Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Real Scandal

“I know about a health care system that has been highly successful in containing costs, yet provides excellent care. And the story of this system’s success provides a helpful corrective to anti-government ideology. For the government doesn’t just pay the bills in this system—it runs the hospitals and clinics. No, I’m not talking about some faraway country. The system in question is our very own Veterans Health Administration, whose success story is one of the best-kept secrets in the American policy debate.”
—Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, January 2006

The word scandal gets thrown around pretty easily by some. The party in opposition tends to attach the word to every occurrence that it thinks might make the public lose confidence in the government of the day. Republicans in particular have been determined to put the scandal label on everything from the administration’s handling and subsequent misdirection of the Benghazi terrorist attack to the IRS’s different treatment of conservative groups for tax-exempt status. In fact, the list of outrages cited by Republicans grew so long that at one point that the president dismissed them all together as “phony scandals.”

The situation that has come to light at the Veterans Health Administration is, however, different. Most or all of the outrage at previous “scandals” was necessarily limited to Republicans or, at best, non-Democrats. The IRS misconduct directly affected only politically engaged conservatives. Benghazi happened and then it was over. There is not much more to learn about it, although the prying loose of a memo directly contradicting the line that no misdirection had come from the White House has certainly given Republicans encouragement to have more hearings and, not incidentally, undermine Hillary Clinton’s legacy at the State Department.

Unlike those scandals, the VA mess is still going on and will continue to go on until it gets fixed. And it is not something that affects members of only one political party. Upset at the way veterans have been treated transcends political allegiances. So it is disheartening that the president’s response is not markedly different from his responses to the other scandals. He went weeks without addressing it and then, when he finally did, he unsheathed his standard scandal responses. On one hand, he made a point of emphasizing that the VA situation predates his administration. In other words, well into the sixth year of his presidency, he is still complaining about the mess he inherited from George W. Bush. On the other hand, he used the fact that there are ongoing investigations to justify a lack of action. Maybe people need to be fired. Maybe some need to go to jail. And he would certainly want all the facts before taking that kind of action. But there is no reason at all for him not to take immediate action to start reforming a system that is clearly not working. Republicans are not off the hook either, since Congress has role in this.

While the outrage is bipartisan, it is not at all surprising that Republicans have much more enthusiasm for expressing their indignation. The VA failures are politically awkward for Dems not only because they are the party in power but also because, as the above Paul Krugman quote illustrates, they have long touted the VA as evidence that the government can be an efficient provider of health care—something that also undermines the president’s stance that this is an inherited problem. The required tweak to the Democratic line could be subsequently heard last week from Nancy Pelosi and reliable talking point carriers like E.J. Dionne. According to them, the VA has generally done a good job but now it has been overwhelmed by the casualties of George W. Bush’s wars. So don’t blame the current administration if former soldiers are put on fake wait lists and denied health care. It’s really the fault of the warmongering neocons.

There is a valid point here. Advances in medicine have saved many warriors who would have died in an earlier era, and the flip side of that is a higher toll of grievous injuries. Also, mental and emotional disorders are now recognized that previously weren’t. But people who have crunched the numbers tell us that what is really overwhelming the VA is the same thing that stands to overwhelm public services generally. There is a massive demographic bulge (the baby boomers) among veterans—as among the population in general—hitting the age where it simply needs more healthcare services. Still, Pelosi’s attempt to shift the blame for mismanagement and fraud in government facilities resulting in avoidable deaths is certainly innovative.

Republicans are pointing to the VA fiasco as evidence that the government should stay out of the healthcare business. It is not exactly fair to compare a government-run hospital system with a government-run exchange system that matches up patients with private insurers. Obamacare and the VA are not equivalent. Still, the VA situation is not irrelevant either. By dictating to consumers what sorts of policies they must buy and by dictating to insurers what coverage they must provide and by expanding the portion of the population that gets healthcare subsidies, the government is undermining the market forces that would normally keep costs down and assure that supply be able to keep up with demand.

When supply cannot keep up with demand, it leads inevitably to de facto rationing, which in the current situation takes the form of secret open-ended wait lists that put patients in limbo.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Fiddling While California Burns

“It is true that there’s virtually no Republican who accepts the science that virtually is unanimous. I mean there is no scientific question. There’s just political denial for various reasons, best known to those people who are in denial. But whatever the thoughts of the Republicans, we here in California are on the front lines.”
—California Governor Jerry Brown, Sunday on ABC’s This Week

In the thick of a debate, participants invariably strive to put their hands on the unassailable authority, the authoritative source that puts the matter to rest once and for all.

In a certain time and place that moment may have once come when someone proclaimed with finality, “Because the Bible says so.” But that only worked as long as everyone had the same Bible and the same interpretation of it. Or if the speaker was accepted as the ultimate arbiter of the Good Book’s meaning. Nowadays such an appeal to authority is more likely to take the form of “because that’s what the science says” or “the scientific consensus is overwhelming.”

