Some more odds and ends on Obamacare

Two of my more frequented posts have been around trying to set the record straight on Obamacare, an imperfect, but needed law. The earlier features of the law have already made the following changes: eliminated lifetime limits on medical benefits, eliminated the underwriting limit on pre-existing conditions for children, permitted adult children under age 26 to remain on a parent’s plan (before you had to be in college), limited the amount of profit an insurance company could make on your fully insured premiums (with two refunds the past two summers to many policyholders) and a few other items. Yet, the main body of the changes will be coming 2014 with enrollment in the exchanges and expanded Medicaid (where possible) available next month. A few odd and ends might be of interest:

Exchanges which will be available to many

If not covered by a suitable corporate plan, you will have the opportunity to go into the exchanges. The exchanges actually are a pretty cool idea and in many states, the Blue Cross Blue Shields have been running their own exchanges pretty successfully for several years. So the Obamacare exchanges are similar with more insurance carriers in the mix. And, if your pay is beneath 4 times the poverty level, there will be a declining subsidy. The exchanges are one area where the GOP is out of sorts, as the exchanges are, in essence, a Republican idea. So, there is some hypocrisy here when the GOP tries to discredit them. Also, three separate surveys have indicated the prices in the exchanges will be pretty reasonable. So, once the kinks are worked out, this is a pretty neat feature in Obamacare. By the way, I have been in a BCBS exchange for over two months and it has been very easy to enroll and use.

Medicaid Expansion

When the Supreme Court said Obamacare was constitutional, they unfortunately added a ruling that said states could opt out of the Medicaid expansion. What does this mean? For people making less than 133% of the poverty level, the Medicaid expansion was supposed to be the place where lowly paid citizens could gain access to free care. The US government will subsidize the expanded care 100% for three years and then phase down to 90%. Right now 25 states have opted to expand Medicaid, including several states with GOP leadership. There are several more thinking about it. The Ohio governor said we are talking about $13 Billion coming into our state over the next seven years and I would be foolish not to support this.

The key for doing this is each state has hundreds of thousands or more people who would benefit from the Medicaid expansion. My home state has 500,000 people who would benefit, yet North Carolina is one that has declined at this point. I should add a rural North Carolina hospital announced yesterday it will have to close if the state does not expand Medicaid. These hospitals have to chase too many unpaid bills or have too many uninsured patients and needed this funding of Medicaid coverage. The Rand Corporation said Medicaid expansion is truly a win-win for the citizens and the state economically. The key reason for not expanding Medicaid is highly political. It is very frustrating to me to see GOP leadership in these states make a political decision as they want to defeat the other person’s idea. The pawns in this chess game are the ones that get screwed and the state will be harmed economically.

Access to healthcare and poverty

We have a poverty problem in this country which is an equal opportunity offender. It impacts people of all political parties, genders, races, ethnic groups and ages. A key reason for people in poverty is the absence of medical coverage. It is the primary reason for personal bankruptcy at around 62%. To many people live paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford healthcare. I am deeply troubled when I see people “who have theirs” act so cold-hearted to those who do not have similar access to healthcare or have access, but cannot afford it. I had one former retail client where only 20% of their employees were signed up for the company medical plan. That means 80% could not afford it or were on their spouse’s plan.

Not having access to healthcare greatly hurts the individual and his or her family. It also hurts the economy. With more people without care, that puts a huge amount of pressure on the charitable and government-funded agencies to step in and do what they can. When someone loses their home or apartment because of an uninsured healthcare claim that costs $250,000, then that puts honest, hardworking people in harm’s way, where they cannot spend in our economy, but have to accept services to make ends meet.

Sum up

Folks, I know Obamacare is not perfect. It is complex and the President has made some changes to make it less so or give folks more time. To hold the country hostage over a debt crisis and budget season when Obamacare is largely a Republican idea is harmful to people, harmful to our economy and is hypocritical. On this last point, Jim DeMint, the former Senator and now President of the Heritage Foundation, who now thinks Obamacare is the devil incarnate and is quite vocal of late, was praising in writing and in person the key elements of Obamacare that were represented in Romneycare as late as 2009. His flip-flop is almost as bad as Newt Gingrich’s two televised flip-flops on global warming, where he changed his mind twice.

Let’s move forward with Obamacare. It is not perfect, but it is a strong step forward.

A Pretty Sad Group of People

Through the lens of this fiscally conservative, socially progressive Independent voter, as low as the Republican led US Congress has been ranked, there is a legislative body that dwarfs them in terms of poor legislative activity. While the US Congress has been favored less than a “colonoscopy” per Senator John McCain, the Republican led General Assembly of the State of North Carolina truly takes the cake. The key difference is both chambers of the General Assembly plus the Governor are all Republican, so my fellow citizens get to witness up close what happens when you have an unfettered body passing legislation that is not only contrary economically to what is needed, but stomps on opportunity and rights of others who are disenfranchised.

As a 54 year-old former Republican, I have never been so embarrassed and disappointed by a governing body of people. But, don’t take my word for it. They have been ranked low in formal polls with approval ratings beneath 40%. In an informal poll by the online Business Journal magazine, which tends to be a more conservative cross-section of people, the General Assembly has been given a D or F grade 55% of the time. Also, the Moral Monday crowds which have been protesting every Monday since the first of May, have grown in number and the arrests have increased to close to a 1,000 people. There would have likely been more, but the authorities are weary from arresting ministers, professors, teachers, doctors of all races and ethnicities. The national attention that the Moral Monday protestors have been given at the expense of this legislature is appropriate.

The legislature is following the GOP playbook that is being used by many GOP led states. Our Governor, who initially said the Moral Monday protestors were predominantly from out-of-state (a random survey said 97% were from in state), has had no qualms about having Grover Norquist, the de facto leader of the GOP, fly in to NC on numerous occasions. Note, he was not boarding a plane from a NC city to fly here. Yet, the citizens in this state apparently do not matter in this lobbyist-fueled legislature, which is prima facie evidence of what can happen with unfettered access to decision-making. Well, what have some of those decisions been?

