Monday, November 30, 2009

Common Sense, Common Views, Common Purpose

On this day where the negative news about the War in Afghanistan, fresh doubts about President Obama, and a lack of Democratic unity in the Senate regarding Health Care drives a sourly pessimistic news cycle, now is as good a time as any to push back against the doom and gloom brigade. It may be time for the Democratic party to begin to reform itself first before it can ever make a solid effort to reform the country. As much as Republicans have provided a more or less solid base of opposition and obstruction, Democrats have only appeared marginally united and only then for brief periods of time. While I am aware that this is hardly anything new, disorganization will prove to be our own undoing unless we look inward and take stock of our shortcomings. Everyone talks about this, of course, but as Mark Twain put it regarding discussions concerning weather, nobody does anything about it.

The most current gloomy AP story of yesterday was predictably dire,

WASHINGTON - The 60 votes aren't there any more.

With the Senate set to begin debate Monday on health care overhaul, the all-hands-on-deck Democratic coalition that allowed the bill to advance is fracturing already. Yet majority Democrats will need 60 votes again to finish.

Some Democratic senators say they'll jump ship from the bill without tighter restrictions on abortion coverage. Others say they'll go unless a government plan to compete with private insurance companies gets tossed overboard. Such concessions would enrage liberals, the heart and soul of the party.

The first stirrings of a concept known as Intersectionality began to develop in the 1960's and 1970's in opposition to the exclusivity, post-modernism influenced arguments of a prior generation of activists and thinkers. In brief, Intersectionality rightly assumes that taking into account a variety of lenses and perspectives, as well as how they interact with each other is a much better means of attacking a problem. Instead of taking one or two issues in isolation, viewing the similarities and acknowledging the spot at which all points meet would, as it is proposed, facilitate common purpose much more easily. In that spirit, seeking to address interrelated issues that comprise a complex matter rather than focusing too heavily on quibbling details would do our Senators and Representatives well.

As the media has presented it, one would assume that the reservations brought up by individual members of Congress while in hot debate over health care have been matters of profound heft. Certainly the political football of both Stupak and the Public Option are not issues to be taken lightly, but having read many of the published reports regarding day to day conduct in committee, the substantive concerns have often taken a back seat to needless minutia or pointless hair-splitting. Threats and counter-threats in this laughably extended proceeding have ceased being coercive and might as well be duly noted in the Congressional Record without objection. The mystical filibuster, for example, once was feared and sparsely used, and now has become part of process wallpaper to such a degree that even the threat of the procedural measure when invoked produces shrugged shoulders more than abject terror. True filibusters are rare in any case.

The Democratic party might at least consider the idea of Intersectionality if it is to prevent more than nominal GOP gains in 2010 and if it deigns to rule for an extended period of time. Having won, it must now find a way to not overstay its welcome in the good graces of the American people. Democrats know very well what they do not want to be and aren't so versed on what they think they ought to be. Many activists believe that a new way of looking at established rules would push every Democratic figure forward rather than being mired in conventional modes of thought that are long past their expiration date. Many would argue that several of the long term legislators with seniority are long past their expiration date as well. It is an unfortunate fact that we have been rather frequently and alarmingly prone to factionalism in recent history, which is partially a result of a disturbing lack of more or less uniform direction. It should be noted that I do not see this as some greater trend along the same lines as peering at an ant farm, whereby what seems from a distance to be chaotic is upon closer inspection merely a method to the madness.

Seeking to find mutual purpose between individuals and individual organizations alike, rather than pointing out differences and highlighting distinctions could well be our salvation. What complicates this process, however, are the multitude of non-profits and PACs that dot the landscape, many of which are devoted to a single issue. Each was founded out of a desire to make sure that the unique concerns of a particular group or cause was not neglected in the legislative process. They were created based on an inequality or need that cried for alleviation, but with time, however, these groups began to resemble government agencies, whereby bureaus that could have been consolidated with others for the sake of efficiency were allowed to exist alongside similar departments which did more or less identical work. Networking is still a fairly foreign concept to many of the myriad of entities that compromise the Democratic party and help set its agenda. How we think influences how we govern and how we seek to influence that which governs. Though the current model may have had its place once, the time has come to modify our thinking and with it our strategy. Focusing too heavily on where we are not alike rather than how we are alike is, arguably, what led to the decline of the party post-Carter and contributed to the 1994 election debacle.

I wrote a post over the weekend which touched some nerves. In it, I discussed the way our that own fundamental structure as liberals makes getting us on the same page an exercise akin to herding cats. One of the comments left was something to the effect of "I'm a Progressive and no one tells me what to do." Fair enough, except that I wasn't suggesting that the person in question (or anyone, really) follow blindly behind any cause or personality. What I was, however, arguing is that we can't always isolate ourselves in our own identity group and assume that its concerns are of paramount concern to the whole. Until we identify as Democrats first and other identities later, we'll always have unintentionally split allegiances. Any group established for originally altruistic means quickly becomes obsessed with justifying its own existence and in so doing losing sight of the original intent. A common thread runs through so many organizations and it goes well beyond a simple label of "Progressivism". The most successful educational strategies link together a variety of subjects and show students how each is interconnected. This is where true learning begins and this might also be the point at which true unity is allowed to thrive.

I don't believe in groupthink and I certainly don't believe in playing follow-the-leader, but I do know that it is certainly easier when waste and superfluity is trimmed away. I do also know that if everyone had been on the same wavelength before Stupak, then women's rights wouldn't have been so easily bartered away for the sake of a narrow victory. If we truly lived our gospel of multiculturalism and plurality, then human rights would mean more than just the latest atrocity perpetrated in a nation far, far away. If we practiced what we preached, there wouldn't be a need for the Gay District, since LGBTs would live boringly normal lives right next door to us. If we took up the cause of intersectionality, there would be no others who are not like us in some way, shape, or fashion. While I am writing on this particular topic, I am reminded of a woman who is a contributing editor to a Feminist site I regularly visit; she uses this quote as her e-mail signature:

"Engrave this upon your heart: there isn't anyone you couldn't love once you heard their story." --Mary Lou Kownacki

Decry it as naïve optimism if you wish, but post-partisanship, if we have not thrown it upon the dungheap of history quite yet, begins with this simple statement. That which separates us is often artifice, over-reaching, or over-compensation. One President micromanages the Health Care debate, which fails miserably. Another President puts Congress in control, failing to understand that he is capable of keeping bickering legislators in line without seeming dictatorial. We are our own worst enemy, far too often. Arguably we regained both chambers of Congress due to a GOP that had been remarkably good at shooting itself in the foot, if not other members. One wonders what will be our strategy in 2010 besides praying that the economic data and unemployment numbers improve drastically and that the Health Care reform bill passes. How will we learn from four years of mixed results? I can guarantee that the existing framework and system is no viable solution. We know what we are not, now it's time to determine that which we are.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Quote of the Week

"If a person is treated like a patient, they are apt to act like one."- Frances Farmer

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A House Divided Cannot Stand

EDIT: Dear Trolls,

Before you split hairs and focus on one particular point at the expense of my larger thrust, stop, refocus, and check your piety at the door.

Dissatisfaction in Progressive circles with President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress continues to swell and grow. Indeed, I myself am deeply disappointed that the same old legislative and partisan stalemates seem to be so firmly entrenched that even a phenomenon promising optimism and significant reform could not break old habits. Still, rather than resort to the Howard Fineman/Maureen Dowd approach and play a game of "I-told-you-so", I'd much rather avoid pettiness altogether and attempt to understand why we are faced with politics-as-usual when we are at a point in our nation's history when we can least afford it. Answers exist beyond the usual discourse though they are rarely raised when many would rather exchange philosophy for wonkery. Wonkery has its place, but what we seek now are solutions and ideas, not process and jargon.

Regarding our current crisis of several reform measures that have bogged down or are in danger of being passed or scuttled depending on the hour, much of the problem arrives when one considers that we are frequently confused by different allegiances to often incompatible schools of information dispersal and guidance. Either we are in a stage in between two different paradigms or we have tried to blend together two absolutely contradictory styles, wondering why we can't get any results afterward. Conservatives frequently use purely linear leadership to achieve their ends and we on the left often use an uneasy mash up between linear leadership and its asymmetric counterpart.

