Lawn Fetishism Revisited – “I See Nothing”

June 24, 2014

UnknownBehind my property is a small tract stranded between houses, apparently unsuitable for siting another. So, unattended, it grows into a mini-jungle. Behind that is a patch of grass invisible from any house. I didn’t even know it was there until one recent morning when I spotted my neighbor mowing it.

Why mow grass no one can see? I’m not sure whether this is crazy or weirdly admirable. I’m reminded of Steve Jobs fussing over the aesthetics of computer insides. “Nobody will even know about it,” his minions objected. “But I will,” Jobs said.

I wrote a few years ago about “Lawn Fetishism.” My neighbor actually seems to enjoy mowing. Now my wife seems to have the bug. I used to hire a mower, but lately she insists on doing it herself. (Maybe she didn’t think I was having it done often enough.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now, Therese is a poet, so of course she has her own poetic approach to landscaping.

She explained to me that the front “is for show,” so she mows it in the conventional way. But the back is her playground, with several rectangular patches allowed to grow wild, among the mowed areas. In addition, in between our lawn and the mini-jungle, she has created a –well, I don’t know what to call it. (See picture) Nor, quite what to make of all this. It’s not anything I’d ever have thought of doing. But grass is not one of my preoccupations. And she likes it.

imagesWhen I was a kid there was a TV comedy, “Hogan’s Heroes,” about Americans in a German POW camp, always into shenanigans. A fat middle-aged Sergeant Schultz was supposed to be guarding them. But Schultz wanted life easy. So when shenanigans were going down, he’d raise his eyes skyward saying, “I see nothing. I see nothing.”

I find this phrase very useful in my marriage.

Superbugs and Evolution: Losing the War on Germs

June 20, 2014

images-2A recent PBS Frontline documentary spotlighted “Superbugs” – bacteria resistant to antibiotics, a growing menace.  Despite some great victories in our war against germs, the fat lady hasn’t sung yet. We could still lose in the end.

Why? Both this hour-long documentary, and a recent Daily Show segment on the same topic, said the problem is over-use of antibiotics. UnknownIt sounded as though the drugs are just wearing out, like an old pair of shoes. But I was struck by the fact that in both shows, one word – the true explanation – was never uttered.

That word is  E V O L U T I O N.

Bacteria are evolving, exactly as Darwinian “survival of the fittest” natural selection predicts. Normally evolution is fairly slow. But antibiotics have introduced an element of extreme selective pressure. images-4An antibiotic might kill 99.9% of an infection – with that one bug in a thousand surviving because it has some unique genetic feature making it resistant. And that one, with all the other bugs gone, will reproduce merrily to replace them. Soon that genetic feature will be found in more than one in a thousand bugs. Much more.*

That’s why over-use of antibiotics is such a problem; every time we kill 99.9% of a bacterial population, we create a great opportunity for the 0.1% survivors (much harder to kill) to proliferate.

Why did both TV shows studiously avoid this clear, fundamental evolutionary explanation of the very problem being discussed? I am no conspiracy theorist; but I can’t help thinking it was a conscious decision, because half the American public disbelieves evolution, and would shut their ears if it’s mentioned.**

Unknown-2Shutting of ears is almost non-metaphoric here. I’ve been reading Peter Watson’s The Age of Atheism, an intellectual history of the past century-plus. Naturally Darwin comes up a lot. While many people had great difficulty accommodating Darwinism in their belief systems, that was something most recognized they had to do. They couldn’t close their ears to Darwin. Even religionists who gave it any serious thought could see that evolution was obviously true.

Display in Kentucky's Creation Museum

Display in Kentucky’s Creation Museum

But then, in America, something bizarre happened. A substantial societal segment decided they could simply close their ears to it. A whole industry rose up, catering to them, supplying pseudo-scientific cover. They even built a museum, in Kentucky, a monument to ignorance. And ignorance it is, willful ignorance – a will not to know.

