Mens Sana in Corpore Sano

‘A sound mind in a sound body’ is the translation of a line in a poem written by the Roman orator Juvenal when he was asked what is desirable in life.  Juvenal was attempting to illustrate that health is not entirely physical.  If you’re crazy, but physically healthy, you’re still sick.

Despite having made this revelation 1900 years ago, humans have largely ignored it in favor of an emphasis on conventional physical medicine.  With chemical, biological and technological advances, we have tripled life expectancy in the past few centuries.  We’ve vanquished smallpox, the largest single cause of human deaths, ever.  We’ve created artificial limbs and internal organs, and are able to replicate human life in laboratories.  We’ve done a lot.  And, I’d venture to say that we’re still not a whole hell of a lot healthier than we were before we started all of this.

At first, this might seem counterintuitive.  Let me explain why.  In the past few hundred years, we have focussed primarily on the area of physical health, largely because 1) it’s the domain that we understand better and 2) it’s the one that yields faster results.  As humans, if we understand it and it works fast, that’s going to be the area on which we focus our attentions and energies, because we love validation.  But in focussing so much on physical health, we’ve done so at the expense of mental health.

Yes, we live far longer and with much more material comfort than at any point previously in human history.  But I would make the argument that we are no discernibly happier.  Granted, I don’t have a magical time machine with which I could just jump around different eras of history to check up on people and ask them if they’re happy with their life or not.  However, one of the few universal truths about human nature is that it is nearly universally constant, and we have much more in common with our forbears than we know.

I think we’re about just as happy as we’ve ever been, and with all of the material and physical advances we’ve made, we should be a happier, more content, peaceful and overall satisfied people.  When I started this posting, I was going to write about the shootings in Connecticut.  Here’s a kid in an affluent family, with, by all accounts, loving and (more or less) involved parents.  His surroundings were stable and conducive to growing up well.  There was no physical reason as to why this should have happened.  But it did, and with horrific results.  If it’s not the physical environment, then it has to be a manifestation of under-treated mental illness.  And to draw such a stark contrast between his physical health and mental health, and to still have this happen is about as clear as fate can be when trying to drive a point home with humans.

My point is this: we need to make more of an effort to balance the physical aspect of health with the mental aspect.  We can live to be 95, but if the person is depressed the entire time, what’s the point?  If we can overcome cancer in our seventies only to lose our spouse thereafter and feel no sense of belonging, connection or community, and then die ourselves, then what good are all of these technological advances doing for us?

I’m neither an expert in physical or mental health.  And while I can’t describe what a comprehensive effort would look like, we would be fools not to seek out those answers.  Perhaps we can look at some islands in Greece where, for whatever reason, people routinely live to be 100.  Maybe we should start coming up with economic models to justify shifting resources into mental health, as those efforts may well pay for themselves many times over, as I would suspect.  I can tell you that this should not be read as a missive instructing everyone to get on Lexapro and medicate themselves to ‘happiness.’  Substance abuse, chronic depression, relationship skills, early childhood care, basically, the art of being content and connected, all of these are areas in which we, as a society could be doing much, much better.

I know this much: a sound mind is at least as important as a sound body.  I know this because we’ve focussed so much on the physical, and, frankly, I think that the results, while impressive by their own metrics, when it comes to happiness, then at least a major disappointment.

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Thank God for Berlusconi

Every time I feel badly about our politicians in the US, there’s always two countries I can look to in order to feel better: North Korea and Italy.  No matter what our jackass elected leaders do, there’s nothing they can do that’s able to even come close to the clowns of those two countries.  To wit, let’s talk about my all time favorite Italian politician, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.  In the midst of a divorce from his second wife, he’s announced plans to marry his third, who just happens to be 50 years younger than him.

Of course she is.  An age appropriate marriage, announced after his divorce was finalized, would be unthinkable for Silvio.  Never one to be troubled either by the truth or propriety, the septuagenarian politico is also considering a public comeback, vowing to run again for the office of prime minister in elections to be staged early in 2013.  Were he to be elected, he this would be his fourth time in the office.  In addition to his antics being ridiculous, his personal appearance is becoming rather clownish as well, with visible evidence of copious amounts of makeup, hair transplants and an atrocious dye job being on full display during a press conference earlier this year.  Finally, his appearance is beginning resemble his grotesque actions.  It’s almost like the Italian version of Dorian Grey.

So, Italy, keep up the good work.  Let his pandering and outright lies mollify you to the point right where he wants you, prostrate and cowed, convinced that by voting for Berlusconi, you can escape the hard reality it is that you face: either difficult reforms, or another term of hilarious corruption and political stagnation.