Linear leadership is the sort that was brought to this country by European colonists. A small continent in land mass contained an enormous variety of different cultures, different languages, and different ways of looking at life. With so much variance and so little likelihood of reaching consensus or finding common purpose, a forceful style of conducting affairs developed that quickly grew highly stratified and regimented. In it, hierarchies, pecking orders, and ranking systems became of paramount importance, as did the underlying assumptions that leaders were few, followers were many, and a passive kind of obedience was to be practiced. In all areas of Western life, this style dominated. Speaking from a purely Christian perspective, most Christian denominations, sects, and faith groups even to this day follow this same model, whereby a leader (called by a variety of different names depending on which group one ascribes) frequently instructs fellow believers in the form of a sermon and holds much power to direct church policy. A linear system is a passive manner of conveying a message. I talk, you listen. Placing power in the hands of a structured system frequently disenfranchises people and glosses over distinctions, but it is deliberate, effective, and highly successful in dividing and conquering as well as hammering home a singular message.

Grassroots groups, however, are run on an asymmetric brand of leadership. The idea is often not about top-down leadership, but on a more egalitarian approach where each individual voice is as important as anyone else's. Frequently, however, this creates problems when it comes down to agreeing on any uniform statement or platform that the entire group endorses as a whole. What is frequently advanced is a notion that everyone has to find his or her own path towards understanding the challenges and issues the group seeks to influence and reform while simultaneously pressing the notion that no one's path or interpretation should be ranked as more or less important by the organization as a whole. The problem with grassroots groups is that they seek to affect policy by using one particular strategy that is not found within politics itself. Politics is structured from top-to-bottom and rarely are those at the bottom granted the ability to speak with any degree of authority. They are expected instead to be good foot soldiers, never question party line, with the hopes that they might rise up through the ranks and achieve greater distinction and a greater ability to be taken seriously and to contribute to the group dynamic.

Many Native American groups were based upon an asymmetric model when it came down to making tribal decisions and stating individual opinions. Though it was certainly more uniformly fair, its key failing was that it did not foster group unity, unintentionally creating factionalism in the process. Native Americans never had the same sense of common purpose and common unity that Europeans did, which was why they were so easily defeated in battle and by court action. Different tribes rarely felt any sense of collective solidarity with each other and there was often dissent and schism within tribes. Some faith traditions, of which unprogrammed Quakers are one, have their worship services more aligned with this philosophy. Unprogrammed Quakers have no minister and conduct worship without any element, aside, of course, from the start and the finish, planned out beforehand. However, they often have difficulty reaching uniformity on a large scale basis and particularly from region to region, yearly meeting to yearly meeting. As a result, different subsets and regional groups have very different priorities and very different ideas about what ought to be important and advanced.

The 9/12 and Tea Party groups have faced this same problem and are in danger of breaking apart. Motivated only by their opposition to what they perceive as a common threat, they have frequently broken apart when unable to achieve anything resembling one coherent message. We might gloat at their self-destructive behavior, but learning from their mistakes and not repeating them within ourselves might be the best lesson of all. We will need to ask ourselves, individually and collectively, what school do we want to set forth? Top-down or spread-around? Whatever we choose will need to be soberly contemplated, because each method has pros and cons, and so long as our opposition continues to use tactics that can, as we have seen, divide us easily in the hopes of conquering us, we cannot take this matter lightly. We might have to acknowledge that a House divided against itself cannot stand. It will become all one thing or all the other.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Over the River and Through the Woods

Dear Readers,

Today is a traveling day for me. I'll be making my first trip to Pennsylvania to celebrate Thanksgiving with my girlfriend's parents. Our stay will last until Saturday, at which point we will return to DC by train. I'll make an attempt to update as frequently as I can, but I will probably be preoccupied with other matters until the weekend.

I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving with a minimum of family dysfunction and overeating.

Comrade Kevin.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Who Do We Trust with Our Tax Dollars? Who Should We Trust, Instead?

I thought I'd do something different today for comparison's sake. With everyone sufficiently indignant at our banking system, our government's response, and at the abuses within the Bailout, I thought I might provide some needed contrast. The details which follow first are the literal steps one has no choice but to follow to attain food stamps in Washington, DC. I pulled certain phrases off of an advocacy website PDF here but the construction is largely mine.

How to Obtain Food Stamps in the District of Columbia

1. Sit in line at the Food Stamp office nearest you and, while waiting, fill out a 12 page form.


Print the form and fill out all 12 pages.

2. To make sure you do not try to cheat the system, you will first be required to reveal your

a) Household income
b) Cash present on hand
c) Rent and utility costs

3. You will then be asked to provide

a) where you work (if you are, in fact, employed)
b) your employer's name and telephone number
c) when you started working for them
d) how much your paycheck is before taxes
e) and how often you get paid

4. If you or anyone else in your household makes some degree of income, repeat step 3

5. If you have a bank account, you are required to prove it by providing a bank statement

6. If you own anything else besides your home, you are required to state that you do.

7. If you have stocks and/or bonds, please respond in in the affirmative.

8. Did you sell, trade, or give away anything more than $1,000 in the past three (3) years? If so, please mark "yes" and attach a description to this form.

9. Provide the exact dollar amount of that which you pay in rent. Don't forget to leave out utilities if not included in rent and whether or not you pay for air-conditioning and heating costs separate from your rent.

10. Mail form. Wait approximately three and a half weeks for a reply, only to be told after four separate phone calls spent futilely trying to speak to an actual person that, due to a severe backlog in unprocessed claims, it may be up to a month and a half before your paperwork is processed.


Drop off form at Food Stamps office. Speak to case worker after waiting for several hours. Turn in form. Wait approximately three and a half weeks for a reply, only to be after four separate phone calls spent futilely trying to speak to an actual person that, due to a severe backlog in unprocessed claims, it may be up to a month and a half before your paperwork is processed.

11. Wait

12. Keep waiting.

13. Finally receive form in mail informing of date to meet with caseworker to determine whether Food Stamps will be granted. Date is eight business days from when one received notice.

14. Collect necessary documentation to prove identity. This includes:

a) Photo ID/Drivers' license

b) Recent rent receipt, copy of lease, mortgage payment, or landlord’s name and phone number.

c) Proof of income, last three pay stubs, VA benefits, educational scholarships, grants or loans, unemployment payments, or your employer’s name and phone number.

d) Proof of Housing Expense: Recent rent or mortgage payment receipts. This includes receipts of all recent utility bill(s): phone, gas, electric, and water. All of these documents must have your address printed on them.

e) Bank statements: If one has an account at a bank or credit union, bring a recent bank statement or bankbook. Also if you have any other type of financial account (for example, a CD) be sure to bring that, too.

f) Social Security Card

g) Proof of any Assets: Bring proof of ownership for buildings, land, policies, burial arrangements or plots, and/or other property (not your home that you stay in) you reported in your application.

15. After all hoops have been jumped through and forms brought to the attention and signed off by the appropriate party, wait for judgment about food stamps.

16. Ten days later, judgment is granted. Realize that $100.12 per month means approximately one week's worth of groceries for one person. Shrug and say to self that every little bit matters.

17. Attend mandatory EBT Card (Food Stamp) card training before receiving. Training lasts approximately 15 to 20 minutes.

18. Proceed directly to grocery store.

How to Obtain Bailout Money in the District of Columbia

1. Be a CEO of a large financial institute.
2. State that you are nearly bankrupt, but too big to fail.
3. Collect emergency funds.

Quote of the Week

“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”- Thich Nhat Hanh

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Saturday Video

Janis Ian wrote this song at thirteen and performs it here at the age of sixteen.

Friday, November 20, 2009

My Five Seconds of Fame

As regular readers are aware, I have been posting iReports to CNN for the past several months. Six or seven of them have ended up on air. A recent assignment asked for those willing to record an video for those who had lost either family members or friends to suicide. I obliged and was contacted by a reporter who asked more about the situation and more about my own life story.


After suicide takes their loved ones, survivors find purpose, the story can be found here.

According to the reporter who wrote it, the response has already been well-received. Whatever I can do to decrease the stigma of mental illness, I will do gladly.

