The Humanitarian Sensibility

woodcut of kneeling man in shackles
The humanitarian sensibility is the capacity to be moved by suffering we are not experiencing ourselves. It is especially remarkable when the suffering that moves us is remote, not present to our senses, but requires an imaginative empathic response.  The desire to relieve distant suffering or right abstract wrongs is an outgrowth of the humanitarian sensibility.  It is an active and extended form of charity.

The humanitarian sensibility is not innate–it is a product of culture, and not found in all societies, but where it is present it has profound consequences, both in the present and historically.  We can see it operating to various degrees in the Syrian refugee crisis, just as we can discern its utter absence in the perpetrators whose violence has led millions to flee Syria and its environs.  Historically, the humanitarian sensibility has powered innumerable movements, including the drive to abolish slavery in the Western world, beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The humanitarian impulse, though not peculiar to the West, is a living expression of Biblical precepts and the natural rights tradition on which democratic government rests.  It carries the Biblical injunction to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ to its farthest possibility, leading Westerners to battle hunger and disease afflicting other continents, to give to Haitian disaster relief, to correct cleft palates and blindness wherever they are found, and to support female rights and rights activists like Malala Yousafzai.  The drive to minister to the world is noble, but it is not universally shared.  And in the US, we can see the limits of that sensibility, as when our government turned away children from Latin America, who came here seeking refuge from the violence and exploitation of the drug trade.

Image: from this source.
The emblem of the beseeching slave with the question “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”
first gained circulation in the 1780s as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England.
The design was rendered in many forms,
on coins, in ceramic by Josiah Wedgwood, and as a woodcut, as here.
This powerful graphic appealed to viewers to look beyond differences of race and condition
to acknowledge the common humanity that linked free people with the enslaved.
This particular woodcut appeared on an American broadside to illustrate
John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1837 poem, ‘Our Countrymen in Chains.’

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Why not challenge the constitutionality of Illinois’s pension-protection clause?

pensions-photo
Illinois citizens are expected to sit tight as the cost of meeting state and local pension obligations brings their government ever nearer to bankruptcy.  Everyday, we hear of a new head-ache: how our property-taxes are likely to begin sky-rocketing, or how short-term borrowing to pay pensions will soon destroy Chicago’s bond rating, and how people are leaving the state to avoid being stuck with the costs when the looming disaster of all-out bankruptcy finally arrives.  Yet no matter how painful to the citizenry, our government must rake together the money for public-pension obligations that are burgeoning.

All because a section of the Illinois constitution stipulates that, no matter what, one class of Illinois citizens can count on protections that no others can: the benefits of belonging to a state pension system must not be diminished or impaired.  In the service of this constitutional provision, the state may be driven into bankruptcy and the rest of the population held forever accountable for promises that by-gone politicians irresponsibly made.  The needs of ordinary citizens are being choked off so that those of lawmakers and public workers may be fulfilled.

The power of the legislature to pass laws conferring benefits on themselves and other public workers is difficult to limit.  The pension ‘system’ in Illinois is an irrational bricolage of myriad laws passed over the decades.  The Chicago Tribune has described it as a “convoluted mess of provisions riddled with giveaways, funding flaws, excessive borrowing, and pension holidays.”  The pension code is organic in the sense that’s easy to add to, but any benefit, once added, is virtually impossible to take away.

Consequently, the state’s pension system is an unholy mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  It pays pensions to convicted felons like Jon Burge and to brazen scoundrels who had the luck to head up our towns and public universities.  It pays millions of dollars in benefits to cagey officials who correctly perceived the advantages of ‘double-dipping.’  The fact that citizens are powerless to curb the excesses of the pension system feeds hostility to it, to the detriment of many decent and deserving public employees.

Why not take a page from the four Virginians who have mounted a potentially game-changing challenge to the Affordable Care Act by questioning the meaning of just one of its phrases?  Should the public welfare of Illinois be sacrificed to secure the well-being of one special class in perpetuity?  In fact, the pension provision defines a special class of citizens in terms of their distinctive relationship to the state and then confers unassailable privileges on them.  How can this be constitutional?

 Membership in any pension or retirement system of the
State, any unit of local government or school district, or
any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an
enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which
shall not be diminished or impaired.

As matters stand, the pension provision has become the yardstick against which any pension-reform legislation must be fearfully measured.  Sensible legislation has been struck down while legality of this patently odious and inegalitarian provision has gone challenged.  Illinois citizens should stand up and challenge the constitutionality of the pension provision itself.  A requirement that leads to such unfair and destructive outcomes is an affront to the larger purpose of government.  Does it really trump every other principle of constitutional law?