You may say that citing science is worlds away from citing scripture. You may say that scripture is merely the ignorant writings of a long dead superstitious people, while science is something that has been tested and proven. On a matter like climate change, you may even be one of those who say that the science is settled.

But the very nature of the scientific method is that science is never settled. Newton’s laws were superseded by Einstein’s theories. Scientists’ understanding of how the world works is continually revised to take into account new information gleaned from new observations and new experiments. Scientists are more likely to describe their findings as “the best information we have at this point.” It is journalists—not scientists—who take those findings and report them broadly as “news”—leaving their audience confused when this year’s scientific finding directly contradicts what we “knew” last year. (For an enlightening look at not only how science keeps getting reevaluated but how news coverage can affect it, check out this recent story from National Public Radio.)

So why has the scientific study of climate change become so politically contentious? Democrats say it is because Republicans are “climate change deniers.” On the surface that certainly makes Republicans sound backward and ignorant. But if you examine what individual Republicans actually say, very few deny that the climate is—and always has been—in the process of changing. What they question is whether human activity is decisive in that change or whether that change can be predicted with any meaningful accuracy or whether government action can make any difference. In other words, the Democratic rhetoric represents more than a bit of misdirection.

Let’s assume, though, that Democrats are correct. What is their solution to climate change? It seems to consist of a system of carbon taxes and carbon trading. In other words, a major shift of business profits to the government instead of using them to reinvest in more business activity and to create jobs. In theory this would limit the amount of carbon gases emitted into the atmosphere, although the idea of carbon “trading” implies that emissions are not so much reduced as used to justify a wealth transfer to government coffers as high-emitting companies buy shares from low-emitting companies. It is easy to see why politicians would be drawn to this sort of system. It would not only give them a lot more money to spend but would also provide countless opportunities to do favors for constituents and, more importantly, contributors. It is also easy to see why climate change scientists would tend to favor it as well. After all, it ensures job security.

But here’s the rub. In 2009 and 2010, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress as well as the White House, they could not muster anywhere near enough votes to pass such a system. It takes a lot of chutzpah for politicians like Governor Brown to blame Republicans for not “solving” climate change when Democrats have so recently demonstrated that they are no more eager for that kind of political suicide than the GOP. This is why, when Governor Brown goes on Sunday shows, he talks up Republican denial but never mentions “cap and trade.”

Moreover, climate scientists’ own numbers say that, even if the environmental left’s agenda were passed in toto, it would make a global difference of only a few degrees. When presented with the fact that, even if cap and trade were enacted, it would make at best a negligible difference, the response comes back: well, at least we would being doing something.

Yes, we would be doing something—and that something would be creating distractions that could deter action that might actually be constructive. As the climate changes, society’s efforts will be more useful in adapting to those changes instead of throwing away time and money on the hopeless goal of trying to stop it from happening in the first place. Is it just me or does that sort of thinking not smack of tossing virgins into a crater to appease a volcano?

As I wrote a couple of months ago, the climate change debate is clearly not over and not likely to be—possibly ever. But proponents of the notion of anthropogenic climate change have been doing their best to end that debate—any way they can. The University of Queensland in Australia has gone to court in an attempt to block the release of data used by one of its scientists to arrive at the often mentioned figure of 97 percent scientific climate change consensus in a survey. An analysis by five climate scientists of the survey concluded that only 41 out of 11,944 studies published since 1950 actually blamed human activity for causing global warming. (Most papers did not take a position one way or the other and were thus discounted, which is how the 97 percent figure was arrived at.) Meanwhile, there is a protracted lawsuit initiated by Michael Mann of Penn State against columnist Mark Steyn, The National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute for defamation because the defendants dared to disagree publicly with Mann’s scientific arguments. Dr. Mann’s emails were among those hacked and revealed on a server at the UK’s University of East Anglia in 2009. The appearance given by some of the emails of suppressing dissenting climate change views was dubbed “climategate.” Last week the UK Times reported that a research fellow at the University of Reading complained that a paper he wrote with four other climate experts—and which questioned how sensitive the climate really is to greenhouse gases—had been suppressed because it did not conform to prevailing orthodoxy.

Some skeptics like to say that the climate change movement is like a religion, but I’m not so sure. After all, can you imagine the Pope suing somebody for suggesting that he wasn’t infallible?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Life in the Time of Gabo

“La vida no es la que uno vivió, sino la que uno recuerda, y cómo la recuerda para contarla.”
 —Gabriel García Márquez

Traveling abroad (for me anyway) used to mean constantly keeping one eye alert for a newsagents/tobacconist/kiosk/shop/whatever that sold foreign newspapers. I was always on the lookout for The International Herald Tribune (since renamed The International New York Times) for a bit of recent news from the States and the rest of the world.

But those were the old days. Now I find myself watching for the café, bar or hotel with the sign promising “Free WiFi” so I can use my iPod Touch to refresh all the same myriad news sources I use daily in the comfort of my own home.

