Thursday, July 30, 2015

Half Century – Half Measure?

Last November I turned fifty. In a burst of youthful energy I jetted to the West Coast for a party and back to the East Coast for a celebration all in a 24-hour period. Sure it’s just a number, but milestones are opportunities to look back and to look forward. Today, July 30, marks another half century milestone – the anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid. Like me, it’s showing its age and needs some fine tuning.

President Johnson said at the bill signing: “No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years. No longer will young families see their own incomes, and their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents, and to their uncles, and their aunts."

Despite the noble goal, according to CNBC medical bills are the number one cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. “Even outside of bankruptcy, about 56 million adults—more than 20 percent of the population between the ages of 19 and 64—will still struggle with health-care-related bills.”

The report continues: “15 million people will deplete their savings to cover medical bills. Another 10 million will be unable to pay for necessities such as rent, food and utilities because of those bills.”

Today one in three Americans are covered by the program. It pays for nearly half of U.S. births and a little over half of the nation's nursing home bill. 3 out of 4 poor children are enrolled.

Over the past 50 years Medicare / Medicaid has cost hundreds of billions of dollars. It went from a small percentage of the federal budget to 23% today according to The Kaiser Family Foundation. It is funded by payroll taxes and fees charged for services. There is a gap between revenue and costs – with solvency at risk in 2030 (right around the time I’d be eligible for the program.)

There are plenty of examples of waste, fraud and abuse that are infuriating – and only 5% of the claims are ever audited. It’s also a program that many studies show is less efficient than private insurance, though its administrative costs are lower. (Private insurance can mitigate their costs by refusing claims, while the government program has a different mandate.) It grows at a pace that far exceeds inflation. It has an unfunded mandate of nearly $40 trillion.

Thanks to Roosevelt’s New Deal from the 30’s and a half century of Johnson’s Great Society programs, American’s historic support of allowing the private sector to sort out services has given way to having government be the answer. Medicare/Medicaid are now Entitlement programs because the citizens have been trained that the government will provide these services. The battle has been lost.

My family has directly benefited from these programs. I’ve experienced the extraordinary relief of having medical care provided a loved one who otherwise would be in pain and discomfort thanks to the Government. I’ve also been frustrated and outraged at working in a bureaucratic morass where paperwork is more important than people.

My 50th birthday wasn’t one of those moments where I looked and saw what I hadn’t done. Instead it was a time to celebrate what I have been blessed to have and recommit myself to what more I want in my remaining years. It’s time to fine-tune - make sure all is working in sync. Since Medicare/Medicaid is now the essential government provider of health care – perhaps it’s time to move from being a half-measure to providing Medicare for all. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

My God is MINE

Last month I had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land of Israel. The trip allowed for a very quick skim-through of Jerusalem. It’s a place where I could spend weeks absorbing the history, the architecture and the religious significance of the land. Circumstances were such that instead I got a preview – a few hours to get a sense of things. I remarked during the trip that this was like sightseeing on a cruise – a good sampler to learn where I want to come back and really delve in. I returned stateside to my worship community, glad to be back after having missed a number of weeks due to travel. The ritual in the service is one of the elements that resonates with me – that no matter what else is happening or wherever I’m participating in the service (spiritually or geographically) – that there is a constant of the service. I was not expecting to experience the service differently – why would it be any different? As the blessings and prayers were being said all of a sudden the impact of the ritual was deeper and more resonant for me because I had physically been where Jesus had. This reaction came after my brief visit. I can only imagine what it would be like after a real immersion. This moment reinforces how personal my God is to me, so I’m particularly troubled when I see God is bandied about as a political issue.

Gov. Bobby Jindal is one now 16 candidates vying for the 2016 GOP nomination.  Raised Hindu, he is a fundamentalist Christian who invokes religion on an evangelical basis. In January 2015 at a prayer rally he said: “We need a spiritual revival to fix what ails our country. It is like God has given us the book of life. He doesn’t let us see the pages for today and tomorrow. He doesn’t promise us everything will go the way you want, but he does let you see the last page of the book of life — and on the last page, our God wins.”

In North Carolina “In God We Trust” is being added to 33 government buildings. Advocates inform their opponents that the expression is the National motto and therefore is fine to use.

July 30, 1956 – just about 59 years ago – Congress passed a resolution and President Eisenhower signed it making “In God We Trust” the national motto. In 2006 on the 50th Anniversary of the adoption of the motto the Senate reaffirmed it as the official motto of the U.S.

The ACLU and other rights groups have failed in their attempts to keep government buildings, courthouses, money, etc. devoid of a reference to a generic God. The rulings have repeatedly stated that by having God mentioned in a statement on a building doesn’t “establish” or “endorse” a particular religious and therefore is allowed. One’s definition of God can be applied – it’s not the state dictating it. Even with my prejudice as a person of faith, it seems to be an awfully blurry and convenient line to use one part of the First Amendment to overshadow the other.

