Thursday, November 25, 2010

Who is for austerity now?

I'm no economic expert... But I have taken some business classes and I think I understand the basic tenets of business strategy. Also, it's really not that complicated. I'm surprised it's a four year degree... whatever.

Look: the idea that raising tax rates on the top two income brackets is going to lead to a decrease in job creation is logically absurd. Let's go over something simple:

Job creation is not tied to profit margin. Job creation is tied to demand.

It's true that if you aren't a smart business owner and are prone to irrational decision making, you might be influenced by the fact that your post-tax take-home margin of profit is smaller (and you won't be in business for long). But for those under the influence of reality, a business owner is going to capitalize on increases in demand (probably by hiring workers) regardless of what their profit margin is (in this way, they will increase their profit margin). Additionally, they won't add jobs if there isn't demand for their products.

Let me just repeat this: the more demand there is, the more jobs there will be. Likewise, the less demand there is, the less jobs there will be.

Let's say I own a business manufacturing plastic frogs and I gross $100 a year. I pay $30 in taxes every year. I pay $20 in wages to my workers and another $30 to actually manufacture the plastic frogs. This leaves me $20 that I get to take home as my personal profit.

Assuming I'm running an efficient business (every worker is contributing to the bottom line), what would happen if my taxes were increased? Would I fire some of my workers so that I could have more "take-home" pay? Probably not, because then I would be making less money in the first place and wouldn't necessarily have more "take-home" pay. However, I wouldn't necessarily hire more workers either (unless there is unsatisfied demand in the market). It's fair to say that personal income tax rates (of business owners) don't influence employment numbers.

Having said that, there is one scenario where raising taxes can hurt job growth, when raising taxes hurts demand. If we raise taxes on people who would have used that money to buy things, we're hurting demand. Since poor people usually have a marginal savings rate and are therefore usually spending all their money to buy things, we shouldn't raise taxes on the poor. However, the rich are an entirely different story. The wealthy have much higher savings rates and it's true that they often wouldn't be spending more on consumer goods if they were taxed less. Therefore, raising taxes on the poor would hurt job growth, but raising taxes on the rich would not.

If you don't believe me, check out the facts.

In other words: contrary to what Republicans are saying, raising taxes on the wealthy isn't going to cause businesses to fire workers or even stop hiring. Tax rates on the wealthy and job creation are two unrelated concepts.

I'll go one step further. If we taxed the wealthy more (which wouldn't hurt job growth), and used that money on social programs for the poor (giving them more money to spend) we would actually be helping the economy and encouraging job growth.

So, when it comes to the Bush Tax Cuts, there is only one thing to determine: what constitutes "rich" in the sense that "rich" means you'll save money from tax cuts instead of spending it. We ought to do what President Obama is suggesting: extend the tax cuts for the middle and lower classes and let them expire for the rich.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Moving past ITT Tech

If you don't know much about the debate surrounding education reform, then you may not know about the struggle between vocational education and holistic education... or maybe you know more about education reform than you thought.

So here's the drift. Some people see school as a way of training people to be good workers. Others prefer to see it as a way of training people to be good people. But, these aren't just ways of "seeing" the institution of education; whichever view you tend to ascribe to usually informs the way you believe education ought to be structured.

As John Taylor Gatto writes in The Underground History of American Education, our current education system is a hold-over from a time when it was important for schools to turn out graduates who would make excellent factory workers. Rote memorization, mundane worksheets, coloring inside the lines, and other forms of busy work are a perfect preparation for the incessant routine of factory life. Fortunately (or unfortunately if you'd rather our economy was based on something real rather than the giant casino we call the "stock market"), this sort of training is becoming less and less applicable to the needs of U.S. companies. Further, this sort of education was never good at training people to be thoughtful citizens.

But I stray from my point.

I work at the National Geographic Society. Known mostly for its magazine, National Geographic is much more than the publisher of a periodical. I work in the Education portion of NGS, and this week is Geography Awareness Week. Hence, this blog post is dedicated to the most ignored social studies subject (except maybe civics).

Geography hasn't always been relegated to simply coloring maps of France while the teacher drones on about how important the Rhone River is (before mercifully switching to World War I history and trench warfare). Up until the middle of the 19th Century, geography actually enjoyed equal teaching time in classrooms as the other social studies subjects. History, civics, economics, and geography were all allotted equal time.

In the middle of last century, education folks decided that social studies ought to be taught as an interdisciplinary range of topics rather than separate classes. Since they were all closely interrelated, this seemed logical enough and the reformers moved forward.

Most everyone in the social studies disciplines was enthusiastic about switching to a more interdisciplinary approach. However, those in the history wing of social studies were more hesitant. So, while most social studies folk lost the focus of their specific disciplines, history professors and students maintained theirs. To make a long story short, the under-emphasis of the other disciplines led to them taking a backseat to history, which had never abandoned its focus. This is why history is a much more significant subject in today's schools.

This story explains the present state of social studies education. I want to make the point that geography is much more important than we give it credit for.

I was talking to Daniel Edelson (the head of Education at National Geographic) about the challenges of propagating geography education. Frankly, the most significant challenge to increasing the appreciation for geography is the limited definition that leaps into people's minds when you mention "geography."

When people think of geography, most envision maps. It's really difficult to explain to someone living in the 21st Century that being good at  map reading is integral to their existence as a human being. Now, National Geographic is famous for their maps and they do a crackerjack job at making maps, but geography is so much more than maps.

Edelson has coined the term "geo-literacy" to encompass more holistic geographic thinking. Essentially, geo-literacy can be broken up into three components:

1. Geosystems understanding: A geo-literate individual is able to reason about the creation, movement, and transformation of materials in human and natural systems.

2.Geographic reasoning: A geo-literate individual is able to reason about the characteristics of a location and its connections to other locations.

3. Systematic decision-making: A geo-literate individual is able to articulate decision-making criteria, project outcomes of alternatives, and evaluate those outcomes in terms of the established criteria.

While it can be argued that "geo-literacy" is more expansive than the discipline of geography, I think it's fair to say that someone who has studied geography and is competent in the subject could be classified as a geo-literate individual.

Geography is more than merely the study of cartography, it's also the study of the interconnectedness of the material world. The Story of Stuff is a great example of the kinds of things geographers study (my fellow interns even claim that geography is the study of "everything," though I caulk this up to the typical hubris everyone has about their own discipline.) When it comes down to it, geography is a vital part of establishing the kind of materialism that I talk about on this blog.

The challenge moving forward is to inspire an education system that demands each discipline be vocationally applicable to take geography more seriously. If you haven't guessed from our brief discussion about vocational vs. holistic education at the beginning of this post, vocational education currently dominates.

