Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Fairy Tale to Failure

By Sandy Prisant

Do you believe in fairy tales? How about “The Emperor’s Suit of Clothes”? You have to decide right now, because just at the moment the whole Washington establishment, is madly spinning a new suit of clothes for the Emperor, in the form of a Health Care fable for the nation.

It feels like 2nd grade. We’re all gathered around as most of Washington---pundits and politicians full of self-congratulations—opens the big storybook and spins the fable.

Just as in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, some of us are dubious about what the Emperor’s minions are telling the people. So Washington has come up with a new twist on Andersen, meant to thwart all possible opposition. It’s the ultimate defense: “It doesn’t matter what’s wrong with this bill; don’t think about all the self-serving riders the insurance industry added,” Washington says, “anything is a good, first baby step.”

Really? Real-world history says things don’t work that way. The well-documented record of legislative bodies (elected and unelected) confirms: nations, including the US, rarely build effective programs in steps, bill by bill. Especially when (unlike Medicare and Social Security) the very architecture of this bill leaves little room for expansion and true reform.

Many individual Acts by the President or Congress have included expansion of policy in planned stages, but usually the main milestones for such expansion are set down in a single document and decision.

Policy ideas that were weak compromises--often sold to the nation as “good first steps”--have not been:

}It took over half a century for the Supreme Court to move from the “Separate But Equal” baby step to real equality through “Brown vs. Board of Education.”

}Drafting the Constitution quickly produced the Bill of Rights, but in general, human rights have not expanded for Americans in the ensuing centuries. And bills like the Patriot Act have actually set them back. For all our proud independence, we still do not have the right to privacy fixed in law. Nor total sexual freedom among consenting adults. HIPAA laws limiting access to medical records seem to now keep them only from the patients themselves.

}It took over a century from the creation of our democratic republic to move from voting by certain classes of men, to voting by certain women. And then another half-century to finally establish voting by everyone.

When the country is really serious about something, it takes clear action: for the most part, wars, financial regulation (
Glass-Steagall Act (1933), that Patriot Act, and the abolition of slavery each were enacted in one fell swoop.

So when someone tries to tell you the current Health Bill is “a great first step”—or even “a great baby step we can build on”, think about whether legislative history suggests these are credible claims.

And think about what would happen if we let this step-by-step fantasy play out. Look at the challenges facing such a scenario:

1. First, everyone will say we must be sensible and see how this bill works out. It’s in-built timetable assures we won’t have a new system “up and running” to know what’s not working until at least 2025. That’s four Presidential elections and at least 3 Presidents from now.

2.Last week, National Public Radio reported the results of a cost study on the current draft bill. According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the average employer-provided health insurance policy is currently on track to cost about $31,000 in 2019. The Foundation projects average family income at $50,000. This is not a misprint. Over 60% of income will go to pay health premiums based on the current Congressional drafts.

3. Put aside the 30 million extra premium payers in this bill for a moment. What stakeholder with leverage will stand up for the final 8-12% uninsured in 2025, to meet this President’s pledge of universal coverage?

4. What stakeholder with leverage will stand up for an absolute cap on health spending growth in 2025 when the President promises the failure to control overall costs will destroy our recovery before then?

5. What stakeholder with leverage will get health professionals to make the slightest financial sacrifice to achieve affordability in the system?

6. What stakeholder in 2025 will stand up and say ‘60% health premiums that deny us food and shelter must be cut in half’?

7. Finally, what stakeholder with leverage will ever say: ‘This country is based on competition. American health reform MUST include competition, not within, but independent of existing health insurers’?

Now ask yourself: is it realistic to think any of this scenario could retroactively fix the structural flaws that make it impossible to expand or build the current drafts into an efficient, American-style solution, through baby steps.

Is it ever likely we’ll achieve health reform success in parts? Effective, economic national health systems exist on every inhabited continent. All were created whole-cloth, through single acts that did not cost an arm and a leg. Please remember that in the late 40’s, when Britain was still on rations and on its knees, an affordable, universal health system with cost controls, was set up in a very short time. This is fact, not fable.