Executive Strength, Not Executive Deference

It is with no small discouragement that I put my thoughts down today. I never expected to be this disappointed with President Obama's leadership ability and his handling of the proceedings. Still, I concede that perhaps part of it is that the sheer number of daunting challenges which face us must be held in check by the realization that the legislative process is plodding and slow. Every President, to some degree or another, bases his or her definition of Executive authority in contrast to the conduct of the previous person to hold the office. Former President George W. Bush's desire to circumvent the legislative branch and concentrate power in the White House at the expense of other branches no doubt shaped Obama's desire to give Congress its fair share of say and impact. This is a noble gesture, provided it works, and thus far it has not. My hope is that our President will realize that there is a difference between ruling like a dictator and ruling like a strong Executive, and the lines between the two are neither fine, nor blurry.

Because the responsibilities of the President are rather vaguely noted in our Constitution, each occupier of the office has taken his own interpretation of what precisely his job description connotes. Those who have boldly adopted a stance that the Presidency ought to intercede directly and without apology into affairs some might consider the domain of other branches have been variously criticized for threatening to rule as an autocrat. This is inevitable, since human selfishness and common sense dictates that everyone would like as big a piece of the pie as he or she can get. Everyone will also be reliably counted on to object loudly if that piece ends up being reduced in size, especially if one thinks it owed to him or her. Throw in partisan rancor, exaggeration, and media narrative and here one has a familiar formula that has been levied at any number of Presidents who, with the passage of time, history has seen fit to denote as "Great".

The reverse of this, of course, is being too conciliatory to other branches of government, a stance that has regrettably been President Obama's undoing in recent months. Presidents before have kept a tight leash on Congress, not out of some desire for complete control, regardless of how much Senators, Representatives, and pundits scream about it, but out of a genuine understanding that the Executive branch must set the tone, the pace, and the direction. This is especially true now when though both the House and Senate have substantial Democratic majorities, the leadership tends to viscerally underwhelm and no one person has the force of personality to stand out front and be the face of Congressional mettle and resolve. With so much that needs to be done, the President cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and watch with his hands on his hips. He needs to take an active role in the game and if that means that the other players feel as though someone's trying to grab the headlines from them, then so be it.

Public opinion of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and of Congress in general reflects this dire situation of which we are faced. A do-nothing accusation lends itself easily to guilty-until-proven-innocent when no one has yet successfully sold Health Care Reform, Financial Reform, Environmental Reform, or any other measure now on the docket. What we have in its place are overly cautious and thoroughly uninspiring pronouncements that promise ultimate success in the wimpiest possible construction ever devised. They almost beg to not offend the hearer. The clear implication is that the latest version of the bill is a coalition of the fragile affair that could break apart at any moment. This does not exactly foment trust, devotion, and fidelity in the eyes of voters.

As is my wont, in instances like these, my mind drifts to similar struggles in different ages. Historical events roughly four and a half centuries ago shaped the formation of our Union and indeed, mirror ours in certain ways.

The climax of the English Civil War was the ascent of a commoner, Oliver Cromwell, to head the island nation. A member of Parliament before the war, Cromwell successfully lead the forces of the legislative body into battle against those supporting the crown and in so doing won eventual victory. A brilliant military strategist and general, Cromwell held little patience for the delays and cross-currents which bogged down passage and enactment of reforms, which meant that with time Cromwell concentrated more and more authority into his own hands. Though he might have been impatient, one cannot help but sympathize to a degree with his dilemma, particularly right now when partisan or even inter-party bickering has brought even the most modest reform measure to a complete halt.

As for the legislative frustrations that typified the times, they first began in the form of the Long Parliament, which was compromised of an expansive group of dissatisfied legislators aghast at the base incompetence of a heavily unpopular King. This then gave way to the high drama of Pride's Purge. The Long Parliament was dissolved in large part because it met for eight years solid but, due to factionalism and indecisiveness, could never manage to come to a solid conclusion or resolution regarding much of anything. The largely deposed King, Charles I, stalled every negotiation by playing different factions in the Parliamentary alliance against each other to his own advantage. When a significant faction sought to keep the King in control, albeit as only a figurehead, thereby disregarding the authority of the army, a coup d'état commenced. The Purge brutally, skillfully removed fully half of the body, leaving behind only those who supported the army, at which point the monarchy was effectively dissolved, the King beheaded, and England's first and only attempt to rule without a sovereign instituted.

What came next was the so-called "Rump Parliament", a term that, as is sometimes the case, was made by its opposition as a means of derision but stuck nonetheless. To this day, the phrase survives and is used to mean a gathering comprised of remnants of a much larger group or organization. Though initially successful, the Rump met its end four years later. Its undoing was a combination of its failure to come up with a new, working Constitution and its flagrant disregard of the wishes of Cromwell, who commanded that the body dissolve, which it refused to do. After personally observing the stalemate for himself, the soon-to-be Lord Protector bellowed,

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately ... Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

After the Rump came the appropriately-titled Barebones Parliament, which was even less successful. In disgust, Cromwell took control as a near-dictator and was kept in power by the backing by the army until his death five years later. The complexities of those times are fascinating and cannot be done justice by a brief synopsis, but my greater point is to note the morass between then and now and, in so doing, note how much easier would be our lot if Congress could ever get a thing accomplished without bogging down into a state of maddening paralysis. The Cromwellian Protectorate lasted only slightly longer than one modern-day Presidential term in office, at which point English citizens grew weary of it and re-established the monarchy. It is that lesson above all others which I wish I could impart to our elected representatives and the current occupant of the White House, else they squander a golden opportunity.

How tempting it would be if the ability existed to instantly call for new elections or even a way to rid ourselves of Representative and Senators whose stated agenda seems to be obstructionism and baseless fear-peddling. To return to how I began this post, I know that we are stuck with the men and women we have in Congress. I also understand that we have the theoretical right to throw these people out if they fail to be satisfactory stewards of our trust and our concerns, but one would be remiss to not note how they are often more indebted to the sway of fund raising, high value donors, and corporate interest. Moreover, I concede that the system as it exists is patently not designed for the kind of major overhauls we desperately require. The safeguards in place are designed in part for wiser, paternalistic heads to soberly contemplate, stroke beards meaningfully, and then cautiously proceed. There are too many procedural rules, stalling tactics, and needless esoterica embedded deeply in a branch of government whose ways and means are frequently noted as "arcane".

However, the time for real leadership arrived about four or five months ago. While I concede that President Obama picked his strategy for Health Care Reform based on the failed example of President Clinton, it is long past due for a change in strategy. Sometimes in seeking to avoid a mistake, we over-compensate and create new problems in the process. Cautiousness is sometimes a viable public option, but as regards a Democratic caucus that is beholden to so many different identity groups, so much ideological difference, and a big tent that strains to be wide enough to accept everyone, else they pitch their own somewhere else, Presidential authority is the only way to get everyone on board. If the Left has a true skill, it is in finding hairline cracks in party unity. If the Obama of 2008 can return, then all will be forgiven and we can move forward. Otherwise, we will be stuck with mealy-mouthed, soft-pedaled promises and over-cautious optimism.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Feud That Wasn't

Recent Obama Administration attacks against the Chamber of Commerce, and, more notably, Fox News have been greeted with perfunctory attention and notice by the major media outlets. Though a few pundits and experts chimed in to state their case in the immediate aftermath of Team Obama's war on bias, few were willing to really say what they believed. Reaction from the chattering classes and the peanut gallery was largely negative and unfavorable of the decision but one got the feeling that many expressed heavily disingenuous views. Invoking Nixonian tactics in a critique reveals more about current station than All the President's Men and Women. In an era where every network and news agency is under increased pressure to maintain advertising revenue and, let we forget, often running significant deficits due to competition with electronic sources of information, caution prevents a major ratings war or uppercut. In another time, a direct challenge by the White House might have fueled a bare-knuckle brawl among the heavyweights, following its bold example, but at the moment the best one can expect is a holding pattern and resulting uneasy truce. Peace might be explained away as journalistic ethics, but ethics often are disregarded if monetary advantage is an option.