For me, it’s enough work striving to know what is true. I can’t imagine how much work it would take to refuse to know something that’s true. But I guess it can be done if you set your mind to it. Or close your mind.

images-6While evolution (and climate) denial are mostly right-wing things, the left is not free of equivalent scientific denialism. That defines opposition to genetic modification, a myopic and harmful stance. Likewise very harmful to public health is the anti-immunization madness, another mainly lefty fetish. I feel beset by irrationality from all directions.

A final point:

I am a strong advocate for free market economics. Critics mock and caricature this as holding markets should be trusted to do everything, and governments nothing. That’s ridiculous.

Unknown-3Now, part of the superbug problem is that pharmaceutical companies are not developing new drugs to fight them. It’s economics – it costs a huge amount of money to research, develop, test, and bring to market any new drug. And it makes much more economic sense to put that investment into a medicine that people will take for the rest of their lives, for a chronic condition, than a one-time-only drug for what is still a rather rare illness.

Drug companies aren’t charities, and that doesn’t make them villains. They serve a function, with products vastly improving life quality for millions; but they cannot serve every function you (or I) might like.

But that leaves us with a problem not just for the (still rare) victims of drug-resistant infections, but for society as a whole, because this could potentially explode to epidemic proportions. Maybe a charity like the Gates foundation could tackle it. But it seems to me uniquely the kind of thing government should do. That’s our vehicle for doing things, on behalf of society as a whole, that no individual or private entity can be expected to do.

images-7As Ronald Reagan said, government’s first duty (the reason it was invented) is to protect us. Mainly from each other. But drug resistant germs could be a bigger threat.

* Frontline noted that, even more dangerously, such anti-drug genes can also be swapped among living bacteria.

** My wife says she searched their website and Frontline does seem to have tabooed the word “evolution.”Unknown-1

Iraq’s Tragedy: “Nothing Is Written”

June 17, 2014

Iraq’s civil war is a metastasizing of a 7th century religious dispute over whether Ali was the first caliph or the fourth.

UnknownNow, obviously, the “firsters” are blessed by Allah, while the “fourthers” are accursed and deserve ignominious death. There’s no atrocity too far in pursuing this vendetta.

Rodney King said, “Can’t we all just get along?” Iraqis say, “Fuck that.”

This Ali business is in fact the root of the Sunni-Shiite schism. Some insist we have no dog in this fight. And it’s true that Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki has fueled the conflict by stupidly conducting himself as Shiite leader rather than leader of the whole nation.

Nouri Al-Maliki

Nouri Al-Maliki

However, bad as he is, he’s a lot less bad than those bloodthirsty ISIS/ISIL creeps (Zarqawi’s old gang), whose triumph would be ghastly. And while they probably can’t take over the country, they could effectively break off a piece of it.

I weep at this sorry denouement to the Iraq War; while its critics will again crow, “nyah, nyah, nyah.” From the narrow standpoint of America’s interests, Iraq might now be worse than we started with. But Tony Blair says today’s mess is less a consequence of Bush’s Iraq policy than of Obama’s Syria non-policy. Certainly true insofar as ISIS/ISIL grew into a monster only in consequence of Syrian developments. Unknown-1And how might things be today if we hadn’t invaded in 2003 and Saddam were still in power? Counterfactual history is a difficult discipline.

But it’s almost conventional wisdom that attempting to remake Iraq for the better in 2003 was foolhardy from the get-go. This is the Andrew Bacevich “Limits of Power” school that says don’t even try. (They love the word hubris.) Yet human beings were not put on this planet to leave well enough alone and fatalistically accept the status quo. If so, we’d still be living in caves. imagesRobert Kennedy liked to quote George Bernard Shaw: “Some see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.”

The fatalistic Bacevichian sees a society like Iraq’s as immutable, with any effort at change bound to fail. That used to be said of America’s south and its racial culture, integral to that society’s very fabric. Yet optimists were undeterred in trying to change it – and it did dramatically change. (Today, the state with the most black elected officials is Mississippi.) And in 1945, two of the world’s worst miscreants were Germany and Japan. They too were totally changed. Nothing in human affairs is immutable.

In fact, that’s in our biology. Our great evolutionary adaptation was our ability to change ourselves, when circumstances change.

