Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Anti-Government Crowd

Loosely, as a follow-up to yesterday’s blog concerning the slide to the right by the GOP, this blog will center on one of the rallying cries of this far right movement. Again, I will refer to a comment made by David Frum on last Friday’s Bill Maher show. He stated that while Reagan and Bush 41 were certainly more conservative than our current president, they believed in the institution of government. They believed in the sense that the government is a duly elected creation of we, the people, and as such should be viewed as a tool for the betterment of the citizens. It was during Reagan’s administration that the law requiring medical providers to give health services to anyone in need, regardless of insurance status was enacted. And more than once during the term of Bush 41 was the phrase compassionate conservative used to describe his policies of assisting those Americans who were in dire straits.

Now, as a camouflage for the far right wing of the republican party whose only goal is to paint Obama as a radical leftist, the very institution of government is being attacked. Advocates for eliminating various government departments such as the EPA, the education department, and the department of energy, etc in the name of “smaller is better”, seem to reflect the old adage of throwing the baby out with the bath water. (Curiously, the actual size of the government, the actual number of govt. employees has not changed all that much since Reagan’s presidency, except for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, an expansion done under Bush 43). It is as if they believe, at least as long as Obama is the president, government is bad to the point that it can’t be fixed. As if having no government is a better alternative.

The real debate should revolve around how effective our government is in promoting the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness for its citizens. A perfect example relates to our national defense. Few, if anyone, advocate eliminating the department of defense. Most of us recognize that we need a strong defense to allow Americans to feel safe in their daily lives. However, how much we spend in this area, and when should we resort to armed conflict are questions we should debate. Those of us who propose spending less on national defense do so because we believe that by diverting too much resources to this one area, we hamper the citizens of America by spending less than necessary on areas such as education, preventive health care, and aid to the truly unfortunate.

As an aside, I personally believe that there are many Americans who have missed one of the biggest lessons in regards to why America won the Cold War, and why Russia lost. We had the capacity to outspend Russia and so they went bankrupt. During Reagan’s 8 years as president, defense spending peaked at 7% of GDP in the mid-80’s. It declined to 6% by 1990, once the fall of Berlin and the breakup of the Soviet Union had occurred. Clinton continued this trend (his critics called it “gutting” the military), as defense spending by 2001 was down to 3.6% of GDP. Now, I know that one can use statistics to “prove” almost any point, but is it a coincidence that the 1990’s featured the biggest expansion of the US economy in decades?

Of course, after 9/11, Bush 43 ramped up defense spending.  Understanding that 9/11 changed everything, and accepting the concept that increasing defense spending was necessary to fund the war on terror, should we not still question whether we should have returned to spending 6% of GDP in this war? And, should we not accept that our national debt will increase, just as it did under Reagan, if we are going to spend this much money? The missing link to the lesson I refer to is that the victors of the Cold War, the United States, may share the fate of the losers if we don’t speed the diversion of military spending back to civilian pursuits, i.e, infrastructure improvements, education, cleaner energy, health care for all, etc.

But I digress.

Again, the question is, regardless of size, is the United States government doing enough to allow its citizens the freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness?

If we use this question to evaluate, say the EPA, we might certainly find that there are times when an EPA regulation stifled a business enterprise in the name of an obscure animal or plant. We might also find that a regulation that keeps lead-based paint out of our homes reducing lead poisoning in or children. Or an EPA regulation that prohibits DDT from being sprayed on our lawns and playgrounds. So again, someone who thinks eliminating the EPA, and someone who cheers when that statement is made, has decided that it is OK for our children to get lead paint or DDT into their systems as long as even one business might be frustrated in its plans to mine the land or drain an estuary.

