Archive for October 2013

The Hidden Danger

October 15, 2013

As each day passes in Washington, and more incredible statements are issued by Congressional members, the average citizen sits and wonders how and when will this end?  Rather than looking forward to a sigh of relief, there is a more than a reasonable chance we are looking at how business will be conducted in the future.

There is no question that entitlement spending and the Affordable Care Act are two aspects upon which most Democrats and most Republicans strongly disagree.  The divergence of thought has in the past been decided by time and changes in party majorities.  As time would show the current entitlements to be unfair or unsustainable, more Republicans would be elected and legislation would follow to correct the alleged defects.  That might not be how things will work in the future.

“Why wait” seems the call of Tea Party and Ultraconservatives.  “Either it is our way or it is the highway”, spout Congress members like Ted Cruz.  Hmmm.

Closing the government and potentially allowing the government to default on its debt are before us today.  Both actions are entirely irrational.  Neither can be justified by the issues alleged at stake.  They are equivalent to a child destroying the community sand box because he/she does not like the color of the sweater another child is wearing.

While the damage to US competitiveness will be significant if the shutdown and debt default are allowed to continue, this type of politicking is only the tip of the ice berg that is coming.

Entitlements and ACA are just two issue.  What about those Congress members who feel strongly about the Ten Commandments, abortion, women’s rights, guns, immigration, or taxes?  What demands will those who are either for or against these issue put forth, and what serious matters of government will they try to hold hostage?  Instead of voting, it could be hostage taking.

Hmmm.  I think we will miss the good old days of ear marks and limited campaign spending.

Hard Knuckles Civic Lessons

October 14, 2013

Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader, was in his youth a boxer.  From events unfolding in Washington now, it appears that Reid still thinks of himself as a fighter.  Will he go too far?

Republicans initiated what only can be described as a “bone-headed” tactic linking a continuing resolution on the budget to repeal or delay of the Affordable Care Act.  The need for the CR resulted in the Senate and House not being able to agree on a budget (not the ACA) even though they have had plenty of time.  The Senate bill (read Democrat’s view) was unacceptable to the House.  The House bill (read Republican proposals) was a non-started with the Senate.  Why Republicans did not go along with a “clean” CR and use the 2014 elections as a mandate for budget changes, is simply unfathomable.

Public opinion polls have registered Americans disgust with the GOP position.  At first, voters did not understand what was happening.  Soon, however, there were things citizens wanted to do… like visit a National Park, get a passport, or if you were a business person, continue to see the flow of greenbacks as government workers frequented your establishment… all this stopped.  When Americans asked the simple question, why was this necessary, commonsense could not support the shutdown.

Soon the GOP light bulb went on.  ACA demands was a loser.  Out the window went ACA demands.  But Republicans still wanted some face saving tidbit in return for passing a CR and increasing the debt limit.  The question was what concessions should Democrats grant?

Harry Reid had a different idea.  If Republicans sought concessions, he would raise his bet and demand a relaxation to the “sequestration” limits, in effect increasing the budget, to be part of any CR.

In the political world, this is what one should do as part of a negotiating process.

Knock, knock, Harry.  It is too late for this type of horse trading.  Knock, Knock Republicans, there’s no basis for any concessions.  The object for both Democrats and Republicans, now, must be to open government and avoid any default situation on the debt.

Once those hurdles are passed, then provisions of ACA (like the tax on medical equipment) or sequestration limit relief are again negotiable points.

The lesson Americans need to be seeing played out is not boxing but basic civics.  Americans need to see responsible governance.  Sadly this has been missing when it counts.

Reasons For Optimism?

October 12, 2013

There is an air of optimism pervading Washington.  An agreement to avoid defaulting on the national debt and reopening the Government seems near.  Details are lacking but not optimism.  Why?

Most (but not all) Americans are disgusted with what they are seeing taking place in Congress.  The rhetoric is both foolish and non-sensical.  Worse still is the consequences, which would be wide spread and unpredictable, seem of no concern to most Congressional members (Democrats and Republicans both).

Members of Congress who appear at conventions or even on Sunday talk shows does not reveal the underlying problems.  “The President will not negotiate, nor will he even meet with us”, cry Republicans.  “Republicans are holding the Government hostage and wants to gain concessions for not closing government or defaulting on the debt.  No way.”, say Democrats.

