Friday, August 28, 2009

de mortuis nil nisi bonum: an apologia

This week, Senator Edward Kennedy died. His death provided a circumstance for some conservatives to do the same thing that some liberals do when a right winger dies. It seems to be inherent in the thought of some people that no one should be allowed to get away with being praised, even at the time of death. Thus, when Ted Kennedy dies, one group lashes out. When William F. Buckley died last year, a different group did the same. Neither side recognizes the mirror image of themselves in the other. In fact, both groups typically despise their own characteristic when they see it in the inhumanity of the other side.

But, the doctrinaire among us would consider my sniveling about this to be just a sign of weakness. If I disagree with someone who is being lionized, why not lay it all on the table? If others are eulogizing someone I deplore, why not say so? There are principled reasons for, at the time of death, saying something nice – or saying nothing at all.

Death should remind us – if nothing else will – of our common frailty. Our enemies are not cartoon characters, but human beings with families composed of other human beings. All of us – friends and adversaries, allies and foes – are made of flesh and blood and shall one day return to the dust of the earth. It is over the course of our lives that we may disagree, and history will ultimately render its judgments. However, death is a time for weeping, not sneering. It is the time to allow the living and grieving to bury their dead. It is a time to remember that eternal realities trivialize the small things that fill most of our lives.

None of this is to say that we should lie about the qualities of the deceased. Most of us have heard eulogies that seek to turn lifelong sinners into saints, and many of us have learned to abhor those tall tales. But the reality of human grief should give the humane among us pause before rushing in with corrections. Common grace is such that nearly all of us have something admirable that can be remembered fondly. It is not too much to allow friends of the fallen to remember what was good.

At death, the deceased can no longer hear us. Our comments then are only for the living. If the living cannot be civil at death, then there would not seem to be much humanity left in those who remain.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Road Untravelled

A.C. Kleinheider penned a compelling piece under the title: "Why conservative blacks seldom become conservatives."

However, the article might have just as easily appeared under this headline: Why conservative whites often are not really all that conservative.

Mr. Kleinheider exposes a significant defect in the approach of many contemporary conservatives -- their's is a conservatism strictly of ends. The means by which one arrives should also be important.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Trade Offs in Health Care Reform

After a month of town hall discontent, some pundits are beginning to write post-mortems on Obamacare, with some health care experts blaming the worst of the fear-mongering for the death of health care reform. Not only do these rumors of the death of Obamacare seem greatly exaggerated, but the credit being given to those fulminating about the mythical death panels gives too much credit to the congressional proposals. With price tags of $1 trillion or more, those proposals should have been thought of as dead on arrival, and congressional Democrats do not seem to have either the political capital or will to do anything serious to bring health care inflation under control.

Frankly, neither party or neither end of the political spectrum has acquitted itself well in this debate. Conservatives, some of them pretenders that a little tort reform and the end of the preference for employer based coverage will sufficiently tweak "the greatest health care system in the world," have mostly ignored the enormous medical and administrative inefficiencies plaguing the system. On the other hand, those on the left have pretended that universal access without any effective cost controls can result in an affordable plan. Neither side has seriously addressed the trade offs inherent in the policy choices that they contemplate in non-serious soundbites. Such trade offs include, among others, the following:

Coverage for pre-existing conditions versus the problem of anti-selection. President Obama has repeatedly demonized health insurers for their refusal to cover pre-existing conditions. While health insurers may be evil, the President devilishly over-simplifies a problem that is, in fact, considerably more complicated. First, it should be noted that this problem is less prevalent than it once was due to the portability provisions of HIPAA impacting coverage for pre-existing conditions under ERISA plans. As to the portion of the problem that remains, requiring insurers to do away with medical underwriting and to cover pre-existing coverage is problematic in that it makes more difficult the issue of anti-selection -- the tendency of people not to buy health insurance until they are sick. The only way to require coverage for pre-existing conditions without making worse the problem of anti-selection is to create a universal mandate to purchase coverage -- an option acceptable to the health insurance industry, but unacceptable to many of the physically healthy young adults who voted for Obama and prefer the freedom to spend their money on something other than health insurance.

