Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Catching up on postings to this blog

I have just posted a number of op-ed articles and 3 published letters to the Wall Street Journal that I have written during the last year but not gotten around to posting.  

Obamacare and Part-Time Work----letter to the Wall Street Journal

To the editor:

Andrew Puzder argues correctly that Obamacare encourages employers to add more part-time and fewer full-time workers.  But he pushes his argument too far. 

When the mandate finally kicks in,  employers who must start providing insurance for their higher-paid workers can reduce cash wages by the amount of their premiums and thus incur no increase in their total cost of labor, as those who already supply insurance are doing now.    

Employers with low-paid workers cannot reduce wages below the legal minimum and will therefore reduce them to part-time.  These are the businesses for which Puzder’s analysis is correct.

Employers with higher-paid workers would not save money by making them all part-time.  Such a strategy would ignore the value placed by workers on insurance. To be equally attractive to newly part-time workers,  such employers would have to increase wages by more than their decreased insurance costs since individually purchased insurance costs more and would not be tax-sheltered.  And their management expenses would increase because of the need to supervise more workers.    

Mr. Puzder is chief executive of a restaurant chain, and restaurants do employ large numbers of  low-wage workers,  but his analysis cannot be extended to  the economy in general.

Paul deLespinasse


A version of this letter was published by the Wall Street Journal

Don't Encourage Violent Overthrow of Iranian Government----letter to Wall Street Journal

To the editor:

In reviewing Kenneth M. Pollack’s The Ayatollah Puzzle, Sohrab Ahmari says “The book’s most compelling section contends, convincingly, that the West should attempt to foment revolution inside Iran by supporting dissidents . . .” 

This is a terrible idea.  It is much easier to overthrow a regime we regard as bad than it is to replace it with something that is better, as we have seen in Iraq, AfghanistanLibya, and (prospectively) Syria.  This is true whether the overthrow is brought about by the U.S. military or by armed insurgents.

Such overthrows have not furthered  U.S. interests and cannot be justified as “humanitarian” on behalf of the local populations.   Saddam Hussein’s regime was horrible,  and Husssein killed a lot of “his own” people to preserve his rule.  But now that he is gone life in Iraq is even more precarious as various factions that he had been able to repress are now free to bomb weddings,  funerals,  and everywhere else innocent civilians gather. 

The U.S. should refrain from encouraging violent overthrows of existing regimes,  no matter how bad.  We should instead root for reformers.   Even very bad regimes can be reformed from within, as we saw in the U.S.S.R. and South Africa.
Given our bad image in Iran,  we should not handicap dissidents who are seeking peaceful reforms by “supporting” them.  With friends like us,  they would not need enemies. 

Paul deLespinasse
Corvallis, Oregon

A version of this letter was published by the Wall Street Journal.

Robots and Unemployment--letter to Wall Street Journal

To the editor:

Holmon W Jenkins [“Robots to the Rescue?”, Jan. 9, 2013]  worries about a future labor shortage caused by an aging population with fewer people producing what “idle oldsters” would like to consume. 

As one who is far from idle and who has been receiving Social Security for ten years,  I take umbrage at the snide generalization “idle oldsters.”  And I can’t understand how it will improve the consumer-producer ratio if people “save [more] for their retirement and depend less on Uncle Sam.”   If you are retired,  you are retired,  no matter what the source of  your income.  

Perhaps Jenkins should spend more time worrying about actual, current problems, and less time extrapolating dubious hypothetical problems into the future.  At the moment, as some of us have noticed,  not only is there no labor shortage, but there is a terrible surplus.  We call that surplus unemployment. 

As the numbers of young producers decrease, perhaps the chronically unemployed will be able to get jobs.   And if an actual shortage threatens to develop,   remember that shortages exist only at a given prevailing price.  Any shortage will evaporate once wages rise to the level where the amount of labor demanded equals the amount supplied. 

Paul deLespinasse
Corvallis, Oregon

A version of this letter was published by the Wall Street Journal.

An Open Letter To U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, My Former Student, On Iran

Dear Rep. Rogers:

Since you are were one of my students at Adrian College,  I have naturally followed your career with great interest.  Of all my students, you have been the most successful in elective politics,  and I can see real possibility of higher office for you. 

As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee you have been very prominent, and only yesterday  on C-SPAN I saw you discussing current negotiations with Iran

As you know,  bills being considered  in Congress would increase economic sanctions while the negotiations are still going on—hardly a way to enable even well-intentioned  Iranian leaders to get to yes.    And they would require any final agreement to be so harsh that it would be impossible for any Iranian leader to agree to it.  Unfortunately, it appears that you currently support these bills, which would destroy President Obama’s ability to negotiate a reasonable deal with Iran

In your interview last night you said that the preliminary confidence-building agreement with Iran could make it impossible to impose more sanctions if the negotiations fail or if agreement is reached but the Iranians build atomic weapons anyway.   But if Congress makes it impossible to negotiate a reasonable deal,  this too may burn some bridges that we cannot get back across later. 

You cited evidence of bad Iranian behavior in the past,  but did not address the serious possibility that the election of President Rouhani signals a serious effort to restore good relations with the United States and Europe in the future.

Congressman Rogers,  what if you are wrong?  What if Iranian leaders have decided that Iran would be better off as a “little China”—a country with rapidly increasing prosperity and welfare for its talented people---than as a “Big North Korea”---a destitute outlaw regime brandishing atomic bombs against its neighbors?  What if, like Mikhail Gorbachev,  Mr. Rouhani is a real reformer committed to developing good relations with the rest of the world?       

Of course all possible policies have potential downsides.  Even a reasonable deal with teeth in it may leave Iran with ultimate ability to make atomic bombs.  On the other hand sabotaging  negotiations would undermine Iranian reformers.  It would increase the danger that we will have to choose between accepting Iranian atomic weapons or attacking that country militarily. 