Inured to the Commonplace

I’m a cynic.  I assume the absolute worst will happen, and allow myself the pleasure of being pleasantly surprised when, from time to time, it doesn’t.  So when 27 people are gunned down in cold blood in a school in Connecticut, I’m not surprised.  Why would I be?  Mass shootings happen in this country at least once a year, usually two or three times.  This has been the case during the entirety of my adult life.  Frankly, if these events suddenly stopped, it would cause me more surprise then when they do occur.  Until we address the issue of the insane prevalence of guns in America, these incidents will continue unabated.

Since 1968, more than one million Americans have died from gun violence.  To give you an idea of scale, this is more people than died in the genocide in Bosnia and the American Civil War combined.  It’s become a routine feature on our news feeds, to wake up to reports of anywhere from 5 to 30 innocents slaughtered at the hands of a young man, who, gathered in a school, a grocery store, or a theater, could be any one of us.  The sad truth of the matter is, despite perhaps not wanting to admit it, is that we’ve become used to periodic episodes of particularly sickening violence.  Even the White House Press secretary today, when pressed for a reaction on today’s events, demurred, saying: ‘I’m sure there will be rather a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I don’t think today is that day.’  You know, because we have to focus on the fiscal cliff, right?  The shit that actually matters, Carney’s tone suggests.

As previously stated, I’m a cynic, but I’m also hopeful about the future.

During his time as mayor, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has demonstrated that he gets the job done, and is willing to spend a boatload of his own cash in so doing.  The intersection of determination and lots (and lots) of money has a way of getting things done.  In the past electoral cycle, Bloomberg put up $9 million of his own money to assist US House candidates that share his views on gun control, education and political moderation.  The two Democratic candidates he backed won, the two Republicans he backed lost.  Going forward, I believe that today’s events will have the effect of helping him focus his energies and resources on a confluence of these issues, which means that for the first time, we’ll have a counterweight to the ATM of the gun lobby: the NRA.  Financially, Mike Bloomberg can effectively level the playing field when it comes to the issue of gun control in electoral politics.  So, we have the money part covered.

The second is the President.  For the first time in almost 20 years, stronger gun control is going to return to the political discourse as a viable undertaking.  Bill Clinton signed the assault weapons ban into law (it lasted a decade before expiring) and since its expiry, Democrats have been so terrified of losing further ground with working class whites that we’ve dropped the issue entirely.  In the President’s statement today, we have the first indication that gun control might be back on the agenda.  Politically speaking, the gun issue (in addition to being good policy) would have the added advantage of driving ever more suburban moderates into the arms of the Democrats once they see the apoplectic fit that those nutbags on the right have once the issue is raised.  It’s not going to do the GOP any good to go hard right on the issue, but that’s where their base is, so that’s where they’re going to be at on it.  So we have the leadership part covered.

And third is this: Americans might, at long, long last, have woken the fuck up to the fact that we’re getting used to this.  When they realize that we’ve actually gotten used to the fact that large numbers of people die on a daily basis from gun violence in this country, they may realize that 1) the US is the only country in the world where this happens on such a large scale and 2) we have the power to demand that this stops.

Despite being a cynic, that last reason gives me hope.  Americans get the government we ask for.  Most of the time, we’re so busy watching monster truck rallies or buying another dozen snuggies for our morbidly obese families that we have absolutely no clue whatsoever as to what the hell is going on (let alone what it is that we should be asking for), but, from time to time, we actually get our shit together and do something spectacularly right.  This could be just that, something that, at long, long last, we get spectacularly right.

So, we have the money to get it done, and we have the leadership to get it done.  The question, then, is do we have the hunger to demand that our government get its shit together and do something about it?  How many more events like those of today do we need before we do so?  Not many, I think.

Let the Litigation Begin

From the moment Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law legislation making Michigan a ‘right to work’ state, it was clear that this law would not stand uncontested.  The precise issues on which to challenge the statute, however, was not known.  Well, it took all of one day to figure out that the bill may not actually have the sweeping powers that we thought it had.

Explicitly contained within the bill was language that specifically covered both state and local government employees in the legislation. Meaning, that they are covered, and that public sector employees are not to be compelled, either by law or collective bargaining negotiations, to join a union.

Not so fast, say some.  Though the Republicans managed to pass the bill into law, they may have lacked the authority to do so.  So who has the authority?  The Michigan Civil Service Commission.  And who is that?  Basically, it’s the body that regulates relations with state workers, and it’s stuffed to the gills with Democrats.  So what does that mean?  That if it has to go through an organization chock full of liberals, it’s not going to cover public sector employees in Michigan.  As Rick Perry would say, ‘Oops.’

