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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Obamacare and Supreme Court Review (Part One)

(Note: This is the first segment in a three part series.)

The powerful forces of conservatism to maintain the status quo are typically easy to identify.  Through control of elected representatives in the presidency and Congress, they complete a trifecta of sorts by decrying the temptation of the appointed branch toward so called judicial activism.  Sometimes, the forces are not so obvious, yet equally effective.  When not favored by the electorate, conservatism exercises a vice grip on the judiciary to undermine the need for change, using whatever methods are required, even judicial activism in its most liberal connotation.  Political labels are relatively unimportant.  It’s the final grade on preservation of the status quo that counts on the report card.

The national media is presently flush in excited discussion.  The US Supreme Court recently entertains three days of grueling oral argument regarding the constitutionality of the new national healthcare law.  Its familiar label has come to be known to the ordinary citizen simply as Obamacare.

In March 2010 a triumphant President Obama signed into law his landmark national health care overhaul, saying it enshrined “the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health care.”  The passage of this signature legislation had escaped every American leader that has tackled the issue dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt, more than 100 years ago.

The plain fact is that a great number of what estimates project to be the 30 million Americans who will be able to obtain health insurance coverage for the first time under the new law are ordinary citizens of color.  The new law focuses on reform of the private health insurance market.  Benefits include a child’s ability to remain on parents’ family insurance plan coverage to age 26; improved prescription drug coverage under Medicare; and documented cost savings of $1.3 Trillion over a 20 year period (according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, as compared to an “alternative” model where “nothing” is done).

However, one of the law’s principle benefits, the elimination of an insurance company’s previous right to deny coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions, is not designed to take effect until 2014, after the upcoming 2012 presidential election.  Perhaps Congress did get this part right.  Provide the people with a second bite at the apple, a final referendum prior to full implementation.

Meanwhile, conservative Republicans and Tea Party activists nonetheless seek to “repeal and replace” the law, believing, rightly or wrongly, that their success in the 2010 midterm elections was a mandate to do so.  But, when asked what their “replace” law should look like, they can cite no additional benefits which the new law does not already contain.  They are completely lacking on specifics.  This is an ominous indication of obstructionism masquerading as conservatism.

At issue is the authority of the federal government to require citizens to purchase insurance coverage.  Democrats feel that the problem has reached a level of scale which requires a coordinated national response.  Historically, that means the problem has to be really big by definition.  On the other hand, Republicans don’t see a problem that cannot be better or at least more efficiently addressed by the for profit private sector.

Enacted by a Democratically controlled US Congress, the new healthcare law is destined to have its fate determined by the 9 member US Supreme Court.  Of great significance, its makeup presently is understood to be 5-4 conservative-leaning Republican.  The situation presents an interesting confrontation between the three branches of government.

But as provocative as it sounds, this confrontation is hardly new in the annals of US History.

(Next week's second segment will trace the inter-relationship of judicial review with the  workings of the executive branch during the course of several highly visible presidential administrations from Thomas Jefferson to George W. Bush/"43".)

-Michael D'Angelo

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Opportunity to Plan America's Future

Students “should study American History in particular, so they can plan the future,” according to Woodrow Wilson, the young President of Princeton University in his 1902 inaugural address.  “Every concrete thing (America) has done has seemed to rise out of some abstract principle, some vision of the mind,” Wilson said.  “A general serviceableness  …  broad training would help them relate to all types and see their point of view.”

Is it any wonder that many issues ordinary citizens face today are strikingly similar to the issues of a previous day?  After all, the problems are the creations of man.  So shouldn’t it be a simple enough proposition to fix them?

The learning process begins with asking questions, which promotes and inspires critical thinking.  An effective platform evolves through the telling of stories.  When one story is begun, it starts out clear and linear, like anyone’s family tree.  But, then it branches out, loops back and links up with others, until what students think is a simple piece of cloth is suddenly a more complex tapestry.  The classroom is a place so full of curiosity that, through story telling, we can see their lessons and connections to one another.

Based on my experience, students of US History do appear to be in a preferred position to best plan the future, at least when measured alongside those who choose to neglect its study.

But there are legitimate concerns that opportunities afforded to students of US History are not favorable for the development of their genius.  The prospects to exercise opportunities and capitalize on their intellectual position are equally unfavorable.  While the US Constitution guarantees ordinary citizens the “equal protection of the laws,” there is no known guarantee of the opportunity to plan America’s future.

Through history, we learn that today 20% of all Americans control 85% of all wealth, and a full 40% of all Americans possess absolutely no wealth to speak of.  Haven’t we seen this movie before?  What appears to be lacking is not intellectual capacity, for even an ordinary citizen can achieve a significant measure of intellectual achievement, but equal access to America’s economic opportunity structure.