Rationing versus unlimited utilization. While talk of "death panels" is clearly over the top (see Charles Krauthammer for an excellent discussion of what this proposal does and doesn't do), the fear of many Americans that the government, even more than private insurers, will make coverage decisions based on financial rather than medical concerns is reasonable. On the other hand, many conservatives have ignored indisputable and voluminous research showing tremendous variation in medical treatment resulting in much unnecessary and ineffective care. People do not trust their private insurers when they deny preauthorization of services -- even on occasions when the insurers are making decisions on a sound medical basis -- and they will not trust government with the same decisions. In addition, creating a public option in which government would be the first and last resort for approval of medical coverage ought to be problematic for many reasons noticed not just by conservatives -- see Nat Hentoff for someone on the left who is concerned.

Liberals consider a public option to be essential to acceptable reform, but one wonders if they are fabricating or merely being foolish when they pretend that a public option would not decimate the private insurance marketplace. While health care reform is likely not dead, one might hope that proposals that would overturn the current system at an unprecedented and unpredictable cost are.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Obsession with the Unimportant Quote of the Day

"We live in a world where people care about what Paris Hilton's having for lunch, versus how many guys are getting killed in Iraq, and that's the truth."

-- Bronson Arroyo, pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Loss of Childhood Adventure

Michael Chabon writes compellingly about generational changes in the ways children are raised and the regrettable price to be paid for those changes:

The sandlots and creek beds, the alleys and woodlands have been abandoned in favor of a system of reservations -- Chuck E. Cheese, the Jungle, the Discovery Zone: jolly internment centers mapped and planned by adults with no blank spots aside from doors marked staff only. When children roller-skate or ride their bikes, they go forth armored as for battle, and their parents typically stand nearby....

Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted -- not taught -- to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself.

Hat Tip: Stuart Buck

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

No Side to Like on Health Care Reform

A while back, a friend asked what I thought of the movie The Other Boleyn Girl. "I didn't like it," I replied. "Every single character was ultimately unlikeable."

That thought brings us to the current debate over the Obamacrats version of health care reform. Democrats dismiss the unruly crowds of town hall gatherers as rubes. Republicans accuse those Democrats of taking the posture of authoritarian thugs. Both might be reminded that those possibilities are not mutually exclusive.

Thus, as the nation is called to the most significant domestic policy debate in a generation, conservatives are marveling at the exploits of loud ranters, some of whom are actually informed and many of whom are not. Because the town-hallers lack any ideas beyond their dislike for what they understand is before Congress, conservative leaders -- the heirs of the tradition of Burke and Kirk -- resort to celebrating their passion.

On the other hand, one can find brief amusement in the spectacle of the political left complaining about organized, manufactured outrage, which presumably they thought they had a monopoly on. But only brief amusement. Ideologues, who by the nature of things always end up trying to force reality into the shape of their ideas, eventually show authoritarian tendencies, and the group of left wingers currently at the head of government make no exception. While the White House, channeling Chairman Mao, calls upon snitches to report "fishy" information, the House Speaker and Majority Whip pen an article calling their opponents' methods "un-American." One wonders when Ms. Pelosi will resurrect the House Un-American Activities Committee.

All of this results from pieces of legislation currently before Congress that aren't even worth debating in their present form. Whatever one thinks about the merits of health care reform, responsible policy makers have to consider the costs, and, in this instance, the costs of the proposals before us don't work. This means that serious people don't have much to look at in the current bills. In light of that, the level of the volume coming from both sides of the aisle speaks volumes.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Not Defending the Indefensible

An editorial in USA Today appropriately criticizes U.S. Representatives John Murtha (D-PA), Bill Young (R-FL), and Jim Moran (D-VA) for adding earmarks to a defense appropriation bill. These are items that Congress, through the efforts of these representatives, would force the Pentagon to pay for even though the Pentagon does not want them.

As they normally do, USA Today invited the three Congressmen to respond. Tellingly, they all declined.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Real American Heroes

As Congress prepares to recess at the end of this week, the left wing of the Democratic Party is making plans to vilify those blue dog Democrats who have stood in the way of the steamroller on national health care. One hopes that the majority of people will make known that those Congressmen are, to this point, at least, American heroes.

