Thursday, August 30, 2012

What if...

Xenophobia is defined in the online Webster dictionary as a fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.

Now, some might say that a little bit of fear of strangers is a good thing.  We teach our children to be wary of strangers, not because we don't want them to be social but because we know that there can be dangers when approached by someone you don't know.  But clearly, immediate recoiling when approached by someone who appears different than the face we see in the mirror, or negative judgements about those who are physically different than us, when taken to its extreme is not a trait that we admire.

Yet, the human animal has spent thousands of centuries living among and seeking out people like themselves.  One might even say that we are genetically wired to flock together when the together is defined as those who like and think as we do.  We formed villages, cities, states, countries all so that we could feel part of a group, a group made of people like us.  And when our group is threatened, whether it be familial, national, racial, ethnic or religious, we defend it, in some ways reverting back to our most tribal behaviors.

Diversity, it has been suggested, is one way of broadening the "big tent", so to speak of the group called mankind.  Once we include more types of people within our group, there are less types to be afraid of, less reasons to act xenophobic.

We all most likely fall somewhere in the middle of the tolerance scale rather than on the edges.  There are no lynchings or stonings in our activities.  We state belief in the bible verse "do not judge less ye shall be judged", yet we don't immediately welcome those with differences into our personal circles of trust.  We might cross the street rather than passing close by someone who "looks" strange or dangerous.  We might cut short our encounters with clerks sporting multiple piercings or tattoos.  We might avoid hiring the applicant with a dark color, long hair, effeminate mannerisms, or physical disabilities.  We use all kinds of rationales, some supported by intellect, some by our religion, some by our country, to keep those who are different at arm's length. 

And we believe we will go to heaven because we are good people.  How do we know?  Because we treat our family well.  We sacrifice so our children can have a better life.  We call and visit our parents who sacrifice for us. We donate clothes to the local FISH, volunteer to run the snack stand for our child's sports team, go to church most Sundays, lie as little as possible, only lust in our hearts.  We follow, mostly, all the rules and guidelines that have been established as defining what a good life entails.

But treating those we love, those we birth or are birthed by, those we marry, those we live among, those who look like us, think like us, belief what we believe, treating those people well seems pretty easy.  Is the bar to get to heaven so low?  If so, and if our life on earth is a test to see who gets to heaven, well, it seems more like a pass/fail test than a real "separate-the-boys-from-the-men" test.
What if your chances of reaching heaven, nirvana, full consciousness or whatever your particular religion or belief may call a pleasant afterlife is based more on your interactions, positively or negatively with those of different faiths, different races, different cultures, different economic situations?  What if heaven is occupied by the spiritually advanced only?  If our life on earth is truly a test to see who earns eternity with the creator, what if the sole factor in determining this reward is how we treated people who are different from us? 
  What if the creator's plan purposefully expected human development to be so varied and include such a wide range of religions, cultures, beliefs, colors, etc. precisely because she wanted us to simply learn how to get along despite our differences?  
There is a saying that the best parties, the gatherings where the most fun and interaction occur, are those with fewer participants rather than those with the most guests.  Perhaps heaven is such a place; and if so, what a surprise that would be.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Private health care insurers

There is a lot of concern in America today that the Affordable Care Act, known "affectionately" as Obamacare, will negatively effect the entire range of the heath care industry.  Depending on the particular grind of the speaker, everything from patient care, to doctor-patient relationships, to access to health care providers to the actual cost of health care will be changed for the worse.  This is especially troubling when the speaker holds the widely held but not as easily proven assumption that health care in the United States is the best in the world.

It does not take rocket science to conclude that the health care provider network in America is as good as it gets.  And while it is convenient to ignore the United States' world rank in infant mortality, life expectancy, and access to health care services, the fact that those with the most money invariably seek treatment here illustrates the point.  

In essence, when an elected politician claims America has the best health care delivery system in the world as Speaker Boehner did on Sunday, July 1st, 2012 in an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation", he can be said to be speaking the truth, in his experience.  After all, he has an incredible government provided health insurance plan.

But if you are one of the tens of millions of Americans without health care coverage, or have an insurance plan that severely limits which providers you can see, features only a basic list of covered benefits, and/or includes prohibitive co-payments for the more serious or less frequently occurring maladies, you might grade the United States differently. 

And, if you are the World Health Organization (WHO) your ranking of the US falls somewhat below #1.  Their calculation uses the five factors listed below, and produced a ranking of 37 out of 191 countries for the American health care system.