You are well aware that a “limited” or “surgical” air strike could not do the job.  To guarantee that Iran can't produce atomic weapons would require a massive, bloody and expensive military occupation of the entire country, the overthrow of the regime and the forcible repression of prolonged insurgent-style nationalist resistance to the occupation. To incur these costs because Iran might develop and use atomic weapons makes no sense and would never get the necessary sustained support from Americans or our allies.

The only alternative to such an invasion and occupation would be to use atomic weapons on Iran,  which would kill millions and is unthinkable if done pre-emptively.

In the end we would have to rely on deterrence, employing atomic weapons as a regrettable necessity only in response to actual Iranian use of such weapons.  If a negotiated deal went bad we would be in no worse a position, whereas successful negotiations could get us to a much better relationship with Iran

I hope very much that you will reconsider your support of Congressional efforts to derail these negotiations, negotiations which at worst can do little harm and at best could produce a much better world for all of us. 


Paul F. deLespinasse


This piece has appeared in the Adrian, Michigan Daily Telegram.

How to Increase the Real Minimum Wage

Proposals to increase the minimum wage are being debated again, with both sides treating us to the usual arguments. Those favoring increases note the impossibility of supporting a family on the current minimum:  $7.25 an hour federally up to around $10 in some states.  This is obviously true. Opponents say increasing labor costs will reduce the number of workers hired, increasing unemployment.  This also is true, though the extent of the damage is unclear. 

We need a policy that would increase the prevailing minimum wage to a decent level selected by the government,  perhaps $15 hourly,  without increasing unemployment.

Of all places,  North Dakota may suggest the way.  The oil boom there has produced such a labor shortage that some McDonalds are paying rank and file workers $15 to $20 per hour. Some even offer signing bonuses.

North Dakota undermines claims that increasing the legal minimum would drive fast food establishments out of business.  McDonalds pays less in the rest of the country, not because it can’t afford to pay more,  but because conditions allow it to get workers for much less.  Most places the supply of low-skill workers is greater than the demand for them, and employers are not in business for their health.

We seem to be in a trap:  Unemployment could be reduced by reducing the minimum wage,  but this would aggravate already intolerable economic inequality.  A higher floor under wages could reduce economic inequality (for those with jobs) but reduce the number of jobs. 

We can avoid this trap by make the whole country more like North Dakota.  This would require a federal program offering full time jobs for everyone over 18  for (say) $15 an hour plus legally-required fringe benefits like health insurance.   Those hired would do things that need doing but are not getting done—helping old people,  maintaining parks,  picking up litter,  tutoring kids,  keeping an eye out for vandals, taking care of invalids,  comforting the dying,  you name it. 

Given such a program, places like McDonalds would have to pay staff at least as well as the federal program does to get enough workers.  And if employers reduce staffing because of increased costs, it wouldn’t increase unemployment; the government program would pick up the slack.  There would in fact be no unemployment.  None! 

The biggest disadvantage of this program is that it would visibly cost taxpayers something.  But it is more honest than minimum wage laws which promote noble objectives without apparently costing anybody anything and which do not guarantee a job,  just  minimum hourly pay if you can find a job.    

Benefits like improved personal security against unemployment would be an offset against the costs. The services provided by people working under the program would also be a plus.  And the program could partly be paid for by eliminating or reducing the Earned Income Tax Credit,  food stamps,  unemployment compensation, and other federal benefits.  Minimum wage laws could be repealed, eliminating the costs of enforcing them,  and no one would notice. 

It is time to put a real floor under wages and eliminate the scourge of unemployment once and for all.  North Dakota proves that this is not impossible as a matter of economics.  Now all we need is leaders who will make it politically possible.

This piece has appeared in the Grand Forks (N. Dakota) Herald.

Some of Life's Events Lead in Unexpected Directions

The announcement that Natural Grocers is coming to Corvallis mentioned  the chain’s founders,  Philip and Margaret Isely.   It reminded me that I had attended a meeting Mr. Isely organized in Denver fifty years ago and had corresponded with him before and after that meeting.  

My acquaintance with Isely resulted from  events going back to my high school days in Vallejo, California.  The honor society at Vallejo was the California Scholarship Federation,  and CSF’s principal activity was a field trip to San Francisco once each semester.  After touring an educational site they would turn us loose on Market Street for a few hours.  One such trip was on November 10, 1955, and I paid 10 cents for a used book by Norman Cousins,  Modern Man Is Obsolete.

This book expanded an editorial Cousins wrote for the Saturday Review of Literature shortly after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.  He argued that in the atomic age,  mankind would destroy itself unless we established a world government:  “No control [of the atomic bomb] without power, no power without law,  no law without government.”  I found this argument overwhelming (perhaps more so than I do now), and it helped change my college plans from studying physics to studying political science and languages with an eye to a diplomatic career.

My college years at Willamette University followed this new plan but led me to rethink the career.  I ended up in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University preparing to be a college teacher.  But my interest in world government remained strong.

In 1963 the World Committee For A World Constitutional Convention held a “preparatory congress” in Denver.   It was in early September,  when I would be returning from Portland to Baltimore for my final year of graduate school, so  I just hopped off the train for five days in Denver en route east.  I was a (self-selected) delegate,  presented a paper on strategies for a sustained campaign,  and met Philip Isely,   the impressive executive secretary for the World Committee and its main leader and driving force.

As often happens,  Isely and I lost contact decades ago.  I assumed he must have died long since,  but googling reveals that he only died in 2012, at age 96.  His obituaries suggest that his mission in life was promoting peace and world government. Apparently Natural Grocers was more the work of his wife,  Margaret.

Philip Isely reminds us that economic activities are not necessarily the most important part of a person’s life work.  And my experience illustrates how important accidents can be in shaping our lives.  What if I had never found that book?  What if someone else had bought it an hour earlier?  According to a handwritten letter pasted in the back cover, it was a wedding present from a Stanford professor named Sam Hepburn to one of his former students only ten years earlier.  So why was the book for sale?  Did his former student die?  Was she divorced?     

