21 graphs that show America’s health-care prices are ludicrous


The End of the Costs Line

21 graphs that show America’s health-care prices are ludicrous.

The huge downside of the health care reform was not all the mythical pieces people complained about, most of which didn’t even exist.  It’s the fact that costs were not addressed as they should have been.  This explanation that went along with the graphs can’t be stressed enough:

In other countries, prices are set centrally and most everyone, no matter their region or insurance arrangement, pays pretty close to the same amount. In the United States, each insurer negotiates its own prices, and different insurers end up paying wildly different amounts.

Costs controls are going to have to be a part of the government’s footprint in American health care at some point.  It’s an eventuality that we will need and the sooner the better.  The system will not be sustained in the long run without it.

Chaos in Mexico Gets Worse as U.S. Continues to Dodge Responsibility

To say Mexico has descended into almost unbelievable conditions in recent years is an understatement.  Then again, considering the lack of attention it gets in the U.S. media, the severity of the situation is probably still surprising Americans.  A quick summary of casualties:

A now common scene of brutality in the country of Mexico due to the United States’ drug and gun problem.

An estimated 70,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico in the past seven years.

The Mexican government estimates that at least another 26,000 have “disappeared” in that same period.

That quote comes from this article describing the recent execution and displaying of seven men on a roadside in the Mexican state of Michoacan.  Two things should be noted here.  First, many of the 70k+ killed have not just been killed but tortured and mutilated as well.  Second, it is very likely the actual number killed is even higher than the statistics given and the bulk of those killed has come in just the past three years (60k+ roughly).

And now the chaos gets worse.  Vigilante groups are forming and attempting to do the primary job that all governments should do: protect its people.  A group just outside of Acapulco arrested 12 police officers and a former government official believed to be corrupted by the drug cartels.

But evidently even these groups are just as susceptible to bribes and violence as “concerns have surfaced that the vigilantes may be violating the law, the human rights of people they detain, or even cooperating with criminals in some cases.”  And as the article on them states, innocent people are getting hurt by these groups because of their lack of training and coordination.

Some gun advocates in the U.S. might say the groups are a good thing and it is great the citizens are armed enough to protect themselves.  But that ignores the fact the high powered weapons the drug cartels were buying so easily from the U.S. are the cause of these groups forming.  And when you see non-uniformed groups of people carrying high powered weapons at a roadblock knowing drug cartels are everywhere, are you going to stop your car and agree to chat with these strangers?  Probably not and it is no surprise the people who were reported hurt by the vigilante groups were (likely very frightened) tourists.  The chaos is creating more destruction than answers.

There is little doubt the scale of this violence has grown to these horrific proportions because of two major problems in another country.  America’s drug problem and lax gun laws have made the country of Mexico a war zone where groups of people are viciously massacred on a daily basis.  Stemming the illegal flow of guns from the U.S. to Mexico rarely, if ever, receives attention as Congress debates changes in weapon laws.

This violence heavily takes place around the border and has played a role (along with the U.S.’s sluggish economy) in bringing the net immigration from Mexico to zero or possibly negative.  And the even sadder part of this story is the fact the U.S. government and media’s answer to this has been mostly ignoring the issue entirely.

The most stark display of how silent the government and media are on this issue was the fact the Mexican Drug War did not even get a mention in the third presidential debate, a debate solely concerning foreign policy.  I still wonder what the body count must reach to get the same amount of attention as other foreign policy issues.  100,000?  Half a million?  Who knows?

Schizophrenic U.S. Policy in Middle East: What Type of Government do we Support?

A couple of articles in recent days on the CSM’s site might leave one wondering just what is U.S. policy toward the Middle East as far as the idea of democracy is concerned.  The first article concerns John Kerry’s surprise visit to Iraq and his negotiations with the Iraqi government over support of Assad in Syria.

If we put enough blinders on to forget the WMDs that were not in Iraq or the links to Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden that were also absent from the country, we can get to the distant third reason we were given for invading the country: bringing democracy to the people.  Well, mission accomplished!  But it seems this new democracy is doing what it chooses instead of taking orders from other countries, namely the U.S.  Clearly, the Iraqis need to understand the way to run your country when it is a democracy is to listen to whatever the U.S. says and do just that.  In other words, they are “free” to do whatever we tell them to do.

