23 August 2009

Apocalypse Soon?

Years ago I had a clergy colleague who described herself as a short term pessimist and a long term term optimist. Most often I agree, the other options being worse. I'll let you figure out why that's true.

These days, though, I am tending toward both long and short term pessimism. Seeing citizens brandishing arms at presidential appearances, hearing senators (the word comes from the Latin for elder) cavilling to the rabble, seeing opponents of health care reform from both sides castigating the president as the problem, listening to the preposterous credence being offered to those who insist he is a foreigner, and the complete abrogation of the media of their role as fact finders and truth tellers, has eroded my confidence that the American people will do the right thing any time soon.

More and more I see us heading toward our two preferred paths over time - denial and destruction. The former always leads to the latter. We denied the danger of slavery for a century, and it led the the destruction of the Civil War. We denied the cost of unregulated business for most of a century and it led to the Depression. We denied the lasting sin of racism for a century after the Civil War and it lead to the riots of the 1960s.

Again and again this great nation turned a blind eye to its persistent national challenges until they could be denied no longer. And as we all know, denial only postpones, it never solves. What's more, the longer we postpone facing a problem the more difficult the solution will be. It gets harder, and the cost gets higher, and so we deny it a little longer.

Ultimately, something dreadful happens - war, depression, civil strife. And people get hurt, even die. Mostly the poor, the young, the sick, the dark, the odd. They become our scapegoats. And after the storm, a sort of national 'psychotic break,' we regret it all terribly, enact laws to prevent it from happening again, forget about it again, and the cycle starts all over.

Men with guns, women shrieking at meetings, wild lies that truth cannot kill, these have always been with us. It is leaders, not leader singular but leaders plural, who decide either consciously or unconsciously whether we shall deal with our struggles our push them down the road a little further and hope they will go away. The complete abdication of leadership by those in power, not the president so much as the Congress and the media and the captains of industry, offends and scares me.

Was Yeats right after all?

18 August 2009

'Roid Rage

Oh crap!

Sorry about the foul language, but my internet connection burped and lost the post I spent a half hour writing. Let me try and recreate it.

Long ago in a galaxy far away called Texas I worked out at a real gym – no chrome, classes, music, spandex, or women. Correct that. There were women, a few, and you would not want to mess with them.

This was a body building gym of the old school – dumbbells, barbells, plates, racks, ace bandages, and lots of sweat. I was still under forty then, and still remember the day I managed to squat 400 lbs. Man, did my legs wobble on the way back up, but I somehow managed 3 reps.

The real gym rats, though, squatted 400 pounds every week. They benched over 300 pounds without breathing hard. Their arms had comic book sized biceps and you really could scrub laundry on their washboard abs.

And they juiced. Took steroids I mean. We all knew the juice heads because they had outlandish muscles and intense acne and a frenzied look that told everyone to stand back. We also knew when they stopped doing juice. Their skin cleared up and they sort of deflated.

Why tell you this? Because I think our economy has been on steroids for the last twenty years. Pumped up on the drug of phony money, derivatives and credit default swaps and sub prime mortgages that looked like money the way steroid look like hormones, the economy grew big fast. And with it the wealth of those who sold and used the fake stuff.

Like someone abusing steroids, we thought we were actually growing that fast and that we would only get bigger. The hard work of lifting seemed suddenly easy. Injuries healed quickly (it seemed) and we felt energized. Our sense of power grew, too, and it appeared that no one was as strong we were. There was a swagger in our step and a menace in our voice. Woe to anyone who stood in our way.

But like the actual drug, you have to take it to stay big. If you take less you shrink, and if you stop altogether you collapse. Which we did. The economy collapsed, or very nearly did. When the money stopped, we stopped and the country was paralyzed for a while. We came close to cardiac arrest.

What saved us from death were steroids, more cheap money – the bailouts and stimulus. Yes, the same thing that hurt us was needed to save us. Just as a doctor slowly reduces steroids to avoid the dangers of withdrawal, so the government had to step in and do the same. Like an addict, we need someone else to wean us from overuse and help us back to normalcy.