As has been said by so many, democracy is advanced citizenship, and freedom requires advanced responsibility. When is my freedom to sell a product more important than the health of children? When is the existence of a threatened bird or animal more important than a new strip mall? Without our government to weigh the consequences and make the best choices, without an electorate who is involved enough to choose who those people making these important choices should be, and without citizens who recognize that sometimes a decision will be made that is better for most, but not for all, and not always for them, then we pretend to idolize democracy while actually preferring a dictatorship that always governs in a way that adheres to our particular perspective.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The GOP's move to the right

I recently saw David Frum on a talk show.  Mr. Frum is a moderate Republican, something many people consider an endangered species.  On this particular show, one which would be considered as being hosted by a left of center host, Bill Maher, Frum was commenting on the recent Jeb Bush quote that his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, or Bush 41 as some refer to him, and the patron saint of the Republican party, Ronald Reagan, would not have had a chance in the recent Republican primary as they would have been considered just right of center, at best.  What both Jeb Bush and David Frum were saying without stating it, is that the Republican party, at least its very vocal and powerful base, is much further right, politically and socially, than Reagan and Bush 41.

On the face of it, I agree, but for a slightly different reason, one that could be looked upon as similar to the old conundrum of the chicken and the egg and which came first.  The Republicans put all their eggs into the basket of Obama as a left wing radical both during the run up to the 2008 election and ever since.  The reality is that President Obama has governed much more as a center left president, if not center right, at times.  

Sure, many consider the health care reform bill as the "biggest power grab" by the government in history, but the reality is that a far left president (and Congress for that matter) would have passed some version of a universal health care reform bill.  Or a single payer system.  Instead, we have a market based solution which helps maintain the profit of the health insurance industry through the individual mandate. 

The auto bailout?  I fully believe that John McCain, had be been elected, would have done the exact same thing. Remember, it was a bailout, not a takeover, as some far right pundits like to say.  We, the American people have stock in these companies, and will eventually sell that stock to private investors once it is clear that the industry is stable.  Sounds like an investment, in some respects.  And, while no one can pretend that they can predict what would have happened had the auto industry not been given some money, we do know that the industry is experiencing an upswing.  It appears to have worked, and many more Americans have jobs than would have been the case had we done nothing.   

These are the two main items being proclaimed as proof of Obama's far left agenda, and in each case, the business world profited.  And just as many left wing ideologues were unhappy with his decisions as their right wing counterparts.

Or, consider the war on terror.  Osama bin Laden?  Dead.  Al-Qaeda?  On the run.  Drone strikes?  Obama had taken to this method like a duck to a pond.  He has even gone so far as to authorize the killing of an American citizen, without due process, and has been reported to be reviewing regularly an enemies list with the intent that these individuals should be killed at the first opportunity.  Does that sound left wing? 

So, all that being true, the Republicans have no alternative but to move to the right so as to differentiate themselves from the Democrats.  They oppose positions they would have taken, have taken in previous administrations.  They present candidates who still think that contraception is immoral.  They admit that regulations were lax and that the oil industry, or at least BP in specifics, may have been culpable in the Deep Horizon disaster, but can't take the middle ground that maybe we should stop new permits and find out what caused the disaster, and shore up the regs that were not followed, or might need to be added, because that was Obama's position and since he is clearly a left wing radical they must continue to propagate the slogan drill baby drill.  If only Obama had said, no more deep sea drilling, period, like the Japanese government did after the Fukushima disasters and they closed ALL the nuclear power plants.  Then the GOP could have taken that middle ground, the sensible position.  But they had no choice because to agree with Obama would force them to admit he is not as far left as they need him to be. 

So, the GOP has slid to the right.  This was inevitable, especially considering that our last president, Bush 43, was an unsuccessful center right president and Obama won a fairly convincing election on this platform.  The  Republicans had no where to go but further right by subtly admitting that Bush 43 was not successful because he had slid to far to the left.  He was not a "true" conservative. 

Interestingly though, fast forward to Mitt Romney's campaign and we see a guy who has moved to the right, in contradiction to his governing career, to win the nomination.  The good news, as I have said before, is that despite the Republican's base clamoring for anybody but Romney, the voters of the party realized that a loss in November was guaranteed with anyone but Romney.  The demise of the moderate Republican?  Perhaps only on TV and in the media.  Perhaps Republican voters are far more center right positioned than the leadership cares to admit.  Clearly, they are a silent bunch, but again, in the end they rejected the darlings of the far right. And the reality is, without the votes of the moderate Republicans and the independent voters, Romney can't win in November.  Hopefully, we will see him stake out some positions that make those two voting blocks a bit more comfortable.  Especially those center right Republicans, many of whom are tired of being lumped in with the far right crowd who continue to stand on the clearly untrue claims of Obama's radical left governing and are embarassed by the influence people like the "Donald" have on their party.