There is room to disagree over the extent to which government involvement in health care should increase. However, what seems indisputable regarding current proposals is that the math does not work. The shocking CBO numbers make clear that what is currently out there simply is not sustainable. Groups so ideologically committed to national health care that they are willing to ignore the math are blatantly irresponsible. Members of both parties who stand in their way deserve our thanks.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

In Which I Interview Myself

A personal email delivered to me this past week from a highly esteemed member of the alternative media referred to me using an 8-letter word -- lobbyist. As an 8-letter word might be thought of as a 4-letter word doubled, this struck me as an allegation that should be taken with the utmost seriousness. As a result, I made the decision to submit to a no holds barred interview with myself. Following is a heavily edited version of this self-interview.

Q: Are you a lobbyist?

MCO: It depends on what the meaning of "lobbyist" is. Legally speaking, no. I have not been required to register as a lobbyist under the regulations of any state or the federal government. However, I work in government relations, and much of what I do includes things that many people would think of as lobbying. If I am dealing with serious issues that require a real lobbyist, I recommend to my company that they hire one.

Q: What do you tell your parents?

MCO: Dad tells mom that I am a drug pusher. It's still hard, but it is easier for her to take.

Q: Have you written legislation?

MCO: Yes.

Q: How do you sleep at night?

MCO: I use a CPAP machine due to my sleep apnea. Thanks for asking.

Q: Seriously, does it bother you that people like yourself help to write legislation?

MCO: No, not really. Actually, I think it is important that we do so in order to make sure that legislation makes sense. Many times, legislators do not really understand the issues that they work on. It is often the case that proposed laws create problems, not because they are bad for my company, but because they don't make any sense in terms of how things operate in the real world. Having people involved that understand the business helps to make sure that the laws that are passed make sense.

Also, most legislation of any significance involves negotiation with people on all sides of the issue. While such collaboration frequently results in legislation that is less than ideal from anyone's perspective, it also means that everyone gets a say in the process before legislation is passed.

Q: How much money have you donated in order to do this?

MCO: None.

Q: What's your loophole?

MCO: There is none. I have never, either directly or indirectly, either personally or professionally, made donations to a candidate, party, or campaign organization. I don't think there is anything wrong with it, and at some time in the future I might, but I never have.

Q: Do campaign donations buy votes?

MCO: Not typically. The only advantage is that they probably gain you access. It is helpful in getting someone to listen to your arguments.

Q: Does that mean that you defend everything that lobbyists do?

MCO: Obviously not. Search on this blog for the name "Abramoff" and you will find my numerous criticisms of corruption in the business. Every profession has its bad apples, and lobbyists are no different. However, most are honorable people.

Many of the problems seem to show up in the pursuit of appropriations -- earmarks and other kinds of favors. I am not involved in that sort of thing. I don't seek money. I am involved in policy debates. That is not to say that all people seeking appropriations are bad people, but I am strongly opposed to earmarks.

Q: How does your work in government relations affect your blogging?

MCO: Well, I sometimes get to attend interesting meetings that I can write about. However, for the most part I don't write about issues that I work on. I have to write about those things at work, and the blog is for fun -- it is an opportunity to write about things I think about away from work. I have made a few exceptions to that, but for the most part I have kept to it. It is only fair, particularly since I write under a thin veil of anonymity.

Q: Don't you work for a health care company? I know you have written about health care.

MCO: The general health care debate affects my company, but to this point it does not impact the niche that I work in myself. My writing about health care represents my understanding of issues outside my specialized area of expertise, though I do think I have knowledge that adds to the debate. While I disagree with what the President is promoting, I also have some rather strong disagreements with some of his conservative opponents.

And, by the way, I sometimes take positions on issues that differ with my employer's. As an example, I was personally opposed to the stimulus bill, though there were aspects of it that were viewed favorably by my company.

Q: What do you think of ethics laws addressing lobbyists?

MCO: Most of them don't do any harm, but they aren't terribly effective at weeding out corruption either. Some of them are harmful, in that laws that make lobbying more difficult also make those who govern more distant from the people in general.

The best laws are those that provide for transparency. Worrying about whether someone took a legislator to dinner is a waste of time. If votes are for sale, it is not for the cost of dinner.

Q. Any other thoughts that you would like to share? I know this is a real softball. I should be embarrassed.

MCO: People blame lobbyists for things that they really should blame legislators for. The right to petition government is an important constitutional right. We should expect legislators to listen to the cacophony of interests and then make decisions that are both wise and courageous. Silencing the voices seeking to influence them is exactly the wrong approach.