Monday, January 31, 2011

Flexible spending accounts: the only health care ‘reform’ we can hope for?

Bob, over at Planet Albany blog, is providing coverage of the New York Conservative 'Party' conference in Colonie, a suburb of Albany. He makes reference to former lieutenant govenror Betsy McCaughey, who made a national name for herself opposing health care reform under Bill Clinton and who is, not surprisingly, dead set against so-called Obamacare.

She said that there are indeed alternatives to Obamacare, blah blah blah... I’ll believe that when the House passes something concrete. Until then, it’s just empty talk. Besides, we know that if the Republicans actually ever passed a health care bill, it would be at least as bad, if not worse, than the Democrats’ awful plan. It would take us further away from the Medicare for All that would be cheaper, more comprehensive and more efficient than the totally dysfunctional system we have now.

It’s clear that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are interested in real health care reform. They merely tweak around the edges, arguing about exactly how to give more power to health insurance bureaucrats and how to expand profits for the private insurance money changers.

Since both corporate parties are only interested in making the tiniest changes possible so they can claim the mantle of 'reform,' here’s one: flexible spending account (FSA) reform.

FSA is where you can put aside a small part of your paycheck tax free to use on medical expenses. But there are several problems with the way FSA is structured.

First, flexible spending accounts are actually quite inflexible. You must decide before the year even starts how much per paycheck to put aside. Once decided, it can not change under any circumstance (except, I believe, the birth of a child or death of a spouse). This is fine if you have access to a crystal ball or are related to a time traveler.

For example, I put aside $260 a year ($10 per biweekly paycheck). That’s plenty to cover an ordinary year’s medical expenses for me: a physical, an eye appointment and glasses or contacts, contact lens solution.

But if I get injured during the year or get diagnosed with an illness or condition or something else happens that I CAN’T PREDICT, what’s left of that $260 is going to disappear in a heartbeat and I will be out of luck. You should be able to increase your FSA contribution during the year to account for unexpected changes in your health condition.

Another major problem with FSA is that it’s use it or lose it. If you don’t use all of the money in your account by the end of the year, it disappears into the pocket of, surprirse surprise, the insurance company. Essentially, this is a system that fines you for being healthy and encourages you to be wasteful.

This can be remedied in one of two ways. Either the balance remaining in your FSA should be refunded to you on Jan. 1 (and thus it becomes taxable) or it should be rolled over so it can be used in the next year. Your money shouldn’t disappear into the insurance racket’s coffers.

What’s worse is that recent inexplicable changes make it so you are unable to use FSA money on legitimate medical expenses like such as aspirin and cough medicine. As of Jan. 1, 2011, you can only use FSA for prescription medications.

Again, this is only tweaking around the edges of our dysfunctional health care system, which critics say can be more accurately described as 'sick care.' But since we can’t expect any more from the RepubliCrats, maybe they’ll take up these changes.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why do businesses create jobs?

"When I give food to the poor, I'm called a saint. When I ask why they are poor, I'm called a communist." -Archbishop Dom Helder Camara.

The New York Times Week in Review section has a good piece pointing out that although corporate profits have been at record high levels recently, unemployment remains high.

There is a huge fallacy long pushed by Republicans (and now capitulated to by most 'mainstream' Democrats) that all you have to do is give corporations handouts and huge tax breaks and they will magically create jobs. This betrays a fundamental ignorance of basic economics.

Businesses don't create jobs just because they have money or as some sort of social program. They create jobs in order to meet increasing demand. If they get more money but demand is stagnant or decreasing, then they won't create jobs (here). They will either save that money or invest it abroad.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Something that hasn't yet happened probably won't matter!!

If you want a crystal clear example of how lazy journalism has become and how polls have become a crutch to allow editors avoid assigning actual journalism, check out this ‘story.’ A poll by Marist College found that 59% of people expect that tonight’s State of the Union address won’t change their mind about the direction of the country.

This is a poll asking people about what they expect that they WILL probably think about a speech that HASN’T EVEN BEEN GIVEN yet. Worse yet, they fabricated this story even though a comfortable majority said the speech WILL probably make no difference.

