Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas…A Holiday For All

Can non-Christians celebrate Christmas? Many do, and why not? I’m an atheist and I have no problem celebrating Christmas, even though it has no religious significance for me.

What’s great about Christmas is that it is both a religious holiday, being based upon the birth of the Christian icon Jesus, and a secular holiday as well.

How can I say that? I am indebted to philosopher Ayn Rand for identifying the resolution of that seemingly contradictory proposition:

[In answer to the question of whether it is appropriate for an atheist to celebrate Christmas:]

Yes, of course. A national holiday, in this country, cannot have an exclusively religious meaning. The secular meaning of the Christmas holiday is wider than the tenets of any particular religion: it is good will toward men—a frame of mind which is not the exclusive property… of the Christian religion. (The Ayn Rand Lexicon)

This makes perfect sense. A national religious holiday in a secular nation founded on the principle of separation of church and state is a logical impossibility. Since to have a secular government means to have one that is neutral with regards to the fundamental beliefs of all of its citizens, an American national holiday by definition cannot be religious.

In fact, what we today call Christmas originally didn't have any connection to Jesus at all, writes Onkar Ghate in U.S.News & World Report:

"Before Christians co-opted the holiday in the fourth century (there is no reason to believe Jesus was born in December), it was a pagan celebration of the winter solstice, of the days beginning to grow longer. The Northern European tradition of bringing evergreens indoors, for instance, was a reminder that life and production were soon to return to the now frozen earth."

The Romans celebrated the Winter Solstice with the holiday Saturnalia. In Northern Europe, the holiday was called Yule.

Indeed, as philosopher Leonard Peikoff notes over at Capitalism Magazine, the leading secular Christmas symbol - Santa Claus - actually contradicts some standard Christian tenets:

Santa Claus is a thoroughly American invention. ... In 1822, an American named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem about a visit from St. Nick. It was Moore (and a few other New Yorkers) who invented St. Nick's physical appearance and personality, came up with the idea that Santa travels on Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, comes down the chimney, stuffs toys in the kids' stockings, then goes back to the North Pole.

...Santa implicitly rejected the whole Christian ethics. He did not denounce the rich and demand that they give everything to the poor; on the contrary, he gave gifts to rich and poor children alike. Nor is Santa a champion of Christian mercy or unconditional love. On the contrary, he is for justice -- Santa gives only to good children, not to bad ones.

So, regardless of your beliefs, go ahead and enjoy Christmas on your own terms.

On that note, let me extend to everyone a hearty wish for a joyous, safe, and thoroughly non-contradictory…


Thursday, December 15, 2011

America's Core: Liberty, or Compromise?

In a NJ Star-ledger column earlier this year, John Farmer Jr. lamented the current state of American politics, which he says threatens the survival of our republic because of its "factional dysfunction". His column referred specifically to the debt ceiling battles of Summer 2011. But the wider issue he points to is of crucial importance. He quoted the Founding Fathers extensively, forgetting the philosophical context within which those words were uttered.

I left an extensive rebuttal in the comments section. Before reading it, however, I urge first the reading of Farmer's column in its entirety, which in this case is better than my usual method of using selected quotes. Here is my correspondence:

August 07, 2011 at 2:06PM

The cult of compromise is killing America. By “cult”, I mean the view that compromise is the only absolute; that nothing is above compromise. Some things, however, must never be compromised. America is disintegrating because it has compromised away its core moral principles – individual rights and limited, rights-protecting government. These compromises have led directly to Madison’s “mortal disease” – “The emergence of factions… united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community’ ”. The “interests of the community” were understood to be based upon universal respect for the rights of each individual citizen to his own life and property, and the liberty to pursue his own goals, values, and happiness without interference from his fellow citizens, including those acting in the capacity of government officials.

Farmer Jr. misinterprets the Founding Fathers. They understood that a workable field of political compromise is only possible when the power of political factions are limited by an uncompromising national adherence to the core principles of liberty as outlined in this country’s philosophical blueprint, the Declaration of Independence. They sought to place the violation of individual rights outside of the scope of governmental action; i.e., of the power of any electoral majority or influential minority group. When everyone’s individual rights are protected, the interests of some are not a threat to others, because no one has the power to force their will on others through government coercion. Government has no power to dispense economic favors by forcibly seizing, redistributing, or regulating private property. It is constitutionally forbidden to do so. Competing economic interests must deal with each other through voluntary cooperation and persuasion, by mutually beneficial private contractual agreement rather than competing to pull the levers of government coercion. The government protects the rights of all against force and fraud, and is otherwise out of the equation. America was a constitutionally limited republic, not a gang rule, democratic republic.

That Farmer seems to believe that any compromise is possible between slavery and freedom is a result of the corrupting influence of his belief in the cult of compromise. But the resolution of the slavery problem would not have been possible under any conceivable compromise, because there can be no compromise on moral principles – between good and evil. The Civil War was a direct consequence, not of the failure to compromise, [but] precisely because of the compromises that allowed slavery at our Founding. Either a man is free, or he is not. The political choice was either/or, one extreme or the other. Slavery could not coexist with the Declaration of Independence. One or the other had to go. One can not imagine any compromise between the two. As I said, some things must never be compromised.

Today we have a different sort of political battle, but one that is rooted in the same absolutist moral conflict that defined the slave issue early in our nation. The regulatory, mixed economy welfare state has demolished the only real common good – respect for the rights of others. Today’s “cold civil war” of pressure groups is exactly the result of the breakdown of that respect, leading to “the ruins of public liberty”. Today’s political atmosphere is the realization of Washington’s fear: the “frightful despotism” of “the alternate domination of one faction over another” under the “the absolute power of an individual… chief of some prevailing faction.”

The only answer to today’s polarized political atmosphere is to reassert our Founding principles, and to reject the ideology of the supremacy of the state. There can be no compromise between the two, which means the welfare state can not coexist with the Declaration of Independence. The return of civility in the 21st century depends upon beginning the long process of unwinding the divisive welfare statism of the 20th century. Those who today uphold individual rights and limited government, and are willing to take a firm stand in defense of those principles, are following in the footsteps of Washington and Madison. They and the rest of America’s revolutionaries, it must be remembered, took up armed revolt against tyranny rather than compromise their core principles. No armed revolt is necessary or desirable today, of course. But the same spirit of uncompromising loyalty to the same principles, in the face of an encroaching “frightful despotism”, is exactly what is needed to save the Founders’ achievement.

As a followup, I responded to another correspondent calling himself RememberHistory, who had this to say:

August 07, 2011 at 1:17PM

...I have grown tired of the political theater and hope that a centrist backlash will eventually develop. It took us years to get into this mess, and it will take years to extricate ourselves but ONLY if we have the political courage to see it through.

We are at war at the moment - among ourselves. A sense of balance and compromise needs to be restored in order to throw off this state of emotional hand-wringing. Moderate Republicans and Democrats need to stand up together and push both extremes to the political sidelines. The first step is to starve the beast that feeds this ranting: end ALL PACs, right and left, and encourage politicians to think about the national good instead of themselves or their favorite donors. Encourage reasonableness with your voices and votes....THAT'S what made this country great, not vilification or demonization!

Here's my response:

August 07, 2011 at 5:53PM

End all PACs: Is that your answer, RememberHistory? PAC stands for “Political Action Committee”, which is a peaceable assembly of private citizens to speak out and engage in the political process, a fundamental unalienable right sanctioned by the First Amendment.

The two extremes represent the primary battle that needs to be settled. One side upholds the supremacy of the autonomous individual and his liberty, the other the supremacy of the predatory, collectivist state; the worldview of the Founders vs the worldview that has dominated human history. The clash of these two extremes underpins every issue confronting this nation. “Moderation” between the two ideological extremes doesn’t represent “reasonableness”. It represents cowardice. Those who don’t acknowledge the fundamental choice we face, and take a stand, are feeding the growth of the predatory state by default.

“We are at war … among ourselves”, all right (See my comments below [a reference to my original commentary]). This will continue until we recognize the two extremes, and then choose the Founders’ ideals of live-and-let-live liberty. Trashing the First Amendment to silence those willing to take a stand is a horrifying “solution”.

RememberHistory, apparently forgetting history, came back with this:

August 07, 2011 at 9:21PM

I did read your comments, and carefully too, I might add. Being a student of history, I began to theorize the eventual outcome of your "pitched battle" analogy. Since the Framers also took infinite pains to protect the rights of the minority, it would appear your philosophy might hit a metaphysical snag IF you do indeed hold those principles as sacred as you claim.

Our country, our institutions, and our heritage are a result of gleaning the best from opposing sides...we didn't become great because we all shared the same philosophies, religions, and cultures, but because despite differences, we made them work together as best as humanly possible. Reading your comments brought to mind images of citizens marching in blissful lockstep towards an ill-defined Utopian goal.

