Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

A Lesson in Leadership

Posted: September 11, 2013 in Culture, Philosophy

Way back in 2001, I had the honor of seeing detainees from Afghanistan come off the plane at Guantanamo Bay with my bare eyeballs.  I was visiting  from my home base of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where I ran the base cable news station with several other 18-22 year olds.  My mission was to shoot a news segment about the Marines’ involvement in setting up and running Camp X-ray, where the detainees were being stockpiled.

The funny thing is that it wasn’t the detainees, or the war, or anything to do with 9/11 that sticks in my mind from that day.  No, the reason my memory of that that day keeps poking itself out from my grey matter is because of the words a female Sergeant of Marines said to me.

I was standing on a hill above the airfield with three other Marines who, like me, were professional rubberneckers of one sort or another.  Two of them were male, and like me, barely out of high school.  The other was the female sergeant, a little older.  I don’t remember her name, only that she was latina and she looked like she meant business.  We’ll call her Sergeant Vasquez.  I soon learned that Sgt. Vasquez was a member of Camp Lejeune Combat Camera, where another female Marine of my acquaintance, whom we’ll call Private Zendra, held a post.

Zendra and I had been contemporaries earlier that year at the hive of debauchery that was Marine Barracks Fort Meade, Maryland.  Situated in the shadow of the National Security Agency, these barracks played home to us while we attended the Defense Information School (DINFOS), where we trained to become proficient in the art of gathering visual, aural, and human intelligence.  The rest of the time, we were all kinds of naughty.  Zendra in particular.  One day, without joy and without any cause I could discern, she began throwing herself in my direction.  I figured she was unhinged in some way and set about trying to figure out why.  After unsuccessfully trying to bluff my way into drinks at a Baltimore bar, I sat her down and asked her to explain her childhood to me.  She did not find this subject interesting.  Later that night, when the time came for us to part ways in the barracks stairwell, Zendra, without ever having given me so much as a smile, planted her lips on mine.  I didn’t kiss back.  My dating experiences were not extensive at that point in my life, but I knew that wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

The next day, Zendra was attached to another strapping young denizen of the barracks.

I’m not sure we ever spoke again, but she stayed on my mind.  She was a puzzle to me, albeit a pitiable one.  And that’s why I decided to pose this question to Sergeant Vasquez:

“What do you think of her?”

“Nothing in particular,” she replied, thrusting out her lower lip.  “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, no reason,” I came back weakly.  “Just curious…”

I realized this wasn’t the place to bring up the subject and was ready to give it up.  But the others were listening in and had shrewdly picked up the subtext.

“Oh, was she one of the DINFOS whores?” asked one of them.

“Yeah… I guess you could say that,” I answered nervously.  Everyone was apparently satisfied by this, and we all turned our attention and binoculars back to the blindfolded Islamic men making their debut on US soil.  It wasn’t until I excused myself and turned to go that I learned the subject wasn’t finished.

“PFC Catha-Garrett, can I talk to you for a moment?” Sergeant Vasquez said.  I could tell by her tone that she had been waiting for this.

We moved away from the others some distance.  She didn’t have me come to attention or parade rest, which was customary during an upbraiding by a senior Marine.  She didn’t yell.  She didn’t berate.  She didn’t have to.

“I want to talk to you about how you brought up Private Zendra earlier.  Honestly, as a female Marine, I’m not proud of her.  She’s made some mistakes, and she has some shortcomings.  But there’s no reason to be bringing her up at a time like this.  I mean, what does she have to do with any of this?”  She motioned toward the airfield.  “Do you understand what I mean?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” I said.

“Just stay focused on your job.  You don’t need to be worrying about shit like that.”

“Aye Sergeant.”

I walked away stunned, impressed, and knowing she was completely right.  What I didn’t know then that I know now is that what she said was brave.  She was probably asking herself the entire time we were standing there whether she should say something, and God bless her, she decided yes.  She took a stand against the locker room vibe that prevailed throughout the Marine Corps.  Another female Marine might have joined in dragging Private Zendra through the mud, but not Sergeant Vasquez.  She was a true leader, and a true woman.  I wish I knew her real name.

