Friday, February 26, 2010

Health Reform: It's the Whole “Brother’s Keeper” Thing

Since yesterday’s “health summit” in Washington, news and commentary has been all about what it didn’t accomplish—what nobody, in actual fact, thought it would accomplish—bipartisan accord. What it may have done, however, is help to simplify the health reform debate by highlighting what the president referred to as the “legitimate philosophical disagreement” that exists between the two sides.

Basically, that disagreement involves the role government should play in people’s lives:
  1. Democrats believe that excellent and affordable health care should be a right of all citizens of the world’s wealthiest nation; Republicans believe it should be a privilege.

  2. Democrats believe that government should be strong, to serve and protect its citizens; Republicans believe it should be weak, so as not to interfere with the rights and privileges of private entities (especially business interests).

That’s really what we’re all talking about when we discuss American politics: how big or small government should be and what it should or should not do for its citizens.

That’s why Republicans don’t see it as a crisis that over 45,000,000 people in America are uninsured (with many millions more under-insured or at risk of losing their health insurance if they should dare to get sick). Lack of adequate insurance or health care may be a crisis for individuals and their families, but Republicans regard it as their problem, not our problem.

Democrats take the approach that we're all responsible for the quality of life in America, and it’s a shame—our shame—if certain classes of people lack quality of life because of their circumstances.

These fundamental differences explain why Republicans (as well as libertarians and other “conservatives”) are always so eager to give rights and responsibilities to the states, rather than the federal government. In general, they’d rather have 50 relatively weak “governments” (not counting those of the territories) than a strong federal government.

Over the years, Republican administrations have set about limiting the power of federal bureaus and agencies and transferring resources to the states. (For an outstanding explanation of just how this works, I recommend The Wrecking Crew, by Thomas Frank.) Results of this became apparent during the Bush administration, as federal agencies—generally with reduced funding and often headed by people who thought the agency itself should be abolished—began to fail to protect the American people.

Thus FEMA proved completely inadequate to help the people of New Orleans deal with Katrina; the infrastructure continued to crumble in the face of inaction by the Federal Highway Administration; the EPA failed to protect the environment; and the FDA proved inadequate to protect consumers against food poisoning.

With decisions involving the distribution of federal monies being made by the states (a practice that inevitably siphons off a good deal of any budget by supporting two bureaucracies instead of one), school funding is shamefully unequal from state to state, minimum wages range from $8.55 (in Washington) to $5.15 (in Wyoming), and people in Ohio can get $250 for trading in certain appliances that residents of my state cannot.

At yesterday's summit, Eric Cantor trotted out his old trick of slapping the 2000+ pages of the current proposed health reform legislation on the table in front of him to illustrate how bloated and complicated it allegedly is—as if number of pages signifies anything. But I have two questions:

  1. How long is too long for a document that might save your child's life?

  2. What's more complicated—one way of doing things, or 50?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Jobs Bill - Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

It takes guts for a Republican to say "yes" to anything in Washington these days. Yesterday, however, five Republicans voted with the Democrats to end a filibuster and maybe—just maybe—get a little something done about the issue Americans care most about these days—jobs.

Progressives are bellyaching because the proposed bill isn't big enough, doesn't go far enough. Conservatives are outraged because it looks like Scott Brown, their Massachusetts golden boy, may turn out to be more than just another stone in the solid wall of opposition to anything the Obama administration tries to get done.

Bully for those Senators for not being completely controlled by the current toxic political climate in Washington. Too few in Congress—even those who may, in fair weather, have a little courage of their convictions—have been been willing to stand for anything lately. Right now, any kind of progress is worth celebrating.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The American Voter, Part III: Social Responsibility

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
—John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961

In the first part of our analysis (posted 1/28/10), we talked about some universal human tendencies, such as being swayed by the attitudes and opinions of those around us. In the second part (1/31) we talked about the unique mix of characteristics that tend to define the character of the typical American: extremely hard-working and spontaneously helpful to others in need but also spiteful, paranoid, and a sucker for conspiracy theories.