– Significant reduction to unemployment benefits – NC is the only state to reduce long term unemployment benefits so much that they lost Federal long term unemployment benefit funding. This was done in addition to cutting regular benefits by 1/3. Cuts were needed, but this was well beyond the call of duty and will harm people, as well as the economy with $780 million flowing out of the economy the rest of this year alone.

– Not expanding Medicaid benefits under Obamacare – I have written several posts on this failure to act. This will harm 500,000 people and forego bringing billions of dollar to the state that would help the healthcare economy where rural hospitals are suffering as they chase dollars to pay for services. The Rand institute is the latest group to say expanding Medicaid should be a no brainer for a state.

– Reducing funding for education – Teacher pay in NC ranks 46th in the country. So, the solution was to provide very little for raises, cut teacher assistants, cut tenure, cut extra pay for Masters’ degrees and install a voucher program for going to private schools. NC is attractive to industry because of its innovation and education. We have just fallen from 4th most attractive in 2012 to 12th best in 2013. By my math, that is not progress.

– Reducing taxes that benefit the wealthiest – Estate tax is gone, plus the upper end will enjoy the largest of tax cuts. This is called a job creating law, yet trickle down economics has been shown by numerous studies to fail in creating jobs, the most recent of which was by the Congressional Research Office last fall that was buried by Senator McConnell before the election. A recent informal poll by the Business Journal shows its more conservative readers judge this tax change as a positive by only 44% to a negative view of 43%, the rest undecided. Note, this is a tax cut, mind you these readers are not supporting overwhelmingly.

– Funding for environmental protection continues to get cut and oversight committees either disbanded or replaced by business friendly members. The NC Biofuels group that I touted only a few weeks ago for creating a new source of ethanol with reed grasses, will have to shut its doors. We are investigating ways to allow fracking and it took a lot of effort that showed even conservative legislators to not derail an admired law put in place in 2007 to require utilities to provide 15% of their power by alternative energy (or be responsible for the perpetuation if in another state) by 2021. This repeal effort was fortunately defeated by some saner heads.

– The General Assembly has just passed a restrictive abortion rights bill that copy cats other states’ laws like that which was signed in Texas after the famous filibuster. They are about to pass concealed gun laws which will allow guns in restaurants and bars with a permit and alow them on college campuses, if locked in a car. Plus, some of the licensing is being changed over the objection of law enforcement, which is a group you would not typically want to ignore on crime issues. And, they are about to pass a Voter ID law which will reduce early voting, making it harder for college students to vote, eliminate same day registration and require photo IDs. As I have noted, the problem in our country is not enough people voting, not voter fraud, yet this law’s unstated purpose is to make it harder for people to vote and impact typically non-Republican voters more.

– If that were not enough, the state legislature initiated a spitting contest with the City of Charlotte over a city run airport that has been well run by the state’s own admission. Back in February, the legislature proposed a bill to yank control from the City and place it with a regional authority. This was without previous discussion with the City. Whether this is a good idea or not, it was extremely poor form to pose this without detailed conversation with stakeholders before unleashing the news. As of this writing the City of Charlotte has an injunction against the state to cease and desist. Note, this is after the state started down the path of yanking the control over water and sewage resources from the City of Asheville. I believe this is being decided in the courts as well.

My friend Amaya who blogs on www.thebrabblerabble,wordpress.com from another part of our state has written several similar posts. We both are pulling our hair out over this sad group of people. The litany of changes that will harm people, harm the economy, harm the environment, increase gun deaths and make it easier to win elections just boggles the mind. The last point about the airport and water fights with two of its cities show lack of good faith negotiation. These may be the right courses of action to take, but the process to get there showed that the General Assembly has not been very trustworthy. Maybe that is the best way to leave this. They have breached our trust on almost every front. They have been more concerned with the business interests of wealthy donors than its own citizens. The unfortunate part is with the gerrymandered districts from last year, we are likely stuck with this untrustworthy lot. And, that leaves the NC citizens with being sad for this body’s actions.

Why are the states with the worst healthcare not expanding Medicaid?

Help me understand why legislators of the states with the worst healthcare rankings and the highest children poverty rates are the ones who are resisting the expansion of Medicaid? This question is in bold, as for the life of me, I cannot think of a logical reason why legislators would not want to help people, especially when studies such as the latest one by the Rand Institute, show that Medicaid expansion will have a positive economic impact on the state. The reason, of course, is GOP led states are doing anything in their power to beat the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which ironically is based on a Republican idea. It has absolutely nothing to do with trying to help millions of Americans in need.

A few brief statistics might help. According to the United Health Foundation and Center on Budget and Policy, select statistics from the 2010 Census would reveal the worst states on health (note the rank in parenthesis is their children poverty ranking) who are not expanding Medicaid.

49th worst health (tie) – Louisiana (49th worst in children poverty)

49th (tie) –  Mississippi (41st)

46th – South Carolina (48th)

45th – Alabama (28th)

43rd – Oklahoma (24th)

40th – Texas (47th)

39th – Tennessee (32nd)

36th – Georgia (43rd)

33rd – North Carolina (39th)

I have noted in earlier posts that the lack of healthcare insurance or limited insurance is by far the number one reason for personal bankruptcy. In my home state of North Carolina, we have over 500,000 people who would benefit from the Medicaid expansion and poverty, as noted above, is high. Poverty is also an equal opportunity offender, which knows no political party, color or ethnicity. For example, The Charlotte Observer reported this weekend that of those in poverty in NC – 37% are White, 35% are Black and 20% are Hispanic. They are in rural and urban settings. They are registered Republican, Libertarian, Democrat and Independent.

When I have asked legislators what do you propose to do if you do not expand Medicaid, I receive no response. Since this is largely a GOP idea, it is hard to come up with another one, but they must be against it since Obama passed it. Yet, who is harmed by these stances? It is not the Kings and Queens – it is the pawns. When people are surveyed, the majority support many features within Obamacare, including the expansion of Medicaid. It is just the GOP has done such a good job of labeling this imperfect law as horrible and giving it a lightning rod name, that people say they do not favor it in its entirety. That is unfortunate.

