Sunday, December 12, 2010

When I die...

When I was in fifth grade, I was the worst kind of nerd. I was determined to get 100% on every assignment. My teacher didn't help things by giving us regular updates on how many points we had overall, how many were possible, what our overall percentages were, and what sort of grade that translated to.

I was never in danger of anything short of A+. Extra credit opportunities abounded, and I took advantage of every one of them. I probably was somewhere in the range of 120% when, in science, we entered the "circle of life" portion of the curriculum. It was all about the food chain and homeostasis and the way an ecosystem was one big machine in which every member gave as much as it took. I was fascinated by this idea.

Well, one day I came into class, and it suddenly occurred to me that our weekly extra-credit assignments were due that day. I didn't need extra credit — I was a nerd, remember? But I loved to build up that stock of extra credit to pad my grade and ensure that I remained in the A+ range. So I panicked. I looked over the list of extra-credit opportunities, and I settled on one: Write a poem about the food chain.

There were about 10 minutes until class started, so I decided I would take a stab at writing that poem. It was, after all, worth 10 extra-credit points, and I wanted them. Here is what I came up with:

There was grass on the ground.
It grew all around.

There once was a rabbit.
Eating grass was its habit.
It ate the grass on the ground
That grew all around.

There once was a hawk
With a nest on a rock.
It ate the rabbit
With the grass-eating habit
Who ate the grass on the ground
That grew all around.

The hawk choked and died
Nevermore to glide.
It fertilized the ground
And the grass grew all around.
I remember that poem well, not only because my teacher printed it up and hung it on the wall but also because it reflected my early understanding of how amazing our ecosystems really are. It sounds so nerdy — some things never change — but that idea really resonates with me.

I've spent my entire life engaged in one duty: ingesting organic material, metabolizing it, and turning the byproducts into parts of my body. Every cell of me bears components of some broccoli, a little chicken breast, a bowl of ice cream and millions of glasses of water. And lots and lots of other stuff. The food and beverage I have ingested in my life represent probably millions of miles traveled, tens of thousands of gallons of oil consumed, and thousands upon thousands of plants and animals whose lives were lost in the interest of feeding me.

When I die, I don't want all of that effort to be sealed up in a hermetic box, my entirety embalmed with chemicals meant to prevent my cells from breaking down, and then all of it encased in concrete before being dumped into the ground. It might sound a little hippie-dippy, but I want to become a tree. I want nitrogen-fixing bacteria to hang out at a party of worms, and for all of them together to identify the parts of me that most whet their appetites. I then want those bacteria and worms to excrete their little excretions, and for those excretions to become the soil that nurture the next generations of plant that becomes food for some animal, who poops me out to become yet more food for yet more plants, and on and on until I'm truly dispersed throughout the metabolic systems of countless types of flora and fauna.

But in our hygienic times, dumping my body into a hole and filling it with dirt isn't only culturally shocking — it's illegal. Cremation doesn't really thrill me because I harbor this irrational fear that despite being dead I still might suffer the pain of being melted down for parts. And besides, ash surely must be a less-effective nutrient than unadulterated moldering Doug, right?

So I have no idea what I want to happen to me when I die. What about you? If you were to write a last will and testament, what would you ask to have done with your remains?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Holidays!

So here I am, coming out of blogging hibernation, to offer once again my unsolicited opinion. But it's Thanksgiving, which officially kicks off the holiday season, and I want to preemptively disagree with a certain cadre of pundits before they launch into their wintertime assault on our collective sense of peace and goodwill.

Because to my mind, that's the most important part of this season, the common thread that ties together all the holidays and celebrations that our diverse country recognizes this time of year: It's the time of year when we focus on gathering with our families and friends; the time when we donate time, goods, food and money to help the people who have less than us; and the time when we imagine a more peaceful world.