In other words, Americans tend to think and act emotionally, not rationally, in many areas of their lives—including politics. And in a democracy like America, everyone is involved in politics, whether they want to be or not. To be apathetic and disinterested is a choice that has as much impact as the choice to pay attention to what’s going on and cast a vote. Maybe more—all too many elections are decided by the people who don’t show up.

Americans tend regard themselves as patriotic. According to my European friends, more flag waving goes on in America than in most of the world’s other free nations combined. (I’m not counting places such as North Korea, where the citizens had better wave flags on command—or else.) “Patriotic” emails circulate like dandelion seeds, full of flags, syrupy stories about soldiers sleeping in pits, and snide remarks about how much better things used to be—back in some mythological time when America was the kind of paradise it ought to be now. The one I got yesterday exhorted me to make sure the light bulbs and drier sheets I buy are “made in America.”

That’s all well and good, but—leaving aside the whole question of reducing the complexities of global economics to a platitude—I wonder if the person who sent it along to me even bothers to check labels. It’s so easy to prattle on about the good ol’ days, complain about the present, and hit the “Forward” button. Those are the kinds of things people do every day without thinking. All they require is a little emotional tick, an impulse that’s there one minute and gone the next.

To actually do something constructive for country or community—that’s another matter.

Waving flags, bitching about the government, and forwarding emails have nothing to do with patriotism.

People tend to be proud for two reasons: because of what they have, or because of what they’ve done. Kids—who haven’t lived long enough to actually do much, tend to be proud of what they have—the hottest computer game, good looks, or designer jeans. As they grow up and do things, they may begin to take pride in what they accomplish. Pride in what we have may feel good, but it’s shallow and meaningless self-congratulation. Taking pride in what we do can spur us on to new accomplishments and greater achievements.

I submit that for all too many Americans, pride in their country is a kind of childish, egotistical pride in what they’ve inherited and what others have worked to achieve—pride of place, pride of ownership, the kind of “ha, ha, mine’s better than yours” mentality that’s so common among children.

It’s good to be grateful for what we’ve been given, through no effort of our own—but gratitude isn’t giving, and pride isn’t contributing.

These days, thankfully, American sentiment is at least supportive of those who serve in the armed services. Unlike during the Viet Nam era, when soldiers returning from war were often treated like the enemy, we at least appreciate the men and women who show up for duty—whether or not we agree with the policies that sent them where they had to go. For the moment, at least, the emotional wind in America is wafting in support of those who put themselves on the line for their country.

But what about the men and women in Washington—in Congress and the White House and on Capitol Hill? They, too, are at least showing up every day. Whether you question or admire their motives, they’re at least doing something—some of them selflessly and with genuine desire to be of service to their country. When I hear people trash the government or politicians in general, the question in my mind is, “so what are you doing for your country?”

Obviously, we can’t all go to Washington and help make public policy—just as it’s not everyone’s job to carry a weapon in war. But as Americans, there are things we can do and should do to earn the pride we feel in our country.

First, I think it’s the responsibility of every American to think. And thinking has to be more than turning on the TV to our favorite news channel and soaking up the headlines. More than forming opinions, thinking involves withholding judgment—trying to keep an open mind until we’ve accumulated enough information to understand all sides of an issue and make reasonable, rational decisions. It also means understanding our own basic values, and accepting that others may be working in good faith from a different philosophy and set of core values. It means reading, listening, and looking for understanding—not just picking up attitudes from others like we pick up a cold.

Second, I think it’s the responsibility of every American to actually do something in the service of others—and in the spirit that we are all one another’s brothers and sisters. President Kennedy started the Peace Corps, in which over 200,000 have served as ambassadors of hope and peace to nations around the world. AmeriCorps, founded by President Clinton in 1994, has involved nearly 600,000 Americans serving Americans—and, in the process, gaining and job skills and experience. Thousands of Americans regularly heed President Obama’s calls for public service—as did Presidents Bush and Clinton when asked to lead the American efforts to help the people of Haiti.

