
  • Increasingly the ability to pay determines the amount and quality of health care one can receive. Those in the top two percent of U.S. incomes can afford whatever health care they desire. The rest of us must often forgo needed treatment because we cannot afford it.
  • What was once a totally not for profit sector has become dominated largely by for profit companies, both health care and insurance companies. Profit companies legitimately seek a reasonable profit. Unfortunately in health care, profits are resources that are not spent on providing health care.
  • While a large proportion of drugs are based on research funded by our tax dollars through the National Institutes of Health, drugs prices in the U.S. are higher than in other countries. We are the source of subsidies at the research and the retail level.
We have taken health care out of the realm of a social goods (similar to fire and policy protection, education, highway construction and maintenance, air traffic control to name a few) and moved into the realm of market goods. This has clearly resulted in a fundamentally flawed health care system. Even attempts to use the insurance model to cover everyone will continue complicity with the profit market model and thus perpetuate the problem.

Why cannot we just do what common sense tells us: Just as public education through the 12th grade, health care should be available to everyone regardless of health history, ability to pay, legal status, etc. As with education, those who desire a different alternative and can afford it would be able to access health care through a market model but no one would be denied quality care because of ability to pay.

I am lucky to live in Rochester NY. New York requires that hospitals be not for profit corporations. While many ancillary services--imaging is a good example--have moved out of hospitals into profit making corporations, the fundamental structure of care remains a not for profit one. In Rochester, the largest health insurer and HMO is a Blue Cross entity that did not transform itself from a not for profit to a profit seeking organization. Now named Excellus, the leadership and board of this non profit insurer did not think it wise for the long term health of their clients to become a profit seeking company. While there are clearly health care issues in Rochester, we have not experienced the horror stories so typical in the operation of hospitals and HMO's in other parts of the country where health care has become a business.

If it is too extreme and perhaps impossible to return to health care system that is not viewed as a business, what can we do to at least begin to get our money's worth out of our private and public expenditures. Here are three possible suggestions:
  1. Change the current law that prevents Medicare from negotiating prices with drug companies. The Veterans Administration is allowed to do this as well as the HMO that covers federal employees. Doesn't it make sense to permit this for those on Medicare who opt for the drug coverage?
  2. Simplify the Medicare drug coverage by eliminating the confusing insurance middlemen. If Medicare can pay health care providers directly, it can easily pay drug providers directly. This would eliminate the money diverted to insurance company profits.
  3. Require that everyone have health insurance coverage and then create incentives for people to use the health care system as often as needed. This will, over time, result in more preventive care which will reduce expenditures in the long run.
These are steps that we can take to move away from the disastrous experiment of converting health care into a market-driven business. Markets are effective at allocating resources for many activities but health care is not one of them. Our experiment has made a few people very wealthy and left the rest of us paying more for health care and getting less.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Things Are So Complicated

"Global demand lifts grain prices, gobbles supplies" is the cover story in the Money Section of USAToday for February 12. It is a good example of the way in which our global interdependence can lead to unintended or at least unanticipated consequences. Most would think that the economic development of third World countries is a good thing..and it clearly is. Most of us would think that turning to alternative fuels is also a good thing...and it is. Many think that using corn based ethanol is a good thing...and it might be. However, all these developments are leading to increased demand for food relative to supplies and thus higher prices for food commodities: corn, wheat, soybeans, etc. This is clearly a good thing for farmers both here in the U.S. and in developing countries. It means that especially in developing countries, more people can sustain themselves with agriculture and thus are less likely to migrate to urban areas with there concentrations of people and poverty.

At the same time, however, as prices for food increase, those who are poor and less able to afford food will get less food. Just to take one example cited in the article, the World Food Programme "will need $520 million more to provide the amount of good they had budgeted for this summer." This story is duplicated in other organizations providing food assistance like Oxfam.

As societies develop economically, they tend spend more on food although at a lower percentage of total income. There is an underlying dynamic, however, in that as people develop economically they tend to prefer increase animal protein over plant. Since it take eight times the grain to produce a calorie of animal protein as opposed to a grain protein, the demand for grain accelerates exponentially.

A gas station in Rochester has just started selling ethanol. It seems to be the case that every time a gallon of ethanol is consumed, the bread that I buy will cost more. That is merely an inconvenience for me but could threaten the health of those less well off than I.

