Archive for September 2013

Innocent Victims

September 30, 2013

Medical ethics teaches “do no harm”.  It turns out this is superior advice in a wide range of other matters.  None could be more apropos than the current Washington DC “death watch” over the budget and the debt limit.  When in doubt about the next step, take one that “does no harm”.  I wonder why this has not occurred to more legislators?

Shutting down the government does a lot more than just make headlines.  It certainly will inconvenience a lot of Americans who wished to visit government parks and museums.  Tea Party zealots, of course, glow with pride at this opportunity to get a message to Americans.  But what message?

The hostage ransom is a delay in implementing the Affordable Care Act.  This will leave thousands of Americans denied healthcare because of pre-existing conditions.  It will leave millions more without insurance and one illness away from bankruptcy.  Doesn’t sound like “do no harm” to me.

Stepping back for a moment.  The fundamental issue seems to be a minority with exceedingly strong beliefs is stymied and cannot get its way.  This group opposes Medicare, Medicaid, social safety net programs, and most other government regulations.  They do not represent enough Americans to elect a majority or to elect the President.  Their share of elected positions, however, is enough to gum up the Congressional process.

The proper place and time for a budget debate is on the floors of Congress.  If agreement cannot be struck (because opposing views are held just as strongly), then a “clean” Continuing Resolution (CR) does little or no harm.  The opposing minority has a chance every two years to elect Representatives and one third of the Senate.  If their idea is a winning one, time will cure all ailments.

Each of these radical acting conservatives (and the closet Republican moderates who are shamefully keeping their mouths shut) will also hurt a more concentrated group of Americans.  As each government department closes or furloughs its “non-essential” workers, the burden of the Tea Party tactics will hit their pocketbooks.  This will bring real harm.

Pundits might say, “don’t worry”, Congress can pass a resolution to grant back pay once this Congressional impasse is broken.  Hmmm.

The Tea Party tactics are not only hurtful, they are dim.

With respect to healthcare, the uninsured frequent the emergency room.  These costs are subsequently spread over all other hospital and doctor fees.  Guess who pays?

But even wilder is the idea that we shut down the government, send home the workers without pay, and then later agree to pay them for no work.

Hmmm.  I am not sure the Tea Party will ever be ready for prime time.

 

National versus Personal Goals

September 27, 2013

Wouldn’t it be gratifying to see Congress working on overarching national goals?  Ones that are important to most Americans.  Wouldn’t it be stimulating to see debate about how to achieve these mandates?  Wouldn’ the American tax payer feel he/she was receive an honest day’s work for a day’s pay from Government?

The question might properly be asked, “what are the top national goals” and “why are they important”?  Hmmm.

Here’s a straw man for just three national goals.  In my world, everything else is subordinate to these goals.

A safe and secure environment – The objective is that everyday life is unimpeded by criminal activity or from invading marauders.  The intention is to free Americans to seek freely life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as unfettered by Government as possible.  Debates over guns would in this sense be focused upon achieving this goal.  Does extra large magazine clips enhance or decrease the goal of a safe and secure environment?

A Place for Social and Economic Mobility – The most central American value is the capability of each resident to work hard and achieve a just reward for these efforts.  Some residents are recent immigrants, others do not look like their neighbors.  For all, the nature of regulations, taxes, and availability of government services must be seen in whether it enhances or detracts from social and economic mobility for the overall population.

An ever declining poverty rate. – In a capitalist, free enterprise system there will always be winners and losers.  Given little or no government rules, the winners will devour other winners and soon there will be but a few big winners and everyone else will be a loser.  There will be social and economic mobility is words only.  Society will be frozen between a few haves and the rest, have nots.  Without large scale social safety nets and targeted programs to reign in “too big to fail” and “too uneducated to succeed”, the great American experiment will be extinguished.

So what meaning do these words of idealism have?

Think about the last 12 months where reasonable gun controls were proposed only to get rejected.  Why?  Because some interpreted unconstrained gun ownership was a given (Second Amendment).  There was no discussion of managing a safe and secure environment.

