Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Republican health care plan uncovered

Republicans are VERY bent out of shape over Rep. Alan Grayson's exposition [2:27] of their health care plan.

"Here it is, the Republicans' healthcare plan for America: Don't get sick .... I think the Republicans understand that that plan isn't always going to work, it's not a foolproof plan. So the Republicans have a backup plan in case you do get sick. If you get sick in America, this is what the Republicans want you to do -- if you get sick, America, the Republican healthcare plan is this: Die quickly. That's right, the Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick."

They have not, to my knowledge, refuted his assertion however.

Common sense about Afghanistan: there is no there there for US

As President Obama gears up, again, to determine what he is trying to do about (or with?) the Afghanistan war, what's needed is not some deep analysis of complex options, but simply the application of some down-home common sense. The essential questions that have not been answered since the Bushies let Osama bin Laden slip away at Tora Bora are still the real questions:
  • What is the U.S. trying to accomplish in Afghanistan?
  • How many Afghans, U.S. soldiers and allied troops are we willing to kill to do whatever it is?
  • Are the U.S. people willing to continue throwing men and money into a faraway place where we've already been at war for eight years for no discernible purpose?
All this is pretty obvious.

I just want to highlight perspectives from a couple of knowledgeable people who've shared some home truths about the mess. Patricia Lee Sharpe is a retired foreign service officer who has worked in Pakistan. She pleads with the President to withdraw now.

I urge you, Mr. President, not to increase our troop strength in Afghanistan. ...

We have, in Afghanistan, thrust ourselves into the middle of a religious war we tragically helped to ignite. Now, however, this struggle is in no way ours to win or lose. That's up to those who have a direct interest in its outcome, the Afghan people. Arguments about how properly to fight a war against insurgency, debates about how many troops are needed, advisories about how those troops should behave vis-à-vis the local population -- irrelevant! It's not our war–and we can't oh-so-nobly win it for the Afghan people either.

If, after eight years of outside intervention, competent or not, the fractious non-Taliban leaders of Afghanistan have been unable to unite around the task of fielding enough tough-minded, battle-savvy men to defeat the resurgent Taliban, there's got to be a serious lack of something like will, motivation or interest or sense or urgency. Look at it this way: if the Taliban can fight modern troops to a standstill, then five times as many (an arbitrary but not impossible figure if all non-Taliban sheiks, chiefs, warlords and mullahs would work together) non-Taliban fighters, no better equipped but equally determined, could surely push them back, Afghan-style. It's clear that fearful village fence-sitters would back a credible non-Taliban alternative. Memories (and current experience) of Taliban rule are not pleasant.

As it is, we pour money into Afghanistan, it seeps into the ground like rain after drought, and still the ground is infertile (except for poppy). There's a message here. We are fools and we are being milked. I imagine lots of laughter at our expense when the Afghan maliks settle down on their carpets, lounge back on their pillows and sip green tea together after a day of smiling and saying yes, yes, yes, to the Americans.

She goes on to point out that the Pakistani army has proved it can and will control the Taliban -- when Pakistanis support that effort and this proud army is not seen as acting as a U.S. stand-in. Moreover she points to polls showing the declining approval for aggressive Islamists throughout the Muslim world. Her entire argument is well worth reading.

Ann Jones recently observed U.S. soldiers "training" Afghan army recruits and she too thinks she is seeing a charade, just self-deceiving foolery. Here's an excerpt:

American trainers recognize that recruits regularly wear all their gear at once for fear somebody will steal anything left behind in the barracks, but they take this overdressing as a sign of how much Afghans love the military. My own reading, based on my observations of Afghan life during the years I've spent in that country, is this: It's a sign of how little they trust one another, or the Americans who gave them the snazzy suits. I think it also indicates the obvious: that these impoverished men in a country without work have joined the Afghan National Army for what they can get out of it (and keep or sell) -- and that doesn't include democracy or glory. ...

What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training? Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When 4,000 U.S. Marines were sent into Helmand Province in July to take on the Taliban in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about 600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police. ...

My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of "Basic Warrior Training" 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.

In a country where 40 percent of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town. It relieves the poverty of many families every time the man of the family goes back to basic training, but it's a needlessly complicated way to unintentionally deliver such minimal humanitarian aid. Some of these circulating soldiers are aging former mujahidin -- the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets -- and many are undoubtedly Taliban.

Go read all of Jones' article.

It's not only crazy that Washington policy makers are engaging in this charade, but it verges on criminal to send troops to get killed for something so essentially fraudulent.

President Obama, you can still begin to get out of this insanity. This month is the time to start. Just say no to ambitious generals and neocon armchair "strategists" who never saw a war for empire they didn't want someone else to fight.

New neighbor up the hill

Whole Foods (Whole Paycheck) opens today on upper 24th Street in Noe Valley where the Bell Market used to be. Somewhat reluctantly, I'll be boycotting at least for awhile. I'm not usually a fan of word-of-mouth or even internet-viral boycotts. Pressure takes organization. But there are times we have to put our money where our convictions are.

John Mackey, the CEO of the ultrahigh end retailer of oh-so-correct foods (many healthy and yummy), has put himself out as an enemy of health care for all. That is, he's an entitled libertarian sicko. He could have simply shut up. But no. So I'm disinclined to contribute to his profits while there's still a chance of some meaningful reform.

Nice to see several friends in this recent pleasant exercise in aggressive speech at the Oakland Whole Foods market. [6:53] Enjoy. I particularly like the bemused looks from the security guard.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Information run across while looking for something else ...

The fountain of happy youthfulness has been found. All it takes is at least relative wealth.


Well duh! Guess what, life is a lot easier if you can pay for its amenities. Those include access to health care in our society. Changing that is the project of the day.

Via Economix.

Who has clout with Congress?