We have a poverty problem in this country that needs to be talked about more. A part of this multifaceted issue is the absence of affordable healthcare. The Affordable Health Care Act has addressed and will address a major chunk of these uninsured. What I find troubling is the pawns in this political game are the ones who get screwed. In NC, there has been a growing movement called Moral Mondays (click on this link to review post https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/moral-mondays-the-new-civil-rights-protests-in-north-carolina/ ) where several hundreds of NC citizens protest each Monday. The past seven weeks, 480 people have been arrested for trespassing and failure to disperse. These include people of all colors, ministers of various types of churches and professionals, including doctors, who are pushing back on several laws that harm those in need, including the decision not to expand Medicaid.

But, let me leave the “right thing to do issue” and speak of the economic impact. The Ohio governor who has relented late to do the Medicaid expansion said “we are talking about $13 billion coming into our state over the next seven years.” Also, rural healthcare is in big trouble and has been for several years with high indigent (uninsured costs). The Affordable Care Act would help people get to the doctors and hospitals in a more affordable and best suited way and the practitioners would be assured of payment and not have to chase dollars. This Ohio governor saw it as a win-win for his state and is pushing it through. What he is seeing now is occurring in all of the states above and is actually worse. SC, for example, has a wide swath of poverty down the middle eastern part of the state and no one is doing anything lasting to remedy it.

However, the state stragglers need to act now as they will be in no position to expand Medicaid, if they wait much longer. Yesterday, Arizona’s governor just signed the bill to expand. While not a fan of the Affordable Care Act, she sees Medicaid expansion as the best path forward. And, if these state legislatures don’t expand Medicaid, they will be screwing the pawns in their states yet again.

Trickle-Down Economics Remains an Unsuccessful Approach

Trickle-down economics continues to get a lot of airplay in conservatively led states such as NC, which is unfortunate, as it has been proven to be an unsuccessful approach to economic growth. In a recent speech at the Center for American Progress, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley took aim at trickle-down economics — the conservative theory that fiscal policies benefiting upper earners will improve the whole economy and therefore also benefit the middle and lower classes. “Trickle-down economics has been an abject failure for 99% of Americans,” O’Malley said, according to prepared remarks. “If we want to deliver better results — if we want to strengthen our middle class and expand middle class opportunity — then we have to be willing to make better choices.”

As governor, O’Malley has a strong base of success to speak from. Yet, he does not stand alone in this opinion. The Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan think tank for Congress, prepared a report on their analysis of the veracity of trickle-down economics and was to release it last fall. The report agrees with the assertion made by O’Malley above. The reason it did not get much airplay is Senator Mitch McConnell had the report buried before the election according to the New York Times.

Yet, a better source may be David Stockman who was budget director to President Reagan. Stockman claimed that trickle-down economics was a favored economic tradition, believing it would benefit the entire country over time. Of course, he did not say that everyone would benefit equally or adequately. Over time, many felt they had been left out of the promised glory. Today, Stockman has a different view from the one he had then. He is on record saying trickle down economics did not work and I have seen him say it.

Even going in Stockman should have read more history.The idea that trickle-down economics is good for the country was ridiculed by economist John Kenneth Galbraith and even FDR. They said that it had been tried in the past and failed. According to Galbraith, it was known as the “horse and sparrow theory.” He said that “If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows” and  believed that this idea lead to an economic crisis referred to as the “Panic of 1896.”

Let’s not take Stockman and Galbraith’s retrospective insight by themselves. This belief is also echoed by Nobel Award winning economist Paul Krugman. And, you may want to check out Mehrun Etebari’s article published on June 17, 2003 entitled: “Trickle Down Economics: Four Reasons Why It Just Doesn’t Work.” His thesis is by any of four major measures – GDP growth, Income growth, Wage growth or Improvement in un-employment, trickle-down economics fails to deliver. Here is a link to the article: http://www.faireconomy.org/research/TrickleDown.html.

Two closing thoughts. First, the best comment about trickle-down economics actually comes from one George H.W. Bush (which he borrowed from journalist Paul Harvey) when he was running against Ronald Reagan and before he became his Vice President. Bush referred to it as “Voodoo Economics.” Harvey and Bush were correct.

Second, if people are looking for an economic theory that does promote growth, look to Keynesian economics. People refer to stimulating the economy through government investment as strictly Keynesian economics. The Obama Stimulus was Keynesian economics and unlike what has been drummed into an electorate by the GOP last year, the “Failed Stimulus” actually worked. Who says so? Six economic organizations do – Macroeconomics Advisors, Moody’s Economy.com, IHS Global Insight, JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and the Congressional Budget Office. They said it improved the economy and would have been even more successful if it was larger.

So, let’s sum up. The GOP is touting an economic approach – trickle-down economics that has been proven not to work.The only people who will benefit from reducing taxes on the rich are the rich. Keynesian economics has been proven to work including the Obama Stimulus plan, which the GOP was able to convince others it did not, even with evidence to the contrary. I think the Democrats need a better press agent.

I grow weary of the Affordable Care Act gobstoppers

I was searching for a word to describe the never-ending story to defeat a law that is based on your own party’s idea. The word “gobstopper” came to mind as per Willie Wonka, it changes colors and is seemingly everlasting. Or, you could use the North American name for it and call it a “jawbreaker.” Congress has voted for what seems like the one hundredth time (it is only 37) to repeal the Affordable Care Act (the ACA)

The irony is the ACA is a largely Republican idea created as an alternative to National Health Care proposed by the Clintons and rolled out in similar form in Massachusetts to much ongoing success by some guy named Romney. So, when a variation was put forth as the ACA since National Health Care once again could not be passed, it was approved and portions of the law are already in place to a good reception. So, like the gobstopper, the GOP has changed its color on this.