All the fulminating from the right about deficits and debt ring hollow to me when I see how many phony trillions were pumped into the economy and then how much damage that did and how sick we are because of that financial steroid binge. Yes we will have the pay that piper too, but the price will be far smaller than what would have happened had we not saved the banks and pumped up the states and (gods willing) reformed health care. (Talk about a steroid fueled psychosis! But this post is about the economy so I’ll leave it be.)

That those who legalized the drug of phony money are now wagging a scolding finger at government is rankest hypocrisy. They threw open the economic pharmacy with wholesale bank and investment deregulation, essentially letting the industry cook its books into the steroidal brew that has now weakened us more than strengthened us.

I do have a note of consolation. As any juice head learns, phony muscles are just that. The big bicep numbers of the market from 2006 and 2007 were phony. It was a delusional bubble. We need to let go of the juice head dreams of Dows at 12000 and 14000, of fabulous wealth and endless luxury, and set our sights of real strength like, say… respect, honor, integrity, decency, community. The sort of thing our parents and grandparents told us mattered.

15 August 2009

Going All In

Just so you know, I am reading the 'infamous' health care reform bill, the 1018 page one.

Currently on page 50.

It's a slow read. So it will take me some time.

So far no death panels.

12 August 2009

Crazed and Confused

I am puzzled.

Watching cable news while on the road I see reports of masses protesting the health reform plan because government is too inefficient and incompetent.

Another report says we should worry if the same government allows browser cookies when people visit .gov sirs because it could lead to government monitoring your actions and ideas.

Help me out. How can the government be too incompetent to run a health plan and yet sneaky enough to monitor all our web surfing?

07 August 2009

Just One Guy's Opinion

My Dear Senators and Representative,

First of all, thanks for even trying to reform our health care system. I know it’s been hard because it sure has been difficult and confusing to watch from a distance, here in West Michigan. Certainly, it must be even harder for you, being up close with all the dickering and negotiating and disagreeing.

One thing being far away does for me, though, is that it allows for perspective. There is such a thing as being too close, right? Therefore, at the risk of sounding foolish but with a faint hope that I am not, I have a vision for health care reform and how to pay for it. And maybe because I am not an expert who is up close it has something to offer.

1) Basic Health Care Should Be Free

By basic I mean prenatal care and routine delivery, pediatric wellness, annual checkups and wellness, immunizations, even twice annual dental exams and cleaning. We hear that better preventative care would help. It’s also the least expensive. Make it free, free of user fees because it is not just our personal health, but essential to public health.

How To Pay For It? Make such ‘pro bono’ service a requirement for getting a medical license, dental license, nursing license, or other license (drugs, too!) Those who serve the public good owe the public something for the right to do that. This is the price.

2) Minor Medical Care Should Be Easily Affordable.

By minor medical I mean the next step beyond wellness care and advice, when you have call the doctor, like for broken limbs, injuries, and illnesses that require professional diagnosis and treatment – these are the sort of things that cannot be prevented and yet will happen to a significant portion of the population.

How To Pay For It? This is basic health care insurance, and would operate on the current basis of deductible, co-pay, and out of pocket. Like traditional insurance it is employer paid, or if you buy it directly, the cost is tax deductible. To make it clear what this does, let’s call it Minor Medical. Because it is not about major illness, it should not be all that expensive.

3) Major Medical Care Should Be Affordable, But Taxable.

A few people will need major medical help before retirement age, and most elders will require major medical help at some point. These are a combination of diseases that are unpreventable or undetectable and those that are the result of poor choices. They require extensive care and cost.

How To Pay For It? Everyone should be required to carry a minimum amount of “major medical” insurance tagged to a given dollar amount like life insurance, and risk assessed like life insurance. People may also elect more extensive coverage. But when they buy or get as a benefit more than is statistically required, you pay an incremental tax on it.

