Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Obama Paradox

As best I can tell, the meteoric rise of Barack Obama is attributable to little more than the man’s rhetorical genius. He manages to be at once plain spoken and intellectual. Compassionate yet practical. Unifying yet resolutely Democratic.

So adept is Obama at being simultaneously meaningful and meaningless that Andrew Ferguson has devoted a whole column in Bloomberg to the caveats and qualifications that adorn almost every opinion the senator expresses.

Ferguson’s contention is that Obama is merely a more eloquent Ross Perot, a man who is more against politics as normal than he is for any specific remedy. I think it’s more complicated than that. I think Obama is a politician who misunderstands the political game. He just may be mistaking broad yet unfocused popular support for electability.

Because we know so little about Obama, he’ll be an easy target for dirty spin doctors intent on branding him as irredeemably liberal or dangerously under-qualified or, you know, secretly a radical Muslim. No amount of rhetorical skill can get you out of a Swift-Boat style jam. That takes political cunning – something not needed to win a Senate seat (see Kerry, John) but an essential skill for all would-be presidents.

So this is what I’m predicting: either Obama really is a wise, unifying, straight-shooter and will get summarily crushed by the Clinton machine; OR he’s slick as a snake under those smooth words and we end up electing a man who pretends to be the anti-politician even as he wiggles through every tight political crevasse.

I’m not saying an admirably honest, thoughtful person can’t win the presidency. I’m saying this particular admirably honest, thoughtful man can’t win in 2008 – unless he’s not particularly admirable. He’s just too inexperienced and too unknown to win the kind of campaign he’s waging.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

State of the Union -- Quick Thoughts

Some quick thoughts on President Bush’s the State of the Union address:

Healthcare: I was glad to see him place this issue right up front. In general, I agreed with all his proposals. The tax break for those paying for their own insurance is an idea way past due. Although the poorest Americans who pay little in taxes will not gain much from the plan, many other Americans will. It’s a commonsense solution that won’t solve the big problems in healthcare but will at least ease the pain.

Government Spending: Bush’s desire to curb the use of earmarks and make them less secretive is an easy bit of bipartisanship. His suggestions are pretty much what Speaker Pelosi has proposed. That’s fine. There’s no need for the ridiculous number of earmarks Congress now uses. Nor is it a good idea that many of those earmarks are never voted on or even included in the bill put before the President.

Bush’s call to reduce the deficit and balance the budget is an always popular statement. I’ll believe it when I see it. I doubt anyone in Congress or the White House actually has the guts to eliminate many of the bloated spending initiatives. But I’m a firm believer that raising taxes should always be a last resort and not an easy out.

Immigration: Bush said we need to have a guest worker program so that our border patrol can focus on catching the drug smugglers and terrorists and not have to deal with those who are only coming here to find work. That’s a good way to position this issue. I’m generally in favor of a guest worker program provided that it requires businesses to pay fair wages so that American citizens can actually compete for jobs with the guest workers.

Environment: I wonder if that was the first national forum in which Bush acknowledged not only the reality of climate change but our ability to do something about it. I have little faith in this administration when it comes to developing a comprehensive energy policy that doesn’t heavily favor oil exploration, but maybe I’ll be surprised. I think alternative fuel research and higher fuel economy standards are smart initiatives but this is not an area where ten minutes of a speech will make any difference. If the White House truly wants to make a difference, the administration will have to focus a lot of time and energy on the matter.

Service: The Civilian Reserve Corps is really the first service-oriented initiative Bush has pushed for. His failure to ask us to serve our country after 9/11 is one of my biggest criticisms of his presidency. I’m not at all sure what this Civilian Corps will do, but at least it’s a non-military way for Americans to serve our nation.

Iraq: He just rehashed what he said the other night. Nothing new and that’s no surprise.

Overall: I always find Bush’s Big Speeches to be full of ideas I like.It’s always the follow-through that seems lacking. Most Presidents propose a lot more than they ever accomplish. But Bush seems to have done less than most. Part of that is because we’ve had a disastrously poor Congress but part of it is that Bush has been unable to effectively lead for much of his presidency. Maybe a Democratic Congress will force him to make the kinds of compromises he’s rejected in the past. We’ll see. Speeches are nice. But action is what matters.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Few More Healthcare Thoughts

Blog-friend Denis Sanders of Neomugwump emailed me regarding my healthcare post. He commented:

Do you suggest a single-payer Canadian style system? There's a part of me that agrees there needs to be government involvement, but shudders at having the federal government assume such a big role in handling something like health care. (It's the Republican in me, I can't help it.)Many on the Democratic side like the Canadian system, but it has it's drawbacks as well.

I'm not crazy about the single-payer plan, but there are other options. The free market alone can't do this and as a little-known Republican named Abe Lincoln once said, what the individual can't do, government must.

I thought I’d share my response as I believe it better clarifies my thinking on healthcare, an issue I’ve researched and given a lot of thought to over the last few years. I responded as such:

The Canadian system has a lot of problems as well and I too shudder at the idea of the government running healthcare. I don't think a single-payer system is the only option. But I do think we need pretty radical change and I'm open to a heavily subsidized system and even a government program that competes with private programs (think US Postal Service vs. UPS). I don't have an easy answer or even a preferred one at this point.

