Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Worst-Case Scenarios: Health Care

I touched on this subject a bit last week, and I have been thinking a lot about it recently. Regarding health care reform, what is the worst-case scenario for both sides of the debate?

What is the worst-case scenario for opponents of health care reform? Assuming reform legislation is ultimately executed irresponsibly and incompetently, health care costs could actually end up staying as high as they are now, or even increasing. There may not be enough savings accrued from cracking down on waste and fraud and investing in information technology, prevention, pay-for-performance systems, and other measures that President Obama and Congressional Democrats have proposed. The alternative is new taxes.

Such taxes could take a number of forms. Income tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance could be replaced with a tax deduction. The tax on cigarettes or alcohol or sugar-sweetened beverages could be increased. There could be a “play or pay” requirement on large employers, with a tax for not offering health insurance. Any way you look at it, the government would be taking more money from citizens in all of these cases. (Side note: I believe that disincentivizing unhealthy habits and behavior—possibly in the form of taxes—is a key solution to solving our nation’s high health care costs. Nutrition needs to be looked at more closely as an answer to health care problems, not just addressing the problems in an ad hoc manner.)

Now, you may be saying, “But taxes are not the worst case scenario! The government will pay people to have abortions! Illegal immigrants will get health care paid for by my tax dollars, and my grandma will be put to death by a government panel! You lie!” But don’t you have more important things to do than read my blog, Representative Wilson? Seriously though, none of those things are true.

So what’s the worst-case scenario for the other side of the debate? Well, 46 million Americans will still not have any health insurance. Health care costs will almost certainly continue to increase, which will cost Americans more money in the long run anyway. Key solutions like prevention measures will continue to go overlooked, and Americans will likely increase their susceptibility to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

And the bottom line in this entire debate, which no one seems to be talking about anymore: people will be left to fend for themselves when they are sick or injured, or will have to assume a financial burden with which they simply cannot cope. People will go without the treatment they need because they can’t afford it. People will remain injured or sick, and probably get worse. And people will die unnecessarily, simply because their government, whose role is supposed to be that of a guardian and helper, was not willing to protect or help them.

When worst-case scenarios are outlined honestly and juxtaposed like this, it becomes a no-brainer what the ultimate goal should be. Which is exactly why the talk of death panels, socialism, government takeovers, and Hitler have seized the public debate in our country. Because when thoughtful reason (not to mention compassion for one’s fellow citizens—isn’t that what patriotism is all about?) naturally incline voters in one direction, opponents have to combat it with sensationalism and lies.

Images: Obama and Kennedy (, Joe Wilson (Fox News), some asshole (CBS News)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Saturday's "Tea Party" Rally

I just watched this video. Let me just say that I realize and appreciate that not everyone who came to the DC rally on Saturday is comparable intellectually to the people portrayed in this video. I also realize that there are many ineloquent, uninformed people who espouse liberal values and opinions and they can be, and often are, embarrassed on camera in the same way.

However, I am also a resident of DC and passed by many of the protesters on the day before and the day of the rally, and I had the opportunity to overhear quite a few conversations. My own small sample reflected the same statistics of those who were shot in this video. In other words, the people who actually showed up for this rally were, in large part, uneducated, uninformed people who watch Glenn Beck, feed off each other's anger, and don't seek to understand the intricacies—or even the realities—of the issues that they so passionately speak out on.

Should these people lack the right to protest or be heard? Of course not. The First Amendment is one of the greatest things about this country, and the fact that these people have such a loud voice is a testament to its strength. However, I will argue that these people should not be able to influence policy the way they seem to be right now.

I am not saying that uneducated people are less important than educated people. In fact, it is my hope that they or their children will get the same kind of education that all Americans should be entitled to as a fundamental right (though that might require the government to play a role...). I am saying, though, that we are a republic for a reason. We elect representatives to represent the people, and for the most part, those representatives are intelligent and well-informed. And they have intelligent, well-informed staffs who assist them in crafting policies and voting on complex and intricate pieces of legislation. When uninformed people raise racist, belligerent, hateful signs and get great press coverage and the praise of some of our most powerful leaders, a disservice is being done to the truth and to reality.

