Sunday, August 23, 2009

Public Health Care Is Like Public Education

A public option in health care, combined with a mandate for everyone to carry health insurance is like the combination of public education and mandatory attendance laws. The reason to have both of them is not only because they provide individual benefit, but also because they provide positive externalities for society as a whole. Finally, both can be justified as positive rights from a philosophical point of view.

Just like health care, education was once a completely private undertaking. The poor did not get any education beyond what they could get for themselves, and the rich had private schools and tutors. Public education, where it existed, was a patchwork of various local and state institutions. It looked rather like the health care system today-- completely private, with vastly differing levels of access depending on how wealthy one was.

All that changed with the rise of the Progressive movement. The Progressives made the pushed the concept of universal education into the public consciousness with a two-pronged argument: education is necessary for citizens to exercise their rights, and the social benefits of universal education outweigh the costs.

Today it is plain that a basic level of education is necessary for citizens to make informed decisions regarding their elected leaders. Yet, it was not always the case. In the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th Century America, education was viewed as a luxury. It was something that was nice to have, or necessary for particular specialized skills. It certainly was not something that was necessary for the laboring masses. The Progressives challenged this view by asking how citizens would be able to make informed decisions about their political leaders without at least a basic level of education. They pointed to the growth of machine politics as the inevitable result of the lack of education amongst the majority of workers. The corruption of these big-city political systems was seen to be a result of working classes being taken advantage of by a sophisticated, educated political class. In essence, the lack of education amongst the laboring proletariat made it impossible for them to exercise their rights without being co-opted by more educated political leaders.

There is a strong parallel between education and healthcare in this regard. Just as one cannot exercise their rights if they do not know what those rights are, they also cannot exercise those rights if they are too sick to do so. Just like the machine politicians had a vested interest in destroying any sort of reform that could erode their power, the insurance companies and drug manufacturers are laboring mightily against any health care reform. They do not want a health care reshuffle, because, once citizens see the advantages of a system that works better than the one we have today, any chance of going back to the present system will be lost forever.

The second part of the Progressive argument towards public education was that education would have social benefits that would compensate for the costs of setting up an education system. This too has parallels in the health care field. Widening healthcare benefits will improve the productivity of the American economy -- just like widening educational benefits. If workers have portable health care, and the option of an affordable public plan, they will not stick to "dead-end" jobs just for the health insurance. A major obstacle to labor mobility will be removed, freeing workers to find jobs that best suit their interests and abilities, even if those jobs don't provide health insurance.

Government intervention in the health care market would help businesses too. By putting more health care control into the hands of the individual, a health care market with public option would lessen the burden of choosing, managing and paying for health insurance. Of course, businesses that wished to provide additional insurance (as a competitive advantage) would still be free to do so. But, by making health insurance an optional, rather than necessary employment benefit, the current health care reform proposal would allow businesses to provide a greater diversity of side benefits. For example, some businesses might take to providing flexible schedules, or child-care credits with the savings they reap from health care reform. The cost of providing health insurance has been an ever growing burden on the American economy. Once the government option limits this cost growth, businesses will be able to reap more of their own profits, rather than having to send it to the coffers of the insurance companies.

Finally, the arguments that a government option in the health insurance market would lead to socialism are laughable. The same charge was leveled against public education. Conservatives of the era decried the education reform movement as an attempt to indoctrinate "socialist" and "subversive" values into the nations youth. Yet, here we are today, where no politician, on either side of the aisle would propose reducing funding for public education. Health insurance is a similar benefit. It may be controversial now, but, in the future the opposition in today's debate will appear hopelessly out of touch with historical trends.

Health care reform with a public option is necessary for our economy and polity in this century, just as education reform was necessary in the last. Lets recognize this necessity and get health care reform passed as soon as possible, so that the United States of America can maintain its position as an economic and political beacon for the rest of the world.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Reason We're Losing in Afghanistan is Because We're Fighting Fremen

I was reading David Kilcullen's The Accidental Guerrilla, and I reached the section where he started describing the culture and attitude of the tribes in the Kunar region. The descriptions of the tribal culture struck a chord in me; it seemed like I'd read a very similar description somewhere else: in Frank Herbert's Dune. Of course, Dune is a work of fiction and Accidental Guerrilla is nonfiction, but there are still many similarities between the two books. In both works, you have an invading power seriously underestimating the toughness that a harsh and unforgiving landscape has worked into its inhabitants.

