Sunday, December 20, 2009

Left Wing Blogger Seeks Worthy Adversary

I've had a lot of fun since I started up this blog a few months ago. It's nice having a soapbox from which to respond to current events, make my case, and share my observations about the world. Feedback has been good. But I don't feel like I've reached a lot a people that didn't already agree with me.


I am more interested in having a lively debate than in just basking in the wisdom of my own opinions. I feel that Obama is an excellent president and that the health care reform bill is entirely worthy of support. I am told that these views are not universally held. Real engagement between people across the vast chasm of our political divide is sadly rare. Common ground is elusive. In a vast sea of opinion it's unusual to see someone forced to consider the arguments from the other side. But that's what I want to do. I'm looking to start a new blog with a different format. Something that would be more interesting to read and to write. I want to start a debate blog.

But first I need a worthy adversary. A nemesis. A yin to my yang. A Lex Luthor to my Superman. Or at least someone who disagrees with me and wants to write about it.

The basic idea is a kind of Crossfire in blog form taking on whatever topics interest the participants. This would be a new blog with a new name. Maybe: Dawn Pistols, or Rapiers at Dawn, or Preaching to the Convertible. Or something else.

For the format I'm thinking of a simplified, casual Lincoln-Douglas format: Affirmative post, Negative Post, Affirmative Rebuttal, Negative Rebuttal. 4 posts total on a topic, 2 from each side, maybe 300-1000 words per post. We spend about a week on a topic. Then we move on to a new topic. The other guy starts off with an Affirmative post that can be a spin on the old topic or something entirely new (or whatever you want).

So, I start with:
Obama's Health Care Plan is Great: blah, blah, blah
You reply: No, its not...
I reply: Really, it is...
You post: No its not...

New topic, your choice.
You say: Obama is a Terrible Commander in Chief
I say, no he's not...
etc, etc...

Sound like fun? The offer is open. Somewhere out there there must be a right-wing blogger with opinions to spare looking for a lively debate. I await you. Terms are negotiable.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

My Take on the "Whole AGW Scheme"

Recently I've been poking around on some political sites, looking for a lively debate (I'll post more on this adventure very soon). I wandered over to the forums on Politico where I was asked about my "opinion of the whole AGW scheme". I obliged. Here it is.


Regarding Anthropogenic Global Warming there are two main questions before us:

1. Are we human beings causing a rapid increase in global temperatures?

2. What, if anything, should we do about it?

In this post, I'll just look at question #1. This is not really a political question. Regardless of what I think, either all that carbon we're burning is causing the atmosphere to heat up or it isn't. Is this real or not? The honest answer is: How should I know? I don't spend my time examining polar ice cores or tracking ocean temperates.

There are a wide array of factors that have changed the earth's climate over the years. There were ice ages and warmer epochs long before humans were around. We are not the only agent of climate change. But we should take no comfort from this. The natural forces that have caused the earth's climate to change have occurred over a much longer span -- tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of years. On those occasions where the climate did change rapidly, the record suggests this was very bad news for the creatures who had the misfortune to be around at the time.

Let's just concern ourselves with the next 100 years or so, a blink in history, but it's our blink. Climate worrywarts estimate the average global temp will maybe increase around 5° F by 2100. That sounds like a small change. You'll never detect it standing in your yard. It's certainly not a threat to all human life. But still, if we believe the climatologists, even a 5° bump will trigger massive coastal flooding, crazy weather system, fresh water shortages, agricultural disruption and a host of other problems we might prefer to avoid.

A considerable majority of the people who spend their time on this issue are in agreement, and have been for years now. Global warming due to human activity is real. And it's going to cause some big, big problems for us humans if we don't do something about it. The question for us is, should we believe them?

Even if climate change is happening, it is happening at a pace that's hard for us as individuals to perceive. Gradual changes that happen over decades may trigger big environmental changes. But as we live day to day, we don't see it. We can't see it. But if we think about aggregate human activity, it's not that hard to imagine. For over a century now, we've been extracting oil and coal and other carbon-rich fuels from the ground, and burning them as fast we can. Currently, we burn about 85 million barrels of oil a day. We have massive operations going to pull these fuels out of the ground and we use them to run our cars, and heat our homes, and power our power plants. We've been doing this on massive scale for a while now and have every intention of continuing to do it. 85 million barrels. Every day.

Even if we don't know the exact net effect of releasing all these greenhouse gasses is, we know the basics of how these gasses trap solar radiation and keep the planet warm and habitable. We also know that we are extracting and burning fuels, creating more greenhouse gasses, as fast as we can. And that's pretty fast.

And why wouldn't we? Oil is great stuff. From the industrial revolution to the information age-- modernity, life as we know it, is made possible by energy. Power. Oil, and its carbon-rich fossil fuel friends, are the cheapest, most efficient, most scalable, most plentiful sources of energy we've got.

It is precisely because fossil fuels are so wonderful that we really don't want to hear about the nasty side-effects. It would be really, really swell if we could just burn all the oil we want as fast as want, for as long as we want and not ever have to worry about all that additional carbon in our atmosphere. That's a pleasant thought. But wishing won't make it so.

Wishful thinking will make us want to listen to those who tell us what we want to hear. As usual, there is no shortage of people willing to tell us there is a free lunch, that we don't have to sacrifice or work together. You can do what you want. Al Gore is a jerk, and bore, and Democrat. Don't trust him. Look, newly reveled emails show us that some scientists are cleaning up and spinning some of their data. Now we get to ignore everything they and their colleagues have ever done. And every other climate scientist is probably doing the same thing. Let's ignore them too. They can't even get each and every scientist, pundit, blogger and ex-vice-presidential candidate to agree there is problem! Clearly this is very controversial at best. We should probably just hold off and study the problem some more. Let's wait until everyone agrees. We'll do something then.

Unfortunately, the AGW deniers have a lot more media attention than scientific credibility. There are over 180 countries taking part in the Copenhagen conference. All of those countries are populated by citizens that don't want to be told to cut back, pay more, or use less. All of those countries have scientists who are telling their leaders that this is real, and we need to do something about it. I hope they are wrong. But I believe they are right.

Quick Health Care Reform Note

  • The bill going forward is a good bill. It's an important bill. It's not perfect but it is the best bill we'll get. Anyone who says they support health care reform but think this bill should be killed is a fool. Or they are lying. Or both.
  • Hate Joe Lieberman if you want, but there's really no reason to hate him more than the 40 other non-Democratic Senators who aren't even negotiating on this. They are the ones really working to kill it dead.
  • Read Ezra Klein's blog. He is doing fantastic reporting on health care reform and is just about the only writer who seems to really know what is in the bill and why it matters. He also explains it clearly and frequently.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Obama: Best President Ever

Glenn Greenwald has an interesting post up on Salon comparing Obama admirers the relentless defenders of George Bush and Sarah Palin. He writes...