I think it's fairly clear why someone ought to study geography if they want to be a good citizen or consumer, but the real question in our economy is whether studying geography will make you any money. Rumor at Eastern Washington University has it that majoring in geography will virtually ensure successful job placement post-graduation. However, because I reject the paradigm of our education system being glorified vocational school (and because I'm nearing my word limit), I'm going to decline to answer the question.

If there's one thing the 2010 Election taught me, it's that unswerving dedication to ideology will conquer compromise... at least at the polls... at least in the short-term...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

University Administration Narrowly Prevents Terror Attack

Note: The following was published on November 4, 2010 in Walla Walla University's student newspaper, The Collegian. For a follow-up, please visit The Tickle Closet. The views expressed here accurately represent the official stance of this blog.

Headline: University Administration Narrowly Prevents Terror Attack
By David Mack and Cody Lonning

In June of this year, a very important thing happened: we became alumni of Walla Walla University. The graduation ceremony indicated that we were suddenly more powerful entities on the campus of Walla Walla University. As last year’s news editors, we cannot even count the times we were told that we must “consider the wider audience” that our work in the Collegian was going to reach. By this, it was meant that we’d have to take something out because it might offend the alumni. But now the tables are turned and WE are the alumni who are offended.

Currently, we’re fuming about the censorship of certain pictures in this year’s Mask. Adhering to a long-standing tradition of groups of friends dressing thematically for the Mask, Tommy Poole, Alban Howe, Jordan Kattenhorn, and Jon Nickell dressed in Arab garb for their pictures. Accompanying their pictures were unoffending quotes from the Koran. Every quote in the Mask must be inspected for any hint of moral corruption or controversy, and these quotes passed with flying colors… until it was noted that they cited the Koran. Once the quotes were paired with the pictures, it became clear to the WWU administration that this was an opportunity for them to flex their censorship muscle. To be completely fair, the ASWWU Mask editor made the final decision on whether to censor the photos or not. However, these writers believe the student editor would not have censored the photos had the WWU administration’s representative not pressured him into doing so. Regardless, WWU administration played a vital role in the censorship of the Mask.

In today’s Islamophobic world, it is unsurprising that dressing as an Arab and quoting the Koran would catch some attention. However, in this case, it’s important to engage in something more than a cursory sweep of the facts.

Tommy Poole had just returned from a summer spent traveling the Middle East and understandably wanted to use the headdresses he had purchased during his time abroad. The particular headdresses he purchased are widely available to tourists and are sold by many street vendors. So, the four friends donned Ray-Bans, headdresses, and white undershirts for their Mask photos.

Now, there are a couple of reasons why photos like these would be censored. It could be perceived that they would be offensive to people of Middle Eastern descent, especially those practicing Islam. Or, someone’s grandmother could be frightened knowing that her grandchildren were attending a school with students of Middle Eastern ancestry.

Let’s discuss the first possibility and assume that this university wouldn’t stoop to being swayed by the second. Offending someone with a different cultural background or faith is a perfectly legitimate concern; but while political correctness is a crucial part of producing a professional publication, it’s important to insure that the perceived threat to decency actually exists. Given that these headdresses are sold to tourists throughout the Middle East, it is unlikely that Middle Easterners or Muslims would be offended by the patronization of their exports (both cultural and material in this case).

Further, it’s paramount to consider the motive behind these Mask profiles. The quotes that accompany the photos highlight how unoffending this whole episode really is: “22:73 He chooses His messengers from the angels and from men. He hears all and observes all. He knows what is before them and behind them. To Him all things return. –Koran” The combination of the obviously innocent motives of the participants coupled with the fact that their garb is largely intended for use by tourists, should adequately nullify any worries of appearing offensive.

Let’s not forget that though images of Mohammed are controversial enough for Comedy Central to censor South Park, dressing as an unoffending and nondescript Arab does not conjure up the same sort of controversy.

In the long run, this single case of censorship is hardly significant. The larger issue here is that heavy-handedness by the WWU administration is getting alarmingly regular. While this fall’s campus-wide implementation of an Internet filter represents paternalism at its worst, the recent episode of censorship merely indicates the administration’s penchant for hair-trigger responses. To be fair, the unfortunate occurrence of the word “shaggin’” in last year’s mask no doubt played a role in the hypersensitivity, but this serves as no excuse.
By silencing the self-expression of its students, Walla Walla University fails to fulfill one of its most important roles. It is the purpose of the university to foster thought and to challenge the rest of society to reconsider commonly held beliefs. Instead of fulfilling its role as the proverbial “great moderator” and leading society in a progressive direction, this university chooses to back down and allow the most extreme and sensitive viewpoints to rule the day.

A better approach for the university administration is to simply step aside and allow ASWWU publications to be student directed and self-moderating. Then, the administration could avoid making messy judgment calls about which groups ought to be protected or what kinds of self-expression should be allowed. In the realm of student publications, these questions should be determined by the open market of public ideas.

After all, students are more inclined to push the envelope when it feels like the administration is constantly pushing back. If ASWWU publications were allowed to monitor themselves, they would be responsible for staying relevant and in touch with the student body. If they became "too controversial,” they would be deemed irrelevant and would be forced to self-correct. By stepping back, the administration can empower the student organization to demand quality from itself. Additionally, the administration could avoid self-imposed restrictions and the burden of having a checklist of concerns that must be addressed before allowing self-expression.

             Ultimately, we believe this overreach demonstrates that the student publications of this university ought to be free of oversight by the WWU administration. Until our demands are met, these authors pledge to withhold our considerable financial contributions from the general treasury of Walla Walla University.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fear/bigotry/infantile behavior/excessive emotion/incoherence

I got a text from David on October 15th (this picture is irrelevant--I just can't let him live it down).

Apparently, the members of the West Whitman Estate have been treading on controversial territory and as a consequence, their mask pictures have been censored. This is less surprising than it should be.

So here's the story:

The house I lived in last year participates in a tradition. Every year, for the Mask publication (a photo directory of students and faculty), the residents of The Estate dress similarly for the photos. This year, after Tommy had just returned from a trip to the Middle East, they decided to go with an Arab theme. The quoted an unoffensive portion of the Koran, "22:73 He chooses His messengers from the angels and from men. He hears all and observes all. He knows what is before them and behind them. To Him all things return. -Koran." According to a good source (Tommy), these headdresses are available at tourist shops throughout the region. Given that, I think it's fair to say the muslim sellers of this garb expect their merchandise to be worn in less than serious situations (like this one). So, the members of The Estate donned the headdresses, Ray-Ban's, and white undershirts.

This, regardless of it's benign nature, was flagged (by the designated censor who works for the university administration) as inappropriate for a Walla Walla University student publication. Depending on the source, the stated opposition is something like either "the general sensitivity about Muslims in this country" or vaguely "that it might offend Muslims" (Update: Actually the only substantial objection turned out to be that the pictures are inappropriate because they are "covering their faces." If you're as confused about that as I was, they have their faces "covered" because their wearing sunglasses.)