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The following is a long and wonky piece on health care policy in this country, giving my erudite opinion on exactly why it’s so fucked up.  If you’re bored by policy talk, don’t bother to read it.  But also, don’t consider yourself eligible to vote or have any sort of opinion on this subject.  Unless you have a rebuttal to my conclusions, you’re wrong.  And everyone else is lying to you (who doesn’t agree with me).

I’ve been meaning to write this for quite some time.  Years, in fact.  I’ve been heavily focused on this issue since 2004, when I had my first experience (as an adult) with the US medical industry.  A big part of my life to date has been coming face-to-face with institutions and practices that viscerally struck me as fucked-up, rejecting the “that’s just the way it is” hypothesis, and tracking down the exact reasons for this fucked-up-ness.  Nine times out of ten the answer is politics.  This explains why as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become increasingly sure of my libertarian instincts.  Every new fucked-up thing I encounter in the world is inevitably traceable to unlibertarian policies.  When you view the world through a libertarian lens, solutions become obvious.  I suppose that’s true for any political ideology.  The difference, however, is if you quiz a Marxist anarchist on what their post-statist, post-property society would look like, their answers become incoherent, and completely at odds with human nature.  Libertarians know what’s going on.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand.  Let me talk about my first experience in the US hospital system.  I had an injury — second degree burns on both feet.  My friends drove me to the hospital, where I was required to fill out paperwork for what seemed like an hour before they would treat me.  In the end, their entire treatment consisted of some wet cloths on my feet, and a morphine shot.  Total bill?  $1500.  Half of that was just for the morphine shot.  I’m just guessing here, but I’m pretty sure the street price is less.  The staff told me that they didn’t have the expertise to treat my burns, and that they had to send me to Harborview Medical Center, necessitating an ambulance ride.  Add on $800 for that.  At Harborview, comfortably high on morphine, I carefully observed everything that was done to me, looking for the expertise that apparently the other hospital lacked.  I was given a saline IV drip.  The (by now massive) blisters on my feet were pulled off, and my feet washed clean.  Then a silver oxide compound known as Silvadine was smeared all over my feet, which were subsequently wrapped up with gauze.  That was it.  That was the whole treatment, and from what I understand, this is standard procedure for a second degree burn.  No need for special expertise.  I was sent home the next day with painkillers and instructions for tending the wounds myself.  The Harborview bill was over $1000 as well.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it.  A week later I realize the burns were infected with cellulitis,  and I had to go back to the hospital for three nights to get an antibiotic drip.  I was charged well over $1000 for each night I stayed there.

The vast majority of the people I talk to about this have never looked at a medical bill, or had to pay the full cost of their medical care, because they’ve been covered by insurance.  I was not.  I had no idea how badly inflated the cost of medical care was, and thus saw no reason for medical insurance.  I haven’t bought medical insurance since then, but I’ve kept myself out of hospitals and away from doctors.

The common response to this is to lament my not having insurance, and to rail against those greedy insurance companies for making insurance so expensive that I couldn’t buy it.  Or to rail against greedy hospitals or doctors.

Which is clearly total nonsense.  Insurance companies, hospitals, and doctors are no greedier than anyone else.  The entire human race is greedy.  Food manufacturers are greedy, by this logic a Big Mac should cost $20.  Instead, McDonald’s charges a price for the Big Mac that makes sense to us, relative to the price for other goods.  Obviously, greed isn’t the issue.

