Saturday, August 29, 2009

Staying Pure, the Perils of Not Going All the Way, and a Little Fun With Role-Playing

Now that I have your attention...

As a rule, politicians are a skittish and mercurial bunch, though I'm pretty sure many of them aren't necessarily born that way. Seriously, how many of these guys woke up one morning as a bright-eyed Poli-Sci undergrad at The University of Tennessee or Northwestern - or wherever - and declared, "Ah, I can barely wait for the day when I can sell myself out to tobacco and pharmaceutical interests like a crab-infested Van Nuys crank whore!"

But the environment in which politicians continually find themselves requires constant compromise of one's values and priorities. Even the most accomplished and tenured members of the House and Senate understand that doing so is the only way to remain politically viable.

We forget - or choose to ignore - that each and every member of Congress is responsible for:
  1. Catering to the needs and desires of his constituency
  2. Adhering to his party's overall platform
  3. Helping to craft policy within bipartisan committees
  4. Not getting caught in a gay bath house with his legs wrapped around a slender Whole Foods stock clerk named Derek
And let's not forget the other seductive elements out there known for compromising politicians' personal ethics: campaign donors, pestering lobbyists, and ubiquitous interest groups. From The Washington Post:
The nation's largest insurers, hospitals and medical groups have hired more than 350 former government staff members and retired members of Congress in hopes of influencing their old bosses and colleagues, according to an analysis of lobbying disclosures and records.

Overall, health-care companies and their representatives spent more than $126 million on lobbying in the first quarter, leading all other industries, according to CRP and Senate data. PhRMA led the pack in spending and employs 49 former government staff members among its 136 lobbyists, according to The Post's analysis. Dozens of other former insiders are employed as lobbyists by Pfizer, Eli Lilly, the AMA and the American Hospital Association, each of which spent at least $3.5 million on lobbying from January through March.

So let's play make-believe. Imagine you're a fiscally-conservative, socially moderate Republican congresswoman (which, in most southern states, makes you a left-wing liberal), who believes that every American citizen should have access to affordable health care. Most likely, here's what you'd be coming up against:
  • Much of your party wants to altogether eliminate the public health option.
  • Your stone-age constituency needs complete assurance that not one cent of the package will be used for performing abortions - emergency or otherwise - stem cell research, and end-of-life consultations.
  • A lobbyist from a prominent pharmaceutical company - let's call them Lurk - which has promised to support your re-election bid, has just called your office to remind you of their disapproval of a public health option
  • The president is leaning on you and your congressional committee to keep an open mind about a substantial public component, which includes Hospice care and an additional tax on so-called platinum health plans.
At this point, whichever position you take will inevitably be ridiculed, attacked, or flat-out rejected by somebody. Ultimately, as long as you take a stand on something, there's no real way to avoid being labeled a sellout, capable of abandoning your personal ethics, your president, your crazy-assed constituency, or your party at the drop of a hat.

And that's all before the town hall meetings. Good luck with those, by the way.

But it's politically unsophisticated to think that a politician can remain ideologically pure while holding onto her job for more than one term. Politicians must compromise their ethics, on some level, every single day - and I think it's important for us to remain cognizant of that.

It's the nature of the politician's job, for better or worse. But don't feel too sorry for them. They all make six-figures, with pretty damn good bennies (which might also explain the glacial pace of health care reform); most will have cushy jobs waiting in private sector law or lobbying firms when they're finally booted from office. Some of the more high profile ones will even get book deals or will carve out a niche amongst the screaming heads on cable news.

Which brings us to our president, Mr. Hope and Change himself.

While I'm as guilty as anyone for chiding Obama's policy initiatives thus far, it's only because I naively wished for so much more. Based on his past assertions, I sincerely expected a more dogged push for universal health coverage. With, perpetually dyspeptic Rahm Emmanuel as his consigliere, a tidal wave of political capital, and strong majorities in the House and Senate, I truly expected all of us to have commie care by the 2012 at the latest.

Enter reality. The bible from his inauguration was still warm when Obama was faced with rescuing the U.S. economy from the complete and utter abyss due to 8 years of meltdowns, negligence, corruption, fiascos, and all-around suck.

Did Obama borrow Peter to pay Paul by funneling insane amounts of money into banks and automakers? Yes. Did it need to happen to prevent a nationwide economic collapse? Probably. Was it done by the most efficient, effective means possible? Well, if offering blank checks to Wall Street slime peddlers while not holding them to a much higher degree of scrutiny and transparency is effective and efficient then...yes. Is it all working, as our embattled Fed Chairman would have us believe? Maybe, but who really knows for sure at this point. Some days the economists are optimistic, some days not so much. Regardless, Wall Street's still raking us over the coals.

Still, most sane citizens are strongly averse to having their tax money earmarked for failing banks, immoral CEO's, and intransigent automakers who refused to lower their CAFE standards and to take a hint when nobody wanted a fucking mastodon on wheels anymore.

So we were forced to watch as our Obama had his wings clipped by Detroit and Wall Street.

And now, because much of his political capital has been drained by unpopular - and some say ill-advised - decisions made to save a foundering economy, the president must play ball with the opposition party, the Blue Dogs, and congressional reps from Steve and Stacy Swingstate.

He must compromise. At the very least, he must give something.

Problem is, in a civil and just society, health care is a service that shouldn't be compromised one iota - to the extent of offering ample, affordable coverage to every citizen. (This statement has been brought to you by every other developed nation on planet.) Yet it's baffling that our citizenry is still divided on this - that offering a greater breadth of coverage will somehow lead to rationing of care, a slippery slope on the way to killing Grandmas and harboring terrorists.

First of all, the private insurance companies already ration by virtue of avoiding or eliminating riskier individuals from their pools of prospective patients. They also practice the more traditional forms of rationing - you know, commie-socialist forms. From The New York Times:
And people who worry about the government's playing such a role may not remember that even now private insurers make decisions "about what is medically necessary and what is not," said Mike Thompson, a principal in the health care practice of the consulting firm Pricewaterhouse-Coopers. The private insurers, Mr. Thompson said, might decide that a certain cancer treatment was experimental, for example, and refuse to pay for it.