Since I quoted Simon Johnson yesterday doubting that meaningful financial regulation will come of recent financial follies, I was interested to read Ezra Klein's interview about such regulation with Congressman Barney Frank. What Frank has to say matters: he's the chair of the House banking committee and is widely thought to have been one of the sharper players during the worst crisis moments of last fall's panic.

Frank thinks better regulation will get done. He's a great common sense explainer of these matters and he assures us:

Now that things are getting back to normal, we can worry about excess. But I believe we will have regulations in place well before we reach that point -- [another meltdown in an over-amped system].

I'm instinctively skeptical, but let's hope he's right.

Frank discounts the raw power of the Wall Street mega-investment banks to block regulation, but he points to the influence of forces that he claims Congresscritters do listen to:

The big banks have been somewhat discredited. That's why the credit card bill went in pretty easily over their objections. I believe reining in derivatives and reducing leverage at high levels will be somewhat easy to do.

What killed the primary-residence bankruptcy bill [cramdown] was not the big banks but the community banks and credit unions. They do have a lot of clout. ... And it's important to note that they're not just powerful because they have money, but because they're in everybody's district, and they're responsible and thoughtful citizens.

I was more than a little taken aback by this assertion.

Is it true? Is Frank expressing a regional perception? -- that is, are there Congressional districts where the local bankers, the local Chamber of Commerce guys, are the core of the political class around which all politics orbits? Perhaps in older suburbs and some rural areas? Or is this idea that local and regional elites matter so much to Congresspeople just a convenient pseudo-democratic (small "d") cultural myth -- something we believe is part of our political culture but which actually doesn't exist?

Where campaigns cost a lot, certainly at the Senate and Presidential level, the really big money from really large interests like multi-national investment banks must be more important than money that local notables can kick in.

But in many Congressional districts, regardless of location, really the only contests that matter are the intra-Party succession contests. Once a Congressperson in these districts is in place, in a safe seat, s/he usually benefits from local political class contributions for the duration of incumbency, regardless of party. In return, the local Congressperson probably listens to the local power brokers most of the time. S/he also meets them at the same public gatherings, sends her children to the same (probably private) schools, and socializes with them. So certainly local bankers have influence in those contexts.

The independent entrepreneur who makes it big, from Horatio Alger through Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs in their Silicon Valley garage, is a staple of the national myth. There aren't a lot that make a big killing, but most localities have some example of a local success story. So is the local business person who stands out in a community -- even if the "community" is a bedroom exurb to a city, lacking much tradition and any physical center apart from several freeway interchanges -- that "responsible and thoughtful citizen" that Barney Frank is pointing to? It's a little hard to believe in the "clout" of such people.

Meanwhile, it's pretty clear which financial leaders think they ought to have more clout. The Washington Post recently reported that Democrats find themselves hurting for political cash. (Via TAPPED.)

Democratic political committees have seen a decline in their fundraising fortunes this year, a result of complacency among their rank-and-file donors and a de facto boycott by many of their wealthiest givers, who have been put off by the party's harsh rhetoric about big business. ...

The vast majority of those declines were accounted for by the absence of large donors who, strategists say, have shut their checkbooks in part because Democrats have heightened their attacks on the conduct of major financial firms and set their sights on rewriting the laws that regulate their behavior.

Reports like this make it hard to credit Barney Frank's description of who is important to Congresspeople.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Financial follies revisited

One year ago last weekend I was in Reno walking precincts for Barack Obama. We watched the debate with John McCain at our casino hotel room. After that weekend I was never concerned that Obama would win -- McCain had "temporarily suspended" his campaign in response to the economic crisis and looked like a panicky fool. People simply were not going to elect such a pathetic creature at a moment when they were seeking leadership.

Wall Street and financial journalists tend to mark the acute phase of the financial collapse as beginning on September 14, 2008, when the powers-that-be let the investment firm Lehman Brothers go bankrupt. But I think most of the rest of us didn't begin to realize that something huge was going on until about a week later. Henry Paulson, George W. Bush's Secretary of the Treasury, got our attention when he asked for $700 billion dollars from Congress to save the system at the end of that week. And then the Presidential candidates reacted, sensibly and stupidly.

Since then we've seen the real economy in which people work at jobs and pay bills also tank, following the lead of the investment/casino financial sector. And when we are not just so pissed off we can't think straight, we're trying to figure out what kind of a financial system could have made this mess that put the taxpayers on the hook to bailout a bunch of cowboy gamblers and left us with more than 10 percent unemployment.

In search of more understanding, I'm turning to books far more than to newspapers, magazines or blogs, though there is lots of information and cogitation in such sources. But, like many otherwise informed people, I need deeper context to make much sense of what had been going on in financial institutions.

Far and away the most valuable volume I've read yet has been Gillian Tett's Fool's Gold: How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at J.P. Morgan Was Corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe.

It's a commonplace in journalism discussing the financial collapse for writers to say something like "these bankers were buying and selling such innovative, complex new financial instruments that they didn't understand them themselves." If you read Gillian Tett, you'll come away with a working understanding of such arcane matters as "collateralized debt obligations (CDOs)," "credit default swaps," "special purpose vehicles (SPVs)," and "structured investment vehicles (SIVs)". You'll also understand how a multi-national insurance company, A.I.G., came to occupy a pivotal position in this unstable speculative morass.

Perhaps even more important, what Tett, who is a columnist for the Financial Times, is able to elucidate is why these terribly smart, hardworking people became convinced they could not fail. On one level, that's only interesting as journalistic gossip -- it's a feature of all the finance collapse books I'm reading that the authors perceive and portray their subjects as fascinating people. (See also this one.) Nonetheless Tett offers cogent explanations. At root, financiers made bets based on data that was woefully incomplete because they found it profitable to do so.

