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    Thursday
    Jan232014

    Am I an Activist?

    Today is the penultimate day of the New Hampshire Rebellion, a 185-mile, north-to-south walk across the state of New Hampshire in support of eliminating corruption in politics. The walk began at Dixville Notch (historically, the first town in the nation to vote in each presidential election), then moved through Gorham, North Conway, Laconia, Concord, and Merrimack. Tomorrow it finishes up in Nashua, just north of the Massachusetts border. Headed by Rootstrikers' Lawrence Lessig (also of Harvard University), the goal is to create a swelling awareness of the ways in which money corrupts our political system. It’s a noble cause, and one I wholly support.

    Well, perhaps not wholly.  I’m not walking.

    It’s not that I found out about it too late. A good friend, Eric Byler (filmmaker, activist and head of CoffeePartyUSA), told me about it well in advance of the event. He knows the topic is important to me, and knows I live in New Hampshire, so thought it a no-brainer that I would want to get involved.

    I have a host of weak reasons for not walking. First of all, it’s really, really cold here in New Hampshire (as I sit here the temperature is cresting at six degrees), and I’m not as young or hearty as I once was. Also, my wife is out on the west coast this week and I have two dogs, with no real way to have them cared for even if I had decided to take an entire day (or more) to trudge through the cold. And then there’s the whole transportation thing. If I drove to where a day’s walk started, then how would I get back there after the walk? I’d be stranded without transportation. Oh, and let’s not forget that I’m an introvert, and don’t generally enjoy hanging out with groups of people.

    Poor excuses all, and so I feel a little guilty about it. Real activists, I’m trained to believe, are those who actually get out there and do things. People like Eric and his partner, Annabel Park, who spent months trudging through the south in search of their Story of America. People like Riki Ott, co-director of Ultimate Civics and co-founder of Move to Amend.

    Me… I’m a writer.

    So I wonder, constantly, whether I’m an activist in any real sense of the word. Strangely—given the previous paragraphs—I’ve decided that I am. I do something, the thing I’m good at. I write about what I care for with respect to our social contract, focusing on the ways in which we should share our common space and strive for honesty, truth, and integrity. We’ve all heard that the pen is mightier than the sword. Perhaps you don’t accept Bulwer-Lytton's overused cliché, but you must admit that the pen can be at least as mighty. Look at what Twitter has wrought, and that’s certainly all about the pen. Or the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., so quotable that they still (and probably always will) continue to move people toward change.

    What’s important is not the how or the what, but the caring, and if I show my caring through words then, yes, I guess I’m an activist.

    If you care, and can contribute in the best way that you know how, then you, too, are an activist. Maybe you walk for an ideal. Maybe you risk arrest. Maybe you make films. Or maybe, like me, you write. Whatever you do is worthwhile, as long as you do it because you care.

    So then: How do you care?

    Wednesday
    Dec182013

    Merrily We (En)Roll Along....

    I begin with the standard caveat, one I’ve created for whenever I write about our health care system. I find this necessary because, too often, my audience is either belligerently negative or annoyingly positive on the topic. So: here goes…

    The following brief essay discusses health care. In particular, it addresses, from a personal perspective some of things that I’ve encountered since the changes have begun. Please note the following.

    • I call it Obamacare. It’s easier. I know that the actual name of the law is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but that’s just so much jargon. Do not assume that the use of either term suggests my attitude towards the program entire.
    • There are good things in Obamacare. I particularly like that the insurance companies can’t go hunting for reasons to throw people off of insurance plans just when it’s most needed. I also like the stuff about kids.
    • There are bad things in Obamacare. I particularly don’t like that it doesn’t address tort reform, nor do anything but give hopeful lip service to rising costs.
    • There is a difference between health care and a health care system. There’s also a difference between the Obamacare program and the Obamacare implementation.

    Got that? Good. Now let me tell you how I nearly found myself with NO insurance at all because the Obamacare implementation continues to be a nightmare…

    For those of you who don’t remember, I didn’t have the best experience when I started enrolling in Obamacare. My current plan was sent to swim with the fishes, so I had little choice but to change. When I did, my premiums went up a little bit, my deductible went up a lot, my wife saw one of her most precious medications eliminated, and we lost a doctor she rather likes. (Update: we got the doctor back when our insurance carrier decided, under some pressure, to expand the provider list back to what it was previously.) And through it all the support provided over at healthcare.gov was decidedly lacking (if not downright unpleasant).

