Saturday, November 30, 2013

Obama's problem with moral prescriptions -- and ours

Writing about the messy launch of Obamacare, Linda Greenhouse, long time Supreme Court reporter and legal scholar for the New York Times, notes:

One of the failures of the Affordable Care Act saga, it seems to me, has been the president’s unwillingness or inability to present universal health care as a moral issue, a moral right in a civilized society. Thus the administration meets the moral claims of its opponents in technocratic mode, one hand tied behind its back.

This is a pithy description of the essential void that ever since 2008, many of us have been surprised to encounter from the Obama administration. The Prez launched his career by inspiring, most notably at the Democratic convention in 2004 when still an obscure Senate candidate and in his 2008 "race speech." But in most of his Presidency, he has dodged "the vision thing" (in the words of another President who couldn't seem to speak to it, the first Bush.) This instinct to evade the moral argument is probably most pronounced when it come to the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

As somebody who works in politics, I understand why. This country is experiencing such jarring technological change in the context of such rapidly escalating human diversity, that polling reveals that we are pretty much without agreed upon "universal" values. What looks to some people like one of their most basic rights -- unhindered use of their private property, for example -- looks to others like an assault on the community's continued enjoyment of health, wellbeing, or even life itself. I wrote that thinking of an economically strapped landowner who wants to lease his land for oil extraction, while his neighbors fear destruction of their water supply. But the contest between individual autonomy and the general welfare reveals moral chasms in most areas of lives.

In no arena is this so obvious as in provision of universal health care. Many of us look at Republican efforts to kill off Obamacare as nothing less than vicious cruelty to the unlucky among our fellow citizens; our Republican neighbors fear the health insurance program will be literally used to kill them! Another fraction of us, pollsters make it around 15 percent, remain outraged that their political authorities would come up with a half-baked, complex, kludge of a health reform that protects established medical profiteers. Why can't we just throw out the insurance companies and big pharmaceutical companies and go straight to a rational single payer system? Rather than speaking to this maelstrom of conflicting values, the Obama administration tried to sell the ACA as a technocratic, largely value-free, fix.

But to pass as a simple, obvious technocratic solution to a problem whose definition we don't agree on, Obamacare had to slide into place without major hitches, convincing us that our data driven betters could glide over and around our ethical conflicts. Oops. Now we're living in the backwash of moral conflicts that were not evaded. Plus, people aren't getting the health insurance they were promised and came to hope for.

I find it hard to blame Obama too much for not hammering away at the moral case for health care reform. Polling shows that the corollary of the fact that the people of this country do not currently share any "universal" values is that there are no "authority figures" who can speak ethically to majorities of citizens. Once upon a time, scientists, college presidents, even business leaders, could command an audience. For some, particular religious leaders can still fulfill that function, but the same leaders repel others. For a moment in 2008, Obama occupied such a position for a bare majority of us, but that moment long ago washed away in the ebb and flow of actual, messy, governance.

In this divisive context, it is a pleasure to watch the assertive attempt by the new Pope Francis to chart a viable course for a morally divided world. Regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof, many many people seem momentarily moved by seeing a world leader even try! Bless him, though I suspect his universality will eventually founder on the great unbridged divide of patriarchal religious systems, the need to affirm the full humanity of women. Still, it is a delight to have in the world someone who even tries with some success to be a universal moral leader. Humanity is still not satisfied by technocracy alone.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Friday cat blogging: a few Bhutanese felines

Cats are everywhere in Bhutan ...
...including at the feet of this large monk.

This one was along the roadside at Chimi Lhakang.

And this one was one of the few residents of the disused former royal palace at Bumthang.

This one ruled the roost at a rural temple ...

while this one hunted among cut rice stalks.

This creature lives with the nuns at a mountain nunnery.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Turkey day

Long may this bird run free along the other side of the road in Marin Headlands.
We're having duck.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Our Thanksgiving travel just got a little easier

Plaintiffs as photographed by the Sacramento Bee, back in the day
Ever since our stint as plaintiffs on a lawsuit demanding information about the "no fly" list, I've always joked that I was one of the few people in the United States who could be confident I was not on a list. After all, the government ended up having to pay $200,000 to the ACLU for court costs as a consequence of holding us in an airport in the summer of 2002.

Now I can make the joke with even more confidence. Twice in a row at San Francisco airport I've been directed to the "TSA pre-check" line where they dispense with removing shoes, those damned quart bags for gels, and the "take off that coat and take out the computer" rule. I never applied for this status. It almost feels like realistic security, instead of the theater of fear.

