March 2010

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Rags and Bones


by Jonathan Wallace


St. Vincent's


            A venerable New York hospital, founded by an order of nuns, more than a century old, may have to close its doors soon, or at least its emergency room and inpatient services. If it does, it will go the way of several other New York hospitals in recent years. In most places, the emergency room, though critical to the community, is a loss leader, feeding patients into the hospital who may be lucrative eventually, if they have insurance and need enough service. The problem is that in many communities—including the one served by St. Vincent's—the uninsured, needy people who flock to the ER are never translated into the cash cows needed by the rest of the institution.


            Working on ambulances, I spent many memorable hours in the St. Vincent's ER, and I remember bringing in shooting and stabbing victims in dire need who would never contribute a dollar to the upkeep of the hospital. There is a terrible contradiction evident today, in a society which rightly requires that no-one be turned away from the ER, yet refuses to pay for the services that impecunious patients need. The problem could be solved either by a single payer system, which I favor; or by giving in to the cruelest of the pragmatic libertarians, and allowing the emergency room to throw dying people into the street if they lack insurance. But our strange hybrid system drags everyone down: the community that needs St. Vincent's, the insured patients who weren't numerous enough to save it and will now need to go elsewhere, and the doctors, nurses and other staffers who worked there and are now looking for other employment.


Don't ask, don't tell


            There are very few unabashedly righteous and courageous moments in public life any more. I applaud Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, for their recognition that gay people should be permitted to serve openly in the military.


            “Don't ask, don't tell” was nothing more than a government-sanctioned witch-hunt, packaged as a defense of civil rights. Can you imagine being allowed to keep your job only if you could keep secret the fact that you were a Jew, or a Democrat? It is bad enough that outing oneself gave anyone a ticket to quit the military not available to other people. But the fact that people could out soldiers without their consent and force them out of their chosen and beloved profession made the whole enterprise the opposite of what it was touted to be, a sick laboratory of human vindictiveness and bias.


            About 13,000 people have been fired from the military since 1993 for being gay. In the post-9/11 world, that has also caused a drain of crucial, irreplaceable resources, particularly really scarce Arabic speakers.


            The only reason anyone would have for not wanting to serve with gay people is a fear of the desire one might secretly feel for them. If you think about it, there is no other way gay colleagues can adversely affect your life or well-being, any more than co-workers who obsess about football or collect Sevres porcelain. The fear of one's own sensations or feelings is not a justification for discrimination  against gay people, any more than it was for bias against black people.


            Gay men and women serve openly in the militaries of other Western nations without problems. It is time for us to join those civilized countries.


Dog surgery


            It was distressing to discover that people “de-bark” their dogs via surgery. Among other things, this is a byproduct of extremely infantile human communities such as co-ops, where everyone is power-mad, narcissistic and entitled, and has too much time on his or her hands. Communities which permit dogs but have the owners at each others' throats if they make any noise are strange and paradoxical. Mutilating the animal is not a solution.


A missing Chinese dissident


            China appears to have murdered a civil rights attorney who recanted his confession and described his torture after a prior arrest. And functionaries are smirking about it in press conferences, saying things like, “He is right where he should be”. China may be a trading partner and frequently a political ally, but the modern global trend—visible also in Russia, another enemy turned ally—of killing those resistant to relentless capitalism and Westernization is very disturbing. The result will of course be capitalism without democracy, not an outcome any of us should aspire to.


Crushing people


            The Depression seems to have been haunted by the specter of mass resistance, in Hoovertowns, farmers banding together to resist eviction, and the like. There wasn't a lot of violence, but government  back then seemed to function based on a need to keep the waters quiet and things from getting completely out of hand.


            By contrast, today, people seem to go very gently into that good night. Yes, on a theory of personal responsibility, I suppose we could expect anyone who bought or refinanced a home on too easy terms after 2004 or so to shrink away in shame at having gambled and lost. Still, the sight of the people who conned them with subprime mortgages being bailed out, while they lose their homes, jobs, health insurance and everything, must give some people some thought of resistance. I am waiting in vain to see any sign of a popular movement, of people banding together and refusing to leave their homes until the government keeps failed promises of a bail-out, or at least some kind of solution, for them as well.


Restitution for sexual exploitation


            A woman who as a child was forced by her uncle to pose for child pornography has won an innovative penalty, applied via the criminal courts. Every one who has been arrested in the years since, and found to possess the widely distributed images of her as a child, is required to pay her directly what they can, until she has been compensated in the amount of some millions of dollars.