Or, think about efforts to take away food stamps, head start, and Medicaid.  The rationale was “we can’t afford” the cost.  Hmmm.  While some argue that providing a “crutch” only encourages more dependency, and others argue that it is cruel and heartless to cut these programs, both sides miss the real point.  In a country as large as America, we cannot be sure why any one person is poor or needs these assistances.  So why does it make sense to continue them or to abruptly stop them?   Clearly there needs to be other policies if we are to reasonably expect the need for these safety net policies (and their cost) to be decreased.

And lets not forget “defense spending”.  Most all Congress members seem eager to vote for spending on “defense”.  It sounds noble.  It is just curious that the spending is usually generously spread to most Congressional Districts.  Hmmm.

One is left with the nagging feeling that our Congress members are smart enough to recognize these contradictions.  Yet, one group is comfortable saying “stop spending on these programs (everything except defense)” and the other group is just as adamant saying “we must keep these programs going (including defense)”.  Neither group seems interested in the underlying problems nor in connecting these efforts to some greater national goal.

There seems inescapably only one explanation.  Our Congress members are more interested in the personal goals than facing the difficult task of defining and then acting on National goals.

 

The Pope Speaks, Is Anyone Listening?

September 25, 2013

Pope Francis spoke recently about the Catholic Church being fixated on little things.  It all depends how you personally view sexual matters as to whether they are little or not.  But in the Pope’s view, making the Church open to everyone was a big matter and sexual issues were small in comparison.  In comparison to his predecessor, Pope Francis’ words were earth shaking.

Apparently, however, the earth has not shaken in Providence, Rhode Island.  There, Providence College, a Dominican liberal arts college, “uninvited” John Corvino, Professor and Department Head at Wayne State University from delivering a talk titled “The Meaning of Gay Marriage”.  The invitation withdrawal was attributed to an older resolution by the American College of Catholic Bishops which said that church affiliates should not recognize anyone who holds view opposite to accepted church dogma.

Hmmm.

Of course, the Pope did not speak of new Church law or teaching.  He just gave his opinion.

American Bishops have been trapped in “no win” (and non-sensical) positions relating to sex, reproduction, family planning, and marriage for some time.  Surveys have shown most Catholics do not agree with Church teaching in these areas.

The “head scratching” part of this event is that Providence College prides itself in educating the student.  How is it possible that a Department Head from another respected University does not qualify (1) as an educated person, and (2) one worthy of sharing a point of view.  Hearing other views does not make them correct, for sure, but denying differing views is intellectually dangerous and educationally inhibiting.  The Providence College “educators” should know this.

As they say, there is no free lunch.  Gay marriage is here to stay regardless of what some church leaders would like.  More to the point, time will show that gay marriage are no better, or no worse than heterosexual ones.  Some same sex marriages will last and their partners will thrive and contribute, just as in heterosexual unions.

What will change, however, will be the Providence College graduates who grow to see the shortcomings and pettiness of Catholic dogma.  It may take a few more years but the church are most likely to have plenty of room when Pope Francis’ “Home For All” message finally sinks in.

 

Love Him or Leave Him

September 24, 2013

Senator Ted Cruz is just where he wants to be.  (Maybe if he knew what was good for himself, he would not want to be where he is.)  Never the less, Cruz’s supporters and fellow Senate Republicans are faced with the proposition, “love him or leave him”.  We may learn in the next few days which verdict is made.

Cruz has been very vocal, for a long time, that the debt limit should not be increased.  Others feel that way too.  Cruz’s view, however, is that the debt limit should not be increased unless there is some large tribute paid.

Previous Republican demands were any debt limit increases must be accompanied with equal or greater offsetting budget decreases.  On the surface this made sense.  The subsequent problem has been Congress (as well as Republicans) cannot agree on where to cut.  Rejection of any new tax revenue has made these decisions much more difficult.

Cruz now portrays himself as the defender of job creators.  In his anthem, “defund Obamacare”, he suggests this answer should be tied to both the continuing budget resolution and any increase in the debt limit.

As a notion of “one man, one vote”, one might accept Cruz’s right for this demand.  The notion, however, that “I” will not allow any other option by blocking a vote departs from the realm of democratic process.

Republicans in general, and specifically those Republicans who must run for re-election in 2014 have been reluctant to take Cruz on publicly.  Pundits claim these GOP members fear a Tea Party primary challenge.  As self interest goes, this is easy to believe.  To the GOP regret, however, they are beginning to realize they have made a deal with the devil.