• Health level, as defined by a measure of life expectancy, which shows how healthy a country's population is. This factor gets a 25 percent weight.

• Responsiveness, which includes factors such as speed of health services, privacy protections, choice of doctors and quality of amenities. This factor gets a 12.5 percent weight.

• Financial fairness, which measures how progressive or regressive the financing of a country's health care system is — that is, whether or not the financial burdens are borne by those who are economically better off. This factor receives a 25 percent weight.

• Health distribution, which measures how equally a nation's health care resources are allocated among the population. This factor receives a 25 percent weight.

• Responsiveness distribution, which measures how equally a nation's health care responsiveness (which we defined above) is spread through society. This factor gets a 12.5 percent weight.

I am of the opinion that both the good aspects and the problems with our health care system, the reason behind why we are ranked only 37th by the WHO, and why individual experiences and opinions of our health care system vary so widely among Americans, is the private health care insurance industry, emphasis on private.

As I have stated in the past, I am a firm believer that all discussions of health care must include disclosure of ones own health care insurance status.  I think this disclosure will render some opinions mute, or at least provide the listener with a reference point to conclude when hypocrisy is at play.  In my case, as an employee of the state of Pennsylvania, I have a very good health insurance plan with good access and below market co-pays.

That being said, I just spent some time arranging a physical therapy visit for my daughter who recently had knee surgery.  I first went on line to the health insurance company's website to find a physical therapist.  There were literally dozens within 10 miles of my home.  But what appeared to be easy access, turned more difficult when I called the nearest provider.  They didn't except the HMO version of my plan.  So even though they were a listed provider, we couldn't use them.  During the conversation, I was also told that there might be some limits due to "capitation" and that I might want to call my daughter's pediatrician and/or knee surgeon to find out which therapists might be capitated to them.

If you haven't heard this term before, here is the Webster definition;

a payment method for health care services. The physician, hospital, or other health care provider is paid a contracted rate for each member assigned, referred to as "per-member-per-month" rate, regardless of the number or nature of services provided. The contractual rates are usually adjusted for age, gender, illness, and regional differences.

Interesting.  Fortunately, my daughter reminded me that she had required physical therapy a few years ago.  Checking the list, we found that provider, and when I called the office for an appointment they reminded me that we would need a referral.    All in all, not particularly cumbersome despite the roadblocks due to the capitation issue.  Still, when someone rants about how Obamacare will limit which providers you can see, remember that it is already the case in most health care plans.     You see, health care insurance companies still seek profit.  That profit is decried when it appears that it exists, or is increased, by sacrificing the health of those paying the premiums, or those denied coverage in the first place.  That profit is defended by those who believe that by maximizing efficiency, establishing fee based services that providers can live with, and reducing risk exposure by the health insurance providers, the entire system stays afloat providing health care insurance for the majority of us.   And that is the rub.  As long as we believe that without the profit motive we can't have a strong health care insurance industry, therefore a strong health care delivery system, then we will need to tolerate decisions by the insurance industry which deny benefits for certain procedures, force health care providers to see more patients for less money, and influence the doctor-patient relationship through the filter of what is good for the health insurance provider.  Strangely, it is a similar list to why some decry Obamacare in the first place.   Which brings us to a recent decision by the Highmark Group, one of the top ten largest health care insurance companies in the United States as ranked by   Unless something has changed since I was informed of this situation, as of September 1, Highmark will institute its Physical Medicine Management Program.  This system, developed by a software development specialist in the health care industry, will use computer algorithms to predict outcomes, thereby influencing doctor decisions.  In other words, a computer will help determine procedures and therapies based on its analysis of past results with patients with similar problems.  This, from a health insurance company that was questioned in 2002 by the Pennsylvania Insurance Department about their then-excessive $2.4 billion reserves which, as of 2011 had ballooned to $3.7 billion, an astounding 38% increase in nine years.   While it may be naive to think that huge conglomerates such as Highmark operate as a company committed to a "social mission to provide affordable health care to the community", shouldn't we at least expect them to operate without creating the impression that they are raking in profits via the pocketbooks of their providers and members?

"Don't let a bureaucrat tell your doctor how to treat you", is a rallying cry for those against the Affordable Care Act.  Unfortunately, there are already non-medical influences effecting how your doctor chooses to treat you, and could soon be computer print outs in every doctor's office "predicting" your course of treatment as well. 

