Friday, July 31, 2009

Agreeing to disagree (or you'll get arrested)

I have been interested in the Gates arrest since the President mentioned it in that health care press conference. That’s sort of obvious, I’ve posted on it here and if you read 2PJ you’ll see I have commented there as well. I think my views about this affair have evolved, so to speak. But before looking at specifics, let’s review a bit.

When asked about the arrest, I remember full well the President said he didn’t know all the facts, but then he ventured an opinion, saying he thought the police acted stupidly. He could have stopped at saying that he didn’t know all the facts, and maybe he should have, but then look at the issue on its face. Gates is a short, slight, older African American who walks with a cane. Granted, he could take a swing with the cane, but I think that would be pretty well telegraphed, and otherwise absent any other weapon he represented no real threat to Sergeant Crowley. Gates was in his own home. Now I have said previously that as a matter of common sense you don’t yell at cops, and I stand by that, as a matter of common sense. But remember that it used to be common sense for some people to own slaves, even though this is America. You really should act contrite and restrained in front of cops, but that doesn’t mean that is how things should be.

Then there are the facts that have emerged this past week. Apparently on the 911 call, the witness did not say the possible home intruders were black. I believe she has said that when Sergeant Crowley arrived at the scene she again did not say the possible intruders were black. And we have also seen Crowley’s report. Normally I would tend to believe a police report prima facie, but in this case, a black professor, a small man, arrested on his own porch, I think there is reason to believe that Crowley invented parts of the story and got his fellow police officers to support him on at least parts of their report(s). So I believe Crowley’s report says the witness said two black men to him (making it his word against hers), and that Gates was using a less cultured form of black vernacular than I suspect is Gates’ normal speaking manner.

Obviously Obama weighing in on this was a gift to Crowley and the Republicans. Now the Cambridge police department can not investigate this and Crowley can not be disciplined. In fact, the nation as a whole can not have its "teachable moment". I mean, we know there is a hard core of racists in this country who simply hate Obama (“birthers”?). But there is also a fraction (possibly a sizable fraction) of white voters who were able to look beyond Obama’s race, or maybe to believe he was the one black man who understood everybody’s problems, and so could not only get the country out of Iraq and save the economy, but get us all to understand one another. I suspect for some whites that meant they expected blacks to apologize for not realizing that only a few whites are racist and that most of us have moved on. Sure, the racist whites (apparently mostly policemen) should apologize too, but mostly blacks have all the opportunity in the world, if they would just apply themselves in school, learn how to talk and dress “appropriately” and try to get along. And stay away from our daughters (except for maybe that nice Denzel Washington).

Now Obama has gone and let down those whites who supported him because he was going to fix the problems of race. Turns out Obama is one of those "uppity" blacks who think that his people aren't getting a fair shake in America.

Watching the ABC news program on Sunday morning, the "roundtable" part, they talked a bit about the Gates incident. Predictably the conservatives stated that we have talked race to death. Then someone said the statement, and conservatives and liberals (to my great shame) cooed in agreement. The statement: “Well, we have elected a black President”. As if all African Americans can say, lawsy lawsy, we have made it. One of our own is in the White House.

Remember in the campaign when there was talk African Americans wouldn’t support Obama because he wasn’t black enough? Look, I will agree racism is dead when Garfield is just as black as it is now, but it’s average per capita income matches the City’s average per capita income. Until then, we need to keep in mind the difference between anecdote and aggregate.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Palin's experience?

One of the interesting things about last year’s campaign was the talk about experience, particularly between the Republican convention and the debates. We went back and forth about how experienced McCain is versus how smart we think Obama is. Then there was the nuttiness of Biden versus the seemingly greater nuttiness of Palin (plus her lack of foreign policy experience). But one theme that cropped up some which could not be denied was that of the four of them, only Palin had executive experience, as Governor of Alaska.

Then we had the debates and McCain turned into a guy who wandered the stage, looking (as someone put it) like a guy getting up to get a beer. And that’s probably what decided the election. But Palin remained a force in the background, partly because of her populist appeal and partly because her being a governor gave her that executive experience.