Were the GOP leaders insist that all caucus members following “Party” policies, the Tea Party members would bolt.  Without the Tea Party members the current majority Republican Party would fail to have a majority.  Bingo, Democrats back in charge.

So what is a self respecting Republican to do?

The GOP seems comfortable with its immigration, no new taxes, and anti woman’s rights positions.

Without the Tea Party, the GOP majority prospects do not look promising.  A split with the Tea Party would likely ensure a decade or more of Democrat rule.  Staying with the Tea Party, might offer the GOP a few more years of shared rule, but without enormous changes in GOP policies, demographics coupled with the lack of Washington action will doom them anyways.

So who will be the big losers?

Without a strong loyal opposition, the American people will be the losers.  Democrat support for all sorts of social issues are usually unsupported with sound financial measures.  Healthcare, protecting the environment, regulating banks and commerce, affirmative action, and immigration are all worthy goals.  Without two constructive Parties, it is unreasonable to expect effective and efficient solutions will be found.

Senator Cruz is clearly a self centered promoter.  Sooner or later, the GOP will figure out how to deal with him and others who think the same but are not so in your face.  The GOP’s recovery, however, will only have just begun when the GOP revisits its list of priorities.

Love him or leave him.  That’s the first step.

Home For All

September 21, 2013

Headlines this week included “Home For All”.  Pope Francis in an interview reintroduced a measure of common sense to the Catholic Church.  It was a small step to be sure but one that could unlock the box the Church has put itself in.

The Catholic Church, like most other religions, faces serious business problems.  What services do the Church fulfill and how do they go about doing it.  The business aspect is that with no service demand, the Church’s ability to earn an income is greatly diminished.

As the world’s population and accumulated knowledge has grown, many of the articles of faith and much of the historic dogma have grown to be seen as ridiculous and patently impossible (in terms of presently known science, for example virgin birth, rising from the dead).

But in terms of individuals, most of these have no direct or material impact.  They are eye openers for believability but they bring no particular injury to anyone.  Believe if you want, don’t if you want.

The Church, however, in what appears to have been a purely marketing decision a few years ago, moved its public face to the conservative side.  The Pope John XXIII’s reforms such a mass anyone could understand back to the Latin liturgy is difficult to understand in any other terms than those who prefer Latin and conservatism will contribute more than the poor masses.

Buried in this move back to conservatism was a renewal of the “anti” positions.  The Church energized its anti-women, its anti family planning, and its anti gay policies.  Why is hard to explain but the consequences are not hard to discern.

Just as in the time of Galileo, the world began to realize that the earth was not the center of the solar system.  Women, family planning, and homosexuals all represents intrinsic and fully valued parts of modern life.  If the Catholic Church wants to make life difficult for women and gays, or wants to insist upon no contraceptives or abortions, it can but its potential members will vote with their feet.

In addition, the excuse that these positions were divinely justified, is built on the loose sand of a virgin birth and rising from the dead.

Pope Francis’ overtures could usher in a period of Church orientation towards community and opportunity.  The masses could gain worthwhile guidance and social support.  In Germany it is said that every citizen belongs to at least two clubs.  This supports a human need to “belong”.  There is a huge world market for this need too.

Only a minority of the world still find comfort in the conservative “natural order”… as long as that order has them in a privileged position (like on god’s team) and others in their lower position (like women and gays).

Hmmm.  What did you say?  The masses still don’t have that much money?  Home For All is still the right idea.

 

 

 

Filling Potholes

September 19, 2013

Elected officials’ first and foremost responsibility is to ensure government provides basic services.  In order to accomplish this, a government must collect taxes and fund a staff of departments which provide, at a minimum, a list of basic services.  At State and local levels we have seen a wide distribution of government leaders.

Many were more interested in enriching themselves.  Given enough time these political characters were either thrown out of office or sent to jail.  Every so often, however, some political leaders filled their pockets to overflow and still  remained in high esteem with voters.  Why?

These political leaders knew that the trash must be picked up and the pot holes must be filled.