Those who venerated Bush because he was a morally upright and strong evangelical-warrior-family man and revere Palin as a common-sense Christian hockey mom are similar in kind to those whose reaction to Obama is dominated by their view of him as an inspiring, kind, sophisticated, soothing and mature intellectual.
I view Obama as an inspiring, kind, sophisticated, soothing and mature intellectual. He's also a great president. I am inclined to rise to his defense against critics to his left and right. There are several Bush-era policies that appalled me at the time of their introduction. Because I trust him, I am willing to grant Obama lot a latitude to continue those same polices. I'm stunned by the rationalizations of Bush and Palin defenders, but I fit Greenwald's profile of a pie-eyed Obama fanboy rather closely.

Is there something wrong with that?

Before I defend myself, allow me to dig this hole deeper. Not only do I consider Obama, who is not even through his first year in office, to be a great president -- I hear-by anoint him with the title of Best President I Have Seen And Am Likely To Ever See In My Lifetime.

Overblown? Blinded? Bombastic? Consider the competition. These are the human beings that have in my lifetime ascended to become President of United States -- I'll even thrown in the near-presidents: Carter. Regan. Mondale. Bush. Dukakis. Clinton. Dole. Bush. Gore. Kerry. McCain. Obama's virtues stack up well. A president who is an inspiring, kind, sophisticated, soothing and mature intellectual is very rare bird. We have the good fortune to have one at at time when we really need one. Why not be grateful? Why not admire him? Isn't that something to be cherished and defended?

Criticism of Obama from the right is certainly voluminous but it has such an incoherent kitchen-sink quality to it that I have a hard time taking any of it seriously. He's a socialist. He's a Nazi. He's a coward. He's a tyrant. He's hasn't done anything. He's trying to take over the country. He's too intellectual. He's an empty suit. He's a ruthless Chicago pol. He's naive and in way over his head. If there's a coherent right-wing critique of Obama I've yet to encounter it*. I always feel like telling these people to just turn off the Fox News. Pay attention to his actual words and the policies he proposes. Measure his actions against the principles you claim to have. These feelings of incoherent rage will pass.

The criticisms coming from the left are more pointed and, to my ears, better grounded in reality. The most frequent of these are that Obama is too centrist, too moderate, too conciliatory, doesn't know how to play political hardball, and that he's insufficiently aggressive in denouncing Republican chicanery. If these are flaws, they are flaws that I admire. Obama seems to be genuinely committed to forging consensus, exploring the options, prioritizing policies over politics. On issues from health care, to the economy, to Afghanistan, to climate control we see an administration that is patient but persistent. The president should set the national interest above the interests of the Democratic and Republican parties. If more politicians did this we would all be much better off.

Greenwald blasts Obama defenders saying...
These outbursts include everything other than arguments addressed to the only question that matters: are the criticisms that have been voiced about Obama valid? Has he appointed financial officials who have largely served the agenda of the Wall Street and industry interests that funded his campaign? Has he embraced many of the Bush/Cheney executive power and secrecy abuses which Democrats once railed against -- from state secrets to indefinite detention to renditions and military commissions? Has he actively sought to protect from accountability and disclosure a whole slew of Bush crimes? Did he secretly a negotiate a deal with the pharmaceutical industry after promising repeatedly that all negotiations over health care would take place out in the open, even on C-SPAN? Are the criticisms of his escalation of the war in Afghanistan valid, and are his arguments in its favor redolent of the ones George Bush made to "surge" in Iraq or Lyndon Johnson made to escalate in Vietnam? Is Bob Herbert right when he condemned Obama's detention policies as un-American and tyrannical, and warned: "Policies that were wrong under George W. Bush are no less wrong because Barack Obama is in the White House"?
Greenwald is entitled to his questions and his criticisms. And the individual issues merit direct answers. I will decline to address all of them now, but hope to address these issues in future posts.


 Instead, I offer these general defenses:
  • In many of these cases Obama inherited huge problems for which there are no good solutions. The proposed policies are easy to criticize, but do you, the critic, have an alternate plan that you think is better? If you offer your own counter-proposal I may disagree with you. If you can't think of any other plan which you like better and you are prepared to offer and defend, then perhaps the criticism is unfounded.

  • Many critics point to some action (or some lack of action) as evidence of some glaring character flaw. Obama did (or didn't do) X, therefore he is weak/cowardly/craven/ unprincipled/incompetent. Often the case for the flaw following from the act is very weak. In such cases, it us not unreasonable to rise and defense and point out the weakness of the case and the absence of the flaw.

  • Some critics don't argue with a policy per se. Instead they argue that the policy seems or could be seen as an indication that Obama is cowardly/craven/ unprincipled/incompetent. Do you fault the policy? Do you feel the flaw is real? Everyone should support politicians that pursue sound policies especially when those policies are politically risky and subject to unprincipled demagoguery. Every policy can be seen as evidence that one is cowardly/craven/unprincipled/incompetent-- especially when there are so many partisans so bent on seeing them that way.

  • As President of the United States, Obama is responsible the efficient function of the entire federal government including and especially the vast national security apparatus. He has never been president before. In many cases he is pursuing his principles and campaign promises cautiously. He is moving at a pace that will not disrupt the function of, or his relationship with, those organizations that he needs and we need to rely on. But he is moving forward.

Everyone is entitled to express their opinion. And blind devotion to a politician is always unwise. Blind skepticism is also unwise. We live in a age of skepticism, criticism, and ironic detachment. We are not used to finding virtues in our leaders. We are unfamiliar with politicians worthy of defense. We are afflicted by fierce partisanship and vast political divides. We have a president willing to stand in the center, look at the big picture, and steer us towards real solutions. We should offer an honest critique. But when the president is doing something right, we should rise to his defense.


* For right-wing critique, there is this. Pretty thin gruel. Anyone got anything better?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Curtains for You 'Buster

Health care reform passed a major milestone on Saturday. After much pressure, arm twisting, and some outright bribery, the Senate voted 60-39 to allow themselves start debating health care reform. Isn't that great?

Of course, it's not great. It's pathetic.

We hear a lot about the need for 60 votes, and cloture, and filibuster threats. What happened to passing a vote via will of the majority? The talk of "60 votes" is so persistent you might think the filibuster is some sacred institution, enshrined in the Constitution. It's not. It's a gimmick. The filibuster and its ilk the last refuge of those philosophically committed to government inaction. It's time for them to go away.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution were deeply concerned about they tyranny of the majority, and the separation of powers. The system they devised, with three branches of government, and two legislative houses was designed to be inefficient. It was not designed to encourage paralysis. It was not designed to allow a minority to dictate terms to the majority. It was not the founders intent that any action in the Senate would require 60 votes.

