Monday, January 14, 2013

"Some Worrisome Concerns"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Some Worrisome Concerns”
January 14, 2013

Narcissism has become part of the American experience. Extreme adamancy provides a false sense of clarity and comfort to advocates of myriad causes. It infects all our lives, from school children who are protected from what Jim McKay used to call “the agony of defeat,” to politicians’ lies that have become second nature, to a media more interested in advancing an agenda than in providing facts. We see it in the lives of celebrities, glorified by media, despite any semblance to anything representing a universal sense of morality. False pride, however, can never be sustained. A potpourri of recent events illustrates the point.

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The New York Times recently trumpeted the fact that 2012 proved to be the warmest year in the contiguous United States, since records began being kept. To them it was proof that Al Gore and Michael Moore are correct in their warnings – that absent a self-indulgent and wasteful American consumer the planet would be in better shape. The Times chose, of course, not to report on the unusually cold winter China has been experiencing thus far this year, or that what is true for the “lower forty-eight” is not true for the planet, or for Alaska or Hawaii. While I suspect that man and his activities do have some influence on climate, I would suggest that it is less than many believe. Carbon Dioxide, which usually gets the blame for global warming, is a trace gas that currently occupies a little less than 4/100ths of one percent of atmospheric volume. A study of the effects of changing weather patterns over the millennia indicate a planet that has undergone changes far more extreme than anything now being discussed. And this happened without the assistance of man. For example, when the ice age was at its peak 10,000 years ago what is now Boston sat beneath a glacier that has been estimated to have been a mile high. In their attempts to assign blame (and to promote industries in which they have a financial interest,) people like Al Gore detract attention from the fact that the planet is always changing. Everything in the universe is in constant motion. Sun spots and very slight shifts of the earth’s rotation can cause severe temperature changes. Tectonic plate shifts cause earthquakes and Tsunami-like waves. The polar caps are always either increasing or receding. The earth’s temperature is always changing. Plant and animal species are born and die out. Nothing remains as it is. To pretend otherwise is to ignore nature.

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A recent 378-page study (commissioned by the National Institute of Health, an agency of the federal government) by the Institute of Medicine indicated that the United States came in 17th of 17 industrialized nations, in terms of death rates. This was true for people, from birth until age 75. Elderly Americans actually lived longer than most of their counterparts. The report also states that we spend more money on healthcare on a per capita basis than any other country. Apart from the elderly, that’s a pretty sorry showing. While the survey will lend support to Obama Care, one should be careful with the statistics; though the numbers on infant mortality are sobering.

The problem seems to be as much about our lifestyle, as it is about our health system. According to the New York Times, the report notes that Americans, prior to the age of 50, experience higher incidences of death from car accidents, gun violence and drug overdose than those in other countries. Fewer Americans wear seatbelts or motorcycle helmets than their counterparts. In part, early deaths can be attributed to what is claimed to be a more sedentary lifestyle and, as we all know, obesity is a problem peculiar to Americans. And what about the elderly? Why do Americans, if they can make it to 75, live longer than those in countries with supposedly better healthcare systems? Does that not say something about our healthcare system? After all, 25% of one’s spending on health services occurs in the last year of one’s life.

And what about infant mortality, which is highest in the U.S.? The number of children born out of wedlock in the U.S. has reached epidemic proportions. In part, it is a function of poverty and ignorance, but the example set by celebrities set unfortunate standards. According to Forbes, 41% of all births in the U.S. in 2010 were to unwed mothers. In the U.K., in contrast, the rate is closer to 7%. The poverty rate among unwed mothers exceeds 40% according to the U.S. Census. The annual cost of childcare is about $20,000, not a problem to a Hollywood starlet or a professional athlete, but unaffordable to a single mother earning less than $25,000 a year. This is as much a societal problem, as it is a healthcare one. Michael Goodwin writing in Sunday’s New York Post, noted that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, when discussing “defining deviancy down,” suggested that a “declining society accepts as normal bad things that are not normal.” Hoping not to sound too puritanical, that seems to be us.

There is little question that our healthcare delivery system is expensive, but I would argue that has to do with too much government interference, not too little. Consumers have very little say in pricing. The employer system we use is not individually tailored; it is designed for groups. High deductible policies are essentially non existent and fifty state insurance commissioners and their staffs must be supported, not one. Health insurance companies are not permitted to compete across state lines. And, of course, our tort system keeps doctor’s liability insurance at very high levels – all of which get baked into the charges the insurance companies pay. The fear of being sued means that doctors cover their bases by prescribing more procedures and drugs than may be necessary, thereby increasing costs.

Our system is far from perfect, and there are still too many uninsured. But the private market has a way of addressing unmet needs, witness the recent increase in clinics that alleviate the demand on emergency rooms. Government needs to set standards and make sure both the medical profession and the insurance industry adhere to regulations, but what the system really needs is a bigger dose of the consumer involved in pricing decisions.

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Last week James M. Buchanan died. While his was not a household name, he was a Nobelist in economics and the leading proponent of the ‘public choice theory.’ The theory states that politicians and public officials, like everyone else, are motivated by self-interest. He argued that politicians are motivated by power, not the public interest. He was a believer in smaller government, lower deficits and fewer regulations. His was a theory that seems especially relevant today, with sanctimonious politicians, from the President on down, raving self-righteously about “serving the people.” Another concern of Professor Buchanan was what he saw as a common misperception that public debt, when it is held by government agencies, is not harmful to future generations. Even today, many in the media and in government, when referring to federal debt, talk only of that held by the “public.” Wrong, according to Professor Buchanan. All of our debt is an obligation of present and future taxpayers. In our narcissistic world, seduced by cant and charisma, James Buchanan was the antidote our society so badly needs.

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The 2013 Index of Economic Freedom was published last week by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal. Almost all of the world’s advanced countries lost ground, as “populist” democratic movements used the power of government to implement redistributive policies. In this ranking, the U.S. is now numbers 10, having lost ground for five years in a row. Writing in last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, Terry Miller, director of the Center for International Trade and Economics at the Heritage Foundation, noted: “Trade flows – the engine of world growth – have declined as the U.S. economy has stagnated. Protectionism threatens consumers with higher costs and restrictions in supply.” Too many regulations generate uncertainty. The quest for “fairness” impedes freer economies and, perversely, harms the ability to achieve intended social goals. It is the rule of law and the protection of minorities’ rights that suffer when government participates in what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “tyranny of the majority.” It is an instance where the narcissism of the ruling class, unfortunately and unfairly, determines the fate of their subjects. All Americans should see this decline in freedom as a warning shot across the bow of our vulnerable ship of state.

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And, last but not least, Congress’ favorable approval ratings have shrunk to 9% in a recent poll, which places them below head lice, colonoscopies, Genghis Khan, cockroaches and the French. This was according to the Democratic-leaning firm, Public Policy Polling. While we naturally focus on the humor of such surveys, they mark a real failing of our government. The executive, judicial and legislative branches were established to be co-equal and to balance one another, so that no one branch assumed too much power. The ridiculing of one branch opens the door for the others to take up the slack. Over the past seventy years the executive branch has become increasingly imperial. It is a trend fraught with risk to our democracy. We see it almost daily on the part of the Obama White House as they use executive orders to skirt Congress. It is a concern that we the people, along with our representatives in Washington, must address with the utmost in seriousness.

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