Kristof on Health Care

The always-interesting Nicholas Kristof had some disturbing numbers regarding American health care in his NYT column today:

  • a person without health insurance is 25% more likely to die prematurely
  • a child born today in the United States has a lower life expectancy than a child born today in Costa Rica
  • our infant mortality, maternal mortality, and longevity numbers are the worst in the industrialized world
  • on average, we in the US spend $7000 per person per year for health care, far more than any other nation
  • if our infant mortality rates dropped to the levels of France, Germany, and Italy, this would result in 12,000 fewer babies dying (somehow, the religious right doesn't seem as concerned about these babies as those who might be aborted)
  • the infant mortality rate in the US is three times higher than in the Czech Republic
  • a US woman compared to a European woman is 50% more likely to die in childbirth
  • by 2008, the average Fortune 500 company will spend more on health care for its employees than its entire net income, crippling the international competitiveness of our major companies
  • the head of Safeway, Steve Burd, formed the Coalition to Advance Healthcare Reform in order to lobby Congress for national health care on behalf of corporations
  • 31% of US health spending goes to management; can you imagine investing in a mutual fund that had a 31% load?
  • in terms of lives saved, the two biggest recent events have not been medical; they are anti-smoking laws and mandated air bags
One argument often floating to explain this is that the US is absorbing a flood of immigration from 3rd world countries; in other words, our population is becoming sicker by immigration of the poor than by a decay of our system. This comparison is wrong because European countries are simultaneously absorbing a flood of immigration themselves.

Some other stats from
  • despite waiting lists in other countries, US citizens have per-capita access to fewer beds, doctors, an equipment such as MRI's
  • although the US has more malpractice suits, awards in the US are 14-36% lower than in other industrialized nations
  • malpractice costs as a percentage of health care spending: 0.5%

And, of course, this from a study by the Commonwealth Fund,
  • "The US ranked last in most areas, including access to health care, patient safety, timeliness of care, efficiency and equity. Americans were also last in terms of whether they had a regular physician."
Have a nice day. Don't get sick. ;)

Annihilation From Within

A disturbing article from today's San Francisco Chronicle on preparations to suspend civil liberties in the wake of terrorist attack:

If Al Qaeda succeeds in a nuclear attack, we lose the Bill of Rights. Of course, we've already effectively lost the 4th Amendment. It's shocking to me, though, to read about about people meeting to actually plan what rights to take away in the wake of an attack.

If such a bomb does go off ... how can we be sure it wasn't intentionally set by those who stand to gain from the loss of our civil rights?

It took Winston Smith a while to figure out that the rocket bombs falling on the cities of Oceania were launched from within Oceania. Let's hope we learn from this.

Scientology Strikes Again

In case you needed another reason to loathe extremist religions: John Travolta is denying proper medical care to his son, Jett, because of his religious beliefs.

According to sources close to the family, Jett suffers from symptoms consistent with autism. Scientology considers any mental disorder to be a result of uncleared "engrams," a phenomenon never established by any medical research. L. Ron Hubbard was very clear in his writings that he thought mental illness did not actually exist. No doubt Jett is being subjected to Scientology practices, consistent with his parents' religion, and entirely at odds with medical science.

Belief means that you continue to do something in the face of evidence against it. But how far does a parent take this position? To the point of hurting your child? Even faith-healer and charlatan Pat Robertson went begging to those Darwinist, science-practicing surgeons when he was diagnosed with cancer; he wasn't about to stake his life on his "personal relationship with Christ" and rely on prayer to heal him.

Should any parent have the right to endanger their children's health and happiness for the sake of a fairy tale fantasy?

Vonnegut II

Vonnegut was also able to mock himself to great effect. He joked that smoking was a sexy way to commit suicide. He appeared as himself in a Rodney Dangerfield movie. He wrote about the fictional character Kilgore Trout, who appears in many of his books, then surprised everyone when Venus on the Half-Shell was published under the name of Kilgore Trout, leading to confusion as to whether Kilgore Trout actually existed. Vonnegut added fuel to this confusion by declaring that Kilgore Trout killed himself by drinking Drano in October 2004, after learning from a psychic that George Bush would win reelection. It's a messy, funny, weird farce--just as Vonnegut meant it to be, and just as life is.

But now Vonnegut's life is no more. We the living go on... busy, busy, busy.

I think Vonnegut wrote his own epitaph with these words from Cat's Cradle:
"If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who."

So It Goes

Kurt Vonnegut is dead. So it goes. Poo-tee-weet.

I have always felt a connection to Vonnegut, and in no small part this connection stems from the fact that my middle name comes directly from one of his books, which my father was reading while I was pushed, howling and crying, into this mad world.

Vonnegut will always be inexorably linked in my mind to his peer, Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22 and Something Happened. Both Heller and Vonnegut distilled in comic perfection the absurdity of life. While Sartre and Camus viewed the madness of existence through a somewhat grim lens, Heller and Vonnegut made it clear that in the modern world the inhabitants of the lunatic asylum have taken over. To paraphrase Whittaker Chambers, when we've moved beyond a 19th century world and done away with the fiction of God, to a 20th century world where one cannot have faith in man, there is nothing left but unendurable pain, suffering, and comedy.

One of Vonnegut's funniest and most profound inventions was the fictional religion of Bokononism, in which the founder, Bokonon, declares that everything in the religion is a lie. It is only by believing untruths that one can find happiness. The Book of Bokonon, in which the text is in the form of calypsos, opens by warning the reader to close it at once, because everything in it is lies. If only other relgious texts were as honest. ;)

Vonnegut was able to skewer contemporary ideas (religion, the Cold War, Bushism) with wit and humor, in a way that brings Mark Twain to mind. Vonnegut knew instinctively that people react better to farce than ad hominem attacks, that honey is sweeter than piss and vinegar. He was misattributed with the famous "wear sunscreen" commencement address, and although these weren't his words, that message of humor, despair, and hope resonated because it was so much like his own writing.


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