Because everyone was using the same statistical method of devising their CDOs to contain risk, in the event of economic conditions that defied that modeling, huge numbers of CDOs would suffer losses all at once. As Alex Veroude, the manager of a CDO for Gulf International Bank explained, "The problem is that all the structures now are designed in the same way, with the same triggers. That means that if there is a storm, all the boats in the water will capsize."

...Like any model, it was only as good as the data that was fed into the "engine" and that data was usually based on what had happened in the past. ...How could the trajectory of a CDO squared be judged from past data when that "past" was just two years old? Or, for that matter, a subprime-linked derivative that had never been widely traded?

The financial system was (is?) a massive GIGO house of cards. GIGO is computer slang for "garbage in; garbage out" -- false premises interacting with poor information to yield false and meaningless results. Yet smart people were paid so handsomely to keep it going that most had little incentive to question it.

In her regular column, Tett recently touched issues that so far have been mostly taboo in the U.S. In a September 3, 2009 column, she pointed out:

On a personal level, I have little taste for seeing hordes of bankers heading for jail, or facing massive fines. Nor do I have any illusion that public or private prosecutions will resolve bigger structural flaws. A witch-hunt might be a media distraction.

But, on the other hand, if there is no retribution against financiers, it will be very difficult to force a real change in behaviour. After all, no amount of twiddling with Basel rules or pious statements about bonuses will ever scare a financier as much as the thought of jail.

Moreover, without some retribution it will also be hard to persuade voters that finance is really being reformed, or has any credibility or moral authority.

During the Savings and Loan bust of the early 90s, over 1000 U.S. bankers went to jail for fraud. This time around ... just Bernie Madoff.

Simon Johnson, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, recently warned that though the financial markets may be stabilizing,

there is no real reform underway or on the table on any issue central to (a) how the banking system operates, or (b) more broadly, how hubris in finance led us into this crisis. The financial sector lobbies appear stronger than ever.

There's no shortage of Cassandras predicting that last fall's plunge could happen again. It does seem a democratic (small d) necessity to try to get a handle on this stuff -- and for that Fool's Gold is the most lucid resource I've come across.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

San Bruno Mountain

I'm always more than a little bemused and delighted by the fact that, less than 20 minutes drive through the city to the south, I can reach a barren, windswept little mountain where a dirt trail creates a nice five and an half mile loop. There's hardly ever anyone else on the trail -- and the sights are spectacular.

It was so clear today that I took some cell phone pictures. Downtown San Francisco looks like Oz.

Here's the view toward Marin County with Mt. Tamalpais and the ocean in the distance and the city neighborhood closer up.

San Bruno is a California State Park, though operated by San Mateo County. I don't know if it is on the list of parks Gov. Arnold wants to close because California Republicans refuse to pass a sensible budget. They'd rather trash our public properties than ever tax anyone for the common good. Now it looks like Schwarzenegger is backing off.

A few years ago the county announced it would close San Bruno and some other facilities several days a week, but this made little difference to a user on foot. As many have pointed out, closing parks doesn't keep people out of them, leaves the state still liable for any harm in them, and ensures there are no user fees to pay for upkeep and safety.

San Bruno has many entrances from neighborhoods, so aside from one parking lot, there probably aren't many user fees anyway, but the principle remains the same. I'm certainly on board to Save the Parks!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Health care reform shorts: Imagine ...

What would it be like never to worry about what the medical care you need would cost you?

Ann knows [2:58]:

Passed to me by one of Ann's friends.

We all need to contact our Senators and Representatives (again) and remind them we expect an affordable health care reform that covers everyone.

The Senate Finance Committee will vote on whether to include a public option -- a not-for-profit alternative to private insurance that some people could sign up for -- in its version of bill this coming Tuesday. The Congressional Budget Office and most economists who aren't working for private insurance companies believe a public option will help control health care costs by competing with wasteful for-profit practices.

Most Democratic Senators want a public option, but five members on this important committee are wafflers according to the well-informed Jane Hamsher. Republican members will try to kill the public option. Democrats outnumber Republicans on the committee 13-10, so it can pass if 3 of the Democrats vote for it. The waffling Dems are: Max Baucus-MT; Ben Nelson-NB; Kent Conrad-ND; Blanche Lincoln-AR; and Tom Carper-DE.

If you've got any of these, or Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine, no quantity of calls and emails are wasted!

Oh -- and even if this unrepresentative crew leaves out a public option, the possibility is not off the table. Other Senators and the majority of Democrats in the House can be expected to bring it back into the process.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Health care reform shorts: Job lock

I didn't know until the current discussions that there was a technical name for this concept. But I sure know the phenomenon. Because most health insurance in this country comes through our employers, lots of people are trapped in jobs they would otherwise leave, if quitting wouldn't mean they would lose access to health care.

Individuals with what insurers consider disqualifying pre-existing conditions can only get insurance at all by sneaking in through some employer's group. Even if they get a new job with health coverage, coverage of their pre-existing condition may be excluded for some period. Pretty much, if you've ever been sick, you can only make sure you are covered by working for an employer with a group policy.

Some people might be able to get insurance in the individual market, if they leave their job. But it will be costly, probably cover little aside from catastrophic illness, and is precarious (it's easy for insurers to dump individuals who cost them money).

All of this means that a lot of people are stuck with their jobs in order to have insurance. This is called "job lock." For relatively healthy people, the permutations of job lock are probably the most offensive aspect of their experience with the current health insurance market.

Too many people are stuck in jobs they'd like to get out of in order to keep their insurance. They might want to do something else -- and it might benefit the economy if they could strike out as entrepreneurs -- but job lock means they won't.

Some employers may like the leverage that job lock gives them over employees who fear losing health insurance if they are laid off. But other, usually small, employers would be glad not to be in the difficult sideline business of having to make annual decisions about how to buy health care.