So why not Iraq? You might say that’s different – a different kind of society, in a different historical situation. All true, but who could have predicted such vast change in Germany, Japan, or the U.S. South? The key difference, vis-à-vis Iraq, was vision, commitment, leadership, energy. I fault Bush not for aiming high in Iraq but for botching the shot. Iraq might have been transformed – but not by our half-assed effort. After all the human and moral capital expended in this venture, the fecklessness of the follow-through was criminal.

Unknown-2Of course Iraqis themselves bear prime responsibility. After all is said and done, we Americans did give them the opportunity for a better country, and they’ve muffed it. Because they’re not a nation of Rodney Kings. Yet still it didn’t have to be this way. Just as cultures are not immutable, nor is history an ineluctable force. Individuals matter; actions matter. It wasn’t inevitable that Iraq would get a Maliki. In fact, in the election that brought him to power, Maliki actually got fewer votes than Iyad Allawi – who might have been a different kind of visionary leader.

I’m reminded of a scene in Lawrence of Arabia. On the desert camel march, one man falls behind. Unknown-3Lawrence decides to go back for him. Another tries to stop him. “That man is finished,” he says. “It is written.”

Lawrence replies: “Nothing is written.”

Mind, Memory, and Movies

June 15, 2014

UnknownThe human brain has about 85 billion neurons, most connected to thousands of others, making for trillions of connections – the most complex object known. I’ve written before about what wonders it performs.

Recently in a newspaper I came to a page full of text of no interest, and quickly turned the page. Unknown-1But I said to myself, “Did I see the word breasts?” With scientific curiosity, I went back and searched; sure enough, there it was, buried amid thousands of words. How could my brain have picked it out in that fraction of a second? Why? (Well, one can guess why.)

We imagine memory works like a video camera. Not so. The brain does hold such information, but only briefly, then discards it. What it retains is only a bare thematic outline. Unknown-2When you later “remember,” what the brain does is to refer to that outline and to fill in the details by, basically, making them up. Really! And those confabulations change over time. (This is why “eyewitness testimony” in courts is often specious.)

This was brought home to me when I wrote an autobiographical memoir. I thought my memories were fairly accurate. But checking against diaries written when events were fresh showed how differently I remembered them years later. And when, years later still, I re-read that autobiography, I was surprised yet again to find that my memories had further changed.

And yet the brain does have an uncanny ability to file away information. Recently my wife told me someone said she reminded him of Sheila Miles.

Sara Miles?” I said.

“Maybe. Who’s that?”

Unknown-3“Actress; I think she was in a film – something about an Irish girl and a soldier? I can’t recall the title. Must’ve been 1970, since I do remember the girl I saw it with.” (And I could recall just one scene in that movie. Guess what? Breasts again.)

Next morning, while coming awake (a good time for this), the word “daughter” entered my mind. In another moment, I had it: Ryan’s Daughter.

Now, I’m no film buff, and had you asked me, “Who was in Ryan’s Daughter?” I doubt I could have answered. Yet given the name Miles – even with the wrong first name – my brain made the connection. The information was still there, buried, unthought of, for 44 years.

Then there was the time I greeted my wife with, “Good morning, old man.”

She gave me a quizzical look. “What made you call me that?”

“Why, I have no idea! It just popped out of my mouth.” I’d never said it before.

imagesWell, that night we watched The Third Man, having ordered it from Netflix. I had a vague recollection of having seen it on TV as a kid, nearly half a century earlier. If asked, I couldn’t have told you a thing about that film. Maybe that Orson Welles was in it. Maybe. And seeing the movie again now, nothing seemed familiar.

So I was gobsmacked when the Welles character calls the Joseph Cotten character “old man!”

That tiny detail wasn’t even significant in the film, but somehow, my brain had squirreled it away, and half a century later, unconsciously prompted by our Netflix order, put the words into my mouth, without my even realizing why.Unknown-4

Now if only I could remember where I left those keys . . . .

Journalist Ethics: An Oxymoron?