And what if Natural Grocers had not come to Corvallis?  I might never have thought about Philip Isely again, and could not have written this article.  Reading the “replacement” article occupying this space in the GT  might have affected someone’s life as dramatically as finding Norman Cousin’s book impacted mine.

Or perhaps this article itself may lead a reader in unexpected directions.   These kinds of thing go on all the time.   I leave the rest of the story to your imagination.

This piece has appeared in the Corvallis, Oregon Gazette-Times.

U.S.-Iran: Time to Exchange Ambassadors?

Now that a confidence-building agreement has been reached,  further negotiations with Iran will continue unless the Israeli government,  Congressional hawks,  or Iranian hardliners manage to throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings.

 But it is also time to consider further steps to improve relations with Iran.

The lack of official diplomatic relations with Iran  has not prevented us from making this deal.  But this agreement may signal an opportunity to end the abnormal situation that has existed since 1980:  the lack of an Iranian ambassador and  embassy in Washington and of  official American representatives in Tehran.

Of course the seizure of our Tehran embassy in 1980 and the prolonged captivity of our diplomats made it impossible to continue normal diplomatic relations at that time.   International law and custom  long had required countries to respect diplomats even when war breaks out with their country.  Thus Japanese and German diplomats were allowed to leave the U.S. after Pearl Harbor and American diplomats were free to come home.  The  refusal or perhaps inability of the Iranian government to free the Americans immediately was a gross violation of the basic rules of the game.

But that was a third of a century ago.  The U.S. recognized the Communist regime in China in 1979,  only 30 years after the Communists came to power there.   Actually, our mutual isolation began eroding right after President Nixon’s dramatic visit in 1972.  It is now generally agreed that this trip was one of Nixon’s finest accomplishments. 

While the time may not yet be ripe for President Obama to visit Tehran,  we can hope that he is quietly exploring the possible recognition and exchange of diplomats with President Rouhani.  For political reasons both in Washington and Tehran,  any such agreement might have to be phased in gradually, as it was with China,  but it would be good to get the ball rolling as soon as possible. 

Diplomatic recognition implies an obligation not to try to bring about “regime change” in the other country, whether in our own interests or for humanitarian purposes.   Our track record in such adventures (think of IraqAfghanistanEgyptLibya, and probably Syria) is dreadful and we should learn something from that record.

Secret negotiations about mutual recognition are probably going on, but what can Americans and Iranians do in more public ways to improve our relations?  Is it time for an American ping pong team to  visit Tehran?  Or for an Iranian sports team to play in the U.S?  An exchange of symphonic orchesta concerts?  High school or college students  spending a semester living with families in the other country?  

Perhaps all of the above.  And while we are at it,  we ought to encourage the Iranian and Israeli governments to think about similar exchanges and, ultimately,  mutual diplomatic recognition.    Perhaps a few hundred Iranian students in Israel would alleviate Israeli fears, since any Iranian attack would kill these students too.  Likewise Israeli students in Iran could reduce Iranian fears, while the person to person contacts could reduce stereotyping and demonizing of the other country.

And maybe,  just maybe,  President Obama may end up in Tehran sometime.  After Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip,  we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that anything is impossible.

This piece has run in the Adrian, Michigan Daily Telegram and the Corvallis, Oregon Gazette-Times.

Dubchek, Solzhenitsyn, Gorbachev, ....Rouhani?

My senior thesis at Willamette University in 1960 studied the possibility of peaceful reform in a totalitarian country.  Inspired by the reform efforts of Nikita Khrushchev,  I studied reforms in three non-totalitarian countries---women suffrage in the U.S.,  repeal of the “corn laws” in England, and the freeing of the Russian serfs  in 1862.  Drawing conclusions about successful reform strategies,  I extrapolated them into the challenging circumstances facing reformers in the U.S.S.R. 

I concluded that two roads were open to a Soviet  reformer.  You could become a literary person, develop a reputation, and then gradually write more and more radical political commentaries, leaving censors wondering where to draw the line and force you to shut up.  Or you could join the Communist Party,  worm your way up to the top,  then pull out your horns and use the vast powers of the top leader to reform the system.

Years later,  my analysis was vindicated.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s literary career followed the first road, and was very successful until his criticisms went too far and Leonid Brezhnev deported him.  The second road was followed by Mr. Gorbachev, whose successful reforms brought in freedom of speech,  competitive elections, and d├ętente with the U.S. but then resulted in the demise---relatively peaceful---of the U.S.S.R.  

Before Gorbachev, however,  the first example of  a road two reformer was Alexander Dubchek in Czechoslovakia, whose 1968 “Prague Spring” reforms were only halted when the Soviet Union invaded and threw Dubchek out. 

Of course when Gorbachev first came to power it was not obvious that he was a Soviet Dubchek.   It was only when Pravda,  the Communist Party newspaper which I read for 29 years,  printed a poem claiming censorship was un-Marxist that I realized that Gorbachev was a real reformer.  Not all American leaders were as quick to catch on, and many were horrified when President Reagan started the negotiations with Gorbachev which ended the Cold War.

This is all history,  but it may have great relevance to today.   The recently elected Iranian president,  Hasan Rouhani,  appears to be interested in improving relations with the United States, and serious negotiations have started.  However influential voices including Israeli leaders,  many U.S. politicians, and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal,   have been condemning these negotiations.  They insist that Iran cannot reform, it cannot be trusted,  and that Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  

Of course they could be right about Rouhani.  Even  some of the Politburo members who made Gorbachev General Secretary expected him to continue the old Soviet policies.  Foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, who nominated him,  told the Politburo that Gorbachev had a nice smile but had teeth of iron.  Coming from Gromyko,  known to some as “old iron pants,”  this was intended as a compliment!  But Gorbachev turned out to be a real reformer.  And so might Rouhani, no matter what the intent of the leaders who propelled him to the Iranian presidency.

