Friday, July 31, 2009

The Daily Paper Sets the Agenda

for today's blog

Health care (two stories) and the White House beer-sipping with Henry Louis Gates and James Crowley made the front page of the Washington Post today. Elsewhere in the paper there are more stories on health care, a short piece on the approval of a $636 billion military budget by the House, a look at Israeli settlements and a lengthy piece about corporate banks, TARP money and generous employee bonuses.

Health Care
In "Industry Is Generous To Influential Bloc," reporter Dan Eggen's story begins with a focus on Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), leader of the Blue Dog opposition to important aspects of proposed health care reform. Ross has been the beneficiary of "at least seven fundraisers...held by health-care companies or their lobbyists this year," Eggen wrote. A reader of the story would be forgiven for concluding that the results of health care reform would be better if we also had public financing for political campaigns.

"Doctors Reap Benefits By Doing Own Tests" explores the corrosive effects that wealth and self-interest have on health care reform. "A host of studies and reports by academics and the federal government shows that physicians who own scanners order many more scans than those who do not," wrote Shankar Vedantam. Though Vedantam used multiple sources for the story and includes both pro and con opinions, the story ends with the conclusion "that eliminating incentives for needless care could reduce the nation's health-care bill by as much as a quarter." A further look at which key players in the current health care debate are getting the most money from medical PACs would have strengthened the story.
(Though it does not focus exclusively on campaign contributions by physicians' groups, this study tracks the flow of dollars to key members of Congress.)

Blue Dog Democrats show up again in "GOP Senators Try to Slow Health Talks," a story that takes a look at slow progress and difficult compromises in both houses of Congress. There are two health care columns on the Post's Opinion page. "Health Reform's Taboo Topic" outlines one way to control the tremendous amount of wasted dollars generated by "defensive medicine." The piece ends on a note of despair.

"The real crisis here is not that health care is broken; people of good will could come together and create the conditions for rebuilding the incentive structure of health-care delivery. The real crisis is that Congress is broken, and that it answers to special interests instead of the needs of all Americans."

Racism and White Skin Privilege

Yesterday's White House meeting (over beer and peanuts) between Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Henry Louis Gates and James Crowley moved the "national conversation on race" only the tiniest bit (Post stories here and here), but a series of halting starts on that conversation is way better than the usual silence on the matter.

There is no reason to be critical of the lameness with which that conversation is lurching forward, either. The burdens of race and racism are huge.

A significant portion of the great wealth of this country has been built out of the coerced labor of black people, which materialized as profit controlled by Southern slaveholders and their business partners in the North and which was subsequently reinvested in industrial development (notably railroads) and in westward expansion. African Americans have never been compensated for that exploitation, or for economic disadvantages and the social and cultural attacks that Black America has suffered since.

White skin privilege does not spread its benefits equally. The bounty has fallen preponderantly on the haves. Have nots get less, though almost all whites have more immunity from suspicion, detention and arrest than any African American, including Professor Gates.

Still, whether they choose to cop to it or not, whites approach conversations about race with their own version of the burden of history. Sgt. Crowley, an instructor on policing in black communities, is one of the Cambridge PD's go-to guys on race, and he couldn't handle the confrontation with Gates. For the average white person, showing up daily, perhaps, to a job that doesn't pay all the bills or feed the soul, maintaining a household wrestling with all the slings and arrows of life, facing up to the notion that black folks sacrificed blood and sweat to create your life of dubious privilege and entering in to a conversation about race must seem nothing short of dangerous.

Regardless, race remains a major variable in determining who gains and who loses and, not surprisingly, who lives and who dies. Focusing on a single African American on death row, Gary Younge's piece, "Beer and Sympathy," in the Nation suggests another subject area that a conversation on race should explore.

Military Spending Is Killing Us
Clearly, it's killing them (mostly Iraqis, Afghanis and Pakistanis), but Americans die, too, as weapons and weapons systems seek relevance and justification, their own compelling raison d'etre. But the cost of buying weapons and maintaining a huge military establishment drains funds that could be invested in domestic infrastructure, job creation and health care. In a country which has the highest infant mortality rate and shortest life expectancy among Western democracies, not investing in those things kills people.

But, as the Post reports today in "House Backs $636 Billion Defense Bill," the enormous sum we are spending includes lots of things even the Obama administration doesn't want. And though it is not included in the story, the fact remains that our military has no equal worldwide, is equipped for wars that we will never fight and is supported by a budget that will almost certainly exceed one trillion dollars a year by 2020, if not sooner. And that does not include military and related spending that is buried in other budgets (including energy, homeland security, spying and classified spending).