Low-octane, under the radar sniping that frequently resorts to passive-aggression is the most obvious sign of the friction between politicians and purveyors of content. As a result, the major cable networks have largely resisted the temptation to go after each other. Striking from a defensive posture, MSNBC recently ran effective ads that directly contradicted Fox News' claim that the 9/12 Tea Party demonstrations in Washington, DC, were not sufficiently covered by other outlets. MSNBC was, however, careful not to go for the jugular. To cite another example, despite recent attempts to modernize its programming and its look, CNN still takes a frequently unsatisfying middle ground between centrism and more progressive reporting that frequently comes across as artificial and plebeian in all the worst ways possible. Still, CNN runs self-serving promo ads on a regular basis that tout its status as number one cable news network, making particularly mention of those under its employ who have won numerous awards and accolades. This may be so, but CNN in many ways is the proverbial sleeping giant and it will take more than a direct challenge or surprise attack to fully rouse it from its self-satisfied stupor. CNN was the first on the scene and as a result its demographic is often older and beholden to brand loyalty, but if it continues to lose younger viewers, it will find itself hemorrhaging revenue.

Returning to the President's attack on Fox News, one would expect the network, despite its obvious disdain for labor unions, to be solid in its hatred for President Obama. However, a chink in the armor appears to have developed. One of its reporters has declined the opportunity to directly engage the President in hand-to-hand combat. The question remains whether or not he is violating policy or merely exercising a liberty he has the right to embrace. It is also possible that this decision is a coordinated attempt designed purely to make President Obama look like a child and make Fox News seem like the rational adult in the matter.

Returning to the relative surface placidity of Fox News versus Barack H. Obama, et al,

Fox News Channel correspondent Major Garrett called himself a "conscientious objector" in his network's fight with the White House after a brief interview with President Barack Obama Wednesday during which the topic never came up.

One wonders also if this is merely a shrewd tactical move or indicative of larger trends within Fox News. Much exists behind the scenes that we simply aren't privy to and whether the Obama Administration has struck a deal with Fox News is purely speculative because no one's talking. Naturally, at least one conservative pundit has taken the opportunity to take a condescending swipe at the President's strategy and perceived lack of satisfying and successful victories in foreign policy. It is the intention of many on the right to paint our President as little more than an empty suit.

Tongue in cheek, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer said the interview "constitutes the most important truce in our history since the Korean armistice of 1953."

"We are South Korea in this particular analogy," he said.

To be completely honest, however, Fox News has never truly embraced an all out battle royal with the Obama Administration. While it continues to be snidely dismissive of its policies and eager to run stories with a healthy dollop of right-wing distortion, it has never counter-attacked with any kind of ferocity. When the immediate charges were levied against Fox News, namely that it was merely a propaganda wing of the Republican party, it became at most a two-day story, and notably reached no fevered pitch of nastiness. Clearly, no one really wanted to run with the story for very long. The truth is that the media had nothing to gain and quite a bit to lose if it pushed back too hard.

Any means of information dispersal has to justify its own existence from time to time and anything that might cause some degree of doubt on behalf of viewers or readers is poisonous. Opening up a major dialogue about the role of the media in daily life is the last thing any of the mainstream outlets wanted in this situation, which is unfortunate because I think it's a long-overdue topic that the American people need to debate and then decide for themselves. Fox News' stated objective is noble enough, until one realizes that it is cynically manipulative at best. We report, you decide? I suppose it depends on what one means by "reporting." The easiest populist tactic in the toolbox of any politician is the act of criticizing the media for unfair and unbalanced treatment. The irony, of course, is that the media, and by this I notably remove Fox News for the most part, is frequently criticized for fueling baseless fears as a means of pushing back against accurate, damning revelations. It is notably not held accountable for its real limitations and real shortcomings.

Snide commentary aside, one isn't sure whether this revelation constitutes victory, stalemate, or submission. The powers that be in this circumstance are shadow figures who always talk off the record and never wish to be identified. Nothing could be less transparent than the motives at play or the ultimate decision. Still, if conditions continue to deteriorate regarding the quality of content and a resulting shift towards partisan bias rather than impartiality, expect some major wars to break out that will not be assuaged by back-stage politics. If, at some critical juncture in the near future it seems like there's not enough money or enough oxygen to go round, one can be sure the gloves will be coming off and staying off.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Separation is Merely an Illusion

Amy Walter's column "It's Still 1960 in Washington" rings true in many ways. Designed to point out the stain of sexism and condescending attitudes Washington still holds within its its corridors of power, the piece also speaks to that which we have gained and have yet to gain regarding equality between the sexes. Certain assumptions have proved difficult to completely eradicate from our system and while the boldest and most visible offenders may have been banished from public sight into private secret, subtle suggestion and dog whistle have sprung up to replace them. To be sure, we do not live in a post-sexist society (yet), though if one only considered the victories won and not the upcoming contests, it might be easy to be lulled to complacency. At times we resemble the boxer, who having won a few key contests, rests back on his haunches, fails to stay in shape for his next match, and ends up losing it based on poor conditioning.

Gloria Steniem wrote,

"Those of us who were taught the cheerful American notion that progress is linear and hierarchical may have had to learn with pain...that no worthwhile battle can be fought and won only once....the issues still repeat themselves in different ways and in constantly shifting arenas."

This is, at its core, the fly in the ointment of many a Progressive and many an activist. No single election, no single candidate, no single protest, no single idea, no single victory of any size is enough. Whether you agree or disagree with the mission, The Crusades, after all, progressed easily enough at the beginning. Spurred to action by the passionate appeals of a zealous Pope, highly trained and heavily skilled armies easily defeated Muslim forces. After having secured the Holy Land and established outposts, Christian crusaders began to slowly but steadily trickle back home with time. This left the soldiers who did remain in the coveted territories and manning the castle outposts vulnerable to Muslim attack. In time, the crusader states won went back into the hands of the "infidels" and the process had no choice but to start all over again. End of Crusade One. Next, Crusade Two.

Rust is the enemy of reform and as much as it would be tempting to swap war stories, no worthwhile conflict leaves any room for nostalgia. The problem facing Feminism right now (or for that matter, any reform movement) is that many of the major forces at play haven't recognized the generational shift and new challenges that are merely part of the progression of time. Instead, they want to fight the newest enemy with obsolete strategies and obsolete weaponry. Those who do recognize the problem, frequently young Feminists and young activists, end up being tokenized, patronized, or discounted. These offenses have led to third-wavers forming their own organizations and groups, though in truth it would be far better if everyone was on the same page and not working at cross-purposes with each other. In order to make change, one must be willing to make change within oneself, and those who encourage self-reflection, sad to say, often run the risk of taking a long walk off of a short plank.

For years, the goal of feminism was to get reproductive rights out of the realm of "women's issues" and into the category of "family issues." And many have wondered if EMILY's List, an organization dedicated solely to electing pro-choice Democratic women, has outlived its usefulness. After all, in an era that saw a woman come so close to being elected president, a women's-only group can sound as outdated as the three-martini lunch. Yet it was striking that on an issue as central to the Democratic party ideology as this one, it was up to women to define and defend it.

Upon first reading this passage, I was afraid Walter was going to resort to the same argument which states that feminism and women's-only groups are superfluous and outdated. The need for them does persist, but aforementioned outdated thinking and antiquated strategy comprises the mission statements of far too many of them. That which begins with good intentions drifts dangerous towards self-parody if group introspection is not prized and actively incorporated. Many women's rights groups could and probably have been fodder for The Onion and for good reason. The second-wave feminism of the sixties and seventies advances the concerns of a relatively privileged group of now aging white middle class women and frequently doesn't take into account currents trends and cultural evolution. Furthermore, getting more than just reproductive rights transformed into the realm of family issues is what Feminism has attempted and frequently failed to do. Even invoking the phrase "family issues" instantly conjures up maternal images of rocking babies to sleep and feeding small children.

