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[culture|politics] National blind spots

As long-time readers of this blog know, I’ve been pretty exercised about the United States’ national healthcare policies (specifically healthcare finance, not healthcare delivery) for a long time. This was true even before I became a cancer patient and got to experience much the madness first hand. I am similarly exercised about certain other issues, such as our firearms policies (viz recent blog entries) and education policies (specifically, that we have a political and social system that allows Creationists to take control of public education, leading to monumental wastes of time and effort and the horrific mis-education of children as characterized by the Dover decision).

But we also get a lot of things right in this country. To name a few, healthcare delivery (as opposed to healthcare finance), where when the United States is at our best, we are generally the world’s best. Aviation policy, where most of the world follows FAA standards. The research-industrial complex that has delivered everything from Teflon to the Internet for the whole world to use. Higher education, where again, at our best we are generally the world’s best. Our First Amendment protections for freedom of speech and freedom of worship, which provide us with at least the potential for maximum personal expression and individual freedom of thought.

So what I wonder is about our national blind spots. If our healthcare finance system so wonderful, how come nobody else in the industrialized West has anything like it? If our national social policy on firearms is so conducive to personal liberty and a free society, how come nobody else in the industrialized West has anything like it? Quite demonstrably, more often than not when the United States get something right, the rest of the world tends to either develop in parallel or follow along. Yet no one will touch our healthcare system or our firearms policies with a bargepole. And those countries tend to have much better healthcare outcomes than we do, and much lower rates of violent crime. As Americans, we seem incapable of perceiving that.

In other words, if our policies on healthcare and firearms are such a good idea, how come no similar societies are following our example?

History will judge us harshly for some things — leading the path in climate change denial, for example. Our obsessive militarization of world affairs, for another example. But history will be simply baffled by other aspects of American culture, such as our vicious healthcare policies and our national obsession with placing deadly weapons in the hands of every citizen who ever dreamt of having one.

Blind spots. Destructive blind spots.

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[personal||culture] The costs of owning a car

I hold an Oregon drivers license. I own an automobile. I belong to the American Automobile Association. That makes me part of car culture in this country. In accepting the perceived benefits of owning a car, I am also taking a responsibility for the risks and social costs of widespread automobile use.

There are over 250,000,000 registered passenger vehicles in the United States.1 There are over 210,000,000 licensed drivers in the United States.2 We are almost all of us in his country part of car culture. Almost all of us take responsibility for the risks and social costs of widespread automobile use.

As it happens, for my personal lifestyle, though I am low-mileage driver by US standards, mostly due to having a job working at home and thus no daily commute (we’re ignoring the effects of cancer on my driving for the sake of this discussion), I and my household are not in a position to go car-free. The location of Nuevo Rancho Lake is such that many of life’s needed errands are impractical without an automobile. We do not live in a transit-dense area, and the time penalty for taking such mass transit as is available overwhelms our schedules.

For my own part, when [info]the_child is older, in the somewhat unlikely event that I have regained my health, I would like to move to a dense, mixed-urban neighborhood where my automobile dependency can be sharply reduced or eliminated completely. At this point in my life, that’s largely wishful thinking. I continue to be reliant on automobile transportation both directly — to be driven to my copious medical appointments by friends or relatives, for example — and indirectly — the errands to the grocery store, post office and so forth that are run on my behalf, largely by Lisa Costello in her car.

This means I am benefiting from automobiles, even if I no longer operate them personally for reasons of my own health and everyone’s safety. In benefiting from them, I accepting their costs. Like any aspect of life, car culture is both things, benefits and costs.

I accept that in the United States, we experience about 30,000 deaths per year (10.3876 per 100,000 population)3. (Oddly enough, this is very similar to the number of gun deaths per year.) That number is down about 25% over the last ten years, apparently mostly due to safety improvements in automobile design and construction. In opting to own and use a car, I am participating in a system which kills 30,000 of my fellow citizens every year. I own a piece of those deaths as surely as if I were driving the car that killed them. To pretend otherwise would be disingenuous of me. The moral calculus here isn’t “ooh, killing machines!”, but rather a balance of the overall social benefit of nearly universal transportation with the carrying costs of its risks and inefficiencies. Every one of those 30,000 dead set out with some purpose, most of them by car, that they judged to be worth the risk to their life. Just I like judge ever car trip I make to be worth the risk to my life. That 0.01% risk of my death on that particular trip is the cost of doing business.

