Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Keeping Up

Despite all of the social media sites and the availability of abundant and quick communication outlets, I am finding it challenging to keep up with friends. Emails back and forth languish in that "we have a shared history" area but can't quite make the transition over to "what is going on in your day-to-day" place. It is hard to know what people are interested in knowing about your daily existence. I know for me, my job keeps me busy; and facebook, blogs, and random texts can only go so far in remaining close to the friends I miss most. For now I am fine with our relationships being dependent on social networking sites, e-mails, and texts. But over time, I can't help but imagine it will ensure the decline of some relationships to mere acquaintance status.

However, I definitely think it is worth the effort to keep these relationships going. It will be nice to travel to see some of our friends in different parts of the U.S (and Canada). I hope this post doesn't sound overly negative, it is more of an attempt to put into words what I see going on with myself and other friends in similar situations.

Information Culs-De-Sac

Many news agencies today are known more for their political leanings than their journalistic integrity. Journalism, for many people, has become simply another form of entertainment. This has led to increasingly polarized discussions of key issues, as not even the basic facts of a discussion can be agreed upon. When news outlets only serve to reinforce the biases of their consumers, they are failing in their fundamental duties. I certainly understand the need for specialized sources, and that many are serving a niche audience. However, in an age of intellectual laziness, where many people can't understand the difference between opinion and research, it is hard to justify such low standards are being continued.

However, it is hard to imagine a rapid improvement in the state of the mass media outlets. Particularly when Faux News had its best year ever, in terms of ratings. This is especially disheartening as repeated polls have shown that Fox News viewers are among the most poorly informed. Until these supposed 'news' agencies begin challenging the respective biases of their viewers, it is difficult to imagine coherent debates on important issues.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

UN's International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

A recent article highlights the stunning and tragic statistics on violence against women in the world. It is something that often goes unreported and is unknown. I am continually amazed at how unaware people are regarding these issues.

Issues of violence are often closely linked with issues of power. This is particularly true for violence against women. Women all over the world face systematic discrimination. This is most exemplified in many middle- and low-income countries where women produce between 60 and 80 percent of the food but only own around 1 percent of the land. This huge power differential creates a situation where women are not represented in society. Their marginal position opens them to violence of all types, much of which comes from a woman's family or acquaintances.

I hear solutions such as education pushed as panaceas to this problem. Even in countries with high education there are still fundamental inequities in pay and power which are experienced by women at all levels of society (e.g., pay disparity gaps, likelihood of experiencing poverty and hunger, etc.). Until women have the opportunity for substantive political representation, their situation will not change. Those countries where women have the largest political power (meaningful inclusion in ruling parties, civil society, and bureaucracies) are those with the lowest levels of violence against women. Some will ask what comes first, respect for women or women in positions of political power? I would say that they reinforce and sustain each other, but must be backed by all who would favor a more just world.

People rejoiced the overthrow of the Taliban, believing that the role of women in society would change in a post-Taliban Afghanistan. Many people falsely believe that women are in a substantively better position than they were under the Taliban. A recent article highlights that this has not been the case. Violence against women continues and under the lawlessness created by this war, it is hard to track. Women leaders in Afghanistan face serious risks of violence against them and their families. The central government is powerless to stop it, even within Kabul. And even if it had the power, it is unclear whether it would expend any of its resources to tackle this problem.

The adoption of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1979 was a bold gesture which has not been sufficiently supported. The future is murky on women's rights. While progress has been made in these 30 years, the structures that created such discrimination then have not fundamentally changed. Until we take a serious look at what underlies women's marginalization, we stand to simply repeat the injustices of the past.

Google Waves of Grief

I recently received my invite to Google Wave and am finding it quite interesting. I have always considered myself an early adopter of new technologies and this is quite an interesting one. However, I continue to be troubled by the lengths to which companies such as Google will go to secure market share in China. Their willingness to censor links is deplorable and it is really difficult to understand how they could find such moves ethical.

The possibilities for international collaboration made possible through Google Wave simply highlights how contradictory censoring the internet for Chinese consumption is. What steps has and will Google take to censor users from China using Google Wave? At what point will Google and other companies like it realize that there is no market share worth fundamentally undermining the human rights of others? It is hard to imagine how these decisions were made, or how those who made them can continue to pretend they are doing no harm.

If silence is consent, then censoring under the direction of a totalitarian state is collusion. History never judges such treason lightly.

A Year On

This week marked my one year anniversary of working at GAO. It has gone by very quickly but I really feel like I have come a long ways and also settled in nicely. I was extremely pleased with my one year review and also with the shape of the first report I worked on. It is coming to a close and will likely be published in early 2010.

I definitely feel like I have a more clear perspective on GAO and my role within it. I feel like there are a lot of great opportunities that I will be able to take advantage of while I am there. Having just attended my first meeting with Congressional staff, and seeing how interested they were in our findings, I can definitely understand why many people stay at GAO their whole career. There were recently retirement parties for two people who had both been there around 40 years. At this point in my life, it is hard to imagine going to the same place for a year, let alone half of your life.

I am finding my new project even more engaging than my first one. It is on a topic I have quite a bit of familiarity with and it has some important policy implications depending on what we find. Also, given pending health care reform, our findings could indicate the likely success (or failure) of some of the provisions that are currently included. While the report won't be out before health reform is passed, it will certainly be something that could spur further reforms, particularly when the program we are looking at comes back up for reauthorization in a few years.

Hard to Believe

It is really hard to believe that it is the end of November already. It has been a month of ups and downs, and, for the most part, I am glad it is over. It was sad going to my grandma's funeral, but it was nice to go back to Utah and see so many extend-family members that I hadn't see in a really long time. It was nice to catch up and also meet the newest addition to the family (my cousin's one-year-old daughter).

The service itself was nice. There were times when we all were alternating between crying and laughing. I was sitting right behind my grandpa which made it all the more sad, as he would periodically break down and shudder in his seat. He was really strong through all of it though, even though it is he who feels the grief most acutely.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Funny and Seriously Troubling

I recently came across a website that I am now completely obsessed with. The website is called Ask an Astrobiologist and is a NASA page. At first glance the website doesn't seem like anything unusual until you start clicking through the questions that he receives. As questions are submitted via the internet, the questions are often baffling. The Astrobiologist answering them, David Morrison, does not suffer fools gladly, as the expression goes. He takes a very firm hand with the lunacy that pervades the internet and implores people to develop critical thinking and critical researching skills. With all the disaster movies that have been coming out, or will be coming out, he gets a lot of crazy questions asking if those things are true, or demanding to know why NASA is hiding this stuff from them. There are also heart-breaking questions from people clearly confused by the massive amount of misinformation they find online. I wish more people would speak this clearly with the American people on a whole host of issues. The lack of understanding of many of the questioners points to deeper failures in the education system. Some of my favorite excerpts from the site:

I saw an episode of "The Universe," on the history channel, that showed NASA landing a probe on the asteroid Eris, or Eros. A week later another episode explained that Eris, or Eros, was a dwarf planet in the Kiper Belt. (1) If Eris is a dwarf planet out past Pluto then how could NASA land a probe on it? (2) Is Eris a dwarf planet or an asteroid that NASA put a probe on?