Clearly, we don't want to replace one flawed system with another.  Obamacare is not perfect and needs some real discussion about what to keep and what to replace.  But a free market based system, profit driven, will never improve the United States ranking in the WHO calculation because sick and old people cost money and a profit driven system will always resist insuring those people and/or paying for the necessary benefits they need.

The health care insurance industry is not evil, as you might believe I think or as you may hear others claim.  But it is overly concerned with profit, as all huge corporations are.  Perhaps some nudging on the part of the government, the providers and us, the clients, might lead the health care insurance industry to

conclude that a reasonable profit is better than the perception that huge profits come from dead Americans     
reevaluate its fee for service model, under which doctors are compensated for the quantity rather than quality of their care and move to an alternative which gives doctors a flat salary with bonuses for improved patient outcomes

And perhaps with a group of elected officials less beholding to large health care insurance firms, pharmaceutical companies, trial lawyer lobbyists and the countless other factors that cause the United States to spend thousands of dollars more per person with limited return, we can

reform malpractice laws so that doctors don’t prescribe tests and treatments simply to avoid lawsuits.

provide better evaluations of the efficacy of all medical tests and treatments, so doctors don’t prescribe—and, equally important, patients don’t demand—unnecessary and even harmful procedures

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Back, to the Future

With the sad comments recently by Senatorial candidate Akins about women, rape and abortion, it struck me (and not for the first time) that the solutions to our problems offered by the current version of the Republican party more often than not draw on a desire to return to the past.

Women's issues

Without actually saying it, the clear message from the GOP to women is a desire for them to return to the jobs God created them to do; keep house and raise children.   

Equal pay for equal work; NOPE. 
Control of ones' own uterus.  FORGET IT.   
Access to contraception.  NO WAY YOU SLUTS.

The sad fact is that our children grow up to be better people with a strong family structure as the GOP believes, but without the tools needed to provide that structure, living wages, family planning, and the freedom to procreate or not, our children will not get the material and emotional support they need.  A return to the Leave it to Beaver days is not the answer.

Despite the fact that the sun provides the fuel that drives our planet, the GOP prefers digging in the ground to satiate America's thirst for energy.  Now, I know we all played in the dirt when we were kids.  But isn't it time for us to grow up.  Do we need coal, oil and gas to power our culture?  Of course, we have committed so much time and resources that we can't just turn off the faucet.  But when will we learn the lessons from our experiences with all these dirty forms of energy.  How much dirty air, polluted waterways, fouled fields, and dead marine and land animals must we see before we realize that oil will never be 30 cents a gallon again, coal can only be so "clean", and the fracking technique/chemicals for releasing natural gas was kept secret for so long for a reason.  

A comprehensive policy that acknowledges the necessity of oil, gas and coal, while encouraging the development of cleaner technologies is the path to the future.  More holes in our land and ocean floors might keep the status quo but won't prepare us for a time when we run out of energy sources we must dig to access. 


If there is one thing that all Republicans agree on, it is that we need to have a smaller government.  This is followed almost always with the call for lower taxes.  Lower taxes will keep jobs in America and help spur spending.  If only we had the same tax rates that helped create the middle class in America.  Surely, if taxes were the same as the 1950's and 1960's when our standard of living rose like a rocket, leisure time was actually spent by working class folks, and we built roads, bridges, canals, buildings like crazy we would all be better off. 

Did I get you?

The fact is, individual and corporate tax rates during the 1950's and 1960's was astronomical, one might even say borderline socialistic, when compared to today.  Now, it is certainly hard to compare the actual tax rates as paid by Americans from 1950-1985 to the actual rate paid today, as the definition of income has changed in the past 50 years, and tax breaks and deductions have been added and subtracted infinitem. 

However, research will show that in the years after WW2, top tier tax rates, rates applied to those with incomes in the top 1%, were 91% from 1951-1963.  91%!!  77% in 1964!!  And 70% from 1965 through 1981.  It was during the Reagan years that top rates began plummeting, finally landing at 34% in 1988. 

But wait you say.  How could the theory that lower tax rates for the top wage earners will create jobs and opportunity be such a popular economic theory if during the time of America's greatest increase in rising standard of living and prosperity the tax rates for the top wage earners was so, dare I say it, draconian?