Given the urgency of Illinois’s fiscal condition, this question should be engaging the state’s best legal minds.

RELATED
Susan Barsy, “The Pension Stand-Off in Illinois”

Use Post Offices to Turn Obamacare Enrollment Into a Smashing Success

Remember that vast chain of derided properties that the US postal service owns?  Have you recently driven or walked past a post office?  I bet that you have.

With some 32,000 post offices in virtually every inhabited corner of the country, the postal service offers a nexus for interacting with the public that few other federal entities can rival.  For this reason, in the past US post offices have sometimes been made to serve double duty.  Until recently, the IRS used the post offices to make printed tax forms available to taxpayers.  The Selective Service has used the post office for decades for draft registration.  Post offices house passport services on behalf of the State Department.  Historically, the post office has been the communications hub connecting the government at Washington with the people at large.  The local, face-to-face character of the post office makes it ideal for placing an initiative within reach of the people.

Now, the Department of Health and Human Services could use the post offices to facilitate Americans’ enrollment in ACA-compliant health-insurance policies listed on the federal insurance exchange.  Even if the HealthCare.gov website were fixed overnight, most citizens could still use help figuring out how to apply—how to negotiate the website—their eligibility for subsidies—that sort of thing.  Given all the concern about the under-utilization of post offices as federal property, pressing them into service at this juncture would be a crowd-pleaser—one justified on grounds of efficiency, too.  Teams of HHS and IRS personnel (or even volunteers from Americorps) could be enlisted to staff these physical exchanges, where citizens could learn about the policies and sign up for them, with the aid of old-fashioned paper forms, if need be.  The New York Times recently reported on the success of one such face-to-face state-level system in Kentucky.

I sincerely hope that the Administration will think more creatively about how to bring Obamacare’s promises to the public without more delay.  Given the vast resources of the government, there is no single right way, but many ingenious strategies that will advance the nation toward attaining health-care coverage for all.

© 2013 Susan Barsy

The Greening of American Workers

FSA photo of Illinois railroad worker William London, 1942 (Courtesy Library of Congress via the Commons on Flickr)

Industrial America has ever been one of environmentalism’s staunchest enemies.  Efforts to set higher standards for food and drug safety, for purer air and water, and for cleaner and less toxic methods in agriculture, manufacturing, and the extractive industries must all contend with this constant drag.  The pollution and spoliation of our environment and the globe’s finite resources is ongoing.  One wonders what lever might be applied, in addition to the tired ones of law and conscience.

Looking at this picture suggests another form of pressure, namely, the green convictions of a younger generation of American workers.  Many children of factory workers, for instance, now refuse to consider careers in manufacturing, for the simple reason that they see it as dangerous and dirty.  And when we look at many of the ugly industrial regions on the country, with their belching smokestacks and their tankers of waste, we can easily see why they disapprove.

I wonder whether in time the greening of America’s young people might have a powerful effect in getting American industry to clean up, too.  The US economy will wither if its productive enterprises can no longer claim the loyalty and commitment of its most talented and discerning youth.

Image from this source.

Kickstarter a Natural for PBS

PBS has been running a lot of fund-raising appeals lately.  Many of its programs and syndicates are falling on hard times.  The quality of the funding appeals themselves has deteriorated.  Having station staff pitch the idea of publicly supported television against a backdrop of volunteers manning the phone banks is mighty antiquated.  The staleness quotient is rising, with viewers subject to longer stretches of drab programming and funding appeals.

Public television forgets how cool it is.  Many of its programs have great popular appeal.  The most enticing of them should be pitched on Kickstarter, where they have a chance of attracting a new sort of following and where a closer, more synergistic relationship between producers and consumers of public TV could exist.

Crowd-sourcing could be used to fund more home-grown “Masterpiece Theater” type programming.  It could be a tool for cultivating the niche audiences that political, historical, and scientific documentaries need.  It would be great to see more American-made historical dramas capable of supplanting imported BBC productions like “Downton Abbey,” for instance.  There are so many great American stories that have yet to be told!

RECOMMENDED/RELATED:
Crowdfunding Could Be New Model for PBS, Sustainable Business.
This is My Brain on Kickstarter, NYT.
Three Years of Kickstarter Projects, NYT.

Should We Treat Guns More Like Cars?

Where Felons Get Their Guns (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

If our goal is to reduce gun violence, we must re-conceptualize the discourse around guns and focus more on the risks and responsibilities that go along with gun-owning.


