TWiA explores the intersection of policy and politics, and most importantly, how that intersection affects real people. It's dedicated to the proposition that good government is possible, it matters, and taxpayers deserve nothing less. Its starting point is that facts are facts, science is real, data are real, and we can and must learn from history. Below you'll find facts and opinions that derive from fact, informed by a close and careful study of these issues that began in 1968 and has never stopped. Note, when we discuss generic "Democrats" and "Republicans" or "conservatives" and "liberals," etc., we're talking about elected officials, unless otherwise noted. Also, bonus bear news and other awesomeness. We appreciate comments and arguments, so please chime in, and if you like it, spread the word.
This Week in Health Care
The deadline for Affordable Care Act enrollment hit this week (although it was extended for people who tried to sign up but weren't able to complete the process), and, as predicted, the nation largely followed the Massachussetts example--aka, wait until the last minute.
On the last day, enrollment surged, bringing the total number of new enrollees past the 7 million the administration had hoped for from the beginning (and which the press and the law's opponents were convinced would never happen, particularly after the bad rollout). According to the best resource available, the invaluable ACA Signups.net, the total number of Americans who now have health insurance thanks to the ACA is somewhere between 14.6 and 22.1 million. Those are the raw numbers, and include people who previously had insurance but changed their plans (either willingly or because old plans were canceled), people who never had insurance, people under 26 who can now stay on their parents' plans, low-income people who have signed up for Medicaid in states where conservatives haven't blocked the expansion, etc. It doesn't include people who got insurance in some other way--through an employer, or on their own, but not through one of the exchanges, but those people will also benefit from the law's other provisions.
And the numbers of the enrolled will continue to grow. Medicaid doesn't have a specific enroll-by date, and it's still possible that other states will recognize the fiscal insanity of turning away billions of federal dollars, People who lose their insurance due to job changes or other qualifying life events can still sign up through the exchanges, and will. No longer will someone losing a job--and therefore facing a hard financial hit--but forced to buy insurance through the overpriced COBRA option, or go without.
If the law works as intended, it will mean that medical bankruptcies will (for those who take advantage of it) be a thing of the past. Lifetime and annual caps no longer exist. The prescription drug "donut hole" for seniors is shrinking fast. Insurance companies can no longer deny people with preexisting conditions, or charge women more for comparable policies just because they're women. The rising and unsustainable cost of health care to the nation will continue to be bent downward, and the deficit will be reduced.
There are, to be sure, two sides to the story. Some people are paying more, some are being taxed more, some will be unhappy with the policy they get (as if anybody ever was genuinely happy with an insurance policy). Problems will arise that weren't anticipated, as in any major piece of legislation. And some people, for purely ideological reasons, will continue to hate the law, just as they hate Social Security and Medicare. But the fact remains that it will make the lives of Americans more financially secure and allow people to obtain medical treatment they might not have been able to before, and those are good things.
In the most recent polling, the ACA is finally in the positive column, with 49% of Americans in favor and 48% opposed. Keep in mind that whenever these polls come out, once you break down the internal numbers, it turns out that some of the people "opposed" are those who don't think the law goes far enough, who still yearn for a public option. We admit to a certain kinship with those folks--inserting the profit motive between people and their doctors still seems like a bad idea, if the ultimate goal is a healthier, more productive society that doesn't have to worry about financial catastrophe because of medical bills. But we wouldn't categorize ourselves as opposed to the ACA. It's doing good things for a lot of Americans, and will continue to, no matter how many times (50+ and counting) House Republicans try to repeal it. Nonetheless, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R/OH) vows to continue trying to cancel the insurance of millions of Americans and return us all to the broken system of the past.
That's a waste of time and effort. Congressional Republicans should listen to conservative wonks (there are a few; their voices are just heard less often than those of the media and political-fringe gasbags) like Avik Roy and Ramesh Ponnuru, who understand that repeal just isn't happening (but still yearn for failure in other ways). The ACA is here to stay. It's time to make sure it does what it's intended to, for the good of us all.