I also accept that in the United States, the average passenger vehicle emits 108 pounds of hydrocarbons, 854 pounds of carbon monoxide, 55.8 pounds of oxides on nitrogen, 16,034 pounds of carbon dioxide, and 813 gallons of gasoline evaporates.4 (I’m not sure about that last number, but I’m not in a position right now to research it further. The rest meet a test-of-reasonableness for me, but if someone has better data, let me know.) Again, by participating in car culture, I own a piece of that pollution as surely as if I were dumping industrial chemicals into the air by hand for the sheer joy of seeing the birds fall out of the sky. Again, a balance of social benefits and net risk. One that is highly arguable, of course, but every day 200,000,000 million of us get in our cars and pump out those tailpipe emissions. This is of course changing with the increasing emphasis on hybrids and more efficient conventional engines, as well as be affected by other choices such as mass transit or bicycle use. But that massive scale of pollution is the cost of doing business.

As I said, I belong to AAA. That’s an organization which among other things lobbies for motorists’ concerns and increased government support for car culture. I am responsible for the things they promote and achieve, whether or not I personally agree with choices to, say, fund a new highway and not build a light rail system somewhere with that same money. I own that, it’s part of car culture.

I’m not even talking about many other costs of the automobile, from the way Federal and State budgets are skewed toward road infrastructure to the impact of fossil fuel extraction and distribution to the foreign wars we have fought over access to oil to the misplaced research and development dollars that could have improved our way out all of this decades ago if it were not for car culture. Those are all part of the cost of doing business.

The point I’m making is that in choosing to own and use an automobile, in choosing to participate in car culture, all of these things belong to me. The deaths, the pollution, the foreign wars, the misplaced spending. And I accept them as part of the cost of doing business, given the benefits I perceive the automobile giving me. I would be a moral coward not to do so. I would be in denial. If I didn’t take that responsibility, I’d be accepting the emotional and personal rewards of automobile ownership without acknowledging any of the costs.

How this applies to handgun licensing, gun ownership and NRA membership is best left as an exercise for the reader. I will simply say that we are all responsible for the consequences of our beliefs. We live in a society that will barely acknowledge the cost of widespread private automobile ownership, while pretending that widespread private gun ownership is some holy right without consequence at all.

Bullshit. My belief that I should own a car places responsibility on me for death, pollution and numerous other social costs. Your belief that you should own a gun is no more free of such costs.

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[culture] Yesterday people died in my neighborhood for your guns

Gunman opens fire at Oregon mall; Suspect, 2 dead.

This happened last night a mile or so from my house, at the mall where I normally go to the movies, and where my family occasionally goes to restaurants or stores which are easiest found in shopping malls. In this case, no one in my circle of family and close friends, and so far as I know, no one in my circle of acquaintances, was involved. My personal degree of involvement consisted only of hearing sirens from time to time while the through street down the block from my house became badly snarled up with diverted traffic.


Now we’re going to have the same, tiresome, never ending discussion we always have about our national obsession with firearms. “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” “Guns are only a tool.” “Spoons don’t make people fat any more than guns kill people.” “Cars kill more people than guns do.” “Guns make me safer.” “Guns prevent far more unreported crimes than they cause.” And my personal favorite, “It’s not right to politicize such a tragedy by bringing up these larger social issues.”

You know what? Shut the fuck up. People died. Because of guns. People who wouldn’t have died if the shooter couldn’t have acquired his firepower and accessories. It’s that fucking simple.

I’ve never yet met a gun enthusiast who will admit to the simple proposition that if there were fewer guns in our society, there would be fewer deaths. Not a single Second Amendment enthusiast with the moral and intellectual honesty to agree that yes, their ownership of firearms is more important to them than the tens of thousands of people killed every year by suicide, homicide and other gun-related causes.

