Saturday, December 22, 2012

Guns and the Depletion of Civic Sanity

A few years ago, I was out camping with some friends. One evening, we were sitting around a campfire, sharing a little single malt and telling stories and cracking jokes. Conversation drifted from songs to movies to what the hell is going on in the world? Amidst this banter, one of the campers made a point that has intrigued me to this day.

He noted that resource depletion leads to wars and to oppressive governments. And with many resources in our world dwindling, major political upheavals and social disintegration are like to become the norm. Such resources include clean water and air, arable land, rare minerals used in manufacturing, fossil fuels and building materials. “I would add one other resource to that list,” he said. “Civic sanity.”

I asked him what he meant by civic sanity and he explained that it meant the expectation that people around you will act rationally—or at least not in a manner that will heedlessly endanger others. “When you are diving a car, you expect all other drivers to stay on their side of the road and not run into you. When you walk down the street in a city, you expect people will not come up behind you and whack you over the head with a baseball bat. Things like that. Now once in awhile, people do drive their cars into others, or assault strangers on the street. But currently, in most parts of the United States, this is an aberration. What happens, however, if it becomes the norm? What happens if you can't walk out your door to go to work without fearing a sniper is going to shoot you?”

Like other resources, he suggested, the depletion of civic sanity has a tipping point. After this week's gun massacres, I am wondering, are we approaching that tipping point? Have we gone over it?

The prevalent meme in America is that we value freedom more than security. Individual liberty, not the nanny state. Rather than ban certain types of weapons to keep us safe, just let us all strap on a gun and be able to shoot it out with the bad guy. Is that really how we think? Like most issues in our culture, we are a divided nation. I haven't seen any polls, but I'd venture that most Americans are smart enough to know that firing more guns in a crowded public place is going to result in more casualties, not less.

There are at least 300 million privately owned firearms in the United States—more than one for every adult—but a majority of American adults do not own even one. So most of us think it's unnecessary to own a gun. Many of us understand that households with guns are more likely to suffer gunshot wounds and deaths than households without guns.

Can we ban the kind of guns used in the slaughter of innocent children or people shopping at a mall at Christmas time? Gun advocates say banning these guns won't work because criminals won't respect the laws and will find illegal means of obtaining them. They cite our nation's experiment with Prohibition of alcohol in the early part of the 20th century. While I certainly wouldn't want to return to the days of speakeasies and bootleggers, the notion that Prohibition failed is debatable. During the 1920s, alcohol consumption declined significantly—initially to 30 percent of the level prior to the Volstead Act, rising to about 60 percent later on. And once Prohibition was repealed, most states instituted strict regulations on it sales and consumption.

Yes, illegal alcohol fueled the rise of organized crime syndicates. It should be noted that these crime syndicates existed well before Prohibition and were the outgrowth of the oppression of late 19th century immigrant minorities, mainly Italians, Irish and Jews. This was at the height of the last Gilded Age and since the Robber Baron rich were plundering everything in sight, they set an example for the lower classes. And, of course,the same thing is happening now, only the drugs are different.

But perhaps gun control is not the only answer to random slaughter. Given the power of the NRA, it may not be possible. Let's assume that the Second Amendment continues to be interpreted as an inviolable right to own whatever firearms any citizen desires. We keep that freedom. But to do so and yet make us safer in public, we will have to give up other freedoms. We already have.

Many people may not know that there was once a time when anyone could walk into a government building without going through a metal detector. Nowadays, almost all state and federal office buildings—or at least those who have offices for elected officials or other important people--are protected by some kind of security moat. The same applies to other institutions. I started working for The Oregonian in the sports department when I was in high school. At that time, anyone could walk into its building on Southwest Broadway and Jefferson, at any time of day or night. A little later, I worked for a couple of small town daily newspapers that had the same kind of open access. There were times I'd be writing a story and somebody off the street would interrupt me. Usually, the kind of person who bypassed the receptionist and strode straight for my desk was a crank, an annoying and garrulous fellow who would elaborately lay out a conspiracy theory and insist that I write it up. We also would get visited by gladhanding politicians, promoters with free tickets and homeowners angry at their neighbors. But once in awhile, a really good story would walk in the door, a story we might not have gotten if we didn't let the public have open access to our office.