One can only hope that some form of rationing occurs, as rampant over-treatment has proven to be one of the biggest monetary drains on an already wildly inefficient and wasteful health care system. From The New York Times:
Paul Ginsburg, the president of the Center for Studying Health System Change, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, said he was more concerned about the opposite of rationing: that lawmakers do not seem to be focused enough on controlling costs, by making sure people do not receive unnecessary care or unproven treatments.

But if Obama continues to shy away from his previous declaration that a robust public health care option is best way to ensure true reform, then to what degree will impending legislation change the status quo - if at all?

The fallout from such a compromise could prove disastrous. If a compromise of sorts is brokered and some needed changes are made - such as cajoling health insurance companies into ending the widely used practice of rescission - without systemically revamping the entire system, who really wins? Health insurance and pharmaceutical companies will win big, as they'll garner an additional 40-50 million paying customers. And most conservative politicians will win, as they'll no doubt be hailed by the ravenous cable news punditry as the patriotic underdogs who thwarted the venomous serpent of socialized medicine. Maybe even Obama will be lauded as "post-partisan" for trading the public option (which would ultimately bury both Big Health and Pharma) for the still ambiguous co-ops, which, at best, will offer up just enough competition to the Blue Crosses of the world to make it appear as though a clean, fair game is still being played.

But what will we get out of it, other than having the privilege of overpaying for a half-assed, patchwork system that wastes resources and exploits American citizens? Maybe we won't get dropped from insurance roles when we endure a serious illness. But then we'll still have to file for medical bankruptcy upon discovery that our ailments exceed our coverage. (As I've repeated throughout many of my posts, two-thirds of all medical bankruptcies in the U.S. are filed by individuals who already had health insurance.)

And let's say a cap is established, beyond which individuals would no longer have to pay for additional care and procedures. What would that cap be? $15 thousand? $20 thousand? It's hard to imagine the insurance companies settling for less. Either way, that the we continue to haggle over the price of a person's health and well-being in this country is, to me, barbaric and morally repugnant. And as in matters of preemptive war, the environment, and torture, our nation insists on ceding the moral high ground to every other country in the world whose name doesn't end with either "bad" or "stan."

But the worst part about half-assed health care reform would be the illusion of closure and a job well done. It is both a blessing and a curse that, embedded in our nation's DNA is a need to, at some point, turn the page. In this instance, it would be a curse.

Ted Kennedy's death this week was simultaneously tragic, poignant, devastating, and ironic. Those who knew him best claim that his death comes at a time when the nation - and the health care reform movement - needs him most. Then again, pessimists might argue that his impact on such fractious negotiations would've been minimal, as his failing health would've limited him to figurehead status. For still others, Kennedy's death symbolizes the end of meaningful reform and the moral imperative of which he was such an impassioned advocate. From his August 19, 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention:
For me, this is a season of hope. New hope for justice and fair prosperity for the many, and not just for the few. New hope - and this is the cause of my life - new hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American - north , south, east, west, young, old - will have decent, quality healthcare as a fundamental right and not a privilege. we can meet these challenges with Barack Obama. Yes we can, and finally, yes we will.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

The CIA is More Dubious Than That Faded M&M at the Bottom of Grandma's Candy Bowl

For today's post: Fun with trivia.

So here goes: Which domestic, publicly-subsidized institution kills terrorist suspects during interrogations, outsources torture to countries with disgraceful human rights records, and operates within the shadowy legal crevices of both the Geneva Convention and our nation's constitution? Give up?

Click here to find the answer!

From The New Yorker's "Outsourcing Torture," Jane Mayer's 2005 piece which focuses on the CIA's not-so-clandestine practice of extraordinary rendition.
What began as a program aimed at a small, discrete set of suspects - people against whom there were outstanding foreign arrest warrants - came to include a wide and ill-defined population that the Administration terms "illegal enemy combatants." Many of them have never been publicly charged with any crime.

It's disturbing to know that a large government organization, primarily responsible for information gathering, is given the tether to behave like a band of thugs whenever it sees fit - at least until now. If Eric Holder has any say, the CIA will be getting the scrutiny it's deserved for some time:
The inspector general's report, by contrast offers details of abusive methods. During one session, a C.I.A. interrogator told Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri, charged with plotting the 2000 bombing of the Navy destroyer Cole, that if he did not cooperate with his captors, "we could get your mother in here" and "we can bring your family in here."

According to the report, the interrogator wanted Mr. Nashiri to infer for "phsychological" reasons that his female relatives might be sexually abused.

Wait - Quick quiz: Who is Eric Holder (and no Wikipedia, damn you!)?

A.) The new Secretary of Health and Human Services
B.) Former NBA underachiever Ralph Sampson's separated-at-birth twin brother
C.) The new Attorney General for the Obama administration
D.) The New President of Kurdranistanjihadlabad
E.) The 78-year-old guy at my gym who insists on galavanting around the men's locker room with nothing on from the waist down. He holds conversations, talks about real estate, and flosses his teeth - all without the benefit of pants, shorts, or undergarments of any kind. And, once again, for the sake of an image: He's 78.

Answer: You damn well better have chosen C.

Whether or not Connecticut prosecutor John Durham's investigation can lead to any convictions is peripheral to the message this hopefully sends to the CIA and other tax-funded super-organizations. (That's right, town-hallers: The CIA is socialist organization!)

That I'm a staunch advocate of strong, publicly-funded organizations that provide essential services doesn't mean I think they should be shielded from constant scrutiny and stringent standards. To the contrary, if I'm paying for something, I need to know the exact context in which my money is being utilized. For instance, currently my tax dollars - and yours - are being earmarked for each of the following projects:
  • Nation-building in Iraq
  • Nation-building in Afghanistan*
  • A rescue package for automakers from whom I wouldn't even accept a free vehicle
  • Golden parachutes for these pricks.
*Four American solders were killed Tuesday when their patrol vehicle struck an improvised explosive device in southern Afghanistan, NATO said, making the 2009 death toll for foreign forces in Afghanistan the highest since the war began nearly eight years ago.