Rather than repeat much information, let me reference several posts I have written over the past year. I will close with some final comments:

– June 29, 2012 – “Help me understand the Ruckus against Health Care Reform”

– July 28, 2012 – “Internal Bleeding – Be Your Own Health Care Advocate”

– August 8, 2012 – “Health Care is more than a pawn, it is a problem”

– September 4, 2012 – “Doctors for America – Patients over Politics”

– November 16, 2012 – Affordable Care Act – the Path Forward”

If you only have time to read two of these, I would refer to the highlighted pieces. The first implores politicians to stop making health care of people in need a pawn in a political game. The second summarizes why 15,000 doctors believe the Affordable Care Act makes sense and the good it has already done and will do in the future. This law is not perfect, but moves the ball forward to cover many people without care. A key part of this law is expanding Medicaid to cover the more impoverished people with significant subsidy to the state to pay for the coverage.

When I see GOP led state legislatures like in my own North Carolina agree to not extend Medicaid to over 500,000 residents, without any replacement ideas to help those in need, I see a group of people who only want to defeat the other side. I see politics at its absolute worst as they would rather defeat the other person’s idea, even if it is like their own, rather than help people in need. In NC, every Monday, a group of disenfranchised citizens are picketing our NC state capitol with some getting arrested. I have shared my concern and disdain with the governor and legislature for the vote to do this. Not that this should matter, but a significant number of the 500,000 in NC who would have been helped by this are Republican voters who have no idea they have been screwed by their own party. These folks will get coverage through the exchanges that are being created, but it would have been more ideal with the Medicaid expansion.

As I mentioned earlier and in the attached posts, the law is far from perfect. Mainly, it is complex. Yet, it needs to continue and will help many in need. I have suggested the law be tweaked, not overhauled, as it helps extend coverage providing subsidy to those in need. Please write a note to your Congressional representative and encourage them to cease the endless, gobstopping votes and make this law better. And, if your state has decided not to expand Medicaid, please let the legislature know of your concern. They are harming people in need, including their own constituents.

Lesson to Leaders – We need you not to cheat

Paraphrasing a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher: It matters less that you lied to me, as it matters more that I can no longer trust you. In any relationship, this quote describes the unfortunate epiphany when one realizes that another party has lied to them. Trust is built over time, day by day, brick by brick. Yet, a lie can bring the whole building down and cause you to re-earn that trust. Today, I want to focus on leadership letting us down by not shooting straight with us. Oftentimes, when a leader lies or cheats, it is to protect his job or gain a huge return.

Many of the companies who failed us under the financial crisis – Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Wachovia, Merrill Lynch, Washington Mutual, AIG and so on, either no longer exist, were bought by someone else or received a huge bailout to make it through. Some of the bigger ones who survived, such as Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup, are still dealing with issues they perpetuated or acquired from one of the above companies. At the heart of these problems were companies trying to make huge amounts of money off selling mortgage loans to people who could not afford them, packaging the bad loans in bundles and selling them off as reasonable assets. One of the fallacies of spreading risk by bundling is if all of the risk is crap, it won’t be better when bundled.

Yet, the leaders of these companies failed to be good stewards to the customers, fellow employees and managers, shareholders and regulators. If you read “Crash of the Titans” about Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, you will realize that only a handful of people in Merrill knew what was going on, but the CEO lied to his other direct reports and lied to his shareholders when questioned. As a result, the shareholders and public were misled. If you follow-up on Lehman Brothers, who went under, you will see that the CFO moved $50 million to the onshore books from the offshore books for the regulators’ eyes and then moved it back again. This was reported by “60 Minutes.” Yet, to this day, no one from Lehman has gone to jail.

In each of these cases, you will find cheating and lying at the heart of the story. As I have said in earlier posts, the banking industry used to be one of the more trusted professions, but these liars and cheaters (let’s call them what they are), breached this trust. Some conservative leaders balk at the requirements of Dodd-Frank regulations which introduced accountability and the creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Agency initially run by now Senator Elizabeth Warren. This agency has already fined financial companies over $600 million (as of last summer) and counting for malfeasance and misrepresentation. So, the answer to those who balk is “tough, these foxes brought it on themselves and we have to guard the henhouse.”

Unfortunately, this plays out in spades in political circles. We have legislators who are so beholden to their funders, they are less inclined to tell you what they think, as they must go along with what the funders think. Please refer to my previous post on “The Routine Bigger Conspiracies” for how this misrepresentation can manifest itself on some bigger issues. It goes even further when we look at the job preservation motivation. Legislators worry more about keeping their job than doing their job. This is the very reason nothing has happened on gun control laws. They are failing to do the right thing because of a huge funding source in the NRA.

Recognizing that the GOP congressional leaders seem too zealous on the Benghazi episode, when you set aside the unhealthy motivation of “gotcha politics,” there are legitimate questions that need to be asked and answered. If the President had been less concerned with spin-doctoring from the outset, some of these questions would not exist. The real answer would seem to be “we failed to read the risks correctly and we did not have protection in place and people died.” The same goes for Senator Mitch McConnell who had a report buried in October (as reported by the New York Times) that showed trickle down economics failed to work. As this was key talking point of the GOP Presidential candidate, it seemed to be politically motivated.

I have also noted on several occasions over my disdain over the previous administration’s fabrication of a story of Weapons of Mass Destruction based on faulty data. People would say they did not know, but that is not true as Scooter Libby, who worked for Karl Rove, went to jail for something Rove later said he knew about as well. As you recall, Libby leaked the name of Valerie Plame to the press, who was a CIA operative and whose husband (and former ambassador) reported at the behest of the CIA that there were no nuclear building materials being sent to Iraq by Libya. This report was misused by Bush/ Cheney and when the ambassador complained in the press, Libby leaked Plame’s name to discredit him. In essence, this is one of the smoking guns that showed Bush/ Cheney lied to the American people and many Americans have paid the ultimate price for this deception.