In the late 1970s, I took a break from newspapering and worked a few years for a Congressman in his district office. There were no security checks there, either, and constituents would stream into our offices with tales of woe. These days, not only are your elected representatives hunkered down in their bunkers, but so are their staffs. A few years ago, Portland spent a big chunk of money building an underground parking garage below our courthouse, just so judges could go straight from their cars to their chambers without having to risk being on a street for even a second.

Is it any wonder Americans feel more alienated from their government now? Do we trust any of these big institutions, public or private, that make it virtually impossible to talk to someone in charge, either in person or on the phone? Most Americans have figured out that there is a small elite group of movers and shakers who never have to come in contact with the rest of us, never have to deal with the kind of annoyances and horrors that the rest of us endure every day. Very few, if any, politicians or corporate executives have been strip searched before boarding a plane. It's not necessary when you have your own airplane.

The rest of us shrug, adapt and carry on. It's surprising that there is not more resentment of the elites. Americans idolize success, thus if the privileged flaunt their privileges, it must be because they are better than us, and they must be protected at all costs because they are smarter, stronger, better looking, harder working and above all, irreplaceable. Never mind that most of them got to the top either through inheritance, or by being willing to do things that make the rest of us squeamish.

I keep thinking that one day, instead of mowing down shoppers, movie goers, school children or ex-wives, someone is going to open fire on the banksters at Goldman Sachs or the hate mongers on talk radio, or even the Supreme Court. In the minds of liberals, the world would be a better place without these people. But liberals believe in the sanctity of human life after birth and are not going to shoot anyone. Liberals still cling to the notion that democracy can work, even when all the cards are stacked against them. Liberals don't become suicide bombers. They'd rather talk than fight. Sometimes, liberals are too sane for their own good.

So back to freedom and sanity. Aside from banning certain types of guns, the most common plea since the Newtown massacre has been to increase access to mental health care. Mental health is the neglected stepchild of our health care system. It's true that no sane person would saunter into a public space, shoot as many people as possible and then commit suicide. However, it is also true that most of the shooters, including the last two, had not been diagnosed as being mentally ill, even though it's obvious that almost all of them suffered from clinical depression. People who are depressed normally don't seek out help, at least not explicitly. Many end up ending it all without taking the lives of other people.

It's possible to profile mass killers. Virtually all of them are male, predominantly between ages 15 and 30. They are likely to be depressed and suicidal. In addition, they may feel they have been grossly victimized by someone or something else, be it a school, employer or their fellow students/employees. Finally, they think that going out in a blaze of infamy will gain them posthumous respect and fame. Eric Harris, one of the Columbine killers, had speculated that Quentin Tarrantino would make a movie about him and fellow shooter Dylan Klebold. I'm sure, after in-depth studies have been done of all 62 mass shootings since 1982, that an even more sophisticated profile can be constructed.

But then what? Do we round up every male between 15 and 30 and make them take a comprehensive psychiatric exam? What do we do with the ones who test out as likely candidates to become mass killers? Sequester them and administer drugs? Attempt to reprogram them? Doesn't this remind you a little of what the Soviets did to dissidents in the bleak era of Breznev?

Certainly, counseling would help, especially in middle school and high school, where budget cuts have eliminated a lot of counseling positions.

On the other hand, given how so many crucial issues are captive to capitalism, more mental health services could make matters worse. Pharmaceutical companies drive the mental health field. Overbooked and underpaid counselors often have little time for talk. Unless you are able to pay top dollar, you don't get to lie on a couch for an hour and talk to a shrink. No, you get ten minutes and a prescription. If you are depressed, you get a prescription for Prozac or Zoloft. Unfortunately, anti-depressants backfire with a lot of people, making them even more depressed. Not to mention confused, angry and suicidal. One report I read after the Newtown massacre indicated that several shooters, though evidently not Adam Lanza, had been on anti-depressants.

Neither depression nor any other form of mental illness is unique to the United States. On the same day as the Newtown tragedy, a deranged man in China stabbed 23 school children with a knife. Americans are 12 times more likely to be murdered by a gun than people in other Western countries, but we do not have 12 times more psychologically disturbed people. In fact, rates of depression, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia in the U.S. are about the same as those in other developed countries. Children and teens play violent video games at the same rate in other countries, too—the Japanese are the world's video game champs. Hardly anyone in Japan, however, dies from a gunshot wound.