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
There are deep, reasonable and contentious questions about Israel's continued existence as a limited democracy and Jewish theocratic state that need far more discussion in the United States, though it is unclear when we will have the gumption, as a nation, to have that discussion. It isn't even completely clear to all parties to the conflict that Jewish settlements on land that has been part of the West bank since 1967 are continuing violations of international law. But "Settlement Foes Take Fight to Israel's High Court" reports on the work of Israeli "anti-settlement activist Dror Etkes," who has assembled a database that should simplify the challenge of proving that the settlements have been established on land owned by Palestinians. After years of apparent dormancy, the story of Etkes' efforts is one of many examples of a revived Israeli peace movement.

"Bankers Bonuses Beat Earnings as Industry Imploded"

The Post also carried an article about the spectacle of bank's, so recently on the government dole, turning around and paying more than $30 billion in bonuses during the same 12-month period in which they received billions in federal aid. (Read the story here.) The story talks about steps various banks have taken to blunt some of the public criticism of their pay practices. But the biggest problems here lie with the zealous belief in "free markets" that have allowed banks and other major corporations to go largely unregulated and grow "too big to fail." Here's an old post from Robert Reich on the subject and a more recent one from Joseph Stiglitz on why we ought to breakup the big banks.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Where Do Ideas Come From?

The surface is a lonely place.
There's no air,
no water, nothing erodes.
The rock's are sharp.

The interior's hot. Wet.
Air's too thick.
Water drips, pools.
Swamps abound.

Shades and silhouettes,
without essence, multiply.
The lonely places are not private places.
Nothing's fully realized in the hot interior.

But when the striving stops--
the clamor, the cleaving,
the thunderous dividing--stops,
the lake breeze blows,

babies cry delight,
communities spring up to dance,
and great ideas come from
all their hiding places.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Crime, Punishment and Race

What I Learned at AFSC, Part I

From 1984, or thereabouts, to the end of the decade, I worked for the estimable American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Michigan. My associates there, Marc Mauer, Richard Cleaver and Penny Ryder, among others, were wonderful colleagues and good at their jobs. Fiercely committed to peace and justice, they brought passion and expertise to their program areas, in Richard's case, the Middle East and, later, gay liberation, in Marc's and Penny's, the criminal justice system.

Marc moved on shortly after I started working at AFSC. After a few years at The Sentencing Project, he became that group's executive director. Recently, his organization released a new study, No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America. The report confirms what previous Sentencing Project studies (and AFSC's work in Michigan and elsewhere) have always shown:

The American system of criminal justice relentlessly and overwhelmingly discriminates, victimizing people of color and the poor, and does so regardless of the severity of the crime and the frequency with which they commit crimes. "The dramatic growth in life sentences is not primarily a result of higher crime rates, but of policy changes that have imposed harsher punishments and restricted parole consideration," the report says.

The Sentencing Project has also extensively studied the way discriminatory sentencing in drug cases, harsh treatment of juveniles, and inadequate drug treatment, education and training programs in prisons have contributed to recidivism, to racial disparities in imprisonment and to the country's overall rate of imprisonment. These factors and others have made the US easily the world's leader in imprisoning its own people. The US rate is five times that of England and Wales, almost six times that of Canada and more than nine times that of Germany (see more imprisonment data at this site, maintained by King's College, London).

Though I continue to follow their work, I am not in regular contact with Marc or Penny, but what I first learned from them underlies the conclusions I've reached about the criminal justice system since:

Our criminal justice system clearly doesn't work. It doesn't makes us appreciably safer. It doesn't rehabilitate. It wrongfully investigates, detains, arrests, tries, convicts and punishes as a matter of routine. It destroys families and devastates communities. It is one of the principle ways in which our society restrains, disempowers and disposes of people and groups regarded as irrelevant to societal goals.

These outcomes can be statistically validated. They are predictable and we pay extraordinary amounts to obtain them (In The Perpetual Prisoner Machine, author Joel Dyer calculated the combined cost in 1999 of "law enforcement, corrections and courts at the federal, state and local level" would reach about half the total of the US military budget--and rise at a faster rate thereafter). Yet we continue to pay for them. They must therefore be the results we seek.

Philosopher Jeffrey Reiman has written quite extensively about concluding that the results we predictably get must be the results we want. Reiman is the author of The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, a book now in its 8th edition and one that I have bought repeatedly as new editions come out. In an introduction to the book that has survived through several editions, Reiman argues that the criminal justice

"system survives the way it does because it maintains a particular image of crime: the image that it is a threat from the poor. Of course, for this image to be believable there must be a reality to back it up. The system must actually fight crime--or at least some crime--but only enough to keep it from getting out of hand and to keep the struggle against crime vividly and dramatically in the public's view, never enough to substantially reduce or eliminate crime.

"I call this outrageous way of looking at criminal justice policy the Pyrrhic defeat theory."

(You can find out more about Reiman's ideas here.

