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Let’s fix this thing!

Five steps to a better life: a rant about responsibility

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They were right. The sky is falling. Chicken Little warned us. So did the author of Revelation and a couple of Democrats. Certainly Al Gore told us the sky was heating up, melting glaciers, promising to drown us. Now it seems that well before Mother Earth takes her revenge, bankers and automakers will starve us.

In case anyone’s keeping track, the signs of the Apocalypse—killer bees, vacation-villa CEOs, bankrupt casinos—are upon us. I think about this when I’m whining about my bloated mortgage—greed, why hast thou forsaken me?

Then a loud voice speaks, usually on a voicemail recording from a collection service, saying, Time to pay the piper. And the creditor. And the doctor. Which is fine. I think we can fairly look around and see that much of the wrath was wrought by a somewhat collective failure to take personal responsibility for much of anything. That’s a theme that blossomed more than a decade ago, around the time books like The Death of Common Sense by Phillip K. Howard began commenting on our increasing preference to pass the buck, sue for anything, hide behind a tangle of loop-holed laws and forego the antiquated notion of Doing the Right Thing. A free lunch? Absolutely!

But the phrase “personal responsibility” has a vaguely fifth-grade health-presentation feel to it, and discussing it raises a moral specter we’ve grown to ridicule. Plus, it invites scrutiny of each imperfect life, and right now that seems like something best kept between oneself and one’s maker or bankruptcy attorney. Still, in this global economic and political meltdown—which started, by the way, when I signed my mortgage in Las Vegas in 2004 and spread outward from this epicenter to the far reaches of the sad, sad Earth—could be fixed much quicker than it seems by expanding on that theme: responsibility. About which I know little but can expound upon at length.

Here, then, is a list of things we should do to immediately fix our culture. Take notes.

ONE: Eliminate fine print

This will make almost everything better. At the top of General Motors’ “Total Confidence” plan should be this promise in 20-point type: “No more fine print.” Same goes for the credit industry. If chunks of sky are falling, it is in direct proportion to the number of 30-page booklets of fine print whispering the actual terms of our credit-card contracts. We simply signed our shiny new plastic cards in semi-good faith and skipped into the wilderness.

Instead of that fine print, we should get a contract that reads like this: “We’ll lend you up to $10,000 at 6 percent, and if your payments are late, we’ll tack on $20 a month. That’s the deal.” We could handle that. No middle-of-the-night interest tripling, no math they don’t teach at public schools, just straight-up, large-print business. Same goes for mortgage loans and everything in advertisements. No one begrudges business a profit; just don’t trick us.

To expand on this, let me cite the case of fine print in TV commercials, which is beyond trickery and amounts to comic genius. I obsessively try to read the fine print on TV commercials before it disappears. It’s blood sport. I have an enormous TV and passable English skills, so reading words on the screen should be possible. Here’s how it goes:

[Video] Beautiful car; sleek, red, racy. Beautiful woman; sleek, brunette, racy. Rrrr.

[Audio] No money down! We’re clearing out the lot! Lease or buy, no payments till 2010!

[Fine print] $418.81 first month’s payment, $4,000 down payment, $325 refundable security deposit and $450 acquisition fee due at lease inception. Monthly payments total ... something ... 48-month closed-end lease

Then it’s gone. It’s there for four seconds. Yes, I’ve clocked it. It’s on camouflage background. It’s jumble-pixelated. And apparently, it’s the type of “legal” that everything in business is these days, which is to say it really doesn’t matter if it’s legal, because no one wants to get in the way of the thriving, benevolent, trickle-down free market.

Lucky for me, the commercial is on again 12 minutes later, and I can pick up where I left a bookmark: “—offered to qualified customers by lender through participating dealers. Requires dealer discount of $950 which could affect final negotiated ...”

The fun of getting financially screwed aside, I do wonder why we’re all complicit in accepting this. So I look up the Federal Trade Commission’s rules about these ads. These are their guidelines, aimed at businesses:

Your ads should clearly and conspicuously disclose all the information about an offer that is likely to affect a consumer’s purchasing decision. Disclose the most important information—like the terms affecting the basic cost of the offer—near the advertised price ...

Television advertisers should not hide key information in:

A fast moving “crawl”;

Superscripts or subscripts using small print sizes or a color that fades into the background;

Type that disappears from the screen too fast for consumers to read and comprehend; or

The middle of a long statement that scrolls vertically on the screen within a short period of time.”