This is so easy to follow!

My poly sci might be a little rusty so I’m just going to assume that is the meaning of democracy.

Not really but that is the message we send.  From Secretary of State Kerry:

“I also made it clear to [Maliki] that there are members of Congress and people in America who increasingly are watching what Iraq is doing and wondering how it is that a partner in the efforts for democracy and a partner for whom Americans feel they have tried so hard to be helpful – how that country can be, in fact, doing something that makes it more difficult to achieve our common goals, the goal expressed by the Prime Minister with respect to Syria and President Assad.” (Emphasis added.)

Common goals?  Not abundantly clear as noted in the article.

But the short, unmasked version is: ‘How can they defy us?’  To which I assume their reply might be: ‘We’re a democracy and this is what we want for now.’  To which we might reply: ‘It was easier working with Hussein.  Maybe we bungled this one.’

But hey, we are all about democracy these days, right?

Not really as indicated by the second article.  One of America’s closer allies in the Middle East, Bahrain, stopped Doctors Without Borders from holding a conference there on medical ethics and showed what a shining example of democracy they are in the region.

What’s that?  Bahrain’s a monarchy?  Like other close ally Saudi Arabia?  Huh?  Are we preparing an invasion?  This is confusing!

The fact is, we can’t pretend we are interested in bringing democracy to the world when we openly and closely work with governments such as these.  And the true nature of U.S. policy in the Middle East should be summed up for what it really is: work with us and we like you no matter what you do to your people or how you run your government.

The actions are just too transparent to even attempt to hide any longer, such as resuming arms sales to Bahrain after the government violently put down protests for democracy.  Part of this mess is summed up in one line:

While the US and Saudi Arabia may be pushing for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the replacement of his Iran-friendly government with one run by Syria’s majority Sunni Arab population, it would be horrified at the overthrow of Bahrain’s Sunni Arab king by his mostly Shiite subjects.

I’m honestly not sure why we even try to mask our overall policy with any rhetoric alleging a concern for democracy any longer.  We want what we want and that is final no matter what the people of other countries say.

The Poor Are More Generous Than Wealthy Folks: What This Means – Part Two

Continued from part one here

Which brings us to one last element that should be addressed here: what does this mean for the believers of the failed theory of trickle-down economics?  The rich having the bulk of the money and wealth is a good thing for the believers of this ridiculous theory because everything will trickle on down to the lower classes and everybody will be living in a utopia.  Except it hasn’t and the inequality only continues to get worse.  But the argument always goes further by saying if the rich had to pay less taxes, they would give more money to charity and that would make its way down.  Also not true as the article states:

Of the 50 largest individual gifts to public charities in 2012, 34 went to educational institutions, the vast majority of them colleges and universities, like Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley, that cater to the nation’s and the world’s elite. Museums and arts organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art received nine of these major gifts, with the remaining donations spread among medical facilities and fashionable charities like the Central Park Conservancy. Not a single one of them went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed.

Yep. They are laughing at you, not with you.

In other words, when given the chance to give away their money, the wealthy are doing it in a way that only breeds more inequality by giving it to institutions that do not actually help the poor.

We claim to be a Christian nation and some even argue we should have a Christian government.  But the way we would do that is by actually taking care of the poor and making sure they have the resources they need to truly pull themselves up, such as a livable minimum wage, better childcare programs, and better access to a college education.

And it is clear by the actions of the wealthy in how they donate their money these needed changes will not happen by talk of cutting social spending (or foreign aid, because that’s not what Jesus would do, is it?).  The government is also at fault by not providing assistance on a level truly needed by the poor. But it is very capable of doing just that and we should be pushing for improvements in this area.

We can claim all we want to be a nation shaped and driven by Christ.  But our actions do not reflect that and every call for a cut to the poor is a scream of hypocrisy by the alleged followers of Jesus.

