Monday, October 23, 2017

The Myth of Uniform Virtue

Americans believe the great myth that a uniform confers virtue on the wearer.

If you believe The Myth, you won’t like what I’m about to say: Those who serve or have served in the American military are no better than anyone else. General John Kelly tried to perpetuate The Myth last week when he claimed in a public appearance that those who wear or have worn a uniform in the service of the U.S. military are “the best one percent of us.” Sadly, General Kelly has bought The Myth and, like most generals, is trying to get the rest of us to buy it, too. (It is understandable that General Kelly, whose son was killed in combat in Afghanistan, would want to believe The Myth. He deserves our deepest sympathy.)

Americans love uniforms. They revere—some even worship—anyone who wears or has worn a uniform of the U.S. military. There are reasons for this. For one thing, those who wear the uniform look so good: They stand up straight. Their hair is cut. In public they are usually wearing clean, well-fitted, well-ironed clothes. They are often young and (usually) healthy and strong. We also like the way those in uniform act: They say, “Yes, ma’am.” and “No, sir.” They have firm handshakes. They accept authority and do what they are told. They are like the perfect children we never had.

Yes, they look and act just fine, but those who wear or have worn the uniform are not better than any other ordinary U.S. citizens. They are no kinder, no more generous, no smarter, no wiser, no more tolerant, no more competent, no more self-sacrificing, no more humble, no more ethical, and no more moral than anyone else. The Myth says otherwise, but it is just a myth. In terms of virtue, the mechanic who serves on a naval destroyer is likely to be no different from—and certainly no “better” than—the mechanic at your local car dealership.

The Myth says that those who join the military do so because they are “self-sacrificing” and “patriotic.” There are no statistics to decide the question one way or another, but reality tells us that a large portion of those who volunteer for the military do so for one simple reason: The military offers them a good job. It’s a job that comes with room and board, decent pay, excellent benefits, early retirement, a nice pension, decent workmates, and, thanks to The Myth and people like General Kelly, instant respect. Some enlistees even get a free or near-free education out of it. Those are things very difficult for an 18-year-old—or a 35-year-old—to find in the civilian world.

Of course, some join the military for other reasons. In a world full of difficult decisions, for example, they like the idea of being told what to do. Or they like being part of a “team.” Or they expect to see the world. Or they’re pugnacious and need a meaningful outlet for their pugnacity. Or, very often, they have no other meaningful choice. There’s nothing wrong with any of those reasons, but they are not the products of virtue.

Finally, yes, some enter the military because they are “patriotic”—they love the U.S.A. and want to help protect it. But patriotism is not a virtue. It is simply an attitude, a state of mind—a state of mind fertilized and cultivated by other myths we needn’t go into here. Patriotism doesn’t make anyone better than anyone else, much less make them “the best of us.”

The Myth is further perpetuated by the images we see from Hollywood and on our TVs: brave heroes running into battle and defying death to save their comrades, protect innocent civilians, and defend our country. But in fact, except in times of more general warfare (WWII, Vietnam), very few of those in the military ever experience combat. By most estimates, only about one percent of those in the U.S. military ever directly face the bullets and bombs of our enemies.

That one percent does deserve our special attention, however. If, whether in combat or otherwise, they are violated in mind or spirit or body, we owe them as much care as we can give in order to heal them, if they can be healed. If they are killed in battle, we owe their families the same attention and care. (Do we owe those in uniform our “thanks”? It depends on the cause they fought for. If the cause was honorable and necessary, as in WW II, then yes. If it was not, as in Vietnam and Iraq, then, sadly, no. Gratitude is not the proper response to those who helped, however unwittingly, to perpetrate a massively mortal mistake. Respect and care, yes. Gratitude, no.)

Again, those in the military who ever face death and injury are few. And yet we are expected to revere—indeed, nearly to worship—ALL those who wear and have worn the uniform. We are, that is, expected to believe The Myth. But life gives the lie to The Myth. I taught for eleven years at a university with a large corps of cadets, most of whom were soon to enter the military. The cadets were, for the most part, wonderful, disciplined students . . . and so were their non-cadet classmates. And I have known scores, probably hundreds, of veterans in my lifetime. In my generation, most of them are Vietnam veterans. In my experience, the following is true: Veterans are kind and unkind, humble and arrogant, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical, tolerant and intolerant, competent and incompetent, wise and foolish, generous and ungenerous—and they are all those things in exactly the same proportions as the rest of the country’s population.