You are confusing Eros (a near Earth asteroid) with Eris (the largest known dwarf planet). Eros and Eris are different just as Washington is not Wilmington, and Paris is not Paros, and in planetary science Titan is not Triton. Different words mean different things. If you do not make this distinction, you will misunderstand many things you read and see on TV. For more information on either Eris or Eros, try Wikipedia.

People are saying that a solar flare is going to hit the Earth in 2012 and "toast" us alive. What is this site all about? I even saw their commercial on tv! I just want to know the truth and be prepare if something is really going to happened. AND I recently saw a commercial on Discovery's History Channel where a lottery entry has begun to "save yourself" from the 2012 doomsday event; however, it was not specified what this event may be or how these winners would be saved. AND I found this website with very believable information. Is it really true ? AND I saw this commercial on tv about the institute for humanity continuity and I am very scared.

About dozen people have written to me this week about ads for the Institute for Human Continuity. This is just part of the publicity for the science fiction film “2012” to be released in November. Let me be clear: (1) Nothing bad is predicted to happen in 2012. The 2012 doomsday is a hoax. (2) There is no Institute for Human Continuity. It is a fake website created to generate interest in the film. (3) Neither the film nor this website are based on science. This is fiction. (4) The creation of a fake website to publicize a film is called “viral marketing” by a analogy with a computer virus (look it up in Wikipedia). (5) It is important to learn to distinguish fiction from fact, and Hollywood film plots from reality. Here is what I wrote in this subject a few months ago in my “Twenty Questions” about 2012: The pseudoscientific claims about Nibiru and a doomsday in 2012, together with distrust of the government, are being amplified by publicity for the new film from Columbia Pictures titled “2012”, to be released in November 2009. The film publicity includes creation of a faux scientific website ( for “The Institute for Human Continuity”, which is entirely fictitious. According to this website, the IHC is dedicated to scientific research and public preparedness. Its mission is the survival of mankind. The website explains that the Institute was founded 1978 by international leaders of government, business, and science. They say that in 2004, IHC scientists confirmed with 94% certainty that the world would be destroyed in 2012. This website encourages people to register for a lottery to select those who will be saved; a colleague submitted the name of her cat, which was accepted. I learned from Wikipedia that creating this sort of fake website is a new advertising technique called “Viral Marketing”, by analogy with computer viruses.

I'm really worried about supernovas and hypernovas. I'm specially worried about stars called Betelgeuse, Eta Carinae, Antares and WR 104, as there is a lot of conroversial information on the internet about these stars. I Know pretty well the situation about WR 104, as you have answered it also, but the rest of the stars i mentioned are still a mystery. This is really worrying me as i can't sleep when I worry about these things (yes I'm a worryer and a bit of a cosmophobic), so it would be very helpful if you could give me the information I need so I could go on with my life.

I can think of no reason why any of the stars you mention should be considered threats. I don’t know what specific information will calm your fears, but these are just ordinary stars going about their business like the other 100 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy...If you are finding many websites that claim controversy about these four stars, my advice is to stop using such misleading sources of information. The Internet is filled with misinformation and disinformation, most of which should simply be ignored. One of the most valuable aspects of Wikipedia is that it is up to date and reflects the knowledge of real scientists. If anyone thinks they are falling for the crazy ideas of cosmophobia or are having trouble sleeping because of fear of astronomy, please check out Wikipedia or other reputable sources (such as Sky & Telescope or Astronomy magazines) and forget the pseudoscience.

Why isn't there more media coverage of the 2012 doomsday? Explain to me what I am seeing in the video for HR 8791. Why did you guys finally decide to coordinate with other countries for the global space station or be in such a rush to find a planet that will support life. The biggest news today is the Health Care Reform but if you look at the words at the bottom on CNN they read that NASA has discovered a planet.

There is not more media coverage of the 2012 doomsday because the media realize it is a hoax. Fortunately most of the media prefer to write about real things, and they understand that 2012 is an Internet and UTube cult phenomenon without the slightest bit of evidence to support it. The only HR 8791 I know of is a Congressional Bill (HR stands for House Resolution) that has been the subject of a spoof by the satirical humor publication Onion. I hope you are not taking this spoof seriously. This sort of humor works only if readers can recognize the spoof...

Usually the astrologers use our planets to explain the present, past and the future life of we humans. Is there really any link between the planet alignment and its movement with the human's life or a person's zodiac sign?

No, there is no link — astrology is not science, or prediction, but an ancient religion that is unrelated to modern science...

There are certain people who believe that global warming may in fact be true, but at our current rate it is too late to do anything about it.... My question to you is, what do you think is the better solution for global warming. Invest billions into trying to find solutions to fix the problem. Or invest the billions of dollars of research into learning to live with global warming?I am surprised that you refer to “people who think global warming may be true”.

Global warming is about as sure as anything in science that deals with a complex system like Earth climate. We know the rapid increase in greenhouse gases is producing a rate of heating that overwhelms any of the much slower “natural” processes that influence global climate...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Taking Action - Getting Started, Getting Informed

Michael Moore's newest release, Capitalism: A Love Story, has stirred a lot of emotion and has been overwhelmingly well-received. The biggest criticism I hear is that he doesn't lay out where to go once you leave the theater. I find this very interesting given that the movie is about raising awareness and highlighting the problems and contradictions in the economic system in the U.S. and to a large extent globally.

The desire to have Moore not only lay out the problem, but also the solution, gets at one of the key reasons that this movie was made. Americans have let themselves be led around for too long, by media, by politicians, by their churches, etc. Only when people take a serious look at their lives and the lives of others will they really be able to say what they actually want. It is critical for Americans, and others, to get a better idea of how the norms of society inform both our individual goals and the appropriate means for attaining those goals.

This creates a situation in which many Americans have a difficult time imagining alternatives to the current system or even realizing the problems inherent within it. In our daily lives, the inadequacies of the current system can seem obtuse and distant. By taking a step back, we can begin to understand that there could be a different way, but this also will require action, not continued resignation. Engaging with history and the current realities in other countries can begin to show that what we take for granted is much more malleable than we realize. Systems change over time, often as the result of events that were seemingly minor at the time.

I am beginning to realize one of the biggest weaknesses of the American education system is teaching the ability to differentiate between good and bad sources of information. While not something that can be taught overnight, the key for me is to verify the expertise of the person or persons presenting the information, and whether their accounts are contextual. By contextual, I am referring to that they aren't simply stating a fact or facts as permanent or infinite. For example, you often hear a current belief expressed as timeless. For example, the idea that the U.S. is and always was a Christian nation. A simple historical review would dispel this notion; however, most people lack the skills to carry out such a review.