And, it also flows to state and local politics. To give some brief examples, in NC the Speaker of the House knew he did not have enough votes on a bill, so he sent everyone home at midnight only to call everyone back in from a 1 am vote. He knew others would leave, so he alerted his crowd to pass the word to stay and the yea votes now outnumbered the no votes. On a bill to move the potential to frack for natural gas, one of the legislators voted yes incorrectly and rushed forward to say she needed to change her vote. It was not allowed and the bill passed by one vote. Last week, a NC Committee Chair knew he did not have enough votes, so he took a voice vote – all in favor say “aye” all opposed say “no.” He purposefully heard the loudness differently than others, bragged beforehand he would find a way, and said it passed.

We citizens, customers and shareholders need you to do business in the right way. When you cheat, we seem to be the ones who get screwed. As I told one the Committee Chair, I do not care if you disagree with me, but I do care if you cheat. I said I did not know your name last week, but now I do. Please help us hold people accountable. When you hear that someone does not want regulation, I can assure you it the voice is echoing what is told to them by those who are regulated. We need less bureaucracy, but make no mistake, the foxes need regulation. Someone has to hold people accountable, because it is obvious that market and legislative practices will not.

A Tale of Two VPs

With the recent flurry of activity to reconsider George W. Bush’s presidency with the opening of his library, I felt I would save comment for a future time. Yet, it got me thinking about contrasting the last two Vice Presidents – Dick Cheney and Joe Biden. My main reason in so doing is the stark contrast in style and performance. You see, for all the crap Joe Biden takes from the press waiting to pounce on his misspeaks, I think he has done a highly commendable job as Vice President. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for his predecessor, Dick Cheney. The more I learn about Mr. Cheney, the more Machiavellian he becomes. In fact, the highlighted word is the one word I would use to describe him when pressed.

When Bush was first elected, I was content knowing the Vice President had been around the block and had served as George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense. His candidacy was recommended by Paul O’Neill, the CEO of Alcoa, who was Bush the father’s first choice as Defense secretary. I mention that as it is important later on. But, when I read more on Cheney, the initial comfort I felt was misplaced. His knowing his way around the block meant he knew how to exploit things to his advantage. For example, being the former CEO of one of the largest fracking companies in the world, he did two major things that will make your stomach turn.

First, he sold off the mineral rights and afforded gas lease rights to various national park lands and other public resources to fracking developers. They were given permission to frack on public property and made a huge amount of money. Unfortunately, since fracking is not as safe as portrayed, the various animal and human populations close by have been suffering. But, that was only step one. Second, he had inserted a very brief provision into the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to include a provision in the Act that prohibited the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the frackers under the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. And, fracking companies did not need to disclose the chemicals they added to the fracking water to make it easier to frack as they reduced friction, killed algae, broke down minerals and depositsIf fracking is so safe, why would you need to add this paragraph?

He did many other things, but let me highlight two. First, Paul O’Neill, the guy who turned around Alcoa and recommended Cheney to Bush the father, became the Secretary of Treasury to Bush the son. Yet, O’Neill felt the Bush tax cuts were not the right path forward for our country and was vociferous about his concerns. Rather than listen to someone with a very good track record, Cheney fired him at the behest of Bush. By the way, O’Neill was right – we did not need those tax cuts and we are paying for them still today. None other than Warren Buffett agreed with O’Neill at the time.

Second, Cheney helped build the Weapons of Mass Destruction argument to go into Iraq. Between him, Karl Rove (another Machiavellian person) and Scooter Libby (who went to jail for giving up a CIA operative to the press – see Valerie Plame), they painted a picture that we Americans, the United Nations and Congress bought hook, line and sinker. The trouble is when you send Americans to die, you better be damn certain this is the right course. As an aside, take your time President Obama on Syria before you sentence young men and women to die like Bush and Cheney did in Iraq.

On the flip side, Biden has been a very positive ambassador for Obama given his role before on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has been able to extend the reach of the Secretary of State and our relations around the globe have improved, so says a Pew Survey before and after Obama took office. On the domestic front, Biden has been a means to reach out to Congress on behalf of the President. The President has been given a huge stiff arm by Congress and he has not been as forceful as needed. But, he has asked Biden to play huge roles in brokering a deal to avoid the first fiscal cliff disaster of 21 months ago and chairing discussions to introduce better gun control legislation among other things.

Biden also played a huge role in moving forward the debate on same-sex marriage. By answering direct questions in an interview about a year ago, he staked a position that the White House came out and supported. He let the cat out of the bag early, but it was the right call and actually helped the President and country by pushing this issue forward. This was more vintage Biden, yet this is one issue where America is and was ahead of the politicians.

The final point I will make is Biden is a people’s Vice President. He is very approachable when he goes out to meet folks and they gravitate to him. His personal loss and his struggles to overcome resonate with people. Cheney is not comfortable in that role and so he chooses not to practice it. The contrast reminds of the difference between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict. Francis sees the major issue of the day as global poverty. He is truly a man of the people. Benedict is more cerebral and less approachable. The same could be said for Cheney.

It is not just me that feels this way. It is GOP folks as well. Why have Bush and Cheney not but included in the last two presidential races from an advocacy or supportive role? The party knows they did not do a good job (note the library cannot change that George), so they distanced themselves. Bush was not physically invited to either of the last two GOP conventions and he only spoke by video as a sitting President in 2008. That may have been the biggest insult – the GOP did not want the sitting President to attend. The press will say that both skipped the events, but this is the biggest event your party does. Why would you not want to have your last president to attend, especially while he is still in office?

Getting back to Biden, he deserves an “atta boy Joe” from all of us. He is far from perfect, but he has served the country well. If Hillary Clinton elects not to run, Biden may be the next Democratic presidential candidate. I would expect she will, but Joe would deserve the shot, if she did not. Unfortunately, Cheney would not be included on anyone’s short list after his stint as VP. He did some good things while in the White House, but for the most part he will be remembered for the above issues.