Congress is facing a very tough hurdle in the coming weeks.  A minority of Republican Congress members are committed to using the prospect of government paralysis to get there way.   They see either not passing any spending authority or allowing a default on the national debt to occur.  The consequences of both are serious but the debt default situation is both unnecessary and potentially as economically serious than the Banking collapse in 2008.

One would think there must be some important issues that would cause the House majority to head off on this path.  What could it be?

The GOP claims the combined budget and debt crunch as the last and best method they see to stop the Affordable Care Act.  The last time the GOP tried to pull this shit dwon stunt the reason was the size of the deficit and the debt.  The GOP implied we would have worthless currency soon and out children would be saddled with trillions in debt our generation spent but did not pay for.

Since 2010 when the Tea Party came out with guns blazing, the economy has slowly gotten stronger.  In comparison to the rest of the world, the US today has an enviable position.  Hmmm.  Does that mean the deficit and debt are no longer important?

To the contrary, the deficit actually represents a much more serious problem.  Our elected officials have forgotten that there job is to govern.  Consequently, Congress is unable to decide any real fixes to the budget.

Our Congress members will agree to cuts… as long as they do not effect their districts or their special interest supporters.  This leads to life being much the same as it has been.

GOP claims that the Affordable Care Act is a poster child for what’s wrong with government is very difficult to understand.  It is law and it has been law since 2009.  More to the point, the 2012 Presidential election featured two candidates.  One said his first act as President would be to repeal ACA.  The other, President Obama, said he would see ACA became a necessary improvement to US health care delivery system.  President Obama won handily.  So why the October show down?

It appears that a significant number of Republicans are not interested in “filling pot holes”.  For sure they do not like certain feature of ACA, like taxes and regulations on small businesses.  Yet the GOP has proposed no alternatives on raising the needed revenue.

One is left unmistakably with the impression that US healthcare is the best in the world already, so why do anything?  To bad reality say otherwise.

There has been more than enough time for Republicans to offer alternative to provisions to fix ACA, and just as much time to offer balanced deficit reduction (cuts and new taxes).  That’s the process of governing.  Hmmm.

So, the message is watch out for the holes in the road.  Plan on them being there a long time.

An American Life Lesson

September 15, 2013

When I was growing up it was said that baseball was not only America’s favorite sport, it was also a study of American culture.  Know baseball and you know America.  Hmmm.

Today, football has eclipsed baseball.  Football draws more fans per game, earns more television money, and seems to fill newspapers’ sport sections to a greater extent than any other sport.   Americans love football.

Some argue “pro football” is the best, while others will claim it is college or high school, or even pee wee league football that presents America at its best.

Yesterday the University of Alabama played Texas A & M in a game that featured many messages.  In football terms, it was a great game, thrilling, and a thing of beauty to watch.

Alabama’s team is often called a “pro team”.  The Alabama recruiting process has been so successful in attracting the best high school talent and its coaching program is just as successful in maturing this talent. 

Yet, in this game, Alabama had all it could handle in defeating a very good team.  The score, 49-42, made you wonder how many more points might have been added had the game gone longer.  A & M quarterback, Johnny Manziel accounted for 484 passing and another 98 rushing.  It was a truly outstanding individual performance, and one that normally is associated with a victory.  

So what is it we can learn from this (especially in view of events taking place in Syria)?

  • Better players make better teams
  • Teams beat individuals
  • Great teams can beat great player lead teams
  • Entertaining football, however, is not limited to just winning
  • Even in this defeat, Manziel can look forward to making a lot of money in the “pro’s”

There are additional lessons which are not as obvious.

  • Both schools invest millions in their football program and expect large returns on these investments.
  • Both schools make a mockery of the value of education.
  • Both schools demonstrate the business of college sports (mostly football and basketball) is as, or, more important than the business of education
  • Both schools participate in the charade of “amateur” athletics  (players are unpaid pros)
  • Both schools conspire with the NCAA to take advantage of their players
  • Most of both schools’ players will not make the pros (and therefore not make the big pay day)
  • Many of both schools’ players (especially those who do make the pros) will suffer life ruining dementia.  
  • Both schools in conjunction with the NCAA, the NFL, and the Media will praise the excitement and entertainment value while overlooking the above mentioned shortcomings.

