Publius Speaks

Publius Speaks
Become A Follower

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Is Santa Claus Black or White? or Plain Green?

Caution:  This is a political Blog, and may offend or depress certain readers looking for something “Merry” in regard to Christmas.  Therefore, read further at your own risk as this posting will be making a political point about commercial manipulation.

Recently, there has been some discussion in the social media and on FOX news about the race – the skin color-- of Santa Claus.  Apparently, an African-American blogger raised the issue and one (or more) of Fox News “reporters”  turned it into a white supremacy debate by telling children that Santa is definitely WHITE.  Not originally, say others.  They say he was of Mediterranean heritage (from an area that was Greek and is now Turkish).  According to the “Stories behind the Great Traditions of Christmas” by A. Collins, the man who was the actual Saint Nicholas (on whom Santa Claus is based), was from the town of Patara, Lycia, now part of Turkey.  When his rather wealthy parents died, he took his family’s fortune and distributed it to needy people in his hometown.  He became a monk at age 17, and then he was chosen as the Archbishop of Myra when in his early twenties.  In his role as Archbishop, his legend grew with stories of saving lives and healing the sick.  But it was his generosity that caught the most attention from his followers, and that made him into a legend right on into our own time.    One of those stories went something like this (according to Wikipedia):
    The old story talks of 3 young women whose family had no money which means they had no dowries which were a necessity in order for them to be married. The father was going to sell one of the daughters into slavery, so his other two daughters would have dowries. St. Nicholas heard of this family's situation and decided to help. The legend states that St. Nicholas threw three bags of gold down the chimney. The girls had their stockings hung by the fire to dry and somehow a bag of gold landed into each stocking. This gift gave each girl their much needed dowries and allowed them to be married.

St. Nicholas’s Day, Dec. 6th, is still observed in several countries (such as Bulgaria, Ukraine and Italy) with gifts exchanged in honor of his generous spirit.  With the help of a Christian author and historian of the 10th century, stories and legendary tales about Nicholas spread across Europe and a mythical character resembling St. Nicholas began showing up in each of the European countries.  In Germany, “Weinachtsmann” (Christmas Man) helped the Christ Child deliver gifts to children.  In France, Pere Noel emulated St. Nicholas, and placed mainly cakes, cookies and candy in children’s shoes.  In Russia, St. Nicholas became Father Frost who distributed toys.  In England, Father Christmas, an elderly man with a long beard carried a large sack filled with toys that he distributed.  After the Protestant Reformation, there grew some opposition to saints and celebrations, which made it difficult for St. Nicholas and his gift-giving to gain a foothold amongst the Pilgrims and Puritans who settled in the New World.  Puritans actually made it illegal to sing carols, exchange gifts or light candles at Christmastime. 

Due to Dutch and German influences, there were stories in colonial newspapers in 1773 of some Christmas celebrations in immigrant homes.  Some of the articles mentioned a “St. A. Claus” and spoke of his impact in some of those homes.   Thirty years later, the New York Historical Society chose St. Nicholas as their patron saint and its members began to practice some of the older Dutch customs associated with Christmas, including the giving of gifts.  That latter act got the attention of English-speaking children who became interested in Sinterklaas, but pronounced it as Santy Claus.  After several more years of this mis-pronunciation, Santa Claus became the accepted Americanized name.

In 1808, Washington Irving wrote about Sinterklaas in “A History of New York” describing “a rotund little man in typical Dutch costume with knee breeches and a broad-brimmed hat, who traveled on a flying horse-drawn wagon ‘dropping gifts down the chimneys of his favorites’ on the Eve of St. Nicholas.”  This opened the door to the delivering of gifts to children in December, but it was a theological seminary professor, and eventual Bishop,  who made Christmas Eve the time of gift-giving with the arrival of old St. Nick.  The Rev. Samuel Clement Moore wrote a poem for his children called “A Visit from St. Nicholas” on Christmas Eve 1822 – “a poem that would change the face of American Christmas forever.” 
However, Moore really didn’t give a very detailed description of his “jolly old elf.”  He could have been short and fat or tall and skinny; old or young.  He could have been any color, have a beard or be clean-shaven.  In the 1840’s when department stores began to hire individuals to portray Santa, there were a variety of costumes.  And so it actually fell to Thomas Nast,image a famed illustrator and caricaturist in the 1860s to 1880s, to flesh-out the appearance of Santa Claus.  When asked to illustrate Moore’s poem in 1863, he ended up giving the world a Santa Claus as an elfin figure dressed in red with very human qualities of kindness and gentleness.  For the next twenty-two years, Nast added details about the man who filled stockings and who created a ‘nice and naughty’ list.  He even drew Santa’s home and workshop and illustrated children tracing Santa’s journey from the North Pole to the United States (on actual maps, not computers). 

An editorial in answer to an 8-year-old’s letter to the New York Sun in 1897 made newspaper history.  “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” was an answer that helped move the legend forward, as did the Coca-Cola ad in 1931 that constituted the final makeover of Santa Claus, featuring a portly, grandfatherly Santa with human proportions and a ruddy complexion.  The artist was Haddon Sundblom whose cheery Santa replaced Nast’s somewhat sterner Santa.  His popular magazine and billboard adsimagehelped to establish Santa’s grandfatherly image and standardize his Coca-Cola inspired red and white attire as well as the red and green color scheme we now associate with Christmas. 
This Santa spent 35 years “showing that Coca-Cola was a drink to drink any time of the year.” Coke's version of Santa was sent around the world, even to Europe where St. Nicholas was still the celebrated version of "Santa Claus.” Here’s where the genius of imageCoca-Cola comes in. First, Sundblom’s image of Santa Claus hit the right buttons in terms of stirring the hearts and quenching the thirst of consumers everywhere. Modeled on a retired salesman named Lou Prentice, Sundblom’s Santa had just the right combination of happy wrinkles, prompting Coca-Cola to hire Sundblom to create Coke ads using this model over the next 35 years.  Also, Coca-Cola orchestrated an attack on the market with Santa-Coke propaganda. Magazine advertisements were particularly effective, considering that during that era, print publications had the influence TV does today: They were able to communicate over and over and over again the same image and slogan to a mass audience.” (according to MadamePickWick blog from Dec. 2010).  

imageAt about the same time, American artist, Norman Rockwell, forever etched his version of Santa in the minds of Americans on covers of the Saturday Evening Post.

If we want to have a debate about Santa’s skin color, we have to recognize that we don’t have any way to know the skin color of the original St. Nicholas.  We can only speculate that a person from the old Asia Minor area was possibly darker than most Europeans.  However, when the legendary stories began to move across Europe and the emulations of St. Nicholas appeared in European countries, the imaginary characters probably would have taken on a lighter hue.  That whiteness would become even more prominent once the American Santa was associated with the North Pole, and considering that a very large number of immigrants to the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s were white European descendants.  The evolving legend also teaches us some things.  One, Santa is invisible and therefore can be any color in one’s imagination, just as Moore’s St. Nick left room for that same creative image-making.  In spite of the NY Sun editor’s answer to Virginia, there is no Santa Claus – he’s made up and can be anything one wants him to be.  Thus, in the end, it really matters very much what color Santa is for those children and adults of color who never get to see any other than a white image in most illustrations of the legend.     

For some, the debate about a black or white Santa is a reflection of a real anxiety about the changing demographics in this country, not about a real figure.   There are some white citizens who simply can’t accept the diversity that exists in our times, and so they make inane remarks about Santa being white to hold on to an image they have of a white, Protestant Christian, homogeneous country that is fading as we speak.  Moreover, there are some, like Rush Limbaugh, who want to protect and promote our economic system of capitalism to such a ridiculous extent that they are willing to declare that Pope Francis is a Marxist  because the Pope has taken the side of the poor and bemoaned capitalism’s flaws and abuses. Does it seem strange that the Pope is proclaiming the essence of Jesus’s message and Rush has taken on the defense of the rich who don’t come off so well in the scriptures, especially in the Gospels?  (See my blog of 4/10/2011 for further exposition of this point).

After all that I have written here, I want to make an entirely different point about Santa.  The original St. Nicholas is not a best-seller.  The Christ child in a manger is not much of a seller either (commercializing religious figures is fraught with difficulties).  But, the jolly white man from the mysterious snowy North Pole, dressed in red and sporting long white hair and an equally long white beard, flying around in a sled being pulled by reindeer -- this guy is a seller!   What’s more, his story, his legend, his narrative can be easily molded and expanded and  made even more appealing to both children and parents. 

And therein lies a tale.  Coca Cola may have been the original catalyst, but many more corporations and businesses have followed suit, because, in fact, this guy sells.  That’s most likely why you won’t find many manufacturers or retailers arguing about white or black Santa’s.   As far as they are concerned, they can’t be bothered.  They will, most likely, at some point, change their Santa hiring policies in order to bring more minority shoppers into their places of business to visit a Santa who resembles them and who is not white, but that’s just good business!   Santa has been the impetus for transforming Christmas  into a secular commercial holiday so that the availability of a multitude of products and the buying of gifts can be associated with a major Holy Day without giving offense.  Who could ask for more?  So, let us make a few points:
1)    Santa Claus is a gift to the business community because the fabricated legendary figure removes the religious aura from the holiday and makes it easier to sell the whole idea of commercial enterprise.  Ever since he became a myth instead of a real person; ever since he became associated with Christmas instead of Dec.6th (St. Nicholas Day), Santa Claus has been a successful commercial enterprise.
2)    Christmas as a religious observance is confined to church rituals (as it should be), but many of those churches are shrinking in membership.  The other Xmas is a secular holiday taken over by profiteering enterprises, and it is growing.  On-line shopping has boosted this commercialization by leaps and bounds, and again, not by accident.  The commercial Xmas is probably celebrated by more people than one would find in churches on Christmas.
3)    Despite attempts to make him fit a religious groove, Santa’s visits to children, along with gift-giving to family and friends, are not the “essence of what Christmas is about.”
4)    The American Xmas is not religious (except in enclaves here and there).  It is commercial.  On the MSN homepage, for instance, there are 20 items listed, “without which it isn’t the Holidays”; not a mention is given to anything religious, but a visit to Santa is prominently displayed!
5)    When Santa Claus became associated with Christmas Eve instead of with Dec. 6th, it was a fatal blow to both St. Nicholas’ special Day and to the meaning of the Christ Child’s birth. 