Good question.  You see, when the GOP likes to take us on their fantasy trip to the past, they often forget to point out that after WW2, paying taxes, while certainly not enjoyable, was considered necessary to help America pay the debts of the war, perhaps even patriotic.  Everyone paid some, and those with the most paid the most.  But today we would rather complain about the government, and complain about our taxes.  We still want all the security that our defense department supplies, we still want our food to be safe, we still want our consumer products to perform as expected, we still want our parks and recreation areas to be clean and accessible, we still want mass transit to work when we use it once a year, we still want the luxury of knowing when we are sick and old we will have a safety net to keep us from living on the street, or worse, with our kids; we still want it all, but we don't want to pay for it.  

The problem is, when you run on a platform that paints the government as the bad guy, paints the government (and especially this current administration) as anti-business, paints the government as an entity that is best when it doesn't get in the way, then you risk the potential that when you want to actually govern, govern in a way that will advance the interests of America, you may be ignored too.

The GOP wants to take us back, to the future.   And they find much support from those with resources because they all conveniently ignore the facts of our past tax policies, while wrapping their sound bites in the flag.  Despite George HW Bush's labelling of trickle down economics as voodoo economics (before he adopted it), despite the data that demonstrates that lower tax rates do nothing more than redistribute America's wealth from the middle class to the upper class, many Americans will vote Republican in this election cycle because the Republican party is good at reminding Americans of the greatness of our country with slogans like "I Want My Country Back".  And because the GOP is more in touch with the issues that drive people to the poles to vote, especially when those issues can be diluted to sound bites that portray a time when all was right with the world and don't you want to return to that time.

And, finally because we, the American electorate, are so selfish that we believe that we can pay as little taxes as possible and still enjoy the benefits that only a country like America can provide. 

In the movie "Back to the Future" there is a cute scene where the Michael J Fox character looks with surprise at the attention bestowed on a car and its driver at a local "service" station. There must have been a half dozen guys who trotted out to fill the tank, check tire pressure, look under the hood, etc. Contrast that with today's self-service gas stations, and it becomes clear how silly it is to believe that we can return to this time, no matter how soothing the thought might seem.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Congressman Paul Ryan as VP pick

When I heard of Mitt Romney's choice of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his VP running mate, I was a bit surprised.  My understanding of this very close presidential race is that the winner will be the team that is able to convince the middle ground voter to swing to their particular vision while energizing the base to actually go to the polls and vote.

From that basis of understanding, the choice of Paul Ryan seems to satisfy only the latter requirement, and, in fact, may provide as much motivation for the Democratic base as the Republican if the Obama campaign can successfully portray Ryan as a threat to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other assistance programs such as food stamps, student loans, and tax breaks for the middle class.  As for swaying those 10-20% of the voters still on the fence, it appears to be a wash, at best.  I would imagine that as many people who agree that we need to strive towards a more balanced budget and reduced deficit, will disagree with a plan that fundamentally shifts the burden of costs from the wealthy to the middle class; from the government to individual households.

As important as perception, perhaps the bigger issue is whether the American electorate will actually investigate the Ryan budget plan rather than listening to an opinion that reflects an agenda.  Towards that goal, I googled the Ryan budget plan and read both pro and con opinions, as well as portions of the plan.  Here are my impressions, and a few questions I would ask Rep Ryan if given the opportunity.

First and foremost, the Ryan plan would reduce the long term deficit and create a balanced budget.  Estimates vary, and factors that effect the economy of the United States that are out of our control, such as a continued European economic slowdown, potential military actions, natural disasters, etc, cannot be quantified, but most  non-partisan analyses of Ryan's budget show that his plan would provide slightly lower yearly deficits at first, with bigger federal savings achieved in the 2020 decade, and the potential for a balanced budget in the 2030 decade. 

This is true despite lowering the tax rates for the wealthy, and for corporations. 

Of course, similar results can be attained through the adoption of the Bowles-Simpson plan, but that plan has, so far, been rejected by both Democrats and Republicans as it requires some tax hikes, and no one calls for tax hikes in an election year, especially a presidential election year.

So the question is, how brilliant must this tax plan be, if it can reduce deficits, eventually create a balanced budget, and reduce taxes. 

A big part of the answer is contained in the health care proposal portion of the plan.  In it, the federal government slowly removes itself from the burden of rising health care costs. 

The problem is, if the federal government can no longer foot the bill for our aging population, then to whom will the burden shift?   It is clear that in our rush to believe that as Americans we need to be independent to the end, we may be missing the point that it will be up to each individual and their family to shoulder the difference between what the government will provide in a voucher and what it will actually cost for health care insurance and out of pocket health care costs. 