To say that compromise is cowardice defies logic, reason, and all the intangibles that have made our country great. Legislation on both sides of the political spectrum have been passed and implemented because reasonable people have understood that success can be achieved in many ways, not just one.

And as far as PACs go, their purpose is no longer to advocate - but to purchase, which means the ones with the most money win, regardless of validity. If that's the kind of political, economic, and social Darwinism you espouse, then there is a philosophical chasm between us.

I don't know what he read, because I answered most of what he said in my original monologue. He either didn't read my commentary, or ignored what I said. Either way, he's less than honest. Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to come back to this forum to respond directly to his/her comments. But a few more words need to be said here.

Leaving aside his somewhat confusing verbiage, think of what RememberHistory is actually saying here. If you are confronted by an armed thug who puts a gun to your head and demands your wallet, you are obligated, under the principle of "gleaning the best from opposing sides", to consider the thug's forcible claim to your money as equally valid to your belief that he has none. After all, both you and the thug value your money. Yes, you worked for the money and he didn't, but you both need the money and since "success can be achieved in many ways," you should not engage in any "pitched battle" such as defending yourself or seeking police assistance. That would be "Utopian". We must understand that a gun and an honest day's work are mere "differences" which should be "made [to] work together as best as humanly possible." You must, on RememberHistory's premises, be "reasonable" and "moderate" by, say, seeking a middle ground whereby you get to perhaps keep your wallet and enough for cab fare home, while agreeing to let the thug have the rest of the contents. To refuse to compromise in this manner, according to RememberHistory, "defies logic, reason, and all the intangibles that have made our country great."

In fact, moral compromise is the worst form of cowardice. To stand on principle is tough, but courageous, practical, logical, and reasonable. It is, in fact, a necessity of life. The easiest thing in the world to do is to cave in to moral degeneracy. In essence, this analogy captures the "philosophical chasm between us." What made this country great was that no one could impose his "philosophies, religions, and cultures" on others by legislative force. In short, based upon the Founders' Declaratory and constitutional principles, the government was forbidden to act as an armed thug. This removed force as a valid method of human association, clearing the way for legislative compromises. It is only on the basis of the commonly held principle of respect for, and refrain from violating, the rights of others - live and let live, or laissez-faire - that makes civility possible. When the armed thug gets elevated to a status of political legitimacy, no civility is possible among people. The opposite - the "cold civil war" of the mixed economy - is all that's possible.

In the name of compromise, RememberHistory accepts force as a valid philosophy that must be accommodated, and then accuses me of "espousing" "political, economic, and social Darwinism"! The "Darwinism" of the PACS is exactly what one would expect in a mixed economy. A mixed economy is a direct result of the very uncompromising defense of compromise espoused by the likes of RememberHistory and Farmer Jr. It is they and their ilk who have sold out American principles to political thuggery on the alter of compromise. What other consequence can one expect when every group's political activism becomes a threat to every other group's economic interests? When government acquires the power to violate rights, it becomes a magnet for pressure groups seeking to gain control of the rights-violating powers in order to "purchase" governmental favors extracted from others. The competition for power is then on, as the number of political pressure groups expands exponentially.

The failure to grasp that moral compromises makes practical compromises impossible is RememberHistory's (and many many other's) own monumental blind spot. As Philosopher Ayn Rand has observed:

A compromise is an adjustment of conflicting claims by mutual concessions. This means that both parties to a compromise have some valid claim and some value to offer each other. And this means that both parties agree upon some fundamental principle which serves as a base for their deal.

I added my emphasis. When legislative action increasingly means the sacrifice of the interests, rights, and property of some people to the advantage of others, the entire basis for civil discourse and "working together" is obliterated. When force replaces values, the basis for compromise evaporates. How do you deal with an adversary who chooses a gun over a rational argument? Do "reasonable people" succumb to the gun? For too long, alleged defenders of liberty have conceded the premise that the armed thug has a moral claim to the nation's wallet - bit by legislative bit - in the face of statists' demands for "compromise". The result: America has moved from mostly free to the precipice of totalitarian fascist socialism, in less than a century. As Ayn Rand has discovered:

In any compromise between good [freedom] and evil [statism], it is only evil that can profit. In that transfusion of blood which drains the good to feed the evil, the compromiser is the transmitting rubber tube . . .

When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute, when loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it’s picked up by scoundrels—and you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good and a self-righteously uncompromising evil.

She is referring, of course, to fundamental political and moral principles. The Founders sought to create a republic under which the government is strictly a protector of individual rights, thus cutting off from any group or individual the path to despotic power. They did indeed seek to construct a balanced system whereby "Legislation on both sides of the political spectrum [could be] passed and implemented [by] reasonable people [who] understood that success can be achieved," but only on the premise that the rights and sovereignty of the individual remains outside of the scope of political compromise. Re-read the Founders' quotes in Farmer's article from the actual viewpoint of America's Founding ideals, and you will see the fundamental flaw in his entire theme.

Does this mean that, in today's context, defenders of liberty must demand all-or-nothing legislative action that eliminates in one fell swoop rights-violating government interference? No, because statism is so entrenched today that it will take time to roll it back completely. What political compromise requires is for freedom fighters to boldly uphold their philosophy, and then fight for as much incremental movement toward greater and greater freedom as is possible in a given political context. Legislation must only be supported if it unequivocally restores some degree of individual rights, reduces government interference, and simultaneously lays the foundation for further legislation down the road for even greater freedom, and so on until full freedom is restored in a given field. For example, I put forth a plan for parental school choice based upon tax credits, which I believe does just what I said here. It is a political compromise that accepts some lingering statism based upon current political realities yet also advances toward the fundamental principle of full freedom and individual rights in education.

The key to political compromise: Never make ideological compromises by conceding any moral legitimacy to any degree of statism, even as you concede the necessity of accepting statist elements in the short term.

In searching for a solution to America's "Political dysfunction [and] factionalization [that] threaten our republic," Farmer Jr. need look no further than to the principles the great men he quotes stood for. The Founders did not set out to enshrine compromise as the ruling principle of the land, where everything is on the table and anything goes - including the ideals they fought for - so long as a political concensus could be reached. Rather, they set out to establish liberty, whereby every individual's unalienable rights to his/her own life and property are free from political interference, thus preventing the rise of predatory pressure groups, PACs, special interests, or what have you. It is liberty, not compromise, the the Founders revered. The Founders would never have approved of the cult of modern compromise, any more than they approved of any suggestion to compromise with the British Crown in 1776. They would have pledged - today - their "lives,... fortunes and ... sacred honor" to defend against any attempt to compromise away the political principles that created this nation. That kind of commitment, to properly understand Benjamin Franklin, is what it will take to keep our republic. Both the author of this article and RememberHistory should, well, remember history ... or perhaps learn it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The "Tea Party Budget" Emerges

“The only way we will ever reduce the debt and balance the budget is if ... tea party activists take over this process.”
Matt Kibbe
Washington, DC

* Repeals ObamaCare in toto.
* Eliminates four Cabinet agencies — Energy, Education, Commerce, and HUD — and reduces or
privatizes many others, including EPA, TSA, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac.
* Ends farm subsidies, government student loans, and foreign aid to countries that don’t support us
— luxuries we can no longer afford.
* Saves Social Security and greatly improves future benefits by shifting ownership and control from
government to individuals, through new SMART Accounts.
* Gives Medicare seniors the right to opt into the Congressional health care plan.
* Suspends pension contributions and COLAs for Members of Congress, whenever the budget is in

These are some of the highlights of the newly released Tea Party Budget proposal. As FreedomWorks puts it, "The only means for reducing government is to cut programs and confine the power of government." The Tea Party Budget does just that. I have only given it a brief glance, but it is definitely a major step in the right direction. It should please anyone outside of the parasite/power-lust axis.

The Ryan budget was a start, but it only reduced, but did not eliminate, the deficits. Disagreements over specifics aside, the Tea Party budget is the real deal, in the sense that it doesn't tinker around the edges with, for example, "cuts" that really amount smaller spending increases. As Don Watkins says in this interview, the best feature of the Tea Party budget is that "It reintroduces the 'A' word - ABOLISH!"

I particularly like the feature that abolishes government student loans, one of the most destructive higher educational intrusions by government ever, if not the most destructive. For example, Neal McCluskey reports in the New York Post on how "the jet fuel [of] federal student aid" has driven college tuition through the roof. He calls it a "College-Cost Crisis", which it surely is, and a government-created one.

This budget in noteworthy in that it attempts to reign the federal government back within the confines of constitutional constraints. Taking the constitution seriously is also a good first step. Of course, the next steps will be more difficult - addressing the constitutional vagueness and the loopholes that opened the door to statism (ex. the Commerce Clause). And, even more critically, the budget must be philosophically, not just constitutionally, defended.

