Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book review: De Bellis Stellarum

Do you have any boys on your gift list this year?  Girls who like adventure?  Adults who like clean fiction?  I have an idea for you; a series of books so new and unheard of, I'm pretty sure this is the only review you'll see of them.  However, I've read (almost) all of them, and can easily give them five stars.

The title of the series is De Bellis Stellarum.  (You can buy them here or, if you want to give me a nice little referral commission for Christmas, here.)  They're an exciting bunch of mysteries, most of which happen in a sleepy little seaside town called Quayment.

Quayment is the kind of place you read about and immediately wish it were real so you could go there for your next vacation.  It's famous for its many used bookstores, the most interesting of which, Weaver's, is housed in an old church.  The first book I read was The Black Hole in the Basement, in which dark forces start building a black hole in the basement of the church.  Books start to go missing, and St. Thomas Aquinas might hold the key to the solution.

Yes, there is magic in this series.  There is adventure aplenty, and also quite a few references to obscure historical and scientific facts -- stuff that will make the knowledgeable smile and everyone else maybe learn something.  The books are unabashedly but not overwhelmingly Catholic.

Who would like them?  Let's see, if you like:

*Harry Potter
*Encyclopedia Brown
*Danny Dunn
*Father Brown will probably like these books.  The writing is probably middle-school level; nothing that would seem childish to an adult, but not terribly difficult either.  They're completely "clean," so I wouldn't see a problem with them for any child old enough to decipher them.  I never could guess the mysteries ahead of time; perhaps if you're smarter than me, you'll be able to.

The characters are the best part, and if I were you I'd keep a running list of them, because they're all related in various ways that can be a bit hard to keep track of.  My favorite character is Mark, one of the Weaver triplets.  I didn't name my son after him -- and I didn't name Michael after his brother -- but you wouldn't know!  These Catholic families; we all share names.

For full disclosure, the author is a dear friend of mine, and I've been reading his books as they come off the presses, so to speak.  But I'm not just plugging them because of that -- I've stayed up half the night trying to finish some of his stories.  They aren't expensive, and I'd say they're certainly worth the cost.  Try one -- I like The Black Hole in the Basement best for starting out, but the series really starts with The Wreck of the Phosploion, which is also good.  Or for a small initial dose, there's Quayment Short Stories.  Try one, and if you like it, read them all!

Patience deficit

Patience doesn't get a very good rap nowadays.  I keep hearing ads proclaiming, "Hungry?  Why wait?" or "This offer won't last!  Buy now, pay nothing till 2013!"  And of course we know we must be suffering from a deficiency of patience when so many of us carry so much debt.  Part of it is the system we live in -- it's almost impossible to save up for anything when inflation is so high, and how can you save up for a house when you're spending a fortune every month on rent?  But a lot of consumer debt can be put down to a lack of patience.

Take food.  My idea of good food means real, home-cooked, slow food.  The trouble is that I grew up with someone else to cook it for me, and when I was hungry, there it was.  Now I have to plan ahead.  Before I get hungry, I have to decide what I'm going to eat and take the necessary steps to cook it.  For awhile, it was just a matter of taking ten minutes to throw together some chicken and rice, while making a pinchy annoyed face when someone else (ahem) chose to make ramen noodles because actually making chicken and rice took too long.  But lately I've been getting into slower food than that.  I like baking bread from scratch.  It's so delicious, but at the same time it's very hard to smell its delicious aroma and have to wait for it to come out of the oven.  Fermented food takes even longer.

Of course we get better, more natural food when we're willing to wait for it.  But I think the patience we learn while waiting for our food to be ready might also teach us something.  Take this quote from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I read this past week (highly recommend, by the way, if you like to snort eggnog through your nose when reading about turkeys):

"We apply [patience and restraint] selectively: browbeating our teenagers with the message that they should wait for sex, for example. Only if they wait to experience intercourse under the ideal circumstances will they realize its true value. 'Blah blah blah' hears the teenager: words issuing from a mouth that can't even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now."

Insisting on instant gratification can become a very bad habit, and might lead us to compromise quality for immediacy when we really shouldn't.

Another situation desperately in need of patience is parenting.  I get annoyed at people who proclaim that kids are spoiled because they can't tie their own shoes.  It's not because they're spoiled.  It's because no one took the time to teach them, and had the patience to wait for them to master it.  Kids aren't potty trained till after three or even four nowadays, which is partly because of bad advice from some popular doctors (don't get me started), and partly because people expect potty-training to be done in three days or less.  Potty-training takes a long time and a lot of patience.  It can be a sign of patience to wait till the child is ready.  But it can also be a sign of impatience to refuse to go through the work of potty-training until the child can pretty much train himself.  (Disclaimer: kids can be trained at all sorts of ages.  I am not an expert at potty-training.  In fact I am pretty much the worst potty-trainer ever.  But I don't think there's anything magical about waiting until a child can master the potty overnight.)

There never was any task so in need of patience as parenting.  We have to be patient and wait for them to grow out of this or that stage.  We have to wait for the screaming to stop.  We have to wait for them to sleep through the night.  We have to keep offering the same food they didn't like last time, and see if they will like it this time.  Failing to be patient could result in resigning oneself to giving endless peanut butter sandwiches, dressing one's child for him until six because we can't wait for him to struggle with his own coat when it's time to go, bribing the child with candy to stop a tantrum, or hitting a child who hasn't yet learned to obey.  Children grow like flowers, not like buildings.  You can't hurry them up by working twice as hard.

I suppose this sounds a bit rant-y, and honestly I'm not trying to judge anyone else because I rarely see anyone else's kids anyway.  I'm just realizing more and more that the easy, instant things I keep trying always fail miserably, and that the harder way -- whether getting off my butt to show my son what "come here" means, or holding him while he screams and saying, "No, I won't leave the room until you're ready, but you will have to lie down and go to sleep" -- usually turns out to be the better way.

Time for another slice of homemade bread and some fermented carrot slaw, and perhaps a few more re-reads of Art Dog.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The unfree market

I asked the question awhile back, "Is the mega-farm really the only way to feed America?"  Of course it isn't, but the question I really should have asked is this: "In a free market, is it necessary that farms become fewer and bigger?  Is there a comparable profit in small farms that can rival large farms?  Or is the only way to ensure more sustainable, responsible farming to abandon the free market?"  This, of course, I don't want to do, because I don't see how you can be considered a free person if you don't have the economic freedom to start a business and prosper by the work of your own hands.

I've been reading and reading, and the answer is clear.  It answers so many other questions as well.  The answer is: In America, in 2012, we do not have a free market.

Now, we're not socialist.  The system we have is capitalist, but it's crony capitalist.  Certain large corporate interests are being protected by the government from having to weather the vagaries of the free market.

Take farming, for starters.  I happen to know that a tomato, even an organic tomato in tomato season, from California is cheaper than a local Virginia tomato.  As a result, grocery stores carry California tomatoes and don't carry Virginia tomatoes.  Virginia tomato farmers have a lot of trouble staying in business because of this.  But why is the California tomato cheaper, when it's got to travel thousands of miles by refrigerated truck to get to market?

