November 30, 2009


Sam Smith

The pending health care legislation is as corrupt, cynical and contemptuous of simple decency as any bill I've seen in over a half century of covering national politics. Which still leaves the question of what to do about it.

After all, living in the Mafia neighborhood that contemporary America has become, survival can easily, and wisely, take precedence over principle.

For example the Institute of Medicine estimates that around 18,000 Americans die because of a lack of health insurance. A study in the December issue of American Journal of Public Health puts the figure for those 18-64 at 45,000 lives lost a year. Does one ignore such numbers in order to stand on principle against an indefensible payoff to the health insurance industry?

Or consider these assets of the pending legislation as outlined by Joshua Holland for Alternet:

[] According to the Congressional Budget Office, Medicaid expansion alone would offer public insurance to more than 10 million low-income Americans who would otherwise be without. . . More than nine in ten people who lack insurance in America fall beneath 400 percent of the poverty line, and every one of them will get some help getting coverage. . .

"The House legislation is a watered-down bill that would do little to contain America's overall health-care costs, but would help contain the family health-care expenses of tens of millions of real working people, while covering 36 million who would otherwise be uninsured." []

But now look at another side of the story. How many people will die or become ill because of provisions in the measure?

For example, the Medicare cost-cutting raises a serious threat to elderly. How big a threat one can't tell right now, but you can get a sense of the problem by considering the recent report favoring a drastic reduction in mammograms. Thanks to the strength of the women's movement, this suggestion was quickly squashed, but what about similar cuts in examinations or services to those under Medicare who are less likely to cause a fuss?

Further, we are looking at a system in which the standards for care will be judged for both health benefit and budgetary efficiency by the same government agencies. The conflict of interest is enormous and will especially affect those whose illnesses and response do not match the government-approved average. How many people will die or suffer continued bad health as a result? To what degree is there a submerged bias in the bills against older patients suffering what might be called statistical deficit disorder? What will be the death rate as a result of seniors giving up Medicare Advantage? What will be the health effects of the mandatory mandate on a family that is about to have their house foreclosed and simultaneously faces criminal charges for not paying protection money to the insurance industry? We seem to have forgotten that beyond the poor are a huge number who need only be slightly pushed to go over the edge.

It is useful to recall that Obama's original point man in this sick game was Tom Daschle who said that health care reform "will not be pain free" and that seniors should accept more of that pain rather than treating it.

Daschle pushed for a federal review body modeled after the one in Britain that distinguished itself by such things as a rule that elderly patients couldn't get an expensive eye drug until one of their eyes went blind. It took three years of protest to reverse that decision.

Now, quietly snuck into the stimulus package, we have something called the Federal Coordinating Council for Comparative Effectiveness Research, which consists of 15 government officials and no outside experts. This body will be making purportedly unbiased evaluations of treatments but every official on it will be actually serving two gods: health and the budget.

In short, we are moving from a de facto triage system based on income to one based on appropriations.

And on age.

The silent and widespread acceptance of huge cuts in Medicare as part of "health reform" is an indicator of where the elderly really stand in current political priorities. As Cecil Connolly of the Washington Post noted last summer, "It appears seniors are the net losers under bills" then pending in the House.

No small part of the reason for this is that our health "reform" is being designed on an economic rather than a medical or moral basis. Since seniors are less productive than younger people, their lifespan simply isn't that important to a government so fiscally obsessed.

You can get a sense of how this works from an article in the Boston Globe by Linda Bilmes of the Harvard Kennedy School and Rosemarie Day of Massaschusetts' health insurance authority:

"The premature death of thousands of Americans can be translated into monetary terms using the economic "value of a statistical life.'' . . . A recent study by Stanford economists has demonstrated that the average economic value of a year of human life is about $129,000. Most insurance companies, and many countries around the world, already use a variant of this concept. They implicitly ascribe the value of an additional year of human life at $50,000 by setting that as the threshold for approving treatments. (Any treatment that costs $50,000 will be reimbursed if it is predicted to add another year of life for the patient)."

Significantly, no figures were given for the elderly, retired or infirm but it is clear from the subtext of the current debate that those in charge know whose lives they want to save and it ain't your grandmother.