In reading the reactions to Newtown—and I've read hundreds of articles in the past week—I'm reminded of the adage, “If you only have a hammer, ever problem becomes a nail.” Everyone reacts according to their own experience and biases. Ardent gun advocates argue that more people should be toting guns to deter the criminals and crazy shooters. Mental health professionals, who believe their field is underfunded, want more counseling and intervention. The religious right wants to bring God back into schools, whatever that means. The radical left links gun violence to the oppressive economic inequality in the U.S., as well as rampant capitalism, thus the solution requires a complete reordering of American society. Second Amendment purists believe these shootings are the price we must pay to keep our country free from tyrants, as if a motley militia armed with semiautomatic weapons would last for very long against a force that has missiles and drones.

If you never want to read another headline about a shooting massacre in America, the facts make it clear what to do: pass legislation that strictly regulates gun ownership and prohibits certain kinds of weapons entirely. A true ban on assault weapons (not the wimpy version that was in force from 1994 to 2004) will greatly reduce mass shootings. So will a ban on large capacity clips. It won't do much to reduce the number of common, more personal gun homicides (about 10,000 per year) or gun suicides (nearly 20,000 per year). Women in particular still will be vulnerable to being shot by ex-husbands, ex-boyfriends or deluded stalkers. Children will also continue be be gunned down gang conflicts or family melt downs (about 2,800 children die from gunshot wounds every year).

To further reduce gun violence, we'll have to adopt measures similar to those in other countries. Set up a licensing procedure that includes both training in gun use and safety and a test. Require that if you want to purchase a gun, two of your friends or family members must vouch for you. Restrict people from buying more than one gun a year. Upgrade the background check database and make it universally accessible. Require that guns be stored in safes or have trigger locks, perhaps even fingerprint locks that would prevent anyone else from firing the owner's guns.

If you look at all of the statistical data on guns and gun violence from all of the countries in the developed world, you are forced to the conclusion that fewer guns equals more safety. Of course the NRA and other pro-gun folks will obscure those facts or cherry pick ones to their advantage. They'll point out that in Norway, which has very strict gun control, a madman killed 77 people in one shooting spree. They won't, however, note that Norway averages about 10 gun homicides a year.

If you were proposing legislation to promote cleaner air or fuel economy, you wouldn't necessarily let the American Petroleum Institute write the bill. If you sought to increase the FDA's oversight of new drugs, you probably would not leave the details up to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. If you were developing a universal health care bill that would also reduce the costs of health care, you wouldn't let insurance companies...well, actually you did and instead of single payer insurance, we ended up with the Rube Goldberg mechanism of Obamacare.

The National Rifle Association tries to pass itself off as a grass roots citizen's organization. In reality, it is a trade organization representing gun manufacturers and dealers. It's overarching goal is not the protection of the Second Amendment, but to expand the market for firearms. A large majority of the NRA's members supports regulations such as criminal background checks for purchases at gun shows, mandating the owners immediately notify the police when their guns are stolen, prohibiting anyone under 21 to have a concealed carry permit and requiring gun safety training for such permits. The NRA leadership opposes all of these rather mild measures. The members pay dues, but the manufacturers call the shots.

And the shots they call result in bullet-riddled little children.

A week after the Newtown tragedy, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre finally addressed the nation and offered the NRA's solution to school shootings: armed security guards in every school. Ingeniously, the NRA turned the clamor for gun regulation into an opportunity to sell more guns. Unfortunately, LaPierre did not take questions and thus never explained how financially strapped school districts throughout the land would pay for armed guards. Perhaps a hefty tax on every gun sold? I wouldn't bet on it.

The NRA would have us all packing a firearm, because, in LaPierre's words, “only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun.” But then, what about stopping a perceived bad guy who doesn't have a gun? It hasn't been that long since Trayvon Martin was gunned down under the rationale of Florida's “stand your ground” law. What if the person you think is a bad guy isn't threatening you at all, but you think this person is evil? Say you oppose abortion and thus take aim at doctors who perform abortions? Or you think clear cutting is killing the earth and fire shots at loggers? And then they start firing back. Eventually, your home town resembles Baghdad in 2004.

