October 2013
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Mental illness and guns

In the Ethical Spectacle Mission Statement, posted in 1995, I made a somewhat mysterious statement:

[A]ll problems are best solved upstream, and... all rivers begin in the human heart.

I was identifying a common human phenomenon. When the Tylenol killer poisoned bottles of Tylenol in stores in various states, the solution to preventing a recurrence was changes in manufacturing and packaging, not surveilling and checking the product in every store in America for the rest of time. When there is a problem that concerns pollution in a river, we stop or decrease it at the source, rather than permit it to flow unchecked while trying to clean it up everywhere else.

Yet Congress increasingly has no courage or ability to solve problems upstream, and either does nothing, or makes weak, showy efforts to solve them downstream, so it creates the illusion of action.

An area pertaining to guns in which supposedly Congress is somewhat free to legislate right now--the NRA doesn't officially oppose it, though I suspect it would if there were any actual initiatives--is keeping weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill. This would be a downstream solution. The upstream problem is: there are way too many guns in the environment, and they are too easy to purchase, especially since NRA has prevented the extension of background checks to gun shows and private sales. The upstream solution: stop the flow. Once the guns are out there, there is no way to prevent violent schizophrenics from finding and buying them. Better databases, more communication between levels and jurisdictions of law enforcement etc., won't make much difference, and in fact involves a massive civil liberties violation, where the feds would have to maintain a vast database of supposition and innuendo about people, that others believed they had seen them talking to themselves or smiling inappropriately.

Affordable Health Care

The Affordable Health Care Act is also a downstream solution--an upstream one would have been single payer, not fidgeting with the private enterprise system, which predictably has resisted confusing regulations and spotlighted unexpected side effects, while the Republicans shout out their age old "interference with private enterprise" narrative. Meanwhile, we have single payer that works in this country: Medicare. What I would have done: stealthily dropped the Medicare eligibility age by one year every year. Later on, when people saw how well that worked, you would be able to drop it five or ten years at a time.

One of the unexpected effects of the Act has been that I am losing my insurance. Three years ago, when my COBRA extension from my last full time job was running out, I thought at one point I would have to move to Florida or Texas to find health insurance. At the very last moment, I found a policy through a theater nonprofit which aggregated its members into one group with expensive, but not crazy, rates. This approach was common in the 1980's, when, as a lawyer, I bought my first group health policy through the National Federation of Independent Businesses, an entity which 1. ironically was a plaintiff in the effort to kill the Act and 2. no longer writes coverage in New York state. So NFIB gave me insurance once, and now wants to make sure I can't get any. Anyway, my nonprofit plan is now closing, because the Act seems to have made no provision whatever for plans which are sponsored by someone who is not an employer. A requirement that the plan sponsor contribute a certain percentage to my premiums is impossible for an entity which does not actually pay me a salary or make any money on me.

As of January, I will not have health insurance, and am left to the tender mercies of the New York State exchange, which does not start functioning until October 1, a few days from now. I pay an almost unaffordable $750 a month now, for a plan which has so many co-pays and exclusions that it still costs me thousands of dollars out of pocket when I actually need health care. Will my new premium be $500, in which case the Act will be from my perspective a mild success, or an unaffordable $2000, which will mean the Act will have worked against its intentions and deprived me of health insurance? I will keep you posted.

Golden Dawn

History does repeat itself. A nation finds itself in penury, subject to an unfair financial settlement which requires its citizens to be unemployed, hungry and ashamed. Along comes a fascist group promising to revoke the settlement, bring back financial self sufficiency, and incidentally restore dignity through violence against strangers. That is Germany in 1932 struggling under the World War I treaty, at the moment of the coming to prominence of the Nazi party, and today's Greece, staggering under the European Community bail-out and turning to Golden Dawn. The parallel is disturbingly exact: Golden Dawn has 18 members in Parliament and is beating immigrants in the streets. A Golden Dawn member just knifed a popular rapper to death who had made a career of opposing Greek racism.

The saddest thing about it is that there are living Greeks who remember what it was like to live under Nazi domination. Right after the Germans took the island, they made the women of Crete drop the shoulder straps of their dresses, and executed women who had a bruise underneath, in the belief they had been firing a rifle at German soldiers the day before. After that,Crete became the one place in Europe where German soldiers were afraid to go out alone at night. But it doesn't matter; only a few remember, and history will repeat itself anyway.


