Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Opinion Polls Do Not Determine Policy

The recent noise about the so-called "mosque" two blocks from "ground zero" has an entire host of problems, but for the sake of brevity I'd like to hone in on one error in reasoning: the ad populum argument.

Over and over again, we hear opponents of the "mosque" say various versions of the following argument:

"Two-thirds of Americans/New Yorkers, etc. are opposed to the mosque being built near ground zero. We should not allow it to be built there."]

So what if two-thirds of people disagree with something? Even if the poll showed 99% of the population disagreed, it changes nothing: Muslims have every right to build a community center, containing a mosque, on the private property that they purchased. Period. It's that simple. Arguing based on "public opinion" has no validity whatsoever.

Since when does public opinion matter about guaranteed Constitutional rights? Do these opponents believe in the Constitution or not?

The entire point of most of the Bill of Rights was precisely to protect minority groups from the wrong-headedness of the majority. In this case, Islamophobia is being used to gain votes. Simple.

Let's not allow such fallacious arguments to influence our policy, our voting behavior, or our attitudes towards others.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Marriage and Religion

Marriage is not a religious institution. The origins of marriage extend much farther back in history than any of the Judeo-Christian religious traditions. If anything, then, marriage is a pagan idea. Christianity does not possess “ownership” of the idea or the institution of marriage. It is likely, in fact, that the idea of, and practice of, marriage pre-dates recorded history, so in reality we do not even know about many of its original intentions and purposes.

Anyone claiming to hold a “traditional” viewpoint about marriage needs to realize that, throughout history, the primary reason to get married had nothing to do with love or even necessarily with having heterosexual sex with one’s spouse. Marriage was about societal status more than anything else (which I suppose is not entirely gone today, is it?), not about love or even about creating offspring. Most men had sexual relations with someone outside the marriage (yes, sometimes of the same sex even), but not with their own wives. This was a common and even acceptable practice (to the men, at least, since they had the sole power to determine this).

What does all of this mean? It means that I have no idea what someone is really saying when they claim to be in favor of “traditional” marriage. Marriage does not have a fixed and unchangeable meaning. The idea and practice of marriage continues to evolve and to be understood in significantly different ways from generation to generation.

Just consider the original idea of marriage in the United States, where men literally owned their wives. Marriage was, in essence, a form of slavery. Consider even the language of “traditional” marriage ceremonies: “I now pronounce you man and wife.” Why does the man get to continue to be a man, but the woman is now defined only by her status in relation to the man? Or what about the phrase still repeated as marriage vows where the woman agrees “to honor and obey” her husband? Think about these practices and vows for a moment. Should we return to this idea—that a wife is property—because it’s allegedly “traditional”?

Let’s consider for a moment the assertion that the purpose of marriage is to produce offspring and to raise a family. Many heterosexual couples choose not to have children. Should we force these couples to either reproduce or to get divorced?

Marriage in the United States today is not a religious practice. One is not required to profess to be a member of any particular religion to get married. Marriage is a secular practice in the United States first and foremost. That is, a couple is not considered married until the state recognizes the union. Whether or not the couple has any sort of religious ceremony in any kind of “church” or place of other religious significance is entirely a personal choice and has no bearing whatsoever on their legal standing. No religious set of beliefs has any authority over the practice of marriage in the United States of America, and, thus, any arguments defining and restricting marriage according to religious beliefs possess no legitimacy.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Analyzing Barack Obama's Nicknames

Barack Obama has been called many, many names since he took office. Oh, wait, I forgot to include his middle name--Hussein--because, as we all know, if you share the same name with someone you clearly possess all of their other traits too.

Over the next few days, I'll try to break down these various names, in the hopes that we can move beyond ad hominem fallacies and actually discuss some serious issues.

Where to begin?

How about "socialist"? Is Obama a "socialist"? In a word, no. The vast majority of folks who call Obama a "socialist" or a "communist" or a "Marxist," quite frankly, have no idea what they're talking about. And, if they do know what they're talking about, then they're intentionally trying to deceive others because they know that "socialist" invokes an automatic negative image. Many people can't explain socialism, but they sure as hell know it's evil!

Socialism, like democracy, I suppose, is a somewhat slippery term. What on Earth does it mean? The most common agreeable trait is that socialism means the people who physically create the wealth (labor; the working class) also own the means of production. I don't see that happening at all. What Rush Limbaugh means by "socialism" and what "socialism" actually is, like most things Limbaugh defines, are completely different.

