Friday, February 26, 2010

Time to act!

Certain things struck me as I watched — yes every minute of the nearly
seven hours — the healthcare summit. 
First of course was the civility. 
No “you lie” or anything close. 
To say that civility when grown public officials gather is worth
mentioning tells you a lot about the times in which we live.  But what was striking about this
momentary quiet is how it magnified the deep divide that now plagues not only
the Congress but also our country. 
Fifteen plus fifteen people in a room each group living on a different
plane, seeing the world through different eyes.  It was sobering and disheartening, not so much because
divergent points of view are in themselves bad, quite the contrary, but because
no time has demanded some semblance of unity more.

For the President of course it was another display of how informed he
is, in this case every detail of the two thousand plus pages so derided by the
Republicans.  To be sure Bill
Clinton could have done the same — different as they may be, both credentialed
wonks — but that can’t be said of our recent Republican Presidents.  John McCain took part, and made some
headlines on CNN which, given the very few minutes he spoke during those seven
hours, was a bit of a surprise to me. 
But on second thought, perhaps not.  The McCain we saw yesterday was the angry looking one and
his performance in many ways echoed that seen in face of the economic crisis in
the fall of 2008.  That one sealed
Obama’s victory.  This time made
one feel all the more relieved he is sitting in the Senate not the White House.

Looking at the President’s facile handling of both facts and the room,
I couldn’t help thinking too of Sarah Palin.  Remember the silliness made of her “hand notes” following
the tea party convention where she took a swipe at the President for using a
Teleprompter?  Can you image (I
shutter to even utter it) President Palin leading that session yesterday, much
less having to engage on a complex bill or problem?  I know asking that question might seem below the belt, a
cheap Katie Couric gotcha shot, but humor me.  Think about that — seriously! 

My major take away from the Blair House square table was that we make
a huge mistake and do ourselves a great disservice in simply labeling
Republicans as the party of “no”.  In
the first place, it’s a vast over simplification.  Second, the hyperbole, which gets old very quickly, undermines
substantive argument.  While we get
caught up in the cleverness of our zinger, the Republicans proceed to drive the
conversation and to define us as they see fit.  For the moment they remain far more adept than are we at
using words and characterizations to promote their agenda.  If you have any doubt of that consider
their continuing success in getting the very people who have been devastated by
their policies, to eat a regular diet of their dog food and drink their cool

In that context, reality and facts — exactly what the President
pressed for yesterday — are rendered moot.  Rest assured that a growing number of today’s unemployed
think Obama and the Democrats created the entire deficit, the near collapse of
our economic system and are preventing them from getting a job or a decent
wage.  In the same way, Republicans
have convinced them that healthcare reform that would, if nothing else, bring
more people under the protective umbrella, is a bad thing.  The Republicans “no-bill” alternative
makes clear where they stand. 
Forget the distractions of tort reform and cross state insurance
marketing, the real message is found elsewhere.  Their focus is entirely on those now covered, in wringing
out costs by eliminating defensive medicine with its unnecessary tests and with
prosecuting fraud.  All these are
good things, upon which most of us can agree.  Where they tip their hand is in expanding coverage to only 3
million of the 45+ million uninsured — the Democrats seek to cover 30
million.  It’s ironic that they
deem helping these desperate fellow citizens too expensive but are always at
the ready to loot the treasury with a one-sided tax policy.

It is time to act.  The
legislation before us is flawed. 
Ultimately only universal Medicare will solve America’s healthcare
problems.  But, like Paul Krugman
and others, I think an imperfect bill is better than no bill at all.  I’m not troubled by Reconciliation, but
why give that ammunition to the Republicans when the resulting bill will be
only marginally better than what the Senate put forward?  The House should take on and pass the
Senate bill and the President should sign it.  Nobody can question that.  They should do it now!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

High anxiety.

I talk to people at the checkout counter — no really talk to and
sometimes get to know them a bit.  There’s
the one who just broke up with her boyfriend, the guy whose wife is expecting
any day and the tall you gal whose balancing finishing a degree with work.  I actually know their names and that’s
not uncommon in a small community like Chapel Hill.  But I did the same in New York.  In fact, before E-Zpass I used to chat briefly with
tollbooth operators, sometimes getting a honk from those behind me in
line.  To one degree or another,
we’re all somewhat guilty of giving short shrift or even to avoiding eye
contact with those who “serve” us as if they were inanimate objects,
non-persons.  Of course we know
they are just the opposite, people like us with lives — families, joys, sorrows
and, yes, anxieties.

The difference between living in a city apartment with built-in
services as I did for decades and a free standing house on three quarters of an
acre is that you develop an intimate relationship with Home Depot or, in my
case because it’s a little closer, Lowe’s.  You’d be surprised how many times a week one can frequent a
store like that.  And, as you’d
expect, three years in I’ve gotten to know most of the people who work there,
many by name.  That brings me to

I knew the first time we met that Ron, unlike some of the kids working
in the store, was both seasoned and knowledgeable.  He was stationed at the commercial desk and you could ask
him about anything — what lumber to use for this project or how to install a
door lock and which one to buy. 
Sometimes you had to wait a bit because Ron’s expertise stood out and
his advice was in demand. 