So a future event won’t make a difference and they contrive a ‘story’ out of this?! And media poohbahs wonder why people are less and less likely to pay for this nonsense.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Lying weasels

When I lived in West Africa, one of my Guinean friends often remarked a bit sarcastically, “Toute opposition est démocrate” -- all opposition parties believe in democracy. The implication being that parties advocate democracy, good governance and all sorts of neat things when they are in opposition because it sounds good and are quick to jettison those 'principles' when they actually gain power.

As Bob over at Planet Albany blog noted, this phenomenon is just as prevalent in the banana republic of Albany as in West Africa.

He points out that New York Senate Republicans have ran away from their promise to support a non-partisan process to draw electoral districts. It’s a process they supported when they were in opposition last year (and campaigning against the incompetent and corrupt Democrats then running the chamber) and are now weaseling out of now that they’re in power.

And it’s pretty impressive. Most politicians take time to weasel out of their promises. Senate Republicans have only taken a few weeks. Of course, that is not the only example we've seen recently.

Though actually, my earlier characterization is not quite fair. Legislators from West Africa have higher standards and would not tolerate Albany’s level of dysfunction and corruption.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sometimes, you do get what you vote for

Apparently some people are upset that NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo is threatening to lay off as many as 12,000 state workers, about 5% of the entire state work force. Why?

Nearly 96% of New Yorkers recently supported the Republican economic agenda, via their votes for either Cuomo or Carl Paladino; the highest vote getter among those advocating a non-GOP economic agenda was Green Howie Hawkins at 1.3%.

In a recent Siena poll, 87% said they wanted the state to erase the $10 billion budget gap without raising taxes or new borrowing.

If you want to balance a budget, you either need to cut spending, raise revenue or some combination thereof. And since the public’s stated preferences exclude the latter two, they have nothing to complain about.

You voted for it. You got it. Quit whining!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dr. King's real dream: dignity for all

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy against segregation and other forms of state-sponsored racism. On this national holiday honoring him, it's worth remembering that King viewed as more than mere legal racial equality. He viewed the struggle more broadly as one in favor of human dignity. This is why he did not retire from public life following legalistic victories such as Brown vs the Board of Education or the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. Although legal segregation was crumbling in the last years of his life, Dr. King did not diminish his activism in any way. He merely refocused it toward another aspect of human dignity.

At the time of his assassination in 1968, King was in Memphis as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's (SLCC) Poor People's Campaign, where the city's garbage workers were protesting against unlivable wages. The SLCC had conceived the campaign as a way to mobilize poor people of all skin colors on behalf of a federal economic plan to rebuild American cities.

King realized that the end of state-imposed segregation would not improve the lives of black people if they remained miserably poor. In much the same way the lives of blacks in the south remained virtually unchanged long after the 'transition' from slavery to sharecropping.

King viewed the campaign part as the second phase of the civil rights' struggle. He viewed endemic poverty as a civil rights' issue.

This commitment to human dignity animated another lesser known aspect of King's work: his opposition to the Vietnam War and to militarism more broadly.

During his Beyond Vietnam speech given exactly one year before his murder, he explained why opposition to the aggression against Vietnam had entered into his activism:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men [in the ghettos of the north], I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

Americans were being shipped off to Vietnam to kill, to destroy and to die. Nothing good was happening because of this. And King knew that the war machine specifically sought those with few other economic options to serve as its cannon fodder, a situation that's little different today.

Like many social justice advocates before and since, he deplored how much of our national resources (both financial and human) was wasted on fabricating foreign enemies to obliterate. "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom," he warned.

King probably realized that the fact that many young people had few other economic options was no accident, but the result of conscious policy choices made to ensure an insatiable monster created, funded and propped up by your tax dollars always had food.

(It's not the only insatiable monster but the other main one merits an entry of its own)

To restrict Dr. King's legacy to the fight for legal equality for black people is to sell him short. And it's misleads people into believing that his dream has been realized. His true struggle was the quest for human dignity for all people.

He could be no clearer about this when he concluded his Beyond Vietnam speech:

We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

If you truly want to honor him, then follow this injunction.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dr. King and the military-industrial complex

On tomorrow's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday, I will repost an essay I wrote a few years ago about Dr. King's real legacy, a legacy that shows him as a much bigger man than the one most Americans. Much like Muhammad Ali, Dr. King is now usually portrayed as a sacharrine figure, with ideas that are largely apolitical and non-controversial. However much like Ali, who famously declared "No VietCong ever called me nigger," the full range of King's beliefs are as controversial today as they were in the late 1960s. Or would be if people actually knew them.

