Archive for Politics & Public Policy
I don’t know what a good Texas girl is doing reading The New York Times, but my dear friend Peggy sent me a link to this story. I think it’s right on target, of course, but I doubt it will find any traction amidst all the noise and the “Nazi,” “Socialist,” “Marxist” name calling. But, on the upside, the Republicans will take charge and we’ll have this economy humming in no time. It’s all good.
Can’t Keep a Bad Idea Down
I confess, I find it dispiriting to read the polls and see candidates, mostly Republicans, leading in various midterm races while promoting many of the very same ideas that got us into this mess. Am I hearing right?
Let’s have more tax cuts, unlinked to any specific spending cuts and while we’re still fighting two wars — because that worked so well during the Bush years to make our economy strong and our deficit small. Let’s immediately cut government spending, instead of phasing cuts in gradually, while we’re still mired in a recession — because that worked so well in the Great Depression. Let’s roll back financial regulation — because we’ve learned from experience that Wall Street can police itself and average Americans will never have to bail it out.
Let’s have no limits on corporate campaign spending so oil and coal companies can more easily and anonymously strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its powers to limit pollution in the air our kids breathe. Let’s discriminate against gays and lesbians who want to join the military and fight for their country. Let’s restrict immigration, because, after all, we don’t live in a world where America’s most important competitive advantage is its ability to attract the world’s best brains. Let’s repeal our limited health care reform rather than see what works and then fix it. Let’s oppose the free-trade system that made us rich.
Let’s kowtow even more to public service unions so they’ll make even more money than private sector workers, so they’ll give even more money to Democrats who will give them even more generous pensions, so not only California and New York will go bankrupt but every other state too. Let’s pay for more tax cuts by uncovering waste I can’t identify, fraud I haven’t found and abuse that I’ll get back to you on later.
All that’s missing is any realistic diagnosis of where we are as a country and what we need to get back to sustainable growth. Actually, such a diagnosis has been done. A nonpartisan group of America’s most distinguished engineers, scientists, educators and industrialists unveiled just such a study in the midst of this campaign.
Here is the story: In 2005 our National Academies responded to a call from a bipartisan group of senators to recommend 10 actions the federal government could take to enhance science and technology so America could successfully compete in the 21st century. Their response was published in a study, spearheaded by the industrialist Norman Augustine, titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.”
Charles M. Vest, the former M.I.T. president, worked on the study and noted in a speech recently that “Gathering Storm,” together with work by the Council on Competitiveness, led to the America Competes Act of 2007, which increased funding for the basic science research that underlies our industrial economy. Other recommendations, like improving K-12 science education, were not substantively addressed.
So, on Sept. 23, the same group released a follow-up report: “Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5.” “The subtitle, ‘Rapidly Approaching Category 5,’ says it all,” noted Vest. “The committee’s conclusion is that ‘in spite of the efforts of both those in government and the private sector, the outlook for America to compete for quality jobs has further deteriorated over the past five years.’ ”
But I thought: “We’re number 1!”
“Here is a little dose of reality about where we actually rank today,” says Vest: sixth in global innovation-based competitiveness, but 40th in rate of change over the last decade; 11th among industrialized nations in the fraction of 25- to 34-year-olds who have graduated from high school; 16th in college completion rate; 22nd in broadband Internet access; 24th in life expectancy at birth; 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering; 48th in quality of K-12 math and science education; and 29th in the number of mobile phones per 100 people.
“This is not a pretty picture, and it cannot be wished away,” said Vest. The study recommended a series of steps — some that President Obama has already initiated, some that still need Congress’s support — designed to increase America’s talent pool by vastly improving K-12 science and mathematics education, to reinforce long-term basic research, and to create the right tax and policy incentives so we can develop, recruit and retain the best and brightest students, scientists and engineers in the world. The goal is to make America the premier place to innovate and invest in innovation to create high-paying jobs.
You’ll have to Google it, though. The report hasn’t received 1/100th of the attention given to Juan Williams’s remarks on Muslims.
A dysfunctional political system is one that knows the right answers but can’t even discuss them rationally, let alone act on them, and one that devotes vastly more attention to cable TV preachers than to recommendations by its best scientists and engineers.
A dear friend sent me this article, with the following observations. “The Republicans run a better theater – told us LOUDLY in 2003 we were getting a refund, let us anticipate it for 3 or 4 months, made sure when it came that it had George W. Bush’s name written all over it so we knew exactly who was giving it to us – and it arrived as a timely reminder just before the 2004 election.
The Democrats are so stupid that no one even heard a press conference about this tax cut. The Democrats just don’t get the show business of politics anymore, and as a result, for all the good they might do, they will continue to be marginalized.”
From Obama, the Tax Cut Nobody Heard Of
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — What if a president cut Americans’ income taxes by $116 billion and nobody noticed?
It is not a rhetorical question. At Pig Pickin’ and Politickin’, a barbecue-fed rally organized here last week by a Republican women’s club, a half-dozen guests were asked by a reporter what had happened to their taxes since President Obama took office.
“Federal and state have both gone up,” said Bob Paratore, 59, from nearby Charlotte, echoing the comments of others.
After further prodding — including a reminder that a provision of the stimulus bill had cut taxes for 95 percent of working families by changing withholding rates — Mr. Paratore’s memory was jogged.
“You’re right, you’re right,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you: it was so subtle that personally, I didn’t notice it.”
Few people apparently did.
In a troubling sign for Democrats as they head into the midterm elections, their signature tax cut of the past two years, which decreased income taxes by up to $400 a year for individuals and $800 for married couples, has gone largely unnoticed.
In a New York Times/CBS News Poll last month, fewer than one in 10 respondents knew that the Obama administration had lowered taxes for most Americans. Half of those polled said they thought that their taxes had stayed the same, a third thought that their taxes had gone up, and about a tenth said they did not know. As Thom Tillis, a Republican state representative, put it as the dinner wound down here, “This was the tax cut that fell in the woods — nobody heard it.”
Actually, the tax cut was, by design, hard to notice. Faced with evidence that people were more likely to save than spend the tax rebate checks they received during the Bush administration, the Obama administration decided to take a different tack: it arranged for less tax money to be withheld from people’s paychecks.
They reasoned that people would be more likely to spend a small, recurring extra bit of money that they might not even notice, and that the quicker the money was spent, the faster it would cycle through the economy.
Economists are still measuring how stimulative the tax cut was. But the hard-to-notice part has succeeded wildly. In a recent interview, President Obama said that structuring the tax cuts so that a little more money showed up regularly in people’s paychecks “was the right thing to do economically, but politically it meant that nobody knew that they were getting a tax cut.”
“And in fact what ended up happening was six months into it, or nine months into it,” the president said, “people had thought we had raised their taxes instead of cutting their taxes.”
There are plenty of explanations as to why many taxpayers did not feel richer when the cuts kicked in, giving typical families an extra $65 a month. Some people were making less money to begin with, as businesses cut back. Others saw their take-home pay shrink as the amounts deducted for health insurance rose.
And taxpayers in more than 30 states saw their state taxes rise, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
That is what happened here in North Carolina. The Treasury Department estimated that the federal tax cut would put $1.7 billion back in the hands of North Carolina taxpayers this year. Last year, though, North Carolina, facing a large budget shortfall, raised a variety of state taxes by roughly a billion dollars.
“It was a wash,” said Mr. Tillis, the state representative.
The guests at the Pig Pickin’ rally here could rattle off the names of the House speaker and the Senate majority leader with ease, if with disdain, and were up on many of the political controversies of the day. They studied the campaign fliers at their tables, and pocketed the 1.5-ounce jars of strawberry preserves with special labels urging them to vote for Judge Bill Constangy for Superior Court (“Preserving Justice,” the labels read).
Many volunteered that they thought the Bush tax cuts should be extended for all taxpayers, even for the wealthy ones whom Mr. Obama would like to exclude. But few had heard that there had also been Obama tax cuts — which will also expire next year unless extended, but have generated far less public debate.
Bob Deaton, 73, who wore a “Fair Tax” baseball cap, was surprised to hear that there were tax cuts in the $787 billion stimulus bill, which was wildly unpopular with many at the rally even though roughly a third of it was in the form of tax cuts.
“Tax cuts?” he asked. “Where were the tax cuts?”
Ron Julian, 50, a Huntersville town commissioner, said he thought his taxes had gone up under Mr. Obama. And Mr. Paratore, a former Hearst executive, said he might have noticed the tax cuts if his paycheck had jumped more in the weeks before he retired last year: “I couldn’t even tell you what it was, to be honest with you.”
The Obama administration wants to extend the little-noticed tax cut next year. Jason Furman, the deputy director of the National Economic Council, said the administration still believes that changing the withholdings was a more effective form of stimulus than sending out rebate checks would have been.
“In retrospect, we think that judgment was right,” he said. “It’s harder to predict what’s good for politics. Ultimately, the best thing for politics is going to be helping the economy.”
But at least one prominent economist is questioning whether the method really was more effective. Joel B. Slemrod, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan, analyzed consumer surveys after the last rebate checks were sent out in 2008 by the Bush administration, and after this tax cut, called Making Work Pay, went into effect under the Obama administration.
After the 2008 rebates, he found that about a quarter of the households surveyed said they would use the money primarily to increase their spending. After the Obama tax cut took effect, he said, only 13 percent said they would use the money primarily to increase their spending. The Obama administration believes that people did spend the money, and cites analyses calling the cut one of the more effective forms of stimulus.
Mr. Slemrod said it was not unheard of for voters to miss tax cuts. Just a few years after a 1986 overhaul of the tax system made significant cuts to most people’s taxes, he said, a survey asked people what had happened to their taxes. “Most people didn’t answer that they went down,” he said.
Peter Baker contributed reporting from Washington.
This is an article from the October 15, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.
Tea & Crackers
How corporate interests and Republican insiders built the Tea Party monster
By Matt Taibbi
Sep 28, 2010
It’s taken three trips to Kentucky, but I’m finally getting my Tea Party epiphany exactly where you’d expect: at a Sarah Palin rally. The red-hot mama of American exceptionalism has flown in to speak at something called the National Quartet Convention in Louisville, a gospel-music hoedown in a giant convention center filled with thousands of elderly white Southerners. Palin — who earlier this morning held a closed-door fundraiser for Rand Paul, the Tea Party champion running for the U.S. Senate — is railing against a GOP establishment that has just seen Tea Partiers oust entrenched Republican hacks in Delaware and New York. The dingbat revolution, it seems, is nigh.