Those authors who wrote about St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas or Santa Claus, in an attempt to capture the legend in a new light, probably did not intend to secularize or commercialize Christmas.  That venture was intentionally undertaken by Coca Cola.  Their commercial ad campaign was certainly not an attempt to promote Christmas as a religious holy day.  Their intention was to sell more Coca Cola by using a Christmas legend and icon to endorse their product.  In modern parlance, this was a “celebrity endorsement.”  This opened the flood gates, so to speak, for the use of Santa Claus as the key to selling many items associated with Santa and gift-giving, like early 20th century beer mugs or steins, Christmas cards, lunch boxes, art tiles, drinking glasses, jig-saw puzzles, and some clothing especially for children. 

But, as we know all too well, since that Coke campaign began in 1931, there has been a plethora of products associated with Santa Claus and a wide range of movies, DVDs, records, radio and TV shows, and popular songs all dedicated to furthering the legend of Santa Claus so that he can sell even more merchandise.  We have even seen a couple of major advances in the legend:  the tracking of Santa’s journey by NORAD, and the now famous reindeer, Rudolph, guiding the way with his red nose. 
So what is the political point to all this about the commercialization of Christmas by means of the Santa icon?  Well, it is important to understand, I think, that a global company-- Coca Cola -- undertook an ad campaign that changed the way people view a legendary figure, but, more importantly, influenced a change in the nature of the most widely celebrated Christian Holy Day!  Should it not concern us, then, that the current undertakings of several corporations and corporate leaders, to change our democratic representative system into a plutocracy or perhaps an oligarchy, are gaining ground?  How so?  Let us count the ways:

1)    The negative ads against candidates by third party groups, mostly PACs and Super PACs designed to destroy the candidacies of certain individuals of a progressive bent.  The supporters do not have to reveal themselves and the ads do not have to be truthful, but they can easily tilt an election by their distortions.
2)    Citizens United is the impetus now for being able to spend enormous amounts of cash in elections without any transparency.  The richest 1-2% get to control the outcome of so many elections that the average voters (women, minorities, students) have to turn out in much greater numbers than one can count on;
3)    Election and voting laws and procedures are being attacked with such ferocity in 37 states that the one man/woman-one vote standard is going down to defeat.  First, part of the Voting Rights Act was declared invalid by the SCOTUS, and then the states jumped in to restrict and deny the vote to certain groups.  We all know the drill: change voter locations, restrict registration days and locations, stop early voting, no more same day registration/voting, require IDs that are hard to obtain, reduce the number of voting machines and poll watchers.
4)    Attempts to count votes proportionally instead of winner-take-all in electoral districts would wreak havoc with the vote count and the division of electoral votes in a state. 
5)    Gerrymander as many districts as possible to give white conservative Republicans an advantage
6)    To top it all off, use corporate profits to elect those candidates who oppose every tax, law, regulation, and procedure that does not give an advantage to Wall Street, the banks, large corporations and the richest among us. 

The changing of a religious icon, who stressed generosity, into the commercial magnet of the Santa Claus of today is a feat of strength and manipulation that must not go unnoticed when it is applied in the political arena to change a representative democracy into a government of the rich and powerful.  Think about it.  What is the overall aim of the big corporations and their rich leaders?  It is to get you to buy their products and their services, and not to complain about their prices or the wages they pay, their sometimes shoddy, sometimes illegal, practices or the extraordinary wealth and power they are accumulating, and the lies they are telling you.  And how do they do this?  They manipulate your senses, your emotions, your attachments, your beliefs and your minds to get you, not just to buy what they are selling, but to buy into what they are promoting as to the meaning of life, liberty and happiness.  Those principles enumerated in the Declaration of Independence are not what you might think when re-interpreted for you by the conservative Right. 

So be aware of their manipulations.  If they can get a sizable portion of the population to consume their products in spite of the fact that some of those products can threaten life itself; equally, if they can get a nation to accept Santa Claus and conspicuous consumption (“gift-giving”) as the symbol and the prime principle of Christmas, they can surely take from us the essence of our democratic government.  They have effectively begun that quest by their false electoral “reforms” (see above) that attempt to hide the outright suppression of the voting rights of groups that just happen to vote mainly for Democrats.

The basic tenet being forced upon all of us is the non-distribution of wealth in this country to anyone who might use it to help themselves in times of crisis or when they experience an on-going need.  The other side of that coin is to influence every possible avenue to gain more wealth and more power.  The 1% don’t mind re-distributing money from the bottom up just not from the top down.  More especially, the bigwigs don’t mind at all extracting money from the tax system and government contracts and favorable treatment so they can use the tax money from the poor and the middle class to feather their own nests!

Rather than wish you a “Merry Christmas” – which seems to me to reflect the visits of the “jolly old Elf” and the excesses of commercial enterprises rather than the arrival of a Savior – let me wish you a “Grace-filled Christmas Season” and a “Joyous New Year” in which it is hoped we can all find additional ways to give back to others less fortunate out of thanksgiving for what we have been given; that Gift to us is at the crux of the “meaning of Christmas!” 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

What’s in your political stocking this Christmas?

Well, if you’re a Republican, you shouldn’t be getting any gifts except self-made ones, that’s for sure.  If you’re a Democrat, you’ll only get what the Republicans can dish out or help you make, so you’ll get nothing much made after 2010.  If you’re an ordinary citizen, it’ll be slim, but there are some goodies you may like.

If you’re a Tea Party Republican, you will have Secret Santa’s dropping lots of cash into your coffers (sorry – ‘stockings‘) so you can knock off those other so-called conservative Republicans in GOP primaries who aren’t maintaining the principles of the Far Right Wing.  What fun you’re going to have in the New Year!  Those surrogates for the real Santa include Super PACs who front for your secret gift-givers because they like to hide from plain sight fearing a reprisal from ordinary folks who may not like their ideas, choices and methods.
 
A fairly new Super PAC – Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund – will be in your stocking for sure.  HuffingtonPost.com spells out their mission:  “Touting a willingness to take on ‘long-time career politicians’ too scared to ‘rein in out-of-control government,’ Tea Party Patriots national coordinator Jenny Beth Martin laid out the mission of the newly created Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund.  ‘If we are going to change Washington and save America, the tea party movement must hold every politician who supports higher taxes and even higher spending accountable -- regardless of their political party,’ she said in a statement. ‘If that means we have to defeat some of these big-government politicians in primaries, so be it‘.”

However, a recent dust-up with some of those “progressive conservatives,” means a bit of dirty coal is going to be mixed with those super PAC gifts in your stockings.  According to HuffingtonPost.com “GOP strategist Karl Rove continues to draw backlash for his recently rolled out Conservative Victory Project, an offshoot of his American Crossroads super PAC, designed to combat a trend of far-right Republican Senate candidates who have won GOP primaries but proven too extreme to win general elections. While Rove has claimed his intent is not to start a civil war with the Tea Party wing of the GOP, some conservatives already appear convinced that his group will work to prop up establishment Republicans and squeeze out promising candidates, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who first attracted attention of Tea Party activists when running for the Senate. “

But, don’t despair, there’s always a savior lurking somewhere.  “On Tuesday, former Tea Party Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) announced his own super PAC rebuttal to Rove's, declaring that his effort would ‘support freedom-loving conservative alternatives’."

In addition, corporate political action committees (PACs) are continuing to direct contributions your way even though some Tea Party Republicans didn’t follow business concerns centered around the government shutdown.  “Business groups waged a fierce lobbying campaign last month to convince Republicans to re-open the government and raise the debt ceiling, but many of the most influential U.S. corporations have not cut off support to lawmakers who did not heed their appeal  in that instance.”  (CapitolHillBlue.org).  Political action committees of companies like Honeywell Inc. and Northrop Grumman continue to contribute to Republican lawmakers who defied the wishes of business.
 
Your stocking appears to be a “mixed bag” but what the heck; there is that little gift that could be here just in time to fill your stocking to over-flowing!  What’s is it?  Your Citizens United gift is about to quadruple.  If SCOTUS finds in favor of “Hobby Lobby,” you are going to have a hit against women, against (President) Obama, against Obamacare, but in support of “religious establishment.”  You can’t beat that – a home run and a walk-off victory!  If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Hobby Lobby’s CEO being able to avoid offering free contraceptives under their employee health plan because it‘s against his religious beliefs, then all four gifts are yours!
 
Now, of course, Right Wing-nut Republicans and conservative Republicans (sometimes referred to as RINOs) will have some gifts in common, including corporate PAC money, support of SCOTUS, and those very special gifts from Democrats—the sequester, all the unanswered lies and distortions about the Affordable Care Act, plus the omission (or extinction) of the public option in the ACA, the tortured rollout of the Healthcare website, and the over-promised ability to keep one’s health care plan if you like it (to say nothing about those third party TV ads against Obamacare!).

Otherwise, it’s again a mixed bag because the lousy pieces of coal are piling up:

--shut-down of the federal government that cost the economy $24 billion
--the acceptance of no action on major legislation as a virtue
--John Boehner’s lack of leadership
--Paul Ryan’s Medicare voucher program
--cave-ins to the NRA when polls showed voter support for banning assault weapons, closing background check loopholes, limiting ammunition clips
--No jobs bill; no infrastructure bills;
--twice threatened no raising of debt limit and no extension of unemployment compensation
--cutting Pell grants
--attack on women – no job equity; no choice on abortion; ultrasounds; 
--cuts to WIC, food stamps, and Head Start
--disbelief of scientific evidence as to global climate change (and everything else!)
--stalling on comprehensive immigration reform
--support for states voting to restrict labor rights and voting rights
--no reform of tax loopholes, subsidies, rebates, deductions, and tax breaks for rich individuals and corporations
--extension of tax breaks for the rich, and handouts for big conglomerates as in the latest farm bill

So what did ordinary folks like you and me wind up with in our stockings?  Not a lot, unless you count the first 2 years of the Obama administration when Democrats could get something through Congress. 
Here are some of the gifts that keep on giving from the Obama administration’s first term.  I am willing to bet that you forgot about some of these historic accomplishments that will show up in your stocking this year because their effects are on going.