In both books you have a tribal population whose fighting prowess comes from three factors: a harsh environment, a lack of infrastructure, and a lust for action and adventure on the part of its inhabitants. In addition, the tribes of Afghanistan and Arrakis share very strict codes regarding honorable behavior, and finally, both locations are coveted for strategic reasons.

The harsh environment of Afghanistan has forced its inhabitants to be tough, self reliant, and very strict about the distinction between honorable and dishonorable actions. The toughness and self reliance are dictated by the nature of the environment. If one is physically or mentally weak, long term survival is at threat. The lack of infrastructure means that required aid may not arrive for days or weeks. These circumstances push individuals and tribes to be as efficient and self-reliant as possible so that they can make the most of the resources at their disposal.

The harsh environment has an additional effect: it pushes each tribe to have a very strict honor code. The scarcity of resources, especially water, ensures that individuals from different tribes will conflict with one another. Yet, it is in the interest of these tribes that these conflicts are resolved quickly and with a minimum of violence. The complex honor systems exhibited by both the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan and the Fremen tribes of Arrakis are the result of the interplay between these opposing forces. On one hand, the honor code allows a tribesman to call upon aid quickly when he encounters an enemy. On the other, these honor codes have multiple occasions at which tribal elders may intervene in order to end the conflict. These two factors ensure the safety of each tribes' members while simultaneously ensuring that no conflict grows to the point where the survival of the tribe is threatened.

The uncompromising environment is also used by both cultures as a moral standard. Both Afghan and Fremen traditions use exile as a sort of ultimate punishment. The reasoning is, without the support structure of the tribe, the individual is inevitably doomed. If the exiled individual survives and makes it back to the tribe after his or her period of exile, he or she is somehow blessed by Nature, and is therefore deserving of reintegration into the group.

Though it is necessary, a harsh environment alone does not make for a fearsome fighting reputation. A certain cultural lust for adventure or fighting is also required. Both the Afghans and Fremen individuals actively challenge themselves and others in contests that involve considerable physical danger for little gain. In Dune, a rite of passage for all Fremen is to learn how to ride the sandworm. This is despite the fact that other technologies for transportation are available, and the sandworm mode of transportation itself has significant limitations. The cultural significance of riding a sandworm overrides the practical hindrances. Afghan tribes have similar cultural practices. Kilcullen describes Afghans engaging in a firefight against American soldiers even though they were not the original targets of either side. When later questioned on why they participated, most of the tribesmen gave answers alluding to seeking glory and fearing dishonor for not participating. Very few gave answers related to fearing for their safety or defending their homes. This suggests a similar mindset between the inhabitants of the two locales - both fight for the the thrill of battle, even when life and property may not be at stake.

The nature of the peoples is seen in the histories of the two lands. Neither has been conquered by outside powers for any extended period of time, despite their strategic advantages. Afghanistan has been subject to multiple invasions, starting with Alexander the Great, and ending with the recent intervention by the US military. Arrakis, while nominally under the control of the CHOAM conglomerate, is never subjugated outside of the the small area around the spaceport. The reason for this is that the combination of environment and culture of these lands makes them inherently hard to impose control on. The native inhabitants of these lands have a head start of millennia in adaptation over foreign conquerors. This gives them a nearly insurmountable advantage in resisting conquest. The integration of the terrain into the natives' folklore and oral tradition confers a nearly genetic affinity for the terrain, making it seem as if the natives were using the land itself as a weapon against the conquerors. Even when invading armies score military victories, the native forces are often able to withdraw, scattering and living off the land, while the invading troops are dependent on a long and tenuous supply chain in order to survive. This supply chain is a large vulnerability that allows the native to apply constant pressure against the invader.

In writing Dune, Frank Herbert accurately presaged the sort of fourth-generation warfare that American forces would engage in during the Afghan campaign to root out the Taliban. The fact that he was able to do so in an era where modern, conventional forces reigned supreme testifies to his vision, knowledge of history and literary skill.