The Constitution does specify times when a super-majority is required. If the Senate wants to convict the President of impeachment or remove one of their own members from office then more than 51 votes are required. There are other extreme circumstances where the Constitution requires more than a simple majority. Motions to start or end debate are not among them.

The Constitution does state that the legislative houses get to set their own rules. And that is where the trouble started. The idea that 3/5th of the members should agree to consider an issue or cease debate is predicated on a base level of civility and common sense. The Senate rules were conceived to insure sufficient debate on important issues. Now the rules are routinely abused to insure debate never takes place and that bills are never voted on at all.

Our legislative process is already deliberately inefficient. On top of that, we have entrenched interests willing to spend a lot of money to insure that status quo. We have a political minority that puts party ahead of principles, and considers any compromise to anathema. We have mobs and media outlets dedicated to spreading misinformation and discontent. We also have a lot of problems. Our country faces a multitude of challenges. We need to find a way forward if we're going to confront them. We need to end the gridlock.

Most of our problems aren't going away anytime soon. But there's a way to get rid of the unnecessary filibusters and friends. The Senate created these barriers for itself. It has the power, the right, and the obligation to take them away.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Dear Senator Gregg

Dear Senator Gregg,
I am writing to you once again, to ask you to support the health care reform. I do not doubt that you are under a lot of pressure to oppose reform. You may have the sincere intention of opposing the current bills. But supporting reform now is the right thing to do. I think you know this.

I do not claim to be a steady supporter of yours. I do think of you as a moderate, sensible voice in the Senate. I appreciate that you are not prone to the partisan hyperbole that seems to permeate so much our national debate. There was a time when you sought to be a member the Obama administration and when they sought to have you. You know they are not monsters. You also know the severity and extent of the problems this administration faces. As you enter your final year as US Senator you have a unique, historical opportunity to do something important.

In your Washington Times editorial of 7/17/2009 you wrote:
"Our health care system is broken and must be fixed. We also agree that we must reform how we pay for this system, and, at the same time, reduce the number of people who lack coverage without disrupting the coverage that insured people already have.
We must encourage quality of care and reduce the skyrocketing medical bills so many families face. These are goals President Obama has endorsed and these should be the center of our bipartisan health reform efforts."

In that article and in subsequent comments you have been highly critical of ongoing reform efforts. Many of these criticisms are legitimate. But you were correct in recognizing the failings of our current system. These problems must be addressed. You should also recognize that the proposed legislation does, however imperfectly, address these concerns. It will vastly reduce the number of uninsured. It will not disrupt current insurance systems. It will not add to the budget deficit. It does make a first, tentative, but essential, attempt to control skyrocketing medical bills. These are important reforms. They are essential for controlling state and federal budgets. The are need by New Hampshire families and business facing ever-escalating costs. They are necessary for the millions of Americans who can't get and can't afford insurance.

Our system is broken. It must be fixed. If we do not reform this system this year when will we? How will we control medical costs in the future? In what year, under which administration, will tens of millions of uninsured, working Americans be able to obtain health insurance? How many more years will pass before we can put a stop to the medical-bill bankruptcies? What will happen to state, federal, business and household budgets during those years? I work for a small company. In the past two years my family's health insurance premiums have increased by 55%. Most insurers in New Hampshire won't sell insurance to my family because my son has a "pre-existing condition". In what year will there be a system that works for my family?

If you are opposed to health care reform out of your own self-interest, or because for political reasons -- if you are voting to maintain the status quo because you think it will hurt one political party or advance another -- then you must realized your reasoning is inadequate and sad. Do you believe that the current health reform bills will make things worse for citizens of this country? Do you think perpetuation of the status quo will be good for my family, and your family, and the people of New Hampshire? Even if you believe this, you know this system is broken. You know this administration is willing to compromise. You know there are deals to be made. You can work to produce a bill that is worthy of your support. You know that all laws are a product of compromise and are all imperfect. You know that the worst thing we could do is nothing at all.

Fixing our health insurance system is not easy. Easy or not, it is broken. It must be fixed. You serve the citizens of this state in the United States Senate. You have the power to fix this. You have the responsibility to fix this. You have been given the opportunity to fix this. The people of this country are relying on you to do what is right. Easy or not. Politically expedient or not. We have put our trust in you.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mattea Louise Swainbank

We had a daughter. Mattea was born prematurely, on September 11, 1999. She weighed 1 lbs. 13 oz. She died seven weeks later on Nov. 4.

Here is what I wrote for her memorial service:
One of the things that saddens us about Mattea’s death coming so soon is that so many of the people who have loved and supported us never even had the opportunity to meet our little girl.


And even for many of those who did get to see her, their meeting was for only a few fleeting moments during the hectic first days of her life.


As a result, relatively few members of our friends and family really got to spend time with Mattea and get to know her as we did.


For those people who didn’t have the opportunity to know her, her story might be viewed, in large part, as a series of crises and distressing events…


We learned Christine was pregnant in a hospital emergency room.


We discovered we would be having twins only to learn we would be losing one.


We mourned the passing of this child we would never know, even as we prepared to welcome the other one into our lives and into our hearts.


And our preparation was cut short by Christine’s sudden illness. In the course of an afternoon little Mattea came to be with us.


And… after only 54 days she was taken away.


Throughout this we’ve experienced a lot of sadness, a lot of pain, and a lot of grief.




But, for those of us who were able to spend the time, and to experience life with Mattea, all the sorrow and all the hardship is overshadowed by the joy she brought to our lives.


I think, in part, because so few people got to know our little girl as we did, we feel its important to share what she was like. So that everyone might get to know her a little, even as we say goodbye.
Life with Mattea was series of small, daily, triumphs.


I felt so proud to see her coming off of a ventilator or take a little more of her mother’s milk than the day before.


It was a pleasure to watch her grow stronger and larger, to mature in her body and mind.


It was miracle to hold her to my chest, flesh to flesh, so small and fragile, and hear her emit her tiny cry, until she was nestled and comfortable. Then she would grow silent and rest so peacefully in my hands.


We loved to celebrate in the daily gain of a few grams. Another day of health, a day that would bring her one day closer to coming home.


It was a joy to watch her sleeping. Mattea’s world was one of busy nurses rushing by, and warning buzzers going off all around. But it was nice to watch her sleeping so peacefully through it all, so calm, so innocent, gathering her strength for her central task of getting stronger every day.