There are other problems lurking behind the teleprompters. For example, the National Committee to Preserve Medicare and Social Security notes:

[] The health care reform bills now before Congress contain an unpleasant surprise for older Americans: Age-based increases in health insurance premiums for those under 65. This is nothing more than a giveaway to the private insurance industry.

At first blush, it might appear that this is justified assuming that as we age, we cost the health care system more. In fact, age is far from an entirely reliable predictor of health care costs, accounting for less than 20% of the variation in costs across age groups. A healthy 55-year-old may well consume fewer health care dollars than a 35-year-old who is obese or has diabetes.

Both the House and Senate bills include provisions to eliminate coverage for pre-existing conditions, which clearly serves the public interest.

Permitting premiums to rise with age contradicts the intent, if not the letter, of that regulation as aging can reasonably be considered an immutable, pre-existing condition. Moreover, the new regulation disproportionately affects Americans between 55 and 64, who already shoulder a financial burden for health care that is higher than any other age group, regardless of insurance status. . .

Here's a question for policymakers and the public to consider: Will the proposed age-rating of premiums, coupled with the absence of a robust, affordable public option, push more older Americans into the pool of people unable to afford health coverage?. . .

A recent Harvard study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that American adults under 65 who lack health insurance have a 40 percent higher risk of death than those who have coverage. Ailing and uninsured people in their 50s and 60s will likely add to the strain on Medicare's budget as they seek care for neglected health problems as soon as they become eligible for this entitlement.

The private insurance industry stands to make big profits from the millions of new customers it will pick up through health care reform. Adding to its bounty by putting the squeeze on the finances of older Americans is not only unjust, it is poor economic policy. []

Add to this the efforts by a powerful coalition that wishes to gut both Social Security and Medicare, epitomized by the insidious Concord Coalition and Peterson Foundation, as well as a development reported recently by Chris Bowers in Open Left:

"Of all the various blocs and gangs that have been formed in Congress this year, Senators Bayh, Conrad, Feinstein, Lieberman and Warner have managed to form the most regressive one yet. Currently, these five Democrats are demanding that Speaker Pelosi hand over all relevant Congressional power to an independent commission that will be allowed to slash and partially privatize Social Security and Medicare, or else they will allow the United States to default on its debt."

Writing in Global Research, Shamus Cooke gives rare attention to still other hidden ills of the healthcare legislation:

[] And although the final bill has yet to be crafted, there exists general agreements as to what the end version will look like. Americans will be forced to buy shoddy corporate insurance with no limit to the cost, no guarantee of quality, with large premiums and other tricks to further gouge consumers. If a public option emerges in the final bill - by no means a guarantee - it will be shrunken enough to insure very few people (2 percent of the U.S. population).

But it gets worse. How this health care "reform" will be paid for has implications that dwarf the above atrocities. . .

The two biggest cost saving schemes are the most damaging. The first is the enormous attack on Medicare. Since its inception, the corporate elite wanted this program struck down. Now they have their man for the job - a Republican could never get away with such obvious treachery. . .

One way that both Congressional health care bills will gut Medicare is referred to as "forced productivity gains" - cost saving measures essentially; trimming the fat.

What are these savings? The most mentioned device - by politicians and media alike - is the reduction of "wasteful tests" and procedures that doctors routinely perform, an idea that the health care mega-corporations love. It will save them billions, while having catastrophic effects on the health care of millions of people. . .

Another piece of Medicare that's being trimmed is Medicare Advantage, a favorite program of the elderly because of its comprehensive services. . .

Finally, The Senate health care bill attacks Medicare by reducing payments to doctors by 25 percent. If doctors receive such a drastic reduction in pay, they will simply refuse to see Medicare or Medicaid patients; people will thus be insured only on paper. The newly insured Medicaid patients under any new congressional bill will be sorely disappointed.

Once Medicare is undermined in the above ways, the corporate sponsored right-wing will make a very convincing argument that "Medicare doesn't work", leading to future cuts that will further destroy the program.