Since there is a chance that Rouhani,  like Gorbachev, is the real deal,  we ought to make an honest effort to negotiate with him, and we ought to presume that he is sincere until events prove otherwise. 

The U.S. should announce that if we reach an agreement and Israel tries to sabotage it by bombing Iran,  we will end all U.S. foreign aid to Israel.  There is too much at stake here to allow anybody, including the Israeli leader,  to stand in the way of testing Rouhani’s sincerity and political ability to make a reasonable deal

This piece has run in the Salem, Oregon Statesman-Journal and the Adrian, Michigan Daily Telegram. 

Israel and Palestine: How About A Zero-State Solution?

Sometimes we need to change the entire way we think about a problem if we want to solve it. When talented people, strongly motivated by personal interest, noble ideals, or both, cannot figure out what to do, either the problem is unsolvable or we need to think about it in a new way.  The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians may be an example of such a problem.

For many years the United States has promoted a two-state solution: one state for Israelis,  one for Palestinians.  Although Israeli and Palestinian leaders favor it,  for many reasons the idea has never gotten anywhere. Getting to yes on this approach may be politically impossible both for Israel and for the Palestinians. 

The apparent alternative would be a single-state in which Israelis and Palestinians would live peacefully under the same government.  This would avoid the sticky issue of who gets Jerusalem.  It would recognize there is no place where a geographical line can neatly be drawn between the two populations.  But a single-state solution scares Israelis,  who fear that the faster growth of the Palestinian population would allow a future Jewish minority to be repressed by a Palestinian majority.  So a single-state solution may also be impossible.

If both two-states and one-state are impossible,  does this mean there is no possible solution?  Maybe not.   It might just be possible to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree to join,  jointly,  the United States as its 51st state.  This would be a zero-state solution,  if the ambiguous term “state” is taken to mean an independent country. Israel-Palestine (or Palestine-Israel?—perhaps this could be determined by a coin flip) would be a state, but in a different sense:   a constituent element of a federal union, like Oregon or Michigan
Residents of the new state would be protected by the Constitution’s  equal protection and due process clauses.  Free exercise of religion by Muslims, Jews and Christians would be guaranteed by the First Amendment.  The huge resources devoted by Israelis and Palestinians to military preparedness could be redirected. Their economy would benefit by being  an integral part of the larger American economy.  

Adding Palestine-Israel as a state might be a hard sell here. Cultural,  linguistic and religious differences,  the fear of importing problems from a troubled area, opening the present United States to free immigration from the new state, and the radical nature of the idea will give many Americans pause.  But considering how central the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to many other problems facing us in the Middle East and the amount of foreign aid now going to that area,  it might not be impossible to get congressional approval.
Much would depend on the details.  To avoid looking like empire-building we should add the new state only if substantial majorities of Israelis and of  Palestinians, in separate referendums,  approved.  We must make it clear to other countries in the area that we seek good relations and are not interested in taking over more local real estate.  
Before the end of the South African apartheid regime,  I once shocked a panel discussion by proposing that South Africa become our 51st state.  Fears by the minority white population that it would be abused if the black majority was enfranchised would be eliminated by the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by American courts.  Fortunately South Africa was able to reform itself without going to this extreme thanks to wise leadership by F.W. deKlerk  and Nelson Mandela. 

Does anyone see a deKlerk or a Mandela in the current  Middle East?  Maybe this time we really need to add that 51st state.  

Oregon State University Should Not Abandon Profitable Investments

Ken Winograd  [“It’s wrong for OSU to profit from climate destruction”] overlooks significant details that undermine all but one part of his argument.

If OSU sells all its stock in fossil fuel industries,  it will reduce neither the sales nor the profits of those industries.  It will have no effect on the sales one way or the other, and it will simply redirect dividends and capital gains to the people who buy the stock from OSU.  The investments  purchased by the OSU Foundation to replace the divested stock will be less profitable,  or the Foundation would already have made the switch for purely economic rather than moral reasons. 

Winograd in effect concedes this point when he tells us that “the question of divestment must be shaped by moral concerns and not the bottom line.” 

Why, then,  divest?  Says Winograd:  “The goal of divestment is to stimulate a synergy of activism,  to affect a seismic shift in public opinion—that drastic changes in public policy are needed now.”  In other words,  divestment would be a massive publicity stunt! 

I would like to make a friendly suggestion about an even more dramatic publicity stunt that would actually reduce fossil fuel consumption in the U.S. and that would reduce OSU income from its fossil industry investments by a smaller amount. 

Several times a year tens of thousands of people migrate to Corvallis to attend OSU football games.  Their cars and RVs burn large amounts of gasoline.  For night games Reiser Stadium is brightly lit with floodlights that use large amounts of electricity, some of which is produced by burning coal and natural gas---fossil fuels.  When the team travels to other schools for games,  its buses or airplanes burn diesel or jet fuel—fossil fuels.   And don’t forget the electricity consumed when people run TV sets to watch televised games.   

Do you see what I am driving at?   If OSU were to abolish its football team,  it would actually reduce fossil fuel use in the United States.   It would reduce the serious brain damage that football players risk every time they take the field.   And it would also be a REAL publicity stunt.   If other universities imitated OSU,  so much the better. 

To be sure, OSU would lose the income earned by the football program,  but this will not reduce the money available for teaching and research, the core missions of a university.  

As a serious student of American politics,  culture, and higher education,  I predict that OSU will not take me up on this proposal.  We can’t push morality too far,  after all, especially when it interferes with our entertainment! 