Well the other day, I found myself in Lowe’s picking up some
birdseed.  Heading to the checkout
I spotted Ron behind one of the registers.  “What are you doing here Ron?”  It was asked in a kind of joking way expecting the usual
“someone didn’t show up” answer. 
To my great surprise an obviously unhappy Ron told me he had been
“demoted”, given the choice to move down or move out.  Thirteen years on the job, by then the store’s highest paid hourly
employee, he was reduced to making exactly $3 an hour more than when he started.  Like so many businesses, Lowe’s is
cutting back.  It wasn’t that Ron
had done anything wrong; he was just caught in the financial draft and, with a
family to feed, had no choice but to accept the humiliation.

So if you want to really understand why Barack Obama is having such a
hard time and why people are so angry, suffering such high anxiety, think of
Ron.  Down in the real world where
90% of Americans live, he’s considered one “lucky” guy.  After all, he still has a
paycheck.  How do you think Ron
feels about Lowe’s CEO who is probably taking home millions in pay and stock
options?  The outrage over
corporate compensation, bonuses and the growing disparity between both incomes
and quality of life in the land is real and legitimate.  In that explosive environment, we don’t
give anyone slack especially when the inequities are so clearly and starkly
visible to the naked eye.  Sadly
the president and all the members of Congress in both parties don’t seem to
understand.  Perhaps it isn’t quite
Nero watching Rome burn, but pretty damn close.  Other than fearing they’ll be thrown out of office, our
elected officials seem unconcerned about Ron, the millions
like him or their growing anxieties.  Ron, is just one of those
unseen non-persons attached like a fixture to the cash register.  We pass him by daily, eyes averted.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Tea anyone?

Sarah Palin made her widely heralded keynote at the “Tea Party”
convention.  It was a long rambling
affair.  Long perhaps because,
having learned from Bill Clinton and others, she commands big bucks for sharing
her “wisdom” these days.  After some
uproar over this fee, she now disclaims using the money for herself, but will
certainly collect her check, said to be $100K for about an hour’s work.  Ah no fat cat here, just plain Wasilla
people.  That also tells you
something about this faux party. 
Rambling because it contained essentially a rehash of her stump speeches
long on platitudes — I love America — and very short on substance.  To her credit there were relatively few
flubs.  Having been out of office
such a short time, one can excuse referring to the world looking to “Alaska as
that beacon of hope”. 

While the talk got the expected applause and cries at the end for “run
Sarah run”, in being so predictable it was more medium rare than red meat.  Palin, who now focuses most of her
attention on foreign policy (her area of special expertise), complained that
Obama gave it short shrift in the State of the Union.  She of course had little in the way of proposals for what
she would do there or at home, at least nothing that was new or viable.  Okay, get government out of the
way!  She complained about the lack
of bi-partisanship on healthcare offering this solution to our massive problem
— allow interstate marketing of insurance and bring on tort reform.  That should do it, real deficit-busting coverage-expanding grass roots proposals.  If
only the President would listen.  But
hey, her Republican colleagues on the Hill haven’t offered much more.  And she did make one piece of really big
news. Todd is not a Republican — “he’s too independent” to join a party.  Well that clears up a lot about the guy
the Times reported last week was much
more than just the First Gentleman of Alaska. 
Finally she suggested that, given our being human and not knowing the
answer to all questions, government officials should “be seeking divine
intervention” and not be ashamed to do so.  That echoes Senate Chaplain Black’s recent comment to NPR
that “Senators need supernatural guidance”, which I guess is what he enables.  Forget church and state, I wonder which
senators are making their decisions based on such help.

Palin’s speech was as expected. 
What is more informative was her audience; virtually all white and,
despite the “grassroots” billing, appearing comfortable and prosperous.  Not even a plumber that one could
identify.  There was after all a
fee to be paid, hardly in the budget of the disgruntled unemployed they claim
to represent, or as bottom up as Palin would have it.  So there was an air of theater around this particular
affair, dutifully covered by the press and broadcast on C-Span who together, more
than any Supreme Court legitimized corporate funders, are the effective underwriters
of politicians like Palin.  Don’t
cover them and you’re accused of being the “liberal media” — would that such a
thing existed.  Cover them and
you’re into showbiz as “news”, but of course that can be very good for ratings. 

It won’t surprise you that I am not one to support the tea party in
Nashville or even more so its “grass root” rallies sporting despicable
anti-Obama posters with their unsubtle race bating caricatures.  I try not to over read Scott Brown the
current hero of the “movement”, though in senator mode he seems to be
distancing himself.  Perhaps he
understands that Massachusetts is still a liberal state.  At the same time, we should not
underestimate the level of frustration on the ground.  When Palin rails against the banks, she’s not alone in
seeing them as free loaders and predators (my words not hers).   That’s something upon which
liberals and conservatives, the employed and the unemployed, mortgage payers
and the foreclosed can agree.  So
she’s striking some chords that resonate widely and, as Mrs. Loman said with
regard to her burdened husband Willy, “attention must be paid”.  Palin and her appeal still mystifies me,
her shrill rhetoric is hard on the ears. 
But people do strange and often terribly frightening things when they
are down and out or frustrated. 
The depression brought us FDR but also Huey Long.  History is replete with demagogues who
seized the day and brought unintended consequences to desperate and enamored
audiences.  I need not spell that
out.  Perhaps Palin will self
destruct or turn more fully toward personal capitalism long before 2012, but we
shouldn’t either count on it or sit idly by while this train of discontent
moves out of the station.  Attention must be paid, now not later.