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2020-06-15

Force Is Not Necessarily Power

The current upheaval and protest over arbitrary police violence against our own citizens is in part—only part, mind you—a product of the militarization of police. Police departments now have and use armored vehicles and weaponry designed for the battlefield. Hence the call by the Secretary of Defense for dominating the “battlespace" to suppress the demonstrations in our streets. The lack of success in quelling the protestors is not from a lack of firepower or the willingness to use it by the police. The police have awakened the fury of our people by their hubris when using such weapons and tactics. Their thinking that they can shut down protesters by cracking bones is the classic answer to the question might or right. Too many police departments have given their answer.

But it brings up an even bigger and a more controversial question (yes, that’s actually possible). If might cannot reclaim city streets and establish peaceful relations between people, does our country need to be armed to the teeth when facing the rest of the world? Do we need thermonuclear weapons in sufficient quantities to erase the human species from the planet? Do these weapons bring our international goals closer to success? Are these weapons of mass destruction still relevant in a world of asymmetrical warfare? 



As a nation, we act as though might makes us right when facing the rest of the world. We invaded any number of countries since World War II because we could. We talked about freedom and liberty, but US corporations were right behind the troops trying to take advantage of the forceful overthrow of governments. We built a military-industrial-complex of unimaginable size to the man who coined the term—President and former five-star general Dwight Eisenhower—who warned us of its implications. 

Our oversized military was built to “protect” us from the threat of the Soviet Union, and we piled bombs on top of bombs in such numbers that we created dark jokes about a second strike making the rubble bounce. Our military spending and schoolboy posturing put our troops in places where we had no reason to be. Far too many of our interventions only made things worse for the people we were presumably helping from Vietnam to Laos to Cambodia and from Afghanistan to Iraq. The forays into Southeast Asia fulfilled the dangers of the domino theory that we used to justify our intervention—bringing to power throughout the region the very Communists who we said were the greatest threat to the people. We sought to bring, by force, democracy to countries that had no such traditions or institutions, toppling dictators and unleashing even more radical elements to destabilize another region. We succeeded in unleashing violence and war that has yet to end. 

From 1945 onwards, every time we have used our military might to “fix” someone else’s national problem, we have made it worse. Why did we and do we keep intervening in other lands?

First, we have cowards in Congress who will not fulfill their Constitutional duty over declarations of war. The power to declare war is also the power to refuse to declare war and make warmongering presidents accountable to the Constitution. 

Second, it seems easy. We have the planes, ships, tanks, and troops to project our military to any spot on the planet. We seek the easy solutions offered by military might because we are a people of action—actually a people who glorify violence and dehumanize our opponents. If you question that assertion, take a look at online gaming or the most popular movies to see what people enjoy. 

We are now questioning the utility of highly armed and massive police forces in our cities. It brings up the same questions about our national military. The questions are not about the need to have armed force ready and trained, it’s about how much is enough and what other tools might we use to protect ourselves. We purposely ignore a vast array of other methods to de-escalate tense situation and prevent armed conflict. 

Americans are being awakened that force is not the path to better lives. We are recognizing that it’s not the solution and often leaves us with more problems. 

2020-06-06

Our Problems in Sharp Relief


CC by Marco Verch
We come to a confluence of several forces that throw our problems into sharp relief. We face a dangerous pandemic without a cure or effective treatment that is ravaging our people of health and life. We face a national leadership that abdicates the rule of law to the forces of violence in a struggle to retain white domination. We face an economic catastrophe only seen before when our grandparents and great-grandparents were children. We have seen the makeshift morgues and heard horrific stories of suffering by those stricken with disease. We have watched in an endless reel that repeats the killing of innocent people by the police. Our economy ended years of job growth in a month that erased a decade of new employment, plunging millions into a heartless scramble to survive. All these things in a nation that boasts that it’s “great”.

[Insert bovine excrement metaphor here. (Hey, this is a family-friendly column.)]

