Thursday, February 27, 2014

Comrade Barack

In December 2013 the world shook its collective heads as Russian President Vladimir Putin dissolved the State News Agency and replaced it with an outlet that will provide even friendlier coverage.  The new agency is reminiscent of Pravda, the official newspaper of Communist Russia.  Just this week Putin has replaced the longstanding head of Radio Russia with somebody who will not air dissenting voices.  Western media and devotees of freedom tsk-tsk over the crackdown, but largely shrug it off as it is expected of the Russian leader.  President Barack Obama’s administration took similar steps to control the U.S. media, provoking dissent at home.

In May 2013 the Federal Communications Commission (made up of 5 members, all chosen by the President and approved by the Senate, with only 3 members being of one party) issued a 78-page study by Social Solutions International that designed research to identify the critical information needs (CIN) of the American population.  The FCC decided it needed to find out what information Americans should get and how to get it to them.  A series of questions were proposed.  The FCC – which licenses and gives permission for news and media companies to operate – would survey the same news and media organizations (“voluntarily”) to find out:
  •          What is the news philosophy of the station?
  •          How do you define critical information that the community needs?
  •          Who decides which stories are covered?
  •        Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers (viewers, listeners, readers) that was rejected by management?

One imagines that with this information the FCC would either use its regulatory authority to change answers it didn’t like or would direct organizations to cover other news in another way.  It’s unclear, but chilling in its possibilities.

The study, like so many other things out of Washington, went largely unnoticed.  Only last week did one of the FCC Commissioners draw attention to the matter by warning the public in a Wall Street Journal editorial.  Republicans then rallied, and a week later the FCC pulled the study and cancelled the survey.  (For now.)

It’s refreshing that in America the idea of the Government coming into a journalistic enterprise and probe into its processes caused a lot of push-back.  That the study was approved and that the process went so far as to getting to the point of implementation is really unnerving.  It took 8 months from when the report came out, and, frankly, until the first station received the survey it’s doubtful this would have come to light without the courage of the FCC Commissioner. 

President Obama has shown his disdain for journalism and the First Amendment by attempting to criminalize it.  His Justice Department has filed charges against journalists alleging they are “traitors” and “aiding the enemy” by publishing and reporting on information.  They've also tracked reporter's conversations without warrants in a bid to control what is reported.
Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian reporter who has reported extensively on NSA leaks by Edward Snowden will receive the Polk Award for excellence in journalism.  He said:  “I absolutely refuse to be exiled from my own country for the crime of doing journalism, and I’m gonna force the issue just on principle, and I think coming back for a ceremony like the Polk Award or other forms of journalistic awards would be a really good symbolic test to put the government in the position of having to arrest journalists who are coming back to the U.S. to receive awards for the journalism they’ve done.”

There is some comfort in seeing the FCC’s overreach quashed.  Less comfortable is knowing that they tried.  I'm certain they'll try again.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bailing out Insurers

I’m not a fan of insurance companies.  In concept it actually makes a ton of sense – pay a regular amount in (premium), and in the event that something happens, the insurer covers replacement/repair.  It's a great way to mitigate risk.  The companies do well, accumulating cash, investing it, and there’s a good percentage of people who will never need a payout.  I liked the idea so much that as a child I had my own insurance company, charging my parents friends $0.25 a month on the life of their pets.  Seems I only insured cats “because they had 9 lives” reads one of my journal entries.  I’d write on the bills “Hope kitty will have a long life!”  The whole enterprise came crashing down when one of the insured did actually die – and my parents made me pay out from allowance since I had been spending premiums along the way.  Too bad I didn't have President Obama set up my plan – that way the government would have bailed me out and I'd still have my allowance.

The Affordable Care Act (unofficially known as Obamacare) bails out insurance companies.  Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru  wrote in late January 2014:  “The bailout would come from the law’s 'risk corridor' provisions. If insurers pay out more than 108 percent of the premiums they collect from customers in Obamacare’s exchanges, taxpayers are on the hook for about 75 percent of the extra cost. If the insurers make profits that are more than 108 percent of their collections, they have to pay back a similar proportion.”

Cost control is a huge problem in health care.  In Massachusetts, which the ACA is largely modeled after, costs have skyrocketed.  Wendell Potter wrote in the Huffington Post:  “A report released last week by the Massachusetts' Health Policy Commission said health care costs are higher in the Bay State than anywhere else and that more than one-third of what residents spend may be wasteful.”  Something to look forward to as Romneycare becomes Obamacare. 

There’s no incentive whatsoever to control costs from the insurance company’s perspective.  If they go over, sure they’re on the hook for a portion of the overage – but the taxpayer is really footing the bulk of the cost, 75%.  And if the insurance company manages the costs well and are actually more profitable, then they’re penalized and have to give back the bulk of the savings.

The Affordable Care Act aims to make insurance customers out of the 41 million Americans who don’t have coverage.  You’d think that within this structure the insurance companies might have enough impetus to make it work without having the taxpayer on the hook.

This isn't new.  Medicare Part D – the “Prescription Drug Plan” under President George W. Bush (43) has the near identical risk release in it.  Bush continued his bailouts bonanza at the end of his tenure, saving banks and insurance companies.  President Obama continued the pattern with car companies and more banks.  It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that he has enshrined in his signature legislation the promise that health insurance companies don’t have to take the risk. 