The Poor Are More Generous Than Wealthy Folks: What This Means – Part One

An article on the Atlantic’s site this week is summed up in one simple line: “The wealthiest Americans donate 1.3 percent of their income; the poorest, 3.2 percent.”  The percentage difference is relatively small but certainly significant enough to warrant examination and the implications growing out of this are rather interesting when considering these facts along with some typical debate points.

Three key factors should be addressed:

  • Why is there such a difference?
  • What does this mean in relation to how the U.S. government gives in foreign aid?
  • What does this mean in relation to social policy and economic arguments?

    Know how the Bible says the rich man gets into heaven? Not this way.

Two of the key reasons for the difference are pointed out in the article.  The first is no surprise: the rich are greedy and prefer to hold on to more of their money.  But the second reason is a little more significant and should be considered further: economic segregation.  From the article:

Notably, though, when both groups were exposed to a sympathy-eliciting video on child poverty, the compassion of the wealthier group began to rise, and the groups’ willingness to help others became almost identical…greater exposure to and identification with the challenges of meeting basic needs may create “higher empathy” among lower-income donors…researchers analyzed giving habits across all American ZIP codes. Consistent with previous studies, they found that less affluent ZIP codes gave relatively more.

The fact that ZIP codes can determine how generous an area can be is a big part of many problems arising in political debates.  For example, many people on the right (usually wealthy pundits and politicians) make the argument social services aren’t needed and the poor just need to pick themselves up by their own boot straps.  This argument sounds reasonable until you realize the rich likely have no idea what the poor are truly up against in their areas of town and in their personal lives since they generally spend little to no time in poorer areas.

The reality is they do not see the conditions and do not understand the obstacles as our cities become more and more segregated along economic lines.  And if they do not get this part of the debate, what does their argument even mean other than useless rhetoric?  What are they backing this “boots straps” idea up with?  The answer is: nothing, other than their own experiences which does not typically mimic that of the poor given the lack of economic mobility in the U.S.

Another argument that rages on, especially now as the government looks for ways to shrink the budget, is foreign aid.  The wealthy giving less than the poor in terms of percent given is similar to the reality the U.S. gives less than many other countries around the world as a percent in foreign aid.  Whether it’s calculated with percent of GDP or GNI, the United States gives fives times or more less than the most generous countries around the world.

An analogy should be used when showing this difference.  Pretend you have two people who go to church each week, Patriot Jesus and Actual Jesus.  Actual Jesus brings home $100 a week and gives $10 to the church (the usual expectation of Christians in terms of percentage, by the way).  Patriot brings home $1000 a week and gives $20.  Who is more generous?  The guy who gives ten percent of what he makes or the guy who gives two percent?  The answer should be obvious.

Guess which one the United States is in this scenario.

Gerson’s Foreign Policy Op-ed: All Kinds of Wrong

Reading Michael Gerson’s latest piece on foreign policy and the idea America is in retreat at the moment from the rest of the world leaves one wondering how he even conjured this view of policy in the first place.  So much of this argument is questionable it is hard to address all that is wrong.  But here goes!

His first line is interesting but suggests a my-way-or-the-highway perspective:

Declining national influence is a choice, and America seems to be making it.

The bulk of Mr. Gerson’s argument has to do with the cuts in military spending due to the sequester and the potential effects we will see from that “choice”.  The problem with this line of thinking is it implies that it’s impossible to have influence around the world in any way other than through military strength and, of course, a nearly overzealous hankering to use it.  No other options are allowed, such as investing in education instead of bombs.  The idea that we could still be the world’s superpower and lead by example through having the brightest minds is ludicrous apparently.  Same goes health care, information technology, or human rights.  Not that we are at the bottom of the world in those areas, but there is more than one way to be an inspiration and make others watch with envy.  This also implies the military can’t take even the slightest of cuts at any point or we will be invaded by North Korea and blown to bits.  Feel free to insert your favorite joke about North Korea’s military prowess here.

Iran is on the verge of building the Shiite bomb and igniting a sectarian nuclear arms race (and you thought a purely ideological nuclear arms race was scary)…If you are the Iranian regime, you might wonder if America’s nuclear red line is truly red.