In many cases, media outlets underestimate their ability to educate as well as inform. An educated populace is complementary to an informed populace, but they can be very different. I see many people that are clearly informed, in that they are aware of current events, and have taken positions on key issues of the day. But often, these people lack sufficient education, to make their positions coherent. By education, I am not simply referring to schooling. I am also referring to a broader education, which requires engaging with history and taking a broader perspective than is found in most newspapers and textbooks. Similarly, I see many well-educated individuals, who clearly have grappled with difficult issues and are well-read in theory and/or history. However, many of them are unable to take the understanding and apply it in a coherent way to reality. In becoming so obsessed with the details of some historical period, or some theoretical perspective, they lose interest in the complexity of the everyday political and social issues.

I think it is critical for people to think about the deficiencies in their perspectives and try to get a better understanding of why they think what they do. It is important to come to terms with the biases and inadequacies of both our scholarly as well as contextual knowledge. This often requires seeking out new and varied sources, so that we are able to have a more coherent internal narrative. Key to this is identifying that just because you agree with an analysis or the conclusions, doesn't make the analysis accurate or coherent. Similarly, just because you disagree, it doesn't mean that you are missing something. Sometimes alternative perspectives or sources are just inaccurate or incomplete. By engaging with how they came to their conclusions is just as important as what conclusions they came to. Also important is to not fall into the trap that there are two sides to every problem or issue. Problems are much more complex than such a duality would allow. And the solution to any given problem doesn't lie between two expressed extremes. In all likelihood any given solution will favor some and infuriate others. Such are the complexities we face.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fall in DC

The change from summer to Autumn came suddenly this year. The temperature just dropped quickly and it began to feel like Vancouver weather, though without all the drizzle (which surprisingly I miss). The leaves are finally beginning to change color out here, as snow seemed to be falling in many other places. While I always enjoyed snow, I am not minding living in a more moderate climate.

Work continues to go well. I am on a new engagement which I am enjoying. It requires me to follow the health care reforms very closely; which I find very interesting. I continue to be surprised how quickly and also how slowly things can move. Some aspects of the Baucus bill (Senate Finance) that seemed to be set in stone were changed rapidly just days before it was sent back to the Congressional Budget Office for scoring (their system of estimating the costs of a particular bill).

I can honestly say that I have never felt this close to the action politically and I find it very engaging. My current team is looking at ways to create an analysis that will be useful and hopefully affect the creation of public policy as it relates to parent and child coverage. It is interesting to be in a job where our analysis has to be air tight, because in many instances it will be used to create policy. I am certainly seeing a much different approach than is found in academia, where even the most rigorous peer-review standards are more loose and fluid.

Having to tie nearly every word I write (in the reporting phase) to a reliable sources has made me think about even the early phases of my new job in a different way. The deductive writing style and also the intense review process have also changed the way I approach research. I definitely cast my net more broadly now but I am also much more discerning in the actual sources that I use.

As a cerulean Blue Jay lands outside in a tree with fiery leaves, I couldn't feel more at home, more at peace. This was a good move.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Anniversary Post - Part Two

Things began to look up as we got into October. The nibbles became interviews and our level of comfort with the city began to grow. When we originally came out, I figured would we end up in one of the many suburbs I lived most closely to for my internship: Crystal City, Pentagon City, or Alexandria. However, we kept an open-mind and were introduced to Silver Spring by my dad's friend. We came out and went to the downtown. My first impression was that it was just an overly- gentrified suburb like many of the other sleeper-cities that ring D.C. (I would later find out how wrong I was).

Searching for apartments is tedious at best. Having to do a walk through with property managers is like a trip to the dentist. We get it, the place has windows, thanks! As the downturn was just beginning in September, apartment places started giving out better and better deals. It seemed like each new week, apartments would be giving one additional free month of rent. This gave us an opportunity to look at some apartments that were slightly more expensive than we were planning originally. Sadly, these ones ended up being the biggest disappointments and we passed them over.

At around this time I had a couple interviews that went really well. One in particular (at GAO) ended up with me pretty sure I would get the job. However, just to be sure we had something, I took another interview the same week with a job I would have only taken to have a job, despite the good pay. One of the managers babbled on for 20 minutes about how he came up with the name and had been thinking about it since he was 13... The name was so generic I couldn't tell which of the 5 companies that came up when I Googled it was theirs (turns out none of them, they didn't have their site up yet...).

The job offer from GAO came at just the right time and offer of employment in hand, we began the apartment hunt in earnest. In our second trip to Silver Spring we visited a few apartments within walking distance of the metro. One really fit our needs and was throwing in free underground parking. We had found a home. Now we needed a bed.

Little did I know, bed shopping is even more tedious than apartment shopping, especially during a downturn. The desperate looks on the salespeople's faces as we would enter was enough to make you cry. Obviously it had been a rough month, because everywhere we went they were ready to pounce and throw you onto the first queen-size in range. Luckily, we knew what we were looking for and ended up finding a better deal than we were expecting.

Job, check! Apartment, check! Bed, check! We were now ready to have our stuff be delivered from Utah, and to start a real life. Our first year has gone by better than expected in most ways and we now feel fully settled in. I am continually amazed by the amount of great stuff going on in town and how easy most of it is to get to.

Looking back, I still get butterflies when I think about arriving at the hotel that first day. There are some times in your life when you realize things could have taken a completely different turn. That was one of those times. I am glad it has worked out for the best.

The Solution: Educating Yourself on the Basics

Upon seeing how many Americans and Britons don't understand evolution and even reject its existence, Richard Dawkins took it upon himself to write a book that would bring the discussion back to its foundation. In The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, Dawkins strips the discussion to the basics and then shows what sorts of evidence would have to be present to show that evolution has taken place. From there he builds the indisputable case that evolution is a fact and that to deny otherwise requires a level of cognitive dissonance, not skepticism.

Dawkins would know about skepticism when it comes to evolution. He has been one of the central authors in changing the way the mechanisms of evolution have been understood. He, like many, identify that Darwin had a good start, but that Origin of Species is far from a complete accounting of the complexity that is evolution (nor was that Darwin's goals). At Utah State University, they offered a course in which you read Origin of Species and identified what things Darwin got right and other areas where he was off the mark.

Until people take the same intellectually curious approach that great scientists take to big issues, we will continue to have moral politics and biblical debates where policy discussions and mutual respect should be.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Anniversary Post - Part One

It is hard to believe we have now been in Washington D.C. for a year. After we finished our M.A.s, we spent a month with friends and family in Utah and California. We arrived in Washington D.C. with a six week window in which to find jobs, an apartment, and a bed. My dad, in town for work, invited Heather and I to come and stay with him while he was there. Because my mom can't resist a party, she came along as well. We wanted to have at least one of our cars out here, so we drove out from Utah to Fargo, to pick up my Mom, and then from Fargo to D.C.; driving about 16 hours a day. You would be surprised how quickly you can get three-fourths of the way across the U.S.

