Saturday, November 21, 2009

Potpourri or Hodgepodge Stew

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, November 19, 2009

Rather than revisiting the Health Care issue again, I decided that it might be a better idea to offer a collection of various observations that have occupied the synapses of my feeble mind during the past couple weeks. It will be up to you to decide whether this collection is a potpourri of sagacious thoughts or a hodgepodge stew of misguided meditations. I only ask that you take the time to read them carefully and I invite you to respond with your assessment.

First of all, we must take some time to analyze the results of the election held on November 3. I found it very interesting as I switched from one cable anchor to the next, during the broadcasting of the returns from that night; the same anchors who gleefully told us the ’08 election was the dawning of a new era in American thinking, and that Obama represented an unstoppable force of political energy that would usher in a wave of progressive sociological change. Some even went as far as to say time would soon be divided into the years B.O. (Before Obama) and A.O. (After Obama).

This year, however, these same anchors fell into line with the White House’s assessment that: “There really is nothing to see here, people. Just move along, now.” Well, I’m sorry, but I do think there is something to see here. I see a heavy investment of time, money and political capital (whatever that is) into three key contests that did not go as planned by the reigning party. Obama visited New Jersey and Virginia several times and Biden somehow found his way to the New York 23rd District, yet for all that effort they lost both governorships and only garnered 49% of the votes in the liberal congressional district.

Despite the insistence of the White House that this means nothing and the combined negligence of the mainstream media, I think you must agree with me that when an unknown CPA with the personality of a wet Fig Newton is able to come within 4% of defeating a liberal Democrat in a liberal district even after the Republican candidate dropped out and put her support behind the Democrat, it means something! When Obama makes the case that he needed to have Democrat governors in Virginia and New Jersey to keep his progressive ideals going forward and the voters respond to his pleas with deaf ears, it means something!

What it means to me is that after all the hype and hope for change, many voters seem to be saying that Obama’s force is not unstoppable and the wave of progressive sociological change may be only a ripple in the stream.

Another observation of the past week came to me as I watched our Attorney General tell the assembled reporters that he has decided to bring the terrorists who orchestrated the destruction of 9/11/01 back to the shores of New York City for a civilian trial. This was very disturbing to me as I considered all the ramifications of this decision. This could very easily become less a trial of the guilt or innocence of these vermin and more of a re-trial of the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism policy.

It serves no judicial or moral purpose to bring these creatures into a civilian court. It merely serves the political purpose of revisiting the successful campaign of Obama being the anti-Bush. The best case scenario given by most experts is that this trial would last months or possibly years as civilian lawyers hash and re-hash the interrogation techniques used by our CIA agents. There is also the real possibility this trial would invite another deadly terrorist attack upon NYC. Yet, this justice department assumes those risks to be worth the price if they can once again draw the line of difference between Obama and Bush.

Finally, I observed with pride the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. It was such a remarkable feeling to watch the film of those people who took down that barrier to freedom with screwdrivers, chunks of rock and bare hands. It made me aware, once again, of how blessed I am to live in this nation. It was the same feeling I had as I watched those Iraqi citizens holding up their purple fingers. Despite the many faults in our past, (and if you don’t know what those faults are, just ask Obama) one cannot dispute the fact that those purple fingers and that crumbled wall would not have been possible without the decisive actions of Reagan and Bush.

So, there you have it - my potpourri of jumbled thoughts, I welcome you to send me yours.

Searching for Meaning

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, November 19, 2009

It has been two weeks since the last edition of “All in the Family” and a few events of note have occurred politically and otherwise over that short span.

As humans we are meaning-makers. We strive in every aspect of our life to connect effects to causes. It is a natural predisposition to attempt to assign grand meaning and purpose to everything that occurs. Media and journalists are not only party to that same disposition, they often are the sources that many seek out when looking for the deeper meaning of something. This becomes a problem when it suits a certain agenda to impose a specific reasoning as the ultimate and true one.

Even before the election results were tallied on Tuesday, November 3, the off-year contests all over the country were being called a referendum on President Obama’s approval numbers by media personalities. The three races most closely examined hinged, it seemed, not on the character, qualifications or competence of the candidates involved but on the collective attitude of the country after nine months of the Obama administration, as if the entire nation shared a common pulse beat. Yes, it is true that millions of dollars and the energy of the President and his administration were spent in an effort to support the efforts of two gubernatorial candidates. Yes, that expenditure fell short of delivering Democrats victory in Virginia and New Jersey. However, as with every event these races did not occur in a vacuum. Other factors, including alleged corruption and negative smear campaigning were also at play. In fact, one should seriously question the value of our democratic (small “d”) system, if the viability and strength of individual candidates are negligible, and the politics of party are king.

