Want Change? Stop Subsidizing Failure.

It seems to me that our nation currently faces three major continuing crises—deficient public education, opioid abuse with its resulting fatalities, and unaffordable healthcare—that are both true and far reaching.  Unlike so many other crises that affect only one segment of the population or which are dependent on highly questionable data for support, these three are beyond any question fundamental, destructive, and ongoing.  However, after years—or even decades—of diligent effort and literally trillions of dollars of spending collectively to solve them, perhaps it is now worth asking a single, rude question: Is there the very least possibility that government can ever solve any of these problems?

Our current destructive track toward national bankruptcy, which is forever fueled by our propensity for shoveling gobs of government cash at whatever the crisis du jour might be, begs the question of whether problems born of human greed, human stupidity, and human weakness can ever be solved by even the most well-intentioned and thoughtful application of taxpayer money.  Given that government can sometimes barely keep the snow shoveled on a sunny day, it could perhaps be the case that attempting to reconfigure the human spirit to eliminate human frailty is beyond the reach of even the most dedicated government official or employee.

Consider, for example, the many decades—and many trillions of dollars—that federal, state, and local governments have spent trying improve our nation’s mediocre public schools.  By any rational reckoning, we are no better off academically than we were back in 1983, when the “A Nation at Risk” report was issued.  The majority of America’s students still receive their diplomas despite obvious academic deficiencies that will hobble their progress in college and careers.

Seemingly the only clearly demonstrable improvement—albeit a depressing one—all these years of stupendously expensive “reforms” have produced is that our nation’s education bureaucracies have become much better at fudging the dismal numbers to provide the temporary illusion of progress.  The depressing string of test score, graduation, and grade scandals in so many cities and states—now being joined by increasing evidence of dereliction of duty regarding student discipline and safety—has exposed a great many of these supposedly miraculous “improvements” in America’s public schools as nothing more than spreadsheet legerdemain or active fraud.  

Taxpayers are, however, regularly reassured that their local school districts are just one more spending increase away from solving all of their problems because it somehow turns out—when it comes to public education, at least—that prior failures are a guarantee of future successes.  Why any rational person would approve one thin dime of additional funding for failing schools seems to make little sense at first glance, but it is necessary to keep in mind that student success is essentially tangential to the operations of our nation’s public education system.

Why do our schools never improve?  Simply put, everyone understands how the game is played, and the subpar status quo turns out to have many proponents.  Students know that their school system desperately wants to graduate them so that no uncomfortable questions are asked about their ignorance; therefore, it is perfectly possible to glide through the system with little or no effort involved—which is just fine with many children and adolescents.  Teachers know that pencil whipping students through the grades is easy, eliminates the fuss and inconvenience associated with actual education, and keeps the paychecks rolling right in.  School administrators want to point to big, shiny graduation numbers while assuring parents that their child’s terriblestandardized test scores are just a result of test anxiety or poorly designed assessments.  Local communities and their leaders love any good news about their schools that will help to escalate property values and are perfectly willing to accept the free day care that is obligingly provided.  Elected officials never tire of posing with smiling children—particularly if some sort of shiny trophy is being held up.  Contractors and labor unions enjoy building new schools and completing the steady stream of work that arises from basic facility maintenance.

Consequently, everybody wins in the short term, but the long term consequences are appalling.  However, given that our national zeitgeist is to live for today and not worry about tomorrow, our public school systems continue just as they are—and they will continue to be strikingly mediocre no matter how much money is spent to improve them.  A relatively small segment of high-powered parents will always make certain that their children are assigned to the subset of schools, teachers, and classes where some actual learning might take place, the broad middle spectrum of students will continue to float through classes that require a minimum of effort, and the troublemakers and the troubled are always hidden where they can do the least harm to themselves or others.  Meanwhile, everyone cheers at the football and basketball games, Prom is fun, and diplomas are eventually handed to the literate and illiterate alike—just another successful school year in America.  Smile for your photos, everyone!

Our national crisis of opioid abuse is yet the latest chapter of our never ending concerns over our human love of mood-altering substances.  Our country’s history has been one of drinking, smoking, injecting, swallowing, and snorting whatever we can lay our hands upon to blot out either the horrors—or the dreariness—of the day.  Grandma and grandpa were smoking weed in the park.  Your parents were doing Jell-O shots and raiding mom’s medicine cabinet.  Now it’s Fireball and Fentanyl.  Who knows what will be in vogue a few years from now?