Suddenly, you are in the middle of a Mad Max movie. Civic sanity has evaporated.

And when you trace it back, if you survive to do so, you discover it's not because we have all gone mad or turned into zombies by video games. No, it occurs because of unfettered, insatiable capitalistic gun manufacturers whose only goal is increasing sales and profits. The gun dealers don't care, or maybe they believe their own lies. They are no different than the oil company executives who deny the existence of climate change.

We're not going to become a rerun of Mad Max, not unless we face real physical resource depletion—not enough food, not enough water, not enough energy. That all could happen, of course. And if it does, it will affect our mental health and our culture drastically. But as for now, American is not overrun by crazy people. The vast majority of us still are repelled by the thought of taking another person's life. It's just that we are, as usual, complacent until it gets personal, until something bad happens to us.

For better or worse, maybe it;s gotten personal to enough of us to make a difference.

Further reading:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Slouching from Tucson

I’m thinking I can no longer call myself a liberal, or progressive. Perhaps I never was, anyway. Liberals tend to believe that people can learn to live peacefully with one another. They believe the human race can make progress towards justice and equality. They think we can learn from our mistakes.

I used to think that way, even as late as 2008, maybe 2009. Not any more.

It’s not the madman’s mayhem in Tucson that brings me to this conclusion. Whether—and to what extent--that sick individual was influenced by the rabid right into attempting to murder Democratic Rep. Gabriel Gifford is something we’ll find out in time. Certainly, the American culture of violence was culpable.

No, what gets me is the hope that liberals profess that maybe this time, we’ll all change for the better, we’ll all put the muffler on runaway rhetoric, we’ll get Congress and state legislatures to pass rational gun control.

Don’t hold your breath.

We live in a plutocracy now, a country where money doesn’t merely talk, but swears (my apologies to Dylan). And those with money are telling us to go fuck ourselves, because nothing’s going to change.

Sure it’s a damn shame that Jared Lee Loughner, by all accounts so psychotic that he scared the bejesus out of his teachers and fellow students, was able to buy a Glock and kill six people, including a nine-year old girl. But as the NRA says, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. He could just as easily have beheaded all those people, and diced up a bag of carrots to boot, with a sharp samurai sword. He could have converted an old hash pipe into a blow gun and strafed them with curare-tipped darts. He could have strapped dynamite around his body and…nah, that’s not the American way.

And as for any other means of killing people, not very likely either. Nothing kills like a high-capacity 33-round hand gun. Unless, maybe, it’s an AK-47.

A sensible thing to do would be to ban assault weapons. Another sensible thing would be to require background checks at gun shows. But none of these proposals will get through any state or federal legislative body because the NRA opposes them. The NRA cites the Second Amendment, but really, it’s policies are based on unfettered free enterprise. Any law that hinders the purchase of firearms cuts down on the profits of gun manufacturers and dealers. That’s what it’s all about, making another buck, or another billion.

Far more people have been killed in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but then, there’s been far more money to be made by the American war industry. After all, we gotta keep the economy rolling.

I have a fantasy—and just an abstract fantasy, please—that some day, some guy who’s hearing voices coming through the fillings in his teeth will start firing a gun-show-bought semi-automatic weapon at someone like this guy:

Nice, friendly looking fellow, isn’t he? His name is Ron Schmeits and he’s a small-town banker in New Mexico. Was a mayor of a small town in Minnesota years ago. Today, he’s the president of the NRA. Not quite as studly as Charlton Heston, but just as gun crazy. Just like the premature death of anyone, it would be a shame if someone capped him…but also, deliciously ironic.

By the way, most of the political leaders assassinated in the past 50 years have been Democrats.

So short of evening the score, what can we do? First, recognize that this kind of tragedy is just a more dramatic rendition of the collateral damage wreaked daily by our economic system and the vast inequality of wealth and income in our country. Death just is another externalized cost of doing business in the U.S. The solution isn’t state socialism, but simply the kind of strong regulation found in Europe and most of the rest of the developed world.