But now Palin has stepped down from her job. Apparently only she knows why she did that. There’s lots of possible reasons and conjecture, because of personal bills, a coming scandal, she doesn’t find the job fun anymore. But she isn’t saying, and her fairly incoherent speeches fail to really explain.

She is apparently going to write a book (which I have to admit I want to read to see who wins the editing battle, her or someone who, you know, speaks the English language). I heard, just once, that she might get a radio show. She certainly will descend from Alaska to give speeches around the country. She may be the go to girl for incoherent comments on events and policies. She will not fade from view, her supporters will likely get even more Palin.

But here’s the thing, the experience factor is gone. You may support her for her views, but now anytime someone says Palin has executive experience, the response will be, yeah but if elected would she serve all four years?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Jack Kelly today

Jack Kelly does his usual job of insulting his reader’s intelligence and maligning people he disagrees with today. Kelly starts with a brief discussion of Vanity Fair’s extensive article on Sarah Palin. Now, from my point of view I don’t really care about Sarah Palin. She is not involved in actual issues that I can see (if she is, she has managed to conceal it), so she is uninteresting to me. The only way I care is if she shows signs she might actually become President, which seems remote but not impossible. Never the less, Kelly first quotes from the article about how Alaskans think Palin is a textbook narcissist, then proceeds to suggest his suspicion the author (editor Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair) simply created the quotes from Alaskans. Kelly throws in a shot he quotes from Bill Clinton for good measure.

All of which is impressive; Kelly accusing the editor of a major magazine of creating sources because that editor reports negatively on Kelly’s favorite politician. But of course there is a whole column to come, one where Kelly then turns and accuses Obama of being the narcissist.

Now I will admit that Kelly does cover his ass in sense of declaring that “Virtually all politicians exhibit some narcissistic traits”, although Kelly doesn’t concede that maybe Purdum does have a point about Palin. And I actually agree that Obama writing a couple of autobiographies, one before he had done much of anything is pretty narcissistic, if not surprising for a politician.

But Kelly uses Sam Vaknin, PhD, who has written about Obama without having interviewed or personally studied him, as a source. Kelly says he quotes from a July article from the American Chronicle. Well, the web reveals a journal called the American Chronicle which this Sam Vaknin has written in weekly. Maybe there is a print edition for July in which he wrote about Obama the narcissist, but as far as I can see Vaknin last wrote about Obama in March. At the end of the article, Vaknin says he is not a mental health professional. So on both these scores Kelly appears to have gotten facts wrong. Shades of Purdum’s imaginary Alaskans.

Kelly selects some quotes from whatever he read from Vaknin:

• subtly misrepresents facts and expediently and opportunistically shifts positions;
• ignores data that conflict with his fantasy world;
• feels that he is above the law;
• craves to be the exclusive center of attention, and
• has a messianic-cosmic vision of himself.

I have to say it was not Obama I thought of when I read those quotes. “Feels he is above the law” – Bush’s theory of a unitary President? “Subtly misrepresents facts” – weapons of mass destruction? “Has a messianic-cosmic vision of himself” - This is a quote from an April 2003 USA Today (maybe an April Fool’s joke): “Bush believes he was called by God to lead the nation at this time, says Commerce Secretary Don Evans, a close friend who talks with Bush every day.”

Again, no one should think that because our last President was bat shit that Obama should get a pass. the healthcare plan Obama is leaning towards will do little to reduce the cost of healthcare and in fact will cost a lot because it expands coverage to the uninsured. But Obama has calculated that Americans are not ready for single payer coverage and he is probably right. Still, Obama should be scrutinized and criticized when necessary.

But as Stanley Fish put it in the NYTimes on Friday, there are people out there who hate Obama, presumably because he is black. They want to find a reason, any reason, not simply to criticize but to remove him from office and perhaps punish the traitors who voted for him. Hence the birth certificate controversy and now Jack Kelly’s column on Obama’s sanity.

Can’t we see Obama’s dangerous?