Here is the first big question though.  If Americans, especially older Americans, will now have to buy health care insurance, who will be selling it?  Currently, the health care insurance industry has a free pass on insuring the elderly and chronically sick.  Will they now be forced to cover any and all Americans who apply?  The fact is, our health care insurance providers can make the huge profits they earn, because they are not saddled with paying the health care costs for those currently on Medicare and Medicaid. 

And, if they are forced to sell insurance to all that apply, how will they price it?  In a way that the voucher accounts for at least 75-80% of the cost so Americans are only absorbing 20-25% more costs?  Or, at a cost they need to maintain profit, a cost which might make the voucher amount irrelevant?

Secondly, at what reimbursement rate will the health care industry pay for all those health care providers who are treating the elderly and sick?  My understanding of the current rates are that they do not always provide enough money for doctors, hospitals, etc. to cover their costs.  Will this still be the case?  Somehow, I would think it would be even worse if the health insurance industry plans to continue their enormous profits.

Third, what mechanism will exist which will provide an increase in the voucher over time.  Remember, people who retire at age 68 and live to 80, will be responsible for 12 years of health care costs.  Will the insurance industry maintain rates, which means less profit or will the voucher and allowance for higher out of pocket costs increase over time.  I couldn't find details on this in the plan.

I have two children, one about to begin his 3rd year of college, and one who will be a senior in high school this year.  I recently read that it costs the average family $275,000 to raise a child today.  That seems high to me, so lets say I have spent $300,000 on my kids so far.  While I don't have huge debts, I still have some, and I would guess that I would have less if my wife and I hadn't chosen to start a family.  But I accept these debts as a consequence of my decision to have children.  It seems that Rep Ryan's plan is geared to ignoring the problems of an aging population and ignoring the investments necessary for a strong country.  It seems to ask less from those with the most, while pretending that we, the people, in the form of the United States government, have no obligation in providing a secure time of life once we reach an age when our ability to pay for ourselves is reduced. 

While I may be choosing to evaluate Rep Ryan's cuts differently than those who advocate for him, the cuts are real.  Less federal money for food stamps and student loans.  Sort of like abandoning your kids.  And less money for the elderly as Medicare and Medicaid are phased out.  Sort of like abandoning your parents.

If that is the only way to prosperity, the only way for the greatest country on earth to deal with its budget problems, then we have much bigger problems than we think.




Thursday, August 9, 2012

Tracking Congressional Votes

I have devoted some previous posts to reporting on some of the votes which have occurred in Congress.  The information concerning the subjects and votes of my local reps have been attained through the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer.  However, not all votes were being detailed, only votes on "major" issues as determined by the Inquirer.  

Recently, I found a website which provides me with all the info I require. 

It is called 

I encourage everyone to check out this website and sign up for some type of email that will keep you informed.  I am currently receiving a weekly email from Megavote.  This can be accessed by clicking on the Who We Are icon which is on the home page of the above website.  When you sign up, you will be asked for your state so you receive details on your two Senators' votes, and for your federal legislative district so you receive the information about your reps votes in the House.  Also, the weekly emails contain a link that allows you to immediately email your rep concerning his or her vote on any particular issue.

As I have said many times before, we vote as an electorate at a disheartening percentage, even in presidential election years, and when we do vote, I don't believe we spend enough time tracking our reps and holding them accountable for their votes.  As a result, we all too often vote against our better interests.

As for some recent votes, here are a few from the House of Representatives.

1. District of Columbia Abortion Restriction – Suspension - Vote Failed (220-154, 2 Present, 55 Not Voting)

The House fell 30 votes shy of passing a measure that would have banned abortions in our nation’s capital after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except when the life of the mother is endangered. Abortion providers who violated the ban would be subject to fines and up to two years’ imprisonment. They would be required to provide a report on each abortion to the D.C. health agency. Women who seek an abortion would not be subject to prosecution under the bill; however, providers could be sued by such women at a later date. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah has introduced a companion measure, but it is unlikely to receive a vote.

My rep voted yes.  I sent him an email asking him why the House of Reps thought it was their business to propose, debate and vote on a law that effected the health of women in a district other than that which they represent. 