“We’re shaking up the good ol’ boys,” Palin chortles, to the best applause her aging crowd can muster. She then issues an oft-repeated warning (her speeches are usually a tired succession of half-coherent one-liners dumped on ravenous audiences like chum to sharks) to Republican insiders who underestimated the power of the Tea Party Death Star. “Buck up,” she says, “or stay in the truck.”
Stay in what truck? I wonder. What the hell does that even mean?
Scanning the thousands of hopped-up faces in the crowd, I am immediately struck by two things. One is that there isn’t a single black person here. The other is the truly awesome quantity of medical hardware: Seemingly every third person in the place is sucking oxygen from a tank or propping their giant atrophied glutes on motorized wheelchair-scooters. As Palin launches into her Ronald Reagan impression — “Government’s not the solution! Government’s the problem!” — the person sitting next to me leans over and explains.
“The scooters are because of Medicare,” he whispers helpfully. “They have these commercials down here: ‘You won’t even have to pay for your scooter! Medicare will pay!’ Practically everyone in Kentucky has one.”
A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment. If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can’t imagine it.
After Palin wraps up, I race to the parking lot in search of departing Medicare-motor-scooter conservatives. I come upon an elderly couple, Janice and David Wheelock, who are fairly itching to share their views.
The Op-Ed below is by David Stockman, a director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan. His observations on the state of the American economy, and how it got to its present condition, are well worth reading. He does not exonerate Democratic administrations, but does lay much of the responsibility at the feet of his own party. Unfortunately, even though Stockman is a Reagan Republican, those who love to blame the entirety of our problems on the current administration, and who should pay the most attention to Stockman’s comments, will dismiss them completely. Partly because they are diametrically opposed to their firmly held biases, and partly because they are printed in Satan’s own newspaper, The New York Times.
Four Deformations of the Apocalypse
by David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan
reprinted from The New York Times
IF there were such a thing as Chapter 11 for politicians, the Republican push to extend the unaffordable Bush tax cuts would amount to a bankruptcy filing. The nation’s public debt — if honestly reckoned to include municipal bonds and the $7 trillion of new deficits baked into the cake through 2015 — will soon reach $18 trillion. That’s a Greece-scale 120 percent of gross domestic product, and fairly screams out for austerity and sacrifice. It is therefore unseemly for the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, to insist that the nation’s wealthiest taxpayers be spared even a three-percentage-point rate increase.
More fundamentally, Mr. McConnell’s stand puts the lie to the Republican pretense that its new monetarist and supply-side doctrines are rooted in its traditional financial philosophy. Republicans used to believe that prosperity depended upon the regular balancing of accounts — in government, in international trade, on the ledgers of central banks and in the financial affairs of private households and businesses, too. But the new catechism, as practiced by Republican policymakers for decades now, has amounted to little more than money printing and deficit finance — vulgar Keynesianism robed in the ideological vestments of the prosperous classes.
This approach has not simply made a mockery of traditional party ideals. It has also led to the serial financial bubbles and Wall Street depredations that have crippled our economy. More specifically, the new policy doctrines have caused four great deformations of the national economy, and modern Republicans have turned a blind eye to each one.
The first of these started when the Nixon administration defaulted on American obligations under the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement to balance our accounts with the world. Now, since we have lived beyond our means as a nation for nearly 40 years, our cumulative current-account deficit — the combined shortfall on our trade in goods, services and income — has reached nearly $8 trillion. That’s borrowed prosperity on an epic scale.
It is also an outcome that Milton Friedman said could never happen when, in 1971, he persuaded President Nixon to unleash on the world paper dollars no longer redeemable in gold or other fixed monetary reserves. Just let the free market set currency exchange rates, he said, and trade deficits will self-correct.
It may be true that governments, because they intervene in foreign exchange markets, have never completely allowed their currencies to float freely. But that does not absolve Friedman’s $8 trillion error. Once relieved of the discipline of defending a fixed value for their currencies, politicians the world over were free to cheapen their money and disregard their neighbors.
In fact, since chronic current-account deficits result from a nation spending more than it earns, stringent domestic belt-tightening is the only cure. When the dollar was tied to fixed exchange rates, politicians were willing to administer the needed castor oil, because the alternative was to make up for the trade shortfall by paying out reserves, and this would cause immediate economic pain — from high interest rates, for example. But now there is no discipline, only global monetary chaos as foreign central banks run their own printing presses at ever faster speeds to sop up the tidal wave of dollars coming from the Federal Reserve.
The second unhappy change in the American economy has been the extraordinary growth of our public debt. In 1970 it was just 40 percent of gross domestic product, or about $425 billion. When it reaches $18 trillion, it will be 40 times greater than in 1970. This debt explosion has resulted not from big spending by the Democrats, but instead the Republican Party’s embrace, about three decades ago, of the insidious doctrine that deficits don’t matter if they result from tax cuts.
In 1981, traditional Republicans supported tax cuts, matched by spending cuts, to offset the way inflation was pushing many taxpayers into higher brackets and to spur investment. The Reagan administration’s hastily prepared fiscal blueprint, however, was no match for the primordial forces — the welfare state and the warfare state — that drive the federal spending machine.
Soon, the neocons were pushing the military budget skyward. And the Republicans on Capitol Hill who were supposed to cut spending exempted from the knife most of the domestic budget — entitlements, farm subsidies, education, water projects. But in the end it was a new cadre of ideological tax-cutters who killed the Republicans’ fiscal religion.
David Stockman, a director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan, is working on a book about the financial crisis.
Through the 1984 election, the old guard earnestly tried to control the deficit, rolling back about 40 percent of the original Reagan tax cuts. But when, in the following years, the Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker, finally crushed inflation, enabling a solid economic rebound, the new tax-cutters not only claimed victory for their supply-side strategy but hooked Republicans for good on the delusion that the economy will outgrow the deficit if plied with enough tax cuts.
By fiscal year 2009, the tax-cutters had reduced federal revenues to 15 percent of gross domestic product, lower than they had been since the 1940s. Then, after rarely vetoing a budget bill and engaging in two unfinanced foreign military adventures, George W. Bush surrendered on domestic spending cuts, too — signing into law $420 billion in non-defense appropriations, a 65 percent gain from the $260 billion he had inherited eight years earlier. Republicans thus joined the Democrats in a shameless embrace of a free-lunch fiscal policy.
The third ominous change in the American economy has been the vast, unproductive expansion of our financial sector. Here, Republicans have been oblivious to the grave danger of flooding financial markets with freely printed money and, at the same time, removing traditional restrictions on leverage and speculation. As a result, the combined assets of conventional banks and the so-called shadow banking system (including investment banks and finance companies) grew from a mere $500 billion in 1970 to $30 trillion by September 2008.
But the trillion-dollar conglomerates that inhabit this new financial world are not free enterprises. They are rather wards of the state, extracting billions from the economy with a lot of pointless speculation in stocks, bonds, commodities and derivatives. They could never have survived, much less thrived, if their deposits had not been government-guaranteed and if they hadn’t been able to obtain virtually free money from the Fed’s discount window to cover their bad bets.
The fourth destructive change has been the hollowing out of the larger American economy. Having lived beyond our means for decades by borrowing heavily from abroad, we have steadily sent jobs and production offshore. In the past decade, the number of high-value jobs in goods production and in service categories like trade, transportation, information technology and the professions has shrunk by 12 percent, to 68 million from 77 million. The only reason we have not experienced a severe reduction in nonfarm payrolls since 2000 is that there has been a gain in low-paying, often part-time positions in places like bars, hotels and nursing homes.
It is not surprising, then, that during the last bubble (from 2002 to 2006) the top 1 percent of Americans — paid mainly from the Wall Street casino — received two-thirds of the gain in national income, while the bottom 90 percent — mainly dependent on Main Street’s shrinking economy — got only 12 percent. This growing wealth gap is not the market’s fault. It’s the decaying fruit of bad economic policy.
The day of national reckoning has arrived. We will not have a conventional business recovery now, but rather a long hangover of debt liquidation and downsizing — as suggested by last week’s news that the national economy grew at an anemic annual rate of 2.4 percent in the second quarter. Under these circumstances, it’s a pity that the modern Republican Party offers the American people an irrelevant platform of recycled Keynesianism when the old approach — balanced budgets, sound money and financial discipline — is needed more than ever.
David Stockman, a director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan, is working on a book about the financial crisis.
All we really need is the right testing algorithm. Right? If we could just find that one magic (standardized) test, teaching could be completely automated. Done by computers. We could set up classrooms with 30 (or 50) computer terminals, put one IT guy at the front of the room, and then my friends you could just stand back and watch the learnin’ begin!
Once again, I owe my good friend and Texas educator, Peggy, for bringing this article by John Young to my attention. It is reprinted here from his blog, which is linked to below. He is a writer who should be read with regularity. And, someday, when I have a payroll, I need to put Peggy on it.
Public flogging of teachers continues
by John Young
I blame my mechanic — the fact that I don’t change my oil often enough, don’t check my tire pressure regularly, and don’t know my carburetor from my glove compartment.
I’m sure you will agree with me that my mechanic is solely to blame for any malfunction of my car. It can’t be that I invest too little in it, or that I take only passing interest in its interests — that is, until it doesn’t motor me to every chosen destination.
We need new accountability standards for mechanics. Assemble the lawmakers.
I’m serious here. Just about as serious as some policy makers are about education.
Those policy makers, and the citizens for whom they posture, blame teachers for all the ills of the schooling machine.
It couldn’t be any outside influences that affect learning — not the inattention of parents, not whatever roiling events outside school walls might make it difficult to learn, not too-crowded classes, not administrators and policy makers who don’t really get what teachers do.
Something very detrimental to learning has been happening under the guise of education reform for nearly two decades. Americans have been convinced that standardization is education. They have been convinced that the way to “excellence” is to treat children’s minds like one treats tomatoes during canning season.
In the process, too many Americans have swallowed the propaganda that those who don’t buy the standard (King James?) version of school accountability employed by state after state don’t support excellence.
In Florida a pitched battle rages over one more quest to reduce education to tomato paste on the butcher block of standardization. Reformers seek to pin teacher pay increases to test scores. The bill would require school districts to set aside 5 percent of their entire budgets starting in 2011 for “performance” pay increases. If they have any leftover money, they could use it to develop new tests, like end-of-course exams. Otherwise, they would have to give it back to the state.
The bill also would essentially rewrite the rules for teacher contracts. And in telling districts how they can pay teachers, it would wipe out considerations like advanced degrees and experience.
The most offensive thing about this is that it’s not really about education. It’s about a political vendetta. The party of Bush and Cheney and Limbaugh and O’Reilly has had it out for “teachers’ unions” from the day some marginally educated focus group said the term was disparaging enough to be gold.