  • Health care reform will cover 32 million uninsured citizens beginning in 2014; it will also cut health care cost growth which is the number one cause of our fiscal problems
  • The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 (Stimulus Bill) that has helped spur economic growth, produce millions of jobs, and lower unemployment to 7% from 10% +
  • The White House press office points to historical data showing falling deficits, as a percentage of gross domestic product, from 10.1 percent in 2009 to 7 percent in 2012.  That’s a 3.1 percentage point drop
  • Passed Wall Street Reform (Dodd-Frank bill) tightening capital requirements on large banks and other financial institutions
  • Ended the War in Iraq and brought the troops home
  • Drawdown of troops in Afghanistan; most combat troops have been brought home
  • Toppled Muammar Gaddafi; told Mubarak to leave office and tightened sanctions on Iran and brought them to the negotiating table
  • Eliminated Osama bin Laden and enough of al Qaeda’s leadership so as to cripple their terrorist capabilities and activities
  • Turned around the American Auto industry; out of $62 billion invested by government, expect that very little of that amount will remain un-reimbursed by the manufacturers to the government
  • Recapitalized Banks - got banks back on their feet through “stress tests” and private-public fund to buy their toxic assets with essentially zero cost to government
  • Kicked Banks out of the Federal Student Loan Program and expanded Pell Grant spending
  • Started $4.35 billion program of competitive grants to states to encourage and reward states for education reforms
  • Boosted fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks
  • A series of measures in 2010 and 2011 to help families hurt by recession, spur the economy through stimulus spending and extend unemployment insurance while also cutting payroll taxes
  • Increased support for Veterans and the VA; signed new G.I. Bill offering $78 billion in tuition assistance over next decade
  • Issued new EPA restrictions on mercury and toxic pollution creating the conditions for the closing of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants
  • Credit Card reforms
  • Improved food safety system
  • Achieved new START Treaty
  • Expanded National Service Programs such as AmeriCorps
  • Invested in renewable technology and research in smart grids, energy efficiency, electric cars, cleaner fuels
  • Cracked down on bad for-profit colleges
  • Improved school nutrition
  • Expanded hate crimes protections
  • Expanded health coverage for children
  • Expanded stem cell research

And guess what was put in your stocking while you slept during this last year of 2013?  Not all of this can be attributed solely to the Obama Administration as it took bipartisan support to get each passed, but certain positive provisions of the Acts were proposed or sought by the administration while some negative or restrictive provisions were included in order for each to be passed with Republican support.

American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 - (signed Jan. 2, 2013) - Amended the Internal Revenue Code to: (1) revise income tax rates for individual taxpayers whose taxable income is at or below the $400,000 threshold amount ($450,000 for married couples filing a joint return) and increased the rate to 39.6% for taxpayers whose taxable income exceeds the threshold, (2) set the threshold for the phase-out of personal tax exemptions and itemized deductions at $250,000 for individual taxpayers ($300,000 for married couples filing a joint return), and (3) increased the top marginal estate tax rate from 35% to 40%.  Increased the capital gains tax rate from 15% to 20% for taxpayers whose taxable income exceeds the $400,000 threshold amount.  (Sec. 103) Extends through 2017: (1) the American Opportunity tax credit, (2) the child tax credit, and (3) the increased earned income tax credit.  Makes permanent the disregard of tax refunds for determining eligibility for benefits or assistance under any federal program or state or local program financed in whole or in part with federal funds.

National Defense Authorization Act (signed Jan. 2, 2013) - includes some of the planned reductions in defense spending, but has at least $1.7 billion added by Congress to President Obama’s original request

Protect Our Kids Act of 2012 (signed Jan. 10, 2013) - Establishes the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities to: (1) study the use of child protective services and child welfare services to reduce fatalities from child abuse and neglect; (2) develop recommendations to reduce such fatalities for federal, state, and local agencies, and private sector and nonprofit organizations, including recommendations to implement a comprehensive national strategy for such purpose; and (3) develop guidelines for the type of information that should be tracked to improve interventions to prevent such fatalities

Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (signed Mar. 7, 2013) -
Enhancing Judicial and Law Enforcement Tools to Combat Violence Against Women such as expanding the availability of competent pro bono legal assistance.  Also provides grant funds for: (1) training programs in regard to domestic violence and sexual assaults; (2) developing best practices for responding to domestic violence and sexual assault crimes; (3) developing, implementing, or enhancing sexual assault nurse examiner programs and Sexual Assault Response Teams; (4) providing human immunodeficiency virus testing programs; and (5) identifying and inventorying backlogs of sexual assault evidence collection kits.

Reverse Mortgage Stabilization Act of 2013 (signed Aug. 10, 2013) - establishes additional requirements to improve the fiscal safety and soundness of the home equity conversion mortgage insurance program

Continuing Appropriations Act, 2014 (signed Oct. 17, 2013) - Made continuing appropriations for FY2014, and stopped the radical Republican’s government shutdown, but only until Jan. 15 2014.

FINALLY, let us not forget the wonderful gifts that keep filling the stockings of our richest individuals and corporations because the Republicans - both conservative RINOs and Tea Party types - keep passing laws to make sure that the .1% especially, and the additional affluent 1% of our citizenry continue to receive gifts from the federal (and other levels of) government in abundance.

--Big oil subsidies
--Tax breaks for the richest 1% such as accelerated depreciation
--When presented with legislation that would save over $2.5 billion dollars in energy costs, Republicans quickly defeated all such legislation, and instead voted in favor of the rich energy companies, keeping consumers paying for unwarranted expenses: failed to reduce the energy efficiency and renewable energy account by $1.45 billion; the construction and expansion account of nuclear energy by $514 million; fossil energy research and development account by $554 million
--Restrictions on wealth re-distribution by elimination or reduction of funding for all social programs like SNAP (food stamps), WIC, home repairs, Head Start, etc.
--Attacks on successful programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid
--Attacks on women’s rights and equity through health legislation, social programs and re-definitions of what constitutes violence against women
--Attacks on Labor and bargaining rights
--Increased attention to privatization of government programs - such as schools, prisons, military operations under the guise of “saving money”
--Increase in government no-bid contracts to private businesses and organizations whose political contributions have earned them special privileges and access
--There is strong evidence that being able to contribute monetarily to a political campaign correlates directly with having one’s views accepted and represented effectively, so watch for the further easing of any and all restrictions on contributions to candidates and on restriction of lobbying or gifts from lobbyists
--The Farm Bill will essentially benefit the rich food conglomerates instead of the average farmer.  As one NY Times article reminds us: a Farm Bill extension presents an opportunity to end direct subsidy payments, rein in crop insurance, and protect the programs that are critical to our national identity and benefit those who deserve it.  According to one reporter, “legislators could decide not to reauthorize direct payments and invest some of the savings in good programs while still hitting budget reduction targets.” The Congressional Budget Office reports that this action would save about $5 billion per year, far more than the proposed potential savings of cutting SNAP and other beneficial programs while enhancing crop insurance.

What we have here in our symbolic Christmas stockings is a portrayal of the wide Gulf, the Gap, the Chasm that exists in this country between the Liberals and the Conservatives; between the Left and the Right; between the Haves and the Have-Not's.  President Obama has done a magnificent job in attempting to close that ever-widening income gap, but the Party of NO has thwarted him at every turn.  The Party of Obstruction even dared to say that their main goal and priority at first was to see that Mr. Obama would ever remain a one-term President.  When that mantra was taken away, they seemed intent on destroying any legacy he might have from the many attempts at change and reform that he has undertaken; Affordable Healthcare being the main target.  The government shutdown debacle displayed, in no uncertain terms, that the radical Right has no compunctions about their actions on anything, while the Republicans of a more “progressive” bent, seem to have come to some sense of the “foolishness” of shutting down government, or of always refusing to offer some effort at bi-partisanship.  In fact, a bi-partisan budget deal just passed the House this past week by a majority that was somewhat overwhelming!  Has bi-partisanship made a triumphal return?  That’s doubtful as long-term problems have not been resolved, but perhaps a bit of sanity has stealthily entered the Chamber.

Make no mistake, the elections of November 2014 will mark a moment in the history of this country when we will benchmark progress that could lead to a better future, or, benchmark a regression that propels us backward in time to a period filled with robber barons, unsavory characters, political machines, and with many very poor and destitute people living in squalor and hunger.  It was a time of change just as it is today, when our government just wasn’t prepared or sometimes even aware of the sacrifices, changes, reforms, and adjustments in our attitudes, our thinking and our institutions that would have to be made.  We weren’t ready then; we aren’t ready now. 

We don’t seem able to comprehend the changes that are occurring:  the disappearance of the kinds of jobs we used to have that could last a lifetime with just a high school education; the number of people falling from the middle class into poverty; the number of working poor hanging on for dear life to the necessities of life.  We don’t even seem to recognize that our education system, our health care system, our capitalist system, our transportation system no longer measure up as the best in the world.  Nor do we fully recognize the changes being thrust upon us by a world economy, by technological advancements, by climate change, or by demands for resources like energy and water.  Our environment is slowly poisoning us, and we get cut-backs on research into the spread of  auto-immune-deficiency disorders.  Where do we think we are headed: to the 1850s or the 2050s? 

Check your political Christmas stocking.  There is something missing from many of those stockings -- jobs that pay well; jobs that pay everyone equally, and jobs that provide benefits necessary to a decent middle-class life.  The AFL-CIO reminds us of the one most important reason that this gift is missing.

President Obama “made substantial progress in dismantling the dangerous legacy left by President George W. Bush, and took many steps to put in place a truly progressive, pro-worker agenda.  Taking office during the worst economic downturn in a generation, Barack Obama took America from the brink of a second Great Depression by pressing Congress to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which saved or created 3.6 million jobs -- and he could have done more if not for the resistance from Republicans in Congress.  Recognizing that the ARRA had halted the collapse of our economy but had not been large enough to end the job crisis, in September 2011, President Obama proposed the American Jobs Act (AJA), which was designed to put hundreds of thousands of Americans back to work repairing our nation’s infrastructure, and provid(ing) a new round of state and local aid to help keep teachers, firefighters and other public workers on the job.  Most of the AJA fell victim to Republican filibusters.”

