Thursday, October 29, 2009

Colossal failure of government and ethics

Swine flu (H1N1) is coming, maybe big-time, and there’s not enough vaccine to go around. What to do? This flu is unlike the annual “seasonal” flu: it’s dangerous, even deadly, to healthy young adults to whom seasonal flu is just a nuisance. Seniors, who are at serious risk from seasonal flu, seem to be resistant to the disease.

So the CDC, the U.S. Government’s Centers for Disease Control, recommended that, as long as vaccine was in short supply it be allocated according to these priorities, based on risk:

  1. Pregnant women
  2. Household contacts and caregivers for infants younger than 6 months
  3. Healthcare and emergency medical services
  4. All people from 6 months through 24 years of age
  5. Persons aged 25 through 64 years who have health conditions associated with higher risk of medical complications from influenza.

When Los Angeles County set up free clinics to immunize people at highest risk, lots of healthy people over 24 years old—and therefore the least vulnerable population—showed up, got the vaccine, and caused many centers to run out before they could take care of the most vulnerable. Dr. Jonathan Fielding, L.A. County public health director disclaimed responsibility for the screw-up: “What do we say [to people who came a distance with their families]—we’ll do your children but we won’t do you?”

Well, duh! What do you think we have a county public health department for, Dr. Fielding? Orange County, by contrast, refused vaccine to people who didn’t need it. So did Phoenix and Las Vegas, according to the Los Angeles Times.

How about the healthy older adults who got their dose at the expense of someone who could die from H1N1? How ethical is that!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Terrific new book on ethics

When Mick Ukleja and I wrote The Ethics Challenge, we aimed for an easy fun read and practical guide to leading a fuller, more ethical life. We concentrated on stories that illustrated the real-life application of the ethics we all started to learn as children. We thought that theory was rather dull, and relegated it to an appendix.

But now comes a new book, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? by Harvard professor Michael Sandel, that goes deep into theory in a fascinating way. If you want to learn more about ethics read Sandel’s book (after ours, of course). And if you want to read a short op-ed that tells you a little more about Justice, read “Giving democracy a dose of clarity,” by Michael Gerson in today’s Washington Post:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Obama calls Bernanke assistant a “K Street whore”

Well, maybe not exactly, but when you praise someone who did just that you’re endorsing the sentiment.

Congressman Alan Grayson (D-Fl) recently criticized Linda Robertson, a Congressional affairs assistant to Ben Bernanke, saying "Here I am the only member of Congress who actually worked as an economist, and this lobbyist, this K Street whore, is trying to teach me about economics."

A month ago Grayson said on the House floor that the Republican health care plan was “Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.” He was praised for this by Keith Olbermann and Arianna Huffington.

It now appears that Grayson’s behavior is up to the standards of President Obama, who last night acknowledged Grayson at a Florida fundraiser as one of Florida’s “outstanding members of Congress."

Grayson’s behavior has been condemned by several Democratic congressmen, but it appears to be ok with the President. Where’s candidate Obama who promised to change the tone of Washington? We miss him.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ethics wins for Oregon

Sometimes when you do the right thing fate intervenes on your side.

Seven weeks ago this column praised Oregon football coach Chip Kelly for valuing sportsmanship over winning. Kelly had just thrown his best player, running back LeGarrette Blount, off the team for sucker-punching a Boise State player after Boise State defeated Oregon in the season opener. We thought Kelly’s action might cost the Ducks a shot at the Pac 10 championship and a profitable Rose Bowl appearance.

Kelly moved freshman LaMichael James into the starting lineup, and James has merely averaged 131 yards per game in the games he’s started. Oregon’s now won six straight, and is the only Pac 10 team undefeated in conference play.

Virtue rewarded!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Dithering and Dick Cheney’s chutzpah

Nobody ever said Dick Cheney lacked chutzpah. He has criticized Obama for taking over the economy, even though the huge flow of cash into Wall Street came under Bush-Cheney (with Obama’s support). He excoriated Obama’s for ending torture, claiming it was making America less safe, even though John McCain, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and many others believe that the Bush-Cheney torture policy created thousands of dedicated, active enemies of America. He blasted Obama for running up huge deficits even though Bush-Cheney turned a budget surplus into the biggest deficit in American history.

