Apr 072010

American democracy is in tatters, and there’s an essential truth that the public needs to understand — the professional politicians we keep sending to Washington are not going to do a damn thing to fix it. As I’ve already written: it doesn’t serve their purpose. Their collective objective is not the resolution of tough issues, for resolution would require not only advancing partisan ideologies but also admitting validity in the opposition’s case. Such validation would go a long way toward the adoption of real solutions, but unfortunately, it does not serve the primary goal of our politicians — to be reelected.

Elections today are expensive, extremely expensive. According to the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI), the average amount spent by 2008 Congressional winners was $1.4 million for the House and over $7.5 million for the Senate. Costs like these obviously require high levels of campaign fund raising. This money has to come from somewhere, and unfortunately for the average American citizen, both the PACs (Political Action Committee) and big-money donors are there to meet the need.

CFI reports that the campaign fund receipts from PACs for the period leading up to the 2008 election totaled $78 million for the Senate and a whopping $308 million for the House. Add to these totals, the war chest proceeds flowing from $1000-plus donors ($295 million for the House and $158 million for the Senate), and you’ve accounted for the vast majority of funding for any given race (Senate = 60%, House = 71%). Sadly, you’ve also accounted for who will control the United States Congress.

Our dysfunctional form of election practically guarantees that, in order to fulfill their campaign obligations, representatives on either side of the aisle will pander to the special interests. Like students who borrow to fund their education, our elected officials are burdened with debts they must repay. So, they service their debt to their major financial supporters by passing sweetheart legislation, and even more insidiously, by doing nothing at all — by clogging the legislative pump and stalling the adoption of regulation and reform.

If you have any doubt about how active this destructive form of self-serving politics is, you need look no further than the current activities of our Congress. If you’re a liberal, do you really think that the recent healthcare legislation was pro-citizen? Did you ask yourself why the public option lost support so early in the debate? The sad truth is that the entire debate was little more than a stage show. Without either the public option or provisions to control costs, the bill amounts to a government subsidized influx of 32 million new patients. It’s a big win for both the medical insurance industry and the big pharmaceutical companies. More patients, no cost controls, no competition — you apply the logic.

So does this suggest that the conservatives might have taken the high road in the healthcare debate? Come on, surely you jest. The Republican role in this sick little dance is even more despicable. Conservative leaders are even deeper into the pockets of the health sector than the Democrats, but with liberals having majorities in both houses, they were able to sit on the sidelines and just let the legislation pass. If they had desired to do anything but feign resistance, they would have offered real criticism and alternatives, rather than ridiculous hyperbole. Once the public option was dropped, there really was no legitimate debate left in Congress. The Republicans kept beating the “socialism” drum, although it had completely lost its relevance, and did everything they could to shroud the debate in a smoke screen of polarizing rhetoric, while passively acquiescing for the benefit of their financial masters.

One could argue that at least the Democrats did provide a service to the 32 million and others, albeit very likely at a severe cost to the future of America. Meanwhile, the Republicans served only themselves (and their benefactors), and in the process fueled the left/right rift with heated hyperbole that consisted mostly of lies and damn lies. At the end of the day, one thing is certain: neither party took the side of those of us in the middle, even though we are the ones who will foot the bill.

Once again, healthcare is just an example of government bought and paid for. For another, witness the speed at which our illustrious leaders have effected responsive change to address the banking collapse. The worst blow sustained by our economy since the Great Depression, and two full years after the fall of Bear Stearns, we still have no legislation passed to prevent it from happening again. When the investment bank “house of cards” collapsed, our federal government did nothing but write checks to the very people who brought about the disaster. Those responsible are now, of course, back to business as usual, while the rest of us, the people who will again be forced to pick up the tab, are left out in the cold.

Should this be a surprise? Come on, just look at the numbers . . . the important numbers: who’s giving to whom? Senator Chris Dodd, the number one Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, the folk who should have been scampering to address the mess, is a puppet for the very interests he’s charged with controlling. Over his career, Chris Dodd has received more money from securities and investment interests than any other sector. In the 2008 and 2010 campaign cycles alone, he took nearly $3 million from this biggest of money industry. Is there any wonder why he’s taken the “do nothing” tack? He has sponsored legislation that recently leaked out of committee, but even at this late date, he’s pushing for a weak solution that’s palatable to big banking. And before you claim a partisan foul, you’ll need to consider that Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), Dodd’s Republican counterpart on the banking committee, is also getting his palms greased with financial sector green. He’s not as successful as Dodd, but his $1.8 million from the securities and commercial banking sectors has obviously been enough to buy his silence.