But while we are waiting for the ecological millennium,  I hope OSU won’t dump profitable investments, reducing income that it could put to good uses educating our youth and researching greener power sources.  Winograd claims that “if it is wrong to wreck the climate, it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.”  But until better energy technology is developed,  fossil fuel companies will continue to make money, and if money is going to be made anyhow it might as well go to OSU. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Why a single payer system would be better than Obamacare

Recent efforts to defund Obamacare evoked hot air from both sides of the aisle.   Perhaps it is now time for serious talk instead of talking points.

While it has some good aspects, there are four principal problems with Obamacare: 

1.  It is outrageously complex,  confronts individuals and employers with decisions they are poorly equipped to  make, and requires government to pull together vast amounts of information in determining eligibility for subsidies. 

2.  It leaves millions uninsured,  especially since the Supreme Court eviscerated Medicaid expansion by allowing states to ignore it without losing federal funding for their existing Medicaid programs. 

3.  It perpetuates employment-based insurance  (while undermining it for some).  People who become too sick to work will continue to lose their insurance, and their loss of income will make it impossible to buy insurance privately without prolonged paperwork at the exchanges.

4.  Under  Obamacare  insurers are gaming the system,  offering low prices on the exchanges but restricting coverage to very limited “networks” of doctors and hospitals,   making it harder for people to get care. 

There is an obvious  solution to these problems:  a taxpayer-funded single-payer insurance system, “Medicare For All.”   

Medicare For All could be very simple, with low administrative costs.  Individuals could participate without having to make complicated decisions requiring them to consult accountants,  lawyers . . . and psychiatrists. 

The system would cover everyone without any exceptions, and would allow overlapping systems like Medicaid to be phased out.

People wouldn’t depend on employment  for insurance.  Those too sick to work would not lose coverage.  Employers would have no incentive to move towards part-time work or to avoid hiring older people, whose medical costs tend to be higher.

Under single-payer there would be no  “out of network” doctors and hospitals.  People could chose doctors and hospitals to their taste and convenience. 

The major political obstacle to a single payer system is that it would require higher taxes.  But the average person’s out of pocket costs for insurance would be reduced by more than their taxes would increase, leaving more in their pockets.    

Single payer eliminates payment of personal insurance premiums.  It also eliminates the premiums now paid by employers,  money by necessity subtracted from the wages they pay.  (That is why low paid workers are not provided with insurance, since their wages cannot be reduced below the legal minimum, and why the employer mandate drives employers of low-paid workers to make them part-time to  avoid insuring them.)

To retain qualified workers, employers will have to redistribute these savings as increased wages. 

By greatly reducing administrative costs and eliminating private profits and the magnificent salaries of insurance executives,  single payer’s total cost would be less than Obamacare and less than the pre-Obamacare system.  This lower system cost is why the average person will retain more in-pocket even after paying increased taxes.   

Having given up on defunding, John Boehner now says he will continue fighting Mr. Obama’s health care law, but in a different manner.  Perhaps he should consider supporting a replacement that would incorporate the conservative values of simplicity,  uniformity, and efficiency: a single payer system paid for with taxes,  Medicare For All.

This op-ed has appeared in the Adrian Daily Telegram.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Announcing a new free anthem

FREE ANTHEM:   I have just posted a new anthem on my website written to observe the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy:  Come Walk With Me.   Like all my music,  this anthem can be printed and used without any charge. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Congress should save us from a president's unwise line-drawing

President Obama, by announcing that he will not bomb Syria  unless Congress authorizes it, has done the right thing.

I was deeply skeptical about claims that Assad’s military were the people who had used these weapons,  but the evidence now does indicate that the Syrian government was the culpable party. 

Even so,  this does not mean that the United States should poke its finger into this hornet’s nest.  Although Obama’s earlier drawing of a “red line” seems to require “doing something”  or risk making the U.S. look like a paper tiger,   there are weighty reasons why we should not intervene.    Obama’s Saturday announcement gives Congress the ability to help him escape from the corner into which he had unwisely painted himself.

What good would it do us,  or the people of Syria,  if the U.S. engages in a “limited” strike by cruise missiles?  We cannot target the chemical weapons,  even in the unlikely event we really know where they are all stored.  Destroying chemical weapons without endangering nearby populations is difficult.  Oregonians  may  remember the tribulations of  the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility , which   just finished its work a couple of  years ago.

American bombs cannot bring democracy to Syria,  nor can they be justified on humanitarian grounds.  Assad’s regime is indeed horrible,  but destroying a horrible regime is not likely to improve life for the population suffering under its rule.  Saddam Hussein’s regime was horrible,  and Husssein killed a lot of “his own” people to preserve his rule,  but now that he is gone life in Iraq is even more precarious as various factions that he had been able to repress are now free to bomb weddings,  funerals,  and everywhere else innocent civilians gather. 

Of course Mr. Obama says our intent in bombing is not to bring down Assad, which would seem to conflict with our general professed desire that he be brought down, and in any event does not mean that bombing won’t help bring him down.

The government forces lately seem to be winning.  Our bombs, by weakening the government’s hand,  could delay the end of the civil war and prolong the humanitarian tragedy.  The population of Syria would best be served by an end to the war and all of its killings and disruptions,  whichever side wins.  And a decisive victory by the government would be more likely to stick than one by the rebels,  who if they won would still have to fight it out to see which faction among them would control things. 

If the rebels win,  they will then control the chemical weapons, and might provide them to the terrorist allies of some of  the rebel factions. 

All in all, the Syrian situation suggests once again that the U.S. should refrain from encouraging violent overthrows of existing regimes,  no matter how bad.  We should instead encourage reformers.   Even very bad regimes can be reformed from within, as we saw in the U.S.S.R. and South Africa. 

If Congress understands America’s true interests,  it will not support President Obama’s desire to bomb Syria.  But in any event,  Obama---for whom I do not regret voting even though he has made mistakes---should be commended for recognizing his constitutional duty to get Congressional authorization before engaging in acts of war where no emergency requires immediate action. 