It is hard to tell what to do. Switch grass seems a better source of ethanol than corn. The overall carbon foot print of ethanol--regardless of the source--may not be much better than petroleum. Reducing use of and thus demand for energy in the U.S. seems a more responsible way to be a good citizen in this global interconnected world. Increasing personal contributions to food assistance organizations is also a reasonable response for those of us who are so well off relative to our global sisters and brothers.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Isaiah and the Problem of Religious Practices

The lectionary for February 8 contains a reading from Isaiah 58:1-9a that is relevant to much in our lives today, especially as we begin the season of Lent. The people to whom Isaiah speaks were observant. They fasted; they afflicted themselves; they prayed. And yet, they felt that God had abandoned them. "Why do we fast, and you do not see it? afflict ourselves, you take no note of it?" They were following all the rules and did not receive the benefits of their special relationship with God.

They, as I often do, missed the point. Careful observance of religious practices does not somehow earn the favor of God. The loving concern of God is there for the asking, not the earning. In fact, all we need do is accept God's love in a way that changes us in a much more fundamental way than any prayer or practice can possibly do. As Psalm 51 tell us in today Responsorial Psalm, acceptance of God's love results in a "heart contrite and humbled." It is this changed heart that expresses itself in the kind of fasting pleasing to God.

"This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own."

As far as I can tell, all the major religions focus on a change of heart that is the source of both religious practices and acting in the world with justice and mercy. It is not that prayers or even acts of justice earn the favor of God but rather that an acceptance of God's life and love in each of us that naturally overflows into prayer and justice. When Jesus spoke of faith without love being as empty as a clanging cymbal, he was recalling this ancient insight. When Ghandi said that he would become a Christian if he had every met one, he was referring to the same thing.

As a Christian entering the season of Lent, I am called to refocus on this fundamental dynamic. Prayer, fasting, and justice are the fruits of faith. The Ten Commandments and other moral precepts are not so much rules to live by as they are descriptions of the life of those who have entered into the life of God. Lent is a time to rededicate myself to this faith and to the ways in which I express this in my daily life. My goal is that this new life "shall break forth life the dawn."

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Clinton or Obama: Final Answer

The Giants won the Super Bowl. Is that an omen?

It is now Sunday night and I have determined to make my decision before I go to bed.

I will vote for Hillary Clinton. This has been a difficult decision. I could vote for either and will strongly support either as the Democrat nominee. I know Clinton better since she has been my senator for eight years. On almost all important issues their positions are essentially the same. I wish that Clinton had voted against the Iraq resolution. Twenty-four senators did. However, all of the senators who subsequently became candidates for the nomination voted for the resolution. Edwards subsequently recanted. Obama was not in the Senate at the time although he gave a speech against the resolution and the war it led to. His position at the time mirrored my own. I am not sure what he would have done if he had been in the Senate and thus his position would have had an impact on the actual policy. It is one thing to give a speech; another to vote on legislation that will impact policy.

Clinton is a strong, assertive, intelligent and savvy woman. That she comes across to some as calculating and self-interested seems to me to reflect more our difficulty in finding categories to judge such a woman rather than the character of her words or actions. As a woman, she also has special difficulties with her spouse. Male candidates typically have spouses who have subjugated their careers or ambition to those of their husbands. This means that the spouses of male candidates are largely attractive appendages. The spouses of female candidates typically have careers and public visibility which can often be problematic. The Ferraro candidacy is an example. Hillary's is another and is probably an extreme example. I can judge her candidacy apart from Bill's record and I believe that others can and should.

Charisma is just not enough for me any more. I want someone as president who begins with policies and proposed programs that will deliver on the ideals we all share. I have not heard or seen many of Obama's television ads but the ones I have seen focus on his personal history and the great ideals of America. I think that Clinton is committed to similar ideals but relies more on her experience in working out the political agreements and often compromises that are necessary to deliver on those ideals.

In the end, I believe that those who share the ideas and ideals of the Democrat party will join a new administration. There might be differences in those who join a Clinton administration and those who would join an Obama administration but I do not think the differences would be in quality.

I am more comfortable with and have more confidence in an approach that relies on persistent and patient work to achieve essential policies than I do in an approach that seems so characterized by enthusiasm. The change that either candidate proposes will take years to achieve and these changes will face opposition and unknown challenges. Success will require the capacity to persist in the face of defeat and difficulties, things which can too easily deflate enthusiasm and popularity. I believe that Clinton is in the political process for the long term, regardless of the outcome of this campaign. That commitment is important to the achievement of the ideals and policies at the heart of this campaign.

I am putting this topic to rest for a while. My next posting will take up something else.