    So, given little choice, I signed up and received a nice confirmation from healthcare.gov, then waited to receive the paperwork from my carrier so that I could send in the required first payment. Only it didn’t come. Instead I got another bill for my old plan, the one that had a mere thirty days left in its now-shortened life cycle.

    At this point, I damn well wasn’t trusting that even my initial enrollment had reached conclusion, so I went back to healthcare.gov to confirm that I was signed up.  Turns out I was, and I again saw the confirmation number and the associated notices. I rechecked everything—reading every boring word--, and again noted that I was to make the first payment, and that my carrier would contact me. There were no instructions on where to send a payment, no links to that information, nothing.

    Let me say that again: I was instructed that I had to pay, but wasn’t told where to pay or whom to pay. This was clearly a system designed either by Monty Python or Torquemada.

    So I called my carrier, and they confirmed that they were awaiting my first payment, which they needed to receive before sending paperwork. A very nice person out in Oxnard gave me the address, told me what info to put on the check, and reconfirmed the amount due. I mailed the check directly into the Christmas rush, and now wait with some angst…

    The lesson? If I hadn’t made the phone call—if I hadn’t personally taken it upon myself to determine what information I didn’t have and still needed—I would have faced 2014 with no health insurance at all. My old plan would have gone away, and my new one would have been silently waiting for money to feed it.

    So: I have two questions. First—who in the hell builds a new system without making sure that all the needed information is available? And before you go all anti-insurance company and blame it on them, let me gently inform you that it just ain’t their fault.  When a goliath mandates a program, that goliath is accountable for making sure that the implementation pieces—even those owned by third-parties—are ready to go.  And they weren’t. Frankly, I’ve been involved in large-scale systems roll outs all of my adult life, and if one ever went this poorly then somebody accountable would have lost his or her job.  Maybe more than a single someone…

    In my mind, this entire program wasn’t ready for prime time, and the right thing to do was to find a compromise that would have allowed for delay. Perhaps we could have implemented those elements we all agree on, like the ones that protect children and the sick from being tossed aside like so much unprofitable detritus. And maybe we could have legislated a fixed premium percentage increase for the entire industry (don’t’ laugh—Nixon did something similar way back when during the wage-and-price-freeze days) And then, with the biggest risks to humans eliminated, we could have taken another year to get this thing right rather than foisting it, unready, on an unready public.

    Oh: and here’s my second question—the one that’s really important. How many millions of people may not have insurance on January 1 because of this system snafu?  And do you know if you’re one of them?

    Wednesday
    Oct162013

    Obama Cares vs. Obamacare

     

    Let me begin my saying that I truly believe Barack Obama cares. He’s not an evil despot figuring out how to run for a third, fourth, or even fifth term, thereby allowing himself the time to create the socialist caliphate that a very small (but very vocal) group of nutcases assume is his nefarious apocalyptic vision.

    Instead, I see Barack Obama as an okay President that lives roughly in the center (sometimes veering left, sometimes veering right), who has fair-to-middling leadership skills (in a time when we need amazing leadership skills) and who has essentially bet his legacy on this one thing which, despite it’s real name, most of us now recognize by its eponymous title, Obamacare.

    But Obamacare is a mess, at least for me. 

    As a sole proprietor I have my own insurance, and for the last few years I’ve been writing checks for reasonable coverage for both myself and my wife. I have a wide spectrum of doctors to choose from, and the drug coverage, frankly, exceeds my original expectations. 