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Gates issue

I have been thinking about the Henry Louis Gates incident since I learned about it on Wednesday night, during Obama’s press conference. Now, we all know (or should know) that there is a problem with racism in this country. Stephen Colbert’s line that he doesn’t see color parodies this problem perfectly, in my opinion. Or to put it another way, I think that some African Americans have made progress (including, obviously, President Obama) but all experience racism and most are still stuck in poverty.

All that said, though, Obama should have identified what happened in this case immediately. The Jim Croce song said “you don’t tug on Superman’s cape”; it could have said you don’t yell at a cop. It’s true that a black man yelling at a cop even in Pittsburgh or in one of our suburbs like Brentwood might get a beating and a trumped up charge to cover the beating. In Cambridge, Massachusetts it gets you arrested on disorderly conduct (and you consider should yourself lucky). And it doesn’t really matter what color you are in the sense that if you yell at a cop something bad will happen to you. If you are black it will probably be worse than if you are white, but it will happen. So to some extent this was the usual story of a person getting frustrated with a policeman and making the mistake of thinking he can express his frustration.

So fine, let’s use the incident to remind us that African Americans still experience racism, but let’s not hold it up as an example. Unfortunately, for better or worse the stupid person in that particular was professor Gates.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Porkulus bill?

I remember when I read about the surge in Iraq a couple of years ago now, I believe, I thought it was a good idea. But the surge was proposed in December, authorized some time late January or early February and still nothing in Iraq had happened by May. Only in late June and Early July did things start happening. Democrats were saying in May that Iraq was lost, the surge had failed, and who could blames them? Well, Jack Kelly could. Actually I can’t remember what Kelly said at the time, but he has constantly repeated the statements of Democrats that the US had lost in Iraq, and used that to point out how Democrats get things wrong.

Today Kelly stated that the stimulus has failed. He also said he was glad, because it would make it difficult if not impossible for Democrats to get a cap and trade and health care reform bill through Congress. So let’s review. Kelly is glad that the stimulus bill has failed, even though that means millions more might lose their homes and jobs. But the important thing is the Republicans are better positioned to get seats in Congress in 2010, so they can help the Country like they did in the “jobless” recovery of 2003 … er … Also, Kelly doesn’t want healthcare reform or curbs on carbon emissions, although to be fair, he thinks Americans will be better off without healthcare reform, and global warming is a myth. Plus we have all the oil we need if the Democrats would get out of the way.

So Kelly will tell us while Democrats do act in a treasonous fashion, lying to the American public about the threat from terrorists who are sworn to kill us, Kelly is being a patriot in wishing the Democrats to fail. After all, it is the Democrats who put pork in Corgressional bills, not Republicans. Why, that famous “bridge to nowhere” was essential for growth in Alaska. And any state with a Republican Governor like Sarah Palin deserves whatever she wants.

I’m not going to make a logical argument against Kelly’s arguments. He has his viewpoints, and will defend them (cognitively dissonantly) no matter what is said to him. To some extent, he is right that the stimulus might have been too small, and that it might have had too much pork in it. The discussion of that is actually subtle, about how Obama is letting Congress do a lot, which means the bills reflect how the Senate only just recently reached a theoretical 60 democrats (well after the stimulus passed), how Obama is trying somewhat to reach out to Republican/conservatives to include them in the decision making process and the Republican/conservatives are instead putting their fingers in their ears and simply screaming “no” over and over again. This is being patriotic.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Today's health care news ...

I was going to, and still might, write an essay comparing Michael Jackson and Barack Obama, and their relative positions in American society. I was going to, and still might, write about Sarah Palin, and the spectacle of conservatives going after one another in their support/contempt for her. But today I am inspired to write about health insurance/care. Paul Krugman wrote a hopeful essay on health insurance today. Apparently a Senate committee has a workable plan, better than previous efforts. It is better in part because it covers more people, and I guess ends up costing less per capita and doesn’t leave big, expensive holes.

