Sunday, October 18, 2009

Two Years of Tokyo

Well, we've now officially been in Tokyo two years now.
The end of this month will represent two years since I started work here. Originally, I was only scheduled to work here for two years with an option to renew for an additional year.

To be honest, these two years have probably been the two most difficult years of my adult life. I'm just glad my wife is here with me; she should probably be sainted for going along with this crazy idea.

Japan is a perfectly fine place to visit. The idiosyncrasies are cute, even fun, when you only have to deal with them for week or two. What visitor to Tokyo can't remember the first time they were packed into a train car? It's pretty memorable and gives you a funny story to tell when you get back home. Now trying doing it everyday for two years -- not so much fun anymore.

When we came, we had intended to travel and see more of the countryside on the weekends. But I've found I just don't have the energy. The daily grind just wears me down. So, with my contract coming to a close, we were looking forward to using the last few months before my wife's contract ended to finally make up for some lost time and see Japan.

Back in July I gave my 3-months notice that I didn't intend to renew my contract come this November. But my employer would have nothing to hear of that. Apparently, they need me to stay on through March. I find it flattering that they value my labor enough to want to keep me on for 4 more months, but it shattered our plans of finally getting out of this soul-sucking city and seeing more of Japan.

Probably the average American would have told them to shove it. We're familiar with a system based on at-will employment and autonomy. It would be unthinkable for an employer to tell you cannot quit. They may ask you to stay, even make offers to entice you to stay. But, at the end of the day, you are free to leave.

However, I am a guest in this country. Like a H1B Visa-holder in the U.S., I would have had to leave the country if I lost my employer sponsorship. Luckily, my wife is still employed, so I could have just changed my status to her dependent and stayed. The problem is that landlords in Japan require a guarantor before they will rent you an apartment -- and my employer has been kindly acting as our guarantor.

Which leads to two complications: a) if I left my job I would lose my guarantor; even if we stayed in the country, we would have to move into the housing provided by my wife's employer and b) I feel an obligation to my employer for having been my guarantor for these 2 (now 2.5) years. Add in the fact that I take pride in my work so, if my employer says they need me to stay for 4 more months, I am inclined to see it through. Result: I'll be working for 4 months longer than originally planned.

So we'll be here a bit longer.

I doubt we'll be seeing too much more of Japan, outside of Tokyo, then. Which is really a shame because, based on our limited experience, life in the country is completely different than life in Tokyo. Even Kyoto felt laid back. But Tokyo, Tokyo will never have a warm place in my heart.

There is an old Soul Coughing song that I never really liked called "The Incumbent". But with a little modification, the refrain has really started to speak to me:

Tokyo, Tokyo, I won't go back
Indelible reminder of a steel I lack
I gave you two years, what did you give me back?
A jaw-grind disposition to a panic attack

Anyway, it has been an experience. I'm glad I had the opportunity to live and work in a foreign country; perhaps aiming for the biggest city in the world was a little too high for me. The pressure of big-city life and the hassles of living in an unfamiliar land have just added up to a less-than-wonderful experience. Work has been fine, but I'm looking forward to getting home.

Just four more months.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Moral Majority

Here I was wishing that more of my fellow Americans would step up and agree that a reasonable baseline of health care should be guaranteed for all of our fellow citizens.

And then I learned about the case of Jamie Leigh Jones. Go ahead, click the link and read about what happened to this poor lady while she worked in Iraq. I'm not going to repeat it here because it makes me sick.

In response, Senator Al Franken offered an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that would ban federal funds to companies that forbid employees from suing for rape.

Not surprisingly, the amendment was added, but it is a sad day that such an amendment is even necessary.

If that was all there was to the story, it would merely be depressing. No, to make things truly sickening you would need to know that 30 Senators voted against the amendment. 30 Senators voted to prevent gang-rape victims from suing their coworkers.

If you would like to know your Senators' stance on defending rape, you can find a list of the 30 pro-rape Senators along with their contact information here. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that that they are all men.

So now I feel pretty foolish. Here I was hoping my fellow Americans would be Good Samaritans and agree universal health care is a good thing, but apparently we can't even agree rape is wrong.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Who Would Jesus Insure?

I'm not a religious man, but I do believe in doing the right thing.
Any way you look at it, I cannot see how anyone could argue that offering health care to every man, woman, and child in the U.S. is morally wrong. So why would someone be opposed to such a proposal?

Two of the more common arguments are:
1) The government would run a public health care option incompetently, squandering money and providing sub-par health care coverage.
2) The government would run a public health care program so well that it would put commercial health care companies out of business.

Proponents suggest a third option:
3) The government program would compliment and co-exist with existing commercial offerings.

I'll contend that argument #1 is obviously false. The "public option" being proposed is intended to provide a baseline level of coverage. In other words, it is intended to cap the lower-bound of coverage options. It does not preclude anyone choosing a private health care option. It does not restrict the maximum level of coverage. As such, it can only raise the level of coverage for those currently most poorly served. One would be a fool to choose the public option if a better private option were available; if no better option is available, the public option cannot be inferior to something that does not exist.

Which only leaves the cost component of argument #1. I would like to see the government run the public option in an efficient way, but if it takes an inefficient organization to provide a baseline level of health care to people who have no better option, than that is simply the cost of doing the right thing. There is no moral high ground in putting money before the health of another human being.

