The Price of Embodiment

One of my friends finds the idea of things having prices to be downright offensive. College, for example should be free, because you can’t put a price on something that has such a powerful effect on one’s life. Many of my friends believe the healthcare should be completely free because you can’t put a value on human life. To even attempt to do so is morally wrong. But lets unpack this concept.

To say that all life has infinite value is the same thing as saying it has no value. In the realm of the non-embodied, there may (I wouldn’t know) be no need to pick and choose between one thing or another, or how one spends one’s time (whatever that might mean in such a context). But we live on Earth. If all things are equally valuable, how can we decide how to designate the limited amount of time and energy we have to use? If both Mary and Eva want to spend time with us, how do we decide? One might say “Both!” But it is a fact that spending a bunch of time with Mary and Eva together is not equivalent to spending less time with each of them individually. A judgment must be made. We are limited by our physicality.

Placing a value on the people in our lives, the things on which we spend our time, and the objects we collect, is how we are able make decisions and function in our embodied world. What would you do for someone you love? Would you work hard to see that they had everything they needed or even wanted? How about someone you like? Would you work just as hard for them? Would you be willing to do the same things that you do for someone you love? Or would you expect that they might take care of some, or most, things themselves? How about someone you’ve never met? Would you work hard to see that they had everything they needed or even wanted? Probably not. Not necessarily from a lack of care, but because our time is limited. We may desire to save everyone, but we don’t have the time for that. And if we did have that infinite time, is it possible that after many years of taking care of a whole bunch of people we don’t know personally, that we might eventually think that these people could do some things for themselves? Only gods don’t suffer burnout, and even they expect us to work.

Placing different values on the people in our lives acknowledges that we have limitations. It also gives a gift to those we love best. If the members of our immediate family are valued no more than the people in the wider community, then they never get to feel special, or cherished for their unique qualities.

One might argue that “value” is not the same as “price,” and yet they serve the same purpose. Price is simply a more precise and refined expression of value. Perhaps we don’t like the idea of putting a price on the time we spend with people because it reveals the ugly realities of what we value. Or perhaps we simply want to get something without having to work for it, another ugly reality.

And there is another possibility. If you think the game is rigged so that work will not get you what you think you deserve for it, prices start to look unfair, and like something that can – and should – be changed to balance the books. But this is a mistake. Of the choice between changing pricing and correcting the rigged game, the latter is the only choice that has a chance of working, even though it appears to be impossible, and price fixing is relatively easy by comparison.

Prices serve a critical purpose in our communities. They signal value. If something is expensive, that tells us that there is a need that must be fulfilled. Plumbers get well paid because we value our flush toilets and showers, and the cleanliness they bring to our households. Chances are, we value these things over long-term savings. People who stuff money in cans (or banks) instead of fixing their plumbing are viewed as mentally ill. Without prices, people might not have an incentive to do what amounts to a wet and messy job. Need I discuss a world where no one wants to be a plumber?

And how about a world where there are few doctors? Great Britain had that problem in the 70s. the British Health Service does not pay doctors well at all, and their services are free to everyone. The BHS ended up with a critical shortage of doctors, and had to recruit from other countries that were poorer than Britain, and that did not have British medical training. Why take a job where the burnout rate is high and the pay is low? Prices signal value, and British doctors were not being valued for the hard work of medical school, or the level of care they provided their patients.

Changing the prices of anything from a central location – be it labor, commodities, or time – sends a message rippling through the community, and because we are limited beings, raising or lowering one price means that the whole web is affected. Like a tensegrity structure, moving one part moves all others. And if the feedback mechanism of price is not respected, eventually the structure will collapse or explode.

Prices don’t respond to central planning the way we expect because central planning doesn’t work. Prices are too complex for any one person, or even a group of people to understand. As complex as Nature herself, prices draw a map of what we value as individuals and as communities. No one person or group of people can map such complexities, and they have no moral right to try.

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Land Management: Criticism From the Right

In The Really Inconvenient Truths: Seven Environmental Catastrophes Liberals Don’t Want You to Know About–Because They Helped Cause Them by Iain Murray, one of the author’s arguments is that government land management has been a massive failure. In many ways, he is quite correct. The massive wild fires in the mid-west are largely the result of a failure to thin and correctly manage forest lands. The native Americans burned the forests regularly. In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, the author cites journal entries that describe how the settlers on the New England coast watched the Indians gleefully dancing to the light of the burning trees, and whooping when pine sap exploded in a shower of sparks. They also describe the Eastern forests as park-like, with so much space between the trees that one could drive a carriage between them. The Americas before Columbus were highly managed lands, not untouched wilderness as we have been lead to believe.

Murray also cites Communism’s horrendous record in regard to environmental concerns, with the Aral Sea being justifiably held up as the worst example of mismanagement in the history of the species.