Krugman spends a sentence or two mentioning how a typical hospital bill includes a premium (if you will) for all the other people who can’t or don’t pay their bills. And before you mutter “deadbeats” consider that visiting the emergency room and then staying over night in the hospital would have cost me, without insurance, a third of my annual salary. For a room with a roommate, who overnight had a breathing device put on that had an alarm, apparently designed to go off when the person changes position. The device was put on around midnight, maybe later. The alarm went off every ten to fifteen minutes there after for maybe two and a half hours. The nursing staff only came in when I called, asking about the alarm. Then after the couple of hours and change, the alarm starting going off continuously. The staff came (when I called again) and took the breathing device off. Then I was only treated to my roommate crying out in his sleep.

Now, I understand I was being monitored for a possible heart condition, even though my doctor determined I had had a severe but somewhat random attack of vertigo. That kind of monitoring and being near life saving equipment doesn’t come cheap. Yet my stay in the hospital was not restful, rather the opposite, I arrived (at the ER) debilitated (I was nauseated by the vertigo) and anxious and stayed that way the entire time I was in the hospital. The staff understood and sort of apologized, saying I would have gotten a private room if I had stayed another night. The staff knew I wasn’t getting great, or even pretty good, care.

So if everyone is covered, either by an employer plan or a public plan, hospitals maybe won’t have to charge everyone extra to cover those who otherwise wouldn’t pay. And hospitals wouldn’t feel squeezed and have to keep staff at a bare minimum. So if an alarm goes off, maybe a staff person could show up (within a few minutes), instead of the alarm being ignored. There is a chance that health care for the middle class and the poor might improve, probably not to the level the rich get, but it might be better. Have better outcomes and yet be more pleasant. Staff that can do the job they were hired for. And also cheaper (per patient and per capita) care.

Except the Republicans, acting in our interest, want to block that. Things are fine right now, we have the best health care in the world.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Fourth of July ...

I don’t know if I’ve trotted these ideas out before, although I have thought about them for a long time. The US was born a nation which had slaves, denied women the vote, undoubtedly condemned the love that dare not speak its name, and was generally populated by xenophobes. It took us longer than England to free our slaves, and we had to fight a civil war to get there. We did beat England on women’s right to vote, but not by much. Our sainted Lincoln cancelled habeas corpus until the Supreme Court convinced him to do otherwise, and Saint FDR was President when the Japanese were interned in World Ward II. Even after we freed the slaves, we treated African Americans badly, and only just elected a black man to the Presidency. However, Obama is not a typical African American, he is the son of an African father and a white woman, without some of the baggage of typical black Americans, enough of an apostrophe (er, asterisk) to be acceptable to whites as well as blacks. But only just.

Even right now a powerful minority of politicians are fighting expanding the health insurance/care available to our citizens, even though every other industrialized country has a single payer, national system. And yes, we invaded two countries after we were attacked on 9/11. One of those countries had the terrorist mastermind behind 9/11 as well as an oppressed people. And we let most of the terrorists escape and we badly managed the war and whatever reconstruction we tried has not worked out well either. And then there’s Iraq. It will go down in history as George Bush’s private crusade, although it is looking like Obama will be dragged into it. And we still don’t want those who practice the love that dare not speak it’s name to have many rights (still).

But, as I skimmed over the Declaration of Independence, posted at 2 Political Junkies, I realize that although we don’t think enough or talk enough about our own checkered past, we are still the best country in the world, in those ethical if murky concepts. We do stand for more, but we are human and fail often.

Just something to think about as we watch bright explosions in the sky tonight.

Friday, July 03, 2009

A Call to Alms ... (I just found that funny)

Paul Krugman, raising an alarum, today talks about how we need an additional stimulus program. He says that because of yesterday’s lousy unemployment numbers (and the PBS News Hour helpfully did a report yesterday on how the numbers should be higher). Now, I happen to think that a long term recovery should be looked at in a long term manner. So maybe we need a few more signs that things aren’t picking up. But that said, what would be the harm in the government encouraging the economy “too much”? I mean, we would add to the debt (a bad thing), but if the economy emerges out of the recession with new infrastructure in green areas, such a smarter, more robust grid, more green power in the form of solar, wind and yes, (agreeing with, erg, Jack Kelly) gasified coal that pollutes much less, then we will be in position to grow without damaging the environment. And it’s worth noting that the sustainable energy sources (wind and solar) do not require continuous inputs such as coal, natural gas or oil to run. So in the long run they really are free, or as near as to make little difference. So the return to the economy may be even greater than traditional power plant infrastructure investment.