Culturally, this budget - along with the Occupy Movement - should spark the Tea Party, which has grown a little stale of late. A reinvigorated Tea Party should help make 2012 the most consequential presidential election cycle in decades.

On the political front, the question is: Will any of the GOP presidential candidates embrace the Tea Party budget? This will be a test of which if any of them is the real deal.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

From Digital Revolution to "Global Community" Supremacism?

Collectivism never quits. In Digital revolution gives individuals means to change the world, Fairleigh Dickinson University president J. Michael Adams employs a new twist to resurrect the age-old attack on the independent mind. Individuals the world over from common folk to royal families to political rulers to corporate kingpins, he says, have been empowered by digital technology to "spread their message and influence".

"The 'I' — the individual — is now at the center of everything,", says Adams. "Power and influence are dispersed and the 'I' — from young innovators to determined activists to elderly monarchs — now holds all the cards." The digital revolution has definitely enriched all of our lives. Is this a good thing? Apparently not, he implies, at least not in the long run. Now that the world is interconnected, "That’s the end of the revolution, but just the beginning of the story."

What, as Paul Harvey used to say, is "the rest of the story?" According to Adams, it is the "next revolution" - world collectivism. Adams doesn't use that term, of course. But:

If the [digital] revolution has so radically empowered the individual, then the individual has newfound responsibilities. In politics and society, in business and the private sector, in science and the arts, the winners will be those who use digital tools to support causes larger than themselves.

In other words, those who merely use technology - he calls them "toys" - to make the most of their own lives and pursue personal happiness and flourishing will be overshadowed by the true "winners" and their "causes". I don't pretent to know specifically what Adams is talking about, but the implications are chilling. He continues:

It used to be vital to own information, but now nearly everyone has access to the knowledge base of our species. So today, it’s much more important to know how to find, analyze and use information to solve problems.

Whose problems; your own? - or the collective's or Society's? The current financial crisis was bred in Washington by people whose "cause" was to solve the alleged societal problem of a lack of “affordable housing”. And this is mild compared to major historical figures whose visions (or delusions) of grandeur had brought such misery and suffering to nations like Russia, Germany, and China in the 20th century.

Even more critically, we must be able to connect with other individuals. The "I" may be the center of everything, but there are many "I’s" out there who can help us. This means we must appreciate diversity, embrace multiple identities and comprehend other viewpoints. We must be able to see the world through the eyes of others.

Is Adams merely saying that one must consider all viewpoints? But, that takes the exclusive attribute of the “I”; rational judgement, which depends upon seeing the world through one's own eyes; i.e., measuring the viewpoints of others by reference to the universally observable facts of reality. How does that jive with "diversity", "multiple identities", or other forms of group identity such as multiculturalism?

There is no turning back. The digital revolution rewired our minds and gave the "I" new tools to shape the world.

But those who are truly destined to change the world are those who understand that the toys at our fingertips are just the means to an end. Those who will lead the next revolution are those who look beyond the "I" and view themselves as part of a global community.

Once again, Adams is not specific. In what way should the world be changed or "shaped", and why? One thing is certain: The degrading of the individual is a prerequisite of collectivism. Those "toys" of the digital revolution: They are the means to whose ends, the individual's own? No, the "global community's". The implication that the individual is a means to tribal ends is the real message Adams is attempting to get across here.

I've left the following comments:

Posted by Zemack on September 04, 2011 at 8:54PM

Hasn’t this revolution already happened, with devastating results?

The “I” is your mind. For what purpose should you give it up? Give it up to “see the world through the eyes of others”, who will give up theirs in the same fashion, and around and around we go until the “global community” is filled with empty heads “wired” to look to the next person for intellectual guidance. Who will be there to fill the intellectual vacuum? Those who seek to offer the “guidance” – i.e., to rule.

This is nothing more than a rehash of collectivism; the dead 20th century ideology that brought a revolution of poverty, war, and torrents of blood to more than half the globe. Some global community. How does one collectivize a population? Turn each individual away from the evidence of his own eyes, by convincing him that truth and facts lie in the thoughts of others, not in objective reality to be discovered by his own reason. Turn him away from his independent mind, his “I”. Present it in terms of cooperation and understanding with others. Then the population will be ready for the “cause larger than themselves” – the authoritarian state.

Better to keep your “I” as your highest value. Look through your own eyes. Evaluate the facts – and others’ opinions – based upon your own independent judgement. Then recognize that the global community is you – and every other individual. The global community is not larger than the “I”. It is made up of “I”s. There is no higher value than the individual human being. Think and act on you own judgement; set your own goals, values, and purposes; pursue your own welfare and happiness – and fight for the freedom to do so. Then, respect the next person’s right to do the same. Don’t let gadgets or others “wire your brain”. And don’t try to wire the brains of others. Define your own person and character, because you have the power– until and unless you de-emphasize your “I”, your mind. Deal with others as equals with the ability to do the same with theirs. Recognize that you are the supreme cause, because you are an individual.

By all means fight for the next revolution. But remember where the last one got us. We must not repeat it. The last century belonged to collectivism. This one should belong to individualism.

The intellectual establishment - the mainstream media, big education, big government, etc. - has seen its monopoly over the cultural discourse broken. Anyone can get his information independently. Ideas can no longer be stifled by establishment kingpins (Ideas can never be fully stopped, just slowed down). The proliferation of Internet access with its powerful search engines, by enabling universal “access to the knowledge base of our species”, dilutes and minimizes centralized intellectual authority.

These developments have largely drowned out the establishment leaders' ability to shape the flow of information and ideas. They are losing control of defining the philosophical direction of societies. Cultures worldwide are in a state of flux and transition; but, transition to what? Perhaps for reactionary old guard leaders like Adams, it should be toward recapturing the intellectual elite's ability to shape the culture to its liking. Throughout the past century plus, American intellectuals have been very successful at doing this. America has moved progressively - both figuratively and literally - from mostly capitalistic freedom to mostly socialistic authoritarianism. The intellectuals’ uniquely American philosophical weapon – Pragmatism (See also Tara Smith's lecture, The Menace of Pragmatism: How Aversion to Principle Is Destroying America
, as well as her article in The Objective Standard.

But as the intellectual establishment's hegemony over the flow of ideas dwindles under the onslaught of the Internet, not only the forward progression of their collectivized agenda is threatened, but also the "gains" already made. Individualism - the "I" - is the antitheses of collectivism. No digital revolution can create individualism, of course, only philosophy can do that. But perhaps what Adams sees is that the sudden free flow of information, knowledge, and ideas has established the foundation or architectural framework for the rise of individualism. Thus, the threat: An individualist does not submit to the will of any authoritarian figure, including those figures who aim to claim the mantel of leadership - read control - over the collective – now expanded to encompass the entire globe.

This is the meaning of Adams call for individuals to renounce their "I" - the application of their minds and judgement to their own flourishing - and subordinate themselves to the world collective. It is to save the eroding power of the establishment intelligentsia, which for two centuries has been on the side of undermining the Enlightenment ideal of individualism and its derivative values of individual rights, capitalism, and limited, servant government. Those “newfound responsibilities” of the individual to “support causes larger than themselves” will translate into the responsibility to promote only causes defined by the new masters of the global community. It’s the only way it can be for anyone who subordinates his “I” to the collective.

Monday, November 28, 2011

ObamaCare "Death Panel" Targeting 70-Year-olds?

For anyone who doubted Sarah Palin’s charge that ObamaCare would lead to government “death panels”, more evidence supporting her charge has surfaced. We Stand Firm, the website of Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine, has posted excerpts of a conversation between an Illinois neurosurgeon and radio talk show host Mark Levin discussing “upcoming new guidelines from the Obama administration restricting how doctors can deliver medical care.”

In the FIRM post, Dr. Paul Hsieh compares this neurosurgeon’s comments to another neurosurgeon, Dr. Hendricks, a character in Atlas Shrugged who rebels against socialized medicine. The full transcript of the segment of the Mark Levin show can be found here. Notably, patients are referred to by government bureaucrats as “units”. This is the rhetoric of bean counters, not doctors.

In the transcript, the neurosurgeon, who called himself Jeff, said:

I just returned from Washington, DC, where we were reading over what the Obama health care plan would be for advanced neurosurgery for patients over 70, which we all found quite disturbing. As our population gets older, the majority of our patients are getting over 70. They'll require stroke therapy, aneurysm therapy, and basically what the document stated is that if you're over 70 and you come into an emergency room... if you're on government-supported health care, you'll get "comfort care".