The Democrats objected to the passage of the law in a lame duck session, and claimed that it wasn’t democratic.  Now, it’s going to be up to a bunch of unelected bureaucrats in Lansing to decide on the issue.  Meaning, we’re going to hear the same chorus of ‘It’s not fair and it’s not democratic!’ being shrieked again, but from Republicans this time, instead of Democrats.

And you may have noticed that in the course of this entire brouhaha, we didn’t hear any of the unions that represent government workers state that it wouldn’t cover government employees.  On the contrary.  It was government unions that were whipping up the absolute most hysteria over the entire undertaking to begin with.

I’m beginning to think that this entire fiasco, if it achieves anything at all, which is looking increasingly unlikely only a day after its passage, is that it’s going to make everyone in the state of Michigan who holds a modicum of power look like the greedy slobs that they are.  If you wanted a cautionary tale as to the dangers of democracy when adults begin acting like petulant children, look to the events of the past week in Michigan, and you have all the makings of a terrifying German fairy tale, but with consequences that stretch far beyond the individual.  Get it together people.

Right to Work in Michigan

So, now that we have it, what’s it going to look like?  Well, to start with,  Governor Snyder probably just killed his chances at reelection.  He wasn’t a natural politician, so he’s probably not that upset about it.  He’s a born businessman, not that interested in legacy or ideology.  Snyder is the sort of guy that’s more interested in operational efficiency.  Though, in passing this as quickly as he did while disavowing his previous position that it wasn’t on his agenda, he might be a better politician than I give him credit for.  The ‘tough nerd’ turns out to have been a bit more ruthless at neutralizing those who stand in his way of economic development in Michigan.  I also think that Gretchen Whitmer is going to be a shoe-in for the Democratic nomination.  But, that’s all 2014.  Let’s talk next year.

Right to work in Michigan, more than anything, just accelerates what the future already had in store for us.  When GM hires a new line worker, the new hire is not going to be getting the $45 and more an hour that assembly line workers came in at fifteen years ago, they’re going to be getting somewhere between $15 and $20.  At this point, the h0wls of outrage from union workers usually drown out the economic reality: that you can’t have those compensation packages when you have a globalized economy.  So, while right to work will probably keep wages for unionized jobs lower, that was due to an unstoppable global economic force that no legislation could prevent.

That may, however, have an upside for Michigan, from a macro point of view.  When auto companies open new plants, they do so in states that have right to work legislation on the books.  While I’m hardly an advocate of putting ever more of our Michigan eggs in the automotive basket, Michigan suddenly looks much more competitive to Tennessee when Audi decides where they’re going to put a new plant in north America.  That means more jobs, more tax revenue and less that the state has to spend on helping out the unemployed and those without healthcare.

Politically, the outlook is much, much darker.  Unions are a core Democratic constituency, and by decreasing their ranks, as this bill inevitably will, the political money machine that has bankrolled labor-backed candidates since the 1930s is now in serious jeopardy.  Granted, the amount of money that unions raise for Democrats pales in comparison next to the donors behind the super PACs that we saw this past electoral cycle, but it’s not insignificant.

There’s going to be a veritable tsunami of litigation against the process by which the measures were approved.  They may actually have some merit to them, as there weren’t any committee meetings that traditionally take place.  And lastly, we’ve seen the Democrats mimic some of the tactics upon which unions have historically embraced to advance their own agenda: shut it down.  When measures came up in the state legislature regarding the siting of a new hockey arena in Detroit for the Red Wings, and a new public lighting authority for Detroit, Democrats instinctively did everything in their power to block them (think along the lines of a strike, walk-out, sick-out, work slowdown, etc.).

The problem with this tactic is that the backers of the right to work legislation, pardon my French, don’t give a shit.  When you’re holding a hostage, it has to be one that somebody cares about, and in this case, Republicans from the west side of Michigan couldn’t care less if Detroit gets what it wants.  In their thinking, Grand Rapids looks pretty good by comparison.

So, right to work is on the books, and takes effect early next year.  It could be overturned in a ballot referendum.  It could be struck down by a judge.  However, I think that if you see an increase in the number of manufacturing jobs in the state*, it’s going to stay on the books.  Right to work has never been undone before, and while Michigan was the birthplace of the labor movement, I think that it’s unlikely that we’ll be the first to birth it, and then resuscitate it.

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*The data on right to work legislation and employment is mixed.  In pretty much all of the states, wages fell.  In half the states, the number of jobs went up and in the other half the amount increased.  Also complicating the outlook is that Michigan, thus far, is the most heavily unionized state to have gone over to right to work, which will be interesting to see happens with union membership here.

