Do you find listening to the health care debate on television a bit boring? I sure do, and I like C-Span. Imagine how most people feel. I know it is important and I believe we need to straighten out the insurance issues quickly, but it just puts me to sleep. The house bill is well over 1000 pages long and in such arcane language that I have not heard one even reasonably definitive description of what is in it. Do not be fooled into thinking that the congressmen know. They are certainly not going to read it. They will rely on what their leaders tell them is in it, who will rely on their staff, much like the stimulus bill earlier this year.
I know there are others who think it’s strange that politicians, commentators and whomsoever can’t agree on what’s in the damn thing, and when they do argue about it, they never refer to the text of the bill itself, but not enough. It would be like having a theological discussion about whether Adam makes an appearance in Genesis, but no one actually reads from it. But, this is the way we have always argued about politics. The internet adds resources we never had until very recently, but it is never used for that.
So, although I touch upon health care here, but I’ll mix it up with my usual rants as there is always something new to say about it.
Trillions and trillions
I sighed a few weeks ago when I was listening to Peter Schiff, a stock broker and economic commentator who made loud predictions of the collapse of the U.S. economy before it happened and is now maybe/maybe not running for Senator from Connecticut. He understands that our economy is based on myths, yes myths, a firm belief of mine (why else would I sigh? He agreed with me). As he points out, we borrow money from countries like China and then use it to buy their products. We buy more than we sell from every important economic partner. We tax, regulate and unionize business to the degree that it doesn’t pay for companies to make products here, because they can’t compete with companies that go elsewhere. Consequently, if they can leave, they leave or start up elsewhere. We tried to put everyone in a house whether they could afford it or not. We continue to uptick our deficits to unprecedented levels and talk about balancing the budget. I have no idea what Schiff’s other political views are, although he sounds like a conservative, so I can’t say if I agree with him on everything or would even vote for him. Probably not. I end up being disappointed by almost everyone. But, at least, he understands economic mythology. If he sounds like Ron Paul, he was his economic advisor during the campaign. And the part of Ron Paul which is realistic is good stuff (the other part, well . . .).
When our economy is obviously made up of mythical elements, why would we pay attention to obvious signs of trouble? Because it is much more comforting to say, yeah, but the market is going up and I want in. Frankly, after watching the huge gains in the market for the past few months, I just bought back in (expecting it to come to a screeching halt thanks to my few shares and, I just may have accomplished that – there will be a collapse but I am pretending to myself I will get out before it). I can scream all I want about our economic system, but I can’t change it. That would take millions of people carrying on about it and its not going to happen. The best thing to do is manage your risk as best as you can and try to be careful.
Now that we have spent and pledged trillions and trillions of dollars, we run the risk of trying to make sure almost everyone has health care - certainly a noble goal – and perhaps only to find that only the well off will have good health care. As always, I am amazed by the amazing coincidence that conservatives and liberals throughout the country know how they stand on the bill without even knowing what is in it. I don’t know what’s in it any better than anyone else, but to me that means I don’t know how I feel about it. But, when it comes to the public option, I’m pretty sure I do. Consider how well government has handled its duties in the past, how poorly it routinely performs (if in the private sector, they would all file bankruptcy), how much money it costs not to mention how much money they often lose track of. Probably not a good idea. Ironically, Obama’s own attempt to allay fears about health care led him to use an example pitting the bankrupt post office against Fed Ex and UPS, which means – what? (I think you know).
I am not sure if a public plan of sorts will be in the final bill voted on in congress. It is seemingly the biggest reason for the anger in the country about the bill (of course, liberals/Democrats would say those are conservatives, but, conservatives are citizens). If it is in there, I agree with those who believe that in time it will suck the air out of the air for private health care companies, who will be unable to compete against a company that can just make money when it is doing badly. Once public health care becomes a monopoly, well watch out. Naturally, if public health care will cut my bill a few hundred dollars a month, I’m signing up.
But, let’s be fair. When government puts its collective mind to something, it makes happen, right? Take the foreclosure situation. Nine months ago we faced the possibility of record setting foreclosures. Government took action to stem the tide and . . . completely failed. They did try, but, nearly ten months after the financial meltdown we have set a new record for foreclosures in July, the third such record in just five months. In fact, foreclosures went up 7 percent in July. The nature of foreclosures tells us that they will go down eventually, but we should not be fooled into thinking that means everything is better. It means that a lot of people have already been foreclosed on and we’ve almost run out of them for the time being.