Of course there are many examples of the regressive nature of the Republicans in Congress already given in this Blog, but this Jobs Act sabotage by them points up for all to see where we are headed if voters in the 2014 election give a majority of either House to the Republicans.  An ideology built upon the premise that only the private sector should create jobs is a complete hindrance to the foundational principle that the public and private sectors must work together to create jobs, especially if those jobs are aimed at the re-vitalization of our entire infrastructure.  We missed an opportunity for economic recovery stimulus because the Republican Party favored political theory over economic necessity and community revitalization.  We must not allow them to take us any further down this back road to nowhere.

Again: Check your political Christmas stockings.  Unless you have been bamboozled, you must surely be able to tell the gifts from the coal -- the wheat from the chaff.    If so, then you must vow to influence everyone you can to throw out all the Republicans in 2014 who have demonstrated by their votes:

>that they favor deception, inaction and indifference;
>that they support -- and are supported by -- the richest of the rich and have wasted our tax dollars to make sure the rich prosper even in the worst of times;
>that they are incapable of preparing our country for a new century because they have no plan;  
>that we are being taken down the road to fantasyland, where all that glitters is not gold, where the realities of life are swept aside, and where what is reflected back to you by the bombastic light show is a sham

We are being “taken for a ride” to an unknown and unwelcoming place.  You must refuse to go along!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What Characterizes a Great Leader?

With the death of Nelson Mandela, we have lost more than a statesman. Yesterday, at his funeral, President Obama paid tribute to him in a speech that should be heard by many more than attended that funeral (see it here: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Obama's+eulogy+of+Mandela&FORM=VIRE3#view=detail&mid=D07D33D74D69F5EBBCA4D07D33D74D69F5EBBCA4 or read it here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/12/10/full-text-of-president-obama-s-eulogy-for-nelson-mandela.html).   President Obama hailed Mandela as “the last great liberator of the 20th century.”  Those words got me thinking about what makes a great leader like Nelson Mandela.

What may have been missed, or at least overshadowed, yesterday was Mandela’s early activity as a protestor.  Great leaders seem to have a sense of societal dysfunction at an early age, and they have the need to confront the power behind the many injustices that perpetuate inequality and injustice.  As early as his student years at Fort Hare University he was asked to leave (1939) because of his involvement in a boycott against university policies by the Students’ Representative Council.  Perhaps he was beginning to take seriously at about age 21, the meaning of his tribal name: “Rolihalah” -- “troublemaker. “  So, he moved to Johannesburg where he experienced the apartheid system that forbade the black population to vote, travel without permission, or to own land.  He worked as a guard at a mine and then as a clerk at a law firm.  By correspondence courses, he completed his degree at the University of South Africa and began to study law at the University of Witwatersrand in Alexandra.

After joining the African National Congress in 1943, along with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sislu, he helped form the Youth League of the ANC in 1944.  In 1952, at age 34, he opened the first black legal firm in South Africa, providing free or low-cost legal services to many South Africans who, because of their race, were without legal representation.   Mandela was prominent in 1952 in the ANC’s Defiance Campaign.  In 1955, the Freedom Charter adopted by the Congress of the People, called for equal rights and a program of anti-apartheid protest.  In 1956 on December 5th, he was accused, along with 155 other political activists, and charged with High Treason.  Following the High Treason Trials of 1956-61, he and all others were acquitted.  By 1960, he went into hiding and formed an underground military group advocating armed resistance and by 1961 was the leader of the newly formed Umkhontoat guerrilla movement.  He was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to five years in prison but escaped and went on the run.  On June 12, 1964, he was re-captured and convicted of sabotage and treason and sentenced to life imprisonment, initially at Robben Island where he would be kept for 18 years.  On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years of incarceration.  (Taken from a Timeline of his life at www.datesandevents.org).

He was a protester against the white power that crippled the nation and imprisoned his people.  He was a fighter against apartheid and against the regime that maintained that abomination. At one point, he was associated with the Communist Party, and, the political organization which he joined in his younger years - the African National Congress -- was listed as a terrorist group by the Reagan administration.  He was a prisoner because he disobeyed the unjust laws of the land under apartheid.   His restraint on the use of force against his enemies was admirable, but his acknowledgment of a need to use force was timely, and that is one of those virtues possessed by leaders: they understand the need for correct timing and for a strategic use of power, whether violent or non-violent.  He also understood the strength of symbolism  as well as the necessity of putting words into actions, and having them coincide. 

Being more than a statesman involves some characteristics that not everyone possesses. One of those is idealism.  One cannot be a great leader without a vision of what could be.  I suppose one could say that the achievement of that vision takes a lot of stubbornness as well.  But, I suspect, with great leaders, it is patience combined with a long-term view that is characteristic.  He knew that his agenda would not be achieved in the short term because he knew beyond doubt that his enemies, his allies, other nations, and he himself would have to change and influence change at the same time over a substantial period of time.

Prison for 27 years was just one more step in the process, albeit a difficult test of patience.  But, when he got out, he began pursuing his goals right away, just as though time had stood still.  As he himself said, prison provided much time for reflection and thinking.  It was a time of honing his goals and his strategies and his ideas.  Perhaps all great leaders experience a time of testing and honing of their plans and their skills.  When he emerged from prison at age 70, he was not the same man who went into prison.   He had learned greater patience.  He had learned to be more pragmatic in relation to his long-term vision.  He had learned to bless those who opposed him and even how to draw enemies to him, as he did with his own prison guard, and the former President of the South African Republic, F.W. de Klerk. He had learned to look inward- as President Obama said we all must do - to determine what he must become in order to achieve his vision of how things could be. 

However, what comes through most vividly to me is his understanding of the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.  As the spiritual and actual father of a new country, on the verge of civil war, he spoke and acted toward his former enemies and incarcerators with the attitude that hatred would be poisonous, that forgiveness and magnanimity would have healing power.  With lesser mortals, like those who hate, there is no understanding of what that hate does to an individual, a family, a neighborhood, a city, a country.  They do not understand the pernicious, cancerous nature of bigotry and hate that manifests itself in ways that are harmful to other people, and to themselves. For some reason, a psychological and spiritual blindness sets in that clouds perceptions and relationships.  Thus, all of their relationships, including their knowledge of themselves, become tainted and diminished.  Their words and actions betray them, for hatred and bigotry infect their lives and leave them without the human milk of kindness to guide their actions.  In contrast, great leaders seem to understand the concept of being bound together by mutual responsibility and interdependence.

It is healthy and good that South Africans combine celebration with the trappings of memorial and of mourning.  They emphasize, not so much the idea of loss, but the concept of “transition.”  The departed becomes an ancestor and an example for one’s own life.  Thus, the spirit of the departed lives on, not just in and through individuals, but within the community or society.  This is a concept which Americans could use in their inadequate approach to death as eternal loss.

Finally, there is that characteristic which is very difficult to define, but which all great leaders possess, or which is often attributed to them by admirers.  Charisma is defined in the dictionary as “a special quality of leadership that captures the popular imagination and inspires allegiance and devotion.”  It apparently consists of grace, beauty, kindness, charity, and “showing favor to.”  After hundreds of world leaders showed up yesterday at the funeral, one might take this as an indicator of the charismatic attractiveness of this man.

What can be said to those who want to denigrate the achievements of this father of his country – a man described as a combination of many of the great leaders of our own country and of the world – by concentrating solely on his being a communist sympathizer and a man listed by the Reagan administration as belonging to a terrorist organization (the African National Congress)?  We need to say very little.  His life said it all.  Their negative assessments speak volumes about their character.   Mandela himself would have refrained from negativity and shown them his grace and kindness as a response.  His character is what matters, and it now inspires devotion far beyond his beloved homeland.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Is “Hobby Lobby” About Crafts or Craftiness?

Why did the Pilgrims come to this country in the 17th century?  Why did the Puritans also make the arduous journey?  How about the Huguenots? 
They all came, as others still come, because of the fact that they were seen as dissidents in their native countries, worshipping illegally outside state-established structures and rituals.  In their background was the Protestant Reformation which split Europe along Catholic and Protestant lines, and which spawned a variety of groups who often suffered persecution for their beliefs and practices from both civil and religious authorities.  PBS.org reminds us that “This persecution varied widely from country to country, both in form and in the degree of severity. In some places, members of minority faiths resented paying taxes to support the established church and being forced to attend worship services; in other places, refusing to conform to the local religion meant death.”

While the New World offered an opportunity to worship without interference, some of the new religious communities denied that freedom to others because their beliefs and practices were different.  For example, New England Puritans banished, punished, and sometimes executed Quakers and other non-Puritans.    Banished from Puritan Massachusetts, Roger Williams founded Rhode Island in 1636 where he put into practice the concept that everyone should be free to worship according to his own conscience.  The new colony quickly became a haven for Quakers, Jews, and other "dissenters."

