Archive for November 2013

Just Murders and Horrific Traffic Accidents

November 30, 2013

This could be a good news or bad news post.   It may just depend upon one’s expectations.

Newspapers are almost devoid of news.  When Congress is not in session, the printed news sources have much less to report.    If in addition there are no world wide calamities such as typhoons, forest fires, or volcanic eruptions, what can fill the pages?   I wonder why?

At these times, the reader becomes aware that there seems to be an endless number of murders and deadly traffic accidents.  Fortunately, that is, if you are a reporter or editor who job it is to fill the empty space between the overflow of seasonal advertisements, murders and accidents are good things.    For the reader, anything to push back the mindless advertising surge…

Never the less I keep wondering where are the heart warming embezzlement stories?  Or exposes of political corruption?  Or, what about another go at Benghazi?  Why not a repeat of the debate around immigration reform?

On the other hand, newspapers could run thoughtful comparisons of the healthcare costs, benefits, and outcomes (for the average resident) between say, the US, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Canada.  This would also be an excellent time to review trends in US income distribution with historic benchmarks and references to other developed countries.  And for the really serious and thoughtful news agencies, an in depth discussion of the poverty cycle and what has been tried to break it, and the outcomes of these efforts.

With no Congressional inspired national headline grabbing events, what a great use of time could be offered.

Hmmm.

The free market is suppose to offer goods and services people want (and are willing to pay for).  I guess that means more information on murders and horrific traffic accidents.

South China Sea Nonsense

November 29, 2013

In 2011, the Obama Administration announced a “pivot to Asia” .  Like most new foreign policies, the transition was publicized more like a monumental event. That lasted a few days and then the news media forgot all about it.

As subsequent events have unfolded, the “pivot” was prescient change in national policy.

Initially the “pivot” was looked at as a “no brainer” by those who had had their fill of the Middle East morass.  While most Americans understood the invasion of Afghanistan, in hot pursuit of al Qaeda, the combination of occupying Afghanistan indefinitely and incomprehensibly invading and occupying Iraq were mind boggling.  Mixing these military follies in with the intractable Israeli-Palestinian situation, the endless barbarian acts of violence by Hezbollah and Hamas, and the completely obscene violence between Shiites and Sunnis, the Middle East looked clearly like a place the US should not be.  But why Asia?

It is often said that armies fight the last war when ever they go into battle.  Dick Cheney’s warnings (with his fellow chicken hawks – Richard Pearle, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, and Doug Feith) of Iraq’s WMD thinly obscured their real quest for oil access.    The last decade has shown the depth of their mistaken views.

Fast forward to 2013.  The Middle East is no less dysfunctional and arguably more so.  Senseless killings go on as if they were a natural part of life.  Oil, however, is no longer an issue with the US on a path to energy independence.  And, guess what, Asia is showing signs of strategic misalignments that could threaten world commerce.  As in most dysfunction, the Asian root causes are not fully transparent.

China, who has transformed its economy over the last 20 years in almost miraculous terms, has also shown signs of complete blindness to the current age or the role a world leader must play.  Apparently at the heart of China’s behavior is a return to a period 5000 years ago when China ruled all of southeast Asia.   While Chinese history is magnificent, the intervening centuries put in question many Chinese assumptions.

China, never the less, has incredibly claimed the entire South China Sea as within their sovereign territory even though other countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all lie on the South China Sea and logically have equal reasons to claim parts of the sea.  In a power vacuum where the US was tied up in the Middle East, China represents the biggest dog in the pack.

Obama’s pivot can now be seen as a strategically important move.  The pivot, however, is not a free lunch.  The countries involved eye the South China Sea both from a sovereign perspective as well as, you guessed it, a source of valuable oil and minerals.  Nationalism and greed do not lead usually to sensible and responsible negotiations over dividing their joint potential wealth.

Now China has upped the anti.  It has declared a large section of the South China Sea as part of its national air defense.  Accordingly anyone (US included) traversing this zone must first file flight plan with or otherwise notify China.  Not surprisingly, China’s neighbors and the US have said no way.

As a first step this represents a risk to open seas and potentially to war itself.

News reports have been sparse and relegated to the middle pages.  It is also not clear how this confrontation is going to work out.  What is clear is that Asia and in particular an overly ambitious China (with over a million people) could rouse nationalistic irrationalities which dominated the early 20th century.

Putting Congresses behavior in the mix of an uncertain world, President Obama is standing tall, at least among pigmies.  Asia is a different (from the Middle East) but an equally difficult to understand region.  It should be clear that military force will not win the day in Asia anymore than in the Middle East.

The positive news is that President Obama has at least focused the US attention on the right region.   The responsibilities Congress truly has must show through and support the commander in chief in this difficult world situation.  If Congress chooses to undertake more “just say no” tactics, the Asian world could go up in flames before we know what’s happening.

