Friday, January 22, 2010

Change We Can Believe In?

I have mostly stayed a-political for some time now, fully believing that you were all very patient while getting and earful for a good six months last year. Then this week happened. I think I'm anxious to start another conversation here, remembering that discussions should attack ideas and not each other. Four points for discussion:

1. Wednesday, on my Facebook page, I posted the following, "STM is wondering if a thin majority of Massachusetts voters will derail healthcare overhaul, and if Ted Kennedy is doing the proverbial "turning over in his grave" for the potential loss of legislation he spent three decades advocating. Where is a great deal-maker when we so desperately need reasonable consensus?"

My attempt at "reasonable consensus" turned into 31 comments (including my own) mostly from decidedly opposing camps, though not everyone seemed to be arguing against the plan as it is actually written. There were also six "likes" which I can only assume means that those folks were somewhere in the middle.

I think the thread beat the topic as much as necessary for a gray Wednesday afternoon, but I would love to add one point that didn't get broached on Facebook. Each individual votes as they wish, and so making broad statements about why the election in Massachusetts went the way it did is educated guesswork at best. However, it is probably reasonable to say that Tuesday's election was at least partially a referendum on national health care. But before Conservatives get to feel all smug about how this means that "most" people don't want this bill, it is important to note that everybody in Massachusetts who voted FOR the Republican and/or AGAINST national health insurance reform ALREADY HAS HEALTH INSURANCE BY VIRTUE OF THE FACT THAT THEY LIVE IN MASSACHUSETTS. The great irony in all of this is that one of the leading advocates for the elected candidate was Mitt Romney. The same (Republican) governor who signed the state-wide health insurance mandate into law earlier this decade.

The truth is, if you are from Massachusetts, you would have been crazy to vote for a candidate who would pass federal laws about health care--all it would do is potentially raise your taxes and not change your quality of life. This result has already caused the Democrats to speak about backing down from the extent of the legislation regarding health care. What the (thin-ish) majority of Massachusetts voters told the rest of the country is, "Make your state legislatures figure it out. Just like we did."

Hm . . . . maybe this isn't such a bad idea. Unless, of course, you are one of the 30 million working but still uninsured Americans and you live in a state that consistently elects a very conservative state legislature. Do you know anybody like this?

2. The Supreme Court yesterday (in another partisan vote--shocker) overturned a campaign finance law that has been in place for a hundred years. The law basically imposed limits on contributions from corporations and unions, and the Supreme Court voted 5-4 for its unconstitutionality. Interestingly enough, though intended to benefit unions as well, the type of justices typically accused of being in the union's pocket voted against overturning.

Corporations already find ways to donate plenty, usually through political action committees, but now they won't have quite so many hoops to jump through in their attempts to grease the palms of Washington politicians. Do we really need MORE money in politics? Red money or blue money is all the same to me when it comes to buying broad influence, and there is no doubt that this overturning will have an enormous benefit for Republican candidates. And yes, while they aren't in power now, they have enjoyed plenty of it in times past. Public sentiment will ebb and flow without Wall Street money pushing it along.

And yet, the thing that disturbs me as much as the overturning is the reasoning behind it. Free speech is the Constitutional issue the attorneys for the corporations hung their case on. Basically, corporations have been granted equivalent rights to individuals under our Constitution. I'm not sure how I feel about that. Is there a slippery slope of unintended consequences here?

3. The Obama administration, trying to fight "wars" on all fronts, issued a statement this week that they were going to be moving on banking regulation. Stocks immediately plummeted for nearly all of the country's major banks. Okay, not Black Friday plummeted, but dipped across the board under threat of new regulation. Shareholders don't like rules that prevent their investments from taking risk, because the greater the risk, the greater potential return.

Free enterprise and capitalism and market economies are certainly a necessary part of a functioning democracy, though to the degree these factors are unfettered varies across democracies world-wide. However, I feel very strongly about the banks' (and their shareholders) audacity to complain about the regulation. First of all, most of these major banks were beneficiaries in some measure of the bank bailouts that so dominated the news in late 2007 and early 2008. And secondly, all of these banks are FDIC insured. In other words, if you bank with Wells Fargo and they go under, the federal government backs the first $100,000 you have in that bank; you would recover every single dime. The government did this long ago in order to allow the banks to assume a certain level of risk, but the dismantling of regulations over the last 15 years simultaneously eliminated all need for banks to be cautious. Bad investments and bad loans in the relentless pursuit of higher and higher profits (and unsustainable economic growth) crashed the economy.

