Sunday, July 16, 2006

Medical Care

There was a time when the VA was the dregs of our healthcare system. It seems that is no longer the case. According to the above study, the VA is now one of the best places in the country to get healthcare, and it is also one of the most cost effective.

We are so used to hearing extreme viewpoints on what makes for good healthcare, that we are unlikely to do anything with this new information. That would be unfortunate, because the VA seems to offer us a template for how to do it right without bankrupting us. The question remains why we let ourselves stay in the crossfire.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Threatening China? Begging is more like it...

The Axis of Evil was Iran, Iraq and North Korea, as I recall. So we went after the weakest and most irrelevant of the three. How smart is that? Actually, maybe smarter than it looks, since the other two options might have led to nuclear war. Unfortunately, now that we have exposed ourselves as far weaker and less competant than anyone could have expected (short of nuking people), we really do seem to have run out of options with the two remaining members of the AofE.

The U.S. is suddenly playing the diplomacy game with Iran. How many people think it is because the White House actually learned from its mistakes? Let's not delude ourselves. Condi is talking either because we have no choice, or because we need cover for when we nuke Iran. And then we have North Korea. Lindsay Graham, a Republican senator, threatened China today with "hanging by a thread, diplomatically" if they don't do something, now, about North Korea.

Huh? Just what leverage does he think we have over China? It's time to get real. We pissed on, and pissed off, our allies, and now we have to turn to China to bail us out of a sticky situation. There are those who could say "I told you so...", but who would listen?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Religion of Peace?

Americans and Europeans alike have been tied in knots over how to deal with Islam in their own societies. Our liberal norms say we must be tolerant. President Bush himself says "Islam is a peaceful religion!", while many of the preachers who make up his political base stir up hatred and fear. Bush's actual policies have undeniably fanned the flames of Islamic extremism the world over. When home-grown thugs murder in Holland and in the subways of London and Madrid, we tie ourselves in knots over whether they represent the true spirit of their religion, or have hijacked it for perverse ends. We argue over whether the legacy of Euro-American imperialism has come home to roost. Meanwhile, we have to decide whether racial profiling is an acceptable means of self defense. And the fact is, that if we succumb to the temptation to hate and fear, we lose what we are, and so we lose, period.

All this said, we are in trouble. Whatever the historical causes, the fact is that Islam around the world is being radicalized, and the process has a momentum all its own. For anyone, progressive or not, who wants to hide his head in the sand about this, I give you the following pictures. They were taken at "Religion of Peace" rallies by muslims in London.

The Do-Nothing-est rep finally gets going

Representative Lynn Westmoreland has finally sponsored his first legislation: an amendment to the Voting Rights Act that would basically gut its enforceability. Now, there are some provisions in the VRA that probably go too far, especially those requiring multilingual ballots without any end in sight. But most of the provisions address genuine threats to the rights of minority and disadvantaged voters. It is telling that the only issue that could rouse the Congressman from his stupor was one where he could stand up for the right of officials to disenfanchise their citizens.

For those unfamiliar with Mr. Westmoreland, this link is all the introduction you need. Take the five minutes to watch the interview. It would be funny if it were not so sad.

(Note: Since this was first posted, the Westmoreland and other amendments were voted down.)

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Fat Scam

(This is a copy of my letter published in USA Today on June 30):

We owe Barbara D’Souza thanks for her courage in writing about the ordeal of being obese. We have no more right to abuse fat people than we do to abuse anyone else. Still, she has bought into a dangerous and self-defeating myth, namely that that obesity is beyond our control, and is essentially a genetic disability. As a biotechnology executive, I am part of the community that has created and perpetuated that myth. I understand the desperate need people have to feel that they are not at fault, but the truth is, the modern epidemic of obesity is not genetic in origin.

The gene pool has not mysteriously changed since the time of our grandparents. Therefore, genes cannot explain the increase in obesity from their generation to ours. The true explanation is that we have changed our environment and our behavior. The only guaranteed solution to the problem would be to undo some of those changes. There is, however, a whole industry focused on diverting our attention from the truth, and people like Ms. D’Souza are all too vulnerable to the deception.

My industry has aided and abetted this hoax. We stand to make billions, selling pills that can treat obesity. The food industry has an even bigger incentive, because it wants to avoid being held responsible for the toxic environment it has created. It would rather keep people addicted to super-sized meals. Those of us in the food and pharmaceutical industries have a duty to tell the truth: that if we behaved more like our grandparents (eat less, walk more, make and sell better food), fewer of us would be fat. I’m not worried that this truth will harm my business. Since lots of people won’t heed the warning, we will always have a gigantic profit opportunity in treating the consequences--but at least we will have a clear conscience. As they say, the truth can set you free.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Was Ken Lay Assassinated?