You know, we always joke around -- 'it's not brain surgery' -- but I did nine years after medical school, I've been in training ten years, and now I have people who don't know a thing about what I'm doing telling me when I can and can't operate.

Apologists for the new healthcare law strenuously deny the death panel charge. But they are correct only in the very narrowest sense. ObamaCare does not specifically establish actual Death Panels, but it does establish the broad scope of power to do so, which is laced throughout the law. As John David Lewis explains in his Winter 2009-2010 Objective Standard article, What the “Affordable Health Care for America Act,” HR 3962, Actually Says, “This legislation empowers the executive branch, namely the Secretary of Health and Human Services and a ‘Health Choices Commissioner,’ to write thousands of pages of regulations, and to force Americans to comply with them.” In other words; death panels by a thousand edicts.

One of the apologists is which calls the death panel charge the "Lie of the Year." Yet buried within its own article debunking the charge, it unintentionally points to how the nature of the law proves Palin right:

History professor Ian Dowbiggin, who has written several books on medical history, euthanasia and eugenics, said he had never heard the term before Palin used it. He said the phrase invokes images of Nazi Germany, which denied life-saving care to people who were not deemed useful enough to broader society. Adolf Hitler ordered Nazi officials to secretly register, select, and murder handicapped people such as schizophrenics, epileptics, disabled babies and other long-stay hospital patients, according to Dowbiggin.

"It's not far-fetched to make the historical argument that as you get government more and more involved in health care, you create an environment that is more hospitable to the legalization of forms of euthanasia," Dowbiggin said. "But the Nazi example should be used very advisedly."

No, it's not far-fetched given the nature of ObamaCare and of government-run medicine generally. When the government coercively takes over responsibility for paying for something, it acquires the power to control. Who pays the bill, sets the terms, ultimately. When the government pays for healthcare, it will assume the power to make healthcare decisions for the patient and medical judgements for the doctor, including life and death decisions. And it’s not only about end-of-life situations (See my posts of 10/19/11 and 11/20/11).

Obama is not Hitler, and ObamaCare is not Nazism. But both empower government with the same kinds of authoritarian mechanisms as Germany had. Hitler drew upon the established German government powers of Bismarck’s 19th Century welfare state. The Obama administration is already on record - through a key adviser - as advocating overriding the Hippocratic oath with “social justice.” Just as Hitler placed the collective (the race, in his case) over the needs and rights of actual individual human beings, so “social justice” places the collective (society) over the needs of individuals. This means, in essence, that healthcare decisions must be weighed against “whether the money could be better spent on somebody else” – those, according to a key presidential adviser, who may be better qualified for “being or becoming participating citizens”. ObamaCare, like Hitler, will favor those “deemed useful enough to broader society.” When the responsibility for dealing with the cost of healthcare is stripped away from the individual, where it rightfully and morally belongs, and turned over to the government under the guise of calling it a national problem, which clearly it is not, the individual patient is reduced to a “unit” – expendable on the whims of bean counters and the alter of “communitarianism”.

[Important Note: FIRM has an update alerting us to the fact that the claims of Levin's talk show guest are being refuted. See Snopes Disputes Neurosurgery Rationing Claim. However, whether or not the claims of the guest are false, the fact remains that ObamaCare empowers government with such controlling authority.]

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Forbes: "Death Panels ... We already have one"

Last month, I cited the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force's downgrading of PSA testing for prostate cancer as evidence that Sarah Palin's ObamaCare "Death Panels" charge was coming true. In that post, I quoted from a NJ Star-Ledger letter-to-the-editor correspondent who came to the same conclusion.

Recently, that viewpoint received some prominent support. In The Department of Health and Human Services' Death Panel, Steve Forbes wrote:

[T]he U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a committee of “experts” appointed by the Department of Health & Human Services ... recently de-clared that men should not be routinely screened for prostate cancer. The most common test is the PSA, which is part of a blood test. The panel also said no to rectal exams and ultrasounds, claiming that testing does no good, that it doesn’t save lives.

The emphasis is mine. So, it's worse than I thought. Just as in my previous post on the subject I cited numerous examples of the success of regular screening, so Forbes points to his own:

After skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer found in men. Last year it killed 32,000 people in the U.S. The panel’s tortured reasoning is that oftentimes traces of cancer in the prostate don’t lead to a full-blown attack that can kill the patient. True enough, as far as that goes. But the panel ignored the inconvenient fact that physicians have a measurement called the Gleason score to determine how dangerous the disease is. If that score is low doctors will take a watchful attitude; if it gets high they’ll recommend action.

I know. A routine rectal exam last spring resulted in an alarming finding, subsequently confirmed by an ultrasound and a biopsy. The Gleason score was flashing red, so my prostate was removed, and—knock on wood—it seems the disease was caught early and successfully.

The task force makes a big deal about the unpleasant side effects in treating prostate cancer. But with a disease like cancer I’ll take the side effects of treatment over letting nature take its course.

In other words, the government - if and when these recommendations are adopted - will come between the doctor's judgement and his patient's fundamental right to make his own decisions about his health. Where would Mr. Forbes be if doctors were probibited from doing rectal exams and ultrasounds, let alone PSA tests?

When Palin made her famous Death Panel charge, ObamaCare defenders were quick to point out that nowhere in the bill are anything resembling Death Panels explicitly called for. Some opponents of ObamaCare concurred. In his Summer 2011 Objective Standard review of Why ObamaCare is Wrong for America, Jared M. Rhoads writes:

[I]n the section titled bluntly "Are There Death Panels In ObamaCare?" (to which they answer "no"), the authors explain how the contraversy arose and what protections are in place to prevent the emergence of death panels - and then acknowledge the legitimate basis for concern over this issue, which is the conflict of interest introduced when the federal government makes decisions about coverage while simultaneously trying to control costs (p. 92).

The emphasis in the above quote is mine. This is why, in my 10/19/11 post, I said that "these government studies can not be trusted" because:

The Federal government now controls almost 90% of healthcare spending, both directly through programs like Medicare and Medicaid and indirectly through its crony arm, the quasi-private health insurance industry. Consequently, the government now has a vested interest in controlling costs. The deep, inherent conflict of interest is apparent, and should scare all of us.

It is a mistake to take Sarah Palin literally. But that doesn't mean she was wrong. The truth is much more subtle and sinister than that. In John David Lewis's Winter 2009-2010 Objective Standard article, What the “Affordable Health Care for America Act,” HR 3962, Actually Says, Lewis writes:

This bill is 1,990 pages of mind-numbing legalese. It will reach deeply into federal and state regulations and laws, on a scale that will require years for experts to interpret. It will establish institutions that will be effectively irreversible. It will grant arbitrary powers to bureaucrats, who will have to interpret and enforce its dictates. A full analysis of its impact would require a commentary at least as long as the bill itself. American citizens cannot be expected to read and understand such legislation. But they should be aware that this is the nature of the laws being written by their (alleged) representatives in Washington.

This legislation empowers the executive branch, namely the Secretary of Health and Human Services and a “Health Choices Commissioner,” to write thousands of pages of regulations, and to force Americans to comply with them. For every line in this bill, many pages of regulations will be written. As a result, the bureaucracy will expand, the final cost will be many times more than the original estimates—and the impact on American medicine will be devastating.

Death Panels will arrive through the "arbitrary powers [of] bureaucrats" writing "thousands of pages of regulations" implementing policies often based upon the recommendations of reports such as the PSA study issued by the benign-sounding U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. The devastating results may not occur immediately. As Forbes writes:

Two years ago this task force said wom-en under the age of 50 shouldn’t get annual mammograms—a “finding” so preposterous even the Department of Health & Human Services ran away from it.

This latest dictate is meeting the same fate.

Though they may not yet be able to get away with this particular attack on prostate cancer screening, it is an indication of the kinds of hidden forces being unleashed against American healthcare. The dictatorial power over our health care being accumulated by our government will lead inexorably to Death Panel results sooner or later, if not repealed. It is our children and grandchildren who will ultimately pay the full price.

Echoing others, Forbes concludes:

If the government succeeds in dominating health care, as it’s now on its way to doing, we can expect more of these weird and lethal findings. The focus will be on rationing and saving money. What we need in health care is more free enterprise, not Soviet-style controls.

Monday, November 14, 2011

School Choice, Collectivist Style

Recently NJ Star-Ledger columnist Joan Whitlow wrote:

When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to improve education in Newark [New Jersey], and it was announced that the city would seek matching funds, Newark residents were told they would decide how the money would be spent.

Newarkers would decide? Well, it's more like Newark residents may get to suggest. Unless they can plunk down a $10 million donation, they won't be on the board that does the deciding — not as it stands now.

That needs to change.