My life is worth more to me than your guns are. My life is not made safer by your guns. If you can’t own that simple fact with its moral and social implications, you are a dishonest coward.

If you can own that simple fact, then you are a very different person than me. Because guess what? I value your life more than you value mine.

There’s a lot of conservative “scholarship” about how firearms keep people safe and prevent crime. That work is only slightly more credible than Young Earth creationist “scholarship”, a great deal of it being simply made up by a man working as a janitor at Yale who’s still cited in NRA circles as an Ivy League researcher.

There’s a lot of personal anecdote about how firearms have saved people’s lives. I’ll stipulate that even if each and every one of those is passionately true, it’s still on a par with people who tell stories about not wearing seatbelts saved their lives when they were thrown clear of a fiery wreck. The objective data says otherwise, and I’ll take data over anecdote every time. Especially when you’re laying my life on the line.

No one comes to gun advocacy as a reasoned position based on careful examination of the evidence, any more than anyone comes to evolution denial, climate change denial or supply side economics based on the evidence. Gun advocacy is an emotional and ideological position desperately in search of an objective basis, just like its conservative kissing cousins. Like all of those fixations, advocacy of widespread private gun ownership is a patently absurd position when viewed from any perspective other than the purely internal.

Some people feel safer with guns. You scare the rest of us spitless. Yesterday afternoon, your sense of safety was bought and paid for by someone who dressed up, went to the mall in my neighborhood, and killed people to celebrate the Christmas spirit and his theoretical defense of essential liberties as protected by the NRA and the Republican party.

It’s as simple as that. If the shooter didn’t have access to a weapon, a tool whose sole purpose is killing other human beings, he wouldn’t have killed and wounded nearly as many people.

Every day people die by firearms. Every day people die for your guns. I don’t want to be one of those people. I don’t want anyone I love or care about to be one of those people. I don’t want total strangers to be one of those people. I don’t want you to be one of those people. (There are more gun suicides than homicides in the United States every year.)

We have social experiments running in countries all over the globe, from the UK to Australia, that show reduced firearms availability and increased firearms control reduces gun violence and death rates. This isn’t even a remotely questionable proposition. Yet the gun lobby as a whole and gun enthusiasts in general go through intellectual and moral contortions that would shame a pedophile Jesuit crackhead in order to maintain that their beloved firearms are a right which cannot possibly be tainted by any whiff of sane social policy or moral considerations.

So, guns? Yeah. If I could, I’d mail every gun owner in the United States postcards every single day, showing a photo of that day’s dead, their bio, listing their surviving family members, and the make of firearm that killed them. They’d be like baseball cards. Maybe then it would be real to you guys polishing your guns and feeling afraid of the wicked world, feeling safer with your home defense.

I know a lot more gun owners than I do criminals, and it’s your culture of guns that enables those criminals to be armed in the first place.

If you’re a gun enthusiast, you own those deaths as surely as the sun rises in the east. And I’ll be amazed to see any of you ever admit that to yourselves. Congratulations, you’ve sufficiently controlled the social and political discourse such that none of the rest of us get a say in our own safety.

Meanwhile, people died in my neighborhood yesterday, paying with their lives for your gun rights. Just as people die in neighborhoods all across the United States every day.

Feel safer now?

I sure don’t.

[1] Be aware, in the comments section on this post I am unlikely to be my generally polite self to the usual specious arguments about why guns are harmless and wonderful. The social utility argument (“cars kill more people…”) or the home defense argument (“my gun in my nightstand is more accessible to my sleepy self who just woke up than that wired-up burglar’s is in his hand…”) for example. Feel free to engage me where you disagree, but don’t be stupid about it. I’m not willing to be moderate on this topic. Not today.