I don't expect this at all airports, but the TSA claims to be expanding the system rapidly.

I wonder, is this program available to Muslims, Sikhs, Asian and other immigrant groups? I hope so.

Annals of the Anthropocene: dare we think about it?

The term "Anthropocene" refers to a paradigm we might as well get used to. It represents

the idea that we have entered a new epoch in Earth’s geological history, one characterized by the arrival of the human species as a geological force.

Iraq war vet Roy Scranton reflects on the implications of this construct, which is rapidly gaining currency among scientists, in a discursive meditation in the New York Times, titled Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.

The challenge the Anthropocene poses is a challenge not just to national security, to food and energy markets, or to our “way of life” — though these challenges are all real, profound, and inescapable. The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses may be to our sense of what it means to be human. Within 100 years — within three to five generations — we will face average temperatures 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, rising seas at least three to 10 feet higher, and worldwide shifts in crop belts, growing seasons and population centers. Within a thousand years, unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases wholesale right now, humans will be living in a climate the Earth hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago, when oceans were 75 feet higher than they are today.

We face the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well on its way, and our own possible extinction. If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited.

… The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. ...

Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Bhutan: can it preserve while modernizing?

Bhutan is erecting the world's tallest statue of the Buddha at its capital Thimpu.
In response to some of my Bhutan photos, Rain asked:
Do they then have a wealthy class who suck up what income there is? Their lifestyle, as you photographed it, reminds me of the Mongolians with the way parts of modern life have come but not enough income in their traditional raising of animals to support anything but minimal living. The beauty of such is great but hard to imagine living that way.
These questions seem to me on the right track. They are all questions about how Bhutan combines the mixed blessings of modernity -- capitalism, democracy, Western science, education, medicine -- while trying to preserve its particular heritage.
There are fearsome powers in this world.
No one is more aware than the Bhutanese that opening to the world brings dangers as as well as material benefits. Electricity brings a less laborious life -- and a dubious flood of television images and video games. Better roads improve people's standard of living -- and tempt many to flock to the city where there are few jobs available to uneducated peasants and family ties break down. And so on …
The court is within the traditional administrative center, the local dzong: a massive temple/monastery/fortress and court building. National dress is required to transact business in the dzong.
Bhutan has its answer to these contradictions. That response is to teach and reinforce national pride and culture using the limited monarchy as its symbolic focus, to encourage continued wearing of the national dress by law (apparently seldom enforced), and to immerse citizens ever more deeply in its historic Tibetan Buddhism.
Guru Rinpoche, who tradition holds united the country through Buddhist practice in 8th century CE, is pictured as taming the tiger. Might that animal represent these fractious mountain people as well as their animist deities?
There are strict rules for visits to sacred sites.
And above all, there are the observances of Tibetan Buddhist practice which contain an ever-present awareness of principalities and powers, of cosmic powers and spiritual forces, that individual and collective humanity co-exists with.
temple interior2 copy

temple interrior copy

The in-flight magazine of Bhutan's national airline, called Tashi Delek -- On the Wings of Dragons, pointed me to an extremely accessible dissection of some of these issues. Helena Norberg-Hodge writes about Ladakh, a region of Indian-administered Kashmir. Her insights also seem relevant to Bhutan's struggle to balance ancient and modern elements -- with the significant difference that the Bhutanese have very consciously anticipated the threats from modernity as well as its benefits.
… does development have to mean destruction? I do not believe so. I am convinced that the Ladakhis and other traditional peoples could raise their standard of living without sacrificing the sort of social and ecological balance that they have enjoyed for centuries. To do so, however, they would need to maintain their self-respect and self-reliance. They would need to build on their own ancient foundations rather than tearing them down, as is the way of conventional development.
Bhutan is striving to prove that this is possible. I can only wish these warm, smart people well.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Bhutan: rice harvest time

Walking along a path through rice fields, I felt as if I'd wandered into Van Gogh's Harvest in Provence.

Harvest scenes throw many of us into images from history I think. This is not the farming we've observed.

 Here, separating chaff from the rice grains with the help of the breeze ...

The sheaves are beaten on a tarp to catch the grains of rice.

All those cast away stalks will provide animal fodder over the winter. 