Finally, I think it’s the responsibility of every American to maintain a positive attitude. In our nation, as in our families, schools, communities, and companies, attitudes—positive or negative—determine both morale and productivity. Being positive doesn’t mean ignoring problems—it means approaching them with a can-do attitude and working cooperatively with others. It means focusing on the solution rather than bemoaning the problem. It means not blaming others—or even ourselves—but rather working toward resolution and a vision of a better tomorrow. In a healthy country—as in a healthy family, school, community, or company—there’s no time for cynicism, pessimism, snide remarks, or tearing one another down.

There must be time, however, for problem-solving and for respectful, constructive criticism—not of people, but of policies and procedures that are in conflict with our basic human values or that simply don’t work.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Good Ol' American Joe

I've got a question for Ms. Palin: How's that ol' Joe-the-Plumber thing workin' out for ya?

For a slightly more sober analysis of American political trends, here's an extremely interesting take on current populist sentiments.

Tomorrow: Part III in our ongoing discussion about the American voter.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

More about "Snowmaggedon"

For those who may be interested in pursuing this topic further, here's a good round-up of information about GCC.

Rhetorical Questions . . .

. . . for any readers who may admire or be a part of the Tea Party movement. After reading this article from the NYT (the whole article, not the headline), are you proud? Or are you worried?

Do you think awakening America's never-too-deeply-buried tendency toward paranoia and conspiracy theories is a constructive or a destructive thing to do? Is now the time for America to go backward, or forward?

Morris Dees, a great hero and great American, helped rid Northern Idaho of hate groups and paranoid militia types. Now it sounds like those weeds are thriving again, fed and watered by the likes of Glenn Beck.

So who's the "patriot"--the peace maker or the fear monger? The rational, responsible man, or the entertainer dedicated to stoking up the ire of the lunatic fringe?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Heath Reform: The Ugly Truth

I’m really getting sick of hearing the word “bungled” associated with health reform. The Democrats haven’t “bungled” reform—the Republicans have stone-walled it every step of the way, from the day Obama entered the White House. Apparently that’s good and effective politics, since it’s succeeded in making a lot of Americans cynical about the whole process and snide about Washington—a situation that never bodes well for incumbents.

In spite of giving lip service to the need for health reform, every blessed one of the Republican House and Senate members have refused to cooperate on any part of a health reform package—and that’s after 12 years of ignoring the whole issue while they were in the majority. Now, a year into the new administration, I hope they’re proud of what they’ve accomplished—or not accomplished, depending on how you look at it.

Conservative estimates are that about 45,000 people die each year from lack of access to health care—in other words, they can’t afford it. We know that a large percentage of personal bankruptcies—some say as many as 60%—result from debts due to lack of adequate and affordable health insurance. If projections of bankruptcies filed during 2009 are anywhere near accurate, that means that the 100% failure of the Senate Republicans to negotiate in good faith about health reform is at least partly responsible for 840,000 economic tragedies for families and small businesses.

That’s over 1,000 deaths of individuals and 21,000 bankruptcies per Senate Republican (and Joe Lieberman, whatever he is these days—I can’t keep track). In all fairness, it has to be said that some of the lily-livered “Conserva-Dems” from conservative districts have to share some of the blame for dithering and hiding behind the backs of the more out-and-out, true “conservatives” (or, as I suggested yesterday, “reactionaries”). So maybe not every Senate Republican can be blamed for 1,000 deaths and 21,000 bankruptcies.

But how many is enough?

Come on, people. Let’s just get this damn thing done.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Conservative vs. Reactionary

Yesterday I had lunch with a group of educated, influential women, one of whom has a Ph.D. in computer science. Her job involves creating computer models for application to particular scientific questions. Somehow the subject of global climate change (GCC) came up, and one of the women expressed doubt: “They say the climate fluctuates naturally,” she said. “Maybe the temperatures would be rising, anyway, even without human interference.”

I glanced at the scientist, and she rolled her eyes. She simply drew a graph in the air—a simple 45-degree line showing the dramatic upward trend of global average temperatures in recent decades—and said, “That’s not natural.” Then, not wanting to spoil a good lunch by arguing, we moved on to other subjects.

