tanning beds and taxing the poor

For some people the health care funding and decision-making law that passed a few weeks ago is a political triumph for President Obama and it is exciting because it is “historical.” Some people may even benefit from it.

But for many, many people the new law is an expression of a new American mindset. Admittedly, this mindset was put in motion in the late 19th century by the Progressives, implemented by short-sighted people like Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and expanded under blind leaders like Lyndon Johnson and the George Bushes.

So maybe I should call it a “renewed” mindset rather than a new one.

In the last two years I’ve seen an alteration in the common discourse that I was oblivious to before that. Maybe it was there and certainly it could be found if you looked for it. But in the summer of 2008 someone gave the parrots permission to talk about Progressivism in positive light.

Now everywhere I go on the internet I read articles and comments that defend and use the word Progressivism instead of the word liberalism.

Progressivism is like Depressions. The people who live through them are very careful with their money and tell their children about what they endured. They avoid debt and, for the most part, so do their children. But the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, lacking a historical sense, forget. So they lay the foundations for the next cycle.

But it’s not the big words that concern me, it’s the open commitment to meddling. The latest is the tax placed on tanning beds. Did you know that you will have to pay a 10% tax to use a tanning bed.

So far, that seems like not a big deal. But what bothers me is the mentality of those who defend it. It seems that the reason this tax is acceptable is because tanning is bad for you. So the government, by slapping a tax on it, might discourage people from engaging in this carcinogenic activity.

It confirms to me that the battle over cigarette smoking was only an early field test in this battle.

What am I failing to understand? Why is it so hard for people to get their heads around the fact that they are giving increasingly unlimited power to a government that, as President Obama repeatedly pointed out in his campaign, isn’t trustworthy – plus it doesn’t like them?

What are we afraid of that is so scary that we run into the wolvish mouth of the state?

It seems to me that the reason lies in the national habit of thinking tokens instead of thoughts. Words and political gestures are symbols. People can’t imagine those symbols coming alive in their own lives, so they just enjoy them. Orwell predicted this.

Today you will be taxed for using a tanning bed. Tomorrow you might still have to pay the “Botax,” but since you have an interest group and lots of money behind your right, the state will have to wait until they can demonize you. You’ll probably make it. You know how to play the game.

The people who are going to carry the burden of this new American mind are those who can’t afford the lawyers.

Did you notice? Everything just became a special interest.

Extremist Nation

President Obama has not demonstrated that he is a despot and I think it is very important to say so.

Yesterday, I was reviewing my son’s logic lesson with him and we got going on the difference between statements that are contrary and those that are contradictory. My father used to tell me all the time that I was being contrary, so this is a particularly meaningful lesson for me. If he was wrong, and I was really being contradictory, I’m going to make sure he finds out!

So I was paying attention while I went over this with my son.

Here’s the difference: If two statements are both universal, they are contrary. In other words, if I say, “Every time you go to the store, you buy a radio,” and then you say, “I never buy a radio when I go to the store,” our statements are contrary.

It is very possible, indeed it is probable, that we are both wrong. Why? Because we are taking such extreme positions. This is the way we fight on a normal day. “You always…” “You never…”

And we talk past each other because of the extreme language we are using. Odds are very high that we are both wrong.

Contradictory statements are different. If I say, “Every time you go to the store, you waste my money,” and you say, “Sometimes when I go to the store, I don’t waste money,” now we have contradicted each other. This time, I have taken the extreme position, but you have taken a more moderate position. I’ve made a universal statement, but you have made what is technically a particular statement.

In this case, one of us must be right and the other must be wrong if we are talking about the same thing.

The media thrive on contraries. They love pushing people into extreme camps. Clever politicians shrewdly move their opponents into contradictory positions. They make the opponent appear extreme, while placing themselves in the ever shifting middle.

The dynamic created by these motives is not pretty. Each party presents the oppponent as an extremist and the media loves it. But now the media have been driven into extremes themselves. Fox news redresses the rather leftist leanings of the so-called mainstream media, but to highlight the differences they continually present extreme cases of any difference they can find. Then they go to extremes themselves.

Meanwhile the old media of the networks, CNN, and the major dailies holds to a basic Progressivism moderated by sales. Conservatives were made gullible to a Rush Limbaugh or a Fox News network by the absence or minimization of people who represented their views in the established media. They’ve always felt a bit hunted because the snear of the established media isn’t well-hidden.

That snear is reciprocated and multiplied by the right-wing media, with the Limbaughs and the Becks and others who abandon the essence of conservatism (reverence) to score points against the “enemy.” And of course, the hunted rednecks who vote for a Sarah Palin and want to shoot people who burn the flag (but don’t) hear the screeds of their own pent up frustration and feel, finally, at last, like they aren’t alone. So they forgive the extremism of their spokespeople (and sometimes adore them excessively – a sin both sides are prone to), and don’t recognize that the soul of their argument has been sucked out of it by the tone of its presentation.