The second hidden disaster in financing a congressional health care bill is the tax on so-called "gold-plated" or "Cadillac" health insurance policies that some employers offer their workers. This tax is supposedly meant to apply to the health care policies that "elite" employees receive. . .

As it turns out, many, if not most workers in unions will be included in this tax, which, under the Senate version, will include any plan worth more than $8,000 for individuals and $21,000 for families. Hardly elite, considering the still-soaring costs for health care.

If this provision were to pass - and it's very popular in Congress - the immediate reaction would be very predictable: employers would immediately drop their health care plans, forcing workers into the now-forced purchasing of inadequate health care. . . []

But facts have never been important in this debate. For example, the Democrats have done their best to conceal how long it will be before provisions actually go into effect - such as the much touted ban on denial due to preexisting provisions. Nor will anyone admit the truth that a real advantage of the mandatory mandate is that the administration can claim - dishonestly to be sure - that it is not raising taxes. It is. The affected are just sending their checks to an insurance company rather than to the IRS.

In the end, the legislation will save lives while simultaneously causing other deaths. Not only does no one know the real numbers, but no one that I can find has even tried to come up with such figures. How do the saved uninsured match up against those driven out of existing plans (such as Medicare Advantage and so-called "Cadillac" programs) and how many seniors will die prematurely because of added costs or efficiency measures that claim their tests to treatment aren't worth it? I suspect there will be a net saving of life but that's not what all of us being created equal and with inalienable rights was meant to be about. None of our founders mentioned cost effectiveness as a precondition of human decency.

It's all a sad example of America's cultural and political collapse. This crowd - from Obama on down - could never have gotten Social Security, a minimum wage or Medicare passed. And it probably wouldn't have bothered them all that much, since today's politics has no higher goal than next quarter's campaign contributions.

Still, in reacting to it, this is a different situation than, say, being a conscientious objector in which one refuses to join in the killing and where virtue and effect are in sync. If, as I suppose, more lives will be saved than lost under the healthcare bill, then it is worth backing however cruel the choice - because you can't stand on principle in this instance without contributing to the damage. It seem that we have to pay the protection money to the insurance mob, save some lives and then turn to fighting the struggle on better ground.

November 15, 2009


Sam Smith

Last May, the Republican National Committee condemned Obama and the Democratic Congress for leading America towards socialism. Since then the line has been picked up by numerous others on the right including the tea baggers, a group that believes it is standing for true American rights by invoking memories of a fight that was actually about merely getting Americans some representation in the British Parliament and not about full independence.

That's not the only mistake made by those complaining about the threat of socialism. If Obama is leading America anywhere, it is - like his immediate predecessors - towards fascism. Socialism is about the state running things on behalf of the public; fascism is about the state running things on behalf of corporations. Adrian Lyttelton in his book on Mussolini wrote that "fascism can be viewed as a product of the transition from the market capitalism of the independent producer to the organized capitalism of the oligopoly." It was a point that Orwell noted when he described fascism as being but an extension of capitalism. Lyttelton quoted Italian Nationalist theorist Affredo Rocco: "The Fascist economy is. . . an organized economy. It is organized by the producers themselves, under the supreme direction and control of the State."

This is the way we have been heading for some time and Obama has merely joined the club.

Still, all the talk got me thinking about what avoiding socialism in America would truly be about. What if we set out to rid ourselves of all intrusions of this purported political curse? Here are a few things we might do:

- Return to the old system of fire fighting in which blazes were handled by private fire brigades hired by private insurance companies. Brooke Harrington described the practice in Economic Sociology: "If you wanted a fire brigade to come to your aid in . . . emergencies, you had to join a kind of club with private membership fees. It worked like this: you ponied up the fees, the club gave you a plaque to put over your front door, and then if fire swept through the neighborhood, the club dispatched help, but they only assisted paying members. So if you didn't have that plaque over your door, the fire rescue teams would pass you right on by. It would not be uncommon to find that your house burned down while the one next door would be saved." Sounds a little like our health insurance system.

- End public education. Public schools - which strongly aided the growth of America - are about as socialistic as you can get. Obama, it should be noted, is trying to help reduce this deleterious influence by converting public schools into profit-making charter operations.

