Friday, August 28, 2009

End of an Era

The death of Senator Ted Kennedy brings a political era to an end. It began in 1960 with the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as President. His election at the young age of 43 was heralded as a time for new hope. The era saw two of John’s brothers serving in the US Senate. The three Kennedy brothers were household names throughout the US and around the world.

Tragedy hit as John was assassinated in 1963 and Bobby in 1968. We all remembered where we were, what we were doing when we heard the news.

For 41 years, Ted continued to serve in the Senate and carry on as patriarch of the Kennedy family. Proud of his liberal politics, he was often a lightning rod for conservatives. Still, the strength of his warm personality won over many of his political foes in the Senate, some who became close friends of Ted.

For me, the greatest legacy of the Kennedy family is the dedication to public service. The family was very well off and Ted and his siblings could have done what wealthy people do – just make more money and enjoy a lavish lifestyle. But they didn’t. The three brothers went on to serve the public in elected office. Others, like their sister Eunice (founder of the Special Olympics) and nephew Joe (founder of the non-profit Citizens Energy), worked in the non-profit sector. Perhaps JFK summed up this dedication best in his inauguration speech when he said “Ask what you can do for your country.” Yes, the family did still live well off, but because they were given more, they gave more.

One of Ted’s shining traits was being there for those in need. No stranger to great personal loss, Ted would be the first to call his senate colleagues in time of illness or loss. He even personally called all families who lost a member on 9/11.

But now he is gone. He will be resting with his brothers in Arlington National Cemetery. While some members of the next generation of Kennedys serve in political office, the three most famous brothers have now passed on.

And for those of us who lived through their emergence on the national political scene, the era of the Kennedys has ended.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

More on Health Care Reform

The national debate on health care reform has provided the most entertainment in the political circuit since Sarah Palin’s debut last year, just about at this time.

We had the new version of the “do nothings” shouting down politicians and their fellow citizens alike at town hall meetings. We have the wild and crazy campaign of misinformation featuring the “death panels” who will decide who deserves treatment and who will be left to die. Other misinformation includes the idea that the government is taking over health care (therefore people would lose their existing coverage).

Perhaps most amusing is the right wing pundits comparing Pres. Obama to the Nazis. This last one is especially absurd if you recall the Arian supremacy plank of Nazism and happen to notice we now have an African American President.

Legitimate Concerns

There are some legitimate concerns about change. Many of us have good coverage at work and don’t want to see an end to this. (See my post on this topic.) Also, many like me have pre-existing conditions and may not be able to get coverage if we lost what we have.

So, there are many that have good or decent coverage who don’t want government messing with it. With this I agree.

Need for Reform

The basic need is simply the rising cost of health care. Not far behind this is the clear cross-subsidies where those covered are paying for those without insurance or those whose policy does not pay the full cost of insurance.

While many realize this problem, I’d say many are content to keep the status quo. After the recession and market fall, the rich and middle class are still risk adverse. Thus, even people who have rationally examined the issue are not open to change.

Basis of Proposals

As President Obama has explained, the idea is not to replace existing coverage, but rather to add a government program to compete with the private sector plans (e.g., employer plans, individual plans, group plans).

As a point of reference, today, there is a large, popular and successful federal government-run medical insurance program known as Medicare. This flies in the face of many of the arguments of adding another national program.

Possible Political Tactic

So, why all this opposition, particularly that organized by the right and by Republicans?

My theory is they are following the 1994 playbook. First, they put up a strong opposition to the Clinton health care reforms. Once this opposition was seeded in the populous, it was not long until this translated into widespread opposition of Clinton programs and then midterm victories for the Republicans.

As I see it, this full-court press on health care is not about health care. It’s a strategy to swing the American popular opinion from the Obama camp to the Republican camp, paving the way for Republican gains in the House and Senate in 2010.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Why Can't We Debate Health Care in a Civilized Fashion?

Why, in the greatest democracy in the free world, can't we have a civilized, intelligent discussion of a very important national issue?

There have been reports of disruptions of town hall forums on the topic of health care reform. The disruptors shout down any discussion that is attempted. These demonstrations have been focused on Democrat Congressmen, particularly those supportive of reforms.