Just why do I mention this?  Because very soon the Supreme Court is going to be deciding a case that involves so-called “religious liberty.” That is, it will decide whether a company called “Hobby Lobby,” because its owners believe that contraception is against the will of God, has the ability to refuse to provide health care insurance plans that provide free contraceptives to its employees.  Because the Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandates that all health care plans shall provide free contraceptives, the company owners claim they must deny a tenet of their faith, and that the government is denying their right to religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
In my humble opinion, this is equivalent to one sect denying another their rights.  That is, if the Court finds in favor of the complainant, then the religious beliefs or practices of a sizable portion of the employees have been totally compromised.  This is what happens when specific religious beliefs or practices are allowed into the political arena to become determiners of public policy.  And, this is why the first amendment says what is so often overlooked.  PBS continues its narrative:
“In Europe, the Reformation led to a series of deadly and devastating wars of religion that brought even more refugees, like the Huguenots, to the colonies. The suffering caused by these European conflicts, as well as the intellectual advances of the 18th-century Enlightenment, led the founders of the United States to make freedom to worship the law of the land in the First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" [in other words, there would be no state-supported church, as in Britain]... And although the majority of Americans—then and now—profess Christianity, the new nation confirmed separation of church and state in a 1797 treaty with the Muslim state of Tripoli in North Africa, which stated, "The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

Several points need to be made here:
1)    The banning of legislation that would support establishment of a particular religion, seen as the primary clause in this amendment, and known as “the establishment clause,” is the portion most often overlooked.  This is the crux of the “religious freedom” that was being sought both by the early arrivals on these shores, and by the Founding Fathers.  The establishment of a state-approved and state-supported religion was the source of most of the punishments, harassments, exile and worse for those who fled here to escape.  It was also the basis of what the Enlightenment was teaching some of the Founders. 
2)    The second clause is suspiciously vague and more open-ended.  What it says, if you use the opening subject to make it clear is this:  “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise thereof (of religion).”  The subject once again is the state (Congress) and its law-making power.  The writer appears to want to insure that Congress will not pass laws that limit religious entities in their religious practices.
3)    “Free exercise of religion” is problematic in terms of interpretation. The exercise of religion was probably defined somewhat differently in the late 18th century than it is in today’s expanded understanding and definition, and so we summarize some thoughts set forth by Wikipedia on Enlightenment thinking.

The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) was a cultural movement of intellectuals beginning in the late 17th- and 18th-century Europe emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. Its purpose was to reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advance knowledge through the scientific method. Originating about 1650 to 1700, it was sparked by philosophers Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), John Locke (1632–1704), Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), Voltaire (1694–1778) and physicist Isaac Newton (1643–1727).

From Immanuel Kant's 1784 essay ‘Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?’ comes the thought that “Enlightenment was mankind's final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance." Bertrand Russell argues that many of the philosophical views, such as affinity for democracy against monarchy, originated among Protestants in the early 16th century to justify their desire to break away from the Pope and the Catholic Church.  Historian Jonathan Israel argues that until the 1650s Western civilization "was based on a largely shared core of faith, tradition and authority".  Up until this date most intellectual debates revolved around "confessional" issues - that is Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), or Anglican issues - and the main aim of these debates was to establish which bloc of faith ought to have the "monopoly of truth and a God-given title to authority".  After this date everything previously rooted in tradition was questioned and often replaced by new concepts in the light of philosophical reason.

After the second half of the 17th century and during the 18th century a "general process of rationalization and secularization set in which rapidly overthrew theology's age-old hegemony in the world of study".
This period saw the shaping of two distinct lines of enlightenment thought:  (1) the radical enlightenment, largely inspired by the one-substance philosophy of Spinoza, which in its political form adhered to: "democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state".  (2) the moderate enlightenment… like those in the writings of Descartes, John Locke, Isaac Newton or Christian Wolff, expressed some support for critical review and renewal of the old modes of thought, but in other parts sought reform and accommodation with the old systems of power and faith.
The Americans closely followed English and Scottish political ideas, as well as some French thinkers such as Montesquieu.   During the Enlightenment there was a great emphasis upon liberty, democracy, republicanism and religious tolerance. Attempts to reconcile science and religion resulted in a widespread rejection of prophecy, miracle and revealed religion - especially by Thomas Paine in "The Age of Reason" and by Thomas Jefferson in his short Jefferson Bible - from which all supernatural aspects were removed.  The Enlightenment comprised "many different paths, varying in time and geography, to the common goals of progress, of tolerance, and the removal of abuses in Church and state."

In light of this, it is important to understand that:
1) “religious freedom” is not always the same as the protection of the ’exercise’ of religious practice(s).  The first implies the freedom to allow any practice whatsoever, even if it is harmful to other people, while the second implies the protection of religious practice both to individuals and groups as long as those practices are kept separate from the conduct of government.
2) the Congress, as is true so often lately, is not doing its job of seeing to it that the protection of the ’exercise’ or practice of religion is kept within a wider context and that is, the non-establishment of religious practice of one denomination or religion over others.  Or put another way, the responsibility to allow “religious freedom” within the context of non-dominance over other religions.
3)  “Freedom” is defined as the absence of “undue restrictions and an opportunity to exercise one’s rights, powers, desires, beliefs, etc.  Similarly, “liberty” is defined as something opposed to an arbitrary or despotic government; as something exempt from external control, interference, regulation, etc.”     There is also contained within “freedom” the implication of having the power to determine ones’ or its own action(s); the condition of the will as the volitional instigator of human actions; thus, a facility of action or movement.

Freedom of religious practice would therefore imply that Congress must protect citizens from an arbitrary government control or interference with their practice of religion.  But it must also protect the right or opportunity to exercise one’s religious practices.  There is room here for protection from restraint and the granting of volition or opportunity, but not for freedom of religion in the sense of a government that favors religion in public life.

My thought: The Constitution is not pro-religion just because it restrains Congress from making any laws which disallow the free practice of religion.  Religions are allowed to exist in our country without being burdened with legislation that restricts the practice thereof.  The government itself cannot thereby be seen as pro-religion, because it must take a more hands-off stance in regard to religion.  That’s about all the “practice clause” does.  The “establishment clause” goes quite a bit further by putting a sizeable restriction on Congress’s ability to establish any religion as a state religion.  Subsequent SCOTUS rulings have clarified that to mean that Congress may not even pass laws that support or inculcate particular religious beliefs or practices within the public domain.  Thus, on both counts, the Congress or government must not take sides in regard to religion or religious practices.  It is not meant to be either pro-religion or anti-religion, but ’tolerant’ of a particular religion or practice, allowing the unfettered practice of religion as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others in the public domain.

In the present case of whether or not the owners of a business have the right to restrict the legally-based offering of contraceptive devices, within the content of a health plan, to their employees rubs up against these definitions, and raises some interesting questions: 
--Can those who believe in opposing contraception on the basis of belief in natural law, be allowed to force their religious beliefs upon others?
--Is this a religious practice, or a politically motivated scheme to bring about the acceptance of a religious belief by the government and the citizenry, thus supporting the establishment of one or more denomination’s religious “practice” or belief to the detriment of any other?
--Is the granting of exemptions from certain laws to certain denominations or groups, because of their religious beliefs, a legitimate procedure, or is it simply an excuse for getting around the establishment clause of the Constitution?  In other words, are Congress, the POTUS and the SCOTUS all involved in protecting certain tenets of certain denominations by exemptions rather than treating all equally (14th Amendment)?
--Is the “practice clause” referring to an individual right or to a right that is only applicable to a group that practices certain habitual, repetitive and customary rituals?
--Are we to believe that we have real ’non-establishment’ when we have Catholic Bishops and some evangelical preachers trying to dictate restrictions on abortions and the use of contraceptives? 
--Are we really protecting ourselves from an establishment of a state religion when we allow Christian symbols and stories to dominate our entire culture at Christmas time? 
--Can we say we are following the Constitution when certain states are allowed to dictate a curriculum in public schools that includes an interpretation of creation in other than scientific terms, by the use of religious myths?  What might be acceptable in terms of curriculum would be the teaching of a variety of mythical religious beliefs about creation, the Flood, the Garden of Eden, man’s place in the world, etc., as a means of comparing scientific with mythical explanations; a sort of comparative study of religious myths and scientific hypotheses or theories.  The one caveat would be that those myths ought to be widespread and not just Christian myths.  For instance, the Gilgamesh epic of the ancient Middle East is equally religious in terms of its mythical explanations, but is rarely taught in the schools that favor Creationism.

One thing that must be said is that the agreement of “all faiths” with a particular religious practice or action or belief is not tantamount to non-establishment of religion.  Why? Because the very act of an ecumenical prayer or ecumenical curriculum, or display of an acceptable common religious symbol in a public domain is equivalent to the establishment of a particular form of common-denominator religion and cannot be tolerated by citizens who do not agree with religious beliefs or practice.  Government must be particularly conscious of, and cautious about, any religious practice that is rendered non-denominational or ecumenical or non-offensive to all religions  (most likely, to those that just happen to be represented) and is touted as somehow acceptable as non-religious.  This is one very good reason why we must have the doctrine of “separation of church and state” to guide us.  We must because every religious practice or belief must be examined in depth when it is brought into the public arena in an attempt to make our government more religious, or the citizens of this country more devout.

A secular state, envisioned by the Enlightenment Deists who wrote much of our Constitution, is in danger of being consumed and swallowed whole by those who still believe that government should be Christian, or totally informed by Christian values or beliefs.  The idea that we are a “Christian nation” is abhorrent to many of our citizens, and reminds us too much of the state-supported religions of the Middle East.  We must be a nation dedicated to the non-establishment, or priority acclaim, of any one religion or group or belief system.  We must be a nation that protects opportunities for religious denominations and groups to worship, believe, and practice in their own way without interference by the government, but without allowing those same entities to think they have the freedom to impose their beliefs and practices on others.  The ideal situation would be for every religious and non-religious person and group to practice tolerance of others and to keep their own practices within the bounds of their own groups.  For example, if YOU don’t believe in the use of contraception, or in abortion for any reason, then live that out in your own life, but don’t try to force that belief on others.  Let the believers , the devotees, practice in their own sphere and not attempt to force their practices upon others through government entities or structures.  Religious liberty is most often threatened when religious adherents believe that it is their “sacred duty” to impose or evangelize or “educate” other people who do not share their beliefs or their practices.

We cannot allow the use of religious tenets and practices by religious devotees of any one faith or group to undermine our secular religion-neutral government.  It has gone too far toward an establishment of religion when the tenets or practices of any one or more religious groups can be the determining factor in legislating for the entire population.  Opposition to the law-of-the-land regarding abortion and contraception, along with support of prayer in public schools, prayer in Congress, prayer at public gatherings sponsored by government-funded entities, teaching of creationism in public school textbooks, displaying the Ten Commandments in courtrooms or on public buildings, are all examples of the slippery slope toward having an established religion supported by government. 