I think the President hits the wrong note by talking so much about how, under the proposed reform, if you now get health insurance through your employer, nothing is going to change. Many of us want things to change. If you want to mobilize us for reform, promise us we will be freed from job lock.
There's an additional distortion in the current arrangements. Since so many people get their insurance through spouses, we're also stuck with "spouse lock." People get married to qualify for insurance -- and they undoubtedly postpone or forego divorce. If you want to mobilize people for health care reform, promise them their access to health care will not depend on being able to form a sustainable intimate relationship.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Getting U.S. torture history right

The ACLU has launched a new site, The Torture Report, to catalog what was done under the Bush administration. It will gradually and with great care about sources create a narrative of our national shame.

Even someone who has followed this as closely as I have can learn from their report. For example I discovered that the international bodies that seek to promote legal, humane treatment of prisoners were already on the watch for U.S. government misconduct by the end of September 2001. Years of experience with authoritarian governments had alerted them to the warning signs.

At the time, few outside the administration knew that it was plotting an antiterrorism strategy that recognized almost no legal restrictions, and no one outside a handful of "special access" senior administration officials knew that its plans specifically included enforced disappearance and abusive interrogations.

Nevertheless, the international community was sufficiently alarmed by what the phrase "all necessary and appropriate force" [in the Congressional AUMF legislation] might entail and what administration rhetoric might be signaling that it felt compelled to remind the United States of its international obligations. On September 27, 2001, a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross met with State Department officials.

Two weeks later, the United Nations Committee Against Torture issued this statement: "Although mindful of the terrible threat to civilised society of international terrorism, the Committee against Torture reminds State parties of the non-derogable nature of most of the obligations undertaken by them in ratifying the Convention against Torture."

Will the Obama administration, despite pretty protestations such as the President just made at the U.N., be the subject of the next torture report?

He makes an emphatic speech [:36]. But the temptation to evade the laws of civilization and the apparent political payoff for acting "tough" remain high in any administration. Talk must be backed up by action. So far, the administration's unwillingness to open the can of worms Bushco left behind and its continued stonewalling on the prisoners do not suggest a good resolution.

Health care reform shorts:
Why prevention doesn't pay

Yesterday I caught on radio snatches of an interview with Phillip Longman, author of Best Care Anywhere: Why VA Health Care is Better Than Yours. Fortunately he said something very similar in a Washington Monthly article back in 2005, so I can share the thought that grabbed my attention here.

Suppose a private managed-care plan follows the VHA [Veterans Health Administration] example and invests in a computer program to identify diabetics and keep track of whether they are getting appropriate follow-up care. The costs are all upfront, but the benefits may take 20 years to materialize. And by then, unlike in the VHA system, the patient will likely have moved on to some new health-care plan. As the chief financial officer of one health plan told [an investigator]: "Why should I spend our money to save money for our competitors?"

Or suppose an HMO decides to invest in improving the quality of its diabetic care anyway. Then not only will it risk seeing the return on that investment go to a competitor, but it will also face another danger as well. What happens if word gets out that this HMO is the best place to go if you have diabetes? Then more and more costly diabetic patients will enroll there, requiring more premium increases, while its competitors enjoy a comparatively large supply of low-cost, healthier patients. ...

For health-care providers outside the VHA system, improving quality rarely makes financial sense.

Helping people live healthy lives -- as opposed to doing things for/to them -- doesn't add up to profits for doctors (who aren't paid for the time it takes), for hospitals (gotta keep beds full to pay for the new wing), or for insurers (who make their money out of extorting cash from healthy people and getting rid of sick ones). The odds are good that any money providers spend on preventive health care services today will only hurt their own immediate bottom line. Some other medical entity will have to bear the costs of the absence of prevention years in the future.

Given these realities, it is hard to see how any health care reform, except one where the government competes directly with insurers on cost through a large not-for-profit public option, can provide a vigorous incentive to medical entities to deliver quality preventive care.

On an elderblogger call with some of Senator Harry Reid's policy people recently, we were told repeatedly that one of the proposed changes in the reform package was to make preventive procedures free for Medicare recipients. They are apparently betting that more routine physicals and screening tests will make delivery of care cheaper in the long run. But we weren't told how they intend to pay unwilling providers for this. However Medicare is one big system like the VHA in the sense that its beneficiaries will be in it for the rest of their lives. So costs today in order to create savings tomorrow do make sense within Medicare. Let's hope these measures survive the sausage making on Capital Hill.

You can find the White House's description of Medicare reforms here.
I guess I should explain again why I am calling my posts like this one "health care reform shorts." When this became THE issue of the day, I promised myself I wouldn't try to master the myriad ins and outs of health policy. I know that is the work of years. But I'm a political blogger -- I can't very well ignore the issues.

And health care reform turns out to be a topic much like getting good medical care itself: it will proceed better if the patients (the public) learn as much about our ills and options as we can.

So I am writing occasional "shorts" despite knowing how little I know in this very technical discussion.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Our country will not exist ..."

President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives laid it on the line at the U.N. climate summit the other day. For his country, the rising seas that go along with the rising temperatures caused by human-generated carbon in the atmosphere, simply mean the extinction of his nation which sits one meter above sea level. Its people have lived off ecologically sustainable fishery for thousands of years. But unless the great carbon emitting nations -- the United States and Europe, but also East Asia, China and India -- get their pollution under control, that place and way of life is a goner. He's a dignified, impressive English speaker. [3:19]

My mother often recalled hearing Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia beg the League of Nations to stop the fascist Italian invasion of his country in 1936. The League was paralyzed and that foretaste of World War II went unchallenged. Might President Nasheed be this generation's Haile Selassie?

Emperor Haile Selassie Speaking Before the League of Nations, June 30, 1936 For more, see this.

Keep calm and carry on, U.S. style

The U.S. government has charged three men with lying to federal agents about an apparent terror conspiracy. According to Josh Marshall this one may have more substance than the ludicrous aspiring dimwits entrapped in violent fantasies who authorities have rounded up recently.