The Myth says that those who serve in the U.S. military are, as General Kelly claimed, “the best of us.” But The Myth is simply a convenient recruitment device.

If, then, you see someone in uniform, show them the same respect you would show any other citizens—neither more nor less—because they are not “the best of us,” they are simply some of the same of us.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Ten Ways to Rein in Big Pharma
                                                  By Ed Weathers

Fifty-five percent of Americans take at least one prescription medication.
Americans spend more than $325 billion per year on prescription drugs. We pay, by far, the highest prices for necessary prescription drugs in the world. We spend 50% more per capita on drugs than, say, Canada and Germany, and two to six times as much for specialty pharmaceuticals like cancer and diabetes drugs.

The pharmaceutical industry wants to keep it that way. That’s why today it has 1,100 lobbyists in Washington, D.C. In the 2016 elections, it spent $58 million to support the campaigns of Congressional and Presidential candidates. This year it will spend about $300 million on Congressional lobbying. No wonder Congress is, shall we say, a bit shy about passing legislation that might lower the profits of U.S. drug companies.

But if Congress did want to lower drug prices, here are ten things it could do. Some of these proposals are conservative (fewer drug regulations), some liberal (more government involvement in pricing). Nearly all are supported by a majority of voters in both parties:

1) Let Medicare negotiate drug prices. Nearly a third of all prescription-drug spending in the U.S. is done by Medicare, meaning it could have tremendous leverage to lower drug prices. Yet Medicare is, by law, forbidden from negotiating with pharmaceutical companies over the prices of the drugs it pays for. If Medicare negotiates, drug prices will drop.

2) Give generics a fighting chance. In theory, when the patent on a brand-name drug lapses, similarly effective, similarly designed generic drugs can enter the market to provide price competition. But FDA rules place huge obstacles in the way of creating generics; approval of a generic can take many years and cost millions of dollars. And Big Pharma often games the system: for example, a Big Pharma company can make a small, medically meaningless tweak in a patent-expired drug and then claim it is a “new” drug that is not duplicated by generics. Big brand-name companies are also known to pay smaller generic companies to keep their generics off the market, thereby avoiding generic competition.

3) Make drug companies justify their pricing. Require drug makers to be transparent about their manufacturing, research, development, advertising, and lobbying costs, and about how much profit is built into the price of each drug. Profiteering companies would be publicly shamed into moderating costs.

4) Allow drugs to be imported from Canada. Canadian drugs are just as safe as drugs made and sold in the U.S., and they are cheaper. But current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules, sometimes written by Big Pharma lobbyists, put big obstacles in the way of importing Canadian drugs.

5) Let more drugs be sold over the counter. In other countries, safe, well-researched drugs like statins and birth-control pills are sold over the counter, thereby eliminating the prescriber and pharmacy middle-men for many drugs.

6) Give automatic approval to drugs approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Like Canadian drugs, these are as safe as FDA-approved drugs. The EMA’s approval process is at least at tough as that of the FDA, and the drugs are far cheaper, in most cases, than their American equivalents.

7) End direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs. These are those tv ads you see during the nightly news. They often encourage the public to buy more expensive drugs than they need.

8) Set prices based on the effectiveness of drugs. Compel drug companies to reveal, more transparently than they do now, just how well their drugs work compared to their cheaper competitors.

9) Control the “orphan drug” designation more tightly. An orphan drug is a drug used by very few patients. To get a pharmaceutical company to make and sell the drug, the government gives it a monopoly on the drug, and then allows it to charge whatever it wants—sometimes thousands of times what the drug costs to make. Many Big Pharma companies have found ways—too complex to go into here—to earn the “orphan” designation by skirting regulations.

10) Stop issuing patent monopolies on essential drugs, and have the government determine those drug prices. This has worked in other developed countries, but it won’t soon happen here—too many Big Pharma lobbyists. No sense tilting at windmills, so better to focus on items 1-9.