This piece has run in the Adrian (Michigan) Daily Telegram.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Is C-SPAN Coverage of Congress Really a Good Idea?

I used to think that C-SPAN,  which televises the House and Senate,  congressional hearings, and the like,  was an unmitigated blessing.  

Lately,  though,  I have had second thoughts.  C-SPAN has many wonderful programs (Book TV,  the series on first ladies, etc.).  But its coverage of Congress is causing fundamental damage to the ability of Congress to do its job.

C-SPAN televises sessions of  House and Senate in which only a handful of the members  are present.  Speeches are addressed,  not to the other members of Congress, who are not present,  but to the TV audience.  This makes sense for members who love free publicity  but takes time which speakers might have used consulting with other members of their houses,  with staff, or with constituents. 

C-SPAN sometimes covers hearings in which only committee members of one  party are present.  These hearings are orchestrated to score points with the public for one side of an issue or the other.  They don’t contribute to serious negotiations among committee members about  what needs to be done.
Since all public policies have both advantages and disadvantages,  simplistic analysis assuming that some proposals are all benefits and no costs or all costs and no benefits must be avoided.  Yet that is exactly what many of the speeches and hearings telecast by C-SPAN provide us with.

I think that C-SPAN should stop televising sessions of the Senate and House except on the rare occasions when quorums are present and serious business is being done.  It should stop covering committee hearings in which both parties are not represented and in which there is no serious discussion of both the pros and cons of proposed legislation.  This would give it time to broadcast more of its other programming,  which is often more substantive,  and it would help push Congress back towards the functionality it has lost in recent decades.

Such a pullback by C-SPAN  would have some costs for democracy,  which requires an informed electorate.  But remember,  all policies have both costs and benefits.  The benefit here would be a Congress that is more functional and whose members spend their time interacting more productively.  This would be a good tradeoff.

It has long been understood that serious negotiations must be conducted in private,  so that negotiators are not trapped into hardened initial positions by fear of losing face or being accused of inconsistency.  The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was not open to press or public,  though the results of that Convention were of course made public when the proposed Constitution was sent out for ratification.  President Woodrow Wilson famously called in international relations for “open covenants,  openly arrived at.”  But  experience teaches that diplomatic negotiations are more fruitful when conducted in secret, so that we get “open covenants,  secretly arrived at.”   

If members of Congress want to continue giving speeches to empty chambers in order to get something printed in the Congressional Record,  which they have long done,  let them do so.  But don’t give them additional incentives for such behavior by putting them on live TV.  The time has come to help Congress resume its traditional functionality by treating its members to a healthy dose of benign neglect by C-SPAN. 

Mountains and Molehills: Why Data Mining Makes Sense

Mountains and Molehills:  Why Data Mining Makes Sense

Twice in the last ten years our credit card company asked if we had made purchases flagged by their software as deviations from our usual patterns.  Both times they were right; we had made no such transactions. Visa  promptly gave us a new account number. I was delighted with their data-mining , even though it "snooped" on my transaction patterns. What skin off my teeth was that "invasion of privacy"?

After 9-11 the F.B.I.,  which had noticed some of the unusual activity by the people planning the attack,  was criticized for failing to “connect the dots.”   If those dots had been connected federal authorities might have seen the pattern suggested by the connections and headed off the 9-11 disaster.  Critics of the recently revealed data-mining operations forget  that it is impossible to connect dots that have not been collected in the first place. 

In the present case the dots are individual calls from one telephone number to another.   Federal agencies have been collecting records of all these calls.  Responding to this,  the New York Times recently editorialized that Congress should enact  “legislation to limit the collection of call records and the monitoring of Internet traffic to that of people suspected of terrorism, ending the mass warehousing of everyone’s data.”     

This editorial misses the whole concept of data mining,  in which computers scan immense amounts of data (like which phone number phones which phone number, when, and for how long) and pick up patterns which suggest activity  meriting further investigation. Limiting collection of this information to calls associated with people already under suspicion would make it much less likely to detect people who are not under suspicion but ought to be.

Remember that the data about phone calls being swept up by government agencies does not include what people are saying in those calls.  After patterns have been detected,  authorities may place wiretaps on specific people,  but only after getting specific authorization by a court.  

Of course this data mining harms would-be terrorists,  but aside from that what harm does the so-called invasion of people’s privacy cause anybody?  What difference does it make in our lives?

“Big data” is a recent phenomenon made possible by modern computers,  which can scan immense amounts of information and detect patterns which could never be found by finite human investigators. Data mining techniques are already being used by astronomers,  traffic control people,  medical researchers, and in many other fields.  They are improving our ability to understand the universe,   make traffic flow more smoothly, and treat diseases.  There is no reason why we should not also exploit this technology
to improve the security of our people. 

The private groups which have declared war against the United States do not hesitate to use modern technology (cell phones,  the internet, explosives, etc.) to further their plans.  There is no sense in placing artificial limits on our own ability to use technology to limit the damage they can do.

In older wars people were conscripted, shipped off to fight, placed under wage controls, taxed more, and endured rationing. Surely the minimal "invasions of privacy"  caused by the programs recently revealed pale in comparison.

This piece has run in the Oregonian and the (Adrian, Michigan) Daily Telegram.

Edward Snowden: A different possible interpretation of his actions

This piece models how the same facts can be interpreted in very different ways, and is also something of a parody of conspiracy theory but with the twist that the hypothetical conspiracy (which is admittedly unlikely) is by the good guys and for a legitimate purpose. 

Edward Snowden:   A  different possible interpretation of his actions

Decades ago I read a novel,  Typewriter in the Sky,  by L. Ron Hubbard (who later founded “Dianetics”).  I remember this scifi novel only dimly—and won’t read it again to refresh my memory. Reading it once was bad enough!  But the general idea was that its protagonist falls into a  universe recognizably created by a work of fiction being written by a friend who is a very bad novelist.  Our hero—who can hear a typewriter clacking away up in the sky---is horrified, since he knows how his friend’s mind works and realizes he is in for a terrible fate.