The truth is that while some did indeed hate Dr. King for the color of his skin, many others came to hate him for the content of his character. Many applauded when he preached non-violence in opposition to American apartheid, but made him a hate figure when he expanded that non-violence into opposition to the US aggression against the Vietnamese people and to American militarism more broadly.

But in a poignant coincidence, tomorrow is also the 50th anniversary of Pres. Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address, a speech almost entirely devoted to warning against the danger of the 'unwarranted influence' of the military-industrial complex.

He noted that: This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience [in 1961]. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Eisenhower made these observations not as a long-haired, anti-establishment troublemaker but as a widely acclaimed war hero and 'as one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war' first hand.

Sadly, the nation did not heed Pres. Eisenhower's warnings. The military-industrial complex drew stronger and stronger during the 1960s (and continues of course unchallenged to this day). It's against that plundering of resources, both material and human, that Dr. King devoted his latter days to fighting.

Friday, January 14, 2011

There's something about Tunisia

This essay is part of an occasional feature on this blog that presents compelling stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, IsraelStine and the Trumped Up Enemy of the Month. A list of all pieces in this series can be found found here..

Something's happening in Tunisia.

That statement alone is pretty significant, since it concerns one of the world's most tightly controlled police states.

The north African state has been controlled by two dictators since independence in 1956. First was Habib Bourguiba, who ran the country from 1956 until he was removed for 'health' reasons in 1987 by his prime minister Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who still rules today. The country is so rigidly monitored that it's said that Ben Ali, a former intelligence chief, personally reviews logs of who entered and left the country via the main international airport.

But after nearly a quarter century, Tunisians appear to be fed up with Ben Ali's regime. As The New York Times described the situation: unisia also has one of the most repressive governments in a region full of police states. Residents long tolerated extensive surveillance, scant civil liberties and the routine use of torture, at least until the economic malaise that has gripped southern Europe spread here, sending unemployment and public resentment skyrocketing.

The current crisis started when an unemployed university graduate set himself on fire after police refused to allow him to scratch out a meager living selling fruits and vegetables on the street because he lacked paperwork.

Protests erupted, spread by social media, since the traditional media is heavily censored. The protests were dealt with in the way that autocratic regimes usually deal with such displays: brute force. People were killed, which fueled even more fury and resentment. To no one's surprise, Ben Ali initially blamed the unrest of foreign elements and terrorists.

(Foreign Policy has a good analysis of Tunisia's socioeconomic problems and other catalysts of the protests.)

Then an unusual thing happened, the dictatorship blinked.

A chastened Ben Ali went on national television and promised not to run again for the presidency in 2014, to ease censorship and apologized for the abuses of the insecurity forces.

Many are skeptical of the dictator's promises, especially after several people were shot by men in uniform not long after Ben Ali's speech; a human rights' organization counts 66 confirmed deaths since the unrest began on December 17. There's the added factor that Ben Ali's family has a stranglehold on the Tunisian economy (some are describing this as the first Wikileaks' Revolution) and won't relinquish that easily.

The protesters aren't satisfied. They want Ben Ali to give up power now.

Still, it's a remarkable climbdown for a strongman who had, not long prior, so vehemently denounced the protests.

In the blogosphere, there's some interesting discussions about social media and the Tunisia situation.

Ethan of My Heart's in Accra worries that no one is paying attention. Even the normally excellent BBC World Service had virtually nothing on it, at least that I heard, for the first several weeks of the protests.

George Brock of 21st Century Journalism counters that whether the events in Tunisia are noticed in the west or not misses the point. It's the empowerment that matters. Much inflated hyperbole is talked about the effect of social media on politics and society in Europe and the US. But here in the Middle East, it is impossible exaggerate the importance – actual and potential – of informal media, he explains.

Update: Today, Ben Ali has declared a state of emergency, sacked the entire government (except himself of course) and called for new elections within six months.

Further update: Ben Ali has apparently resigned and fled the country. His prime minister, a close ally, has assumed the acting presidency, though there is some doubt as to whether this is constitutional.