We were told that, for all this labor, Bhutan is not self-sufficient in rice; they must import from India.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

From the streets of San Francisco

Click to embiggen

Home again, I never cease to be delighted by the insistence of my fellow citizens on imposing delight on the effluvia  of our urban setting.

Some Bhutanese young people

This young monk was intent on his mission -- I think that was delivering lunch to someone.

This boy insisted I must take his picture, but when I clicked the shutter, his friend seemed more pleased than he did.

We were an unfamiliar distraction, I think.

Adult work for a small person ...

At play outside a temple ... perhaps his relatives were within.

These are middle school students at morning assembly. We were told that one third of Bhutanese are in some kind of schooling and that the country (population ca. 700,000) produces 3000 college graduates annually. It is not clear Bhutan produces a commensurate number of jobs requiring higher education.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A few Bhutanese ...

Bhutanese are surprisingly willing to let tourists take their pictures. When I asked for permission, I was almost never waved away. This woman had just happily sold me some cloth she had woven; her more reluctant daughter could have hailed from any culture in the world.

This gent was harvesting turnips, for animal feed I think.

She watched us from her doorway ...

He stalked out to get a better look at us ...

Her delight in our appearance was not rare.

This city fellow saw no reason to interrupt his conversation to attend to passing tourists.

Over the next few days I'll be posting a bounty of photos from Bhutan ... tomorrow a selection of beautiful children and young people.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Democracy and filibuster follies

Corey Robin, who teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, put the Senate's changes to the filibuster rule in perspective:

… But what does the vote actually mean? As Phil Klinkner explained to me, and as [an] old Washington Post piece confirms, before this vote, senators representing a mere 11% of the population could block all presidential appointments and all legislation.

From now on, senators representing a mere 17% of the population can block most presidential appointments; senators representing 11% can still block all legislation and all Supreme Court nominees.

That is, the U.S. Senate remains a deeply undemocratic institution. It was designed that way, above all to protect those states that insisted on defending their property in human beings -- to defending slavery

Over time more and more democracy has intruded on the U.S. Senate. Only in 1913 did we the people come to be able to vote directly for Senators; until then the members were appointed by often-corrupt state legislatures. I am old enough to remember when the required votes for cloture (getting to a vote) were reduced from 67 to a "mere" 60 in 1975 by a Democratic majority sick of being hamstrung by filibusters.

Yesterday's fix is only a beginning. If we were serious about about democracy, we'd amend the Senate out of existence. Why should a tiny fraction of the population be able to frustrate majorities? That's a real question. Are not elections the proper means to decide the direction of the country?

Another small step for democracy on a long road ...

Friday critter blogging: Bhutan lets sleeping dogs lie

Few sights in Bhutan amazed me more than this one on market day in the town of Paro.

In Bhutan, dogs seem to plunk down wherever they wish and apparently doze contentedly.

Fear seems no part of their experience.

In this, Bhutan is very different from other poor countries where I have visited. In ten days, I only saw a human hit a dog once, apparently because the striker thought the animal might be bothering foreign tourists who had less friendly attitudes toward a stray. The dogs seem well fed. In Thimphu, the capital and only large city, they do bark incessantly at night, but otherwise practice the same contented behavior as their rural cousins. (There appear to have been only a few breed ancestors to these Bhutanese mutts.)

This article suggests that the apparent health and well being of Bhutanese dogs is related to people's adaptation to their equivocal relationship to meat-eating. As devout Buddhists, Bhutanese are ostensibly mostly vegetarians, but in fact they do consume meat. Their dogs conveniently dispose of the associated offal. Or so the article claims. It also reports a humane effort to sterilize 4000 of Thimphu's dogs to reduce the evening cacophony.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Homecoming, a kludge, and reason to hope

Back on the ground in the USA, I see we are living through a panic about the long delayed launch of what this country has been able of offer as a response to human infirmity. That Obamacare, that unwieldy kludge, is struggling with its own complexity is not surprising. When you promise to preserve a mass of historically accreted work-arounds and pockets of private profit, it is not surprising that you get a mess.

It's worth going the root of why this mess inspires such fanatical resistance. In a nutshell, from Thomas Edsall:
… the Affordable Care Act can be construed as a transfer of benefits from Medicare, which serves an overwhelmingly white population of the elderly – 77 percent of recipients are white — to Obamacare, which will serve a population that is 54.7 percent minority.  Over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the Affordable Care Act cuts $455 billion from the Medicare budget in order to help pay for Obamacare.