June 12, 2014

 

UnknownI heard a talk by Rosemary Armao, a journalism professor at SUNY Albany, investigative editor in Eastern Europe and other foreign locales, and a regular WAMC radio panelist.

She began by posing the question, can one be both a good journalist and a good human being? To explore this, she discussed the case of Oliver Sipple, who became an instant hero in 1975 by shoving a woman trying to shoot at President Ford, deflecting her aim. Sipple was a gay rights activist but not wholly “out of the closet.” Unknown-1News stories revealing such personal details had an apparent role in his eventual suicide.

Armao asked audience members whether they would have published Sipple’s gay background. A large majority said no. But her own answer (and mine) was a definite yes, because Sipple’s act made him a public figure, and journalism’s responsibility is to inform the public. She said a journalist’s job is to get the truth out, and he or she cannot control the consequences.

Armao posited international standards for journalism: accuracy, fairness, a right to reply, and minimizing any harm. However, she cited some examples wherein she felt that journalists did not properly fulfill their role. Unknown-2One was the Iraq War, where reporters “embedded” with military units got caught up in the testosterone-soaked environment. She also faulted the media for failing to press, over the years, the issue of gun control, prior to the Newtown shootings — whereas many citizens wrongly criticized publication of shooter Adam Lanza’s name, as supposedly “glorifying” his crime.

More generally, Armao saw a big problem in the decline of professional journalism, undermined by a plethora of competing sources, many of them “citizen journalists.” Economics has been driving out reporting in the field as just too costly. The result is rushed and sloppy stories plagued by errors; justification of anything if it makes money; a loss of decorum and professionalism; and blandness, with a fear of offending anyone or taking a controversial stand. (Pertinent here was the case of Schenectady Gazette columnist Carl Strock, forced out due to pressures from advertisers over his critical scrutiny of religion and, especially, Israel. I’ve reviewed his excellent book.)

Also relevant, I think, is the subsequent CNN Malaysian airplane coverage. Did CNN believe viewers were interested in only that one story, to the virtual exclusion of other news, for weeks on end? imagesSurely symptomatic of something gone awry.

Pointing a finger of blame for what she decried, Armao said the culprit is the public, often denigrating the media for the wrong things while oblivious to really valid criticisms. Many people think the press makes too much information public (as in the mentioned Lanza and Sipple cases). Indeed, half of Americans tell pollsters the First Amendment goes too far and there is too much press freedom. (Maybe they’d prefer living in, say, Iran.) Unknown-3Meantime there are silly calls for “balanced” (or happy) news. As a result of all this, people don’t actually support good journalism. While the media is often criticized for favoring trash news over substantive issue coverage, in fact there is plenty of the latter, but it’s the trash that gets the most eyeballs. And too many young people ignore news media altogether, getting their “news” through social media.

images-2Finally, as to her initial question — can one be both a good journalist and a good human being? — Armao answered No! News is inherently about bad stuff, and the very nature of journalism is to be rude and intrusive, to get the story. But one audience member suggested that if a journalist is true to the profession’s standards, in giving the public truth, that’s being a good person.

 

 

The Two Americas: Which is Exceptional?

June 9, 2014

images“The Two Americas” was the refrain of a past presidential candidate, contrasting U.S. affluence with its lack; certainly a familiar theme lately. But I have a different point, prompted by something in a recent issue of The Economist that I felt hit the bullseye.

It was in a review of The Triple Package: What Really Determines Success, by Amy Chua (of “Tiger Mother” fame) and Jed Rubenfeld. The “package,” they say, characterizes ethnic groups that excel in business: a sense of superiority, yet also insecurity, and a great capacity for impulse control, especially the ability to persevere in the face of obstacles.