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of “Hobby Lobby” and supports them in their quest to undermine the perfectly legal provisions of the ACA in regard to contraception, then SCOTUS will have ruled in favor of an unfettered religious freedom for certain groups that undermines the establishment clause of the First Amendment, and which turns a law that shows no religious favoritism into one that does.  The Roman Catholic Church (and its evangelical imitators) have no right to establish their beliefs about contraception as the law of the land in terms of healthcare.  Their use of state legislatures to limit the number of weeks at which abortions may be performed under qualifying circumstances is another attempt to undermine the establishment clause as being contrary to their stated goal to overturn Roe vs. Wade and to establish their own tenets as the only ones acceptable in our society.

While we may have developed within the historic context of Judeo-Christian tradition, we are not a Christian nation, but a diverse nation of many beliefs, of many religions, and many religious, and non-religious, practices.  We cannot allow any of them to dictate our government’s stance on equal protection of the law, or on non-establishment or the non-prioritizing of religious beliefs and practices.  Being a secular government does not make us a nation opposed to religion; it makes us a nation protective of all religions, but un-devoted to any one form of belief, practice, or prayer. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

JFK and A New Vision

It is now Fifty years to the day that I stood outside St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ithaca, NY, and listened through the open door of a local taxi cab to the news on the cabbie’s radio.  I heard that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, but there was no confirmation of his condition.  After a time I proceeded, with some of the group with whom I had been in conference, to an Ithaca landmark where we heard of the death of our President. I was a young Episcopal clergyman - 25 years old -- married with one 4-month-old daughter.

I suppose the greatest single effect upon me personally of that event and its aftermath, was the fact that I went from being a Republican who had voted for Nixon in 1960 to being a confirmed and dedicated liberal progressive.  From that day forward, I have been a registered Democrat, a backer of liberal and progressive causes, and a man devoted to, what I consider, extremely important values.  I will not bore you further with personal reminiscences (unless they fit the narrative), but permit me to put forth some of those values for your consideration.

1)     I believe in government as the protector, defender and advocate for all of us, but mostly for those who are the most vulnerable in our society.  I believe that government embodies a political and social compact or contract that we are interconnected as people, and that we have a mutual responsibility to enable government (and the private sector) to act with “malice toward none and charity toward all.”

I have difficulty knowing how we got from this simple value to one that regards government as an enemy, as a usurper of power, as a denier of rights and liberty; as a great Satan.  But then, I remind myself that such viewpoints have been around since the pre-revolutionary days simply because distrust of the English government in the colonies was at fever pitch.  That fever has lasted and every once in awhile - as in the Civil War -- it breaks out into unhealthy modes that intend to destroy central government power once again.  We are living in the midst of one of those times.  We are engaged in another civil war, living in a country embattled on the political and social front, but not yet on the battlefield.  We, as a people, are being challenged by the negativity of the Far Right that wants to destroy most of the power of national government in favor of returning power to state governments and private enterprise, believing that will increase our freedom, our liberties, our prosperity and our strength as a nation.

However, the motives of humankind are never that pure.  At the base of this belief about government as the enemy is another belief that secretively holds that power must reside with those who are successful, meaning they own property, have a lot of money, the best education, and who are mainly white, Protestant and European in ancestry.  They are elitists who have little place in their value system for people of color, people of another language, or people who must depend on the rest of society for some support in life.  The elitists have no use for free-loaders or the irresponsible or those who do not control their own destinies.  The elitists call the “others” by various names, many of which we cannot use outright here: the “n” word, lazy, irresponsible, trash, free-loaders, undeserving, unwashed, uneducated. 

Their narrow view of the “worthy” of society mirrors their view of government for they see government as working to preserve what they believe and cherish and hold dear, not what anyone else values, because the “others” don’t count.  Indeed, that is why they have initiated the movement within so many states to deny the vote to some of these “other” constituencies, not just because the others tend to vote a Democratic ticket, but because the elite see those voters as being not worthy of the vote! 

On the other hand, the value that I have enunciated above, leads to a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  Our form of “representative democracy” should embody those words in all that it does, but it often fails to do so.  And when it does fail, you can wager that the simple value at the foundation of “representative democracy” has been forgotten or denied -- that all the people must be protected, defended, and provided for, not just ones we choose over others.

What goes into making such a democracy? Well, let’s start with a new citizen, either born or naturalized.  What do we want for all of them, and what should they have a right to from the moment of their birth as citizens of this great country?

2)    The right to speak out and to vote must not be infringed, but protected and expanded.

All those rights in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution must be protected by a strong central government.  To take one of those rights (2nd amendment right to own guns, for example) and to place it in opposition (or in higher priority) to the others is, at its core, a denial of the Constitution.  For example, to encourage passage of “stand your ground laws” that result in denial of the right of someone to be in a particular spot at a particular time is fundamentally a denial of his or her first amendment rights.  To deny the will of 2/3s of people polled, and to block legislation they favor--  such as limiting the sales of guns to minors, to persons with mental illness, or to felons;  expanding background checks for gun sales; limiting the number of rounds in an ammo clip -- is to potentially deny other persons their voice and their right to life and happiness, and to deny them their right to petition their government and their right to be fairly represented.

The Supreme Court (and other district) rulings of late have done much to undermine this fundamental value.  They have allowed elections to be fully undermined or compromised by money from unknown corporations and individuals in unaccounted amounts.  They have upheld “stand your ground” laws, as well as laws that limit affirmative action or which gut the voting rights act.  It is well known that this Court jumps to the tune of the NRA, the Radical Right and big corporations, but it is not in favor of the rights of the “others.”  When was the last time that this Court found in favor of the little guy?  When they allowed the mandates of the Affordable Care Act?  Maybe so, but they upheld it on the basis of a tax and not on the basis of a mandate, or better yet, a universal right.

This conservative Court has begun to tear down, in conjunction with this Congress, the fundamental principal or value that government is a blind-folded (impartial) protector, defender and advocate for all who need help in making a meaningful life for themselves.

The fundamental issue for me is not about restriction but about expansion.  When will we see a reform of the electoral process so that big money does not tilt elections?  When will we have non-partisan commissions drawing new congressional (and other) district lines ?  When will we restrict lobbying activities and anonymous gifts to office-holders?  When will we allow people to register and to vote in less restrictive ways, such as voting in different designated places within a specific time-frame rather than on just one weekday?  Can we encrypt voting to such an extent that we will ever allow voting online?  How about the Immigration and Naturalization department being made responsible for helping new citizens to understand and take advantage of the voting process?  There is so much we could do to expand voting rights and voting itself that it boggles the mind that the concern of the Right-wing is to restrict that right (on the basis of voting ‘fraud’ which is unsubstantiated).

3)    That new child, and that new citizen through naturalization, should have given to them at their point of entry to that status, a number of special insurances reserved to the citizens of this great country.

    I want every new citizen to be given:
        Ø guaranteed health care for life; with government as the single payer
        Ø a guaranteed public education, including college or vocational school
        Ø guaranteed access to nutritious food every day of life
        Ø guaranteed access to adequate shelter during times of special need or times of crisis
        Ø available jobs and job training sponsored by the public and private sectors together
        Ø a guaranteed government-sponsored pension (Social Security) with built-in COLAs

I can hear the cries of outrage already!  Where is all the money coming from to support those wild (“socialistic, communist-inspired, foolish“) ideas?  It comes, first of all, from right where it should emanate -- the tax system.  But, as I have indicated, the private sector has to also be a partner in these endeavors.  It is only right that private corporations and businesses give back to citizens who are  consumers of their goods, and who continue to put money into the coffers of all for-profit entities. 

A balanced and fair tax system, with the rich paying their fair share, will be able to support this program of American values without a lot of strain, as long as three things hold true:  1) the rich must pay their fair share;  2)  tax loopholes (which have made our tax system the largest source of welfare spending for the rich!), and not merely deductions, must be closed along with tax giveaways for rich corporations and individuals, and 3) those receiving benefits (including the rich and the poor), insofar as they are able, should be giving back to their community in some manner, either through established work locations, worship centers or service organizations.

Someone is bound to bring up that old saw about leaving the rich alone because they earned their wealth and their success; “the others” of the lesser classes should not be encouraged to believe they are “entitled” to any of it.  I am immediately reminded that  England and most of our European neighbors at one time or another in their histories had similar class elitism (and some still do) holding them back from building a viable middle class which could improve the effectiveness and prosperity of their economic and social engines.  For a group so concerned about resources, it is amazing how the elitists miss one of the most important points about resource management: inventors, entrepreneurs, catalysts, leaders, change agents, etc. exist in all classes.  Holding back others while advancing one’s own elite class, overwhelmingly restricts the pool of talent and resources and does not benefit the society as a whole.  In fact, so many resources are lost by this attitude that an upper crust is created; but “crustiness” is not the sign of a vibrant society. 

But what about the “cheaters?”  Oh yes, those cheaters; they seem to be everywhere-- like in the financial firms and the banks and the big retail stores and government contractors, and other large corporations!  So I would say in answer: let’s get rid of the corporate cheaters and scam artists who waste billions of dollars of taxpayer money, and then let’s go after the penny-ante thieves on food stamps or Medicaid that make off with a few thousand.  Perspective is a wonderful thing!  However, in spite of my sarcasm, I do admit that we can do a better job of government oversight of all contracts and programs (something I have spoken of before) -- including the use of ordinary citizens to advise, evaluate and even audit, the use of taxpayer money in every entity of government, including the Supreme Court! 

4)    I want government that is looking toward the future, always seeking to better our concept of government for the people, and to envision hope for a better nation and a better world.

In other words, government cannot limit itself  just to solving and resolving current problems and crises.  We must have the kind of government JFK brought to bear: a government that looks to the future and says “let us land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.”  We need a government that can look at a vulnerable population and ask what can we do to advance their lives.  We need a government that has a vision of the future and begins to act upon that vision, not just for ourselves but for the world at large.  We need a vision of hope like the Peace Corps.

We tend to make terrible decisions when we only look backward rather than forward; when we emphasize keeping the status quo rather than expanding our horizons; when we say we don’t have the money to fix our infrastructure or to find a cure for auto-immune diseases. We have always found the money for advances in military weapons systems; can we not do the same for research into disease?  One of the terrible decisions we are now making is to ignore climate change.  Not only do the negative detractors say that science cannot show that carbon emissions are affecting the climate, they believe that we can increase our use of fossil fuels, believing that profit from oil and gas drilled off-shore and in federal reserve lands is the way to advance our economy. 