So if you ask me right now if I think it's okay for the CIA - an organization in which most of us have "invested" a great deal of money - to have legal immunity from torturing, maiming, humiliating and murdering individuals who have yet to receive due process in any sanctioned court of law, then my answer is a resounding "no." CIA employees should be held just as accountable for their actions as any other public servant, be they cops, public school principals, or postal workers.

And despite the fact that we've been admonished time and again to accept that we're in an interminable struggle with "evil-doers" for the safety and soul of our country - and therefore utilizing a panoply of harsh interrogation tactics are in the interest of national security - the fact remains that the CIA is not a crime fighting agency, nor are they a paramilitary organization. It's as much within their purview and expertise to strip down and waterboard a Guantanamo inmate as it is for a local firefighter to deliver your order.

Add that to the fact that the CIA has also been contracting out critical military operations to no-bid contract winner Blackwater - a private "firm" that somehow exists with even less oversight than the CIA (and, oh, by the way: they're tax-funded too) - and we find ourselves in some serious ethical gray areas. From The New York Times:
American spy agencies have in recent years outsourced some highly controversial work, including the interrogation of prisoners. But government officials said that bringing outsiders into a program with lethal authority raised deep concerns about accountability in covert operations.

It would be negligent on my part if I didn't note here that the name "Blackwater" has become synonymous with the no-bid outsourcing of the morass in Iraq, from branches of the U.S. military to private firms with notorious reputations:
Blackwater employees hired to guard American diplomats in Iraq were accused of using excessive force on several occasions, including shootings in Baghdad in 2007 in which 17 civilians were killed. Iraqi officials have since refused to give the company an operating license.

Also, when I think of a firm, I think Sterling Cooper from "Mad Men" or maybe even McKenzie Brackman from "L.A. Law." But a group of trained mercenaries who air drop into hostile territory, guns blazing, with little concern for civilian life? That's not a firm; not even close. Could you imagine one of these guys in your office having to deal with a jamming copy machine? I'm sure you'd see a lot of this.

Before I shut it down for the evening, let me just add that I have no delusions about the nefarious character of many of the detainees formerly or currently being held in U.S. custody. I presume many of them have profoundly hostile feelings toward the U.S. and mean America nothing but harm and ill-fortune. But if the U.S. is intent on regaining the role of moral beacon for the solar system, we must end these practices instantly. In addition to being unethical, torture is an ineffective and inefficient intelligence gathering technique. In other words, it doesn't work. John McCain, a former POW and torture victim, agrees.

And so maybe the CIA should stick with what it does best: Initiating coups against democratically elected governments.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Republican Party: From Diabolical Masterminds to That Urine-Soaked Guy on the Bus Mumbling Incoherently About Gummy Bears

I know: Duh.

But I just wanted to reiterate the utter lack of logic and rational thought that's infesting the GOP and its constituents these days. In the past, most of the party's disjointed, ill-conceived, or just plain machiavellian ideas came from up top - Milton Friedman, the father of fiscal conservatism; economist Grover Norquist, the 80s trickle-down Reaganites; the gentle souls over at The Heritage Foundation, Newt Gingrich, the architect of the 90s Republican Revolution; and the warmongering Neo-Cons of the Bush administration. The first step was seizing power. From Thomas Frank's The Wrecking Crew:
"First, we want to remove liberal personnel from the political process. Then we want to capture those positions of power and influence for conservatives. Stalin taught the importance of this principle. He was running the personnel department, while Trotsky was fighting the White Army. When push came to shove for control of the Soviet Union, Stalin won...With this principle in mind, conservatives must do all they can to make sure that they get jobs in Washington."
So, for all you flag-waving, pendant-wearing patriots out there, the post-Goldwater conservatives owe much of their success to a communist dictator who committed genocide against his own people. I'm assuming back then that Norquist and other GOP operatives didn't roll this strategy out at a series of town hall meetings.

Overall, much of the Republican policy devised over the past, say, 30 years, has been hard-sold to the American public based on the promise of fiscal solvency.

These policies - unfettered free market capitalism, supply-side economics, and systemic deregulation - we were told, would be implemented based on sound economic principles. Let individuals, rather than the government, take responsibility for their own wealth or poverty, Republicans said, for only the individual truly knows what's best for her or himself. The truly industrious and innovative will inevitably rise to the challenge, regardless of their race, class, or ethnicity. And let companies work outside of the government's clenched grip of regulation, for true competition and innovation accelerates when freed from the oppressive scrutiny of the government's watchful eye. In other words, let the markets decide which businesses succeed or fail.

But those paying attention since the advent of voodoo economics have observed these conceptions to be patently absurd. For one thing, socioeconomic status continues to be the biggest determinant in whether or not an individual is materially successful. The indigent are rarely given the tools during childhood necessary for them to later flourish into the industrious leaders our society demands. It's next to impossible to compete in the professional job market when you're 18 and still reading at a fourth-grade level.

We've also witnessed the litany of calamities that deregulation - or insufficient regulation - can yield, as evidenced by the abysmal fallout from no-bid war contracts, sub-prime mortgage loans, credit default swaps, and massive seven-and-eight-figure payouts to Wall Street bank executives. Competition is all well and good (for the most part), but when financial juggernauts like Goldman Sachs engaged in market manipulation and securities fraud, no one was there to say this. From Matt Taibbi's "The Great Bubble Machine," an exceptional investigative piece from Rolling Stone:
The bank (Goldman) might be taking all these hideous, completely irresponsible mortgages from beneath-gangster-status firms like Countrywide and selling them off to municipalities and pensioners - old people, for God's sake - pretending the whole time that it wasn't gradeD horseshit. But even as it was doing so, it was taking short positions in the same market, in essence betting against the same crap it was selling.

In other words, Goldman was hedging its bets against a market they essentially created. And, because they're Goldman Sachs (ooh, ahh!), everyone blindly bought into it. Everyone.