- Close down all federal highways or sell them off to the highest bidder so they can turn them into profit-making roads using tolls.

- Abolish Social Security, Medicare, food stamps and all other such welfare programs.

- End all government interference with the banking and financial industries. This would have recently saved us hundred of billions in bailout funds.

- End all veterans programs including closing veterans' hospitals.

- Sell off all public transportation to unregulated private interests.

- Close all public hospitals, end public subsidies to other hospitals and privatize all ambulance service.

- End all government regulation of food or health products.

- End the practice of government plowing streets after a snow storm. As Boston mayor James Curly put it, "The Lord brought it; let the Lord take it away."


Feeling better yet?

Bet you never realized what a bunch of closet socialists we are.

We got there, though, because - instead of hurling theories and cliches at each other - we decided on a case by case basis who could do a particular job best. And the funny thing is, it's worked pretty well.

People who complain about the threat of socialism remind me of the man from Virginia who went to college on the GI Bill and bought his first house with a VA loan. When a hurricane struck he got federal disaster aid. When he got sick he was treated at a veteran's hospital. When he was laid off he received unemployment insurance and then got a SBA loan to start his own business. His bank funds were protected under federal deposit insurance laws. When he retired he went on Social Security and Medicare. The other day he got into his car, drove the federal interstate to the railroad station, parked in the public lot, took Amtrak to Washington and went to Capitol Hill to ask his congressman to get the government off his back.

November 10, 2009


Sam Smith

Although America's politics is increasingly being driven by myth - witness the stunning decline in those who believe that global temperatures are rising - the media, academia and political activists tend to act primarily with dismay and disgust or to satisfy themselves by labeling the myth followers wing nuts. Serious consideration of this huge factor in American life is largely absent.

Little time is spent on how to educate people on a complex or scientific matter, to help them deal with probabilities as well as certainties, or how best to convince rather than merely to condemn.

Here's a thought for starters: Bring together journalists, philosophers, pollsters, historians, anthropologists and activists to put the matter on the table. Begin with the premise that myth is normal in any culture; it even has important healthy functions. But what happens when, as now, myth gets out of hand? What causes this? How do we stop myth from being self destructive? How, metaphorically, do we return safely from Jonestown to the First Baptist Church down the street?

If there were such a conference - or, better, a series of conferences - here are some of potential topics:

What causes myth to change its role in the same culture?

How important are different segments of the culture in this: education, religion, media, political campaigns etc?

How does this shift reflect a failure to understand basic things like the variations in a multi-year chart of global temperatures? What can be done about this?

How do we raise the understanding of probability in dealing with such matters? For example, I often use the poker analogy in dealing with the environment, emphasizing such points as considering the stakes as well as the odds.

What is the best response to cynically created mythology such as the idea in the recent Maine campaign that gay marriage would damage heterosexual marriage or endanger children?

What is the media's responsibility in handling such issues and how could it do it better?

What are effective ways to move someone from myth to reality?

To what extent does the over-complexity of solutions (or of their administration) - i.e. the healthcare bills - contribute to mythology? Is the lesson that we should more often break such solutions into smaller, more comprehensible parts?

To what extent does burying questionable items in a complex solution - i.e again the healthcare bills - contribute to mythology and undermine support?

To what extent does the establishment's tendency to say "Case closed" on matters with continuing doubt work against reality and spur myth? For example, the World Trade Center attack was certainly not likely the creation of George Bush, but that doesn't eliminate unanswered questions about what happened in government before the attack or about the construction of the towers. To act as though it does seems to encourage, rather than eliminate, myth. This happens over and over, often because the government wants to put a matter aside and the media is too willing to help.

How can we teach honor for unanswered questions without embellishing them with unsupported theoretical conclusions?

The government often has a two track goal: solve a problem and appear that it is solving it. Often, the latter effort - as in the case of swine flu - can work against the former. You can test this out by trying to discover precisely how many people have died after taking the vaccine. I could find only one report, a minute number in a Chinese sample. But government public relations types don't think like that. The want everything to appear far more rosy and far more certain than it may actually be. How do we deal with this?

What do history and anthropology tell us about myth and how it helps and damages a culture?