But the truly special times were when we caught her while she was awake.


It was wonderful to see her open those big clear eyes and look out at the world. I’ll never forget staring into those eyes and seeing them stare back. So innocent, so at ease, so bright.


It was during those times that she truly had us in her spell. I remember times when we just stopped by the hospital to see her, on our way to a movie, or on my way to work in the morning. And I'd see those eyes. And that would be it. We didn’t make it to that movie and work would just have to wait until Mattea got tired, and closed those eyes to sleep.


She was so eager to try and understand this great big world, that she was so suddenly thrust into, and that was so quickly taken away.


It’s hard when you lose someone that you were planning to have with you as part of your entire life.


We loved the little baby that she was. And we also loved the idea of the little girl that she would be.


We envisioned summer afternoons lying in the grass in the park by the water, with all the flowers.


We started referring to the local elementary school as Mattea’s school.


We tested the new equipment on the local playground to see if Mattea would like playing there.


We loved our baby. We loved the little girl she would grow into. We loved the woman she would one day become.


And now we say goodbye. Goodbye Mattea.


Thank you for the joy you brought to our lives.


We will never forget you.
Mattea's service took place at the congregational church in Lebanon. It was our family church growing up, but I had never attended services regularly or enthusiastically. They opened their doors to us, and the church was packed. Hundreds of friends, family, congregants, and colleagues packed the pews and filled the balcony. They came to support us and to say goodbye to a little girl few of them had ever even seen and whom none of us would ever know. The love and support we received that day is a kindness I will never forget.

Now, 10 years later, there are friends who know us well but don't know about Mattea. It's not a secret. But it's not a detail you ever drop on a conversation. Mattea was my first real experience with loss and grief. But, inevitably, not the last. A year after Mattea we would say goodbye to J.P. Plumez at his beautiful, bittersweet wedding at the Guggenheim, a week before he finally succumbed to Hodgkin's disease. This spring we suddenly lost Gavin Symes, another close friend. Again we felt the loss of someone we thought would be in our lives forever.

I was 27 years old when we had Mattea. Most of our friends were not married yet, much less having children. We had had and lost a child. Over the years, many friends have started their own families and too many have experienced difficult pregnancies and miscarriages, the sorrow of crushed expectations, and the grief of losing a child you'll never know. These experiences are bitter reminders that as much as we feel we are in control of our lives, the beginnings and the ends are beyond our reach.

After Mattea, Christine and I didn't turn on or away from each other. We turned to each other for strength and support. From Mattea we learned the instant and powerful pull that your children have on you. We learned that we wanted to be parents. We had been through the worst and felt we were ready for, wanted to have, everything else. The doctors told us not to worry, but that we might want to wait. We waited. Or thought we waited. We measured our wait in days. Eight and a half months after Mattea's death, Isaac was born (also premature).

Now "Mattea's school" is Isaac and Leo's school. Our boys have grown up with pictures of their (big? little?) sister. Together, we pay regular visits to her gravestone. Mattea's stone is in a cemetery near us, across a narrow strip of water from the school where her brothers go now, where she would have gone. If you go during the day you can hear the children running, screaming, and playing. When I visit the cemetery I try to remember who she was. I imagine who she might be now. Mostly, I ask her to look after us and to watch over her brothers. Given what she was and what I believe, I find it odd that I imagine her to have that power. But I do. And I take comfort in it.

It's been 10 years. Good years. Happy years. These days the trips to the cemetery are less regular. In the busy business of day-to-day, thoughts of Mattea are less frequent. At times an a innocent question, and stray image, or an overblown bit of rhetoric will touch a trigger, and bring back of wave of melancholy memories. I'm grateful for those memories. I try to stop and spend some time with them when they come.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Grab A Mop

Two recent posts that got my attention:
Lately I seem to be having conversations with wonkish right-of-center types who have this-or-that idea about how to design a simpler, more efficient, and more effective policy to deal with taxation, climate change, health care, whatever. But it always stops there. No one talks about managing the transition. No one talks about convincing Mitch McConnell to back these ideas. No one talks about sixty votes. No one talks about the interest group dynamics in Washington. No one even talks about working for a decade to elect members of Congress who might be more amenable to these sorts of policies. It's just policy in a vacuum. Which is an interesting intellectual exercise, but not a legitimate substitute for governance, an ultimately messy endeavor.
"What I reject is when some folks say we should go back to the past policies when it was those very same policies that got us into this mess in the first place. Another way of putting it is when, you know, I'm busy and Nancy is busy with our mop cleaning up somebody else's mess --- we don't want somebody sitting back saying, you're not holding the mop the right way. Why don't you grab a mop, why don't you help clean up. (Applause.) You're not mopping fast enough. (Laughter.) That's a socialist mop. (Laughter and applause.) Grab a mop -- let's get to work," - Barack Obama.
The New Hampshire state motto is "Live free or die!" Every state has a motto, but we take a perverse pleasure in ours. It is something of residency requirement that New Hampshirites make this bombastic pronouncement of personal liberty at every opportunity. I claim no exception. We have no state sales or income tax. This state was founded upon conservative principles low taxation, economic opportunity, and individual freedom. I am not opposed to, and have come to appreciate, the notion of sound governance based upon these principles.

A central problem we face, as a nation, is that the self-styled conservative party, the Republican party, no longer appears to be committed to governance based on these principles. In fact, sound governance is no longer central to the party at all.

"Government is not part of the solution. It is part of the problem." This is a cute slogan. It is a ruinous governing philosophy. Under George W. Bush we saw this philosophy in action. They believed in military power, but not nation building. So we launched two wars with no plans for the aftermath. They appointed political hacks to run FEMA and the were flatfooted and absent while New Orleans drowned. They cut taxes while increasing spending. They launched new entitlements with no funding mechanisms and created massive structural deficits. The Bush administration abrogated and ignored international treaties, offending allies and squandering international good will. They denied the science of climate change and dithered in the face of global warming. They defended the status quo and insulated insurers against intervention while health care costs escalated and the ranks of the uninsured expanded. They didn't believe in financial regulation, federal enforcement, or strong regulatory oversight, and oversaw a massive financial collapse, the ruin of our financial institutions, and a global economic meltdown.

Faced with this record, you might expect the GOP to change tack a little. Wouldn't this be a good time to reflect on some lessons learned? Wouldn't this be a good time to embrace intelligence, competence, prudence, and talking necessary action as central to who they are, or seek to be? Wouldn't this be a good time to recognized the scope of the challenges we face and get serious about solving them?