Those whose illness are statistically associated with life choices such as smoking, drug use, risky behaviors, obesity, etc, should have to buy additional coverage for their risk group and pay the additional tax it entails. Since people will be seeing doctors more regularly, this will be easier than it is now. And those diagnosed with lifestyle related diseases will have to take out larger policies to cover those illnesses, part of which price is the tax. Does this punish those who have some illnesses? Perhaps, but it may also give incentive not to take up smoking, drinking, drug abuse and other ‘voluntary’ risks in the first place.

Notice, now, that Minor Medical insurance is like Medicare except that it is more limited in what it covers. Note also that the Major Medical insurance is like Medicare supplements, except that it covers more. If you haven’t figured it out yet, a single payer system for the former (minor medical) makes great sense. The common illnesses and injuries make for less complexity, more continuity, greater efficiency and effectiveness overall.

Likewise, competition among private insurance is best suited for the Major Medical option. By focusing their work on the really sick, not the merely sick, private insurance can be more efficient. That’s also the time when individual attention is most needed and more suited. And this is what private insurance can do better than government. Just as we all should have a choice about what sort of car we drive or washing machines to use, but we do not want a free market in traffic laws or dueling sewer systems, so we all want to have both uniformity and individuality. This idea does both.

Do note that my ideas are different for one other important reason. They are user based not service based. I think you folks have been so absorbed in the economics of health care – the companies and industries and professionals involved, - that you overlooked the largest elephant in the room, patients. Think about health care from a user perspective and it comes down to “How can government provide a reliable structure people can use well.” You role in health care is like your role in building roads, sewers, water, power lines, etc. Do it like that and entrepreneurs will find ways to deliver those services in ways that are both medically sound and economically sensible.

Just one man’s idea here, and honestly I really have no expectation you will pay much attention. At least I told you about it, which is my responsibility. One thing is for sure. If our current health care system stays the same, the country may not survive. And that’s your res
ponsibility.

05 August 2009

What Summer?

Every few years events conspire to undermine summer expectations.

I always knew we were going to have to repair and repaint part of my house. That was planned and expected. We were expecting to send our younger son to college and our older son to grad school. What we did not expect was having one of our cars totalled and that our son's college ask him to come this fall instead of in January.

These two things reveal how precarious our midlife middle class lives are that two small events can have a major impact on our daily lives. We are so entangled in planned things (even in the 'slower' months of summer) that unplanned things unwind the whole spool. My vegetable patch has gone untended for the last week as I went to Chicago for a conference and came back to hold a meeting about that conference. The zuccini plant has grown so unruly that I have but one zuke to show for it (a world record I am sure) and my sunflowers flopped over because I did not anticipate their heavy heads would overwhelm their stalks. At least I have harvested a few real tomatoes and some honest grean beans.

Because my brain is not what it used to be, I failed to inform my radio colleague in advance of my absence in Chicago last week, which left him high and dry without warning. Missing or failing to change appointments is a sure signal I am over stretched.

What's really eating me is that I am trying to plan a full year of worship services (with my colleague clergy partner) and that 'important' task for which I was called here is being chopped up by all the 'urgent' tasks of running a church institution or chairing a non profit or repairing a house or fixing a car.

Too bad the story of Alexander and the Gordian knot is a myth. We cannot simply cut through things and let the chips fall, as it were. Those chips are people and principles and duties. They make the world run. But right now they seem to be running me.

Summer is supposed to be fulle of lazy, hazy, crazy days, right?

Lazy? Not even a little. Hazy? You bet, if that means my brain. But Crazy? Absolutely.

02 August 2009

The Far Side of the Lake


My long absence reflects deep involvement in something else. In this case the national conference of the National Urban League, in which I am involved as the local affiliate board chair. Being in Chicago, which is only 180 miles away on the other shore of Lake Michigan, I had to go.

You deserve some reflections on all that I saw. But you can get started on your own by going to:

http://nul2009.broadcasturban.net/

The "Keynote Address" and "Plenary II" which are listed there really got my attention. They are long, though. But worth it.

More later