Although it could certainly be argued that some of the drugs readily available today are a bit too powerful and dangerous for casual recreational ingestion, the bottom line is that 99% percent of use is strictly voluntary—although incredibly risky and demonstrably stupid.  Presuming that cutting off access to one drug or another is going to sober up our constantly buzzed nation is the same fallacy that led us to our misbegotten national experiment with Prohibition in the 1920’s and 30’s, which produced little but systemic corruption and deadly crime as a result.  

I would prefer that everyone stick to beer, but our nation’s drug and alcohol addled MacGyvers will always find some stronger substance to screw up their bodies and minds when the opportunity arises.  Those who want to use drugs and alcohol, will do so; those who do not, will not.  Spending time and money explaining the dangers of drugs and alcohol to both young and old alike has probably not changed a single mind—but it provides both the illusion of action and many paychecks to those who do the explaining.  However, all across our great nation, America is still drinking, smoking, injecting, swallowing, and snorting whatever is available—and this will continue as long as our planet spins around the sun.  

Addicts straighten out their lives, if they ever do, only when the damage to themselves or others becomes too obvious to ignore—or their minds and bodies simply can no longer take the unending abuse.  Until that day arrives, all the well-meaning government programs in the world won’t do much other than create a national infrastructure that, perversely enough, helps to ease the lives of addicts rather than forcing them to face the consequences of their behavior.  Is continuing to pour money into abundantly ineffectual drug and alcohol treatment programs a good idea?  Make your own decisions about that, all you overtaxed citizens out there.

Finally, watching our government leaders and their minions continue to botch up a mission as basic and important as ensuring that Americans can afford to go to a doctor for necessary medical care is rather like watching a YouTube video of a puppy endlessly chasing its tail—all that frenetic action produces no discernible result.  Anybody with the least brain in their heads realizes that medical device and equipment makers, pharmaceutical companies, and corporate hospital chains have conspired for many decades to raise costs to the stratosphere in order to generate ungodly profits.  Patients and their needs are a hindrance to the real mission—keeping the stock price soaring.  The only way that the overall cost of medical care will actually drop is if Medicare, Medicaid, patients, medical providers, and private insurers simply refuse to pay inflated charges and demand steep and permanent price cuts.

However, price discipline will never happen because it would cause the profits and stock prices of the medical profiteers to drop precipitously (and eliminate a lot of well-paying jobs besides!), which would send these businesses immediately scurrying—cash in hand—to our complicit and compliant government for protection from actual marketplace pressure.  After positioning themselves as champions of change in order to catch all the campaign contributions that are certain to follow, our nation’s elected leaders and their anonymous bureaucratic minions will spend many years—and election cycles—laboring to produce “reforms” that are a boon for the business of medicine but an unmitigated disaster for the economics of healthcare.  Money will get shuffled about, our taxes will be raised in order to pay for all our newly affordable healthcare(however much sense that makes) and the true cost of reforms, such as they are, will be masked by yet more crushing government debt to maintain a fundamentally uneconomical and unfair healthcare system.

Government will never solve these problems—education, drug abuse, and healthcare—but it will happily spend our nation and citizens into the poorhouse trying.  In the meanwhile, perhaps we need to provide a few reminders to those concerned.

Students need to remember that studying your school book instead of your cell phone is the only sure path to academic success.  Our nation’s opioid addicts need to learn—sometimes to their great discomfort—that the high live is no life at all.  All those government officials and consultants trying to “reform” healthcare—and enjoying the ease provided by our tax dollars while they do so—are welcome to continue to fiddle around endlessly while avoiding the ire of their corporate masters, but the fact will always remain that our opaque, decentralized, and bureaucratized healthcare system is a prescription for maximum expense with minimum results.

Want change? Stop subsidizing failure. Start insisting on personal responsibility. Reduce expenses by firing the parasites that spend their time explaining away their waste of our nation’s wealth, health, and youth. We need no more study—we need results.

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Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out

To give the 1960’s countercultural guru and drug enthusiast Dr. Timothy Leary his due, he claimed his most famous saying—from which this commentary takes its title—was not meant to advocate a life of addled indolence. There is, however, little doubt that some variation of his advice has taken hold in a great many corners of American society, and even Cheech and Chong would be shocked at where we are today.

A recent article in the Washington Post contained these terrifying statistics about America’s current disastrous epidemic of drug abuse:

“In 2015, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, heroin deaths alone surpassed gun homicides for the first time. More than 33,000 people died of opioid overdose, with another 20,000 dying from other drugs. A recent federal study found that prescription painkillers are now more widely used than tobacco.”

The article goes on to note that prescription overdose deaths have been rising since 2000 despite state and federal efforts to crack down on the abuse of these drugs.

