Monday, December 9, 2013
Recently Pope Francis released an encyclical that includes his vision that everyone has a right to healthcare, “beseeching politicians to guarantee all citizens dignified work, education and healthcare.” That healthcare is a right is a common point of view, but what does it really mean?
The Declaration of Independence tells us that we have a right to life, yet everyone dies. The right to life is not unlimited. For the same reason we don’t have an absolute right to health, itself. To understand a right to healthcare it’s important to understand the concept of rights.
Rights impose duties or obligations, not on the person claiming or exercising the right, but on everyone else that they not infringe on that right. This is not the same as the old argument about rights coming with responsibilities. Rights are only possible if the rights of one require all others to act in a way that allows that right to exist. My having a right to life imparts on you an obligation not to kill me or in some other way cause my death indirectly or by negligence. Society enforces that right and others with prescribed punishments. A right to property implies punishment for theft or vandalism. My right to free speech requires others to remain observers while I have my say, even if they disapprove. In fact, there is no need to discuss rights unless people disagree. Indeed, if everyone agreed on what we owed to them, the claims of women’s rights, gay rights or animal rights would never be raised. If two people or two groups disagree, however, and no deal or compromise is reached, and one side is in a position to block the needs of the other, the establishment of rights may be the only recourse. In that case rights are established, and those rights, and the concessions they require from others, become enforceable.
Healthcare is a broad and vague term. It can mean anything from distributing aspirin to performing a heart transplant. When the Pope or anyone else says that everyone has a right to healthcare, that statement has no clear meaning without specifying the duties and obligations it imposes on others: physicians and other healthcare workers, hospitals, insurers, drug companies and taxpayers. When rights are established the needs of recipients automatically take precedence over the choices of providers. How are those needs distinguished from wants? There is not enough money to give everyone everything he wants in terms of comfort and life-extending interventions. People use the internet (and TV ads) to self-diagnose, then argue with doctors about what costly treatment may be right for them, especially when someone else is paying. Does society owe the same obligation in terms of healthcare to those who abuse their bodies as to those who lead healthy lifestyles? Is it smart for society to make it more rewarding for the brightest students to become lawyers who help sue the medical professionals rather than to become doctors and scientists who provide better services and the drugs?
These important questions about implied obligations are left open. A right to healthcare is easy to say, but the devil is in the details.
Friday, December 6, 2013
An old expression, "What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander," conveys the idea that what’s good for one person is good for another. If the behavior of one person or group is acceptable it must be acceptable for the rest.
This concept is often misapplied in politics. If Politician A does something shady or immoral, pointing out that (otherwise) respected Politician B acted the same way years ago and it did not affect his (or her) job performance, does not excuse the behavior. Telling lies or having extra-marital affairs is not made moral by the comparison to some great predecessor’s moral shortcomings. Poor judgments are not excusable on the basis that my opponent or predecessor made equally poor judgments. These excuses are as bad as saying that it’s right for any president to own slaves, because George Washington did. No, using the idea for political excuses is clearly a misapplication. Wrong behavior is not excusable by invoking some supposedly noble precedent.
I think a different application of “sauce for the goose” is more accurate, although I don’t expect many to agree. That comparison is between the Black Friday shoppers and the top management of Wal-Mart.
Thanksgiving protesters held rallies at over 1500 stores to demand higher wages and better working conditions. They argue that the company is rich enough and can afford to pay workers more. Although most of the attention is on Wal-Mart, low-wage workers at fast food and other businesses join in the cry for a higher minimum wage and more benefits for their work. The implication is that the company management is greedy and taking advantage of their employees. They are paying as little as they must to purchase the labor to run their business.
Meanwhile, shoppers fight to get bargains inside the same stores, and the protesters expect these shoppers to agree with and back their cause. People who have gone out of their way to pay as little as they can get away with for Christmas gifts and personal gadgets are expected to find at fault executives who want to pay as little as they can get away with, and to label them as greedy. Good luck!
What gives anyone the idea that all prices should be low, while everyone’s wage is high? Is there some kind of magic money tree that makes up the difference? Aren’t the shoppers being greedy in the same way when they search for bargains as the executives when they want to keep their labor costs down? Everyone wants the best deal, even, I suspect, those same protesters when they make purchases. The irony raises an eyebrow among those of us who are lucky enough to be able to step back and look at it with cold objectivity.
Monday, December 2, 2013
How can Black Friday pass without thoughts turning to perspective? What would it be this year – women fighting over yoga pants, someone caught in the stampede as the doors opened? Perspective is about moderation and keeping our core values, what we hold important, as the focus of how we spend our energy and resources. Good behavior in perspective leads to happier, more peaceful lives, quite the opposite of what we see on this single day (now one-and-a-half days) every year. Black Friday once again turns out to be poor perspective “on steroids.”
With cell phone cameras ubiquitous and rolling, it’s gotten too easy to find examples. The Huffington Post reports on and posts videos of several instances. “The shopping frenzy surrounding Black Friday has already led to a number of violent incidents across the country. Starting as early as Thursday night, shootings and stabbings have been reported at retailers in several states.” The Orlando Sentinel provides a laundry list of violent incidents. Imagine how much pushing, shoving and generally rude behavior is too commonplace to even make the news.
Another article tells of cruder behavior in years past when some people were observed relieving themselves in public so as not to lose their place in line.
How can these people be proud of the way they are acting? How can America be proud of it? This behavior cannot be passed over as totally spontaneous, caught up in the emotion. These people planned to be there. They planned to shop and fight for bargains. They probably did more research than they do before casting their ballots on Election Day!
