Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Merry Christmas, Congress

Just as Congress made sure it would not be inconvenienced by airports delays they caused by allowing sequestration, they have for the first time in many years stopped fighting to block legislation in order to not delay their holiday vacation.  Both sides of the aisles have suddenly learned the art of compromise, Boehner has brought bills to the floor despite Tea Party ire, and all are heading home for what Bill O'Reilly would insist on calling "Christmas break."

In this season of warmth and giving, it matters not that our Congressional leaders have performed a slight-of-hand with the budget deal which we did not believe they were clever enough to accomplish.  We are all just happy they did it.

Beyond the holiday cheer, however, is a grim look at what this new era of compromise heralds for us.  The new budget reinstates the full funding of the military, its waste and the greed of military corporate interests.  The compromise part of the budget is in non-defense spending.  Long term unemployment compensation is gone -- Happy Holidays, to the unemployed from your US Congress.  Another battle in the right-wing war on poverty has been won, with food stamp cuts over the next two years.  Government workers -- not Congress, of course -- will suffer cuts to pensions and increases in insurance premiums, but all for the good of the country and the pretend reduction of the national debt.

So here we are, folks, with the new, improved Congress, gearing up for the 2014 Election Season of Lies.  If only I believed that the Democrats would loudly denounce this plan by the Republicans that would have us forget all the damage they have done to the fabric of our democracy over the past five years.  Rather, they will modestly speak to their ability to garner cooperation from their "colleagues across the aisle" while aiding and abetting the plundering of the poor and middle class.

Meanwhile, the 2014 Congressional calendar is proof of the fact that our leaders are not expecting to do much next year other than run for re-election.  The House of Representatives, apparently having wasted too much of the 126 days they were scheduled to meet in 2013, have reduced their calendar year to 113 days, many of which no doubt will be taken up by voting to kill Obamacare.

Indeed, Congress more than ever continues to be the gift that keeps on giving.  To themselves.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Trying to Channel John Galt

I did a double take as I was driving along Folly Road on James Island yesterday.  I had seen the signs to dump
Graham and even a couple of Lee Bright signs over the past weeks, but this one said, "Who Is Lee Bright?"  I had to chuckle at that one, and muttered, "He's an idiot...." as I continued by.  But the comparison to John Galt of Atlas Shrugged fame just cracked me up the rest of the day.

It's not news by now that South Carolina State Senator Lee Bright is threatening our own sometime reasonable/sometime insane US Senator Lindsey Graham

 with a primary challenge from the right.  Far right.  Bright is indeed a controversial figure, a true South Carolina character.  And by no means modest.

He has lately compared himself to Jesse Helms, saying, "If you elect me to the Senate, you will think Jesse Helms has rose from the dead."  Yes, I think we can all agree that he sure does talk like an uneducated redneck.  And if you know anything about Jesse Helms, you probably know that he was a sanctimonious racist but not exactly a fiscal conservative.

In this, Lee Bright may be more like Helms than Galt.  Because the oxymoronic Bright is more than willing to spend what needs to be spent on forcing women to have babies.  His judgmental social values have been tyrannizing the state legislature for awhile now; his persistence has to do with his close relationship to God, apparently.  He has said that Jesus/God has told him to run for Graham's senate seat, so he would be in good company with Tim Scott, who is also serving at the grace of the Big Guy.

I have to say, if you want the real scoop on Lee Bright, you could do worse than checking in on FitsNews.  I really don't think you could get much more objective than this:

We’ve known S.C. Sen. Lee Bright (R-Spartanburg) is a moron for some time. But he has an unimpeachable pro-taxpayer, pro-liberty voting record – so we’ve generally tolerated his intellectual incuriosity.
To get back to the John Galt thing.  Apart from it's being fiction, and Ayn Rand's schoolgirlish fantasy -- yes I read Ayn Rand and loved Atlas Shrugged, and then I grew up -- Lee Bright is not exactly like the hero of the story.  He claims to be a small government fiscal conservative, but the big chip on his shoulder guarantees that he will spend what needs to be spent on fighting wars, against foreign leaders as well as gays, women and hispanics.

Ayn Rand's John Galt was an atheist; he would no more make laws banning birth control and abortion than he would regulate industry.  Galt may have been simplistic, but he was consistent.  All Lee Bright is, really, is consistently foolish.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Other Side of the Gun Control Debate

First of all, I'm not going to talk about Newtown.  It was a tragedy that resulted a year ago in the killing of twenty children, and was followed by the abomination of lobbying that has prevented -- a year later -- the gun control that the American people were calling for.

And I'm not here to talk about the "other side" of the debate that pretends to make the 2nd Amendment about a right handed down by God and our founding fathers for all of us to be able to be armed to the teeth.

The other side of the argument that all us citizens need to be armed has a great deal to do with how armed our police have become.  While we weren't looking, we went from the creation of well trained SWAT teams to be used in cases of extreme threat to small town SWAT teams with military weaponry and little training who are very excited about using their new toys.

We're not talking about breaking into houses that hold caches of weapons, nor are we talking about busting large drug cartels, although we hear plenty about it on the rare occasion that it happens.  The invasions into private homes today are nearly always about finding small amounts of drugs, often for private use, or breaking up friendly poker games.  Damage is done to homes, pets are shot.  The terror is coming, today, from our own police forces.

And far too often, those SWAT raids happen at the wrong address, or with misinformation that has not been adequately corroborated.

We hear about our police on the front lines risking their lives as though our neighborhoods were war zones.  We have come to accept that innocents can be harassed, homes broken into, without warrants, without warning, because otherwise drugs might be flushed, guns might be used against the police in the time it takes to assure citizens their rights.