Second, people have to put their lives on the line. That means way, way more than starting a Facebook issue page and getting a million people to put some slogan in their status update. Even more than volunteering at the food co-op or homeless shelter, as worthy as those deeds are.

No, it will take active resistance and pro-active organizing. Massing thousands of people at the next NRA convention, for a start. Or organizing a boycott of companies that contribute to the NRA. Perhaps moling inside a large nefarious organization or corporation and causing all sorts of havoc. I don’t think it requires violence, but it does require personal risk.

And that’s the catch. Even as we get picked off one-by-one by the economy, by the housing crisis, by unaffordable health care, by hazardous working conditions, by deadly pharmaceuticals, by random gunfire, we remain all too comfortable, so long as we have our I-Diversions. In a few days, we’ll still be talking about the Auburn-Oregon football game and barely remember who Gabriel Giffords is.

I have to admit, I’m pretty comfortable, too. I haven’t found a cause that I would die for. But if the right cause came along under the right circumstances, I might kill for one.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dead Men Don't Wear Birkenstocks

As you may have noticed, people in Portland live a little differently than people elsewhere. They die a little differently, too.

One annual piece of good news for our fair city is that not that many people are murdered in Portland. Last year, there were 29 homicides, up from 21 the year before. Still well below the rate of most major U.S. cities.

If you want to live more dangerously, move to New Orleans, which has a murder rate of 52 per 100,000 residents. Portland’s rate is just a tenth of that. Other high-murder cities include Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore and Chicago. These cities average more murders per month than Portland has in an entire year.

Now for the less rosy picture: in 2010, 13% of Portland’s homicides were committed by our police force—and that figure goes up to 22% of the African-Americans killed. Nothing surprising there. We all know that Portland cops have a penchant for shooting people, especially black people. Or mentally disturbed people. They’ll shoot your in your car, they’ll shoot you where you live, they’ll shoot you on the street or when you are in the park.

Best thing to do is avoid the police, because they’ve been getting away with murder for decades and nobody at City Hall has the brains or guts to do something about it.

Nevertheless, in Portland, you have a .00005% chance of getting murdered. About the same as winning at Powerball.

If, however, you want to reduce those odds even further, there are several things that could work in your favor (other than being polite to the police).

  1. Take your meds and don’t hang around people who won’t take theirs. Two of the people shot be the cops were, according to witnesses, behaving in a mentally unstable manner and four other victims were killed by mentally disturbed assailants.
  2. Be white. Forty percent of the homicides were committed against people of color, usually by people of color (except for those shot by cops).
  3. Learn knife defenses, which are taught in many martial arts schools and self-defense classes. Seven victims—about a quarter of the total—died from knife wounds. Portland’s rate is far higher than the national average of 14%. On the other hand, just over half of Portland’s murders were committed by firearms, while the national average is 70%.
  4. If you are a woman, don’t get involved with an angry, obsessive or jealous man—and if you do and want to leave him, you may want to spike his cocktails with a few drops of methyl alcohol. The reason for this precaution is that of the seven women murdered last year, five were killed by their husbands or boyfriends (two after they had become estranged).

This last factoid is a recurring nightmare, worse even than cops killing black folks. In previous years, the number of women murdered by crazed ex-boyfriends or husbands has approached massacre levels. I can only guess at why it happens so much. Some men have a “master” complex and when a man sees his slave leave him, his ego is humbled. He can’t let it go and get on with his life, because a big part of his life is mastery over another human being. So he tries to bring her back home. And if that fails, he kills her.

Restraining orders are futile against crazy men. I propose a law that says that whenever a woman takes out a restraining order against a man, the man has to wear a GPS bracelet for a sufficient period of time, which would allow the police to make sure the ex is not getting too close to the object of his desire, or if he is, to warn her.

Either that, or methyl alcohol (methanol). If administered in just the right amount (about 10 mL), it will lead to blindness, but not kill him.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Free is a very good price

The ticket to better health care

So here’s the solution to our health care crisis: send all the uninsured sick people to another country that has socialized medicine.

This idea springs from a guest column in The Oregonian by David Lister, a genuinely nice and reasonable guy who also is a political conservative. Lister opposes the single-payer health care systems in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, and probably also the public option proposed and possibly abandoned by President Obama.