Of course, the racism and discriminatory treatment that shape the growth and management of the criminal justice system don't originate with the system, though its operations and results reinforce racism. The operation of the CJ system simply reflects what we as a society believe and what we care about most. The racism that plagues criminal justice originates with us. So far, we have not shown a great deal of concern about the talent the system wastes, the lives it throws away. We don't even notice.

That, by the way, is what Henry Louis Gates was reacting to when he could not calm himself during a confrontation with police at his Cambridge home. Gates is a scholar and writer of considerable achievement. And an African American. What, he must have been asking himself, does a black man have to do to be treated with the respect he has earned? On the other hand, Sgt. Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department, the arresting officer in the incident, is reported to be an instructor about race issues for the department. Assuming that he has earned that responsibility and thought deeply himself about how a white officer should handle himself in such incidents, it seems likely that he still had difficulty managing his own feelings about a confrontation that went south.

There they are: Gates, aghast, subject to what may have been routine police procedure in a country in which "routine" frequently means danger to blacks. Crowley, astonished, accused of being a symbol and believing that his sympathetic understanding of the racial subtext ought to compel obedience. Is it any wonder that we desperately need the national conversation about race that President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have so recently and frequently called for?

But even at AFSC conversations about race were complicated and emotional. The bedrock Quaker belief that there is that of god in every human being had deep appeal to the non-Quaker and, sometimes, secular staff. AFSC had also made massive efforts to hire people of color into meaningful programmatic and leadership roles. But the organization and the liberal Quaker community whose beliefs guided the work were predominantly white. Efforts to adapt Affirmative Action principles in hiring and to program choices and strategy did not always blend easily with the founding goals of the organization (created to provide a way for nonviolent Quaker youth to perform alternative service during World War I) or with the concerns of its mostly Quaker contributors. Regardless, I never saw so many different people commit so much time to discussing the ways in which attitudes about race consciously and unconsciously affected organizational culture and resource management.

For much of the time I was at AFSC I was also a member of the Ann Arbor City Council. My concerns in both roles overlapped considerably. At one point, I was able to get the organization to fund summer staff to work with black youth on Ann Arbor's south side. The city itself picked up the funding in some form a year later, but neither AFSC or the city were willing to spend enough to establish a successful program.

For that I hold myself principally responsible. I was unable, as a council member, to persuade my council colleagues and, as the director of AFSC's Michigan office, to persuade regional officials, that organizing and direct service work with minority youth ought to be a higher priority. We all knew getting good work done with black kids in poor neighborhoods would take more money and more commitment than we had managed to that point, but we were also unwilling, as a group, to believe that if we didn't act, or if we focused our energy and resources elsewhere, we would be ignoring the literal waste of individual lives. Race and our underlying attitudes about race (i.e., racism), had a role in that. I couldn't persuade others to do more because, at least in part, I couldn't see what was at stake.

Of course, the purpose, conduct, effectiveness and implications of the work were a matter of dispute at the time. And, because these conversations are so difficult, they remain contested. In fact, an earlier post of mine, memorializing Stella Taylor, an African American woman I knew at the time, provoked a heated response from a person who saw the work from a different perspective (you can see the post and comment here). It seems to me that a conversation about race that doesn't bring us to the conclusion that it is getting the little things right--like supporting daycare and pre-K everywhere, fixing every public school, funding summer employment programs in even the smallest towns--is a conversation that hasn't gone far enough.

It's the way Palestinians are treated in Israel, stu...

Letter to the Post, #19

I'm beginning to think that this letter, e-mailed a week ago, won't see print, either. It's okay, I'm warming up to write another one anyhow.


Jordan Gazit (Letters, July 22) suggests that Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa's reference to "impoverished Palestinians" ("Arabs Need to Talk to the Israelis," op-ed, July 17) is about Palestinians living in the Persian Gulf states, not the 1.3 million Palestinians living in Israel. This seems disingenuous and ignores the fact that the circumstances of life for most Arabs living in Israel are deplorable, especially in regard to poverty, infant mortality, life expectancy and the state of Israel's role in the unequal subsidizing of education, economic development, health care and other services for Jewish and Arab citizens.

Apparently, Gazit would rather focus on how much worse the situation is for Palestinians living in authoritarian Arab states. This sentiment is understandable, but ignores the fact that Israel claims to be a democracy and ought to be judged by standards appropriate to democracies.

Jeff Epton

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Universe Is Gone

Remember the Palestinian child
caught in a crossfire, in a lethality of rage?
Crouching behind his father?
Crying with desperate faith

in his abu, his shield?
Moments later, the caption said,
the boy was dead,
his father forlorn

with wounds that will never heal.
Each day dawn comes with new grief.
Neither the garrison state
nor the tender virgins console Abu.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Way Peanuts Go

Crack open a full day
as sunrise cracks the dawn—
the way good peanuts, shelled right,
snap open, freeing savory seeds,

made of moments in the day
when my palms are flat to the tabletop,
muscles flexed, fingers spread,
feeling something like the joy of oak

saplings flowing through me,
when a flicker in the eyes of the child
in the picture on the wall
tells me something new

about one of my babies,
when the tart, sweet taste of the first
grape pops on my tongue
and makes me wish for the skill

to make this moment last.
But some days
the peanuts go

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Health Care Reform Lurking

But Not Good Enough?