So, we have people stepping up saying they know how to “fix” education. Even if they confuse teaching with conveyor-belt work. Even if they consider Sarah Palin learned.
Ah, standardization. I once heard a person say, seriously, that if only schools would be like the Army, our problems would be solved. You see, all enlistees have to learn how to assemble a rifle. Have to. And will.
But, then, education isn’t training. Education is a higher quest. Or, so we once assumed. Unfortunately, our political system has instituted a concept of schooling that casts students across a sea of bubble-in questions.
You say teachers oppose assessment? That’s the most ridiculous claim of all. I have a book that has 450 pages of really great assessments — classroom exercises that show if students are using critical thinking skills. It has activities which can make school fascinating and truly challenging. No one craves assessments — quality, diagnostic assessments — more than a teacher, or at least the vast majority of true classroom professionals.
The same goes for most mechanics. But I’m holding mine accountable for my inattention. If my oil pan ends up empty, heads will roll down at the shop.
John Young is a nationally syndicated writer who lives and teaches in Fort Collins, Colorado. He writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I know Texans don’t generally give a crap about what the rest of the country, or the world for that matter, thinks about us. But this time, they’re laughing at us and they’re a little bit spooked by us at the same time. And they’re not wrong. We might wanna take a few notes this time. Below, some reprinted observations by SF Gate columnist, Mark Morford. You know, San Francisco, where all those crazy hippies live.
By Mark Morford,
SF Gate Columnist
Hey, kids! Here’s something I bet you didn’t know: Black people? Back in 1800 or whenever? They liked being slaves. True! Many savvy, industrious Negroes actually volunteered for that fine, desirable position. It was a completely balanced, fair, hugely successful system, until those damn liberals came along and ruined everything. I know, right? What a shame.
Do you know what else? America was wholly victorious in Vietnam. It’s a fact! Kicked some serious enemy butt! Mission accomplished! Sure it was a little bumpy for awhile, but President Nixon, that great and wronged American hero, put us on the righteous path in the end, wrapped that sucker up beautifully and made America the noble Superman to the world. Hey, it’s the truth! You can look it up in your history textbook!
Even more good, newly historic news: Despite what you may have heard from the liberal media, America has very much won its recent, God-sanctioned wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Angry Allah loses again! Just look at this handy diagram on page 281, Figure 4-9. See those little dark-skinned bodies stacked up neatly beside that minaret? Right next to that completely unstaged photo of the toppled Saddam statue? Look how many there are! Graphs never lie.
Did you know, back in the frontier days, that Native Americans welcomed the white man with open arms? Absolutely true. Those poor, sunburned people were so beaten down and exploited by their oppressive dictator “chiefs,” they were forced to believe in all sorts of disgusting pagan sun gods and had to eat, like, rocks and snakes and stuff.
It’s no wonder they greeted proud, fair-minded American colonials as great liberators — yes! Just like in Baghdad! — and happily gave us free access to their fields and their women and their wonderful bead-making technology, in exchange for, you know, gin and fireworks. And casinos.
Never doubt America’s irrefutable greatness, kids. Our prison system, for example, is the finest in the world. Also, dirty Mexican people had no role whatsoever in the Civil War or U.S. history (except as troublesome immigrants, yuck), hip-hop music is in no way, shape or form to be considered a significant cultural movement — unlike totally awesome Country & Western, and the War on Drugs is going spectacularly well, thanks to our fine military, numerous Afterschool Specials and the deep love of Jesus — who, if you look really closely at those old photographs from the Bible, is clearly wearing a U.S. flag pin on his robes to go along with his friendly, competely legal sidearm. God bless America.
These irrefutable facts — and many more just like them — are brought to you by the Texas State Board of Education, packed like a jug of rancid tartar sauce with intellectually numb simpletons who smell like ignorance and taste like fear. The TSBE: We make revisionist brainwashing fun!™
Maybe you didn’t hear? The little item about how a small pod of pale ultra-conservatives in Texas has just demanded a whole slew of specific changes be made to history textbooks down in the Lone Star State? About how, in fact, nearly every change is a rather ridiculous rewriting of history and the language surrounding it, all tending to favor — can you guess? — white privileged capitalist males, a bitter Christian God, and a whitewashed version of history that never actually existed?
Not much shocking about it all, really. “Texas education” has never exactly equated with “intellectual range and nuance.” But there’s a big, ugly snag: Due to the state’s huge purchasing power, the decisions of these tiny-brained ultra-conservatives could well influence what goes into various school history textbooks nationwide.
So it is that that some inbred neocon beliefs about homophobic God and gun-loving country will ooze their way into the minds of unsuspecting youth in a completely different state say, 10 years’ hence, like a poison slowly leeching into the cultural water supply. Ah, Texas conservatism. It’s the new DDT!
What, too harsh? I’m not so sure. Yes, everyone knows that history is slippery and spurious to begin with, all about context and spin and who’s telling the tale. History is, after all, written by the victors.
What they don’t usually add is how history is then revised by the politicians, gutted by the church leaders, molested by the power mongers, skinned alive by paranoid militants, poorly codified by the speechwriters and then spun, torqued and diluted by countless mealy “experts” before being shoved down the gullet of unsuspecting youth, where it is partially digested like so much liquefied school lunch meat, only to be wrongly half-remembered later in life by the most insane among them, who then quickly gets his own talk show on Fox News. And lo, the circle of life continues.
Say what you will about standardized testing, draconian teachers’ unions, lazy tenured teachers, crumbling campuses, slashed budgets, et al. I can think of no better argument for mortgaging everything you own so as to afford a private/charter school for your kid than the disturbing fact that these Texas State Board mongrels might have any power whatsoever to shape young minds by way of further tainting the already wobbly, spurious historical record.
Maybe it doesn’t really matter. After all, it’s widely understood that, given the state of public education, children don’t really learn much in school anyway. The system is so problematic and the teachers union so dangerously obstinate, there’s a good chance your kid will never crack open one of these flawed, historically inaccurate textbooks in the first place. Small consolation indeed.
It’s not all dire and brimstone. Prior to this ridiculous move — and by the way, the board’s revisions still have to be ratified, so there’s a slim chance public outcry and a deep sense of shame at their own repellent personal politics will get them to back off — there’s apparently been a small amount of improvement in school textbooks over the years.
From what I understand, in the wake of wildly influential bestsellers like “Lies my Teacher Told Me” and the late, great Howard Zinn’s “People History” series, among many others, school textbooks underwent some significant improvements in the past couple of decades, slightly more multicultural and inclusive, balanced, realistic. Not nearly as thin, lopsided, sexist, jingoistic, myopic as they used to be. Is that damning with faint praise? Maybe.
Alas, if California weren’t so utterly broke, slashing education budgets and shutting down schools, maybe our fair state could launch a counter-attack, demand some reasonably accurate historic revisions in those selfsame texts. Time was when we had some killer purchasing power of our own. Remember? Yeah, me neither.
Sadly, from what I hear, California schools don’t even use textbooks anymore. Or classrooms. Or desks. They all disintegrated sometime back in 1987. History is now taught by means of sock puppets, toothpick dioramas and firecrackers. And gin.
Of course, I’m completely exaggerating. The changes the Texas Board is shoving through are probably relatively innocuous, just another toxic chemical added to the already lethal school lunch menu, one of a thousand, really. I’m sure everything will be fine. Kids won’t mind a whit that they’re being fed heavily processed, dangerous, non-nutritive mental crap. Hell, they’ll probably enjoy it. You know, just like all those happy, contented slaves.
Even though I still consider myself a Texan, I don’t live there anymore. I certainly don’t have any children in Texas schools, so how and what the Texas Board of Education decides to teach the children of their state really shouldn’t concern me. It shouldn’t. But it does.
The practical reason, of course, is that textbooks created for the education system of Texas inevitably end up in school systems across the country. It’s such a huge market for textbooks that the major publishers are willing to bow to their wishes when revisions to history are requested, and the rest of the country can take it or leave it. This is not the first time Texas has skewed history for children all over the U.S.
This time, it seems, Thomas Jefferson was getting way too much credit for his role as a founding father. Writing the Declaration of Independence and most of the Constitution clearly just makes him a glory hog. The Texas board wants his responsibility in the creation of this country pared down a bit. That separation of church and state thing apparently still pisses them off.
On the other hand, there are some important figures of the past that the board feels are getting short-changed at the checkout stand of history. Confederate President Jefferson Davis is one of them. The Texas board feels that Jeff’s presidency should be treated more on an equal par with Abraham Lincoln’s. I mean, it’s only fair. He was a president, too.
Another much maligned, and unfairly disparaged character from the more recent past is Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. The board feels he’s been poorly treated by historians, and would like to see his image rehabilitated a little. The fact that he was a demagogue, a drunk, and an unrepentant liar shouldn’t completely overshadow the possibility that there really may have been communists in the federal government. I mean, really. He could have been right.
There are over 100 such “adjustments” to the state curriculum by the board, and these aren’t even the most egregious. These are just the easiest to make fun of. And, I’m afraid that the impracticality of it is not what’s really gotten up my nose. I think it’s more emotional than that.
What has happened in Texas, again, is that a handful of appointed and elected political hacks with a social and political agenda have been empowered to second-guess and overrule the panel of professional educators charged with creating the social studies curriculum for the state’s school children. They have, once again, held the state up to national and international ridicule, but worse, they seek to cheat the children of Texas of an honest and unbiased education.
This board, without a single educator or historian among them, has chosen to rewrite history to suit themselves and their own narrow ideology. No one cares if they wish to go through life ill-prepared and ignorant. Clearly they don’t mind. But to impose systematic, state sponsored ignorance on an entire generation of school children is immoral.
Shame on them.
This small band of ideologues is being allowed to lead the next generation of Texans into intellectual bankruptcy. The parents of Texas expect and deserve better for their children. They need to stand up and demand it. Now. Before the books are printed.
My dear friend Peggy, a fellow Texan, sent this to me today. I think it offers a lot to think about and, as you know, The New York Times suffers from very poor circulation so I thought I’d lend them the weight and influence of my blog. Thank you, Peggy.
The Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged
No one knows what history will make of the present — least of all journalists, who can at best write history’s sloppy first draft. But if I were to place an incautious bet on which political event will prove the most significant of February 2010, I wouldn’t choose the kabuki health care summit that generated all the ink and 24/7 cable chatter in Washington. I’d put my money instead on the murder-suicide of Andrew Joseph Stack III, the tax protester who flew a plane into an office building housing Internal Revenue Service employees in Austin, Tex., on Feb. 18. It was a flare with the dark afterlife of an omen.