We are reaping what we have sown. Our health care system is built to both confuse and confound the many while enriching the few. Those who need an effective system of care find they are priced out, shut out, and denied essential medicines and treatment. The death toll falls hardest on the poor who in America tend to be people of color because that’s how the system works. Our healthcare system puts its hospitals, physicians, nurses, and labs farther away from those whose lives are a precarious trek through food deserts that deny healthy nutrition and feature stunted economic resources. The result is death at worst and debilitating recovery at best from a virus that knows no remorse. 

Our economy is built on the “free” market where rich people can reap the benefits of nanosecond financial transactions and those denied education and healthcare watch their jobs disappear just as fast. Minimum wage becomes a death sentence for many as they cannot stop working but must labor without protection—without masks and tests or without healthcare if they become sickened by going to work. If they do not work then homelessness and hunger move closer to home. 

Our economic recovery coming out of the Great Recession is built on weak timbers. Minimum wages that guarantee poverty and privation and tax systems that reward investment over labor plant our economic footings in the sand. Mindless globalization that seeks the lowest possible price for anything while debasing the value of our labor robs us of wages that keep privation at bay. While the economic “boom” continued for some, many lost ground and had to take on a second job just to meet the bills that pile up each month—relentless demands that ignored would put people on the street with nothing. No wonder that something as tiny as a virus could knock those rotted props from beneath our feet. 

As we fall, we see that the holes are far larger than the safety net. But for some, our laws, government programs, and racist social order denied them any net to salvage their lives. They fall to the ground where all hurt and some are killed with indifference by a society that cares nothing because they are deemed less worthy. We will bail out bankers but not save bakers—and bus drivers and carpenters and cleaners. We will provide diagnostic tests for the powerful and rich but not for those who must go out to work or face hunger.

Like our healthcare system, our economy is filled with perverse incentives to reward things that do not benefit the many.  Children of the working poor go hungry while our economic system demands their parents risk illness and death just by going to work. Economic sectors built to entertain the wealthy in restaurants, bars, and clubs are shuttered for their protection but throw those who wait tables and clean dishes on the street. Yet, reopening them puts everyone at risk—only the risks for some have poverty added to the list. 

In response, rather than looking at the rotted timbers planted in eroding sand, Congress passes a one-time act to address an acute crisis rather than built-in suffering. Its members ignore the systemic failures and weaknesses with the hope that they can achieve a bipartisan “shot in the arm” for the economy, as though the underlying decay can we wished away by adding some sand bags when the crisis demands rebuilding on firmer ground. 

What is really needed? Start with the crisis that persists. 
  • A national guaranteed income to put a true safety net underneath all of us. (Ignore the deficit as many economists have argued is a false equivalence to the family budget.) 
  • Make Medicare the system of healthcare for all Americans that protects everyone no matter their status, condition, race, gender, politics and all the other things that divide us. (Address the costs by actually negotiating for reasonable drug prices and eliminate the rent-seeking private insurance profits.) 
  • Recast schools to put a concrete floor under per student funding and raise teacher salaries to recognize the difficulty of their jobs. (These will materially help achieve standard educational outcomes that finally leave no child behind—for the first time, ever.) 
  • Start encouraging economic activity that enriches the people rather than those people. (Change taxes to reward work rather than investment—that recognizes that demand is the driver that needs to sit in the seat with the controls.) 
  • Defund the militarization of the police and recast their role to only address crime that involves violence. (Empower social workers, psychologists, and other supportive cadres to address the problems of addiction, child abuse, and mental illness that are not helped by weapons.) 
  • Tap into the wealth brought about by decades of tax policy that incentivize its accumulation over distribution. (This is nothing more than a down payment to atone for economic sins that have injured far too many.)
  • Et cetera. (This could go on for days, but need to pause for breath.)
Are these ideas possible? Of course. Are they going to happen? Not now. The forces of obstruction and entrenched interest with their minions in the media and Moscow howl at attacking the status quo. They rely on undemocratic institutions such as the Senate, partisan control of the Supreme Court, and the vestigial appendage of the Founders—the Electoral College. The only way to overcome these obstacles is to overwhelm them. The electoral wave of November must be a tsunami of voter frustration and rage built over decades and brought to support candidates who will recognize that they serve the people and not themselves. (Those who know me will recognize the implicit nod to Citizens United.)