Why is America the only nation incapable of looking over a score of long-successful health systems and choosing one that’s already proven and adapt it to best suit us?

Either we do this or we are doomed to a failure we cannot afford. Think not? Eerily, over 170 years ago, Hans Christian Andersen sent a message for our time:

Andersen wrote in his fairy tale: “What a splendid idea," thought the Emperor. "What useful clothes to have. If I had such a suit of clothes I could know at once which of my people is stupid…”

Bottom Line: What’s happening now is a distraction. This is not about Congressional negotiations. With great sadness, we must face these facts. Will the Emperor prevail or will we be as wise as the people at the end of the fairy tale, by seeing the truth...

And starting over.


"Health Cuts With Little Effect On Care,"The New York Times, December 30,2009

1. "Comparing the House and the Senate Health Care Proposals: Public Plan," The New York Times, December 19, 2009

"The House Bill and the Senate Bill," The Now! Blog, December 21, 2009

"Why We Need a Public Health-Care Plan," The Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2009

"Why a public health insurance option is key to saving costs," Economic Policy Institute, June 25, 2009

2. "Assessment of Affordability Provisions in the Exchange in House (H.R. 3962) and Senate (H.R. 3590) Health Reform Bills," Health Care for America Now

"Finishing Reform Right: Fixing affordability before the President signs a health care bill," The Now! Blog, December 22, 2009

"Comparing the House and the Senate Health Care Proposals: Individual Mandate," The New York Times, December 19, 2009

"The House Bill and the Senate Bill," The Now! Blog, December 21, 2009

"Senate health bill is launch pad," Jacob Hacker, December 22, 2009 http://www.po/

3. "Comparing the House and the Senate Health Care Proposals: Abortion," The New York Times, December 19, 2009

4. "Comparing the House and the Senate Health Care Proposals: Paying for the Proposals," The New York Times, December 19, 2009

"Comparing the House and the Senate Health Care Proposals: Insurance Regulations," The New York Times, December 19, 2009

"H.R. 3962, Affordable Health Care for America Act," Congressional Budget Office, November 20, 2009

"Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act," Congressional Budget Office, November 18, 2009

"REPORT: How the Senate Bill Compares to Other Reform Legislation," Think Progress, November 19, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Galapagos #2: Survival Against All Odds

Photos: Tracy & Sean Haling

By Sandy Prisant

One species that Darwin did not directly study in his time in the Galapagos was our own.

Thankfully, the Ecuadorian government has remedied this omission. It requires every visitor, prior to departure to drop in on a straightforward, historic presentation of mankind and its buffoonery in the unfolding Galapagos saga. Nothing as sinister as reliving Nazi camps at the Holocaust Museum. Here, we just come off as a race of imbeciles.

What Darwin did not envision in his revolutionary, evolutionary theory about the natural order of life, was how hard human kind would work to undermine everything he discovered, even though the first hint of ourselves as the main threat, came with the very first discovery of the Islands.

An expedition led by the 4th Bishop of Panama stumbled upon the Galapagos in 1535. His first report suggested colossal stupidity. Fray Tomas de Berlanga (Bishop from 1530-1537) wrote back to
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain:

“…many sea lions, turtles, iguanas, tortoises; many birds like
those from Spain, but silly that they didn’t know how to
flee and many were caught by hand…”

It’s important to put those comments in context. Darwin’s work had the effect of questioning Divine Creation. Essentially he was challenging theological dogma that pre-dated him by almost two millennia.

It was the great irony of Darwin’s life. He had rejected science by dropping out of medical school at Edinburgh University, to study theology at Cambridge--with the intent of becoming a clergyman in the Church of England. He wound up becoming the scientist who upset the theological apple cart.

