Saturday, May 27, 2017

America's favorite videos (and the ones no one shares) . . .

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

I have a confession.  Even as every day brings more serious news about the state of the world,  I watch video of our President and laugh.  I can't help it.  This week was like a greatest hits reel.  

There was the pre-arranged photo-op with President Trump huddled with Arab country leaders around a brightly glowing orb.  Each leader had his hand on the orb.  The photo-shoot was scheduled to highlight Saudi Arabia's new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, which could be the subject of a whole series of serious posts.  But instead I wondered if this was what the old ABA (American Basketball Association) would have looked like today right before tip-off, if it had not merged with the NBA.   "Three, two, one . . . launch ... we mean team!!!"   Or I wondered if this was a trailer for a new Harry Potteresque kind of book series . . . "President Trump and the Golden Orb."  Or,  well let's just say I wasted a lot of time on the possibilities.   I was not alone. We invested a lot of creativity as a country captioning this one.  Perhaps I will do some serious research on Saudi Arabia's new GCCEI.  But this week I laughed.

Another photo-op at the NATO meet and greet cause me to smile.  We have all been to family reunions and a cousin wants everyone to line up for a group photo.  Some of us love it, some of us hate it, especially when one of our relatives has gotten on our last nerve.  Apparently President Trump was in the "love it" category as he appeared to do a football pass-rusher-swim-move to get to a place in the front center of the photo shoot.  He made the new Prime Minister of Montenegro look like the rookie that he is.  The video created an international conversation as to whether Trump's move was rude, or just the opposite, the result of his unexpected execution of a "man-hug."  Historians will have the final word.  But as for me, I looked at it and laughed.

There were hand-holding controversy videos as Melania seemed to refuse to take the President's hand a couple of times.  Maybe she did not want to hold his hand.  Or maybe she had actually paid attention to briefings which might have suggested that public PDA was not a good thing in Saudi Arabia and was trying to act accordingly.   There was a sword dance video which is the kind of thing all our Presidents seem to get trapped into. And there was the look on the Pope's face debate.  I know all of these things had serious ramifications, which may appear in a later post.  But they made me laugh.

It is too bad that things are so serious these days.  I think it is generally healthy for our democracy to be able to chuckle, good naturedly, at the person we have chosen to be the leader of the free world.  But in the serious context we find our world in, it is hard to know what to laugh at, or who to laugh with.  That's a shame, because nothing is more healing than a good laugh with friends.  Who can forget Obama's mom jeans or George W's mangling of "fool me once . . .?"   

The videos are everywhere.  From podunk blogs like this one to the great news outlets of the world, we were kept abreast of breaking gaffes.  Everyone had a caption, or an opinion. Many of us laughed or derided, many of us ignored or defended.  I am not being critical of the coverage. After all, the laughter this week probably added a couple of hours to my life.

But other things were in the news this week.  And the subject matter will not add hours to any one's life. Just the opposite.  Years of life will be taken away. 

Life will be taken away from folks who will never worry about the protocol of the highest levels of society or politics in Saudi Arabia or Europe. Life will be taken away from the least of these among us. And while these matters of life and death were covered with the time and column inches that remained after the afore-mentioned gaffe coverage, very little of it has been shared and tweeted and re-shared and re-tweeted.  The images do not make us laugh or smile.

In President Trump's budget proposal released this week, a significant number of children, elderly and sick will find it difficult, more likely impossible, to get medical treatment for illness.  Food and medicine will likely not be available to a significant number of these, the least among us.  Some who are already weary of battling illness will find it impossible to get medical treatment for the illnesses that have plagued them. Some will be forced to watch their children die for lack of medical treatment.  Children will go hungry.  In the USA.

Generally, the budget will cut $800,000,000,000, that's eight hundred billion dollars, from medicaid over the next ten years.  It will cut $192,000,000,000, that's one hundred ninety two billion from nutritional assistance.  It will cut another $272,000,000,000, that's two hundred seventy two billion, from welfare programs. It will cut $72,000,000,000, that's seventy two billion, from disability benefits.  College loan subsidies for the poor will be slashed.  