Americans need to start working and innovating to make more products instead of just shuffling paper to make more money. An on that note . . . .

4. Mr. Obama unveiled the generalities of his education plan at a school in the DC area this week. The philosophy behind these latest education grants (5 billion federal dollars) is based on something that has been working in Chicago in recent years: failing public schools are closed or shrunk, students are redistributed to much smaller charter schools where accountability is very high and the waiting lists are long. In Chicago, with its widespread inner-city type school difficulties has found a way to do something that welfare-type programs always find problematic. By targeting the very worst schools, they have identified both those in need of help; but by moving to the exclusive charters with very high standards and low tolerance for deviant behavior, they have identified the "deserving" poor. In other words, those with low incomes with true desire to change their situation.

These smaller schools have expanded both the length of the school day and the school year. Uniforms are the norm and most extra-curricular type activities have been eliminated. Class sizes are dramatically reduced from the mainstream public schools. And test scores are through the roof. This latest round of grants, if carefully and systematically applied, will do very well in some places as receipt of the money requires failing schools to close or shrink and charters to open.

They also require that teacher pay be linked to testing.

I shared some (okay a LOT of very specific) thoughts on this topic over a year ago. My fear is that the teacher money will only be tied to the testing, and leave too many effective teachers out in the cold because of their core populations.

Anyway, it is has been a busy week for American policy. What do you think of some of this stuff. Or, if you don't think of it at all, just drop in to say hi. Such connections might keep my own thoughts from driving me completely crazy.


Sherry said...

Yet again your thoughts on issues have resonated with me and have been basically spot on with my own thoughts, particularly on the first three issues, which I have been following more closely. We are the same political minds, you and I! (Only you have a much better ability to write about politics than I have!)

The Supreme Court decision - I just can't even express how much it baffles and disappoints me. I think the fact that my father-in-law has been very involved in the academic side of tobacco legislation for several years definitely adds to my feelings about this recent ruling.

Desmama said...

I'm really concerned about the health care issue because, as it stands, DesDad is still paying for COBRA coverage from his previous employer. That will last until September, when I had hoped we'd had at least the promise of legislation that would enable him to get coverage. Now? I just don't know. How in the world will we pay for all his supplies and meds without insurance? I'm so frustrated. So frustrated.

Melanie said...

I'm kind of out of the loop, but before I went to grad school I worked for a small nonprofit in the education sector and was very up to date on education issues. I haven't read the legislation you've referenced, but at face value I LOVE the idea of closing failing schools and redistributing them to charters. For the kids, I think it's an excellent move. It's got to be tough on the teachers though; they work long tiring hours, are required to supervise various extra-curricular activities, and have the pressure of worrying about test scores without the control or authority over many of the things (i.e. family situation) that greatly affect a student's academic performance. No wonder there's a constant turnover and shortage of teachers.

Things have been too crazy at work lately, I haven't had my usual hour or two to read the news and opinion columns every day! I love the busyness, but I hope it slows down a bit sometime soon so that I can keep up to date about what's going on in the world.

Janssen said...

I foolishly opened Twitter after the election results came out and immediately regretted it, as I quickly became convinced that the world is populated almost entirely by complete cursing-only morons.

The school testing was an issue I felt strongly about before I worked in a school, and now I can hardly even think about it without wanting to throw up. It's just such a bad bad system.

Slyck and Slim said...