Sure, there are a lot of liberals at health care rallies around the country who don't really understand the details of any of the health care proposals in Congress right now. But their main goal in supporting the change is to provide health care to those who don't have it, and give people more options in receiving care. What are the teabaggers' main goals, when you really get down to the crux of their anger? To not be taxed so much? Because I'm pretty sure our country isn't actually at risk of turning fascist-socialist. Incidentally, I invite members of the "Tea Party" to explain to me how that would work.

P.S. My favorite sign is the one that says "More Czars than the USSR." I guess this is what happens to people when they get pulled out of school so the President can't indoctrinate them with his socialist back-to-school speech.

Images: Protesters at Saturday's rally (Fox News)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Monserrate and Espada on Display

Today marks what will hopefully be the beginning of the end of Hiram Monserrate's embarrassing political career, as he begins his trial for felony assault for slashing his girlfriend's face with broken glass (something he said happened accidentally as he was bringing her a glass of water). He is charged with three counts of second-degree assault (a D felony) and three counts of third-degree assault (an A misdemeanor). While both Monserrate and his victim (his current girlfriend) say it was an accident, she originally told medical personnel that it was not an accident and there is apparently pretty damning video evidence. If convicted of all charges, he would have to surrender his State Senate seat, as (convicted) felons cannot serve as State Senators. UPDATE: Monserrate has waived his right to a jury trial, putting his fate in the hands of a judge who stated that the video of Monserrate yanking and pulling his girlfriend causes "the blood to boil."

But Monserrate is not the only New York disgrace in the news as of late. The New York Times ran a profile on Pedro Espada, the other Democrat who played Pinocchio to Tom Golisano's Geppetto during the State Senate coup. In it, we learn some interesting (albeit not surprising) tidbits about the senator. Among them is the fact that the annual rent for his district office (which is actually outside of his district) is over $15,000 the usual limit for State Senators, and that Espada also has a request in for a second office (perhaps in Mamaroneck?). All of this was granted following his "return to the fold" after leaving the Senate Democrats with Monserrate back in June, tying up the legislative process in Albany while personal beefs were settled.

You would think after attracting the ire of his colleagues and the entire state that he would be a bit humbled, but you'd be wrong. Espada's ego is reaching Kanye West-like proportions, as his behavior at a duck farm over the weekend might have you believe. When accurately called "the traitor" by the farm's owner while introducing himself (Espada was there to call him out for exploiting his workers), Espada turned angry and said, "We need to have a little coup in here. We need to change the rules in here. You think I did something to the Senate? Wait till I get through with you. Hurricane Espada is going to turn this place upside down!” The fact that a destructive hurricane doesn't exactly conjure up images of benefiting poor minorities seems to be lost on Espada. The Times article also states that Espada "often speaks of himself in the third person" and likes to joke about the coup when he doesn't get his way. He is the kind of person you would avoid at a party because he is so obnoxious.

So while my dream would be to see Monserrate convicted of the crime he committed and someone (anyone!) calling out Espada, I know the reality of the situation is much more grim. If Monserrate is convicted, it will be of a lesser charge and thus he will be able to retain his Senate seat, and Espada's head will continue to grow and the political eunuchs in Albany will stand by and do nothing about it. In fact, Monserrate and Espada may very well be re-elected by their constituents, much to the chagrin of the rest of the state. At the end of the Times article Espada jokes, "This is why we end up having coups." Maybe he's onto something. Peace.

Photos - Monserrate and his lawyer show up for a court appearance in July (NY Daily News), Pedro Espada (Gothamist)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Obama's Healthcare Speech

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Listening to Obama's healthcare speech last night is akin to my first listen of the Blueprint 3: obviously it was good because of its author, but it lacked much-needed characteristics. Any speech Obama makes will be good, the man is just a talented orator. The problem with his speech last night is that it was a lot more of the same promises about the healthcare bill, with way too much flexibility on the public option.

I don't think there is a rational American today who would say that healthcare reform is not needed. If you were asked to design a healthcare system for a wealthy, developed nation and this was your model you would be laughed at and ridiculed. If it were a project for school you would receive an F (and rightly so). There is no doubt that healthcare reform is needed, it's just a matter of how we go about it.