What is the state of our economy actually? When POTUS gives his first State of the Union speech, he will say “The state of the Union is Strong!” or some such nonsense. Yet, we have no safety nets which don’t show strong signs of future collapse (social security, Medicaid, etc.) in the not too distant future. We are at the point where some people hope they die before these systems collapse. To the contrary, public jobs like police, toll takers, garbage collectors, etc., have gone from underpaid to extremely well paid with pensions which will eventually bankrupt the municipalities. I have a friend who makes $175,000 a year as a police officer. He works hard and is a good cop who cares about what he does, but his pension, but if he retired now, he will get more than half that for doing nothing, and he is only in his 40s. Good for him and others like him, but, can we afford it as a people? You’ve heard the stories about retired toll collectors making six figures. Nothing against toll collectors (I have a sudden fear of being targeted by E-Z Pass when I’m next traveling), but that is a real problem.
The bane of my existence
In the middle of it, as with all things political in the U.S., stand the two political parties and ideologies which run this country. Often they do keep each other from the worst of their good and bad intentions (each would be at the least, a benign tyranny if extended to full power and benign tyrannies don’t end well) but also make sure they take care of themselves as a symbiotic despot. It is sometimes hard to believe that this is true, because no matter how old you are, you have lived in a country where we have had two dominant parties making sure that no other ideology can take root for your entire life. It’s hard to see how things can ever improve with this system. It guarantees, for example, that the party in power will always be for spending more, as only the minority ever cares to anything but talk about deficits.
And, thus, we continue to live in a country which prides itself on its openness and fairness but will always be institutionally grossly unfair to any elected politician with an independent mindset. You want to get anything done in either house of congress, you MUST kow-tow to either the Republican or Democratic leadership. You must caucus with one of the parties.
Let’s take a look at just how crooked our system is. Recently I listened to an absurdly youthful appearing congressman on the floor of the House of Representatives named Jeff Flake, R-Ar. (he looks to me 15 years younger than his 46) who I hope we will hear more from, unless he morally crumbles and starts taking money himself. He goes after pork barrel spending in a more detailed way than the few others in government who seem to care at all.
Here’s an outtake, long but worthwhile, from what I heard back in July as he attacked the spoils system during a debate on a defense bill. I found it fascinating:
“There are 109 Member-requested earmarks in the bill; 43 of them are going to powerful Members of Congress who serve in leadership or as appropriators, committee chairs, or ranking members. That represents about 40 percent of the share of earmarks being taken by less than 24 percent of the Members of the House.
I am sure my colleagues will tell me that these projects are sorely needed at the military bases they are earmarked for and that service members will suffer without them, but what about the many installations that don't receive Member-requested earmarks in the bill and the service members stationed there?
Neither Camp Lejeune nor Camp Pendleton received any Member-requested earmarks in the bill. Each of these camps houses a Marine Expeditionary Force comprised of tens of thousands of marines who deploy with great frequency. I am willing to bet that each of these installations have suggestions for new structures to build. Why haven't they received any earmarks in this bill? The answer is pretty simple: Neither of them resides in a district represented by a powerful Member of Congress.
The earmarks in this bill total more than $578 million. . . Of that dollar amount, more than $240 million are being taken home by powerful Members of Congress. That is nearly 41 percent. When you take into account earmark dollars secured by rank-and-file Members in conjunction with powerful Members, that number jumps to more than $300 million, or 52 percent.
So just to reiterate, the earmarks in this bill favor powerful Members by a ratio of 2 to 1. One-quarter of the Members of this House are associated with more than half of the earmark dollars in this bill.
I wish I could say that this is an anomaly, but this is pretty consistent with the rest of the appropriation bills we have considered so far this year, and I have a chart that demonstrates that. . . . Again, those are committee chairs, leadership, or those on the Appropriations Committee, representing 24 percent of the Members in this body. In the CJS bill that we considered earlier, 58 percent of the earmarked dollars went to just 24 percent of the Members.
In the Homeland Security bill, 68 percent of the earmarked dollars went to just 24 percent of the Members of the House.
In the Interior bill, 64 percent of the earmarked dollars went to just 24 percent of the Members of the House.
In the Agriculture bill, 67 percent of the earmarked dollars go to just 24 percent of the Members of the House.
And in this bill, 52 percent of the earmarked dollars go to just 24 percent of the Members of this House. That is a pretty stark pattern.
There are different types of earmarks, obviously. There are those that are simply wasteful. We see those for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and whatever else that is easy to laugh at. Sometimes it is small amounts of money and sometimes it is a lot larger.
And then there are those, particularly in defense bills, where you are giving no-bid contracts to private companies. There is often a pattern of campaign contributions coming back to Members who secure no-bid contracts in private companies. That does not describe what is going on here.
These earmarks, as I mentioned, I have no doubt that they are for a legitimate purpose. But here is another problem with earmarking: It represents a spoils system where rank-and-file Members of the House are not given access to those that others are.