Once we arrived at the extended stay hotel, familiar feelings of "What the hell were we thinking?" began to arise. Was this crazy idea going to work out? Could we really find something this quickly? Being an extended stay hotel, there was a fridge, stove, and microwave in the room. I will never forget the culinary ingenuity that having only two burners and a handful of utensils will give you. We cooked some surprisingly excellent meals and huddled around the tiny table in the room.

Most days would begin with Heather and I hunting for jobs for the first part of the day, at which point my mom would become totally sick of being in the hotel and we would head out to find something to do. Little did we know, Greenbelt (where we were staying) was about the most boring place in the area. Luckily, during my past stay in D.C. (for my internship), I had accumulated a list of fun places, all easily accessible by metro.

However, we never felt free of stress as the impending deadline of my parents leaving was hanging over our heads. A couple weeks, after having applied to an uncountable number of jobs, we began to get nibbles, most of which were below what we were looking for. We were holding out for careers positions that we would actually want to do for a while that paid well. There were lots of great and funny things between the searching out the best restaurants in Greenbelt (not a task I would wish to repeat...) and all of us being within about 10 feet of each other 90% of the time.

The Problem: Debating an Issue You Don't Understand

Kirk Cameron, the actor turned wacky evangelical, is back peddling his overstated and horribly confused wares. A recent video release by himself and Ray Comfort, author of one of the most poorly written books I have ever read, have teamed up again to take their version of evangelism to a whole new level of absurdity. The video itself is hilarious. Kirk sitting backwards in a chair (what is this a 90s PSA?) making absurd statements about how evolution is the antithesis of Christianity and that Darwin's ideas played a key role in Nazi crimes against humanity. Now I can fathom how evolution makes people who believe the earth is 6,000-10,000 years old uncomfortable, but to make such blatantly untrue and egregious statements is just irresponsible.

Their awesome plan is to take Darwin's original treatise on evolution (which is now part of public domain) and put in a 50 page "special introduction." It appears to be special in the same way people call their dog that can't stop running into walls, "special." They will then hand these out at campuses across the U.S. in an attempt to debunk the "myth of evolution." Now handing out a free copy of Origin of Species is all well and good, but to put in 50 pages of conservative evangelical babble serves no one. People that would even CONSIDER reading the 50 page special introduction would NEVER read Origin of Species, and vice-versa. Cameron's and Comfort's narrow, ignorant, and inaccurate understanding of reality indicates clearly that neither have read the original text that they will be giving away, nor have they read any modern works on evolution. Anyone looking at the evidence, religious or non-religious, with an appreciation of rules of evidence and the scientific method cannot but identify the facts of evolution and how it has given rise to our current biodiversity. To claim otherwise is to simply ignore the vast historical literature and on-going scientific work in any field related to biology.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

For Teddy

I have been writing a lot of poetry lately, mostly political. I don't yet feel completely comfortable sharing my poetry, but one of the reasons I enjoy writing is that it allows others to experience something they would not be able to otherwise. Here are a couple poems I wrote yesterday at Ted Kennedy's funeral procession and Senate tribute.

August 29, 2009

Lost amongst the crowd
Stretching to see the passage of history
As one era ends
A new one seems only too distant
We pay our respects
We give our thanks
A cool breeze gives the mob some relief
Our hands on our hearts
To keep them from falling
and shattering

A Rainbow of Grief

The Senate seems a little less grand
As if the marble itself were sagging
Even the sky looks ready to cry
A staff clad in black
A mob peppered with colors
The cicadas would deafen us
Were we not already deaf with sorrow
The buildings lean in to hear the prayer
Unable to escape their foundations
As we all contemplate our measure

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Filibuster: Moderating Force or Minority Tyranny?

I recently ready an interesting article that argued that the Senate filibuster should be abolished. While not necessarily the most important issue on its own, the author linked it to wider issues of fairness and democracy (and to the current health care reform). While he didn't touch on numbers, it re-energized my concerns about about the massive power rural states have in the Senate. To me, reforming the filibuster would be one possible small step toward making the Senate more democratic. These rurual states would be amongst the first to fight such a measure.

In my undergrad, I grappled with the issue of the Senate being undemocratic in the sense that its votes are not proportional to state population (as the House is, though not completely). The filibuster increases this undemocratic leaning by allow 41 senators, which could represent a small minority of Americans, to block a vote on nearly any issue. In a country of 304,059,724 (estimated as of July 2008), Senators representing the twenty states with the lowest population plus one senator from the 21st lowest population state could conceivably hold nearly any bill from ever receiving a vote. Seven of these states have less than a million residents, eight have between one and two million residents, and the final five each have less than three million residents. The 21st state, Iowa, has just over three million residents. Combined, the population of these twenty states, plus half of Iowa, adds up to 32,637,771 or just over ten percent of the U.S. population. The fact that nearly 90 percent of the population can be outvoted by this small minority clearly indicates that at the very least dissolution of the filibuster is something to consider, if not wider reform of the system for electing Senators.

Luckily, getting rid of the filibuster simply requires a majority vote, while any larger Senate reform would likely require amending the U.S. Constitution. Some will argue that the filibuster has been used in the past to moderate debate and force compromise. They will say that despite its undemocratic nature, it provides some protection from majority tyranny. While I accept that protection of the rights of the minority are fundamental under any legitimate democracy, requiring super-majorities to even be able to vote on a bill often hampers the policy-making process through allowing powerful lobbyists to influence the votes of a few against the will of the many.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The End of an Era

A hero has passed. And the world is a darker place for it...

"For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on. The cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die." - Ted Kennedy.

You will be greatly missed.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Summer Heat

Ok, so I am a wimp. I never claimed that I would be able handle the heat and humidity of a Washington D.C. summer. Every time someone tells me this is a "mild" summer, I just want to curl up and die. Growing up in Montana we had about 9 months were it could conceivably snow. When it was hot (it could get up into the 100s) it was a dry heat that only required a spot of shade to find comfort. There are lakes in Montana that never completely unthaw and mountains which have snow year-round.

Moving to Northern Utah near the end of high school meant longer and generally hotter summers than I experienced in Bozeman, but once again it was a dry heat, easily conquered through shade or light clothing.

Then I made that move that broke my weather tolerance. A beautiful, temperate rainforest in Vancouver, BC. The weather usually hung between 50 and 70 year-round. It never felt muggy, despite the higher humidity. Our apartment had only a measly heater and no air-conditioning. However, neither were ever needed as you could regulate your temperature year round simply by opening the window. Sure there was a hot day here or there, or a chilly evening when it snowed, but I have never been more pleased with weather than I was living in BC. Some would dislike how often it rains. But I personally enjoy the rain and grey skies. Often when we would walk around campus there would be a mist in the air unlike anything I had ever seen or felt.

While I love Washington D.C., I can now certainly understand why people take a long vacation in August...

Social Determinants of Ignorance

In a very disconcerting sign of the times, a recent poll found that nearly half of Americans were accepting the fear mongering and fallacious charges against health care reform. One of the most concerning findings was that forty-five percent of respondents thought that the current health care reform proposal would likely "allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly." While I am aware that this charge is out there, I assumed (wrongly, as usual) that any responsible person would try to verify this extreme and dangerous claim.