The answer is, because of the unfree market.  First off, food distributors are allowed to write off transportation costs as a tax deduction.  I have no idea why this would be so, when I thought our government wanted us to use less oil, but there it is.  Those thousands of miles might as well be just around the block, because it doesn't cost the tomato producer the amount it should.  The second reason is minimum wage.  A Virginia tomato farmer has to pay his workers $7.50 an hour, which is a lot of money.  But the California farmer has plenty of illegal immigrants to choose from who will harvest his tomatoes for less than half that.  The California farmer is saving a lot of money, and he can afford to sell his tomatoes for cheaper than the Virginia farmer.  If he can manage to drive Virginia farmers out of business altogether, he may then be able to jack the prices back up.  That's how monopolies happen.

Of course one reason why California grows so many vegetables is because it has such a favorable climate, right?  That's no one's fault.  Except in a way it is.  Southern California is sunny a lot of the time.  That means fewer days of rain.  But fewer days of rain means not enough water for the crops.  Farmers have to irrigate their land.  The price of the water they're using should be passed on in the price of the tomatoes, right?  Well, not entirely.  The government of California lets farmers pay a discounted rate for water, a rate individuals can't get.  As a result, California (and surrounding states) have a serious lack of water.  The Colorado River doesn't even reach the sea anymore; it peters out because of all the cities and farms that draw from it.

Just think how much water would be saved if we grew tomatoes in places where it rains more.  And think how much less oil we'd use if we all ate tomatoes that grew a few miles from us, at the very least during those times when they're in season.  Of course I personally favor the idea of my local economy flourishing and farmers who want to keep the family farm being able to do so.  But the government is favoring large national producers over small local ones.  They do this in other industries, too.

Why would they do that?  Well, agriculture is a huge lobby group.  Large corporations keep paid employees lobbying in Washington fulltime.  They also donate large sums of money to political campaigns.  And where's the political action committee that donates money and lobbies to support small farming and fresher food?  There isn't much of one.  If you're struggling to keep your farm afloat, you don't have time or money for that.  And if you're just buying tomatoes, odds are you don't even read the sticker or know where it's from.

That's just one case, and it's just farming.  I could go on about subsidies for commodity crops (like corn and soy) instead of for vegetables, or how the system is set up so the biggest, richest farmers get the most.  Or I could talk about how dozens of tiny regulations keep it unprofitable to start a new business and keep it small, like laws about parking lots and handicapped restaurants and food handling codes, which are easy to follow if you're huge, but difficult if you are just starting up.  But let's leap straight to the biggest unfree market scheme I know of, one which is ripping you off right now.

It starts with the Federal Reserve, of course.  Say the government decides we need some economic stimulus.  So the Fed (which, by the bye, is not actually a government agency -- it's a private bank which works for the government) prints out a bunch of money.  Of course every time it prints money, this causes inflation.  The dollars in your pocket are now worth less.  But that's okay, that money is for stimulus -- it's going right back to you, right?  Well, sort of.  What the Fed does is loan the money out at low interest rates (right now, 0%) to banks, in the hopes that the banks will loan it out to you or various corporations and similarly low rates.  That money will be spent, and the increased economic activity will get the economy moving a bit better.  At least, that's the theory.  There's some doubt as to whether this works at all.

But we'll never know, because that's not what the banks do.  They have all this free money and need someone to lend it to.  Whom will they choose?  Who can give them a good return on all that money?

The United States government, of course!

The banks charge the U.S. 30% on these loans.  First off, because the government isn't so great at paying back debt, and second, because they don't have a lot of choices for who to borrow from on the scale they need.  And of course, the government has to borrow money because we can't possibly write a balanced budget.  Each party has lots of things they refuse to cut, and no one will be the bad guy who raises taxes, so we run a deficit every year.  That deficit is funded by borrowing money, partly from foreign banks but mostly by domestic banks.  A huge portion of our budget every year goes to paying interest.  What that means is paying banks -- paying banks for money they borrowed from the Federal Reserve, which the U.S. government authorized them to print.  I thought that when the government printed money, it used that money to pay its bills, which is bad enough.  That would be taking our money by inflation rather than by taxes, but at least it would go to things that theoretically we voted to spend money on.  Instead, the whole thing is arranged to give a huge cut to large banks every single time.

That's what I call stealing from the poor and giving to the rich.

But what galls me more than anything is when I read long complaints against the issues with our system -- things like large farms buying out small farms, large stores buying out small stores, and the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer -- and hear, "See?  That's what happens when you have a free market."

For the last time, people: WE DO NOT HAVE A FREE MARKET.

Could a free market solve all these problems?  Some, for sure.  Some, it would just give individuals more ability to change things through their own choices.  For instance, it can't prevent me from buying out-of-season tomatoes from California, but it could make the prices of local and nonlocal tomatoes comparable so that I could choose which I wanted without breaking the bank.  But for the government to protect large interests at the expense of small ones is inexcusable.  The role of government, as I see it, is to prevent the strong from oppressing or cheating the weak, so that everyone has as much freedom as possible.

Ideally, the government would give the same benefits to everyone alike.  They would avoid rules that are a greater burden on some than on others.  They could even make regulatory laws for large businesses, because it is very little trouble for them to comply, while exempting small businesses that have difficulty complying.  That still seems fair to me.  But a government that favors the strong and wealthy at the expense of the weak and poor?

That's not okay with me.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Book review: The Art of Fermentation

Two words: Life. Changing.

Okay, no worries, I have more to say about this book than just two words.

The Art of Fermentation, by Sandor Katz, is a hefty book.  It's a large hardback and 500 pages long.  It discusses alcoholic beverages, fermented pickles, sour tonic beverages (like kombucha and kvass), yogurt and cheese, sourdough, Asian mold ferments (which include tempeh and sake), and even non-edible ferments like compost.  There are descriptions of fermentation techniques from around the world -- places Katz had actually traveled to sample the mauby or cassava or whatever.  And there are plenty of sketches and color photos, for those of us who (like me) can't always picture what an airlock or a block of tempeh looks like.

As an instruction manual, it's unmatched.  I've been making sauerkraut and other pickles for awhile based off of Nourishing Traditions, but I was frustrated because all I knew to do was to follow the recipes exactly.  If one ingredient was missing, or if I made a mistake, I was in trouble.  The Art of Fermentation isn't a bunch of recipes.  It tells you clearly what you have to have to ferment things, and how to know for sure it's working, and you can then turn around and ferment whatever you want.  So as I was reading, I kept thinking, "So that means I could ... well what if I ... I have to try ..."  It's like the difference from slavishly following recipes in the Joy of Cooking (my favorite cookbook) versus reading the "About the Ingredients" section and knowing you can make whatever you want for dinner, because you don't just know how to follow a recipe, you know how to cook.

Katz even includes troubleshooting for each type of ferment, so that I now know how to keep wine from turning into vinegar (keep an airlock on it) and what to do if my sauerkraut molds (skim it off, the rest will be fine).

I learned that fermentation is way easier than it sounds.  Some people ferment things, from yogurt to wine, by carefully sterilizing everything involved, inoculating with a purchased starter, and then hoping and praying they neither kill their starter nor catch some bad bug.  Katz's way is to learn what environment the microbe you want likes, and then give it that.  Yes, sometimes you need to add a starter, like when you're starting out with pasteurized milk or making one of the mold-based ferments.  But very often you don't have to!  You can make sauerkraut without adding whey like I've always done.