The attitudes surrounding Islam in this country are increasingly alarming. In a political climate where Bill O'Reilly indicts Muslims on "The View" by saying that "Muslims killed us on 9/11" and the folks on "Fox and Friends" state that "Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims," Mike Rosen gets the prize for "most outrageous." 

During a debate of radio personalities he stated (about the proposed Islamic community center relatively near Ground-Zero) "I think they should be allowed to build it, followed by the hijacking of an Iranian plane right into that building and blow it to smithereens."

I'm speechless. However, I do have something to say about the plight of my buddies of the West Whitman Estate. 

1. The context of this game of "dress-up" could not be more innocent. 

2. Muslims who would be offended by the donning of widely distributed Middle Eastern consumer goods intended to be sold to tourists are probably worrying about a multitude of other things besides the fact that college students are dressing up in Arab garb for a student produced photo directory (like the fact that their faith tradition is being demonized by one of the most powerful political parties in the world's only superpower). 

3. This controversy was created by an over-zelous censorship process that has recently been reinforced (because last year they let the word "shaggin'" slip into the publication and had to scribble the word out by hand). Note: In my opinion, over-zelous censorship is redundant. Any censorship is too much.

4. In an age of incoherent and irrational islamophobia (aka. "sensitivity"), the last thing a reputable academic institution should do is jump on the band-wagon of fear and ignorance. This is an institution of higher learning and as such, should never succumb to all the things mentioned in the title to this post.

Update: David and I ended up writing an opinion article for the Collegian (Walla Walla's student newspaper) that was eventually published after much haggling. I'll post it tomorrow.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A New Dawn

I got up to watch the sunrise this morning... and I haven't blogged in a really long time. While these two things do correlate, there is no causal relationship between them. The same thing caused them. The LSAT is on Tuesday.

I got up this early on a holiday (Indigenous People's Day aka Columbus Day) because I want to be in a routine when the test roles around. And, I haven't been blogging because I study every night.

Though I spend most of my free time studying, it doesn't stop me from encountering things I want to blog about. So, I'm going to post about something briefly that I want to cover more thoroughly later (post-LSAT): internalized cost.

Here's an example of the problems we cause when we don't internalize cost. Cheap toys from China are...well... inexpensive when we buy them in a store. But they're only inexpensive because other costs have been externalized. The laborers in China don't have to be paid as much (they have a lower quality of life) and there aren't as many environmental regulations in China (they're really screwing up the planet over there). These are costs in a very real sense. However, we don't have to pay them because they have been externalized. When we buy products from China, many costs (low quality of life for workers and environmental destruction) aren't built in to the price we pay in the store. China is different from the United States because we have things like minimum wage and environmental regulations so the cost of worker's quality of life and preservation of our environment are built into the price of an American made product.

Now, if we don't care about people in China and believe that low quality of life and environmental destruction in China won't hurt us (hopefully these premises aren't true), who cares about this particular example?

But this is only one example. Another example would be the Iraq War. We didn't pay for the war, we debt financed it and added the expenditures to the deficit.

The Iraq War is unique in the way we paid for it. Never before have we financed a war completely on debt. For every other war we have fought, we have instituted a special "war tax" to pay for it. One can speculate on why this war is different (all about acquiring oil or a massive give-a-way to the military industrial complex--probably both), but it is clear that we have externalized the costs of this war. Our children and grandchildren will have to deal with the debt, but it's not our problem. A more fiscally responsible approach would have been to internalize the cost of the war by instituting a war tax or a gas tax.

A war tax would have simply put us more in touch with the sacrifices of war. And a gas tax would have financially tied the war to it's purpose (in my opinion). We pay less for a gallon of gas at the pump because of the war, but actually that gallon costs much more than we have to pay at the pump. The costs are simply hidden in debt and future national security problems. Essentially, by not having those costs factor in the price of a gallon at the pump, we are circumventing the basic tenets of the market economy. Markets will only function correctly (and correct bad behavior) if all costs are paid by the consumer.

One could argue that the consumers will pay for all costs in this example. If costs aren't paid at the pump, they'll be paid later in the form of debt restructuring or terror attacks. This is true, but because consumers are not omniscient, believe we are capable of avoiding the consequences of our behavior, or simply can't comprehend costs that are significantly removed from the initial purchase, in practicality this undermines the market whether we ultimately pay or not. Companies know this, which is why they continually work to externalize costs.

I thought Ariana Huffington made a really coherent point on Fox News the other day.

Huckabee keeps trying to get her to say that government intervention is bad. She responds by acknowledging that the free market is the best economic system in a moral society. But because our society is not moral, the government must intervene on behalf of the powerless.

A responsible and moral company will work to internalize the costs of their products. In the absence of responsible and moral behavior, "we the people" must insist that companies cease to undermine the very foundation of our economic society.

The expert on this topic is Donella Meadows and her essay Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System (it's a life-changing essay, go read it) is what first pointed me toward internalized costs. The essay essentially outlines the most important ways to affect change.

With all the shouting about how to incentivize this and incentivize that, what we need is a systemic fix to our economy. While implementation of system-wide internalization of costs will be difficult and complex, the idea itself is simple: actors in a system ought to bear the cost of their behavior. It is an elegant solution to a big problem.

Given the divisiveness of our political system, it is about time for us to reclaim our government, get down to business, and implement constructive public policy solutions like internalizing costs.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Freedom from Equality

Recently, someone pointed out to me that one of the underlying philosophical difference between the Left (Democrats since the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement) and the Right (Republicans since the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement) is equality vs. freedom.

Note: I'm going to ignore the fact that these parties hardly encompass (look:
here and here) the ideas I want to express.

The idea is that the Right reveres freedom above all else (as they point out our founder fathers did) and the Left  highlights equality as most important (as became especially clear during the Civil Rights Movement). Case in point: following the Civil Rights Movement, restaurant owners in the South (and everywhere else) did not have the freedom to refuse service to people for arbitrary reasons (like the pigmentation of their skin).

This example may be favorable to the Left's position, but it's the elephant in the room of American history, so I'd deem it fair.

This debate has raged now at least since the 1950s (much longer actually) over things like income taxes, welfare, capital gains taxes, education, unions, environmental policy, progressive vs. regressive tax structures, and mandatory health insurance. So, pretty much everything economic.

I'd like to side with neither completely. In fact, I'd like to say that we need both. We need both as much freedom as we can get our hands on and a completely level playing field (everyone starts out completely equal and lives their lives from there).