Climate change is all about the future, and the necessity of developing new technologies to find alternate sources of energy and to find efficient ways to deliver that energy to homes and businesses; innovation is what future orientation is all about.  It doesn’t really matter if you believe the science, although that’s risky.  It matters that we ask ourselves: what does the future demand?  It demands innovation, efficiency and progress in the area of energy and energy delivery.  Oil and water are two of the earth’s resources that are not expanding.  Just on economical grounds, we need to find an alternative method for extracting natural gas, for instance.  We need more electric cars.  We must innovate or we will fall behind the other developed countries and end up begging for resources from a country like China or Russia.

But finally, I want to come back to where I started.  JFK inspired me personally to change my political orientation and to accept what had been brewing in my life for awhile: a vision of the world seen through the prism of progressivism.  Without delving further into what that has involved, let me talk with you briefly about something that has meant a great deal to me in my work life, and that is the concept of community service. I have spent my whole working life dedicated to that value and concept and now my retirement has also moved in that direction. 

Overtime, the concept of the Peace Corps developed into a myriad of community and national service programs and activities under government sponsorship.  In 1972,  I went to work for a Community Action agency and became something of a community organizer along the lines followed by our current President.  The concept of community service to solve societal problems by paid and un-paid volunteers is something that is not supported by everyone, but it goes to the heart of who we are as a nation.  That’s what the Peace Corps concept was all about.  We as a nation place a value on helping others, on teaching others to help themselves, on helping others find in themselves qualities that had not been acknowledged or recognized.  We value the concepts of  support, companionship, building relationships and strengthening communities.  We respond positively to the idea of making some sacrifice in order to give something to others because we know what it means to enjoy so many of life’s benefits in this country.

So where are we today?  The Peace Corps is not the bright light it was back then.  AmeriCorps and VISTA and Points of Light have all faded in their brilliance and in their effect.  The Senior Corps is still active, but we don’t have a Nancy Reagan writing a book about one of them!  Yet here we are in the midst of a recession that has hurt so many people.  Here we are in a desperate situation that tries our patience because Congress will not act to address real problems of the present or the future. 

I have written to the White House encouraging the President and his staff to think about the importance of providing a Vision of Hope in a situation where austerity seems to be our only thought.  We need a new Vision, something like a call for a Domestic Action Corps, or maybe a new “Rebuilding America” Corps  (or call it something else like the ‘Hope Brigade,’ or ‘Americans In Action’  or even “Organizing for America’) and fold into it all those Corporation for National and Community Service programs, like AmericaCorps and the Senior Corps programs.  Its Mission could be simple: to provide a conduit for American citizens to give back to their country and communities some of their own talents, experience and hope in order to enhance and rebuild institutions, and to support community efforts to aid those (still) struggling with their economic and social problems. 

Or, going in another direction, how about establishing a Movement dedicated to expansion of certain fundamental rights - like voting rights, civil rights, health care, minimum wage, social security benefits, number of college graduations, number of members of minorities going to college, amount of electricity being delivered to homes and businesses from alternate energy sources, etc.  Call it the “New Age of Expansion” and tie-in many ideas for expanding the rights and resources available to ordinary Americans. What a vision that would make!

Can a Movement that captures the imagination of the American people again be done?  It can, and it should.  The nay-saying Republicans have captured headlines long enough.  Let us show them that American volunteers, old & young, paid and unpaid, can be utilized to do what they will never do - resolve problems, prepare for the future, provide opportunities for work that are meaningful because of the needs being addressed.   Let us once again call our people to ask that fundamental question: what can I do for my country?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Affordable Care Act: In Proper Perspective

I’m sorry, did I miss something?  Tell me again why ObamaCare should be repealed?


1)  Because the website wasn’t ready?  That doesn’t wash, as the website has nothing to do with the healthcare provisions of the Act.  It does, however reflect on everyone involved in terms of management and executive coordination and oversight.  In my opinion, the people surrounding the President did not do their best in terms of keeping him informed.   The head of CMS did not alert the president, and Secretary Sibelius evidently didn’t get word to him either, about the glitches in the first test run of the website. What are these people doing sitting on such crucial information?

This makes me wonder:  what is the Chief of Staff up to?  I asked a group of active Democrats the other day if they could even name the COS.  No one knew who he is!  That is a problem. (His name, by the way, is Denis McDonough).  Just how well is the President being served by his department secretaries, office heads and others responsible for overseeing this administration, like his Chief of Staff and White House advisors?  
Whatever the situation, my reading is that there may be a culture of keeping information in one’s own agency; an understanding perhaps that the President expects agencies to handle things on their own.  Or maybe, it’s an environment of protecting a President even though such protection has led to vulnerability.  And what about that Chief of Staff?  Is he following up with department heads and other bureaucratic leaders, or does he concentrate on legislative liaison duties?  What is his part in building this culture; this environment?  How does he see his responsibility for getting information of a sensitive nature to the ears of the President?  Why did he not say to the President about 8 months before the roll out, you need to look into this?

According to Wikipedia, “A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said McDonough has played a key role in all of Obama’s major national security decisions in recent years, including the end of the war in Iraq, winding down the war in Afghanistan, responses to natural disasters in Haiti and Japan and repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay service members.  Earlier, McDonough worked as a foreign policy specialist in Congress, including as a senior foreign policy adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., before moving to Obama’s Senate office.”  Perhaps this is part of the problem: domestic affairs may not be getting the attention they deserve.

There is something telling about the fact that in a crisis, the President seems to be advised constantly to go out to the people and to engage in campaign-like rallies.  It is telling that there is much use of social media to propel forward what looks like campaign rhetoric.  Has anyone told the White House staff, and the President for that matter, that the campaign is over?  We are now in a management phase and that demands personas quite different from campaigners.  It demands attention to detail; attention to nuance, an attention to how things work, and an attention to consequences of actions taken.  This is part of the problem with the roll-out, it seems to me: not enough attention to management detail  and possible consequences.  More attention was paid to the need to get the product - the website - up and running.  Where’s David Axelrod when you need him most?

I want to put one other sobering thought forward for consideration.  The holdover of appointed and career bureaucrats from the Bush administration has not been helpful.  Congress is in large part responsible for that fact because they have delayed or refused to confirm many of President Obama’s appointees in a timely fashion.  That one factor can lead to chaos in departments and offices of the federal government.  I know, because I’ve seen and experienced it up close and personal in a federal agency that oversaw a large federal grant for the State of New York.  You cannot expect a new administration to act in accord with its own principles and policies when holdovers are reluctantly administering such policies and directives, and thus more prone to withhold vital information and actions specifically because of their divided loyalty.  A President cannot be fully responsible for the operation of government when loyalties are divided in persons who hold key positions, or in career civil servants who don’t make easy transitions from one administration to another. 

In other words, some of what we are seeing in terms of government “fumbling” or “bumbling” or “dropping the ball” may be because Congress has refused, and still refuses, to approve hundreds of nominees to give the President the people he needs to oversee the policies he has set forth for his administration.  It’s another method of sabotage that has been practiced by this radical Republican Congress.  It is not an excuse; it is a reality.

2)  Because private insurance companies decided to send cancellation letters to consumers?
In most of the letters, it was clearly stated that the cancellation or termination was made necessary by the Affordable Care Act, the implication being that “ObamaCare” was responsible for the termination of each individual’s plan.   Neither the ACA nor the President are the culprits here.  They didn’t tell the insurance companies to do what they did; the companies made their own decisions to terminate plans, and offer new ones, some at higher prices.  The insurance companies thereby managed to blame Obama for cancellation instead of being truthful with consumers about the need to add certain essential benefits to all policies as required by the new law.  They made it sound like their old policies were simply being terminated, instead of being clear that they had to be ended because they simply did not comply with the improvements and benefits now being offered under ObamaCare.  Nor did they indicate that replacement plans would contain the newly mandated upgrades.  Nor did they indicate the full range of alternatives for the consumer, including the ability to buy affordable care through a state or the national exchange.  The letters were a sham.

Thus, the insurance companies blindsided the President, blaming his signature piece of legislation for the need to get rid of the very policies many consumers thought they could keep because “the President promised they could keep their old policies.“  Unmentioned was the fact that the “junk policies” that these companies had been offering were now illegal because they do not meet the vastly improved standards of benefits that are now required!  The insurance companies willingly misled their policy-holders into thinking that ObamaCare (and the President himself) was responsible for cancelling their policies.  And therein lies a conundrum.

The insurance companies are the ones responsible for the systemic mess that had to be addressed.  They blamed the President for the termination of the very inadequate policies that created the need for reform.  In my estimation, they meant to exact some  revenge for his ACA that put them in a bind, and made them conform to beneficial practices for consumers.  Now they have gotten back at the President for changing the status quo that previously enabled them to make enormous profits off junk policies that were not adequate in the first place.  This was not insurance companies simply complying with the ACA.  If it had been, they would have singled out the Act as the reason for having to meet new REQUIREMENTS for coverage with an explanation of what new coverages were required and what items the old policies did not cover. 

Recent events have mollified the companies to some extent because it may just be that they stand to make some considerable profit in the year that has now been given to extend the old inadequate policies.  In the rush to hang on to their old policies, uninformed consumers may have made a bad choice.  Keeping those old junk plans may cost them, not only in terms of raised premiums, but in terms of their health care not being adequately covered in this next year.  In other words, the choice made to keep those old inadequate plans, absent the newly required benefits, rather than exploring the possibility of obtaining new and better plans offered in the marketplace exchanges (along with subsidies that make most of those better plans affordable), may be a boon to the insurers and a disaster for many consumers.

Kaiser Health News reports that some consumer advocates are saying that cancellations raise concerns that insurance companies may be targeting their most costly enrollees with these cancellation notices.  This may be the opportunity they have been looking for to push the most expensive of their enrollees into the marketplaces, thus purging their rolls of policyholders they no longer want to cover because of the cost to them.  For instance, two companies in Pennsylvania are reported to be cancelling so-called “guaranteed issue” policies which had been sold to customers who had pre-existing conditions when they signed up.  Insurers, of course, deny this, saying they are encouraging existing customers to enroll in their new plans.  But will they be at lower rates? 