But the last decade or so, it's also become the time of year when a few loud-mouths try to stir up trouble, to say, "Peace is nice, but what I really want you to focus on is war - a false war that we've made up, a conflict that doesn't really exist, but a great opportunity for you to feel like a victim and to hate your neighbor!" It's the "War on Christmas" conspiracy theorists, and before they launch into their yearly grinchiness, I have to explain why they are wrong, wrong, wrong.

It's not a war on Christmas. It's free-market capitalism. As conservatives, you shouldn't bemoan it; you should embrace it.

They always trot out lots of anecdotal examples of how the "secular-progressives" are trying to steal Christmas from the good people of America, but at the heart of their thesis is the phrase "happy holidays." They squirm with delightful victimization every time they hear someone at the mall utter that phrase, and they call on their fellow martyrs to save Christmas, Christianity, and perhaps Christ himself by joining in a mass rebuke of that phrase. "Down with 'happy holidays' - up with 'MERRY CHRISTMAS'!"

But my take on the rise of "happy holidays" - if its use really has increased as much as these pundits claim - is that it's a side effect of the free-market capitalism that our country is based on. If private companies recognize the religious and cultural diversity that defines their customer base, and if they recognize that wishes of good cheer and holiday salutations add to a positive shopping experience and create repeat customers, and then they recognize that a more generic phrase like "happy holidays" casts a wider net and manages to cover all their customers - not just the Christian ones - then that's just good business. That's capitalism.

It's not like any governments have been banning the phrase "merry Christmas." It's not that a junta of non-Christians has overtaken all of our retailers and decided to eradicate Christmas from our culture. It's no different from fast-food chains setting protocol that their drive-through operators say, "Would you like to try a Frostee?" instead of "Is that everything?" at the end of a customer's order. It doesn't symbolize a conspiracy to give America one giant cold headache; it just reflects the idea that, by asking everyone that same question, you're likely to sell a few more Frostees and pull in a few more bucks.

And by calling on all their employees to say, "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas," retailers aren't calling on their employees to denounce their belief in Jesus as the savior of mankind and to start a jihad against the faithful; they're simply realizing that by using the more generic phrase, they're more likely to reap the benefits of spreading holiday cheer among their Christian, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, Sikh, Buddhist, pagan and other customers equally, bumping the repeat customer rate up by a percentage point or two and boosting the bottom line. With "happy holidays," it's really only the Jehovah's Witnesses they're alienating.

Back to those pundits and the angry masses they stir up. These people aren't truly afraid that their children's children will live in a world without Christmas. What they're upset about, and why it's so easy to fuel this idea of a war on Christmas, is what "happy holidays" represents. Because they do recognize that it's a result of the free market, and it terrifies them that they are part of an increasingly diverse marketplace. They long for the days when "merry Christmas" was sufficient because everyone was Christian. Of course, in America there never were any such days, but the across-the-board use of "merry Christmas" had the built-in assumption that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were the "norm," which meant WASPs were the undisputed rulers of the culture and of the country.

That's the power of words: It's not so much what they mean, but the assumptions they embody that provide their greatest effect. And the move in the free market away from "merry Christmas" toward "happy holidays" represents the increasing assumption that the American dream is working, that someone who celebrates something other than Christmas this season is still a valuable and valued demographic. And in a capitalist society, being a target customer means you've made it as part of our culture. And that's a good thing.

And one more thought: Even if you don't celebrate Christmas, or Kwanzaa, or Hanukkah, or Eid (which of course isn't always a winter holiday), or any other religious or cultural holiday this time of year, the traditional "holiday season" here in America is bookended by Thanksgiving and New Year's, which are by and large secular, national holidays that celebrate two things we all share in common: an appreciation for the people and things in our past and present that have made us who we are to day, and an optimism for a prosperous and peaceful year to come. So if nothing else, next time someone at Target wishes you "happy holidays," don't assume they're belittling your love of Jesus; assume they are joining you in celebrating the common ground of thankfulness and hope.

Happy holidays!