            This is one of those solutions which headline-seeking prosecutors love to invent, which looks good at first blush. In reality, it represents an unholy mixture of the civil, private lawsuit and the criminal case. Prosecutions should be based on the clear violation of laws, with the goals of punishing the transgressor and deterring future transgression, if possible. The minute a profit motive for anybody enters the picture, the clear goals of the criminal law become distorted and subverted. Also, there are millions of victims of crime, who receive no compensation whatever or minor awards from victim-witness agencies. Creating a few celebrity victims and compensating them highly sucks all the air and money out of the system and is actually counterproductive.


Joe Stack


            In 1986, I had already been representing software developers for five years, but had only a few clients. That year, the Tax Reform Act changed the laws pertaining to computer consultants acting as independent contractors, and boosted my law practice; I signed up 80 new clients in the six months after the law became effective.


            Section 1706 of the TRA came out of nowhere, and hurt a lot of people. It was attached to an irrelevant tax law as a required offset; laws which cost money were supposed to be accompanied by laws which raised an equal amount of revenue. Senator Moynihan had supposedly intended to introduce some sort of corporate break which would cost $x, and reached into a barrel of orphan proposals to find one which would raise $x. Nobody ever took responsibility for drafting the original language of Section 706, which  deprived thousands of computer consultants of the right and ability to continue functioning as 1099's, and which destroyed some small and medium sized consulting firms which had 1099'd too many people and were unable to pay crushing IRS assessments. In the months and years after passage, Senator Moynihan and other influential Senators repudiated 1706 and regretted its effects—but no-one ever got around to repealing it.


            Twenty-four years later, Joe Stack, the Austin-based computer consultant who flew his small plane into the IRS offices in that town, referred to Section 1706 in his suicide note.


            His death resonates on a number of levels. Apropos of my discussion a few paragraphs above of people being hurt and destroyed by the collapse of the mortgage bubble, Stack's insane, cruel action nevertheless reminds us how most public policy decisions—even those as innocuous as raising or lowering interest rates—tend to have direct or domino effects which harm or destroy someone, somewhere. In the case of Section 1706, Moynihan's aide who reviewed the sheaf of revenue raising offsets in the “barrel” may not have foreseen the severe suffering the provision would cause, or may not have cared. Somebody's ox is always gored.


            Another amusing aspect has been the debate over whether to blame the right or the left for Joe Stack. I don''t really care about this further than that, so won't discuss it.


            The most poignant aspect of Stack's action is the way mass murder has migrated to the mainstream. In the sixties seen as exclusively the behavior of lone schizophrenics like the Austin Bell Tower shooter, today quite middle class people—computer consultants, or the professor who murdered the entire tenure committee last week—feel entitled to kill a bunch of acquaintances or strangers when upset by their own circumstances. Most of the September 11 hijackers were Egyptians or Saudi Arabians of the privileged classes. I don't think there is a profound difference between Mohammed Atta's motivations and Joe Stack's. The world has twice as many people in it as it did fifty years ago, and a frightening proportion of those people now seem to believe that mass murder is a legitimate form of self expression.


Politics and self preservation


            Why has the resounding renunciation of the President by the election of Scott Brown is Massachusetts still not led to any rhetorical or ideological counter-attack? The Democrats all seem to be running for cover in lieu of explaining the things they should have explained last year, or shining a light on the power-mad motivations of their adversaries.


Power and paralysis


            One of the public figures I most detest was Ariel Sharon. Protected by scores of police officers, he made a controversial visit to the grounds of Al Aqsa mosque in 2000 to give a speech. He knew perfectly well this would result in a Palestinian riot and many deaths, and it did.


            His purpose was to eviscerate the government of Ehud Barak, the man he soon replaced as prime minister. The underlying message was that “No-one will be allowed to deal with the Palestinians, in war or peace, except me.”


            The Republicans today are following Sharon's playbook. Their approach is to kneecap the Obama administration and the Democrats. “No-one will solve the economic problems, no-one will deal with health care, except under a Republican led administration.”


            This would be a morally reprehensible approach even if the party had the will and the ability to solve these problems. If the Tea Party mentality sweeps the country and the next administration is a libertarian creation of the far right, I doubt we will see job creation, mortgage relief or economic justice any time soon. Instead, we will continue our slide into a murderous oligarchy, reminiscent of 1970's Chile or present day Russia.