In the same piece, Taibbi emphasizes that Goldman has been sued and penalized numerous times over the years, which has had zero impact on its highly unethical banking practices, since the penalty fees - usually in the neighborhood of $100 million or so - are loose pocket change compared to the ridiculous amounts of cash the firm has been raking in from exploiting so many loopholes in the financial markets, many of which the SEC itself wasn't even aware of. Problem is, the Securities and Exchange Commission is the regulatory agency primarily responsible for taking market raiders like Goldman to task. Oh, but they didn't completely comprehend what Goldman was doing - so they claim - so I guess it's okay.

To further explain the lack of effective oversight, the SEC, along with the last three presidential administrations, have been lousy with former Goldman execs. Reagan once said, "The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would steal them away." False.

The thing about Republicans is that, when they're in the minority, government is bureaucratic, ineffectual, even Orwellian. But when they're running the entire show, rather than continuing their harsh critique of big government, we hear a lot of this.

Next, when thousands of ailing Americans were being summarily dropped from health insurance roles due to "prior undisclosed conditions," for years the only person who would even give them the time of day was a portly firebrand filmmaker from Michigan.

From the L.A. Times comes a piece about insurance giant Wellpoint's modus operandi toward patients crippled by severe illnesses:
But documents obtained by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and released today show that the company's employee performance evaluation program did include a review of rescission activity.

The documents show, for instance, that one blue Cross employee earned a perfect score of "5" for "exceptional performance" on an evaluation that noted the employee's role in dropping thousands of policyholders and avoiding nearly $10 million worth of medical care.

How charming. At this point, I'd like to take a moment to come up with a list of the most loathsome categories of human beings on the planet. This is an extremely intricate process, so I won't bog you down in all the minutia of how I determine my findings. Here it is: Top 5, worst comes first.
  1. Puppy rapists
  2. Nazis (the German ones from WWII, as opposed to the ones currently infiltrating the Obama administration)
  3. These guys
  4. Private health insurance company claims adjusters
  5. The Taliban
That's right, people: A guy who will slice off your right ear for playing techno music is likely responsible for fewer deaths than Chip over at Blue Shield with the troll pencils and the "I Love Dachsunds" screensaver.

And finally, there was the "I'm With Stupid" Administration's stubborn refusal to put the regulatory clamps down on the biggest environmental polluters on the planet.

Now, I'm not suggesting that these expedient, ignominious, or just plain idiotic policies are things of the past. Without question, they'll return in some incarnation once the Republicans are firmly entrenched in our government again. What I am saying, though, is that now progressives have a whole new element to deal with: The batshit insane.

It's true. Instead of cloaking horrendous policy in brilliant propaganda campaigns and then applying pressure downward, onto the Great Unwashed, the Republicans are now a party that seemingly receives its cues from the most gullible, ignorant, reactionary, and paranoid of society's cognitive bottom-dwellers.

It's almost as though the intellectual line between right-wing demagogue and unemployed World War II grenade enthusiast has been completely eradicated. Unconvinced? Fine. Then how about a nice multiple choice quiz to prove my point.

For the following questions, choose the individual that uttered each quote over the past 2 weeks.

1. "This provision may start us down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia if enacted into law."

a. The fella who lives out of a tent in the abandoned lot across the street from Kragen because he "refuses to pay taxes that are just going to be used for welfare and health care for illegals."
b. Your brother-in-law, Dave, a recent convert to Jews for Jesus and the current president of the Whispering Meadows homeowners association
c. House Republican Leader John Boehner

2. "We should not have a government plan that will pull the plug on Grandma!"

a. The guy pacing in front of Ralph's, clad in a fatigue-colored leotard, who constantly warns shoppers of the impending apocalypse
b. Your former college roommate Doug, who, at 35, just quit his job and moved back in with his parents because he "wants to spend more time doing his art."
c. Republican senator Chuck Grassley

3. "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgement of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system in downright evil."

b. An unemployed, clinically insane gun enthusiast
c. All the above

Here are your answers: 1. c 2. c 3. c

For me, this is something to watch closely in the months leading up to the November mid-term elections. Right now, the loudest voices in the GOP are coming from the most irrational and intellectually lazy segment of the party. Maybe the rest of the conservatives are ceding the pulpit to these crazies for the purpose of instigating more action among the right wing electorate for the purpose of thwarting Obama's agenda. Or maybe the party has actually morphed into a safe haven for right-wing extremists, racists, religious zealots, and unbalanced xenophobes - both among its leaders and throughout its constituency. Either scenario is equally disturbing and prompts me to wonder if Canadian winters are really all that bad.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dear Mr. President:

With the deepest respect, please alter your message.

You are a skilled communicator and a brilliant rhetorician. You've given so many of us renewed faith in the political process and in the potential greatness of this country, based mainly on your ability to translate grandiloquent ideals into clear, cogent oratory. But whatever you've been trying to sell about health care policy is clearly not effective enough to permeate the stubborn miasma of thick-headed ignorance and shrill right-wing punditry. Here's the data from the latest Reuter's poll. I'm sure, like most of these things, it was given at a Reno Sam's Club - on some fold-out table cramped between 40-gallon vats of Grape Drink and 20-pound boxes of Cocoa Pebbles.
Obama's approval rating on healthcare was at 41 percent, unchanged from last month, while 36 percent believed his reform plas were a good idea dn 42 percent a bad idea -- also unchanged from last month's NBY/Wall Street Journal poll.

While I realize that part of your strategy all along has been to refrain from presenting a detailed, comprehensive plan (SEE ALSO: Hillarycare, circa 1993), since doing so would give the Republican propaganda slime machine every opportunity to misrepresent it, what we all need to accept is that anything you ever say or do, from here until the end of your presidency, will be attacked mercilessly by the propaganda goons of The Right Wing.