The Washington Post ran seven articles on health care, one on the front page, in an 18-page first section today. The coverage added up to more than 10 percent of the paper's first section. Hurricane Katrina may have been the last time that coverage of a single issue was so dominant in the Post, though I suppose I should check back issues to see if Michael Jackson's death might have made a similar footprint.

But the Post's focus is right on and the effort demands attention. In "Health Insurance Industry Spins Data in Fight Against Public Plan" writer David Hilzenrath says the industry is "cherry-pick[ing] the facts."

Citing an industry spokesperson who says the vast majority "of Americans are satisfied with their existing health coverage," Hilzenrath makes the editorially sound observation that the same poll shows that respondents also support "the creation of a public [health insurance] plan." Fetching additional data from another source, Hilzenrath observes that the public's apparent affection for their existing health insurance ought to be taken with a grain of salt. He writes:

"Those who described their health as "excellent" -- people who presumably had relatively little experience pursuing medical care or submitting claims -- were almost twice as likely as those in good, fair or poor health to rate their private health insurance as excellent."

In other words, if your health is good, and you're not relying on your insurance to keep you healthy, then you may not know if health care needs reforming (though one day, you will).. The percentage of those expressing approval for their existing insurance plans would also be lower if the 16 percent of Americans who don't have coverage were counted as at least neutral on the matter. Regardless, health insurers are likely the most powerful interest group at work on health care reform these days. And one reform, mandatory coverage, is naturally backed by health insurers.

The Post's front-page story "Like Car Insurance, Health Coverage May Be Mandated," explores the experience of mandated coverage in Massachusetts. In 2007, somewhere near 600,000 state residents, about 16 percent of the population, had no coverage. The state's health care reform required individuals to get coverage or pay a penalty, and required most employers to provide a coverage option or contribute to the overall cost. A year later, only three percent of residents were without coverage. Of that group about half paid the penalty rather than buy coverage, and "71,000 residents were exempted [from penalties] because they did not meet the minimum income levels."

A mandate will certainly benefit health insurers. If four out of every five Americans with no current coverage were to buy even $2,500 worth of health insurance (way below the current average premium), it would mean $80 billion a year in new revenue for the industry.

No rational person who doesn't work for a health insurer wants to create a new revenue stream for companies primarily responsible for the way we ration health care, but a mandate could dramatically reduce a variety of health care costs, including uncompensated emergency and hospital care. The amount of possible savings is unclear, but it's probably on the order of more than $100 billion each year. Several websites provide data that suggest the savings could be much higher. (Here and here are two of those sites.)

Op-ed pieces by Michael Gerson (a former Bush II speechwriter), "Health Care's Sensible Center," and Harold Meyerson (the only mainstream columnist I know of who identifies himself as a socialist), "The Can't-Do Blue Dogs," take apparently opposite positions on how much compromising Democrats ought to be doing on the road to getting health care done. But both writers are clear that the debate is largely between various positions within the Democratic party.

In my view, Gerson makes two big errors in his column. The first is discounting what President Obama might accomplish in the upcoming month. Obama may be too wounded politically by the continuing recession, growing unemployment and "trillions of dollars in stimulus and bailouts" to provide good leadership, Gerson writes. He also quotes William Galston of the Brookings Institution, who told Gerson that Congressional opposition to "boosting taxes on the rich" eliminates that option, but if Obama does enter the political fray with a specific list of reform requirements, taxing households with annual incomes of, say, $350,000 or more, ought to be completely doable. A reform bill promoted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi envisions raising more than half a trillion dollars from such a tax (see the details here).

On this point, Meyerson is clear. Taxes ought to (and probably would) be paid, if not for "the Blue Dogs' ... deference to wealth." But even though I am anxious to see Obama weigh in on the subject, Steven Pearlstein ("Imperfect Health Reform Still Beats the Status Quo") sees Obama as "boxed in" and "lashed to the mast" of predicted deficits in both health care and federal spending. But so far, Obama's commitment to not raising taxes has been limited to individuals making less than $250,000 per year. To most of us, such an income threshold seems to go way beyond the middle-class, but it still leaves the president free to endorse tax revenues like those advocated by Pelosi.

For me, no analysis of this issue would be complete without checking on what Dean Baker, co-director for the Center on Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), has to say. Accordingly, here's "Taxing Health Insurance Premiums and Subsidizing Health Care Providers," which ran yesterday on truthout. Taxing the health benefits of working people won't do, Dean writes, but changing the drug patent system and relaxing immigration rules limiting entry of qualified medical doctors would cut $200-300 billion in annual health care costs.