So what is behind all this?

That is a tough question to answer.  On one level it is selfish and self centered objectives.  Both Democrats and Republicans are first and foremost interested in retaining their elected office.  Everything else is window trimmings.  So scoring “points” at the other party’s expense is par for the course.

On a different level, there are some basic philosophic and ideological differences.  Ironically to balance the budget (or even put the budget on a path to becoming balanced) requires taking money out of the economy.  The consequence if done too quickly or too deeply could result in an economic slowdown. and could increase unemployment.  It’s both a math issue and a rate issue… how much and how fast.  Both sides understand this.

Pursuing this budget balancing exercise reveals the incompatibility of these philosophic and ideological differences… just how to do it.  Should we cut expenditures, raise taxes, or some combination?

Cutting expenditures begs agreement on which ones (big problem), and raising taxes begs how much and who pays (just as tough a problem).  Some combination seems clearly the most logical path but this runs into two obstacles.

  • (1) On principle, Republicans oppose any tax increase, even in combinations with expenditure reductions.
  • (2) For similar principles, Democrats oppose any cuts to entitlements without a shared effort from new taxes and non-entitlement programs (like defense or farm support).

Republicans visions of balancing the budget run squarely through entitlements reductions, and envision no new taxes.  Democrats see “mouse bite size” spending cuts combined with new taxes.  Hmmm.

Unfortunately neither party seems willing to admit to evident realities.  The tax code is far too complicated, and generally is written to favor the well off (who largely provide financial support for our elected officials).

The largest parts of entitlements (Medicare and Medicaid) are dependent upon the most expensive healthcare system in the world.  Cutting these entitlements simply pushes costs elsewhere or leads to some Americans receiving less healthcare.

It is relatively straight forward to see that increases in tax revenues or entitlement expenditure reductions without first addressing their fundamental dysfunction seems a wasteful exercise.  Finding any agreeable path forward seems like work (a large effort), and that is not an oft observed Congressional habit.

So, as kicking cans goes, there might be reason for optimism.

End Of Life – End Of Commonsense

October 11, 2013

In a Philadelphia suburb, a life ending drama is playing out before astonished eyes.  This does not involve guns, knives, or any other blunt instrument.  Rather it involves taking too much of a prescribed medicine.  Death was peaceful and the immediate family was relieved.  Initially.

The Assistant Attorney General is now pressing a case of “assisted suicide” against the daughter of the deceased.  The Attorney General asserts the daughter, a nurse, with knowingly helping her father take a lethal amount of morphine.

There are no charges of force.  There are no charges of trickery.  There are no charges of coercion.  By all accounts the daughter acted to end her father’s suffering and most likely at her father’s request.  Hmmm.

Oh yes, her father was 93 with several end stage diseases.  He was also a hospice client (you know less than 6 months to live).  Hmmm.

The DA is surely working on enforcing existing laws.  While the possibility exists, the DA is motivated by publicity and the potential for higher office too, he is none the less doing what our laws request.

The court may dismiss thees charges, or subsequently a jury may still acquit the daughter.  If it does not dismiss these charges, the daughter may lose her job and most likely her nursing license.  Legal fees and court costs will add insult to injury on top.  Hmmm.

At a time when marijuana is becoming available for recreational use (not just medical applications) and mentally unstable citizens can freely acquire guns, an act of love is being treated as a pre-meditated murder.  Hmmm.

I hope the memory of Jack Kevorkian is given a chance to see light again and does not fade away.

Democratic Principles

October 10, 2013

The current display of Washington Congressional ineptitude is a game one must watch carefully.  If you take your eye off for one minute, the GOP will have changed their position while still blustering about the President’s lack of willingness to horse trade over the budget or the debt.  Who do they think the public is?

Republican leadership got hijacked by Tea Party-ers and other extreme right wingers.  So when there was time to make the case of entitlement reforms and tax code reforms, the GOP fiddled while Washington began to burn.  The fiddle tune was a foolish choice.  The GOP laid their bets upon defunding or delaying Obamacare when they had no credible alternative.  What were they thinking?

So the brink of a government shutdown came and the shutdown was real.  The GOP then doubled down saying without the President agreeing to GOP demands, the debt ceiling would not be raised.  How bad could the Affordable Care Act be?