America, the reviewer said, “was once the quintessential triple package nation” – convinced of its exceptional destiny, yet prodded by insecurity (from Eurosnobbery), and with a strong work ethic. But lately, “insecurity and the will to work have all but vanished. What is left is essentially the swagger, complacency and entitlement of a perverted sense of exceptionalism.” (My emphasis)

So true! But not of America’s entirety; though a large part of America unfortunately fits that indictment. This “America 1” does thoughtlessly feel a sense of complacent exceptionalist entitlement: that our workers should earn pay much higher than Chinese or Indians, regardless of whether those can do the same work far more cheaply. images-2Indeed, as though there’s something wrong about their doing it. As though we can somehow protect ourselves against this economic reality by stopping businesses from “shipping jobs overseas.” As though Americans do have some sort of God-bestowed entitlement to these jobs and their high pay, and Bangladeshis do not. As though raising minimum wages and decreeing other employee benefits can magically boost our incomes regardless of global market forces. As though we can moreover have an ever smaller percentage of people actually working and paying taxes while an ever larger contingent collects pensions, unemployment, Social Security, Disability, welfare, Medicare, etc. As though we can continue this while our educational attainment erodes, and our infrastructure degrades from underinvestment, relative to other nations. As though we can have our cake and eat it too.

It’s ironic that the right knocks President Obama for insufficient devotion to American exceptionalism, when he in fact epitomizes some of the wrong-headed exceptionalism I’ve described, so toxic for our future. America was not ordained by God to be the greatest of nations. What we achieved resulted from the kind of people we were, and the things we did. Fail to keep that up and we’ll suffer the consequences. America 1 is rushing obliviously down that path.

images-1But there are still plenty of Americans who, though (like me) considering this a great (even exceptional) nation, don’t feel the world owes them a living in consequence. In this “America 2,” there is still plenty of go-get-’em industriousness, a willingness to take on great challenges, by one’s own mettle, undeterred by obstacles and setbacks.

This America 2 is the one I love. It’s a cliché that immigrants built this country. But in fact America 2 is heavily populated by recent immigrants. images-3Anyone with the moxie to leave behind everything familiar and strike out for a new land, often at great physical risk, makes the best kind of American. It’s these people who can save America from the syndrome described in that Economist review.

But sadly, America 1, mired in complacency and entitlement, doesn’t see it. America 1 actually hates America 2 and literally wants to build a wall against America 2. I wish we could swap out a big chunk of America 1 for more of America 2.

 

 

 

 

June 6, 1944

June 6, 2014

imagesOn this day 70 years ago the greatest invasion force in the history of the world, led by the United States of America, set out to liberate Europe from barbarism.

My father, and my wife’s father, though they did not hit the Normandy beaches on D-Day, did sacrifice years of their lives and took part in the overall enterprise. I salute them, and all those like them who (unlike me) made such sacrifices, including the ultimate one. But if I had been one of those men jumping from landing craft at Normandy, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes. In fact, many never even made it as far as the beach.

Bumper stickers saying, “War Is Not The Answer,” or “War Never Solves Anything” are puerile. War isn’t always the answer, and doesn’t solve everything – but sometimes it is, and does. Diplomacy could not have rescued Europe from the Nazis; nor freed America’s slaves (nor will it free Syria from Assad). images-1Sometimes the reality of the human condition requires us to face up to hard choices, and not wish them away with shallow pieties. It isn’t noble to renounce violence and leave the world at the mercy of those who don’t.

In his March 28 West Point speech, President Obama (otherwise so fond of “false choice” rhetoric) drew a false choice between war and no war. images-3Nobody is suggesting we rampage into, say, Syria, or Ukraine, with boots on the ground and guns blazing. Yet plenty could have been done*, short of “blundering into war,” to prevent or at least moderate the indisputable crumbling of international order and security that has occurred on Obama’s watch. His assertion of undiminished American global puissance was ludicrous empty swagger. The world knows that actions speak louder than words.

Obama also said terrorism is our biggest threat. images-5How foolish. The threats that can really harm America include that mentioned crumbling, of the paradigm that has until lately kept peace among big powers; flagging support for economic openness and trade; rising authoritarianism; climate change; and humanity’s age-old nemeses of disease, ignorance, hunger, and intolerance. Meantime, at home, America’s political paralysis and failure to tackle fiscal imbalances presage economic ruin.

Terrorism? images-4Its main threat is provoking yet more over-reaction, and distracting us from those other far more dangerous challenges.