In the 2008 campaign John McCain's primary win-by-default seemed like step in the right direction. McCain's reputation was centrist and sensible. Then he picked his running mate. Sarah Palin had poise and folksy charm. But she clearly lacked the requisite intelligence, experience, or character to be on a national ticket, much less be entrusted with the powers of high office. Palin was a big hit with the Republican base.

Since the election, having faced electoral defeat, and facing a steep drop in party identification, the GOP still has not gotten serious. It's gotten worse. From economic stimulus to health care reform the Republicans leaders have been opposing any legislation, and openly hoping for failure by the Obama administration, regardless of the cost to the nation. They hope to breed further disaster and ride discontent to future electoral victory. What they have not been doing is rebuilding their brand. They have yet to start to present themselves as party with solutions to problems that face this nation.

The absence of intellectual and policy leadership on the right has created vacuum. The entertainers and propagandists have rushed to fill it, leading to rise in prominence of Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News on the Republican right. All they can offer is partisan sniping and incoherent rage. They do more damage to the ideology they claim to espouse.

As a country, our troubles persist. Health care costs continue to rise, unemployment remains high, we face the prospect of catastrophic global climate change, and have a jaw-dropping 1.4 trillion dollar budget deficit. Its time for everyone to get real about confronting these issue. There's plenty of work to be done.

Grab a mop.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ode to Andrew Sullivan

My inspiration for writing the blog comes, in no small part, from reading the work of uberblogger Andrew Sullivan. I am not, and could not even attempt to do what he's doing. I would like to take a few words to sing his praise.

On his blog the Daily Dish, Sullivan posts constantly (20+ times a day), linking to the best arguments, and insights from around the web, and contributing his own keen commentary. His list of topics is extremely broad, bouncing from politics, to religion, to human rights, to cultural issues, to humor like a mad cultural/intellectual DJ mixing up the collective works of others into his own signal.

Despite the broadness of his topics, Sullivan brings great honestly, clarity, courage, tenacity, and probing intellect to each of them. The Dish is not quite a one man show. I believe he has a handful of researchers and aggregators working behind the scenes. But it is a tiny operation. Nonetheless, on a number of critical issues-- the Iranian election, Bush Administration torture policies, all things Sarah Palin, gay rights, any many others the Daily Dish has collected content that rivals, in both quantity and quality, what can be obtained from any source, in any medium.

Andrew Sullivan is gay, HIV positive, British and conservative. Despite all his applicable labels, Sullivan rigorously pursues intellectual honesty and savages pure identity politics. He's also clearly, fueled by a powerful journalistic drive. His blog is well worth reading every day, all day.

In addition to being a personal inspiration, I have also found Sullivan's work to be intellectually formative. His pull is sufficiently powerful that I find myself steering away from pure punditry to try and avoid writing that is pale shadow of the work of others. Still so much good writing does provoke a reaction, and sometimes invite a response, rebuttal, or extension. As much I try to draw upon my own thoughts, personal history, and experiences, I am certain that I will also do a fair bit of linking to and responding to items from The Daily Dish. Now you know why.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

My Generation

I am an unlikely source of insight on race and immigration issues. I live and grew up in New Hampshire, a state for which the Onion once suggested "Affordable, racially pure living" as an alternate motto. My family tree has white English protestants in all directions.

I grew up in the town of Lebanon, New Hampshire. If, as the name suggests, it was founded by pilgrims from the Middle East, they have long since moved on. Lebanon was not a place of vast cultural diversity. I remember returning after a year of college in upstate New York and a good friend asked me "Are there Jews there? What are they like?"

I married my high-school sweetheart, who grew up in a house 2 blocks away from mine. Her father is French. This fact seemed mostly unremarkable until my father-in-law retired after working in the US for 36 years and returned to the village where he was born, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. We went to visit him, bringing our young son to meet that side of our family. In a medieval mountainside village of stone houses, we enjoyed long lunches of wine and wild boar with a dizzying, extended cast of aunts and cousins. Listening to the conversations in Corsican and French going on around me, it occurred to me how far I had come. This was my family too. My children might grow up in a little New Hampshire town as I had, but this too would be part of our lives. Suddenly, the family tree had branches extending in some different directions.

As I pondered the fact that I had married into new cultural traditions, I considered the choices made by my close circle of friends, the kids I grew up with, and the few good friends met along the somewhat circumscribed journey of my life. Given my homogeneous beginnings, there was some surprising variety.

Jeff, the friend who asked about the mysterious Jews, had become one. I was the best man when the rabbi officiated his marriage to Alison. The large wedding crowd consisted of Orford farmers on one side of the aisle and Hartford lawyers on the other. Erik moved to Baltimore for a while, where he met and married Krista, who is black. They returned to Maine to make their home. Lee, who is first generation American via German and English parents, married Jennifer whose family is from China. Josh married Talita, and spends his mornings at the Brazilian embassy in an effort to bring his son to meet his grandparents in Sao Paulo. Scott's parents came from Portugal. Anna's are from Serbia. Ă–mer was my roommate in college, direct from Istanbul. After Hamilton he stayed in the US and married Kate, whose family is Korean. They live in New Jersey.

These are not bonds along the lines of who we will tolerate, or learn to respect, or accept as a neighbor or colleague. These are bonds of matrimony. When given the chance to choose one person who completes us, with whom to share and build our lives, to have and to hold, these were our choices. Our children have sets of grandparents that look different, or speak different languages, or celebrate different holidays. Constraints of mobility, culture, tradition, tribe, and history that guided our parents and our parents parents for generations do not seem to apply us. The cultural divide is not that divisive.

The first US President to come from my generation, is a self-described "mutt" with a story that runs through Kansas, Kenya, Indonesia, and Hawaii. His parent would have met during a very different time. But today he stands as a powerful emblem of our era. A colorful first-family may seem novel to us, and stunning to those who have been alive long enough to see this history in the making. For our children it will be normal. This is how a president looks.

I look at my boys and I wonder who they will meet, where their lives will take them, and what choices they will make. I think about their world. Already, their friends include two cooler and more popular boys, born in Cambodia, being raised by two adoptive fathers. Their perspectives will be broader still.

I think that family tree will keep branching.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sarah Palin's Fake Pregnancy

It was only a year ago that Sarah Palin was plucked from a gubernatorial backwater and came strutting onto the national stage. She may return one day, or she may be gone for good, leaving us with nothing but ghostwritten facebook notes, phony newspaper editorials, and our memories.

Whatever Palin's future may hold, there is one aspect of her not-so-distant-past I would like to shine a light on. That is this question:

Is Sarah Palin the biological mother of Trig Palin?

I believe the answer is: No, she is not. I claim no special, first-hand knowledge. But the preponderance of the available evidence supports this claim. But first...

Who cares?