Community policing should be, and once was, intended to be a friendly police presence in the community.  Today it has become an "us against them" mentality, wherein the police in the community need to be on the lookout for all of us citizens, who may be breaking the law.  The crimes we are suspected of range from carrying dope to looking like an illegal immigrant.

We may be thinking that "stop and frisk" is on its way out in New York, but that remains to be seen.  Despite the polite phraseology, Arizona's "papers, please" law has resulted in increased harassment by and fear of the local police.

A few years ago, my daughter, then an undergraduate at a university in another state, commented that while there were unsolved rapes in the college community, police presence was high but more often associated with random stops for suspicion of driving under the influence than for preventing dangerous criminal activity.  And where the police force has a SWAT team, while bulletproof vests and military weaponry might allow some police to feel safer, they are likely to use that force against small or questionable crimes.  If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.  

Radley Balko has written quite a bit about the militarization of our police.  His book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces,  is extensively researched and an essential component in understanding America's fixation on fire power.  We may all believe that the police need that weaponry to protect themselves from criminals, but what if the criminals are perceived to be us?  What is the cost, in lives, in quality of life, in dollars, to protect police whose primary duty once was to protect us?

As the police escalate their war against those suspected criminals among us, the pressure is on to defend ourselves, isn't it?  Maybe the solution to all this obsession with guns and defense is a de-escalation on both sides.

What?  You think I'm being paranoid?  Overreacting?  How about a $658,000 armored vehicle designed to "protect SWAT team officers... from dangerous confrontations?"  You may think we don't need one here, but now that Columbia has one, maybe Charleston is next in line.  After all, here in South Carolina we may not want those federal Medicaid dollars, but you never know when you might need a tank to break up one of those illegal poker games.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Obamacare and the Rose-Colored Glasses

It's time to pause in my cheerleading for Obamacare and entertain a little reality check.  Yes, Obamacare is better than nothing, but is it right that here in 2013 that should continue to be the mantra of the U.S. healthcare movement?

Once upon a time, on Long Island, I was a psychologist.  As has been my pattern in my life, I was in the right place at the wrong time.  The year I began my private practice, managed care was threatening to take over, promising false promises of great savings in healthcare costs and improved treatment.  Psychology stood in the front lines of the managed care firing squad.  By the time they were done with me, I had decided the only moral choice for me was to quit the couple of remaining groups I was in and just accept sliding fee scale payments.  After that disastrous cut in income, I could afford to retire my practice and move south, and with relief left the field I once loved behind.

What I learned was that the insurance industry would always find a way.  The government was always too many steps behind, and had too many naifs on one side and too many corrupt on the other.  Medicare eventually was plundered to the point where there are now premiums, co-pays and in the end requires supplemental private insurance, a sweet deal for private insurers.  Doctors and hospitals did not sit innocently by back in the Medicare heyday.  If they could raise costs and collect more from Uncle Sam, they quickly did.

Medicaid has never, not ever, been more than a band-aid, and one that doesn't quite cover the wound.  Back in my psychologist days, when private practitioners were charging up to $100 per 45 minute hour, Medicaid was paying out $20 and requiring a full 60-minute session.  Along with the time it took to do bookkeeping and note-taking, and resubmitting all the claims that they had screwed up, lost, or otherwise refused to pay out.  The end result of that, for me, was that I had my pick of patients, because no one else could be bothered.  Hard work for little pay, just like Walmart and McDonald's.

So when President Obama and I insist that we must expand Medicaid, at least one of us knows that this is an insufficient solution to providing health care to Americans.  And when we all scream about protecting our Medicare, our backsides are still unprotected from the insurance industry that has made additional coverage necessary.

As long as we in this country are unwilling to agree that health care is not a for-profit enterprise, we will continue to have inadequate, too expensive protection.  And even when the government pays out, our tax dollars are going toward the fat and inefficient health care machine.

Do doctors make enough money?  I don't know.  I do know that on my insurance claim statement, the same Blue Cross that Congress has access to, the amount billed is considered the fantasy charge.  Since the days of managed care, the insurance industry has been free to invent its own "customary charge" which sometimes reflects a more realistic amount, and sometimes is taken from billing structures from ancient history.

Do hospitals charge too much?  It seems to me that a well run hospital is going to cost a lot of money, but what we have today is hospitals that cost a lot of money to run with inadequate staff on one side and ridiculous waste on the other.

The only reason that medical tests, medical instruments and pharmaceuticals cost as much as they do is because they can.  Our government watches helplessly, when they are not colluding with all kinds of medical corporate interests, as industry gouges doctors, hospitals and consumers.  They parrot lame excuses about the cost of research that don't seem to apply to most other consumer products, where research and competition go hand in hand.  Our government resists providing much needed oversight and regulation for the same lame reasons.

So where does that leave us?  With too many uninsured and the hope that we can at least let them have a band-aid for their troubles.

What should we do?  Strong and common sense federal regulation has to happen for costs to go down.  We have to get private industry out of health care.  I believe that health care will work best on the state level, where there is real concern for the health and well-being of its citizens.

Vermont is taking the challenge.  They have approved a single payer plan to be fully operational by 2017.  Everyone covered, no premiums, co-pays or deductibles.  A slight rise in taxes.

Cynical as I tend to be, I am feeling hopeful about this solution.  This small state has its heart in the right place.  They have Independent Bernie Sanders in the US Senate, and he is as progressive, outspoken, and uncorruptible as they come.  When that works, I know that other states will be quick to come on board.  Not my state, but still, it's a start.