The problem with all of this, as Ruth Marcus writes in "The F-22 Model for Medicare," is that current health care arrangements have always worked pretty good for insurers, providers and the shrinking numbers of workers with employer-provided health coverage. This creates both a powerful lobby for the status quo and another group of voters who simply have not supported dramatic reform. To Marcus, this sounds uncomfortably close to the experience with the endlessly funded F-22 fighter jet.
The lineup of powerful members of Congress who fought to maintain production of the F-22 despite the opposition of President Bush, President Obama, Sen. McCain and several secretaries of defense kept the program going. But just yesterday, Congress finally pulled the plug on the F-22.

On the way to a final optimistic note, Marcus advocates another reform not mentioned in the other articles, improvements to MedPAC or the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, advocated in some form by the Obama administration and some members of Congress. Establishing "a MedPAC on steroids" would create huge Medicare savings and, in the process, reduce health care costs overall. "Because Medicare is the 800-pound gorilla of health care, its reimbursement policies also drive payment arrangements between private insurers and providers," she writes.

And, speaking of the F-22 and other good ways to save tens, maybe hundreds, of billions of dollars in military expenditures, lets give Marcus the last word.

"The politics of health care make the F-22 fight look simple. It won't be easy to expand coverage in a way that controls costs.

But maybe, just maybe, the naysayers are premature."

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Struggle Over Historical Truth

or We Hate Not Knowing What We Think We Know

Even predictable consequences are unclear in the epoch or in the eye-blink before they are expected to occur. And, consider: Most consequences are neither predicted (which is one thing, I think) nor anticipated (which is another).

Is it any wonder, then, that once a thing happens we find ourselves caught up in a constant debate about what it was and why it was? So much depends on the answer.

You Ought to Want a Revolution

Audacity Is Not Enough

The Congressional Budget Office says that the main health care proposals in front of Congress won't control costs and will plunge the U.S. into unmanageable debt (if we are not there already). The Washington Post reports (here), that the CBO's analysis has fueled further opposition by "fiscal conservatives" (a good number of congressional Democrats and virtually all Republicans) to health care reform. But the problem here is not the cost. The problem lies in the terms of the debate.

We are the only democratic, industrialized nation in the world that does not have universal health care. We spend more on health care with worse results than virtually all other democracies combined (see some ugly details here). Under the circumstances, no member of Congress should be pretending to outrage over the future costs of current proposals. If they were truly well-intentioned and effective at their jobs, they would have fixed the problem long ago. Privately, many of them might have wished to do better. If so, their better nature has been subverted. The only question is, by whom or by what?

In "It's Not Rationing, Stupid," Dean Baker nominates "the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the A.M.A., and the rest of the axis of evil opposed to meaningful health care reform" as the agents of reaction at work here. This seems a more than reasonable proposition to me. Further, given the extraordinary financial and social burden that health-care-for-private-gain places on working people, we ought to be on the verge of some sort of revolutionary moment.

Unfortunately, we are not. Yesterday, President Obama spoke at the NAACP's centennial celebration. I heard very little of his speech, but the full text is available here. The released version of the speech includes this: "so many in our community have come to expect so little of ourselves," but I heard him add "and so little for ourselves." This may have been some sort of wishful auditory hallucination, but it rings with a fundamental truth about the country and the difficulties with making change.

Labor, under attack and effectively divided against itself, is doing more than any other sector in the struggle for real health care reform, but it is simply not enough. And there is no other grouping of any significance organized to lead a struggle for decent health care for all. Going on 50 years ago, unions, senior citizens (represented by the AARP), African Americans organized in effective groups, and young people, in general, worked together to push the creation of Medicare, the last major health care reform here. Today such an achievement seems almost impossible.

I tire of the notion that the explanation lies in how little we expect of ourselves. That we have learned to expect so little for ourselves seems to explain more. The reaction to the liberal political victories of the '60s and '70s (e.g., voting rights, Medicare, abortion rights, another great health care advance) was a decades-long counterattack on the proposition that government could and ought to do things that the private sector couldn't and wouldn't do and does them effectively. The well-financed and relentless message that the free market creates wealth and does so reliably, that we regulate and intervene in the economy at our peril, won the day virtually every day for the last 30 years of the 20th century.

In the ideological vacuum created by the collapse of the economy, Republicans continue to rely on the same message. Well-meaning Democrats flounder in their efforts to frame a different picture. President Obama urges hope, but "expecting more from ourselves," is in his written remarks, "expecting more for ourselves," spills out only in the heat of the moment.