Thus, if anything, Obama is a hyper-capitalist because he has done just about everything in his power to PRESERVE CAPITALISM. Under Bush first (TARP was under Bush), and continued under Obama, our government has done everything to ensure that global capitalism survives, not perishes.

No society is purely "democratic" or purely "socialist" either, in reality. It's just not that simple.

Let's consider whether or not the U.S. is socialist. In total, the U.S. government holds some kind of stake now in .21% (That's ONE-FIFTH of one percent!) of corporations. And, as Obama has repeated again and again, he has "no interest" in owning GM. Simply giving money to a corporation is not socialism. Citizens could be angry about this for other reasons, to be sure, but not because it's "socialist."

Let's also use health care as an example. A socialist would abolish private for-profit hospitals, consider all health care professionals employees of the state (everyone would be employed by the state, I suppose), and, of course, would rid our nation of insurance companies. Obama has proposed none of that. Again, if anything, Obama is the epitomy of a capitalist: he wants insurance companies to stay in existence and has not been a very strong advocate by any sense of any kind of "public option" (similar to Medicare.) Even if a public option does pass, I doubt it will have an impact on for-profit health insurance. Most people will still be insured through their employer, and won't have any choice at all. (I thought capitalism was all about choices and a "free market". We don't have that.)

Irony alert! Alaska, under Sarah Palin, most closely resembled a "socialist" state. Alaskans receive nearly $14,000 per capita, far more than most states, meaning, the rest of us subsidize Alaska and its inhabitants. Moreover, Alaskans receive $3,000 a year from OIL COMPANIES. When pushed on this, Palin responded, and I QUOTE: Alaska is "set up, unlike other states in the union, where collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs."

Hmmm....sounds like socialism to me, and far moreso than anything I've heard Obama suggest.

In the final analysis, Obama is strongly capitalistic, and certainly no socialist.

Perhaps a few days from now, we'll consider whether or not Obama is a "Nazi."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Dear Canadians,

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how poor your health care system is. It sounds terrible about how long you have to wait for care. Doctors and nurses must be rather incompetent, too, considering how poorly they get paid.

Canada must be a terrible place to live, what with all the dying people in the streets and all that. It’s really sad how your crazy socialist fascist totalitarian European-style government rations care and lets the old and useless people suffer. It’s too bad there isn’t some kind of help for Canadians to get better medical attention. Canadians must be outraged!

It must be hard to find medicine there, too, since there’s no scientific research or any kind of medical advancement there.

Please feel free to come to the United States. It only costs about $9,000 a year here for medical coverage for one person. And then, if you actually get sick, it’s only another $500 deductible and you only pay about 20% of your total bill. I had an MRI last year, and it only cost me $1,500 out of my own pocket! Can you believe the value?

Just be careful to call ahead, get pre-approved for everything (even before you hop in the ambulance!), and make sure your doctor is in the right network (whatever that is!) otherwise you’ll have to pay full price.


U.S. Citizens against anything Canadian or European-sounding

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Case for Single-Payer Health Care

The Case for Single-Payer Health Insurance

One of the problems with the United States health care system is that it’s a cobbled together mess of government and private plans. Some members of the population get access to health care via Medicare (if over 65) and some adults and children living in poverty conditions can have access to Medicaid. Explaining Medicaid is extremely complicated because it functions as a joint state/federal program. Suffice to say for now, some people can get “government-paid” health care, but many cannot. This is problematic because there are cases of parents turning down promotions and better jobs to stay within the income perimeters. They did the calculations, and they came out ahead having Medicaid but earning less income. Thus, they are playing the system, but I can’t say I blame them.

The rest of us need to hope our employer covers us, or we have to go on the open market to purchase insurance. Good luck with that! Individual insurance is extremely costly unless you go with a major-medical, extremely high deductible plan.
Rates vary significantly, and what most employees don’t realize is that insurance is part of salary! Insurance plans cost employers anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000 on average per employee. Family plans are more. Why does it cost so much? At many places, the employer is insuring a relatively small “pool” of people. Where I work, we insure about 250 employees, and our average age of employee is on the high side. Thus, on the whole, we are higher risk. In many cases, health insurance consumes a significant portion of salary. If you earn around 40K annually, about one-fifth of your salary package is likely going to health insurance.

I wanted to explain some basics before going into what I would advocate. Essentially, I would argue that the United States should have a single-payer system. Many nations do this differently, but I would propose that our money is essentially pooled as if we were paying into one big insurance company. This would spread the risk, and spreading risk is what insurance is all about. With over 300 million people on one plan, we should be able to keep the costs lower than what we’re currently doing. This would not be “free” healthcare. Everyone would pay with payroll deductions.

