Sunday, February 21, 2010

Continuous Improvement

No doubt some of the "conservatives" (for lack of a better label -- generally I dislike labels as oversimplifications) who read this blog feel that I spend too much energy denigrating our society. I can almost hear them say "If you love Denmark so much, why don't you move there?"

The truth is that I'm a patriotic American. Many wonderful things happen here, due in large measure to deeply-seated values (civil liberties, for example), caring people, and governmental/economic systems that can, in the best of times, facilitate an exceptional way of life. I had the idea once of traveling around the country, Charles Kuralt style, looking for moving stories of people doing noteworthy things, writing about them, and documenting them with photographs. Maybe I'll still do it some day.

But I don't believe that patriotism equates to wearing blinders or denying reality altogether. In fact, a sophisticated definition of patriotism might well include a desire (a responsibility?) to move closer to achieving our full potential as a nation.

In the business world -- and yes, in the non-profit world -- we encounter the philosophy of "continuous improvement." What would be wrong with applying that same philosophy to the country?

I wish it weren't true. But a simple reading of daily news provides many examples of conditions that need to be improved. If they are at all indicative of conditions just as egregious that don't get reported (as I suspect is the case), then we as a nation have some serious issues on our hands.

Take today's Los Angeles Times, for example. Front page headline: "Youths held by county were abused." The story goes on to document a "troubled portrait of L.A.'s juvenile probation system," including inappropriate sexual contact, physical beatings, and a culture that discourages reporting of such incidents by those mandated by law to report. (Thank goodness investigative reporting survives!)

Want more? On page A31, we discover that some corporations in California are opposing a bill (despite some attractive features) because it would impose penalties on corporations and wealthy individuals for improperly claiming tax breaks to which they are not legally entitled. (And the Great Terminator has vowed to veto the bill if passed unless it has unanimous support of the various interest groups -- such "leadership!" Pardon me while I vomit.)

Hmm, I wonder how we would feel about bank robbers establishing a coalition (most likely one that would qualify for tax-exempt status) with the purpose of eliminating penalties on holding up the local Bank of America? ("I'm sorry, your Honor, I didn't really mean to do it, and I promise never to do it again." "OK, try to be more careful. Case dismissed.")

An article on page A25 describes evidence that drug maker GlaxoSmithKline downplayed evidence that Avandia, a drug it markets to diabetics, substantially increases the risk of heart attacks. (Once again -- thank goodness for what little regulation and investigative powers remain!)

OK, where does this leave us? People have genetic tendencies toward both self-preservation (self-interest) and generosity (altruism). The dynamic interface between these dual human traits results in complex organisms that are sometimes virtuous -- and sometimes not. Nationalize this condition, and you have America: a country that is sometimes virtuous -- and sometimes not. Is there any shame in wanting to be a better person tomorrow than you are today? Or trying to make the country a better place tomorrow than it is today?

Monday, February 15, 2010

An International Covenant?

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), a multilateral treaty promoted by the United Nations, commits its parties to work toward stated objectives for all its citizens. As of 12/08, 160 countries had ratified it. Not us. The United States has "signed," but the Senate has never ratified.

Part III, Article 6, of the ICESCR says that the parties "recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in this country in January, 2010, was 9.7%, representing 14.8 million individuals. (Remember that to be considered unemployed, you must be seeking work and not "under-employed"; people working part-time and those who have at least temporarily given up the search are not counted.) This "average" unemployment rate fails to note significant differences among demographic groups. The unemployment rate for teenagers was 26.4%; for blacks, 16.5%, and for Hispanics, 12.6%. Since the start of the recession in December, 2007, "payroll employment has fallen by 8.4 million."

Part III, Article 11, of the ICESCR recognizes "the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions."

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce (Census Bureau), 13.2% of the U.S. population had income below the poverty threshold in 2008 -- 0.2% higher than the previous year. "The estimated number of people in poverty increased by 1.1 million to 39.1 million in 2008." The report notes that the statistics only partially reflect the impact of the recession that began in December of 2007 -- so the picture today is undoubtedly more bleak. Once again, averages mask vast differences among demographic groups. The poverty rate in Mississippi was 21.2%; in New Hampshire, it was 7.6%. In households that included married couples, the poverty rate was 5.8%; in single parent households, the rate was 26.6%. Among Caucasians, the rate was 8.2%; among blacks, it was 24.7%. 21% of children live in poverty, but 46% of African American children live in poverty.

Part III, Article 12, of the ISESCR recognizes "the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health" and "the creation of conditions which would assure to all [people] medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness."