One of the most heartbreaking things which is happening across America has to do with pensions. In its worst manifestation, the widows and widowers of dead firefighters and police who gave their lives on the job are having their benefits cut or revoked. Worse, there is a mean-spirited, selfish and--I have probably never used this word in the Spectacle before-- unAmerican trend out there to demonize pensioners, blame them for our problems, make them the scapegoat so we can happily cut their benefits.

What happened is, a town or city made a promise: if you work for me as a cop or firefighter for twenty years, I will take care of you. People relied on that promise and ended up dying for it. Now, muncipalities around the country are breaking it. Its that simple.

Breaking promises always involves a breach of ethics, if we are making the promise to secure some reciprocal behavior on the other's part. Like lying, making promises you don't keep is a form of theft. In the case of the cops and firefighters, it involved stealing their lives, inducing a commitment in life and death that will now not be reciprocated. That's about as shameful a breach of promise as I can imagine.

The trope which makes them the "other" demonizes the uniformed services we need so desperately to make life secure, teachers, the people who keep the electricity running and pick up the garbage. There is a second trope that cohabits with the first, that this is nobody's fault, just an act of God like a lighning strike, that caused us not to be able to afford your pensions. But the real reason we can't is that Wall Street gambled everyone's money away in the real estate debacle, except its own. We don't have the money because Wall Street took it. If the government had done so, we would call it taxation without representation, but when Wall Street does it, we call it an act of God.

There is one more level to this. Human society has been operated on an unsustainable level for the last couple of centuries. There were (per Wikipedia) one billion people on earth in 1800, and two billion by 1927. We are now at seven billion and adding another billion people every 12 years. Yes, what took 127 years to accomplish now happens in 12. That is not simply the result of rising birthrates, but of people living much longer due to advances in medical care, so that the number of people dying in a year is much less than the number being born. So it became predictable at some point there would be way too many retirees and too few younger workers paying into the system to support them (yes, pensions, social security, its all a ponzi scheme).

That says two things to me. One, any municipality promising a pension to anyone today should know its lying, that it will likely not be able to keep that promise; the selfish Republican trope is also undercutting social confidence, that anyone will be allowed to pay pensions to workers in the future. Secondly, cutting benefits today is another great example of a downstream solution to a problem that can only be solved much higher up, but which was probably unsolvable in the first place. Many predictions of population growth peak in the next fifty or a hundred years, with quiet little technical statements about increased mortality, etc. Those are coded references to massive die-offs through starvation, epidemic and war, accompanied doubtless by social breakdowns and anarchy (of which we are seeing a small forecast in places like Detroit, which are the first to go gentle into that good night).

Health care exchange

I have now been on the New York health insurance exchange about 30 times in the last few days, and have seen every imaginable kind of apology and error message. After repeated attempts, I succeeded in setting up an account--but every time I am actually on the verge of seeing the plans I can join, I get kicked out.

Designing software to be used online by a large number of people is at least a bit less complex than designing nuclear reactors or the space shuttle. After all, nothing can happen in real time as stressful as irradiating stuff or punching a big hole in the ground. Somehow, years ago, we crossed a line where it became acceptable that large, important but non-lethal programs can crash over and over again, for weeks or months on end, without our considering it an embarrassing failure or holding anyone responsible. In other words, we don't know how to do large projects any more, whether these involve invading Iraq, saving the homes of the foreclosed, or developing large applications. I have written about how we created this mode of failure before: by allowing words, especially declarations of victory, to become more important than actual outcomes; by substituting a culture of piece-work, outsourcing, slicing and dicing, for a culture of artisanship. Software is built by putting a strong architect in charge, with actual authority to supervise skilled craftspeople, not by hurling thousands of subcontracted irresponsible bodies at it.

Reprinted almost without comment

The headline in a Times article on page 1, October 5, about the liberal Democratic New York mayoral candidate, Bill de Blasio: : "DeBlasio Details Vision for Fixing City's Inequality".

Subtitle: "Courts Business Elite in Private as He Seeks Improved Ties".

All right, does this prove that the Times has a sense of irony? Or conversely, an irony deficiency?