Maybe I've just been dumb all this time, but I seriously never knew you could make wine just by mushing up grapes and leaving them out.  There is yeast right on the grapes, so long as they are raw.  In fact, there should be sufficient yeast or bacteria on any raw ingredient you use: cider, fruit, honey, vegetables, or herbs.  As long as something in your brew is raw (and not irradiated either), you should be able to ferment it without a starter.  Purchased starters have disadvantages -- often they are not as strong as wild bacteria, and there are usually only a couple of species instead of a diverse batch.  If you're using purchased starters, you may find that they stop working after awhile.  This is because the single species in them has died of a virus or something.  Multiple species are less vulnerable.  If you need a starter and don't want to buy one, "backslopping" is the best way -- putting in a little of your last batch, or a batch of something else with similar bacteria.  (This is the method in Nourishing Traditions, where you use whey from yogurt as a starter for vegetables.)  Traditional cultures often did this by always using the same crock or pot for their ferments, without ever washing them.  The bacteria adhering to the pot were enough to get the mix going.

The real gem of the book, though, to me, is its philosophy.  Most of us have been raised all our lives to think "microbes = bad."  In reality, if you could completely sterilize yourself, inside and out, you would die.  Bacteria digest your food, create vitamins you need to survive, and are your first line of defense against infection.  Take Colostridum difficilis, the severe diarrhea-causing bacterium.  It's resistant to antibiotics.  So of course the main way you get an infection of it is to take antibiotics.  It kills off everything else in your GI tract, leaving nothing but C. difficilis there.  Naturally it overgrows all over the place.  Competition is vital to keeping bacteria in check.

The same thing is true inside a jar as inside your body.  Sterility is not a problem.  A flourishing ecosystem is not a problem.  But a monoculture of one very tough germ is very bad.  Take botulism.  Everyone is terrified of it, and in fact fear of botulism keeps people from making sauerkraut the old-fashioned way.  In fact, botulism is not a danger in lacto-fermented food.  Botulism is in the soil and you've probably eaten plenty in your life, on a raw veggie or your hands.  It's just one microbe, balanced by a whole ecosystem of microbes, and it can't compete.  But what if you heat a jar full of tomato sauce to 150 degrees?  All the bacteria will die.  But botulism has a special talent.  If you heat it, it forms spores which aren't destroyed until you get your jar much hotter than that.  (Official canning times are based on reaching an interior temperature that will kill botulism spores.)  You return your jar to room temperature and put it in the pantry.  The botulism spores hatch out and discover a wonderful world of food, all for them, with no competition!  They happily reproduce like crazy and produce lots and lots of botulism toxin, which you can't see or taste, but which will kill you when you dig into the sauce -- even if you heat it again before eating it.

But your lacto-fermented pickles?  They'll be fine.  Between the lactic acid produced by the bacteria and the salt added by you, it's a terrible environment for botulism, which won't survive.

Keep in mind, fermentation has been safely practiced by uneducated people for thousands upon thousands of years.  Sterilization (canning) has only been around for under 200 years.  It can be quite safe if done properly, but you have to heed the experts.  With fermentation, the main thing you have to heed is your own nose.  If the right bacteria are growing, you can smell a nice acid smell.  Yeast smells a little alcoholic.  Good bacteria smell appetizing.  If the whole batch tastes nasty or bitter (as happened to some yogurt of mine recently), the right bacteria didn't take hold and something else is growing there.  Odds are good it's something harmless, but you should throw it out all the same.

A really amazing thing about this book is the cool stuff I didn't know about microbes.  Like SCOBYs (symbiotic cultures of bacteria and yeast) such as kombucha, kefir, water kefir, and ginger beer plant.  They are large enough to be clearly visible as "grains" or "mushrooms" that you can put in liquids to ferment them.  They contain many different species of bacteria and yeast which complement one another and live off one another's byproducts.  The really cool part is that you can't create them in a lab.  You can't create them at all.  They coevolved that way, over millions of generations.  Milk kefir is the most amazing (to me) because obviously humans are the only animal that extracts milk and leaves it out for things to grow in.  In other words, we created the environment for a whole new kind of thing to evolve!  Do you realize how freaking COOL that is?

Sigh.  John didn't either.  I think it is awesome.  It's also awesome the way whole successions of bacteria grow in a culture, just like the successions of a forest.  One will grow that likes a neutral environment, and produces small amounts of acid.  When it creates enough acid, it dies back and gives way to a more acid-loving bacterium.  The ecosystem within your jar of pickled beets is changing all the time, and you can eat it whenever it suits you best.  You can take some rice, grow a mold on it which turns the starch into sugar, ferment that with yeast to turn it into alcohol, and then leave it for some acetobacter to turn into vinegar.  Transformation after transformation.

I think fermentation is an incredibly helpful thing to know if you want to be independent from reliance on electricity.  The power, as we've recently been reminded, can go out and then where will you be?  Wouldn't it be better if many of the things you needed to eat are already preserved?  Of course fermented foods also have health benefits.  Or rather, living without bacteria is detrimental to your health.  Western civilization is only one century into our war on microbes, and we're clearly coming out the losers.  We don't even understand a tenth of the interactions our bodies have with the microbes that live on and in them.

And of course, there's the taste.  What would the world be without bread, cheese, wine, kosher dills, or sausage?  Not a place I'd like to live.

I'll admit there were two places where I got a little skeeved out, despite my usual tolerance for microbes.  First off was the mold.  Tempeh and koji are both made with mold.  I just can't handle the idea of leaving beans in an incubator till they turn white and fuzzy and then eating it.  I know there's nothing special about mold compared with bacteria, but most things I've ever known that got moldy were really stinky.  It just brings me back to cleaning out the fridge when I was pregnant (which I wouldn't recommend to anyone, ugh).

The other was during the sausage making part.  I didn't realize sausage was fermented at all.  Katz says that a starter culture isn't necessary, provided you mix the sausage with your hands.  And it's okay to wash your hands first.  What that says to me is that even when you've washed your hands, there are still plenty of bacteria on them.  That is definitely not what I learned in school!  Of course you could use the triclosan soap that kills 99.9% of bacteria ... and hope and pray that the .1% they miss isn't something deadly.  Or just get used to the reality that your skin is teeming with bacteria.  Usually if the population of bacteria on your skin takes a hit, you suddenly get an overgrowth of yeast, and a red stinky rash in any moist areas.  You really do need them there.

Inspired by this book, I made a cranberry-apple drink.  I guess it's a country wine, because it's made with sugar water instead of juice, but I think it'll taste like cider.  It was crazy easy.  I chopped up an apple and some cranberries in the food processor and put them in a quart jar.  I added 3 cups of filtered water and half a cup of sugar.  (You can add a whole cup if you want more alcohol in the finished product.)  Then I put a cloth over the jar (to keep flies out while letting yeast in) and stirred it vigorously every time I passed by it.  For the first two days I saw barely any bubbles.  But the third day it woke up and started foaming like crazy.  Now it's fizzy and smells alcoholic.  When the fizz subsides a bit, I'm going to serve it up -- hopefully for Thanksgiving.  If I had an airlocked jug, I could let it ferment longer, but without one, I risk either making vinegar (if I leave it uncovered) or exploding my jar (if I put the lid on).  I'm sure it will be good as it is -- lightly alcoholic, lightly carbonated, and still sweet.  This is the way most beer and mead was served back in the day -- as "small" ale, only a little bit alcoholic.  Yeah, you know how they always told you that people in the Middle Ages never drank any water, only beer, because the water wasn't safe?  That's perfectly true.  But it wasn't strong at all.  The fermentation would help kill any harmful microorganisms in the water, and give a pleasant taste.