According to Whitlow, the Foundation for Newark's Future will dispense the money. That board is made up of Mayor Corey Booker and anyone who donates $10 million bucks or more. The trouble is, thinks Whitlow, the board members don’t have to be – and apparently aren’t – from Newark. It is “hoped” that “the group will [eventually] include Newark people”.

But apparently “Newarkers” won’t have much to say on who sits on the board and on how the money is spent, because according to Gregory Taylor, the foundation's president and CEO, “letting the people have their say is not how professional philanthropy works.”

Whitlow concedes that “When people put up big money, they want — and have a right — to have a say over how the money is spent to protect those assets." But she still believes this represents a broken promise. Her solution?

If the goal is to improve education in Newark, the board should be expanded to include voting members from and of Newark, with a direct say in how the money is spent. That fund needs people who have a sense of what has worked and already failed, people who have a stake in the outcome. The board needs balance against any preconceived notions about education that might motivate someone to give $10 million, or more.

Yes, it's their money. But it's Newark's kids.

I’ve left the following comments:

October 07, 2011 at 10:22PM

Newarkers should decide. I agree. Soliciting tens of thousands of residents to each put their two cents in is not the power to decide. But neither is handing out seats on some board to a few people “from and of Newark” letting “Newark residents … decide how the money would be spent.” It is an end run around the freedom to decide.

How about real decision-making power? Start by turning Zuckerberg’s grant and the matching funds into tuition scholarships for parents who want to decide in which school, public or private, to enroll their kid. But don’t stop there. Supplement parents’ decision-making powers with tuition tax credits, so they can apply their own education dollars according to their own judgement. If letting Newark residents decide is truly the goal, then how about universalizing the tax credits, so every resident that pays school taxes can finance any child’s education – a niece, grandchild, neighbor – or pledge his/her credits to the Zuckerberg scholarship fund?

A centrally planned, government-run monopoly by any other name is still a centrally planned, government-run monopoly. Fighting over who gets to impose their ideas on everyone else does not change the nature of the beast. Does it really make a difference whether or not the planners have a Newark address or not? No, because we are not talking about “Newark’s kids”. They are the parents’ kids.

Ultimately, only a free market empowers parents, because the fundamental truth is, whoever pays sets the terms. Creating scholarship funds is a step in the right direction, because it at least brings parents directly into the process, giving them a voice. If the conditions donors place upon their money do not satisfy the beneficiaries, there will be no beneficiaries. Handing their money over to the same establishment that currently runs failing schools is not the solution, no matter who sits on what board.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Bank of America Rescinds Debit Card Fees

Bank of America has rescinded its plans to impose monthly fees of $5 on its debit cards. The fees were a legitimate response to political meddling into private bank/merchant business transactions. Once again we see politicians escaping blame for the consequences of their meddling, while the victims face vicious and unjust attacks. The NJ Star-Ledger recently editorialized:

Debit cards and ATMs were supposed to save everyone — banks and customers — time and money. Bank officials, including those at Wells Fargo and Chase, tossed that rationale out the window in the face of federal regulations to rein in excessive fees. No longer able to charge high fees to merchants, the banks pouted and announced they had no choice but to extract the fees from consumers. It was all Congress’ fault, you see.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th Dist.) called out Bank of America for attempting to circumvent regulations, and noted the bank’s president took home nearly $2 million in compensation last year. He called the fee “a surcharge on working people.”

The editors attribute B of A’s retrenchment to “mounting consumer outrage” and competition from “other banks and credit unions”. “So credit not just consumer rage, but the free market,” the editors brazenly assert, just a few paragraphs after they approvingly cite “regulations to rein in excessive fees…to merchants”!

In an epilogue to my previous post on the subject, I’ve left the following comments:

Did B of A respond to consumer and competitive pressures? Or were they knee-capped by thug politicians like Pallone, Durbin and other Democrats’ mob-like threats of antitrust prosecutions and regulatory reprisals?

The double standard here is obvious. Those “regulations” referred to are the price controls forcing banks to lower “excessive” fees charged to merchants – fees mutually agreed to through voluntary contracts and legitimized by widespread market acceptance. When “consumers” attempt to “circumvent” the $5 fee, it is hailed as a “small revolution”. When B of A attempts to “circumvent regulations” to recoup legitimate profits stolen at the behest of the merchant lobby - through an equally moral and legal addition of fees on debit cards - they are threatened, demonized, and ridiculed as “pouters” who dared to defy the imperial congress.

Philosopher Ayn Rand warned half a century ago that “We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where the government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission; which is the stage of the darkest periods of human history, the stage of rule by brute force.” It appears we have reached that stage, at least in finance. This congressional micro-managing of financial transactions and the political bullying of B of A shows that economic fascism is here.

As a final word, let me add that this episode puts the lie to the Left's propaganda that the financial crisis was caused by the "free market". A market in which government can impose pricing regulations such as those cited here is anything but "free".

Thursday, November 3, 2011

“Occupy Wall Street” Sharpens the Ideological Battle Lines

From the first I heard about “Occupy Wall Street”, I knew it was a Left Wing movement. The name itself speaks volumes to its nature: It implies disdain for the property of others. The spirit of it suggests to me the barbarians who sacked the remains of the Roman Empire. Notice I said “spirit”. Not everyone in it is a barbarian.

But the second thing I heard about OWS is its opposition to big bank bailouts. No disagreement there. Some latched onto this aspect as evidence of its similarity to the Tea Party. There is some superficial truth to this. Like the Tea Party, OWS contains a wide diversity of often-contradictory ideas. And it is driven by a belief that something is fundamentally wrong in America. Also like the Tea Party, OWS is a movement – one driven by a fundamental view of human existence.

But the similarities end there. OWS is much deeper and broader than a mere protest. At root, it explicitly represents collectivism – and it has plenty of heavyweight ideological support. The Tea Party, on the other hand, only implicitly represents its birthright - individualism, based upon its general insistence on a return to this country’s Founding Principles. Both OWS and the Tea Party represent the tip of very big and irreconcilably hostile philosophical icebergs.

Politically, OWS is a direct outgrowth of Barack Obama’s incessant demonization of the “rich”, or the “top 1%”. Every advancing statist movement needs a societal scapegoat: Hence, the OWS’s self-description as “the 99%” as victim of “the 1%’. But this demonization depends upon a view of “the rich” that was quite true throughout most of human history, and is still largely true perhaps in much of the world – the reality that the rich became so by looting the masses. I am talking about looting rulers, of course, who simply steal under cover of taxes. In this view, the “top 1%” is a static caste or class. In free, or even semi-free, societies, however – and especially America - the opposite is true: people get rich by productive work, or the application of intelligence to physical labor. Unlike the looters, they enrich everyone by their productive genius, as they flood the culture with mass-market products while creating jobs by the bucketsful. Trade, not confiscation, is the source of riches. But, the collectivist view leaves no room for the truth. It depends upon the tribal view of wealth. In this view, it makes no difference whether someone acquires his wealth by government favor of by earning it in the private marketplace. Either way, he got more than his “fair share” of the “economic pie”. In Obama’s world, the “top 1%” is a static caste of privileged individuals who, along with the rest of us, are locked into a particular lot in life – a world without individual social or economic mobility. This view is epitomized by NJ Star-Ledger columnist Tom Moran, who said “In the past 20 years, all of the economic gains we’ve made were captured by the top 10 percent of earners”. (See my post of 10/15/11).

But Obama isn’t the only big ideological gun underpinning the OWS movement. The ethical root of collectivism is altruism, and now OWS has the blessing of modern altruism’s biggest sponsor – the Catholic Church:

The Vatican called on Monday for the establishment of a “global public authority” and a “central world bank” to rule over financial institutions that have become outdated and often ineffective in dealing fairly with crises. The document from the Vatican’s Justice and Peace department should please the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrators and similar movements around the world who have protested against the economic downturn.

It condemned what it called “the idolatry of the market” as well as a “neo-liberal thinking” that it said looked exclusively at technical solutions to economic problems. “In fact, the crisis has revealed behaviours [sic] like selfishness, collective greed and hoarding of goods on a great scale,” it said, adding that world economics needed an “ethic of solidarity” among rich and poor nations.

This sounds a lot like communism’s one-world proletarian dictatorship. Athough not communist, the church has long upheld implicitly the ideal of socialism, and disdain for capitalism:

The recent Council reiterated this truth: "God intended the earth and everything in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should flow fairly to all." (20)

All other rights, whatever they may be, including the rights of property and free trade, are to be subordinated to this principle [of a global welfare state].

It is for the public authorities to establish and lay down the desired goals, the plans to be followed, and the methods to be used in fulfilling them [i.e., totalitarianism]; and it is also their task to stimulate the efforts of those involved in this common activity. But they must also see to it that private initiative and intermediary organizations are involved in this work. In this way they will avoid total collectivization [?] and the dangers of a planned economy [?] which might threaten human liberty and obstruct the exercise of man's basic human rights.

