Saturday, April 19, 2014

How hideously inefficient is our health care system?

How hideously inefficient is our health care system? 

As this graphic from the Wall Street Journal illustrates, over 22% of the taxes you pay goes to health care. 

And most Americans are required to find money on top of this to pay for private insurance (now mandatory, a historic first, under Obamacare) as well as treatment. 

At least if we had Medicare for All, our tax money would be spent in a far more rational and efficient way.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Responding to disasters in urban areas vs rural ones

This essay is part of an occasional feature on this blog that presents compelling stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, IsraelStine and the Trumped Up Enemy of the Month. A list of all pieces in this series can be found found here.

The IRIN news service has a good piece about how responding to the devastation wrought by disaster in urban areas offers very different challenges than responding to disasters in more rural areas. Worth a read.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

When 'Never again' happened again

This essay is part of an occasional feature on this blog that presents compelling stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, IsraelStine and the Trumped Up Enemy of the Month. A list of all pieces in this series can be found found here..

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide during which at least 800,000 people were murdered. It was one of the world's worst atrocities of the century and certainly the worst to be covered during the age of cable news television. It occurred a year, almost to the week, after politicians and dignitaries in Washington solemnly promised 'Never again' while inaugurating the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In 2004, I wrote a long series of essays on the occasion of the 10th anniversary which gave a lot of information and background about the genocide.

They are as follows (yes, I know the images do not work):

-Ten years later (an intro)
-Pre-genocide history
-How the genocide unfolded
-Myths and realities about the genocide (Part 1)
-Myths and realities about the genocide (Part 2)
-The genocide's orphans
-Hate media and their role in the genocide
-International law and American law on genocide
-Post-genocide justice
-The post-genocide government
-Lessons and conclusions

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Happy birthday Peace Corps

Today is national Peace Corps Day. In 2004, I wrote this essay (slightly modified since) in honor of Peace Corps Day. It's become a bit of a tradition for me to re-post it every March 1.

Moms and dads have their day. Old presidents have their day. So do labor unions and medieval saints. Soldiers have two official days plus numerous 'support our troops' rallies. Even bosses and secretaries have days, according to Hallmark. So why not Peace Corps volunteers?

Today is Peace Corps Day. It's the 53rd anniversary of the day President Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps.

Some people think the Peace Corps is a military organization. In fact, it's the antithesis. It's an organization which sends volunteers to developing countries to engage in such activities as teaching, public health, environmental management and small business development.

Volunteers receive a living allowance to cover their basic expenses and are provided housing, but are otherwise not paid. They received a modest readjustment allowance following completion of their service and a small (10 percent when I left) reduction in federal student loans. But they otherwise receive no further medical care or educational benefits. There is a small movement to obtain for departing volunteers benefits more similar to those received by those leaving the military, but it hasn't gotten anywhere.

The goals of the Peace Corps, according to the organization's website, are three:

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.

Suffice it to say, all three goals have been important since the organization was created but #2 seems particularly crucial in the era of post-9/11 random invasions. Though increasingly, it feels like a "one step forward, three steps back" routine.

There have been many books on "the Peace Corps experience" (which is about as broad a generalization as "the American mentality"). Nevertheless, some themes tend to be pretty common among them.

-Go to God-foresaken country with the expectation to save the noble savages.

-Learn that they are not savages and that they are noble/ignoble in more or less the same proportion as Americans.

-Sense of loneliness in a totally alien culture.

-Learn that life without TV/computer is not the apocalypse.

-Leave with the realization that you learned more than they did.

-Sadness when they have to leave their village/city.

-Transmit these themes interspersed with a lot of humorous anecdotes.

-Commentary on the impact of American foreign policy, French foreign policy and the IMF/World Bank may be included.

Common themes for volunteers who served in sub-Saharan Africa, as I did, are as follows:

-Annoyance at people who call you 'toubabou' (or whatever the local language word for 'white person' is); "My name isn't 'toubabou'," fumes the author. "My name is John!"

-Agitation that everyone wanted you to marry their sister/brother/son/daughter or get them a visa to go to America.

-Rage at the dichotomy between the fabulous wealth of the political elite and the overwhelming poverty of the masses.

-Observation to the effect that "[nationality] are so poor monetarily but so rich in spirit/culture/community."

-Elegies about how welcoming [nationality] are to strangers.

-A brief history of the country and the legacy of European colonialism.

-Maddening anecdotes about dealing with corrupt officials, musings on heat, mosquitoes and hygeine and comical (or frightening) travel stories.

-General commentary about "the African condition" may be included.

(And just so I don't sound like a snob, I included every one of these themes in my journal and letters home)

The best book I've ever read about "the Peace Corps experience" was George Packer's The Village of Waiting. It was a wonderfully written book in its own right. But I enjoyed it even more because, even though it was set in Togo and I served in Guinea, it was pretty much the story of my experience. Reading The Village of Waiting is why I decided not to write a strictly autobiographical account of my experience: it had already been done.

Update: Just a reminder that in the history of the Peace Corps, 296 men and women have died in service, at least one in every year (except 1986) that the Peace Corps has existed. A website has been devoted to them.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Confrontation is central to human rights movements

With Martin Luther King day coming not long after the death of Nelson Mandela, the fundamental essence of these two heroes has been saccharinized into something that completely misrepresents their struggle and that of their movements.