What made that kamikaze mission eventful was less the deranged act itself than the curious reaction of politicians on the right who gave it a pass — or, worse, flirted with condoning it. Stack was a lone madman, and it would be both glib and inaccurate to call him a card-carrying Tea Partier or a “Tea Party terrorist.” But he did leave behind a manifesto whose frothing anti-government, anti-tax rage overlaps with some of those marching under the Tea Party banner. That rant inspired like-minded Americans to create instant Facebook shrines to his martyrdom. Soon enough, some cowed politicians, including the newly minted Tea Party hero Scott Brown, were publicly empathizing with Stack’s credo — rather than risk crossing the most unforgiving brigade in their base.
Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, even rationalized Stack’s crime. “It’s sad the incident in Texas happened,” he said, “but by the same token, it’s an agency that is unnecessary. And when the day comes when that is over and we abolish the I.R.S., it’s going to be a happy day for America.” No one in King’s caucus condemned these remarks. Then again, what King euphemized as “the incident” took out just 1 of the 200 workers in the Austin building: Vernon Hunter, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran nearing his I.R.S. retirement. Had Stack the devastating weaponry and timing to match the death toll of 168 inflicted by Timothy McVeigh on a federal building in Oklahoma in 1995, maybe a few of the congressman’s peers would have cried foul.
It is not glib or inaccurate to invoke Oklahoma City in this context, because the acrid stench of 1995 is back in the air. Two days before Stack’s suicide mission, The Times published David Barstow’s chilling, months-long investigation of the Tea Party movement. Anyone who was cognizant during the McVeigh firestorm would recognize the old warning signs re-emerging from the mists of history. The Patriot movement. “The New World Order,” with its shadowy conspiracies hatched by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. Sandpoint, Idaho. White supremacists. Militias.
Barstow confirmed what the Southern Poverty Law Center had found in its report last year: the unhinged and sometimes armed anti-government right that was thought to have vaporized after its Oklahoma apotheosis is making a comeback. And now it is finding common cause with some elements of the diverse, far-flung and still inchoate Tea Party movement. All it takes is a few self-styled “patriots” to sow havoc.
Equally significant is Barstow’s finding that most Tea Party groups have no affiliation with the G.O.P. despite the party’s ham-handed efforts to co-opt them. The more we learn about the Tea Partiers, the more we can see why. They loathe John McCain and the free-spending, TARP-tainted presidency of George W. Bush. They really do hate all of Washington, and if they hate Obama more than the Republican establishment, it’s only by a hair or two. (Were Obama not earning extra demerits in some circles for his race, it might be a dead heat.) The Tea Partiers want to eliminate most government agencies, starting with the Fed and the I.R.S., and end spending on entitlement programs. They are not to be confused with the Party of No holding forth in Washington — a party that, after all, is now positioning itself as a defender of Medicare spending. What we are talking about here is the Party of No Government at All.
The distinction between the Tea Party movement and the official G.O.P. is real, and we ignore it at our peril. While Washington is fixated on the natterings of Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Michael Steele and the presumed 2012 Republican presidential front-runner, Mitt Romney, these and the other leaders of the Party of No are anathema or irrelevant to most Tea Partiers. Indeed, McConnell, Romney and company may prove largely irrelevant to the overall political dynamic taking hold in America right now. The old G.O.P. guard has no discernible national constituency beyond the scattered, often impotent remnants of aging country club Republicanism. The passion on the right has migrated almost entirely to the Tea Party’s counterconservatism.
The leaders embraced by the new grass roots right are a different slate entirely: Glenn Beck, Ron Paul and Sarah Palin. Simple math dictates that none of this trio can be elected president. As George F. Will recently pointed out, Palin will not even be the G.O.P. nominee “unless the party wants to lose at least 44 states” (as it did in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Waterloo). But these leaders do have a consistent ideology, and that ideology plays to the lock-and-load nutcases out there, not just to the peaceable (if riled up) populist conservatives also attracted to Tea Partyism. This ideology is far more troubling than the boilerplate corporate conservatism and knee-jerk obstructionism of the anti-Obama G.O.P. Congressional minority.
In the days after Stack’s Austin attack, the gradually coalescing Tea Party dogma had its Washington coming out party at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), across town from Capitol Hill. The most rapturously received speaker was Beck, who likened the G.O.P. to an alcoholic in need of a 12-step program to recover from its “progressive-lite” collusion with federal government. Beck vilified an unnamed Republican whose favorite president was the progressive Theodore Roosevelt — that would be McCain — and ominously labeled progressivism a cancer that “must be cut out of the system.”
A co-sponsor of CPAC was the John Birch Society, another far-right organization that has re-emerged after years of hibernation. Its views, which William F. Buckley Jr. decried in the 1960s as an “idiotic” and “irrational” threat to true conservatism, remain unchanged. At the conference’s conclusion, a presidential straw poll was won by Congressman Paul, ending a three-year Romney winning streak. No less an establishment conservative observer than the Wall Street Journal editorialist Dorothy Rabinowitz describes Paul’s followers as “conspiracy theorists, anti-government zealots, 9/11 truthers, and assorted other cadres of the obsessed and deranged.”
William Kristol dismissed the straw poll results as the youthful folly of Paul’s jejune college fans. William Bennett gingerly pooh-poohed Beck’s anti-G.O.P. diatribe. But in truth, most of the CPAC speakers, including presidential aspirants, were so eager to ingratiate themselves with this claque that they endorsed the Beck-Paul vision rather than, say, defend Bush, McCain or the party’s Congressional leadership. (It surely didn’t help Romney’s straw poll showing that he was the rare Bush defender.) And so — just one day after Stack crashed his plane into the Austin I.R.S. office — the heretofore milquetoast Minnesota governor, Tim Pawlenty, told the audience to emulate Tiger Woods’s wife and “take a 9-iron and smash the window out of big government in this country.”
Such violent imagery and invective, once largely confined to blogs and talk radio, is now spreading among Republicans in public office or aspiring to it. Last year Michele Bachmann, the redoubtable Tea Party hero and Minnesota congresswoman, set the pace by announcing that she wanted “people in Minnesota armed and dangerous” to oppose Obama administration climate change initiatives. In Texas, the Tea Party favorite for governor, Debra Medina, is positioning herself to the right of the incumbent, Rick Perry — no mean feat given that Perry has suggested that Texas could secede from the union. A state sovereignty zealot, Medina reminded those at a rally that “the tree of freedom is occasionally watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots.”
In the heyday of 1960s left-wing radicalism, no liberal Democratic politicians in Washington could be found endorsing groups preaching violent revolution. The right has a different history. In the months before McVeigh’s mass murder, Helen Chenoweth and Steve Stockman, then representing Idaho and Texas in Congress, publicly empathized with the conspiracy theories of the far right that fueled his anti-government obsessions.
In his Times article on the Tea Party right, Barstow profiled Pam Stout, a once apolitical Idaho retiree who cast her lot with a Tea Party group allied with Beck’s 9/12 Project, the Birch Society and the Oath Keepers, a rising militia group of veterans and former law enforcement officers who champion disregarding laws they oppose. She frets that “another civil war” may be in the offing. “I don’t see us being the ones to start it,” she told Barstow, “but I would give up my life for my country.”
Whether consciously or coincidentally, Stout was echoing Palin’s memorable final declaration during her appearance at the National Tea Party Convention earlier this month: “I will live, I will die for the people of America, whatever I can do to help.” It’s enough to make you wonder who is palling around with terrorists now.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: March 2, 2010 The column by Frank Rich on Sunday, about the conservative movement, misstated the job status of Tim Pawlenty. He is the current governor of Minnesota, not former.
Here’s An Interesting Chart
It tracks U.S. Government revenue increases against U.S. Government spending increases going back through eight presidents. As you can see, the light blue bar represents the increase in revenue, and the dark blue bar represents the increase in spending by the U.S. Government during the tenure of each president.
The last one pretty well demonstrates what happens when you hand out multiple tax cuts while trying to prosecute two wars. Wonder if George understands now why he was the only president in history to do that? Even John McCain pointed out what a bad idea that was. Until he became a presidential candidate, of course. Then, he was of big fan.
Interestingly, one of the largest federal tax rate cuts in the history of this country came in the Revenue Act of 1964, under President Lyndon Johnson. And in case you’re wondering, we were not yet mired in the war in Vietnam when this took place. We were still only there in an advisory capacity. It wasn’t until 1965 that everything went to hell in Southeast Asia.
From Daily Kos
Washington Times: GOP lawmakers privately admit stimulus created jobs
by Jed Lewison
Tue Feb 09, 2010 at 08:42:03 AM PST
If there’s one thing that unites the Republican Party it’s that the stimulus bill was a job-killing piece of legislation that was the worst thing in the whole entire world for the economy, right? Or maybe that’s just what unites them in public, because in private the Washington Times reports they’ve been working overtime to get their hands on job-creating stimulus cash.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond regularly railed against President Obama’s economic stimulus plan as irresponsible spending that would drive up the national debt. But behind the scenes, the Missouri Republican quietly sought more than $50 million from a federal agency for two projects in his state. In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Mr. Bond noted that one project applying to the USDA for stimulus money would “create jobs and ultimately spur economic opportunities.”
Bond isn’t alone. Remember Joe “You Lie” Wilson?
Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican who became famous after yelling, “You lie,” during Mr. Obama’s addresses to Congress in September, voted against the stimulus. Nonetheless, Mr. Wilson elbowed his way into the rush for federal stimulus cash in a letter he sent to Mr. Vilsack on behalf of a foundation seeking funding. “We know their endeavor will provide jobs and investment in one of the poorer sections of the Congressional District,” he wrote to Mr. Vilsack in the Aug. 26, 2009, letter.
You see the pattern? Slam the stimulus in public, but in private, ask for stimulus funds to create jobs. For example, Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah:
On Feb. 13, 2009, Sen. Robert F. Bennett, Utah Republican, issued a statement criticizing the stimulus — but two days earlier, he privately forwarded to Mr. Vilsack a list of projects seeking stimulus money. “I believe the addition of federal funds to these projects would maximize the stimulative effect of these projects on the local economy,” he wrote.
And here’s even more quotes uncovered by the Washington Times in private letters written by Republican lawmakers seeking stimulus funds from the Agriculture Department:
Sen. Mike Johanns, Nebraska Republican: “The proposed project would create 38 new jobs and bring broadband to eight hospitals, five colleges, 16 libraries and 161 K-12 schools”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican: “It is anticipated that the project will create over 200 jobs in the first year and at least another 40 new jobs in the following years.”