What is the state of affairs when property and free trade rights are subordinated to need, and governments establish the goals and plans and the methods and means toward “common activity”? An intelligent and prescient intellectual of the Left, E.J. Dionne, states:

The report spoke of “the primacy of being over having,” of “ethics over the economy,” and of “embracing the logic of the global common good.”

In a knock against those who oppose government economic regulation, the council emphasized “the primacy of politics — which is responsible for the common good — over the economy and finance.” It commented favorably on a financial transactions tax and supported an international authority to oversee the global economy.

Moreover, the Vatican office’s intervention shows that those protesting against a broken and unjust financial system are not expressing some marginal point of view.

It is always entertaining for those of us who are liberal Catholics to watch our conservative Catholic friends try to wriggle around the fact that, on the matters of social justice and the economy, Catholic social teaching is, by any measure, “progressive.”

What do you call a state of affairs in which politics takes “primacy” over “the economy and finance”? Dionne is oh-so-right: OWS is “not expressing some marginal point of view”, but – wittingly or not – the core elements of totalitarianism. Dionne correctly points to the bridge that connects the worldview expressed in this latest Church statement back to its mid 20th century origins, when Catholic leaders embraced world collectivism. “[T]his document,” writes Dionne, “is firmly rooted in papal teaching going back to Popes John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II.”

I’ve nicknamed OWS “The March of Greed”, based upon its call for an eternal something for nothing. Some OWS demands read a lot like the Nazi Party platform of the 1920s or FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights” in their calls for authoritarianism and expanded entitlements. But OWS must not be viewed merely as a political phenomenon or as a Left Wing reaction to the Tea Party. It is essentially a manifestation of collectivism and altruism, and it has very deep roots, as we have seen.

The antidote to statism/socialism is of course capitalism. But the antidote to statism/socialism’s roots – collectivism/altruism – is capitalism’s roots; individualism/egoism. Today’s battle between socialism and capitalism is at root a battle between collectivism/altruism and individualism/egoism, and that is where the battle needs to be fought. The forces of socialism are much more bold and consistent in upholding their roots. The forces of capitalism, as represented by the Tea Party, have yet to firmly embrace their roots. But there are signs that it is starting to happen, and it can’t come too soon.

The rise of OWS will sharpen the fundamental clash between collectivism and individualism. I believe – with a dash of hope, perhaps – that with its individualist wing taking center stage, the Tea Party will rise to meet the collectivist challenge. Just as Obama’s ideological clarity added fire to the rise of the Tea Party, so OWS will probably trigger a reinvigoration of the Tea Party. We are entering new territory, and 2012 is going to be an interesting year.

See also The Vatican’s assault on capitalism (part 1)
, The Vatican’s assault on capitalism (part 2)
, my 3-part essay "Obama's Collectivist Manifesto" parts 1, 2, and 3, and Ayn Rand's "Requiem for Man" in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal .

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

B of A's Debit Charges: It's About More Than Fees

The Christian Science Monitor recently discussed Bank of America’s decision to charge fees on its debit cards, ascribing that decision to a reaction to new federal price controls:

In early 2012, Bank of America customers with basic accounts will be charged a $5 monthly fee for shopping with their debit cards. The fee will be charged whether customers choose 'debit' or 'credit' at the point of sale.

ATM usage fees will remain the same, and those customers who do not shop with their debit card will not incur the $5 monthly fee.

Why is Bank of America making this move?

The move is partly prompted by a new federal regulation, starting Oct. 1, that will begin limiting the cut banks can take from merchants at the point of sale. Bank of America is expecting the new lower rate to reduce the revenue that those merchant fees currently bring to the bank. In 2009, those fees amounted to $19 billion in revenue.

So in other words, Bank of America is shifting a part of the fee obligation from merchants to customers.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois responded bluntly to Bank of America's announcement: "After years of raking in excess profits off an unfair and anti-competitive interchange system, Bank of America is trying to find new ways to pad their profits by sticking it to its customers," Senator Durbin said Thursday. "It's overt, unfair and I hope their customers have the final say."

I left some comments. But that triggered an interesting debate with another correspondent, a former restaurant owner. The debate hits upon a crucial distinction that has been lost – the difference between voluntary private agreements and government force; between economic and political power. Here are my comments, followed by the exchange. The other correspondent calls himself The_rabbit_error. For convenience, my comments are italicized and The_rabbit_error's responses are blockquoted. I interjected some additional comments, shown in regular type:

As a B of A customer, I am angry – but not @ B of A. As the article clearly states, the government imposed price controls on banks in regard to fees charged to merchants, and the B of A is merely reacting to it. B of A is acting rationally and morally (and, I might add, legally) in seeking to recoup the lost revenue stolen from them by meddling politicians illegitimately forcing their terms on private voluntary contracts mutually agreed to by banks and merchants. I notice Durban’s temper tantrum. This is classic thug reaction. Politicians love to regulate everything in sight, then blame someone else - usually the victims - when it backfires. Durban can stamp his feet all he wants, but he and his cohorts are the real villains. I don’t like bank fees any more than the next guy. But, on principle, I hope B of A’s new fee sticks, their customers stick with them, and instead direct their displeasure at the politicians that caused it.

Really? I'm sure as hell blaming the banks for charging an unfair fee to merchants. Perhaps you've never had to run a business but the fee they take out of EVERY transaction quickly adds up, and people like you never realize it. I use to run a restaurant, and every thing we severed from drinks to food had to be marked up a good 3-4% to cover our transaction cost. That quickly added up to well over 5$ a month for any one who came in more then 2 times a month. Other restaurants have to do the same. We can't charge a "convenience" fee for people using cards because the banks wont allow it, if we tried we'd lose our card readers.

Put simply, these banks are to damn big and they are able to push small people and groups around. They can nickle and dime us to death, and people like you don't seem to care. Most people never even notice because they hide these cost from consumers and then make us take the blame for their BS. I've had accounts at banks and credit unions, so far I've never seen a credit union need to implement such fees, and they seem to be doing pretty damn good. It just makes it even more damning when these smaller banks and credit unions can pull a significant profit with out these added fees. Clearly the big banks are doing something very wrong. Personally I applaud Senator Durbin, were I in his state he'd have my vote in a heart beat.

I have friends who are in business, so I do know how these fees work. No one forces merchants to accept credit cards. Most do because it on balance is good for sales, and profits. But remember that merchants can pass on those charges to credit card paying customers, OR offer discounts to cash customers – as many gas stations now do in NJ. If a merchant is forbidden by a voluntary contractual agreement to do so, however, then what’s the beef? Drop the contract, lower your prices, and go cash only. One of our favorite restaurants is Spirito’s in Elizabeth. It has been around since 1928, does good business, and has never accepted credit cards. The bottom line is, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Credit cards are big business because most people find them convenient, merchants get higher sales and fewer bounced checks, and are an overall facilitator of economic activity. Credit cards, fees and all, are widely accepted by merchants because they are on balance a net plus for them. If banks make big profits from their valuable products, good for them – they earned it. But it is simply wrong to get the benefits of a product by forcing your own terms on the provider of that product through political coercion – as the merchant lobby has done in this case.

Wow, you really don't get it. Merchants' DONT have a choice. If I didn't accept cards I wouldn't have had sales (about 80% of our sales were charges of some kind). If I didn't accept cards I wouldn't have enough money to stay open. Which consequently would mean that I couldn't hire people and thus provided jobs. Every other small business in my area faced similar problems, and the end result was our customers paid more then they would have otherwise, because we had to cover our loses. All this law does is force these banks to be up front about what's happening rather then hide it all. Ask most people about merchant fees and they wouldn't know what your talking about.

As for offering cash discounts, it's also not possible for the same reason that adding fees to card transactions isn't possible, I was not contractually not able to. I couldn't get a better contract because when it comes to small bussness they are all "cookie cutter" contracts with no allowances for me to negotiate. The only one's who would have any ability to negotiate for lower fees or the like are large or mega corportations. In the end, even with a decent business and a staff of 50 I still I had no power to negotitate, this law helps level the playing feild so that I can get similar terms that bigger bussness get, and so that people can actually see what's happening. Big banks are making big profits off of MY hard word, and I don't have a choice in the matter. In order to run a successful business I need to accept cards because they have become the defacto standard of transactions. This is a fair and just law, if these banks want to continue to earn heaps of money they can all they have to do is charge the consumer for there valuable service. Only now they have to be in the open about what actually takes place.

Again, all this law does is level the playing field and force the banks to be open about were their money is actually coming from, the consumer. If the banks truly have earned these profits then they can continue to do so by charging the consumer directly rather then trying to pass the buck and hide their tactics.