I recalled this novel recently while thinking about the Snowden affair.  It seems to me that the Snowden story looks like a very bad novel..  

Why, for example,  would American authorities make such a fuss about Edward Snowden’s revelations?  The NSA data-mining of connections between phone numbers, after all,  is just taking common sense advantage of opportunities presented by modern computers.  Since the mining does not capture the contents of the communications flowing through the telephone networks,  it does not violate anybody’s privacy in those communications.

Why did Chinese authorities with influence in Hong Kong allow someone supposedly wanted by China’s leading trade partner and implicit ally to fly off to Moscow, and why are Russian authorities being so cagey about Snowden?   

To make sense of the Snowden affair might be easier if we look at it from a very different angle.  No doubt this interpretation is improbable,  but even its bare possibility is worth thinking about:  what if Snowden is loyally playing the leading role in a scenario staged to bag a large number of would-be terrorists?

In this scenario,  Snowden made his revelations about NSA data mining,  not in defiance of our government,  but at its behest.  In this scenario his flight to Hong Kong and then to Moscow and seeking political asylum are merely a magnificent publicity stunt.  The goal of the stunt would be draw attention to his revelations and thereby scare terrorists into changing how they communicate.  Such changes,  which NSA computers could spot,  might identify plotters who otherwise could have  avoided detection.   

At the very least this plot might frighten some terrorists into using less efficient methods of communicating with each other, a goal worthwhile in itself.    

If Snowden’s “leaks” were actually part of an official operation,  we would want to commend him if the true story can ever be told.  So perhaps we should avoid rushing to judgment about him.

It would be interesting to know how China and Russia would fit into this scenario.  Are they in the dark about Snowden,  or are they knowingly playing their own part in the operation?  After all,  Russia and China have legitimate concerns about terrorism and could have good reasons to cooperate with us.

Of course such a plot would be a massive deception,  but deception in policy matters is not always bad.  The successful landings in Normandy on D-Day,  for example,  were helped by elaborate (and successful) efforts to bamboozle the Nazis into thinking the attack was going to be elsewhere. 

Readers may wonder if publishing speculation about a plot might sabotage the plot, if one actually exists.  But by now any terrorist changes in communication patterns stimulated by Snowden’s revelations—whether or not there was a plot--- will already have happened and the NSA computers will have safely recorded all the dots that need to be connected.  

Plot or no plot,  I wish them luck in connecting those dots.

This piece has run in the Oregonian and the (Adrian, Michigan) Daily Telegram.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Advice to a theological windbag who didn't know when to quit

Cleaning out my files,  I recently ran into a commentary I wrote after suffering through an extremely long-winded sermon at a Homecoming chapel service back in the mid-1970s.  (The service should have concluded at 12 but didn't get out until 12:20.) It can be sung to the tune of the hymn,  O God Our Help In Ages Past:

I do not for one moment doubt
that you have much to say;
but next time you can count me out,
I do not have all day.

"They also serve,"  it has been said,
"who only sit and wait."
But those who sit until they're dead,
may start to serve too late.

You need not show us all your stuff,
you need not numb our brains;
eternity is not enough,
time finite still remains!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Welcome to the Dark Ages

I have been cleaning out my files and recently ran into a sermon I delivered to the Adrian College chapel service over 40 years ago.  For some reason they never invited me to do another one! Here it is, for whatever it might be worth.


Welcome to the Dark Ages

(A chapel address delivered at Adrian College by Paul F. deLespinasse on October 25, 1972.)

Did you ever wonder what life was like in the Dark Ages? Our ability to imagine Eighth and Ninth Century conditions is probably rather limited.  But according to William G. Pollard we need not therefore resign ourselves to ignorance;  like the Michigander seeking a pleasant peninsula,  we need merely look around us.  Professor Pollard,  who is a physicist,  persuasively argues that we ourselves are living in a Dark Age,  a Second
Dark Age.

Pollard defines a dark age as any “period in which the West has lost the capacity to respond to either one of its two cultural roots.”  These two roots are known as the Greek-Roman tradition and the Judeo-Christian tradition.  The First Dark Age was a result of losing hold of the Greek-Roman tradition.  The Second Dark Age, in which we presently live, resulted from our collective loss of feeling for the Judeo-Christian way of thinking.  The First Dark Age was dominated by the Church,  the institutional embodiment of the Judeo-Christian tradition,  and ended when the Renaissance brought a renewed feeling for Greek and Roman ideas,  restoring the balance.

The present Dark Age, conversely,  is dominated by the Greek-Roman outlook and characterized by a general religious feebleness.  Harvey Cox, of the Harvard Divinity School,  accurately calls ours the age of the “secular city.”  As Edward Shils rather vividly put it:

            Having, with the aid of Deweyan naturalism,  “demythologization.” and
            existentialism, disposed of their deity or at least placed him in a weak
            position,  Protestant clergymen in the United States have been suffering
            from the intellectual equivalent of technological unemployment.

But it is not just—or even mainly—the clergymen. It is the whole climate of the times.  As Pollard points out:

            A college student of today who is introduced for the first time to
            Thucydides or Plato,  to Cicero or Virgil,  finds himself rather much at
            home in the ideas and outlooks which he encounters. He recognizes
            important differences,  to be sure,  but there is in them,  nevertheless, very
            little which seems so alien that he cannot respond sympathetically from his
            own experience to the outlooks on life and history which he discovers there.
            The same student,  on the other hand, even though formally associated with
            Christianity or Judaism and regarded himself as a committed and practicing
            member of a church or synagogue,  nevertheless finds himself in alien
            territory when he comes to Biblical literature.