Side Note 1: Sally Kohn looks at the question of the ACA from the point of view of the founding fathers, who, she argues, would be solidly in favor of it. She writes, in part, "In the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote, 'If men were angels, no government would be necessary.' In a nation—in our nation—the whole point is to balance individual self-interest with the common good. Doing so is not antithetical to our nation’s values but, in fact, the entire reason our nation was created in the first place. And believing that as Americans we all have a duty to do things that benefit our fellow citizens and our nation as a whole, isn’t just supporting President Obama and Obamacare. It’s also called patriotism."
Side Note 2: In case there's anyone out there who still believes the Hobby Lobby case currently before the Supreme Court (which we discussed last week) is really about deeply held religious beliefs, and not about an attempt to give businesses permission to ignore any law against which they can manufacture a seemingly religious argument, we offer this tidbit: Hobby Lobby's retirement plan has $73 million invested in companies that manufacture some of the same contraceptive drugs they're arguing before the court that they don't want their insurance plans to pay for. So they're fine with making money off those drugs, they just don't want their employees to benefit from them. Alternatively, although the law requires that corporations know what investments are in the retirement plans they provide, maybe they just weren't paying much attention there, because they were too busy micromanaging the insurance policies they provide.
This Week in Immigration
Not far from TWiA World Headquarters, a group of Catholic bishops (and one cardinal) celebrated a special border mass this week, on behalf of the nearly 6,000 immigrants who have died making the crossing from Mexico into the US since 1998. The bishops are making a tour of the border region to draw attention to the oft-forgotten fact that immigration is about people, not numbers--and they're calling on House Republicans to bring comprehensive immigration reform to the floor for a vote.
On the same day, a report in the New York Times revealed that Latinos in the US are becoming increasingly disenchanted with both major political parties, and feel betrayed by President Obama because his administration has stepped up deportations so dramatically. With no reform legislation passing through Congress and prominent Hispanics calling Obama the "deporter in chief," the traditional Democratic edge with that growing population segment is fading--bad news for Democrats approaching the 2014 midterm elections. (Thanks to TWiA special Catholicism correspondent Marcy Rockwell for the tip.)
This Week in Budgets
As President Obama did a few weeks ago, this week--on April Fool's Day, no less (the biggest joke is its title, the Path to Prosperity, when in fact it's the opposite)--Rep. Paul Ryan (R/WI) offered up a meaningless 2015 budget document. Ryan knows it's meaningless--he, along with Senator Patty Murray (D/WA) already negotiated and passed a budget for 2015. But he did it anyway, as the president did, not expecting it to supplant the existing budget agreement, but to lay out his party's vision for the country.
And what a bleak vision it is. It could hardly be otherwise. Ryan remains a dedicated Ayn Randian, and in her repugnant philosophy, a human being's worth, his or her moral value to society, is determined by how much wealth he or she can amass. The poor are therefore worthless, just drags on society (and it's their own fault, so we shouldn't try to help them).
In Ryan's imagined future, we would repeal the ACA, but somehow instead of increasing the deficit, as the Congressional Budget Office and other experts have determined repeal would do, returning to the old system of uncontrolled growth in health care costs would cut spending and cut the deficit. We would slash Medicaid dramatically. We would turn Medicare into a voucher system. We would cut the food stamp program and turn it over to the states in the form of block grants--because we as we know, the states are all equally good at providing for their citizenry in need. We would do away with any spending to address climate change. Ryan's been talking a lot about poverty lately, but he doesn't offer any new ideas to counter it. Instead, he offers new ways to take from those who can least afford it, in order to give more to those least in need.
He proposes cutting spending by more than $5 trillion over the next decade, and uses magical thinking to claim that doing so would somehow boost the economy. He is, in other words, basing his budget's "results" on economic performance that his budget would somehow generate (even though most economists know, and our nation's history proves, that his ideas would harm, not help, economic growth).