The polls now indicate the public does not see Obamacare as worthy of a government shutdown and worse, that the GOP is foolish to pursue it.  Hmmm.

In the papers today I read that Paul Ryan (previously silent) is knowingly saying a compromise is possible.  Some sensible and gradual reforms to Medicare might do the trick.  (It might if coupled with equally sensible, revenue generating tax code changes.)

The good news is there is some movement and far more sensible people are speaking out.  The hoot is that the GOP has not acknowledged it has changed its bargaining strategy.  The danger is that the original demand for the debt ceiling is still on the table and time is getting slim.

Distance Makes The Mind See Clearly

October 6, 2013

On October 1, I left the US for a short vacation in Europe.  There’s nothing special about this event.  What has, however, made this trip somewhat special is to hear about the American government shut down from those from other countries.  “What are they thinking” might summarize Spanish views of Congressional behavior succinctly.

Here in Spain, hardly Europe’s number one economy, life is good.  With over a quarter of the Spanish work force unemployed, one would expect an angry population.  And that is not the case.

To be sure, younger Spanish workers long for a stronger economy.  Spaniards are proud people.  Work is honorable, and the money comes in handy.

Government aid has been part of a carefully designed balance between “stimulus” and “austerity”.  Efforts are aimed at growing out of debt while still putting on the debt brakes.  Trains run, cleanly and on time.  Shops are open and street tables are full.  Spain is working.

Newscasts report here in astonished terms the US government shut down.  Why, they ask.  Why is the most powerful country so paralyzed?  They hear that a minority is strongly opposing President Obama but in contrast to their parliamentary government where a majority does have the ability to bring down a government, a minority cannot.

And what is the issue causing all this, they ask?  Health care?  And what is the issue that is in disagreement?

Astonishment gives way to bewilderment when a Spaniard learns that the conservative minority wants to return to “pre-affordable care act” policies.  Why would any civilized nation be comfortable with preventive health care being denied many because they cannot afford insurance or they already have known “pre-existing” diseases.  How can the most powerful and most wealthy nation turn its social back on some of its citizens?  How can some America’s citizens opt to not participate in health care coverage knowing that if they suddenly became ill, they would be cared for and might avoid all financial responsibility?

Hmmm.

Americans like to refer to both themselves and their country as “exceptional”.  I should say that might be true.  Unfortunately, America appears here exceptional for the wrong reasons.

Most Congress members (but not all) know this.  I wonder when their actions will follow their minds?

 

Teacher Seniority and The Budget Crisis

October 1, 2013

Philadelphia has a crisis.  It can’t fund it schools. Both State and City officials cannot agree on how to bridge the gap between how much money is available and how much money is said to be needed.  One answer offered by a “concerned citizens group” is to eliminate teacher seniority rules.  Hmmm.

Of course these are two unrelated issues.  It may be arguable that strict seniority is a practice that has outlived its usefulness.  It is simply part of another conversation.

Teacher seniority is center to any discussion about improving educational outputs and building a staff of good to great teachers.  That conversation also has many other associated dialogues.

What about the quality of supervision (like evaluating teachers to determine who is not meeting standards), or the continuing education training that could keep older teachers current?  Don’t overlook the possibility school districts might adopt industry practice of removing older and higher paid teachers in favor of the younger and less well paid.  Human nature is human nature.

So whether the core belief of almost all unions that seniority rules is the best approach or not has nothing to do with whether funding for the 2013/14 school year is sufficient.  The same can be said for the current crisis around the budget and most likely the debt limit increase.  It makes no sense to connect unrelated issues if anyone is serious about solving either problem.

Philadelphia Schools, like the overall US K-12 education system is among the most costly in the world.  There are simply more fundamental problems that will remain even if a fix for Philadelphia School Districts short fall is found.

Tying the Affordable Care Act to the overall US budget is just as misguided… unless the argument was to move the US to a Universal healthcare model.  Universal healthcare, as practiced by over two dozen other modern countries produces health outcomes as good or better than the US, covers all residents, and cost per capita half as much as what the US spends.  The argument to delay or defund is simply shameful.

While I believe it is time for changes to strict teacher seniority and also believe that Obamacare only represents a marginal (but morally important) improvement, these are both complicated subjects which need to be hashed out on their own merits.