Clinton or Obama: More

It is early Sunday morning in California. I have had discussions with family members from Missouri, Colorado and California. All of them are supporting Obama. Their reasons have nothing to do with policies or positions on issues. Their concerns about Clinton run more to history and her style, variables over which she has little control. Her past experience (Senate) and experiences (spouse of Bill Clinton) are part of who she is today and who she will be tomorrow. Her work in the Senate has been impressive; she has served New York and the country well. She works hard and has been effective working across the aisle. All this would serve her and us well. However, she is also Bill Clinton's spouse. The more active he is in her campaign, the more important that fact becomes. I do not believe that she would be controlled or even unduly influenced by him. She is quite strong and able to make her own way, as she clearly has in the Senate.

The problem, I think, is that his presence recalls his history and people's reaction, especially Democrats' reactions. First, as my sister pointed out, she is angry at Bill Clinton for having wasted an opportunity to make significant changes in our country because of his personal moral choices and the ensuing debacle. That alone would make anyone angry. Hilary cannot change that association or history. She is caught in a situation, not of her own making. Further there is nothing she can do about it. Dumping Bill in any way would not actually change anything.

Second, as my daughter in law in California, pointed out. Clinton would not be able to attract thebest and brightest in the Democrat constituency because of anger about Bill. They still smart from how they were misled, how they believed and supported Bill even as he was lying and manipulating them. This breach of trust has not been healed and seems likely not be healed. The quality of a presidency is due in large part of the quality of those the president can attract to serve in the administration. We have been ill served by the ideological litmus tests of the current administration. We would be further ill served by the failure to attract the very best talent possible. I think this anger and resentment lies behind the endorsements by Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. Obama, on the other hand, would be more likely to attract the brightest and the best in a campaign to change the government and its relationship to its people.

I believe the above is true. Perhaps that is why I began by leaning toward Richardson and then a bit to Edwards. I had a sense that Clinton might not be the strongest candidate. For some reason, however, I never moved toward Obama even after it became clear that Richardson and Edwards were non-factors. The truth is I have a hard time trusting Obama. For me, he is not charismatic. Perhaps I distrust charisma as a basis for choice. But without any clear policy differences, it is reasonable, albeit uncomfortable, for me to make a choice based on style, history, charisma, and the ever slippery political calculation about who would win against likely Republican candidates. It is ironic that in a race where many say we should have politics as usual the final choice becomes essentially a political choice rather than one about policies and positions.

My brother and sister are convinced that Clinton would lose to McCain who they believe will be the Republican nominee. I do not share their certainty but do share their concern.

So with my decision due by the end of the day, I am now leaning toward Obama. I am not ecstatic about it and find a troubling lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy. Perhaps that is a function of my frustration of finally having to apply political considerations to arrive at my final decision.

More later.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Clinton or Obama?

For the first time in a long time, primaries will make a real difference in who becomes the Democrat nominee for president. As a registered Democrat in New York, I will have the opportunity and the responsibility to vote in next Tuesday's primary. Since I will be out of town, however, I will be casting an absentee ballot. I will be taking it along with me for an out of town trip for a family wedding in Denver and then a visit in San Francisco. Perhaps travel will help me become clearer about my choice.

I have just spent time on both websites and on It is clear that there is very little policy difference between the two. in the two years they have overlapped in the Senate, they have voted together about 95% of the time. Given her six additional year's of Senate service, Clinton has a substantially greater lists of accomplishments.

They have both made erroneous claims about the other. On matters of importance to me (tax policy, Iraq, health care, education) they hold similar positions. If forced, I would probably give the edge to Clinton but not by much, certainly not enough to make my decision easy. Both are highly intelligent and well motivated. No basis there for a choice.

Clinton would bring more experience and I think that is important. Obama excites people with his eloquence and seems able to reach across many of the divisions that so plague us today. Clinton does seem to generate an almost visceral negative reaction from those already disposed to oppose her and the Democrat policies she espouses. I am not sure there would be more opposition than would be the case with Obama but she certainly would "stir up the Republican base."

In short, I still lean toward Clinton perhaps because she is much more of a known quantity to me given her service here in New York. Obama remains a bit of a mystery--albeit an intriguing one--to me. I am put off by his demeanor and body language when he listens to his opponents. Surely that cannot become the basis for my choice!

I have not finally decided and will watch the debate tonight and ponder all this as I travel this weekend. At some point, I will mark my ballot and put it in the mail. More later.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


As part of my newly re-designed web site, I wanted to include a blog...and here it is. I intend to post as regularly as possible ideas, observations, and concerns as they strike me. I have been retired for two years from an active career in higher education and church administration. I am working on a Masters in Theological Studies at St. Bernard's School of Theology & Ministry in Rochester NY. Many of my reflections these days have to do with the challenge of leading a Christian life here in 21st Century America.