And that's just for starters. The important thing is to start, to recognize that myth is not something you change by name calling but by dealing with it as a force as real and important in its own way as climate change. And something that may severely damage our approach to such issues as climate change because we forget in this scientific and technological age that not everything that matters can be easily measured.

November 09, 2009


Sam Smith

Have pity on me. Say a prayer. Drop a penny in the pond on my behalf. In a few days I have to go to a non-profit's strategic planning meeting. It's a great organization that does great things, but - like so many non-profits - it periodically seeks to cleanse and refresh itself by turning what it does into indecipherable abstractions. I'll survive and maybe there'll be some good food, but, as a general rule, I don't do strategic visions.

Still it's happening all over America. "Strategic plan" and its semantic variations have appeared on Google seven million times just in the past month. On the Review's list of cliches that's right between "empower" and that ultimate expression of corporate insincerity - "any inconvenience" - you know, the one for which everyone apologizes.

Strategic planning, in its non-military sense, got its start at the Harvard Business School in the 1920s. Not long after we had the Great Depression. The concept had a revival in the 1980s and contributed to the philosophy and practices that have left us with the Penultimate Great Depression.

Coincidence, perhaps, but bear in mind that in the 1950s - when the economy was booming - we were turning out only 5,000 MBAs a year. The number of people in business who had any idea of about strategic planning was minute. By 2005, we were churning out 142,000 MBAs a year and we had huge trade and budget deficits, a disappearing auto industry, one of our most costly and disastrous wars, a growing gap between rich and poor, and a constantly projected inability to care for our ill or elderly.

Worse, everyone in the country had been infected by corporate verbiage and values. And, often unconsciously, much of America had bought into the rightwing and absurdly simplistic Reaganesque view of life and the very voices that should have been among the loudest in opposition - non-profits - signed up as well.

Non-profits found that it helped to adopt the language of business. It made them seem responsible rather than just over-idealistic do-gooders. It also reflected one of the most misguided assumptions of the educated elite: if one can understand, identify, manipulate and be loyal to abstract principles, the specifics will obediently follow.

Editors and reporters, among others, know better. Reporters run into this sort of language constantly at news conferences and elsewhere. They have a professional term for it: bullshit.

And editors know that a reporter may come up with a great idea for a story and even have a strategy for carrying it out, but if the journalist doesn't know how find the right sources, or ask the right questions and write it all down, the strategy won't work.

Over the past three decades corporations have done an incredibly effective job of turning Americans into just so many more corporate employees desperate for a strategic vision that will foster formulations of actions and processes to be taken to attain the vision in accordance with agreed upon procedures in order to achieve a hierarchy of goals. It has - with bombast, bullying and baloney - convinced an extraordinary number of Americans that its childishly verbose and coldly abstract culture is transferable to every human activity from running a church to driving a tractor across a field.

Unfortunately, life doesn't work like that. You need to look no farther than the military to see this. During the post-war period when the US military devoted more effort to strategic planning that at any time in its history, it has also had the sorriest record. Over and over, the problem has been an attractive general principle overwhelmed or sabotaged by reality and facts.

Now bounce back 150 years to a war in which general strategy was more than balanced by specific generals. At one point a White House aide complained of General Grant's drinking and Lincoln invoked his best management practices - which was to tell the aide to find out what Grant was drinking and give it to all his other generals. Put that in your vision statement.

And the key battle at Little Round Top was won by a general named Joshua Chamberlain who had studied theology, taught ever subject except science and math and was fluent in nine languages. He had, however, never study military strategy.

In any specific situation, a general strategy can quickly lose value without supporting virtues like wisdom, sufficient staff, adequate budget, imagination, energy and good fortune.

But of course, if all else fails, you can always fall back on your mission statement.

Like most people, I never read mission statements except under duress or when I have nothing better to do, like standing in the lobby of a pretentious restaurant waiting to be seated.

Gordon Luk
said it well: "The easy and fun way to test whether a mission statement. . . is garbage is to negate it and see whether it still holds up. If a mission statement does not make sense for a company not to do, then why even bother stating the obvious?