A simple lesson in logic would have helped all of us. So would a lesson in rhetoric. And so would a paragraph in Aristotle.

In logic, we need to learn to stop arguing extremes.

From Aristotle’s politics we need to remember that we know almost nothing with certainty in the political realm. That, in fact, is why I am a conservative of the old school.  Politics is the art of decision making in community. When I make a decision alone I do so based on utter uncertainty about the future. How much more when a city, or a state, or a nation makes decisions.

So I want the upper levels of government to provide a stable structure for the lower, more local levels to make the best decisions they can with the knowledge that the state and federal government won’t arbitrarily alter reality based on who is owed favors.

We need to learn to rest in the reality that politics is difficult, that you survive in a polis, that a polis survives, when its members argue and debate instead of shooting each other, but that those arguments, as heated as they might become, lead to decisions that are never irrevocable.

We need to stop expecting so much from politics. People are always going to die, they are always going to fight, and cheat, and steal, and manipulate. Loving our neighbors can help minimize that within a few square feet of where we live and a just government can help lessen the extent of the fighting and cheating. But the hope for a new world in which people become good and fair because the state regulates them into goodness is a bit mad.

To demand too much justice too fast is to increase the likelihood of tyranny. Until the second coming, we have to do everything in our power to be just and accept that we won’t be repaid in kind.

But with those moderated expectations, we must do everything in our power to be just.

The third lesson is from rhetoric. Classical rhetoric includes a very hand element in a speech called the Division. This is where you identify exactly and precisely what the disagreement is by pushing the agreement as far as possible.

The great concern I have about the debate over “Obamacare” is the increasingly widespread claim that opponents to this law are, almost de facto, racists.

From the evidence I have seen there are some racists among the opponents and even among the tea partiers. But there aren’t as many and it doesn’t seem to me to be as strong as some Progressives want us to believe. For example, I’ve tried to find evidence for the 15 uses of the N-word or of a senator being spit on when they walked up to the capital. So far as I can tell, the second did happen, but not in the sense that we usually think of being spat on. Somebody was yelling at the senator (Lewis?) pretty aggressively and very impolitely, to the extent that he was letting fly with the saliva as people do when they are yelling out of control.

So here’s how that would appear in a “division.”

We agree that somebody in the crowd spat upon Senator Lewis. Some people present this spitting as though somebody consciously and intentionally spat on the senator as an act of contempt. Others argue that the spitting was an effect of his yelling, and not a deliberate and intentional act of spitting.

Or we could say something like ” We all agree that the person who spat on Senator Lewis was wrong to do so. Some people argue that it was wrong because it was an act of racism. Others argue that it was an act of out of control anger.”

By defining the difference more carefully, we aren’t delivered from the discussion, but we are now able to think about it more carefully and with less accusation.

Racism as a concrete reality has done untold damage to our country. Racism turned into an abstract idea probably can’t do as much damage, but it is being used to harm us as a people as well.

So when the tea partiers, for example, are portrayed as necessarily racist, I know that more careful thought needs to be applied.

We all agree that the tea partiers are angry. Some believe that they are angry because President Obama is black. Some argue that they are angry because they feel threatened by his policies.

America is undergoing some significant changes right now. Is it too much to ask that the discussion take place without the self-righteous short cut of jumping straight to the extremes? President Obama is not a despot. And the tea partiers don’t fear him because he is black.

They fear him because he went to Harvard. And as we all know, every problem this country has ever had has come from Harvard.

Freedom, Mandates, and Financial Solvency (with an implied comment on the power of naming)

Rep Paul Ryan wrote a rather tepid response to the health funding and decision making  plan that President Obama passed into law yesterday. It was published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Of all the parties in the discussion, Rep Ryan has presented the most clear alternative, so he’ll be interesting to watch over the next few years. If he has charisma, the Republicans might be wise to lean on him.

However, I was most struck by two comments by readers. I have no idea whether these views are widely held, but you need to look at them closely. At least some people support the new law for the reasons described below.

Way to many procedures being done for no reason. I agree people should be mandated to live a health life style. How many times do you see overweight people with handicap parking and driving those electric shopping carts. Who is giving out these permits, doctors. Instead they should be telling these people to exercise and lose weight and some of there disabilities will actually improve.

comment in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

But costs are not Ryan’s main beef. He is an idealogue. He wants small government, commerce, low taxes and individual freedom, financial solvency be damned.

another comment

Way back when women were not allowed to vote, some of the opposition was the male chauvenistic argument that women love to meddle and that if they are allowed to vote, we will have a state that meddles in all our affairs. I always thought that was pretty funny. It would be so nice to think that one sex has this vice more than the other. Oh well.