I take the drug on the left, which is necessary to save my kidneys. The drug comes in a vial the size of a AA battery (right).  Each vial costs $38,000.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Republican Chickens Come Home to Roost

Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Republican "Establishment"


George Wallace: Donald Trump's spiritual ancestor.

March 3, 2016

It’s time someone explained what commentators mean by the Republican “Establishment.” Here’s my answer.

Since the 1960s, the Republican party has had two very distinct constituencies:

1) The Ayn Rand Republicans. These are the red-baiting laissez-faire country-club capitalists: Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, the Koch brothers, Romney. They are mostly well-to-do—upper middle-class and richer. Many are professionals. Many own businesses. They love their money. They hate Commies. They are still fighting the Cold War. They see blue-collar workers as their water carriers, to be exploited. They have no respect for the very workers they are exploiting. (See how the Kochs use the Tea Party.) They embrace the status quo and fight like hell to combat change, especially if it threatens their bottom line.

2) The George Wallace Republicans. These are less-educated, white, working-class, racially embittered folks. Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Republicans have actively, and successfully, courted them, mosty, but not only, in the South. They believe “their” country is being taken over by people with whom they do not share skin color, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. They hate even the idea of foreigners entering the country. Many would prefer to see a return to an earlier era when blacks “knew their place,” when Jews and atheists were rarities, when “gay” meant “gleeful,” when women stayed at home to raise the kids, and when no one knew the difference between an Iraqi Sunni and an Oklahoma Sooner.

When people discuss the Republican “establishment,” they are talking, pure and simple, about the Ayn Rand Republicans. For years, this “establishment" has won elections by exploiting the fears of the George Wallace Republicans. Now the chickens have come home to roost: Donald Trump is leading the George Wallace Republicans against the Ayn Rand Republicans, and the latter ("The Establishment") are terrified that they are losing control of the ignorant masses whose votes they have bought so cheaply for years. You could see the fear in Mitt Romney's eyes this morning when he attacked Trump. What he was imagining was the Great Unwashed storming his limousine.

(Note: For those who are not familiar with Ayn Rand, you can read my take here.)

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Court—and the Country—After Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia (1936-2016)

Antonin Scalia has died. I disagreed with almost every decision Justice Scalia ever made on the Supreme Court, I objected to the kinds of inflammatory language he used in his decisions, and I found his originalist Constitutional philosophy absurd. But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, other court members, and almost everyone else liked him a lot as a private person, and that’s good enough for me to feel bad that he has died and to admire his life. I am glad, however, that the Court has one less ultraconservative justice.

I have said all along that the most important issue for me in the coming Presidential campaign is who will replace the elderly and/or ailing Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kennedy on the Supreme Court in the next few years. Now we have four justices who will soon be replaced. That’s going to determine the direction of the country for the next 20 or more years.  

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justice Anthony Kennedy

Justice Stephen Breyer
The Republican Senate will do everything it can to prevent Obama’s nominating someone to replace Scalia. Such obstructionism is reprehensible, but inevitable. For precedent, the Republicans should look to February of 1988, also a presidential election year, when a Democrat-controlled Senate confirmed Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had been nominated by Ronald Reagan. Unlike those Democrats, the Republicans of today will, as usual, simply say no.

If a Republican becomes president next year, it is likely we will soon have seven strict conservatives on the Supreme Court. If a Democrat is elected, it is likely we will have six moderates/liberals on the court. 

Any Republican-nominated Supreme Court justices will oppose women's choice, affirmative action, worker protections, consumer protections, corporate regulation, financial regulation, election-spending limits, LGBT rights, defendant rights, immigrant rights, the teaching of evolution, climate-change laws, other environmental regulations, science-based policies, and even the mildest gun-control laws. They will support the death penalty, evangelism in government and the schools, the teaching of creationism, and NSA/CIA spying on citizens. In other words, Republican justices will help us become the nation that Ted Cruz craves—a nation I would leave.
For us liberals, that means it is more important than ever that Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders be elected. 

Judge Sri Srinivasan
It’s most likely that Obama, hoping against hope that the Republicans act ethically, will nominate Sri Srinivasan for the Supreme Court vacancy left by Scalia. Here’s Srinivasan’s bio: . Note, especially, that he has argued more than 25 cases before the Supreme Court and was clerk for a moderate Republican-appointed justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. The Senate unanimously approved his appointment to the D.C. court of appeals just three years ago. It would be difficult for the Republicans to say now that he is not qualified. He’s only 48 years old, so he could have 30 or more years on the court. The fact that he was born in India and is brown-skinned should make him even more attractive—except to the Tea Party.