As of 2 October 2015,
The Firearm Insurance Requirement Act
is the subject of a White House petition.
Sign the petition by clicking here.


We seldom talk about the responsibilities that positively accompany owning a gun.  “Gun control,” the issue we argue about instead, quickly organizes itself around several fixed and immutable nodes, in which the same few phrases—”individual rights,” “2nd Amendment,” and “semi-automatic weapons”—invariably feature.  If people from opposing camps talk about the issue at all, conversation quickly becomes so dichotomized it stalls.  We need new ideas to get beyond the strategic and ideological stalemate.  We need to stop focusing on inanimate objects (guns) and start talking about people.

We can’t even come to the point of agreeing that gun violence is a problem.  People who have seen gun violence up close understandably want to rein in irresponsible use, but they too often fall into the trap of assuming that if gun ownership were limited, the problem of gun violence would go away.  On the other side of the issue are law-abiding and responsible gun-owners (who make up a majority), who bridle at proposals that essentially criminalize and stigmatize their activities.

The huge population of Americans who own and use guns responsibly is not the problem.  Gun violence results when guns are used irresponsibly: when a person is careless, criminal, crazy, or enraged.  A gun is a tool.  How guns are used in our society is a function of our culture as much as our laws.

While the Second Amendment makes it difficult to regulate gun ownership, we can hope to change how guns are used and treated in our culture.  As Clarence Page has pointed out on the McLaughlin Group, some countries with high rates of gun ownership have low rates of gun violence.  Becoming such a society should be our goal.

World map of countries, by number of guns per 100 residents (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Is there something to be gained from “normalizing” gun ownership, while at the same time expecting at least as much from a gun owner as from a person who owns a car?  The parallel is useful, because car ownership offers a positive instance of incorporating a potentially lethal instrument into our culture in a way that minimizes risk and maximizes safety.

Like guns, cars, though useful, can be dangers to their owners and to other people.  Which is why we, as a society, require that cars be registered, and that their drivers be educated and licensed.  Moreover, to ensure that those who wish to own and drive cars do so without cost to others, we require that owners buy auto insurance.  Auto insurance companies ply a flourishing trade, because they have discovered just how to assess all the various risks and costs associated with a particular individual owning a particular car.

No one questions our “right” to own an automobile.  There are millions and millions of vehicles and drivers on American streets.  Meanwhile, however, a structure has evolved around car-owning intended to ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, we do it safely.

Get the insurance industry involved

Treating guns like cars, and insuring them, could have many benefits.  Some of the benefits would accrue to gun-owners; others to society collectively.  In particular, insurers could place an actuarial value on the specific hazards involved in the ownership of a specific gun.  Individuals wishing to buy semi-automatic weapons would be free to do so, but the insurance costs would provide an incentive to think twice and go easy.

Individual gun owners would have an incentive to see that guns insured in their name were not used in the commission of crime.  They would have a stronger incentive to report the loss or theft of a gun promptly.  Nearly half of all firearms used in the commission of felonies are lost, stolen, or borrowed.  Drawing a sharper line between criminal gun use and legal gun ownership would in itself encourage more personal responsibility.

A more market-oriented approach to reducing gun violence would open up a whole new field for the insurance industry, and might gain more support among lawmakers than does the state-heavy approach that most liberals tout now.  This approach might also foster an alliance between legal gun owners and other law-abiding citizens, an alliance that is essential if we hope to minimize gun violence in our time.


REMEMBER: As of 2 October 2015,
The Firearm Insurance Requirement Act
is the subject of a White House petition.
Sign the petition by clicking here.


Top Image: Where felons get their guns, from this source.
(If you know of a more recent version of this figure, please contact me.)

Bottom image: World map of countries by number of guns per capita, from this source.

RELATED:
Nicholas Kristoff, A New Way to Tackle Gun Deaths, NYT, October 3, 2015.
House Bill Would Require Gun Owners to Have Liability Insurance, The Hill, May 29, 2015.
Nicholas Kristoff, Our Blind Spot About Guns, NYT, July 2014.
Gun Deaths Exceed in Motor Vehicle Deaths in Ten States, Huffington Post, May 2012.
Suburban Shops Main Source of Guns in Chicago Crimes, Chicago Tribune, August 2012.
Alvarez: Law Could Discourage “Straw Buyers” of Guns, Chicago Sun-Times, September 2012.

This article was featured on the #Gun Crisis: Philadelphia website.