Meddling is a sin, but since we don’t have any room for religion in public life it is not worth pointing that out here. More to the point is this simple fact: with a federal health funding and decision making plan in place, there is nothing that people do with their time that does not affect our federal budget. The state now has an interest in absolutely everything you do.

I think it was my brother Nate that made this point about motorcycle helmets. If an insurance company insures a driver of motor cycles, they have, it seems to me, the right to tell them to wear a helmet or at least to charge a lot more in premiums for those who don’t agree to wear the helmet. After all, they will have to pay a lot more money to reconstruct shattered skulls than bruised ones.

Since the motorcycle rider has made a voluntary association with the insurance company in order to defray potential emergency expenses, he can walk away from that arrangement if he disagrees with the terms. Everything is private and voluntary.

Now we bring in the federal government. It carries, or at least will eventually carry, the final burden for every medical expense in this country. For now we can set aside the favors and bribes that will become a routine element of federal health funding and decision making. Let’s just accept the fact that we are all now paying for every stupid thing that anybody ever does.

In a world where symbols dominate the discourse, we have handed the federal government the right to eliminate anything they can persuade the people they should not like. Today it might be motorcycle helmets. Tomorrow it might be babies with missing chromosomes. On Friday it might, through an unimaginable social revolution, be people with STD’s. On Saturday it might be a mental disease.

The lady who wants doctors to be mandated to tell obese patients to lose weight needs to understand that when the power she has voted to Leviathon wants to eliminate some problem she carries, it won’t sit when she tells it to. This is not a Night at the Museum.

That is why I would urge you to reread that second quotation. Do you notice what he thinks of freedom? It is an ideology. Financial solvency is his priority.

Ideologists have a habit of projecting onto their opponents their own vices, in particular, ideology. They also have a tendency to create false dichotomies. The great lesson of history, vis economics, is certainly this: individual freedom has always been the only predictable path to financial solvency.

We are living out the Law of the Catastrophic Continuum. The next steps are not hard to predict, though their timing is. Being frightened infidels, afraid of reality, unwilling to accept the certainty of death and the risks of life, we are building a tower to heaven. It will end in haos and catastrophe, but not until we’ve convinced ourselves we can touch the sky.

But at least we know it won’t end with a flood.

Treating Cancer With Sugar, Or Mortification Without Representation

I have been avoiding commenting too much on the so-called health care plan for two reasons: first, I don’t want this blog to be seen as political, and second, I haven’t felt confident that I know well enough what is involved in the law. Besides, I have no doubt that what follows is a paranoid overreaction.

I was emoldened to write when I read President Obama acknowledging that he doesn’t know what is in it either.

I fear that there can be no good outcome from today’s vote to pass health care. If the health care plan continues and is passed, our nation will be fundamentally altered.

  1. It represents the establishment of federal bureaucracies that will oversee how health insurance is paid for.
  2. It has removed decision making power still further from the people who have the knowledge and the interest to make sound decisions. If you have read any of my political ravings on this blog earlier, you know that this is my bugaboo, my hobby-horse, even my hobgoblin. Our country has utterly and completely lost its way by seeking abstract solutions to concrete, particular, personal problems. Where does this law direct the energy of the decision makers? To whom does it give the power to make decisions? If these questions are not answered soundly, then nearly all of us will suffer because we will find our own energies misdirected and our own decisions made something like anemic and mostly irrelevent.
  3. It puts still more power in the hands of people who have no direct interest in the well-being of the people affected by their decisions.
  4. It compels decision makers to make their decisions on ever increasingly irrelevent information to the specific decision being made. As a result we are entering even further into this dark cave we have been lost in, one in which unelected authorities make executive decisions that affect the well-being of thousands who are not even represented in the decision. Because we elected our congress, we have lost the right to complain about this point. We cannot speak of mortification without representation. And yet, there is no doubt in my mind that our congress has betrayed us into the hands of those before whom we will have no representation. We have freely chosen to become a slave state.
  5. Nobody knows what is in the law. How can we hand something that so fundamentally affects everything we do, from eating, to playing, to reading, to thinking, without demanding to know what is involved? Do congress and the President believe that we owe our government that level of trust? What will the Democrats and democrats do when another party or vision takes authority over this Leviathon and directs it in ways they don’t like? What will any of us do when Leviathon breaks its chains? You cannot give power to a government and take it back again.
  6. This law represents only the planting of a seed. Here is what you will hear over the coming months, especially leading to the elections:
    1. Raving by the Progressives about how disappointing this law was. They will genuinely and sincerely wonder how classical liberals could be so upset by such an anoemic law.
    2. Celebration of the practical benefits to be derived from this law.
    3. Glorification of the “president-who-could,” and because he could, he did.
    4. Extreme disappointment at how little this law does.
  7. And here is what you will see over the next decade:
    1. Removal of the cute little joke called an executive order (as permanent as water on the road) that prevents the plan from paying for abortions
    2. Preceded by clever workarounds and moving money from one part of the budget to another by abortion providers (I’ve often wondered how people can take this sort of thing seriously)
    3. Extreme growth of interest groups pressuring congress and the White House to send benefits from the plan their way.
    4. Gradual establishment of more agencies and regulations, some to prevent the massive abuse the system invites and even begs for, and most as favors and payments. When the Republicans make those payments and curry those favors, they will simply serve as the sort of parasite this dog hosts.
    5. Fantastically subtle and less subtle controls over everything we do, because remember, now the federal government has a formal interest in everything that affects the cost of health care. Can you think of anything that doesn’t?
    6. Loss of moral energy and innovation in the American entrpreneur. Already people who want to build a business are crippled by the regulations. Nobody can see what isn’t there; nobody can measure what doesn’t happen. Therefore, the lethargy and discouragement of American business will never be recognized by the government or the “mainstream media.” But we will all live under its weight.
    7. Unimaginable government corruption, some of which we might even hear about.
    8. Kafkaesque arbitrariness.