In the Homeland Security bill, it was particularly stark. As I mentioned, a huge percentage, nearly 70 percent, went to just 24 percent of the body. In fact, more than 50 percent went to just 14 percent, those represented on the Appropriations Committee, and these were for predisaster mitigation programs, flood control districts and the like. I don't think Mother Nature decides, I'm going to hit those districts represented by appropriators more than I am going to hit other districts. It is just because they are able to do it, and so they do it. So the rest of the country that competes for these grants on a competitive basis has, at least in that case, 25 percent of that account is earmarked before they can even compete for the rest of the grants that are given out on a competitive basis. Madam Chair, that is just not fair. That is just not the way we should do this. I think we ought to rethink this and we ought to strike that funding in this bill.”
He’s right. This is unfair. It’s corrupt. It’s insane. But, as powerful as Flake’s arguments are, it went virtually unnoticed in the media. Notice, he’s not even talking her about the insanely wasteful earmarks – the bridges to nowhere, or the earmarks that are payback or a bid for campaign contributions, and those are big problems. Yet, the “good” earmarks he describes, the ones which actually serve a purpose, show the institutionalization of the corruption and that is even worse. It is simply the way we have always gone about business and maybe few care. They should. Flake does not get cheers from his peers, although I imagine he gets a few private pats on the back in lieu of votes. Yet, in response to Flake, a political opponent stood and not too politely suggested he shouldn’t challenge the integrity of other members. The amendment Flake sought was voted down. In all, he has set a record in the appropriations committee of well over 500 amendments for the defense spending bill to cut out earmarks. He loses them all. Few will notice. Fewer will care. We will just print more money and give it to the lucky people who live where the powerful members of congress do.
I note that many of the figures I ballyhoo in these pages for economic wisdom (again, meaning they agree with me) are at least fiscal conservatives, maybe they are just plain conservatives (I don’t look). Right now, I believe they have a better economic theory. Emphasize theory. Of course, when they had their time to rule, they were as bad or worse as Democrats have been when it comes to spending, corruption, procedural game playing, etc. I’d like to know just when Flake started pounding on earmarks as I believe he is on his fifth or sixth two year term. Was it just since 2006, when Democrats took congress back? I don’t know the answer and my doing a Jeff Flake research paper is not going to happen. But, he should keep it up now even if it is partisan.
In the meantime, the appropriation committee added 4 additional planes to the 4 new planes that the pentagon asked for with respect to government, not defense, use – 3 Gulfstreams and a 737. Reputedly, these additional planes would mostly be used by congresspersons themselves. It has caused enough controversy that it appears that the committee is now backing down. John Murtha (the king of earmarks, by the way) has said that if the Pentagon doesn’t want the extra planes (they didn’t ask for them) then they won’t appropriate them. Sounds like sour grapes to me. The days of senators and congressmen flying all over the world at public expense should be ended by greatly restricting it. I have trouble of seeing why congresspersons need to travel to war zones or disaster sites, where their visits are often more trouble than they are worth in terms of security, manpower and military personal. It’s just not necessary and we all know they really go abroad as a type of vacation or to make photo ops for themselves (and I’ll politely skip visiting their girlfriends).
Well, when we vote for people with R and D next to their names we get what we deserve – which brings me to my next topic.
You all get what you deserve
Any number of times during the past campaign I have said to friends and family on both sides - you will get what you deserve. What I meant by that is that their anger, name calling, unfair attacks, made up facts, attempts to intimidate and drown out the opposition, etc., all beget more of the same from the other side and we will continue in this partisan system where both sides idiotically think they will ultimately win and the other side will go away. It seems to me that most people believe that such behavior cannot be avoided, and that since the other side does it unilaterally with glee, the only thing to do is jump in and do the same.
It can be argued that it is just human nature to attack the other side and defend our own. Not only do these tactics not always prevail, but I don’t believe it is helpful to us in the long run. But, it is very ingrained in our system and changing it will be a long, long, uphill struggle. But, so was ending slavery and Jim Crow laws. So was giving rights to criminal defendants. But, culturally, in our country at least, even heated public political discussion rarely ends in violence. The angry town hall meetings congressmen are facing right now regarding health care are a good example. They are sometimes rowdy, and often impolite, but I haven’t seen much violence, although a few people have been carried out for disturbing the proceedings. In some other countries, these political fights routinely turn to violence. It gives me hope that we can someday turn the bumper sticker discussions, exaggerations and character assassination to actual valuable political discourse. Not too long ago Newt Gingrich and Charles Schumer debated each other on stage in New York City, sort of a short version of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates. It was a good idea. It should happen a lot more.