I’m comforted by the black-and-white rules made by the government I pay for and participate in. So I figure the next thing one should do, if one notices some disconnect between the law and reality, is make a complaint about every ad on TV. Handily, the FTC offers an online complaint-lodging system. And this is the caveat you get before beginning the process:

Your complaints can help us detect patterns of wrong-doing, and lead to investigations and prosecutions. The FTC enters all complaints it receives into Consumer Sentinel, a secure online database that is used by thousands of civil and criminal law enforcement authorities worldwide. The FTC does not resolve individual consumer complaints.

Essentially, this is fine print. It’s telling you that you can’t really know what’s going on. The obfuscation police obfuscate. It goes into a database you can’t access but “thousands of civil and criminal law enforcement authorities worldwide” will surely follow up.

Ban all such behavior.

TWO: Eliminate euphemisms

Back to the General Motors Total Confidence plan. Who didn’t roll their eyes when they heard that? Why can’t we call a last-ditch effort what it is? If you’re looking to instill consumer confidence, stopping the BS would be a start. Or if you must have a clever handle, make it in keeping with the truth: The Hail Mary Plan, The Mulligan Plan, The Lucky We’re Still in Business Plan. Euphemism-izing, surely created by people who make a living with words—ack!—has gone beyond misleading. It started with simple, totally innocent industry-name adjustment, such as nudging “gambling” into “gaming.” This turned a derelict vice into an upstanding pastime and nourished a guilt-free city of VIP hosts, escorts and gentlemen’s clubs—euphemism, thy name is Vegas. I’m okay with that.

But elsewhere it’s a time-consuming dodge that screws things up.

Where once you were fired or terminated, you’re now “involuntarily separated,” which seems like a drawn-and-quartered reference. Which in some cases may be preferable. And in the onslaught of industry greenwashing, we’re bombarded with products dubbed “environmentally friendly” or “eco-safe,” which purport to mean they don’t harm the Earth or us, and generally imply corporate responsibility, but specify nothing. Which is why I now refer to myself as eco-safe. Responsible, but in unspecified ways. Like Congress.

Washington, of course, offers boatloads of misleading euphemisms: “No Child Left Behind Act”—what does that mean? Haven’t we, in fact, left many children behind in public education, thereby rendering them unable to understand fine print and credit-industry math? Or the “Patriot Act,” which took away civil liberties granted in the Bill of Rights. Or “collateral damage,” which is the pleasant term for “we killed innocent people.”

I’m stating the obvious, I know. So let’s get on with it. No. 2 is simple: Get rid of these terms. Industry and government must be plain-spoken.

THREE: Medical professionals must be morally irreproachable

This is not a euphemism: Anyone in the medical field must be morally irreproachable from here on out. We must establish a morality irreproachability test before anyone can pull on a pair of medical scrub pants. Dr. Dipak Desai, for example, should never have made it as far as he did without setting off a thousand moral alarms.

Listen, I’ve read and loved Dr. Atul Gawande’s eloquent nonfiction collections depicting the very vulnerable side of the medical profession. I understand there’s a lot more to medicine than just science. I gather that health care is probably the field most fraught with moral quandary. We’ll overcome this by allowing only exceptional people to work in this field. And we’ll pay them more than we pay health-insurance middlemen, so long as they stay superior.

Shouldn’t many other professions require such a test, you say? No. Something’s got to be most important, and we should deem it the occupation that inserts tubes and knives into our flesh.

Las Vegas’ Desai incident—reportedly exposing patients to disease with reused syringes, etc.—was a great big sheet of examination-table paper in which we can wrap the last 20 years of national health-care policies. Picture a hundred magazine covers with clever images of the doctor himself on the examination table, depicting through keen imagery that the system is sick. It is, and it’s a multitiered problem, further complicated by the gouging done by the insurance industry and attorneys. Note that those two industries—insurance and law—will be greatly improved by the abolition of fine print and euphemisms. In fact, one or both may spontaneously vanish. So here, we focus on the docs. No more hiding mistakes in secret doctor-reprimand proceedings. Air it out. We don’t expect perfect performance, but righteous intent.

Doctors must be morally superior.

FOUR: Mandatory caring

You’d think this is something we should sprinkle over the whole lot of us, so that no one would ever leave a shopping cart anywhere but in its parking-lot corral and everyone would flush the toilet before exiting the stall. But I’m a realist. So we must select certain most-important things that demand our tender, loving care. Like, for instance, journalism. Real, factual, independent, investigative journalism like the kind you once got at many daily papers. You may not know what I’m talking about, and this is understandable. It’s been a rough decade for the news.