You’ve made my point quite eloquently, rabbit! Credit cards are a boon to your business and, according to you, others as well. In fact, the "mega corporations" are profiting off of THEIR OWN valuable products, NOT your hard work. It sounds like small business should give silent thanks for the added business. And don’t tell me you don’t have a choice. No one is putting a gun to your head to do business with the card companies. You do so because it is in your own best interest, which I consider to be the essence of moral action. But others have the same right to the same moral action. And this is exactly the point: A voluntary contract is mutually beneficial, and your customers get the convenience of charging their purchases, to boot. It’s a win-win-win. Yet, on the other hand, you find it ok to put a gun to the heads of your own benefactors whose products you readily acknowledge you need "In order to run a successful business"?!? A level playing field is one in which contracts are strictly voluntary agreements. When one side resorts to legalized force to get by political power what he can’t get by voluntary agreement, there is no level playing field. I am strongly pro-free market, and I hold American businessmen in high esteem. But when you seek personal gain by political force, you’ve lost me. American business is cutting its own long-term throat by empowering government to impose private contractual terms – and selling out the rest of the country in the process.

Take note at this point: Considering the regulatory power of government – especially the antitrust laws – diatribes against private citizens by politicians like Durbin can never be dismissed as hot air. Subsequent to his comments, the Democrats began seeking antitrust investigations against B of A. There is no defense against antitrust, making the Durbins of the world more akin to dictators rather than “public servants”. This blatant assault by government officials against B of A over bank fees shows how much today’s politicians believe they can get away with, how much Americans’ reverence for and/or understanding of freedom has eroded, and how far along the path of economic fascism we have traveled, a prelude to a full collapse into dictatorship.

Rabbit flippantly rationalizes that “if these banks want to continue to earn heaps of money they can all they have to do is charge the consumer for there valuable service. Only now they have to be in the open about what actually takes place.” Look where being “in the open” has led – the threat of still more government controls, this time in the name of “the consumer”. While merchants like Rabbit seek to have their cake and eat it too – get the card benefits without paying for it – the government expands and freedom contracts.

Cards have replaced cash. That's not a boon, it's a curse. Fundamentally they are making money off of us not the reverse. If cards didn't exist I would likely have had the same amount of business only with out the over head. Banks want people to replace money with their cards, and they have done so at the expensive of society. People have failed to realize this because these cost are offten hidden, now thanks to this law they can see what it cost them. See this is a point you REPEATEDLY miss, these cost are hidden, all this law does is force them out into the open. Banks are hiding these cost from people and fundamentally cost everyone more because of it.

There is nothing voluntary about this arrangement. If I don't accept cards then I don't have a business anymore, because people have slowly but surly replaced cash with cards because the banks have effectively hid the cost from consumers. I can argue the contracts or get a better one because my business isn't big enough. You completely miss this point again and again. There is no choice here, ether I play by the rules the bank made or I fail. Ask most people on the street you'll find that the majority don't carry cash any more. Hence it's not it's not really possible to operate with out being able to accept it. Remember many places can't offer cash discounts and still accept cards. The end result is that everyone pays more for the same thing, and the bank parasitically takes away the profit. Its a tax that's worse then any the government issues, at least when I get tax some of my money goes back to the community.

Fundamentally the banks have a bigger gun then I could ever have. They have such vast amounts of wealth that they could quite easily crush my business. They've done it to more then enough already. Force comes from many places, and the force of wealth tends to often beat the force of politics. Consider that there must be a damn strong push from people to fix this issue if The banks are still able to charge fees to both parties, they can still make money. No one has taken that away from them. The banks are still making the same amount of money, only now they have
to take it directly from the consumer rather then take it indirectly. The few major banks have an oligopoly over non cash based transactions and they are consequently being regulated. This is all a result of their abused of the system and it seems quite fair and just to me. In the end this will benefit consumers. They will now have a better idea how much their banks are actually costing them, and will hopefully be smart enough to act accordingly.

Translation: "I can't have my way, so I'm entitled to force others!" Those blasted cards are a curse! Notice how the age-old cover for plain thuggery oozes into Rabbit's rhetoric - altruism and collectivism. It’s bad for "Society". Somehow, “society” has no choice. Somehow, the banks “abuse the system”. So, let’s regulate the fees to merchants down. It’s not for the unearned benefit of merchants like me. Oh, no. “In the end this will benefit consumers.”

And restaurant meals have replaced eating home. That’s not a boon, it’s a curse. Fundamentally, they are making money off of people’s need to eat. If restaurants didn’t exist I’d likely have had the same number of meals, and "In the end this will benefit consumers" who would have more money in their pockets and more home cooked meals. Your logic can be repeated ad infinitum, right back to the cave man era.

But in fact, your first sentence says it all. The widespread acceptance of credit and debit cards speaks to the extraordinary value of the product as determined by tens of millions of people, proving it to be one of the most important financial innovations of the 20th century. They facilitate trade, and lesson the risk of carrying large amounts of cash. Such wide use also proves that the fees are very reasonable and fair. Why? Because if they were "excessive", they wouldn’t have achieved such success in the market. What is the "market"? The cumulative voluntary choices of individual participants. Any other method of determining pricing is the method of an armed thug.  

Let’s be clear: force means physical compulsion or violence, or the threat thereof, and nothing else. I know of no instance where someone was forced to use or accept cards. Choosing a course of action based upon competitive necessity or need is not force. The fact that you need to accept credits cards or face lost business does not force you to accept credit cards. You can always choose fewer customers, because you are free to choose. Life is about choices. But if someone demanded a meal at half price or he would break your legs, that would be force; i.e., criminal. The law forcing banks to lower fees to merchants is the same thing, only worse – legalized criminality. All of the banks’ wealth can’t crush your business. Wealth is not force. Only your customers can "crush" your business, by choosing not to patronize it. No bank can stop a customer from entering your business. Only you can by failing to offer competitive value. 

As to those fees, they’re no more hidden than any other business costs such as utility bills, cost of supplies, insurance, building upkeep and taxes, etc. They are also not relevant to the customer, unless you believe that every customer has a right to see your books. The only things relevant to the customer is service, price, and quality. Your resentment against cards is one man’s opinion, and you don’t speak for anyone else. Everyone has free will and the right to exercise it freely without forcible interference from others, including others in their capacity as government officials. Cards add value to the lives of everyone who has one, otherwise they wouldn’t have one, now would they? The banks legitimately and morally earn their fees, however they’re levied, by providing that value. If "Society", the "community", the "consumers", or whatever you want to call it doesn’t bow down to your wishes, you need to deal with it.

You know, I've gone off my original point here so I'm just going to sum it up right now. Banks are business I understand and respect that. However the fact is the larger one's have been hiding most of their cost behind these fees. Merchants have no choice but to raise the cost of their goods to cover these fees (and not accepting cards is not an option in the present day). So while the price of a soda may jump from 1.25 to 1.50, the consumer may not see that the bank has increased the merchant transaction fee and instead declare that it's the restaurant that's being greedy (and I got this complaint a lot). This law forces the banks to be open and honest with their fees, rather then hide behind people like me. BoA can apply fees as they wish, and smarter people will move to better managed banks and credit unions who know they don't have to charge these dumb stingy fees to turn large profits.

With that I'm done, you can ignore my points all you wish from here on out.

I know your point, and I don’t disagree with you – just your methods. But since you widened the discussion considerably, I needed to respond in defense of free markets. I don’t really care how fees are levied, as long as they are based upon voluntary contractual agreement. By the way, I’m no big fan of the banking industry, because it is 70% controlled by the government. No free market there, just bits and pieces here and there – and dwindling all the time.


"Force comes from many places, and the force of wealth tends to often beat the force of politics." This statement by Rabbit, more than any other in this exchange, points to one of the destroyers of both economic and political freedom; the inability to distinguish - or the deliberate blurring of - the line between private and governmental action. Statements such as this, Harry Binswanger writesThe Dollar and the Gun,represents "...a fallacy grounded in the deepest philosophical premises of those who commit it. To defend capitalism effectively, one must be able to recognize and combat this fallacy in whatever form it may appear. The fallacy is equivocation—the equivocation between economic power and political power." The difference between the two, he writes, is between "the ability to produce material values and offer them for sale" - symbolized by the dollar - and the power to impose "fines, imprisonment, and ultimately, death" - symbolized by the gun. Binswanger writes:

Economic power stems from and depends upon the voluntary choices of the buying public. We are the ones who make big businesses big. One grants economic power to a company whenever one buys its products. And the reason one buys is to profit by the purchase: one values the product more than the money it costs—otherwise, one would not buy it. (The savage polemics against the profits of business are demands that the entire gain should go to one side—that “the little guy” should get all of the gain and businesses none, rather than both profiting from the transaction.)