President Obama's not off the mark when he calls the Ryan plan a "Stinkburger" and a "Meanwich." Once again, we have to wonder how Ryan got a reputation as a numbers guy, or as any sort of serious thinker. This document, like those that have preceded it, is a work of fantasy, one that pretends his ideological goals actually make the economy work the way he wants it to, rather than the way it really does. Implementing this budget would be a disaster, particularly for the poor, about whom he feigns concern--but in the end, for all of us, as his America would be an impoverished one in which the 1% grew ever more removed from the masses at the bottom of the pile.
This Week in Jobs
By one measure--number of private sector jobs--we're back where we were before the recession started in 2008. Unfortunately, misguided austerity measures have meant we've lost far too many public sector jobs. And the private sector ones that have been created don't pay as well, on average, as those we lost. And the working-age population has grown since then. So by some measures, we're still behind. But progress is progress. We'll take what we can get.
This Week in Voting
Our current Supreme Court has apparently decided that it's been much to hard for millionaires and billionaires to influence elections, but too easy for people to vote. As a result, they ruled in favor of the oligarchy in their Citizens United v. FEC ruling, in favor of making racially discriminatory voting rules in Shelby County v. Holder, and this week, to gut most of what remains of campaign finance law in McCutcheon v. FEC, a case brought by a Republican Party donor and strongly supported by the party establishment. The result of this ruling will be make it easier for the very rich to spread their money around, drowning out the voices of small-dollar donors--you know, the rest of us. In this world view, money = speech.
Rick Hasen of the indispensable Election Law Blog, always a good resource for explaining these decisions, calls it a "subtly awful decision" that "promises more bad things to come for money in politics, and soon." And Harvard Law's Lawrence Lessig explains that the problem comes from the fact that the so-called "originalists" on the court abandon originalism when it suits them, while the liberals never employ it as they should.
We only have one tool left to use against this attack on the democratic system--we have to vote, conscientiously and armed with real information. Which, after this ruling, will be harder than ever to come by. One thing is certain, though--as more and more money is allowed to flood the political process, those dunning emails in your in-box will become ever more numerous.
Side Note: Coincidentally, on the same day the Roberts court naively narrowed the definition of political corruption to only one type--direct quid pro quo--the death of Charles Keating, Jr. was announced. Keating was a one-man argument in favor of campaign reform. When the Federal Home Loan Bank Board started cracking down on shady banking practices like those in which Keating specialized, he sicced five senators he had generously contributed to, including both of Arizona's [John McCain (R) and Dennis DeConcini (D)] on the board's chairman, who said they "came to me like lawyers arguing for a client." That chairman held firm. but he was soon replaced by a more flexible one, and Keating's savings and loan collapsed, leaving customers penniless and costing taxpayers $3.4 billion. In Keating's own words, at the height of the scandal "One question, among many raised in recent weeks, had to do with whether my financial support in any way influenced several political figures to take up my cause. I want to say in the most forceful way I can: I certainly hope so." Individuals buying influence is not necessarily quid pro quo, but it can have disastrous results for real people.
This Week in Victimhood
One can hardly talk about money in politics, in the modern era, without raising the specter of the Koch brothers, who inherited a huge fossil fuels-derived fortune and are so committed to the American way that they believe any American who inherits a huge fortune should enjoy the fruits of citizenship. More and more over the past few years, the Kochs have been spreading their money around, funding politicians, causes public and obscure (sometimes really obscure), and various organizations, "grassroots" and otherwise, designed primarily to limit government interference in the businesses they run (which, naturally, makes one wonder what it is they're trying to hide). The more active they become, the more infamous they are.