Rep. John Linder, Georgia Republican: “the employment opportunities created by this program would be quickly utilized”
Kudos to the Washington Times for having done the leg work of filing the FOIA requests to expose these examples of Republican lawmakers talking out of both sides of their mouths, publicly lambasting the stimulus as a job-killing measure, but privately conceding that it actually created jobs. It’s hard to imagine a more effective way of demonstrating Republican hypocrisy on the question of whether the stimulus bill creates jobs, and Dems should remind them of it every waking day.
Reprinted from Daily Kos
Lyndon L. Olson, Jr., 62, served as United States Ambassador to Sweden from 1998 until 2001. On November 12, 2009 he accepted the eighth annual Texas Legacy Award from the Center for Public Policy Priorities at a luncheon in Austin, Texas. The following are his remarks from that luncheon. It’s five or six pages long, but they are well worth the read for anyone who is interested in public policy, politics in America, and the civil discourse related to both. Take the time. You’ll be glad you did. Thanks to my friend Peggy for sharing this with me.
Thank you very much for this honor. I appreciate the kind remarks of my friend Congressman Edwards. I also appreciate the opportunity today to talk to this distinguished group about a concern of mine. I want to talk with you about civility, both in society in general and in our politics in particular.
I encourage you to think back…for some of us way back…to those report cards we got in first grade. Most everyone had different type cards and categories, but they were pretty much variations on the same basic theme. I’m not talking about your arithmetic or reading or penmanship grades. I’m talking about the comportment column, with things such as exercises self-control … respects the rights of others … shows kindness and consideration for others … indicates willingness to cooperate … uses handkerchief (important even before the H1N1 virus) … and, my favorite was usually right up at the top of that 6-week report card and it’s of particular significance to our discussion … “plays well with others.”
We were being taught about and graded on one of the most fundamental skills of our civilization: how to get along with others. There is a reason that plays well with others was one of the first things we were taught and evaluated on. And folks, I don’t think we’re getting a very good grade on plays well with others these days. Many of us don’t even want to play with someone we don’t like or disagree with.
Where did all of this come from? In the majority of my life this hasn’t been the case. Those of us in this room over 40 or 50 didn’t grow up in anything like this environment. We didn’t live like this. Not in our communities … not in our politics. We lived in a political world with strong feelings and positions, yes. And we took swings at each other politically. But it didn’t come down to the moral equivalent of street brawls and knife fights. Politics has always been a contact sport, but the conflict didn’t permeate every aspect of our society and rise to today’s level of social and verbal hostility. It is very unhealthy. And I’m not sure what to do about it. But I know it when I see it and hear it. And I know it is time we focus as much attention on our civil behavior as we do on achieving our personal and partisan agendas. How we do that, I don’t know. But I want to raise the issue, ask the questions, and encourage you all to give it your consideration as well.
We live in an era of rudeness, in society in general, in the popular culture, and in our political life. Our culture today, in fact, rewards incivility, crudeness, and cynicism. You can get on TV, get your own talk show or reality series if you out-shout and offend the other guy. Everyone screams, no one listens. We produce a lot of heat but little light. The proclivity is to demonize our opponent. People don’t just disagree … the challenge to the other is a battle to the death. Character assassination, verbal abuse, obnoxious behavior, and an overbearing attention on scandal and titillation – all that isn’t just reserved to day-time TV anymore—it’s the currency of prime-time, of late night, of cable news, of the Internet, and of society in general.
What happened to us? Should this be a sign of alarm? Is the problem selfishness—we won’t be denied, we must be immediately gratified? We want everything we’ve ever seen in the movies? How do we live and get along like our parents and their generation? They had to sacrifice. They didn’t get what they wanted when they wanted it. Is today’s need for instant gratification a problem?
We are more inclusive today…and that is a good thing—but has that good made for increased tensions?
Is it the 24-hour news cycle? The 24-hour news cycle demands instantaneous news, which feeds off of controversy, scandal, and easy answers to difficult questions. There is scant time for reflection or reasoned analysis. Market forces demand instantaneous information and jarring entertainment values, not sober analysis or wisdom. The news media are more prone to focus on the loudest, the most outrageous, and the most partisan actors. And given the rise of the political consultant class, candidates and campaigns are louder, more outrageous, and meta-partisan. Political consultants have helped create a permanent campaign where politics takes precedence over governance. The political consultants egg on all this for profit, creating controversy where little or none exists so the message, the theme of the day, is played out on TV and the media. They’re paid handsomely to cause strife and create conflict in order to raise hackles, money, and attention … fomenting issues to suit their agenda. It’s all about the message, not the solution, not the negotiation, the debate, the compromise to move forward. It’s about who is controlling the message, who is defining the message, who is creating the message, who is keeping the conflict alive often where none existed before the consultant decided one was needed. Is this what keeps us at each other’s throats?
Is it talk radio, attack TV? Is it the talk shows, the shout festivals where absolute hyperbole is the only currency? Mean-spirited hyperbole and hyper-partisanship breeds cynicism. Citizens are increasingly cynical about politics and about their government’s ability to work. The damage to the ship of state, to the fabric of the nation begs repair. Whose job is it to change course and effect the necessary repairs? I’m not sure I have the answer to that, but I propose that in a room full of policy makers and politicians, men and women who talk to the media, who work in the public arena, who hire consultants, who set agendas, maybe we have a role to play in making things better.
You know, I can say that there are some people in this room, people I consider dear friends, who understand this problem and I believe share my concern. To those friends I say, you and I both know that we disagree very fundamentally on some very big issues but the truth is that we could care less about our disagreements and are more concerned about where we can find consensus and reasons to work and live together to construct a better future. I consider this kind of commitment to trust and open dialogue crucial to maintaining a sustainable society.
And indeed, isn’t it about building a better future for our community, for our country, for our children? I say that even on the most intractable of issues, there is room for constructive debate, for consensus building, for the search for some common ground.
President Johnson once said to his Democratic colleague, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, during the crisis of civil rights in the South: “What do you want left behind? You want a great, big marble monument that says, ‘George Wallace: He built.’ Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine lying there that says, ‘George Wallace: He hated’?” The people I know in this room are builders. But we are confronting a world today where hate seems to be a predominant factor in the crisis of incivility confronting our politics.
Where are the rules that govern conduct? What happens eventually after this continuous rancor tears the fabric of our society completely asunder? Can we survive with this tenor…taking no prisoners, giving no quarter?
I’m asking these questions because you folks here are blessed with skills, talent, experience and a commitment to a positive public policy. You understand the importance of maintaining and protecting our commonweal where we strive to serve our clients, our community, our country, and our state. If civil discourse self-destructs, we cannot move on the issues that matter. Think of this as an environmental crisis … the environment being our civil society and our very ability to live and work and prosper together.
I don’t want to sound pious or preachy here, but if we are to prevail as a free, self-governing people, we must work together. We shouldn’t try to destroy our opponents just because we disagree. We have to govern our tongues. The Proverbs tells us, chapter 18, verse 12, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” How we choose to use words—for good or for wrong— is clearly our choice. The health of our democracy depends upon a robust public discourse.
Recognize that I am not saying that conflict in our political life is to be avoided. Hardly so. It is not only proper but necessary for candidates to vigorously debate the issues of our day and examine their opponents’ records. Don’t let people confuse civility with goody two-shoes niceness and mere etiquette. Civility is a robust, tough, substantive civic virtue, critical to both civil society and the future of our republic. Civility entails speaking directly, passionately, and responsibly about who we are and what we believe. Divisions based on principles are healthy for the nation. Vigorous and passionate debate helps us to define issues and to sharpen positions.
Conflict cannot, should not be avoided in our public lives any more than we can avoid conflict with the people we love. But just as members of a household, as a family learn ways of settling their differences without inflicting real damage on each other, so we, in our politics, must find constructive ways of resolving disputes and differences.
Our work is here. We build from the base. We will foster change first by our example … by working together, respecting one another, and negotiating our differences in good faith and with mutual respect. Civility is neither a small nor inconsequential issue. The word comes from the French civilité which is often translated as “politeness.” But it means much more. It suggests an approach to life…living in a way that is civilized. The words “civilized,” “civilité,” and “city” share a common etymology with a word meaning “member of the household.” To be civilized is to understand that we live in a society as in a household. There are certain rules that allow family members to live peacefully within a household. So, too, are there rules of civility that allow us to live peacefully within a society. As we all learned in 1st grade a long time ago, we owe certain responsibilities to one another. Perhaps we spend a lifetime learning how to play well with others. So be it. It is a crucial goal for a civil society.
The following is a first-hand account of the free health care clinic staged at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana this past weekend. The doctors, nurses, technicians, and other personnel were all volunteers. The facilities, equipment, instruments, and medicines were paid for by Americans all over the country who donated generously so that several of these clinics could be held in multiple cities around the U.S. The eyewitness account was written by Rich Stockwell, Senior Producer for Countdown on MSNBC. This article is reprinted from Countdown’s website.
Countdown Producer Bears Witness to
America’s Health Care Shortcomings
New Orleans, La. — – It happened as I watched a 50-something woman walk out, after spending several hours being attended to by volunteer doctors. “She’s decided against treatment. A reasonable decision under the circumstances,” the doctor tells us as she heads for the next patient. The president of the board of the National Association of Free Health Clinics tells me why: “It’s stage four breast cancer, her body is filled with tumors.” I don’t know when that woman last saw a doctor. But I do know that if she had health insurance, the odds she would have seen a doctor long ago are much higher, and her chances for an earlier diagnosis and treatment would have been far greater.
After watching for hours as the patients moved through the clinic, it was hard to believe that I was in America.
Eighty-three percent of the patients they see are employed, they are not accepting other government help on a large scale, not “welfare queens” as some would like to have us believe. They are tax-paying, good, upstanding citizens who are trying to make it and give their kids a better life just like you and me.
Ninety percent of the patients who came through Saturday’s clinic had two or more diagnoses. Eighty-two percent had a life-threatening condition such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or hypertension. They are victims of a system built with corporate profits at its center, which long ago forgot the moral imperative that should drive us to show compassion to our fellow men and women.
Health reform is not about Democrats or Republicans or who can score political points for the next election, it’s about people. It’s about fairness and justice in a system that knows none. I’d defy even the most hardened capitalist-loving-conservative to do what I did on Saturday and continue to pretend that the system in place right now is working.
Countdown chose to highlight and raise money for the Association of Free Clinics because we knew the work they do is so vitally important and we wanted to show in real terms how great the need is. We invited several politicians to attend so they could see first hand how critical the situation is. All declined. Some explained that they talk with constituents all the time and know very well of the need for reform.