I strongly recommend this book.  It's great to get from the library, but for those of you who can't read 500 pages in two weeks, or would like to use it as a reference, it would probably be worth buying.  Especially if you buy from my link. ;)  One warning, though: it WILL make you want to start making your own kimchi, mead, kefir, poi, or natto.  If you read clear to the end, you will probably want to start a business selling fermented food.  This is the sort of book that could easily change people's lives.

I think I'd better go stir my country wine again, and taste the foam a little.  It might possibly be the best thing I've ever tasted.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The healthcare dilemma

Healthcare in this country is ... well ... not of the best.  Can we all agree on that?

There are statistics thrown around about our healthcare.  How we spend the most per capita of any country in the world and yet are far from the healthiest.  (I would maintain that our diet does have something to do with that, but I will agree that there are healthcare practices in our country that are neither cost-effective nor good for people's health.)  Or how many people don't have insurance, how many have it and pay through the nose for it, how much a hospital stay costs if you're uninsured.  I don't have those numbers.

What I do have is a few experiences.  Take my pregnancy with Michael.  During that time, the portion of our insurance payment that was added to cover just me was about $500 a month, I think.  That was employer-provided health insurance, but my husband's employer.  The expectation of course was that I would have my own job and not need to be on my husband's insurance, but that wasn't the life choice I made, so insurance is expensive.  (I am on a cheaper private plan now, thank goodness.)

During that time, I was informed that my insurance provider (United Healthcare, if you're curious) would cover my out-of-network home birth.  That's a smart decision for a provider to make, considering that a hospital birth can run $15,000 or more, and my home birth would cost them $3,300.  All I would have to do is request a "gap exemption" because it was out-of-network.  (There are no in-network midwives.)  And that request would have to come from my primary care provider.  I went through two PCP's before I found one that would make the request.  It took dozens of phone calls to the insurance company and to the doctors' offices to make sure they paid the bills for those two visits and to make sure the request had been sent and was being processed.

Then Michael was born.  Once I had recovered a little I went back to my job of calling UHC.  My exemption had been approved!  Hooray.  Next I had to submit the bills, which I did, having to do it twice before they were accepted.  Weeks went by, during which I called them a lot.  Finally I discovered what had become of my claim.  It had been denied.  Apparently my exemption (which I wasn't the one to request, and which I never got to see) said "nursing services" instead of "home birth services," so it didn't apply.  The entire claim was refused.

The whole experience was like beating my head against a brick wall, over and over.  I began to feel that this is not the best way, that this could not possibly be the best way.  I seriously contemplated ditching the insurance and socking the money into savings instead, because I am a pretty healthy person whose main healthcare expense is childbirth.  But John was nervous about that and we could just manage to pay up, so that's what we did.

How does the new healthcare law help this situation?  Not at all.  Not even a little bit.  Rates will go up for those who can pay them (and we just barely can now).  Those who can't are supposed to get some option they can afford.  No one any longer has any choice whether or not to carry insurance.  And everyone is still stuck playing the runaround game with the insurance companies.  A very real danger of this game is getting billed for things that turn out not to be covered and are out of your price range, so that you aren't able to pay the bill for services you've already received.  That bill will get sent again and again, you get calls from collections, and next thing you know you no longer have any credit.

For some real fun, try asking your doctor what that procedure will cost you and whether it's covered.  You will be forwarded to his billing department, who will ask the insurance company, and if you're lucky it will get approved sometime before you're dead.  But maybe after.

Okay, so we need a solution.  Here is what our solution needs to have:
1.  No one should be turned away from treatment they truly need because of inability to pay or a preexisting condition.
2.  Everyone should have free choice about what sort of treatment they want.  No one should be forced into a hospital birth or cesarean or medication they don't want.  Care should not be rationed out based on age or disability.  There shouldn't be long waits to see doctors.

I obviously lean toward a free-market solution for this, because economic freedom and civil freedom go hand-in-hand.  Unless you have a choice about what you will and won't buy, you aren't actually free.  Keep in mind that free healthcare isn't free; everyone pays for it through taxes, including those who don't want it.  In an ideal society, as I see it, a person should have the freedom to go live in the woods and answer to nobody if he doesn't want to.  With a lot of taxes, that becomes difficult to do.

Some of the problems with healthcare could be solved through the free market.  For instance, right now, the government certifies doctors.  If you want medical care, you have to go to a person who has completed a certain educational regimen and has passed certain tests.  Because of this, they all tend to have similar opinions (learned in school), they all spent a lot on that education (which means high prices for you), and there aren't as many of them as we might like.  Sure, you could go to an alternative practitioner of some kind.  However, they will not be allowed to prescribe medication or do surgery.  (In Virginia, at least, a midwife can't carry Pitocin or methergine (both lifesaving medications in the event of a hemorrhage) or stitch small lacerations (which happen pretty much always).)  There also may not be a clear certification for trustworthy practitioners.

In an ideal free market, there can be multiple certifying organizations, and you could educate yourself and choose what sort of doctor you preferred.  If you were poor or not very ill, you might choose someone more like a licensed practical nurse or physician's assistant, both of whom are quite qualified to treat most commonly-arising illnesses, but who are legally not allowed to practice without the oversight of a "real" doctor.  Recently I read Middlemarch, and there's a bit in there about the different kinds of doctors available.  Apparently there were some major disagreements between the physicians and apothecaries, and you could get a different kind of care from each.  (This would be so interesting to research if I had the time.)

Overall costs would go down.  It costs a huge amount to keep all these insurance companies and medical billers in business.  And prices are jacked up by the hospitals because you don't always read the bill.  I believe that hospitals and insurance companies are colluding to raise prices.  The hospitals raise theirs so they can make more money, and the insurance companies agree to pay (though they often pay less, through their "special discounts," than the listed prices).  In return, the hospitals discourage cash patients.  Usually, the high prices are enough to do it, but I've even seen posted signs saying that cash patients will be charged a $75 surcharge.  What for?  Cash patients cost them nothing.  But they're hoping this will encourage you to buy insurance so they can start billing for more.  The insurance companies obviously benefit from this.  Overall, healthcare is taking a larger and larger percentage of our paychecks every year.

Ending this whole scheme would save most of us a lot of money -- but it would also put a lot of us out of work.  Healthcare is a very profitable, and growing, field.  Pharmaceuticals are America's single most profitable industry.  What if we only paid the amount it actually costs to produce those pills, instead of the steep markups the insurance companies agree to pay?  The economy would adjust, but it would take some time.

But what about the really serious problem of those too poor to pay?  Even if costs go down, there will be some people who can't pay.  How do you deal with this?

Some say the solution is really simple.  You just  make a law that says you can't deny treatment to anyone who can't pay, and you can't charge anyone a cent if they live below the poverty line.  Of course this isn't a purely free-market solution, but it seems a small enough law not to disrupt the general libertarian idea very much.

But it would cause problems.  First off, you couldn't just claim to be poor.   You'd probably have to have some registry and get your poor-person card.  (And then people would insist that everyone with a poor-person card has to be drug tested or sterilized or actively seeking a better job or whatever.  The way people would like to do with welfare recipients now.  It seems modern Americans do not believe in the deserving poor.  But say that didn't happen.)  Would you show it before receiving care, or after?  If you showed it before you were treated, do you think that might affect the care you received?  If you'd presented proof of your ability to pay, they'd be happy to wheel out the expensive MRI machine for you, but if all you had was a poor-person card, more likely they'd feel your broken wrist, say, "Feels like a sprain to me!" and slap it in a brace.