To the extent a business fails at producing things people choose to buy, it is powerless. The mightiest Big Multinational Conglomerate which devoted its power to producing items of no value would achieve no effect other than its own bankruptcy.

Economic power, then, is purely benevolent. It does not include the power to harm people, enslave them, exploit them or “rip them off.” Marx to the contrary notwithstanding, the only means of exploiting someone is by using physical force—i.e., by employing the principle of political power.

Binswanger's essay is an important read, and I highly recommend it. More can be said about Rabbit's comments and his underlying premises. But the key lesson here is: Never accept the premise of equivocation.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

PSA Testing: Are Death Panels Arriving Under Cover of “Scientific Evidence”?

A recent widely publicized and controversial study released by the federal U.S. Preventive Services Task Force “will propose downgrading its recommendations for prostate-specific antigen (PSA) for prostate cancer,” according to Rob Stein of the Washington Post:

Task force chairwoman Virginia Moyer said the group based its draft recommendations on an exhaustive review of the latest scientific evidence, which concluded that even for younger men, the risks appeared to outweigh the benefits for those who are showing no signs of the disease.

It’s notable that the study was done under the purview of the same bureaucrats charged with administering federal health care programs, including ObamaCare:

The 16-member independent panel is organized by the Department of Health and Human Services to regularly assess preventive medical care. Its recommendations have a widespread impact, especially on what services Medicare and private insurers pay for. The group’s influence was enhanced by the new federal health-care law, which will base some of its requirements for coverage on the group’s ratings.

The proposed recommendations come as doctors, researchers and policymakers are increasingly questioning whether many tests, drugs and procedures are being overused, unnecessarily driving up health-care costs and exposing patients to the risks of unneeded treatment. (Emphasis added)

According to Stein, “The test … has significantly increased the number of prostate cancer cases being diagnosed at very early stages.” Despite this fact, however:

[I]t has been a matter of intense debate whether that translates into a reduction in the death rate from the disease. Prostate cancer often grows so slowly that many men die from something else without knowing they had it.

Because it is not clear precisely what PSA level signals the presence of cancer, many men experience stressful false alarms that lead to unnecessary surgical biopsies to make a definitive diagnosis, which can be painful and in rare cases can cause serious complications.

Even when the test picks up a real cancer, doctors are uncertain what, if anything, men should do about it. Many men are simply monitored closely to see whether the tumor shows signs of growing or spreading. Others undergo surgery, radiation and hormone treatments, which often leave them incontinent, impotent and experiencing other complications.

What is actually being said here? Note the vagueness surrounding terms like “appeared to outweigh”, “increasingly questioning”, “intense debate”, “not clear precisely”, and “doctors are uncertain”, and contrast that mush to the acknowledged fact that PSA testing “significantly increased” early cancer detection. Yet, this study is cited as a possible justification for “requirements for coverage” over both government and “private” coverage – imposed by HHS. Keep this in mind.

The recommendations drew immediate and forceful rebuttal:

The “decision of no confidence on the PSA test by the U.S. Government condemns tens of thousands of men to die this year and every year going forward if families are to believe the out-of-date evidence presented by the USPSTF,” said Skip Lockwood, chief executive of Zero, a patient-advocacy group. “A decision on how best to test and treat for prostate cancer must be made between a man and his doctor. This decision is coming from a panel that doesn’t even include a urologist or medical oncologist.”

Several other experts agreed.

“The bottom line is that we should encourage screening because it will give men the full range of options to avoid death from prostate cancer,” said William J. Catalona of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

J. Brantley Thrasher of the University of Kansas Medical Center said, “It appears to me that screening is accomplishing just what we would like to see: diagnose and treat the disease while it is still confined to the prostate and, as such, still curable.”

I didn’t devote much attention to Stein’s article (which was carried on the front page of the New Jersey Star-Ledger on 10/7/11) until two letters-to-the-editor were published in the 10/13/11 Ledger. Tina Levorse of Parsippany and John Schlager of Springfield strongly objected to the proposed recommendations, citing personal experiences regarding early prostate cancer detection thanks to PSA tests. But it was Levorse’s perceptive LTE that got my attention. Entitled “Are death panels here?” she wrote:

While I’m not a big Sarah Palin supporter, it appears she was right. The Obamacare death panels are here.

I left the following comments:

In the past two months, I had two close friends diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer thanks to PSA screening. After biopsies and consultations with their doctors, both are now pursuing courses of action they deemed best in their individual circumstances. Both Levorse and Schlager provide indisputable logic as to the value of regular screening.

On the face of it, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force’s “recommendations” appear to make no sense at all. But, viewed within the context of the government’s ongoing takeover of healthcare, it makes perfect sense. The Federal government now controls almost 90% of healthcare spending, both directly through programs like Medicare and Medicaid and indirectly through its crony arm, the quasi-private health insurance industry. Consequently, the government now has a vested interest in controlling costs. The deep, inherent conflict of interest is apparent, and should scare all of us. Early screening leads to early detection, which leads to a much higher survival rate, which leads to more people living longer lives, which leads to – higher costs to government.

I believe Ms. Levorse has nailed it. Death panels are inherent in government-run medicine, and may be arriving under cover of “science”. Of course, there are no explicit death panels written into ObamaCare or any other government program. There don’t have to be. Through the bureaucratic tyranny set up by ObamaCare, those recommendations and others like them will become mandatory, and restrictions will be written into the guidelines doctors must follow. The freedom of the doctor to focus on the best interests of his patient and the freedom of the patient to decide for himself based upon his doctors’ recommendations, will be lost to professional bean counters. Such are the consequences of surrendering to government the responsibility for paying for one’s healthcare.

This should be another wakeup call to Americans, but for too many, it probably won’t be. But one thing is for sure: No study connected to government financing can be trusted, given the government’s massive role in healthcare.

I am by no means a medical professional or expert. So, I can not and will not offer opinions on the accuracy of the study or its conclusions. But that is really beside the point. The point is, these government studies can not be trusted. The entire character of this article proves the point. How can anyone be sure of the motives behind the conclusions?

The vagueness of the arguments against PSA screening must raise suspicions in light of HHS’s ObamaCare-mandated “cost containment” mission. Add to this deep conflict of interest an inherent contradiction. The article states early on that “the risks [of PSA screening] appeared to outweigh the benefits for those who are showing no signs of the disease”. The express purpose of PSA screening is precisely to detect “signs of the disease” via the red flag of high or rising PSA levels. As a 62-year-old man anxious to get many more quality years out of his life, I have a vested interest in getting an early jump on any health issues that I may confront. In light of the acknowledgement that it is “not clear precisely what PSA level signals the presence of cancer,” who would it be best for me to depend upon most, my doctor’s advice or some distant panel’s mandates? As I said in my comments, I have two friends dealing with PSA-detected cancer. Who knows: I may be next. Yet government officials who do not know I exist have the power to deny me my unalienable right to exercise my own judgement on this matter, by their control over healthcare spending - financed by me, and countless others like me, to boot. And that’s the point: They don’t focus on any individual:

“Unfortunately, the best evidence is that while some men might be helped by screening, others would be harmed, and on balance the test is not useful overall,” said Howard Brody of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

No human being is “overall”. And here we come to the essential difference between government-run and free market healthcare – the irreconcilable clash between collectivism and individualism; between a non-existent statistical average and actual living breathing thinking individual men. There is no compassion behind the bean counters’ and their “greater good of society”. There is only a callous disregard for the value of individual lives. I do not mean to imply that every member of the government bureaucracy and his or her panels is callous. I mean to say that callousness is inherent in their jobs, by virtue of the fact that their “overall” findings disregard the unknown “some men [who] might be helped by screening”, and by the unknown agendas of the political masters whose funding they depend upon. They can be nothing but callous, because that’s the nature of the beast. Central planning by definition must focus away from any concern for the best interests of individual men and the judgements of individual doctors in favor of the statist apparition - the public health.

Leaving the treatment decision “between a man and his doctor” is a moral hallmark of the free market and the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath. Snatching decision-making power away from millions of men in favor of a 16-member independent [?] government-sponsored panel – which, incidentally, will also undermine the Oath - is the hallmark of government-run medicine. This is the fundamental issue here, regardless of whom is right about the value of PSA testing. As a layman, studies such as this can be a factor in my decision-making. But they should not pinch hit for my decision-making rights.

To again quote Skip Lockwood, “the decision of no confidence on the PSA test by the U.S. Government condemns tens of thousands of men to die this year and every year going forward.” This reminds me of a question I remember being posed by a champion of government-run medicine some years ago: “If socialized medicine is so bad, where are the victims?” The answer – “They’re all dead.”