I think such a perversion took place in the New York Congressional District 23 during the recent special election. When the Republican Party offered a candidate in Dede Scozzafava who failed to pass muster with a certain segment of the party’s base, the big guns were brought out. Controversial but widely popular personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin were enlisted to drive Scozzafava from the race and prop up Conservative candidate Doug Hoffman in an unsuccessful bid for the seat which had been held by Republicans for the last 16 years. The sad thing is that while most of the country (and even most of New York State) knew little about the candidates, save the bad press and bashing Scozzafava was receiving from Republican Party loyalists, folks all over were chiming in and speculating about the “importance” of the election.

No one knows how these contests would have played out in an environment unmarred by the tug-of-war of party politics. It is frustrating to me that so much energy is expended in win/lose team loyalty aggression that progress and change are dashed on the rocks of political peril.

Another milestone of the past couple of weeks was the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Meaning-makers on the right have long offered only one factor that led to 1989’s monumental event. According to some Ronald Reagan’s channeling of the biblical Joshua and speaking of the words “tear down this wall” were enough to shake its foundation and bring its collapse. It is interesting that many of the same people who now laud the power and influence of grassroots efforts deny this same spirit in East Berliners and attribute credit instead to a legend that far overshadows the actual man on whom it is based.

Another event that demanded the nation’s attention was the tragic shootings at Fort Hood, Texas. On November 5, I happened to be tuning in to a cable news channel when the first reports of the rampage broke. Over the next few hours, speculation abounded regarding the motivation behind such an act. Initial analysis focused on the unique stresses and distresses experienced by the men and women we send into harms way to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. This careful condemnation of the violence while expressing sensitivity to the plight of our servicemen and women held until the name of the gunman was released. As soon as an Arab-sounding name was released to the media, networks from Fox News to CNN began using the word terrorism. This easy connection between Arabs and terrorism (and between Muslims and terrorism) provided the only meaning many viewers needed. Many of those who were calling into television and radio talk shows were calling the tragedy a terrorist attack. Pundits and media personalities were demanding a declaration of the same by President Obama.

Was Nidal Malik Hasan a Muslim? Yes he was. Did he disapprove of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East? Yes he did. Did he express that disapproval on many occasions? Yes he did. Did he correspond with a cleric who espoused radical views? Yes he did. Was he a terrorist? Despite those who seek to define it as such because it reinforces easy prejudice, he was not. One must look past the convenient labels and accept that terrorism is the product of organized and sanctioned aggression aimed toward a stated agenda. Hasan is a disturbed man, convinced that he had been victimized because of his religious belief, and influenced by radicals. He committed a heinous crime.

Again there were other factors at work. We will always seek meaning within events. That is our human nature. However, we must look beyond the shallow surface and past the media’s spoon-fed reasoning to find true meaning.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Health Care Revolution

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, November 6, 2009

In light of the shouts and murmurs rising from Tea Parties and town hall meetings, I am afraid that the use of the term “revolution” may classify me as part of a certain breed who seeks to reclaim some idealized vision of America from the grips of those currently in power. However, I believe that any real relief from the current healthcare crisis will have its roots in revolutionary thinking.

The bills in the works now on Capitol Hill are the products of flawed process dressed up as democratic compromise. The problem is that the process is so corrupt that the only victory that comes of it may be a political one. After the bills are loaded up with amendments and stripped to rags by concessions, Congressional leaders and the president will be able to say they struck a blow for health care reform. Unfortunately, partisan opposition has failed those who are truly in need of health care relief by hindering and obstructing benevolent intentions and neutering the legislative process.

At the risk of being characterized as na├»ve, allow me to submit an idea I would like to see emerge from Congress. I’ll admit that this is not a unique idea, though its quick condemnation by opponents seems to suggest it is a queer and ludicrous invention.

I propose, as do many others before me, a single-payer plan that is the expansion of Medicare to be offered to all regardless of age. This plan should have an opt-out mechanism to offer choice, and to satisfy those who prefer pricey private insurance or the opportunity to gamble with their health. This plan would also be more legislatively efficient because it would simply require an outline of adjustments to the current Medicare structure.