Third update: Tunisia's high court has appointed the parliamentary speaker as acting president.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Don't let fairness interfere with the editorial line

I love our little local daily.

Last week, The Post-Star ran an article on the seemingly outrageous demands of the South Glens Falls teachers union as presented by the administration.

It is unable to get a quote from the union rep but that didn't stop them running an editorial denouncing the teachers. I guess having a full picture of the story might not jive with the paper's longstanding anti-teachers union editorial line.

Today, the paper ran another article, this time with the teachers' side of the story. I can't link to it because, unlike the controversial original article and the denunciatory editorial, this one is not available online.

No word yet on if the paper will retract its hasty editorial.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Fair fight" elections

How rigged is the legislative redistricting process (gerrymandering)? If they have to combine two districts, sometimes they resolve it by a solution know as a "fair fight" district.

Shouldn't "fair fights" be the rule rather than the exception?

This is why our we should have an independent redistricting commission, as the New York Public Interest Research Group and other good government groups have called for, as has the Green Party of New York State.

The NYPIRG report points out that in 2002, only 5 legislative races out of 212 were decided by a margin of 10 percent of less.

It also noted that only 25 of the 212 legislative districts (11 percent) have close enough enrollments that could allow frequent competitive elections.

Legislators, particularly in the Assembly, do not want an independent redistricting because it would take away of the biggest powers: the power to pick the voters that would pick them. Citizens are supposed to choose their representatives, not vice versa.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Decency and the boiling teapot of our body politic

"I think it would be a good idea." -Gandhi, when asked about western civilization.

There has been much talk in recent days about the state of US political discourse, since the shooting rampage that wounded several people, including Democratic Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and killed several others, including a federal judge and a 9 year old girl.

I won't rehash all the debate. It's not the harshest political climate the nation has ever seen; that honor could go to the early 19th century or the 1850s or the Vietnam War area or even the anarchism-plagued era of a 100 years ago.

But suffice it to say, things have been pretty vitriolic for the last few years, certainly the nastiest political culture of my life time. It's worth remembering that Rep. Giffords was one of many Congresspeople who supported the president's health care reform who saw their office vandalized, a less severe form of violence but a precursor. A sign in front of a home in this area reportedly bemoans, "It is a tragedy that more elected officials aren't executed."

An unnamed GOP senator told Politico that the Giffords' shooting was a "cautionary tale" and that "There is a need for some reflection here - what is too far now? What was too far when Oklahoma City happened is accepted now. There’s been a desensitizing. These town halls and cable TV and talk radio, everybody’s trying to outdo each other."

The senator was simply saying that we should all calm down a little bit but was afraid to give his or her name. This is a Republican senator mind you, not a Democrat like Giffords. This is a scathing indictment of how close to the edge our political culture has veered that the senator was afraid to have his/her name attached to such a seemingly innocuous plea.

So much of the focus has been on whether the Tea Party's or Sarah Palin's vitriol contributed to provoking the shooter in Arizona. It's really not the point and doesn't really serve the interest of calming things down. This issue is nastiness and disproporionately harsh rhetoric, often having little to do with the issues of the day and how this creates a climates where reason is rendered irrelevant. The above parties certainly contribute significantly to this climate, but there are culprits on all sides. Blaming one side for this particular tragedy ignores the fact that everyone is doing the same things.

I certainly understand the frustration behind the rage. Our government is bought and paid for by corporations. The ordinary citizen feels impotent. He feels that no matter how much he may have logic or reason or right on his side, he won't be heard because he can't make large campaign bribes ("donations").

This is why, for many years, Greens and other progressives have been pushing democratic reforms to take the government from corporations and other non-citizens and back to the citizens. We the people, not we the corporations or we the unions.

This sort of democratization is essential to defuse the violent tendencies. If people feel that non-violent democratic action is fruitless, they are more like to take the next step. Some people feel that if they can't be heard via exercise of the 1st Amendment (petition to redress grievances) than there's always the 2nd Amendment. As Pres. John F. Kennedy pointed out, "Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable."