Sarah's bright star may be fading, but this topic remains interesting for several reasons:

  • As mysteries go, this one is wonderfully binary. All the usual scandal deflection techniques ("I didn't know about it." "Ok, I knew about it, but it's no big deal." "Ok, it's bad, but everyone does it." etc, etc... ) are irrelevant. Either she was pregnant and delivered a baby and I do a great injustice to her by suggesting she did not, or Sarah Palin perpetrated a brazen fraud. There is no fuzzy middle.
  • Trig's birth occurred in the past, but not the very distant past. These events happened during the first 4 months of 2008. Sarah Palin was in office, the governor of the state, and in the public eye all that time. Pregnancy is no small thing, and takes place over an extended period of time. It should not be difficult to determine the truth. The pregnancy or non-pregnancy of the governor, should be clear from the public record.
  • This topic is almost universally regarded as a crazy, fringe theory. The Obama "birthers" get way more play than the Trig Truthers. Even most liberal, Palin-hatin' web sites won't touch this story. I do not consider myself crazy. "There's a lot to be said for sanity" is an old Swainbank saying, and we take pride in our good judgment. If the emperor is naked, it is best to say so.
  • I allege that Sarah Palin, while in office as Governor, faked a pregnancy. She told the public she was pregnant, when she was not. In the final days of her "pregnancy" she wore a fake pregnancy suit, including wearing a fake pregnancy suit to a Republican Governor's Convention. Prior to that, she sustained this outlandish claim with minimal camouflage and maximum bluster. Mostly, she got away with it. Five months after pulling this stunt, she was nominated to join a national ticket. She almost became Vice President of the United States. She remains a prominent figure in national politics and the Republican party. This is one for the history books. It's well worth a look...


    History and Sources

    When Palin was announced as VP candidate and introduced to the world, the rumor that she had faked a pregnancy appeared almost immediately and spread rapidly. The main source of the rumor was a post on the DailyKos web site. DailyKos is no fan of Sarah Palin, but also tries to avoid this kind of explosive rumor. The post was taken down very quickly, and is no longer available on the site.

    The original post was saved and archived. It is available here.

    On the eve of the Republic National Convention, the McCain/Palin campaign moved to diffuse this rumor. Did they provide journalists with proof that it was false by producing Trig's birth certificate or some portion of Palin's medical records? They did not. Instead, the campaign announced that Sarah's daughter Bristol was 5 months pregnant, and thus, could not have delivered a baby 4 1/2 months prior. Case closed.

    The press, populous, and blogosphere had a hard enough time trying to figure out Sarah, and trying to separate Palin fact from fiction. The BabyGate issue was dropped for the remainder of the campaign and was largely forgotten.

    But not by everyone...

    A blogger by the name of Audrey started the web site palindeception.com. The site, and the associated blog, are dedicated to inspecting all aspects of Trig Palin's birth story. Audrey, site researchers, and a committed cast of commenters spent the last year scouring the internet, plumbing the public record, and building their case.

    This kind of diffuse, collaborative journalism is quite new and only possible in the internet age. In our wired, interconnected world is it possible to keep a big secret? If enough strangers go searching for a specific, but concealed truth, what can they find?

    As it turns out, they can find quite a lot.

    The Case

    The investigation has gone in a multitude of directions. A good place to start is that DailyKos diary entry that started it all, which provides a solid summary.

    The entire entry is well worth reading.

    While the issue has been banished to crazy-conspiracy-land, after a year of scrutiny, the allegations made into post have held up.
  • Nobody thought the governor was pregnant even as she announced that she was 7 months along. This took her staff, the press, the public, and members of her immediate family by surprise.
  • Sarah Palin does not appear to be pregnant in the photographs during that time.
  • Sarah's daughter Bristol was sent to live (but not attend school) with her aunt in Anchorage during the months leading up to Trig's birth.
  • Palin claims she started leaking amniotic fluid in Texas and then got a plane to Alaska, landed and drove several hours further to give birth, to her premature baby with downs syndrome, at her tiny home-town hospital. The airline staff failed to notice a pregnant governor, in labor, on their flight.
  • There is no corroborating evidence -- no birth certificate, no medical records, no clear photographic record, and no compelling first-hand accounts that demonstrate that Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, was pregnant and gave birth.
An Alaskan newspaper tried to debunk the fake-pregnancy rumor. They failed. The newspaper was unable to obtain evidence that Governor's pregnancy was real.

There are a number of threads you can pull on to see what unravels. But we can keep this simple.

Forget everything you know, and any thoughts you may have about Sarah Palin. Now consider these two photographs...





Ask yourself this question: Is the woman depicted in those photos in the third trimester of a pregnancy?

My wife, Christine, who is wise about a great many things, says it's possible. She says we can't know for sure. Every pregnancy is different.

My reply: Um. No. They aren't. It is a universal feature of pregnancy that every pregnant woman in the third trimester has several pounds of baby and supporting tissue and fluid in her uterus. This creates a visible bulge.

Even if there are medical miracle women who can create babies without showing, Sarah Palin is not one of them.

I choose the 2 photos above because they are the clearest, and were taken at identifiable, public events. A full timeline with all known Palin photos and footage during the pregnancy period is available here.

What About Bristol?

If Sarah didn't deliver this baby, then who did? Bristol Palin remains the most likely candidate. Those were the rumors and Bristol did not attend school in the months leading up to Trig's birth. For this to be possible, either Trig's or Tripp's reported birth dates would have be incorrect. There is no available documentation of either birth. Either (or both) is a distinct possibility.

Why?

Why would Sarah Palin do this? I don't know. We can't know. But we know people do stupid and inexplicable things. Politicians can be incredibly reckless. We can scour photos and web sites and piece together the what. The why is always lost to us. Ultimately we can only know our own minds.

And so, I'll end this by turning the question back on you. You've come this far. Am I spewing a crazy conspiracy theory or just pointing out the obvious? Do you believe it was all a lie, or do you believe Sarah Palin was pregnant and gave birth to Trig? Why?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Scenes from Health Care Town Hell

Last Saturday I spent a rainy afternoon attending a Health Care Town Hall, here in Portsmouth, NH. This was my chance to make my voice heard, and to participate in the great debate of our day. In the finest tradition of our republic, I and about 150 of my fellow citizens, gathered to address our Congresswoman and to grapple with the thorny question of how best to insure the future health and well-being of the people of this great nation.

Despite dire warnings, the time spent waiting to get into the event went pleasantly. There was a remarkable lack of screaming, and most of the signs seemed to be of the pre-fab, pro-reform variety. I was tapping my toes to the tunes of the local Leftist Marching Band. Everyone was on their best behavior, and my line-neighbors where in good spirits despite waiting in the rain.