For Harvey Cox,  in spite of the secular city,  there is no present Dark Age;  he believes that the secular city is unequivocally good, and indeed that it is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.  If Cox is right,  even if we want to define a Dark Age so that the present era qualifies as one,  the description implies no negative connotation.  “The name is not the thing,”  and if the thing is good it is not rendered otherwise by having a frightening label stuck on it.  It is difficult, however,  for me not to agree with Pollard when he says that:

            underneath all our material prosperity and accomplishments there is a deep-
            seated malaise, a sense of meaninglessness and frustration, and a background
            of dark and foreboding suspicions about the feasibility of modern man’s
            whole enterprise which have been widely noted in much recent commentary.

Pollard,  incidentally,  was writing in 1964—during the pre-Vietnam era of relatively good feelings and liberal euphoria—and not just reflecting the more recent fashionable secular gloominess.  If the malaise he notes has really been lurking under the surface all along,  then Cox’s complacency is not called for.

Pollard’s prescription calls for a second renaissance in which people would redevelop their feeing for the Biblical style of thought so that balance between the two roots of our culture would once more be restored.  But how feasible is such a renaissance?  What would it require?

The very minimum condition for a religious renaissance---it seems to me---would be a renewal of our ability to take seriously the Biblical thesis that God creates men in his own image and is interested in each individual human being.  This thesis has come into apparent conflict in our time with the sociological idea that men have created God in their own image, and with the common sense feeling---grounded in our own hectic lives--that God could not possibly have time to be personally concerned with each of the four billion individuals presently on earth.  For those who realize that there may well be sentient beings on millions of other planets in this universe,  the problem only seems to be compounded.

The trouble with the sociological theory that men create God in their own imagine is not that it is completely false.  As Rupert Brooke suggests in his poem about how a fish  might conceive of heaven,  it is natural for us to extrapolate qualities we see in ourselves to God:

                        …somewhere,  beyond Space and Time,
                        Is wetter water,  slimier slime.
                        And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
                        Who swam ere rivers were begun,
                        Immense,  of fishy form and mind,
                        Squamous, omnipotent and kind;
                        And under that Almighty Fin,
                        The littlest fish may enter in.

The trouble when we say men create God is that we are referring to creating a concept of God,  whereas when we say God creates men we mean He creates the objects themselves and not just the concept.  Two different things, which have little bearing on the validity of each other,  are thus being talked about.  In the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant,  the fact that the Blind Men were creating various partial and hence inevitably erroneous concepts of the elephant around which they were groping had no implications for the existence or nature of the elephant itself.  I do not see how the situation would have been appreciably changed if it had been blind but intelligent baby elephants groping around their mother.

A more serious obstacle to a religious renaissance is the difficulty in believing that God has enough time to be personally concerned with each individual person.  Modern social conditions have made it increasingly hard to take the Biblical thesis on this question seriously and literally.  It has become commonplace to observe that ours is the age of large-scale organization,  impersonality, and facelessness.  The inhabitants of the secular city,  as Cox correctly says,  cannot know everybody and cannot have deep personal dealings with everybody.  Just for one person to shake hands with every person in the United States would take a lifetime, and shaking hands is an extremely superficial transaction at best.  A certain degree of anonymity in large scale human interactions is therefore inevitable.

The theological danger in all this is that we may be tempted to take our new appreciation or even obsession with a facelessness, impersonality, and anonymity which are direct and logical results of the finite amount of time each individual human being has,  and extrapolate this human characteristic to God.  Cox,  I think,  falls into this trap when he says “we need to develop a viable theology of anonymity.” 

Fortunately,  men are more imaginative and more able to transcend themselves in their thinking than the Blind Baby Elephants or Brooke’s Fish were.  Not only can we project essential human characteristics into our concept of God, but we can also extrapolate obvious differences.  One such obvious difference has to do with time: the relationship between men and time, on the one hand,  and on the other hand the relation between God and time.  The basic point that I would like to make today is that in a created universe time is a part of the created order,  and therefore must be transcended by God.  It seems to me that there is no escaping this conclusion if any sense at all is to be made of Judeo-Christian theology and the Bible is not to be dismissed as a fabrication with no basis in reality whatsoever.

The point that time is part of the created order is not new;  St. Augustine said it a long time ago (though I admit that my own appreciation of it derives not from the study of St. Augustine,  but from the works of Dewey Larson.)  But an idea need not be new in order to be true,  and I think that it speaks in a particularly direct way to the obstacles human experience in our time has placed in the path of taking the Biblical thesis literally.  If God is the creator (among other things) of time, it logically follows that time can be no limit on the activity or attention of God.  When the Bible claims that not one sparrow shall fall on the ground “without your Father” (Matthew 10:29),  a claim which sounds absurd to the busy modern ear---I might almost say to the Greek-Roman ear!--- there is therefore no reason why we cannot take the statement literally.  Indeed,  until many more people can take this statement literally,  I believe we must wait in vain for the religious renaissance.

Is time a key to the intellectual and emotional logjam of our age?  Perhaps time will tell. Meanwhile,  let me welcome you to the Dark Ages with a concluding observation:  we must remember that a Dark Age is only a collective phenomenon which can be surmounted by individuals, and that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

William G.  Pollard,  “Dark Age and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century,” in Edmund Fuller (Ed),  The Christian Idea of Education (New Haven:  Yale U. Press, 1964).

Edward Shils,  “Intellectuals and the Center of Society,”  The University of Chicago Magazine, July/August 1972,  p. 5.

Brooke’s poem was quoted in Herbert Butterfield,  Christianity and History (New York:  Scribners, 1949), p. 118.

Harvey Cox,  The Secular City (New York:  Macmillan, 1965), p. 42.

Dewey B. Larson,  New Light on Space and Time (Portland: North Pacific Publishers, 1965).
Paul F. deLespinasse is professor emeritus of political science at Adrian College, but now lives in Corvallis, Oregon.  He can be reached through his website,