Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sick of Middlemen

Theraflu is nasty.  It’s totally effective and I swear by it, but the “lemon” taste is just awful.  I reintroduced myself to it this week as the temperatures in the Twin Cities went from 80 to 40 to 70 to 40 day to day sending my internal temperature rising.  Whenever I feel the fever coming I proactively drink the nasty and it generally staves off something more serious --- whether that’s true or whether that’s my own hypochondria doesn’t matter.  It works.  The symptoms were gone by morning.  Since I don’t have insurance, I’ll continue to practice medicine my way. 

Perhaps I should have just walked into any doctor’s office or hospital and get care for free.  That’s ObamaCare, right?  His socialized medicine system will make us wait in line to get cold medicine, right?  For an aspirin we’ll have to get permission from Congress, right?  None of that is true…much to the chagrin of many liberals (and some conservatives) … the law is actually about insurance, not health care.  Under the law, Americans are being required to carry insurance or pay a tax.  With insurance you still have co-payments, limitations, deductibles, etc…so the law is in no way a socialist utopia…and is, in fact, an ode to corporatism.  The confusion over what the law does comes thanks to $100 million in advertising that occurred after the Healthcare law was signed, according to the Washington Post.

It is ironic that in the same week that the Supreme Court takes three days testimony (the most time ever) on the various challenges to the law – one of the fiercest opponents of the idea of government mandated insurance/health-care received a new heart.  Former Vice President Dick Cheney was one of the very few Americans over the age of 70 to get a heart transplant.  He had been on the list for 20 months.  As a former congressman, cabinet official and Vice President – he received all of the necessary care at taxpayer expense.

The contradiction that the transplant represents is the most visible reminder that Americans must actually address a fundamental question.  Is having health care coverage –whatever hybrid-morphed version the for-profit insurance companies, pharmaceuticals and Legislators develop – a right or a privilege?  Nowhere in the constitution is health care promised…not even the pursuit of it.  If it’s a right, then a single payer system is really the only logical and fair system.  If it’s a privilege then Government really shouldn’t be involved and let the true free market enterprise system sort it out. 

The middleman is actually the problem.  According to the Kaiser Family Foundation the average  family spends $15,000 per year on healthcare coverage, with employers paying on average $10,000 of it.  That doesn’t include the additional out of pocket costs, prescriptions, etc.  The American healthcare system is about testing, not treatment.  Testing benefits the middleman (insurance companies) – not necessarily the patient or society at large.

However long Dick Cheney lives with the transplanted heart and no matter what the Supreme Court decides on “ObamaCare” – the fundamental inequities will continue.  And that we’re all really sick of.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Extreme discourse

This week Spring officially began.  Living in Minnesota  where this year winter leap year’d into summer, much of the talk is about “climate change” as a way to explain the strange weather patterns.  It’s a no-brainer way to fire up controversy in this now purple state.

Archbishop Rowan Williams, the leader of the Anglican Communion has had his fair share of controversy and after ten years in office announced his resignation this week.    During his tenure the threat of a schism in the Communion became a real possibility.  The issues of homosexuality that have become wedge issues in political campaigns have been front and center in the Denomination.  The Episcopal Church, the American member of the Anglican Community, led the way by electing Gene Robinson the first gay bishop.  (Robinson will retire within the year himself.)  Mary D. Glasspool became the first lesbian Bishop two years ago.  On the other side of the spectrum some African Anglicans support legislation to execute people for identifying themselves as gay or lesbian.

After nearly 20 years as a Senator from Maine, Olympia Snowe announced her resignation saying it was because of the “atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies.”  Snowe has long been considered one of the ‘swing’ Senators who did not vote consistently on party lines.  When she began in the Senate that trait allowed her to build a reputation for being thoughtful and deliberative while building consensus amongst colleagues.  In the late ‘90’s and 00’s when moderates became fewer this trait was suspect and considered wishy-washy.  More recently the ‘all or nothing’ partisanship meant that Snowe was essentially no longer a member of her party because she wouldn’t toe the line.  She was being challenged for the GOP nomination by a Tea-Party activist.

A friend posted this on Facebook the other day:  “If you saw First Lady Michelle Obama on Letterman and thought anything except, "That's a classy, smart lady who had the nation's best interest at heart and brings solutions to the tables to solve some of those problems." Well, then we shouldn't be friends. Please let me know.” Simply disagreeing with somebody jeopardizes a friendship?  I do happen to think that Mrs. Obama is fabulous, but that’s not the point.  And I know my friend was using literary license to make their point…so I shall do the same:  Exposing ourselves to only those who agree with us is one of the, if not the, biggest threats America has. 

I engaged in some back-and-forth this week on social media about a political leader this week.  It wasn’t vitriolic or combative – just some differing perspectives being aired on a news story of the day.  We remain friends.  My opinion didn’t change, but by actively engaging I had to look at my opinion and justify it on my own, not as a monolithic mantra.  In the end I’m more comfortable on that particular issue because I had to thoughtfully substantiate it.

Archbishop Williams is tired of having to do that.  In his departing statement he said:  “I would hope that my successor has the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros.”   