But here’s how it shakes out: Being a citizen of a functioning democracy obligates one to participate in its governance. Which means people have to vote. And in order to vote, they have to be informed. And in order for them to be informed, people in politics need to stop lying. But I’m a realist. Short of that, someone stalwart in the media, clearly not me, must obtain and make public the actual, plain facts. These people should be paid more than those of us who BS and opine and tell tales for a living. The work of hard-news journalists is undervalued to such an extent that we actually find ourselves watching once-venerable pillars of the Fourth Estate toppling now—goodbye Dying Gray Lady, etc. This is unacceptable.

The solid-news journalist is a must-have in our world, lest your information diminish to treatises like this one. So No. 4 is: Care about your news. Seek it. Pay for it if necessary. Be critical in your analysis of it. Think.

FIVE: The Nevada exit fee

Outrage must be followed by (forced) mercy instead of this tendency to abandon everything.

Have you seen the lines outside Clark County Social Services? Did you catch Las Vegas shining on 60 Minutes last Sunday? There we were, collectively tossing our dying neighbors into the streets. There’s very little euphemism in that: Citizens of our community who would have gotten treated for cancer at UMC are not getting treated for cancer at all because the county hospital closed its outpatient oncology unit. In some cases they’re dying at home with no medical care.

We should be a city full of enraged ferrets about this. UMC boss Kathy Silver laid it out: The tapped-out state trickles misery down to a tapped-out county, which trickles misery down to a tapped-out hospital, which means people suffer.

Two more of my annoyingly obvious points here need to be made, and the first is that the way to deal with this is not to ignore it. The second point is, you can’t just come into the state, live off the fat and then abandon ship. (Those are not euphemisms, they are mixed metaphors.) The Legislature needs to enact an exit fee.

Here’s how it plays out: Since we’re freakishly unwilling to pay a state income tax, preferring instead to bitch about not having functioning social services, education, health care, etc., ad nauseam; and since we’re therefore incapable of attracting viable economic diversification, preferring instead to attract the get-rich-quick parasites, we need some other way to raise state dollars. And since a prostitution tax is looking unlikely, seeing that here in Clark County we don’t have that, here’s the answer: Nobody leaves this state without paying a hefty fee. You think you can stop in, stay a few years, make a bunch of untaxed money, leave unscathed? Fine. Come on. Live. Deal with the social conditions. But in order to get out the door, you must contribute a huge tax on all of the money you made while you were here. Or stay, and invest in this community.

Same goes for the out-of-state business owner. You want to run a business here, but live in a state where public hospitals function? Fine. After six months of that, the business earnings are subject to an even larger exit fee. If you reinvest in-state, ballyhoo for you. Start a hospital or something. If you suck the money out of state, we slap on the exit fee. Nobody gets out of here rich while the county hospital can’t afford to treat working-class people.

Maybe we should do this as a toll road on the outbound lanes at Nevada borders. Tourists can take the porkous mag-lev when it’s built and avoid the border patrol. Anyone else who’s lived here without paying for a decent social infrastructure want out? $15,000. Otherwise, there’s a room for you at Budget Suites, my friend. Flip a U-turn. Drive Carefully!

Standing in line at the McCarran C Gates? Shoes off, laptops on the belt, credit card to the showgirl swiping exit fees.

Likewise for those of us living here who’d like to fly to Los Angeles or Scottsdale for better health care: nope. Not without a Health-Care Leave Fee. That includes lawmakers and casino magnates. There’s a room for you at UMC.

Maybe.

CONCLUSION

So get busy. In five perfectly logical steps, you’ve got the answers to the world’s problems. Not including shipping and handling, some fees may apply, offer ends without a moment’s notice. I think I’ll call this the Total Confidence plan.

You have to view the civilized human condition as a great big parody of itself, with civilization complicating everything it touches—like King Midas, except with bewildering convolution instead of gold. Taking responsibility for ourselves may be one way to crack the byzantine dilemmas we find ourselves in; another is crossing one’s fingers and hoping really hard. Still another is to sit back and rely on cliches, which is one of my favorite ways of coping. Because one way or another, the tide will turn. What comes around goes around. Easy come, easy go.

Don’t worry, everything will work out.

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