In most of the earlier terror cases over the last decade, the suspects were either total chumps who were lured into stings by aggressive government informants or they were genuine bad guys who really wanted to blow something up but, in most cases, lacked the know-how and connections. And it was in the process of casting about for someone who would help them learn to blow things up that they came up on the governments radar and were led into a phony 'plot' that got them arrested.

Although Marshall doesn't really say why, he fears this bunch were more competent and hence more of a real threat.

The conspirators may have wanted to plant bombs in subway stations or other public transport facilities -- and we've seen from London and Madrid what horrible harm to can be done by such attacks. Survivors of the London blasts are still seeking a public inquiry, if only to damp down "truthers" who believe the British government was involved in the attacks. (H/t Rachel from North London, herself a survivor.)

Maybe we need to emulate the Brits by adopting these tote bags.

The slogan was originally a message from the king, put out as posters during the German "blitz" bombings of British cities during the Second World War. Those folks knew the way to defend their country under attack was not to rush about in hysterics, but to hold fast to their way of life and values while facing mortal danger.

We could use a little of that spirit instead of letting our fears lead us to follow the course set by people who want to destroy the best facets of this country, whether they be Osama bin Laden or Dick Cheney.

For U.S. consumption, I've excised the image of the British crown that is part of the original graphic. You can see the original here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Speaking up for health insurance companies

A little long [2:20] but definitely worth a look.

Celebrity ads are not always as successful as their creators might hope and expect, but this is enjoyable.

Harvest Blessing

Before life turned him into a vintner, the Rev. John Staten taught academic theology. Nearly 40 years ago, he was my partner's adviser when she was an undergraduate. Now he annually offers a blessing of the harvest at his family's Field Stone Winery in Sonoma County's Alexander Valley. This past weekend, we were privileged to join a group of Staten friends and fans for the annual celebration.

The program for the gathering offered a text:

There is a reality in blessing. It doesn't enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that. I have felt it passing through me.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

I found it easy in this setting to drift off into the beauty of the land.

After song and reflection, we all shared grape juice so fresh it tasted alive.

Katrina Staten chatted with her guests.

The Alexander Valley was quiet and bountiful on Saturday afternoon.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Hold Olympia Snowe accountable

If Senator Olympia Snowe is going to be the crucial "decider" of what kind of health care reform we are allowed to have, those of us out outside of Maine can at least help some of her constituents remind her of what she owes to them.

You can help get this ad on the air in Maine at this site.

McChrystal confirms Afghanistan is FUBAR

Nice to see that President Obama's commander for Afghanistan is apparently operating in the real world. According to the Washington Post, via Mr. Insider-Stenographer Bob Woodward, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is telling his boss that our imperial adventure in the Hindu Kush is FUBAR -- politely, Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition. Some facets of the folly, per McChrystal:

"The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF's own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government..."

"Pre-occupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us -- physically and psychologically -- from the people we seek to protect. . . . The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves."

"Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood. ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population."

"It is realistic to expect that Afghan and coalition casualties will increase."

"The insurgents control or contest a significant portion of the country, although it is difficult to assess precisely how much due to a lack of ISAF presence. . . . "

FUBAR indeed.

Being a General, McChrystal then concludes the only answer is more guns, more troops, more of the same. This isn't so clever. It looks like what the President actually needs are some new ideas -- like how to extricate us from the failed adventure bequeathed to him by his predecessor. Or will he let himself be squeezed by his generals?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pelosi tears up; calls out incitement to political violence

In blogland, something that happened last week can usually be considered to have long slipped down the memory hole, out of our knowledge. But, belatedly, Joan Walsh has drawn my attention to my Congresswoman choking up while talking about the dangers that may flow from violent political speech.

Here's the short [1:18] video.

Pelosi remembers the late 1970s in San Francisco when a deranged white male, who had been a Supervisor, a police officer and a firefighter, acted out some people's perception that a liberal mayor (George Moscone) and an elected queer (Harvey Milk) could not lead a legitimate government. So Dan White shot them both at City Hall.

Nancy (we call our pols by their first names here) is not the first San Francisco veteran to recall those shootings in the context of the Obama presidency. Diane Feinstein, who found the bodies, made an odd reference to "the ballot or the bullet" during the inauguration ceremony.

Nancy and Diane are tough birds. They honestly do fear that current racial and economic resentments, amplified by sensational Republican mass media, could lead to political violence. In fact, this nasty stew already has as the murder of Dr. Tiller in Wichita while serving as an usher at this church shows.

Combine guns with wackjobs and tell them they have the right to feel unmanned and you get murder.

I take some offense at Joan Walsh's assertion that the assassinations of Moscone and Milk "permanently disabled liberal politics here." Come on, Joan: just as one example, San Francisco has created citywide universal access to health care (for residents, in the city). That seems a pretty good example of liberal accomplishment that the rest of the country could emulate. (Thank you, former Supervisor and now Assemblyman Ammiano.)

I don't think we can count on Republicans to dial it down. They haven't got much to run on these days except stoking resentment.

This stuff has limits as long as "law enforcement" and the military doesn't join it. I don't think it is paranoia to wonder whether, as in San Francisco in the 1970s, some of the legally-empowered guys with the guns might share resentment against a Black man who dares to be president. I see every movement President Obama makes as informed by awareness of that potential. Quite what that means I can't spell out, but I don't think political observers can discount the degree to which this President is forced to shape his agenda around trying to tamp down the national demons.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The season is underway

The football season is here -- this makes me happy, even though I consider my delight at watching big men beat each other up athletically as a slightly guilty pleasure.

Via Ta-Nehisi Coates I was delighted to learn that the Center for Responsive Politics has compiled the data on where NFL teams (meaning mostly their owners) invest their political money.