Judge Richard Posner
If Obama wants to put even more pressure on the Republicans, he might want to nominate Richard Posner, a judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Posner ( has a long history as a conservative, having always tended to emphasize the economic consequences of judicial positions, and is more or less pro-business. But he has also supported abortion rights and gay marriage. He is probably the most literate and scholarly of all the judges at any level in the U.S.; he has written scores of books, on a wide range of subjects. 

Posner may be the smartest and best-read judge in the world. I know him through the book Law and Literature, which I used in a "Literature and the Law" class I taught at Virginia Tech. It’s a fascinating book that taught me much about works I thought I knew well, like The Merchant of Venice, Camus' The Stranger, Kafka's The Trial, and Melville's Billy Budd. Posner's main appeal for Republicans, besides the fact that he is sort of conservative on economic issues, is that he is 77 years old, meaning that if he turns out to be too liberal for Republicans, at least they’ll know he won’t be around for long.

Will someone please send this suggestion on to President Obama?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


     Will Ted Cruz (above) go the way of Rick Santorum (near below) or George W. Bush (far below), who were also winners of the Iowa caucuses?                                           

For the record, I had predicted to my family last week that Ted Cruz would win 30% of the Iowa caucus vote, Donald Trump 20%, and Marco Rubio 15%. I wasn’t too far off with that prediction. I had also predicted that Jeb Bush would surprise everyone with 8-10% of the vote; I thought he had a decent ground game and would try harder there. I was way wrong about that. He never even put players in the field in Iowa.

I thought Bernie Sanders might edge out Hillary Clinton, but we all knew that would be close. (I thought it would depend on the weather: bad weather would be better for Hillary. It snowed.) Please note that as of today, Clinton has 384 delegates and Sanders only 29. That’s because Clinton has a large number of “super” delegates already committed to her.

The media is making far too much of Cruz’s win in Iowa. Remember that Mike Huckabee won Iowa in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. Where did they go from there? Iowa Republicans love a Bible thumper—especially one whose father is a preacher willing to Bible-beat on the hustings, like Cruz's padre. That skews everything. But Cruz has a much better chance than Huckabee or Santorum. He's more Machiavellian and won’t fold as meekly as they did.

Last week, I was away from my computer, so I couldn’t get my Iowa predictions out here on my blog, but now that I’m home, I will hang my New Hampshire prognostications on the line for all to see:

Here’s my prediction for New Hampshire:

Trump 25%
Rubio 15%
Cruz 15%
Bush 12%
Kazich 12%
Christie 9%
The rest 12%

Sanders 58%
Clinton 42%


These results should bring Bush and the other governors—Kasich and Christie—back into the race, but they may not, because the media will make a big deal about Trump winning, Hillary losing, and Cruz doing not so well, which is all nonsense. Iowa and New Hampshire, like any other individual states, offer warped versions of the U.S. electorate and should not get so much attention.

Super Tuesday, March 1, should be good for Cruz, since Texas and many Bible-belt states are on the line that day. Cruz will have a good night, and many will crown him king, but March 15 may be the real Super Tuesday, with Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, and Ohio all holding delegate-rich primaries in more moderate-, less evangelical-Republican states. If one or more of the governors can hang on until then (which may be difficult, since the media will try to consign them to history after March 1), then one of them may rise toward the top. I would tell Jeb to hold on until March 16.

Hillary will win Super Tuesday and cruise from there.

Who knows, for the Republicans, the way things are going, even New York’s April 19 primary may be meaningful this year!

(Here’s a good link that shows how the primaries work: .)

Monday, December 7, 2015


The sky is not falling. The recent killings in San Bernardino are horrific, tragic, and evil, but they should not drive us to generalized worry, much less to gape-mouthed fear, gun-buying panic, or further government degradation of our civil liberties.

Here are the facts: Gun deaths and gun injuries in the U.S. are way, way down over the last 20 years, even taking mass killings into account. Gun deaths are down about 50%; gun injuries are down more than 75%. Liberals don’t like to cite these figures because it undermines their call for greater gun control. Conservatives don’t like to cite these figures because conservatives feed on fear; the more afraid they can make people, the more they can claim that only they can protect us.