If you, along with 100 other world leaders, were to help devise a fool-proof, multilateral strategy for world peace this afternoon, military contractors and NRA lobbyists would be swarming Congress by Thursday. By Friday, John Boehner would be bitching about being left out of the policy-making process. And by Saturday, Right-Wing PAC ads would be swarming red-state TV waves - interrupting "America's Top Model," "The Real Housewifes of Orange County," "Bridezillas," and "The O'Reilly Factor" (otherwise known, in many of these parts, as the news)"- throughout households in Arkansas, Montana, Kansas, and Wyoming to question the wisdom and timing of such a plan.

World peace: Is it too much too soon?

Inevitably, even Harry and Louise would weigh-in.

Louise: But Harry, it says here that all countries would be fully expected to comply with the new global peace, love, and unicorns agreement. That sounds like an awful lot of government control. Unicorns: Isn't that how Hitler got into power?
Harry: Pretty much, Louise. Pretty much.

Regardless of what you say or how well you say it, Republicans will always find a way to drag your words into the sewer. The solution? Win the propaganda war. Appeal to Americans' emotions and anxieties. Solicit Madison Avenue to make the public option look smart, cool, or even sexy (Jesus, remember when they convinced us that we needed these?)

Turn health care reform into a morality play, Mr. President. People are literally dying while the GOP - pasty, expedient, Kafka-esque bureaucrats and inhumane extensions of Big Pharma - exacerbate the situation by shielding mega-corporations and rejecting reform altogether.
Further, Mr. Grassley said this week that he would vote against a bill unless it had wide support from Republicans, even if it included all the provisions he wanted. "I am negotiating for Republicans," he told MSNBC.

Also, eliminate all the proxies (Pelosi, Reid, et. al.). These people have lower approval ratings than a straight masseuse at a Republican spa retreat. You're the one who should be getting maximum exposure right now. You own the bully pulpit: Order up an hour of prime-time (as most of the good shows are still on hiatus) and get in front of the TV camera so that America can be reminded of why it's in good hands.

Please alter the format.

Can we please cease and desist with the town hall meet 'n greets already? What exactly was the end game here? To give unemployed white trash a venue to vent their deepest fears and frustrations? To force already reviled congressmen and women to articulate health reform proposals that haven't even been fully conceived of yet? To give everyone an opportunity to finally show off their newest sidepiece? And great job sending Republican senator Chuck Grassley out and about. Grassley, whom I presume was sent out to promote aspects of a possible bipartisan plan, instead bragged to his Adel, Iowa audience about how he was responsible for withdrawing an "aggressive end-of-life" patient-physician consultation option (a.k.a. Operation Kill Grandma) from the committee bargaining table.

(Oh, Chuck. Even if you did accomplish something as heroic as preventing the terminally ill from gaining access to home care in their final days, you needn't go popping off about it in front of a crowd that somehow confuses Hospice with concentration camps. Unless you meant to sink this whole gambit all along. Thank you, Fredo.)

Having such a haphazard format in these places amounts to political suicide, Mr. President. It cedes far too much ground to what has proven to be enemy territory. I know you're a sports fan, so here's a baseball analogy: Assuming they were pitted against the loathsome Red Sox in a playoff series, would the Yankees ever agree to play the entire series at uber-hostile Fenway Park in the hopes of maybe converting one or two wayward Sox fans into Yankee-lovers? Exactly: Dumbest idea ever. Then, Mr. President, why are you doing virtually the same thing?

Most of these hostile individuals arrive in droves (thanks to aggressive harvesting by health-insurance-sponsored special interests), forming lines at the crack of dawn and crowding out most would-be sympathizers. As it turns out, these people come to bitch about everything from gun rights to the demise of civilization. In other words, many of these venues have devolved into carnivals of right-wing lunacy. From The New York Times:
But most of those who spoke Tuesday seemed unlikely to vote in the Democratic primary. Many seemed concerned about issues that are either not in the health care legislation or are peripheral to the debate in Washington - abortion, euthanasia, coverage of immigrants, privacy.

I knew it. So after all this, it comes right back down to:
  • The stench-ridden blasphemy of two boys holding hands
  • "Those socialist sum'bitches wanna' take all my guns and ammonium nitrate away."
  • "Those damn Mexicans are takin' over."
  • The sanctity of the sperm-egg merger.
Because these overindulged, right-wing divas have gained so much leverage over American politicians, now they believe as though they can say and do just about anything - including toting around semi-automatic weapons at public meeting places. From contributing New York Times op-ed columnist, Gail Collins:
Meanwhile, over in Arizona, a protester who showed up to meet the local congresswoman at a supermarket was removed by police when the pistol he had holstered under his armpit fell, bouncing on the floor and alarming the nonprotesting attendees. This, too, turned out to be legal, although the dropping part is not recommended.

Also not recommended: Being a large, black, wealthy professional athlete engaged in an eerily similar scenario.

These maniacs need to be called out on their crazy. Be the alpha, Mr. President. Think Dog Whisperer. You're Cesar effing Milan; they're an out-of-control Shitzu-Yorki mix. Here's a primer, in case you're still a bit apprehensive.

Otherwise, eliminate these slow-motion train wrecks of public discourse and replace them with one or both of these:

A nationally televised presidential-style debate over health care policy, in which a competent, impartial moderator (think Jim Lehrer, perhaps the only real newsman left in the biz) presides over a dialogue between you and this week's sacrificial standard-bearer from the opposition party. This idea, proposed by a colleague of mine, is brilliant in its logic and simplicity. In this format, you will have the profound advantage against your opponent, be it Chuck Grassely, Bobby Jindal, Eric Kantor, Michael Steele, John Boehner or any other GOP scrub who's able to compose a complete sentence on-camera. Okay, so maybe not Bobby Jindal.

Why engage in such a debate? Because you're smart, eloquent, virtually unflappable. And because you have the evidence on your side: 45 million Americans are uninsured; an additional 2,000 lose their employee-sponsored health care every day; one-third of private health care costs go to administrative fees alone; two-thirds of American bankruptcies are of the medical variety; private insurers cannot be trusted to regulate themselves, as their policies have repeatedly proven to be wholly unethical and purely profit-driven; medicare and the VA - both fully backed by the government - have been solvent and largely successful for years (You'd most likely have a wheelchair riot on your hands if either were rescinded, replaced, or compromised).