Looking around the US today, one can see these lessons in action.  Banks were quite willing to sell pension funds mortgage back securities which the banks, with their own money, are betting against.  CEO (and top executive) pay continues to rise markedly while the average workers pay has remained stagnant.  And, many politicians are quite comfortable trying to return American healthcare to pre-ACA conditions where not all Americans were covered, many were uninsured due to “pre-existing conditions”, and where many others are one illness away from personal financial ruin.

Hmmm. I think the old baseball days were the best.  They offered a better image of fairness, of team sports and how success follows hard work. 

 

 

The Role Of Government

September 13, 2013

I spoke this week with a friend.  He pointed out numerous problems with Medicare, Medicaid, and healthcare in general, which if corrected would produce a lower cost and just as effective delivery of health care services.  I suggested an alternative approach might be to adopt a system drawn from the experience of over two dozen other modern countries around the world which offer all residents health care at one half the cost the US spends, and produce outcomes equal to or superior to those of the US.  He dismissed this notion with “I just wouldn’t trust the government with doing anything”.

My friend is intelligent, informed, and a genuine decent person.  I could not help ask, “what was he thinking?”

As we talked further I got a clue.  My friend spoke of corrupt or self centered elected officials.  Hmmm.  He said these members of Congress are only interested in their own best interests and would make healthcare decision that directly or indirectly enriched themselves.  Why would he think that?

The next few weeks should remind us of why.  Congress has two deadlines.  One concerns how to fund daily government operations.  In the perfect world Congress would be debating a budget (like any normal corporation).  Instead Congress members cannot agree on a spending plan compatible with an effort to balance the budget so they will resort to the infamous “continuing resolution”.  The CR allows Congress to avoid any real cuts and keeps things as they are.  No risk for the Congress members.

There is a second deadline coming right behind.  The national debt is about to exceed the limit set by Congress.  Even though the debt is about money already spent (authorized by Congress itself), Republicans want to “negotiate” an extension.  The GOP says it wants offsets for any agreement to increase the deficit.  At first this sounds plausible until it dawns on you that the budget discussion is the place to incorporate reduced spending.  Hmmm.

A good number of Congress members are quite vocal about holding spending hostage if they were to agree to increase the debt.  But now even more (all Republicans) are saying they would accept a delay in implementing the Affordable Care Act (that is delaying the availability of health care insurance to millions) in exchange for increasing the debt limit.  Hmmm.

The implied message here is that if the President does not negotiate, the GOP will allow the Country to default and in the process shut it down.  Is that governing?

Motives are always hard to know.  Why would some members of Congress tie healthcare to the debt?  Why wouldn’t Congress have discussed and debated budget alternatives sufficient to reduce the deficit over time earlier in 2013?  Why wouldn’t the GOP have published position paper after position paper on how it would propose to balance the budget?  Why wouldn’t men/women of good intentions not have openly discussed how the deficit and debt could be dealt with?

Ironically, most experts have said that any compromise to balance the budget or bring the debt under control runs right through healthcare.  Medicare, Medicaid, and Defense are the three largest Government expenditures.  A national healthcare fix such as found in Germany, France, Japan and some 20 other countries would eliminate the need for Medicare and Medicaid and could drive costs down for individuals as well as the Government.

My friend’s fear of government involvement, if based upon the performance of 113th Congress, is sadly understandable.  I guess we will be left with mediocre but expensive healthcare and third world like Congressional governance until the Country bankrupts.

The Affordable Care Act represents a noble advance from what preceded it, but falls far short of universal healthcare and will cost a lot more.

I continue to think Congress “could” do better, and my friend continues to hold that Congress “would not” do better.  Hmmm.

 

2014 Mid-terms High Risk Poker

September 11, 2013

It doesn’t look at this point like President Obama’s coattails will provide many Congress members seeking election any guaranteed help.  His strongest supporters have never wavered but they are a minority anyways.  The great middle that elected him in 2008 and again in 2012 do not feel the pull to get out and vote Democrat.  It is less they indorse the GOP but given the President as the head Democrat, they feel little motivation.

That is not good news for anyone.  The GOP sees sunlight in the Senate races and can envision picking up enough Senate seats to gain control.  At this point, the House is almost certainly going to remain GOP controlled.  And given the GOP performance since 2010, that’s not good news for the nation.