This does not include the effect of slashing of budgets that insure clean air and water, and pay for research for cancer, heart disease, AIDS and other life threatening illnesses.

I am confident this budget will affect a significant number of the least of us. 

What is a significant number, anyway?   If it is my child, then one is significant.  But if it is not my child, or my parent, or me, what is a significant number?  Ten?  A hundred?  Thousands? Or does it not matter at all if it's not my child, or my parent?

Under the proposed budget it will be more than one who will suffer or die.  More likely in the millions.  It will affect someone you know and care for.  If not, maybe you need to expand your circle a little.

I wish our President were capable of more decorum.  I wish he were not so belligerent.  I wish he acted more "presidential," bless his heart.   Changing his image is the one thing he might be able to do, he is a branding expert, after all.  But changing his image is also the least important thing he might do.  In fact it is his image that many Americans really like.

But image doesn't matter to the poor, the sick, the dying, the hopeless.  

Policy matters. Health care matters. Food matters. Education matters. Environment matters.

And right now, President Trump is proposing a budget of death and pain for millions of our fellow citizens.

And no one can laugh at that.  Especially if there were videos to share.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

Candy bars and false equivalence

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

When I was a young child it was a regular experience to share the last piece of something, candy, cake, watermelon, mostly anything that tasted good, with a friend or sibling.  These moments of reasonable civility did not come naturally, as I recall.  Most times the sharing was done only after a few things happened.  First there may have been an effort by one or all parties present to surreptitiously snake the last sweet treat into one's palm or pocket without being seen. Sometimes there was just a bold, outright grabbing.  This was normally followed by a hue and cry from the other party.  The hue and cry escalated into a brouhaha (sorry, I just love this word).  At some point another presence entered the scene. An adult. A parent or a teacher, or a friend of parents and teachers seemed to be inherently attracted to these moments.  

"If you can't share the last piece, then nobody can have it,"  was the gist of what the adult normally said.  Sometimes that would result in the adult confiscating the goody, and, I always assumed but cannot prove, eating it themselves.  But usually all parties took a breath, weighed the options, and entered into negotiations.  

"Each of you take half of the last piece," the adult would say.  The wisdom of years is priceless.

Begrudgingly the parties would enter the process of carefully dividing the object of our desire.  Another argument might ensue.  It was quickly obvious, even to the young eye, that dividing something equally is difficult.

The adult voice might suggest, "Okay, one of you gets to divide it into two pieces.  The other one gets to choose which piece you want."   I could only hope to achieve that kind of maddening, Solomonesque wisdom someday.

Another crisis averted. 

 I learned a lot from those experiences. Eventually sharing in times of scarcity became natural, and all of those machinations of assuring exact equality seemed like a waste of time, not because it was not important to be fair.  It's just that it was impossible for things to be exactly equal. 

But sometimes, in the midst of the above scenario, another strategy was executed. 
The quicker, usually older party might grab the last precious prize, break off a small piece and with an exaggerated gesture of magnitude, give it to the other.  "There, you can have that.  Now we can both have some.  That's fair."  Even a slow, younger kid knows that ain't right and another hue and outcry would ensue.  "But you got some, I got some, we both got some, you can't get more fair than that," the older might protest. I laugh at that childhood memory now.  It was my first introduction to a concept called "false equivalence."  

False equivalence is a logical fallacy in which two opposing arguments appear to be logically equivalent when in fact they are not. This fallacy is categorized as a fallacy of inconsistency.  I got this definition off of Wikipedia, and it is a little high minded.  But bear with me.