And then there's the ethical imperative: During one day, at an open clinic in Los Angeles, nonprofit Remote Area Medical provided over 1,400 services to over 600 needy individuals - including breast exams, tooth extractions, and pap smears. Here's The Times' slide show.

But if you're really that wedded to the town hall format, why not have one - but on your terms, Mr. President? Screen and hand-pick an audience who have submitted their questions ahead of time. And make sure all attendees are apprised of the specific, rigid ground rules, i.e., no speaking out of turn, no ankle holsters or loaded M-16s, no decrying that the fluoridization of our water supply has rendered our male earthling population impotent and/or vulnerable for an inevitable alien invasion, and no outbursts declaring the collapse of democracy.

I think that's it. Oh, actually, one more thing:

Find a way to hide Max Baucus:

This guy's your point man on health care? Seriously? I mean...seriously?
After speaking at a preventive-care conference here last week, he was swarmed by protesters. Or, in Mr. Baucus's words, "agitators, whose sole goal was to intimidate, disrupt and not let any meaningful conversation go on." There were a couple of people in the crowd "with YouTubes," Mr. Baucus added (meaning cameras)

Mr. President, I hope you take all of these suggestions to heart, as I sincerely believe that they could bolster this country's chances for comprehensive health reform. I think I've also failed to mention that, as a geriatric myself (I am nearly 10 years old), I am more than merely a passive observer in this ongoing issue.

God bless you, Mr. President. And God bless America.

Sincerely yours,

Bean the Bearded Dragon

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

If I Call It A Co-Op, They Can't Call Me a Commie Anymore, Right?

Wrong. They'll keep calling you that, because it's fun for them. But now they'll also go back to calling you a liberal, which is code for clearly having no plan whatsoever. Per The Times

The White House has indicated that it could accept a nonprofit health care cooperative as an alternative to a new government insurance plan, originally favored by President Obama. But the co-op idea is so ill defined that no one knows exactly what it would look like or how effectively it would compete with commercial insurers.

You know what, though? I've become far too cynical. I actually think that health care reform is going to be amazing (when it happens) because we're finally going to see a cohesive network that utilizes an efficient, humane, cost-effective model to care for patients - because that was the whole point of this reform movement in the first pl - Oh, wait...

The history of health insurance in the United States is full of largely unsuccessful efforts to introduce new models of insurance that would lower costs. And the health insurance markets of many states suggest that any new entrant would face many difficulties in getting established.

Dammit. Health insurance and pharmaceutical companies, you may exhale.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

The GOP's Courtship of Our Reptilian Brain

Republicans. Aren't they just about the cutest things ever?

(Warning: This is a long but ultimately worthwhile post. Anyone who thinks they might have to go to the restroom, go now.)

Reflecting upon what's been happening in health care hysteria over the past month, I am immediately reminded of Ridley Scott's 1984 futuristic Reagan-era classic, The Terminator, starring the greatest action hero and worst California governor of the past 25 years.

In the film, we discover that the gay-pride-parade-bedazzled Terminator, an amoral futuristic cyborg, who possesses no regard for organic life, is hell-bent on killing "Sah-rah Kahn-ah." He stalks his prey relentlessly and ruthlessly, using the most destructive means at his disposal. Now, not only has some anonymous intergalactic douche programmed The Terminator to eliminate Connor; he's also apparently wired this monster to accomplish the task while simultaneously producing the greatest amount of violence, misery, and mayhem possible (Cue Arnie's Austrian accent: Surgical strikes are for pussies.)

During the first two acts of the film, we never once wonder about The Terminator's allegiance, though his snazzy Ray Bans, ass-hugging leather pants, PhD in ass-kickin', and deliciously hokey comebacks make him virtually impossible to hate (Add to that fact that, at this point, most of us didn't know he was Republican.) That is, until his "human" skin unsheathes and we finally see this thing for what it truly is: A cold, indomitable, malevolent incarnation of all things evil. It is at this point that most - if not all - of us resolve to root against The Terminator for the balance of the movie. Shame on us, though, for being seduced by Arnie's artificially pumped-up moobies and unforgettable one-liners, for we knew he was Timothy McVeigh on 'roids all along.

Enter the Grand Old Party of the past three decades, the pre-unsheathed Terminator, if you will, which continues to exist despite its ever growing reputation for faux folksy populism, exploitation of American fear, and an incessant reliance upon a seemingly endless reserve of American ignorance. 

And in case there's any question in your head about this last point, please watch this.

Oh, and Bill, you forgot to mention this.

These characteristics of the GOP are not revelations to any progressives who've been paying attention to politics at any point between Nixon's "I am not a crook" and Palin's "I can see Russia from my house."

And many of the Republican misdeeds we've witnessed since 1973 - Watergate, Iran Contra, Reaganomics, attack-dog politics, the Florida recount, alliances with Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Tobacco, and all the major health insurers, the rise of cronyism, the courtship of "values" voters, Jack Abramoff, ineptitude, the prevention of scientific inquiry and research, chronic lying, the suppression of dissent, Terri Shiavo, hardball politics, preemptive war, the accumulation of massive debt, wire-tapping, Swift-Boating, scapegoating, homophobia, no-bid contracts, and "Disaster Capitalism" - have done little to dissuade a large segment of the populace from continuing their unwavering support, irrespective of whether or not it's in their best interest to do so. 

In his landmark 2004 book What's the Matter With Kansas, Thomas Frank writes,

On closer inspection, the country seems more like a panoroma of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working-class guys in midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a "rust belt," will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover.

And then:

Meatpacking Garden City [Kansas] voted for George W. Bush in even greater numbers than did affluent Johnson County. The blue-collar, heavily unionized city of Wichita used to be one of the few Democratic strongholds in the state; in the nineties it became on of the most consistently conservative places of them all, a mighty fortress in the wars over abortion, evolution, loose interpretation of the Constitution, and water fluoridation.