So it was that, during our Easter holiday last month in Italy, I kept looking for opportunities to read obituaries and comments on the life of Gabriel García Márquez. I had seen the breaking news alert about his death just before putting the iTouch in airplane mode ahead of the flight for Naples, and the news haunted me from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum to the cliff-hugging road on the Amalfi Coast.

I will not claim to have any particularly meaningful insights into the man himself. I can attest, however, that his work came to be very important to me during a consequential period of my life.

By the time I went to Chile in 1977, I had already completed both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Because my previous university work had not been done in Chile, however, the University of Concepción limited my selection of courses to undergraduate ones. This meant that, to a large extent, I was repeating coursework I had already done at other universities. It also meant that I was four to seven years older than my classmates.

The Institute of Languages at the University of Concepción in 1977
It was by no means uninteresting, but it wasn’t particularly challenging. Moreover, I was sometimes in the uncomfortable position of being used by the professors to shame the local students. I still remember the annoyed young glances coming my way as a prof would say, “Look how well this North American can write, and Spanish isn’t even his first language.” It was an unfair comparison since I was older and further along in my education than my classmates, although one professor did explain to me privately that her frustration with her students actually had nothing to do with me. She said that Chilean universities were facing a generation which had largely missed out on a viable secondary education because of the disruption and tumult during the presidency of Salvador Allende and subsequent coup and military crackdown.

Being North American led to other odd situations. For example, I got a very strange assignment from a literature professor who happened to be a rabid fan of the American author Joseph Heller. Because I was from the United States, he insisted that my class paper had to be on the novel Catch-22, which meant that I had to read and dissect a book originally written in English but in Spanish translation. In a country that had spawned two Nobel literature laureates (Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda), the last thing I ever expected was to be spending my year in South America studying and writing about a North American writer translated into a foreign language.

The one true academic bright spot was getting permission in the second semester to take a graduate seminar on Latin American literature. There were just two of us working with Professor Rodríguez and, as it happened, the other student had been my teacher the semester before. The seminar topic was García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) which, at that point, had been in print for ten years and was already an international classic. In hindsight, the idea of spending four or more months studying and writing about a single book may seem kind of obsessive. But I had already learned that the academic study of literature was nothing if not obsessive—especially when it came to literature in the Spanish language. Texts were routinely scoured for all kinds of meanings and messages—overt, covert, coded, insinuated, what have you—as if we students were characters in a Dan Brown novel tracking down the Holy Grail. It meant that we did not merely read the Colombian’s novel. We lived it and breathed it and bathed in it—day in and day out for week upon week.

It could have been a long few months if I had not cared very much for the book. But as countless other readers have found, there is a reason that García Márquez’s style, like that of many other Latin American writers of the 20th century, is called Magic Realism. The continuous and interweaving stories of the mythical Colombian village of Macondo (based on the author’s own home of Aracataca) were mesmerizing and seductive. The multi-generational epic of the Buendía family with its repeated use of given names had a way of drawing us in and making us see every development in the story as more profound than it probably really was. It had the addictive quality of a really good soap opera. In the end, the draw of the book was the way it could be escapist fantasy and social and political commentary all at one time.

A half-decade later I would return to Concepción on a visit and call on Professor Rodríguez. He would flatter me by recalling the paper I wrote for the seminar and the way I had noticed that the word soledad in the title was comprised of the words sol (sun) and edad (age) and how that could be a clue to the author’s underlying message. I remembered how the book had made such an impression on my classmate that she seriously considered giving the baby she was expecting the name Amaranta, after multiple characters in the novel. In the end she didn’t, but in the letters she later wrote me, when mentioning her daughter, she would parenthetically append an explanatory “ex Amaranta” after her name.

When I made that return visit, the mother of “ex Amaranta” was no longer living in Chile. In a strange way we had changed places. After being her student and then classmate, I had ended up becoming her English tutor. She subsequently moved to the United States. Our paths would cross a few more times over the years. She would wind up living and teaching in my home state of California, while I would wind up living in Europe. But always that book by Gabriel García Márquez would always bind us—that and her seemingly spiritual fascination with certain filmmakers, notably Ettore Scola and Roman Polanski.

In the weeks following García Márquez’s demise, I relived the experience of being immersed in his writing while at the same time being amused by all the arguing over his politics. Yes, he was an unrepentant leftist and an apologist for Cuba’s repressive Castro regime. And yes, I would love to know the real story of why the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa (whose work may actually better stand the test of time and whose politics certainly will) gave him a black eye very publicly at a movie premiere in 1976. Was it over political differences or was it about the comforting shoulder provided during a tricky time in the Vargas’s marriage?

One of the things I read was by a blogger whom I respect very much. She said that, after enjoying Cien años de soledad years before, she recently picked it up and found it unreadable. That sent a shiver up my spine since I have it, in both Spanish and English, on my iPad waiting for a fresh perusal. Will I risk destroying many fond memories by trying to read it again? It’s a risk I’m willing to take. After all, for me the true beauty in those memories has as much to do with the very real city of Concepción as with the mythical village of Macondo.