Some will argue that Medicare is flawed with waste and excess. I would agree in part, but the current private system with its vicious denial of claims and coverage is a much more flawed and I would argue much less patient-friendly approach. In fact, an expanded Medicare network would have greater resources with which to address waste and fraud. The large numbers of medical experts and practitioners who have voiced their advocacy for a “Medicare-for-all” model, attest to their confidence in the quality and viability of the concept.

“But,” the critics will cry “how will we pay for all of this?” I would echo the ideas presented by dozens of experts and politicians (including President Obama): eliminating tax cuts for the wealthiest among us; and rolling back tax rates to pre-Reagan administration levels. Of course, this is the kind of talk that gets sneered at by Obama-bashers as socialist redistribution of wealth. Never mind that lopsided corporate favoritism has grown the wealth/poverty gap to embarrassing levels and essentially eradicated the middle class. It’s time to accept the fact that supply-side Reaganomics was only successful in fattening the supply side of the equation while never actually trickling down to feed the working class.

Up until now, though the obstructionist would label it socialist drivel, my ideal option is far from revolutionary. It expands a current structure to cover more needy Americans. It offers choice and liberty, while paying for itself by righting wrongs exacted against hard-working citizens.

We as common citizens are held hostage. The idea that we cannot hope for real reform because the medical industry represents one-sixth of our economy is an embarrassment and a travesty. Something as vital as attainable health care should be the banner for everyone who claims to value human life, yet we have collectively allowed this essential human service to become a for-profit commodity. We have allowed powerful insurance companies to have nearly unfettered influence in legislation that has direct impact on their interests. We have caved in to pressure by pharmaceutical corporations. We have offered our support to the corporate health care machine against our own interests. We have done so, largely, because of a misguided allegiance to an ideal called capitalism and a belief that somehow the free market will right all wrongs. We have clung to this belief despite the worsening state of our for-profit health system and our plight as its consumers.

Let’s reclaim health care from the grasp of greed. Let’s break the monopolistic stranglehold of private insurance corporations whose legal obligations rest with their shareholders not their stakeholders. Let’s allow physicians and providers to focus on quality of care and not the quantity of patients. Let’s reduce the influence of pharmaceutical companies and put decisions back in the hands of qualified doctors (not patients dazed by the incessant bombardment of advertising). Let’s make the Hippocratic Oath mean as much as the beat cop’s commitment to protect and serve, or the school teacher’s commitment to impact a student’s life.

This is revolutionary change but it requires active participation. We the People must stand up and demand the attention of those chosen to represent us.

Lighting a Candle Instead of Just Cursing the Darkness

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, November 6, 2009

It is easy to find fault with what we have seen so far of the Democrat Party’s proposed Health Care Reform Bill. As our loyal readers know, I have spent several columns pointing out the dangers of increased federal regulations and increased deficit spending surrounding the idea of a government-run and taxpayer-funded universal health plan. I feel that I must do more than just sit in the balcony and throw insults toward the stage. That is not conducive to constructive debate and only serves to polarize and anger those who disagree with my assessments.

Therefore, I am hereby lighting a few small candles and offering some alternative plans. I wish I could truthfully say that the plans below were all original thoughts by me, but I have to admit that (as if you need to be told this) I am not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, and it was only after reading the thoughts of many others who are pretty bright that I came up with the following suggestions.

One dangerous dark point in the House version that I have mentioned previously is the expanded role of the federal bureaucracy in our healthcare decision making. This would come in the form of a Federal Health Care Committee that would have unprecedented powers and no accountability to the electorate. This would mean that compensation rates to providers and tests and procedures available to patients would all have to be filtered through a distant and disconnected bureaucrat’s desktop.

One possible alternative to that darkness would be to hearken back to the words of our founders who saw the danger of a large, overreaching centralized government that was out of reach of the common citizen by both geographical distance and political accountability. They understood that increasing the power of the individual states was the best insurance against tyranny.

Therefore, I propose that we shift the responsibility of providing health care back to the states. We could essentially have 50 laboratories performing experiments rather than having one monopolistic laboratory trying to impose a one-size-fits-all solution to an issue that has proven to be so complex that it has already consumed tons of paper and months of negotiation and is still miles away from being solved.

I believe this could work because it has been tried on a small scale already. Massachusetts, Tennessee and Utah have each taken on this issue and while Tennessee and Massachusetts have not been glowing successes, they have at least provided the other states with valuable lessons. In the case of TennCare, the state of Tennessee offered a scaled-down version of the plan the Democrats are proposing, i.e. highly subsidized health care and restricted reimbursements for providers. As you might guess, that solution has since been abandoned.