Here’s the facts folks: whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, whether you see yourself as conservative or liberal, it doesn’t really matter. Unless you are very rich, very poor, or already elderly, the federal government is serving itself at your expense. We, the hard working Americans in the middle, have been split by a self-serving Congress who has divvied up the arguing points to keep us divided while they serve the extremes.

In order to serve their benefactors, and at the same time energize the activists in their respective parties, the United States Congress relies on deception and subterfuge. Their con of choice has become vehement argument focused always on the aspects of their political positions that they present as mutually exclusive. The problem is that the exclusivity is an illusion. It’s the smoke screen needed to enable their sleight of hand. Keep your eye on the ball, and you’ll see that it’s a false divide. It’s two sides of the same coin.

The Republicans pound their doctrine of tax reduction and reduced regulation, casting government as the enemy of the American dream, while the Democrats play the siren song of increased services. The Republican machine targets the business class with a song of praise for free enterprise, while also tuning in some working class with the beat of the anti-welfare drum. The Democrats carve their niche straight into the heart of middleclass America, targeting unions and labor, but also casting their net into the ranks of the less fortunate, the underdogs and those who wish to help them.

If this sounds like an oversimplification, that’s because it is — but don’t assign responsibility to me. Oh no, this is the gerrymandered line chosen by the parties for their never-ending clash of the causes, and we, the American public, are held hostage by the diversionary debate. The Republicans are right that we should seek to strengthen the economics engines of our nation and not stifle growth with excess taxation or regulation. The Democrats too deserve praise for the way they uphold the spirit of our founding and insist that while we seek prosperity, we must always preserve opportunity for all Americans and never forsake our ethical obligation to assist those in need. Both sides have valid points, and both sides are tag-teaming to drive our country straight off a cliff.

I recently wrote a piece on what I consider to be our most significant substantive issue, the federal debt and unfunded obligations. This is the “Godzilla in the room,” and while it alone represents a deep, dark abyss looming in America’s future, it’s still a symptom. If we are to have any chance of permanently addressing this or any other major symptom, we must focus on the disease itself. And the disease in this case is cancer, a cancer that has laid our nation up in the economic infirmary and metastasized throughout our federal government. The root cause of this cancer is greed, and the only treatment known to be effective is campaign reform.

If you love America like I love America, please help to put an end to big-money control of our Congress. Don’t let the politicians lure you into false battles, where they attempt to label other hard working citizens as the problem. We’re all in this together, and it’s time we stop falling for this blatant misdirection. It’s time to demand results. Let’s keep our eyes on the ball and hold our representatives feet to the fire. Let’s take control of our nation back. Let’s support real campaign reform.

We want our elected officials to be beholding to us — the people who elect them. There’s only one way to make that happen, and that’s through public financing of elections. It’s already working in several states in the form of Clean Elections. And there’s a bipartisan bill in House and also the Senate to bring similar reform to Washington. Couple public financing with preferential voting, which would allow a significant increase in votes for third party candidates, add term limits and weld shut the revolving lobbyist door, and we just might return to a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Please get involved. Spread the word. We are America and we want it back!

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Apr 052010
Deficit and debt increases 2001-2008
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It’s like Biblical Egypt all over again, complete with the plague of the frogs, only this time — the frogs are Us. The United States of America is in dire straits, the most dire in my lifetime. Years of party politics and pandering to special interests has left our country afloat on a sea of rising problems. Pick your issue, be it banks who rob us, insurance companies who only insure for their profits, needless wars that kill our young and stuff the pockets of the defense industry, jobs, energy, taxes, it doesn’t matter; rudderless and without a destination, America continues to sail on troubled waters. The issues are many, the stakes historical, the arguments heated near a boil, and still too many Americans don’t fully comprehend that gravity of the situation — it truly is a slow burn, and We the People ARE the frogs in the kettle.

Witness the raging debate over healthcare. Are we any better off now that the “reform” bill has passed? Are we any worse? Democrats are optimistic that we’ve moved forward on the need to provide care for more Americans, and that we’ve done so in a fiscally responsible way. Republicans insists that the bill was forced down the people’s throat; that it’s a drastic move toward socialism that will surely trigger Armageddon. Who’s correct? Left? Right?