But that is the message that the generations born since 1970 need to hear. You have a right to expect more from government, but you must struggle to make that happen. Government of the people, by the people and for the people is always a work in progress. To the extent that you have come to believe that you must rely on yourselves individually, you are the victims of corrupt and entrenched interests that wish to keep you sidelined.

The United States is the only country in the world that has allowed health care to become a profit opportunity. If President Obama will not lead us the health care revolution that will serve the country best, you must lead him there. Young people elected Barack Obama to the presidency, now young people must lead him further.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Looking for More

SVF seeks GBG*

Lonely, infinite universe
seeks mature god to give
meaning to existence

Must enjoy communicating
across vast distances. I can be both
plus-sized and infinitesimally small,

hard-surfaced and sharp-edged. You’ll
find me coexisting with wet spots on
sheets soft as clouds. You show

great tolerance for small beings,
are a tad impatient with whiny
humans, other troubled species.

No promises, but this universe
interested in eons of relations
with a god of generosity and

justice. Must be polymorphous
perverse and committed to
evolution, welcome disorder

but tend, in small moments,
toward something like
order (a teasing little

trait that promises more than
it delivers). Sense of humor,

No long absences.

*Single Vast Female seeks Great Big God

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

La Quatorze Juillet Comes for Health Care

Power never concedes without a fight

Bastille Day is the French national holiday commemorating the 1789 storming of the Bastille, an armory and prison belonging to the King of France. The French Revolution, which began as a primarily bourgeois struggle against the power of the monarchy and the Catholic church, had barely begun at the time. But severe and widespread famine throughout France, as well as extreme autocracy and indifference to the suffering of ordinary working people, and finally the armed intervention of foreign powers, would move the revolution through a remarkable variety of stages. The by turns democratic, repressive, bloody, chaotic, creative and empowering developments during 10 years of revolution has made the French Revolution a metaphor for the use of all comers, a conservative cautionary tale, a story of heroic resistance to the mob, a nightmare of counter-revolution and a dream of liberty.

History is always subject to debate and challenge. In the end, we are all revisionists and ideologues; the best of us likely are those who are able to speak about the personal biases that bring them to prefer one version over another. The Wikipedia entry about the French Revolution here is a great opportunity to contemplate the many ways that a little knowledge might be a dangerous thing.

In the meantime, Bastille Day has also functioned as a personal mnemonic, helping me to remember my first official day at the University of Michigan. I took the train to Ann Arbor (back when Amtrak was a nightmare of the future) on July 14, 1965, heading for three days residence at East Quad and orientation for incoming freshmen. The debacle that was my educational career at UM needs acknowledging (and perhaps detailing at some later time), but that memory today led me (by a somewhat tortuous route) to this question: What contemporary Bastille most needs taking (and liberating)?

I asked my new friend, M, a related sort of question the other day. We must first of all move on health care, she responded. Had we been using the Bastille Day metaphor at the time, I'm quite sure she would have said that we need to liberate the health care system and make it ours. But how?

M believes that we can't do a thorough job of reforming health care or accomplishing other substantial progressive change without an accompanying change in the consciousness of privileged elites who must, she says, come to recognize that great wealth and excessive materialism are not a right and are an obstacle to a more just society.

Though M and I see eye-to-eye on many things, it was collective action--street heat--that opened the doors of the Bastille and reinforced Louis XVI's understanding that he must make compromise with the revolutionary impulse that would eventually doom the ancien regime. The reasons why Louis later lost his head need exploring, too, but the lesson of Bastille Day and (a myriad of other moments of dramatic political change) is, as Frederick Douglass put it:

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."

Though Douglass here is talking tyrants, the point works even in a democracy, which in every instance still calls for a struggle with entrenched power. How, then, do we go about winning a struggle for substantial reform of the health care system against the entrenched power of insurance companies, corporate health care providers and those who are most highly rewarded for their work in the current system?

We begin by taking, as my friend Perry Hall says, "the language and the argument away from the reactionaries." A favorite argument of the congressional defenders (and others) of the current system is that government intervention in health care would end the rights of patients to choose their own doctors and to agree with their doctors on the medical care that would be appropriate for them. This argument comes from the same members of Congress who have passed laws to keep women and their doctors from arriving at conclusions of their own about abortion and, even, birth control. It boggles the mind that they might actually believe their own rhetoric, but that is not what matters.

We hear also and repeatedly about the staggering new costs that health care reform will impose. This argument comes from those who are quite happy with the staggering costs the status quo imposes and, as Dean Baker discusses in The Global Warming Lie Detector, do nothing about the staggering costs that war and weapons systems impose on taxpayers.

If the "limits of tyrants," and, by implication the possibilities for progressive change, are defined by the action of the people, then it follows that the people must trust their own understanding that our current health care system is too flawed, too expensive, too inefficient and too inaccessible to be maintained. Having trusted in the process by which we each arrived at such conclusions, we ought to be ignoring the propaganda deployed against us, and making our voices heard.