Okay, say how much money you have is confidential and they have to treat you all the same.  Money no object, everyone gets the MRI.  Eventually, the MRI machine begins to wear out and has to be fixed.  So the hospital gets it serviced.  MRI machines are expensive; the repairs cost a lot.  Suddenly we realize that the hospital in Alexandria, where almost everyone pays cash, gets a new MRI machine; while the hospital in Front Royal, where half the population has a poor-person card, gets an "out of service" sticker till further notice.

Heck, that is already where we are.  Our local hospital is painfully understaffed and undersupplied.  Every time I've ever been there, I've regretted it.  They left John waiting for hours for pain meds when he went there in agony with diverticulitis.  He was hospitalized for two days.  The whole second day was just spent waiting to be seen by a doctor so he could be okayed to start eating by mouth again.  A friend of mine went there after passing out, and was left alone in a room with her friend for hours.  It was only when the friend noticed the patient had stopped breathing and yelled for someone to come that she actually was cared for.

These aren't awful people.  They're just terribly, horribly understaffed.  And why?  Because the people here are poor.  The hospital sends out bills, but the people don't pay them.  Mostly they just come to the emergency room because they can't be turned away, but they're always there with infections that must have taken weeks to get that bad.  Being seen sooner might have helped, but no one will give them an appointment because they know they can't pay.

Elsewhere, the same thing is happening.  In Philadelphia, hospitals are closing due to lack of funds.  There is no longer (or wasn't, when I was there) a hospital within the city limits that still had a maternity ward.  It's too expensive.  Risk of lawsuit too great.  Too few people can pay.  So everyone either went to the suburbs, if they could pay, or went to the emergency room, if they couldn't.  The emergency room is no place to have a baby.

Okay, so we're back to the drawing board.  Where is the money to come from so that the poor can get healthcare?  Healthcare in America today is expensive.  That's because of the technologies available.  When your friendly doctor had nothing but a couple of bottles of penicillin and some suturing silk and plaster casting, he didn't have much overhead and could charge you a few dollars for a visit if it suited him.  Nowadays, there are so many expensive machines and medications available -- which do save lives -- but which cost a heck of a lot.  I read a blog post recently in which the mother of a preemie said that her daughter's care cost $100,000 a week.  And she had been in the NICU for a year.  Her insurance covered it.  What if she'd been uninsured?  Would they refuse to treat her daughter?  Or would they keep sending her bills until she was out on the street?  What, do we just pull the plug on anyone whose care is more expensive than we can afford? What exactly is the cost on human life?  I am all for paring down unnecessary care, stopping doing tests and surgeries just for fear of a lawsuit, but what if your choice is only to give the expensive treatment or watch a person die?  Who could ever make that choice?

A single-payer system, i.e. socialized healthcare, honestly sounds much more attractive to me.  Yes, I know that this is very un-libertarian of me.  But there has to be some special solution for healthcare, because it is a legitimate need, and because need for it does not correlate with income.  That is to say, you might be a millionaire, healthy as a horse, and never have to see a doctor; or you could be a homeless beggar and have lymphoma.  I believe the free market is the best solution to most problems, but a system is unacceptable if people have to go without food, shelter, clean water, sanitation, or medical care.  Without these things, people die.  No one should die of poverty in a country as wealthy as ours.  Private charity can handle the first four needs pretty well, and a very limited government safety net could probably handle the rest.  But the last is really, really expensive.  Only a lot of government expenditure could do it.  No charity has the budget.

Socialized healthcare has three problems:
1.  There has to be enough money to pay for it.  If there isn't, you end up with Greece.
2.  There have to be enough doctors to provide it.
3.  You may not have complete free choice of what kind of care you want.

For the first problem, there are always taxes.  But would that do it?  Canada and Great Britain seem to manage fine.  Except of course neither of those countries is the police force for the entire world.  That might be something to examine, ahem, ahem.  In other words: if we taxed everyone something roughly equivalent to what they now pay for insurance, only staggered based on income, and we ended foreign wars and occupations, we might be able to swing it.

For the second, different countries handle this in different ways.  From what I hear, Great Britain hasn't handled it all that great.  (I'd love to hear from some actual Brits on this one.)  I heard there were long wait times and the hospitals are understaffed.  But I have also heard that this isn't true in Canada.  John tells me this is because Canada has made itself something of a mecca for foreign medical students, and encourages them to come for education and a good job.  That sounds pretty clever.

For the third, the best you can really do is say, "Well, these are the services that the national system will cover for you.  If you want something different, you will have to pay for it yourself."  Of course, you may not even be able to do that because all doctors are employees of the government, and if you don't like the doctor you have, too bad, you may not be able to get a different one for love or money.  But if you want a procedure that's not covered, you could set up some kind of a system where people could pay extra for that.  And of course you can always go to an alternative practitioner if you want and can afford it.  However, with those higher taxes, you may not be able to afford it.  This is the dilemma of socializing anything: if you pay for it with taxes instead of directly, you can't choose what you get.  Whereas in a free market, everyone can choose something different without harming other people's freedom.  (That's why we say that personal freedom is best expressed in a free market.  Milton Freedman explains it much better than I do.)  But in the final assessment, I think it is more important that a mother in dire poverty can give birth in a sanitary environment with someone to hold her hand and a doctor to help her out if she needs one, than it is for me to be able to deliver with the location and attendant of my choosing.  You can die without any healthcare; you are merely inconvenienced by having healthcare not of your own choosing.

If you consider the doctors, however, freedom will be necessary for them too.  That is to say, I believe it is morally wrong to require a doctor to do anything he objects to.  I think a fair system will allow doctors to opt out of performing abortions, for instance.  This would be the wise thing to do, if you want to attract doctors to the system, to make sure you are not driving away large segments of the population from considering medicine as a career.

So, I think I just sort of endorsed socialized healthcare?  It's not an ideal solution at all.  However, it seems to be better than what we have.  You couldn't do it overnight, though, because of the huge medical and insurance industry and all the jobs that would be lost.  Sooner or later, though, I think the economy will have to transition away from that sector a bit, because it is bloated beyond sustainability, and because I don't think you can ever guarantee healthcare to everyone at current prices.  You're not only paying for treatment for sick people, but also for "economic stimulus" to keep the vast UHC call center, with which I am so intimately familiar, employing people.  That's too much, and that's one reason why I think the new healthcare law isn't going to work.  As I see it, instead of doing away with the collusion of hospital and insurance company, it's getting in on the monopoly and making it a collusion of hospital, insurance company, and government, using force to make sure we hand over our money to insurance companies who will hand it over to hospitals who hopefully will use some of that to treat the sick.

Ahem.  Didn't mean to rant.  I do not care for the new healthcare bill.

Here is an idea that's been knocking around in my head lately, though.  When I was in Italy, I was told that there were two kinds of hospitals: public hospitals, paid for through taxes, and private hospitals, paid for by those who could afford them.  In a way it was a hybrid system.  (I don't know any details beyond what I just said, but wouldn't that also make a fascinating research topic?)  I like the idea of being able to choose whether to go to a hospital that just treated everyone, with a basic package, for free, or to a hospital where you had more choice but would have to pay for it.

