Sunday, November 14, 2010

The end is near; pay no attention.

Normally we expect something like "repent and be saved" after we hear "the end is near." But the lectionary readings for this Sunday present a different thought to us, one that is more authentically Christian.

The passage from the Book of Malachi contain a stark and threatening picture of the end of time and final judgment:
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.
The reading from Luke recounts the words of Jesus about the end times: wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, etc.

We face these realities in our own life. As we contemplate our individual death, we understand more fully the meaning of annihilation; we face the complete destruction of who we are, or at least it seems like that. At the end of the passage from Luke, Jesus gives us a clue about what our faithful stance should be: "By your endurance you will gain your souls."

In other words, as disciples of Christ, we are to live our lives, not in light of what will happen at the end, either of our lives or the end of all existence. Rather we are to live out the reality of who we are as believers: sons and daughters of a loving God. Our lives are to express that reality rather than express our fear of what might happen at our death if we don't.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Amenable Mortality

Now here is a concept for you! "Amenable mortality" was an health analysis term developed in the 1970's to measure the effectiveness of health care systems in developed, industrialized countries especially. Amenable mortality measures the deaths that occur before age 75 that could have been prevented by timely and appropriate medical care, in other words, conditions that were amenable to health care but went untreated.

A study by the Commonwealth Fund showed the following results:

U.S. Ranks Last

Between 1997–98 and 2002–03, amenable mortality fell by an average of 16 percent in all countries except the U.S., where the decline was only 4 percent. In 1997–98, the U.S. ranked 15th out of the 19 countries on this measure—ahead of only Finland, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and Ireland—with a rate of 114.7 deaths per 100,000 people. By 2002–03, the U.S. fell to last place, with 109.7 per 100,000. In the leading countries, mortality rates per 100,000 people were 64.8 in France, 71.2 in Japan, and 71.3 in Australia.

The largest reductions in amenable mortality were seen in countries with the highest initial levels, including Portugal, Finland, Ireland, and the U.K, but also in some higher-performing countries, like Australia and Italy. In contrast, the U.S. started from a relatively high level of amenable mortality but experienced smaller reductions.

The U.S. ranks last even though we spent more money per capita that the other countries. In fact, we spend about twice as much as the average of the other countries. It is also important to realize that the other countries all have universal health care coverage, unlike the U.S.

The health care reform plan enacted this year does need to be amended but certainly not undone. It needs to be strengthened if we are to achieve any like comparable results as do the other industrialized countries.

I also note, with some dismay, that in just a little over five years, my mortality won't count, whether amenable or not.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Important Role of Scapegoats

Scapegoats was a necessary part of any political process that seeks to disenfranchise some segment of society. Here is how it works. First you manipulate the political process, usually in more or less secret ways, to bring about disenfranchisement. Those who are so disenfranchised eventually realize that and get angry about it and want do do something about it. Scapegoating becomes central, not to defuse the anger but to point it in a direction away from those actually responsible.

Here is a current example. For the past thirty years, the middle class in the United States has suffered economic stagnation with almost no growth if any in real income. This is despite more people in the family working and everyone working more hours. The middle class turned to consumer credit and then to home equity, expanded beyond all reason by a speculative bauble. Eventually the bubble burst; the credit markets dried up; consumption and thus economic growth declined; and unemployment skyrocketed.

The anger and frustration of the middle class as a result of these developments seek a target. Who or what is responsible? Who or what can be blamed, punished or reformed? It would not be productive if this anger and frustration would actually end up focused on those who have actually gained income and wealth during these same thirty years. The top five percent of American households have done very well during this period; the top one percent, even better; the top .5 percent, best of all.

Rather than have the middle class come to that little conclusion, it serves someone's purposes a lot better if that anger and frustration can be pointed at other targets. What could be better targets than illegal immigrants and poor people. Under the rallying cry of illegal immigrants taking jobs from American--nothing could be further from the truth in reality--immigration reform has been stopped dead in its tracks.

But the significant outcome is not that but rather that all that justifiable anger and frustration is diverted away from those who actually have a lot more to do with the root causes of the current economic stress of the American middle class.

Monday, November 1, 2010

More Evidence on the Inequality Front

David stockman was Budget Director for Ronald Reagan. On 60 Minutes last night he took both Republicans and Democrats to task for saying that somehow taxes can be reduced on anybody without disturbing our current pattern of spending. He was particularly on point when he talked about a one-time 15% surtax on the wealthiest Americans. On the surface that sounds a little unfair until you hear the facts about the growth in wealth of the top five percent of American households.

"In 1985, the top five percent of the households, wealthiest five percent, had net worth of $8 trillion, which is a lot. Today, after serial bubble after serial bubble, the top five percent have net worth of $40 trillion," he explained. "The top five percent have gained more wealth than the whole human race had created prior to 1980."

In other words, the taxing and deregulation policies over the last 30 years have generated tremendous wealth for the wealthiest Americans while leaving the rest of the population to struggling with stagnating wages and massive debt. This tremendous wealth was not generated because the top five percent were smarter or harder working that the rest. It was generated because the top five percent convinced the rest of the population to reduce taxes on the rich, treat capital gains differently than earned income, deregulate, i.e., get government regulators out of the way of financial speculation and mismanagement.

Whatever happens in the 2010 elections, the U.S. economy has an inherent inequality that must be dealt with. A return to past policies will only worsen this fundamental problem and continue to build the wealth of the top five percent while the rest of us languish. Eventually that top five percent might come to the realization that they cannot continue to build wealth if the rest of us cannot buy goods and services and thus increase demand. Of course, they could simply ignore that and look to foreign markets for their easy money.