One other part of my rationale is that I strongly believe health insurance should not be a “for-profit” enterprise. It should be a basic right just like fire and police protection. How would we like the police department or fire department to be “for profit”? “We’re sorry sir, but you forgot to pay your premium, so we can’t put your house fire out today.” Or, “Your house had old wiring, which is a pre-existing condition; we’re sorry, but we deny your fire coverage based on a failure to disclose a pre-existing condition.”

Health insurance companies serve absolutely no positive function in our nation. They make profit off sickness and disease. Period. We don’t need them. They raise premiums at a pace that far exceeds inflation and cost of living expenses, in many cases 10-15% annually. At any rate, regardless of the actual profit via statistics, any profit means more money out of individuals’ pockets. And, there’s no denying that insurance company executives get big payouts and bonuses, and private insurance company employees are rewarded (with bonuses and promotions) for DENYING coverage to policy holders.

Now, I know there are objections to single-payer, so I’ll try to respond to the more common concerns.

First objection: “This is government-run health care, and it means that government bureaucrats would make decisions.” Many people, apparently, do not trust the government. I have two responses to this legitimate concern.


First, it’s not government “run” health care. Hospitals and doctors are still private; hospitals are not suddenly federal buildings, and doctors are not made into government employees. That would be a truly socialistic system, and that is not what single payer means.
Second, and this is debatable, but I’ll throw it out there: I trust my government more than I trust insurance company executives. Why? It goes back to the profit idea. When health care is not-for-profit, decisions of life and death are not made based on profit margins.
Finally, insurance companies already “get in between” patient and doctor. Single-payer would actually eliminate this, not cause it! Any doctor, by definition, would be “in-network.” That means, you could go to any doctor at any time in any U.S. location. (At least, in my version of single-payer, but I don’t see how this could be false under any single-payer plan.)

Second objection: “But then we’re paying for the unemployed, “lazy” people.”

Response: We already are, except now we get no benefit from the taxes and deductions taken. With a single-payer system, at least everyone gets something back for what they pay in.

Third objection: We can’t afford government paid health care.

Response: We can’t afford private health care either! Soon, fewer and fewer will be able to afford private health care. More families will go bankrupt. Guess who pays for bankruptcies? All of us in the form of higher medical costs. Why do you think you get charged 20 dollar for aspirin, or 100 dollars for a box of Kleenex? Because many people default on their medical bills and then declare bankruptcy.

A challenge to Congress:

I want just one Republican or so-called Blue Dog Democrat to stand up and make the case AGAINST Medicare, Medicaid, and the Veterans’ Administration. If they go on record against any form of government insurance, I want them on the record as saying that, on principle, they will work to abolish Medicare! Not one single conservative politician has done this. So, either they are pandering to the elderly for votes, or they really believe it. If they really believe, then I want them to put forth a piece of legislation that calls for abolishing Medicare!
Then, I want them to decline their taxpayer paid health insurance and pick up their own policy since they claim the government is so terrible at running programs.

Here’s the bottom line response to any and all objections to a single payer system:

We ALL are ALREADY paying for EVERYONE’S health care.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Quality of Public Deliberation Suffering

Since Obama has taken office, a very small, very vocal, and apparently very hateful minority has attempted to hijack public deliberation. And it has worked. And the media have made it happen.

It began with claims that Obama was not born in the United States. The claim was so outrageous that the mainstream media covered it precisely because it was ludicrous. This ended up, of course, actually legitimizing the claims. Had the media ignored it—and they should have because it was completely false—then few of us would even have been talking about it. Simply put: it was a distraction we didn’t need when we should have been debating other issues that actually matter.

What we call a “debate” about health care is no debate at all. When one side fabricates outright lies and the other side actually spends time responding to the ignorance, we’ve hit a new low in what passes for public “debate.”

Here’s a case in point: Can anyone articulate the actual concept of what has now become known as “death panels?” The media, on both conservative and liberal progressive outlets, keep repeating the phrase “death panel,” allegedly first used by Sarah Palin on her Facebook page for crying out loud, either to embrace it or to discredit it. No matter the reason, repeating the idiotic phrase has embedded that concept into the “debate,” and we’ve almost entirely ignored any real deliberation about how end-of-life counseling might better allow the elderly to make their wishes known to their family, loved ones, and caregivers before they are mentally and/or physically unable to do so. (By the way, as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin devoted a day to promote exactly this idea. It was called “Health Care Decisions Day.”)