Those who think that a critical mass of white voters has moved past its resistance to programs shifting tax dollars and other resources from the middle class to poorer minorities merely need to look at the election of 2010, which demonstrated how readily this resistance can be used politically. ….
Yes indeed, a dwindling white majority doesn't want "its taxes" used for "those people." And it can't hear that Medicare changes are designed to squeeze profiteers who drive cost increases, not the patients.

Fortunately, however miserable the interim will be -- and people will suffer unnecessarily during it -- the last few decades in California have showed that betting against the inevitable browning of the United States initiates a political death spiral for the party that chooses that path. Republicans are marginalizing themselves. And good riddance to them! Exclusion, greed and resentment are ugly -- our dark side -- the antithesis of what can make this society exceptionally good.
By the way, the country of Bhutan -- a resource-poor Himalayan quasi-monarchy/quasi-democracy where I've just spent ten days -- makes education and medical care free to all Bhutanese. I'm sure there remain issues of imperfect access to these common goods, but this obscure fragment of the back of beyond seems to have a clue about how a well functioning society behaves …

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Transgender day of remembrance

The Transgender Day of Remembrance serves to memorialize persons murdered because of transphobia. There have been and continue to be far too many valuable human beings whose crime was to be different.

This video is about a survivor whose home is Nepal.

When I was in Nepal in 2010, our tour was treated to a "folkloric dance" performance by a troupe in which I immediately recognized persons who had found a place to live outlawed gender identities. Too often, being in a freak show has been the only recourse for persons whose gender presentation violates community norms.

Neelam has apparently found a place to be within Nepalese culture. That's cause for rejoicing.

This post was queued up before I left for Bhutan.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Bhutan: obligatory beer post

You don't go to Bhutan for the beer. But if you go to Bhutan, and you drink beer, try for Red Panda. It is not always available, but the flavor is more robust than the other stuff which is reminiscent of Budweiser.

Leaving Bhutan

When I wrote here that I was going to Bhutan, SF Mike commented

All the best temples with the coolest layouts are at the top of nanny-goat climbs up narrow mountain paths. You should be in heaven, but be careful.

He was on the right track. Here's one of the more accessible locations we scrambled to, a monastery and temple above the town of Paro:

I fly home within the next 24 hours. More pics and a few reflections over the next few weeks when I have less fickle wifi.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A tidbit to ponder: credible threats and credible promises

Steven Walt, a Harvard international relations prof, asks: what does it mean when heads of state, especially our Presidents, insist we must keep use of military force "on the table"?

One of the most common phrases in contemporary foreign-policy discourse is the declaration that the threat to use military force must be kept "on the table." Pundits and policy wonks say this all the time, and so do prominent politicians from both political parties. These days it's most commonly found in discussions about the U.S. relationship with Iran, but that's hardly the only place where we are constantly being reminded about the need to keep our powder dry and our finger on the trigger.

The more I think about it, however, the dumber that expression sounds. Why? Because for the United States, the option of using military force is always on the table, especially when we're dealing with weak states like Iran....

Of course, people do not use this admonition to keep force "on the table" in a serious or sophisticated fashion; it's just an easy way for politicians and pundits to show they're tough-minded and not averse to using the pointed end of the stick. In other words, it's a way to maintain your inside-the-Beltway street cred. But it's really a meaningless phrase, because countries like Iran (and others) are well aware that the option of using force is right there and could be used if U.S. leaders ever decided it would accomplish a genuine positive purpose. ...

Given the many options that America's vast military power creates, the bigger challenge might be figuring out how to convince others that force is off the table. If we want Iran to forgo nuclear weapons, for example, we should try to convince Tehran we're not going to bomb Iran and not going to try to overthrow the government. ...

This one is a classic read the whole thing. What with all the random spying, drone attacks, frequent military adventures, and a tendency to shut down our own government over domestic arguments, how would the United States convince other peoples that this is not a rogue nation and our assurances could trusted? Worth thinking about.

This post was queued up before I left for Bhutan.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


"Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?"
– St. Augustine
I'm not sure where I grabbed that quotation from, but it came to mind when I was taking these pictures in Marin Headlands, despite my discomfort with naming God "He."
click to embiggen

That last one might help you orient what I was seeing. The people were some 400 yards distant.

This post was queued up before I left for Bhutan.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Saturday scenes and scenery: early morning in Marin Headlands

click to embiggen photos

Shot while hiking in training for Bhutan.

This post was queued up before I left for Bhutan.