Be careful of your leadership examples

While in attendance at a college event for our son, my wife and I waited in line with other parents and friends before we entered the performance hall. On the walls were pictures of the various graduation speakers at the school. We overheard several people comment on Lance Armstrong as a speaker in 2011 and some wondered aloud if they should take the picture down. Then I started looking at some of the other speakers – Karl Rove in 2010, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 2008 and President George W. Bush in 2002. I put the years up as I believe the timing is important.

By the time Armstrong spoke, there was evidence that he had misled the public, which he admitted to last month. To be honest, I have always felt he was taking something to improve his performance, as what he accomplished, especially after surviving cancer, was hard to believe. Yet, by the time he spoke to the graduates, there should have been enough question about his veracity to determine whether he was a suitable speaker candidate. Clearly, after his confession last month, these young adults can further discount whatever they remembered from his speech.

The same goes for Karl Rove as a speaker, which occurred in 2010. This is before his public meltdown on Fox News the night of the election, when he would not concede the obvious, that he had wasted hundreds of millions of dollars of key donors who had paid for a GOP win. Yet, at the time of his speech, what did we know about Karl Rove? He is, first and foremost, a master spin doctor and I do not say that as a compliment. He is very good at perfuming pigs in elections. But, that is not enough to discount him as a speaker by itself. Where I have major concerns are two-fold.

First, he was significantly involved with the George W. Bush white house to create a story of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) that led us into war. Second, it was confirmed after Lewis “Scooter” Libby was sent to jail for 30 months and fined $250,000 for leaking the name of Valerie Plame, a CIA agent, to the press, that Rove also leaked the name to Robert Novak, the reporter who broke the story. The whole purpose of the leak was to discredit the name of Plame’s husband and former ambassador Joseph Wilson who had evidence that contradicted a major claim in the WMD assertion. This was in 2006, four years before he was invited to speak at the graduation. Libby went to jail, but Rove did not due to his connections and Libby’s taking the fall earlier.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spoke in 2008. To me this was an interesting choice. He has been reasonably quiet on the bench, yet his senate confirmation hearing brought significant theater around his alleged sexual harassment of Anita Hill, a colleague. I found it interesting that two corroborating witnesses, Angela Wright and Rose Jourdain, were not permitted to speak at the hearing. Thomas was confirmed, in part, because he cleverly used the term “high-tech lynching” to imply race was a motivating factor. But, Hill is African-American. I also found it amusing when it was reported that Thomas’ wife left a voicemail message on Hill’s answering machine a couple of years ago saying Hill should apologize for her role in trying to discredit her husband years before. Hill’s reaction was why should I apologize? Now, I am not saying he did or did not harass Hill, but if the students had googled Thomas, this story would pop up which would lead them to question his selection as a speaker.

President Bush spoke in 2002, so it was quite a coup to get a sitting President to speak. We would not find out until later that his presidency would not be one that is held up as one of the best presidencies. A study by presidential scholars I once saw referenced rated him closer to the bottom of the list. The fact he was not invited to either of the last two GOP conventions gives you evidence of what his own party thinks of his efforts. However, unlike the three above, who had questionable qualifications when they spoke, the President was a very reasonable choice at the time. He would only prove disappointing at a later date.

The college has had many great  leaders speak at graduation and they should be given due credit. Of the ones I note above, the person that gives me the most pause (at the time he spoke) is Rove. I personally find him representative of what is wrong with politics. His track record is not enviable in my mind as a leader, so I would not think of him as someone who should be an example to our young adults. His main talent is to obfuscate the facts and sell you a story. That is not true leadership. That is Machiavellian.

I know the graduating students probably do not remember much about the speakers unless they are really famous. They probably remember little, if anything, of what they say. Yet, as a parent, I do think it is important to vet the speakers to make sure they are as good as advertised. They are supposed to be examples of leadership or someone who had done something extraordinary through effort. So, two years from now, if one of the grads remembers when asked that Karl Rove was the speaker, the asker will likely note, “Wasn’t he the guy that had the melt down on TV on election night?” The response should be “Yes, but he was much worse than that.” And, that is a shame.

It is all of our responsibility, including the NRA

I have never been a fan of the blame game. As a former manager of people, it is extremely rare to see a one-sided communication problem. I am also not a huge fan of people trying to place their share of the blame on someone else. I think the recent posturing of the NRA on our complex gun death problem in the US is highly offensive, not only to me, but to many, including responsible gun owners. Truth, be told, our gun death problem in the US is all of our responsibility, and yes, that includes you NRA.

The theme of this post has been altered over the course of the week, as I have read two of the best pieces of journalism on this topic from two bloggers, who I want to give the loudest of shout outs. I would encourage you to read “Can we talk about gun laws?” at www.thebrabblerabble.wordpress.com as well as “Starting this year off with guns a blazin” at www.diatribesandovations.com. The authors of these blogs have written several good posts on the topic, but you will get a keen sense of their concerns and issues by reading these two posts. All, I can add is “Amen, sisters” to their work. Yet, if you did want to read more about my concerns, I would guide you back to two posts of mine – “Gun deaths and the bigger context” last month and “Another day in America – a 16 year-old kills 13 year-old friend” penned back in August.

As these posts point out, the gun death issue is not about addressing mass murder, although that is a part of the equation. The bigger question is how do we address the gun deaths that occur every day? The issue is complex and one solution is not the answer. That is another key reason the NRA’s posturing is so lame. It will require a series of solutions to address this issue and one of those solutions will have to be tighter gun restrictions. And, if you don’t believe me check out the positions of Ronald Reagan and the first NRA president in the aforementioned post on “Can we talk about gun laws?”

So, please consider the following issues and potential solutions:

Tighter gun restrictions: This has to be part of the equation and the easiest thing to do is reinstate the Brady Law” which was advocated by Ronald Reagan, who as president was the target of the bullets that also hit James Brady. This law expired in 2004 and its lapsing is a clear sign of poor stewardship on Congress’ part.