After our recent discussion here about GCC, I was wondering why almost all the books recently published are about “debunking the myths” about GCC and most of the ones I read in the 70s and 80s are out of print. (Another great book I neglected to mention, incidentally, is Extinction, by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, first published in 1981.) As we were leaving, I asked my scientist friend why the people who knew best weren’t writing books about GCC anymore. “Once something’s established as fact,” she said, “people aren’t interested in ‘if.’ There’s no ‘if’ any more when it comes to climate change—just ‘when?,’ ‘how much?,’ and ‘what can we do about it?”

I see what she means. Among educated, scientifically oriented people, GCC is an accepted fact, and what we know about it is implicit in discussions of many things, from politics to polar bears. Rational people have long since stopped talking about “if.”

The same thing is true of other subjects about which facts have been tortured to death in recent years for the sake of politics: evolution, the efficacy of torture, the safety of children’s vaccines.

In the public discourse in America, we’ve continued to use the same terminology in recent years, as the right has drifted further and further toward the fringe and as sane fiscal and social conservatives have tended to get mixed up in the public mind with celebrities of spite like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and numerous clueless members of Congress. That seems unfair, because I believe there are thoughtful, intelligent, reality-oriented conservatives out there who might have something to contribute, if only they weren’t continually shouted down by the loudest voices representing ignorance and extremism.

So I propose that we dust off that good old word “reactionary” and put it back to work. Let’s start calling deniers of GCC, evolution, and Obama’s American citizenship “reactionary.” Let’s help them find their own identity, with others who believe that the government is plotting to take away their guns and socialize medicine and education. Then let’s use the word “conservative” to mean what it used to mean—rightfully and responsibly concerned about things like government spending and what “freedom of speech” should mean in a technological world.

How about that—wouldn’t it make things simpler?

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Courage to Agree

Rumor has it that two men met on a virtually deserted Capitol Hill yesterday, braving the snow and, potentially, the disapproval of their peers to talk with one another.

Could it be that a Republican—a freshman Southern Senator, no less—has the guts to really seek common ground with a Democrat? Could it be that an outgoing Democrat might still have the energy—after over 35 years of public service and a year of solid, indiscriminate opposition to every Democratic initiative—to keep working toward accord instead of sitting back and waiting out his time in office?

The Republican, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, was elected in 2006 and won’t be up for reelection until 2012. Therefore, he may feel he can afford the risk of actually bargaining in good faith with the Democratic majority. Nevertheless, it takes guts for a Republican to be the least bit conciliatory these days, lest he or she end up savagely attacked by the Republican caucus and challenged in a primary by hard-line conservatives (ala Dede Scozzafava).

The Democrat, Senator Chris Dodd, has a long history of bipartisan cooperation with his ideological opponents—until the past 13 months, anyway, at which point the Republicans in Congress closed ranks to form a solid wall of opposition to anything being accomplished in a Democratic administration that might resemble progress.

But thanks to a spate of bad weather, these two men had a little time on their hands. And it appears that they chose to spend it in the service of their country, trying to get a little something done.

I have a fantasy. I’d like to think that all over Washington, D.C., this week, long-time Congressional colleagues are meeting in groups of two or four, in coffee shops and restaurants—away from the cameras and microphones, reporters and lobbyists that make it so hard to focus on substance rather than appearances. I’d like to think they’re remembering how they once liked each other, exchanging news about their families, sharing their frustrations, and then maybe—just maybe—tentatively agreeing to agree, rather than disagree.

If such a thing were happening in Washington, wouldn’t that be lovely? That would be “cool” of an entirely different kind. It seems to have happened once (even though the colleagues in question were caught out by the press). Maybe it could happen again. And again.

And if so—let it snow, let it snow.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


I figure I might as well join the crowd and blame the president for the lousy weather blanketing the East Coast. The minority in Congress seems hell-bent on blaming him for everything else!

I’ve long been opposed the attitude that weather is “bad” or “good.” I generally find weather, in general, interesting. However, there’s certainly such a thing as too much of a good thing, and a lot of people have been experiencing that lately!