Let me make several observations. We could opt for equality without freedom (benevolent dictator anyone?), but we could not opt for freedom without equality. Here's why:

The legal right to do something does not equate to the freedom to do that thing. Freedom is bigger than legal permissibility. It is the aligning of not just legal, but also financial, emotional, psychological, and mental abilities (etc., etc., and etc.). Take the "ability" of African Americans to vote after the 15th Amendment. The legal ability didn't mean much after southern bigots took over the electoral process after Reconstruction. It took until 1965 and the Voting Rights Act for much change to happen and even then it was gradual. These, of course, were both laws dealing with legal ability, but don't miss my point: there were other factors (besides legal) at play that determined the "freedom" to vote.

Many (or most) of the non-legal barriers to freedom (I hope I don't need to enumerate exactly what these are) would be solved by increased equality. So really, we can't have "freedom" in the true sense of the word if we don't have equality.

We must acknowledge that for our society to achieve personal freedom, we must achieve personal equality. Espousing a policy of "freedom" does not give us freedom from worrying about equality. Rather, Freedom is derived from equality.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Rat Race

I'm studying for the LSAT.

As you can tell from this photo, everything in my apartment building is mirrored. This actually signifies nothing other than that I took this picture with Photo Booth. Which also signifies nothing except that I was too lazy to go get my camera. Which signifies that I'm getting soft (or that I'm not actually in my apartment, but in the upstairs lobby of my apartment building where there is wireless internet and therefore it would have actually been an ordeal to go get my camera--the important, but unstated, point here is that we don't have internet in our apartment). I digress.

I'm studying for the LSAT. So my day looks something like this:

6:30-awaken and begin Yoga routine (this last part has only happened once to date)
7:00-cook breakfast/eat
7:50-flee the building and race for the nearest metro station
8:00ish-board metro
8:17ish-arrive downtown metro and walk to National Geographic headquarters
8:26-arrive NGS HQ and commence working
17:00-cease working
17:11-board downtown metro
17:36ish-arrive at apartment
17:45-cook dinner and eat
18:45-commence LSAT study
23:00-cease LSAT study
23:30-crawl into bed sobbing

This schedule is a rough outline and doesn't encompass every little deviation, but it's fairly accurate.

The LSAT defines my life right now (well that and also work). I find this interesting since the LSAT could also define my future. I got good grades in college, and I've got fairly good "softs" (things law schools look at that are not your GPA or your LSAT score), so my admission to a good law school comes down to the LSAT. A good score = a good school (and if the score is good enough it get me lots of $cholarship money as well). A good school = a good job. A good job =... well you get the picture.

But enough moaning and groaning. What amazes me is that anyone would want to live this sort of life permanently. I'm only dealing with the LSAT until mid-October, and then I'm never uttering the word again (well it's not really a word...). Furthermore, I am determined to categorically reject the notion that a nine-to-five (or eight thirty-to-five) is necessary for survival.

Here's my plan:

Live simply (read: primitively--e.g. Amish) and therefore need hardly any money and therefore need to devote hardly any time to doing someone else's bidding. Nuff said.

I was thinking the other day about what I could do, that I would enjoy and be passionate about, that someone would be foolish enough to pay me to do. I didn't come up with a long list.

Part of the problem is that getting paid for something takes all the fun out of it (at least for me). So the solution is to minimize the amount of time I spend making money (a few hours doing some small-town lawyering here and there), while also minimizing my need for money.

Luckily, living simply is good for the planet AND my soul. Also luckily, I don't have a penchant for Dolce and Gabbana (read: luxury consumer goods), or none of this would work.

Kick the habit, reject the wheel, live simply.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Your car wears out on purpose

Toward the end of the 1920s new car sales were slowing. In fact, used car sales exceeded new car sales. Cars were made so well (and their styles didn't change much), so people just kept their cars that were still working fine. Cars never really wore out, but instead stayed in "circulation" being passing from diver to driver.

Along came the assembly line and the increased ability of building cars in a more uniform way. To make a long story short, automakers (most-notably Ford and GM) decided they would design their vehicles to "wear-out." This idea is called "planned obsolescence" or "designed deterioration."

Planned obsolescence takes two forms. The first is that products physically wear out and break down. In this way, companies can "force" consumers to buy new products (because the old model broke) so that we keep giving them our money.

Re-visiting the movie Objectified, one of the designers talked about a leather briefcase he had inherited from his father that improved with use. And while he was reminiscing, he gave us a glimpse into the fact that this is rare:
Sometimes I get that task, which is, 'design something that gets better with use.' Right, there's very few things if you think about it, they mostly degrade, but, um, some things like this briefcase gets [sic] better with use. 
It's sad that the idea of creating a product that gets better with use is novel. It's pretty clear that companies design products that purposely degrade.

I first encountered this concept in my sophomore U.S. History class at the Framingham State College. We talked for quite some time about how Henry Ford stopped designing cars well and began to design cars that would quit working in a decade or two.

But Planned Obsolescence has another, more overt form (if you've been reading the links you've probably already picked up on it). See, car companies introduce a "new" car every year (do you have a 2010 Prius or the 2011 model?). They don't do this because they've made some technological break-through (in fact substantive changes come far less often), rather, they do it because they've found consumers are more likely to buy a new car if a "new" model comes out.

Think about computers. I do basically the same thing on this computer that I did on my computer five years ago. But, because new operating systems come along and require better computers, most of us find ourselves upgrading to the newer "better" models.

This is a system designed to keep us buying "new" products even though we often don't need whatever is being called "new."

Another interviewee from Objectified had this to say:
If I had a billion dollars to fund a marketing campaign, I would launch a campaign on behalf of things you already own: 'Why not enjoy them today?'
Though companies benefit financially from planned obsolescence, our planet does not. All of the things we junk, have to go somewhere (usually landfills) and we just keep on creating more.

I'd like us to be more materialistic. Not in wild acquisition of consumer goods, but rather in cherishing the things we own and preserving them so that we get a lifetime of use out of the things we buy. Let us shift away from acquisition and towards preservation.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

People who design sinks never wash their hands

Yesterday, I watched this movie about design. The movie observed the ways things are designed to interact with us. In actuality, it was a celebration of consumer materialism and the cleverness of designers who are continuously designing things for us to buy.

My first emotion while watching the movie was anger (though not about what you might suspect). Specifically, I was angry about the way most bathroom sinks in public spaces (and everywhere in England) are designed. During my childhood, I became obsessed with hand-washing (no doubt a symptom of our bacillophobic society). This obsession led me to observe that in order to get my hands absolutely clean in a public restroom, I had to be very careful. Many sinks are designed in such a way that if I want to get water on my hands (kind of the point), I have to touch the back of the sink bowl. The problem is that the spout does not reach far enough into the sink bowl to be easily accessible.