I have news for them, these people didn’t need to speak. Their actions spoke far louder than any words. Having to get a check up and diagnoses at a free clinic because they have no other option tells you all you need to know. There are no words that can accurately describe the quiet desperation on the faces of the patients. Every single one I spoke to, and every one I heard talking with doctors, expressed their gratitude for the event and wished that they were held more often.
They have been given the resources in their local communities with which they can get follow up care, but they are also the few. Over 700-thousand people in Louisiana alone have no health care, most of them with jobs that don’t offer insurance.
Or, worse, they have to decide whether to pay for that or food and housing. Four patients were taken out on stretchers and admitted immediately to hospitals. One woman who didn’t know why she was feeling bad had a blood pressure of 280 over 180, numbness in her right arm, and “a slight headache.” She now has a shot at survival, but without her attendance at the clinic, it was a matter of time before the inevitable happened.
I spoke with a nurse who was there not as a volunteer, but as a patient. He works two part time jobs at hospitals providing quality care to those who have the one thing he doesn’t. Many of his patients share his condition of high blood pressure, but they are fortunate to have insurance to pay for him to care for them while he goes without.
His situation is not uncommon, he has tried for years to get more hours at one of his jobs so he will be eligible for benefits, but it hasn’t happened yet. Our system of for-profit health care can’t afford to give him and others benefits – might make the stock price drop a penny or two. The last time the media gathered at that convention center, it was for a natural disaster in which our government was rendered useless due to incompetence.
This time we were there to cover a man-made disaster of even larger proportions. This is a disaster that goes largely unseen by most Americans. It is not too late for our current government to show that they are competent, and can do what the vast majority of Americans are asking them to. The incredibly dedicated people at the Association of Free Clinics told me the clinic would change me and I knew it would. None but the most hardened and heartless among us could watch that event and not be moved to action.
I have changed. I am gratified that just over one thousand people were able to get the minimal amount of care and resources for follow up. But, I am heart-sick for the many more like them who didn’t have the time or didn’t know that they could get care on Saturday.
They walk through their lives not knowing when the ticking time bomb might go off.
Politicians continue to tell us we are the most compassionate and caring people, and clearly we have done much good in the world. I left the event overwhelmed by the hard work and dedication of the volunteers, doctors, nurses, other medical professionals, as well as ordinary citizens who came to help. I am left with one overwhelming question: what does it say about us as a nation of people who can live in a country so rich and yet allow this to continue?
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
|The 11/3 Project|
Representative Joe Wilson, (R) South Carolina, (best known for his “shout out” to the President during a joint session of Congress) sent an email to his district last week announcing that his wife, Roxanne, had been diagnosed with the swine flu and urged his constituents to get vaccinated. Then, he proceeded to blast the Obama administration for not providing enough vaccine for all Americans.
“The current administration is solely responsible. They can’t blame this on any prior administration,” said Wilson. “This is the responsibility of the current administration. They’ve put the lives of Americans at risk.”
What Wilson fails to mention in this interview with conservative news blog CNSNews.com is that in June he voted against a supplementary appropriations bill which contained special funding to combat H1N1 both domestically and internationally. He was joined by 95% of his republican colleagues. So, had Joe and company had their way, the swine flu pandemic would have been even worse than it is now.
There is no question that the Obama administration promised more in swine flu relief than it had the power to deliver, but does anyone seriously think that the President of the United States has absolute control over the speed and quantity of flu vaccine manufacturing? We all hope for Mrs. Wilson’s complete and speedy recovery from the flu.
hy · poc · ri · sy — the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense
Since the outset of the current healthcare reform debate in this country, a lot has been said on talk radio, cable news outlets, assorted print media, the blogosphere, and thousands of other internet outlets. Not to mention every corner drugstore and coffee shop in America. The available information ranges from “just the facts” to honest attempts at decoding government speak, from inadvertent misinformation to deliberate distortion, and from demagoguery to outright lies. There is no shortage of opinion to be found out there, and no shortage of people, on both sides of the argument, who are willing to twist the facts to represent their predetermined point of view. But how does one go about sifting through the fact and the fiction to arrive at an informed judgment?
It’s a good question. Another is how this new phenomenon—the ability to spread misleading information at rapid speed through chain e-mails, blogs, text-messaging and “tweets”—will affect the reform debate.
“What we’re seeing is a flood of viral content that distorts the Obama effort to reform health care,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, who codirects www.FactCheck.org, a website that examines questionable claims from all sides of the political spectrum. Today’s opposition tools are very different from those used against previous attempts at health care reform in the Clinton era. Then, the key means of attack available were television advertising and direct-mail campaigns, which were expensive and took time to organize.
“Extremists and people who are so locked into their own ideology that they’ll distort anything have been out there forever,” Jamieson says. “But they haven’t had a way to reach out to as many people as efficiently as they have now.”
To be fair to the opponents of health-care reform, the lies and exaggerations they’re spreading are not made up out of whole cloth—which makes the misinformation that much more credible. Instead, because opponents demand that everyone within earshot (or e-mail range) look, say, “at page 425 of the House bill!,” the lies take on a patina of credibility. Take the claim in one chain e-mail that the government will have electronic access to everyone’s bank account, implying that the Feds will rob you blind. The 1,017-page bill passed by the House Ways and Means Committee does call for electronic fund transfers—but from insurers to doctors and other providers. There is zero provision to include patients in any such system.
Here are several other myths about healthcare reform that just won’t die:
You’ll have no choice in the health benefits you receive.
The myth that a “health choices commissioner” will decide what benefits you get seems to have originated in a July 19 post at blog.flecksoflife.com, whose homepage features an image of Obama looking like Heath Ledger’s Joker. In fact, the House bill sets up a health-care exchange—essentially a list of private insurers and one government plan—where people who do not have health insurance through their employer or some other source (including small businesses) can shop for a plan, much as seniors shop for a drug plan under Medicare part D.
The government will indeed require that participating plans not refuse people with preexisting conditions and offer at least minimum coverage, just as it does now with employer-provided insurance plans and part D. The requirements will be floors, not ceilings, however, in that the feds will have no say in how generous private insurance can be.
Senior citizens seem to be a particular target for these liars. A lot of the mythology about health reform is designed to scare them, like another lie spread across the country: the president’s proposal will lead to cuts in the coverage seniors receive for prescription drugs. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) said as much on July 21st when he claimed that the Democratic proposal would cause “millions of seniors to lose their coverage for prescription medicine.” In fact, health insurance reform will save seniors hundreds of dollars on their prescriptions because it cuts the cost of drugs by half, once they reach the Part D coverage gap. Moreover, it begins phasing in the end of the “donut hole.”
No chemo for older Medicare patients.
The threat that Medicare will give cancer patients over 70 only end-of-life counseling and not chemotherapy—as a nurse at a hospital told a roomful of chemo patients, including the uncle of a NEWSWEEK reporter—has zero basis in fact. It’s just a vicious form of the rationing scare. The House bill does not use the word “ration.” Nor does it call for cost-effectiveness research, much less implementation—the idea that “it isn’t cost-effective to give a 90-year-old a hip replacement.”
The general claim that care will be rationed under health-care reform is less a lie and more of a non-disprovable projection (as is Howard Dean’s assertion that health-care reform will not lead to rationing, ever). What we can say is that there is de facto rationing under the current system, by both Medicare and private insurance. No plan covers everything, but coverage decisions “are now made in opaque ways by insurance companies,” says Dr. Donald Berwick of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.
Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was on Fox News last month saying that the president’s proposals would be paid for “on the backs of seniors through Medicare cuts.” That’s a lie. This refers to proposed decreases in Medicare increases. That is, spending is on track to reach $803 billion in 2019 from today’s $422 billion, and that would be dialed back.
Even the $560 billion in reductions (which would be spread over 10 years and come from reducing payments to private Medicare advantage plans, reducing annual increases in payments to hospitals and other providers, and improving care so seniors are not readmitted to a hospital) is misleading: the House bill also gives Medicare $340 billion more over a decade. The money would pay docs more for office visits, eliminate copays and deductibles for preventive care, and help close the “doughnut hole” in the Medicare drug benefit, explains Medicare expert Tricia Neuman of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
As the Alliance for Retired Americans points out, Medicare will benefit from cost-containment across the entire health care system. Furthermore, President Obama has proposed ending the wasteful overpayments currently given to private Medicare Advantage plans. That reform will help ensure that Medicare resources benefit all Medicare participants, and are not diverted to insurance companies.
Illegal immigrants will get free health insurance.
The House bill doesn’t give anyone free health care (though under a 1986 law illegals who can’t pay do get free emergency care now, courtesy of all us premium paying customers or of hospitals that have to eat the cost). Will they be eligible for subsidies to buy health insurance? The House bill says that “individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States” will not be allowed to receive subsidies.
The claim that taxpayers will wind up subsidizing health insurance for illegal immigrants has its origins in the defeat of an amendment, offered in July by Republican Rep. Dean Heller of Nevada, to require those enrolling in a public plan or seeking subsidies to purchase private insurance to have their citizenship verified. Flecksoflife.com claimed on July 19th that “HC [health care] will be provided 2 all non US citizens, illegal or otherwise.” Rep. Steve King of Iowa spread the claim in a USA Today op-ed on August 20th, calling the explicit prohibition on such coverage “functionally meaningless” absent mandatory citizenship checks, and it’s now gone viral. Can we say that none of the estimated 11.9 million illegal immigrants will ever wangle insurance subsidies through identity fraud, pretending to be a citizen? You can’t prove a negative, but experts say that Medicare—the closest thing to the proposals in the House bill—has no such problem.
Death panels will decide who lives.
When Sarah Palin writes that President Obama is going to set up “death panels” to decide whether her child with Down syndrome, or elderly parents, are going to live or die, she is spreading a lie. That’s a disgrace and she is not alone. On July 16th Betsy McCaughey, a former lieutenant governor of New York and darling of the right, said on Fred Thompson’s radio show that “on page 425,” “Congress would make it mandatory…that every five years, people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner, how to decline nutrition.” But it was Sarah Palin who coined the term “death panels” in an August 7 Facebook post.
This lie springs from a provision in the House bill to have Medicare cover optional counseling on end-of-life care for any senior who requests it. This means that any patient, terminally ill or not, can request a special consultation with his or her physician about ventilators, feeding tubes, and other measures. Thus the House bill expands Medicare coverage, but without forcing anyone into end-of-life counseling.