Civil Discourse: This may be the major issue causing gun deaths. People get in arguments with family, friends, fellow patrons, fellow sports fanatics, etc. over stupid issues and do not know how to civilly disagree. There has been a huge increase in fan violence at sporting events, which is an example of this behavior. Yet, now when people get into arguments, someone has a gun or can easily get a gun and an impulsive decision will end a life. Folks, walk away. If you do not take offense, then you are not offended. Most of these arguments are not that important and some are ludicrous such as wearing another team’s colors. It is OK to disagree with someone and it is OK for them to disagree with you.

Drunk and disorderly: I mention this following the above comment. This is a key reason fan violence has increased. The players taunt (which is a disgrace, as they don’t seem to taunt when they screw up), so the fans think it is OK to taunt. When you are inebriated your judgment goes out the window. This causes fights in bars, sports bars, restaurants, etc. which have been escalating when someone goes to a car and gets their weapon. You can’t stop drunks as many show up at the game drunk from the tailgating, but the venue owners have to take responsibility and throw drunk assholes out.

Poverty: this is another major issue effecting gun deaths. In impoverished areas, crime opportunities increase and so does gun utilization. We have to find more employment opportunities and provide help climbing the ladders out of poverty. Ideas have to work within the community building off their assets and perserving dignity. I often quote Malcom Gladwell, but in his book “The Tipping Point,” New York City reduced crime in subways by doing several things, one of which was constantly repainting over the graffiti. The criminals saw that if they are this concerned with something as basic as painting over graffiti, then they are likely to be tough on crime. Plus, it helps people take pride in where they live.

Law Enforcement: Listen to the people fighting crime. Provide them with resources and tools. Law enforcement has advocated putting serial numbers and tracking the sale of bullets back to the seller. Why? It will help solve crimes. The NRA is against this. For the life of me, I cannot fathom a reasonable answer to why they believe this. If I am a law biding gun owner, then tracking my bullets does not affect me one bit. When we listen and support the people on the ground fighting crime, crime goes down.

Mental Health Care: Access has to improve. The stigma of getting care has to change. The statistic I cited a month ago by a behavioral psychologist and former collegue of mine was validated by another source. In short, 20% of people have or will have some mental health issue. It could be mild depression to being bi-polar. 10% of claims, on average, of an employer’s healthcare plans in a given year will be mental health claims. So, our imperfections sometimes manifest themselves with a need for a counselor’s care or prescription medicine. My friend’s mantra when advising clients is to make sure more of the people getting medicine are also getting therapy from a counselor to talk about their problems. She can demonstrate through data that quality of care outcomes improve for the patient and cost of health care will decline for all. Many people live with mental illness. It does not have to be debilitating. Nor does it need to lead to a crime. This is a key reason to have background checks and waiting periods on gun sales. Once someone acts on an impulse (depression is higher on college campuses, e.g.), a life is over and it cannot be retrieved.

Funding of changes: I saw someone say “put more armed guns in schools, but don’t increase my taxes.” That statement sums up America in a nutshell. We want services, but we don’t want to pay for them. There is a bigger issue here, but to keep it on topic, I live in a county that addressed budget issue by only accepting a school board bugdet with many fewer guards in schools. To the earlier point, they also reduced the number of psychologists and school counselors on site. If we want services, we have to step up and pay for them. One of my pet peeves is after cuts are made to services, services decline (it could be fewer social workers handling more family cases, e.g.) and then people complain “how could you let that happen?”

Don’t Solve for a problem and cause a bigger one: This is also one we need to avoid. Arming teachers in schools or allowing guns on college campuses are attempts to solve for a small occurring problem but lead to a bigger one that will occur daily. I don’t care how trained you are, there are very few people who can stand up, aim correctly and fire at another person shooting back. Teachers would be better served to get their children to safety rather than playing Dirty Harry.

Entertainment Violence: Hollywood and games creators. Yes, you do have a role. The NRA is correct on this. I often frequent a local video store as I like the library feel of browsing for movie gems. On one wall are all the current releases. This is anecdotal, but my guess is 75% are violent movies either with weapons or horror based themes. The bad guys have to die, it is that simple. The same is true of the games. The bad guys have to die. This is not the first time Hollywood is full of shit on an issue. Just like the NRA, they tout first or second amendment rights. Yet, they are both hypocritical as they want to push the sales of their products. I can assure you if well done biblical movies sold $100 million plus, they would push them more. And, we parents need to talk openly and monitor some these violent games. We should also vote with our feet and stop buying these games or attending these movies.

Religion must be inclusive: I am a broken record on this topic. The thing I detest most is bigotry from the pulpit. When a faith leader preaches a religion of exclusion and promotes we/ they issues, I believe they have let their God and parishioners down. Religion is at its finest when it is inclusive. It is at its worst when it excludes. I have delighted in Alastair’s post on www.kattermonran.com on “Why I love humanity…” where one of the pictures is of a boy holding a sign next to a man holding a sign which says “God Hates Fags.” The boy’s homemade sign is “God Hates No one.”

If there is anything we each can take away from the above, I would at a bare minimum ask you to remember three things. First, stop this we/ they bullshit. Do not tolerate it because it puts us in adversarial positions. We stop listening to people’s opinions and make everything a competition. For example, the NRA is right about Hollywood, but wrong about their own role.  Second, have civil discourse with others. It is OK for them to disagree with you. If you cannot discuss amicably your issues, walk away. Third, understand that solutions to problems have to be muti-faceted. There are no panaceas. The problems are complex, so single purpose solutions don’t address the problem. Question others when you hear simplistic solutions.

Many thanks for reading. Please feel free to offer comments or share with others. We have to bang this drum and keep banging it. We have to greatly reduce gun deaths in our country. This is not something we want to lead the civilized world in as we do.

The Legacy of Watergate Lingers On

Yesterday, I stumbled onto a movie I had not seen in a while, so I decided to watch it again. “Nixon” starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role was made in 1995 and directed by Oliver Stone. Hopkins had a little trouble looking the part, but he more than made up for it with his terrific version of President Richard Nixon. Joan Allen played his wife Pat Nixon and does a splendid job as well. Seeing the President’s wife role played behind the scene was illuminating as we only got to see a stoic supporter of her husband in real life.