Some have suggested so. It seems a stretch, but stranger things have happened. The unfortunate thing is that his sudden death lays a patina of sympathy over a man who cavalierly allowed thousands of people to lose their lives' savings, largely because they trusted him. And we have to wonder what other inconvenient facts go to the grave with him.

The problem with the ideologically pure version of capitalism is that it strips away any notion of responsibility, as merely a form of weakness. In the wake of the fall of Stalinism, and the run of success by the Chicago economists, and fuelled by the heady pseudo-populism of the Reagan era, we have adopted unfettered capitalism as a cult. The result is that we have steadily eroded even the basic notions of trust and truthfullness, as unwanted impediments to the maximization of wealth.

As a person whose job description includes the word "Capitalist", I remain unpersuaded by the notion that all we need in order to reach the best outcome is to let greed run rampant. The reality is that we need ethics as well, if not from within, then through other instruments. Ken Lay should have had the opportunity to understand what he did. He professed to a great religiosity, so perhaps he is being judged by his maker. I hold out no such optimism.

Monday, July 03, 2006

In the Net

We had a certain kind of peace before the internet and the web came along. I miss the days when doing research meant going to a quiet library somewhere, thumbing through old books in a room full of sunlight, occasional dust-motes dancing in the air. I miss hand-writing a letter, mailing it, anticipating the reply, which might take days or weeks to arrive, knowing that both I and my correspondent would have put a lot of thought into what we had to say. I suppose this is what people from a prior era felt, when air travel displaced ocean liners as the preferred way to travel long distances: a sense of having lost the moments of contemplation along the way.

My good friend Mike says that we idealize the past, and that it was never as good as we remember it to be. Yet I have a whole filing cabinet full of old correspondence, and few things give me more pleasure than to read through old letters, and remember. Yes, I could still write the old-fashioned way, but with everything so accelerated, it seems the opportunities to do so are vanishing. I am always waiting, in vain, for that moment of solitude. And, of course, the internet offers us the exhilarating feeling of being able to reach somebody right away in a moment of inspiration (or aggravation). How easy!

The internet, the web, also offer the seduction of having much of the world’s knowledge (albeit leavened with misinformation) right there for the grabbing. Being of the net is like being at an ever-expanding buffet, served up in an infinite warren of rooms, some of them big and bright and bustling, and others dark, dusty, obscure, with the food going stale. I eagerly explore. I can cope with the minor annoyances along the way: As I sample, I dodge the constant stream of touts trying to lure me into their dens of iniquity. And, like many of us, I have learned that some of the delicacies on the tables, even in the brightly lit rooms, are poisoned.

We are bees, in an enormous hive, just emerging from the larval stage. We were, until now, cozy and comfortable, knowing only our own little hexagonal cells, perhaps sensing the vibrations from nearby cells. We were occasionally fed by workers who came from somewhere and went we knew not where. Now we must adjust to the light and the noise and the frenetic hum of the hive. And we must learn to navigate the deluge of new information. I find myself wondering if we have been freed by all this information, or are ruled by it, running ever harder to keep up with the torrent. We run about on our appointed tasks, following the strands of the Web, unaware that perhaps we have been caught in it.

Now that I am willingly and eagerly wireless, I am aware that the internet transcends the very notion of a web, a warren, or even a hive. It is a presence, an ethereal organism, like one of those alien life forms in old Star Trek reruns, enveloping me, talking to me, feeding me, spying on me, collecting little bits of me, depositing little bits of itself on me. Even when I am logged off, I am permeated by it, by the multiplying halos of 802-dot-11, passing through me. Invisible pipes, carrying urgent emails, web porn searches, blogs from the lonely or paranoid, today’s news and non-news…marinating me in a dense drizzle of bits of which I am largely oblivious, until I am reminded of it.

I know I could disconnect, but I am not ready or willing to do so. I can proudly say I have managed to draw the line at hand-held devices such as Blackberries. My old firm issued them to us, and I gave mine back after a few weeks. Carrying a Blackberry around, I did not feel connected, I only felt caught. The organism had wrapped itself around me, constricting me and at the same time blasting me with a relentless stream of nonsense. It was like being strapped into an interrogator’s chair with a light shining in my face. I watched as my addicted colleagues spent whole meetings frantically sending and receiving messages, after which they had to ask what had happened during the discussion at hand. It was not for me.

Still, I connect several times a day. I suppose it is like being in a co-dependent relationship. It’s funny - television, the original icon of electronic co-dependency, never did this to me. I haven’t had a TV in 27 years, and I’ve rarely missed it. The internet is different. It responds, it hears, and then it talks back. It has a mind of its own, a composite mind composed of billions of smaller minds. All of them have their own theories of their place in the organism, or no theories at all. Some of them are human, others electronic. I have never felt so connected to so many, yet I wonder if the depth of those connections will ever approximate that of the old kind, the kind that were hard to plant and long in growing, but lasted.