Utah, on the other hand, is experimenting with a plan based upon defined-contribution and citizen-owned and citizen-controlled health insurance that increases portability as employees retain their policy as they move from job to job while it also increases patient responsibility for making healthy choices by offering incentives.

Another candle I would light would be to illuminate the proposal offered by four Republicans in Congress (and you thought they were only the ‘Party of NO’, right?); Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Richard Burr (R-NC), along with Representatives Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Devin Nunes (R-CA). They have authored a bill called the Patients’ Choice Act. The nutshell version of this bill is to re-direct a $300 billion tax subsidy – already being used to subsidize employment-based health insurance – back to individuals and families in the form of a $2,300 and $5,700 (respectively) tax credit or debit card (if they do not pay income tax due to low income). This would empower the individual to purchase her/his best plan and would set the insurance companies against each other in increased competition for those consumer dollars. This would automatically lead to lower prices.

Another candle would be to encourage employers to offer defined-contribution plans as opposed to defined-benefit plans. These would take the form of offering a set contribution from the employer to the employees who would then shop for the best plan. Rather than having the insurance company negotiate with one buyer, they would have to offer packages to multiple buyers. This again would foster true competition and choice. It would also encourage the employee to make healthy choices and give them true ownership of their policy.

One more candle has been lit by the Improving Health Care for All Americans Act (IHCAA) sponsored by John Shadegg (R-AZ). One proposal within this bill would allow group insurance to be offered through membership associations such as churches, civic groups and even alumni associations and trade associations. This would greatly increase competition and enable individuals who were self-employed, underemployed, unemployed or retired to get the benefit of group plans.

In conclusion, these are all candles that could be lit, but the sad fact is that the current political leadership in Washington has shut the door – both figuratively and literally – on any constructive debate from the opposition, hence the darkness continues to reign.

Affordable Health Care – the Sequel

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, October 23, 2009

Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water…Jaws II! I remember the ominous voice of the narrator from that movie trailer in the late 70’s. I, like many others, had experienced the terror of the first movie. My mind still carries the image of a sharpened dorsal fin breaking the surface of the water as organ music built to a crescendo. This image created a healthy fear that I carried with me each time I visited the beach.

Well, here we are with a very similar scenario. The first health care overhaul bill inspired many to get off their couches and to use their God-given right of free expression to voice their concerns and fears. Their voices were heard and Senator Baucus and company went back to the studio otherwise known as Capitol Hill and produced another movie that is just as frightening as the first. However, just as with the dreaded shark, we can only see the fin above the water at this point, because most of the details – i.e. the sharp teeth and crushing jaws – are below the surface.

Suffice it to say that the fin is enough to make most intelligent bathers head for the shore.

I downloaded and scanned through several pages of the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) report to Senator Baucus with their analysis of the long-term costs of the bill as it was presented to them. I was able to see, for example, the much publicized figure of $829 billion over ten years that it would add to the Federal deficit.

I was also able to read how the projected savings to the health care consumer would be accomplished. I felt a small shudder of fear when I read the details on page seven about how Medicare payments to hospitals and doctors would be reduced proportionately; because I read a small detail hidden below the surface in the third paragraph where the simple phrase: “These recommendations would go into effect immediately unless blocked by subsequent legislative action” lurks like the teeth and jaws of a great white shark. That simple phrase should be enough to tear the $829 billion figure apart and send it floating to the depths in a trail of scarlet, because we all know that “legislative action” almost always blocks real cuts in any government program. But wait, there’s more to come.

A more careful analysis of page four shows us another row of teeth when we read that state spending on Medicaid will increase by about $33 billion. Do I need to tell you where the states will get that money? Well, we all know it will come from the state income taxes and from the local municipalities who will get it from the property owners and businesses.

Hidden toward the end of the CBO analysis is the fact that the payments to doctors will increase during 2010 (hmmm…maybe it has something to do with Congressional elections?) and then they take a 25% reduction the following year. And each subsequent year, the payment rate will be set below the rate of inflation. Sounds like a recipe for reducing the number of doctors and the quality of care, to me.