The concern here is that you would have horrible, dirty, run-down, overstaffed public hospitals to which no one who could help it would ever go; and nice hospitals for the rich.  (The Italian public hospitals certainly didn't look very nice, although I only saw the graffiti and broken windows on the outside, and I don't know what they look like on the inside.)  My solution is to make the public hospitals teaching hospitals.  If you want to be a doctor in the United States, you would have to do, say, five years in the public hospitals first.  (Ideally this would be considered part of your tuition for med school, making med school cost less and be more available for poor smart kids who wanted to be doctors.)  You'd get trained, you would give back for awhile, and after you'd done your rotation at a public hospital in a backwoods area like where I live, you could try to get a job at a private hospital in a wealthier area that supports it.  What this would mean is that enough of a free market would survive that you could still sustain some level of profit to motivate people to research new technologies, develop new medications, and of course go into medicine in the first place.  Your paycheck at the public hospital might be low (for a doctor), because the government can't afford to give you six figures, but you'd have the promise of maybe making more money later on in your career.  And there would still be a sector of the economy that makes its profit on health insurance, brand-name drugs, and so forth.

I am not an expert on healthcare by any means, but if I were queen of the world, I'd like to try a system like that.

What are your thoughts, you lucky few who have read down through this whole thing?  (This is what happens when I can't blog often.  I just build up a bigger deposit to dump on you all at once.)  Of the solutions I've mentioned, which do you prefer -- or have you thought of a better one?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Election afterthoughts

So.  Pretty edge-of-your-seat election, hm?  I wasn't surprised by the result, but there were some tense moments, watching the results come in and wondering in particular how Florida would go.  (How does Florida get such a disproportionate influence?  I hear it was very frustrating living in Florida last week.  Heck, it was frustrating living here -- every time I would get the baby about ready for sleep, the phone would ring again with yet another recorded message from the candidates or another poll.  To say nothing of the bucketloads of junk mail.)

The night before the election, I felt down in the dumps.  I had been considering not voting at all, because I was so depressed about the whole thing and not really that excited about any candidate.  John asked me if I was planning to vote.  "Yeah," I said.  "I don't think it will make any difference, but I feel like I should."

That night, I lay awake for awhile.  (Considering how Michael's been sleeping, this will show you I was VERY bothered ... because me + bed - kids = instant snooze.)  I thought of how terrible a condition this country is in.  Most of all, I thought of Iran, which has been so close to my thoughts and prayers lately.  I recently read that even a "surgical" strike on just its nuclear facilities would kill hundreds of thousands due to nuclear fallout.  That's innocent people, dying, right there ... and I didn't have a candidate to vote for who had any chance of making sure that didn't happen.

A song popped into my head, which is also a Bible verse, but I know it as a song from church:
Put not your trust in princes,
In those in whom there's no salvation.
When their spirits depart they turn to dust:
On that day their plans die.

That line gave me the comfort to roll over and go to sleep.  I sang it on the way to the polling place and on the way back.  I kept thinking, "Obama's or Romney's plan for America is just an advertising gimmick.  I doubt that either of them will fulfill many of their promises.  But on the other hand, God's plan is real and true, and he WILL fulfill his promises."

By Wednesday, I was seeing dozens of Facebook and blog posts bemoaning the results.  But I felt encouraged too, because finally, after months of being told what my position as a Catholic must be, what my political duty was, I was at last seeing people admit what I have long believed -- that salvation does not come from a certain set of political policies, but from faith.  The Church has survived under Richelieu and under Nero.  (In fact, I daresay it survived much better under Nero.)  Whereas if Romney had won, I'd be told constantly how good we had it, how thank goodness "we" won and oh, how pro-life everything is now ... and I'd be feeling a lot of dissonance because a Romney win would not seem like much of a success to me.

I want to save souls, to bring Jesus to a world that desperately needs Him.  But I don't believe the law can do that for me.  I don't think I can outsource my evangelization with a couple of laws than I believe than I can outsource my charitable works through a few taxes and programs.  The work of God is something that has to be done by individuals, not governments.

On Facebook, my godmother asked for people's opinion on how to get people to think better of the Church.  Lord knows we've been painted as the bad guy for a long time, and as she pointed out, people used to have more respect for Catholics.  This is what I said:

First - charity. Next - charity. After that, charity. Last of all, try charity.

No one is immune to charity. Everyone in the world, despite any other wrong idea they have, respects charity. Look how people looked up to Mother Teresa despite her "backward" opinions. Everyone wants to blame "the world" for not loving us. They can't love us unless we love them first. They don't have Christ to show them how to love like we do.

I honestly don't think people would have abandoned the faith in such droves if they were finding true charity there. Without charity, the Catholic Church looks like a backward bunch of old men who pry into everyone's sex life. Which is, surprise, surprise, exactly how they see us.

Let people start exclaiming again, "See how they love one another!" Let them say, "Gee, I keep hearing Catholics are hateful, but every single one I know treats me with genuine respect and always lends a listening ear before judging." And, "That Catholic doctrine sounded crazy, but when I hear it explained with gentleness by someone who's been a true friend to me for a long time, it doesn't sound so nutty."

Sure, study theology, come to bible study, but if we have not charity, we're nowhere. And I'm sad to say the Church in America often acts as though charity were just an afterthought. It isn't. It's the only thought. Every other teaching of the Church can be divided into "here is how Christ loved you" and "here is how you, then, ought to love."

 Was this campaign a stellar example of Christian charity, especially from Catholics?  No it was not.  There was a lot of nastiness going around.  Democrats were painted as "selfish people who just want a handout and lots of free condoms."  Third party voters were called traitors or worse.  There was a lot of triumphalism when the bishops said things that kind of sounded like they were endorsing Romney: "FINALLY!  Bishops with spine!  Tell those liberals where to get off!  Hope they realize they're going to be excommunicated if they vote for that *#$@."

Not so Christlike.

And I'm sad to see that it's still going on.  I have seen several posts lately suggesting that every Catholic who voted for Obama should be excommunicated or that they will burn in hell.  I stepped forward (stupidly) to suggest that they probably had good intentions, and weren't voting for abortion, but for things like programs for the poor and a candidate perceived as less hawkish overseas, and was told, "No way these people had good intentions.  They knew perfectly well what they were doing.  There is no good reason to vote for that monster."

Well okay then!  They must have voted just for the sake of being evil, then.  That totally explains why a majority of Catholics would do such a thing.  We all know most Catholics love being evil.

Sarcasm aside, I honestly don't believe it would be a sin to vote for Obama.  I was told that it is a sin to vote for any pro-choice candidate, but I don't believe that's Church teaching.  We shouldn't support abortion, but we could support keeping the government out of it and dealing with it on other levels (if we honestly thought we could save more lives that way), or we could support candidates who might not be pro-life but who aren't going to increase abortion.  For instance: what if, on your town council, there were two candidates running.  One is pro-life but believes in throwing widows and orphans out on the street and defrauding laborers of their just wages (both of which are sins which cry out to God for vengeance).  The other is pro-choice but much more just to the poor.  And as an added complication, the position they're running for would have nothing to do with abortion, but would be responsible for government housing projects and paychecks.  Shouldn't you vote for the latter guy?  Also keep in mind that not every anti-abortion law actually saves any lives.  The partial birth abortion ban didn't.  All it did was make people use other methods, which they do now.  Would I be a sinner if I voted against such a law?  I don't think so.

Since, after 40 years of trying, we've never managed to overturn Roe v. Wade, I'm kind of thinking another strategy might be needed.  That's a matter for prudence.  The goal is the same -- save unborn babies -- but the method varies.  Now, if you are Catholic and vote for Obama because he is pro-choice and you want to make sure you can get an abortion if you want one -- you might be sinning.  Otherwise, you probably aren't.