It cannot be undone. The Republicans will probably win many seats in the congress this fall, but that won’t matter for three reasons.

  1. The Republicans have proven beyond any doubt that it is for those seats that they pretend to support defined, constitutional government
  2. Once the plan is in place, it will root into too many parts of the national life. Nobody will be able to figure out how to remove it.
  3. It might well lead to riots.

After a century of failed central planning I can hardly believe what we have freely chosen to do as a people. A part of me feels like a great light has gone out in the world.

It hasn’t.

I know that.

Nevertheless, here is the single, decisive, fundamental reality: A seed of death was planted today. No matter how well-intentioned this law, it has put in the hands of unelected, unrepresentative powers, powers that are uninterested in, because unaffected by, the well-being of those who are affected by their decisions, powers that cannot know what is needed in given situations and will make decisions based, at first, on strict economics, and next, on what is best for them, and third, on political favors and debts (which, after all, is what this law is made up of), it has put into the hands of those powers a degree of authority that borders on madness.

This law may well perfectly encapsulate the values and philosophy of the American people. It is practical. It is efficient. It centralizes. It makes some people feel really, really good. It is based on political gamesmanship. It makes us feel secure while taking away our freedoms – in this case, the most fundamental freedoms a human being can have. It is rooted in fear. It is an illusion.

After eight years of the betrayal of all things conservative through George Bush’s novitiate, I conclude that no power exists in the United States of America that is able to restore our freedoms. After all, we elected, freely, our masters.

From Teddy and Woodrow, to FDR, to LBJ, to Bush Major and Lesser, and now to the current congress and President, we have consistently demonstrated that FDR was right: “We have [had] nothing to fear but fear itself,” and it has owned us for over a century.

Freedom frightens us. We seek a paternal state to take care of us. We don’t trust our neighbors. We have not accepted that we are all going to die, and many of us are going to die because of stupid things we or somebody else does. Now we have made sure even more of those stupid things will happen. Only these will take place where we are less likely to see them.

The other day I was helping a young friend work on his senior thesis. His issue is the eternally fundamental question of whether the colonies should have rebelled against Great Britain. He had a fairly reflective position, which was encouraging, but when the discussion of taxation without representation arose, he didn’t seem eager to show it much respect.

After all, the British were taxing us for a war they fought on our behalf, and even more shockingly, they hardly taxed us at all. We are taxed far more than they ever were.

Yes, I explained, but the issue is not taxation. It is taxation without representation. If a government that we never elected determined to tax us would we be willing to pay that tax? Well, based on post World War II actions, the answer is an obvious yes.

When the parliament taxed without giving the colonies a voice in the discussion, they showed that they would tax without listening to the colonists. When they sent troops over and demanded that the colonists quarter them at their own expense, they showed that they regarded their subjects as mere objects – slaves.

The colonists did the most impractical thing imaginable. They said no. And they paid for it with their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Unlike us, however, they had their children in mind. And also unlike us, the freedom of an English citizen was something they were not willing to give up, not even for health care, not even for life itself.

So very many of them died. Over a stamp tax.

No, over self-respect and love for freedom.

The American idea bore the cancer of slavery at its birth. Its attempt at radical surgery helped, but left traces through the whole system. The 20th century revealed a compulsion to ingest everything that spread the disease, usually under the delusions of well-meaning prescriptions. Denying the disease, we redefined the cure into the disease itself. 

The dream simply cannot cure itself of that cancer. It is not dead yet, but I’m not convinced the prognosis has any hope left. You can’t cure cancer with a massive infusion of sugar.

I congratulate you, Ms. Pelosi. You have fulfilled your wish and will be in the history books. Look around: I hope you like the company.