Which brings me to the topic of the ignoramuses on FOX News and elsewhere who’ve been using the record snow falls in the East to mock Al Gore and the whole concept of global climate change. (They might as well lump in the horrific mud slides in California, too, while they’re at it—an example of what happens when cycles of extreme heat and dryness are followed by wildfires and soil erosion—then lots of rain.)

Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh—these geniuses pretend to believe that “global warming” can’t be real if it’s snowing outside. (And it’s hard to say which is worse—being ignorant enough to believe what they’re saying or lying about something so critically important.)

Since at least the late 1970s, when I first started reading about climate change, scientists have said that an overall increase in global temperatures would ramp up the natural cycles of the atmosphere and start causing extreme weather events across the planet, as well as extremely rapid melting of polar ice. That’s all been happening—at alarming rates and faster than most estimates predicted.

Just ask residents of Bangladesh, New Orleans, Florida, and now Washington D.C. about extreme weather. Records are now being broken every year in terms of temperatures, precipitation, and the number and severity of storms. What used to be “100-year” storms and “500-year” storms are becoming annual events.

From a global perspective, the first decade of the 21st Century, which just ended, was the warmest on record. Pretty much every year that goes by is either the warmest year on record or close to it. When even George Bush admitted to the need to start getting serious about reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, I thought we’d finally start making progress as a nation toward being responsible global citizens and concerning ourselves about the well-being of our children and grandchildren.

Apparently, I was wrong. In the minority, Republicans have clearly decided to ensure that NO progress occurs on ANY issue whatever, be it saving the planet, helping the millions of Americans who can’t afford health insurance, or reforming the financial industries which—just a few short months ago—nearly thrust the entire world into another Great Depression with their irresponsible lending and investment practices.

Evidently the Party of No has NO time to help save the plant—not when there are elections to consider and money to be made from special interests.

And there are ALWAYS elections to consider.

Friday, February 5, 2010

About Blind Faith and Conspiracy Theories

Here’s an interesting take, from a global perspective, on conspiracy theories.

Please pardon the profanity, but I believe the most interesting statement in this article is that “there’s a huge temptation among people to believe there is a master plan, because otherwise the suggestion is we’re interdependent and the world is chaotic — and that’s a mindfuck.”

In America, there are a very large number of fundamentalist Christians—people who believe that the Bible should be taken literally and that a savage (but somehow, at the same time loving) God personally orchestrates every little thing that happens on earth—from who lives or dies in the aftermath of an earthquake to who wins the Super Bowl. (No one’s ever satisfactorily explained to me how supporters of two teams can both deluge the heavens with their prayers, but one side or the other always loses.)

Surely it’s very comforting to think that nothing happens by accident and that everything we ever need to know can be found between the pages of a single book. But it’s also irresponsible. That kind of magical thinking separates reason from belief and makes people prone to believe pretty much anything. (In fact, it’s a tenet of many fundamentalist sects that God deliberately lays traps for reasonable people; a Ph.D. candidate in paleontology, of all things, once told me that God planted dinosaur bones in the earth to test our faith.)

Of course it’s easier to believe—especially if you hang out with a group of like-minded individuals—than to think. Thinking is hard work. But there’s a lot of truth in the old adage, “God helps those who help themselves.” If you believe that everything happens for a reason, then we have brains for a reason. I submit that there is no God in his (or her) heaven playing a cruel game of cat-and-mouse in which reality is never what it seems and truth is encoded in an enigmatic and self-contradictory tome to which only a privileged elect have the key. (And oh, how pleasurable it must be to see oneself as one of the elect.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not disparaging either religion or Christianity—just fundamentalism, which essentially means blind adherence to a pre-packaged doctrine or set of beliefs. Nor do I think that everyone who attends church is prone to slavish, mindless obedience or blind faith. But the fact that religious beliefs are so often disconnected from reason and reality is one good reason to be adamant about ensuring the separation of church and state.

The intrusion of fundamentalism into the national discourse has caused a great deal of mischief, especially in recent years. The notion that “everyone’s entitled to their beliefs”—right or wrong, rational or just plain loony—is dangerous in a nation in which the beliefs and attitudes of the people continually influence and shape the government. I’m not at all sure that people are “entitled” to be wrong—especially when that wrongness is not the result of a mistake but rather of a stubborn, emotional adherence to beliefs that contradict reality on the basis of reasonable evidence. (Of course I'm speaking here about moral, not legal, entitlement.)