As David Frum said, I also hope that Jeb Bush continues to represent the moderate Republican, continues to fight as Mr. Frum said, because I believe that Jeb's perspective is shared by many Republicans who are afraid of the far right wing of their party.  And, as a Democrat and a liberal, I will feel much more comfortable with Romney, should he win, if he governs as a center right president.  Even in that regard, I will still have plenty in which to disagree with him, but at least he will represent the majority of Americans, not the minority as represented by conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, etc.



Friday, June 15, 2012

The Supreme Court Rules on Health Care Reform

It is expected that we will hear the Supreme Court's ruling on the Affordable Health Care Reform Bill sometime soon.  In my first blog in March, I predicted the Court would uphold the constitutionality of the individual mandate in a 5-4 split decision.  I also predicted that other rulings would uphold or strike down other various parts of this far-reaching and comprehensive set of laws.

Since then, I have grown to accept that it is more likely that the individual mandate will be struck down, again, probably in a 5-4 decision.  Strangely however, as I have considered the ramifications of this decision, I am starting to believe that this is the better decision, although not for the reasons you might think.

Before I detail why a ruling against the individual mandate might be better, let's review what I believe are the real issues that we need to be discussing in regards to our health insurance crisis.

1. Too many Americans without health insurance

2. Too many sick Americans who can't afford the insurance they need

3. Too much money being spent on everything except actual health care

At first glance, a ruling against the mandate will not address, in fact will add to all these problems because, unfortunately those without health insurance will continue to use health services.  Which means it will continue to cost those who are insured more money in higher premiums and higher provider costs, as well as more government money used to cover those individuals and companies who seek assistance to pay for the aforementioned higher costs.  As these costs rise, it will finally become clear to the majority of those who carry insurance that they are paying for people who are not doing their part and contributing some money.  And, if there is one thing we don't abide in America, it is someone getting something for nothing.  Believe it or not, that was the point of the mandate in the first place, originally a GOP idea, by the way.  Everyone should have some skin in the game, so to speak.  So, while we abhor the government telling us what to do, even when it is a wise thing, we abhor even more knowing that there are people getting something for nothing.  At this point, a work around will be devised that allows the Supreme Court to uphold its constitutionality yet still requires all Americans to get into the pool of insured with the rest of us. 

Of course, this might take a while.  It might even lead to a discussion about repealing the Reagan era law that requires hospitals, etc to provide health care services without knowing if they will be paid.  But, I remain hopeful that rather then deciding we can continue to call ourselves a Christian nation while allowing the uninsured to die in the street, we will figure out a way to continue Reagan's vision that all Americans should get health care services by expanding the means to pay for it by including all Americans. 

In the meantime, while we slog toward that day, attention will be paid to the very good aspects of the health care reform bill.  For instance, the law that prevents insurance companies from capping payouts for the really sick among us, a practice that forces the chronically ill to lose all their possessions or die.  Or the requirement that pre-existing conditions not be used to deny coverage especially in the young.  Or the law that enables young adults to stay on their parents plan until they turn 26.  Or the waiver of co-pay for routine and preventive care doctor visits.  The fact is, there are many aspects of the Affordable Care Act that are good for the middle class.   I expect that as medical costs continue to rise, more and more employers scale back or drop medical coverage for their employees, and the voting, middle class begin to realize that only the rich can afford to be sick, opposition to "Obamacare" may become muted when lawmakers are now voting to insure health care insurers a bigger profit on the backs of everyday Americans.