$800 for a shot of morphine is not a real price.  What is a real price?  A real price is one that allows us to make comparisons between goods.  Real prices are determined by the supply of and demand for said goods, relative to other goods on the market.  If a good is very expensive, it means that that good is either very expensive to produce, or in very high demand.  By paying for an expensive good, you’re saying, yes, I want to devote my resources toward that expensive production process, or yes, I want that good more than anyone else does.  That’s how it works in a free market, anyway.  Morphine is a simple chemical, and like most chemicals, it is fairly cheap to produce.  Morphine has a natural source, the poppy flower, from whence it has been derived for thousands of years.  It does not require designer bacteria or special equipment to produce.  In a free market, it would probably cost about the same as honey.  According to the Johns Hopkins Hospital website, a 50 mL vial of Morphine Sulfate costs a measly 23 dollars.  Assuming that the hospital I went to paid a similar price, that’s an incredible 3500% markup.  And I doubt I even got 50 mL, that seems like a lot.

So if not greed, what does account for these amazingly inflated prices?  Let’s go back to that bit about most people not looking at their hospital bills.  Most people don’t look at their hospital bills. They aren’t even aware that the prices exist.  Insurance just pays for it.  But ok, if the insurance company pays for it, shouldn’t they care what the prices are?  No!  Insurance companies pay out claims on policies, but the policies are paid for by the insured. And they pay dearly.  According to the Kaiser/HRETHRET Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Benefits in 2008, the average cost of health insurance premiums for individuals was $4,704 per year.  That’s a fucking ludicrous amount of money to pay for health insurance, especially if you don’t use it much, which most people don’t.  In this, I’m in agreement with those advocating Universal Health Care.  Where we disagree is WHY this problem exists, and what to do about it.  They say it’s greed.  I say that explanation is transparently false.

So why ARE people paying so much to the health insurance companies?  Reason #1 is that they aren’t — their employers are.  Right now about 60% of working Americans receive health insurance through their employer, who typically pays the bulk of the cost.  Well if the employers are shouldering the lion’s share, shouldn’t they be pissed?  No!  Employers are not required by the government to pay payroll taxes on health insurance premiums for their employees.  So employers are perfectly content to dish out for health insurance instead of paying their employees a higher salary.

So now we’ve arrived at policy problem #1:  the tax break for health insurance.  Essentially this is a huge subsidy from the government to the medical industry, and the result is that it jacks up prices.

Policy problem #2:  Occupational licensure.

As I mentioned earlier, while at Harborview hospital, I was able to collect, through visual observation, a complete understanding of how to treat a second-degree burn.  While injured and stoned.  It’s really very simple.  In fact, most of medicine is.  That’s the big secret that doctors don’t want you to know.  In fact, protecting this secret is almost the very essence of what it means to be an MD.

The AMA cashed in by selling tobacco ads.

At the turn of the 20th century, the American Medical Association began a successful campaign of lobbying for government policies that would raise the wages of its members.  Using the smokescreen of “increasing medical standards”, the AMA set up the state medical boards that exist to this day, began shutting down medical schools, and enacted state licensing of doctors.  The AMA reduced the number of medical schools in the USA from an all-time high of 160 in the year 1900, to only 85 in 1958.  Among the schools shut down were 12 of the 14 black medical schools that existed at the time.  By controlling medical schools and licensing requirements through the state medical boards, the American Medical Association now has a choke-hold on the supply of doctors.  And naturally its members have an incentive to keep that supply low.  60% of all applicants to medical school are turned away.  You can’t even go to medical school if you want to, and have the means to pay. Why keep people out of medical school?  Because people who have graduated from medical school, but are being denied licensure, are far more likely to lobby for a change in the status quo.  Can’t have that.  I should give a shout-out at this point to Milton Friedman, who discussed this in his 1962 book “Capitalism and Freedom”.  That’s right, these ideas aren’t new.  They’re inconvenient for the powerful — the American Medical Association, the most powerful trade union in America, sending your medical costs sky-high.  I’m not saying every doctor in America is evil.  Like most people, they’re usually just complacent.  But the AMA as a whole is as evil an organization as any you will find on this Earth.