And while the lack of equal access has traditionally been more acute among America’s people of color, it is not strictly limited to that particular demographic.  Women are and have been vulnerable, too, having been denied the right to vote until almost a full 60 years after the black man.  Imagine, then, being both black and a woman?

On the other hand, those who ask questions expose themselves to criticism from a group which claims legitimacy as the sole defenders of the faith of the American spirit.  Dissenters, arguing that while they love what America represents it can still be made better, are seen as un-American.  Challenges posed to majority rule and the status quo are viewed as unpatriotic.  Sometimes, the voices of dissent are silenced by the ruling party through various means.  This is as unfortunate as it is dangerous to our civil liberties.

While the acquiescence of the minority and defeated candidates is a necessary maxim of self-governing society, there is a real, quantifiable danger of the “tyranny of the majority.”  In his 1801 Inaugural Address the nation’s new third president, Thomas Jefferson, sought to assure his defeated foes by proclaiming a sacred principle:

that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

An “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”  In other words, we are all loyal Americans, whose patriotism should not be questioned and who should not be at another’s throats.

But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.  We have been called by different names brethren of the same principle.  We are all republicans: we are all federalists.

Jefferson’s tolerance for differences of opinion is admirable.  We all make mistakes.  For some reason, I have been unable to master the wisdom of an old proverb, although I continue to relate it in the hope that others will have better luck: “A wise man learns from his own mistakes, but a wiser man learns from somebody else’s mistakes.”  Can ordinary citizens learn from this lesson as we attempt to plan America's future?

-Michael D’Angelo

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Map Keys

Ever try to read a road map without understanding the map “keys?”  Ever wonder how another's mind can be shaped through simple control of a reading list?  Ever marvel at a master teacher's ability to connect with those who yearn only for a nudge in the proper direction?

As we ponder our evolutionary spirit, an excellent starting point in learning how to read maps is to command the “science of human nature.”  Many historical figures of note have characterized the science as being most useful.  Its variety of behaviors is constant and predictable.  Its elements have changed little through time.  So if we were to recognize the patterns in these behaviors, then plug in an assortment of random ordinary people, places and dates, the mystery of understanding history would be unlocked forever.  That being the case, can there ever be anything really new in the world?

After human nature, other map keys follow naturally.  The first is a consciousness of how we see things.  At one time or another, we’ve all heard the expression of a person who “looks at the world through rose colored glasses.”  It’s meant to describe someone who is filled with optimism, sees the positive in everything, to a fault.  That someone cannot be deterred from the mission of turning an abstract idea into a reality, sometimes against all odds.

Lenses, filters and walls affect how we see things.  Why do we have them?  And what benefits and detriments do they provide?  Our eyes are nothing more than lenses, so the eye doctor says.  Thanks to the retina and optic nerve, they allow us to see things.  We call this vision.  Filters help us emphasize certain things and minimize certain other things.  Walls provide the mechanism to permit some to see all things, on their side of the wall, and to deny those on the other side from seeing anything at all.  Fences are a sort of wall.

Another map key involves a consciousness of what we are actually witnessing.  One of the more challenging difficulties of human existence is distinguishing what is real from what only appears to be real, separating the wheat from the chaff.

And who provides access to the video room?  Powerful corporate interests behind a seemingly invisible curtain employ talented Madison Avenue professionals to influence the ordinary citizen's reality.  They expertly filter what we see and don’t see for their own purposes.  Oil companies advertise an attention to the environment.  Pharmaceutical companies focus on safety detail and quality of life advances.  Financial services firms tout the “fact” that the average returns of their managed investments typically well exceed historical norms over time.

But, do we ever stop to consider what these major industries are not telling us about their prized, revenue generating products?  Or the money they spend their obscene profits on?

Finally, they manage to transform things we want into things we somehow need, like prescriptions for restless leg syndrome.  Perhaps it would be productive to needs from what are merely wants.  We may be surprised to learn that in the end our needs other than bread and water are quite modest.

Understanding who provides access to the video room may provide the essential force in identifying what is necessary to preserve the American Dream.  Is the American economic opportunity structure of once upon a time still generally and readily available?  Are the yelps for less government today loudest among those whose funding sources are the monopolizers of economic opportunities?  Are the two questions fairly related?

Perhaps the central question that has vexed the most inquisitive minds involves the equality of all men under our constitution and laws.  Theodore Roosevelt said our country’s history has faced two great crises: first, when it was formed, and then, again, when it was perpetuated.  T.R. articulated the substance of the third great crisis which was upon us, the struggle "to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity," bringing it back to life in 1912 if only briefly.  A full 100 years later, America is still trying to figure out how to solve this confounding problem of our time --- completing our nation's great unfinished business.  In truth, all roads still lead to this place.