The quiet time that individuals have at their temple, in the mosque, at Church, on a Mountain or wherever they make their spiritual connection (if any) is theirs and theirs alone. Government shouldn’t impede by declaring it from atop the entrance. And would be Presidents shouldn’t be putting his God up against other’s. (When Bush 43 did that the U.S. wound up in a twelve year military conflict.) My God is MINE. Leave her alone!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Art of the Deal

I’m a great negotiator. It’s something I also enjoy. Since most of my professional life has involved negotiation – that’s a bonus! I’m not sure where the skill comes from – perhaps it’s part of my DNA, perhaps it’s part of the middle-child syndrome. Perhaps it’s something I’ve learned along the way. (Thanks to the 1987 book by the [pre-crazy] Donald Trump which I devoured!) I loved sitting with my Dad negotiating with the car dealer in the 1970’s as a pre-teen on the purchase of their Datsun. Decades later I fumed when I learned my parents had bought a car based on its sticker price, without negotiation. Turns out they were buying the car from a Church friend and the small amount of money that might have been saved through a hard-nosed price discussion was far outweighed by the value they put on the relationship. My parent were right (as always). On occasions when the car needed service or something happened the dealer took exceptional care of them based not on what they paid for the car, but based on their relationship. Would it be that all deals ended so well.

My own negotiating style reflects the heritage of my parents and thrives in the context of my running a charity. It’s a “win-win-win” philosophy where I try to find ways for everybody involved in a deal can walk away with something in the “win” column. I’m also a fervent believer that if a deal is bad, if it causes harm to one of the parties – then it’s up to that party to walk away. It’s right in line with my Libertarian personal-responsibility ethos, but it’s also common sense.

The political world both in the United States and around the world are agog these first weeks of July 2015 with the announcement of a nuclear deal with Iran. Some describe the deal as the biggest diplomatic coup in a generation; others see it as a capitulation to the very core of American strength and power. In reality the critics are both right.

My understanding of the nuances of the months-long negotiations that produced the deal is elementary at best. The overall points make sense – inspections, restrictions and demolition of existing programs to eliminate Iran’s ability to “get the bomb.” In exchange Iran gets some relief from economic sanctions and has a pathway to join the world as an equal.  Is it a good deal? I don’t know. As an anti-war pacifist, any deal where the risk of nuclear annihilation is mitigated is a good deal.

President Obama has been a “take-no-prisoners” negotiator domestically. He may have evolved to that stance after the Republican “our way or the highway” approach to legislation. It may just be his style. The result has been a bitterly divided and unproductive Congressional process that reflects the deep divides of the country. The Obama administration has also had a penchant for war and conflict – opting for killing over compromise (while claiming the opposite in its propaganda). And my particular pet peeve: the President himself maintains a kill list where he alone chooses who lives or dies. So there is a long documented and established practice by this administration/government where diplomacy and peace are at best secondary and often tertiary.

It is difficult enough to negotiate between staunchly opposing parties who don’t trust each other. In this case there were many countries and many interests involved. Now, for the first time, 635 American legislators are going to weigh in. Many will want to re-negotiate elements of the deal that they don’t like. As a passionate advocate and believer in transparency, the more Congress and the American people know the better. As a long time strategist and negotiator it’s unfathomable to have that many people and interests involved in a large complex deal. It’s also not how the U.S. Government is set up to manage international affairs. Congress’ impact on the Iran situation may further complicate the result, but makes the art of any other deal for any other issue in the future nearly impossible. The American Government is set up with branches that have pre-defined roles, for the sake of the country and the sake of the art of the deal, let’s keep those clear.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Fanning the Flag

One of my most distinctive memories of the Post-9/11 world was the abundance of U.S. flags everywhere. Living in Los Angeles, the car capital of the world, everybody seemed to have those suction cups holding flags flying from their car windows. I wondered what gas station was giving them out that I had somehow missed. The demonstration of patriotism also felt like code for whether you supported military action against Al Qaeda. It was obvious to me that I was one of the very few people who didn’t have an overt display, and it was uncomfortable…like going to a black tie event and wearing jeans. To mitigate that feeling and to better ‘blend in’ but still express my own authentic opinion on where the country was headed (war) I displayed a peace flag from my car window. The symbolism of the flag – whether it be the full stars and stripes or whether it be the peace sign – is visceral for most citizens. The current fight over the Confederate Flag proves the point.
Wikipedia informs that flags were used in wartime and have later become nationalistic symbols. The U.S. Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865 and remains the deadlist conflict in American history with more than 750,000 deaths. Entire books have been written about the war and there have been movies and miniseries because the subject is vast. Simplifying it is perilous, but here goes: The division between the Union/Northern states and the Confederate/Southern states erupted into warfare because of issues of slavery and how slavery impacted industry and commerce.
After the North prevailed, the Confederate Flag remained in many southern states. Proponents argue that it is a symbol of Southern pride. Opponents insist that it represents racism. In South Carolina after years of debate and an all-night legislative session, the flag will soon be coming down.