In any event, I think it's counterproductive to spend time placing blame and trying to excommunicate your opponents.  Now would be a good time to pull together, to say, "Well, the political angle doesn't seem to have worked.  Maybe if we try explaining our views better?  Or giving better example of what a Catholic is?  Maybe we could find some common ground with others and talk about some issues that have nothing to do with sex."

In any event, I think we could use to turn inward, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and say, "What can I do, as an individual, to make this country a better place?"  You could pray.  Share an idea with someone else.  Write a blog.  Grow a garden.  Kiss your child when you feel like yelling at him.  Volunteer to babysit for a single mom for free or reduced rates.  (Because, as I keep reading, getting a free crib from a pregnancy center isn't enough to make it affordable to have that baby instead of an abortion.  But free babysitting?  It could make a real difference!  Takes more effort from you, though, of course.)  Help out someone in need.  (Winter is coming and heat is expensive.  Did you know many utility companies will allow you to pay someone else's bill along with your own?  Call and ask yours.  Or give to a local charity.  My local diocese has programs to pay for heat for the poor, as well as many other services that really do make a difference in people's lives.)  Teach ESL.  Teach a skill.  Start a business and give a chunk to charity.  (I have a neat little something in mind, which will be appearing here if I ever perfect my product.)  Write a book.  Sponsor an orphan.  Next time you pass that homeless guy, ask him over for dinner tonight.  Yes, tonight.  Smile at your mailman or bagger.  Pay someone else's tab.  Offer a ride to a neighbor who doesn't own a car.  Visit a friend with kids, and tell her to hop in the shower or take a nap, you and the kids will be at the park if she wants you.  Go to your local church, community center, or charity, and tell them, "I have a free Saturday.  How can I do the most good?"

Seriously, people.  Why is there so much pressure to vote for X or Y guy who, even if he is perfect, is only one person trying to solve a million problems for three hundred million people -- and no pressure to help out in your own dang hometown?

I don't think we need to use the words "Democrat" or "Republican" again for the next two years at least.  Let's leave them aside.  I'm tired of recriminations, and I'm not interested in hearing anyone gloat either.  I want to try loving my neighbor a little more.  Maybe you would like to do that too.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Unfortunately, there really is a culture war on

I miss blogging.  I just never get a chance to do it without my trusty (okay, super unreliable) laptop.  I've been planning out this post for a week, ever since I started reflecting on the term "culture war."

In short, I don't like it.  I also don't like people who act as if we are in the middle of a culture war: they act combative when faced with people who don't share their worldview; they refuse to consider the truth of what others say; they associate only with those who share their worldview; among themselves, they ridicule and denigrate "the other side."  I was annoyed with pro-life, religious, conservative people doing it, so I read liberal atheist blogs ... and they do it too!  Not everyone on either side -- but a lot of them do.  There's a lot of, "Get this: this guy suggests that if people don't want to get pregnant, they just shouldn't have sex!  LOL!"  And a lot of, "Those people are all into saving the baby whales!  Why don't they care about the baby humans?"  And the hearers all nod and say, "How could those people be so dumb not to realize they are wrong?"

So I tried to be fair and honest.  I tried to read what the "other side" had to say.  (I don't agree, of course, with the "religious right" on every detail, as I am not a Republican by any stretch of the term, but I am strongly religious and pro-life, so I was reading atheist and pro-choice blogs.)  I read them with open eyes and mind, trying to see what the arguments were.  Granted, I wasn't looking to change my mind.  I was trying to see exactly where my thought and their thought diverged, so that I could figure out why intelligent, kind, well-meaning people disagree with me so drastically.

I guess I was hoping there would be some silver bullet, some way of saying, "See, we aren't really so different after all!  It's just this one little point, but on every other detail we agree."  I thought that's how it was.  I thought people who were pro-choice on the issue of abortion, for instance, had essentially the same worldview and moral code as I did, only they didn't understand that an unborn baby is a human person just as a born child is.  If only I could convince them, I'd be golden.  And I did try, in a few discussions, to point out that a human person is just a being who is a unique individual (as opposed to an arm or leg, you know) with its own genetic code, who is alive, who belongs to the human species.  I feel it is easy to prove that an embryo, from its earliest moments, fits these criteria.  So Q.E.D., right?

Unfortunately, I wasn't counting on another hiccup.  Apparently I am what is called a "deontologist."  This is a person who believes, among other things, that there is a moral code that you have to follow that says, "You may not kill humans."  It's a moral law, and it applies all the time.  (It is helpful, when following a moral norm like this, to have it more strictly defined than that, which the Catholic Church does.)  Many of the bloggers I read were actually consequentialists and/or utilitarians.  They believed that you shouldn't kill humans without a proportionate reason.  In their worldview, rather than considering one life as having infinite value or the owner of it as having intrinsic rights, they weigh one life against another life.  Hence they would think it okay to shoot one person to save ten people, because ten are more than one, whereas I feel aghast at the notion of doing so because killing people is wrong.

That's where you get several rather good arguments in favor of abortion that I kept coming across.  For instance: "If pro-lifers really believe that embryos are people, then why aren't they trying to end miscarriage too?  After all, as many as 50% of conceptions may end in miscarriage."  The simple reason is that one is not required to save every single life (which is impossible), but that you aren't allowed to take any lives.  As a human being, that's above your pay grade, so to speak.  The more complicated reason is that you can't actually prevent most miscarriages, because they happen when an embryo has a genetic mutation that is incompatible with life (which would be incurable), or because the mother's uterus is not prepared to receive it (also can't be helped).  When my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, she was told she would die in two months with no treatment, or somewhat later with aggressive treatment.  According to our moral code, she is not required to go for the aggressive treatment; her life can't be saved, and she is not required to save all lives, but only those she reasonably can.  (Catholic teaching dictates that the sick must use normal means to survive -- like food and water -- but extraordinary measures, like ventilators or surgery, are optional and based on circumstances.)

Anyway, it would be a really good argument if it weren't for the deep philosophical divide between them and me -- which I assume they were no more aware of than I was, or they wouldn't make arguments like that.  Or perhaps they use them, as we use arguments like "every conception is God's will," to convince each other a bit more firmly that they are right.  I can't imagine soberly going up to an atheist utilitarian and saying, "God says every life is sacred."  But I might say that to my religious friends, because we have the common ground to go on that puts the statement in context.

Then I read this article and this response to it.  The former basically calls all pro-lifers hypocrites because if we really cared about saving babies, we'd be all for contraception.  Instead, we must be anti-sex; that's the real agenda, because we're unwilling to let people have all the sex they want, with whomever they want, without ever getting pregnant.  The latter says, in short, "Yes.  It's true.  We don't think that people should have sex whenever they want, because sex makes babies, and we want to save babies."

Here's a quote:

The fundamental truth of the pro-choice movement, from which all of its tenets flow, is that sex does not have to have life-altering consequences. I suddenly saw that it was the struggle to uphold this "truth" that led to all the shady dealings, all the fear of information, all the mental gymnastics that I'd observed. For example:

--> If it is true that sex does not have to have life-altering consequences, then life within the womb cannot be human. Otherwise, when your contraception fails or you otherwise end up with an unplanned pregnancy, you just became a parent, and that truth was proven false.