Yes -- political donations are an investment. My donations are in politicians and causes that I think will advance progressive policies. (I especially favor liberal Democratic primary challengers to Blue Dog obstructionists.) Football owners have their own priorities.

Interestingly, the NFL itself gives predominantly to Democrats. They spend nearly $1.5 million a year on lobbying. They've also created a new Gridiron PAC that has contributed $63,000 to 19 federal candidates in the last year -- two thirds of them Democrats, presumably friendly Congressional committee chairmen.

Among the owners, Alex Spanos of the San Diego Chargers is the heavy hitter, having given $2.4 million to candidates since 1990, four times what any other owner has kicked in. Ninety-eight percent of that went to Republicans.

No other team or owner is in Spanos' league as a political donor, but many give some contributions, largely to Republicans. I'm not surprised that owners largely give to the GOP -- rich guys stick together.

Interesting, President Obama's campaign dredged out a few prominent football donors. Dan Rooney of the family that owns the Pittsburgh Steelers actually campaigned for him during the Pennsylvania primary -- and in 2009 Rooney was named ambassador to Ireland. Lovie Smith, coach of the Chicago Bears also supported Obama; guess he's a homer. Peyton Manning proved a poor judge of political winners, supporting Fred Thompson; Andy Reid of the Eagles liked Mitt Romney. Oh well -- they know how to do their day jobs.

In the period between 1990 and the present for which the Center for Responsive Politics has data, a short list of teams gave over 60 percent of their political cash to Democrats. Probably most of these contributions reflect local political considerations, but nonetheless the list is interesting: Philadelphia Eagles, St Louis Rams, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders, and, thank goodness, the San Francisco 49ers (84 percent to Democrats).

Friday, September 18, 2009

A case of ICE abuse?

This story poses a question to President Obama and Secretary of "Homeland Security" Napolitano. Will you look backward and investigate, and look forward and make amends, in response to outrages perpetrated by the Bush-era U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)?

If what this guy reports about how he was treated is true, heads should roll. Given what we know about how the ICE operates (see for example Postville), I have no reason to think the story is false.

The following account is from the Pakistani English language newspaper Dawn :

Hasan says that on January 7, 2006, two men from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a subdivision of the DHS, arrested him and took him to Fayetteville, Arkansas. 'I was told that I was a criminal, a fugitive and a terrorist. I kept telling them that I had done nothing wrong, but they wouldn’t listen,' he remembers.

'I was put in a cell and told to strip. While I was undressing, the taser came out. The agent kept zapping me until I passed out. When I woke up, I was lying on the floor naked and wet. He then started hitting and zapping me.'

Pulling his shirt up, Hasan reveals torture marks that remain visible after four years. His front teeth are missing due to heavy beating and he informs that his left hand remains numb. 'They kept asking me, what do you know about the 9/11 attackers? Who do you know in Al Qaeda? How much money did you send to the terrorists? What are your plans for bombing the nuclear plants in the US?'

Hasan also recalls being chastised for marrying a white woman and being told by a federal agent that he would ‘make a career’ on Hasan’s case. 'I kept pleading with them that you’ve got the wrong guy, but they never stopped,' he adds.

According to Hasan, he was moved between several detention centres in the US, including one in Memphis, Tennessee, and another in Texas. 'I couldn't bear the torture. I wanted to be deported and started writing letters to the ICE asking for it. Then a month later, an ICE deportation officer appeared and said I could be sent to Pakistan only after I sign three pieces of blank paper. Otherwise, I was threatened that I would languish in cells forever and be sent to [the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay].' It was at this point that Hasan opted for deportation and was flown out to Pakistan.

According to Hasan, prior to being picked up by ICE, he had been a legal resident of the U.S since the 1980s, had earned two degrees and held a good job. He is married to a U.S. citizen who has joined him in Pakistan with their two children. The family desperately hopes to return to the United State, feeling completely unmoored and unsafe in Islamabad. Hasan still thinks the US is "a great country. Americans are the best people ..."

Two video interviews with the couple recorded this year (available here and here) give more details about this ugly situation. The US born wife's father apparently was violently hostile to their marriage and may have used immigration authorities to get rid of his son-in-law. The immigration agents were both abysmally ignorant about "terrorists" and evidently felt free to abuse any South Asian, especially one who had married a white woman.

Under the Bush administration, the couple didn't think there was any point in telling their story. It remains to be seen whether there is any point now.

Health care reform shorts:
Customer seeks answers from insurance company

Virginia Organizing Project covers its employees through Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield. The group works for health care reform, so they weren't entirely surprised when this year's annual rate hike was 14.1 percent. Lots of executive salaries must be paid.

But they did take offense to get a letter from the company explaining that it was lobbying against any government provided health care.

So they decided to visit Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield to ask for an explanation of what the company is doing with their premiums. VOP's director left in handcuffs. [3:10]

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Afghanistan war: a "significant public relations challenge"

That chart was at the beginning of this year. Now U.S. troop numbers are up to 68,000 and General McChrystal wants more, though it is impolitic to blurt it out.

White House Details Ways to Rate Progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan

"This will be an honest effort to grade ourselves," one senior administration official told reporters, saying that in some cases "there will be a significant public relations challenge" if the White House, or an outside panel, determines that elements of the program are failing.

New York Times, Sept. 16, 2009

Let's see:
  • You occupy a country for 8 years and your enemies (or anyway some set of people who are pretty hostile) now control more of it than you do;
  • Most of the opium that reaches your European allies now comes from that country;
  • Your own people and most of your allies no longer see any purpose in prolonging the dying.
This goes beyond "public relations." This is failure.

Stop it -- now.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jacob Alexander, R.I.P.

Appropriately, I learned that Jake had died from a flier in Golden Gate Park. From his obituary, I learned that he was 78, a creator of fabric art, and had traveled widely and lived imaginatively. None of that seemed surprising.