After being searched and wanded and passing through several layers of security I was into the main event. Clearly Congresswoman Shea-Porter was preparing for any contingency. If things to too rowdy we would be subjected a power-point presentation consisting of the artistic works for Norman Rockwell. Fortunately, it never came to that.

As I grabbed an empty chair in the middle section, signs of division began to show. Along the sides of the room there were several photographers. The baseball-cap-equipped man seated in front of me singled out the only one with a dark complexion and demanded to know why he was taking pictures of us. A murmur of approval went up around me. I began to realize that the group I was seated in the midst of, were, perhaps, not Obama voters.

Making the most of my situation, I struck up a conversation with the gentleman next to me and asked for his thoughts on Obama's health care reforms. He was opposed. We agreed that the bill itself did not constitute a government takeover, and came to a rough consensus on the contours of the slippery slope. Still, my neighbor wasn't going to get behind the Obama plan.

"I'm a long-term strategic thinker. Always have been. Maybe this bill won't lead to a government takeover. Maybe it won't happen for another 20 or 30 years. But I won't let them take that first step."

My conversation with the long-term thinker (henceforth to be dubbed L.T.) , would turn out to be very fortuitous. He would be my Virgil, my guide throughout the madness, the key to my understanding the events that followed.

At last, Representative Shea-Porter arrived, and the event could begin. The Congresswoman had been swept into office from relative obscurity in what was probably the biggest upset in the 2006 congressional elections. She had survived a reelection rematch in 2008, but was still relatively new to the job. This was the first time I had really seen her in action.

Shea-Porter welcomed us and established some ground rules. The chance to ask questions would be established by lottery. This upset some people who seemed to think priority should come by order or appearance or ranked by belligerence. Shea-Porter had an actual uniformed boy scout draw the numbers --establishing unassailable fairness of the system.

Before the audience Q&A kicked off, the Congresswoman had some invited guests provide their testimonials. One of her guests was a local woman named Laurie McCray. Laurie told the story of trying to buy insurance for her family, which was a kind of nightmare version of my own. Laurie's family members have some "pre-existing conditions" so their insurance policy, which has an obscene deductible and so covers nothing, costs them $2400 a month. And it still doesn't include their son, who has downs syndrome.

Although we came from all sides the political spectrum, naturally, Laurie's story had a profound effect on all of us. There was a shared sense that if it was impossible for a hard-working middle-class family to even buy insurance, then the system was truly broken. Our humanity united us, and there was collective acknowledgement that something had to be done.

Naw, I'm just kidding. That crowd wasn't going to agree on anything. As Laurie's allotted 2 minutes expired there were outbursts. "Time's up!" "Next!". As the next question would indicate, the extent of our differences extended to the very purpose and nature of the event we were attending.

"I've called your office every day for weeks to find out when you were going to face your constituents, who pay your salary, at a health care town-hall meeting." he announced. "I've been waiting since 8AM" (to get into this health care town-hall meeting). "I've been waiting for my number to be called, so I can ask my question, and now my number has been called, and I'm going to ask my question!" His question... "Why are you afraid to have a health care town hall meeting?!?"

The next questioner took things further down the rabbit hole, jumping right to "This is a Nazi plan." He then stepped back, gave a little smile, looking around the room. Clearly, he was impressed with his own courage and creativity and felt it would lead to YouTube stardom. To the audience's credit, there were more groans than gasps. I watched to see if Shea-Porter would go all Barney Frank on him. She went with "I may detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." But her heart wasn't in it. "Nazi" has been done to death.

Judging by the boos and clapping, the room was evenly divided between reform advocates and opponents. The opponents were far more boisterous, better prepared with little speeches, and far more memorable. Advocates tended to just thank the Congresswoman, or ask a real question. I was thinking my question would be something really penetrating like: "Since the current system of ever-escalating costs is bankrupting so many citizens, businesses, states, and our federal government, and we have a vast and ever-growing number of uninsured people falling through the cracks in this failing system, do you support President Obama's modest effort to move to more rational, more competitive system, where everyone might be able to get some health insurance?" Shea-Porter indicated in her opening statement that she did support the current plan. So, I was kind of scrambling to come up with a new question.

Since incisive interlocutor didn't seem to be my role in this little drama, my major contribution was that of anti-heckler heckler. I often found myself shouting at someone who was trying to shout down someone else. My moment of triumph came when a grumpy guy jumped in, for the fourth time, with "I waited in the rain for two hours!" and was met with a chorus of "We all did!". I totally started that.

One woman said this was a socialist plan that was taking away our freedoms. She didn't specify which ones. The next speech came from someone who was going on about how there where 35 czars in the Obama administration, and why did he need so many czars? Shea-Porter actually argued with the guy about the precise number of czars there really were. This seemed a little beside the point. My seat-neighbor, L.T., seemed to find the czar argument compelling. I asked if he was aware that they weren't, actually, real czars. The czar nickname is kind of a joke. L.T. informed me that it was "the media" that called them czars. I was envisioning Glen Beck deciding to dub various bureaucrats as czars and then freaking out because there are so many government czars. It's a perfect, paranoid-delusion, feedback loop.

Apparently, one of the czars is even a communist czar. A guy named Van Jones declared himself a communist in 1992. The speaker was going on about his evil communist ideology. I wasn't familiar with the work of comrade Jones myself. Once again, I turned to L.T. for guidance. I did kind of snort in his face when L.T. informed me Van Jones is a "green jobs advisor", but L.T. took it well. I guess we were supposed to be scared that he's a communist. It seems more a comment on the sorry state of communist infiltration these days. Joseph McCarthy had a list of 200 card-carrying communists in the State Department alone. Obama just has one communist? Does he even carry his card? I think those cards are only good for 10 years.

Congresswoman Shea-Porter stayed pretty calm and patient throughout. She was asked if she had read the bill. Clearly she had. She was on a committee that helped draft it, and she was able to quote specific sections, or point out what had been removed or amended. She seemed committed to real reform without being overly dogmatic. When things got rowdy she was able to calm the room with a school-marmy "I can wait." And then she waited. It worked surprisingly well.

In the end there had been a lot of sound and fury of unclear significance. As we filed out, no doubt most of us left with the same opinion of health care reform we had come in with. We had said our bit, shouted at our congressional representative, or shouted at people shouting at our congressional representative, and participated in the democratic process.