Polarized.  That’s where the world has moved to.  Instead of the Anglican Communion finding a way to celebrate what binds 80 million persons of faith together, a schism is imminent – and in some regions has essentially happened.  Senator Snowe, tired of being a handful of legislators trying to mediate and bridge differences, moves on.  Most of us can look at our social media lists of friends and colleagues and find that vast percentages of them support the same causes, groups and politics.

We all want the comfort of a conflict-free life.  A vibrant, informed electorate requires differences to be celebrated.  Critical thinking doesn’t have to be unpleasant.  I can care for a person and respect their beliefs and still passionately disagree with them.  That’s what is beautiful about freedom.  What is ugly, though, is just walking away, resigned that today’s extreme discourse is absolute.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sorry! Really and truly.

I spent my junior year in England and unconsciously adopted some of the British peculiarities such as referring to the elevator as a lift, and mumbling ‘right’ and ‘sorry’ as part of virtually every sentence.  As a kid I enjoyed playing the board game Sorry!, racing game pieces around the board faster than any other.  As an adult and an executive I recognize the importance and value of authentic acknowledgment of one’s errors.  Maybe I should go for elective office!

President Obama earned a reputation early on in his Presidency as the Apologist President.  The Heritage Foundation went so far as to put together a list of the top 10 apologies that ‘humiliated’ America.  The Washington Post (some eighteen months later) put the claims through it’s ‘FactChecker’ and determined that the “apology tour” Republicans claimed defined his foreign policy never actually occurred.  

Recent events won’t appease those who think the President is overly apologetic.  The New York Times reported that a U.S. service member was seen firing on several houses, killing 16 Afghan civilians.  Two days later, President Obama apologized saying:  “The United States takes this as seriously as if it was our own citizens and our own children who were murdered. We’re heartbroken over the loss of innocent life. The killing of innocent civilians is outrageous and it’s unacceptable. It’s not who we are as a country, and it does not represent our military. And for that reason, I’ve directed the Pentagon to make sure that we spare no effort in conducting a full investigation.”

Diplomatically it is proper apologize when innocent people are killed.  Unfortunately, based on the President’s own statement, the facts do not yet support the conclusion that something wrong was done.  An investigation hasn’t been conducted so the apology seems to be designed to stymie International outrage.

The real outrage, though, is the war itself.  The United States is in the eleventh year of the military action.  2,916 military people have died in Afghanistan alone – tens of thousands more if you count civilians.  Nearly a trillion dollars has been spent with no end in sight.   Afghans did not do anything to the U.S.  The justification at the time was retaliation for 9/11.  The hijackers of the planes that day were Saudi, a country that has suffered no consequence for its participation and where America continues to buy plenty of oil.  Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind, was found in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.  Why are American (and some minor coalition) troops still there?  According to the Obama (and Bush) Doctrine:  To save the Afghan people from the evils of the Taliban.  Self-determination is apparently no longer a valued trait.  

Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars” is a brilliant behind-the-scenes look at how a young President made the strategic and military decisions in Afghanistan.  The book has been out for a couple of years, but it is chilling to see the threats that forced Obama to take the policy over and literally hand write the directives.  I do not agree with the President on virtually any of his policies.  I must acknowledge his tenacity and moral resolve in maintaining his approach to Afghanistan…given the political and military resistance he underwent that the book chronicles.

The President flexed his Commander-in-Chief muscles again last week saying that he is prepared to go to war with Iran.  He dialed back the rhetoric the next day, but, still the message he sent was loud and clear – just like George W. Bush invading two countries last decade.  War in Iran?  Why?  The reason will be very compelling in the moment, just like it was under President Bush.

Two time Libertarian Presidential Candidate Harry Browne (RIP) predicted that the Middle East wars would be disasters.  He posted his concerns and claims online.  He was pilloried, even by many stalwart supporters.  The website Truth About War  outlining all of the concerns remains up, frozen in time, as a bold reminder of what could have been prevented.  Harry was right and his critics owe him a debt of gratitude for speaking the truth.

Where’s the apology for entering into military conflict under false pretences?  Ooops…sorry…must have regressed to that childhood board game! 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

History Redoux

In the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day” Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an egocentric Pittsburgh TV weatherman who, during a hated assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, finds himself repeating the same day over and over again. The movie title has become a modern-day equivalent to déjàvu, the French word for “already seen.”   This week’s news reports of the happenings in Russia personify the expression “history repeating itself.”

First things first, though.  Congratulations to Vladimir Putin!  After a 4 year respite from his 8 years as President to serve as Prime Minister, he took 62% of the vote this week with his nearest competitor at just 17% to regain the top spot in the country.  The other 3 candidates were all in single digits.  He was emotional in victory.  Much of the Western news coverage has been skeptical of the validity of the vote.  Tens of thousands of younger Russians protested the vote, a sight that warms the spirits of Westerners with Jeffersonian Democracy ideals.