Every week day for decades, he walked the path adjacent to Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park. According to a San Francisco Chronicle article from 1999, he started the practice in 1982, moving from the Mission to the Panhandle to get closer to his starting point. Regular as the sun, he greeted everyone on the path, slapped hands, hugged and wished passersby well.

I must have first met him soon after he started walking -- I've been running in the park since the late 1970s. We'd say hello and I'd wonder if his walk was some sort of spiritual path. I was always glad to see him; he acted as if he was equally glad to see me.

In the 1990s, I worked out of Oakland and seldom got to the park during the week, so I didn't see Jake. Then, at the beginning of this decade, I was back on the San Francisco side of the bay, running in the park again. And there was Jake, still walking daily. To my astonishment, he remembered me among the 1000s he must have greeted over the years and wanted to know how I was doing these days.

"Still going..." He agreed. "Still going..."

I last saw him sometime in the spring. I'll miss knowing he is there.

You can read more about Jacob Alexander, see some of this art, and find the announcement of a memorial walk to be held in his honor on September 20 at his website.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A new guy with guts and some good instincts

Richard Trumka, a former head of the United Mine Workers Union, will become head of the AFL-CIO on Wednesday. Labor may be down, but it's not out. It is still the anchor of progressive forces when it comes to popular mobilization. The President knows that; he showed up to speak at labor's convention.

According to the Washington Post, Trumka assesses President Obama this way:

"He really gets it," Trumka said. "He's one of the first presidents who . . . speaks from a worker's point of view who actually understands what workers think and feel."

My sense is that Trumka is right: Obama does seem to grasp how people who work for a living feel. And that in itself feels novel.

But can labor take Obama's empathy to mean that he'll fight for the actual interests of workers? Empathy is nice; delivering the goods is way better. Since the AFL-CIO has signed on in support of the public option as part of health care "reform," they've got an immediate test case.

Trumka is no slouch. He dares to speak frankly, a refreshing quality in a public figure. Here he is talking to Steelworkers about race during last year's campaign:

Putting Trumka at the helm has to be a hopeful sign for the often arthritic labor movement.

Honesty and realism from Rev. Flunder

Last spring I heard the Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder speak at a forum on same-gender marriage. She is the longtime pastor at City of Refuge United Church of Christ in San Francisco, a teacher, preacher and theologian, and one very impressive woman.

So I picked up her little book, Where the Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion. There's a lot there. I recommend it. I want to highlight here a few of her themes.

Flunder brings her African-American Pentecostal heritage (she calls herself "Metho-Bapti-Costal") to engaging with all kinds of outsiders. The Bible is important to her tradition, but she teaches wrestling with it.

A woman minister, a SGL [same-gender-loving] person, the progeny of slaves cannot be a biblical literalist. ...My position is best explained by a response from an unnamed slave who, when she was told that the Bible said she was to be a slave, answered, "Not my Bible; I tore dat page out!"

And here's a tidbit that casts a different light on the struggles within churches over marrying same gender couples.

How should the church respond to families that do not fit the acceptable social norms? ...The Christian church had a similar dilemma two hundred years ago when it sought to determine how to justify the inclusion of slave families that did not fit... The issue was how could the church receive them "in good standing" when some of the married slaves had both their current spouses and another spouse and often other children on another plantation. This was due in large part to the ability of the slave master to sell slaves away at will. ...How could the church make their marriages sacred and make them accountable to their vows if their master could force them in and out of their marriages? One church, the Welsh Neck Baptist Church of South Carolina, decided that to grant membership to the slave couples was "less evil" than excommunicating them. ...

Flunder calls this "forward-looking." I think I'd call this caring realism, an instance of upholding human connection and compassion over legalism. The real question is why does this seem unexpected good sense to find in a church?

Flunder knows that for folks on the edge, relating to churches risks further marginalization. Here's her advice:

People seeking community support should go where that support is evident. Vote with your feet. Abuse is free on the street; there is no point seeking it out and joining it. We join faith communities to be strengthened and nurtured and to have an opportunity to serve. When this goals are no longer attainable, we should look elsewhere.

And Flunder unflinchingly demands that churches in her tradition cop to the complexities of gender identities.

It is disingenuous when the African American faith community perpetuates the cycle of oppression and particularly gender oppression by marginalizing the transgender community. The trans community makes us tell the truth about the blurred gender lines that have always existed ... We have always had manly women and womanly men in our community who often did not identify as SGL [same gender loving] people.

...There were roles in the church for "softer" men, such as the usher board, the choir, the pulpit, or working with small children. These men often adored their wives while some wives spent most of their time with another female friend. There were roles for stronger women such as jail ministers, foreign missionaries, and trustees. People found their way into roles that complemented their gender identification. For some men and women, sex, gender, and sexual orientation came together in a male or female package, but for most there were points of identification on both sides of the gender line and in real life most people cross back and forth with great fluidity.

You don't have to have belonged to Flunder's tradition to make that observation; any experience of a broad community is likely to have included similar realities, if we'd only look at them. She makes me wonder how much of our belief that gender roles reflect solid actualities requires willfully choosing not to look at what is located right in front of us.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Health care reform shorts:
Monday Night Football edition

The national health care bruhaha has reached into ads on MNF.

The following bit of corporate image burnishing from IBM [:31] boasts of potential data efficiencies that reformers believe would drive down costs.

In a radio interview with NPR's Terry Gross, I recently heard T. R. Reid, author of The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, patiently explain that the French universal coverage system already incorporates these technological marvels, in addition to covering everyone for less than half the cost of our system. The French all carry a card with an embedded chip that allows any doctor to access their complete medical history and update it with any new diagnosis or treatments. Obviously this is cheaper and simpler than our tangle of records that don't mesh to each other.