Very scary stuff!  Just one thing Mr. Gerson needs to do here: give something that looks like even the slightest bit of proof that Iran is actually pursuing a nuclear weapon.  The fact is, up to this point, not one shred of evidence has been produced to suggest this and further stoking the idea of this boogeyman is dangerous for everyone.  As I’ve said before, we’ve been down this road where a Middle Eastern country has been alleged to have WMDs and many people died over the illusion.  How can we let ourselves get fooled again?

In the Middle East and North Africa, a combination of economic stagnation, a youth bulge and a sense of historical grievance — all the preconditions for radicalism and terrorism.

The funny thing about this statement is there is no further elaboration about the fact the United States played a pretty big role in both the economic and grievance parts in these areas of the world and that, just maybe, the people are a little ticked at us for it, particularly the latter.  My question to Mr. Gerson would be this: what should these folks do about their “historical grievance”?  Just forget about decades of oppression at the hands of dictators who were backed economically and militarily by the United States?  Frankly, they should be angry at us for the time being and should not want our “influence” in their countries as they transition away from those former governments.  In this area of the world, the U.S. made its bed in a very bad way for a very long time and now we are going to have to sleep in it, whether we like it or not.  Engagement with these countries will be possible and likely down the road but an effort must first be made to let them work out their new governments and give them the chance to make what they want of their lands without an overbearing outside influence.

Elements on the right and left apparently believe that reducing military resources will constrain future interventions. This is perhaps true of a European country. For America, with a set of unavoidable global interests, it doesn’t work this way. Constrained resources generally mean that interventions, when necessary, come at a later time, under less favorable conditions, from a weaker position.  (Emphasis added)

I’m honestly not sure why Mr. Gerson did not just go ahead and use the word he wanted here: imperialism.  The phrase “future interventions” obviously implies there will be many more no matter how things play out in the world and the U.S. will mostly be alone in conducting them.  Our interventions over the past few decades, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Latin America in the ’80s, have typically gone so poorly that maybe the time has come for us to entertain some other options.  But, then again, we do have our “unavoidable global interest”.  And judging from our actions, those interest are not stopping genocide-like massacres, such as what occurred in the Sudan for so long, or spreading democracy, indicated by our support of rulers like Hussein and  Mubarak, but going after resources.  Whether those resources are oil or cheap labor, we have our priorities and we need to be able to control them, especially when the lands they are produced in are not actually American soil.  In short, just go back to that i-word at the beginning of this paragraph.

A campaign (drone attacks) conducted by U.S. intelligence services and military forces with exceptional patience, restraint and care in targeting is vilified for political gain and ideological pleasure. Could there be a more potent symbol of the unlearning of the lessons of 9/11?  (Emphasis added)

Incredibly well phrased piece of propaganda supporting drones.  I almost want them over my head!

Not really.  And if Mr. Gerson thinks they are carried out with such “care”, I would issue a small challenge.  Leave your cell phone and anything you could use to tell people where you are behind.  Now, move to an area of Pakistan where militants are being targeted by drones and live there for a year.  Are you sure you trust the policy that much with a roughly 3-to-1 ratio of militant to civilian death rate by drones in Pakistan?  I’m going to say, probably not.  And if Mr. Gerson is not willing to take that chance, he may want to adjust his wording when describing the policy next time.

(Quick side note: not sure how the word ‘care’ makes its way into a description of drones.  Why not really go for the gusto and add rainbows, cuddly teddy bears, and prancing unicorns in your argument as well?)

But he is so wrong about so much in this foreign policy argument, why should we expect anything else?

Iraq 10 Years Later

2013-03-16T123516Z_01_BAG301_RTRIDSP_3_IRAQA good article in The Post on how things are progressing in Iraq 10 years after the U.S. invasion. The country seems to be flourishing  (if that is not too strong of a term) in the Kurdish occupied north and the Shiite controlled south as the Sunni controlled central region continues to experience much violence along with many other troubles. The problem seems to be that, under dictator Saddam Hussein, the Sunni’s were the ruling faction, but now the Shiites have gained the majority of power under the al-Maliki government for they are the majority of the population their.