Monday, March 22, 2010

My take on health care

After a long hiatus, it looks like I'm blogging again. Sorry that my return to blogging is political in nature, but it took something like this to get me back to the blog. A lot of conversation is going on today about the health care bill, but a lot of it is happening on Twitter and Facebook. As great as it is that Americans are debating and discussing an important issue, this issue is too complex to be boiled down to 140 characters and status updates, and it tends to devolve into people trying to get off one-liners that are more clever than their opponents'. That's not helpful. I've had a lot of family and friends asking me why I support health care reform, and the only way I can give my thoughts on it is if I have more than 140 characters to do so.

I think the easiest way to explain my position is to lay out the problem and the various proposed solutions as I see them.

Most people who are covered get their insurance from a private insurance company through their employer. That's how insurance works - people pay into the pot even when they don't currently need health care so that people who do get sick or hurt can tap into that pot and pay for expensive care. But a few flaws in the system have made it so that people who need coverage the most can't get it - people who are sick, people who get into an accident, or people who are unemployed, self-employed, or employed by small businesses that don't have a large enough pool of people to qualify for affordable rates. Pre-existing conditions, dropped coverage when you get sick, and prohibitive premiums for individuals buying insurance without the backing of their employer prevent these people from getting the coverage they need.

The way to solve this is to have everyone in the country paying into the insurance pot so that there's enough money that the sick don't lose their coverage, that pre-existing conditions don't bar you from coverage, and that you can afford insurance regardless of your employment situation. There are a number of ideas that have been used to achieve that, and here is my description of them, listed from most liberal to most conservative:

  • Socialized medicine, like they have in England. In this model, the government runs health care. That means the service providers - hospitals, doctors, dentists, etc. - are government employees, and the costs are totally covered by taxpayers. This has always been deemed way too liberal for the United States and was never up for discussion in this health care debate. It's the kind of model where you're most likely to find that doctors are underpayed and therefore underqualified, where patients face long wait periods before they can get an appointment, etc.

  • Single-payer health insurance, like they have in Canada. In this model, health care providers are private companies, but they bill the government rather than an insurance company. Because the providers are private companies, there is more room for competition, innovation, etc., but there is still a strong government role, so there is arguably still a risk for many of the problems that go along with socialized medicine. In my mind, it's a workable system, especially because the insurance coverage is a nonprofit endeavor, so premiums, deductibles, etc. aren't jacked up to turn a profit. But again, too liberal, so no one seriously discussed this option during the debate either.

  • A plan that keeps private health care providers and private health insurance intact or at least in the mix. Within this option, there are a couple of approaches, again from most liberal to most conservative:

    • A public option, the most liberal option actually considered during the American health care debate. In this plan, private health insurance remains as an option, which individuals and employers can continue to buy into. But there's an additional option, a government-run insurance plan, that individuals and employers can also choose. Health care providers (doctors, hospitals, etc.) are still private, but you can choose to buy insurance from a not-for-profit government insurance plan. Competition from the public plan forces private insurers to be less reckless in raising rates and cutting coverage, but the fact that private options remain means that those who distrust or dislike a government plan are free to remain on the private market. It's a lot like the education system: There are private schools, and there are public schools. Private schools are more expensive, but you are able to shop around for one that most closely meets what you're looking for; public schools face problems like overcrowding, tight funding, etc., but they at least provide SOME option for people who can't afford a private education. I really liked this approach and would have liked to have seen it given more of a chance in this debate, but again, conservatives were able to paint it as too liberal, and it died.

    • The plan that passed. In my mind, the plan that passed is the most conservative workable solution to health care. There is no government-run insurance here (except, of course, Medicare, veterans' care, care for federal employees, etc. - government-run plans that already exist). The government does, of course, play some significant roles in this plan. For one thing, the government mandates that all Americans have health insurance. This is necessary to ensure that there is enough money in the insurance pot to cover people when they need it, but it also requires the government to create subsidies to help people afford this now-required purchase. (This is where the cost comes in, but remember that taxpayers already subsidize a HUGE chunk of health care coverage when people go to emergency rooms, when people go bankrupt because their health care costs too much and end up defaulting on their medical bills, etc. - not to mention Medicare, veteran's benefits, etc. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says this plan will reduce the deficit over the next 10 years.)