Another failure of government management, written about by Dan Daggett, former Earth First activist, has been exclusion zones. These are areas that have been set aside to recover from over-grazing. Of course over-grazing damages the landscape, but under-grazing is just as bad if not worse as these pictures of the Drake Exclosure demonstrate. Both exclusion zones, and forest management practices that lead to millions of acres of burned lands are fair arguments against governments dictating how land should – or in this case, should not – be used.

Murray blames government mismanagement on the “tragedy of the commons” and claims both that collective ownership is the reason for such failures, and that private ownership is the very best answer to land management. In general, it is fair to say that if someone owns land, that they will be motivated to treat it with respect and care so that it – or its inherent value – can be passed to future generations.

But Murray’s argument falls apart in the case of tribal lands. Where native American tribes have retained control of lands, and sufficient cultural cohesiveness to organize, they have collectively managed their tribal reservations to the benefit of both themselves and the environment. It is reasonable to speculate that collective management has worked for some native tribes because of the cultural cohesiveness mentioned earlier. These are also much smaller groups, that can focus their concerns in a way that provides the greatest return on their investment of time. An investment that generally means food for tribal members, which is critical in communities that are some of the poorest in the nation.

Murray does not cop to corporate environmental disasters, since the point of his book is to address the failures of the Liberal environmental movement. But such corporate mismanagement is actually a good argument for the tragedy of the commons. Corporations do not have respect and care for land as part of their primary mission. Their mission is to make money in the most efficient way possible. This often means using up resources and moving on. The owners of corporation are the stock holders, and they do not live on whatever land is held by the corporation. This gives them no investment in keeping that land productive and healthy.

I think it is fair to say that when it comes to good land management, private ownership is a good bet, as is collective management by small groups, probably not larger than a few thousand people. Individuals and small, local groups have more intimate knowledge of land needs, and the ability to act in creative and productive ways.

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Single-Payer Health Care: Insurance or Care?

I don’t want single payer health insurance. Then the government gets to decide what kind of health care I get to have. At least at non-catestrophic levels, my insurance company does NOT decide that for me because I have an HSA. If the government did not prevent insurance competition, I would have more choices about who did my insuring. I could compare performance and how well they keep their agreements. Health care providers spend an absurd amount of time with billing because they cannot set their own rates. The insurance industry is utterly wound up with the government, and what we think of as health insurance is not even insurance! Insurance is supposed to be for emergencies, not provide regular care.

Let’s start by making a distinction between health care and health insurance. Health care is what you do to take care of your health (note the pronoun) with the doctor helping as needed. The better you care for yourself, the less you need from the doctor. The doctor is not some magical being that can wave a wand, and fix whatever long term damage you’ve done to yourself. Really good self-care should be obvious and should be rewarded. Let’s give an example. Sugar is everywhere. Lots of people eat sugar. It’s addictive. It’s also inflammatory. It screws up your digestion, reduces your immune function, stresses your adrenal glands, does bad things to your brain chemistry, and plays hell with your blood sugar. It causes type II diabetes. Eat it and you pay with your health. This is a handy example, but not the only one. One of my friends had fibromyalgia – a chronic pain condition. She was broke and spent a great deal of time talking about her pain levels. And she smoked. She ate reasonably well, but how is a smoking habit good healthcare? Especially when you’re broke? We’re not friends anymore, at least partly because I wanted to bang my head against a wall every time she commented on the subject. If a person raises their kids with minimal sugar and lots of fats and vitamins from pastured animals, the kids are healthy. They don’t have asthma, diabetes, emotional problems, weak immune systems or allergies. They don’t have to buy inhalers, psych meds, insulin, or allergy medicine, and they don’t get cavities. And if the mother was careful about her health while pregnant, the kids won’t even need braces.*

Insurance is, by definition, for emergencies. How much you pay is based on actuarial tables which is based on the statistical likelihood that a particular event will occur. It’s an gamble. Let me say that again. It’s a gamble. When you purchase auto insurance the company gives you rates based on your previous behavior. Why are health insurance companies vilified for doing what is the essential definition of the industry? How many “pre-existing conditions” are the result of behavior? Yes, stuff happens. Stuff has happened to me. But WHY should people who are treating their children with the level of care mentioned above be forced to pay for people who voluntarily eat lots of things that harm their bodies? In fact, some of them don’t. Voluntarily. Yes, Virginia, there are people who don’t participate in health insurance because they don’t WANT to. They work at their health, and SAVE money for emergencies. And if that doesn’t cover it, medical providers must allow you to pay off your bill at your own pace without fees or interest. What is the difference between paying up front (health insurance or single payer system) and paying on the back end? Because that is a gamble an individual can win.