Why shouldn’t I be able to rent a storefront, stock up on medical supplies, and go into business as a doctor without the government’s permission?  Because I might fuck up?  So what?  When you purchase a good or service, it’s your responsibility as a consumer to ensure that you’re getting what you bargained for.  If someone wants to come to me, and pay me money, knowing that I have very little experience or formal schooling, isn’t that their right?  What right does the government have to interfere?  More to the point, isn’t it far preferable to allow this than to have a choked-off supply of doctors driving up prices to the point where the poor can’t even afford medical care?  It simply doesn’t take four years of medical school and years of residency to understand how to set a bone, make a cast, treat a burn, suture a cut, administer antibiotics, or any of a myriad of other basic medical procedures.  Most of what goes on in ERs around the country, paid for by taxpayers at inflated prices, could be happening in corner clinics for reasonable prices paid for by the patients.

Policy Problem #3:  Massive government subsidization

1991 Source Book of Health Insurance Data

When you subsidize something, it becomes more expensive.  That’s Economics 101.  This year, the USA will spend 2.5 trillion dollars on health care, and about half of that will be paid by the government.  Half.  That’s incredible.  Imagine if the same were true of the food industry, if half of all farms, grocery stores, and restaurants were owned by the government.  Most of this money is being funneled to old people through the Medicare program.  For a doctor or hospital, Medicare and MedicAid are even better than health insurance plans.  It’s a regular bonanza.  When the government is paying, you can charge pretty much anything you want.  Why should the government care?  It’s not their money!  To paraphrase Milton Friedman, there are four ways to spend money.  Here they are, listed in decreasing order of efficiency:  Spend your own money on yourself, spend your own money on other people, spend other people’s money on yourself, and spend other people’s money on other people.  That last is government.

So those are the three main reasons health care is fucked up in this country.  If it weren’t for the government, health care would be way cheaper and more accessible.  Our overall health knowledge and public health literacy would probably be higher, too.  The American Medical Association has successfully propagandized the public into thinking of their health as something to be left to the professionals.  You get sick, you go to a doctor.  They’ll take care of it.  And make a pretty penny while they’re at it.

Fetuses: Not your body.

Posted: December 19, 2010 in Philosophy, Politics

Since I mentioned abortion in my last post, I figure I’ll follow it up with my exposition on that topic.  This is another highly politicized issue where I’ve never felt strongly about a particular outcome, but I have felt strongly about how it’s discussed.

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re either of these people, I disagree with you.  But if I had to pick one as being more wrong, it would be the one on the left (both geometrically and politically).

The statement “abortion is murder” works semantically because the term “murder” is so poorly defined that you can apply it to just about anything.  The mistake this person is making is assuming that just because you call it “murder”, you’ve won the argument.  PETA says “Meat is Murder”.  Ok.  I’m not going to argue with that.  I’m going to keep right on eating meat, perfectly content to be a “murderer”.

The person on the left, however, is making the claim that a fetus can be part of her body.  She is essentially saying that the fetus is not a body itself.  How does that work?  At what point does the fetus become its own body?  I’ve heard some people claim that the fetus is a “parasite” on the mother (keep it classy, pro-choicers) and that it doesn’t become its own “person” with its own “body” until “the point of viability”, where “the baby can survive on its own outside the womb”.  Can a newborn baby “survive on its own outside the womb”?  Of course not.  This argument requires that babies and toddlers are part of their mother’s body, and are subject to termination at any time.  Not until the child is ready to venture out into the world and find its own sustenance does it gain “personhood” and escape the threat of abortion.  Let’s face the obvious:  the nature of reproduction is that the female of the species has a separate body, a separate person growing inside her.  Trying to call a fetus a “piece of tissue” or something like that is obfuscatory, absurd, and does nothing to further your cause.  It just makes you look like an ass.