As you watch the film, you have to remind yourself you are seeing an Oliver Stone directed version of the facts. Setting that aside, having lived through Watergate, President Nixon did authorize and cover-up some very bad things, so he resigned before he would have become the first president to be impeached. There a few moments in my life where I can remember where I was when a major event happened. Nixon’s resigning was one of those moments. I was actually attending the very first football game of the newly created World Football League. They actually broadcast his speech as the start of the game was delayed.

I have read several books about Watergate and the peripheral actions: “Blind Ambition” by former White House Counsel John Dean and “Will” by one of the Nixon ‘plumbers’ Gordon Liddy  and watched three movies – “All the President’s Men” about the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who broke the story (must see), “Blind Ambition” a mini-series starring Martin Sheen as Dean, and “Nixon.” And, like millions around the world, I watched the Watergate Senate hearings which were run by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina.

Yet, seeing “Nixon” after several years left me disturbed all over again. However, in addition to being disturbed by the crimes committed by Nixon, his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, Dean’s predecessor and Nixon confidante John Ehrlichman, Attorney General John Mitchell and several others, I had an unfortunate illumination into contemporary politics that is disturbing. You see the legacy of Watergate lives on in certain places and we need to continue to shine a bright light on actions that are not conducive to fairness and good governance. What do I mean by this statement?

As context, Nixon is a prime example of how power can corrupt. While he did oversee some good things – passage of the Environmental Protection Agency, opening markets to China and the Soviet Union and overseeing job growth while he was president –  he sold his soul to the devil to get there. He was beholden to some huge oil/ gas industry funders and the likes of J. Edgar Hoover, who was actually far worse than Leonardo DiCaprio played him in the movie “J Edgar.” Nixon was also extremely paranoid and went out of his way to squash his enemies and do one thing that eventually led to his undoing. He taped his conversations in the oval office.

Where the movie haunts me looking at today’s events through its lens are in two areas. First, the decisions made by our Supreme Court and other actions that allow wealthy donors to exorbitantly fund election campaigns with little repercussion is very alarming. When you see examples of the pressure put on Nixon and his predecessors by wealthy business interests, it shows how easily the office can be used to their advantage. This past election season we saw a group of funders literally trying to buy an election. Whether you agree or disagree with the positions of the Koch Brothers, the fact they can pony up hundreds of millions of dollars to promote a campaign goes well beyond believing in a particular cause. They are buying a center of influence and that is not right. There are several points in “Nixon” where you see an earlier version of people like the Koch Brothers telling Nixon what they wanted him to do. We must modify this type of funding for the next election process.

Second, I saw too many similarities to today’s Republican Party in this movie. I saw the moral majority being referenced in different ways as the only way to combat the liberal eastern establishment. I saw references to the religious right as the only way to defeat the demonistic protestors who did not want to fight a war where we were bombing innocent people in Cambodia and Vietnam. I saw references to the people who disagreed with his version of America as communists, which held additional  importance given Nixon’s role in crucifying Alger Hiss and others before he became Vice President to Eisenhower. And, still fresh in my mind, I saw the purposeful manufacturing of evidence against people to game the election. It was so severe that one of the impeachable crimes listed was defrauding the election process in 1972.

You see Watergate was only part of the crime against Nixon. Nixon created a White House based spy agency that was called the “plumbers” so they could plug leaks to the press. They also bugged and broke into the National Democratic Party Headquarters based at the Watergate Hotel complex. But, they did more than that. Under the guidance of Jeb Magruder, they disrupted their adversaries’ campaigns. In particular, Senator Edmund Muskie was a target, as Nixon did not want to run against Muskie. He wanted to run against the more liberal Senator George McGovern. Their antics got Muskie to drop out of the race.

To me this equates to the fairly recent action of President George W. Bush to manufacture evidence (the infamous weapons of mass destruction) to lead us into an invasion of Iraq. And, to make the story complete, one of George’s men, Scooter Libby took the fall for the distortion of evidence and discrediting of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame (check out the fairly recent movie “Fair Game” starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn). Libby worked for Karl Rove, a name we all know these days. Libby’s falling on the sword ended the affair, but speculation by smarter people than me abound about further culpability.

Yet, the more troubling resemblance is the blatant manufacturing of stories and data to discredit the opposition deployed by the current Republican Party. I like to add both parties do their fair share of perfuming pigs, yet with the puppeteering of a news agency to distribute calculated messages, the GOP has this down to an art form. I left the GOP to become an Independent for three reasons – their stance on global warming, their unhealthy embrace of the evangelical right, and their higher preponderance to fabricate information. This last point is not said without due consideration as it is extremely important to my thought process. You may not agree with me, but this is how I feel.

Our country needs good dialogue around the issues using good information and not someone’s version of the facts. I see a political system that needs to change to weed out the problem areas. I agree, in part, with my friend Mrs. N who says the wealthy never had it so good in our country. We need to assure the American people they do not become the Robber Barons of the 21st century. I don’t want the “haves” gaming the system to a degree they can spread misinformation and disinformation to get what they want. I have said it several times before, given the weakness of the GOP platform and candidate they put forth as contrasted with an imperfect President who had done a better job than given credit for, this election should not have been as close as it was and the President should have won in a landslide. The monied interests made it close.

I want the GOP to return to legitimacy as our country needs them to be so. Many in our country are like me, socially liberal, but economically conservative. I want us to help people climb ladders out of poverty, but I want us to invest in them and not just give them money. In the long run, that helps no one. We need thinkers and leaders with good hearts and good heads. We do not need monied interests calling the shots telling people how to think. And, we need to squelch the legacy of Nixon and get rid of disinformation and misinformation tactics.

I will leave you with Nixon’s line which he repeated often trying to convince the American people as much as himself. “I am not a crook,” he would say. Unfortunately for us, yes you were President Nixon.