This got me thinking more broadly about how easily the public is misled and where this comes from. I have heard many people blame the individuals themselves for their ignorance on these issues; and I will admit I do have some sympathy for that view. However, taking a more sociological view, I am forced to look beyond the individual and examine the social nature of these misunderstandings. This brought me to some recent findings on beliefs about evolution.

The Pew Research Center recently released a study that contained some pretty depressing findings regarding the public's knowledge (or beliefs) regarding science. They found that eighty-seven percent of scientists agree with the statement that "Humans and other livinging things have evolved over time due to natural processes." For the general public this number dropped to a dismal thirty-two percent. In the study they also break down the findings demographically which provides some interesting insights and show clear social patterning across age, eductation, and religious beliefs or lack thereof. The social patterning and the clear lack of widespread scientific thinking amongst the majority of society speaks to something more structural than individual.

Part of the problem certainly lies within the education system, but clearly, many people who end up being scientists began in the same schools as those that will go on to believe Obama wants to kill your grandmother. Thus, improved education alone would likely only serve to close the gap somewhat. It would seem a more lasting solution would have to involve making scholarly and academic findings more approachable. Allowing people to be involved in education throughout their lives. Until Americans can tell the difference between a legitimate reliable source and the ramblings of conspiracy theorists, or fear mongers, we will continue facing these one-sided debates. Debates where the facts are on one side and anger, fear, and ignorance are on the other. I don't mean to belittle anyone's opposition to health care reform, as I have written previously about its inadequacies. However, a real, informed debate about health care simply isn't possible in the U.S. because the knowledge gap is so big. Providing people the tools to close that gap and setting up structures to do so would reap benefits far beyond the political sphere.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Health Care Reform Blues

With reform unlikely to happen before the August recess, the likelihood of reform becomes less clear. After swings in momentum both for and against reform over the past few months, it has been interesting to see how quickly some ideas have fallen away under pressure, and how others continue to be recycled and brought back to the fore. It seems likely that we will have some sort of "reform" at this point, in that a bill will likely be passed by both the House and the Senate and signed by Obama. The question is will there be any actual valuable reform to a problematic and burdensome system or will it merely push off necessary reforms for another decade or so.

I think one of the most interesting developments has been that the Republicans in both the House and the Senate have decided to drop developing their own bill, after promising to do so since the beginning of the reform effort. While I can understand the desire to focus all of their attention on the current resolution being discussed, it seems that they are only falling into the trap of being the "party of 'no'" label which has been wielded against them expertly during the current Congress.

I also think it is dangerous for the Republicans to place so much hope on the Blue Dog Democrats. While allies on some issues, they are, at the end of the day, still Democrats. They know they can only push so far before they overstep their power and incur undesirable repercussions (such as the bill being moved to the floor without a committee vote). The Blue Dogs may claim that they are the beacon of fiscal conservatives and small business, but there are many ways to allay their fears and still have a bill that will be faced with obstructionism by Republicans.

I am often surprised that the current bill, even in its most liberal versions, is itself a comprise; not necessarily a good one. Many Americans, rightly in my view, favor an even more robust public system than is currently written into any of the House or Senate versions of the bill being floated around. The high costs of care (as I have discussed in previous posts) are not simply due to the high-cost treatments or expenditure disparities. They are in large part due to the cost of "doing business" under a for-profit system of health care. One of the key advantages of a single-payer system is the sense of solidarity that it brings amongst those involved. When people are all paying into the same system, there is an acknowledgement that while some are paying more, it is often for the greater good.

One final point about perceptions of U.S. health care. It is often stated, without any support, that America has the best health care in the world and that people from other countries flock here due to long wait times elsewhere. However, both these characterizations are false; but more importantly, they indicate that the debate is simply focused on the wrong sets of issues. Even if the U.S. had the best health care in the world and people did come for care unavailable in their homelands, simply stated, the U.S. health care system is unsustainable. Right now our costs continue to rise much faster than either the economy or costs of living. As health care continues to eat up revenue, we will be forced to cut other programs to pay for the bloated and overpriced care we provide, while still having worse health outcomes (and worse quality of care, in many cases) than countries with cheaper, more sustainable systems. To pretend that the problem is only quality and access fails to address that it is the costs that will become increasingly prohibitive and untenable.

New Beginnings

I am coming near the end of my first project at work. I have really enjoyed this project and look forward to seeing what my next project will be. I should hear sometime late this week. I was pleased at the options and would honestly be happy with any of them. My top three all deal with public health, access to care, and issues of poverty. From my experience with my current project, the topic is less important than the team you are working with. And luckily, I have had a great team. I can only hope my next team gets along as well and is able to have a fun working environment. My current project showed me that while having subject matter expertise is helpful, the type of work we do is different enough that we have the opportunity to come up to speed on an unfamiliar topic under the guidance of more senior analysts.

I have really enjoyed the opportunity to work on a topic I had no familiarity with. I have been amazed at how much I have learned and how far the team has come in understanding the ins-and-outs of a complex project. It will be nice to bring the project to a close and release the report publicly. It is nice that each project ends in something high-quality and tangible that indicates the amount of hard work that goes into each engagement.

We are currently at the part of the project where we are identifying what we will say in the actual report and trying to figure out the best and most clear way of laying out that information. Some people can get bogged down in the editing process but I find it interesting and enjoy that a variety of stakeholders have a chance to weigh in and improve the product. It is interesting to see how different readers see something different and having to figure out ways to make it more clear to people with no familiarity with the topic.

Suffice to say, I am still really enjoying my new career and can imagine being in it for a while. I only hope that my next engagement can be half as fun as my current and that things will continue to be great.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Political Poetry

I have been becoming more interested in political poetry as of late. I never had much interest in poetry but had come across a few poems in my undergrad that I had really enjoyed but never really followed up on. Some of my favorite authors have poetry but I never really dug into it. Lately, I have found that poetry can tell of human suffering and crushing inequalities in a way regular writing just cannot. Here are some highlights.

The Nobodies by Eduardo Galeano

Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream
of escaping poverty: that one magical day good luck will
suddenly rain down on them- will rain down in buckets. But
good luck doesn't even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter
how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is
tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, or
start the new year with a change of brooms.
The nobodies: nobody's children, owners of nothing. The
nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits,
dying through life, screwed every which way.
Who don't speak languages, but dialects.
Who don't have religions, but superstitions.
Who don't create art, but handicrafts.
Who don't have culture, but folklore.
Who are not human beings, but human resources.
Who do not have names, but numbers.
Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the
police blotter of the local paper.
The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them

Let American Be America Again by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed-
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek-
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean-
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today-O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home-
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay-
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again-
The land that never has been yet-
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME-
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose-
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain-
All, all the stretch of these great green states-
And make America again!