I took this picture today at the local McDonald's (don't worry, I wasn't eating there--I just walked in, took this picture, and left):

Am I missing something, or is this design totally absurd (comical maybe, like some really funny practical joke)? While I can't think of a reason someone would design a sink this way (unless they never washed their hands--hmmm, this reminds me of a guy I knew who worked in the aerospace industry, but refused to ride on airplanes... though... that's actually scary), I can think a few reasons why it shouldn't be designed this way--namely, I don't want to have to smear my hands on the sink bowl just to get water on them.

After a few minutes of fuming about sinks, I realized that there are much bigger issues at stake here.

One interviewee said:
Designers spend most of their time designing products and services for the 10% of the world's population that already own too much when 90% don't have even basic products and services just to lead a subsistent life.
The significance of that statement needs no interpretation--we're addicted to stuff beyond any logical need.

I liked where she was going, but when she started talking about sustainability, I was disappointed. She said that since designing in a sustainable way is such a "mammoth task,... it's no wonder designers and manufactures are finding it so difficult." The only reason that designing in a sustainable way is a "mammoth task" is because companies would rather expand profit margins than save the planet. One might point out that making money has to be the ultimate goal of a corporate entity because without profit a company cannot exist. But, I propose that any company that destroys our world as a byproduct of it's business should not exist.

But the problems with profit margins don't stop at cutting corners to make a buck. Products often serve the purpose of merely being bought. One interviewee said this:
Often the way that a product comes into being isn't because a bunch of expert designers sat down and said 'what are the 10 most important problems that we could solve?' There is a company that's writing a check and what the company wants is new SKUs they want more stuff and they want more people to buy it and that's the name of the game.
I don't know why companies don't have designers sit down and solve our problems, but if they did, maybe they wouldn't have to spend all that money on advertising (read: brainwashing) to convince us we  should buy products that don't really solve any of our problems.

Some of the designers that were interviewed showed signs of "being too immersed in their field" (read: insanity). One particular designer (who I will remember for the distinct care he took while forming his sentences) seemed to value good design quite highly:
People need to, like, demand that [a designed product] performs for them and that is special in their lives, these objects that they buy. You can't make your GPS thing work in your car? There should be like a riot because they're so poorly designed. 
He's saying that if a product is not designed well, we should riot (sinks anyone?). But you know what? I think we ought to riot about the fact that 20,000 children die of hunger each day (that's the low estimate), rather than that my GPS could have been more logically designed. But that's just me.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Metallak Island

Just got back from Metallak Island, Maine.

It was great to get away from screens and news and all the noise we are bombarded with constantly.

Further, it was a revolutionary week in that we were all so connected to the material. While there was a cabin on the island, it was free of electricity and the only water came from a hand-pump. Obviously camping is a pretty standard way of getting in touch with nature, but the Metallak experience went beyond the typical sitting around the fire and listening to birds.

Alban invited me to Metallak. The trip is a yearly tradition of his immediate and extended family as well as other close families. The people who participate in the Metallak tradition are the most innovative people I have encountered.

One evening, we needed a cheese grater (I should note here that when it comes to food, Metallak is not roughing it. Though the cooking methods are primitive, the food is unrivaled.) So, Cousin John took a tin can... and made a cheese grater.

That sort of attitude is pretty contagious. For instance, there were numerous woodworking projects during the week (that I will not reveal now for reasons that will become apparent around Christmas) that took hours of our time, but rewarded us with visceral connection to the things we made.

In fact, if Metallak didn't show me anything else (and it did), it showed me that we are fully capable of making common consumer goods that are just as good or better than the mass produced stuff. I'm not saying we should all make the switch to tin-can cheese graters, but we ought to consider connecting to the things we use by making them ourselves. I'm talking about making our own furniture, sewing our own throw pillows or clothes, building our own houses, whatever.

The master woodworker on the island, "Uncle Tim," told me about the canoe paddles he had made and noted that he would be more ahead financially if he had paid someone else to build them and had spent the time at the office instead (he's a physician). "But," he said, "I enjoy working with my hands in the workshop. I get enough headwork at the office and it's good to balance those out."

I might have trouble making complex electronic goods like the MacBook Pro I'm typing on right now (all the more reason to distance ourselves from them), but I'd like to point out that this is not an "all or nothing" proposition. I choose to stare at this glowing rectangle and write this blog for a variety of reasons even though I'd rather live a life completely free of electronics, the internet, and all the things that go along with them.

However, I also recognize that this is the "digital age" and if I want to be a part of the conversation about how this world is going to progress, I have to go where the conversation is taking place (though John the Baptist might disagree).

Plus, another challenge is that most people don't have the time to chop a tree into a dining-room table. If you're working 80 hours a week you probably aren't in the mood for rushing home to the workshop (at least I wouldn't be). Downshifting is an appropriate thing to mention at this juncture (let's please re-evaluate our priorities), but the point I want to make is that any little bit helps. Building a home might be beyond the capabilities of most, but is making a rag-rug, or a quilt, or a bookcase, or a bird-house? Once someone experiences making things with their own two hands instead of using those hands to push a shopping cart through Walmart, they'll be hooked--I know I am.

I think two mantras would go well here:

First, every little bit helps.

And second,
You must be the change you want to see in the world. --Mahatma Gandhi  

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why the Department of Defense spends money like a sieve

It turns out that, until very recently, we weren't insulating any of our buildings in Iraq or Afganistan (but were still air-conditioning them). Uh, it doesn't take an HVAC specialist to realize that's going to waste a lot of money. There's got to be other ways to save money that are no-brainers.

Here's Robin Young's Here and Now on WBUR with an interview of a soldier who did something about it and is now saving us billions (literally).

Sunday, August 22, 2010

When political points become cheap

Deplorable behavior in Washington (D.C.) is not something that raises our eyebrows. But there comes a point when the incoherence of our politicians is stunning and it makes me want to sit down on the couch and ponder how we got to this point.

This conversation between CNN's Anderson Cooper and Louis Gohmert (R-TX) demonstrates what happens when a politician tries to scare the American people, but forgets to have reality on his side.

Stuff like this interview happens all the time of course, but we have an issue boiling right now that goes beyond what I would consider Washington's typical pettiness.

Constructing an Islamic community center (much like a YMCA, but including a Mosque also) in the place of a former Burlington Coat Factory several blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan is not an affront to our national identity. Anyone who questions whether this group of Muslims has the right to build this center need only encounter our Constitution. But many people who believe this group has the right to build, don't think the group actually should. In fact, the statistics are astounding.

In my opinion, not only does the group have the right, but also this "Mosque" would be a boon to Muslim-U.S. relations. I propose that we ought to be encouraging this particular construction project. As Fareed Zakaria has argued, this Islamic center is something that is meant to build ties between America and moderate portions of Islam. Which, in case it's not obvious, is something we very much need.