Now, I happen to think that Obama thinks, but has not said, that our health insurance system is a drag on our economy. Every other industrialized nation has a single payer, national health insurance system. So their doctors aren’t paid as much as ours, and they may not have the star doctors that we do. But their systems work better and cost less in the aggregate, healing more people enough. Sure, the ultra rich may come from all over the world for our doctors and best hospitals. But the price we pay for that is that the majority of doctors, working in managed care settings, see patients for just a few minutes, and give inadequate care. And that’s for people who work in companies that offer health insurance, for everyone else, private health insurance is expensive to obtain, and virtually out of reach if you might actually need it. Or if you do find a low cost alternative, the benefits are usually inadequate unless you manage to avoid using it very much.

So I suspect Obama views his health care plan as a partial stimulus. Or at least I do. If we transition to a single payer plan, we will lower the burden of health care costs on the economy. Sure there might be new taxes, but companies would no longer be paying private health insurance companies, nor we workers be paying them. There would be a certain balance (offset) there. And hospitals would stop charging every patient the additional money to cover those who can’t or won’t pay. Maybe under single payer we could get doctors, nurses and hospital visitors to wash their hands more, and bring down hospital infection rates.

But I don’t think that a portion of free energy or more efficient health care will be enough to stimulate the economy. Those factors will only bring us up to the level of, say, Sweden (we can’t even hope for the level of Denmark, the happiest place on earth). So again I wonder, what would be the danger of over-stimulating the economy? Denmark?

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Way Yesterday Went...

So the amended amended Act 47 plan was passed, and your council-person hopes you noticed how she/he voted. In the end, I am reconciled, perhaps even satisfied with the way the vote went.

Someone, I think Bill Peduto, likened Act 47 status to a life preserver. I think that is an apt analogy, especially when coupled with Doug Shield’s observation that Pittsburgh is in almost exactly the same situation it was five years ago. So by now we should have learned that we are not going to be allowed to sink into the sea of red ink (to stretch the life preserver analogy). But we can’t just bob in the water waiting for more rescue, we need to start kicking our legs towards some shore. Which is to say that we need some leadership, from a Mayor or one or more City Council-persons, or both. We need someone to look at how other cities have saved money and/or attracted new residents. We need some real creativity (not a Mayor who is planning out next Saturday night’s escapades, even if that is what 30 year olds do).

That said, as I said I am fine with the way the vote went down. I think it was important that the vote five years ago was unanimous. Pittsburgh needed to show gratitude to the State and enthusiasm for the plan. Of course, I gather the conventional history is that the Legislature let us down subsequently. So this time, when there was a vote, after the Act 47 team incorporated some, but not all of Council’s suggestions, and after local State Legislators expressed little enthusiasm for letting either non-profits or commuters shoulder some of Pittsburgh’s burden, it was maybe not so important that the vote be unanimous. After all, the State Legislature could have done more five years ago, and the Act 47 team could have assumed a higher visibility over the last five years and urged the City and/or made suggestions to increase revenues and cut costs. So I think it appropriate that both Shields and Dowd sent a signal that we know the State has not done all it could have. I hope (and do believe) that if either Shields or Dowd thought the vote was going to fail, they would have reversed themselves. I think Shields, Dowd and Peduto positioned themselves exactly where they wanted to be for their political careers and respective future plans. I am thinking now, for example, that Bill Peduto might be eyeing a State Legislative position, or at least the Presidency of Council.

In any event, now we need to (if you will excuse the phrase) move forward, we need to proceed now with Act 47 not as the most we do for ourselves, but as the least of our efforts. We need to do more than we did before.