But his most vile display of chutzpah and hypocrisy came this week when he said President Obama "seems afraid to make a decision" about General McChrystal’s call for 40,000 more U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

"The White House must stop dithering while America's armed forces are in danger," Cheney said in a speech at the Center for Security Policy on Oct. 21.

Dithering, huh? How about when, in mid-2008, General McChrystal’s predecessor in Afghanistan asked for three more combat brigades—about 15,000-20,000 more troops. The request was ignored for the last eight months of Bush-Cheney. Not until February 17, 2009, was the increase approved—not by Bush-Cheney, but by President Obama on his twenty-seventh day in office.

It’s certainly legitimate for the ex-Vice President to criticize President Obama, but the savage and hypocritical carping on serious national security issues is simply ugly politics at our nation’s expense.

Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, had the right analysis of Cheney’s criticism. “What Vice President Cheney calls ‘dithering,’ President Obama calls his solemn responsibility to the men and women in uniform and to the American public,” Gibbs said. “I think we’ve all seen what happens when somebody doesn’t take that responsibility seriously.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Little lies to get at big truths

The National Press Club audience was listening Monday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spokesperson announce the Chamber’s sudden decision to reverse course and support climate change legislation. Suddenly another spokesperson for the Chamber burst into the room and announced that he was the real Chamber spokesperson, and that the whole press conference was a fraud.

The fraud was perpetrated by the Yes Men, a group who, in the words of their leader, “tell little lies to get at bigger truths.” The leader, Igor Vamos, appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Meeting pretending to be Mike Bonanno, and regaled host Dylan Ratigan with glories of past frauds, like impersonating Dow Chemical representatives on BBC and announcing that Dow would provide $12 billion compensation to victims of the tragic gas leak at Bhopal, India, which killed nearly 4000 people in 1984. Dow stock plummeted.

Pretty cute, eh?

The Yes Men believe that business is evil and must be brought “in line with our [i.e., the Yes Men’s] moral and ethical sensibilities.” The New York Times praised their movie: “It is great fun to watch them do their dirty work.

You don’t have to like the Chamber to believe that lying to advance one’s “moral and ethical sensibilities” is unethical. And it shouldn’t be great fun to watch.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Ethics Challenge of Health Care

The ethics challenge: daring Democrats and Republicans to find a balanced solution to health care reform
  • The need for reform
  • The kind of reform we need
  • The process of reform

The need for reform of one-sixth of our economy
  • What kind of people are we? Most of us are doing fine, for now, but
  • --40 million of our neighbors have no health insurance
  • --millions more fear losing their jobs and therefore their insurance
  • Health care will break the federal budget within a decade or so, or—more likely—will lead to severe cutbacks in care and big increases in cost
  • Are we satisfied with a system that takes care of us while leaving our neighbor to suffer?

What kind of reform do we need?
An ethical reform means—
  • Giving everyone the chance for affordable coverage
  • Paying for benefits as we use them; not passing down the bills to our children and grandchildren.

What process do we use to get there?
Start with some truth-telling—
  • There are no death panels, Senator Grassley, your grandma is safe.
  • There will be rationing, President Obama. It’s true that there already is rationing—just ask anyone whose treatment has been denied by their insurance company—but there will be more, as forty million people are added to a system while costs are being cut from Medicare.
  • The insurance companies are already telling the truth about costs going through the roof without a powerful mandate requiring healthy people to buy insurance. (Absent such a mandate young healthy people will stay out of the system until they’re sick and need coverage—which all the reform bills prohibit the insurance companies from denying.)

There are good ideas on both sides of the aisle
  • Not matched by much good will on either side of the debate.
  • Too many lines drawn—
  • --no public option (nearly all Republicans)
  • --no bill without a public option (Speaker Pelosi and many Democrats).
  • Members of Congress are choosing up sides rather than working together to meet the ethics challenge. Both sides see danger where there is only difference. Neither seems willing to solve the problems without casting blame.