Why do you suppose it is that pro-abortion activists make such ludicrous claims?  Well, let’s look at who the activists are:  primarily women and young people.  What could their motivation possibly be?  My answer may astonish you, knock you right out of your chair:  they want to be able to have sex without dealing with the unwanted consequences of it.  Yes, that’s right:  all this vitriol, all this screaming about rights and freedom, etc, etc is a smokescreen for crass, unadulterated selfishness.  Not that I think there’s anything wrong with selfishness.  I just have a problem with the bullshit arguments that are presented in its place.  If you want to be able to have sex, and then abort your baby when you accidentally get pregnant, fine.  Just fucking say so. Of course, no one wants to admit it when they’re just looking out for #1.

Believe it or not, there are decent, rational arguments to be made for permitting abortion that have nothing to do with shitty philosophising.  The more advanced pro-choice activists have these arguments in their arsenal, but routinely destroy their own credibility by reverting back to “rights” talk.  Let me say at this point that if you believe fetuses have souls, it’s going to be pretty much impossible for us to connect on this subject.  I’m an atheist; I don’t believe in gods or souls.  As far as I can see, we’re all just sacks of meat bouncing around in close proximity to each other in a world with scarce resources, and we have to make up rules in order for us to all get along nicely.  One of those rules has long been “Thou Shalt not Kill”.  (And yes, I believe humans invented this rule, not God.)  When this rule was created, you know, thousands of years ago, children were almost universally seen as valuable.  The more the better.  Hell, the whole purpose of women was just to kick one baby out after another.  As long as they were married.  If not, the woman would have to induce an abortion with a dagger or something.  It was either that or get stoned to death for adultery.  So, these other caveats *ahem* aside, people had no way to foresee the necessity or desire to abort kids.  It’s not like people had other things going for them.  They lived brutal lives of drudgery, and for the most part had little in the way of material possessions.  Kids were one’s only shot at greatness.  They were probably a great source of entertainment, too.

In the modern world, things are different.  Kids just don’t matter that much to us.  We have all sorts of cool things we can do with our time and spend our money on.  We can go on trips (and who wants to bring kids on those?), we can buy nice cars and houses, we can watch TV or play videogames, or just focus on our highly rewarding career.  There’s a lot of upward mobility in the modern world, and we don’t want our kids to get in the way of that.  And when people do have kids, its generally for a different set of reasons than in the pre-industrial era.  Kids are no longer our social security net — the government takes care of that.  In fact with child labor outlawed, mandatory K-12 education instituted, and the “cult of childhood” ingrained in our culture, children are now a massive expense.  People with prospects in life don’t want to have kids unless and until they’re going to be able to “do it right”.  Which brings us to another aspect of modern child-rearing:  it’s an ego-project.  Helicopter parents spend countless hours researching child development, and “the right” way to raise your child, and use the performance of their children as a status symbol.  In a world where the economic importance of children is nil, a completely different set of motives takes over.

Is any of this bad?  I’m not going to make a judgment on that now.  What I will say is this:  if children have no practical benefit, and are a drain on society’s resources, we should take any and all measures possible to ensure that people who don’t want kids don’t have them.  Let’s do a cost-benefit analysis of abortion.  What are the negative consequences of it?  With the possible exception of some minor psychic trauma for the mothers who get them, none that I can see.  What are the negative consequences of banning abortion?  Widespread poverty, illiteracy, overuse of resources, gang violence, back-alley abortions.  I know those of you who believe fetuses have souls see all of this as insubstantial in the face of MURDER.  And I can’t argue with you, unless you want to have a theological discussion.  I don’t.  But I can help you with your marketing.  If you want to stop people from having abortions, then don’t do this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Periodically these people come onto the UW campus and agitate.  While I’m sure most people are shocked the first time they see these photos, I doubt many go away with a new-found resolve to never get an abortion.  What is DOES do is desensitise everyone to the sight of dead, bloody, torn-up fetus.  I’ve seen these photos so many times now, thanks to the pro-life activists, that I hardly bat an eye at them.  Thanks guys.  Now when my girlfriend gets an abortion, I might even ask to take the fetus home so I can dissect it.