It takes open-mindedness to accept the fact that we are—increasingly—interdependent, both nationally and globally. It takes courage to concede that the world, if not exactly chaotic, is full of situations in which we may have to suspend judgment and struggle long and hard to find the truth.

Those are two things America could use more of—open-mindedness and the courage to tolerate uncertainty.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fox News and the "Liberal Media"

A reader recently asked, “Do you watch Fox News?” The answer: “Not if I can help it.” In fact, I’ve launched a one-woman campaign in my local area to get businesses that stream Fox News on their wall-mounted televisions to change the channel. I prefer not to subject myself to an atmosphere polluted by a steady stream of negativism, hostile rhetoric, aggressive body language, and extremist right-wing propaganda.

That said, I know that the negative emotionalism typical of Fox broadcasting appeals to many. In fact, I think it may even be addictive. Fox listeners often also find their way to right-wing, anti-establishment rants on the radio, listening to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Lou Dobbs. There’s nothing like a steady dose of outrage to get the adrenalin flowing, and it’s a fact that some people become addicted to the rush.

Extreme right-wing rhetoric has found legitimacy in this country, largely because of Fox News and its cousin-in-print, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. Together with hate-mongers on the radio, they’ve coined the phrase “liberal media” and made it stick to pretty much all media outlets that are in the least bit objective or balanced in their reporting of current events, lumping mainstream and left-wing sources together in an “us-against-them” world view.

Where do I get my news? From a wide variety of so-called “liberal media” sources—which is to say, anywhere but Fox News and the WSJ. (I do read articles from the WSJ when someone sends me a link; however, I pass if the author happens to be someone whom I consider to be completely unqualified on the subject or lacking in intellectual integrity.)

One reader has asked repeatedly where I get my information, so for the sake of full disclosure, what follows is a fairly comprehensive list—for now, anyway. (Those who don’t care may wish to skip the following paragraph.)

I like to begin my evening with a nice roundup of the day’s events on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. His “Making a Difference” segment, focusing on heroic actions by ordinary people, is always positive and up-lifting. For analysis of partisan politics, I often tune in to Rachel Maddow, who has a knack for explaining complex issues in plain, simple language. For in-depth analysis and news about science, technology, and the world, I listen to NPR. (I always make a point to be driving around at noon on Fridays, when “Science Friday” is on.) I like CNN’s in-depth reporting of big events, like the earthquake in Haiti. I’m rather obsessive about reading news headlines and articles on my mobile phone, regularly surfing sites like, Yahoo! News, Media Matters, The Week, and—yes—Fox (whose mobile news service tends toward some kooky human interest stories). I subscribe to a number of online newsletters from various organizations, including The Progress Report,, and The Southern Poverty Law Center. I get RS feeds from a variety of columnists (left, right, and center), including Thomas L. Friedman, Kathleen Parker, and Mike Madden. I occasionally check out the web sites for members of Congress who happen to catch my attention. For an outsider’s perspective on American culture and politics, I often read news from France and listen to the BBC. When I want background for something I’m writing, I may consult books or look for in-depth articles in magazines like The Atlantic or The New Yorker.

As for knowing what’s going in the alternative universe of Fox News, I sometimes log on to News Hounds (“We watch Fox so you don’t have to”) and catch unavoidable glimpses of the streamers when the channel is on in public places. Apart from that, I have a few right-wing friends who can usually be depended on to let me know how the spin doctors in the conservative media are interpreting national events.

I see and hear enough hard-core conservative talking points to understand how habitual consumers of extreme right-wing messaging might suffer from cognitive dissonance when exposed to mainstream media. It’d be enough to make anyone uncomfortable—and people who are uncomfortable tend to get angry. Perhaps the only way habitual Fox News watchers could really understand how the rest of us view the world would be to go cold turkey for a few weeks and watch and read exclusively news that hasn’t been—as the British like to put it—“sexed up” to please the conservative palate.

Monday, February 1, 2010