Perhaps we are at a crossroads.  It’s a good thing the ordinary citizen has map keys.  We must respect the powerful forces of conservatism in discharging the obligation to protect the status quo.  Otherwise there would be chaos and anarchy.  But we also must respect the need for change, understanding that if we do not change we must surely die.  Is one principle more important than the other?

Do we play it safe and fly under the radar, shining our beacon from under a bush?  Do we have any further obligation?  Or do we act more aggressively --- perhaps throw caution to the wind --- knowing that the harder we push for change the greater the assurance of our own personal destruction?

-Michael D’Angelo

Sunday, April 8, 2012

An Ordinary Man's Pursuit of Happiness

Perhaps the closest expression of the pursuit of happiness comes in the form of an inspirational poem, related by Bill Maione, a wise and dear friend.  Titled Desiderata, its prose offers a simple positive credo for our ordinary yet hectic lives.

The common myth is that the poem was found in a Baltimore church in 1692 and is centuries old, and of unknown origin.  It is said that Desiderata was in fact written around 1920 (although some say as early as 1906), and certainly copyrighted in 1927, by lawyer Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) based in Terre Haute, Indiana.

It is reproduced here below in its entirety, with gratitude to its long deceased author:


Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself.  Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.  Strive to be happy.

The poem needs no epitaph.

-Michael D’Angelo

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness (Part Three)

(Editor’s note: This is the third and final segment in a three part series.  The first segment traced the pursuit of happiness to Thomas Jefferson, author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, outlining Alexander Hamilton’s financial plan for capitalism.  The second segment explored Hamilton’s controversial methods and the basis of opposition, which also began with Jefferson.  ...)

While capitalism may have achieved a monopolistic grip over Western Civilization, scarcely can it be said that Western Civilization maintains such sway over the pursuit of happiness.  Or the ways of human nature.  It should come as little surprise, then, that criticism of Hamilton’s financial plan, ominous and foreboding as it was, could well have been predicted.

An ordinary citizen may recognize the same moral in a parallel story from the realm of Eastern Civilization.  More specifically, ancient Taoist thought also addresses the workings of human nature, dwelling in its unity.  Therein lay the same timeless, uncontroverted truths, offering merely a hint of the opposition attacks Hamilton’s plan would later face.

Cracking the Safe

For security against robbers who snatch purses, rifle luggage, and crack safes,
One must fasten all property with ropes, lock it up with locks, bolt it with bolts.
This (for property owners) is elementary good sense.
But when a strong thief comes along he picks up the whole lot,
Puts it on his back, and goes on his way with only one fear:
That ropes, locks and bolts may give way.
Thus what the world calls good business is only a way
To gather up the loot, pack it, make it secure
In one convenient load for the more enterprising thieves.
Who is there, among those called smart,
Who does not spend his time amassing loot
For a bigger robber than himself?

Taoist thought is also consistent with its Western counterpart in acknowledging the unfortunate fact of life that the world values money, reputation, long life.  Similarly, what the world counts as joy are health and bodily comforts, good food, beautiful things to look at.  Misfortune involves the opposite: lack of money, bodily discomfort, labor, no chance to get your fill of the finer things.  This concern for happiness creates anxiety and makes life unbearable.

The rich make life intolerable, driving themselves in order to get more and more money which they cannot really use.  In so doing they are alienated from themselves, and exhaust themselves in their own service as though they were the slaves of others.

The ambitious run day and night in pursuit of honor, constantly in anguish about the success of their plans, dreading the miscalculation that may wreck everything.  Thus, they are alienated from themselves, exhausting their real life in service of the shadow created by their insatiable hope.

Taoist thought teaches us that happiness is illusory, inasmuch as we as mere mortals are destined to die some day.  And so, we tend to expend all of our energies worrying, obsessed about it, trying to do what we can to delay this particular eventuality.  We don’t live in the present, where life is to be lived.  Instead, we squander the present, living in a precarious state of worry regarding a future, over which we have little control.

By contrast to the rich or ambitious man, or his counterpart the poor man,

Take the case of the minister who conscientiously and uprightly opposes an unjust decision of his king!  Some say, ‘Tell the truth, and if the King will not listen, let him do what he likes.  You have no further obligation.’

On the other hand, Tzu Shu continued to resist the unjust policy of his sovereign.  He was consequently destroyed.  But if he had not stood up for what he believed to be right, his name would not be held in honor.

So there is the question, Shall the course he took be called “good” if, at the same time, it was fatal to him?

I cannot tell if what the world considers “happiness” is happiness or not.  All I know is that when I consider the way they go about attaining it, I see them carried away headlong, grim and obsessed, in the general onrush of the human herd, unable to stop themselves or to change their direction.  All the while they claim to be just on the point of attaining happiness.

In the end, as with most things, it is supposed that the beauty of the pursuit of happiness lies in the eyes of the beholder.  Is there a higher purpose than profit?

-Michael D’Angelo