What’s the message? Let’s start with “Had enough?” That puts the frustration we feel in front, but also points out the recognition that we see the truth. Let’s continue pointing out the acuity of pain with following DC Mayor Muriel Bowser by painting “Black Lives Matter” in front of every state house, city hall, and statue honoring the Confederacy. (Everybody, wear a mask!) 

We’re already in the streets, but need to vote to make the changes demanded meaningful and lasting. It will be very bad to lose this election, and it will be worse to win by only a little. A small victory will embolden the Liar in Chief to negate the will of the majority. The people’s victory must be overwhelming. The future of the Republic demands it. 

2020-06-02

Stop Treating Diseases

We rightly extol medical heroes—the physicians, nurses, and even janitors who work under the threat of COVID-19 to treat or support treating patients stricken with this malady. We call them heroes because they save lives with drugs and devices wielded with knowledge and skill. But there are some problems here that heroism cannot address.

We are discovering that COVID-19 often leads to weakened bodies that will probably be more susceptible to diseases that are ordinary and endemic. Many have weakened organ systems from lungs to hearts to kidneys and psychological disorders that include PTSD and clinical depression. Despite the best efforts of our medical heroes, many—too many—people will face the rest of their lives with compromised health. They are more susceptible to future infections as well as the usual host of non-communicable diseases: cancer, heart disease, and diabetes just to name a few.

The necessary response in the short term is to practice social distancing and stay at home if at all possible. The challenges with this approach run from the inconvenient (working from home) to frustrating (working at home with children) to risky (going to work and exposing ourselves to the virus) to dangerous (going to work in close quarters). All of these levels contribute to one outcome, the decline in business activity in many sectors and the complete shutdown to some. Even the business of medical care is in recession as elective procedures and even medically-necessary but non-urgent treatment is halted. The rest of the economy from restaurants to car dealerships to realtors to barber shops are in economic free fall.

COVID-19 kills people without remorse because it’s a virus and is following a bio-chemical imperative to attach itself to cells. Its lethal effect extends to economies as the global trading system shudders to a halt. Its impact will last beyond even those directly affected. Children’s education is getting disrupted. The issue for schools is far more than children learning to count because learning habits of a lifetime are not being formed at crucial stages of intellectual and social development.

People with underlying health issues from obesity to diabetes to hypertension all encounter COVID-19 with fewer tools to fend off the disease. These factors contribute to their higher rates of catching the disease and dying from it.

We are working heroically to respond to save lives. Undoubtedly many are being saved, but heroism in one sense is wasted because much of the pain we now feel—medical, economic, and social—was avoidable. For people in public health the solution has always been clear, effective, and cheap. Prevent disease so you don’t have to treat it.

We have designed an American modern life where physical activity and healthy diet have been programmed out. The result starts with a few extra pounds and continues into obesity. Our children are subjected to 40,000 advertisements on TV alone, most about the fun of sugary foods rather than healthy fruits and vegetables. Almost a fifth of children are obese (18.5%). That’s 13.7 million in real numbers. They can look forward to lives impaired and even shortened by the usual suspects—diabetes, heart disease, strokes, etc.

Such bad habits persist and grow because picking up a burger and fries or a carb- and fat-laced pizza is an easy fix for dinner by exhausted parents. Parents and kids get fat, fail to exercise, and fall prey to the inevitable diseases of diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and heart disease. (We’re only going to mention tobacco once, right here, as the most evil of bad habits because we knew long ago that it was bad.) This list does not include polluted water, filthy air, and more guns than people that all contribute to bad health.

We have inverted logical health priorities to reward systems of disease, damage, and death. Rather than practicing prevention—universal vaccination, cities and towns designed for physical activity, food systems that deliver healthy diets, safe streets, and universal healthcare—we allow diseases to sicken, maim, and kill our people. Whether its diabetes or cancer, much of the pain is avoidable, but only if we undertake a program of societal prevention.

We need to stop treating disease and start preventing it.