There must be a thousand ways for ordinary people to affect the direction of health care reform, but here's a few:

Go here for a list of "10+ things you can do." Number one on this list, unfortunately, is participate in a march on May 30, but even without that one, there are lots of possibilities here.

Send congress a copy of your medical bill. This site will help you do it.

Go to this site for a list of national health care campaigns and state connections you can make to focus your activism locally.

The important point, ultimately, is that the ancien regime will not fall without the action of ordinary people. There is a real opportunity here to make democracy work a little bit better. Even young, healthy people get old and get sick. Real health care reform will pay universal benefits.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A good, clean story wasted (maybe) by an ambling start in which Rule One is broken

and I go on, probably far too long, to explain why

Assuming one writes to be read, there is a Rule One: Keep your first sentence short. Further, do as I say, not as I do. My last post (Kill, Kill, Kill the F-22), opened with a 50-something word sentence and, in all probability, killed more readers than F-22s.

Now, how many good, clean and brief sentences must I write to cover my tracks? A baker's dozen? Four and twenty? Four score and seven? The math is unclear, but however many I must write, the Washington Post's Michael Shear is penalized for worse and probably ought to write at least twice as many as I.

In "Hearings Not Just About Sotomayor," Shear leads with a 40-word, paragraph-long sentence. He follows that one with a 47-word, paragraph-long sentence. By "historic," Shear's 100th word, I am defeated. The front-page, top-of-the-fold story has lost a reader, at least temporarily.

My newspaper bad habit being what it is, I won't quit on Shear's story, which is probably, on balance, a good one. But the Post, which like daily papers everywhere, keeps taking hard punches to the financial chin and circulation gut, ought to tighten things up. I mean, why pay editors, if they're not going to do their job? Somebody really should have kicked the story back to Shear with a pithy shorten-your-lead note.

Back in the day, when Marrianne McMullen (the person to whom I am married) was my editor, she'd invariably return my copy with the first two paragraphs crossed out. Sometimes, she'd say something like "put the point at the beginning" or "your warm-up doesn't belong in the story."

Of course, if Shear and his editors had stuck with Rule One, I'd have to find something else to blog about. Sonia Sotomayor, perhaps.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Kill, Kill, Kill, the F-22

A New/Old Way to Solve Budget Problems

The Washington Post's Jeff Smith has done a great job outlining the problems with the F-22, the pricey and delicate super plane developed to fight the Soviet Union, and finally put into production long after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (see Premier U.S. Fighter Jet Has Major Shortcomings). In useful detail, Smith recounts the technical failures and production difficulties that have bloated the price of the jet well beyond original cost estimates. He also provides a little insight from several whistleblowers who once worked at various stages of the program with defense contractors and the Pentagon. It is hard to see how the average reader (and taxpayer) could read the story and conclude that we gotta have more F-22s at an average cost of $350 million per plane.

The Air Force is currently the proud owner of some 185 of these flying lemons, which require about $50,000 of maintenance and repair for every actual hour in the air. Of course, all high-tech contrivances are also Rube Goldberg-machines. The F-15, an older fighter still capable of licking any other military jet on the planet, costs a cringe-worthy $31,000 in maintenance per flight hour. But in 2005 a spanking new F-15 cost about a quarter of the price for an F-22 (according to a Marine Corps analysis, which can be found on the web here). In the four years since, the cost of a new F-22 has continued to soar.

I'm no aviation expert (though I'd be perfectly willing to play one on TV), but if 185 F-22s were to fly 45 hours per year for five years (2005-2009, inclusive), maintenance alone would cost about $2.1 billion. It would cost about $1 billion less to run F-15s on the same schedule. Buying F-15s in the first place, instead of F-22s (at 2005 prices), would have saved about $19 billion more.

Of course, on the theory that we have always had more military equipment than any one country ought to have, buying nothing new and maintaining and repairing nothing new would have saved upwards of $25 billion. For a few pennies more we could bailout California (think of all the newsprint that would save).

To that figure add the $100 billion that would be saved if the Feds were to cancel the Boeing super-tanker (see Kill, Kill, Kill the Boeing ...) and we're marching towards the savings we need to launch the public plan part of any reasonable health care compromise. All of this brings us face-to-face with the question: Why don't we cut these military weapons systems and other programs like them?

Smith's article in the Post suggests one obvious answer:
Lockheed farmed out more than 1,000 subcontracts to vendors in more than 40 states, and Sprey -- now a prominent critic of the plane -- said that by the time skeptics "could point out the failed tests, the combat flaws, and the exploding costs, most congressmen were already defending their subcontractors' " revenues.