As always, you and I have some very different views. I don't take much stock in which party people are from, but I do tend to side with more conservative approaches on most issues. I just spent two and half hours in a line at the post office where there was one employee there to help this huge line of costumers. Two other employees were walking aimlessly behind the desk apparently having nothing more to do that walk back and forth and no one even batted an eye at the long line, nor offered to open another register. I couldn't help thinking, "And the government want to run our healthcare?" Government run entities typically do the least amount of work required to get their paycheck. Though American healthcare has big issues, a government-controlled overhaul frightens me to the core. One other bit of that legislation is that small business employers will be required to provide health insurance to all employees. I wonder what small businesses will be able to survive with that type of legislation in place. My husband's company most surely will not. Either that or his rates to his customers will have to skyrocket just to cover the insurance cost of so many employees. We could not survive. I am one of the ones grateful that the Republican won in Massachusetts so that the Democrats couldn't keep ramrodding their sneaky legislation through before they were out of time. Who knows what other legislation was riding unexposed in that bill? It was too big and too lengthy to really be explored completely in the time allotted. Any time either party, Republican or Democrat, tries to ramrod legislation through like that, there's a red flag that something trying to be passed under the rug. And when it looked like this healthcare reform was going to pass, did people feel relief because now they wouldn't have to work for health coverage, it would now be something they could demand because it was entitled to them as an American? How naive to think that all our healthcare woes would be over. They would just be beginning. Empower people with the entitlement attitude and they only demand more and are not satisfied. Isn't living the American dream about taking an opportunity of freedom and through HARD WORK achieving your dreams? As far as I know, government entitlements are not a part of the American Dream. Americans looking for an easy handout might be better advised to go to work, persevere, and keep trying. That's what we've all been doing since 1776, until the notion of "all Americans DESERVE a cushy lifestyle and you OWE it to me" infiltrated some minds and forced our poor to remain in poverty. Why help themselves when there's a handout keeping them there?
I am with you that I am against more money being allowed to funnel into politics -- it forebodes of even more corruption. As far Obama's education plan to lengthen the school day -- good grief! Is that partly so more mothers can work a full work day??? My kids are gone enough during the day -- I'd like it shortened since there is so much wasted time in public schools as it is. Is this what the children of America really need -- longer school days to be away from parents, less recess, less art, less physical activity? I find that very hard to believe. Are the future childhoods of American children to be robbed? They grow up too fast as it is. Let them be children! We did just fine with two recesses, art classes, pe, and half day kindergarten. The more control the government tries to seize the more wary I become. It is not just you whose thoughts are driving you crazy!

Yankee Girl said...

"Where is a great deal-maker when we so desperately need reasonable consensus?"

How I wish we had more (any?) politicians who were willing to fulfill this role. Instead all we seem to be doing is picking sides and then yelling at each other. Not useful at all.

I missed Obama's education plan but I am really liking what I've read here about it--except the testing bit.

Desmama said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Caitlin said...

Oi! What a week in politics! It also happens to coincide with our 5th denial of Medicaid and our 2nd application for Social Security/Disability for our disabled daughter. We were told that we "make too much" (really?!?! $31,870 is too much for a family of 4 one of which is special needs?!?!) and that our best options were to "work the system" and either get divorced and file as single parents or give our daughter to the state and then "adopt her back." Uhhhhh...I feel like I am taking crazy pills!

The upset in Massachusettes was definitely something that should be paid attention to, but not in the way either party reacted to it. I think the D's wrote off their loss as a fluke, but Brown won the seat after Kennedy, a D, had held it for 46 years. The R's on the other hand took it to the other extreme saying that a vote for Brown was a vote against health care and ultimately against Pres. Obama. That's just laughable. Most people have moderate political beliefs. There are issues that everyone believes in that have been "claimed" by either party. I am not fully an R or a D. Is anyone? A population as diverse as ours can't be divided so easily into one group or the other. But isn't that the game of politics? To create the polarized and divisive mindset of "us" being right and "them" being wrong. And on that note, when did the R's become the party of morals and the D's the party of compassion? Aren't there elements of both in each?

As for health care, I feel that I represent the people who have the most to lose and the most to gain from the health care legislation. For one, we are self employed and we have no employer to cover, even partially, medical insurance costs for us. My family all has individual policies that we pay for fully. I do not have health insurance. I was denied coverage because I had cancer 4 years ago. In an earlier comment, it was implied that if one worked hard enough then one could get coverage. Not so. I am proof of that. Even if I wanted to work for coverage, I couldn't get a job because I have a handicapped daughter at home. Even if I did find employment, I could never earn enough to put her in day care. On the flip side, a free market is a catalyst for innovation. Money is a strong motivator and the potential cash to be made has created miraculous discoveries in medicine. My cancer treatment was cutting edge, and 4 years later it is already being phased out to a new drug! My daughter could potentially have a diagnosis in a few months due to a new genetic test called microarray. We were told less than TWO years ago that such technology would not exist in her lifetime. I can't say for sure that the health care legislation in Congress would have squelched innovation, but that's because no one was allowed to read it. I found this alarming, especially after there were polls showing that more and more Americans were not comfortable spending so much on something they knew so little about. I would say that this was due in part to how secretive its contents were and not just the negative smear campaigns headed by the R's and their conservative talking heads. I think in the case of Reid and Pelosi it was less about helping out Americans and more about saving face, reelection, and how history will remember them. I feel like a huge opportunity was lost for both parties. One where real and positive legislation could have had a powerful and lasting change for Americans, especially for my family.

