Sunday, March 26, 2017

Happy Mothering Sunday to unconventional mothers

Happy Mothering Sunday to U.K. friends who have mothered me - Pat, Sue, Rosemary, Christine, Margaret - though some are younger than I am and all are too young to be my actual mother (isn't everybody)? Mothers come in various forms, often when they are most needed.

I just read two books that, to my surprise, turned out to be about mothers.

Much of Trevor Noah's Born a Crime is a tribute to his strong-willed, rule-defying, Jesus-loving, ass-whooping mother. “I thought that I was the hero of my story,” Noah told NPR’s Terry Gross, but “in writing it I came to realize over time that my mom was the hero. I was lucky enough to be in the shadow of a giant.”
And Mamaw, J.D. Vance's strong-willed, rule-defying, Jesus-loving, ass-whooping grandmother - his drug-addicted mother's mother - is the hero of Hillbilly Elegy. Without a doubt, she is the reason Vance made it through the Marines, university, and law school.

Those of us on the left side of the Atlantic have to wait a few more weeks for Mother's Day, whose thick pink cloud of sentimentality can make breathing difficult. There was nothing remotely sentimental about Noah's mother or Vance's grandmother, but they did their job and saved their kids. I'm glad their kids said thank you, and I highly recommend both books.

Though to enjoy them, you'll need to be able to appreciate, tolerate, or ignore the F-word...

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Needed in America: a huge healthcare experiment

[Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic, 1889]
So the House Republicans are having a really hard time coming up with a healthcare plan that all Republicans are willing to support. Apparently during their seven years of saying no to the ACA, it never occurred to them that they might one day be in a position to propose something better. They just never saw this coming.

Oh, they'll pass something all right. Maybe even tomorrow. The ACA, they have always maintained, is a bad plan. They are probably right: under President Obama, American  healthcare went from worse to bad. Under any proposals the Republicans have made so far, it will go from bad to worse.

If only our lawmakers read books. Eight years ago T.R. Reid, in The Healing of America, explained why our healthcare system doesn't work. He even used entertaining anecdotes and simple language that members of Congress could grasp, if they'd take the time to read it. It's unlikely that our current president would be able to focus long enough to understand it, but he could be overruled by a conscientious Congress (is that an oxymoron?).

What we Americans need is not a tweaking or even an overhaul of our healthcare system. We need a radically new-to-America approach. 

Pundits on the left argue in favor of a single-payer system. It works quite well in many Western European countries: everyone has healthcare; total costs are about half of what Americans pay; Western Europeans live longer than we do; and they tend to like their healthcare systems.

Pundits on the right argue in favor of a free-market system. No developed country has tried such an approach for at least 50 years, so they can't argue from real-world examples. They ardently believe, however, that competition would keep prices down, increase personal responsibility, and provide better care--and who's to say they're wrong?

Why don't we put it to the test? Let's have two healthcare systems. Let each state decide, by popular vote, which they want:

A. A single-payer system, financed primarily by state taxes, assuring all residents of basic, emergency, and catastrophic medical and dental care at low or no cost. Each state can decide what to do about deductibles and co-pays. Private insurance companies are welcome to offer supplementary policies for amenities such as private hospital rooms, cosmetic surgery, and excellent hospital food (joking! I don't actually believe that any U.S. healthcare system can manage good food, though a friend assures me that Swiss hospitals can, and do). States are permitted to negotiate prices with all providers, and may set caps on prices if they wish.

B. A free-market system, financed by private insurance policies purchased by individuals or corporations (to use as an employment benefit). Insurance is never required, and insurance companies are free to offer whatever benefits they choose and charge whatever they wish. States opting into this system may choose (or not) to subsidize insurance for people with low incomes. The only federal requirement is full, upfront, publicly posted disclosure of all prices--insurance, office visits, tests, procedures, hospital stays, equipment, pharmaceuticals--so consumers can easily choose among providers and provisions: otherwise the system would not be free-market.

What happens if a resident of one state goes to a different state for medical care? The person's insurance--whether publicly or privately financed--pays whatever they would pay in the person's home state, not exceeding the actual cost of the care.