Each generation has its own picture of Russia.  For my parent’s generation Nikita Khrushchev's banging of his shoes at the U.N. General Assembly and the Bay of Pigs incident exemplifies the tensions and dangers that was the Cold War.  Ronald Reagan’s calling the country an “Evil Empire” and his demand in 1987 for Mikhail Gorbechev to “tear down this wall” is a pivotal moment actually resulted in the Berlin Wall being dismantled in 1989.

I have been fortunate to travel to Russia on three occasions.  In 1985 as a student I spent a week in Moscow and Leningrad – Mr. Gorbechev had only months before taken the reigns of power and the country was still clinging to its Communist roots.  In 1999 I produced and directed a documentary following the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles to Moscow and St. Petersburg and several other cities.  In 2008 Mr. Putin left the Presidency and the country elected Dmitry Medvedev to succeed him, I visited St. Petersburg on holiday.

My own experiences have seen the country and the cities transform.  For a freedom loving, unabashed Libertarian – there is little more satisfying than seeing the mighty Soviet Union disintegrate and reemerge as a vibrant, chaotic, somewhat corrupt living, breathing capitalist society.  And it’s heartbreakingly tragic and deflating to see little by little the vestiges of the Union come back together.

Etched in my memory is the emotional reaction of the singers and the audience in October 1999 when 100 gay men sang Tchaikovsky in flawless Russian to a sold out, standing room only crowd in Tchaikovsky Hall.  The next night they performed at Glinka Cappella in St. Petersburg, one of the preeminent concert halls in the world that was originally established in 1479.  The current building dates to 1773, before the colonies became United.  Babushka women cried openly during the concert and Russian soldiers crowded the balcony.

Beyond the momentary impact of these events, there was a real sense that history was being made and the world was changing.  The streets were alive with energy, the media covered these events and organizations were being formed.  Only a few years before the tour when Boris Yeltsin took power, his first act was to establish a new constitution where homosexuality was legalized.  For years the Russian constitution provided more freedom that the U.S. until the Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick outlawing sodomy laws caught up.

In a cruel flashback to pre-Glastnost days, St. Petersburg's local legislature passed a bill last week banning propaganda to minors about homosexuality or pedophilia.    If the bill (which still must be signed by the city's governor) goes into effect it will rule out nearly all public events carried out by or on behalf of LGBT people and organizations and their reaching out to the media and the Internet, severely curtailing the publication of anything relating to LGBT rights or providing assistance or advice.

Whether the bill becomes law or not, there will inevitably be a chilling effect on the people of St. Petersburg and other Russian cities.  It’s a huge disconnect from the cosmopolitan and stunningly beautiful city that I had fallen in love with over the past twenty five years.  It’s a city steeped in artistic and creative triumphs that spans centuries.  So anxious was the city to move away from its past they abandoned the name Leningrad in 1991, months after Glasnost took root.

Perhaps the cyclical nature of history will be faster this time around and equality will triumph again.  We can only hope.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Seeing Red

Filing taxes is the annual reminder that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have any legitimacy on policy issues relating to taxes.  I did my civic duty this week with the assistance of software.  The tax code is so complex that unless you have the simplest of situations either a tax preparer or an interactive computer program is needed to sort through all of the various options.  After many hours of answering totally irrelevant questions (that the dang Turbo Tax should already know after all the years we’ve spent together) I got an error message I haven’t before.  “A tax return with the same Social Security number has already been submitted.”  

Joy to the world.  My doppelganger is under the illusion that it’s 2007 and not 2012 when my (financial) identity might have been worth stealing...or even borrowing.  Hopefully my situation is just this year’s system glitch from Intuit.  The Federal Trade commission reported this week that $1.52 billion is bilked from 1.8 million people each year.  The FTC said:  “Government benefits fraud was the most common form of reported identity theft, at just over one in four cases.” 

That actually makes sense.  Approximately 125 million people receive a government check (29 million welfare/food stamps, 28 million unemployment, 11 million federal & government employees, 2.8 million military, 54 million social security) .  That’s nearly half of the American population.  (The actual breakdown is likely less than half given that somebody might be receiving multiple checks from multiple agencies.)  So it makes sense for thieves to go where the money is.

President Obama has been accused of being a socialist.  In popular parlance socialism is equated to communism – a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, stateless society structured upon common ownership of the means of production.  As much as I disagree with nearly all of the President’s policies, he is not a socialist.  In fact his policies are often the polar opposite. 

Statism describes the belief that government should control either economic or social policy or both to some degree.  This makes both the President and the eventual Republican nominee political doppelgangers.  There has been and will be plenty of political rhetoric about taxes and protecting Americans in this election season claiming a wide gulf between the two.  Much of it is noxious gas.

The practice of the Republicans and Democrats is markedly different from their stated goals.  Rewards are built into the tax code for companies and individuals to behave in certain ways.  Some call them incentives.  Others call them loopholes.  No matter the descriptor, it is government incentivizing action through financial benefit.  There are 71,684 pages in the tax code.  In 2006 there were 16,845 pages.  No wonder the tax preparation field is a growing industry.  2013 marks the centennial of the introduction of the modern day tax code.  Wouldn’t it be a good time to put it out of our misery?