But now Charles Koch has had it. Having immense wealth and power isn't enough; he wants to be liked. With equal parts imagination, self-pity, and socio-historical blindness, he has composed an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that might better have run in The Onion. This man, who has profited enormously from the country into which he was born, has decided he doesn't much like it anymore. "Unfortunately, the fundamental concepts of dignity, respect, equality before the law and personal freedom are under attack by the nation's own government." He does not, of course, provide any examples of said attacks, because the statement is nonsense, the kind of conservative buzz words his minions at Americans for Prosperity throw around without understanding what they're saying.
Then he descends further into self-parody: "Instead of encouraging free and open debate, collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.) This is the approach that Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century, that Saul Alinsky famously advocated in the 20th, and that so many despots have infamously practiced. Such tactics are the antithesis of what is required for a free society—and a telltale sign that the collectivists do not have good answers."
Let's unpack that paragraph just a little. What he's saying here is that people who criticize him and the influence he's buying with his inherited wealth are not engaging in "free and open debate," but are in fact practicing character assassination. Left unsaid is the corollary that anything he and his supporters say about their political opponents must be that "free and open debate," regardless of how dishonest it is.
He apparently knows little to nothing about Saul Alinsky, whose good name has been muddied, by decades of right-wing attacks, into nothing more than another buzz word. Alinsky was a community organizer and civil rights activist whose opinions don't sound that different from Mr. Koch's (albeit they're stated without Koch's "woe is me" attitude. Alinsky said, "My only fixed truth is a belief in people, a conviction that if people have the opportunity to act freely and the power to control their own destinies, they’ll generally reach the right decisions.” It's hard to see what Koch objects to there, unless it's the implied definition of "people" as "those who didn't inherit vast wealth." (As for the email your crazy uncle sent you about Alinsky's "Rules" that President Obama is following to the letter, that's as nuts as the rest of what your uncle sends you.)
Koch dodges (barely) the trap other billionaires have fallen into lately, of comparing those who disagree with their political leanings to Nazis (a trend Josh Marshall explores in vivid, fascinating detail here; read it). Instead, he uses the slightly less loaded word "despots." Coming from the plutocracy, he insists, calling one's critics "despots" isn't character assassination. We mere, scuttling mortals are not supposed to speak ill of him, but to lap up every measly morsel of verbiage with which he favors us from his cloudswept heights--even when they're rank insults. Koch wants to (and does) control politicians, control special interest groups, and shush those who disagree with him--just who's the would-be despot, here?
We're sorry you're not liked, Charlie. We wish we could say we like you, we really like you...but no. That would be untrue. And--apparently unlike you--we take pride in honest discussion.
This Week in Torture
When the Bush/Cheney administration greenlighted torture as a tool of American national security policy, many of us objected. We wanted America to represent the best in human achievement, not the worst. We didn't think torture was an effective tool, and we feared that for us to use it on others would open the floodgates for others to use it on us.
This week, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a long-awaited report on that torture, and its conclusions are, to use Senator John McCain's (R/AZ) word, "Chilling." (Note: McCain called it that before he read it; nonetheless, his terminology can't be argued with).
One of the report's key findings, according to the Washington Post: "Officials said millions of records make clear that the CIA’s ability to obtain the most valuable intelligence against al-Qaeda — including tips that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 — had little, if anything, to do with 'enhanced interrogation techniques.'”
Just last week, former Vice President Dick Cheney, talking about this torture, said, "If I would have to do it all over again, I would. The results speak for themselves.”
We're more inclined to agree with the summation of Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones, who says, "So the torture was even worse than we thought; it produced very little in the way of actionable intelligence; and the CIA lied about this in order to preserve its ability to torture prisoners.
"Anybody who isn't sickened by this needs to take very long, very deep look into their souls. For myself, I think I'll go take a shower now."
This Week in Gun Safety
We have little to say about this week's Fort Hood shooting, except to express our sorrow for the victims, their families, and the entire Army community there. But we do feel compelled to offer two notes.
First, we'll point out, to those who claim that the situation could have been improved by having more people carrying concealed weapons on base, that that's idiocy not remotely supported by history. Specialist Lopez was stopped--as almost every mass shooter who's stopped mid-spree is--by a trained, uniformed police officer.
