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    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….

     

    Tuesday
    Jul232013

    Respecting the Story

    Here’s a story, one that, like any good story, has a solid plot, good tension, heroes, and villains.

    In this case the villain is the Texas state legislature, limned in caricature by Representative Jodie Laubenberg, a theocratically conservative, middle-aged woman from District 89. Rep. Laubenberg, an apparently not very bright betrayer of her gender, made some insane comments during the debate over an incredibly strong anti-abortion bill, one that, if passed would result in the shutdown of most Texas clinics where abortions are currently performed. Those clinics, however, also provide thousands and thousands of life-saving services for women (the majority of whom need these low-cost or free options), including screenings for numerous cancers, neo-natal services, and contraception. As a result of the bill (subsequently passed and then signed into law by Governor and co-villain Rick Perry), thousands will die. The blood of these thousands, so the story goes, is on the hands of these villains. The heroes of the story are all those fighting the good fight, whether through protest or press or petition, all of whom are determined to make the rest of the country see just how evil and harmful and criminal such actions are.

    Does that sound like the story you’ve heard? Well, here’s another, also with all the right narrative elements.

    In this story, Representative Laubenberg (a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin) and her colleagues, acting out of deep moral conviction and a belief that abortion is the taking of a human life, pushed as hard as they could to save as many of those lives as possible. Having run unopposed in her district, and having been very clear when she ran what her conservative positions were and are, Laubenberg is confident that she is fully representing her constituents as they would want. Recognizing, however, that an outright ban of abortion would be unconstitutional, the legislature presented instead a bill that would work within the limits of constitutionality, yet still save vast numbers of the unborn by limiting the ways and places in which such murders could take place. She realizes that some lives will potentially be harmed through the closing of these clinics, but the few thousands of adult women who might suffer pales when compared to the tens of thousands of unborn children who will be saved. It is in no way a perfect solution, but she is confident that she and her colleagues are doing the right thing for the most innocent and helpless human beings in Texas. She rides the ridicule and the insults, the cries that she is a murderer, the excoriation from the left, and stands tall in her beliefs, becoming a hero to many.

    And here’s one more, one I’m guessing you haven’t heard, but that is just as legitimate nonetheless.

    Facing the closing of the majority of their clinics in the state of Texas, Planned Parenthood plans their strategy. Realizing that appearing as the victim in any narrative is the surest path to emotionally driven support, they continue to bang the drum over the War on Women, the harm done to the poor and indigent, the many who will die because all of their other services will disappear. No more cervical screenings or mammograms; no more well-baby services. Just a locked door and a “Closed” sign. They could, perhaps, take another route, one that fights within the law while continuing to serve as many people as possible. They could, for example, agree to suspend performing abortion services while they work to wend one or more lawsuits through the courts. By doing so, those thousands and thousands of screenings and exams could continue, those thousands and thousands of early detections could save those thousands and thousands of lives.  But if they took that route they might be seen as abandoning both their principles and their narrative; with neither they might risk their story falling off the national radar, their protesting supporters inevitably moving on to other causes. So that’s not the road they travel. Planned Parenthood chooses not to think first about the lives they might save; those seem auxiliary somehow next to the greater good, the more important fight that needs fighting.

    ****

    “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion writes:

    We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

    She’s right, and to prove it you only need to think about your own beliefs, about which story you’ve heard and which you support.

    What so many miss is, for me, what’s really important: It’s not about which story you believe, but about which story you are willing to respect in others. All of the stories above have their points; all, in some ways, are true, are fact. Yet at the same time all are biased and none are completely right. They never will be. Nor will the various stories we tell ourselves in order to live in a world with drones and spying and racism and poverty.

    But when we refuse to understand that other people are invested in their stories, when we choose insult and invective over basic human respect, when our method of activism is to rally our own supporters in an effort to defeat rather than to engage, then we’ve lost. The activism is gone, replaced by mob behavior, and instead of working to heal, we’ve only increased the divisions that hurt us all so badly in the first place.

    Civility and respect aren’t easy. Stealing a line from Aaron Sorkin, I have to tell you that “you gotta want it bad, ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight.”  Ignoring or belittling other people’s stories simply doesn’t meet the criteria. Neither does holding back from insulting others while mentally discarding their opinions. These are surface scans, and avoid the deeper issues of how we can really talk to each other even when we so fundamentally disagree.

    This seems the only real question to me. We’ll never all agree on abortion or race or poverty or foreign policy or American exceptionalism, or any of the dozens of other issues that routinely separate us. Nor will anyone ever win. This isn’t supposed to be a place of winning and losing—at least I didn’t think so. What we can and must agree on is that there are always multiple stories, and many of them are real, fact-based, and important. Mine isn’t the best, and neither is yours. But if we tell ourselves stories in order to live, then it is also true that we must respect the stories of others in order to let them live, too.

    Tuesday
    Jul162013

    An Open-and-Never-Shut Case: The Zimmerman Verdict

    [NOTE: Join me and co-host Eric Byler tonight on THE MIDDLE GROUND where we’ll ask you to chime in with your thoughts on the George Zimmerman verdict.]

    I admit to being incredibly confused by the Zimmerman verdict and the reactions to it. I just don’t seem to have the clarity that so many millions appear blessed with, that easy absolutism that convinces them of the rightness or wrongness, the fairness or unfairness, of what just happened in Florida.  I even waited a couple of days to write about it just because I wanted some of the hyperbole to die down before I jumped on one bandwagon or another.

    Well, it hasn’t. And I haven’t. It turns out that there isn’t a bandwagon I want to ride on in this parade.

    And parade it is. Over on Facebook there’s a Kill Zimmerman page, a closed group with 95 members, all of whom seem to think that, since GZ wasn’t convicted of a non-capital crime, he should be visited with capital punishment delivered the old-fashioned way: by a mob wielding stones. (Update: There's now a page insisting that the first page be taken down, which it seems as happened; nevertheless, the point stands.)

    I’m also uncomfortable with the fact that Zimmerman clearly benefited from a system that seemed more interested in the trial’s entertainment value than in justice. Don’t believe me? Then let me ask you this: Do you know who Deryl Dedmon is? Dedmon is a white teenager who, just a few weeks after Trayvon Martin was killed, was convicted for running over and killing a black man in a Jackson, MS parking lot. Dedmon got life.

    But we didn’t hear much about that one. Why? I don’t know. But it would have been an interesting juxtaposition to see just as much media attention paid to the fact that a white man was convicted of killing a black man.

    Except that Dedmon’s conviction lacks the outrage needed to fuel the ratings.

    Nevertheless, some facts are inescapable: as you can see in the graphic below, there is a dramatic disparity in who gets convicted in these situations. Nor can you deny certain statistics: in Florida, an African-American is 4.4 times more likely than a White to end up in prison, per population rates. (Note: while horrible, the number isn’t anywhere near the highest; New York’s ratio, for example, is 9.4:1.)

    Despite what someone would argue (including, apparently, the Supreme Court in some cases), you can’t avoid the fact that race plays a part in how our society decides what it decides.

    But the Zimmerman case? There’s a lot to chew on there. This was not a hunter hunting (as I’ve seen portrayed), not a swaggering vigilante out to make a name for himself. This was a guy looking out for his neighbors who promoted a situation that ended in tragedy. I don’t know what the proper outcome should have been.

    Apparently that puts me in the minority.

    [Photos and graphs from UK Mail Online]