United Fruit Co. by Pablo Neruda

When the trumpet blared everything

on earth was prepared
and Jehovah distributed the world
to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors, and other entities:
United Fruit Inc.
reserved for itself the juiciest,
the central seaboard of my land,
America's sweet waist.
It rebaptized its lands
the "Banana Republics,"
and upon the slumbering corpses,
upon the restless heroes
who conquered renown,
freedom, and flags,
it established the comic opera:
it alienated self-destiny,
regaled Caesar's crowns,
unsheathed envy, drew
the dictatorship of flies:
Trujillo flies, Tacho flies,
Carías flies, Martínez flies,
Ubico flies, flies soaked
in humble blood and jam,
drunk flies that drone
over the common graves,
circus flies, clever flies
versed in tyranny.

Among the bloodthirsty flies
the Fruit Co. disembarks,
ravaging coffee and fruits
for its ships that spirit away
our submerged lands' treasures
like serving trays.

Meanwhile, in the seaports'
sugary abysses,
Indians collapsed, buried
in the morning mist:
a body rolls down, a nameless
thing, a fallen number,
a bunch of lifeless fruit
dumped into the rubbish heap.

(Translation by Jack Schmitt)

Militant by Langston Hughes

Let all who will
Eat quietly the bread of shame.
I cannot,
Without complaining loud and long.
Tasting its bitterness in my throat,
And feeling to my very soul
It's wrong.
For honest work
You proffer me poor pay,
for honest dreams
Your spit is in my face,
And so my fist is clenched
To strike your face.


We have been back from Utah for a week. The whole trip went quite well. We were able to see our loved ones and also eat at nearly all of the restaurants we wanted to. Having not been back to Utah in nearly a year, it was nice to see everyone and have a relaxing vacation. I was surprised that Logan had not changed more in the year since I last visited. It felt much the same, but it was nice to be there with a certainty about where we were going. Last time we were there Heather and I had no idea if D.C. would work out, or if we would end up going someplace completely different to find careers.

We ended up going to Bear Lake as well, which was really fun. Whenever I think of swimming in Bear Lake I instantly feel like I am freezing to death. However, on this trip the water was surprisingly warm. Well, not warm, but not as cold as usual; where simply going in waste deep is an exercise in masochism.

Matt's (Heather's brother) wedding went really well and was a fun time. Heather played the piano which was really nice and the ceremony was well done. It was also nice to me Dai Li (Matt's fiancee) and get to know her more. Heather and the rest of the family had met her before, but this was my first time.

And the food. I still can't believe Logan and Salt Lake City have as many great restaurants as they do. Mazza was top notch with the freshest potatoes harra I have had in years. At Trio the asparagus and mushroom cannelloni with champagne cream sauce almost made me consider moving back to SLC. El Toro and Callaway's both lived up to their usual excellence. Tandoori Oven had been renovated and looked amazing. The food was spectacular as always, and because we went at the lunch buffet we all nearly burst as we walked out. It was also nice because the owners were so excited to see us. Logan Burgers and Sandwiches was also excellent. Finally, and certainly not least, the only place we hit up twice was Cafe Rio; which was as amazing as always and filled our hearts with remorse that it is so far away...

While the food was great it was also especially nice to spend time with family and friends. We had a great time with Heather's siblings and developed many new extremely inappropriate inside jokes. It was nice to discuss world affairs and weighty subject matters as well. We also got great book recommendations and had a good time hanging out and drinking strawberry daiquiris. Overall, it was a very nice trip and I look forward to going back there again. While there isn't always a ton to do in Logan, it is the people and memories that keep us coming back.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Heading to Utah

This Friday Heather and I head to Utah for Heather's brother's wedding. It will be my first big break from work (and my first time using a whole chunk of my annual leave). I am really looking forward to it. Heather has been able to go out and visit Utah a couple times since we have been out here, but this will be my first time since last August when we stayed there for almost a month after grad school. It will be really nice to see family and friends and to eat at our favorite restaurants. It will be nice to meet Matt's fiance, Dai Li, as she sounds really nice. It will also be nice to go drinkin with Davis, as he always holds a special place (for alcohol) in my heart. It will be fun to see Holly and Davis's apartment, near where I used to live in Logan. It will be nice to talk politics with Kayla, and conspiracy theories and politics with Denise. Another thing I look forward to, surprisingly, is running into some of the Logan locals we always happen to bump into while we are out there. It will be nice to go up to USU and drop in on some of our favorite professors while we are there. Though we will be out there a little more than a week, I know it will go by in a flash.

I thought by this point in the job I would feel like I needed a break. I really haven't gotten that feeling yet; looking forward, I think that means that I am in a good spot. I still really enjoy my first career position and can imagine myself working at GAO for awhile.

Back to Utah, if only to clear my head and have a reference of the places we need to go:
Crumb Brothers (mmmmmmmmmmmmmm cinnamon pull-a-parts....)
El Toro Viejo (some of the best Mexican food ever and ludicrously strong margaritas)
Callaway's (I have been going to this place since it was a one room restaurant with a handful of tables and like 3 staff members)
Cafe Rio (One of the best fast-fresh restaurants in the country... If only they would open one in my bedroom)
Firehouse (Amazing foccacia and where the ranch flows down like water)
Mazza (SO EXCITED, this place has been a staple of our SLC trips since I was a sophomore in high school and Mazza was serving on Styrofoam plates)
Cafe Trio (amazing New American/Italian fusion food, with desserts that bring tears to my eyes)
Taco Time (I know, not that crazy, but the one in Logan makes a mean bean chimichanga. And there aren't any Taco Times out here)
Logan Burgers and Sandwiches (Great family run joint with probably the most expansive vegetarian menu in Logan)
Indian Oven and Tandoori Oven (Amazing Indian food at both, though our loyalties lie with Tandoori oven. However, we may end up going to both)
Casper's (Amazing shake and ice cream place - one of Kayla's many attempts to give Heather and I diabetes)

That list makes our plate look pretty full (both literally and figuratively) but we also hope to squeeze in time with family and friends and pets.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Must Read For Everyone

I just finished Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone by Eduardo Galeano. I am amazed at how much I learned from the book and how lyrical and engaging the entries were. Galeano takes on all of human history, and even a little pre-history, through short entries that engage with anything and everything: major events in human history, famous (and infamous) historical figures, great people whose names are now lost to history, etc. His populist approach and keen sense of history create a rich and engaging view of how things have changed over time but how discrimination, hate, and violence have always marred our actions. Heather and I were lucky enough to attend his reading the week the book came out a month or so ago. I have never seen the bookstore, Politics and Prose, so packed full of people (and they bring in some huge names for readings). Some excerpts from the book:

Brief History of Civilization

And we tired of wandering through the forest and along the banks of rivers.
And we began settling. We invented villages and community life, turned bone into needle and thorn into spike. Tools elongated our hands, and the hand multiplied the strength of the ax, the hoe, and the knife.
We grew rice, barley, wheat, and corn, we put sheep and goats into corrals, we learned to store grain to keep from starving in bad times.
And in the fields of our labor we worshipped goddesses of fertility, women of fast hips and generous breasts. But with the passage of time they were displaced by the harsh gods of war. And we sang hymns of praise to the glory of kings, warrior chiefs, and high priests.
We discovered the words "yours" and "mine," land became owned, and women became property of men and fathers the owners of children.
Left far behind were the times when we drifted without home or destination.
The results of civilization were suprising: our lives became more secure but less free, and we worked a lot harder.