2. Tax Code Overhaul – Passage - Vote Passed (232-189, 9 Not Voting)

As a companion of sorts to the extension of the Bush tax cuts, the House also passed a bill to expedite consideration of a tax overhaul bill between now and April 30 of next year. Republicans in both chambers have said an overhaul of the tax code is one of their top priorities in the next Congress. The bill provides a specific definition for what a “tax reform” bill would look like, specifying that it may contain only two individual tax brackets of 10 and no more than 25 percent; a maximum corporate tax of 25 percent; a repeal of the Alternative Minimum Tax; broaden the tax base to bring revenue up to 18-19 percent of GDP annually; and a change to a “territorial” tax system, whereby only income earned within U.S. borders would be subject to taxation. Prior to passage, the House rejected a Democratic substitute that would have struck the underlying bill text and replaced it with a series of Congressional findings such as the importance of a progressive tax system and the elimination of tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas (Roll Call 550); and a motion to recommit that would have added a prohibition on eliminating the deductions for mortgage interest and charitable contributions to the definition of a “tax reform” bill. Upon passage of H.R. 6169, the bill text thereof was inserted into H.R. 8 and the combined bill was sent to the Senate.

My rep voted YES.  I am in complete agreement that our tax code needs adjustment.  I am not happy with creating only two tax brackets but could live with it if I knew that the top wage earners were actually paying 25%.  I am also not happy with the potential of the elimination of tax credits for mortgage interest and charitable deductions, nor am I pleased with the lack of progress on penalizing, or at least not encouraging via tax breaks, those companies which send jobs overseas.  Hopefully, the process of tax code reform will continue with compromise from both sides so that tax breaks continue with means tests, companies that want to send jobs overseas are not incentivized, and the rich pay a tax rate that allows them to continue to invest in America and profit but does not allow them to pay taxes at a lower rate than the middle class.

3. Regulatory Overhaul - Vote Passed (245-172, 14 Not Voting)

Republicans passed a bill containing a suite of changes to current regulatory rules. The biggest change would place a moratorium on so-called "significant regulatory actions" - defined as rules that would cost the economy more than $50 million – until the national unemployment rate is six percent or lower. The bill would also ban the promulgation of "midnight rules" introduced by outgoing administrations after electoral defeat. The agency practice of settling with litigants in order to reach a compromise rule – labeled "sue-settle" by detractors – would be limited. Environmental permitting would be streamlined. Nearly two dozen amendments were offered, mostly by Democrats seeking to carve out exemptions for certain types of rules concerning matters such as workplace safety or drinking water standards. The bill is unlikely to be taken up in the Senate.

My rep voted YES.   While I understand that we need jobs in America, I do not understand the rush to sacrifice the future health of our country to attain those jobs.  And, while I am not in agreement with this particular bill, I am disheartened that a debate and vote will not even occur in the Senate so that we could determine our Senators' stand.

4. Oil and Gas Drilling – Passage - Vote Passed (253-170, 8 Not Voting)

House Republicans, along with some crossover support from pro-drilling Democrats, passed a bill last week that would replace the Obama administrations 2012-2017 Outer Continental Shelf drilling plan with a more expansive proposal. The House alternative would nearly double the number of drilling leases, from 15 to 29 and it would include drilling off the coasts of California, Virginia, and South Carolina. In an effort to expedite leasing, the bill would also instruct the Interior Department to prepare a single environmental impact statement for all of the covered leases, rather than separate statements for each lease. President Obama has threatened to veto the proposal.

My rep voted YES.  I sent him the following email

I am extremely disappointed with your recent vote for the increase in off shore drilling leases from 15 to 29, especially when combined with the move to require only one environmental impact statement for all leases, despite the incredible variety of the areas involved.  Your shortsighted approach to our energy needs will not only not solve our problems, but will expose our fragile coastlines to future "Deep Horizon" events, and long lasting environmental damage.

5. Defense Appropriations – Passage - Vote Passed (326-90, 15 Not Voting)

The House passed a $606 billion Defense spending bill last week that would fund the Pentagon and national security programs in fiscal 2013. The total includes $87.7 billion for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas operations. Although the House rejected numerous attempts to cut the defense budget, lawmakers did agree to freeze Pentagon spending at last year’s level. Before passing the bill, the House adopted, 247-167, an amendment by Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., that would retain the fiscal 2012 defense spending level, a reduction of over $1 billion from the amount originally proposed in the bill. Overall, the appropriations bill, as amended, would provide $518.1 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget, the same as the fiscal 2012 level and $2 billion more than President Obama’s request. It would provide a 1.7 percent pay increase for military personnel, matching Obama’s request. The House rejected, 171-243, an amendment sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., that would have reduced the bill’s funding by $7.6 billion, dropping it to the amount authorized under the 2011 debt limit law (PL 112-25). The Obama administration has threatened to veto the bill primarily over the funding levels, saying that directing more money than planned under last year’s law to the Pentagon would "necessitate significant and harmful cuts" to domestic programs.