    But now that’s all going away. Yesterday I received a letter in the mail from my insurance company. The letter informed me that every single plan they currently offer in NH is being eliminated, replaced by six plans that, strangely enough, break down into two “bronze,” two “silver,” and two “gold.”  In comparing those six plans to the six plans available to me through the Obamacare exchange, I found out that—surprise, surprise—they are pretty much exactly the same. And, by the way, they are the only company offering anything in NH. So much for choice…

    So I figured I’d better check out the healthcare exchange. (NH uses the federal exchange, having opted not to run its own.) This turned out to be a true technical nightmare. On four separate occasions I managed to create my profile only to find it unsaved, dumped mercilessly into an ocean of bits and bytes that flowed who-knows-where. (I’m guessing the NSA.) Once I had finally surmounted that problem, I found an endless list of questions and answers that I had to complete just to find out what plans were offered in my state. But that would have been too simple, apparently Had this been some other site—say Target or Best Buy—and they’d required a bunch of personal information just to do a friggin’ price check, then I certainly would have bailed. But I couldn’t. I have to have insurance, after all….

    I did finally get a look at the plans offered (hence my ability to compare them to the plan I’m losing), but I then made the mistake, apparently, of refusing to make a snap decision, and now I can’t get back in at all.  A very nice (and obviously battered) customer support rep informed me that I should try checking back in the middle of the night when traffic was lower. I kid you not.

    And so I’m now faced with a painful process of having to deal with a technical nightmare in order to buy something that I don’t like but have to have.  Here’s the short list of the “benefits” I’ll see from Obamacare:

    • My current plan is going away. Everything close to my current plan is going away. And there is only one provider available. My choices have essentially been eliminated.
    • One of our current doctors—someone my wife trusts and has worked with for a while now—is no longer “in plan.” That doesn’t mean, as it used to, that the coverage level is reduced. It means the coverage for going to that doctor is zero. Basically, under Obamacare I no longer have complete choice of doctors.
    • One of the medicines we get every month is no longer covered. At all. And it ain’t cheap.
    • My annual deductible will double, meaning that I can expect more out-of-pocket costs before any coverage (other than basic wellness) kicks in.

    And, for the privilege of this reduced coverage, I get to pay more than I’m now paying for my current plan.

    Okay, okay. I realize that this is anecdotal. I’m just one guy. Obamacare has undoubtedly helped millions. But as a program it’s highly flawed. Any plan that takes a perfectly bell-centered middle class guy like myself and hurts him isn’t doing what a caring Obama wanted to do.

    So, yes. Once we get through this budget/debt ceiling debacle, Obamacare needs to be “on the table.” This is a well-intentioned but very flawed omnibus that needs careful and thoughtful overhaul so that middle-class people don’t get hurt. 

    Can that happen?  I don’t know. The rhetoric is so thick on both sides that it’s hard to imagine. The right needs to accept that Obama cares, and the left needs to accept that Obamacare is flawed.

    We shall see…..

     

    Tuesday
    Sep032013

    Syria-sly, Mr. President?

    Once again it’s time to take sides. To strike or not to strike? To risk war or to risk another untold number of civilian deaths? To support or not to support?  Forget baseball. This is our new national pastime. Line up. Pick a hat. Throw it in your favorite ring.

    I’ve been watching the emergent arguments for days now, the back and forth over what we should do “about Syria” (as if it’s some recalcitrant child that continues, night after night, to argue over bedtime).  Some of these arguments would contain a certain ironic humor (McCain and Gramm opposed until they weren’t; Sean Hannity sharing Ann Coulter’s opinions on the topic) if it all weren’t so heart-wrenching and frightening.

    In my mind the use of chemical weapons demands some action, a "proportional response," as Aaron Sorkin wrote in The American President. It’s a line the world wants not to be crossed, and the image of a nation striking out against its own citizens only amplifies the outrage. We all know that we’re stuck with these things—Pandora-like, they’re out of the box—and that this is not the first time such weapons have been used. But the sheer public scale and the way in which the weapons were deployed this time—by a country’s leadership against its own citizens—demands response. 

    The current waters, though, have become incredibly muddied, partly because of Bush-era history and partly because of Obama’s continued mushiness in foreign policy. The world, perhaps rightfully, is once-bitten and twice shy thanks to the revealed bastardizations that the Bush administration went through to “prove” its case for Iraq. As a result, both citizens and governments worldwide are starkly hesitant to back us in any Syrian endeavor; here at home the wounds are all too recent (some only days old), and across the pond our staunchest ally has backed away from backing us. And in yet another display of twisted irony, the one country that supports the U.S. is France (maybe now we can finally put all that “freedom fries” crap behind us).