A good example is in the news right now.  During the recent discussion and votes on the new health insurance bills passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this week many of the proponents of the quick vote publicly defended the rapid movement, saying it was no different than when the Affordable Care Act was passed during the Obama administration, saying that Obama's ACA was rammed through without input or discussion in a short time.  In other words, the Republicans who supported the new act said they were handled the same, so why should anyone complain?  

 The ACA was debated, in Congress, and in the public forum for almost a year, from the time of President Obama's address to Congress in early 2009 until it was signed into law in March, 2010. Changes were made at the suggestion of Republicans that were concessions by President Obama.  More than fifty Congressional hearings were held. Groups of insurers, medical providers, government and business entities were brought in to discuss and have input.  Citizens groups had almost a year to make their case one way or the other. The Congressional CBO did a cost-analysis of the bill.  Private think tanks of all stripes and persuasions had ample time and published their own studies. It was a long, laborious, public process.

In contrast the new American Health Care Act (AHCA) was not publicly proposed until March 6, 2017. It failed on its first vote in late March due to a split in the Republican majority in Congress. An amendment was proposed in late April. The bill was passed by the House on May 4, 2017, less than two months after it was first made know to the public, and less than three weeks after it was dramatically amended. There have been no hearings, no systematic input from business, healthcare providers, insurance companies, or other government entities, no CBO cost analysis or opportunity for private groups to do cost analysis. There has been little time for the public to digest the content of the legislation and express opinion, although some have done the best they could.

Forget policy considerations for the moment.  The point is, the process by which these two pieces of legislation were handled could hardly have been more different.  To suggest the rapid action by the House of Representatives was justified because President Obama's ACA was passed in the same manner is a false equivalence.  

And the reason for the creation of that false equivalence is worthy of pause and examination. 

We use false equivalence to justify our thoughts and actions. But if they are false, shouldn't we be concerned about the harm we are causing?  Or even if we believe the cause we are supporting or protecting is right and good, have we lost our moral compass in accepting, even promoting lies to get what we believe to be correct?

For another example, a politician lies on a daily basis.  His or her opponent, who does not lie often is caught in a lie.  The politician who lies daily stands up and calls his or her opponent a liar and that he or she cannot be believed.  The pundits and supporters who favor the politician who lies daily adopt the argument, "both of them have lied, that's just politics. How dare you criticize my candidate.  Your candidate lies too."  Regrettably it is true that both have lied. But clearly one lies much more than the other.  The acceptance of the false equivalence without question prevents a real examination of the respective character and qualifications of the candidates.  All politicians lie.  Don't get too smug. All of us normal people have lied too.  But the candidates are not equal in their propensity to lie.  It is a mistake to disregard a true inequality in character. But that is what we do when we accept a false equivalence without pause or examination.

Statements of false equivalence pop up in all of the political and policy issues that we face today.  Equal opportunity. Equal justice. Gender equality. Tax policy. Crime and punishment. Poverty. Even health and pre-existing conditions.  Nothing is simple.  These problems cannot be addressed by a dismissal of reality that comes with false equivalence. The truth is, equivalence is usually impossible to achieve. Perhaps theoretically, as in mathematics, it can be done.  But in the real, physical world, and in the world of thought and ideas, perfect equivalence is difficult.  It would have been virtually impossible for us kids to perfectly divide the candy bar.  We can get close to equivalence, and learn to accept the slight imperfections in our calculations.  But some inequalities are significant and are worthy of examination in dealing with problems.  

This notion of declaring a false equivalence disturbs me more as an adult than it did as a child on the wrong end of the candy deal.  The use of false equivalence in our public discourse is an insidious obstacle to the identification, discussion and resolution of serious problems that face us.  At best it is a misguided effort to appear fair, an intellectual laziness or willful ignorance.  At worst, it is like the older, smarter kid trying to justify his or her unfairly large hunk of a candy bar, hoping that no one challenges the lie he has perpetrated, even criticizing the other child for complaining after he received his "share" of the candy.

It's time to grow up.  It's our turn to be the adults in the room.

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