In a genius maneuver, the GOP discovered several decades ago that they'd never be able to hold power at any level of government based on their policies alone, which, for the most part, called for power-shitting on anyone not netting at least a mid- six-figure income: unfettered free markets, rampant deregulation, bare-bones social services, tax breaks for the wealthiest 3 percent, and the overall preservation of a system that maintains a strict socioeconomic order, making the rich richer, the poor more destitute, and the middle-class perpetually in the urinal. 

But who in the hell would ever vote for a candidate espousing less healthcare, lower pay, and diminished social services for Joe and Flo Blow from East Idaho - in addition to a rigged game that funnels ever more money to the bankers and CEOs of this world? Exactly: No one. In their right minds, at least. 

So why then does the working class - the demographic that can least afford another round of suppressed wages, job outsourcing, tax cuts for aristocrats, and de-fanged regulation - continue on with this endless cycle of political self-flagellation? 

The answer to this question may lie in a dusty study in Northern California, some thirty-plus years ago.

(The scene: Stanford's Hoover Institute, sometime in the mid-1970s. The door creaks open, revealing two patrician, middle-aged men in Brooks Brothers suits, sipping aged brandy. Both are balding almost by the minute. One is Karl; the other is Karl's lackey, Mr. Twizzlesticks).

Karl: This goddamned McGovern. Let's see: What qualities does the American citizen possess that we can most easily exploit to our electoral advantage? 
Mr. Twizzlesticks: Well, first off, Americans love their bibles - and much of the country is trending toward Evangelical Christianity. So we definitely need to get on board with the J.C. - like yesterday. Then, there's that stubborn puritanical strain embedded in much of the nation's DNA - you know, no sex out of wedlock, unless, of course you then subsequently decide to keep the baby, get married and run for public office, no abortion - even in cases of rape and incest, no divorce - 
Karl: Even if, at some point you decide that you prefer young men named Chad giving you "neck massages" in the sauna room, 
Mr. Twizzlesticks: Exactly. Uh, where was I? 
Karl: Incest.
Mr. T-sticks: Oh. Yeah. I was done with that, though. How about a distrust and general dislike of dark people - except maybe for some Hindi Indians? 
Karl: And Clarence Thomas.
Mr. T-sticks: Who's he?
Karl: Some pencil-pushing black dude with a law degree. We'll make him a Supreme Court Justice one day, just to make everyone think it's all on the up and up.
Mr. T-Sticks: Of course, sir.
Karl: How about also a dogged fear of change of any kind. These people need to know that we intend to keep this country looking like their favorite Thomas Kincaid painting for evermore. And no Thomas Kincaid painting I know of has Mexicans in it. Or blacks. Or gays. Or crackheads. Or socialists. Or fissures in the American social fabric. And another thing: The average American isn't terribly educated, well-read, worldly, or analytical. So keep things simple. Nuance is death on policy - people think that you're talking down to them. Or that you're a pussy. Neither is good. 
Mr. T-Sticks: Indeed -
Karl: Good is good, bad is bad. You either have friends or enemies. You're either with the terrorists or against them -
Mr. T-Sticks: Sir?
Karl: Nevermind. We'll save that one for a special occasion. Are you getting all this down? This is prime stuff here.
Mr. T-Sticks: Oh yes - of course.
Karl: This snifter of 100-year-old cask-aged Scotch I'm drinking right now is either dry or it's not. Get me?
Mr. T-Sticks: Absolutely, sir.
Karl: Freedom or bondage. Liberty or oppression. Open markets or communism. And remember, Middle America doesn't have the intellect to withstand the emotional power of their reptilian brains. We need to appeal to their reptilian brains! 
Mr. T-Sticks: What's a rep -
Karl: Emotion, struggle, survival, desire, vengeance. 
Mr. T-Sticks: (scribbling frenetically) It's all very biblical, sir.
Karl: Veeerrry biblical. Yahweh would've played exceptionally well in Kansas, had he made a gubonatorial run. These folks - and let's call them folks from now on - these folks need to think that their way of life is constantly under siege.
Mr. T-Sticks: Under siege? From whom, sir? From what?
Karl: Twizzle, have you learned nothing from me? From change. And they need reassurance from us that we will do everything in our collective power - providing they keep us in office - to protect them from the tide of change - from the gays and minorities and dirty movies and sexy clothing and rap music, and...and...
Mr. T-Sticks: Commies, sir?
Karl: And the commies. Especially the commies. Oh, also - get all this down...
Mr. T-Sticks: Yes, sir. Go ahead.
Karl: More guns.
Mr. T-Sticks: For whom?
Karl: For everyone. Every damn one. These fools love their guns, almost as much as their god. We need to make sure that they know we're okay with that. Also, more war.
Mr. T-Sticks: More...war. By that do you mean defending other countries, defending our homeland, or preemptive war - or surgical strikes as a show of American might?
Karl: Yes. One last thing. Are you ready?
Mr. T-Sticks: Of course, sir.
Karl: No, I'm serious. You need to be ready for this one. Are you really ready?
Mr. T-Sticks: Absolutely, sir.
Karl: Okay. Here goes. More flags. American flags. Everywhere. Draped from buildings, painted as murals on walls and billboards, fashioned into jewelry - pendants and so forth. Most importantly, we need to adopt it as the symbol of the new Republican party. 
Mr. T-Sticks: But I thought that was the Dixie flag, sir.
Karl: Shut up, Twizzlesticks. No one likes a wise-ass.
Mr. T-Sticks: But sir?
Karl: What is it now?
Mr. T-Sticks: What if we promised to protect them from real things?
Karl: Wuh?
Mr. T-Sticks: Real things. Like what if we said we'd protect them against bursting dams or polluted air or harmful pesticides or, God forbid, catastrophic illness? 
Karl: (Spits out his brandy, forces Twizzlesticks to clean up and refill his sifter, resulting in a five minute break in the action.) That sounds like a sensational idea, Mr. Twizzlesticks. And right after we do that, we can tell all the corporate hacks who've put us in this position to go straight to hell! Idiot!
Mr. T-Sticks: A thousand pardons, sir.
Karl: You should have your honorary Yale law degree revoked this instant!
Mr. T-Sticks: Sir, you're right. How can I ever -
Karl: And your honorary MBA...and your honorary doctorate.


