Friday, December 31, 2010

Finding an Analogy for the Health-Care Mandate

Dear me. One in three federal judges feels that the new health-care law’s individual mandate – that everyone is required to buy health insurance – exceeds government’s powers under the Constitution.

The new health-care law is really complicated and abstract (a lawyer’s dream, in other words), so a lot of people have been using analogies to help bring the issues into focus for us simple folk. I’d been fond of the states’ uncontested right to force automobile owners to buy insurance for their cars. However, it turns out that really smart lawyers can distinguish this analogy into oblivion.

Those of us who remember our childhood civics classes will recall that the federal government only gets the powers enumerated in the Constitution. All other powers remain with the states (except when they don’t, but that’s another story). So the states can require insurance, but the feds can’t.

As I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that there’s another flaw to the analogy with car insurance – compliance. We do know that there are people on the road in Philadelphia who actually have car insurance. We’re not entirely an endangered species, but if you have a collision at an intersection in this town, the likelihood of the other driver having insurance probably isn’t much better than a coin toss.

If compliance with the new health-care law looks at all like compliance with car insurance, we might as well go home now.

So the car insurance analogy is pretty much mangled. And with compliance levels being what they are, conservatives are unlikely to mount a 50-state push to repeal car insurance laws as an infringement on our liberties. Why bother? They’ve already won.

I thought for a while about the military draft. I had thought, when I was younger and there was a war in Vietnam, that the draft might be considered involuntary servitude, and therefore unconstitutional. But then it was explained to me that, in this country, government has a right going back to colonial times to call all adult males to the common defense of the community. How the right of the states to raise militias got transferred to the federal government is something I’m still a little hazy on.

But I’m thinking if we can force an 18-year-old man to charge a machine-gun nest, we really ought to require him to buy health insurance.

Or maybe conservatives should get a judge to declare the military draft unconstitutional. I’d love to see that one go to the Supreme Court.

Here’s another analogy that I came up with – the tax deduction for charitable giving. Government, as a matter of policy, encourages charitable giving. Remember those Thousand Points of Light? So if you give money to a qualified charity, Uncle Sam lets you pay less in taxes.

Well, they say charity begins at home. So if you buy a health insurance policy for yourself, you’re doing a good deed, and Uncle Sam doesn’t make you pay a penalty.

Apparently the distinction between a tax break and not having to pay a penalty is a big deal. I’m afraid I don’t see it. And there’s apparently a feeling that we shouldn’t be forcing people to give money to private organizations. Well, charities are private. And apparently the government has never punished people for not doing something. On this last one, I just have to laugh. Let’s do a little thought experiment. You receive a telegram from the United States government, one that begins with “Greetings.” It’s an invitation to attend a form of summer camp run by the government. You decide not to go, and you’re a bit rude and you don’t bother to respond to the invitation. What happens next?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Cure for Anger

A few days ago I was running my eleventh marathon, and I did something I’d never done before: I dropped out. It was a gradual decision. Early on I noticed a certain, highly uncharacteristic, listlessness, and then I started coughing, and feeling short of breath, and then a bit light-headed, and it occurred to me that I still had the cold I thought I’d shaken off a week previously. As I passed the 14-mile mark I decided it wasn’t worth it, and I stopped.

I wasn’t in a lot of pain, but running has taught me that pain is a language, and sometimes the messages spoken softly are the ones you need to listen to most carefully.

You might think I’d be upset about my first DNF (Did Not Finish), but I wasn’t. A few years ago I was reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and I came across this line: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” My son thinks this is very Buddhist, and I’m inclined to agree.

I confess I’d never given much thought to the distinction between pain and suffering. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the guy to be providing exact definitions of terms that clearly mean a lot of different things to different people. But here are some thoughts that have worked for me. I see suffering as a psychological reaction to pain. That’s why suffering is optional. With pain, you don’t get to choose: It just shows up.

I hasten to add that pain can be physical or mental. Years ago the grandmother of a friend said this to me about children: “When they’re little they tread on your toes; when they’re bigger they tread on your heart.” And in both cases, it seems to me, there is pain.

But is there suffering? Well that’s up to you, or, in the case of my first DNF, it was up to me. I decided not to suffer. I’ve been doing that a lot since I read Murakami’s book. It feels good. There’s a freedom and a clarity to not suffering. Also it allows you to focus on dealing with the pain.

There is a downside, though. Suffering clearly buys you quite a lot in America today. First of all, it makes you a victim. And everybody in America seems to want to be a victim. Even billionaire hedge fund managers feel free to announce that they’re victims. It turns out that people like me think the taxes hedge fund managers pay are too low. So I’m the oppressor, and they’re the victims.

And suffering gives you something else – anger. Which you are free to hurl at your oppressor whenever and wherever you choose.

I remember, during the last World Cup, watching soccer players unaccountably drop to the ground and start writhing as if in pain. This is apparently, on the world stage, how you try to convince an official that a foul has been committed.

It seems we’re a lot like that now. You might almost call suffering a national addiction.

I prefer the baseball player who gets hit with a pitch and trots nonchalantly to first base. Getting hit by a thrown baseball hurts quite a lot – I know this. I also know that that baseball player is not going to rub his arm while he’s standing at first base. Not gonna happen.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about lowering the level of vituperation in our public discourse. We all need to calm down and be less angry, we’re told by a variety of self-appointed hall monitors. But how exactly are we supposed to do that? Once you’re a victim, once you’re suffering, anger is pretty much inevitable.

Here’s my thought. Anger proceeds from suffering. Strong link, pretty much unbreakable in my opinion. Suffering proceeds from pain. It’s a psychological reaction, remember? And, I think, a pretty weak link. Cut that link, and nip the whole victim syndrome in the bud.

If you want to. It’s up to you.

So how do you do it? How do you slay the suffering monster? I suspect that each one of us is different. I’ve found laughter is very useful, and I’m planning to do a lot more of it in the coming months. And maybe I’ll enter another marathon.