We rose to the challenge on D-Day. Would we do it again today?

* We still have not answered Ukraine’s plea for military aid to suppress Russian-instigated thuggery; nor fulfilled Obama’s previous promise of aid to Syria’s rebels. His 3/28 speech re-promised it. Three years ago it might actually have made a difference and advanced our interests.

 

 

June 3-4, 1989

June 3, 2014

images-1

Chris Stedman: Faitheist

June 2, 2014

imagesChris Stedman’s career is in “interfaith work,” but his book, Faitheist, is addressed mainly to his fellow atheists, urging them to lighten up.

It centers upon his own story. His Minnesota family was nonreligious, but at age 11, he experienced a crisis by reading “heavy” books that exposed him to the world’s injustice and cruelty. Also, his parents divorced. Chris found refuge in his school’s Christian group, which welcomed him and assuaged his social justice discomforts.

But there was one wee problem. Christianity seemed obsessively homophobic. And Chris was starting to realize this applied to him. UnknownHis Teen Study Bible labeled him an abomination in God’s eyes, and his resulting inner struggle drove him close to suicide.

At last his mother stumbled upon his personal journal and brought him to a different kind of Christian minister – who took one look at the relevant Teen Study Bible page, drew a big red X across it, and said, “This is dehumanizing garbage.”

So Chris found a different path within Christianity, and went on to a Christian college, studying religion, headed for the ministry.

But there was another wee problem. He no longer believed in God. The book, after many pages chronicling Chris’s agony over faith versus sexuality, has relatively few about faith versus non-faith. That seemed fairly easy for him. But he completed his degree, as the class atheist, and even proceeded to divinity school, winding up as Harvard’s Assistant Humanist Chaplain. (He recently went to Yale.)

His “interfaith work” seeks to bridge religious divides by finding common ground and ways to work together and understand each other better. Stedman classifies the religious as either “totalitarians” or “pluralists,” with the latter actually having more affinities with nonbelievers than with the totalitarians.

But as noted the book is aimed mainly at atheists, who are also divided. Stedman disparages the belligerence of the so-called “New Atheism.” (He singles out PZ Myers, whose book I’ve also reviewed.) With some atheists seeing their goal as eradicating religion, Stedman is unsurprised at the religious push-back. After all, he notes in comparison, the gay rights movement hasn’t sought to end heterosexuality. He doesn’t like a “we’re right, they’re wrong” attitude.

images-1I’m guilty of some of that myself. Obviously if you believe something, you believe people thinking differently are wrong. But I draw the line at “we’re right, they’re insane,” and I’ve criticized writers like Charlie Pierce for that. It might be different if religion were practiced only by an eccentric minority; but in a country where most folks are religious, that must be considered normal and sane. And I’m all for greater mutual understanding, working together, and apple pie; and I do try to avoid personal insults, calling people crazy or stupid. Yet religion should not enjoy some special exemption from critical scrutiny; its ideas should be subjected to vigorous public debate like any others. That’s what the “New Atheism” is about.

Furthermore, it would also be different were this just a matter of personal beliefs, kept personal. But most atheists would like to see the end of religion not only because it’s false but because they consider it harmful. Religion’s defenders can’t deny some very bad things, but of course claim the good outweighs the bad. As I see it, the good works ascribed to faith are things people could, and mostly would, do even without religion,

Faith in action

Faith in action

because we are in fact more good than bad (societies like Denmark’s or Norway’s where religion has almost disappeared are some of the world’s nicest); while the bad things (9/11; Boko Haram) are uniquely products of religious belief and would be hard to imagine absent that factor.

Religionists will of course retort that some of the worst crimes have been committed by atheistic regimes (though Hitler’s at least wasn’t atheist). But those crimes were not committed in service to atheism; not motivated by disbelief in God; the concept of God was simply irrelevant. In contrast, many bloody crimes throughout history were of course motivated by religious belief.

