Post Date: 02/1/2011

How Are We Doing?

Citizens of the United States are currently engaged in a loud debate over just what our values are and the proper direction in which we should be heading. Questions include how to improve our healthcare system while curbing costs, how to improve education, how to improve the economy and what to do about global warming to the extent that our actions exacerbate it. In general one may observe that liberals believe that government action can and should be involved in the amelioration of all these problems. Conservatives would argue that private enterprise should be allowed to solve these problems, if indeed they exist at all.

George Will once observed that this country was founded on a proposition and that Thomas Jefferson wrote the proposition. In the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence Jefferson wrote, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—.“ Knowing Jefferson’s religious attitudes as we do from his other writings, I would not be surprised if he would have accepted evolution as the Creator but he was born too early. I have also read that he was advised by Benjamin Franklin to use the phrase, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident…” because one really can’t defend this proposition with any facts, then or now. The three “unalienable Rights” that we assert have been shown by history to be a noble direction, but certainly not achieved yet by us or any other country and are seemingly not enforced by the Creator who endowed them. Nonetheless these are noble goals. How should we pursue them?

We founded our new nation with a Constitution. Its preamble states, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

In contrast to the Ten Commandments which were delivered by God to Moses (along with the rest of the Torah, in Jewish tradition) on Mount Sinai, our Constitution was established by us, “We, the People…” This document, established by men, specifies how we are going to pursue and guarantee our unalienable rights. There have been disagreements along the way as to whom the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness apply. Article I, section 2 excludes “Indians not taxed” and counts all others who are not free men (negro slaves) as three fifths of a person for the purpose of determining how many Representatives a state is entitled to in the House of Representatives. We spent the lives of 500,000 soldiers in the Civil War beginning to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” to these excluded groups. Our task is not finished.

How are we doing on Healthcare, Education, the Economy, with particular reference to jobs for the average person, and stewardship of our planet as evidenced by our human contribution to global warming? Not well. With regard to Healthcare we do not rank in the top ten in the world considering either neonatal death rates or average lifespan. With regard to education, our students do not rank in the top ten in the world in reading, science, or math. Our economy seems increasingly to benefit the already rich at the increasing expense of the middle class and poor. While unemployment remains above 9%, the upper 1% of the population, as measured by net worth, controls between 35-40% of the wealth. And they are getting steadily richer; their wealth is not trickling down to create jobs for the average person. The bottom 80% of the population has 15% of the wealth. How does this “promote the general Welfare?” Will this inequality “insure domestic Tranquility?” With regard to stewardship of our planet, all the scientific data that we have indicate that the Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate and that we humans, particularly in developed countries, are contributing to the warming by pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as we burn ever more fossil fuels for energy. In this case the problem is exacerbated further by conservatives who deny that the problem even exists. Such denial violates a wise precept of the late Senator Daniel Moynihan: A man is entitled to his own opinion but he is not entitled to his own facts. No rational interpretation of the great mass of data accumulated on the subject can deny the fact that the Earth is warming and that it is highly probable that we are causing it. Besides ignorance I have heard of three objections. The first is that the Endtimes are coming soon and concerns about Global Warming are irrelevant in light of the coming Rapture. Though an exercise of freedom of religion, this idea is delusional. A second is that the data have been fudged by scientists in England. This charge has been thoroughly investigated and is simply untrue. Lastly, individuals in some energy companies obfuscate the argument in the same way that tobacco companies obfuscated the evidence that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. This practice is both selfish and shows a lack of concern for anyone not making profits in coal and oil. One of the implications of global warming and our observed contribution to it is that we will have to radically reorient our energy policies and move away from fossil fuels to different sources such as solar and nuclear power. This threatens the profits of current oil and coal companies and will require government action. If we wait for the market to react and fix the problem, Florida may well be under water. Not everyone would find this upsetting, but old Jews from New York might have to retire elsewhere, perhaps oceanfront property in Arizona.