Picture this: Hundreds of people lined up, camping out hours ahead to attend a church service, then fighting to get to the head of the line because communion wafers are in limited supply! Sounds ridiculous. But replace it with Wal-Mart and cheap televisions and it becomes real. Behavior reflects priorities, what is valued, what is meaningful. What do Americans really value - family, faith, friendship, peace and goodwill or the law of the jungle? Sometimes it's very hard to tell.
Friday, November 29, 2013
As I read this information from John’s Hopkins on how to maintain good eyesight, it occurred to me that products advertised as the secret to good health must be a scam.
This article from a group of medical experts tells that other than regular checkups, to maintain good eyesight “many lifestyle factors that protect our heart health may also help keep our eyes healthy, including being active; getting enough sleep; controlling blood pressure and diabetes; not smoking; maintaining a healthy weight; and eating a diet rich in fish and leafy, green vegetables like spinach and kale. Wow, that’s almost the same advice for every other health concern, not only heart health, but also improving the effects of arthritis, preventing chronic illness and promoting memory and general mental health.
The real secret to good health is that there is no secret. Health authorities have not been trying to hide anything from us. There is no big secret "doctors don't want you to know." In fact they have been shouting from the rooftops at every opportunity. We are told over and over on a number of issues that if we want to avoid problems and just generally feel better we should: get enough sleep, eat healthy, drink alcohol in moderation, stop smoking, get plenty of exercise, get enough liquids, use sunscreen, wear work gloves or protective eyewear as appropriate, learn relaxation techniques to reduce stress, brush and floss, wash your hands and get a flu shot. This should come as a surprise to no one. We have heard all this advice or subsets of it many times for many years.
The problem with advice like this is that no one wants to hear it. Americans are looking for the easy way, one that requires little discipline. So every time a new diet book is published or the doctors on TV tell us about a miracle cure or another health secret, people want to sign up for the program (and send in their money). They can’t hold an audience by saying the same things over and over, especially when we are so desperate for secrets, so the authors and television personalities must give us secrets.
The real secret is the boring truth – that there is no secret. Like every other endeavor in life, staying healthy requires a little luck and a lot of discipline to stick to the best course of action. The rest is distraction.
Monday, November 25, 2013
I looked several places for a definition of the phrase I vaguely remember from my high school government class, tyranny of the minority, but I found, as you might expect, only references to filibusters, court decisions and politics in general. It wasn't in that context that I thought about it when I read a couple of news articles last week. I was thinking more in terms of individuals or small groups that don’t like what is going on and decide to protest, sue or use other means to impede progress or to guilt the rest of us into giving in to their demands. It’s a kind of take-it-or-leave-it negotiation that should elicit resentment from the rest of us but seems to win out through shear persistence.
One example comes from a story about wild turkeys roaming the streets of Staten Island. They are clearly pests, described as “fouling yards with droppings, devouring gardens, waking up residents with raucous pre-dawn mating sessions, and utterly disregarding dogs and other supposed deterrents.” They are not rare or endangered. Experts estimate that the wild turkey population has grown from 300,000 to 7 million over the past 60 years. When the Department of Agriculture captured about 80 from a psychiatric hospital and took them to be slaughtered, with EPA approval, citizens objected. How are authorities supposed to deal with such a problem in the face of what was characterized as “an outcry”? An animal shelter tried to help out by taking in as many as they could, but it barely made a dent. So we are faced with people, who think these birds/pests are cute and object to them being killed, trying to force everyone else to accept another solution, while they make no contribution except to scream about what they won’t stand for.
The recent discussion of allowing cell phones on commercial airline flights is developing into a similar situation. It’s no longer a matter of safety, but flyers are lining up to protest. This USA Today article quotes one woman as saying, "My answer is quite simple: Absolutely no way. Never…With all the stress of travel, silence on a plane is like music to my ears." Others have expressed similar take-it-or-leave-it arguments.
Cell phones are common on trains, where people are likewise packed together, although the trip is usually shorter. In fact, a recent CNN story tells of a shooting on a train in San Francisco where no one noticed the shooter waving around a .45-caliber handgun until the shots were fired, because they were so absorbed with their phones. Some train passengers have figured out a way to deal with it. Others have suggested a quiet car on the trains. But the airline passengers’ answer seems to be “no way,” without considering other solutions, earplugs for example, or a headset pumping real music or perhaps white noise as music to their ears. No, the easy answer is: No way – you figure it out.
These are not isolated instances, only examples of a behavior that is becoming more and more prevalent. A few people protest efforts to rid runways of geese or downtown areas of roaming deer. They offer no alternatives while expecting others to foot the bill for the additional time and resources spent to satisfy their outrage. It has forced us to purify public areas of any religious references, no matter how well-intended or innocuous. They demand gluten-free communion wafers, refusing suggested compromises. This attitude is really quite common.
American society has reached a point where the battle between my rights/opinion against someone else’s rights/opinion boils down to who can make the most fuss. If I don’t want you to kill the turkeys or allow others to use their phones, it’s not up to me to compromise or come up with a better plan. (Note how the same behavior we condemn as disgraceful in government is quite common among everyday people around everyday issues.) The side that wins is the one who can muster the most support by raising emotional issues like guilt and compassion, calling on general feel-good terms like justice and fairness or claiming offense. Motherhood and apple pie arguments (the turkey as a “national symbol” or appeals against “cruelty” or the “right” to peace on the plane) trump open negotiations and logical solutions.
In these either/or confrontations, one side eventually gives in. It may not be the best answer or even the right answer. It calls to mind the eerily prophetic words of Douglas Adams in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: "And that's the deciding factor. We can't win against obsession. They care, we don't. They win."