What needs to happen, unless it is forever perceived in the cultural imagination as a niche group with a relatively limited scope, is for Feminism's goals to advance human rights. To be sure, there are many activists, myself being only one, who are attempting to bring this to pass. What we continue to struggle with, however, are cultural attitudes that lock men out of the process altogether by assuming that they will be meant to feel unwelcome in feminist circles or that taking an interest in the concerns of women is masculine and thus effeminate. Along with this is a gross stereotype that portrays Feminism as shrill, exclusive, lacking an understanding of irony, and having no grasp of nuance or subtlety. Though most Feminist thought does have a woman-centered emphasis for good reason, I as a man have been amazed at how much of conventional masculine gender roles and concerns I can observe even in the most strictly female construct. It is that point in particular that makes me realize that our supposed separation from each other is a skillfully crafted illusion. We must not be careful to not break the bonds of fidelity and common purpose that link us together, provided we are willing to constantly seek them and repair them. Wear and tear is simply part of the game.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The American Dream and the Prosperity Gospel

I am not usually a reader of magazines except when waiting in places like doctor's offices or for routine car repair, but a particular column in The Atlantic fairly jumped out at me yesterday while running errands. Provocatively entitled "Did Christianity Cause the Crash?", immediately I wondered what Christianity the author was referring to when making such a sweeping pronouncement. As it turns out, it's a particularly curious hybrid strain that synthesizes radical optimism and personal gain at the expense of hard truths or self-awareness. In that regard, it could not be more indicative of the modern age, in all of its faults and promises of salvation through riches. Moreover, in this epoch where instant gratification reigns, perhaps it was inevitable that this petard preaching material gain was hoist.

Though centrally based around an emerging Catholic congregation catering specifically to recent Latino immigrants, in her compelling article author Hanna Rosin draws in disparate strains of different denominations to make an interesting and ultimately damning point.

America’s churches always reflect shifts in the broader culture, and Casa del Padre is no exception. The message that Jesus blesses believers with riches first showed up in the postwar years, at a time when Americans began to believe that greater comfort could be accessible to everyone, not just the landed class. But it really took off during the boom years of the 1990s, and has continued to spread ever since. This stitched-together, homegrown theology, known as the prosperity gospel, is not a clearly defined denomination, but a strain of belief that runs through the Pentecostal Church and a surprising number of mainstream evangelical churches, with varying degrees of intensity.

In Garay’s church, God is the “Owner of All the Silver and Gold,” and with enough faith, any believer can access the inheritance. Money is not the dull stuff of hourly wages and bank-account statements, but a magical substance that comes as a gift from above. Even in these hard times, it is discouraged, in such churches, to fall into despair about the things you cannot afford. “Instead of saying ‘I’m poor,’ say ‘I’m rich,’” Garay’s wife, Hazael, told me one day. “The word of God will manifest itself in reality.”

I find this belief system, if one could truly call it that, particularly troubling and problematic, considering that there are any number of verses of Scripture and words of Jesus I could invoke to directly contradict it. The most obvious citation and one that likely jumps out to those with a strong Christ-centered background is, of course, from the Gospel of Matthew.

"No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

I am surprised certainly at how unapologetic is this emphasis on personal finance and wealth, since the model used by many churches is a much more insidious one. The most flagrant perversion is found within conventional Protestant Christianity and is known as the Edifice Complex. In it, individual salvation is closely linked with coughing up enough money into the collection plates to buy the brand new multimillion dollar building being pushed by the minister and certain well-connected committee members. A singular focus upon a new house of worship takes precedent, is set into motion, and is awaited with a kind of rapturous Messianic zeal. Plans are drawn up, each stage is announced with much fanfare, updates are frequently provided on how much money has been donated to cover the expense, and it is implied strongly and frequently that all problems will be easily solved by more square footage. The tactic is almost always justified by stating that unchurched people will be drawn into the fold and as a result souls will be saved. Of course, paying for it all over time, in addition to such matters as an notable increase in monies devoted to utilities, mortgage payments, and routine upkeep would certainly require greater participation and increased numbers in the pews, but these are often vulgar, cynical conclusions few dare to draw openly or, for that matter, vocally.

It is not all that surprising that the prosperity gospel persists despite its obvious failure to pay off. Much of popular religion these days is characterized by a vast gap between aspirations and reality. Few of Sarah Palin’s religious compatriots were shocked by her messy family life, because they’ve grown used to the paradoxes; some of the most socially conservative evangelical churches also have extremely high rates of teenage pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births, and divorce. As Garay likes to say, “What you have is nothing compared to what you will have.” The unpleasant reality—an inadequate paycheck, a pregnant daughter, a recession—is invisible. It’s your ability to see beyond such things, your willing blindness to even the most hopeless-seeming circumstances, that makes you a certain kind of modern Christian, and a 21st-century American.

At times I have found criticism from those who are not people of faith a little annoying and self-righteous, but still do try to give credence to their concerns, many of which are well-founded. If, for instance, one assumes that religion, or for that matter, Christianity is little more than a panacea of positive thinking or a snake-oil curative based on this example, I can hardly fault them for it. True believers have always had to contend with distortions of the truth formulated to suit the ends of those who manipulated followers to advance their own ends, which often involved material gain. It is unfortunate that tunnel-vision suffices for real faith in the eyes of the deluded, though I fault those who advance it, not those who cling to it.

Later in Matthew,

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Learn what this means: 'I want mercy, not sacrifices.' For I have come to urge sinners, not the self-righteous, back to God.

I remember that when I was in high school I had a friend who grew up in a very conservative Evangelical family. Underneath the piety, however, was a kind of dysfunction utterly at odds with the stability which they espoused. The mother and father had been long divorced and so my friend lived with his mother in an always cluttered house packed floor to ceiling with junk and unorganized possessions. She used divine revelation and divine direction as justification to leave the country for long periods of time. No matter whether or not she had the money or the need to engage in weeks-long mission trips to remote corners of the globe, her rationalization was that God meant for her to go and since she wanted to go, He would provide for the messy details like funding or making sure her son had the support he needed. Upon reading this article, this anecdote from my own life entered my mind and I am saddened to think that what I considered delusional eccentricity might be far more commonplace then I had ever dreamed.

The Atlantic article focuses on a member of this Charlottesville, Virginia, Latino Catholic congregation by the name of Billy Gonzales, whose requisite devotion to the Prosperity Gospel raises some major red flags in the eyes of this reader.

By many measures, Billy Gonzales does not have it all. He lives with his wife and three children in a tiny apartment on the back side of a development at the edge of town, where people hang out on the stoop until all hours. He works 45 minutes away and his car has been broken down for three months, and he does not have any money to fix it. Every day at work he is faced with a vision of what he does not have. He works for a man who just built a $4 million house—one of four the man owns. Gonzales’s job is to make sure every wine glass, garden statue, and book is dusted and in its proper place. Yet when I talked to Gonzales he was like a child hearing the ice-cream truck, or a man newly in love. “I’m crazy! Just crazy,” he said, meaning crazy for the Lord, and giving little jumps out of his chair.

“I want to buy a house,” he confessed to me one evening this summer. It turned out his lease was almost up, and he needed to move in the fall. “Not a small one but a really huge one, a nice one. With six bedrooms and a kitchen and living room. I know, it’s crazy! But nothing is impossible! God, you saved my life,” he said, no longer speaking to me. “You saved my life, and now you will give me a gift. Now I’m crazy!” Last I heard, he and Garay were house-hunting together.

The narrative that has been advanced in our society since roughly World War II is that religion is detrimental and thus it ought to be jettisoned and disregarded. This has found favor particularly in liberal circles and continues to be pushed hard, since it is easy to provide a new example of how religious intolerance holds back progress or controls people to maintain its own power. When riding the bus yesterday here in DC, I came across a very visible ad for Humanism. It fairly dripped with optimism, smiling faces, calm colors, and good cheer, stating that it is possible for a person to be good without having to have a belief in God or a higher power at all.

In my opinion, I believe that it is entirely possible to be a model citizen without a belief in a higher power, but I suppose I simply have a hard time entertaining the notion that humans when in groups are capable of staying grounded and remaining focused in their efforts to assist everyone. One needs only look at the artifice we have created in government to see the confusion, the inequality, and above all, the needless complications that resort when peoples' stated agenda at the outset is egalitarianism which ends up by the end nothing remotely like it. What often starts with the best of intentions concludes with a finished product that pleases no one.

Going back to Gonzales, what strikes me as a supreme tragedy is this particular passage, which flies in the face of much biblical teaching and, to be fair, much teaching of other religions.

