29 December 2006

Work and Global Warming

A couple very different pieces in the Washington Post and International Herald Tribune today. In the Post, Lonnae O'Neal Parker writes about a quartet of retired African-American union men in the D.C. area. All four of them were regular, steady guys, whose core values — "work, family, respect and responsibility" — served them well. They all earned between $60,000 and $80,000 in their last years of working, and retired on full pensions with health benefits.

That's what unions can do for people without college degrees. But it's also what those sweet values can do. Our society has turned its individualistic collective back on those values, in favor of celebrity and bling.

Here's one of the guys explaining his credo:

"Look here, working hard is the basis for everything," Thompson said. "I mean overtime, Christmas, New Year's, holidays -- the whole nine yards." Work was dignity and manhood. It was the sure, quiet rebuttal to the nasty things whites said about you. It is Thompson's most unassailable belief, incubated in segregation and stoked inch by inch -- his brother had polio, and it was Thompson who helped around the house when his mother became a single parent. He worked odd jobs as a teenager. Then he became a daddy. He provided for his family. "I felt good," Thompson said. "I still do."

One of the principles of Catholic social teaching is that of participation, most especially the importance of participation in human society through work. William Byron put it like this for America magazine back in 1998:

"We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable" (Reflections, p. 5).

Without participation, the benefits available to an individual through any social institution cannot be realized. The human person has a right not to be shut out from participating in those institutions that are necessary for human fulfillment.

This principle applies in a special way to conditions associated with work. "Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God's creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected--the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organize and join unions, to private property, and to economic initiative" (Reflections, p. 5).


But then how do we reconcile that with the fact that so much of our work seems to be destroying the world we live in — not a "participation in God's creation," but rather a destruction of it?

And that's what Anatol Lieven wrote about in the International Herald Tribune, in an opinion piece titled "The end of the West as we know it?"

He wrote that every system must finally collapse in the face of forces that "its very nature has made it incapable of meeting."

For the West and our market economies, that may be global warming.

"The question now facing us is whether global capitalism and Western democracy can follow the Stern report's recommendations, and make the limited economic adjustments necessary to keep global warming within bounds that will allow us to preserve our system in a recognizable form; or whether our system is so dependent on unlimited consumption that it is by its nature incapable of demanding even small sacrifices from its present elites and populations."

Lieven outlines the merely terrible things that might happen if the more moderate consequences of global warming come about, and also the truly catastrophic possibilities — such as the end of Western civilization as we know it.

If the outcome is only moderately bad, say, like the Great Depression, Lieven reminds us that the economy wasn't the only thing that suffered. Authoritarian regimes tend to step in under such circumstances.

So how do we and our children find a purpose-driven life, the kind of life that once seemed our birthright in a middle-class country that valued work, family, respect and responsibility?

Rene Dubois, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, "So Human an Animal," wrote that the only way forward was through a positive vision. Writing back in the tumult of the 1960s, Dubois said that reaction and rejection wouldn't work.

The rejection and reaction these days, fortunately, are mostly coming from the brittle yet wildly profitable institutions that have created most of the problems — the energy sector, for instance, and the health insurance folks. There are plenty of positive visions for change, percolating up from all around. It's astonishing how many people understand that the internal combustion engine is kaput, as is the idea of ever-increasing premiums for health insurance that force more and more people out, leaving only the sickest people willing to pay those premiums.

28 December 2006

Tom Tomorrow knew in 1998

Ezra Klein in the LAT

Ezra Klein had a wonderful guest column a couple days ago in the Los Angeles Times on universal health care.
He begins with what, suddenly, so many people seem to know:

"THE STATISTICS, by now, are well known. Forty-seven million uninsured Americans. Premium increases of 81% since 2000. Small businesses failing, big businesses foundering, individuals priced out and, amid all this, skyrocketing profits for insurers, hospitals and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

"The American health system, put simply, is a mess. An expensive one. Indeed, in 2002, we spent $5,267 per capita on healthcare — $1,821 more than Switzerland, the nearest runner-up. And yet we had higher infant mortality, lower life expectancy, more price inflation and an actual uninsured population, a phenomenon virtually unknown in the rest of the developed world, where universal healthcare is, well, universal."

Klein writes that the end of gridlock over the mess of health care in the U.S. may come sooner than expected — and it does seem that way, with news from across the country on potential changes in the making. Here in Colorado, there's a "Blue Ribbon Commission for Health Care Reform," charged to give three to five proposals for comprehensive reform to the legislature by November 2007.

It's a complex and befuddling issue — which seems impossible to make cogent and efficient as long as the insurance companies and other for-profit entities are muddying the waters. However, Klein, who has been studying this for years, writes positively about Sen. Ron Wyden's (D-OR) plan, which keeps those guys in business.

Here's Klein:

"Surrounded by an unlikely array of union leaders and corporate chief executives, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has unveiled an inventive, comprehensive reform plan that would end the employer system forever. What businesses pay in employee premiums would be redirected to employee raises; insurers would offer their plans through state associations that would no longer allow price discrimination for reasons of health or job status; and everyone would have to buy in. Universal coverage would be achieved in under two years."

Klein also shares this number: California families, because of cost-shifting caused by the uninsured from the health care industry, pay an average of $1,186 annually in premiums right now.

This is unsustainable.

25 December 2006

Christmas without Paul

At my brother Paul's memorial service last summer, a friend said now come the anniversaries. The first Thanksgiving without him. Our first Christmas without him. The first anniversary of his birthday after his death.
This friend knew: she'd lost two brothers herself. Her mother had loved Paul; she told Theresa that in some ways this was her third son lost.
Death being such an intimate stranger. That call comes in the night and your father will never again kiss you, rough cheeked to your smooth. You'll never again laugh in the giddiness of the moment over your brother's ready wit. You relive how it happened, wondering why you're torturing yourself, but it seems necessary -- because otherwise you keep forgetting that he's gone, that he's dead. It seems so unlikely.
There's nothing original to say about death.
Joan Didion wrote about how she kept forgetting that her husband had died. Well, yes — of course. How could he be dead?
Our loved ones are part of our life. Our life, damn it.
I want to say that we have no quarter here in this house for death — but of course we do. All of us have room in our homes for death.
My other brother, his dog, and my husband visited Cherry Creek Reservoir this Christmas morning, after we opened presents. No tree or decorations this year: we sat in the livingroom, a pile of books and dvds on a small stone table, and we opened them one by one. Outside, the remains of Denver's two-foot-plus snowstorm lay under a blue sky.
At the reservoir we took off from a trodden path, through deep snow that forced the dog to jump from one position to the next, just a bit away, breaking through the crust of the snow each time. We sat by the pond where we had scattered my father's ashes, and watched a couple hundred Canada geese plus a couple coots and ducks.
Last year we'd made our Christmas pilgrimage here with Paul.
He was with us for 45 years. And now for the rest of our lives we'll have his memory. And his baby daughter, please.

I recall the marble tombs in Arles.
In the rain.
Roman mothers, wives, brothers
Once cried by those tombs.
During a moment long ago,
Just a moment.

And now here we are.
Consumed, aware that
this moment will never leave us,
but will last forever.