What is ridiculous and amazing is that I can’t buy insurance based on my meticulous level of self-care. I settle for a high deductible plan with an HSA. (Which is now being taxed. Thanks Democrats. Thanks a bunch.) WHY should I be forced to participate in a health plan where I can’t even make that less appealing choice? What EXACTLY is fair about that? What is wrong with doctors getting paid what they are worth rather than having the government dictate what they can charge? And why the hell is making a profit EVIL? For crying out loud, this is my health and well-being we’re talking about here. I value it highly. We pay more for our food because we value the product. I don’t see how I should trust anyone else with the valuation (except my husband), especially the government which has a crappy record of serving those it claims to. In traditional societies the medicine person was valued, they got really good stuff and lots of status for the skills they offered. Medical school is expensive. If we don’t pay doctors what they are worth, hello, no one will want to go into the profession. In CT, we have HUSKY which is the low income health plan. It doesn’t pay doctors enough to cover their expenses. Guess how many doctors actually want to participate. Gods help you if you want an appointment. THAT is healthcare rationing.

*This is from eating a diet of traditional foods aka. Weston Price.

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Blog changes

Since I started blogging over at Witches and Pagans, and started my health site where I’ve been posting articles on wellness, I’ve been trying to decide what to do with this space. So this is where I’m going to write about politics. My perspective is mostly Libertarian. Mostly.

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Fermentation (its not just for mead or beer)

Fermentation is defined by Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary as an enzymically controlled transformation of an organic compound. Well, that was helpful. Not. In American culture we most often think of fermentation in relation to alcoholic beverages, but any food can be fermented and there are plenty of reasons why it’s a good idea to include some fermented foods in your diet daily. Fermented foods have many benefits, but the most important, are the addition of enzymes and beneficial bacteria to the digestive tract. Eating only cooked foods, as is common in American culture, deprives the body of both these elements.

Enzymes are complex proteins produced by living cells to carry out specific biochemical reactions. They act like chemical scissors, breaking long chain amino acids into shorter, more digestible ones. The pancreas produces enzymes, but as we age, we produce less and less, so consuming them with our food becomes more important. The presence of these enzymes in food means that the body doesn’t have to secrete more than a minimal amount. Neither humans nor animals can live without enzymes. Rats can’t be maintained on a synthetic diet for their entire life span of 2-4 years without serious health problems, including blindness and urogenetory problems.

Beneficial bacteria have myriad uses in the digestive tract including supporting our immune system. Bacteria occur in air, water, plants, animals and rotting organic material. There are several bacterial families in foods, and while most promote spoilage, some are valuable for our well-being. These are the same bacteria that are responsible for sour dough bread, all fermented milk products, and pickled vegetables.

Fermented foods are valuable in the treatment of stomach and digestive disorders, including constipation. It is well known that infants fed porridges or other fermented products have less severe diarrheal episodes. Even infant formula when fermented will provide this benefit. When fermented milk is added to an antibiotic regimen, it proved more effective than the antibiotics alone. Supplementation with probiotic fermented milk products has been shown to improve height and weight gain in children. This addition to childhood diets has the added benefit of reducing incidence of diarrhea and fever. Malted cereals when sprouted, boiled and dried produce the enzymes amylase, protease and glaucanas, which will break down porridges. This is ideal food for infants and small children, and is a common practice in Africa.

Childhood gastrointestinal disturbances are not the only infections that respond to the probiotic effects of fermented foods. The severity of respiratory infection in the elderly can also be reduced by the inclusion of fermented milk products such as yoghurt into the diet. It is likely that these products provide a boost the immune system since the severity of viral infections can also be reduced. Certain lactic acid bacteria can produce antibiotics and bacteriocins – chemicals that kill other bacteria.

In traditional diets, small amounts of fermented foods were consumed with every meal. While these foods are easy to make, once the techniques are understood, there are also many quality commercial products available. Good examples are yogurt, sour cream, saurkraut, and various pickles. Dairy products should say “live cultures” on the label and organic is ideal. For saurkraut and pickles, look in the refrigerator section. The ingredient list should be short and sweet, listing only the vegetable, salt, water and perhaps some spices. The label should say “not pasteurized”, since pasteurization kills both the healthy bacteria and the enzymes. You can also drink the ‘juice’ in which the vegetable is packed since this will also have the beneficial bacteria and enzymes.

A healthy digestion is necessary both for our physical and emotional well-being. So eat some friendly bacteria and make your intestines happy.

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Pagan Zealots

In her Blog’o Gnosis, Anne Hill writes her Thoughts on Spirituality, Politics and Values. A long-time member of Reclaiming (no longer), she is now having her doubts about the value of combining religion with politics. I share her concerns. She writes:

Zealotry begins with a deep sense of frustration at the slow pace of change. That urgency, combined with strong religious beliefs, means that we turn to a sympathetic deity or presiding force to intercede in human affairs. And of course, because our deity is sympathetic it validates all our extreme views. We have now created a closed loop of influence, within which we feel increasingly justified and self-righteous about our cause.

Can she really mean “extreme?” Yes, indeed. She adds: But the closed loops I experienced encouraged emotionality and discouraged analysis and debate. This has been my experience as well. Pagan religion has been greatly influenced by both the environmental movement and Feminism and this has defined us. But both of these are political movements, and if Paganism is to survive as a religion, we need to move beyond transient and power-focused politics.

Political movements address particular issues that exist in a given society. They do not address the nature of human existence. This is the job of religion, and by focusing on what amounts to transient issues, we have not yet created the depth of meaning that would make our religion viable for the long-term. A fellow student of mine at Cherry Hill Seminary recently left because he was in crisis, and felt that Paganism had failed to support him in his time of need. This is sad and distressing. While the seminary has used this event to spur the addition of student support systems, this does not change the fact that we need to be thinking deeper about our religion than the current political issue.

I my twenties, I read Starhawk’s Dreaming the Dark. It was inspiring and magical, but twenty years later it now seems shallow. Not because of lack of passion, but because the issues are far more complex than she presented them. Political action thrives on polarization and its partner, dumming down. Simplifying any issue can create a moral clarity that is a mirage. Voting one way or another is easy if you are sure that you are RIGHT. This sort of moral clarity has historically led to people being killed for the “greater good.”

But life (and politics) is far more nuanced. I find myself deeply frustrated at the assumption that one must be of a particular political opinion to be a Pagan, or that I will vote in lock-step with a particular group because of my religious views. Starhawk writes about the recent recall election in Wisconson: For today is vote on the recall of Scott Walker, the union-busting governor who was the focus of protests and a sit-in in the Capitol in January of 2011

This is not only a far reach from Paganism’s focus on environmental and feminist issues, but because she fails to examine both sides of the argument, she (and Selena Fox as well) runs the risk of zealotry. I do not like seeing this in my religion. It feels ugly to me, but I will not ignore it. In good conscience, I can’t.

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Eating Ethics

This was an essay written for a New York Times Essay contest, the question being, “Why is eating meat ethical?”

Not eating meat is a denial of death. Death is a part of life. It is the cycle that is important, and where humans break Nature’s cycles, we pay the price. Eating meat is a part of that cycle. There is a degree of hubris in the idea that if one stops eating meat, that somehow this balances the scales. This only pushes death away, making it less personal. To refuse to eat anything with a face ignores both the vitality of plants, and the myriad small birds and mammals that are killed in farm equipment. These lives are not less valuable than that of a domesticated cow or pig.

Everything dies, and to live is to create a devastation. Every minute, microorganisms are killed in our digestive tract. Building and heating our homes kills trees. Feeding our beloved carnivorous pets kills other animals. This is a tide we cannot sweep back. Life feeds on life. There are, in the animal kingdom, both predators and prey, and prey does not die of old age. Our prohibitions, inhibitions and regulations around the killing of animals have disrupted the natural balance, and while it is stupid to embrace an ethic of rejoicing in death, it is appropriate and healthy to embrace an ethic of cyclical living.

To ask the question “Is it ethical to eat meat?” is to imply that eating meat is an option. Humans are the animals that need ethics purely because we have the capacity to choose our behavior. But despite this capacity, we are still animals, tied to our biology and our body’s needs. No matter how much we might desire to eschew consuming our fellow beings, denial of our needs comes at a cost. We evolved eating meat. We evolved because we ate meat. Digestion and assimilation is an expensive process. Plant eaters have to spend far more time eating and digesting than do omnivores or carnivores, and human omnivores get many nutritional needs met by eating our fellow beings. It is indeed the case that some humans are better adapted to maintain health without meat, but this is not true for all, and we simply do not know enough about nutritional science to make a judgment about percentages. To deny these costs is to devalue our selves.

Humans have valuable contributions to the planet. In the Americas before Columbus, humans were stewards of the land. Indigenous people burned trees every single year for thousands of years, which returned nutrients to the soil and made the forests open and easy to navigate. They cut back forests to make room for wildlife that they could then hunt. They created lively, vibrant eco systems.

It is true that overusing land results in it degradation. It is also true that ignoring it causes degradation. In the western US, lay a number of “exclosures,” areas that were overgrazed in the 40s and have been set aside to recover. They are not recovering. Without human intervention, they look like parking lots; flat, dry expanses with only a few scraggly trees. Standing in stark contrast are the managed lands of U Bar Ranch in Southwestern New Mexico. The ranch hosts the largest population of three endangered species, including 30 to 40 percent of Willow Flycatchers. This spectacularly successful management is done with beef cattle. Humans are not separate from Nature, nor do we have be an anathema. Eating meat is not a question of ethics, it is a matter of humans being willing to play their role in a very complex ecosystem.

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