Two thousand six hundred years ago in the city of Miletus, an absentminded genius named Thales liked to go for a stroll at night to gaze at the stars, and as a result he frequently fell into the ditch.
Perhaps by asking the stars, Thales discovered that death is not an end but a transformation, and that water is the origin and meaning of all life. Not gods, water. Earthquakes happen because the sea moves and disturbs the land, not becasue of Poseidon's tantrums. The eye sees not by divine grace, but by reflecting reality the way the river reflects the bushes on its banks. And eclipses occur, not because the sun hides from the wrath of Olympus, but because the moon covers the sun.
Thales, who had learned to think in Egypt, accurately predicted eclipses, measured with precision the distance of approaching ships on the high seas, and calculated the exact height of the Keops Pyramid by the shadow that it cast. One of the most famous theorems is attributed to him, as well as four more, and it is even said that he discovered electricity.
But perhaps his greatest feat was of a different kind: to live godless, naked of any religious comfort, never giving an inch.

The Loser

He preached in the desert and died alone.
Simón Rodríguez, who had been Bolívar's teacher, spent half a century roving Latin America on the back of a mule, founding schools, and saying what no one wanted to hear.
A fire took nearly all his papers. Here are a few of the words that survived.
  • On independence:
We are independent but not free. Something must be done for these poor people, who have become less free than before. Before, they had a shepherd king who did not eat them until they were dead. Now the first to show up eats them alive.
  • On colonialism of the mind:
Europe's know-how and the prosperity of the United States are for our America two enemies of freedom of thought. The new republics are unwilling to adopt anything that does not have their stamp of approval... If you are going to imitate everything, imitate orgininality!
  • On colonialist trade:
Some think prosperity is seeing their ports filled with ships - foreign ships and their homes turned into storerooms for goods - foreign goods. Every day brings another load of manufactured clothes, down to the caps the Indians wear. Soon we shall see little golden packages bearing the royal coat of arms containing 'newly processed' clay for children accustomed to eating dirt.
  • On popular education:
To make students recite by rote what they do not understand is like training parrots. Teach children to be curious so they learn to obey their own minds rather than obeying authorities the way the narrow-minded do, or obeying custom the way the stupid do. He who knows nothing, anyone can fool. He who has nothing, anyone can buy.


Every year, chemical pesticides kill no fewer than three million farmers.
Every day, workplace accidents kill no fewer than ten thousand workers.
Every minute, poverty kills no fewer than ten children.
These crimes do not show up on the news. They are, like wars, normal acts of cannibalism.
The criminals are on the loose. No prisons are built for those who rip the guts out of thousands. Prisons are built as public housing for the poor.
More than two centuries ago, Thomas Paine wondered:
"Why is it that scarcely any are executed but the poor?"
Texas, twenty-first century: the last supper sheds light on the cellblock's clientele. Nobody chooses lobster or filet mignon, even though those dishes figure on the farewell menu. The condemned men prefer to say goodbye to the world with the usual: burgers and fries.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Something to Consider

I came across this quote from I.F. Stone in The Nation a couple weeks ago:
"If you're going to be a newspaperman, you are either going to be honest or consistent. If you are really doing your job as an observer... it's more important to say what you see than to worry about inconsistency. If you are worried about that, then you stop looking. And if you stop looking, you are not a real reporter anymore. I have no inhibitions about changing my mind."
While I think the quote should be read daily by anyone in charge of informing the public (or hourly at Faux News), I think it can also be applied more widely. I am sure by now most people are aware of the psychological term 'cognitive dissonance', where people filter the information they receive to make it fit their current worldview, instead of letting their perspective evolve in light of new information.

It is a grave error to believe that anyone ever has all the facts or a monopoly on the ability to analyze information. I find that the most uninteresting people to talk with are the ones that have lost all curiosity and stick to ossified opinions that are out of touch with reality. I understand that we all have different backgrounds and are exposed to vastly different sources of information, both in terms of quantity and quality. This gives rise to the diversity of perspectives and opinions, many of which I cannot fathom. While I don't think we have to give credence to all opinions and perspectives, we must be aware that at some level a given person has built a world view that is at least somewhat internally reinforcing. Expecting people to change their mind over a core belief or an opinion that is central to that belief takes time and cognitive effort.

And, as one of my favorite professors said, "Everyone has the right to be a hypocrite."

Health Care is a Human Right

With all the discussion of health and health reform, some key facts have been overlooked and, for the most part, insufficiently examined in the debates. While there has been some acknowledgement of the high cost of treating chronic diseases, rarely is it raised that treatment of these diseases accounts for 75 cents of every dollar spent on health care in the U.S. This fact helps us understand that while coverage for everyone is a crucial and fundamental right, the goal of keeping down costs requires more acute awareness of where the money is actually spent.

Another key fact that is discussed infrequently is the high concentration of health care expenditures in a small population. A recent study found that five percent of Americans are responsible for nearly HALF of all health spending in a given year. An earlier study found that it was over half. Also, almost half of the U.S. incurs little to no health care costs and thus the other 50 percent make up about 95% plus of the health care spending. This concentration is interesting at other levels as well. The top 30 percent of spenders make up 90% of health spending; while the top 10 percent make up nearly 70%.

These statistics speak the need for a more holistic view of reform. Increasing quality, decreasing costs, and expanding coverage all are worthy goals but they cannot be goals divorced from the social reality of health care needs. Both studies find that the elderly are more likely to bear the burden of high expenditures. Also, they found that people with chronic conditions had much higher out-of-pocket expenses than average. Better, more cost-effective treatment is needed for these folks. Often their situation is compounded by the fact that they may reach their lifetime spending cap and lose coverage. In turn, due to pre-existing conditions clauses, they may have an extremely difficult time getting other coverage, and if they do it will be exhorbitantly expensive until they are so drained of money they can qualify for Medicaid.

All these factors indicate the importance of having a coherent, nationally focused health care reform. The reform must be tailored to meet the needs of different populations and levels of care. However, everyone should have to have insurance; at the very least, catastrophic coverage. It is in the best interest of the long term health of the American people and in the best interest of our financial well-being, both individually and as a society. People without insurance coverage that require medical treatment incur higher costs and are much more likely to face bankruptcy as a result. Of course, there must be subsidies to help those who would not be able to afford coverage themselves.