After a few years of this, Americans might have a pretty clear idea of which system costs less, which one provides a  higher quality of care, which one covers a greater percentage of residents, which one operates more smoothly, which one has higher approval ratings, and so on.

I think the single-payer system is likely to work better, but maybe not. European healthcare systems work better than ours, according to Bradley and Taylor in The American Health Care Paradox, because Europeans spend a lot more on other social services than we do. By focusing on fixing problems rather than preventing them, Americans are no doubt capable of producing a single-payer system that doesn't work. Maybe, on the other hand, full disclosure of prices coupled with our entrepreneurial spirit would actually come up with something good. We'll never know unless we try.

If given the choice, would you prefer single-payer or free-market? Why?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

If ignorance is bliss, Congressional Republicans want us all to be deliriously happy

Question: What effect will the Republican healthcare proposal have on (1) the number of people who have health insurance and (2) the federal budget?
Congressional Republican answer: We don't know and we don't care.

Question: Shouldn't we appoint an independent counsel to investigate all those possible connections between Russia and the Trump campaign?
Congressional Republican answer: Not yet--and anyway, a Trump appointee is well qualified to handle any investigation.

Question: Does President Trump have financial interests that violate the Constitution's emoluments clause and/or affect U.S. relations with foreign countries?
Congressional Republican answer: We're not going to look, and we won't let you look either.

Question: Are President Trump's cabinet appointees ethically qualified for high government office?
Congressional Republican answer: Never mind the customary vetting, just confirm them on faith.

Question: What are the underlying causes of gun violence, and how can it be reduced?
Congressional Republican answer: Defund CDC research on guns and violence!

Question: Shouldn't public policy be based on knowledge, not ignorance?
President Trump's answer: "I love the poorly educated."

Well of course he does.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Maybe Trump WILL make America great ...

A lot of people are worried. Terrified, even. With Trump in the White House, they believe, we're flirting with World War III, a second Great Depression, a tyrannical destruction of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans except white billionaires with shriveled consciences.

Actually, that doesn't sound so far-fetched.

But before succumbing to a full-fledged panic attack, let's take a look at good things that have happened since November 8--things that probably wouldn't have happened without Trump.

1. Quite a few Super Bowl ads promoted compassion, working together, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

2. Organizations that advocate for civil rights are seeing a major increase in donations.

3. Republican pundits are saying complimentary things about the Clintons and Obama.

4. Democratic pundits are saying complimentary things about the Bushes and Reagan.

5. Men everywhere are realizing that hair dye and comb-overs are counterproductive.

6. People of various persuasions are phoning their lawmakers and marching on behalf of important causes.

7. Women are feeling empowered to report sexual assault, and men are realizing how many women have experienced it.

8. White people are starting to listen to what people of color have been trying to tell them for years about the pervasiveness of racism in America.

9. Comfortable people with secure jobs are learning that a large number of Americans desperately need adequately paid work.

10. More people are realizing that both major parties need serious overhauling.

11. More people are paying attention to what the Constitution actually says.

12. Republicans are trying to figure out a way to offer more Americans better healthcare at lower prices (good luck with that!).

13. Americans have become more aware of the need to reform our immigration system so as not to exclude the people who will work with us to keep our country great.

14. People know more than they used to about protecting themselves from narcissists and gaslighting.

15. The importance of the media - and of trained, responsible journalists who strive to tell the truth  - has never been clearer.

16. The corrupting influence of money in government has never been more obvious.

17. Someone invented an app that turns pictures of Trump into kittens.

18. A bright light is shining on our lawmakers, enabling us to see who will stand up for principle and who is willing to sell their soul for presumed votes or for access to power.

19. More people are advocating for reforming our electoral system so that every American can easily and legally vote.

20. Several striking videos have highlighted the importance of treating one's wife with respect.

21. More Americans are paying attention to what's going on in the rest of the world.

22. Millennials now know why voting is important, even if their favorite candidate isn't on the ballot.

23. "Saturday Night Live" is funnier than ever.

24. Americans have taken a sudden interest in European history of the 1930s.

25. Over to you--this list is just a start.

When danger threatens, people often forget their differences and pull together for the common good. Is that happening now? Are conservatives and liberals joining forces to combat selfishness, incompetence, and insanity? If so, then this worst of times could turn into the best of times, and America could once again be a place where people of differing opinions work side by side to craft solutions that benefit everybody.

