Saturday, January 29, 2011

Ayn Rand Goes on Medicare

Ayn Rand's brand of libertarianism has always puzzled me. I don't think her vision of utterly independent individuals, only a few of whom are competent and forever under siege by the parasites, is at all like real human life. Even more puzzling, I don't understand why many people find it an attractive vision of life, rather than a dystopian nightmare. Last year I read Atlas Shrugged to gain some insight into the Randians. One of my libertarian churchmates, who had been shaped by the book in his youth, was eager to hear how it affected me, hoping I would join the movement. I told him it was the most preposterous story I ever read. Moreover, her view is so scornful of church - any church - that I didn't see how he as a Christian could reconcile the two.

Rand was particularly scornful of government programs that taxed everyone to help citizens when they are in need, like Social Security and Medicare.

I was particularly interested to learn, therefore, that the recently published memoir of people who knew Ayn Rand, 100 Voices, reveals that she herself went on Medicare. She did not admit this, and went on excoriating the "parasites" who did. Rand, a chain smoker, needed medical help late in life. She allowed her lawyers to quietly apply for the help under her real name, Ann O'Connor.

Rand was entitled to the help of Medicare. She had paid into it as other workers in the commonwealth of the nation did. She was entitled to is as a citizen who was ill and needed help. Rand accepted Medicare. But apparently the reality of her own need did not affect her ideology that people should not be in need.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Obama Assessment, Year Two: Overall

I think any Democrat could have been elected president in 2008. That person would have faced extraordinary challenges, the worst of which were leftovers. Any Democrat would have come in with some version of the Democratic agenda. We have the "mommy party" aims of equalizing opportunity and providing a basic safety net, and the "knowledge party" agenda of education, new technology, new energy sources, and transparency. Any new Democratic president would have had 18 months to fix the inherited mess and to pass the most important new initiatives. After that, the continuing economic mess, even if it was getting better, would still be so bad that the Democratic Party would lose seats in the midterm election, and probably lose a house of Congress. All of this seemed clear (to me, anyway) in January of 2008.

I believe we got a better-than-ordinary Democrat in Barack Obama. I think he understood the challenge before him in the same outline that I did.

He hit the ground running, attacking the economic collapse as soon as he was able. I think he did a pretty good job. The decisions to save some "banks" and let others collapse had already been made. The bailout for AIG, the remaining "banks," and the car companies had already been made. The decision to have some kind of massive stimulus had already been made. Given that, I think the administration did a reasonably good job. The car company bailout has been managed pretty well. Cash-for-clunkers, even if it made no big economic dent, was worth trying, and did restore a sense of hope that the government was working on the economic problem. Also, it improved the fuel economy of the country's automobile fleet (that is what made a "clunker" worth trading up).

Obama also had a problem of winding down the wrong war, and pursuing the right one. This has been done about as well as could be expected.

At the same time, I am glad he had the nerve to spend most of his political capital on universal health care. From fifty years of debate and resistance by the companies that benefit from the old system, anyone could see this was going to be a huge fight. The opposition party was unusually united and oppositional, and some members of the president's own party were unusually opportunistic. Nonetheless, I give Obama great credit for succeeding. He had the nerve to go ahead with a new initiative despite the many fires he also had to put out, and he had the wisdom to put almost everything else on hold until that job was done.

If he had done nothing else but prevent a great depression and get universal health care, Barack Obama's first Congress would be counted a success. That he had quite a few other successes, and the most successful lame duck session in half a century, is a happy bonus.

Obama has done some things that I am disappointed about. I would have been tougher on the investment banks and AIG - at the least, they should not have been allowed to give those ridiculous bonuses until they had paid back the bailout. I think he should have cleared out all of our political prisoners - charged them, put them on trial, and gotten it over with. This would have meant revealing the torture, violations of human rights conventions, violations of our own laws, and the other ways in which we botched the prosecutions of possible enemies. This would have been painful and extraordinarily embarrassing to the United States, but the worst would be over by now. We help our enemies when we act like them; when we prolong the offense and cover it up, this only makes the problem worse.

I am a centrist and a Christian realist. I think President Obama is, too. He is probably a bit to the left of me, but he is also realist enough to know that the electorate is a bit to the right of him. He also does not act alone - the chief executive is partner to the legislature, both of whom are constrained by the judiciary. I think President Obama's chief partner in the House of Representatives, Speaker Pelosi, was a very effective leader; Senator Reid - not so much. The judiciary was mostly its usual sensible self, except for the significant mischief of the Citizens United decision. In the new Congress, the president will face a persistent opponent in the new Speaker, and a competent obstructionist in the Senate's minority leader. President Obama's second Congress will probably be less successful than his first. On the other hand, the lame-duck session showed that the president's long and lonely pursuit of bipartisanship is starting to bear fruit.

I look forward to the next two years. I believe things will be even better in President Obama's second term.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Obama Assessment, Year Two: Big Achievements

President Obama has had a series of significant achievements, with an especially strong rally in the lame duck session. I will list just a few of my favorites.

The nuclear weapons treaty with Russia is probably the greatest substantive achievement, and the culmination of Obama's major concern when he was in the Senate.

The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell - and his call, in the State of the Union Address this week, for the return of ROTC to all the colleges and professional schools which have long excluded the military because of the DADT policy.