Smart money would argue that the GOP should act statesmen-like now, and in November 2014, humbly ask for America’s vote so they can govern.  That strategy would bring the GOP into power across the Congressional board.

Instead, the GOP has selected a different strategy.  They are betting the mortgage upon the American electorate believing the Affordable Care Act is both poor legislation and will lessen the overall quality of American healthcare.  Consequently the House has voted 40 times to repeal or defund Obamacare.  Hmmm.

The most pressing question now is, what to do about the looming fights over the budget and any increase in the national debt.

Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor has just announced that the House will kick the budget can down the street (for a couple of months) until mid December.  But extending the limits on the debt, that is another story.  Cantor said the GOP would be willing to raise the debt limit providing the President delays implementing the Affordable Care Act.  Two totally unrelated issues.   Hmmm.

This is a deal the President can (and should) refuse.  President Obama has already said he will not negotiate over increasing the debt limits but his track record on liking to negotiate at the last minutes gives reason to pause.  But refuse he must.

Default and an ensuing Government shutdown will follow.

There is mounting evidence that already the Affordable Care Act is not the disaster Republicans have claimed.  Costs have not gone through the roof (they have not come down either).  And despite Republican State Governors efforts to block key Obamacare provisions, it seems like most Americans will experience more than satisfactory healthcare (especially those currently without).  These Americans will ask, “what were those Republicans talking about?”

So the high rollers are getting ready to bet the mortgage and risk shutting down the government when the debt limit is reached.  If the President has any sense, he will ensure that GOP States will suffer the first loss of services and Republican friendly industries like Defense and Energy are hit too.  As the postal service slows and national parks close, and, and, and, Americans will conclude the GOP is not fit to govern.

The President ought ask one question…  Mr Boehner, Mr Canter, what are your proposals to replace the Affordable Care Act and how will you fund it?

If the GOP wants to govern, then the responsible way is to adjust the budget (and accept the consequences).  For many reason, the GOP has refused to follow that course previously.  At this late hour, it does not look like they will this time.

 

What Would Mitt Have Done?

September 10, 2013

The Syrian crisis continues to take unpredictable directions.  After President Obama had managed to work his way into a dead end position, a life line was thrown to him thanks to some diplomatic double speak.  President Bashar al Assad accepted a Russia offer to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons and in doing so eliminate the reason for any US attack.  While there are still plenty of questions, the necessity of a US strike has been dramatically reduced.

President Obama is surely breathing a huge sigh of relief.  He was looking at a Congressional rejection of a military strike, a public opinion tilting against any involvement, and most likely his own intuition counseling against a strike.  Counter to this, the President was mindful of the potential world reaction (especially in Iran, North Korea, and dozens of third world countries).  The US might be seen as a paper tiger.

Now the potential exists to claim diplomatic victory based upon superior military might.

An interesting question might be, what would a President Mitt Romney have done in this situation?

Of course this is an alternative we can never know for sure.  My guess is a President Romney would have been much more proactive.even prior to this latest chemical weapons crisis.  Neoconservatives have been championing the Assad regime change tune and Mitt would have likely sung along.  The wild card is whether the Republican Party’s Libertarian wing could have delayed the return of the neocons.

I also think Romney would be particularly sensitive to “executive powers” and sought to assert his authority when and where ever he could.  Romney would likely have conducted foreign policy without much Congressional consultation.  He might even have pushed for tax cuts coincident with his saber rattling.  (Hmmm. Sounds like a familiar tactic.)

President Obama appears to be a deep thinker.  He seems conflicted with a worrisome recognition.  There have been and there still are dozens and dozens of inhuman conditions around the world.  In North Korea government policy carries with it untold deaths due to starvation.  In Africa, thousands are dying in the name of Allah.  Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen all have experienced senseless violence.  If Syria now, why them and not the others?

A President Romney, I doubt would be troubled by such a question.  Life is much clearer, it is black or white.

The risk inherent in President Obama’s thinking is that al Qaeda, the North Koreans, Iran, or even the Chinese or Russians do not think about why one country should or should not intervene in another.  For these regimes, the question is “what is in our national best interest”.

The question for us then is whether President Obama’s or a mythical President Romney’s policies would be in our national best interest over time.