[2] I shouldn’t even have to go into this, but some people will doubtless think it, or bring it up, telling me that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m a stupid liberal hippie who’s never touched a weapon. Yes, I’m quite familiar with firearms. I lettered in both riflery and archery in high school. I know range safety, and believe me, if I shot at you, I’d hit you. That makes me all the less interested in ever doing such a thing, or having such a thing done to me. In short, I’m afraid of guns precisely because I do understand them, not because I am ignorant of them.

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[culture] Waiting, in line or otherwise

I have no patience for waiting, in line or otherwise. Sometimes you have to — airport security, for example — at which point I put on my big boy pants and deal. But I won’t wait for a restaurant table or a movie ticket or at a music venue or a festival. My absolute limit for hanging around a restaurant to be seated is fifteen minutes, and that’s mostly governed by my laziness in not wanting to go elsewhere. As I’ve often said, they could be hosting the Second Coming and free chocolate on the lawn, and I won’t go stand around for it.

The only real exception for this is when I’m with a friend who really wants to do something, and I want to be with my friend. At that point, I’m not waiting in line, I’m spending time with a friend who happens to be doing something I wouldn’t normally do. It’s a mental shift.

This means there’s places I like around Portland I very rarely get to eat at anymore. The Screen Door, for example, or Apizza Scholls, where it’s incredibly difficult to get in unless you show up early and wait for them to open. I love the food at both places, but my life’s too short to spend it hanging about for an hour to get a table. (And this ignores my current health issues, which make waiting in line almost literally impossible for me because I cannot stand in one place for more than a couple of minutes without needing to sit down.)

I can’t figure out if this is utterly reasonable of me or an irrational tic on my part. I don’t suppose it matters much either way. I’m happier not being frustrated by standing around, that’s good enough for me.

Do you wait for things? What do you get out of it?

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[culture] Lake’s Law of Power Outlets

In any public space with a high demand for and limited supply of power outlets, such as an airport gate area, the first seats taken will be those closest to the outlets, and those seats will generally be occupied by people who do not need or care about the outlets.

Corollary: You will be resented as a creeper if you sit down next to them in an otherwise empty gate area and reach around to plug in.

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[culture|politics] Pro-life

When you fight for unfettered access to women’s health services…

When you fight for universal contraception…

When you fight for pre-natal care for all children…

When you fight for paid universal maternity and paternity leave…

When you fight for universal health coverage for all children…

When you fight for early childhood education…

When you fight for honest, fact-based teen sex education…

When you fight for equal pay for equal work by mothers as well as fathers…

Then I will believe you are pro-life.

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[culture|religion] The modern persecution by the Christians

One of the more ridiculous things I hear from some of my Christian friends on a reasonably consistent basis is that they are being persecuted for their religion. I realize that persecution is an important Christian meme from the earliest days of the Church, and telling themselves this is comforting and self-valorizing. But let’s talk about persecution for a little while.

As a Christian, are you prevented from marrying the person you love by the rules of your country’s dominant religion? My gay and lesbian friends are. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As a Christian, are your efforts to seek political and legal equality stymied by rhetoric from houses of worship on every street corner, and millions of dollars in a political funds from tax-exempt entries? My gay and lesbian friends are. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As a woman seeking basic reproductive health services, are your choices limited and controlled and banned by government interference between you and your doctor, those bans and controls coming from your country’s dominant religion? My female friends are. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As a religious minority seeking to practice your own religion in peace, are you constantly subject to prayers, religious observances and public holidays as established by the rules of your country’s dominant religion? My Jewish and Islamic and Sikh friends are. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As a religious minority seeking to establish a house of worship consistent with real estate and zoning practices in a major American city, are you prevented from doing so by a massive public outcry led by practitioners of your country’s dominant religion? My Islamic and Sikh friends have repeatedly endured this. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As a religious minority voting in state and national elections, are your choices almost always between two members of your country’s dominant religion? My Jewish and Islamic and Sikh friends find that to be so. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As a religious minority being sworn into a rarely-elected office, or to testify in court, are you required and expected to swear on the sacred text of your country’s dominant religion? If you try to use your own sacred text, are you subject to mockery and derision? My Jewish and Islamic and Sikh friends find that to be so. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As an atheist who polls as the leased trusted group in America, how would you feel about despised and distrusted? That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As a student trying to learn to be competitive in the high tech future, are you subjected to counterfactual faith-based teachings in math and science class thanks to the meddling of your country’s dominant religion with its persistent, pernicious confusion of faith-based belief with objective reality? Students across America are every day. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