According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, "lack of health insurance causes roughly 18,000 unnecessary deaths every year in the United States." A separate study conducted by Harvard University and published in the American Journal of Public Health cited a much higher figure: 44,800. (Statistics are from Wikipedia.) The U.S. has a higher infant mortality rate than most of the world's industrialized nations, according to the CIA. The life expectancy "gap" is growing between the rich and the poor and as a function of educational level -- but narrowing between men and women and by race. Accoring to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks close to the bottom of nations for which data are available in terms of years of potential life lost due to lack of health care. On the plus side, the U.S. has an excellent record in terms of treatment of cancer.

Do you care to speculate about why the U.S. has not officially ratified the ICESCR? (Please don't tell me it's because the Heritage Foundation officially opposes it -- which it does.) Your comments are welcomed.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Haunted by Paralysis

A phenomenon is haunting the United States of America -- the phenomenon of paralysis.

Talk about a "job killer" (as chambers of commerce inevitably describe every bill that would increase regulation and/or reduce profit) -- this phenomenon is a potential "country killer," potentially devastating industry and its workers alike.

You think I'm exaggerating? No less a luminary that Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman recognizes it. His New York Times column (1/29/10) concludes as follows: "So we're paralyzed in the face of mass unemployment and out-of-control health care costs...Blame our political culture, a culture that rewards hypocrisy and irresponsibility rather than serious efforts to solve America's problems...I'm sorry to say this, but the state of the union -- not the speech, but the thing itself -- isn't looking very good."

Thomas Friedman (1/31/10) concludes much the same thing, decrying "forces of inertia and special interests" that are blocking the agenda of the President, elected with 68% of the electoral votes and 9.5 million more popular votes than his opponent. According to Friedman, the international community is now beginning to doubt the political stability of the United States. "If the two parties could...remove the growing sense that our country is politically paralyzed, you would not need another dime of stimulus money. Investment and lending would take off on their own. If, however, the two parties continue with their duel-to-the-death paralysis, no amount of stimulus will give us the sustained growth and employment we need."

Frank Rich, also writing for the New York Times (1/31/10), says "our union is not strong. It is paralyzed." He points out that historian Alan Brinkley claims we are entering "the fourth consecutive decade in which Congress -- and therefore government as a whole -- has failed to deal with any major national problem, from infrastructure to education."

OK, these guys might well be talking to each other. They all write columns for the same newspaper. But let's be adults and evaluate their claim on the merits.

Is paralysis -- assuming it exists -- always a problem? After all, the founding fathers designed a system of checks and balances specifically designed to prevent a few individuals from wielding excessive power and taking precipitous actions. State governments were cut from the same mold. So, if our nation is so close to achieving its objectives, on behalf of its citizens, that it has reached the point of diminishing marginal returns (that is, an enormous effort would be required to produce an extremely small improvement), then inaction would not be such a bad thing.

If, on the other hand, conditions are such that useful action can and should be taken to ameliorate them, then paralysis is unconscionable, wrong, and destructive to the way of life we claim to value (you know, the pursuit of happiness, the general welfare -- stuff like that).

Let's take health care as an example. The idea of a national system has been kicking around since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. Presidents FDR, Truman, Johnson, Clinton, and now Obama have tried to enact something substantial; only Johnson (so far) succeeded -- with Medicare. (Some might say that George W. Bush succeeded, with the Medicare drug benefit, but it's unclear whether the primary beneficiaries are human beings or the drug companies.) The result of nearly 100 years of near-paralysis: wealthy insurance companies and millions of people without access to the benefits of modern medicine.

I guess, as usual, it comes down to perspective. If you are one of the "haves" and your ethical compass always points inward, seeing millions of people out of work is nothing more than an intellectual curiosity -- an economic statistic. Families are homeless, and children would be starving if not for the detested and denigrated minimalist safety net. Juveniles in detention are reasonably likely to be raped, either by guards or their fellow prisoners. (See recent article in the Los Angeles Times.) Kids in the child protective services system die, at least partially because the available resources can't deal with the demand. The educational system (with fortunate exceptions) churns out people who can barely write, much less think. Our physical infrastructure is crumbling. The deficit grows, while earmarks and programs that benefit individual districts and states (protected by politicians in both major parties) add billions of dollars in federal expenses every year. Many if not most state governments are broke. Oh, yawn. Who cares? Inaction preserves the status quo -- which isn't that bad, right?

I for one -- call me liberal if you must -- think we can do better. But political paralysis is standing in the way.