Second, we've written extensively about the link between mental illness and mass shootings. That's obviously at play here as well, but many in the media are too quick to make the "Rambo" connection, or to play up the PTSD angle. PTSD is real, it's serious, and it does not, by itself, turn otherwise sane individuals into murderers. We're still learning about Lopez, but it's unlikely his self-diagnosed PTSD played much of a role, if any, in his deadly actions. For the real story on the mental health struggles of returning veterans, read the Washington Post's special report, A Legacy of Pain and Pride. It's more than worth your time.
Side Note: The president's reaction, upon hearing the news.
This Week in Arizona
TWiA's home state of Arizona has a reputation for being sometimes ridiculously right-wing. Here's a good, comprehensive analysis of how we earned that reputation--and more importantly, how we might go about shedding it.
And Arizona's failing our children, when it comes to education. In the long run, that's not just bad for the kids, it's bad for the state. (Thanks to TWiA special schools correspondent Maryelizabeth Hart for the tip.)
This Week in Ideology
Contrary to established science, Democrats tend to believe that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) pose health or environmental threats (others, although the essay cited here doesn't mention it, think the issue surrounding GMOs is corporate ownership of agriculture). Contrary to established science, Republicans don't believe that climate change is a threat. In both cases, science is right, but partisan ideology prevents large swaths of the population from accepting it. We here at TWiA World Headquarters think people should pay more attention to science, and less to partisan echo chambers.
A thematically related piece argues that the House Science Committee is, more and more (under leadership from both parties) turning to industry "experts" instead of scientists, and using science more as a political football than as something knowable and quantifiable.
"We’ve lived through politicized disputes about the science linking industrial emissions to ozone depletion and acid rain, smoking to lung disease and asbestos exposure to cancer. Thankfully, misleading arguments over established science on these topics are no longer a dominant part of our public policy debates. But politicized disagreements about science persist, whether it’s on established science linking heat-trapping emissions to climate change, the strong evidence base that shows vaccines are helpful — not harmful — to childhood health, and emerging science on the water and air pollution risks that can come with the construction of new hydraulic fracturing operations."
The piece concludes with this: "American science and American democracy work best when they work together. It’s long past time scientists and policymakers both got back to working together productively on issues that affect our lives, our well-being, and the prosperity of future generations."
We couldn't agree more.
This Week in Institutional Knowledge
A lot of Americans think term-limiting politicians is a good idea. We're not in that camp. It takes time to learn the ins and outs of crafting legislation, of cooperation, of governance, and to gain seniority. Shutting out "professional" politicians in favor of amateurs leaves the door open to people who want to get in, pass some legislation designed to enrich themselves, and get out. Our politicians are accountable to voters, and that's how they should be term-limited--either they keep their job because the voters believe they're doing good work, or they decide to get out, or they get voted out.
As an example of the harm term limits could do, look at Michigan. This year, four of that state's long-serving members of Congress are stepping down: Senator Carl Levin (D) and Reps. John Dingell (D), Mike Rogers (R), and Dave Camp (R). When those men retire, Congress loses 130 years of institutional knowledge. Michigan loses seniority positions on important committees. The state's influence in Congress will be severely depleted, and Congress will be weaker for having lost people with so much hard-earned experience. In this case, they've all voluntarily ended their political careers. How much worse would it have been if they'd never been allowed to serve so long, because we let blanket legislative restrictions take the place of voters' opinions?
This Week in How You Can Help
Since the conservatives on SCOTUS seem determined to make dollars speak louder than votes in our election process, consider donating some time and/or money to a nonpartisan organization devoted to protecting voting rights in America: Project Vote.
This Week in Bears
Yogi was right; bears really do enjoy picnics.
And not in America, but too strange to pass up: the French artist who will live inside a bear for two weeks. Now that's art.