The attempts of some Christian extremists (or political conservatives--call them what you will) to undermine the building of this Islamic center is election-year politics at it's worst. Salon has outlined a timeline demonstrating how members of the opposition have gone from tacitly supporting the project to viciously opposing it (with Nazi references included). It's all about making this an emotional wedge issue to pick up votes.

Don't mind the shouting.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Salesmen at dinner

I was emptying the dishwasher when it occurred to me that the congestion in the cupboards is worse than the traffic in Moscow.  "A Disney princess plate on top of the bowls!?!?" I pulled out a few of the culprits and took pictures of them (this is a symptom of continually thinking of things to blog about--I estimate 3% of my ideas actually make it into the electronic universe--60% of the time my statistics are correct).

This got me thinking (hence the pictures). Why do we buy our children these things? Do we want them to resonate with Bambi and Buzz Lightyear? Do we really think their meal experience will be better with Luke Skywalker staring at them through their macaroni and cheese?

I think it's safe to say the average American doesn't have a healthy relationship to food. Check out our obesity rates, or our rates of eating disorders. I'm not going to suggest that the artificially thin cartoon characters watching over our children while they eat contribute to self-image problems, but it wouldn't surprise me if it didn't help the situation.

Are we supposed to believe that children who eat off of a Disney plate are more likely to eat healthier? Or that mealtimes will go more smoothly? Or that kids with themed dishes are more loved? Maybe, but what I do believe is that they will be more likely to recognize the Disney princesses in a store and want to buy those products.

It's no secret that companies like to establish their brands early in a customer's lifecycle. Get 'em hooked early and you've got a steady stream of cash for the rest of their lives. I've outgrown all my specialty Disney items (gave them up last year or so...), but that doesn't mean they didn't hook me into buying the same sort of nonsense for my kids or adult versions for myself.

I'd like to suggest that kids are capable of eating off of normal plates with normal forks just like all the billions of other children who have done it throughout history or do it now because they can't afford the plastic luxuries.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not for taking all the fun out of life for my kids (I'm an Atticus Finch fan actually). I'd simply rather they engage in the materialism of nature instead of the materialism of cheap, plastic consumer goods.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In honor of Steve Irwin

I'm seriously not making fun of the late Steve Irwin. Actually, I'm best friends with the biggest Steve Irwin fan ever. Tommy once told me, "Cody, I've figured out the best people of the 20th Century: Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Steve Irwin." He wasn't joking. And I don't necessarily disagree with him. We needed (and need) a champion for the environment and Steve Irwin was a great one.

This film made me think of Tommy and the way he's always using that National Geographic announcer's voice, which made me think of Steve Irwin. So here's a little something in the spirit of all of those.

This is the 21st Century. I feel certain we can find a way to conduct life that doesn't involve a swirling vortex of plastic items in one of our oceans.

Also, this movie is in support of a bill that would ban single-use plastic bags. Seems like a sensible thing to me. We don't need to be fouling our planet with plastic bags when, with a little bit of foresight, we can use cloth bags from home (and further I don't buy the whole "those cloth bags are so germy!" That's just a symptom of our bacillophobic society).

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Robert Gates (and Ted Koppel) to the rescue

For those of you who aren't swamped by the media's constant shouting, Robert Gates (Secretary of Defense) announced on Monday that the Department of Defense is going to rein in some of its fiscal irresponsibility (see more commentary here, here, here, and here).

This is great news. Gates wants to reduce the prevalence of contractors and cut a command (the U.S. Joint Forces Command) over half of which is made up of contractors. Now, the usual suspects are whining that this will cut jobs (duh, as will most cost-cutting measures), but I think we've got coherent public policy on our side here.

Meanwhile, while listening to NPR last week, I heard the best discussion on the military and war that has ever taken place. It's a 16 and a half minute long conversation and I was going to edit it down to it's most important parts, but in re-listening to it, I realized I couldn't do that. The entire thing is worth every second, so I'm going to post the whole interview. It's not long and you won't regret taking the time to listen. However, for those of you who are busy saving the world or something equally as important so that you're exempt from doing your civic duty, I'll provide some quotes at the bottom.

This is Ted Koppel speaking (he has a tendency to not finish sentences, but these halves of sentences are fantastic):
This is the first time in the history of the United States that neither war, neither the Iraq war nor the Afghanistan war, has been underwritten by a special tax for the war. All wars previously have had special taxes.[...]
I do not think that any nation should go to war simply on the backs of a few hundred thousand men and women and their families. When a nation goes to war, it needs to be as an entity. And by and large, 90 to 95 percent of the American public, probably more than that if you look at the real numbers, are paying absolutely nothing for this war. We are not paying anything additionally in money. We are not paying anything in terms of personal sacrifice. The young men and women who are over there fighting the war, they are. They're paying. Their families are paying. Their loved ones are paying. They are paying in terms of having to fight a war over and over and over again. They thought when they volunteered - many of them - that they might have to go under a war zone once or twice. So many of these young men and women have had to go back three times, four times, five times.
And, you know, frankly, we're not paying for the war financially. We're not paying for the war in terms of a draft so that there is an equitable number of young men and women who are going over from all branches of society. We're not paying for it in terms of personal sacrifice. We're not paying for it in terms of rationing. We are giving up essentially nothing to fight the war.[...]
My point here is not to get into a debate with anyone as to whether we should be in these wars in the first place. I am simply saying that if and when the United States goes to war, it has to do so with the backing of and the support of - and support is not just a verbal thing. It's not a rhetorical device. Support means giving something up, giving, you know, getting a little skin on the game.[...] 
...with response to the Blackwater types, what the [caller] refers to as the mercenaries, he's absolutely right. It is another way that our politicians have found of pretending that there is no pain involved in fighting a war. One of the great difficulties that we confront today is that we have a military that is really too small and inadequate to do all the tasks that we require of them. And so we are hiring I don't know what the precise number is.
I know about a year ago that when you looked at all the civilians who were being hired to fulfill tasks that ranged from the protection of the ambassador and senior embassy officials, to doing laundry and driving trucks, you had more of those people who were hired in Iraq than you actually had troops over there. At a time when we still had 100,000 troops over there, we had about [120,000] to 150,000 civilian contractors who were working at prices far higher than would have been paid, let's say, to the military doing the same jobs.[...] 
What is unacceptable is a nation that goes to war without the engagement of its population, either the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan, are in the U.S. national interest, in which case, A, we have to fight those wars, and, B, we, the population of the United States - the voters, the citizens - have to support that, not just support it with our votes, but support it with our monies, support it with sacrifice that we are prepared to make.
That's maybe the best of the best, but it's pretty hard to trim down. I'd like to end on one of Koppel's lines (that I just quoted):
What is unacceptable is a nation that goes to war without the engagement of its population...

