Archives for posts with tag: current-events

What is really going on at the essence of the universal health care discussion in the United States? How come the most powerful nation on Earth, by military and economic standards, is not able to provide health care to all its citizens? To find answers, we must look beyond the sickening party politics and the chaotic legislation that shapes American Health Care. Right now, the politicians are not even reading the legislation that they are either supporting or attacking, on both sides of the aisle; it’s just a competition about who wins the argument: Democrats or Republicans. The millions affected by all this have been set aside.

In essence, the issue should be simple: if everybody pays a little bit, everybody is entitled to a little bit of health care. That’s how it works everywhere on the planet, except in the US. The core discussion is then: how much does each person have to pay, and how much coverage does everybody get? Everybody gets coverage, but maybe not a first class suite on the best hospital in Houston to have plastic surgery on your ear lobes.

Behind all the rational analysis of the myriad of options available, it gets down to culture values and the emotions attached to them. It is not really much of a surprise that the culture on Earth with the highest score on Individualism, combined with a clear preference for Performance over Caring (as measured statistically by Hofstede’s culture value-dimensions), becomes polarized around an issue that, primarily, is about individuals chipping in for the collective.

The problem with culture values is that they are closely linked to strong emotions, since they originate in early childhood, when we all learn what is considered “right” and “wrong” in our families and communities. Anything that challenges those deeply seated values elicits a strong emotional reaction, in every culture.

So when somebody in America proposes something that appears to threaten individual freedom and responsibility, such as Universal Health Care (take care of each other, not just of yourself), Socialist public policies (the common good is more important than individuals), or gun control (the State interferes with the individual freedom to have weapons of choice), it’s only natural that people may get upset and emotional about these things: they appear to threaten their core values and that is something very difficult to cope with.

I once met a young American woman at an international event, just after Obamacare had begun implementation. When I asked her: “how’s it going in the States, now that you have Universal Health Care?” She gave me a five-minute angry speech about how it all sucked, for one big reason: she would now have to pay an additional $150 per month out of her hard-earned salary so that other people would be covered by health care.

In any other culture, this would not be considered a valid argument. Basically, everybody says: “Sure! That’s just how it is! It’s like taxes: you pay a bit from what you earn, so that everybody can have public services, like roads, police… and also health care.” In the US, however, the thinking is more like: “I need to take care of myself and everybody should be capable of taking care of themselves.” As Margaret Thatcher so pointedly summarized: “there is no such thing as ‘society;’ everyone should take care of themselves!”

Indeed, the value-dimension of Individualism versus Collectivism can be seen as an unconscious dilemma that every society needs to solve: do we go towards one side of this polarity or should we tend towards the opposite? The statistical research studies carried out by Hofstede revealed that a few cultures tend towards Individualism, while most others go in the opposite direction, towards Collectivism.

Still, even those countries with similar statistical scores as the US (such as the UK and Australia, recently praised by Ivanka’s Dad) all have Universal Health Care; they managed to find a way around the issue, despite their belief in meritocracy and in individual responsibility. After all, scoring high in Individualism does not preclude cooperation and solidarity. Teamwork and collaboration are possible in every culture, but they express themselves in different ways. In collectivistic cultures teamwork comes naturally, while taking individual responsibility requires extra effort. In America it is teamwork that requires the extra effort, especially if there is not a clear short-term goal to be achieved. Individual responsibility comes naturally, it is almost taken for granted as a given. Will the US ever find their path, to having UHC without feeling that it hurts some people’s core values?

Perhaps they might, if they are able to simplify the overall issue. Right now people are discussing too many details in terms of what kind of coverage are certain groups entitled to, depending on age group, whether they are Federal Employees or not (shockingly, congressmen have legislated in their own benefit, ensuring they themselves get coverage, while millions of others do not), depending on where they live and what kind of work they do. Maybe it would be easier if UHC were to be funded by a blanket 1-percentage point increase in income taxes, for instance, rather than by singling out a specific contribution to medical assistance. If it’s embedded in your overall taxes, people tend not to argue.

If taxes were broken down into the different items they are destined to fund, we would see a lot of arguments about certain topics that do not bring benefit to certain individuals. Should single adults with no kids pay for public schools? Should people who live in farms pay for funding of large urban centers’ infrastructure? If I never use public transport, why should I subsidize railroads? As soon as you single out a collective benefit (like UHC) you will get some people objecting: “I don’t need that, why should I pay for it?” Yet the building blocks of any society rely on finding a balance between individual interests and collective ones. Each culture finds its own balance; America is still trying to find it regarding UHC.