Our Healthcare system is based on private enterprise, the purchase of insurance policies from a huge industry that has plenty of money to contribute to politicians. Politicians assure us that such contributions do not influence their votes. However the recent Healthcare Act further enriches insurance companies by requiring everyone to purchase a policy. This spreads risk. There are federal subsidies for those who can’t afford the premiums and the result is that about 32 million people who were previously uninsured now will be able to have health insurance. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the net result of the bill will be to reduce the projected deficit by $230 billion. We are currently spending about 17% of our GDP on healthcare and getting a poorer result for the population as a whole than every other developed country in the world. And, all these countries that take care of their populations better than we do only spend about half what we do in terms of GDP. Of course, these countries achieve their results through the evils of socialism. In the Scandinavian countries they have a model of cradle to grave health care funded through income taxes. In Germany, there are private health insurance companies but they are regulated very tightly just like public utilities are both there and here. Both models achieve better results than we do in the USA. Does our system “promote the general Welfare” as well as it could? No, it doesn’t. Could we learn something from other countries? Yes, we could. Does the Constitution institutionalize capitalism as the only economic model we can use to pursue “Life, Liberty, and …. Happiness? No, it doesn’t say a word about man-made economic models. There is nothing holy or God-given about capitalism in spite of the views of State Senator Russell Pearce of Arizona.

Our educational system is based on myriad local school boards that have produced a population in which there are embarrassingly large numbers of people that don’t realize that evolution happened and is ongoing, that don’t understand science well enough to realize that the conservative denial of global warming is just wrong, that don’t vaccinate their children against vaccine preventable diseases, and support foreign wars although they frequently cannot point out on a map the country where our troops are dying. A recent study ranked American students 14th in Reading, 17th in Science, and 25th in Math among the surveyed countries in the world. This does not indicate that our system is either functioning well or getting better. One problem is the jealous guarding of the rights of local school boards. Those who defend these rights seem to do so even to the point of letting their schools teach incompetently. This is apparently preferable to government interference but the education of our children suffers when there is no central oversight. Here is an interesting calculation. IQ is normally distributed with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 10 points. This means that about 16% of people have an IQ above 110 and might be considered “smart.” About 2.5% of the people have an IQ above 120 and might be considered “really smart.” The United States has about 300 million people. China and India, two of the most rapidly developing economies in the world, together have about 2.5 billion people. Doing a little arithmetic, this means that China and India together have about 400 million smart people, or more smart people than we have total people in the USA.

It is therefore no surprise that we are losing jobs overseas. Our own companies are establishing more and more of their manufacturing bases in foreign countries to take advantage of willing, educated and educatable work forces, lack of regulations and low wages in developing societies. These jobs will not come back here unless we eliminate minimum wage laws and regulations that prevent abuse of child labor, promote worker safety and so forth. Do we want to exploit our workers like we used to and like Mexico and China do today? Does this “promote the general Welfare?” I recently read a comment by someone who defended his practice of manufacturing overseas by asking how he should be judged in the grand scheme of things if he brought five people in China up from poverty and caused one person in America to fall out of the middle class. That’s a good question, worthy of debate, but that attitude won’t create jobs here. What’s the solution? Education is. If we are going to steadily lose manufacturing jobs to China where they pay workers 18 cents an hour, then we have to train our population to do the more complex tasks in the economy. Coal miners in Kentucky need to trade their shovels for computers. They will learn how to do this through better education. Parenthetically, they will not be helped in this endeavor by their two US Senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.

Better education will also help all of us to understand that global warming is real and that we are causing it. To prevent mass disaster in the future we will need to change our energy generation systems. There are lots of potential solutions: solar power, wind power, hydroelectric power, nuclear power, hydrocarbon producing algae that grow in CO2 saturated media so that they can act both as fuel producers and CO2 sinks for the greenhouse gases that they produce. To get all these programs going in the time frame that is necessary to prevent disaster will require government intervention to stimulate programs both by grants and tax incentives. One particularly disturbing example of the need for such action is the previously cited problem of coal miners in Appalachia. Coal fired plants are a particularly dirty way of producing energy. We are trying to make coal “cleaner” but burning it still makes CO2, regardless of the other byproducts that we may scrub out. We have to get off coal as an energy source and Kentucky coal miners will suffer. Is the solution to stay on coal and ruin the environment or retrain the folks in Kentucky? Their life is not so great right now and if they had alternatives, they might jump at them. Certainly Massey Energy’s ongoing safety violations do not indicate much concern for the “general Welfare” of its workers. Perhaps “We, the People” need to step in.

We need a lot of improvement if we are to achieve the proposition written by Thomas Jefferson. The facts are there for all to see. If religious beliefs or political philosophies blind us to facts, as they sometimes do, “the general Welfare” will suffer. “Domestic Tranquility” may be next.
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