The death-panels claim nevertheless got a new lease on life when Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives under George W. Bush, claimed in an August 18 Wall Street Journal op-ed that a 1997 workbook from the Department of Veterans Affairs pushes vets to “hurry up and die.” In fact, the thrust of the 51-page book, which the VA pulled from circulation in 2007, is letting “loved ones” and “health care providers” “know your wishes.” Readers are asked to decide what they believe, including that “life is sacred and has meaning, no matter what its quality,” and that “my life should be prolonged as long as it can…using any means possible.” But the workbook also asks if readers “believe there are some situations in which I would not want treatments to keep me alive.” Opponents of health-care reform have selectively cited this passage as evidence the government wants to kill the old and the sick.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) went on the House floor to state that the GOP opponents of health care reform “would not put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government.” The idea that the president and supporters of health insurance reform want to put people to death is an outrageous lie. As the Los Angeles Times noted on August 10th, “This has become one of the most misleading, inflammatory claims made in the health care debate, advanced repeatedly by conservative commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Republican lawmakers working to stoke fears among seniors.”
In fact, as the Times notes, under the proposal, Medicare would start to cover voluntary doctor visits to discuss living wills and advance directives for care, which would be used only if a person becomes seriously ill and unable to make medical decisions. As is currently the practice, advance care decisions would still be made by the individual. There is nothing mandatory or coercive in the proposal, which was proposed initially by Republicans in Congress.
The government will set doctors’ wages.
This, too, seems to have originated on the Flecksoflife blog on July 19. But while page 127 of the House bill says that physicians who choose to accept patients in the public insurance plan would receive 5 percent more than Medicare pays for a given service, doctors can refuse to accept such patients, and, even if they participate in a public plan, they are not salaried employees of it any more than your doctor today is an employee of, say, Aetna. “Nobody is saying we want the doctors working for the government; that’s completely false,” says Amitabh Chandra, professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
To be sure, there are also honest and principled objections to health-care reform. Some oppose a requirement that everyone have health insurance as an erosion of individual liberty. That’s a debatable position, but an honest one. And many are simply scared out of their wits about what health-care reform will mean for them. But when fear and loathing hijack the brain, anything becomes believable—even that health-care reform is unconstitutional. To disprove that, check the commerce clause: Article I, Section 8.
So what are we supposed to do about it?
All across the country, the opponents of health care reform are spreading misinformation about almost all the proposals to improve health care coverage for Americans. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. The insurance companies, the right-wing radio hosts, the K-Street lobbyists and the Republican leadership who are spreading the misinformation have a vested interest in keeping the status quo. And they are willing to lie to protect industry profits.
It’s troubling to see that so many well-meaning citizens are listening to the lies and believing them. One has only to watch a handful of angry questioners at some televised town-hall meeting to know that some of these questioners are good people who are troubled by what they are hearing. They want to know the facts. But all too often, they are denied answers by the rabble that eschews the truth by shouting others down. The opponents of health care reform are pulling out all the stops to kill the reform that millions of Americans need to improve our health care. They’re spreading falsehoods and creating chaos. They know what they are doing.
All of us need to work together to break through the lies and shouts and slurs. We need to make sure that our friends and neighbors know the truth, and can separate the lies from the facts about health insurance reform. Educate yourself. Learn what is true and what it not. And when you hear someone spreading misinformation and lies, knowingly or unwittingly, don’t let it go unchallenged. Correct it. Do your part to set the record straight. There have been few times as important as now to stand up and speak the truth.
Would you kill a wheelchair-bound man for a million dollars? Probably not. But there are those who would. If you needed further proof that the health insurance industry is broken, and needs some new controls, here’s a perfect example of what’s wrong with it.
Ian Pearl is 37 years old, and he suffers from muscular dystrophy. He is confined to a wheelchair, and is hooked up to a breathing tube, but he refuses to just give up and die. He is insured by Guardian Insurance of New York, which pays for the one million dollars in care, each year, that it takes to keep Mr. Pearl alive. Most of that is for around the clock, in-home nursing care – for operation of his ventilator, hourly breathing treatments and continuous intravenous medication.
Ian Pearl has been fortunate, most of his life, to be covered under the Guardian small-business health plan his father bought through his remodeling company. Generous by modern standards, the health insurance plan covered home nursing, something most small-business plans do not cover today. In the state of New York, where Mr. Pearl’s business operates, 54 other employers offered the Guardian plan. Their policies covered nearly 500 employees and dependents, including two other severely ill people.
But Guardian grew weary of paying Mr. Pearl’s expenses, and decided to find a way to get out of its obligation. Legally barred from discriminating against individuals who submit large claims, they couldn’t simply cancel Mr. Pearl’s policy. Besides, that would just be wrong. Then someone at Guardian struck on the perfect answer. Instead of canceling Mr. Pearl’s policy, Guardian chose to cancel entire lines of coverage altogether, in whole states, to avoid paying high-cost claims like Mr. Pearl’s. In an e-mail, one Guardian company executive called high-cost patients such as Mr. Pearl “dogs” that the company should “get rid of.”
A Guardian spokesman said policies such as Mr. Pearl’s – which offered unlimited home nursing – had simply become too expensive for new small-business customers to buy, and that even Medicaid and Medicare do not cover 24-hour home nursing. His parents, Warren and Susan Pearl of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said their health insurance premiums had risen over the years to $3,700 a month. That’s $44,400 a year. Fortunately, they are in a position to pay these premiums.
A federal court ruled that the company’s actions were legal. The judge found that the company had not violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), because it canceled entire policy lines. The Pearls also claimed Guardian violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), but the judge found that only HHS can enforce that law and that private citizens cannot sue under it.
The Pearls appealed to HHS under the Bush administration and were told the agency could do nothing, Warren Pearl said. They petitioned again in a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on October 5th, with support from their congresswoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Florida Democrat, but have not heard back. So, on December 1st, barring an order by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, Mr. Pearl will lose his benefits.
The insurer also canceled similar policies in New Jersey and South Carolina, and earlier ceased offering any health plans in Colorado, but did not cancel all of the policies in every state in which they were offered, said John Fried, the Pearls’ attorney. The company took the action only against those plans where claims were highest, he said. In an e-mail to four other Guardian executives entered into evidence in the Pearls’ suit, company Vice President Tim Birely discussed how the company could “eliminate this entire block to get rid of the few dogs.” Wow. This reminds me of something I’ve heard before …. what is it? Oh yeah. Death Panels.
Guardian, a 150-year-old mutual company, reported profits of $437 million last year, a 50 percent increase over $292 million in 2007. It paid dividends of $723 million to shareholders and had $4.3 billion in capital reserves, according to its annual report. The company’s investment income totaled $1.5 billion that year, a small increase from the year earlier. They discontinued Ian Pearl’s coverage late last year, but were required by law to continue paying for his care for another year. Next year, without Mr. Pearl as a drag on their books, they will earn an extra one million dollars in profits.
Ian Pearl has Type II spinal muscular atrophy – which often kills victims in infancy. He grew to adulthood only to suffer respiratory arrest at 19. He has required a tracheal tube ever since. The Pearls moved to Fort Lauderdale 30 years ago because the humidity there is beneficial to their son. Warren Pearl has commuted back and forth from New York every weekend since to continue to operate his business. Ian became the first wheelchair-bound pupil to be mainstreamed in the Broward County elementary schools, and he was elected president of his high school class at University School of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.
As a last resort, Ian would be admitted to a state hospital under Medicaid. But the Pearls consider that a death sentence. “Ian would be lucky, or unlucky, to survive more than a matter of weeks or months,” Mrs. Pearl said. “One-on-one skilled nursing is essential.” Her husband, 60, a wealthy businessman, said the couple have enough savings to pay for their son’s care for a few years, and after that, they could mortgage the family’s home.
This is capitalism at its finest. The free market at work. And a perfect example of why the health and well-being of Americans should not be a part of that equation. Profit will always be the priority.
“This is a matter of life and death for my son,” Warren Pearl said. “I have to have faith that HHS will enforce the law. This is attempted murder, as far as I’m concerned. They targeted us, they never expected to get caught. I believe that justice will prevail.”
I hope your faith is justifed, Mr. Pearl.
The Washington Times
The debate over whether or not the federal and/or state governments should mandate affordable access to medical care for all Americans has raged for at least 75 years. As a larger and larger segment of the population finds itself in the “have not” column when it comes to healthcare access, this debate is more critical than ever in our history. Passions erupt into angry exchanges on both sides of the argument. Accurate information sometimes gets little notice, while misinformation and deliberate lies gain traction simply because they get intense exposure.
All the heat and light encircling the debate make it difficult, even for an astute observer, to separate the reasonable from hyperbole, the right from the wrong. and the truth from the lies. But one thing has never been more true. If we don’t get it right this time, the consequences will be damaging for a long time to come.
Who Are The Uninsured?
Many on the political right are fond of pointing out that only a small portion of the uninsured in this country are legal residents of the United States; that, of the nearly 50 million people without health insurance, only about 17 million are U.S. citizens. Like many things the right is fond of pointing out, this is simply untrue. According to a study released in October 2008 by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a large majority of the uninsured (79%) are native or naturalized U.S. citizens.
Another favorite, but false, statistic is that most of the uninsured are the chronically unemployed, and those who are uninterested in working for a living, and pulling their own weight. The fact is that more than eight in ten of the uninsured are in working families—about 70% are from families with one or more full-time workers and 12% are from families with part-time workers. Only 19% of the uninsured are from families that have no connection to the workforce.
Also, about two-thirds of the uninsured are poor or near poor. These individuals are less likely to be offered employer-sponsored coverage or to be able to afford to purchase their own coverage. Those who are poor (below 100% of the poverty level) are about twice as likely to be uninsured as the entire nonelderly population (35% vs.17%). Were it not for the Medicaid program, many more of the poor would be uninsured. The near-poor (those with incomes between 100% and 199% of the poverty level) also run a high risk of being uninsured (29%), in part, because they are less likely to be eligible for Medicaid. Only 10% of the uninsured are from families at or above 400% of poverty.
Adults are more likely to be uninsured than children. Adults make up 70% of the nonelderly population, but 80% of the uninsured. Most low-income children qualify for Medicaid or SCHIP, but low-income adults under age 65 typically qualify for Medicaid only if they are disabled, pregnant, or have dependent children. Income eligibility levels are generally much lower for parents than for children.
Most importantly, the uninsured are people you know, maybe even love. They are the people you work with. The people you socialize with. They are your neighbors, and your friends, and your family. And if something isn’t done soon to address the problem, one of them could someday face the reality that their life cannot be saved because they don’t have the resources to afford healthcare.
‘The Public Option’
The public option has been called a lot of things; a government takeover of healthcare, socialized medicine, an intrusion into our doctor-patient relationships, and a safety net to assure that no American has to go bankrupt or die just because he or she doesn’t have health insurance. Opponents of reform like to cite polls that indicate Americans do not want a public option included in any eventual healthcare bill. If you listen carefully when they cite these studies, their source is almost always the Lewin Group, a consulting firm in Falls Church, Virginia. With the political battle over healthcare reform being waged largely with numbers, few number-crunchers have shaped the debate as much as the Lewin Group.