It struck me that Obama worried about shaking things up too much. He said (at 14:00) that a single-payer system (or the ill-advised alternative of an entirely free-market system) would be too radical a change. Too radical a change? This is a man we elected to shake things up in Washington, to get things done. Now is not the time to worry about hurting the establishments' (read: healthcare industry's) feelings. If we allow these entrenched interests to dictate the options on the table, the American people lose.

One thing I did like is that Obama showed some passion and fire (albeit not often in the speech). At 16:30 when Obama talks about death panels and all that other nonsense, he sounds fiery and angry. Where has this Obama been? Where is the outrage over the deceptiveness, the malicious and purposeful confusing nature of the debate meant to derail true reform? It's time to get angry, because the bipartisanship vessel has sailed.

But in case you thought the USS Bipartisanship was still in port (let's see how long I can go with this metaphor), just skip ahead to around 27:00. When Obama discusses coverage of illegal immigrants under the current bill, you can hear some jeers coming from the Republican side of the room. But one special Representative waited until things had died down to make his mark on the speech. Representative Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) yelled quite loudly, "You lie!" during a quiet moment in the speech. Since then he has been eviscerated by both Democrats and Republicans for being a national embarrassment (much like his other South Carolina Republicans). And these are the people Obama is supposed to work with? His outburst was the final horn of the ship declaring "Bon Voyage!"

Finally, at 30:00 Obama begins to discuss a not-for-profit option (though not necessarily a "public" option). While I would argue that insuring peoples' health should focus on the peoples' health and not profit margins and bottom lines, this is a good idea. The problem is Obama needs to be more firm on this. We saw what happened with the banks and the bailout: without severe regulation these for-profit companies will do anything to make a buck, including going back to their old ways. Do you honestly think private insurers are any different? Without a legitimate public option, healthcare reform is next to impossible. It's not about the people with these large corporations; it's about money.

All in all, Obama needs to get firm on healthcare reform. Get the votes you need within your own party, forget about those spewing venom like "death panels" and shouting like spoiled brats during a presidential speech. It's clear that folks in Congress have no intention of looking at the other side, never mind reaching across the aisle to come to a legitimate consensus. I hope Obama keeps his promise about calling people out who try to distort the bill for political gain, and I hope he also takes a firm stance on a strong not-for-profit option for healthcare. Otherwise, what's the point? Peace.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Conservatives Attack, Democrats Say Uncle

In November 2008, an already majority-Democrat Congress made further gains in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and won the presidency as well. Now, with a relatively progressive House and a nominally "filibuster-proof" majority in the Senate, it would be logical that the legislative agenda in Washington would be tilted in favor of more progressive policies. And the White House has certainly taken some bold steps over the past eight months, including addressing issues from Guantanamo Bay to Vehicle Emissions Standards. And yet, compared to how much progress should have been made by now, it seems that conservatives have been particularly successful in stymieing a great deal of what could have been accomplished.

Since the Democrats took control of both branches, conservatives and the vast majority of the Republican party (see the breakdown of House votes on the Stimulus bill) have employed a clever strategy in Washington; namely, to obstruct everything Democrats try to do. And in large part, it's worked well. With the help of incendiary pundits pushing their agendas on the airwaves, conservatives have been able to drive their messages into the hearts of Americans, though not necessarily by explaining why their policy ideas are stronger than those of Democrats.

Instead, most "calls to arms" from the right have been predicated on somewhat or outright misleading information. Town hall meetings have been overrun by angry citizens who think the health care reform means a socialist takeover of the health care system and "death panels." Obama's speech yesterday on how kids should stay in school and work hard caused a massive controversy in the preceding weeks over whether the President was trying to "indoctrinate our youth" with "socialist ideas," and Van Jones was forced to resign from the Council for Environmental Quality because of vicious attacks on his character from right-wing pundits and Republican Congressmen.

It turns out Obama's speech on the first day of school was about taking personal responsibility and working hard (aren't those the core tenets of American conservatism?). And yet, after hearing Glenn Beck rant about Obama's socialist motives on Fox News, enraged and frightened parents demanded that their children not be subjected to such a speech. Conservatives are so effective at getting their political agenda across that they have actually been able to convince parents not to let their kids listen to speeches about the values of education and hard work by the President of the United States of America, just because he is a Democrat. Now that is impressive. And appalling.