And very likely, many people in the United States, after years of living in terror that insurance companies would raise their rates or cancel them because they got sick, would object mightily to implementing such a system. Proposals for integrated medical records would raise cries of "socialism" or maybe "fascism." Or, in the present style, both.

Another MNF ad urged patients to visit a Health and Human Services website to learn what sort of questions they should ask their doctors in order to get better medical care.

I thought this ad (and there are other variants) was rather well done. Unfortunately the website to which it directs people, here, is not up to the sophistication of the ad -- and confusing. If you actually wanted to know what you should ask you doctor, the HHS list is here.

The Taliban on their own turf

Journalist Stephen Farrell, along with his Afghan colleague Sultan M. Munadi, was captured by Taliban fighters on September 4 while collecting accounts of a NATO airstrike that killed civilian scavengers in remote Kunduz province. Four days later, paratroopers rescued the Western reporter in an operation that killed Munadi, some number of other Afghans and one British soldier.

On the New York Times blog, At War, Farrell has described his captivity. This was an awful way to get the story, but Farrell is able to provide a glimpse of who the local Taliban are.

Once away from immediate pursuit, they transferred me to a waiting car and drove into the dusty back roads of Char Dara District at high speed. "Russian?" one asked me, a question that seemed so out of recent historical context that it made my heart sink. ...

They delighted in showing off, at one point driving within 500 meters of what they said were government and NATO watchtowers -- gleeful at their daring, at others they drove with headlights full on at night as they moved us from house to house, at least three different buildings a day.

It became a tour of a Taliban-controlled district of Afghanistan, and that control appeared total. At no point did we see a single NATO soldier, Afghan policeman, soldier or any check to the Taliban's ability to move at will. ...It felt like a military embed with the American military, except at gunpoint. "You spend enough time with the Americans, you should spend some time with us," one of the Taliban said, making the comparison explicit. ...

There was no doubting the absolute force of their writ in the area southwest of Kunduz, which we traversed time and again, in an area of cornfields, rice plantations, mud brick villages, waterways and other farmlands, measuring perhaps eight miles long by three or four miles wide. They drove down lanes, through villages, stopping at will and talking to residents, boasting about how the people provided a willing intelligence service to them. The extent of volition was impossible to determine, but the Taliban were the only armed presence I saw there for four days.

Interestingly, they paid when they needed gas for the car, instead of just commandeering it, which they could have easily done. Some villagers appeared very friendly, others more wary and formally polite. Motorists unfailingly gave way as soon as they saw a Taliban car coming in the other direction, and snapped to a smile and an Islamic greeting.

The Taliban may or may not be popular, but they are not foreign occupiers. It is impossible to believe that continued U.S. application of force will subdue people who simply fight the invader, distinguishing little between one sort of infidel intruder and the next.

What was it the U.S. is trying to accomplish in Afghanistan?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The teabagger rally on the DC mall

It's easy to scorn these folks, but mocking them does no good. In fact, a lifetime of feeling mocked by supercilious elites is what makes them prey to right wing demagoguery.

The majority can probably only cure (or modify) their ills by creating a more vibrant economy of which they get a piece, delivering health care security, and avoiding put downs. Ameliorating the real problems and letting his opponents live with the consequences seems to be the Obama tack -- trouble is, they may not let him do it.

Will he fight for his devastatingly effective program for social peace? We still don't know.

There's always a quarrel about numbers at these things. I've been to plenty of peace, women's and gay demonstrations. Some were genuinely large -- a million or more. Many were in the 100s of thousands. All thought they had more than some lowball police estimate. Just being with a lot of people who agree with you can feel like a lot.

These folks, claiming millions, seem to be right in step with the norm for demonstrators. The DC police say there were some 50-70 thousand. Not a lot for a DC rally of progressives; lots for rightwingers who aren't used to doing this.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Tahoe postscript

This is for any of my elderblogger friends who may think me mad for trudging around on mountains. This morning we pampered our stiff legs with a short walk on a trail that led to a public beach on Lake Tahoe.

On our way there, we were passed by this woman running, her long white braid swinging behind her.

When we got to the shore, there she was in three feet of cold water, walking repeats of about 100 yards, back and forth, against the resistance of the lake.

She responded with a laugh when we applauded her grit.

On this 9/11, time out for a mountain

Yesterday we hiked to the summit of 9700 foot Mount Tallac adjacent to Lake Tahoe.

The lower flanks of the mountain are dotted with tiny crystalline lakes that reflect the mountain above.

But much of the hike was an unrelenting slog across fields of slag rock, up and up, 3300 vertical feet over 4.6 miles. And it was hot; in the 80s.

The views from the summit were superb. That's Lake Tahoe with Emerald Bay stretching inland and a corner of Fallen Leaf Lake.

To the west runs the crest of the Sierra Nevada range, only a bit higher at this point.

Today we rest. Regular blogging will resume tomorrow.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Health care reform shorts:
The gaping hole in "universal" coverage

Congressman Joe Wilson's outburst during Obama's health reform speech -- calling the President a liar -- drew a response [1:13] from Rinku Sen of Colorlines magazine that wasn't what either man had in mind.

See also this from Tracy Kronzak.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Health care reform shorts:
The President's big speech

The promise to hold him to:

But I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can't find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice.

The framing that sets Obama apart:

There are those on the left who believe that the only way to fix the system is through a single-payer system like Canada's, where we would severely restrict the private insurance market and have the government provide coverage for everyone. On the right, there are those who argue that we should end the employer-based system and leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.

I have to say that there are arguments to be made for both approaches.

This guy legitimates that there is a left that has something to say, that is within the discussion of possible options. Pathetically, this is an advance. Someday, if we organize, the powers that be will have to listen.

The pronouncement that gladdens my heart:

We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it.

Enough with quaking in paralyzed fear ...