Most of their studies appear to point to certain doom for America if any form of public option is included in the reform bill. According to Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the second-ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, the Lewin Group is “well known as one of the most nonpartisan groups in the country.” Generally left unsaid amid all the citations is that the Lewin Group is wholly owned by UnitedHealth Group, one of the nation’s largest insurers. Does the term “conflict of interest” seem appropriate here?
More specifically, the Lewin Group is part of Ingenix, a UnitedHealth subsidiary that was accused by the New York attorney general and the American Medical Association, of helping insurers shift medical expenses to consumers by distributing skewed data. Ingenix supplied its parent company and other insurers with data that allegedly understated the “usual and customary” doctor fees that insurers use to determine how much they will reimburse consumers for out-of-network care. In January, UnitedHealth agreed to a $50 million settlement with the New York attorney general and a $350 million settlement with the AMA, covering conduct going back as far as 1994.
The Lewin Group, and other partisan “think tank” studies aside, when mainstream nonpartisan polling organizations ask the question, without using loaded phrases like “government takeover” and they include an accurate explanation of what it is, the American people strongly favor a public option by a 61% to 34% margin. Almost two to one. And they trust the president over the GOP by 47% to 31% to properly deal with healthcare reform.
A Question of Morality
By law, we have stacked the deck against the American healthcare consumer. Health insurance companies are exempt from antitrust laws, thus allowing insurers to establish near monopolies in most states. In Georgia, two companies – WellPoint and UnitedHealth Group – hold a 69 percent share of the market. The American Medical Association reports that 94 percent of insurance markets in more than 300 metropolitan areas are now highly concentrated. WellPoint runs Blue Cross-Blue Shield plans in 14 states. In Maine, for example, WellPoint controls 78% of the health insurance market. It dominates the market in Missouri, with 68% of the business, as well as in its home state of Indiana (60%), New Hampshire (51%), Kentucky (59%), Connecticut (55%), Virginia (50%), and Ohio (41%).
In addition, we have allowed insurers to “cherry pick” the youngest and healthiest Americans to insure, while rejecting those who are more likely to file a claim. If you are fortunate enough to have employer subsidized health insurance, and happen to suffer from a chronic ailment, if you lose your job or change jobs, qualifying for insurance coverage again can be impossible due to the “preexisting conditions” exclusion. If anything positive comes out of the current healthcare debate, outlawing the preexisting condition exclusion should be a top priority.
The United States is the only modern industrial democracy where the health and welfare of its citizens, and the life and death decisions connected to it, are just another bushel of free market commodities to be bought, sold, granted or denied based on the bottom line profits of a handful of large corporations. Uninsured citizens aside, Americans with health insurance die every day because a decision was reached, in some corporate office, that treating their condition was just too costly. Or, some pretense was used, based on a possible preexisting condition, to deny treatment. If you don’t believe this, read through a few transcripts of congressional hearings on healthcare. You will find it disturbing. Meanwhile, we worry and debate about government intrusion. In this country, in the 21st century, whether or not you live or die should not be contingent on how much money you have. It is immoral, plain and simple.
The ‘S’ Word
Providing an alternative, like a government sponsored insurance pool, immediately raises the dreaded ’s’ word. Socialism. As soon as the word socialism enters the discussion, rational debate disappears. We are so appalled by the prospect that we immediately forget the fact that, in most urban and suburban areas of this country, we long ago agreed to pool our resources, and fund through taxes, socialized police and fire protection, socialized street and bridge maintenance, socialized sewer and garbage removal, water systems, and on and on and on.
Our elderly are protected by a socialized medical and pension plan. Our veterans have access to excellent medical care through a socialized system of hospitals and doctors. By and large, most of these people are satisfied with the service they receive. We are already a hugely socialized democracy, and we haven’t completely collapsed as a society because of it.
If you decide to protect your home with flood insurance, State Farm or Allstate will be happy to sell you a policy. Unless, of course, you live some place that actually stands a reasonable chance of flooding, like the Florida coast or the Ohio River Valley. Then, your only option for flood insurance is the federal government. The free market won’t touch it.
If you live in a fire-prone area, or an earthquake prone part of this country, your only choice for fire or earthquake insurance is often a state run insurance pool. Virtually all states require that automobile drivers carry liability insurance against potential accidents. Most states also have a state run insurance pool for high-risk drivers who are unable to purchase coverage anywhere else. And the last time I checked, State Farm, Allstate, Geico, Progressive and AAA are all doing just fine, precisely because they are protected from writing high-risk coverage.
So, the federal government is happy to be in the flood insurance business because it protects the profits of private insurance companies. Under the guise of protecting competition, they are equally unwilling to intervene in the health insurance business for the same reason; the protection of corporate profits. The health and welfare of the American people is a secondary consideration.
In any case, there is no competition. Most Americans who have health insurance get it through employer subsidized plans, and therefore don’t get to “shop” for coverage. They get what their employer decides it can afford to offer. While health insurance costs are theoretically regulated, health insurers seem able to manipulate rates, deductibles, copayments, restrictions, and exclusions with impunity, unlike their counterparts in the home and auto insurance fields. They also appear able to lower reimbursements to medical facilities and professionals at will. In short, they are a government protected, unrestricted monopoly against which the healthcare consumer stands no chance of prevailing. Only our elected legislators have the power to influence the outcome, and they seem to have been bought and paid for long ago.
What Do We Do?
It’s a good question. It may well be that the outcome has already been written, and that all the current Sturm und Drang is strictly theater. But, on the off chance that right can still prevail, I urge anyone who feels that every American deserves to have access to quality and affordable medical care, regardless of economic station, to find out who your senators are. Find out who your congressman is. Write them. Email them. Fax them. Telephone their offices. Call and email the White House.
Until we know for certain that the issue is resolved, for good or bad, we should not stop trying to make our voices heard.
Will Rogers was fond of saying, “I belong to no organized party. I’m a Democrat.” I don’t know whether to take heart from the fact that the Democrats’ current lack of focus and direction is not a new phenomenon, or to be discouraged by the fact that they’ve been this undisciplined for at least eighty years. It doesn’t much matter, I guess.
What does matter is that the Democratic Party is setting the stage to squander, once more, an opportunity to pass the first real healthcare reform legislation since 1965. If this comes to pass, and reform fails yet again, history demonstrates that it will be another generation or more before the window opens again. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands more Americans will die simply due to lack of access to adequate healthcare. Nearly forty-five thousand lives a year will continue to be lost until we finally do something about it. And it will not be the fault of the Republicans.
The Republican Party, as an institution, has never favored healthcare reform. It doesn’t view healthcare as a right, and therefore sees no role in it for government. They managed to get it removed from Franklin Roosevelt’s original Social Security legislation in 1935. They defeated it again, in the late 1940s, when Harry Truman urged congress to mandate healthcare for all Americans. Finally, in 1965, Medicare and Medicaid were signed into law, and it was generally believed that they were just the first step to universal health coverage. The political and fiscal toll of Vietnam, however, squashed that possibility.
For twenty of the next twenty-four years, the Executive Branch was helmed by Republicans, and serious healthcare reform was not raised again until 1993, when Bill Clinton was elected President. The Republicans, along with their traditional allies, health insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and the American Medical Association, mustered all the money, pressure, propaganda, misinformation, half-truths, lies, and demagoguery they could bring to bear. Fear triumphed over reason, and healthcare reform was smothered in its crib. Lost for another sixteen years.
It was in this atmosphere, and with this history, that the Democratic Party sallied forth in 2009 on a quixotic quest to rally bipartisan support for major healthcare reform. In control of both houses of Congress, and the Executive Branch for the first time in fourteen years, and without the need for Republican votes, they have all but slain healthcare reform on the altar of bipartisanship. And it was completely unnecessary.
Because the Republicans see killing healthcare reform as crucial to embarrassing, and hopefully crippling, President Obama, there is no healthcare bill that will garner Republican support, even if they know for a certainty that it’s the best thing for America. Everything is secondary to diminishing Obama. Add to this the fact that most Republicans, like many Democrats, are financially beholden to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, there is no reason for anyone to expect Republican votes in favor of any healthcare reform that is not fully supported by the healthcare industry.
Everyone knew this, or should have known it, at the outset. The only thing achieved by catering to Republican demands was delay. Delay that gave opponents of reform time to raise the time-honored specters of “socialized medicine” and “government intrusion” and a few new ones, like “death panels.” And while all the typical Republican sleight-of-hand and fear mongering certainly hasn’t helped to advance the debate, it will not ultimately be what guts reform. The Democrats will accomplish this all by themselves.
Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He has also accepted approximately 3.5 million dollars from insurance and other health industry contributors, almost three and a half times the amount accepted by the average senator. With the help of a handful of “Blue Dog” Democrats, his committee will be responsible for producing a healthcare reform bill that is little more than a huge gift basket to the healthcare industry. The elected senators and congressmen who are most opposed to real reform, Democrat or Republican, are the ones who have taken the most money from the industries that would be affected by it. Pardon my cynicism for seeing a connection.
The bill about to emerge from the Senate Finance Committee will leave millions of Americans still uninsured. It will subsidize some low income Americans, but not nearly everyone who cannot afford coverage. It will not include a public option for those who do not have and cannot afford coverage on the open market. It will not address the cost of premiums, or deductibles, or copayments, or care, or medications. The bill, in its present form, will not protect Americans with “preexisting conditions” and it will leave the insurance and pharmaceutical industries to continue business as usual at the expense of the American people.
The good news for Republicans in all of this is that they should retake control of one or more branches of the government, and rightfully so. The American people gave the Democrats large majorities in both houses, and the presidency, because the Republicans under George Bush and Dick Cheney had forfeited their right to govern. They had, as Americans saw it, done such a poor job that it was time to give the other side an opportunity to show what they could do.
When Republicans were in charge, they did what they wanted. All the whining and crying from Democrats didn’t even slow them down. Their attitude was, “We won. We’re the majority. Shut up and sit down.”
If the Democratic majority, with a Democratic president, cannot come together to produce the cornerstone legislation that was promised to the American people, and that a large majority of Americans still want and expect, then they will forfeit their right to govern. And they cannot blame the Republicans for the failure of healthcare reform. The Republicans were doing what they always do. Anyone who was surprised by it is a fool. It is up to the Democrats to ignore Republicans and do what they know is right. So far, they haven’t shown a willingness to do that. And if they can’t fix it, they will pay the price.