During the current health care reform I have continually been dismayed by the process and how easily many of those involved lose sight of the overall goals and the purpose reform serves. We don't need reform for the sake of reform. Sure the system is broken, but a patchwork solution will only push the need for a more significant reform off the radar for another decade or two. We have hard decisions to make. Until we face those decisions with a sense of history and an eye to the future, we will continue to create policy that only serves to line the pockets of those who are currently abusing the system.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Simply Unconscionable

As many have probably heard by now, Dr. George Tiller has been murdered in his own church today, most likely by a right-wing extremist. Dr. Tiller happened to perform abortions, including some of the extremely rare late-term abortions in the U.S. Though abortion is legal, there are clearly many in America that would rather scare women and their doctors back into the dark ages in terms of reproductive care. Gruesome images of aborted fetuses, 24-hour surveillance of clinics, and websites dedicated to outing anyone who visit those clinics are only some of the scare tactics these nouveau-fascists use to intimidate and harass. Their callous disregard for human life around the world and laser-focus on abortion smacks of hypocrisy at best and mindless, savage hatred at worst. Their "pro-life" stance extends only to abortion, not to real issues that would save lives around the world or improve the lives of people suffering here in the U.S. 

Anti-choice activists lack of nuance and understanding is most clearly shown in their disdain for sex education and attempts to block any sort of abortion rights or access. There will always be the need for abortions. While the number will fluctuate over time, it has overall decreased significantly since the 1980s even as the U.S. population has increased rapidly. With better sex education and improved birth control methods, that curve is likely to keep declining. Women would much rather be able to use the variety of birth control methods to keep from getting pregnant rather than have to resort to abortion. Abortion is often the last resort of people who simple had no other option. Those with any empathy at all can imagine an infinite number of situations where a woman would not be able to access or utilize birth control. Lack of affordable birth control is one of the major reasons that the vast majority of abortions are received by poor and low-income women. Other countries handle this better by providing free access to birth control and training on how to use out. However, even the most effective birth control isn't fool-proof and accidents will happen. Women and their doctors should have all the tools available to make the right decision for them. This is not simply a matter of morality and common sense, this is a matter of women's basic human rights. 

Goodbye Ambush

I got the news yesterday that the last of my childhood family pets was going to be put to sleep.  This was something my parents saw coming and they weren't sure he would make it through the summer. He still had a good quality of life up until the last few days, and for a cat that it is 17 years old that is pretty remarkable. I thought I would just jot done some of my many favorite memories about Bush (pronounced Boosch). Bush was the first and only pet that was actually my own. Even though he gave his affection to anyone and everyone, I always felt that he and I had a special connection. The world is a little less bright today knowing he is gone. 

When we first went to pick up he and Stormy, it was a bright summer day and we were excited to get them. The woman giving away the cats had about 5-6 kittens and so my mom let Aramie and I pick. All of the kittens, but one, were in the house and Aramie picked the cutest female gray tabby. The woman said that Radio (as they called him, due to the pointy bits of hair sticking out of the end of his ears) was out back up in a tree. While I knew the name would have to change, I also knew that sounded like my kind of cat.  I quickly went outside and climbed up the tree to where he was. Bush looked a bit stuck and was just at the edge my reach. I was able to coax him in a little and then snatch him and hand him down to the lady whose house it was. I was so excited and couldn't wait to get him home. 

From then on, Bush and Stormy were inseperable and were both extremely loving cats. Stormy was always gentle and would just come lay with you and never asked for more than she was given. Bush was the best combination of sweetness and stupidity. Very often you would hear a crash somewhere in the house and then have him run by you, either completely soaked or covered in a fine layer of dust or food. You would then find the source of the mess as some upended plant or some knocked over school project. 

Bush also took great joy in lying on your reading material. My dad would often sit on the floor and read the newspaper. We have a particularly great photo of him reading the paper one day with both cats lying contently on his back. Bush just wanted to be wherever his people were and wanted to let them know he was around.  Sometimes he would lie down on the newspaper (or on puzzles) because he loved the way it felt on his belly. 

He was always gentle and always loving. One of his favorite ways to show affection was to bump heads with you as you lie in your bed. And he had a hard head. Of all his behaviors, this is the one I will remember the longest and most fondly. It was just so cute and he always looked so happy after butting heads. He also had effective ways to wake you up if he wanted to. He would drive his nose between your neck and the pillow and lift, instantly waking you and then he would give a big smile and start purring like "Oh, you're up! What a coincidence, I am ready for attention!" He would also do this funny thing where he would open his mouth just a tiny bit and then push it against the back of your head. This also would wake you up with a start. 

He always decided to lay in strange places that didn't seem terribly comfortable. One of the strangest and cutest was on the back of my computer chair...when I was in it. It meant that he was actually lying across my shoulders but just happened to have the back of the chair there so he wouldn't fall. I would be working on papers, playing video games, or searching the internet; he would come and find me and take a nap. One thing about Bush lying on you is that he generated an ungodly amount of heat. He was like a walking heating pad. After lying on you for 10 minutes or so you had to make him change positions because he would get so hot. Also, as he got chubbier he got a lot heavier. When he would jump on the bed and start walking up, yowling the whole way, as soon as he stepped on you, you knew it. He had broad paws, but they still couldn't spread out the weight enough not to hurt. There were many times I thought he ruptured my spleen or broke a testicle after one carelessly placed step on his part. There were also many nights where I would wake up and see him standing on Heather's back. Heather would be kind of whining and trying to move, while still sound asleep, and Bush would be looking at me like "Is she going to stop soon?" 

While Bush could often just settle down and sleep sometimes, it was difficult to get him to settle. Once that would happen he would display some of his more annoying behaviors including whipping his tail and yowling. If you disturbed the position in which he was laying, he would began slapping his tail against the offending party in an irregular but consistent pattern. I would then try to hold the tail in my hand or tuck it under his body; both of which would cause to him to pull on his tail until it was free, either because I had fallen back asleep or because he won the tug-of-war. The yowling would come whenever he felt he had been slighted or was just generally confused. Heather and I have many shared memories of him loudly coming down the stairs into the basement and upon reach his destination going "Rawour! RAWOUR!" until he was acknowledged. Sometimes his behavior was bad enough or we needed sleep enough that we would push him off the end of the bed. At first he went fine. Then he began learning tricks to avoid this scenario. My personal favorite was a combination of Judo and pure speed. As I would start pushing him off the bed, Bush would shift his weight and dart up to the head of the bed and begin yowlying pitifully as if saying "It wasn't me! Just let me stay!"

Bush was the kind of cat that made people who hated cats to at least like him. There definitely was something doglike about his straightforward manner and often doofy personality. He liked weird things like having his hips slapped. He would hold on tight to the legs of the slapper and then would look up and cry when they would stop. It was by far his favorite type of attention. People always found it so hilarious because it seemed like such a strange behavior. Bush never withheld attention as other cats do, I don't think the thought ever even crossed his mind. He always gave all that he could and asked for as much attention as you could give him. 

Bush, you will be greatly missed. I can't imagine ever having another cat so smart at being so dumb and so easily lovable. We had you 17 years, since I was 9, and even that wasn't enough... Goodbye.