Thursday, June 28, 2012

Seven Reasons to Vote for Mitt Romney

The Supreme Court upheld Obamacare this morning. Thank goodness for Mitt Romney. He learned his lesson in Massachusetts. What was he thinking back then? If elected president he promises to do what SCOTUS wouldn’t: get rid of the Affordable Care Act.

You want what?
Get behind him. Get out the vote. This is what his election will mean for you:

1.     If you get seriously ill, you may not have to add expensive health insurance premiums to your woes. Your insurance may well be cancelled.

2.     If you lose your health insurance and you’ve been sick in the past (and not too sick at that), you won’t have to worry about wading through the confusing morass of health plans. You won’t be able to get one.

3.     If one of your kids decides to move back home from the commune, you won’t have to argue with her about whether she should pay for health coverage on your plan until age 26. She won’t be able to get on it.

4.     If you have coverage, you can take comfort that your insurer will always be there for you as there will be no limit on the premium increases it can demand to boost its profits.

5.     If you get a chance to experience the joy of shopping for your own individual insurance plan, you will not be deprived of the character-building rigors of arduous study. Insurance exchanges that make it easy to compare prices for policies that are all required to offer certain basic features, like 100% coverage for annual physicals, won’t exist.

6.     When you get old (say it ain’t so) and are on a Medicare prescription drug plan, your donuts will still have holes.

7.     You won’t be deprived of one of your main cocktail party grouses: high health insurance premiums. Without all those young healthy people mucking about in the insurance pool, you can continue to pay the high price of exclusivity.

Before the Court’s ruling, polls showed that two-thirds of Americans wanted the Court to strike down Obamacare. There we go again (as Reagan might have put it). An activist Court has gotten out of step with the popular culture. Take heart, though, with all the good reasons I’ve set forth above, I’m optimistic that we can rise up and elect a Congress and president who can do what we want them to. That is what we want, isn’t it?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sowing and Reaping: the Fear Edition

As a father, I always felt terrible when I frightened my children. I was not much more than a child myself when I had my first son, and sometimes I acted like it. He and I both had temper tantrums. I had been raised with spankings, so I passed them along now and then. Over the years I mellowed, and by the time I had my last son, twenty-five years after the first, I was a shadow of my old terrifying self. My youngest son even shamed me into dropping spankings. They weren’t much more than occasional irritated swats by then, but he wouldn’t put up with them. It’s wrong to hit people, he told me, with withering moral clarity, at age four. That was the last one.

None of the moments of which I am proud as a father involved making my children fear me. So I was shocked to see a brass plaque set in the large patio of a church in my neighborhood that contained, in bold letters, the following inscription: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Really? In my experience, the only thing people who are taught to fear learn is to be afraid. Well, that’s the first thing they learn. After not too long, they learn other things as well. They learn to lie. They learn to hide from the one they fear. They learn to hate. Of course, hating your earthly father is (usually) less risky than hating your heavenly father, the one you have been taught will meet you at the pearly gates with a thumbs up or down for eternity.

If you fear someone you can’t afford to hate, you look around for some other target, someone else to blame for the dreadful conflict you feel inside. Non-believers are obvious candidates for this transference. Gays. Abortionists. Catholics. Jews. Muslims. Take your pick. Anyone who isn’t afraid of the same god you are, anyone who isn’t suffering for his faith as reverently as you.

I haven’t been religious for a long time, but I was an altar boy and my great grandfather was an Episcopal minister, so I thought I had a grip on what religion, at least protestant and protestant-like religions in America, were all about. Love your neighbor. Turn the other cheek. The Golden Rule. That sort of thing. I knew about the wrathful god of the Old Testament (even thought he was kind of cool in a Terminator sort of way, with all that smiting of firstborn and parting of waters), but I understood he had been put on the shelf as vain and somewhat unstable, like the gods of pagans. I thought he had been replaced by the kinder, gentler message of the man my great grandfather believed was god’s son.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to see that I was wrong. There is still a lot of religious anger out there. And it’s not confined to fanatics who strap on suicide vests and blow themselves to kingdom come. You can see it in the contorted faces of a crowd of Evangelical Christians confronting abortionists or gays. You can feel it in the Catholic Bishops’ bitter condemnation of their own progressive nuns.

All this anger isn’t doing a thing for our relationships with one another. Anger is corrosive enough to eat away even the strong love of a child for a parent. Imagine how quickly it can dispense with regard for someone you don’t even know, someone for whom your hatred has little cost to you. Hating should be hard. It should be painful.

I don’t know what is being preached in churches, temples and mosques today, but I hope it isn’t fear. If I could go to my neighborhood church and dig up that plaque, I would replace it with one that offers not a prescription for wisdom but a warning: Fear of the Lord is the beginning of intolerance.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Knowing and Remembering

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
--George Santayana

One of my grown sons is carefree about his children. The other is cautious. One lets his son jump off cliffs (metaphorically speaking), the other encourages his to enjoy more tranquil pursuits. One has children who have never been sick or had accidents. The other spent way too much time in neonatal intensive care units with premature babies. Think you can match the personal history with the protective parenting? It’s not that hard, right? Most of us would be the same way. Once burned, and all that.

It’s no accident, I think, that the Great Recession of 2008 did not happen while my grandfather was still alive. He and my grandmother rented out rooms in their house to make ends meet in the 1930s; and they were among the lucky ones. The crash of 1929, just after he became a stockbroker, and the ensuing depression, changed my grandfather forever. You couldn’t get him to borrow too much if you paid him.

The forerunner to the Great Depression was wild stock speculation fueled by easy credit. Economists are still not entirely sure why the bursting of the stock bubble triggered a depression, but I know what my grandfather thought. He believed it was the result of too much greed, too much debt, and then, as the edifice tumbled, blind panic. People grabbed their money from banks, many of which failed; commerce ground to a halt; nobody could find a job. It took WW II to jolt the economy back to life.

The Great Recession of 2008, which everyone seems to agree was pre-ordained by over-borrowing, had to wait for my grandfather’s generation to hand over the helm of the economy. Didn’t the people who came after him know the same things he did? Yes, but they didn’t feel them.

Economists like to assume we are all rational actors, but neuroscientists tell us we are not. New studies show that our economic behavior, just like some of our more basic drives, is strongly influenced by biology. Hedge-fund traders get a rush of adrenaline and dopamine when they are on the hunt. It makes them feel invincible. It enables outsized risk-taking. The other end of the neurological spectrum is the fear of debt my grandfather felt. His brain had been sensitized by financial trauma, just as a trader’s is doped by the prospect of a killing in the market. Much of the time we are acting no more rationally in the conduct of our financial affairs than a teenaged boy trying to get laid, or a rabbit running from the shadow of a hawk.

I’m not sure there is anything to be done about all this. Short of some modern “Total Recall” serum that could implant fear of stupid risks, it seems we just have to live with the limits of our experience. Perhaps economists should take that into account when they try to model future behavior. How has the population changed? Is there anyone still around who lived through that last disaster, or has our collective response been reset to na├»ve?

Remembering is different than knowing. The experiences we have change us in ways that reading about them cannot. They inoculate us like a flu shot, or sensitize us like a bee sting. Perhaps George Santayana understood the semantically subtle but physiologically powerful difference between knowing and remembering. As for me, I did not. I assumed that societies kept records and passed them along and that each new generation possessed the cumulative wisdom of all who came before. Not so, apparently; or at least not always.

For all who, like me, desperately want to believe we can learn from the mistakes of the past, I offer this sobering modification to Santayana’s dictum: Those who have not themselves experienced the pain of the past are doomed to plan the future with the innocence of children.