All of that annoys me. What absolutely infuriates me is that in the 1990s, the Republican Congress, at the behest of the NRA, defunded any attempt by the federal government to gather and analyze data about gun deaths and injuries. The Centers for Disease Control once tried to look at gun deaths and injuries as a public-health issue. The Republicans wouldn't allow it. The data about gun deaths and injuries thus have to be collected by private organizations like the Pew Research Center.

In any case, there is no need to be too alarmed about what happened in San Bernardino. Viewed against the big picture, the supposed proliferation of so-called "mass" shootings is a relatively small problem. In fact, the definition of a "mass" shooting is so vague that, by one definition, there have been only five such events in the U.S. in the past year; by another definition, there have been at least 350. The fear-mongers, of course, prefer the latter definition. But compared, for example, to the day-to-day shooting deaths in Chicago, "mass" shootings are not the central problem.

Even the killings in Paris should be viewed in perspective. In fact, the world's rate of violence has dropped precipitously and consistently over the past few centuries, and has continued to drop in this century. One week's news does not change that.

When a tragic event like the killings in San Bernardino and Paris happen, yes, it's appropriate to shed tears and shake one's fist at the heavens (or at ISIS). But don't listen to the Chicken Littles. The sky is not falling. The terrorists are not winning. Both liberals and conservatives, encouraged by the bloodthirsty media, are simply overreacting.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Republican Debate, 10/28/15: Untuned Instruments


A metaphor for last night's Republican debate.

Our house smells of skunk this morning. Must be because I watched the whole Republican debate last night. 
      Watching the debate was (to mix my metaphors) like listening to an orchestra of out-of-tune instruments: Almost every note rang false. Occasionally, almost by accident, the hint of an honest melody could be heard (generally from Kasich, Christie, or Bush). 
      The conductors of this orchestra—the CNBC panel of questioners—were even worse. Instead of using a baton, they used a flamethrower. Their questions were biased, loaded, and ill-stated when they weren’t trivial, irrelevant, or goading. They even argued with the candidates—certainly not their role. These people were (to switch metaphors again) the journalistic equivalent of blunt instruments. 
      On to winners and losers: If I were a Republican (which I am decidedly not), I would be most impressed by the performances of Rubio, Cruz, and Christie—all passionate Obama-bashers who know how to abuse the truth with great glibness.* Trump, Carson, and Fiorina will see their stars burn out by March. Kasich and Bush are the only ones I can abide, but Kasich has an awkward speaking style (iguana movements with his mouth) and poor Jeb is leaking protoplasm so fast that I suspect he will soon become invisible.

Jeb Bush as he leaks protoplasm.

      *  Note: The Republicans especially like to fudge the truth without (they believe) quite leaving themselves open to a bald accusation that they lie. But lie they do. For example, Rubio's claim last night that during last week's Benghazi hearings Hillary Clinton was proved to be a liar is based on the Republicans' intentional misreading of a statement she made in the week after the Benghazi attack. In that statement, Hillary said that "some people claim" the attack was a consequence of an anti-Muslim video that had been aired the previous week. In her statement (and this is the part the Republicans intentionally ignore) Hillary then goes on to say that, even if the video were the cause, it did not excuse the attack. The Republicans, in other words, intentionally misconstrue the point of her statement, which never claims the attack was the direct result of the video. Rubio lied.
      Here's another example of Republicans' playing fast and loose with the truth: For years Republicans have claimed, as Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina did last night, that, by many measures, the economy has either deteriorated or stagnated since "the day Obama first took office." That last phrase represents a very clever fudging of facts. During Obama's first eight months in office, the economy was still plummeting because of the Great Recession. More than 4 million jobs, for example, were lost in the first six months Obama was in office. But this was before Obama's economy policies could even take effect! A better measure of Obama's success or failure is to compare today's economic numbers with those of, say, September, 2009, when Obama's stimulus package began to be implemented. Such a comparison shows that, by almost every measure, the American economy is far healthier today than it was then. Do Bush and Fiorina lie? Not exactly. They simply distort the facts.

How to dress like a Republican for Halloween.