They both rejected or came to reject violence. But they both recognized that confrontation was essential to any sort of fundamental change. It would've been nice if they could simply have gotten on their knees and pleaded to their masters for basic humanity dignity, as the comfortable chastised them for not doing. But, as King rebuked them in Letter From a Birmingham Jail, this doesn't work in the real world.

Confrontation of injustice - those who tolerated it as much as those who inflicted it directly - was central to these movements and human rights struggles in this country and around the globe. It'd be nice if 'please' alone worked in these situations. But it never does.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Who's not welcome in Emperor Andrew's New York

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been in hot water lately for his administration's apparent role in a bridge closure debacle and its alleged role in denying disaster aid to a mayor, both based on a political grudge.
New York's own Andrew Cuomo has the same arrogance problem as Christie. It makes you wonder when Cuomo’s Bridgegate will explode.

Just last Friday, Emperor Andrew told the public broadcasting show Capital Pressroom, speaking of conservative Republicans, “Who are they? Right to life, pro-assault weapons, anti-gay — if that’s who they are, they have no place in the state of New York because that’s not who New Yorkers are.” Not surprisingly, he quickly ran away from his reckless words.

Readers of this blog know that I am as harshly critical as anybody of right-wingers and their extreme positions. But to suggest they should be purged* from the state is pompous and despicable. Not quite as despicable as blaming autism and dementia on anti-bigotry efforts, but highly irresponsible for someone with presidential aspirations.

People have criticized me for describing him as Emperor Andrew. But until he realizes that his job is to represent all New Yorkers, including the ones he would rather discard, then the label will fit.

(*-I’m not suggesting Cuomo would actually engage in the sort of actual purge that Vladimir Putin is stirring up in Russia or Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria. But when you say they have ‘no place in the state,’ it is leaves just enough rom for interpretation.)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Human rights and war are antithetical

Al-Jazeera America had a good essay on so-called military hawks for human rights. I was once a proponent of humanitarian-based military intervention until I realized its fundamental flaw. Its premised upon a scenario that never actually happen in reality. 

Human rights groups may want action based on moral principles but countries always and only act in self-interest. The fact that countries act in this sort of amoral fashion is not inherently bad but it also means that the utopian principle on which humanitarian intervention is based does not happen. Liberal hawks may say, "Who cares about an impure motive if it causes a moral result?" The problem is that the impure motive makes the moral result far less likely to occur and, in many cases, may even result in a bloodshed and destruction worse than what was there before - a 'cure that's worse than the disease' scenario.

Once countries launch military interventions based on self-interest, it affects both how they act and how their actions (and thus perceived motives) are received by the domestic populations. When their motives are questioned, this compromises a 'humanitarian intervention's' chances of achieving even the self-interested goals, let alone the moral ones.

An impartial United Nations' army would be the only chance for the humanitarian intervention principle to be successfully achieved, but such an international army will never be formed in the real world.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Dr. King's real dream: dignity for all

Below is my annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day essay. Those who turn Dr. King into some sort of saccharine saint, as being solely about government equality under law for all skin colors, trivialize his struggle. He was about that, but about much more than that. His struggle was about the dignity of human beings, in the broadest sense. This New York Times essay says it best: Martin Luther King Jr. Would Want a Revolution, Not a Memorial.


Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy against segregation and other forms of state-sponsored racism. On this national holiday honoring him, it's worth remembering that King viewed as more than mere legal racial equality. He viewed the struggle more broadly as one in favor of human dignity. This is why he did not retire from public life following legalistic victories such as Brown vs the Board of Education or the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. Although legal segregation was crumbling in the last years of his life, Dr. King did not diminish his activism in any way. He merely refocused it toward another aspect of human dignity.

At the time of his assassination in 1968, King was in Memphis as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's (SLCC) Poor People's Campaign, where the city's garbage workers were protesting against unlivable wages. The SLCC had conceived the campaign as a way to mobilize poor people of all skin colors on behalf of a federal economic plan to rebuild American cities.

King realized that the end of state-imposed segregation would not improve the lives of black people if they remained miserably poor. In much the same way the lives of blacks in the south remained virtually unchanged long after the 'transition' from slavery to sharecropping.

King viewed the campaign part as the second phase of the civil rights' struggle. He viewed endemic poverty as a civil rights' issue.

This commitment to human dignity animated another lesser known aspect of King's work: his opposition to the Vietnam War and to militarism more broadly.

During his Beyond Vietnam speech given exactly one year before his murder, he explained why opposition to the aggression against Vietnam had entered into his activism:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men [in the ghettos of the north], I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

Americans were being shipped off to Vietnam to kill, to destroy and to die. Nothing good was happening because of this. And King knew that the war machine specifically sought those with few other economic options to serve as its cannon fodder, a situation that's little different today.

Like many social justice advocates before and since, he deplored how much of our national resources (both financial and human) was wasted on fabricating foreign enemies to obliterate. "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom," he warned.

King probably realized that the fact that many young people had few other economic options was no accident, but the result of conscious policy choices made to ensure an insatiable monster created, funded and propped up by your tax dollars always had food.

(It's not the only insatiable monster but the other main one merits an entry of its own)

To restrict Dr. King's legacy to the fight for legal equality for black people is to sell him short. And it's misleads people into believing that his dream has been realized. His true struggle was the quest for human dignity for all people.

He could be no clearer about this when he concluded his Beyond Vietnam speech:

We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

If you truly want to honor him, then follow this injunction.