Yet he recounts his own experience with Britain’s nationalized health care and comes away begrudgingly satisfied:

“Last April, during a trip to Scotland, I had my own encounter with a "socialized" health system. The day before our scheduled return I experienced severe chest pains and labored breathing. Our hosts insisted that I allow them to call the health service. After some discussion with a screener, I was told I should come in to be examined. In less than an hour, I was sitting in an exam room with a Scottish physician. A rapid examination satisfied him that I was not in cardiac distress, but merely suffering from acute indigestion.”

Lister mentions that his attending physician said he would move to American “in a hot minute,” presumably because of better pay, but also notes that his trip to the doctor cost him nothing.

If a doctrinaire conservative can experience socialized medicine first hand and not launch into a voluminous rant about how awful it is, think about how ordinary, non-ideological Americans would react. It seems that Americans are afraid of health care reform because they view it as the devil they don't know. So introduce them to the single-payer system and see how they like it.

This would have two positive effects:

  1. In the short run, it would save us billions of dollars. Buying a plane ticket for an uninsured American would be a lot less expensive than providing health insurance for that person, or treating the illness. Of course, there would have to be some kind of screening to make sure the sick person was actually sick and not trying to finagle a free trip abroad.

  2. After awhile, Britain, France and all the other countries with socialized medicine would catch on and start denying care to American tourists, but by that time, enough Americans would have been treated overseas—or in Canada—to greatly expand the movement for publicly-financed universal health care here. These people would then start showing up at town hall meetings demanding that their representatives pass the legislation that recently was getting shouted down.

In addition, if more people spent time abroad, they might develop an appreciation for such European things as fast and reliable public transit, walking, eating food in small portions and five-week vacations—all of which are good for one's health.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Where there's smoke, there's ire

Ah, the Great Indoors

Last night I went to Laurelhurst Park and watched “Singing in the Rain” along with a few hundred other Portlanders. I'm not sure there is a better way to enjoy a balmy summer evening that doesn't involve taking off all one's clothes or imbibing tall drinks with Spanish names. There were snow cones for sale at a tropical-themed cart, though most people brought their own picnics. The movie, which I hadn't seen in years, is one delightful song and dance routine after another, including the famous eponymous scene, plus the songs “Make 'Em Laugh,” “Good Mornin'.” and the incomparable “Gotta Dance.”

But this is a somewhat political blog, so for me, it's “Gotta Kvetch.”

It was the cigarette smoke. Enough people were smoking in the crowd that at times I grew a bit nauseous. At the least, it was irritating. And that brings me to my point: cigarette smoking must be prohibited in outdoor public places.

I applauded the extension of cigarette bans to bars, although it went into effect about a year and a half too late. Now I can go into even the most divey (and therefore most interesting) bars in town and inhale comfortably. It's great to be able to walk to my neighborhood pub and have a beer and dinner without suffocating from tobacco smoke.

Unfortunately, by implementing this ban on smoking in bars, we have ceded the outdoors to smokers. It's great indoors now. But it's virtually impossible to sit on at a sidewalk table, or on the patio of a restaurant or bar, without wondering if a tremendous fire is consuming Mt. Hood National Forest—except that forest fires, as devastating as they are, smell better than the incineration of tobacco.

So let's just ban outdoor smoking. Let the smokers puff away in a closet or a car with the windows rolled up. Or their own home, if they own it themselves, since very few landlords want to rent to smokers anymore.

Not that I'm totally unsympathetic. I did make this suggestion last winter when the bar ban took effect:

But don't cry to me about smokers' rights. Those of you who smoke should have no rights. You are drug addicts. You suck on an extremely lethal drug that is more addictive than heroin. Like meth tweaking, your addiction harms the people around you. And the weird thing is, it doesn't even get you high.

In any sane society, tobacco would be illegal. Only the largess and lobbying power of the tobacco companies keeps it legal. So that's not going to happen, but the non-addicted public is going to keep making it more difficult to feed your addiction. Get used to it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Dagnab gummint burrocrats

If the DMV did health care

One of the main points in the argument against a single payer, government-sponsored health care system is that it would be run by heartless gummint burrocrats. One line I’ve heard several times is: “Do you want to trust your health care to the kind of people who run the DMV?”