Read Here.

Obama Not Capturing Israeli Hearts

IsraelAn article in the NYT reporting that Israelis feel that although Pres. Obama’s actions have been supported by the people of Israel, he has yet to show enough warmth towards them in their opinion. The NYT says it best:

Though Israeli and American leaders of various political stripes insist that security, economic and intelligence cooperation between the two nations has never been closer or stronger, the personal, more emotional element of the relationship has been largely empty over the last four years….So while many Israelis, like people around the world, were inspired by Mr. Obama’s biography and energized by his underdog campaign in 2008, interviews with dozens of people this week suggest that the nation will greet him warily, akin to an estranged relative trying to reconnect. The White House has done everything it can to lower expectations of any major diplomatic initiative or breakthrough, leaving people searching for something much harder to define.

The Israelis want everything, all the time, because they are used to getting it.

Read Here.

Documentary on Jewish East Jerusalem Settlements

A great documentary that can be found on The Guardian website about Jewish settlers invading East Jerusalem. The Guardian’s description of the film can describe it better than I can

My Neighbourhood (directed by Julia Bacha and Rebekah Wingert-Jabi) tells the story of Mohammed El Kurd, a Palestinian teenager growing up in the heart of East Jerusalem. When Mohammed’s family is forced to give up a part of their home to Israeli settlers, local residents begin peaceful protests, and in a surprising turn, are quickly joined by scores of Israeli supporters. Mohammed comes of age in the face of unrelenting tension with his neighbours and unexpected co-operation with Israeli allies in his backyard. My Neighbourhood is latest short film by Just Vision, an organisation that uses film and media to increase the power and legitimacy of Palestinians and Israelis working to end the occupation and resolve the conflict nonviolently. Learn more about Just Vision at www.justvision.org


How Healthy is Government Secrecy?

One of the most important aspects of government, regardless of whether we are discussing democracy or authoritarianism, is government secrecy.  This can show up in many forms but one of the key reasons for its existence is the illusion of competency at all times by the ruling entity.  The risk the ruling elite face when something damaging reaches the masses is too great no matter how small or big.  If this were ancient times, for example, an Egyptian pharaoh would not want the people realizing he does not actually possess supernatural powers.  In today’s more democratic world, governments do not want people knowing anything that may be used to put their reelection chances in jeopardy.

An article in The Guardian this weekend gives the perspective of what dangers may come from one former U.S. government insider William Leonard, ex-head of the Information Security Oversight Office from 2002 to 2007.  Leonard points out the amount of documents being kept secret has expanded greatly over the past two administrations and wonders how positive this is for the public.  He sums up the most lethal actions in this statement:

Governments have decided under the cloak of secrecy to unleash the brutality of violence in our name and that of our fellow citizens. So extra judicial kidnapping becomes ‘rendition’, torture becomes ‘enhanced interrogation’, detainees are held on information that barely qualifies as hearsay, and assassination becomes ‘targeted killing’.

One always must remember that in a democracy the actions taken by the government are always assumed to be the will of the people no matter how horrible those actions may be.  Take U.S. support in the past for former dictatorial strongmen around the world.  The Shah in Iran.  Mubarak in Egypt.  Hussein in Iraq.  The American people were never asked whether we wanted to support these men and, if aware of their actions and not fed their “shining” personalities through the lens of the government wanting to support them, would not likely have condoned U.S. support.  But, since we democratically elect our leaders, it is assumed our government’s actions are our will.

Which brings us to a few more articles that appeared over the weekend.  It was revealed by a UN investigator on Friday the Pakistani government does not officially sanction U.S. drone strikes on its soil.  Although it does appear likely that a secret understanding exists between the U.S. and Pakistani governments over this policy, the strikes are so unpopular in Pakistan the government must maintain a veil of innocence regardless of whether they approve or not.  As stated in the article, “it is estimated that between 2004 and 2013, CIA drone attacks in Pakistan killed up to 3,460 people.  About 890 of them were civilians.”  Judging from their cooperation (Pakistan’s government, not its people) and lack of true outrage at the U.S., it seems very likely that secret agreement is very real.