Gaming the System

The rhetoric surrounding the debate about ‘right to work’ in Michigan has mostly consisted of the heated, emotionally driven variety.  Refrains of ‘Unions built the middle class in the US!’ and ‘Labor unions are nothing more than extortionists!’ are both wrong, but highly compelling in an emotional sense.  As goes the quote, the first casualty of war is truth, and there’s a full blown political war in Michigan today.

The fact of the matter is that collective bargaining does indeed lead to higher pay for workers.  This is a verifiable fact.  The flip side of that is that higher pay has to come from somewhere, and for state workers, that comes from tax revenues.  When you have tens of thousands of state workers who are able to cash out unused sick, personal and vacation days, that annually comes to $710 million annually in the ten most populous states.  And in California alone, spending on overtime for state workers nearly reached the billion dollar mark last year.

If every state were to reduce what it spends on worker salaries even to zero, it still wouldn’t solve the fiscal problems states face.  But what it is indicative of is a culture that extends well beyond just industrial relations.  You have a speculative financial sector gaming the tax code to profit at the expense of the average taxpayer.  You have an educational and health systems that operate without any regard for outcome or quality.  You have a military industrial complex that focusses on engineering systems of death and a cabal of conservatives that finds wars to justify their purchase.  You have an myriad of entitlement programs that are going to continue growing in terms of spending to the point where states and the federal government will have no money to spend on anything else other than the sick and the elderly.

In short, the fundamental problem this country faces is that the people with power operate under the mindset of ‘What’s in it for me?’  And it’s killing us.  Government exists to protect its citizens and deliver services the private sector is either unable to do so or does so inefficiently.  It’s devolved into a racket wherein the politically connected, whether Democratic of Republican, vie for influence based not on merit, worth or value, but on political expedience and clout.

We’re never going to be able to have a government that’s totally free of the kind of influence described above.  It’s a part of human nature, and that’s one thing nobody, particularly government, is able to change.  But if America is to continue as a place worth living in, we need to fundamentally overhaul the relationship that we have with the government.

So how does this tie back in to unions?  As I mentioned yesterday, unions have a tendency to focus more on the interests of their own members rather than the viability or quality of the overall outcome of whatever it is that they do.  I don’t agree with the ‘right to work’ legislation, but neither do I agree with a continuation of how unions are allowed to thwart sensible policy from being crafted.  America collectively needs to go from ‘What’s in it for me?’ to ‘What can I do?’

What’s happening in Lansing is only tangentially about unions.  At it’s heart, however, the real issue is power.

It’s Not The Issue, It’s The Power

One could make the argument that Michigan midwifed the labor movement into existence.  Now we seem to be on the verge of killing it.  Frankly, the question of ‘right to work’ is one that I’m genuinely conflicted on.  And this will be a post that’s pretty heavy on anecdotes.

On the one hand, I do believe that labor organizations have made working (and subsequently living) conditions much better for tens of millions of Americans.  From compensation to safety regulations, health care to other protections (workman’s compensation, paid time off, etc.), people have benefitted greatly from the power that unions wield.  In short, people get a much fairer shot of live, and that matters.  In the hallway of a lobby at Consumer’s Energy headquarter in Jackson, there was a plaque that listed all of the workers killed on the job since the foundation of the company.  Up until about 1935 or so, anywhere from one to three workers died on the job annually.  Thereafter, it was about one every four years.  You could chalk that up to new federal regulations that protect the lives of workers.  And there did those regulations come from?  Demands by organized labor.  In many cases, labor has effectively saved the lives of workers.

However, when people go so far to say that unions ‘built the middle class’ in the US, I feel that’s the beginning of the overreach that unions are prone to.  Capital and technology were also crucial in the equation, and you couldn’t have the outcome without all three.  I think that unions, as any political organization is prone to, will fight to the death for their own ends, rather than what broadly benefits the US.  Case in point: NAFTA.  It was great for the US economy, but unions fought it, tooth and nail.

Then there are the stories about unions that make my blood boil.  Just Google ‘New York City Teacher’s Rubber Room.’  A friend of mine was recently going through an administrative nightmare with her local UAW chapter because they were denying her some paid time off, and the local president just didn’t feel like dealing with it, so he denied it.  There’s also every single encounter that I’ve ever had with workers from the city of Detroit, all of which have been excises in extreme, yet equal, measures of absurdity, incompetence and outright hostility.

Labor has done great good.  Labor has also been their own worst enemy.  Often, unions protected the interest of individual workers to the extent that they end up looking like a protectionist racket.  Had unions been more concerned with equity, rather than focussing solely on power, dues, tenure, compensation and benefits, they probably wouldn’t find themselves in the middle of their own demise.  Which is too bad, because I think there’s a real need for unions, despite their historic overreach.  Regardless of my opinions, the week in Lansing is sure to be noisy.