Meanwhile, Van Jones resigned late Saturday from his position as Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. A few weeks earlier, a non-profit that Jones had founded, Color of Change, organized an advertising boycott of Beck's Fox News show after the demagogue called Obama a "racist." In retaliation, Beck began an all-out smear campaign on Jones's character, stirring public fears of Obama's non-Senate-confirmed "czars" (somehow the idea of Russian monarchs giving Obama advice is especially terrifying). Now Jones, who is a visionary, an activist, and a true patriot, can no longer help serve his country in transitioning us to a socially equitable, clean energy economy.

All these controversies and distractions have helped to keep the President's and Democrats' agenda largely on hold. And Democrats and progressives don't seem very capable at fighting back on any of these issues. Glenn Beck, now seemingly one of the most powerful people in the US, has instilled fear in Americans, enhanced distrust in Democrats, and put them on the defensive instead of where they should be—passing key legislation. Even with big majorities in both Houses, Democrats are being out maneuvered by Republicans and conservatives at every turn, and are squandering rare and precious opportunities for changes that our country desperately needs.

Images: Obstructionist cartoon (Rockford Register Star), Glenn Beck (Grist), Van Jones (Washington Post)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Obama's Indoctrination Message: Work Hard

In a move that speaks to the disruptiveness of the right as of late, Obama's speech to schoolchildren set to take place today was highly debated as some Republicans stated it was a move by the president to "indoctrinate" the nation's youth. The mere fact that some people think that the president of this country, who cannot even stay on message about healthcare reform and the overwhelming need for a public option, is going to try to, essentially, brainwash our schoolchildren into embracing a liberal agenda is ludicrous. It not only insults our president, but it insults the students of this country to think that they are so vulnerable and susceptible that a 20 minute speech (one via broadcast, not even in-person) will have them throwing any self-created notions out the window and pledge allegiance to the liberal "agenda."

Take the chairman of the Florida GOP, for example. Jim Greer stated last week that he was "absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology." He goes on to say that "The Democrats have clearly lost the battle to maintain control of the message this summer, so now that school is back in session, President Obama has turned to America's children to spread his liberal lies, indoctrinating American's [sic] youngest children before they have a chance to decide for themselves."

Looking at Obama's speech, however, there is not one word about healthcare. In fact, Obama has the audacity to discuss things like working hard and not letting a less-than-stellar home life get in the way of your studies. It's the "liberal agenda" at its worst: do-for-self. The socialist ideology that Greer points to? Well, Obama does say you should do well in school so that you can help the country, because "you'll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy." Ahh, the main tenet of socialism: working within a capitalist framework.

Seriously though, do people really think that kindergartners are going to retain any of this? They are learning sharing, putting the square block in the square peg, and not pooping their pants. If Obama did delve into the public option or TARP funds do you think these kids would understand what he was talking about? That didn't stop one parent from calling into a radio show and announcing, "He [the caller's son] does not have to sit in on this, he does not have to go to school and he sure as hell does not have to listen to what he has to say."

But that's part of the problem. These parents who are willing to pull their kids out of school because the president wants to address them; what kind of message does that send to the kid? You don't agree with someone, you don't want to do something like listen to someone else talk? Just don't show up that day. Don't learn to listen to others when you disagree with them, don't learn to work with other people who you may not see eye-to-eye with, don't learn how to debate with someone civilly. Then you can go into politics.

The saddest part of this is the fact that now we're not talking about the war in Afghanistan, healthcare reform, or how Wall Street has one-upped themselves and returned to their old ways while at the same time betting on sick and old peoples' lives. Instead we are talking about a relatively routine speech done by both Reagan and Bush I with little to no controversy. It's embarrassing for the country, and it's embarrassing for the Republican party. I know there are smarter conservatives out there; I went to school with some, I'm related to some. They're capable of debate without mentioning death panels or brown shirts or any other knee-jerk reactionary language. But, alas, level-headedness and intelligence aren't what cranks newsmakers are made of.

Photos - Obama at an earlier indoctrination session (Current)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Released Documents Show Reality of Al Megrahi Negotiations

Recently released documents concerning the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi show how the Libyan government was able to intimidate the United Kingdom into releasing the terrorist, who was later given a hero's welcome in his home country of Libya. Reading the documents it seems that the only reason that Libya wanted to sign a Prisoner Transfer Agreement with the UK in the first place was to get Al Megrahi out of prison.