Friday, August 13, 2010

We are all related

This scene from The Fantastic Mr. Fox is my favorite movie scene of all time.

Throughout the movie, the main characters point out that they are "wild animals." And further, that Mr. Fox has a phobia of wolves.

The claim they are "wild animals" is rather absurd. The only times they even remotely resemble wild animals is when they eat or when Mr. Fox and Mr. Badger fight. The rest of the time they are completely humanized down to the last detail (they wear clothes, walk upright, and play complicated sports).

In fact, the only animal in the entire movie that is not humanized is the wolf in this scene. The wolf does not respond to the refined attempts Mr. Fox makes to communicate with him (speaking in English, Latin, and French). There seems to be a disconnect between the wild animal and the fox wearing a corduroy suit and bandit mask and riding a motorbike with side car. This makes sense to us. But when Mr. Fox raises his fist, the disconnection is broken and we witness profound connection between two very related animals (as Mr. Fox says: "Canis Lupus, Vulpes Vulpes").

To express the feeling of connection to that which is wild is difficult (though Ralph Waldo Emerson has tried). When I was young(er), I was hunting in the Palouse. The sun was setting and I was walking back to our rally point. As I neared the top of a ridge, I turned around and looked out over the valley. I'm not sure how to describe the feeling that came over me except to say that I wanted to commune with what lived there. So, I howled. And coyotes from miles around answered me. For at least twenty minutes we went back and forth. I would howl and then pause to listen to them. And they would howl and then pause to listen to me. I'll never forget it (and I've always been bothered by coyote hunting since then).

This scene in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, attempts to express that feeling. It does it well.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Visual Representation

I know I've been writing too much about politics recently (hitting a new low when I ridiculed a senile gentleman's struggle for political relevance), but that's what happens when I listen to NPR (or watch Fox News). I'm doing some landscaping at my dad's house in Massachusetts and he has an outdoor stereo system. So, I listen to WBUR while I work... all day. Most of the time, I prefer to stay away from the mainstream media (yes I'm talking about NPR and Fox News... but especially CNN) because I think the incessant chanting of political themes isn't really helpful to thoughtful evaluation of our reality. I find that too much information can actually obscure truth.

The Atlantic Monthly had an interesting article about information overload. Entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," the article speculates about the effect of having instant (and almost infinite) information available to us with the simple touch of a button (or several if your searches are more than one character long as mine usually are). The conclusions are actually kind of scary. But I'm not going to spoon feed you on this one. Read the article and you'll understand why.

I've become convinced we must find a way to unplug from our diet of technology (again, I'd call your attention to this report from The Onion--it might be humor, but it's pretty close to reality). I've decided to take a technological holiday every week during the Sabbath hours (sundown Friday until sundown Saturday) during which I won't be interacting with any "glowing rectangles."

In response to the noise we are bombarded by on a daily basis, I'd like to offer up the picture that inspired the name of this blog. I recently got permission from Nikki McClure to use this image of one of her works (you can see her work here) and I'm really excited to share it with you.

This picture pretty much sums up what I think this blog is ultimately about: the importance of being materially connected to the wholesome parts of our physical reality. To touch a tree in bloom. To pick a ripe tomato and eat it while sitting in the freshly weeded dirt of your garden. To simply stand in the forest and breathe the air you are sharing with every tree and animal around you.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Someone still hasn't gotten over the 2008 Presidential Race

The first clip is from the highly publicized "health care summit," where John McCain seemed rueful about having lost the campaign.

The second two clips are commercials that McCain is currently running in Arizona. They portray him as the intrepid maverick he never was. Salon writer Steve Kornacki wrote a great article in April detailing exactly why McCain departed from the mainstream of the GOP in the early 2000s and why he's right back in the middle of the base's ideology now. I want to highlight just three paragraphs:
Was McCain's defiance of his party's leader part of some long-standing ideological rift? Hardly. McCain's congressional voting record had always been reliably conservative -- until Bush had the audacity to beat him in an election. So McCain used ideological dissent to pursue a personal grudge -- and to position himself for 2004.[...]
In the last 17 months, we've seen a similar story play out. When he lost to Barack Obama in November '08, McCain delivered a notably humble concession speech. But the same resentment, bitterness and defiance that was so evident in the early days of the Bush presidency is just as obvious now. With Obama as president, McCain has emphatically reclaimed the hard-right turf that he abandoned when Bush took office, angrily fighting Obama on healthcare, foreign policy, even cap-and-trade (once a McCain pet issue). 
The constant in all of this is hardly ideology. When he lost to Bush, McCain veered to the left. When he lost to Obama, he went far to the right. In both cases, though, he made the most of an opportunity to torment the guy who beat him. And that's a trait we usually associate with sore losers.
Despite all this serious talk, these commercials provide comedic value if nothing else. I really do laugh every time I see them. I know politicians are supposed to "sell themselves," but if these aren't the most hilarious examples of self-worship I've ever seen in politics, I don't know what is. The second one is particularly funny because it assumes that because McCain wants 3000 additional troops, then that's the number we ought to send.

McCain's main objective here is to portray himself as a strong conservative. He's being challenged from the far right by a Tea Party backed candidate (J.D. Hayworth), but it seems McCain is now comfortably ahead in the polls. Who knows, maybe these commercials worked in Arizona.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Stephen Hawking sounds the alarm

I wanted to share something I discovered last night. It appears that Dr. Hawking is a little pessimistic about our ability to exist on this planet.

For those who don't know, Stephen Hawking is pretty smart. However, he seems to be preoccupied with space, and I'm not as down on our chances as he is.

Though I agree with him that we have "aggressive and selfish instincts" that don't help our chances of survival at this point in the race's history, I think the human race has the ability to overcome our "aggressive and selfish instincts" with more farsighted ideas. Further, I think that nature has the ability to regenerate from the damage we have done to it.

Ultimately, it is up to us whether we will continue down the road of excessive consumption, or whether we  will find a way to exist as part of our natural ecosystem.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Why Congress really really sucks

Jon Stewart is a comedian. And he's often funny. And this video is funny, and sad. But we have a fundamental problem in Congress. The folks who are there, are more concerned with scoring political points than actually getting anything done.

I'm not sure of all the circumstances surrounding this bill, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Democrats are specifically bringing this bill to the floor to help them politically during the long summer of an election year.

Regardless, it's a pretty good bill. If my understanding is correct, it would give lifetime health care coverage to the folks who helped out at ground-zero immediately following 9/11. Sounds great, and it is.

One crux of the problem was that in order to pay for the measure (a good idea), Democrats proposed a "new tax" that would prevent foreign-registered companies from avoiding taxes on income earned in the U.S. This, also, seems fine to me. It's essentially closing a tax loophole.