--> If it is true that sex does not have to have life-altering consequences, then people should be able to engage in sexual activity as they see fit, without giving a second thought to parenthood. And if it's true that it is morally acceptable for people to engage in sexual activity without giving a second thought to parenthood, then abortion must be okay. Contraception has abysmal actual use effectiveness rates, especially when taken over the long term. Combine that with the fact that the contraceptive mentality tells women to go ahead and engage in the act that creates babies, even if they feel certain that they're in no position to have a baby, and you see how women would feel trapped, and think that their only way out is through the doors of their local abortion mill.

That there is a fundamental difference between the pro-life and the pro-choice view.  Pro-choice people, as a general rule, think that sex shouldn't have to have anything to do with babies.  After all, there are pills for that now, right?  Only those pills do fail.  But that's okay, we have abortion.

Pro-lifers start at the other end: Abortion kills a baby.  People have abortions because their birth control failed.  So birth control isn't good enough.  Maybe people who really couldn't have babies right now, shouldn't have sex at all.

I don't see any cure to this.  There is no way to reconcile the two positions.  Either sex has an intrinsic connection with babies, or it doesn't.  And the only way to break that connection is with contraception and abortion.

Now, of course, we can't legislate sexual activity.  I know of no culture, no matter how strict, that successfully prevented everyone from having nonmarital sex.  We also can't really legislate birth control, because there are many different mothods of birth control, some of which are impossible to ban, and because some contraceptives (specifically I'm thinking of the pill here) actually do have medicinal purposes as well.  It's hard even to legislate abortion; and while I think we should try, the reality is that we can't actually prevent all abortions without completely removing any semblance of freedom or privacy that we currently enjoy.

That leaves me in a bind.  On the one hand, I can't stop people from having sex, even if I believe they are having irresponsible sex.  On the other, I want to stop them from having abortions, because there is a real baby involved and I feel responsible for defending the life of that baby to the extent possible.  Birth control is supposed to be the bridge between those two things.  If I advocate for free contraception, on the one hand, I would presumably reduce the number of abortions.  But on the other hand, I further the lie (and I do believe it is a lie) that it is possible to have consequence-free sex.  If I gave someone a bunch of birth control pills, and they then went out and had sex, believing it to be consequence-free, but later it failed and they got pregnant anyway, and chose to have an abortion ... would I be responsible?  To some extent, I feel I would.

I'm not going to stop looking for common ground.  I'm currently reading a book (The Silenced Majority, highly recommend) by someone I would have once considered a "flaming liberal," and I find myself nodding my head more often than not.  When it comes to civil liberties, I agree with the authors of this book completely.  But in the back of my mind, I hold the knowledge that this detente can only go so far.  I might agree with about 90% of what "the left" professes.  It's that 10% that won't ever jive.  I will always believe two things at least that they never will: first, that there is a moral law that binds all the time, regardless of circumstances; and second, that sex is intrinsically connected with reproduction.

That second one seems an easier one to prove than the first.  (The first is not, strictly speaking, provable; though with a great deal of effort I might manage to explain it in such a way as to make it plausible to a person who previously disagreed with it.)  I can simply reason from biology.  I can say, "The reason you feel the urge to have sex is because you are biologically designed to want to, so that you will continue the species."  But they might answer, "Why should I be a slave to biology?"  I could come up with the parallel of eating.  I could say, "Your instincts give you the urge to eat.  If you don't want to be a slave to biology, you should use reason to help you attain the same end goal (survival) by limiting how much you give in to the urge of eating.  Using science, you can figure out what the best things are for your body to eat, and when to stop eating so that you don't make yourself sick.  But if you think you can eat as much as you want, and only chocolate cake, and then make yourself throw up after so that you don't suffer the consequences, all I can say is that sooner or later biology always wins.  Trying to outsmart your instincts by slavishly obeying them one moment, and then turning and trying to avoid their end goal the next, is probably going to end up hurting you in the long run."

But can I prove that?  No.  I can't prove that this is 100% always going to be the case.  All I can say is that it tends to be the case.  Making yourself throw up is bad for you.  Birth control pills have side effects; you can't overlay your entire hormonal reproductive system with an artificial version without some side effects -- to say nothing of the fact that they may fail.  But if you prefer to risk the side effects, and you don't think that getting an abortion if they don't work is a bad thing, then where am I?  I still have failed to convince you, my imaginary pro-choice person.  If you were religious, I could tell you that God made you to have sex in order to reproduce, and that the sixth commandment is given to you so that you will know the best way to use your sexual faculty without hurting yourself or others.  But odds are, you're not.

I do believe my worldview is right.  In fact I believe that it is objectively right, that it is right whether you believe in it or not, and that it is right for all times and places.  But if you are a person who does not believe that there is such a thing as objectively right, or morally imperative, or true at all times and places, then I will never be able to convince you.

That's why we call it a "war."  Diplomacy has failed; there is no way to convince the other side unless they choose to listen.  And the battleground is our entire culture.  A culture that believes what I believe would be based on intact families; people would use their reason and willpower to avoid having sex if they couldn't raise any resulting babies.  Birth control is too uncertain; people wouldn't use it.  A culture that believes that sex is recreational only, or bonding only, or means only what you want it to mean -- that culture is not going to be based on intact families or permanently married couples.  People will have sex.  They will get pregnant outside of marriage.  Sometimes, they will have abortions.  Other times, children will be raised with no father, or no mother, or several step-parents, or in foster care.

I believe the first culture is better than the second.  I believe the second scenario results in more insecure children, more crime, more poverty, less respect for human dignity.  But I cannot deny that the second scenario is, in fact, what we have.  And I'm rather at a loss as to what to do with it.

My path for a long time has been what you see here.  I open my life wide to the whole internet, saying, "See the way I live?  Is it so bad?  Am I so deprived?  Would you like to live the way I do?  That option is available.  It is difficult in many ways, but you wouldn't be alone."  But it feels so insufficient.  I don't know of anyone who read my blog or my Facebook updates and said, "Hey, she looks like she has a nice life.  I think I'll become Catholic now."  Nope, never happened.  But on the other hand, the preachy way doesn't seem to work either.  So I am, as before, at a loss.

None of this would be a problem for me if I didn't love the people I disagree with so dang much.  I could just keep myself to myself and let the rest of the world go to pot.  I don't want to do that, because I'm a compassionate person and I really do want everyone in the world to be as happy as I am.

I just ... don't know how.

More Markoisms

"Buckle you out" -- unbuckle my seatbelt

"Should I hold you both of guys" -- Hold both Michael and me, please.

"You are having trouble tooting."

"Daddy comed home, and the kitty farted."

(Acting out a dialogue between two trucks) "Did you lost your mama?  No.  I fell down."

(Doing the fingerplay for "Here is the church, here is the steeple")  "Here is the store.  Open the doors and here's all the bananas!"

"Here.  I buyed this for you.  It's a ticket.  Get on the train."

"How-are-you-ya."  (Hallelujah.)


"The train says "'BOO BOO!'"

"Game with letters [Words With Friends] says 'cock cock cock cock cock.'"

"The phone went 'leeder leeder lert.'"

"Airplanes go OOOOOOOO!"

[When the dog yawned] "Gilbert said 'yaaaaaaIwanttogetonthebuuuuuuus!'"

* * *

Marko still calls himself "you" 90% of the time.  No, it's not something to worry about.  Yes, I am worrying about it anyway.  Yes, we are working on it.
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