 

Hobby Lobby, Hmmm

November 26, 2013

The Supreme Court is in the line of fire again.  The Court must decide whether it will hear a government appeal of a 10th circuit court ruling.  In its ruling the 10th circuit said Hobby Lobby did not need to provide the full range of women’s health procedures as spelled out in the Affordable Care Act.  The reasoning was based upon the 1st Amendment and Hobby Lobby, although a corporation, should be treated as an individual as in “Citizens United”.  Hmmm.

From all accounts, the owners of Hobby Lobby are decent religious people.  They claim that certain forms of birth control allowed in ACA are in fact abortion, and on the basis of their religious beliefs, they do not want to be forced to provide this coverage.

The Hobby Lobby argument is not unlike Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s.  And Hobby Lobby’s argument should be rejected for the same reason.  Simply stated, no employer should be able to deny any benefit available by law to anyone based solely upon the employer’s religious beliefs.  No one is being forced to use these benefits and everyone is free to decline.

This obvious argument, apparently, will not be the thrust of the appeal.  Rather, it will be argued along Byzantine thinking that corporations are or are not “people”.  The Citizens United decision said that corporations had a “1st Amendment right” to free speech and therefore could exercise this right in the political arena.  Hobby Lobby reasons that since it is a corporation, it has a right to exercise its religious views (held by people).   ACA interferes with the free exercise of them.

The 1st Amendment “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” was never meant to mean that one religion can foist its views upon others.  It was meant that each person had a right to practice their religious beliefs by themselves without interference from others by law.

As honorable as Hobby Lobby’s owners might be, they should be free only to decline to use personally those parts of ACA they do not agree with.

 

Great Decision or Great Mistake?

November 25, 2013

Looking back in recent history, the George W Bush White House followed the “negotiate from strength” position.  The style holds that no matter what the issue, the other side is wrong.  Employing this option, one either ignores the other side’s request to negotiate, or presses its opinion with unreachable demands.  This approach makes little progress in resolving disputes, and as seen in Iraq, can get it terribly wrong.  It does, however, play well with domestic political realities.

President Obama has followed a much different foreign policy approach.  The Obama White House has steered carefully away from confrontations for which options would be most likely military force.  (Syria is one example where Obama almost got trapped into military action only to be saved by Russian intervention.)

Iran now presents a mighty challenge.  The Bush Administration stayed clear of any thing close to military action relying instead on unilateral (read not too effective) sanctions and name calling.  Bush acted tough but even chicken hawks like Dick Cheney had little stomach for another conflict after having had their lunch handed to them in Iraq.

Now a six month agreement has been negotiated with Iran by a coalition of countries.  This represents a small step forward… maybe.  To Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it represents a great mistake.  If you haven’t been keeping current with the news, tune in and listen to “friends of AIPAC and Israel” parrot Netanyahu’s words.

The gist of the agreement is that for 6 months, Iran will cease enriching uranium.  During this period negotiators will seek to find a more permanent arrangement where presumably the West is assured that Iran will no longer conduct work leading to nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu says “won’t happen”, “can’t happen”, because Iran’s never tell the truth.  Hmmm.

Just as with Saddam Hussein who said Iraq had no WMDs, Iran might be serious about reaching an agreement.  Iran may also just be buying time.  With Iraq the Bush “negotiators” went directly to war and subsequently found out Hussein had been telling the truth.  Following Netanyahu’s advice would have only one outcome… war.

The Iranian nuclear programs are a very serious matter.  On one hand it is highly unlikely that Iran would use a nuclear weapon as a first strike tool.  But most experts predict that other Middle East countries will panic and seek to acquire nukes for themselves.  With the instability we see today in the Middle East, the prospect of multiple nuclear capable countries is not a pretty picture.  No one can predict how such a situation might play out.

So why is Netanyahu acting so obstinate?

Like with “W”, he is playing what he thinks is his best domestic political hand.  Most Israelis do not trust Iran (for many good reasons).  But Netanyahu’s tactics also has the advantage that if this six month agreement does work, he wins too.  If negotiations go bad, Netanyahu can say “see I told you so”, and expect now more support for military action.

The take home message, since no one knows for sure how further negotiations will fair, is to give President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry some room.  If it is war we want, then the “great mistake” will lead us there too.  If it is the avoidance of war (at least for a while), then lets keep talking.

This is not a “peace in our time” speech.  This is a “we do not need a Middle East war at this time” speech.

 

Feeling Comfortable With Who We Know

November 23, 2013

I had to go to the last pages of the New York Times (D-1 + 6).  The Philadelphia Inquirer buried an eight line AP report on page 4 of Saturdays wafer thin edition.  The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (web edition) has nothing, maybe because it had already run two sports section reports on its November 22 edition.  But in Oslo, Norway’s Morgenbladet (web edition) the story was front page news.