    On top of the last hawkish legacy rides Obama’s unwavering wavering, a foreign policy that most resembles a pas de deux starring us and the rest of the world, one in which our president never seems to look down to see what he’s stepping in. When, back in August of 2012, Obama drew that red line for Syrian President Assad, he effectively committed us to action—except, apparently, he didn’t.  ABC News, in a recent article reminding us of Obama’s misstep, writes that “Obama’s warning in August 2012 that use of a ‘whole bunch’ of chemical weapons would cross a ‘red line,’ triggering ‘enormous consequences,’ went much further than aides had planned, several told the New York Times earlier this year.  Some reportedly wished Obama could have taken those words back.” (More irony: ABC also reminds us that the guy who said these things had recently won the Nobel Peace Prize!)

    But this isn’t a grade-school playground, Mr. President. You’re the leader of the free world. You don’t get to just “take it back.” Nor should you, as you seem wont to do, rely on Congress for this action. We’re not talking war here; we’re talking a “proportional response” and you’re the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. You don’t need Congress; there’s ample precedent from nearly every 20th century president before you. You don’t even need public opinion—you just need to do what needs doing. Perhaps you were wrong to put us in this position, but here we are: not only is our credibility at stake, but so is our role in enforcing these un-crossable lines. Chemical weaponry is one of them, and now it’s time to act.

    It’s what we need now. A proportional response. Not a show of strength or superiority, but a warning. Sometimes, when others in the world reveal themselves heinous, actions must be taken.

    Sunday
    Aug042013

    No Pundit Intended

    "A false notion which is clear and precise

    will always have more power in the world

    than a true principle which is obscure or involved."

    --Alexis de Tocqueville

     

    It wasn’t until I began writing and speaking about politics that I learned the dirty little secret of punditry: anyone can do it.

    Years ago it was far more difficult, but today we’re awash in microphonic alternatives, a good-news/bad-news thing, as it turns out. No one can argue that we shouldn’t have myriad voices to choose from, that we would somehow be better off going back to the days when our messaging was force-fed through a media controlled by just a few conglomerates. We now have a much broader diet. You can film yourself and create a YouTube channel. Your best friend can pop on over to BlogTalk Radio and, in moments, start her own broadcast. Your cousin can quickly cobble together blocks from a template and be up and blogging by the end of the day. The world of new media offers diversity, opportunity, and choice. And, best of all, it’s free.

    Oh, I suppose it helps to have a silken voice, one that more closely resembles Morgan Freeman than Pee-Wee Herman. And it doesn’t hurt if you can effectively string a few sentences together with a modicum of coherence (though no one’s expecting Hemingway or Twain when they go on line). But those things can be practiced and, if not perfected, at least made palatable. But as far as ideas go? Well, they’re just not all that necessary. More important—as de Tocqueville points out in the epigraph that opens this section—is clarity and precision. It doesn’t matter if what you say has substance or meaning; it’s enough that it is said—as long as it’s said the right way.

    This killer combo—delivery plus simplicity—is all you need to increase the odds that a critical mass of people will buy what you’re selling. And make no mistake: It is about selling. Someone has a belief, and they want us to believe it, too, and to get us there, they’ll try just about anything to make the offering taste, smell, and sound exactly right.

    As consumers we need to be careful, though. As with any diet, there’s a load of junk food out there, much of it tasty but, like a two dollar bottle of water enhanced with fruit flavoring and ginseng, essentially worthless. And that’s just the stuff that’s harmless. Much of it isn’t. Much of it is aural ecoli just waiting for millions to ingest it, these ideas lacking any sense of responsibility or ethic.

    Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Take my least favorite pundit, Glenn Beck, for example. He’s clearly talented, a master of rhetorical obfuscation. He’s built an entire pseudo-science out of ad hoc logic, and he can even draw it for you on a blackboard. Ann Coulter’s another one, she of the outsized voice and the intentional interruption who, along with Ed Schultz (from the other side of the ever-swinging pendulum) shares my personal award for most grating personalities of the century (at least so far). Add to the list Rush, Michael, Sean, Bill, Rachel, Lawrence, Chris, Joe and dozens more.

    I could go on and on.

    Oh. Wait. I have….