Believers will also say such crimes are perversions of proper faith. But the problem is that religion has an unavoidable tendency to inspire absolutism (Stedman’s “totalitarianism”) – the “one truth” so powerful that it can justify almost anything in service to it. Disbelief doesn’t come close to having such inspirational power – a very good thing. In fact nobody kills for atheism.

images-2This is why we would like to see religion disappear. But it bears emphasizing that – so unlike religion throughout most of history – atheists wield the pen, not the sword; words, not violence. And, given its long history of burning people at the stake, it’s a bit rich for religion to be telling atheists to dial it back.

And Chris Stedman, of all people, should know the harm of religion. An inhumane religious dogma drove him to the brink of suicide. Just one more reason why atheists believe the world would be a better place without religion.

Lessons From the VA Scandal

May 30, 2014

Suppose you’re Eric Shinseki (Veterans Administration head).

Actual VA photo

Actual VA photo

You learn of huge problems – a vast backlog of unprocessed paperwork (partly because it is literally paper, mountains of it, not computerized) – and now this scandal of delayed medical attention and resulting horror stories and even deaths – compounded by widespread cover-ups of those treatment delays via fraudulent record keeping.images

So you snap your fingers and order it all fixed. Right? Wrong. The VA is a vast organization, but these scandals tell us it’s not actually vast enough. The paperwork piled up because the VA lacked the manpower to deal with it, let alone take steps to computerize it. Likewise, appointments were delayed because there weren’t enough doctors and other resources to meet patient needs.

Unknown-2No snap of the fingers could have fixed this. It required money. Shinseki should have been shouting from the rooftops, “Houston, we have a problem,” pre-emptively telling Congress and the president the VA is in trouble and needs more money.

But wait, you’ll say: isn’t that what bureaucrats are always whining? That they could do wonderful things if only their budgets were increased? Was there ever a bureaucrat who said, “My budget is quite adequate, thank you very much”?

We’re told the VA scandal shows what a lousy manager President Obama is. I’m loath to dispute that; but I take a bigger lesson. It shows what a lousy manager government is. Especially big government.

Unknown-1It’s actually probably unfair to imagine Obama should somehow have seen and fixed the VA problem. The VA isn’t exactly all he has to worry about. The government is a monster with a million tentacles and a very small brain – the president and his administration – to minutely direct those tentacles’ behavior. Good luck.

Yet the essence of American liberalism is the faith that government, because it is the avatar of disinterested public spiritedness, of the wish to do good – in contrast to a (selfish, grubby, greedy) quest for private profit – will do good, if given our trust (and money). images-5But the fly in the ointment is that government is comprised of human beings, not angels, and while they may indeed be motivated for good, they are also subject to all the other personal motives that govern human behavior in any context. And when those motives conflict with the disinterested desire to do good, it’s a rare person who will sacrifice the former for the latter.

VA staffers are probably mostly altruistic people who sincerely want to help veterans. But caring also for their own asses, in the situation, has made many of them perpetrate a great crime. Performance incentives, great in theory, merely incentivized VA personnel to cook the books to earn the rewards despite screwing patients. (And it’s not obvious how Shinseki might have avoided bamboozlement.)

At least in the private sector, the (selfish, grubby, greedy) profit motive – and competition – impose a certain discipline that’s lacking in the public sphere. Unknown-3That’s a fundamental reason why government is so problematic. No private sector organization could survive in a competitive marketplace treating customers as badly as the VA.

More broadly, the VA scandal shows that we, as a society, have gone way overboard in what we ask of government – greatly outstripping the money to pay for it. It’s not as though we’re miserly with the VA; its budget is huge; yet still evidently insufficient for its ever expanding mission, as more and more veterans survive better and live longer, with ever more and costlier medical advances to help them do so. This story is emblematic of so much of what government does, and why spending outgrows what we can afford. We borrow the difference, but as I keep saying, there’s a limit to how far we can stretch that without triggering economic disaster.

Unknown-4I’m not suggesting shutting down the VA. We must honor our commitment to veterans. But we, as a nation, must get serious about the overall gap between what we ask of government and what is affordable. This is the great problem of the age, which Obama is sweeping under the rug.

 

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,042 other followers