My rep voted YES

As you can see, no amount of money is too great for our defense department.  Well, I guess that isn't compeletely true as that $1 billion was saved via the Mulvaney amendment.  ($1 billion out of $606 billion is about 1/6 of one percent).  Sadly, our reps could not even cut 1.2% as the Lee amendment would have done with the $7.6 billion cut, and as their own debt limit bill of 2011 required.  Even more sad, should President Obama actually veto the bill, he will be portrayed as anti-military.  This vote passed with bipartisan support and indicates our deep rooted belief that we can pretend that we want a balanced budget but won't cut funding in an area where we spend as much as the next top TWENTY spending countries combined.

And now some from the Senate.
1. Tax Cut Extension – Republican Substitute - Vote Rejected (45-54, 1 Not Voting)

Following President Obama's call January 9 to let the Bush tax cuts lapse on personal income above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples, the Senate put itself on record last week by voting on the president's proposal and a Republican alternative. The Republican substitute amendment, offered by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would have extended current rates for all income levels for one year. It also would have allowed a business property tax deduction up to $500,000, extended current estate tax levels for one year and a created "patch" for the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) covering both 2012 and 2013.

My GOP senator voted YES, the DEM voted NO. 

2. Tax Cut Extension – Passage - Vote Passed (51-48, 1 Not Voting)

Following defeat of the substitute amendment, the Senate passed the president's preferred version of the bill. In addition to the income tax provisions, the bill would allow rates on capital gains and dividends to rise from 15 to 20 percent; allow business property deductions up to $250,000; extend the college tuition tax credit and child tax credit; and patch the AMT for 2012. The roll calls for both tax bills were noteworthy in that they took place under simple majority rules, an increasingly rare occurrence in the Senate. The House is scheduled to consider a bill (HR 8) more along the lines of the Senate Republican alternative, though Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, stated that he would allow a vote on the president's proposal as well.

My GOP senator voted NO, the DEM voted YES

The lines are clearly drawn.  The GOP will not budge on raising taxes on the top 5% of wage earners because of their religious belief in trickle down economics.  Never mind the "lets default on our debt" tea party members who don't see the link between declining tax revenues and the soaring deficit.  Even their hero, Ronald Reagan raised taxes where he could to buffer his approval of increased spending yet they would rather relinquish their ability to think by bowing to their pledge to Grover Norquist.

3. Campaign Financial Disclosures – Cloture - Vote Rejected (51-44, 5 Not Voting)

The Senate last week took up legislation that would require greater disclosure of donations. The measure would require groups to disclose all expenditures of $10,000 or more on election-related communications, as well as the names of contributors that give $10,000 or more to fund such efforts. An exemption would be provided for segregated accounts set up by groups that contribute to operations besides election-related independent campaigns. On July 16, the Senate rejected the initial cloture motion, 51-44. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., subsequently filed a motion to reconsider that vote, which allowed the Senate to vote again.

4. Campaign Financial Disclosures – Cloture - Vote Rejected (53-45, 2 Not Voting)

The next attempt at cloture came a day later. The resulting 53-45 vote again fell strictly along party lines. Sixty votes were required for cloture on proceeding to the measure, which is known as the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections, or DISCLOSE, Act.

On both votes, my GOP senator voted NO, my DEM voted YES.

Again, clear lines are drawn.  The GOP equates money with freedom of speech.  And they have been emboldened with the recent Supreme Court rulings that agree.  So often I hear, from Republicans and Democrats alike, that they feel that they are not being represented in Congress.  That the special interests have too much sway.  Yet, here is a bill that would at least require disclosure as to where all that money is flowing from, never mind actually restricting how much one person can spend, and it is the GOP voting in lock step against it.  Oh, for the days of The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA, McCain–Feingold Act).

5. Outsourcing Tax Credits – Cloture - Vote Rejected (56-42, 2 Not Voting)

Current tax law allows for the cost of moving jobs overseas to be deducted as a business expense. S. 3664, sponsored by Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., would end that tax break while continuing to allow a deduction for jobs returned to this country or moved within the United States. The bill would provide an additional tax credit for 20 percent of the cost of moving jobs back to the United States. On July 19, the Senate rejected, 56-42, a motion to take up the bill, which would encourage companies to bring jobs back to the United States. The motion fell four votes short of the 60 needed to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed made by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Four Republican Senators, Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, and Dean Heller of Nevada voted with all participating Democrats to take up the legislation. No further action is scheduled on the bill.