"Striving to be a leader in a field? Of course you are – you better not be trying to come in dead last…

"Trying to connect people to passions or interests? Hell, why not disconnect them instead!. . .

"Douglas Adams wrote frequently about the human penchant for continuously stating the very, very obvious. Mission statements take that principle to the extreme, to the point where we even believe that we're going to persuade people about something or other by making an official public statement about what we are going to do that would be insane to negate."

Occasionally a mission statement rises to the occasion. The alternative newspaper Eat the State had one that read: "Missions were created by the Catholic Church to subjugate Native Americans in California. We oppose them." And a small computer consultancy business in West London posted a sign: 'We are not ruled by a mission statement, we are smarter than that'. But when you start to count the number of organizations - from religious to non-profit to social to political - that feel they can't get along without some gobbledygook on the inside cover of whatever they're publishing, you know the corporate cultural invasion is complete.

Which doesn't mean you shouldn't have plans, think about where you're going, discuss alternatives and figure out what you do best. But the better model should be the pragmatism, inventiveness and realism of small business culture which still provides most of America's new jobs - as many as 75 percent in some experts' view. Most small business people don't have time to sit around a table coming up with empty adjectives to describe their efforts. And they tend to call the people who buy their stuff customers rather than stakeholders, which makes sense, given that the pre-corporate definition of stakeholder was someone who held the bet during a gambling match and handed it over to the winner. Not a particularly exciting or profitable role in life.

Here's how David Weinberger put in back in 1999:

"Mission statements are vapid because they think of business as a march to a goal or a war of conquest. Businesses are far more complex than that. . . Further, missions are things you accomplish and are done with. Businesses, on the other hand, generally aim for long-term existence. The board doesn't get together and say, "Well, we've accomplished our mission of being the world's leading supplier of high quality wombats to blind gombricks, so I guess we can just shut it all down now. Good job, lads!"

"Businesses often are more like farming than like making war. How can we get maximum sustainable yield from this ground? And what happens when the ground changes radically? Are we going to keep trying to grow potatoes in the layer of ash, or are we going to see this as a splendid opportunity to succeed with ash-loving radishes?

"So, yes, write up something about your commitment to treating your customers well, building great products, and contributing to the lives of your employees and your community. Heck, even admit that you're in it for the money. But one thing is certain: if your mission statement achieves the usual goal of fitting on the back of a business card, then it's just about guaranteed to be empty of anything worth saying."

Which is why I don't look forward to my afternoon of strategic planning. We will declare, no doubt, some fine principles, but life is controlled not by the glories of the grand but by the uncertainties, blessings and perversities of the specific. It is in organizing the latter in some rational, useful, imaginative and, yes, enjoyable fashion that life becomes better. As Benjamin Franklin noted, happiness is not the result of great strokes of good fortune, but of the "little felicities" of every day.

Meanwhile, if you are still curious about my personal vision statement, please consult my optometrist.

November 06, 2009


Sam Smith

The recent murders at Ft. Hood recall Pascal's observation that "Men never do evil so cheerfully and so completely as when they do so from religious conviction."

Of course, the assumption in this country at the moment is that only Muslims are evil, which ignores Christians doing evil to Muslims in Afghanistan or Jews threatening to nuke Iran in the name of civilization.

In the end, it doesn't make much difference whether your husband or son is killed by a Muslim major in Ft. Hood, an American drone in Pakistan, or a Israeli soldier in Gaza. In each case the dead are victims of violent religious and cultural hubris.

The media, though, was quick to smell the bait. Even before Fox News had corroborated the suspect's name, Shepard Smith asked Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, "The names tells us a lot, does it not, senator?"

Replied Hutchison, "It does. It does, Shepard."

And the White House, joint chiefs and national security advisors treated it all as another wartime crisis rather than a solitary case of madness.

Which is logical, perhaps, because it is getting harder and harder to separate individual and mass insanity.

We assume there are people who are crazy and those who are rational but when your government reacts to those that brought down the World Trade Towers with an eight year futile war in Iraq that has killed, by the most conservative estimates, over 40 times as many innocent people, that line disappears.