The Dukes of Hazzard aired on Friday nights on CBS and was a cotton candy entertainment of good old boys, cars and their crazy adventures. Daisy, the leading woman was dressed in shorty-shorts and showed ample cleavage. The rich nemesis Boss Hogg was as two-dimensional as you could imagine and the lawman Sherriff Coltrane was inept, allowing our heroes the Duke brothers to save the day. It was not high concept, high art or any attempt to capture life in the south – it was escapist entertainment. The General Lee, a 1969 customized Dodge Charger, bore the confederate flag and is featured with the lead actors in a series of commercials for a car company today. The show ran for six years and has been in various forms of syndication ever since, spawning spinoffs, video games and follow-up movies. TV Land recently started airing the show but withdrew it in the wake of the confederate flag controversy.

Symbolism matters. The Nazi Party in 1930’s Germany effectively used symbolism in its war against its own people, especially Jews, the disabled and homosexuals. After the war the German Criminal Code section86a outlaws “use of symbols of unconstitutional organizations” – specifically Nazi symbolism.
At the June 29, 2015 gay pride parade in London: “CNN dedicated an entire six and a half minutes to covering, in a tenor of total seriousness and extreme gravity, what they said was an ISIS flag being waved at a gay pride parade, when in fact it was readily and painfully obvious that the 'ISIS flag' was in fact a joke flag covered with images of dildos and butt plugs."
Freedom does not equate being comfortable. Banning, subverting or hiding imagery and symbols that offend don’t take away their impact, it redirects it. Taking “The Dukes of Hazzard” off of the air won’t materially change the conversation of racism in the U.S. Outlawing Nazi propaganda in Germany didn’t eliminate the National Socialist agenda – it ran it underground where in 2011 many crimes were exposed by the group. CNN’s breathless coverage of an explicit joke mocking ISIS isn’t just a journalist embarrassment … it’s indicative that there is no tolerance for being offensive. Let’s fan the flags – let’s have passionate and breathless debates about these issues.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Burstin’ the Bubble

I’ve spent the last two weeks living in a virtual bubble. The time has been spent on a travel based project for work, consuming 20 out of 24 hours per day and at the beginning and end of the trip, a 46 hour stretch of sleeplessness. I usually try to maintain some basics of my “normal” life whenever I travel (either personally or professionally). I like to read a newspaper or at the very least capture the headlines. I find it keeps me in tuned into the world and centered around a shared interests of mutual importance. Even when I’m on a cruise ship I peruse the news digest they publish. In this case, however, I was off in a bubble, largely unaware of world events.

Days after returning the chaos of the project continued and another matter became all consuming. The bubble continued out of necessity. The usual reprieve after such intensity hasn’t occurred – with the 2 to 3 hours a night of sleep quickly becoming the norm stateside as well. Physically and emotionally that can’t continue and I look forward to this long holiday weekend as the perfect antidote.

Being in the bubble, however, provides a unique perspective. It shields one from what’s happening in the world, let alone one’s community. It becomes a safe place to be. Conflict is less, worries are gone. I mean, can any of us really affect the events that are reported? Saving the hour or so each day of being ‘connected’ in order to manage jobs, schedules for kids and an array of other items might be a far better us of limited time and focus. Most of what gets ‘reported’ is a regurgitated press release put out by lobbyists, special interests or others, right?

Living in a protective bubble for a couple of weeks can refreshing – permitting the return to engage with current events with fresh eyes and fresh perspective. I myself am hoping for that in the days to come. But to make the bubble permanent – to only surface sporadically for news and to surround oneself with opinions and beliefs that are similar to ones one only serves to further isolate constituents from their representatives and community, which is bad for democracy.

As the United States celebrates the Declaration of its Independence this July 4th weekend for the 239th time, it is an appropriate time to burst the bubble many Americans live in.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Banking on the Supremes

It’s been several years since I had to file bankruptcy. It’s a very emotional and dispiriting process and is a frustrating and laborious. To succeed in bankruptcy court means that you have to prove that you’re unable to pay your debts. For most people who are not looking to scam the system that’s a startling thing to go through. The other side of Chapter 7 liquidation is the prospect of having a fresh slate to start anew. The consequences of having your debts dismissed is no access to credit for many years – literally having to live within your means. The Supreme Court on June 1st just took away that fresh slate.