My GOP re voted NO, the DEM voted YES.

Can anything be more clearer than this vote.  The GOP, big talkers of more jobs in America, vote time and time again against removing the tax breaks for companies that send jobs overseas.  Kudos to the 4 GOP Senators who joined the DEMS on this vote.  I wonder when they will be removed from the GOP "family" by a tea party candidate.  Remember this vote when you see Mitt Romney talk about bringing jobs back to the US.  Then again, perhaps he will ask all his CEO buddies to ignore the tax breaks and bring some jobs back anyway, you know, one friend to another.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Aurora shooting

No posts in the past two weeks as I had to work all the days leading up to last Friday so that I could leave for a one week vacation.  As a result, I am only now getting around to post about the horrible shooting which occurred at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado on July 20 that left 12 people killed and dozens injured.

While a more timely post would have been more appropriate, perhaps it is good to have had the benefit of some time between the event and this blog.  All too often, horrendous acts as this massacre produce knee jerk reactions that do less to delve into the meaning/reason behind the action, while only adding to the confusion surrounding the issues related to the event.

So, here are some observations.

The alleged shooter seems to have systematically planned his killing spree.  From the series of ammunition deliveries in the months preceding the attack, to the protective gear he was wearing during the attack, to the booby-trapping of his apartment, it seems abundantly clear that his plan was to inflict as much damage as possible, and survive.  By all accounts, he was a very smart individual but had been experiencing some difficulties in the recent past.  Regardless of motive, his carnage is a result of a premeditated plan with killing and injuring as the intended result.

In some of the discussions I had with various people while on my vacation, there was some agreement that, despite the objections of the Ted Nugents of the world, a good guy with a gun would not have stopped the shooting.  A well armed lunatic in a dark theatre is not the example "everyone should have a gun" advocates can use to promote their belief.

But, there was also agreement that this horrible tragedy would not result in any significant new gun control laws.  Recent surveys indicate that Americans positive opinion of gun ownership has steadily increased in the last 30 years.  And, of course, since the Republican party, which has been in lock step with the NRA on suppressing any new gun laws is now even more influenced by a tea party movement which is incredibly distrustful of President Obama, combined with a Democratic party that does not have the inclination or inspiration to push for more stringent gun laws, there will be no blow back, politically speaking, to this event.

So where do we stand?  Gun and ammunition sales are booming since the election of Obama.  Some of this can be attributed to the mere fact that a Democrat occupies the White House, some as a bigoted reaction to the president's race, some due to propaganda that emanates from the NRA about Obama's desire to ban all gun sales, some of it due to a groundswell perspective that we should all be more responsible for ourselves, and that includes self protection.  Fear seems to on the rise.  But does that perceived fear match reality? 

The link below will present a chart of the murder rate in the US for the last 60 years.  Surprisingly, the murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants, as well as all of the more serious crimes such as aggravated assault and rape, has been dropping since the mid 90's.  The United States is actually a safer place to live than 15 years ago yet I doubt that most Americans know or believe this fact.

But, we still have a ways to go.

This next link details the homicide rate for about 125 countries.  We are in the top third which, in this case, is not a positive but a negative; 80 countries out of 125 have lower homicide rates that America.  While America is one of the most desirable places on earth to live, it is still less safe than two thirds of the remaining world's countries.

I have no qualms about stating my opinion that we need stricter gun and ammunition laws.  Perhaps if a law existed that limits the purchasing of rounds of ammo, the Colorado shooter would have had to plan for longer to execute his heinous action, but it certainly would not have stopped him.  So, while I won't use this tragedy as a reason to advocate the limit of how many guns and how much ammunition someone can buy, it doesn't mean I won't reiterate my belief that we need reasonable gun laws that balance the rights of Americans to obtain a gun permit while reducing the prevalence of weapons that are only designed to kill and have nothing to do with hunters or sportsmen. 

Perhaps some day, a generation of Americans will strike this balance.  Perhaps they will spurn the Hollywood image that the good guy can always identify the bad guy, and can always shoot straight to take him out. 

Or perhaps come to the conclusion that ultimately, it is the culture of violence that we need to address.  Without controlling the belief that violence is a legitimate path to solve personal or societal problems, the debate on more or less gun laws, or more or less guns, is missing the point.