The Question of Options – The Health and Education Debates in the U.S.

Ideological and partisan mindsets can do much to foster inconsistent (and I daresay illogical) positions by people on all sides of the political spectrum. Below are examples of the initial phrase used in such ‘cart before the horse’ thinking:
– I’m for it because the Democrats …
– I’m a Republican and therefore am against…
– It’s socialist and …
– That’s crazy – it’s a market solution…

The issue of options in American public policy is a victim of this phenomenon. The issue of a public option in the present debate on health care reform in the U.S., and that of choice for parents and students in school education highlight how ideological and pre-judicial positions lead to completely inconsistent policy positions on the left and the right. There are good reasons why people in electoral politics maintain these inconsistent positions. What doesn’t make sense is why the general public follows their lead.

What is the general logic for expanding options (as the term is used in the health care debate) or choice (the preferred term in the education debate)? In one word, competition. If the present system results in an outcome where a large number of people are being ill-served, and if there is a prima facie case that the unsatisfactory outcome is because of monopolistic or oligopolistic market structures, then expanding options and choices will provide competition to the status quo providers of the services. Essentially, expanding options (or choice) is a policy intervention that deals with a market failure caused by a lack of competition.

Let us apply this logic to health care in the U.S. The present health care system is too expensive in general and a large number of people are not capable of receiving adequate medical attention when they are sick. One major reason for this is a lack of insurance, caused by how costly private insurance is. A solution to the problem of high cost of insurance is to introduce a public option – the ‘public’ meaning it is provided by the government, and ‘option’ meaning that those who prefer what the government offers to what the private sector offers may choose it. If the public option is affordable and attractive relative to what the private sector offers, then people will gravitate towards the public option. The obvious result will be that the private insurance market should respond to the much more attractive public option by becoming less expensive and offering better services. At the end of the day (I don’t get why this is a much reviled phrase), the general public will get a better insurance product at a cheaper price. The policy intervention (the public option) will help correct a market failure (lack of competition – interestingly, in great part a result of an act of Congress, the McCarran-Ferguson Act of 1945, which exempted insurance companies from federal anti-trust laws).

If the public option is competition enhancing, then why are most Republicans and some Democrats (RASD) in Congress against it, given that in principle they claim they are for competition? Apparently, their objection stems from the public part – that the government is doing it. In which case, RASD will do well to provide a non-public solution to the lack of competition problem in insurance markets, as they oppose the public option. Unfortunately, they have not done this. You don’t need deep training in political economy and a team of investigative journalists to figure out that those who oppose the public option have deep connections with insurance companies and dollars are involved. Opponents of the public option are trying to protect the market power of the insurance companies, at the expense of millions of folks getting more affordable healthcare insurance. Using the argument about the proposed option’s public nature is simply a ruse to kill the option to protect the interests of the insurance companies. A not so bad strategy in a country where bad-mouthing government and labeling many government programs ‘socialist’ works quite often. It makes sense that the RASD opposes public options – but why do a whole host of others follow?

However that does not mean that those who are for the public option in the health debate are always on the side of those who are getting a raw deal. They have their interest groups to protect too, and will sell the common person short in doing so. Here I’m thinking about the education sector. A great majority of K-12 students in the U.S. attend a public school. Public schools are run by local school boards funded by a combination of local, state, and federal tax dollars. There is a big range in the quality of these schools, and a not so small number of students receive a bad education in what are simply bad schools.

In most cases where you live determines which school you attend. Unfortunately if you are not well off financially then you get to live where you can afford to and your children go to the neighborhood schools. There is a strong correlation (with much causal underpinnings) between income level of neighborhood and quality of school – poorer the neighborhood, poorer the quality of the school. The way relatively wealthy families with school-going children determine where they live is to a great extent based on the quality of the school. So the relatively rich get to choose the school for their children, even if their children are going to public schools. And if your family has to stay in a neighborhood which has a bad public school, often there are expensive private school options which the family can avail. Very rich families who are dissatisfied with their very good public schools send their children to very expensive (and presumably very good) private schools. Put simply, if you are born into a poorer family the chances are much greater that you go to a worse school.

This wouldn’t be all that bad if the schools in poorer areas were relatively worse, but were decent in some absolute sense. However in a number of cases, enough to matter, the schools are terrible by any standard. One way to help students in bad schools (majority of whom will be from poorer families) is to give them a choice of either attending another public school in another neighborhood (or another school district), or by giving them the resources (vouchers) to attend private schools instead of a public school.

By and large such a policy move in education is opposed by a majority of Democrats in Congress (MOD), and close to no Republicans. The objection of the MOD comes from their interest in preserving the public aspect of education. They claim that their fear is that if competition to the public schools is introduced in the form of school choice for parents and students then a number of people may choose private schools (taking advantage of the vouchers) thereby weakening public schools. They surely must realize that the only reason a family will take advantage of a voucher to a private school is because it provides a better education than the public school. But even if there is some reason why there is a compelling State interest in preserving public education, that is only an argument against vouchers to private schools, not giving families and students the choice to attend any public school.

So why the opposition? Because the powerful teacher’s union the National Education Association (NEA) wants to ensure that the monopoly of public schools in education is maintained. The NEA is deeply connected with the Democratic Party and the adults are serving each other’s interests when many a child suffers. The detrimental effects of having a strong teacher’s union, and no choice for parents goes a long way in perpetuating incompetence in many a public school. I do not know the NEA’s position on competition across public schools (both across neighborhoods in the same school district, and across different school districts), but suspect that they are do not strongly support it. I’ll be happy to be corrected on this, but my suspicions are because if they were for it, it would have happened! Again, it makes sense why the MOD are opposed to school choice – but why do a whole host of others follow?