A week ago, I got a letter from the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles. This letter informed me that a vehicle registered to my name was not insured and that I had to procure auto insurance for it unless I had sold it or if it had been wrecked and thus taken out of circulation. In my case, however, the vehicle in question, a 1960s vintage Ford stepside pickup, was in a friend’s garage, not going anywhere until a loving restoration was completed.

There was a phone number at the bottom of the letter. I called it. A person answered. Yes, a real human being answered. No tedious menu of numbers to push or things to say to eventually get to a point where you are on hold long enough to watch Schindler’s List. A woman just answered the phone, said her name and asked how she could help me.

When was the last time that happened when you called your insurance company?

She was very helpful and told me to write my explanation at the bottom of the slip that I was supposed to return and all would be fine.

Again, when did that ever happen when you inquired about something from a health insurance company?

Fact is, the DMV Express center at Lloyd Center has always given me better service than I get from any other commercial interaction, with the possible exception of my favorite coffee house. The people there are friendly, courteous and extremely helpful. And most of the time, you get right in and out, with a minimum of waiting.

So, as to whether I want to have my health care administered by the same people who work at the DMV, I’m saying, “Hell, yes!”

Monday, July 13, 2009

Our sick economy

Nothing Pencils Out

Nothing pencils out anymore. Maybe nothing ever did, but it seems flagrantly more obvious today that virtually all business activities are entropic. Unsustainable. Oh yes, businesses survive, even thrive, but only by begging, borrowing, stealing, cheating or government subsidy.

No business seems to make it on its own. No business can operate profitably without either cutting corners or receiving unearned revenue.

You know the big names, the ones who got the billions and hundreds of billions from the feds. So you know:

--Banking doesn't pencil out. Banks need large infusions of your tax dollars to stay afloat.

--Ditto for insurance companies. In addition, insurance companies have to aggressively deny benefits to their customers to stay in business.

--American auto companies haven't penciled out for decades and now need not only government money but supervision.

Certainly, the failed economy doesn't help matters, but this thought came to me awhile ago, before millions of jobs went up in smoke.

--Big agribusiness doesn't pencil out. The corporate farms are totally dependent on the pork-laden agriculture bill that Congress passes every few years.

--Small farms haven't penciled out for nearly a century.

--Food product manufacturing doesn't pencil out unless the product is loaded with heavily subsidized commodities such as corn and soybeans.

--Most other kinds of manufacturing doesn't pencil out in the U.S., which is why it's done in China and elsewhere.

In Portland, however, it's no different, just perhaps more bungled up than many other places, but definitely not alone.

--Major league sports franchises, though universally owned by billionaires, evidently can't make it unless taxpayers pay for their stadiums and arenas.

--The hotel industry doesn't pencil out, since it needs to hire illegal aliens to clean the rooms. And it needs subsidies from local governments to build new hotels.

--Restaurants, too, need illegals in the kitchen to pencil out.

--Bars evidently will go bust if they don't get revenue from video poker.

--Newspapers aren't penciling out and thus are near extinction.

--Radio and television news doesn't really pencil out either, because these media really don't report news, just gossip and opinion.

--The construction of buildings no longer pencils out, because there's no buyers anymore. Unless a builder wins a contract from the government, at which point taxpayers foot the bill.

--Pharmaceuticals don't pencil out. Yes, the drug companies make obscene profits, but only by convincing people to take lots of drugs they don't need—and then the government or the insurance companies pay for those drugs.

--Health care in general doesn't pencil out, even though prices are escalating at three times the general inflation rate. Hospitals can't make money treating the sick, but instead have to seek profits treating the vain.

--A lot of little boutiques in trendy areas may appear to pencil out, and do so in the short run, but wait a couple of years and see how many are still around.

--Small business in general hardly ever pencils out. Either the employers or the owners make pitiful wages for what they do, and never have good health plans.

--Big business doesn't pencil out either, because it doesn't have to. Big business is too big to fail, so the government keeps it alive.

I can come up with a handful of business activities—coffee, sex, IPhones—that seem to pencil out. Maye I haven't examined them closely enough. Maybe there are more. There definitely are more that don't. Give me your list.