Or consider that the war, along with that in Afghanistan, was the creation of politicians blithely willing to cause that many deaths to win reelection and supported by generals and admirals who thought it was a good idea and who then ordered Major Hasan and tens of thousands of others to engage in battle as an absolutely indisputable act of responsibility.

Or think about one little symbol of all this. Pull up a photo of the Joint Chiefs, those responsible for conducting wars like Iraq and Afghanistan and sending people to fight in them. Notice their chests bedizened by ribbons.

Now ask yourself: in what other field of human endeavor could one wear ribbons indicating areas of service, major campaigns, training, unit achievement, and personal accomplishment without people regarding you as completely mad?

And in what other job can you wantonly kill so many people and be treated as a normal human being?

None of this excuses Major Hasan but it puts his acts in perspective: a uncontrolled act of madness in a deliberately insane system.

We don't think about such things much, because most of us don't have to. The business of war has been outsourced to the weakest parts of our economy, to victims of our pathological economic system among others.

This is one reason there are so many suicides amongst soldiers. War is no longer a one time misery; troops are being recycled through it because there are too few to take their place.

One of the reasons, although we don't talk about it, is that an increasing number of people see war as a crazy idea of which they want no part. For the better off, that's a choice, but for others madness is simply the best job they can find.

The good news is that while perhaps a third or more of history's major wars (in terms of fatalities) have occurred in the 20th century, since WWII the death rates have gone down. We seem to be tiring of war but don't yet know it.

Which is good, all morality aside, since the only war America has won since the 1940s has been the invasion of Grenada and no government has surrendered to us since Japan.

There is a parallel madness to be found in other aspects of our uberculture - our approach to the environment, economy and education for example. This can lead one to an alternative subculture, depression or violent acts. The more we tend to the first course, the more haven we offer to those who might otherwise slip into the latter.

It's not easy to do but it helps to bear in mind when something like the recent killings occur that it is only a small outward and visible sign of a massive inner and invisible madness that can drive us crazy as well.

November 04, 2009


Sam Smith

Voting for the first time in Maine, I have had the pleasure of another first: an election in which 50-70 percent of voters in my town agreed with me on six out of seven referenda (including supporting gay marriage). There was one city council member running unopposed and I haven't heard yet about the three slots on the sewer district, but I took the advice of an old friend (and a Republican) on that one so it doesn't really count.

The fact that I got to vote for who was on the sewer district, however, does count. After all I spent some four decades in Washington DC, trying to convince people that we should have an elected attorney general and comptroller and only now has a bill for the former been submitted to Congress. Submitted to Congress because DC is still a colony of the U.S. and the world's greatest democracy doesn't want its capital deciding for itself whether to have an elected attorney general.

The other evening I got another taste for what local democracy felt like. I attended a meeting concerning an alternative agricultural center whose manure runoff during the wettest summer in Maine history had helped cause the nearby clam flats to be closed.

The farm (with which I've been long involved) quickly removed cattle from the area and took other corrective steps; the meeting was about where to go from here. There were representatives from three state agencies, the local shellfish commission, the local clamming and oyster trade, the farm, not to mention the clam warden. It was all chaired by the head of the town council.

I calculated that attendance - around 50 - represented approximately six percent of the population of the town. In DC this would have meant a crowd of 3500, something I never saw. Secondly, in my former home the issue would have likely become highly controversial and full of superfluous rhetoric. I had been a neighborhood commissioner there and worked my way through problems like this and it wasn't fun.

But the participants at the Freeport meeting made rational arguments and proposals, listened to the others present, were clearly interested in facts, and sought to find a solution that worked for everyone, both clammers and coastal farm. It was an extremely complicated issue including when and how the water sampling is done, identifying the cause of variations, relative fecal contamination of wild and domesticated animals, shifts in animal location, length of stay in that location, and geography of location.

By the end of the evening, both interests had joined to pressure the Department of Marine Resources to open the flats sooner than they had planned.

I mentioned to a friend afterwards that maybe we should send the whole lot down to Washington to work out a solution on the healthcare bill.

It was also nice, I thought, to be talking sensibly about real manure rather than, as during most of my life, ranting about the fake stuff that is spread so wantonly in Washington.