Accompanying this school-yard type bullying are the propagation of misleading information and outright lies about proposed changes. For example, some false rumors say you can't keep your existing private insurance or that the proposal is a single payer system (whereas it's a government alternative to private insurance). Today, President Obama spoke out about this misinformation.

Perhaps worse is the rhetoric of Rush Linbaugh and his ilk, comparing the proposed changes to Nazi programs, even comparing the logo for the proposed health program to the Nazi swastika. Rachel Maddow recently reported on these outrageous comparisons.

But isn't it ironic that Rush Linbaugh and others are labeling the Obama health care proposals as "Nazi" inspired while supporting this "mob rule" tactic of shouting down all civilized discussion. But, which is the really fascist tactic? Obama proposing a program that will be debated in Congress and throughout the country --- or, protestors shouting down any discussion of the issue? Add to that the death and other violent threats against Congressmen. As a result, some of these representatives are canceling public appearances to discuss health care.

What happened to democracy, where all sides are free to make known their opinions on current events? Why do these protestors prevent other citizens from exercising their democratic rights to debate this issue? Oppression of the practice of democracy sounds like fascism!

If the opponents of Obama's program have good points to make, why can't they present them to the nation in a civilized manner? If they have important facts and strong arguments, why do they resort to schoolyard tactics of intimidation and bullying?

So, again I say why, in the greatest democracy in the free world, can't we have a civilized, intelligent discussion of this very important national issue?

We have to say NO! to the bullies shouting down discussion at town hall meetings!

We have to say NO! to those knowingly propagating outlandish false claims!

We have to say NO! to schoolyard antics of shouting down anyone who doesn't agree with you!

We have to say YES! to acting like adults and having a lively debate about the real issues.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Two American Women Released in North Korea: Good News of Bad?

After former President Bill Clinton visits North Korea, two American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, were released from prison.

The women were held for five months after their arrest on March 17th along North Korea's border with China. There were accused of entering the country illegally from China. The two were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. However, they were held in a guest house and not yet transferred to the labor camp when Kim Jong Il pardoned them. They returned to the US with President Clinton on August 5th.

Was this is a happy outcome of private diplomacy or did it provide a diplomatic coup for Kim Jong Il?

Clearly, the journalists and their families and many Americans rejoiced that the unjustly imprisoned pair were free. Personally, I was very happy to see them reunited with their families and friends.

But what about the cost? Did the visit of a former US President reward North Korea for becoming a nuclear state?

Did it open a possible avenue for diplomacy with this reclusive leader and rogue state?

Or was this a follow-up to Clinton’s agenda of opening dialog with North Korea?

Commentators have expressed a variety of opinions. Conservatives and some scholars of North Korea have pointed out that the visit of Clinton will be seen as a great victory for Kim Jong Il. The critics see this as a bad move.

Which Path Should We Take?
But, in my opinion, Kim Jong Il is not your typical rational leader who plays by the rules and can be influenced by sanctions, criticism or a hands-off approach. The “Axis of Evil” label meant nothing and the North went on to develop their nuclear capabilities without regard to the constant criticism of the Bush Administration. The Bush approach did not accomplish anything. Our hands may be “clean” by not giving in, but we gained nothing.

On the other hand, Clinton was considering dialog with the North. While that did not happen on his watch, he did have a long talk with Kim Jong Il. Many speculate that the discuss was on a broad range of issues.

Some will say the North Korean leader is evil and maybe a little short of working on all cylinders, so therefore we should not talk, or at least not talk without conditions. But, we can continue to never talk and the North will continue their nuclear program. What does that get us?

My opinion is sometimes it’s best to talk directly with the devil. Engagement can provide opportunities for leverage. Maybe policy gains can be made.

So, while I’m not overly optimistic for a significant change in actions and policy in North Korea. But, maybe this trip has opened an opportunity for dialog that may lead to better relations.

Monday, August 3, 2009

In the Case of Professor Gates

This national headline story unfolded mere blocks from my home.

Yep, just down the street from me, on a dark side street the other side of the high school, Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested for disorderly conduct. The details have been well reported in the media. And comments and analysis has been piled on from all sides.