The problem of military contractors, their political contributions and the political pressure that their employees can bring to bear is the single biggest obstacle to a rational economy in the U.S. According to a webpage maintained by, "more than 1,150 firms in 46 states and Puerto Rico, along with firms in seven international countries make up the F-22/F119 subcontractor team."

Obviously, profit greatly concentrates the minds, hearts and political activities of select groups. And there are perverse rationales that make such dynamics appear to be the very definition of democracy (Republican free-market mantras, for example). But we who hope for economic justice, universal health care, quality public education and other quaint notions are the carriers of the democratic gene. Unfortunately, the gene is seeming a little recessive nowadays, and needs serious mutating.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Catholic Bishop: I am pro-life

Well, duh

Earlier this week, on a motor trip to the Midwest, we passed through Pittsburgh. There, my mother-in-law's hospitality includes the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which on Wednesday ran an op-ed piece by David A. Zubik, bishop of the Pittsburgh Catholic diocese.

I really don't know if Pittsburgh is a more Catholic place than other eastern or midwestern cities with an industrial past, but because Marrianne's family is Catholic, the city seems to be filled with an awful lot of practicing Catholics, out-of-practice Catholics or definitively ex-Catholics. It followed that Zubik's column, I Am Pro-Life, was a topic of breakfast table discussion, if only briefly.

Marrianne's mom was pretty clear about her own position: Abortion should remain legal and government action should be focussed on reducing teen pregnancy and addressing the social ills (like poverty) that make choosing abortion sometimes seem like the only viable choice for young women. If one could accurately parse the voluminous polling data about abortion, it's likely that Audrey McMullen's position reflects the biggest plurality, if not the majority, of Americans. For all practical purposes, our discussion ended there.

But driving around the Midwest for 1,400 or so miles (our approximate total by the time we get back to D.C.) offers plenty of time for reflection. And I keep thinking about Zubik and wondering how he rationalized writing something so unsurprising, for a Catholic bishop, as "I Am Pro-Life." So far, the only thing I've been able to come up with is this: Zubik is rallying, or at least comforting, the troops.

After all, the recent murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller has provided an opportunity for some pro-choice activists to directly connect the pro-life movement with the extremists who operate on its fringes. One can only assume that some faithful Pittsburgh parishoners have expressed their own doubts and concerns.

Zubik's response is formulaic. Scott Roeder, Tiller's murderer, is a nut-case. And besides that, he hung out with anti-tax and anti-government groups. He is, therefore and quite obviously, not the right sort of pro-lifer. And, anyway, writes Zubik, "pro-life groups were quick to denounce Dr. Tiller's murder and the tragedy that someone would take a life in the name of defending innocent life."

Having carefully defined the pro-life movement to exclude the significant portion that does not condemn Tiller's murder and/or believes the government functions primarily to impose secular values and confiscate property, Zubik moves on. The pro-life movement is based on the "sacredness of life," Zubik says, but was originally marginalized as Catholic and therefore "anti-Catholic prejudice was a card to be played." The pro-life pioneers of the '70s, he seems to be suggesting, displayed uncommon courage through those dark times.

But in a we-are-the-world conclusion, Zubik arrives at the happy news:
The latest Pew research study shows that pro-life Americans make up nearly half the population. They are in every age group, every religion, every political party, every neighborhood, every part of the country, every race and every color.

If you want to know what pro-life people look like, forget the caricatures and cartoonists, the propaganda and the pundits. Just take a look at your neighbor.

Of course, if your neighbor also thinks that the government is trying to take away his gun or force him to drive a hybrid, then he's not what pro-life people look like. And, if he thinks that abortionists get what they deserve, then he's not what pro-life people look like, or so Bishop Zubik tells us.

It is also an inconvenient fact that the latest Pew research study didn't ask people if they were pro-life, so the near majority to which Zubik refers actually includes the portion of the population which thinks that abortion should be more restricted than it is now, but does not believe that it should be made illegal altogether.

Zubik never uses the phrase "pro-choice" in his piece, though given his relaxed understanding of the Pew survey, it would seem to be no stretch at all for him to discover that polling actually shows us that a good portion of the population is both pro-life and pro-choice. In the meantime, the Bishop also tells us that pro-life encompasses "opposition to capital punishment, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, war and violence of any kind. That being the case, I eagerly await his next piece denouncing the use of violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Advance, Anyhow

Stupid with desire, first striving,
next blunted, then worn.
Word arrives:
“The battle is lost.

Your inspiring courage
in service to bad plans,
and broken dreams,
a lesson.”

Wounded with yearning, bruised,
chilled, abandoned.
Direction follows:
“Maintain radio silence,

you are not called to
service in the new
revolution. Long
rest prescribed.”

Walloped lifeside,
oiled, revived, ignited,
maniacally hungry,
you radio back.

“Oh, you disembodied voice,
bugger you, eat my dust.
I am one restored
to dreaming.”