The next time you complain about a minor erosion in the absolute social dominance of Christianity as being a form of persecution, take a moment to think, really think, what it still means to be a non-Christian in America. Trading away a small bit of your power for the self-respect and social safety of others isn’t persecution, it’s loving compromise.

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[politics|culture] More on Komen

A friend responded via email to yesterday’s post about the media, political perceptions, and my views on the Komen Foundation. It’s worth reposting, though they specifically requested that I omit attribution. They’ll see any comments people make here, and can covey responses through me if need be.

Here’s a link on media coverage affecting attitudes about politics. Might be something to consider when it comes to other things.

Regarding Komen, I’ve got mixed feelings. I have some warm fuzzies about the group. My mom did a short walk before her diagnosis. The wife of one of my old sources and my source walks it every year and sometimes when they are training their route comes by my house and we chat. So it’s warm fuzzies. People I know do the walk.

But I’m really feeling critical about Komen group. There’s a lot of reasons for me to think that they aren’t a group I’d put time and money into. It’s not just the Planned Parenthood snafu.

They sued other charities for using the words “for the cure.” (To me that’s almost as bad as the Washington Shriners sued the Campfire girls trying to break a 100-year lease on land that the Campfire Girls gave the Shriners. So group that benefits kids sues kids’ group. WTF? Cancer-fighting nonprofit goes after other nonprofits over intellectual property over words that anyone writing about cancer would use. WTF? It’s like the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee suing a brewer for creating 2002 the unofficial amber forgetting that you can’t trademark a year.) I think a nonprofit should take the high road and not worry if someone wants to use the same prepositional phrase.

There’s some concern that more money is being spent on marketing, masked as education (34 percent of the budget page 13 in the FY2011 Annual report, more financial info here. However, I have not looked at their tax statements, which are public record, and compared them to other groups’ statements, such as the American Cancer Society.

There’s also a concern about Komen not recognizing certain carcinogenic as carcinogenic. Jezebel would have it be a red/GOP conspiracy. I’m not so sure about that; I suspect it’s Komen board not understanding science. (That’s my take based on watching some of the lawmakers argue about the science when they were working on outlawing BPAs in Washington.)

There’s also it’s issue with how it uses stats in advertising that caught the attention of two doctors/researchers who published their criticism in the British Medical Journal.

Since Komen is ranked with St. Jude’s as the most trust worthy philanthropy groups in the nation, I think Komen needs to be cautious that the information they provide helps women make informed health choices, rather than misleading them.

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[culture] Again with the meds

You know the old problem of why hot dogs are ten to a pack but buns are eight to a pack? One thing I’ve noticed in medicine is a tendency to do that sort of thing with prescription drugs.

I had port implant surgery yesterday. I was given two Vicodin in the hospital during recovery. I was also given a Vicodin prescription for pain management at home. Since returning to Nuevo Rancho Lake from the hospital, I have taken exactly two more Vicodin. I am highly unlikely to take any further pills, and if I do, it will be one or two at the most.

My prescription is for fifty pills.

What the hell do I need fifty Vicodin for? Even if I were dreadfully pain-sensitive and tanking up on the damned things at every conceivable opportunity, that’s a significant oversupply. Given my pain tolerance and my aversion to opiates, this is a multi-year ration of pills.

I don’t really care. I just find it weird. And this kind of oversupply must be a contributing factor to healthcare cost overruns, however small it might be. So what is up with giving me fifty of these things?

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[culture] The Ones Who Walk Away From Penn State

I don’t comment on sports much on this blog, with the exception of occasional posts about [info]the_child‘s team events and athletic accomplishments. I’m just not much about sports. My personal universe includes walking, hiking and (sometimes) biking. I am so not a sports fan that if the entire apparatus of professional sports in the United States vanished overnight, I wouldn’t even notice until NPR ran an informative investigative piece on the subject a few weeks later.