It is unfortunate that most people’s beliefs do seem to be established by identification with political ideologies or parties, usually the one they were brought up with. It’s not that different than religion. They hear someone on their side say something and they are much more likely to agree with it or believe it. This is hardly news. Most of us know this in general, except who among us believe it applies to ourself in particular? A few MRI studies seem to support the common sense idea that political reactions are, at least at first, emotional, before there is an attempt to rationalize. However, if I believe that, and I do, I can’t also logically believe that I’m somehow exempted from it. All anyone can do, is try to challenge their own knee jerk reaction. One way I personally try and do this is by being a fence sitter – that is, by taking my time in making up my mind (ten years on the death penalty). Don’t think this is bragging. Many people find fence sitters of the worst sort. They do so because if people try and rationally think about issues, and try not to just be for one team, it makes a mockery of the partisans bias.
For example, a liberal recently told me that she didn’t think Sarah Palin was attractive at all. Okay, taste is individual, but we do have such a thing as consensus (although one recent study shows men have greater consensus than women when it comes to attractiveness). I haven’t seen any studies on the affect of political views on who we think is attractive, but want to bet that conservatives think she is better looking than liberals do. That’s a study I’d like to see. I’ve heard the same thing from conservatives about Nancy Pelosi – that’s she is ugly. Although Pelosi is much older than Palin, I find it hard to believe that if conservatives were not aware of who she is they would not find her attractive for her age. Ugly? Come on.
This is no different than when we played baseball as kids and somehow people on each team always saw the guy running to third as safe or out depending on which side they were on. Maybe there is something wrong with me, a symptom of existential alienation, but that always infuriated me. Of course, I quickly learned that the best way to get your own team mad at you was to agree with the other team about a call or rule. Bringing it back to politics, this is in turn analogous to the hatred conservatives have shown for Arlen Specter, who left their team for the Democrats for political reasons, and the hatred Democrats showed for Joe Lieberman who merely agreed with the other team on a few issues.
Sonya Sotomayor’s now famous wise Latina speech tried to make the point that our judgments are affected by our experiences in life and if we want to be as impartial as possible we need to recognize this and then try to weed out these unfair inputs as best we can. I do believe it is at least partially possible. One problem in achieving this goal is that most people don’t seem to believe they are biased in the first place, but that they are moderate and impartial, even if they always vote for one party or listen to one side. It may be impossible to self judge this attribute
One of the ways that partisanship manifests itself is in believing wild stories about the other side. Recently, I read a conservative blog post by Ann Coulter which listed crazy things liberals believed. I’m not going to copy her whole post but she included things like:
-O.J. is innocent;
-Sarah Palin's infant child, Trig, was actually the child of her daughter;
-Justice Antonin Scalia threw the 2000 election to Bush so that his son could get a legal job with the Labor Department;
-Duke lacrosse players gang-raped a stripper;
-Bill Clinton did not have sex with "that woman";
-Heterosexuals are just as likely to contract AIDS as gays;
-John Edwards didn't have an affair with Rielle Hunter;
-Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance.
-Bush was holding Osama bin Laden and planned to release him just before the election.
-the World Trade Center was blown up with explosives, not taken down by terrorists in airplanes
She listed many others, some of which I thought were fair accusations as I do many of those listed above (although beliefs concerning OJ are more racial than political; I’ve never heard liberals deny the John Edwards affair and 9/11 conspiracy theorists come in all flavors). Being Ann Coulter, her glasses only allow her to see the world from one angle. I commented there substantially as follows in my usual long winded fashion:
“Some liberals also believe that Bush was going to declare martial law and make McCain president, that Palin wants to punish women who claim to be rape victims and led cheers calling for Obama's death during the campaign. But conservatives are just as eager to believe nonsense:
-Barack Obama is a Muslim;
-he ascribes to his former pastor's anti-American rantings;
-he is a Marxist (socialist leaning economic policies yes, but a Marxist?);
-when Obama gets elected whites will be forced to pay black's income tax;
-America is no longer a capitalist country (Glenn Beck recently);
-gays are trying to force heterosexuals to be gay (how?);
-immigrants don't have to pay taxes for seven years on businesses and then can switch them to their relatives so that they never have to pay them;
-99% of taxes are paid by the rich (although, of course, they do pay most of them);
-"marriage" is the only word ever that cannot change;
-the U.S. is a "Christian nation" (despite the first amendment);
-liberal politicians are more likely to cheat on their wives than conservative politicians (as recently as a few days ago)
-Japan is a civilized country because after WWII we forced them to be Christians (I've heard Ann say this herself);
-the ice caps are growing (forget whether global warming is real, the caps are shrinking);
-national security letters were necessary and never used irresponsibly;
-wiretaps were not abused during the Bush era (still believe that one, don't you? It’s quite possible it still is);
-no innocent man has ever been executed under the death penalty;
-all prisoners kept at Guantanamo Bay were terrorists (why did Bush release most then?);
-most blacks are on welfare;
-pro-choice supporters want to require abortions (so silly it hurts - you can find extremists on almost anything, but really?).
How many times do I have to tell you, partisanship makes everyone a little crazy. That's my point. I’m sure I will be saying it again. And again.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .