Learning new things, including the butterfly stroke and about our worst tendencies

It was brutally hot here in Raleigh this weekend, which made me consider breaking my commitment to getting outside with my camera at least once a week and trying to see something fresh in the natural world.  But I ultimately hung tough and did a short photo safari at Raulston Arboretum, which was not as miserable as I expected.  I was happy I got these pictures.

Learning new things is sometimes fun, and sometimes hard, but always important, to keep our brains from turning to mush.  And so I decided to take some swimming lessons, and had my first one this week.  As I told my teacher, a young woman named Deanna, I would like to try to learn the butterfly stroke.  It’s one of those things I’ve always wondered if I could do, and it would add another variation to my lap swimming.  My first efforts were awkward, but by the end of the lesson, I had a version of the dolphin kick going.  I found it hard and fun.  

In these tumultuous times, we’re learning a lot about our weaknesses and strengths.  Under a constant deluge of lies, vulgarities, and mad fantasies, it’s more difficult to be open and curious, to think rationally and critically.  Panic and anger seem natural, and at times overwhelming.  We’re seeing how some of our worst tendencies, like intolerance and bigotry, are unleashed and encouraged.  

It’s not exactly cheering news, but at least we have a more realistic idea of the extent of our ignorance, intolerance, and susceptibility to manipulation.  We’ve gotten these and other  problems out in the open where we can potentially address them.  Eventually we might figure out how to be better people.

In the policy area, we’re learning more about our health care system.  Repealing Obamacare somehow became a mantra for the right — a symbolic acid test for signalling membership in the conservative tribe.  It’s hard to feel great about the enormous waste of time, energy, and public funds from the repeal effort, and the failure so far to address pressing problems, but there is a slightly bright side.    

It’s looking like some delusions are getting cleared up.  We now know that the mantra of repeal had almost no relation to the real issues of our health care system.  Some who liked the mantra have belatedly realized that cutting off insurance means real humans die prematurely. It appears that even the most committed ideologues, or at least the majority, get uncomfortable once we reach a certain level of cruelty.    

This debate has cleared the landscape like a forest fire, and some fresh ideas are starting to germinate.  For the first time in a couple of generations, we’re starting to widen the discussion about health care.  It’s starting to be more widely understood that we pay way too much for it, and the quality of care is bad in comparison with our peers.  There’s a new openness to the possibility of a sensible single payer system, such as an expanded version of Medicare.  

It won’t be easy to get from here to there.  Even leaving aside our dysfunctional political leadership, there are powerful institutional forces supporting the status quo.  Here’s how the Economist recently put it:  If the amount the U.S. spends on health care were reduced to the level of France, Germany, or Switzerland, we would save a trillion dollars, or $8,000 per family.  “Much of that trillion dollars goes to enrich the owners and executives of drug companies, device manufacturers, and relentlessly consolidating hospitals.  This rent-seeking is supported by an army of lobbyists:  there are more than twice as many lobbyists for the pharmaceutical and health-products industry than there are Congressmen.”  

Indeed, there are quite a few other blockers, like doctors, many of whom would be resistant to having their incomes reduced, and insurers, with similar issues.  Real improvements don’t seem likely in the near term, but I’m not giving up hope that eventually we’ll make progress.