Consumers who choose to stay with their old plans are indicating by their action that they trust the health insurance companies more than they trust the federal government.  That is the key to what radical Republicans want to see happen.  They want to erode confidence in government generally so they can continue to convince the ordinary citizen that nothing that is administered by government (especially national government) is worthy of consideration.  On that premise, they will lead uninformed voters to the debacle of no more government-run social security, Medicare, Medicaid, food programs, housing help or jobs programs. 

The private health insurance conglomerates are the same ones who were doing the following to screw-over as many consumers as possible:

--denying coverage on basis of a pre-existing condition
--stopping coverage when an acute illness or disease made its appearance
--setting lifetime caps on coverage and denying insurance after one reached the cap
--selling junk policies to people at high risk (and to some who weren’t) under cover of being ‘economical plans’ (just wait until an expensive procedure or catastrophic illness hits ---not covered!)
--denying women basic coverage for contraception; treated them as pre-existing conditions; made them pay more for same coverage given a man
--staying away from offering free preventive care
--producing the “donut hole” concept which made millions for drug companies, especially because the law prevents groups from bargaining for lower prices
--raising premium prices without offering increases in benefits

This is what some people want to go back to -- a system where private insurance companies can rip you off on a whim and you can’t do a thing about it.  “What fools these mortals be”.

3)  Because the Act itself is harmful to all American consumers?
When we as a people lose sight of what we are doing, there is usually a catastrophe in the making.  That’s where we stand right now, thanks to the Republican party.  They have so misled the citizenry on the supposed malevolence  of the Affordable Care Act, that most of the population think it is about to affect them, and is taking something good from them.  It does not!

--Take Seniors for example: they are, as a group, the most unaffected by the ACA, yet some of them are the first to complain about the horrors of ObamaCare.  They are mostly covered by Medicare and Medicaid, and the marketplace policies are not needed or available in their situations.

--Take employees of large companies for another example.  They are not affected by most of the Act because they are already covered by employee or union policies that are not being terminated, but improved as needed.

--Take all those on Medicaid and those who can be added to it now that the ACA has raised the maximum eligibility limits.  They will not be concerned with plans in the marketplace exchanges.

--For the 85% of those who already have health care insurance, in one form or the other, almost all of ObamaCare’s changes are already in place and operating smoothly.

--Even those 21 new Taxes are not going to affect most of us because most of them are applicable to high-income earners, large businesses, and the healthcare industry itself.  Only 0.2% of businesses have over 50 FTE employees and don’t already offer insurance to their full-time employees.  Only the top 3% of small businesses will have to pay the additional ObamaCare Medicare tax increase.  Besides, ObamaCare provides for $20 billion in tax credits for as many as 4 million small businesses to offset the cost of purchasing insurance on the Exchanges!   That individual fee you have to pay if you don’t have coverage by Jan. 1, 2014?  Exemptions are available, as is assistance, for those who can’t afford health insurance.

So, once again, let us say to those who have missed it somehow:   the individual mandate and use of the insurance marketplace only affect uninsured Americans, not the 85% already insured!!  Thus, anything said about “Obamacare” by the radical Republicans is pure baloney if applied to (all) “the American people!”  It applies only to a small percentage of the American people in terms of its most important function which is to provide coverage for the uninsured!

So, who are we primarily talking about?  We are talking about the 15% of uninsured citizens who have to find health care where they can, and who often end up in hospital emergency rooms where they must be treated at government expense, which means ultimately at taxpayer expense since we all foot the bill for this over-use of the emergency healthcare system.  Uninsured Americans cost our healthcare system an additional $49 billion each year.   What’s more, only 12% of uninsured families can afford to pay their hospital bills in full, and this includes some families making over $88 thousand a year!  These costs affect the rising costs of insurance premiums, but ObamaCare helps to reduce this dramatically (according to obamacarefacts.com).

So every time that a politician says that everyone will have to pay a fine, or higher taxes, or get caught in a government-run system, you are being bamboozled --made a fool of; treated like a baboon!!  It’s all a bunch of distortions and lies; just like those non-existent “death panels” that never materialized and never existed.  The fact is that the ACA was primarily aimed at the 40-50 million people in this country who have no healthcare coverage at all. 

The mandate that everyone be covered by adequate health insurance is not a question of government takeover, but of the procuring of a right for all, rather than a perpetuation of a privilege for those who can pay.  The fact is that ObamaCare does not replace private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid.  The ACA actually expands the affordability, quality and availability of private and public health insurance through consumer protections, industry regulations, subsidies, taxes, insurance exchanges and other reforms.  ObamaCare doesn’t regulate your health care; it regulates for-profit health insurance companies and gets rid of some of the worst practices of the for-profit health care insurance industry.  The individual mandate affects only those who have no insurance and the employer mandate in 2015 means that few larger employers who don’t, must now cover their full-time employees or pay a fee per employee (see Facts below). 

Let’s look at some revealing statistics just to gain a better perspective on this Act (see www.obamacarefacts.com):

--the current population of the United States is around 317 million people based on the 2010 census and other factors used by the Bureau of the Census to calculate this figure
--about 15% of Americans are uninsured, which is a little less than 50 million men, women and children
--the 101.5 million people already enrolled in government health programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and CHIP won’t need to use the marketplace
--the 170.9 million already covered by employer insurance won’t need to use the marketplace

--poor working families are the most likely to be uninsured
--in 2010, 16% of the uninsured were full-time workers or their dependents; that’s about 8 million people
--the primary reasons for Americans being uninsured are cost and job loss; about 60% of all personal bankruptcies in the U.S. are related to medical bills.

--in 2010, only 53.8% of private sector firms offered health insurance
--the “employer mandate” means by 2015 larger employers will have to insure their full-time employees and their families or pay a fee per employee.
--over half of uninsured Americans are small business owners, employees or their families.
--in 2013, American employers with 25 or fewer employees may receive tax breaks of up to 35%; in 2014, it increases to 50%.
--the number of uninsured has dropped every year since the ACA was signed into law; the rate of the uninsured decreased from 16.3% in 2010 to 15.7% in 2011 -- the biggest percentage drop since 1999 due to the ACA

--over 100 million Americans have already benefited from the new health care law because many of the provisions of the ACA have already been enacted; the rest start in 2013 and 2014 and will continue to roll out through 2022.
--More than 105 million people have accessed preventive services for free that had previously been subject to out-of-pocket costs, including yearly check-ups, immunizations, counseling and screenings, including two most widely used forms of preventive care: colonoscopies and mammograms.  In 2011 alone, ObamaCare helped around 86 million Americans use free preventive services that had previously been subject to co-pays or deductibles
--billions of dollars have been saved on prescription drugs by seniors who fell into the “donut hole” of Part D but who received discounts on the brand name and generic drugs they still needed and had to pay out-of-pocket
--47 million women not only have access to preventive services, but now they can’t be charged different rates than men pay.
--Over 15 million more men, women and children will be eligible for Medicaid in States that participate in Medicaid Expansion.  States that do implement ObamaCare’s Medicaid Expansion will receive billions in additional federal dollars.  States who opt-out not only lose that federal cash, but also deny health coverage to a significant portion of their poorest citizens.  Texas is a prime example:  in 2010, 25% of Texans didn’t have health insurance, which included 1,247,300 children.

--of the 23 million estimated to use the exchanges, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that 19  million will receive Tax Credits
--Due to tax credits and up-front assistance, Americans making less than 400% of the Federal Poverty Level (roughly $90 thousand for family of four) could see up to a 60% reduction in the cost of health insurance premiums
--6 in 10 Americans without health insurance can get a plan for under $100 per month through their State’s Health Insurance Marketplace
--there are three ways to save money on insurance plans through your State’s marketplace: advance premium tax credits which lower monthly premium costs, cost sharing subsidies which lower out-of-pocket expenses like co-pays and deductibles, and Medicaid which does both.

The largest health care crisis in this country right now is not the inexcusable botched roll-out of the national website for enrolling in ObamaCare.  It is not even the matter of the promise by President Obama that if you like your current healthcare plan, you can keep it, and the “fix” that followed.  It is not the recent policy termination letters from insurers.  Nor is it that  Republican legislation in the House (Upton bill) that passed with the support of 39 Democrats,  or even the President’s “fix” that allows insurers to extend certain existing plans until the start of 2015 when all plans will have to comply with the ACA.

Those are simply “bumps in the road” that all new major programs experience in both the public and private sectors!  NO, the crisis is what uninsured, or under-insured, people have to endure in their lives when they are not adequately covered.

The healthcare crises are the catastrophes faced by people like the 47 year-old truck driver in Oregon whose problem is a tumor in his bowel that went untreated because he couldn’t afford private insurance after his employer no longer offered that as a benefit.  This is the second patient his doctor has seen this year who put off getting medical attention because of lack of health insurance and as a result now has advanced colon cancer.  “It was heartbreaking to see the pain on his face,” his doctor said.  “It got me very angry with people who insist that Obamacare is a train wreck, when the real train wreck is what people are experiencing every day because they can’t afford care.  “Website problems are a nuisance,” he said.  “Life and death is when you need care and can’t afford to get it.”  These stories of catastrophe under the old system are widespread and voluminous, but we hear too little about them.

An article in the Nov. 17th edition of the NY Times tells us about an international survey released last week by the research organization, the Commonwealth Fund.  It reminds us of the inadequacies of our current health care system and why the changes put forth by ObamaCare are so necessary.  The report found that by virtually all measures of cost, access to care, and ease of dealing with insurance problems, Americans fared poorly compared with people in other advanced nations.   The survey covered 20,000 adults in the U.S. and 10 other industrial nations (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain) that have what we don’t: universal or near universal health care coverage.  Yet the U.S. spends far more than any of these countries on a per capita basis and as a percent of the national economy.


Put it all in perspective -- don’t be bamboozled by the side shows. As the NY Times concludes:  “The Affordable Care Act is needed to bring the dysfunctional American Health Care system up to levels achieved in other advanced nations.”   What’s more -- it’s already doing much of the job it was meant to do, and a turn-around in citizen support is on its way!