Streamlining and expanding financial aid for college students.

Health care for 911 first responders - why the opposition party opposed it in the first place is a mystery.

I think extending the Bush tax cuts for nearly all Americans is a good idea. I think it would have been better if the tax cuts for the top 2% had not been extended - that would have been a good $500 billion start on reducing the deficit. Nonetheless, if that was the price the President had to pay for his other successes, so be it. In two years, when the economy is stronger - and the deficit will still be pretty large - we can let the top tax cuts expire.

President Obama has begun to achieve the modest beginning of bipartisanship. This despite the very sad decision of the Republican leadership to obstruct Obama and the Democratic Party merely for the sake of opposing. My senior senator, Mitch McConnell, is the worst offender, having declared that the top agenda of the Republican Party is making Obama a one-term president. I hope we will see much more bipartisanship in the new Congress.

There are many more. I would be interested in your favorites.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Obama Assessment, Year Two: Health Care

Universal health care will be the signal achievement of the first Obama administration. Long after the recession is gone and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are over, all Americans will be able to afford basic health care.

I am confident the net effect will be to reduce health care costs, as we eliminate the overhead costs of preventing some people from getting care, and of forcing other people to use emergency rooms for basic medicine. As we integrate the health care system better, standardizing reporting, records, and electronic information, we should make the whole system much more efficient. Indeed, we should be able to make it a true health care system for the first time.

The health care law as we have it has many problems, most of them inflicted by legislators protecting specific home-state or big-donor industries. The government will improve the law for decades to come. Right now the Republican leadership is making a show of repealing universal health care, but this is more theater than substance. Universal health care is overwhelmingly popular, and they know that it will become more so as Americans come to count on it as much as they do on Social Security and public schools. The act will cost more in the short run, as millions of people are included in regular (not just emergency) health insurance, but the Republicans know it will starting saving money soon - that is why they specifically exempted health care repeal from their requirement that all new bills reduce the deficit.

The United States has the best health care for those who can afford it, but a truly terrible health care system. We have started on the long road to fixing that problem.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Obama Assessment, Year Two: Wars

A year ago I praised President Obama for winding down the wrong war in Iraq and pursuing the right war against Al Qaeda. A year later, he has made further progress in winding down the Iraq war. We should have nearly all American troops out of direct fighting by the end of this year, and will start reducing the gigantic cost of that war.

Al Qaeda was driven out of Afghanistan. They are pursuing their best defense, namely, hiding in terrain that is only partly controlled by our vital ally Pakistan. They know that a full-scale invasion of Pakistan would strengthen our enemies. We know it, too. Thus, we have been pursuing a very delicate war against Al Qaeda and their allies the Taliban. We probably cannot drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan. It is their country, even if most Afghans do not want them back in power. We can, though, defeat, capture, and kill Al Qaeda.

I am still very disappointed that Guantanamo and Bagram Airfield and other even more secret prisons still remain. There are secrets we have not been told, and cannot be told, about what goes on there. For my part, I think our torture of the prisoners has so screwed up any hope of prosecuting them that we are stuck with them for a long time.

Still, in war we are making things better, and not making things worse.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Obama Assessment, Year Two

A year ago I made a series of posts on the first year of the Obama administration. Now, as he enters his second year, it is time for a second assessment.

The most urgent task the Obama administration inherited was to save the American and world economy, which was collapsing at the end of the Bush administration. The economy is one of the most complex of all social institutions. No one person or organization can control it. President Bush initiated the bailout of specific large companies, leaving the government in temporary control of several of them. President Obama continued those bailouts, though with a bit more regulation, especially of the stockbrokers turned "investment banks" that had produced the crisis in the first place.

The bailouts worked. Much of the money authorized for bailouts was not actually spent, and most of the loans that were made have already been paid back. In particular, we saved half the auto industry, which is an essential pillar of our economy. In the end, we might even make money.

The recession stopped getting worse, and has slowly been getting better. The most recent consensus of economists is that the next couple of years might see enough growth to recover most of the lost jobs, as well as the lost profits that are already improving.

The administration has also been trying to invest in new industries to establish the foundation for our future economy. They have been particularly interested in alternatives to oil as an energy source, and in making up for the big slowdown in new drug development. Naturally, the large companies that benefit from the current energy and drug markets, and their representatives in the legislature, have opposed these new investments. Nonetheless, I am hopeful that the economy of, say, twenty years from now will rest on investments in alternatives that we make now, both by government and by business.

I believe the economy is the single most important issue determining how people vote - most especially, whether they feel secure in their own economic future. I expect that by 2012 the economy will be sufficiently improved that Democrats will have a big year, and President Obama will probably be re-elected.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Creation Museum: No Death, No Birth

Yesterday I wrote about why young-earth creationists do not accept creation followed by long eons of development. Our host offered the explanation that old-earth creation would entail that death was part of God's design for the universe - a view they reject.

It occurs to me that one implication of this view is that there would also have been no birth in paradise. No babies, no children, no growing up. Not for people, nor for animals.

That is a hard teaching for a sentimental dad like me. And I think it is hard to reconcile with how the promise of children is described in Genesis. Childbirth is to be painful as a result of sin. But children are not a penalty of sin. Children are a gift.