Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Decline and Fall of the United States

The New York Times featured a conversation between Dick Cavett and David Brooks yesterday that discussed whether the United States is in decline. The brief opinion piece barely scratched the surface of the issue — I'm sure that any serious analysis would take at least series of books — but both Brooks and Cavett both acknowledged pessimism for the U.S.

Will the United States continue to be a "great nation" for the foreseeable future? The question starts with an assumption that may not be true:The United States is a great nation. Militarily and economically powerful? Without a doubt. But great can suggest excellence as well as power. What the U.S. lack now, in my opinion, is intellectual and moral greatness, and I'm not sure the United States was ever a source of intellectual or moral greatness.

Americans love to be boosters and say that the USA is a great country, but as far as the decline of the United States as a concept goes, I go back to a quote that has been attributed to a number of famous thinkers, including Mark Twain and Will Rogers:

It's not what you don't know that hurts you; it's what you do know that ain't so.
More later,

Friday, March 12, 2010

The "values" debate

Every so often, politicians talk about sharing their constituents' "values" on topics such as abortion, taxation, same-sex marriage, as well as considerably less controversial topics such as freedom.

The cynic in me says: "They are lying to get re-elected." And that may be true. What disturbs me more, however, is that the debate on values is so poorly framed, and that Americans do seem to share values with politicians, but not in a good way.

For example, virtually every American and certainly every American politician will admit to "freedom" as a core value. After all, the United States was founded on the ideal that all humans should be free (with notable exceptions at the time). Unfortunately, freedom is a slippery concept.

U.S. citizens don't have the freedom to murder their neighbors, at least not without penalty. Murder is against the law in every state, and is, in certain instances, a federal crime, and is prohibited in the Bible by one of the Ten Commandments. I doubt that a large percentage Americans consider this prohibition against murder an onerous limit to their freedom. However, one role of our government, staffed by politicians and bureaucrats, is to determine the boundaries of our freedom. What are laws if not limits on freedom?

So, we are a "free" country, within the limits of the law. That's a problem for the "values" debate because while we all value freedom, we define it differently. Politicians often talk about freedom from government interference for businesses and individuals. A business and an individual should be able to, without government interference, enter into an employment contract. The employee can sell his/her time and talent for whatever salary the market will bear. If an employer desperately needs an employee with a rare talent, then the salary is likely to be high. If anyone can do the job, then the salary will be low. Then the government steps in and limits the freedom of individuals and employers by setting a minimum wage, putting limits on child labor, taxing income, and applying hundreds of other regulations. Why?

Because values do not exist in a vacuum. The minimum wage law keeps employers from unfairly exploiting employees. Why? Because in addition to valuing freedom, Americans value fairness. We also value happiness. Jobs that don't pay enough for people to afford food and shelter, or jobs that abuse our children make us unhappy. (OK, that's a huge simplification, but you get the idea.)

This is why the values debate is poorly framed. We tend to talk about values as simplistic ideals instead of explaining what those values mean and how they must be balanced against each other. The American public is behaving like a bunch of simpletons by not demanding real debate of the issues and the values that underlie the issues. We are letting the politicians get away with it.

Shame on us.

More later,

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Healthcare reform debate seems incomplete when viewed through multiple links

Full disclosure: In the past, I have worked doing public relations for hospitals in Michigan, one large, one small.

News coverage of the healthcare reform debate can be fascinating, if you can set aside the human costs of inadequate health care.

A doctor bemoans the fate of medicine as health care becomes a business. Dr. Sandeep Jauhar writes in the New York Times that he became a physician to care for patients, not to be a businessman, but considering costs has become a high priority for doctors.

In the same issue of the Times an editorial suggests that as much as $700 billion per year, or 30 percent of U.S. healthcare spending is wasted.

That amount of waste seems plausible when you consider that the U.S. spends more per capita than any other country, according to World Health Organization (WHO) figures. Question: How is it that we can spend so much per person on health care when so many people are not covered by insurance and so, supposedly, do not access health care? According to this link, that and other assumptions about the uninsured are not necessarily correct. Still, with 15 percent of the population uninsured—almost 50 million individuals—the rate seems too high.

When the debate leaves numbers behind and goes to quality, there seems to be a difference of opinion as well. Does the United States have the best healthcare system in the world as some claim when they oppose healthcare reform? The WHO disagrees. (This information is from a 2000 report available here. The 2008 version also is available. Apparently the reports do not update the quality rankings each year.)

The point is not that conflicting opinions and information exist. The point is, that even with a cursory search of the Internet, and taking into account that the information from different sources isn't likely to be equally reliable, news media coverage of the current healthcare debate could be MUCH better.

More later,

Friday, July 03, 2009

Education is a culture we could choose to share... but don't

Cultural diversity is running rampant in the United States. Or, more accurately, most Americans claim a link to and a pride in their ethnic, geographic, religious, or other "roots."

What Americans aren't doing is becoming fluent in any culture but the one they like the best. There's nothing inherently wrong with embracing some aspect of your history, but as most Americans speak only English, most Americans only embrace or even acknowledge one culture.

We are all members of multiple cultures. Hardly anyone in the U.S. is a member of only one ethic group. The majority can trace their lineage back to multiple countries. Go back far enough and every family will find a change of religion somewhere in its history. But, many (I suspect most) people choose to identify with only one culture from their family or personal background.

Choosing one culture is not a problem. Choosing only one culture is a problem.

Why? Because it separates us and gives us notions such as "The War on Christmas," (which has spawned at least one book on the subject). A lack of multi-cultural fluency causes differences in cultural to be viewed as attacks.

One culture that we all should share (there are more) is the culture of education.

It's a fairly standard belief in the United States that going to college is a good thing. It is, but not for the reason most people cite – to get a good job. The most important thing college students can learn is how to be a part of the shared culture of education. Here are some aspects of that culture:
  • be skeptical, but open-minded
  • think critically
  • evaluate the evidence
  • if there is no evidence, do some research to find some
  • respect other people's ideas
  • give credit where credit is due
Anyone familiar with higher education in America might not recognize these as aspects of actual academic culture, and rightly so, but they serve as a starting point. This list is clearly not exhaustive and should apply to elementary and secondary education as well as higher education.

Americans go to public or private school, or are home-schooled because the law requires it. The law requires it because it gives Americans one basis for shared culture and understanding. It allows us to embrace our diversity without embracing separateness.

More later,

Thursday, July 02, 2009

How many people are EMPLOYED?

The jobless rate is the top story for many news outlets, with a loss in June of 467,000 jobs, according to the New York Times. It's a huge number. It puts the U.S. unemployment rate at 9.5 percent. Our economy has lost 6.5 million jobs since January 2008. No surprise, the announcement sent the stock market lower. The market seems to react to news almost emotionally to almost any negative announcement.

Couldn't news be reported differently so that the market wouldn't be as "depressed" by the numbers? Journalists are taught that the significant is newsworthy. If that's true, than why isn't the number of EMPLOYED people being reported?

Is reporting only the negative a form of bias? I don't want to suggest that we should get only happy news, but how the news is reported makes a difference. Compare FOX News and MSNBC or the New York Times and the Washington Times. They report on the same news (mostly), but treat it differently.

Is reporting the employment rate as well as the unemployment rate an option? Would it make any difference? To people? To the stock market?

More later,