It would, of course, be impossible to not point a finger at the pharmaceutical industry. Their aggressive marketing of all manner of drugs to cure every side effect of living our normal daily lives has been disingenuous at best—and outright quackery at worst. Although improvements in medications have made many diseases and maladies more bearable and even provided cures for some which were previously a death sentence, we have also been sold the notion that annoying or inconvenient variations in human behavior or function are now problems worthy of a visit to the doctor—and more and more of our lives are now wrapped up in gulping pills to cure more and more newly discovered “illnesses”.

Is your child is too rambunctious? We’ve got a pill for that! Are you shy around strangers? We’ve got a medication to cure you! Need to pep up? We’ve got you covered! Need to wind down? We’ve got something for that too! Sweaty? Yep! Not sweaty enough? Sure thing! Too hairy? You betcha! Not hairy enough? Step right up!

The predations of the pharmaceutical industry—now free to advertise their wares to a credulous and yearning public—are successful because they take advantage of two signal human weaknesses: our attraction to easy solutions and our desire—born of our insecurities—to “perfect” ourselves and our lives.

Just as we have a fantasy belief that eating fat-free foods will make us thin without the bother of exercise or that purchasing an expensive new laptop computer for our academically struggling child will guarantee future admission to an Ivy League college, so do we easily delude ourselves into believing that health, happiness, and success is available if we can find the right pill to swallow. The shamans of the tribal past would find the pill-sized hopes hidden inside our medicine cabinets, gym bags, bedside tables, and purses to be entirely unsurprising.

Of course, our routine use—and shocking abuse—of powerful and highly addictive opioid painkillers is another step beyond. If we knew how many of our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues are gulping Norco, Percocet, and OxyContin—or perhaps even shooting heroin or snorting cocaine—in daily dosages sufficient to stun a cow, we would likely be shaken to the core. This is obviously an issue that puts all manner of medical practitioners on the front lines of any solution, but it also speaks to something deeper, darker, and more disturbing happening in towns and cities across America where the desire for the numbing escape these drugs provide for many has nothing to do with a physical pain.

It would be foolish to deny that many people like to get high, but most somehow manage to get through their freshman year of college only slightly worse for the wear, a few brain cells short yet ready for the productive lives lying ahead. There have, of course, always been a few who never really grow beyond their partying phase of life, and these men and women have always spent their lives dealing with the chaos and health problems that have resulted.

However, we need to ask what has so changed within ourselves that we are now landing in emergency rooms, rehab centers, or the morgue in such astonishing numbers—lives ruined, families destroyed, and communities devastated.

Many are wondering why Americans are now so often using these potent painkillers, but I ask a different question: Given the grim and aimless lives so many are now forced to live, why would you not turn to narcotics for relief from the emotional and spiritual hurts that somehow must be endured—day after day after day. If you look back over the span of human existence during the past several thousand years, we have counted on three facets of our lives for the purpose and pleasure that helps us deal with the daily rigors and challenges we all must face: our families, our faiths, and our work. Unfortunately, all three are under siege by societal, economic, and political forces that are eroding the foundations of much of American life.

Soaring divorce rates, single parent households, out-of-wedlock births, and lonely latchkey kids: All of this and more is grinding down families across our nation. Organized religion—now often derided as the last refuge of the ignorant and bigoted by the intelligentsia—is in full retreat from the onslaught of our ever more permissive society. Work that offers dignity and pride of craft has been often replaced by “McJobs” that offer little beyond a meager paycheck, and more workers are daily told that their livelihoods are being shipped abroad—or being replaced by a robot or piece of computer software. Taken individually, these trends are profoundly disturbing; all three together are an assault upon everything that many of us hold dear.

Those who wonder why so many voters are revolting against the status quo fail to understand that many Americans blame our national leaders for their blithe lack of concern with the agony that so many feel today. We don’t want another pointless regulatory commission, another ossified agency, or another clock-watching bureaucrat explaining just how wonderful the latest round of new and improved government policies will make our lives—long after our bones have already been picked clean. Until our elected and appointed officials get it through their thick skulls that our country and its people expect leadership that supports families, respects faith, and empowers American workers, they can expect little beyond our cold contempt and volcanic rage.

Until this happens, don’t be surprised if many Americans turn to a narcotic haze to provide some respite from the empty charade that so many of our lives have become. This might not be a great long term plan, and it certainly carries along its own measure of misery. However, for many who are desperately lonely, spiritually bereft, and physically exhausted, a little drug-induced escape makes more sense than not.