According to the Wall Street Journal “All nine Supreme Court justices agreed that filing for chapter 7 bankruptcy protection doesn’t give homeowners the power to cancel a second mortgage when their properties aren’t even worth the value of the first mortgage.”

Bankruptcy is not something new. According to Wikipedia debt bondage was common as far back as 600BC. When people couldn’t pay their bills they literally were turned into slaves to work off the debt. By the Middle Ages debtors were locked up in debtors prison and forced to work for the state.   The U.S. had a similar model in the early years of the republic. After the War of 1812 when the populations swelled in the prisons there were a variety of attempts at creating bankruptcy code. By 1898 the first “modern” act was implemented and has been revised several times, the latest being 2005.

The punishment for being poor or not being able to pay one’s bills moved away from criminalizing and more towards creating the ability to start fresh. With the consequences and low access to capital there is a punishment to individuals. Conceptually, too, banks and lenders know that they are at risk of having the debt eliminated – so it is then incumbent upon them to make sure that the person whom they’re lending to has the ability to repay.

The 2005 revision and this ruling continues the trend of punishing debtors and protecting those who make the loans. My house lost more than 50% of its value, so I lost the property, the deposit I paid and the improvements I made along with my home. I had a mortgage and a second – with the house leveraged at 80% of value at purchase, well within reasonable guidelines. Several banks competed to give me those loans. Should they have? Based on the result, no. But they did.

The economy changed, I was laid off, the property’s value plummeted. As I’ve previously written, I am fully responsible for that failure even though there are lots of “reasons.” I’ve paid the price for that through high interest rates, no access to capital, etc. The bank lost money – so maybe they shouldn’t have made the loan. That lesson would indicate that they should change lending practices. But instead of the bank bearing any of the responsibility, the homeowner is now left will the bill.

Under the ruling by the Supreme Court I would still be responsible to pay the second mortgage even though I didn’t own the property any more and once it’s paid would have no value for having done so. It’s punitive. It benefits the banks. Instead of turning the house over to the bank and facilitating an orderly transfer, squatting would make much more sense.

This ruling is one of hundreds that the court makes each year, and it’s a pretty dry and below-the-radar type of issue. The decision – which impacts millions of people – was only carried in one major news publication in the two days from its determination.

If the people of the United States want to move back towards debtor prisons and punishing people for making poor financial choices –that should be something that’s part of the political discourse and engaged with in a legislative way. Right now, however, the banks can count on the Supreme Court to keep them in business.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Magna Constitution

As I prepare to leave the US for a ten-day international business trip, I have been thinking about my own Ugly Americanisms. I only speak one language and while I appreciate other cultures and other ways of doing this, I do know what I like and how I like it. Writing this blog allows me to exercise one of my most passionate interests – freedom of expression. The right to say what I think, no matter how whacked out some may think it is, generally without fear or concern of consequence. That freedom is thanks to the freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution that is a direct descendent of the Magna Carta – which happened to have a birthday this week.

On Monday, June 15, 2015 the Magna Carta turned 800. She doesn’t look a day over 700. According to CNN: “The catalyst for Magna Carta was the tyrannical rule of King John and, in particular, his imposition of arbitrary taxes upon the barons. The sealing of Magna Carta marked the first time that the notion that an unelected sovereign should be restrained under law was officially recognized. From then on, the idea that citizens should not be subjected to the arbitrary rule of a tyrannical monarch but instead be ruled and governed upon foundations of accepted legal process and law had a legal foundation.”

Throughout history, according to Wikipedia: “It influenced the early American colonists in the Thirteen Colonies and the formation of the American Constitution in 1787, which became the supreme law of the land in the new republic of the United States.”

In a timely analysis, The Fiscal Times wrote: “Mr. Obama has pursued an ambitious agenda since he entered the White House, increasingly acting alone.” The article goes on to detail a long list of examples that the President has acted unilaterally, in conflict with the Constitution.

Adapting their list to include my own points:
  • Maintaining a “kill” list where he alone decides who lives and dies based on information only he has.
  • The defunct PATRIOT act reborn as the FREEDOM act that encourages and allows the Government to look into people’s personal lives and activities in the guise of security
  • Using the Executive Order to bypass legislative processes
  • Military action without consultation with the Congress or authorization

The list can go on and on. There are political realities for the workarounds. On the anniversary of the document that was created to restrain unilateral action its worth remembering the President Obama was elected and the law applies to him. As a former professor of Constitutional law, it’s an appropriate time to refresh his memory on the source of the document that frames the country he was elected to serve.