 

Anyway, I think I’ve spoken my peace, and made my main points clear:  that the vast majority of the people involved in this debate are totally irrational.  It’s a debate worth having in a civilised fashion, and again, no easy answers.  Though I do think keeping abortion legal is probably a good idea.  I would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned, it’s one of the worst Supreme Court rulings of all time, and it IS an example of judicial activism.  Laws should be created though the legislature, not the courts.  If Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion will likely remain legal in most states, and I predict that it will gain greater and greater acceptance as we enter the posthuman era of cloning, cybernetics, and consciousness transfer.

Here’s the AP story.

This is one of those political issues that has always been a curiosity for me.  It’s one that many people feel very strongly about, but I never have.  My thoughts run along these lines:

The military is not a social justice sandbox.  The military exists to do one thing and one thing only:  kill people.  Every feature of the military should be optimized in order to best serve the goal of killing people quickly and efficiently, with as little loss to our own side as possible.  To this end, the military discriminates in a myriad of ways:  gender, height, weight, intelligence, physical fitness, eyesight, hearing, reflexes.  They even discriminate, in certain circumstances, on the basis of good looks or ethnicity.  I’ve heard a few complaints about the exclusion of women from the combat arms MOSs, but other than that, all this discrimination goes by without a bat of the eye.  What is it about discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation that gets people so up in arms?  If General James Amos, USMC, says “I don’t want to lose any Marines to the distraction.  I don’t want to have any Marines that I’m visiting at Bethesda (Naval Medical Center) with no legs be the result of any type of distraction,” then who are we to second-guess him, and on what basis?  If we’re going to conclude that he’s a bigot and is lying about the reason he doesn’t want homosexuals in his unit, then that’s an issue of integrity and fitness to command, and the solution would be to remove him.  Is it totally inconceivable that a combat commander might genuinely believe queer-integrated units would pose a threat to mission accomplishment?  Is it inconceivable that he might be right?

Supporters hailed the Senate vote as a major step forward for gay rights. Many activists hope that integrating openly gay troops within the military will lead to greater acceptance in the civilian world, as it did for blacks after President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order on equal treatment regardless of race in the military.

This rings completely empty to me.  Race integration in the military improved race relations in this country?  How?  As far as I can tell, race relations are shit and getting worse.  In a country where Cynthia McKinney, a member of the United States House of Representatives, thinks its ok to accuse a capitol guard of racism merely because he asked to see her ID (his job), I’d say we’ve hit rock-bottom.  Also, nothing about military service has anything to do with “rights”.  In the military, you have fewer privileges than a typical prison inmate in the USA.  When people talk about the “right to serve in the military”, a little part of me dies.  What does that mean, that we all have a right to a military-industrial complex?  A right to war?  There is no such right.  If the military has become an entitlement program, then I think we have bigger problems to worry about than DADT.

Now please don’t misunderstand me — I’m not arguing in favor of DADT, or of a ban on homosexuals in the military.  I’m simply arguing that this is not a question with an easy, “no shit” answer.  It’s not about rights, it’s not about equality.  Like the abortion debate, this issue has gotten so politicized that its almost never debated in terms of the real-world consequences of the policy.  Let’s talk about a few of those.  In the military, men and women sleep in separate rooms, and use separate toilet facilities, much like in the civilian world, and probably for the same reason.  Men and women are (typically) sexually attracted to each other, which can lead to either discomfort, or hanky-panky, both of which the military frowns on.  These issues become even more intense in the field, or in a combat zone, when you’re sleeping in foxholes together and showering outdoors.  So where does an openly homosexual man fit into this picture?  Well, unless you’re just going to throw him in with the rest of the dudes, he has to have his own room, and his own shower.  If not, well then you might as well say fuck it and throw everybody together, men and women, queer and straight alike.  If that’s the goal, a la the film Starship Troopers, then ok.  Let’s talk about THAT, not “rights” and “equality”.  Because that’s the road this puts us on.