(Author's Note: The above conversation never actually took place. Or did it?)

So now I present to you the worst recipe since my Aunt Tessie's ambrosia salad: A hot-button issue, typically off-message Democrats, an overly cautious president, a phlegmatic mainstream media, health insurance lobbiests, angry, white - frequently armed - males over 50, incendiary right-wing talk radio hosts, stratospheric levels of ignorance, the always well-oiled GOP fear machine, and the ill-advised town hall "I Feel Your Pain" open forum. (They may as well just dangle a sign across the facade of these places that reads, in scrawled chicken blood, "Welcome Rural Survivalists, Disenfranchised Loonies, and Heavily-Armed Cult Leaders.

Naturally, the media is intoxicated by all the high drama of our nation's "Cops" alumni parading through these town halls, monopolizing microphones, and having conniption fits in front of their congressman or senator. Meanwhile, the handful of sane individuals who still possess most of their mental faculties, some of their original teeth, and actual questions about the nuts and bolts of health care policy get zero camera time and no impending reality show deal.

Summoned by right-wing groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity - both with strong ties to the health insurance industry (surprise!) - many of the crazies at these venues have, predictably, turned irrational - even mobbish - engaging in far more screaming, name-calling, and emotional melt-downing than actual dialogue. From The Times:

“This is about the dismantling of this country,” Katy Abram, 35, said forcefully to Mr. Specter, drawing one of the most prolonged rounds of applause. “We don’t want this country to turn into Russia.”

And then:

“It says plainly right there they want to limit the type of care elderly can get,” said Laurel Tobias, an office manager from Lebanon, referring to a bill in the House. “They are talking about killing people.”

It says plainly right where, exactly? Has Laurel Tobias of Lebanon, Pennsylvania somehow gotten her paws on an advanced draft of Congress' final health care proposal. She has indeed. Except it's the congressional draft that exists only inside her head, along with a firm belief in butterscotch waterfalls, rainbow-colored unicorns, and that Jesus' profile appeared in her Cocoa Pebbles this morning.

Because down here, on planet earth, such a thing has yet to be crafted. There's currently five different unfinished bills, each bouncing around a different congressional committee, with no real resolution in sight. So then who's responsible for manufacturing and propagating such falsities? Once again, from the New York Times:

On Thursday, Mr. Grassley [Republican senator from Iowa] said in a statement that he and others in the small group of senators that was trying to negotiate a health care plan had dropped any “end of life” proposals from consideration.

And yet...

A pending House bill has language authorizing Medicare to finance beneficiaries’ consultations with professionals on whether to authorize aggressive and potentially life-saving interventions later in life.

Also known as killing Grandma. Seriously, how does one get from "aggressive and potentially life-saving interventions later in life" to "euthanize Nanna"? Oh, that's right - I almost forgot: We're dealing with professional bullshitters. Here's yet another nugget from another key Republican voice:

The syndicated conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote, “No one should be surprised at the coming embrace of euthanasia.” The Washington Times editorial page reprised its reference to the Nazis, quoting the Aktion T4 program: “It must be made clear to anyone suffering from an incurable disease that the useless dissipation of costly medications drawn from the public store cannot be justified.”

Wait, you weren't aware that Obama and his congressional allies were Nazis? What cave have you been hiding in? 

The extent to which it and other provisions have been misinterpreted in recent days, notably by angry speakers at recent town hall meetings but also by Ms. Palin — who popularized the “death panel” phrase — has surprised longtime advocates of changes to the health care system.

And here's the actual quote:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgement of their "level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

Bureaucrats? Subjective? Productivity? Look who's finally cracked open the shrink wrap on her Kaplan Vocabulary for the SAT flash cards! Nice work, Madame Crazy. 

And, finally, sage words from the always incisive Glenn Beck:

“Sometimes for the common good, you just have to say, ‘Hey, Grandpa, you’ve had a good life.’ ” 

Because he wields it with the facility that Renoir would have wielded his pallet knife, sometimes Beck's sarcasm is almost too subtle to discern. 

Most of the people who've been screaming their heads off at town halls are precisely the types who should despise The Right's economic policies: They're frustrated, disenfranchised, unemployed - and scared shitless. These are individuals who shouldn't be shouting into a microphone, red-faced and teary-eyed, lamenting the onset of socialism (They should be so lucky!)  They should be embracing a more humane society, one in which safety nets exist to protect us from financial, environmental, and health catastrophies -  any of which can happen to any one of us at any time. 

From The Times, comes the story of Lawrence Yurdin, a 64-year-old computer specialist:

Although the brochure on his Aetna policy seemed to indicate it covered up to $150,000 a year in hospital care, the fine print excluded nearly all of the treatment he received at an Austin, Tex., hospital. He and his wife, Claire, filed for bankruptcy last December, as his unpaid medical bills approached $200,000.

And then:

“Underinsurance is the great hidden risk of the American health care system,” said Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor who has analyzed medical bankruptcies. “People do not realize they are one diagnosis away from financial collapse.”

Last week, a former Cigna executive warned at a Senate hearing on health insurance that lawmakers should be careful about the role they gave private insurers in any new system, saying the companies were too prone to “confuse their customers and dump the sick.”

But we just can't help ourselves, can we? Imprisoned by a cascade of emotions, ignorance, and biases - all of which The Right adroitly reinforces through catchy sound bytes, double-speak, and an array of other common propaganda techniques seemingly lifted straight out of Animal Farm Cliffs Notes - leaves the average American incredibly vulnerable to intellectual manipulation.

And instead of shunning these disingenuous, villainous thieves, nearly half of the American electorate continue to align themselves with them.  

Now that we see the villain for what it truly is, it's not too late to root for the good guys (assuming they still exist).

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Stop the Inanity. by Brock Cohen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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