I think the Supreme Court's ruling on campaign finance law has opened the floodgates for huge problems. But their job is to interpret the law and ultimately real change must be implemented in legislation, where the law is written. I will spare you the "School House Rock" song.

Hooray for charter schools! But standardized testing will be the bane of education's existence in my opinion. As a teacher, you know far more about this than me.

You must hate when I comment.

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

Interesting that the justices based their campaign finance decision on the principle of "free speech." I feel like most individual Americans will now have less of a voice because it will be drowned out by big corporations with deep pockets.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

I posted a follow-up comment here yesterday that doesn't appear to have gotten saved. Oops. I will try again here to clarify a few things without bringing up MORE topics for discussion.

1-My understanding of the current legislation on health care is that it is intended to close the gap between those on Medicare (deserving or not) and those who have health insurance. It is NOT an entitlement program. That 20 million uninsured number that is sometimes thrown around includes small business owners, people with pre-existing conditions (sometimes genetic), individuals whose employers keep them working just few enough hours so they don't have to give them benefits and often end up working two jobs as a result . . . etc. etc. When you add to this list people who ARE insured but at rates and deductibles so high as to be laughable, we come up with a large number of people for whom the market system is utterly failing. These are not people looking for a hand out, these are people looking for a leg up so that they too can move forward in their own version of the American Dream.

2-The proposed funding infusion into schools is only for FAILING schools. If your schools are already testing well according to state requirements, they won't even be eligible for the money. The strings attached have proven to be very successful in other locations with failing schools and will prevent low-performing districts from getting huge grants to pour money into schools that are beyond repair. Failing schools are often in failing communities where there are lots of single parents, little supervision, no academic focus, violence and a culture of dependency. These types of kids are MUCH better off being in school both more hours and more days. Mr. Obama's proposals are based on data and research and have nothing to do with wanting to push women into the workforce. Instead, they are an attempt to level the playing field for kids whose parents have already been absent.

3-Yes, the public should be able to read the bill, but after the death panel fiasco last summer (a distortion by a junior senator of a bipartisan provision in a Medicare bill that would allow doctors to be paid for counseling with elderly and terminally ill patients about end-of-life decisions), I can understand the reluctance to let every Tom, Dick and Harry post their opinions and interpretations on the web.

4-The Hawaiian model is as useful for analyzing as the Massachusetts bill. In the late 70's, Hawaii passed a law requiring employers to provide health care to anyone working more than 20 hours/week. The result, after a generation of implementation (big problems require a long view), is the lowest health care cost to income ratio in the country. There is a large variety of insurers (because there are so many potential customers) who compete vigorously with one another for the best rates and services, and even the smallest employers are able to bargain for better rates because the insurance companies cannot deny coverage.

I never dislike your long comments, Caitlin. I think your perspective is unique and necessary in this forum, and "knowing" you and your daughter have helped shape some of my own views. And Slim, that post office on Louetta is the worst I've ever seen, but the entire system can hardly be judged by a single anecdote. If we were looking strictly at my post office now, you would say that the federal government is a model of efficiency and convenience.

Caitlin said...

The Cypress Post Office is just as bad as Louetta's. They also closed their separate window for passports and we all wait in one line together. It's super fun, especially with kids!

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

For the record, the post office staff near my home are helpful and attentive. :)

emandtrev said...

Ah yes, the Louetta post office. I used to so love going there. :)

Seriously, though, all of these issues are on my mind a lot. I was just thinking last night--yes, this is what it is to be an adult and/or mom. I worry about current events and my childrens' future so often. Sigh.

I think your subject line sums up the health care issue perfectly. *Something* needs to be done--it's just getting to the point where it is a program many folks are comfortable with seems to be a major stumbling block. That and getting past the partisan politics circus that continues to roll on...

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

While the partisan infighting is deeply frustrating to me, one of my history professors pointed out that even less gets done when one party is firmly in charge for years and has no motivation to rock the boat.

I wonder if it would be any better if there were three or more major parties? I know there are some countries where that situation exists, but I don't know enough about them to judge whether they make any more progress than we do.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

I'd like to see a situation where there were no primary elections. I think we would be able to get more moderate candidates on the ballot and fewer individuals who polarize things so much. In the House you would have more extreme views--as they represent smaller, more targeted constituencies, but the senators, holding statewide office, would have to appeal to the (recent) majority of unaffiliated (ie independent) voters. You'd get more pro-life Democrats and environmentalist Republicans or whatever "odd" combinations are supposed to exist, but in reality are quite common.