Most recently, critics have attempted to claim that Obama planned to “indoctrinate” our children in schools with his socialistic views. (As a side note, most people I encounter who call Obama a socialist cannot define the term; they merely believe it’s “un-American.”) Obama’s speech simply encouraged kids to study and to stay in school. Again, this marks a new low in our public discourse because such accusations were being circulated days before Obama spoke to discredit him before anyone even knew the content of the speech. Obama’s opponents are so desperate to see him fail that they don’t even wait to respond to what he actually says.

For the most part, this outrage has been fabricated and orchestrated by special interest groups or extremists on the left and the right. Most of these “debates” were not legitimate, and most reasonable people would simply have ignored it. Unfortunately, the media apparently are starving for controversy. Republicans, too, have played some role in this for frequently perpetuating the lies and myths either explicitly or because they will not, when asked, correct them.

The United States can do better than this. I hope.

Pay No Attention to Public Opinion Polls

Public opinion polls are misleading, they become the focus of the news—rather than the issues--, and, polls suggest that what’s popular is what ought to be.

Polls mislead. Take this most common example. “Do you approve of the job the President is doing?” What does this actually measure? If the number is low, does that mean a progressive President is being “too progressive”? Absolutely not. But, on the face of it, that’s what it suggests. One could easily disapprove of the President because he’s not, in their estimation, being progressive enough. Yet, we tend to assume that disapproval ratings mean that a Democrat is being “too far left” and a Republican is being “too far right.” I suspect dips in Obama’s current ratings are for both reasons, although the media (you know, the “liberal” media) treat the poll as if Obama is being too liberal.

Likewise, I’ve seen polls that ask, “Do you agree with Obama’s/Baucus’/Democrats, etc. health care reform?” If I answer “No,” then what am I really saying? The poll does not measure what we might think. I could disagree for any number of reasons, most of which give a false impression. I know dozens of people who would answer “no” to that question because they are in favor of a single payer system that abolishes private health insurance altogether. I know other people who want no reform at all, and many of them have different reasons for that position. So, oddly, all of these groups would be shown to agree (about something)—even though they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum—if they answered this poll. Yet, the headline in a newspaper or blog would read something like, “58% say they disagree with Obama’s health care reform.” See the problem with that? What does that sound like? Most would interpret it as opposition to health care reform, but it’s not.

Second, the media treat polls as if they are newsworthy. In fact, they report more on polls than on virtually anything else. This is called “horserace journalism.” It means the media focus on who, or which side, is allegedly “winning” a given debate, rather than on any actual substance. Rather than debating the merits of any particular idea, working with the same example from above, polls ask, “Are you in favor of health care reform”? Then, if the numbers are high, we conclude that Obama is “winning.” If they’re low, we assume people want no reform and the media conclude that Obama is “failing.” Every day, we have a different winner. It’s silly, of course, but the media need something to talk about on slow days, right? This is all very superficial, and does not help us solve problems. Indeed, it may even give a completely opposite picture.

Moreso, news anchors and commentators treat polling data as if it is fact. They are opinion, and, as I’ve already shown, they are not even accurate gauges of public opinion. The way the media treat polls as fact is by constantly citing them as “evidence” of what to do or what not to do, or as some kind of proof that something will or will not happen. Republican spin doctors, for example, appear on cable news and proclaim that health care reform will not pass because a slight majority apparently “oppose” reform. It’s all quite humorous if we realize that reform is a slow process and the polls change every single day along with the weather.

Finally, popular support does not mean it’s the right—or the best—thing to do. Using public opinion as a reason to do or not to do something is a weak form of reasoning known as “argumentum ad populum.” It’s the classic scenario where your mother asks you if you’d jump off the bridge if Johnny did it. You know the rest. Our founding fathers knew that might does not make right, which is why there are so many checks and balances to negate potential majority rulings. Merely because—allegedly—a narrow majority of United States citizens “oppose” health care reform does not mean we should do nothing.

If we operated this way as a nation—according to polls—then we would not have fought the Revolutionary War, abolished slavery, allowed women to vote, or eliminated segregation. Those were not “popular” causes. (Yes, many women were against giving women the right to vote; on simple numbers, if polled, it’s doubtful a majority of the nation would have agreed to the statement, “Women should be granted the right to vote.”)

Ignore polls. The future of our country, and important policy matters, should not be influenced so heavily, if at all, by “public opinion.” That may sound undemocratic, but polls are not the way to attempt to solve problems. Especially with so much misinformation and misunderstanding out there, do we really want the fate of health care reform (or any matter of policy) to be determined by a few polls that asked a few thousand people a question they may or may not have really understood?