This leads to another article on drones and an issue that has been hotly debated but might be a colossal distraction from a bigger problem (a possibly welcomed distraction by the U.S. government).  Jonathan Hafetz, Associate Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law, points out in an op-ed that debating whether U.S. citizens should or shouldn’t be targeted by drones distracts us away from the use of drones themselves and the thousands that have been killed by them, whether guilty or innocent.  Hafetz states there have only been two cases of American citizens being targeted by drones in comparison to the thousands of foreign nationals who have suffered the same fate.  His most important points:

Despite increases in the accuracy of drone strikes, errors still occur. Those errors have a devastating effect not just on the family members of victims and their communities, but also influence opinions about the US in countries where the strikes occur. One consequence is to increase radicalisation and undermine support for US counterterrorism operations – precisely the result the US wants to avoid.

Another consequence is the precedent the US is setting on the international stage. Over time, more countries will have access to this new technology, which they may use against perceived threats in ways the US does not like and that could unleash destabilising forces. The US will be in a stronger position to exercise leadership in this area in the future if it acts responsibly now and conforms its conduct to broadly accepted legal principles. In the final analysis, the US will be judged by how it uses drones not against its own citizens, but against others.

Every mistake made in drone policy has devastating consequences and all of those mistakes are not viewed by foreign peoples as an error in judgement by a few officials in government.  It is seen as a mistake by the U.S.A. no matter what state you live in or who you voted for.

Which brings us to one last issue in relation to government secrecy that arose this weekend.  In an interview with Israeli TV, President Obama stated, “right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close.”  This somewhat echoes the recent revelation by Israeli intelligence that they believe Iran will not have a nuclear weapon until 2015 or 2016 but does not tell us why Obama believes that or what type of intelligence we have that Iran is even pursuing a nuclear weapon in the first place.  This being the case, are we truly willing to allow Iranian blood (or anyone’s blood for that matter) to be shed with little to no evidence given to the American people as to why the attack on Iran is even needed?

All of this being said, is government secrecy in a democracy healthy?  Let’s take two relatively recent cases where government incompetency was exposed and might have been avoided if the public had increased transparency to what the government was actually doing.  First, a small one, the GSA scandal over the agency’s conference in Las Vegas.  The cost of this was relatively small and the scandal not particularly devastating but it rightly deserved to be shown for what it was, a gross excess by irresponsible government employees.  If those at fault had been aware of possible public scrutiny and were more fearful of exposure of their extravagances, they likely would not have been so careless in the first place and the hundreds of thousands in wasted taxpayer dollars would have not been spent.  Second, a bigger and more devastating instance of government secrecy: the Iraq War.  If the public was aware of how shaky the intelligence was regarding the WMDs, would the war have been allowed to begin in the first place?  Not likely and, again, money and, more importantly, lives would have been saved before the government was allowed to carry out its incompetent action.

Some may make the argument a certain level of government secrecy is needed, for instance how to build a nuclear bomb and where these bombs are being housed.  Fair enough.  But that has seemingly been expanded to new levels and is growing in ways that are certainly unhealthy to the public the government is supposed to be serving and representing.  With the amount of media outlets available today, more government transparency would be healthy regardless of political leanings.  The number of enterprising reporters doing investigative work would ensure that every level of government is kept under the watchful eye of the public and fewer and fewer instances of carelessness would occur.  When you know someone is looking closely over your shoulder, you make sure you are doing the best work possible, which is something we are at liberty to want and should expect out of our government.

But this will not happen if government secrecy continues to expand.  The time has come to further question what we need to know about government and what we will allow to occur in our names.  The difficult part is having one of the political parties swallow its pride and say they will allow this while they are in power and are potentially exposed to the effects of more transparency.  It is up to us to demand this change in the relationship of public and government from the political party we support for the greater good of everyone, whether we live on American soil or anywhere else on Earth.