      So once we're all buying into insurance, the government is able to ban insurers from setting up bans on pre-existing conditions, dropping kids from their parents' plan when they hit age 21, increasing premiums willy-nilly, etc. And for individuals buying insurance on their own (rather than through work) or for small businesses with too few employees to be able to afford insurance on the open market, the government will set up health care exchanges. Those are basically like catalogs of approved insurance companies, companies that are required to follow certain regulations to be approved (regulations regarding pre-existing conditions and things like that). It allows individuals who are in the same boat (self-employed, unemployed, or employed by a small business) to pool their buying power the same way larger companies can. Basically, employer insurance plans are like discounts for buying in bulk - since you're buying insurance for a lot of employees, you get it cheaper - and on a health care exchange, individuals can also team up and get the same bulk discounts.
Of course, there are a lot of peripheral issues – abortion, coverage of immigrants, etc. – that muddied up the debate. But those are not central to the debate over which model of insuring all Americans is most cost-effective.

And, of course, there are a lot of flaws in this plan. For example, one way that health care costs could have been dramatically cut would be if we could import drugs from Canada, where they are much cheaper. This was illegal under the existing health care model, and it remains illegal under the new plan. But this isn't a sign of liberals mucking up the bill; it's the influence of big pharmaceutical companies and conservative/protectionist interests that want to protect the profits of American pharmaceuticals. Taxes on elaborate "Cadillac plans" that could have helped cover the costs of this plan were left out, partly because of the influence of unions and also because of conservatives' tendency to label ANY tax as excessive. And in a lot of ways, the private insurers win big because they now have 32 million more customers who are being required by the government to buy private insurance. But that's what happens when you want to lower health care costs by making sure everyone is insured but you don't want to provide for a publicly run, not-for-profit plan.

I'm sure I got some of the details wrong. I'm certainly no expert. But I have followed this debate closely and tried to wrap my brain around all the different issues, ideas, claims and counter-claims, and this is how I've been able to make sense of it. In my mind, the bill that passed last night is the most conservative option that stands a chance to clean up our health care mess.

As I see it, the only way you can deny that this was the right thing to do would be if you believed the health care system was working just fine as it was. But I can't imagine how you'd believe that. People who are employed by large companies that provide them with good health insurance may feel comfortable with the system as it was. But first, under this plan you don't have to abandon that coverage at all. And secondly, and more importantly, you will now be protected from being dropped by your insurer if you get sick or get into an accident.

I had a realization the other day. Under the health care system as it existed before this deal, imagine this scenario: If I went to the doctor tomorrow and found out I had a terminal illness with one year to live, I'd be in a tough situation. I have great insurance right now, paid for entirely by my employer. But the insurance company we use is a private company, and there's the risk that they would find a way to drop my coverage once I got sick. But even if they didn't do that, I'd have a problem.

I live several thousand miles from my family, and if I was dying in a year, I'd want to move back to Utah and spend my last days with them. But, of course, that would require me quitting my job and losing my insurance. And once I got to Utah, it would be impossible for me, as an unemployed individual with a pre-existing condition slowly killing me, to find new insurance coverage that I could remotely afford. So I'd probably be stuck, forced to stay in D.C. and keep my job so that I could afford health care at the time I needed it most. In my mind, that's a fundamentally flawed situation, and it's a situation that no one should find themselves in. It's why I believe that health care is a basic service that we should all be entitled to, just like military protection, education, fire and police protection, mail service, sewer and water, garbage pickup, etc.

The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness hinges on the ability to do what you need to do to keep yourself as healthy as possible for as long as possible. This bill is the most conservative step we could take as a nation to work toward securing that right for everyone.