He told me he feels pity for his employer. He assumes the man must have been close to God at one point, or at least his family must have been, “because the rich are closer to God.” But now the man has lost his way. He laughs when Gonzales talks to him about Jesus, and he wastes his money, buying $500 birdhouses and hiring Gonzales to clean them.

This story begs to be contradicted and my selection of the passage below should come as no surprise.

Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments."

Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus looked at them intently and said, "For humans this is impossible, but for God all things are possible."

The long and short of it is that religion isn't meant to be a consistent warm fuzzy. That's not the point. Jesus called out the leaders of his day and age, which directly led to his death on a cross. All or nothing thinking transforms religion either to a nonstop bummer trip of hypocrisy and thought control or a kind of willing Utopia adopted by believers desperate for a break from the travails and stressors of the world. We are taught, poetically, that to everything there is a season. Sometimes we need encouragement, sometimes we need to be aware of our own frailties, sometimes we can delight in joy, sometimes we need to be held accountable for our transgressions, but we don't need a retelling of the bootstrap mythology based on a oversimplified interpretation of scripture.

A notable criticism of all of the monotheistic religions is that they are Paternalistic and at times needlessly meddling. I admit that the intention of the Gospels has been twisted to state "I know better than you do". Still, focusing specifically on what Jesus taught, the ultimate intention in the beginning was that of empowerment, not subordination. No teacher desperate to be worshiped or admired would have stated that whomever exalts himself or herself will be humbled and whomever humbles himself or herself will be exalted. It is a corruption of original intent that leads many away from faith and towards a gospel preaching riches, while in the process forsaking the Golden Rule. The American Dream as realized begins with the Protestant work ethic, but takes a sharp detour along the way.

To conclude, a message for false teachers and corrupt politicians.

"The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them 'Rabbi.'

"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Don't make others call you a leader, because you have only one leader, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Building a Name-Brand Health Care System, Not a Low-Cost Generic Alternative

Much as credit card companies have charged exorbitant interest rates in the period leading up to the passage and enactment of reform, so too have prescription drug companies added more cost to their already prohibitively expensive products. Afraid that health care regulatory legislation will cut too heavily into their soaring profits, the industry feels no shame, nor any compulsion to give heavily burdened consumers much of a break. This is a side of the debate that has not gotten the same attention as other areas and one that I have tried to bring to light quite frequently, being that I myself stand to lose quite a bit if out-of-control price increases are not sharply curtailed. I do not deceive myself into thinking that I am the only one who stands to lose. Though I do not mind invoking personal experience if it facilitates greater understanding and urgency, I wish it didn't take the anecdotes of the chronically ill to impress upon a skeptical public the importance of health care reform.

On the subject of psychotropic medication, something of which I am an amateur expert, I have closely monitored new classes, types, and formulations of prescription drugs in a desire to find the best way possible to treat my condition. For every new medication that breaks new ground, wins approval by the FDA, and is then prescribed by GPs and psychiatrists across the country, it is a never-ending source of frustration for me to observe the three new offerings which are merely slightly different formulations of existing medications. This is a covetous process undertaken mainly to reap maximum profit when older scripts are on the verge of losing patent status and thus being offered as generics. For example, the anti-depressant which is the most recent addition to a family of medications known as SSNRIs has been marketed under the name Pristiq. Pristiq has a very similar chemical structure and as a result works only slightly differently from an existing drug in the same school, Effexor, that has been around for over ten years. Sometimes, however, even generics occasionally have limitations. Though a lower-cost equivalent to Effexor exists, the less-expensive form has been reported to work not nearly as effectively as the name brand formulation.

An article in today's New York Times reports on Big Pharma's side of the story.

But drug companies say they are having to raise prices to maintain the profits necessary to invest in research and development of new drugs as the patents on many of their most popular drugs are set to expire over the next few years.

That may be, but before one gets misty-eyed listening to the woe-is-us violin, rest assured that the pharmaceutical industry isn't exactly hurting for business. Conveniently they don't mention the larger picture. Another example of this kind of infuriating slight-of-hand is the sleep aid Ambien, which has had a sufficient generic alternative for a while. A relatively new formulation dubbed Ambien CR produces an only a slightly different reaction, mainly by time-releasing the absorption of the drug into the blood stream. The drug is the same, but the gimmick is different. Returning to psychiatry, it is either a testament to how little we know about the function of the brain or how unwilling we are to risk radical change that the medications used to treat depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia have broken only relatively limited ground in decades. The best treatment for depression are still a class of powerful anti-depressant known as a MAOI inhibitors, which are close to fifty years old. They are rarely prescribed, however, because taking them requires strict dietary restrictions that, if not adhered to, can result in serious damage to the body and, in extreme cases, even death. In treating bipolar disorder, some patients still respond best to Lithium, which has been used in treatment for over a century, but extensively since the Fifties.

Newer medication often cut down side effects and make the period of adjustment less painful, but do little to increasing the stated objectives of the drug, namely to drag people out of depressive episodes and set them on a course towards health and functionality. Experimental trials are often plodding affairs proceeding at the pace of a snail, targeting a relatively limited area of the brain, and unwilling to take any unnecessary chances. Despite this, some medications do pass muster and do end up being taken by who are suffering in the hopes of providing relief. Even so, the drug makers and those who formulate them sometimes fail to take into account such crucial details as major side effects in a rush to get out the next big thing. SSNRIs like Effexor, for example, are infamous for producing absolutely awful issues when someone stops taking it. Though not strictly classified as such, one might even say that such drugs are addictive because the brain acts violently when the medication is discontinued. These serious matters somehow never find their way onto the commercials on television or the ads inside glossy magazines.

The difference in cost between name brand and generic drugs is quite vast. Often it is a matter of several hundred dollars for a one month supply, though it can be as high as a thousand dollars or more. As one might expect, those with employer-based or individual plans paid for out of pocket have to pay substantially higher co-pays for name brand drugs. When I had private insurance, the co-pay for generic medications was $10 and for name-brand drugs, it was $60. Sometimes I had no choice but to take a name-brand medication, which are often treated by insurance companies as something bordering on cosmetic and not essential, when the fact of the matter is that they are highly necessary and highly unavoidable at times.

Those who don't have the luxury of private insurance, of course, have it rougher. Those who have to rely on Medicaid find that they have no choice but to settle for generic medications when a name-brand drug would be a much better fit and work much more effectively. Medicaid programs vary, but in the state of Alabama, the most expensive medications are only covered if a doctor or specialist one can provide proof that at least two lower-cost alternatives have failed or been insufficient to treat the condition. Not only must they have failed, one must also work within the confines of a 90 day coverage window. If a claim to cover a more expensive medication is not filed within 90 days of failing the requisite two medications, then coverage is not granted. This is ridiculous in lots of ways, mainly that few medications used to treat mental illness work quickly, and many take weeks upon weeks before any psychiatrist or doctor can make a judgment either way. It's also ridiculous because it uses a broad brush of convenience, painting all illnesses as basically the same and all treatment regimens as similar. Some name-brand medications, regardless of the need are not covered at all, since whomever set up the system decided that covering it would unnecessarily drain the General Fund and that it was an unnecessary prescription in the first place.

Returning to the Times column,

But the drug makers have been proudly citing the agreement they reached with the White House and the Senate Finance Committee chairman to trim $8 billion a year — $80 billion over 10 years — from the nation’s drug bill by giving rebates to older Americans and the government. That provision is likely to be part of the legislation that will reach the Senate floor in coming weeks.

But this year’s price increases would effectively cancel out the savings from at least the first year of the Senate Finance agreement. And some critics say the surge in drug prices could change the dynamics of the entire 10-year deal.

Those who trust Big Pharma do so at their own peril.

Additionally, The news broke today that, quite unsurprisingly, much misinformation exists surrounding the Public Option™. As Politico points out,

The debate has placed disproportionate emphasis on the creation of a government insurance plan, raising the expectation that everyone could ditch their employer-provided coverage and enroll in the public option.

But that won’t happen, at least not at the start. The reality is that only about 30 million Americans — 10 percent of the population — would even be eligible.

It could be accessed only through a new insurance marketplace known as an exchange, where consumers would shop for plans. Only certain categories of people could use the exchange: the self-employed, small businesses, lower-income people who qualify for tax credits to purchase insurance and those who are otherwise unable to find affordable private coverage.