How to get the nation to real reform?
  • Televise sessions on C-Span, like the President promised during the campaign
  • Democrats commit to an inclusive process that listens to the concerns of the Republicans and the insurance industry
  • Republicans commit to participate in good-faith negotiations
  • Both sides leave ideology behind
  • e.g., the private sector is greedy, immoral, and irresponsible
  • e.g., the government can’t run a two-car funeral
The nation needs the best of both parties.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Reinhold Niebuhr award for Obama

Last week the Reinhold Niebuhr award for bringing good temper and integrity into the political fight* went to John McCain. This week it goes to Barack Obama.

When Obama acknowledged Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal at his New Orleans town hall Thursday, boos rang out.

Obama held up his hand for silence. "No, no, Bob is doing a good job," the president told the crowd. “Hey hey, hold on a sec Hold on.

“Bobby, first of all if it makes you feel any better, I get that all the time," he went on to laughter from the crowd. “More seriously, and the second point is, even though we have our differences politically, one thing I will say is that this person is working hard on behalf of the state, and you gotta give people credit for working hard." The audience, chastened, turned from boos to cheers.


* Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, ‘The temper of and integrity with which the political fight is waged is more important for the health of our society than the outcome of any issue or campaign.’”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rush Limbaugh discredited by the left

Rush Limbaugh explained Thursday why he had been removed from the group trying to buy the St. Louis Rams football team.

“This is the latest attempt by the left to discredit any of us who believe what we believe. Um, Sarah Palin and the others. We’re pioneers, and pioneers always take the arrows.”

Oh, really, Rush? Maybe they kicked you off after several players said they’d rather not play football than play for you because they consider you a racist. Maybe because you said on January 19, 2007 “The NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips [notorious gangs, both all black] without any weapons. There, I said it.”

Or maybe because back in 2003 you said of Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, "I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."

You’re right about one thing, though. Many on the left (and on the right, too) are out to discredit you because of what you believe. And they don’t think what you believe is decent in 21st century America.

Building character at Oklahoma State U

Ethics isn’t just how we behave, it’s what we tolerate. Intolerance of misbehavior is what sets West Point’s Honor Code apart as an example for the world: "A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do."

That’s not Oklahoma State University’s honor code. OSU has formally asked the National Collegiate Athletic Association to reinstate their All-American wide receiver, Dez Bryant, who was ruled ineligible indefinitely for lying to an NCAA investigator. The University asked the NCAA to consider "unique circumstances" and hand down a lighter punishment.

The unique circumstances? Here’s Bryant’s explanation: "I just panicked because I was scared and afraid that I was in some kind of trouble."

Sport is supposed to develop character. What kind of character is OSU developing?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hip hip hooray for ethical Olympia Snowe

Here’s an easy two-part checklist to size up a politician’s ethical standard:

· Is she applying her energies to governing (rather than just to getting elected)?

· Is she following Niebuhr’s call for temper and integrity in the fight?

I don’t know where Snowe is going to come out on subsequent votes on health care reform—neither does she. But she gets three cheers for her justification for yesterday’s yes vote in committee:

"When history calls, history calls. And I happen to think that the consequences of inaction dictate the urgency of Congress to take every opportunity to demonstrate its capacity to solve the monumental issues of our time," Snowe said after her vote Tuesday.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Up with McCain, down with Steele

My touchstone of ethics in politics is from Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “The temper of and integrity with which the political fight is waged is more important for the health of our society than the outcome of any issue or campaign.”

Test it against the reactions of two Republicans to today’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama.

From Republican National Chairman Michael Steele, petty meanness: “The real question Americans are asking is, ‘What has President Obama actually accomplished?’ It is unfortunate that the president’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights."

From Senator John McCain (R-AZ), gracious generosity: “I congratulate President Obama on receiving this prestigious award. I join my fellow Americans in expressing pride in our President on this occasion.”