But I also think political dialogue is harmed by our culture. Part of it is because our culture values the outlandish and the strident. Glenn Beck's theatrics and Keith Olbermann's 'Worst Person in the World' are far more visually and aurally compelling than the intonations of a Ralph Nader... even though the latter's words have (and have had) a far greater contribution to make to society. The intelligent people, the rational people, the civilized suffer from the fact that they aren't 'rodeo clowns.' Politics has always been theater, even more so in the 24 hour media culture, but we still delude ourselves by saying that only ideas matter.

Even liberals, who incessantly pat themselves on the back for their supposedly superior reason, vote primarily on 'notions' and 'gut feelings.' They 'just knew' that candidate Obama was more rational than candidates McCain and the others so they didn't feel bothered to look at the fine print. Now, they feel betrayed when Pres. Obama does what he said he was going to do rather than what they assumed he would do. Now, they feel their fault is that they aren't being nasty enough to counter the nastiness on the other side.

It also matters that our media now amplifies the anonymous. People can say whatever they want on the Internet and talk radio, without name, without restraint, without accountability. One of the nastiest political climates in our nation's history was the early 1800s, an era where the primary medium of communication was unsigned or pseudonymous pamphlets.

Anonymous has its good side and its bad side. And they are the same: lack of fear.

There is a maxim in our society that you don't talk about religion and politics in polite company. I couldn't disagree more. In fact, I think this exacerbates the general incivility we're seeing now.

If you can't talk politics with your friends and family, with whom you're more likely to remain respectful because you value the relationships, then you won't learn how to discuss such things civilly.

Instead, we argue politics with strangers on the Internet or talk radio. Since we don't value those relationships, the argument is more primal. We have fewer inhibitions about being nasty.

These media are depersonalized. You are not arguing with a specific human being. You are arguing with generic leftie or generic rightie about whom you assume certain things because of his ideology. These media allow you to insult 'liberals' or 'conservatives' or whomever else without ever having the guts to directly insult someone you know personally, something which is a lot harder to do. You might go on the Internet or talk radio and call someone an America-hating socialist terrorist appeaser or a baby killing militarist who spits on our troops, even though you'd never dare say those words directly to someone's face.

This is liberating, for better and for worse. Theoretical words can have real consequences, again for better and for worse. This is a freedom, but like all the others, it must be used responsibly. Now would be a good time to start.

Parents often talk about the things they do for their children. One of the most important things they can do is be a good role model. Part of being a good role model is acting like a responsible adult. Not just in terms of providing the basics of living, but of demonstrating good character in all walks of life... including political discourse. Be passionate, be engaged but remain first and foremost a decent human being.

Addendum: I think a corollary to this is that so much of what passes for 'debate' is people (on all sides) just regurgitating the same nasty talking points they read on a blog or heard on talk radio, rather than formulating arguments in their own words. This goes to the point about arguing with a generic opponent rather than an individual, perhaps nuanced, human being. You fight generic with generic. Engaging an individual takes more thought and effort.

Friday, January 07, 2011

GOP oversight in action

File this under the ‘You can’t make this stuff up’ category...

Contrary to some, I think it’s great the new Republican majority read the entire text (well almost all of it) on the floor of the House. It’s probably the first time many of them had actually read any of it... certainly the first time for those who enabled President Bush’s war against civil liberties and aggression against Iraq.

Now that they’ve read the Constitution, perhaps they might be inclined to start following it.

Well, maybe not immediately.

Apparently they weren’t paying attention to the clause which stated that only legally sworn-in members could vote on legislation.

This, from the party that promises more rigorous oversight of the Obama administration.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Part-time legislators, full-time salary

In recent weeks, there has been much criticism of New York state legislators for collecting salaries and pensions at the same time. This is particularly galling since many of the legislators in question are advocates of smaller government and less spending of tax dollars. But that is not their only waste.

The Capitol Confidential blog reports that the legislature will convene a mere 63 days this calendar year. The base legislative pay is $79,500. Lawmakers get paid even more for serving on committees.

$79,500 for 63 days of formal work, of which they may or may not attend all. And it's their staffers who do the real work.

And people complain that a teacher, who’s actually expected to produce quantifiable results, making $30,000 for 190ish days of formal work is overpaid.

Update: As Tweeter @Arfung notes -- Steve Jobs, arguably most successful CEO in America, has salary of $1 per year. And Jobs adds a bit more to the economy than Mrs. Sayward or her husband.