Much of the Church’s basic teaching about man’s divine nature, particularly at the time of Fray Tomas De Berlanga, focused on our species and our planet as the center of everything. The argument went that God gave humans special gifts, precisely so that we could dominate all other species. So that we could in turn be at the center of the center—if not gods ourselves, Princes of the Universe, at least.

So by simply observing the finch and finding 13 subspecies, with beaks adapted to different conditions on different islands, Darwin was not just doing a modest study, as part of a 4-year mapping and nature expedition. He was indirectly questioning the very premise underlying much of Church ideology. He was, based partly on just five weeks in the Galapagos and only 19 days on land, questioning the very essence of divine creation.

And what better support could Darwin have had beforehand to make his point, than from the Church itself. In this case, through a pioneering bishop whose own divine creation does not seem to have been dealt from a full deck.

While the Englishman’s work had an unprecedented impact on Western thought, little of that stunning new understanding of life helped to protect the Galapagos. In the centuries after the Bishop’s visit, at least a half-dozen destructive attempts to mercilessly exploit the islands and their peaceful inhabitants all ended in commercial and ecological disaster. From the slaughter of 250,000 (98%) of the giant tortoise population to the slaughter of men in the misguided creation of a first prison colony in the 19th century that failed , to an even more misguided concentration camp in the 20th century. Unsurprisingly that, too, failed after another brutal uprising.

But that wasn’t the half of it. How incompetent has man been as stewards of this global treasure?
Before and after, let us count the ways:

1800’s—Ill-conceived sugar plantations that produced few crops but great environmental damage.

1830’s—Ill-conceived dye production that produced greater environmental damage.

1860’s---The Great Powers (including the US), tried to rape the Islands, smash and
grab the resources and wrest them from Ecuador. (So much for the Monroe Doctrine,
both politically and ecologically.)

1927-28---Norwegians are urged to colonize the Galapagos in the late 20’s. The
Ecuadorian government described their attempts at commerce and settlement as
leading them to become “disillusioned and sick from loneliness”. The majority of these
brave pioneers fled back to Norway in less than a year.

1929---The final attempt at emigration turned paradise into a sordid,
violent Peyton Place, as Europeans brought all their desires and neuroses with them.
It led quickly to adultery among the few families, broken homes, and mysterious
disappearances at the turn of the decade. The blue-footed booby had never seen
the likes of such gross behavior. Photo: Susan Prisant

The Bottom Line: As the government now openly admits in it’s museum presentation:

“close to four centuries of exploitation of the natural riches of the Galapagos did not only cause deterioration in the environment, but also ended with tragic cost in human lives.”

And yet, against all odds, the Galapagos have managed to overcome mankind’s destructive influence. While Hawaii struggles to sustain 5 (five)% of its indigenous species, the Galapagos have managed to hold on to 95% of theirs.

It is not Darwin that should attract you to these islands. It is all those species that attracted him as well. Species which have each figured out how to find a decent, tolerable place within their world.

Leaving only the “divinely created” human race—masters of all they survey—utterly adrift.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Galapagos Islands: Lessons From the Locals

All Photos: Sean & Tracy Haling

By Sandy Prisant

Santa Cruz Island, Ecuador—In less than four hours you can escape the empty calories of American politics and arrive in Ecuador—where the jewel in the crown is the Galapagos Islands.

Don’t misunderstand. Ecuadorian politics are full of empty calories, too. (Now, wide-ranging daily blackouts are causing havoc everywhere in the country—the direct result of 20 years’ gross negligence in maintaining/expanding the national electric grid.) After all, this was one of those Banana Republics.

But that electricity havoc is in the regions dominated by man and his ways. In the Galapagos, 550 miles offshore in the Pacific, and the one Federal State largely controlled by wildlife, there is a calm, serene and rational world. The difference is striking. Here, there really is the Law of the Jungle. No pretense. Mother birds abandon their eggs to save themselves. Bluntly, cute things are eating other cute things the whole time. But there is no neuroses about it.