Isn’t it interesting… by and large in Congress, those who are for the public option in the health insurance market on the grounds that increased competition is good, oppose school choice and vouchers; by and large, those who are for school choice and vouchers in education on the grounds that increased competition is good, oppose the public option in the health insurance market? Special interest groups have made ‘public’ and ‘private’ interests dominate the debate – when the real issue is competition.

Finally, to put my cards on the table – I’m for options and choices – both the public option in health care, and public and private choice in education. Looks like we’ll get neither in the near future, given that the cart will be placed before the horse by many an American.

The Art of Living – A Personal Experience

I am cynical of religion in general and Godmen in particular. I am very suspicious of anyone who claims or institutionally organizes claims to be closer to the Divine than the rest of us plebians. Not that I can do much given my suspicions. I simply stay away.

However, word came down that the Sudarshana Kriya Course taught at the Art of Living Foundation (AOL) was worth trying. A friend in Singapore told me so after a couple of beers in a bar behind a Borders bookstore in Singapore. That was after a second cousin who is deeply involved with the AOL, teaching courses and trying to convince people that breathing right will put them on the road less traveled but more fruitful, had been trying to get me to try it for a long time.. Her attempts to get me to do the Sudarshana Kriya course were met with my initial polite deflections. She didn’t stop trying to persuade me till I clearly told her that I’d do what she wanted me to, if she did what I wanted her to – and I wanted her to stop dishing out unsolicited advice. My friend convinced me to do what my cousin wanted me to do – I enrolled in a Sudarshana Kriya course. Below is how I feel about it three weeks after participating in the course.

There are two aspects to the course – the physical part and the psycholo….okay call it what it really is – the brainwashing part! I’ll deal with these two separately.

The physical part of the course consists of two parts – an initial set of breathing exercises which apparently prepares one to do the Kriya itself. The Kriya consists of a series of rhythmic breathing sequences and ends with a meditative rest. The entire process takes about half-an-hour to do. It’s now been about three weeks and I do it more or less everyday. My sense is that I was taught the mechanics pretty well – though I don’t have independent confirmation of how well I’m doing it. Maybe I’ll ask my cousin to evaluate my technique the next time I’m in India! And my guess is that I’ll keep doing it till I know it’s doing no harm, or am certain that it will do no good.

It was the other part of the ‘course’ that was troubling. Many a tip on how to live well was passed along. Some of the stuff made sense – you can only control your actions. But some stuff was debatable – don’t worry about a person’s intentions, because as the Guruji would say, it only causes tension! My trouble was not that it was debatable, but it wasn’t debated. The course instructor would state a proposition, preface it with a “You know” and end it with a “Right” in a sing song way. And the six or seven of us course participants would nod in agreement. There was no discussion, just acceptance of wisdom, even when there was none.

You don’t understand, you say. Let me give you an example. On the final day we were told, “You know, have you noticed people who do seva (service) but not sadhana (live right) do not seem happy, – have you noticed? Right?” And we all, once again said, “Yes!” Actually that’s not the whole truth. This time I objected. I not only disagreed with the notion that those who did seva but not sadhana were unhappy, but really didn’t know how to identify whether or not people who did seva did sadhana, to have an opinion on the need for seva and sadhana to exist for one to walk the path of bliss. I went a step further and protested that the my fellow students and I were acting like a cult, and told the instructor that he was being profoundly judgmental. “Do you know what a cult is?” thundered the instructor who earlier had advised us that we may show anger, though we must not be angry. He carried on, “The Art of Living is not a cult, and you are being judgmental!” I never accused the Art of Living of being a cult, so the response was quite revealing. And when I got the ‘you are what you are accusing me of being’ response, I felt like I was having one of those occasional conversations with my spouse.

The other part was the massive public relations drive on behalf of the Guruji. We were told how the Guruji was our instructor’s idol – “I idolize Shri Shri.” And there was good reason to. For it was the blessings of the Guruji that led to a series of completely improbable (actually impossible, but who’s keeping track) series of events, that got our instructor to go to India to do the teacher’s course – I won’t bore you with the details, but the invisible hand of the Guruji did play a role! Another time the Guruji played a role was when our instructor once told his boss that he would work from home when he had AOL affairs to attend to, did no work, but was given a bonus of $7,000 for his good work. No prizes for guessing who was responsible for this sequence of events! But the most bizarre story was about his mother who came to the U.S. and got very sick after eating out. She had a miserable night and in the morning the instructor on his way to the local drug store thought within and asked his Guruji why his mother was going through this suffering – if she was in India a doctor would come and see her at home – after all they came from a well to do family in India. He then called a friend who suggested he call a doctor. And the doctor insisted that he will come and see the patient at home on his way to the hospital. This story may well be true. What I find troubling is the sense that someone far away was listening to the anguished plea and responded. I’m simply left to ask, why weren’t the good wishes and positive energy not used to make sure that the mother didn’t get sick in the first place? Like all the others, this time even I stayed silent, and nodded my head. Happy to be a trouble maker a couple of times, but even I don’t overdo it.

Much more of a not so complementary nature can be said about not so subtle attempts to present the AOL and the Guruji in positive light. But I think I’ve made my point. Suffice to say, my problem with all forms of organized religion/spirituality was reconfirmed. While it is possible that either for real or psychosomatic reasons good comes out of these institutions, the level of sycophancy and personal attribution of power and powers to some of our fellow humans boggles the mind. I’ll never understand the worship of other humans, but I am happy to see if breathing a certain way will have a positive impact in my life. If it will, I’ll carry on breathing in purposeful fashion.