This might deflate the hopes of supporters and pacify opponents, but since so much of this debate has been a three-ring-circus based on raw emotion and faulty logic, I sincerely doubt it. However, as proposed, it is interesting to note that the Public Option™ would be more like Medicaid than anything else. My hope is that we do not make the same mistakes with the current bill as we do with existing systems it seeks to augment or replace, particularly those in red states who likely would opt-out altogether if provided the opportunity to do so. Though at least red state residents would presumably have the fall-back of Medicaid, provided they could qualify, the framework is based on ignorance and tunnel-vision of an almost incomprehensible degree. One cannot simplify the complexities of humanity, nor its diseases, which are as multifarious as its people.

Returning to the treatment of mental illness, what is often not cited is the disconcerting fact that often African-Americans and Latinos respond much less favorably to medications used to treat the condition. This is a contentious topic with lots of disagreement, but the argument some advance is that cultural stigma factors in to a very large degree. If minorities feel shamed or guilty about seeking help for psychiatric needs, they are much less likely to engage in medical research. Furthermore, many believe that therapy is a more viable option than medication. Often it is difficult to make any kind of pronouncement when the truth is obscured by so many different interrelated factors. And though one can easily make a case for mental illness, one could also make a case that minority and low-income residents might be less inclined to visit a doctor for a more run-of-the-mill ailments as well.

The lifetime prevalence of major depression in the United States is estimated to be 16.2 percent, with considerable social and role impairment evident in the majority of patients. Previous studies found only minor differences in depression rates among African Americans, Latinos and whites. But various studies have found patients from lower social economic groups often have less access to mental health care, are less likely to be prescribed and to fill prescriptions for new antidepressants and are less likely to receive care beyond medications when compared to whites.

This fear and anxiety so many have that resembles to these eyes a case of St. Vitus Dance may not have any basis in reality. Doesn't matter how good the system is if no one uses it. God forbid everyone in this country have a high standard of living and good health. As the article points out, minorities and low-income citizens often have the highest need for quality care and are apt to put off seeking help until the pain becomes intolerable. That these are the people most likely to be eligible for enrollment in the government-run (gasp) option, those now building it from the ground up would do well to consider its target audience. We speak out of our own privilege when we assume that somehow the Public Option™ will directly affect us for better or for worse, when the poor and less fortunate will be the ones who either reap its rewards or suffer from its limitations. While it is true that middle class individuals and the reasonably affluent have struggled under the yoke of skyrocketing health care costs, I recall going in that I assumed the changes needed and intended were meant to appeal to our tired, our poor, our huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Somewhere along the way this became all about us.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

That Which Needs to Be Said

Blue Gal's post about content poaching raises a serious issue that has created headaches and indignation across the blogsophere. With so many worthy voices in the blogsophere churning out quality work on a consistent basis, larger sites, entities, or individuals apparently feel no remorse in resorting to overt plagiarism or lifting visual content without the permission or consent of the author or authors. Citizen journalists like myself and others consider blogging a labor of love and as such they offer their services largely for free. The major issue at play is that blogging, much like writing, is a supremely competitive endeavor that stems from lots of people fighting over the same turf, commenting on the same issues, and seeking to attain paid positions, which are not and may never be plentiful.

In solidarity with Blue Gal and other sites like it, I have followed her example and posted a donation button at the bottom of this post. Those who feel inclined or so moved can signify their support by contributing. No gift is too big or too small and participation is, of course, strictly voluntary. It is my wish that those bloggers of general sympathy consider this same gesture.

Quote of the Week

No explanation necessary.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009

Financial Reform Should Be Adaptive, Not Punitive

Flying under the radar to a large extent is Congress' attempt to reform and regulate our country's financial system. The yeas and nays are quite predictably divided along party lines and several powerful entities who stand to lose from reform have, of course, loudly registered their complaints. Thus far, the going has been slow, in part due to internal Democratic party squabbling and a failure to find consensus among high ranking committee members of different parties. Despite this, it is far more likely that something soundly sweeping and resolute will arrive from fiduciary legislation than the hyper-politicized, emotionally overwrought, and contentious Health Care bill now currently dwelling in a state of hopeful limbo. This is in part due to the fact that the struggle to reform monetary policy doesn't hold nearly the same degree of attention in the eyes of the public. Yet, as would be expected, allegations have surfaced claiming that certain crucial legislators actively involved in the process have deep pockets and a willingness to court conflict of interest-bearing accounts.

We often refer to corruption as though it is some relatively recent development unique to our times. This is part of our compulsion to assume that we live in the worst of all possible worlds and that the past promised a purity never to be regained in the modern age. Not so, not so. Looking behind us a few decades, if not a few centuries, will reveal a wealth of similarities between these days and others. Though the scope of lobbyist influence and dubiously ethical campaign contributions are the latest bone of contention and face of evil, the basic concept has never changed. In particular, the story of the Second Bank of the United States and its dissolution can prove to be instructive. Established following the War of 1812 to shore up the value of the dollar, curb inflation, and to manage the nation's massive debt incurred after the conclusion of a conflict with no clear winner or loser, the Bank of the United States achieved its stated purpose, but like so many financial fixes it also provided short term success and long term woe.

After the war, despite the debt, the United States also experienced an economic boom, due to the devastation of the Napoleonic Wars. In particular, because of the damage to Europe's agricultural sector, the U.S. agricultural sector underwent an expansion. The Bank aided this boom through its lending, which encouraged speculation in land. This lending allowed almost anyone to borrow money and speculate in land, sometimes doubling or even tripling the prices of land. The land sales for 1819, alone, totaled some 55 million acres (220,000 km²). With such a boom, hardly anyone noticed the widespread fraud occurring at the Bank as well as the economic bubble that had been created.[3]

-Source: Wikipedia.

It should be noted that the Bank of the United States was not a national bank owned and managed by the United States of America. It is fortunate that the term "socialism" was not coined until a few years later, else its opponents lob that charge in its direction. It was, instead, a privately held banking corporation that happened to be the repository of the entirety of federal tax revenues. As one might concede, the massive amount of control, influence, and capital it had over the federal government as a result sent Jacksonian Democrats into a tirade. However, the bank's National Republican supporters stood firm. That genius public speaker, living legend, and intransigent Jackson opponent Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts was on retainer as the bank's legal counsel and was also Director of its Boston branch probably made absolutely no impact upon the proceedings, nor did the fact likely influence his allegiance. That several other Congressional leaders periodically received large loans from the bank in exchange for their votes, since extending the bank's charter required periodic congressional resolution was also an inconsequential, trifling matter.

Eventual Chief Justice and Dred Scott decision maker Roger Taney served as Attorney General and Secretary of the Treasury under Andrew Jackson before winning confirmation. His own recollections of the workings of the Bank are as pertinent and revealing now as they were then. In particular, Taney noted how a congressman sworn to oppose the institution one day cast a rather surprising vote in its favor the next. As it turned out, the Bank granted him a loan of $20,000 on generous terms, no small sum for the 1830's. Instead of coming down harshly on the congressman, Taney takes a more philosophical stance, attempting to understand the power of rationalization and the inner workings of the mind rather than overt moralizing.

Now I do not mean to say that he was directly bribed to give his vote. From the character he sustained and from what I know of him I think he would have resented anything that he regarded as an attempt to corrupt him. But he wanted the money, and felt grateful for the favor, and perhaps thought that an institution which was so useful to him, and had behaved with such kindness, could not be injurious or dangerous to the public, and that it would be as well to continue it. Men when under the influence of interest or passion often delude themselves thoughtlessly, and do not always acknowledge even to themselves the motives upon which they really act...It was one of the dangerous arising from the mammoth money power, that its very duties as collecting and disbursing agent brought it constantly in contact with members of Congress and other public functionaries and made it acquainted with their wants and enabled it to place them under obligations and create a feeling of dependence and even gratitude without the direct and offensive offer of a bribe.