Yes, I know, underneath our suits we’re running the same Jungle-based system, but somehow, it’s not the same. Rather than harmony and effectiveness, our revered free will and political liberties have given us unsolvable Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and an inability to engage each other in discussion on profound social issues:

1. Congressional members have government health coverage they shamelessly deny to the very people they were allegedly elected to serve. We’ve been patiently awaiting a real solution since the 1st national health bill was proposed in 1917.

In the Galapagos, no vermillion fly catcher, no sea lion has had anything vital awaiting action since 1917.

2. Years too late, we still don’t know how to kick-start a real legislative discussion on the first timid attempts to control a small fraction of carbon emissions.

In the Galapagos, not a single species needs to burn carbon to function. When its cold, marine iguanas pile up--lying on top of each other to keep warm, for the common good (a concept we’ve relegated exclusively to campaign speeches). When it’s too hot for a pregnant sea turtle to come ashore, they simply hover in the cool Pacific, a few feet out, waiting patiently for the sun to go down and the temperature to drop below 70F naturally, so they can come ashore safely and build their nests.

I’m unaware of other species that need to make unrecyclable waste or burn fossil fuels to survive or flourish. Not even ones like the woodpecker finch here, that use tools. Why is that?

3. And in the “the community of nations”—our specie’s own system—corruption thrives. From corruption we know about in Afghanistan. To corruption we don’t. Ecuador for example. As ire and shame rise with the electricity fiasco, there are a million excuses. One features the international shrug of helplessness, accompanied by the lament, “Ecuador is poor.”

And then one day I met a man who has lived his life in the Galapagos. Just a normal man. But he was adamant.

“Ecuador is NOT poor. Ecuador is rich. In natural resources and corruption.”

Possibly he’s been effected by all the creatures literally around him—none of whom are corrupt; none of whom risk the future of their tribe for personal gain.

We often hear our own failings glossed over with the words, “it’s a messy system, but we’re free.” Well, we’re now reaching the point on a dozen fronts that make “messy” a poor euphemism for melting ice caps and a melting middle class.

The word “free” is losing meaning, too. The unspeakable fact is we’ll never return to 5% unemployment. (And if you can’t work, you can’t eat and that leaves little room for new ideas or creative individual action.)

So here’s the balance sheet: on the one hand we have thousands of species, most having prospered for eons longer than humans have existed, by doing sensible things every day—no frills, or greed or egos.

On the other hand, we have just one race in which a few hundred years ago, some presumed wise leaders gave away all of Manhattan for beads. And less than a decade ago, almost 50% of American voted to get 2% of them a tax cut. Such folly does not occur within species endemic to the Galapagos.

What really makes places like this so rare and appealing to us is that we are in the presence of other sentient beings who act without guile, contempt or hubris in their dealings with others. It’s not only unique to have a giant tortoise and every other species one foot away from you and not hiding. It’s also that they do not, unlike humans, change behavior in any way. Not scaring you or impressing you or wanting a damn thing from you. No contempt. No fraud. No games. In short, none of the falseness that informs initial meetings between most humans. It is this that is the most rare of experiences and actually explains why tourism to these volcanic islands doubled in recent years. And then doubled again.

It is what we crave and cannot find amongst our own kind, anywhere. This difference begins with all other species naturally or through evolution, being able to live in complete harmony within their environmental system; where all is based on rational, efficient instincts that allow the system—their world—to flourish. Every penguin, every finch looks energetic and well-fed. Apparently their system is in balance.

Only we are evolving in exactly the opposite direction, allowing less and less in our lives—and theirs—to thrive. Why is this happening?

In explaining what went wrong with the US economy, former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan testified that it was shockingly simple: “It never occurred to me that CEO’s and CFO’s would not act in a rational manner and in the best interests of their companies. All Fed policies hinged on that one premise.”

If Mr. Greenspan had spent 5 weeks here as Darwin did, it might have helped.

For sadly, the Federal Reserve could only work on Greenspan’s premise if it were purpose-built for the rational, efficient locals of the Galapagos.