From the outset of the discussions of the diplomatic relations with Libya (which began with a Memorandum of Understanding that stated that the UK and Libya would engage in ongoing negotiations, including a PTA) London made it clear that the final decision "to transfer any prisoner held in a Scottish Prison is a matter for the Scottish Ministers." But that does not mean that London was a bystander in negotiations.

In letters dated July 26, 2007 and September 23, 2007 Jack Straw (English Secretary of State for Justice) stated that the British government intended to pursue a clause in the Prisoner Transfer Agreement that precluded Al Megrahi and anyone else involved in the terrorist attack that killed 270 people. However, in a letter dated December 19, 2007 Straw backpedaled, saying "The wider negotiations with the Libyans are reaching a critical stage and in view of the overwhelming interests for the United Kingdom I have agreed that in this instance the PTA should be in thestandard form and not mention any individual." When pressed by Edinburgh to clarify what "national interests" would leave the door open to release a convicted terrorists, Straw stated that a Libya that was reintegrated into the international community was good for the UK, plus Tripoli had voluntarily dismantled their WMDs (under sanctions) and might be able to "stem the flow of illegal migrants to the EU and to the UK." In reality, on December 23, 2007 (four days after Straw's reversal on precluding Lockerbie bombers from the PTA) Britain's largest company, BP, gained Libya's approval for a large oil contract in the Northern African country. How's that for national interests?

Beyond all of this, the United Kingdom had actually promised in a letter prior to the trial of Al Megrahi that if convicted, any Libyan national handed to the British for a trial would serve their time on British soil. "If found guilty, the two accused will serve their sentence in the United Kingdom." Additionally, a UN Security Council Resolution was adopted that regarded the letter. This was not forgotten by London, as a letter from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) dated July 3, 2009 stated that Edinburgh had asked about the UK-US letter and the UN Resolution. Despite the plain language in the letter stating that either suspect would serve their time in the UK should they be convicted, the FCO stated that they did not "consider the either the joint UK-US letter, UN Security Council Resolution 1192 (1998) or the accompanying discussions between the UK Government and the United States Government regarding implementation of the trial initiative as set out in the joint letter, present an international law bar to such a transfer under the PTA where it is consistent with Scots law."

But as the British said, any transfer of a Scottish prisoner was up to the Scottish ministers. Except the Scottish ministers did not seem clear on the legality of allowing Al Megrahi a transfer to Libya. The Scottish government wanted access to documents from the negotiations that sent Al Megrahi from Libya to the Netherlands for trial in the late 1990s. The latest letter from those released on the subject state that the Scots never got the documents. On top of this, it is clear from their letters that Edinburgh did not want Al- Megrahi to be transferred to Libya under the PTA. In a letter dated October 25, 2008 they stated that they didn't even want Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi in the country. And the assurances of Jack Straw that Scottish officials would have final say in any prisoner transfer regarding anyone convicted of the Lockerbie bombing turned out to be hunches, not based on fact, according to a March 18, 2008 letter from Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland. Salmond's tone in that letter conveys that he is less than pleased, for obvious reasons.

So while the UK government kept saying that the PTA would not include Al Megrahi, it ended up including the convicted terrorist. While the UK said that legitimate governmental interests and allowing Libya back into the international community was the main goal of giving up certain exclusions in the PTA, in reality UK's largest company got a sweet oil deal four days after Jack Straw's reversal on the Al Megrahi exclusion clause in the PTA with Libya. When the UK told the Scots that their ministers would have the final say in any PTA request, they did not really mean it. It's clear that London had little to no intention of legitimately including the Scottish government in their dealings with Tripoli. Instead, the British were bullied into the release of the one man convicted in the worst terrorist attack in British history to Libya, where he was welcomed home like some kind of national hero, saying that they were sympathetic to Al Megrahi's being terminally ill. Al Megrahi made the decision to kill 270 people that day on orders from the Libyan government, so whether he died of cancer at a younger age than expected or lived to be three hundred years old, it should have been behind bars. Peace.

Photos - Al Megrahi (The Independent), One of the iconic images of the Lockerbie tragedy, which took the lives of 270 people (Daily Mail), Al Megrahi's hero's welcome back in Libya follow his transfer (The Guardian)