-Source: Dorman B. Eaton
The North American Review, Vol. 135, No. 310 (Sep., 1882), pp. 197-219

To backtrack a few decades, one needs to understand the mistakes of the First Bank of the United States and how its failure influenced the construction and formulation of the Second. Then, as now, economists were split as to the ways to revive the economy and shore up the system to prevent future failures. Recessions, as evidenced by our current one, have a multitude of causes and a combination of events in tandem are what dictate severity. Predictably, economists are often split along ideological faults since political allegiance dictates where one assigns blame. It is another instance of wishful thinking on our part to assume that some school of thought or occupation deeply rooted in politics and indebted to allegiance might either rise above or be utterly unaffected by partisanship. What few can argue, however, are the facts.

In the summer of 1818, the national bank managers realized the bank's massive over-extension, and instituted a policy of contraction and the calling in of loans. This recalling of loans simultaneously curtailed land sales and slowed the U.S. production boom due to the recovery of Europe. The result was the Panic of 1819...[4]

-Source: Wikipedia

Most economists agree that this was the first instance where a market based economy in this country began its inevitable cycle of boom and bust. What transpired as a result of this Panic were that many people lost substantial sums of money, unemployment soared, and it took years for the country to dig its way out. Returning to the present day, each time a recession or severe economic downturn hits, there is always a renewed push among some to favor specie (gold or precious metals) over paper currency. Recently, Ron Paul and many Libertarians proposed a return to the Gold Standard and to a solid backing of debt rather than the speculative system now in place. This same distrust of monetary policy led President Jackson and his followers to be initially suspicious of the Second Bank and when instance after instance of corruption and quid pro quo came to light, he vowed to kill it, and through force of will and stubbornness, he inevitably did.

A sweeping example of uncompromising executive power, Jackson's act also ushered in the pervasive and persistent notion of populism, whereby the desires of the monied elite were pitted against those of the exploited masses. The President's supporters initially cheered the decision to dissolve the Bank as a victory for the average citizen. His opponents grumbled amongst themselves and made the first efforts to form their own party, one which would be known as the Whigs. However, it needs noting that the only thing truly unifying them together was hatred of a common enemy in the form of Jackson. The never-healed, nor resolved deep fissures within the Whigs proved to be their undoing, and the party had relatively modest success on a national stage, eventually dissolving and being absorbed into the new Republican party around the time of the Civil War.

An unforeseen consequence of the demise of the Bank was a destabilization of the entire financial system which contributed to another Panic, this one beginning in 1837. Some scholars assert that had the Bank been allowed to stay in existence, what became a five year recession would not have occurred in the first place. Others believe that the decision had a minimal impact and that other trends and causes were to blame. Still, the lesson to be learned from this is that, despite the undeniable scope of unethical conduct perpetrated by politicians, making a change too sweeping without a firm sense and understanding of how to skillfully and lastingly rebuild a house of cards on sounder ground is bound to have negative consequences. Financial systems in our modern economy are beholden to trends, currents, cross-currents, and influences that are both complex and completely in flux at all times. We have seen recently the destruction of unilateral decisions made impulsively and how their detrimental impact lasts well beyond the tenure of person who put them into place.

Establishing sufficient regulation and sufficient safeguards have serious limitations because of the way the system is structured. The value of almost every commodity is up for debate and one need only consult the exchange rate between foreign currencies to observe that. At this moment, the value of the U.S. dollar is changing value slightly, but nonetheless notably from second to second, minute to minute, hour to hour. Provided our markets and other world markets happen to be actively trading, this is to be expected. No amount of well-meaning legislation will prevent another recession, unless it proposes a credible way to address human fallibility. However, this does not excuse complicity with the very entities reformers and regulators seek to hold accountable for their actions, either. What this does mean is that financial reform needs to start with an educated guess that will undeniably have to be revised over time. Greed finds a way to reassert itself, but so do the flaws in a supremely complicated system beholden to influencing events no one can predict ahead of time. Some will guess correctly and some will guess incorrectly, but the best strategy is to be adaptive rather than punitive.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Breaking Common Ground Is a Shovel-Ready Project

For a time, finding a middle ground with stated opponents was the concept of the hour, advanced by a young, idealistic President who seemed to really believe that a Washington, DC, set in its ways was ready to come to the table in a spirit of fellowship. I seek not to be the latest to declare the effective end of a noble experiment or to register my frustrations at the true believers of the pratice, but rather to encourage the concept where, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, reason is left free to combat it. Like so many revolutionary ideas, finding that which unites is not a passive endeavor and requires a equal proportion of self-reflection and sweat. Indeed, it is this same effort that must be undertaken by each of us if we are to develop effective vaccines to combat racism, classism, sexism, and other infectious diseases, while knowing full well that they will mutate with time. If only research and development could be a term-limited matter, but alas, it is not and may never be.

Much partisan and ideological nastiness comes from simple misunderstanding, one which assumes that surface differences define the whole. A country as large in area and diverse in population as ours could hardly be expected to adopt or develop a kind of overall uniformity. Even countries a tenth the size of ours possess a variety of dialects, religious identifications, customs, and means of expression. Face value is skin deep.

As Politico's Glenn Thursh writes,
Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) has bucked Nancy Pelosi on nearly every vote — including health care — and is said to dwell deep in the Pelosi doghouse.

But he had nothing but kind words for the speaker during an appearance in his district this week — telling a meeting of high school students she was "the most misunderstood person in Washington," according to the Asheville Citizen-Times.

"She’s very misunderstood,” the congressman said. “She’s a devout Catholic. Don’t get in a Bible discussion with her.”

Religious expression in the South is a very public matter, as are open confessions of faith. Indeed, I do not cringe internally or grow uncomfortable when I hear scriptural references invoked to underscore larger points or become offended by those who profess their faith in Christ, but I know some from North of the Mason-Dixon line who do. Regarding my own greater understanding, had I not deliberately befriended others who had grown up with different cultural expectations and practices, I would not have been able to correctly understand their notable discomfort and might even have assumed that Northerners as a bloc were strictly secular or that they all spoke and believed with one voice. One such a strongly held misconception exists among some in the South, asserting if one takes a certain controversial stance, like say, the right of a woman to choose to terminate her pregnancy, one cannot possibly be religious or possess any spiritual grounding whatsoever.

Abraham Lincoln pointed out this irony in his Second Inaugural Address, given shortly before the end of the Civil War. Who better to address this issue than a man born in a border state, Kentucky, which held divided loyalties during the conflict. Though Lincoln himself led the eventually victorious Union forces, several of his wife's close relatives were Southern sympathizers and many took up arms in the service of the Confederacy. This left Mrs. Lincoln open to charges that she was either a Confederate spy or a traitor, charges that while unfounded, were nonetheless easy to make. The Washington of their time was also a city of split personalities, indebted to both Eastern and Southern culture. Lincoln's remarks that muddy day in March have application to any protracted struggle where both sides of a conflict claim sole ownership over the moral high ground and direction of the debate.

Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.

Sixty years prior, our third President had emerged victorious in what had been the first, but certainly not the last contentious election for the highest office in the land. As a child of the Enlightenment, he advanced a school of thought common to those times whereby a belief in logic and rationality could by themselves suffice to end religious intolerance and resulting persecution. Though the theocracy so many fear has never taken firm root in American soil, Thomas Jefferson's focus was on a virulent strain of this same repressive attitude that might find firmer footing and a breeding ground on our shores. In his first Inaugural Address, which I have quoted earlier in passing, Jefferson sought to unify a nation which had, within just four Presidential election cycles, become a two-party nation in flagrant disregard of the wishes of its creators.

Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.

As for these times, we are justified in registering reservations and in so doing, refusing to be railroaded or ignored. We are well within our rights to apply steady pressure and fight for our causes. However, if we wish to make the Democratic party a more perfect union, rather than the disorganized, dysfunctional family it often resembles, it will require more than sloganeering, sweeping pronouncements, and digging in for the inevitable siege. Behold, a Blue Dog sticking up for the oft-reviled Speaker of the House! Will wonders never cease? A slightly different way of looking at supposedly unresolvable differences led a member of our party from a different school of thought to assert strongly and unequivocally that, though the packaging and wrapping may be different, commonality exists. That which one is accustomed need not blind us to see friends and allies not immediately like us or, worse yet, to confuse, as Jefferson wrote, differences of opinion which are not differences of principle. The shovel-ready projects in front of us require us to do more than propose and purchase the needed tools. We must also dig into the earth, for it is only then that we can move mountains.