So what can I add? Being near to home, I thought I should comment. But what to say? So, this will be my home town perspective on the "non-crime."

BTW—I’m calling it the “non-crime” as charges were dropped.

The Scene of the Non-Crime
First I walked past the house at night. Between the street light spacing and the canopy of the trees lining the street, it is exceptionally dark in from of the house.

Perhaps, if it were better lit, there might not have been a report of a crime. Many other residences in the area (see photo at right) have well-lit front doorways, and there would be less suspicion about what is going on. Seeing two men try to force a dark doorway off a dark street might cause many a person to call 911.

The Socioeconomics of the Scene of the Non-Crime
The Professor lives in the most prestigious zip code in our fair city of Cambridge. In 02138, single family homes begin at well over $1 million. To me, the scene of the non-crime involved real estate that could go for something in the $1 to $2 million range. This is socioeconomically distant from the neighborhoods with the higher percentages of minority residents.

So, here’s some questions:

  1. If two black men were forcing a door in a poor minority neighborhood, would it have been less likely that someone would have called the police?
  2. If two white men were forcing a door in a well-lit area of my middle class neighborhood, would someone first ask what’s going on before calling the police?

Here my thought is that the more wealthy the neighborhood, the more likely the call to the police.

The Socioeconomics Setting of Racial Profiling
At first one might expect more racial profiling to occur where minorities live. But is that true?

I’ve read that there are many incidents of citizen and/or police profiling in the richer non-minority communities. In these areas, there may be a greater assumption of “what are you doing here” when say a minority person (particularly a man) is seen in a very wealthy white neighborhood.

I’ve heard stories of minority municipal workers and others with legitimate business purposes stopped and questioned in some of the richer suburbs of Boston for little more than “working while being black.”

So here’s the irony: it’s a wealthy neighborhood, but this is the black man’s house. And it’s the owner that is being questioned.

Was It Racial Profiling?
This is the charged question and some will say “yes” and other will say “no.”

At first I suspected that the caller to 911 called because she could see the race of the men forcing the door. But she said she couldn’t tell, and having seen the lighting at the scene, I’d agree that it would be hard to determine skin color in the poor lighting.

Still, if you were Prof. Gates in your own home with the cops asking you to identify yourself, I think you’d be saying to yourself “This would not be happening if I were white!”

And then: “If this is happening to me, a Harvard professor, what is going on when police stop other black men who do not are not from such a privileged status?”

On the other side are the police who say they followed procedures. But do these procedures work?

Standard Operating Procedures Don’t Guarantee the Desired Outcome
Standard operating procedures (SOPs) can be a good thing in a business, in manufacturing or even in law enforcement. When there are so many possible choices, SOPs can narrow the range of decisions that need to be made.

Police SOPs can attempt to take prejudices out of the discretion that law enforcement officers have. In this case, it seems that Sgt. Crowley followed the proper procedures. In other words, there is no basis to criticize his actions.

But, we still had a controversial outcome.

The Irony of a Racial Confrontation in the Most Liberal City in Massachusetts
Some have pointed out of the irony of a racial incident in the most liberal city in Massachusetts. This is as though “liberal” or “progressive” meant “post-racial.”

So, perhaps there is an expectation that “this kind of thing doesn’t happen here.” Might this be a thought in Prof. Gates’ mind: “How can this be happening in Cambridge?” Maybe his anger was in part from the incredulity of the situation.

A couple of additional thoughts:

  1. Latent racism exists in even the most progressive communities and individuals (including me).

  2. Prejudice and segregation took longer to be routed out in “more liberal” northeast than in the “more conservative” south.
  3. The local politicians, though quite liberal, have been unusually reticent, restrained and balanced in their comments. While I had expected a strong outpouring in support of Prof. Gates and maybe the sacking of the police commissioner, instead, the local response has been quite mild.

My Conclusion
The bottom line for me is that this shouldn’t have happened.

Not that the police can be faulted for following procedures. But sometimes, the best outcome involves a little more discretion and a little less simply following standard procedures.

Though the professor may have been highly agitated and upset, my preferred outcome would have been for the police to leave him alone once his identity was determined.