A 22 year old, and apparently sane version of Bobby Fischer, had won the world Chess champion title.  It was a magnificent victory, decisive and complete.  The young, handsome Norwegian, relatively unknown in the US (60 minutes has previously profiled him) is a rock star like personality in Europe as well as most other place where chess is held in high regard.

Human nature tends to make us more accepting of other Americans winning “world” titles.  Chess, however, knows no boundaries other the 64 black and white squares.  I suspect in this case America is going to become familiar with Magnus Carlsen and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his countenance during the NFL Super Bowl TV commercials.

Maybe then we will feel comfortable knowing Magnus.

Doing The GOP A Favor

November 22, 2013

Yesterday, Senate Democrats changed the rules.  No longer will the minority party be able to filibuster Presidential appointments “just because”.  With a simple majority vote appointment candidates will come to the Senate floor for an up or down vote.   Sounds like commonsense.   Why is this a favor?

As with the government shut down maneuvers, the GOP (by blocking executive and judicial nominations) has been shooting itself while hurting the rest of the country.  There is no doubt that if another “Scalia” or “Alito” or “Thomas” came up for nomination in subsequent years, Democrats would do all in their power to prevent confirmation.  But in the end, elections have consequences.  This rule change will apply to Democrats also.

The GOP, of course, is not a homogeneous party any longer.  Republicans have lost their way in an attempt to retain power.   The inclusion of Tea Party, evangelicals, and strongly conservative factions has made the GOP a different party.

Tea Party and strongly conservative members have been willing to abandon commonsense and previous precedents with regards to how a loyal opposition behaves.  While this minority within a larger GOP minority may feel strongly about their causes and are frustrated, they have acted in a manner which is incompatible with good governance.  In other words, if Democrats acted similarly, nothing would get done in Congress.

Those awake within the GOP realize also that their right wing conservative causes are out of step with America.  Gays, women, the poor, and immigrants see no future in the GOP’s legislative actions.  Just as out of step are their tactics.  Shutting down government over a healthcare plan for which there are no alternatives being offered?  These are two totally disconnected issues not to mention the hollowness of the shut down when nothing was offered as an alternative.

The rule change has probably not changed the strongly conservatives’ thinking yet.  Some warn that they will become even more disruptive.  Who knows?

For the GOP, however, it offers a chance for the Party to reassess itself.  If the answer is that the GOP can only have a chance of winning the White House with an active group of extremists, then it is lights out for the GOP.  If, on the other hand, a fiscally conservative, social value libertarian, and pro-small business party could emerge there would be hope again for a productive two party system.

I hope this will be seen as a favor.

6 To 26

November 21, 2013

Quality experts will often remind executives that if they want their subordinates to remember something, or follow some procedure, they must tell tell their subordinates 6 to 26 times.  President Obama and his Affordable Care Act team ought heed this advice.

Conservative think tanks and PACs are already flooding some airwaves with misleading, fear inducing messages about ACA.  The objective is to influence voters in certain districts to vote against Democrats and support a conservative candidate.  So where does 6 to 26 fit in?

The White House needs to remind voters of what they are getting with ACA and how that compares to what they had before.  If these conservative PACs get their way, voters will lose certain benefits.

Even the 80% of Americans who get their health insurance coverage through their employer are ahead of the game.  Getting a new benefit is a small satisfier, but taking it away is a huge dissatisfier.  Voters need to understand what is involved with Conservative’s efforts to repeal the ACA.

For example, with ACA

  • Insured individuals with family coverage can include children under the age of 26 in their policy.  This provides relief to parents who might otherwise have seen their children purchase expensive low coverage policies or avoided coverage at all.
  • Many seniors will see a drop in their prescription drug costs.  Medicare Part D had a “donut”, a place where drug costs suddenly stopped being covered.  Coverage subsequently began again when drug expenditures reached an even higher level.   Under ACA, Medicare there is no donut hole.
  • Individuals who previously purchased low cost policies often found out that emergency room services were no covered.  Under ACA, emergency room services are covered.
  • Individuals with “pre-existing conditions” and out of work (no employer provided coverage) will be able to get coverage and at a fair price.
  • Women, regardless of their employer, will be able to obtain complete coverage for women health.  Even Notre Dame’s $70 million a year football team will have to provide complete coverage regardless of what its religious affiliate might want to dictate.

The Affordable Care Act is not the ideal plan for medical expense coverage.  ACA may even have some glaring deficiencies that will become clear in the coming months.  ACA, however, does move the ball forward when compared to what preceded it.  ACA may represent the best step forward our complex American healthcare delivery system can tolerate.

If conservatives want to employ fear tactics and take away these benefits in order to achieve their ideological goals, then reminding Americans 6 to 26 times of what they stand to lose listening to these mistruths should help.

Voters have an uncanny way of figuring out these matters giving enough time.  Reminding them 6 to 26 times will remove the chance that slick 30 second commercials might win the day.