The puzzle will only be solved if people look at the overall forest, not at the trees (or groups of trees). Obamacare was a bit of a Frankestein monster, too complicated and difficult for everyone involved. The Republican alternative appears to be even worse, arguably. Perhaps Congress needs to scrap all of it, and come up with something simple, elegant and truly universal. If the Aussies did it, surely America can do it too: just forget about partisan squabbling for a minute and look at what needs to be done for the overall population.

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the European Union, for six decades of work in advancing peace in Europe.

The New York Times was not impressed. They called the award “a gift” rather than a deserved prize, and criticized the EU for “inept management of the Euro zone crisis.”

The American press was also not impressed when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to President Obama. Apparently pundits felt that he had not really done anything significant to deserve it…

What is the Nobel Prize Committee trying to tell the world when they awarded these prizes on these two instances? That diplomacy is important and should be praised. That peace in the world involves acting for peace in the US (the President of the most powerful military force in the world) and in Europe (the largest economy in the world). That such initiatives should be cherished rather than taken for granted.

So why were many pundits so irritated by these awards?

Because they hate compromise. They dislike the notion of ceding, rather than overpowering another. And both prizes were in praise of diplomacy and the art of reaching compromise and ceding something, rather than overpowering your opponents by force.

Is Obama Too Good For America?

I’m fascinated by the reactions to the first presidential candidates’ debate on TV. Pundits say that Romney “won” the debate: he was more forceful, assertive, confident. Obama “lost” the debate because he seemed hesitant, shy. They called him “no drama Obama”. And polls showed that more people intend to vote for Romney, after the debate.

But, does being more assertive make Romney “right” and Obama “wrong”? Are Americans picking the best debater or the best President?

Suppose there was a debate between Adolf Hitler and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the late 30’s. Hitler would “win” such an imaginary debate easily, with a hand tied behind his back! He was a charismatic speaker, accustomed to enthralling thousands of people at rallies; he studied acting when he became a political candidate, in order to bring more emotion and drama to his speeches. Roosevelt, on the other hand, was boring… But these different styles of communicating did not make Hitler “right” and Roosevelt “wrong”.

You may think that comparing Hitler and Roosevelt is totally different from comparing Romney and Obama; my point is simply that people are putting more weight on a performance on TV to make their decision, rather than looking at the political programs that are being proposed. People are looking at the men on TV rather than at the ideas they represent. It’s like we are back to primitive days when two warriors should fight it out in the arena and “the gods will be with he who tells the truth”…

That is a nice notion for an action movie, but it’s a very poor notion to pick a President. In real life, good guys do not always win. Bad guys often do. Will Americans pick the candidate who is the best for the country or will they pick the one who looks better on TV?

Unfortunately, I know that there are candidates out there who might be better than Romney and Obama combined… but they did not even make it to “the final” because they don’t look that good in front of an audience. It’s no wonder that real-life actors like Reagan and Schwarzenegger had successful political careers. A lot of voters out there are very superficial in choosing who to vote for. And the majority wins, no matter how misinformed or misguided.

As the song goes: “war is stupid, and people are stupid, and love has no value in some strange quarters”. So a people may choose a leader who will take them to war, rather than a Nobel Peace Prize winner who doesn’t seem assertive enough… In the American culture, the ideal candidate has to look like George Clooney and punch like Mike Tyson. It doesn’t matter if he is a religious fundamentalist, if he has bad ethical standards or if he is a war advocate.

Peace and Personality

By definition, peace advocates tend to be more… peaceful. War mongers tend to be more assertive and dramatic. This can be observed in Europe as well as in America. Look at Geert Wilders, the dramatic far-right politician (or should I say “far-wrong”?) and compare him to Herman Van Rompuy, the bland EU President. If a debate between the two were to decide European elections, Wilders would win by a landslide.

Yet, choosing who you will vote for should be based on more than just looking at how the guy looks on a TV debate. The choice should be based on the ideas that candidates are proposing.

No candidate governs alone, whether in the US or in Europe, despite the cult of personality promoted by the press. Reagan, by the way, was little more than a front man for a group of Republicans who were really running the country. On the Democrat’s side you could say similar things about Bill Clinton: a charming man who looks great in front of the cameras, but who was not calling the shots while he was in office.

In Europe, it is also quite clear that the real EU leaders are not Van Rompuy, Catherine Ashton or José Manuel Barroso. People like Merkel, Hollande and Cameron have more influence in the process, and so do others who are not even in the headlines. The press mistakenly revolves around the more dramatic characters rather than on discussing the ideas behind the personalities.

The idea of peace needs to be promoted with more flair. Give peace a chance, said John Lennon. Do you have to be a rock star to get some attention? We should all be wiser than that. Yes, war is stupid. We should not need Boy George to remind us of that. We should understand this idea and defend it against proponents of war. Especially when the proponents of war look handsome and confident. That is when the idea of war becomes most dangerous and we need to stand against it.

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