Part of this is because of the way I grew up. I spent the vast majority of my childhood overseas in the era prior to VCRs or consumer satellite television, so there were no broadcast sports in the house. My parents aren’t sports fans at either the college or pro level. Even the high school I went to was about as unfocused on sports as it’s possible for an American high school to be.

My first real encounter with serious sports fans was when I went to college at the University of Texas at Austin. Hook ’em, Horns. Watching Longhorn fannery, and more specifically, Aggie fannery, rise nearly to the level of mental illness in some cases, pretty much confirmed my lack of interest in that culture.

On top of this, I experienced a childhood of always being the slowest kid in P.E. class, the most inept at ball sports, the last picked for every team or exercise (and often the subject of bitter arguments about who had to be stuck with me), all of this in the era when the gym teacher coaching style was to pick one kid to goat hard in order to motivate the rest. “You don’t want to be like Lake, do you!?” shouted with a sneer were words I heard from adult authority figures for many years of my life.

Likewise, my first experience of the concept of privilege in the social justice sense of the term was through athletic privilege. As early as about fifth grade, the bad kids — bullies, petty thieves, etc. — who happened to be good at sports were excused a great deal of terrible behavior that would have landed most kids in a lot of trouble. By the time of my high school years, this favoritism was blatant and explicit. For example, you could be thrown out of my prep school for drinking, unless you happened to be a sports star whose contributions to the team drew alumni interest and donations.

All of which is to say, my attitude toward college and pro sports hovers somewhere between blank indifference and resentful contempt. Which I recognize is specific to my life experience and personal quirks, so I don’t usually feel a need to comment on sports in public. Not for me to piss on other people’s harmless passions. With the exceptions of dodgy stadium deals and some unfortunate educational funding priorities, sports fans don’t really have a negative or destructive influence on public life. (Unlike, say, Evangelical Christians whose misplaced obsessions and passions frequently poison the well for everyone.)

Except sometimes sports does become destructive. Joe Paterno. Jerry Sandusky. Penn State. The Freeh Report. Even I, the resolute non sports fan, am aware of what’s been going on in State College, PA.

And I just don’t understand it.

How can devotion to a team, to a university, be so powerful that child rape can be excused and covered up and enabled to preserve that team’s fortunes and good name? Not just one incident of child rape once, but a pattern of behavior known to the principals for well over a decade?

What the fuck is wrong with people?

This business is like everything I’ve ever despised about the culture of sports in America distilled into one evil package.

Why aren’t Curley, Spanier and Schultz registered sex offenders rotting in prison? Why is there a single statue or plaque to Joe Paterno still left standing? Why does Penn State even still have a football program? This isn’t the case of a child molester who happens to be tangentially associated with a football program. This is a case of an entire sporting dynasty resting explicitly on a knowing long-term coverup of child rape. To preserve Penn State’s good name, and Joe Paterno’s place in history.

I don’t give a damn how many games he won. What a nice man he was. How many athletes he graduated. When he made the decision to protect Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno crossed an unforgivable line. When the officials of Penn State made the decision to protect Jerry Sandusky, they crossed an unforgivable line.

Will anyone walk away from Penn State over this?

I seriously doubt it. The culture of entitlement and privilege around big time sports in America is too powerful. Penn State’s need for alumni donations keyed to its football program is too great. What’s a few kids getting messed around back in the day compared to the significance of a Big Ten football program?

My question to all you Penn State supporters with ready excuses for Paterno and the school, with easy words about how it’s not the program’s fault and you shouldn’t punish the players or the institution by shutting things down, is this: How would you feel about the coverup if you were one of Jerry Sandusky’s victims? How would you feel about Penn State if your child had been abused by Sandusky under the smiling protection of Joe Paterno?

There couldn’t be a sports story with a more clear-cut moral than this. And I’m afraid it will have no effect at all.

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