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sportsmanship in the Big ten, but not at Ohio State

If you believe in sportsmanship you have to like the Big Ten Conference’s suspension of Ohio State safety and captain Kurt Coleman for a “helmet-to-helmet hit” on a “defenseless opponent” with the Buckeyes leading Illinois, 30-0 and just seconds remaining in the game.

Sadly, Buckeye coach Jim Tressel objected to the suspension, calling it poor judgment to suspend the player. Nice message to the fans, especially the kids, Jim. And the point in savaging a defenseless second-string quarterback at the end of a game you’re winning by 30-0 is…? Sportsmanship?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Pelosi-Rangel: Which twin is the corrupt one?

Charles Rangel (D-NY) chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, perhaps the second or third most powerful position in the House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Speaker of the House, promised in 2006 to oversee the "most ethical Congress in history" and end what she called "the culture of corruption" when Republicans ruled the House.

Rangel has admitted failing to report half of his assets (he forgot) on the financial disclosure report that all members of Congress and senior executive branch people must file. He also forgot to report upwards of $75,000 in rental income on the form or on his tax return. The House Ethics Committee has had his case for sixteen months—no action yet.

Today Pelosi beat back a Republican resolution to strip Rangel of his chairmanship. Seems her ethical standard is offended by corrupt Republicans but not by corrupt Democrats. What does that make her?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Send Eric Cantor a copy of the Constitution

The President met today with Congressional leaders of both parties to discuss the ongoing review of American strategy on Afghanistan. After the meeting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told CNN that Democrats and Republicans said they would back Obama on whatever decision he makes.

But to the contrary, House Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) said that Republicans would support him "if he makes the right decision, which is to listen to his commanders in the field who are asking desperately for more troops."

So Cantor’s party will support the field commanders, regardless of what the Commander in Chief decides, and regardless of what Obama's chief military advisors--Defense Secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen--advise. Whatever became of civilian control? Guess it’s not in Cantor’s copy of the Constitution.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Is it funny? Or racism?

Ann Coulter uses language to shock, as when she said that Jews need "to be perfected" and suggested the nation would be better off if it were all-Christian.

Her blog is headed by a frequent update of "LIBERAL LIES ABOUT NATIONAL HEALTH CARE.” In the latest posting she attributes the Democrats’ loss of Congress in 1994 to Clinton’s sudden transformation from “an old-school, moderate Democrat” to “Che Guevara.”

Then she punctuates her argument with this question: “What is it with all our black presidents and these bait-and-switch tactics?”

It’s meant to be funny because Clinton sometimes was called the first black President. But it’s not funny any more than perfecting Jews was funny. Obama is our President, not our black President.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

OK to break faith if you’re clever?

Lots of praise for ex-Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer’s tell-all book about what he heard in the Bush White House. “Hilarious,” wonderful, “excellent.” And lots of criticism from Bush loyalists: “high-schoolish, “unimportant,” “little punk.”

The ethical issue isn’t whether it’s a good book, or whether Latimer is a little punk. Ethics means keeping one’s commitments and living up to reasonable expectations. Latimer was privileged to hear lots of things in confidence. And made a commitment, even if implicit, to keep the confidences.

Even though the tales he told were juicy, even that they may be useful to historians, that doesn’t make it right.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A blow for civility by Lindsay Graham

Hooray for Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) for denouncing Glenn Beck as a cynic and birthers as "crazy." Extra credit for politicians calling out people on their own side. He also said that Republicans need to support President Barack Obama on foreign policy issues.

Here's part of his interview with The Atlantic:

We’re all in this together…or are we?

President Obama is conducting a review of our Afghanistan strategy with the key national leaders—Secretary of Defense Gates, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen, Centcom commander General Petraeus, and Afghanistan force commander, General McChrystal. Good idea, to make sure we’ve got the strategy right before we commit up to 40,000 more American troops?

Not according to House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA), who accused the President of “delaying, that puts in jeopardy, I believe, our men and women."

Cantor, or his staff, had the smidge of decency to recant—somewhat. His spokesman afterward, acknowledged that the president is "entitled" to review the decision for a few weeks but should not prolong it for months.