The bill also includes penalties and excise taxes like the 40% excise tax on all high premium health care policies. This tax and the extra costs and liabilities thrust upon corporations would not occur in a vacuum. Extra taxes, fees and penalties always find their way into the prices paid by consumers. So, even if the CBO was completely accurate with their analysis and if our congressmen and congresswomen were able to restrain themselves from “blocking these reductions by subsequent legislative action” and our deficit only rose by the projected 829 billion dollars, this bill is still a fearful thing to swim around with.
It is a frightening thing because of the overall premise that it tends to perpetuate. That premise is the idea that if there is an inequity in our society, or if there is any unfulfilled need among our citizens, it automatically falls upon the federal government to step in and balance the inequities and meet every need. That was not the intent of our founders who studied the history of tyranny and foresaw the future in which the power of the federal government was limited and personal liberties were expanded. This bill is another example of legislation that would reverse those roles. Personal liberties would be limited and the power of the government would be expanded.

As we watch this bill and the House version swim their way through the legislative process, watch closely for the shadows that lurk beneath the surface.

The Doctrine of Fear

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, October 23, 2009

In her Hubbard Town Patriot column, published in the October 16 issue of Broader View Weekly, Sue Smith-Heavenrich mentioned that, according to a New York Times/CBS survey, two-thirds of Americans supported a single-payer health plan. She also called attention to the wording of that survey in contrast to others that yielded different results.

Words can wield enormous power. Especially when those words are charged with the emotion of fear, and are crafted in such a way as to inspire fear in those who would ordinarily not be fearful. More sinister yet are those who choose to ratchet the level of fear to higher and higher levels in order to manipulate people.

During a recent show, one of Rush Limbaugh’s listeners called in to ask a question. This low-income elderly woman (audibly frail) asked him what was going to happen to her husband and her when “Obamacare” passed and she couldn’t afford coverage. His feeble stab at explaining that as a Medicare recipient she wouldn’t lose her coverage had me suspecting that the pompous radio show host had an ounce of remorse for propagating lies. Then she asked what would happen when the government comes to take her car away because it is too old. “You’ll be screwed,” he told her. At the end of the call the woman was left with the reinforced fear that G-men were on their way to siege her property and deny her prescription drugs.

Now, I understand that Rush is not a journalist and as such has no accountability to the truth, nor to his audience, but only to an agenda. However, media personalities frequently blur the line between entertainment and journalism. Often, opinion is presented as fact and many play fast and loose with the facts in order to communicate a desired message. Folks like Limbaugh know that fear is the icing on the cake that helps craft effective communication of certain messages.

My brother Gordon’s column is another example of such fear mongering. The intention is to inspire enough fear in enough people that they will accept the status quo (even against their own interests) as long as it will defeat the “threat” posed by reform.

There are a couple of possible motivations behind attempts to cripple health care reform. Some individuals simply stand in opposition to anything with President Obama’s seal of approval stamped on it. Others are so concerned with the thought of making any sacrifice that might benefit someone else that they oppose it on principle and label it socialism. There are other reasons for opposition as well, but the one rising to the surface of late is fear.

Now, there are parallels between the Jaws movie series and the health care debate. As in the movies, the threat is imagined. Unfortunately, while close examination of the movie reveals the robotic machinations and rubberized skin of the shark in the film, the current illusion is harder to make out. Fear is spun of speculation about the impact of health care bills on the economy, the deficit and the quality of health services. This is especially troubling since the specifics of the bill that will reach Obama’s desk are yet to fully surface.

While the teeth of the health care monster may be as flimsy as the synthetic ones Chief Martin Brody faced, the fear generated by the opposition has real teeth. In fact, the public health option has been ripped to shreds by those peddling panic and may be dead in the water. And in the current volatile political climate, even proponents of viable solutions to the health care problem are paddling like mad toward the shore in order to save their Congressional seats.

Lost in the waves of hyperbole is a very real fear. Millions of uninsured and under-insured are paralyzed by it. A crippling distress prevents many from seeking treatment for sick children or addressing their own ailments, injuries and disease because there is a very real threat of economic devastation. Unfortunately, the S.O.S. signals sent out by the needy are drowned out by the din of the privileged, the wealthy and the insured. Those who are unencumbered by the weight of real fear seem to be those shouting the loudest at town hall meetings and demonstrations.

I am not standing in support of the Baucus health care plan. I’m concerned that those who most desperately need the benefits of reform will be denied under its provisions as well. I am saddened that the growing fear spread through the public by irresponsible media; and the growing fear infecting those who see their political careers in peril have already defeated the promise of health care reform.

We in the media should recognize the responsibility we have to the public. If we are perceived as journalists we have an obligation to inform. We must avoid shouting bumper sticker tirades and overshadowing facts with opinion. We must resist the temptation to use the easy tools of fear and manipulation. We must hold ourselves accountable.