Will we, as a country, overcome what divides us, come together and pass some real health care reform? Apparently the democrats, socialists, fascists, Nazis, czarists, and communists all support reform. If they can agree, there's hope for all of us.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Awkward

Recently one of our family heirlooms made it out of a dusty drawer and onto the web. Back when I was in high school our family had a professional portrait session that produced some less-than-flattering results. I submitted one of the shots to the delightful Awkward Family Photos site. It was posted, and our inadvertent family treasure was available to be admired and mocked by the great multitudes.

I assumed this was the end of the awkward saga, until a few weeks ago when I was informed that Awkward Family Photos (AFP) was making a book. Would we like to be in their very special, very Awkward Family Photo album? Yes! We would. Well, some of us would. My dad, as it turned out, would not. Much arm-twisting ensued. We teamed up, worked in shifts, and pulled in in-laws for support. He suggested that flaunting our moment of awkwardness was undignified. We responded by unloading with every tale of his indignities we could recall.

Really, what's the big deal? What's the worst that could happen? We prevailed. Release forms were signed. I assumed this was the end of the awkward saga.

Last Wednesday I received this email...
from afp <awkwardfamilyphotos@gmail.com>
to Ben Swainbank <bswainbank@gmail.com>
date Wed, Aug 26, 2009 at 3:01 PM
subject awkward family

Hey Ben,

I wanted to let you know that the Rachael Ray Show is doing a segment on awkward family photos next week and the producers of the show love your family photo. They're interested in talking to you about the picture and possibly having you appear on the segment with Mike and I and I wanted to see if this is something you would be interested in. If not, we totally understand but just wanted to reach out to you.If you are interested, I'll put you in contact with the producer. Let me know what you
think.
Thanks!
Doug

My national television debut! I had visions of airplanes, and wardrobe assistants, and green rooms. It did occur to me that my claim to fame was looking particularly dorky in a particularly dorky old photo. Whatever. I could work with it. "Well, Rachael, actually it's a good thing I was posed behind the couch. If I hadn't been, you would be able to see that my pants were way to short."

I never did hear from the producer. I won't be Rachael Ray this week. If you see my dad, just tell him I turned them down. It's more dignified.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Premiums Part II: This Time It's Personal

We hear a lot about how expensive the American health care system is. The true costs are obscured for a lot of Americans. Our employer or the government picks up the tab. There may be a problem, but it's not our problem.

Unhappily, this is not the case for me.

It's not that anyone in my family is sick, or that we don't have insurance. We're healthy. We're insured. However, neither Christine's nor my employer pay for our health insurance. We get to purchase our own. We get to pay the premiums. We notice when they go up.

Five years ago, when yet another tech start-up that employed me went belly-up, I did a brief stint as a consultant. I purchased a $1000 deductible plan from Anthem BCBS for a reasonable rate. We kept the plan and over the years the cost bumped up each spring. In the spring of 2008 our premiums were a mostly-reasonable $765 per month. In April we got a premium hike of over 20%. Anthem assured me this was not a mistake. This April they went up again to $1191 per month.

After a 55% jump in two years, I wanted out. It's not hard to think of ways I would rather spend $1200 every month.

As I shopped around for other health insurance options I had an unpleasant discovery. One of my children has a "pre-existing condition". Nobody would sell us a family policy. Nobody would insure my son. This came as a shock. I had assumed "pre-existing conditions" only applied to people who were, you know, sick. AIDS? Diabetes? It has to be something expensive and potentially lethal, right? We had none of that. The kids are never at the doctors and never miss school. I was looking to spend lots of money on an insurance policy that I had no expectation we would really need. Nobody was willing to sell me one.

Because my son was already insured with Anthem, they couldn't reject him altogether. Three of us got our own "family plan" with a $5000 annual deductible from Celtic. My son stayed on his own plan with Anthem. Total cost $657 per month. Cheaper, but with our deductible, we'll pay all our own bills, and insurance covers next to nothing.

This has been an educational experience for me. It is the lens through which I now view health care reform. Shopping for insurance has made clear to me the limitations of relying on for-profit companies to provide health insurance, and the extent of the monopoly power insurers have. No family wants to risk going without insurance. Insurers can raise rates without fear. To the extent that they compete, they compete to get customers who won't require health care. They are very conservative about guessing who those customers will be. For-profit health insurance companies don't make their money by healing the sick. They make their money by avoiding anyone who might get sick.

We hear about the high cost of health care for individuals and small business. The thought of paying $1200 a month in premiums brought that home for me, because I was writing the checks. This situation isn't very different for people who get insurance from their employer. The average employer-sponsored plan for a family of four cost nearly $13,000 a year -- not much less than I was paying.
The rising cost of health insurance is everyone's problem. The for-profit companies we have rely on are part of that problem.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Premium Health Care

President Obama was asked a good question at one of his town hall meetings last week. The question went to the heart of the confusion about the public option. Obama's answer missed the point.

The question was something like "If there's a public option, and I get my health insurance from my employer, can I just quit my company plan and jump on the public option?" The unspoken follow-ups are: "If lots of people do this, won't it cost a ton of money? Wouldn't that require a huge tax increase to pay for it? Wouldn't that be a government take over of health care - exactly what people are so up in arms about?"

Obama went on about how the CBO says his plan will cost less than $100 billion per year, how they will get some savings from efficiency, how they won't raise taxes on the middle class. All true. But beside the point.

The real reason you probably won't want to jump off your employer-provided plan, and onto the government one, is that doing so will cost you a lot of money. The public option is not an entitlement. It won't be given away or paid for in tax dollars. They will charge their subscribers premiums, just like any health insurance provider. This is why it won't require huge tax increases. This is why, unless your employer offers the government plan (and maybe even if it does), it may not be such a great deal.

Having a non-profit, member funded, health plan that anyone can buy into, may still be a great option for those who choose it. Some people don't want to have to pay for a government-run, public health care system with their tax dollars. Those people are in luck. They won't have to.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Slippery Slope

"Government takeover of health care" is constant refrain from health care reform opponents these days. It is an article of faith that the "public option" in the various bills will lead to the end of the private system and everyone will end up getting their health insurance from the government. Once there's a public option that anyone can join, via the power of the slippery slope, it'll only be matter of time before the takeover is complete.

That reform opponents would have this fear and make this claim is not too surprising. More interestingly, the left, and reform supporters seem to have same expectation. They would really prefer a single payer plan. Obama isn't pushing for one. But through the public option and via the slippery slope we'll get there. Somehow.

Both sides are wrong about the power of the slippery slope. If we've learned anything about the current and historical efforts to reform health care, we have learned that it's not easy to change anything. The status quo is one big boulder. The slope may be slippery, but it's steep and goes uphill.

There is relatively little debate about the text and the implications of the bills themselves. Despite the hopes and fears of of the left and the right, the bills themselves are what's important. That's what we're going to get. And this is good thing...