As for argument #2, I cannot see the future so I have no way of guessing whether this is true or false. My gut instinct is that it is false. But, if the government were to be capable of running a program so efficiently that we all received better service at lower cost for all possible treatments, I fail to see the problem. Opposing a public option for fear that it will do a better job that corporate options is analogous to corporate welfare for the less-efficient companies. I do not see the moral high ground is putting the health of companies before the health of citizens.

So our possible outcomes are:
#2 is true - we all get better coverage, albeit from a government-run program.
#3 is true - the public option provides a baseline level of coverage but people/companies can still buy health insurance from private providers for a superior level of coverage.

A number of people seem afraid of a single-payer system, as would result if argument #2 were true. However, I emphasize that the only way for #2 to yield a single-payer system is if that single-payer were superior in the marketplace than all other options. If the government were outlawing the competition, that might be a legitimate concern, but there is currently no proposal to do any such thing. As such, gloomy talk of a single-payer system forcing us to endure inferior service to our current corporate plans is nonsense. The only single-payer system on the table is one so superior (and unlikely to happen) that complaining about it seems neurotic.

In summary, there is small but unlikely possibility that everyone in America gets such superior health care that corporate insurers cannot compete. The expected outcome is that every American is guaranteed a minimum level of health care and those of us fortunate enough to be able to afford better health care can still purchase it just as we do today.

Personally, I do not care what happens to my individual health care package. But I firmly believe that ensuring every man, woman, and child in America has access to at least basic health care is the right thing to do. And I am deeply ashamed that a small but vocal contingent of my fellow Americans so despises their fellow man that they want no part in it.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sniffle Season

It's fall and the sound of snot is already filling my workplace.

Living in a city the size of Tokyo, you encounter a lot of people on a daily basis. And frankly, people are pretty dirty. It probably doesn't help that there is no custom to cover one's mouth when they cough or sneeze here. I've seen people pick their nose on the train and then immediately re-grab a pole or strap too. As a result, I make it policy to not touch anything.

I'm not ragging on Tokyo here. Frankly, I was appalled at how dirty San Francisco was when I first moved there. I later came to understand it was an "enlightened dirty", something you have to develop an appreciation for. Tokyo, being a far larger city than San Francisco, is correspondingly more enlightened.

So, with the H1N1 virus looming large in the headlines, my workplace has instituted policies including putting hand sanitizers at all of the entrances to "prevent carrying the virus in". We have also been instructed to stay at home if we are running a fever or otherwise suspect we may have contracted swine flu.

Now there is something that has always puzzled me: if you are feeling sick, why would you go into work to get all of your coworkers sick too? This was a complaint I've been harboring for years. Some fool thinks their work is so important that they come into the office and get 5 other people sick. If those five people have any sense, they'll stay at home to prevent further spreading illness, thereby reducing productivity 500% more than if the first person had just stayed home in the first place! But people don't think that way. They think just about their own deadlines or how to make themselves look better to their boss. It is the tragedy of the commons: in trying to sustain their own productivity, the productivity of the company as a whole -- or even the economy as a whole -- takes a hit. In their effort to wring half of their usual productivity in between bouts of coughing or sneezing, they risk spreading their funk to five, ten, a hundred others.

Please stop.

That said, the life of a Japanese salary man is pretty competitive. It is my experience that paid sick days are unheard of -- if you take a day off work, that comes out of your vacation time. Worse, if you take a day off, you "fall behind" your peers. You lose brownie points with your boss. When it comes times for promotion, it is Brownie Point Redemption Day and no one wants to be denied entrance to the pearly gates of management for another year of salary man purgatory.

Which explains why there are so many sick people on the train during the morning commute and why there are so many sick people in my office.

I had one coworker not come in today because H1N1 has been spreading around his daughter's elementary school and apparently made it back to his house. But in my giant open-plan office of 150+ people, there are at least ten more here and sniffling today. And fall is just starting.

I'm actually pretty concerned about coming down with H1N1 myself before the winter is over. It isn't that I'm so much worried about the illness itself -- like the SARS scare of a few years ago, it sounds like H1N1 is more bark than bite. What I'm concerned about is all of the bureaucracy that I would need to deal with. You see, my company has actually instituted a special policy just for H1N1 allowing us to stay home without consuming vacation days if we get a letter from the doctor proving we have H1N1. However, we can only come back to work once we have another letter from the doctor saying we're cured.

I never liked going to the doctor in the U.S., I really don't like doing it in a foreign country. Twice. For a disease they can't cure, no less.

That said, this seems like a nice safe policy to protect the company from H1N1-infected workers thinking they are so important that they need to come in anyway. They are telling us to stay home; even allowing us a special paid leave to do so.

I don't think it'll work, though, for all the same reasons workers always come in to spread their virus-infested cough spew. They should always stay home when the alternative is to risk getting everyone else sick too. But they need the brownie points. It is much easier to put on a mask and just pretend it is a cold than it is to deal with the doctor visits and company bureaucracy. And if they come in, they get the face time and bonus "perseverance" points that managers remember.

My forecast: a train-full of H1N1-carriers dutifully trudging into work, snorting and sniffling all the way. Shoot, come to think of it, even if they were clinic-bound, they'd be on the train sharing their germs.