I am surprised.  I am outraged.  It’s a terrible policy.  It takes a bad law and makes it even worse...which was hard to conjure.  The tragedy, though is that this little known provision was only discovered recently by a relatively obscure columnist of a not widely read publication.  It hasn’t been ‘picked up’ by the blathering class who are still far more interested in Chris Christie’s traffic woes and whether Hillary was mad at her husband’s mistress than the fact that taxpayers are insuring the insurers.  This should be red meat for cable news.  If one were cynical one might imagine that the insurance companies themselves might have something to do what the major news organizations and the lack of coverage?  Guess everybody’s too busy processing the 41 million new customers.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Valentine Humbug

The National Day of Love is upon us again.  It’s a holiday with roots in the Christian tradition (Saint Valentine) and its relationship to romantic love can be traced from the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the High Middle Ages, when the tradition of courtly love flourished.  Hallmark and American capitalism has evolved the day into a 14.7 billion industry.  Today you can even use a service to trick your friends into thinking you have a special someone! For years my dearest friends and I would go to one of the fanciest most romantic restaurants in town and sit on the patio and mock couples (politely and amongst ourselves).  We would do so all the while saying "Next year with boyfriends..."  This charming tradition was deeply rooted in jealousy as I’m the sappiest most romantic putz around.

When I’m in a relationship I use all of the traditional (and not so traditional) accoutrements available:  flowers, candy, trips, meals…little forget me not things, etc.  Years ago I tried the online dating phenomenon.  For my profile I used the headline “Husband material seeking husband” and proceeded to wax poetic on the virtues of walks on the beach, soft music, roaring fires, etc.  Minutes after letting the profile go live I got a message from somebody helpfully telling me that I was clearly desperate and if I wanted to find somebody I should dial it back.  All wasn't lost:  he did say the photo was cute.

My parents met on a blind date, had a romance filled adventure of a courtship, and were together for nearly 60 years.  It was not idyllic and without issues - they complemented each other well and worked at it everyday.  They genuinely revered each other.  Their love was deep, profound and epic.  Theirs is a tough act to follow. 

After Dad’s stroke and Mom’s heroic care giving – I assumed that would be the end of the story. I’ve seen the movies and TV shows – one true love, right?  And old people don’t get all gooey, right?

About five years ago Mom started to perk up after Dad's passing.  There was an additional spring in her step.  She was becoming more active in the retirement community she had moved to.  “I want you to meet a new friend of mine,” she said one day while we were on Skype.  She got up, sat him down in front of the computer and said “Thor – this is Craig.  Get to know each other!  I’ll be back.”  And off she toddled to the other room giving me the opportunity to take in this elegant man sitting in front of me.  

Love blossomed for Mom again.  She and Thor became companions and dear loving friends.  They traveled together and shared their lives with others in the community and their families.  I began getting photos of them at dances, parties and a variety of events.  His family included her in their weekly Sunday dinners.  I enjoyed a monthly brunch with them, talking about the latest gadget.  Their politics, religious affiliations and backgrounds were very different, but they reveled in each other’s company and brought out the best in each other.  Neither was a replacement for the spouse no longer here – instead it was something different, special and wonderful.

Thor died recently, and his funeral was this week.  The service was filled with friends and family – and the eulogies described a gentle, generous and loving man – all of which I had the good fortune to experience myself.  I’m inspired that Mom in her 70’s and Thor in his 80’s found each other and proved that love is not just for the young.

I look towards the Day of Love with a different perspective.  It seems I have another 40 (or more?) years to find it!  Happy Valentines Day.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Hurry up and die

New Hampshire’s motto “Live Free or Die” has always appealed to the libertarian in me...philosophically.  Taken literally and it’s a lot more complicated.  In Missouri inmates on Death row are now being executed before all appeals are completed.  In one instance, the final ruling came 20 minutes AFTER the execution began, and 10 minutes after the inmate was already dead.  Federal prosecutors announced this week they will seek the death penalty against 20-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Boston Marathon bombing.  Many in town cheer the decision.  Not me.

In October 2012 I wrote about the pros and cons of death.  “Government should not be in the business of killing people.  The U.S. system is based on justice, not vengeance.  It’s really that simple.”  There are many arguments for the death penalty – and Amnesty International dispels them rather easily.  Those arguments are not the focus of this blog.
Capital Punishment has been around since mankind and laws intersected.  The oft quoted Biblical reference supporting the death penalty comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, 19:21 "And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot."  Taken literally, though, there would be a world of blind, toothless and limbless people. 

As a person of the Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian faith tradition – I too look towards to the Bible.  While I’m not a liturgical expert (by any means) this quote summarizes my view of God and religion:  "This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” John 15:12-13

I’m not so na├»ve to think that love is the solution to evil, but it’s a good place to start.  I believe in forgiveness.  I believe in redemption.  I believe in people paying for their crimes.  I believe in punishment.  I believe we’re fallible.  And when you kill somebody, there’s no do-over.

Let’s leave issues of life and death to religion – and separate it from the role of Government.  The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does a good job in outlining that even though in practice it's not so great.  Why?  Because Government does not have a particularly strong track record of doing things well, let alone executions.  There are stories of attempts to kill somebody going awry.  One site lists 43 calamities - from limbs catching fire to hours long struggles to find veins.  It’s barbaric.

There’s something terribly wrong in a society that is so anxious to kill its citizens – even those who have done awful and horrible acts.  Even those who terrorize their fellow citizens.  The U.S. once was governed by the Rule of Law – and from the President’s personal Kill List to one branch of government executing citizens before the Judiciary has ruled – we seem to be in an awful rush to kill.  Perhaps it would be best if people would hurry up and die already.