On election day, the one issue where I was in the minority concerned school consolidation. The state, inspired by the bureaucratic obsessives at the Brookings Institution, had required school districts to consolidate. A number didn't like it for good reason: for example, it would cost money or the districts were too far apart. For more than fifty years, America has been consolidating school districts and the main effect has been to replace educators with bureaucrats and wardens,

But while Freeport voters supported the consolidation with a 62% majority, 79% of Pownal voters, the next town over - and ordered to consolidate with us at a considerable increase in expense - rejected the plan. Since the plan survived statewide, Freeport won and Pownal lost. It's a hell of a way to start a relationship.

But it is part of the bureaucratic myth that we are all the same as long as the data says so.

The clamflat meeting - arranged within the community - and the school consolidation - imposed from outside - reflect the difference between what John McKnight called associations vs. institutions:

"The structure of institutions is a design established to create control of people. On the other hand, the structure of associations is the result of people acting through consent."

Here are some of the characteristics McKnight found among associations in contrast to institutions:

- Interdependency. "If the local newspaper closes, the garden club and the township meeting will each diminish as they lose a voice."

- Community is built around a recognition of fallibility rather than the ideal.

- Community groups are better at finding a place for everyone.

- Associations can respond quickly since they lack the bureaucracy of large institutions.

- Associations engage in non-hierarchical creativity.

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the importance of localizing food. It makes excellent sense but a question keeps coming to mind: why lettuce and not democracy?

One of my big disappointments in politics has been the indifference of liberals - the sort who boost local food - with keeping democracy close to home as well. They often talk about it as though it was some sort of holdover from the states' rights days of segregation.

A growing number of people who identify with new liberalism see themselves as experts and take it for granted that the wisest decisions will be made at the top and then passed down as regulations.

These decisions - like school consolidation - tend to rely on data that wipes out the normal variations of human existence. This data turns judgment into an indentured servant instead of just informing it.

Thus we have a stimulus package that creates innumerable obstacles for state and local government, an education plan that wipes out the very system that taught America to be what it became, and a healthcare plan that absolutely no one understands.

Until we rediscover the value of community, it will only get worse. We will find ourselves increasingly, as Bill Mauldin once put it, fugitives from the law of averages.

Propelled by the rapacious ambitions of their members, neither national party cares about this. But then they don't care about local food either and that didn't stop that movement from coming to life. Our goal should be to bring democracy, as well as our lettuce, as close to home as possible.


Sam Smith, Progressive Review - Having lived most of my life in the gay friendly city of Washington, I wasn't prepared from some of the nastiness involved in the Maine gay marriage debate. Especially the sick video that claimed that the state's schools would be teaching gay marriage in class.

And while I knew the Pope was the George Wallace of gender, I had never been this close to the repulsive cruelty of the Catholic church on the issue, not to mention hypocritical - given the behavior of more than a few of its priests.

Finally, I realized too late how easy it was to slip into the media's assumption that this was just another issue - and not a major test of morality. It was only after the returns came in that it occurred to me how little the difference was between denying gays entry into marriage and denying a black kid's entry into a school or that kid's parent's entry into a restaurant. It was not just gay marriage being judged, but the rest of us as well. A minority's rights is not a gift to be bestowed but a strong reflection of our own honor and decency. And we failed.

A vote for the establishment of religion

Among other reasons, the banning of gay marriage is illegal because its purpose and origin is based almost entirely on the principles of certain religions. To ban gay marriage is to establish some religions' beliefs as superior to those of others. Specifically, the Maine gay marriage vote makes the following lesser religions compared, say, to the Catholic Church:

The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, Ecumenical Catholic Church, Church of God Anonymous, Alliance for Jewish Renewal, Reconstructionist Judaism, Reform Judaism, and Unitarian Universalist Association, which all approve of same sex marriage

The United Church of Christ, Episcopal and various Quaker groups leave the decision to clergy, congregations or local governing bodies. And, adds the Interfaith Workig Group, the Presbyterian Church (USA) allows the blessings of same-gender unions with terminology restrictions.

So the result was not just a repeal of gay marriage but a totally unconstitutional vote to restrict the rights of the aforementioned religion