However, Republicans took issue with the tax. It was rumored that they were going to motion to recommit which would have sent the bill back to committee and would have asked that the bill be paid for by other means (e.g. from the health care legislation that was passed early this year). Further, the Republicans introduced an amendment that would prevent any of this money from going to illegal immigrants.

In order to prevent ANY Republican amendments, Democrats used a procedure that requires a 2/3 vote rather than a majority vote and the measure failed. 

So that's the set-up. Let me be clear that Democrats are playing politics here. This is a great bill to bring to the floor during an election year. Further, they were probably not too upset about Republicans making a stink over it and voting it down because it looks really bad for the GOP (I could be wrong, but that's my hunch). So, what the Democrats did here really bothers me.

What bothers me more is what the Republicans did. They took a good bill that was paid for and injected the immigration issue into it. You know what, I doubt illegals were at ground-zero helping out, but if they were, I wouldn't mind them getting health care for the health problems they contracted while helping us out in our time of need.

That's bad enough, but Republicans took this further. The real sin here was their opposition to closing the tax loophole. Some segments of our political establishment act like tax evasion is something to be smiled upon and encouraged. My perspective is that corporations that earn money here should have to pay U.S. taxes.

Finally, it seems disingenuous to me to threaten to overload a bill with amendments and then cry foul when the opposition out-maneuvers those attempts and forces you to vote "no."

While I don't agree with everything Jon Stewart said in his segment, the final portion of the sketch does resonate with me. Republicans need to come out and state unequivocally that they are more concerned about the welfare of corporations than average folks like you and me, or quit stonewalling measures that rein in corporate greed. On the other hand, Democrats need to stand up for what they believe in and not hide behind procedural trickery, or accept that they'll never get anything done and will continue to be bullied by their opponents.

Calling out incompetence

Disclaimer: I am no expert on health care. While I've studied data on health care systems in the more global sense (to keep up with last summer's health care debate), I know next to nothing about day-to-day care. This post is entirely from personal experience and a few data searches.

Today I came to the conclusion that hospitals deliberately screw old people in order to make them more enthusiastic about dying.

My grandfather fell and broke his hip two weeks ago. After contracting pneumonia in the hospital (this is so typical we even have jokes about it), the hospital staff finally figured out they weren't giving him the correct antibiotics. Then they decided that since he needed his daily medication (that he took prior to being admitted to the hospital), but couldn't swallow the pills, they would shove a tube down his throat so they could administer the pills that way. That was a perfectly fine idea, except that they decided they couldn't give him ANY sedation because of his condition (later we found out this was not true, but that's the conclusion they came to at the time). So, for an extended period of time, they attempted to ram this tube down his throat while he choked and struggled. After some time, they gave up. This experience proved so traumatic for my grandfather, that he wouldn't allow hospital staff near him for the rest of the day.

Unfortunately this is not the end of the story. After almost a week, they decided to try again. This time they gave him sedation (thank goodness) and were able to get the tube to his stomach. A subsequent x-ray showed that they had put too much down his throat and that it was coiled up in his stomach. So they pulled about 10 inches out. Another x-ray showed the problem remained, so they pulled another 12 inches out.

Now, I'm fairly good at math, especially arithmetic. My special math powers tell me that these trained professionals shoved almost two feet of excess tubing down my grandfather's throat. How complicated can this be? Look at the distance between your mouth and your stomach. I just measured mine and it's less than two feet. So, what happened here is these people put twice the necessary amount of tubing down into my grandfather's stomach. Wow.

Again, I'd like to stress that I really don't know much about this procedure, but is it really that complicated?

Medical error is frighteningly common. According to an Institute for Medicine report published in 2000, medical errors account for anywhere from 44,000 to 98,000 deaths in the United States every year. That makes medical errors either the 9th or 5th leading cause of death among Americans.

This article from ABC News reported in 2007 that doctors at Rhode Island Hospital performed brain surgery on the wrong side of a patient's head on three separate occasions in the space of a single year. Consequently, the Department of Health finally had to fine the hospital $50,000.

This report from the Commonwealth Fund reports that in July of 2005 improvements to the medical system have taken place since the original report. These improvements included, "the development of performance standards, an increase in error reporting, integration of information technology, and improved safety systems." Personally, while these "improvements" sound overdue, I'm not too optimistic about the effects of these measures in hospitals.

An even more underlying problem is the attitude of some doctors and nurses. Often, health care professionals are trained to be aloof. I understand the need to be emotionally separated from patients, but this attitude can't be helpful in treating a patient's needs especially when most patients need more than just physical care (see post on palliative care and my extension of it below). Nor is being aloof helpful when medical errors are so widespread. Complacency is the last thing we need in a system that needs such fundamental change. 

Proposed solutions vary, but it seems that we ought to be looking at what other countries are doing in order to address such a systemic problems. Subsequent posts on health care will focus on some of the debate that took place last summer over the health care bill as well as more personal information from my friends who are currently being trained to be health care professionals. 

Friday, August 6, 2010

Expansion on "The beauty of death panels"

There is a great article on end-of-life care written by Atul Gawande in the August 2 New Yorker. To supplement my explanation of hospice and palliative care, I'd like to quote from the article.
Outside, I confessed that I was confused by what Creed was doing. A lot of it seemed to be about extending Cox's life. Wasn't the goal of hospice to let nature take its course?
"That's not the goal," Creed said. The difference between standard medical care and hospice is not the difference between treating and doing nothing, she explained. The difference was in your priorities. In ordinary medicine, the goal is to extend life. We'll sacrifice the quality of your existence now--by performing surgery, providing chemotherapy, putting you in intensive care--for the chance of gaining time later. Hospice deploys nurses, doctors, and social workers to help people with a fatal illness have the fullest possible lives right now. That means focussing on objectives like freedom from pain and discomfort, or maintaining metal awareness for as long as possible, or getting out with family once in a while. Hospice and palliative-care specialists aren't much concerned about whether that makes people's lives longer or shorter.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Part 3 of 3: What to do with the Department of Defense

So, here are my two solutions:

Solution 1. Cut the Defense Department budget. This might make them more cognizant of where their billions go.

We're in a period where people on both sides of the aisle are calling for a reduction to the deficit. I've got some ideas for how to more effectively allocate social spending, but the military budget is an easy target for budget cuts. A spending freeze on the defense budget might be the least painful, but with the draw-down in Iraq proceeding on schedule, we should be able to directly cut portions of the budget.

Solution 2. Join the rest of the civilized world and ban the use of Mercenaries (military contractors hired to kill) and go one step further; ban all military contractors.

This will take a transition period, but I'm confident that our military can handle the duties of these contractors. Further, this will help with Solution 1 because we pay contractors far more than we do our own soldiers to do the same job. So, we'll save money and reduce fraud while improving quality and morale. This is what's called a "win-win situation."

Note: This is part 3 of 3.