But I do think we need to detach healthcare from employment. That's not to say an employer can't help you pay for a plan, but we shouldn't all be tied to the plan chosen by our employer. Nor should we face the threat of losing healthcare if we change jobs or go to work for ourselves. In the evolving economy, workers need flexibility in order to succeed. The current healthcare system limits flexibility and choice.

For those who wonder how we would pay for a new system, I’d point out we already bear huge hidden healthcare costs. Every product we buy is more expensive to help companies pay for their employees' healthcare. All our wages our depressed in order to help companies afford our healthcare. Our healthcare bills are inflated to help cover the costs of all the uninsured people who need emergency services but can't pay for them. The value of several major American companies has significantly decreased because those companies cannot afford the benefits and specifically the healthcare promised to their pension holders and current employees.

A reasonable system would help eliminate all these hidden costs. If done right, the net effect would be to help the economy and increase the prosperity of workers of all classes -- not to mention it would improve American health.

Changing our healthcare system is not an easy task. But it's been built like a Jenga tower and will come down one way or another. I'd rather dismantle and rebuild than hoping the mess stays steady as we pile on new pinpointed regulations and complicated, targeted benefits.


Monday, January 15, 2007

Hey Dems, How About Fixing Healthcare?

I’m constantly amazed that healthcare is not a bigger issue in American politics. I simply can’t think of any area of American domestic policy that’s more screwed up. A personal experience illustrates this fact.

Last Fall my wife left her fulltime job to become a private contractor. Her new job has no benefits. I’m a freelance writer, so I have no benefits either. As such, we’ve been on COBRA and, to keep our old healthcare plan, we’ve been paying an amount that’s higher than any other monthly bill save our mortgage. Higher than our food costs. Higher than all our utilities combined. Higher than our two car payments combined.

And this is not a fancy plan. The deductible is high and, after that, the plan pays only 80% of in-network costs. We could get a cheaper plan but, as we have learned, only two insurance companies will insure for maternity in Texas. If you want to have a baby in Texas and have the costs covered, you have to pay a huge monthly premium.

I shouldn’t say “have the costs covered.” I should say, have a few costs covered. After the birth of my daughter, we owe various providers thousands of dollars. Those charges cover our 20%. But here’s the infuriating part: because of special contract agreements insurers have with the hospital plus the deductible costs we’ve paid, our insurance company will end up paying LESS than we will for the labor, delivery and post-natal care of my daughter.

Now, we’re going to be just fine. We’re financially secure. But it is a burden and one that’s requiring us to be pretty frugal for awhile. I can’t imagine how anyone in worse financial shape can afford health insurance if they don’t have a job with benefits.

I understand that it’s not cheap to provide health care. What I don’t understand is why politicians continue to offer band-aid solutions when something far more radical is needed. My personal experience is just one minor example of a healthcare system completely out-of-sync with modern American needs. Tens of thousands of other examples paint and even drearier picture.

Those who say there’s a free-market solution misunderstand that the entire system operates outside of anything resembling the free market. Thousands of regulations and rules are in effect from the municipal level all the way to the federal level. Furthermore, most healthcare is not a consumer good and cannot be expected to respond rationally to the usual free-market forces. There is no escaping that this is a problem for government policy to solve – as much as I wish it were otherwise, we cannot free ourselves from the web of market complexities and government regulations without resorting to serious governmental intervention.

If the Democratic Congress really wants to help the working and middle-class American, they’d focus on healthcare. Sure, a minimum wage hike is a nice bit of feel-good legislation but the real vice-clamp on Americans is not our wages. It’s our health costs.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Iraq Surge Focused on Wrong Goal

So, President Bush wants to send more troops into Iraq. The American people don’t agree. Of course, unless the Democrats cut off funding, Bush’s title of Commander in Chief gives him authority to do pretty much as he pleases. Public opinion is a sideshow. The surge is happening.

But it won’t work. The wound of war has festered and Iraq’s gone septic. 20,000 more troops is just a topical treatment and will do little to cure the disease. I hope I am wrong. I hope I’m just a naïve observer who lacks the military experience or political understanding to see the genius of this plan. It’s certainly possible.

I do actually agree with the President on one point: leaving now almost certainly sets us up for a bigger disaster later. Those who think we can get out and suffer nothing more than bruised pride are deluding themselves. If we don’t stay militarily involved, Iraq likely becomes the new Afghanistan – with huge oil reserves.

Where I differ with Bush is in the definition of victory. The President is still seeking a Democracy in Iraq when the real goal should simply be keeping Iraq from becoming an immediate threat to our security. Our presence in Baghdad is only slowing the inevitable collapse into civil war (those who consider the current level of violence a civil war have left themselves with no words to define the real civil war if and when it erupts).

The President may now recognize that mistakes have been made, but he’s yet to wrench himself free of the overly optimistic theories that convinced him of the need for war in the first place. It’s time to stop working towards a Democracy we can’t create. We must focus on our own, more immediate interests. It’s not the outcome we wanted. It’s not an outcome that's particularly noble. But it’s what we have left.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Where I've Been

New baby. Lots of work. The combination has made blogging impossible. But keep checking back as I'll slowly start posting again as I get into a new rhythm.