Together, we can make America great the old-fashioned way--not through corruption, lies, and bullying, but through honesty, humility, respect, responsibility, decency, hospitality, humor, kindness, justice, and the openhanded, welcoming generosity that once defined our nation to the world.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Spiritual sustenance for terrifying times

[Joshua Banbury and  the church choir sing
"Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace"]
A friend asked on Facebook, "How are you going to sustain yourself emotionally and spiritually in the coming months and years?" I never thought of responding, "I'll go to church."

If people who call themselves Christians could bring us Donald Trump and his evil minions, I was inclined to stay home, walk my dog, and read distracting novels.

I admit: I was being grossly unfair. The church I attend is made up largely of the very people most likely to be harmed by Trump's administration: immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ people, women, seniors, people whose children are in the military. I should have thought of it as a primary source of emotional and spiritual sustenance, but I was maybe just a little ticked at our pastors for not speaking out more specifically and forcefully about the dangers so many of us are facing and our pervasive fear in the face of those dangers.

Yet for some reason, though I had planned to stay home yesterday morning, I found myself walking through the church doors anyway. I'm glad I did.

Not because of the sermon. It was a perfectly decent sermon for normal times, but the preacher typically made no direct reference to the seriously abnormal events that are washing over us. Well, he did tell us that followers of Jesus are more likely to suffer than to get rich. He got that right.

No, it was the hymns and Scripture readings that brought emotional and spiritual sustenance--and I'm not saying that because my husband is the music director. He and the pastors together chose the hymns well before Trump's hugely disastrous first week in office, and the Scripture readings were chosen years ago by the Consultation on Common Texts. God works in mysterious ways, as the seriously depressed William Cowper noted in 1774, two years before his country went to war.

But wait--before I'm sucked back into the Slough of Despond, let me share some of yesterday's poetry with you, in case you too are feeling short on sustenance.

Here are three verses from the first hymn, "Rise Up, O Saints of God" (imagine singing this lustily with congregation and organ):

Speak out, O saints of God! Despair engulfs earth's frame;
As heirs of God's baptismal grace, the word of hope proclaim.

Rise up, O saints of God! The kingdom's path embrace;
Redress sin's cruel consequence; give justice larger place.

Give heed, O saints of God! Creation cries in pain;
Stretch forth your hand of healing now; with love the weak sustain.

This is the summation of the first Scripture reading, Micah 6:1-8:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you 
but to do justice, 
and to love kindness, 
and to walk humbly with your God?

Psalm 15 is especially striking when read responsively:

Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle? 
who may abide upon your holy hill?
Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, 
who speaks the truth from his heart.
There is no guile upon his tongue; he does no evil to his friend; 
he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor.
In his sight the wicked is rejected, 
but he honors those who fear the Lord.
He has sworn to do no wrong 
and does not take back his word.
He does not give his money in hope of gain, 
nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things 
shall never be overthrown.

The second Scripture reading, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, warns against boasting because "God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong." 

The Gospel reading, Matthew 5:1-12, is Jesus's list of those who are blessed in God's kingdom: the poor, mourners, the meek, those who hunger for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for speaking truth to power.

Joshua Banbury, pictured above, movingly sang the prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, which includes these words:

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy...

As the service ended, we all stood up and sang "God of Grace and God of Glory" (to the tune usually used for "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah"). Here are two verses. Sing it as you read, and hear the church singing with you:

Lo! the hosts of evil round us
scorn thy Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us
free our hearts to faith and praise:
grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.

Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore;
let the gift of thy salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
serving thee whom we adore,
serving thee whom we adore.

Christianity will have a hard time recovering from self-proclaimed Bible-believing Christians who played a major role in bringing us the horrors now unfolding in Washington DC and around the world. Churches that take Scripture seriously, however--if they do not give in to "weak resignation"--may be among our best sources of emotional and spiritual sustenance in the coming months and years.

Rise up, O saints of God! The kingdom's path embrace;
Redress sin's cruel consequence; give justice larger place.