The reality is, the focus on the individual mandate is a red herring.  We need to accept the fact that America is aging, and that health care costs will continue to rise.  As I said in a previous blog, we can expect them to rise significantly for another 15-20 years.  We need to begin the serious debate of how we are going to pay for these costs, and everyone needs to be a part of the conversation, and a part of the solution. This means:
No free medical services, not for the uninsured, not for our government reps either.  In fact, as I already stated, no elected politician should get medical coverage from our tax dollars without contribution, and certainly not once they leave office.  (This would apply to pensions as well, but that is another topic).
Some type of required catastrophic health insurance paid by all Americans and also contributed to by the larger health care insurers.
More money devoted to preventive care which means no co pays for routine and preventive care visits.
Lower fees paid to hospitals and doctors for the high-end procedures.
Restricted payouts for medical malpractice except in the most egregious situations.
Lower malpractice costs (see item above).
Less dependence on the pharmaceutical industry to fix all our ailments.
More responsibility for each of us to know less about American Idol and more about where our local parks and recreation areas are located.
Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, remember this.  They have health care coverage.  They have access to the best health care services in the world.  As they are important members of our society, one could argue, they deserve such peace of mind so they can litigate the most important topics of the day.  Does your local teacher, grocery clerk, firemen, day care worker, policemen, butcher, mailman, pharmacy tech, factory worker, car salesman, or neighbor deserve any less?  How about your and your children, and future grandchildren?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Dog People

A few days ago, I turned to my wife and said "Perhaps we are not dog people".

For all of our life together, my wife and I have had cats as pets. Our current feline, named Boo, showed up at our door one cold winter's night, eventually working his way from our detached garage to our downstairs powder room to visits to the vet for shots and a check-up to "our" cat.

But earlier thise year we purchased a puppy, a "rescue".  He is a mixed breed, allegedly a beagle/lab mix.  I can see the lab portion readily enough; he has enormous feet.  It is a trait which is commented upon by most people who meet him for the first time.  I can hear the beagle portion when he howls.  "Bubba" is big on howling.  He howls to go out, he howls for more food, he howls when he is lonely.  He howls at any time of the day or night as his awareness of the time has not quite developed.  Regardless of his true lineage, our experience with him has been incredibly different as compared to that with cats. 
For those of you who have not "gone to the other side" in terms of per ownership, here are a few things to consider before you attempt it. 
Cats are self potty trained.  Dogs require lots of patience and paper towels.

Cats will graze from their food bowls, at times even leaving food to go bad.  Dogs eat virtually whatever is placed in their bowl, as quickly as possible, as well as anything else they encounter, indoors or out; food, wood, grass, trash, plastic, stones, gum, bottle caps, socks.  The list is endless.

Cats will snuggle and purr and rub against your leg, sometime for your attention, sometimes for affection, sometimes even for food.  Dogs step on your foot, collapse in your lap, nip your fingers, hair, earrings, zippers and bark in your face, also for attention and affection, but mostly for food.

Cats stare out the window as life passes by.  Dogs break through the screen to grab life by the neck.

Cats will tolerate other humans who might come by to visit, perhaps even meow a hi if the guest is a regular but generally treat them like just so much furniture.  Dogs bound towards new human guests, greeting them with licks and vicious tail wags.  I suspect they sense a new source of food.

Cats will go outside on their own, explore a bit, find a warm place to lay, then come home again.  Dogs drag their masters outside, sniff everything, pee everywhere, and go up the wrong steps more than once before they grudgingly allow themselves to return home.

Perhaps because a puppy requires so much work, perhaps because we do not have the same energy we did when our kids were young, but my wife did not disagree when I made my "not dog people" comment.

But today, while walking Bubba around town and through our neighborhood park, I was struck with the thought that Bubba is much more social than any cat we have ever had.  Everyone he encounters during his walks, he greets equally, with the same happiness and desire for affection.  Old or young, male or female, alone or in a group, Bubba is happy to meet new people and allows them all to pet him without nipping or jumping.  No judgements based on skin color, dress, age or gender.  Just pure joy to have his head stroked or pet by someone new.

Clearly, cats are the safer pet.  Less molded by their caretakers, self contained, even aloof.  Easier to own, assuming we own them and not the other way around.  But while dogs require more work, they also seem to embody the phrase "lust for life".  Whether bounding around the house, running amok at the dog park, or simply walking in and drinking from the local creek, they remind us that life is about meeting new people, taking chances, being vulnerable, depending on someone for food and affection.

Perhaps then, my wife and I will be able to bring out the inner dog in ourselves, and each other as we continue our life together.