The truth that America can’t seem to handle is that they’re both right . . . and they’re both wrong. This is a dibilitating core problem in American politics. Our present political system functions more and more like a sporting event. Sides are chosen, and it’s winner take all. This is great for entertainment value, but it totally sucks for addressing the complex issues that face our nation. Our democracy has become completely dysfunctional.

The healthcare legislation is just one example; one for which I’ve already shared my opinion. I sincerely wish it was the only example, but that’s far from the case. The process witnessed during the healthcare debate is simply the latest instance of partisan bickering and diametric opposition to exemplify our broken government. This slam dance is now standard operating procedure, and it guarantees that the real issues will never be addressed.

There is no doubt that this dynamic has crippled our democracy’s ability to serve the needs of the people. But of even greater concern is the irresponsible outcome insured by the marriage of the two warring factions. The net result of the Democrat push for increased social benefits, coupled with the Republican mantra of tax reduction, not only ensures that effective solutions are never instituted, but also serves to keep the public’s attention trained on the diversion and away from the elephant in the room.

This is nothing new for Washington politics, but the gravity of the consequences hits new levels with every passing day. The “more services/less revenue” tango has left America in denial. Little conversation occurs regarding our economic elephant. This Godzilla like beast to which I refer is the deep dark financial hole our illustrious leaders so zealously feed — a hole totaling some $56 trillion dollars as of September 30, 2008, and growing.

That’s right, $56 trillion, with a “T.” That’s nearly a half million dollars for every American household. In the words of David M. Walker, former Comptroller General of the U.S., this is like having, “a huge second or possibly third mortgage, amounting to almost ten times your annual household income.” For the moment, we do still have the World’s largest economy, but even our $14 trillion GDP pales when compared to this mounting debt and liabilities. And when you consider that the budget deficit was $1.42 trillion for fiscal 2009, a full 9.9 percent of that GDP, you get a feel for how we’re feeding our giant reptile.

Recent bailouts and the new healthcare legislation certainly add to the problem, but they alone are not the culprits. The real core issue is complete fiscal irresponsibility on the part of conservatives and liberals alike, and the bottom line is that neither side has the courage to face the music. Though, I guess this is somewhat understandable, since the song they need to play is a dirge, and the lyrics should go something like, “We’re so sorry we sold you down the river for our own personal gain.”

Yes, my fellow Americans, regardless of political affiliations, we’ve all been sold a bad bill of goods. It’s time to stop playing like ostriches, pull our heads out of the sand and take a serious look at our financial mess. Like teenagers with a new credit card, our elected officials have strapped us with a federal debt now over $12 trillion dollars, and that’s not the worst of it. It’s actually more like the tip of the iceberg. The plot sickens much further when you take a look at our unfunded obligations.

As of September 30, 2008, our unfunded obligations, consisting of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security totaled nearly $43 trillion. And since the Congress refuses to address the issue and instead continues to add to the balance, the $56 trillion hole (federal debt plus unfunded obligations) for 2008 is expected to bulge to $63 trillion for 2009.

Just in case these numbers don’t grab your attention, you might want to consider that when George W. Bush took office, the hole was a comparatively manageable $20 trillion. During his two terms as President, we had three tax cuts, started two wars, bolstered homeland security and added an extremely expensive prescription drug benefit to Medicare. The combined result of this wisdom enlarged the hole by 176 percent to the $56 trillion number that President Obama stepped into. This is what’s commonly referred to as a snowball effect, and the really scary part is that it’s just getting going.

Indeed, if left unaddressed, the GAO (Government Accountability Office) forecasts that within the next 12 years, interest payments on the federal debt will become the single largest line item in the federal budget. If left until 2040, all federal revenues would cover only the payment of said interest and Medicare/Medicaid. We’d have nothing left for defense, much less Social Security or anything else. Put another way, in order to cover the bills in 2030, our average federal tax rate of 21 percent will have to swell to as much as 45 percent. By 2040, it would be 53 percent, and that’s only the federal slice.

Needless to say, this paints a sorry picture for all of us, but left unchecked it could prove devastating to our children and grand children. All Americans should be absolutely ashamed that we’ve allowed the situation to grow so very bleak. Everybody knows that we’ve been building a house of cards, that you can’t continually reduce federal revenues (cut taxes) and at the same time increase spending (wars and services) and expect things to balance. Our elected official’s intentional obfuscation of the facts may have clouded issues, but in the end, it’s really every American who’s responsible. We’ve spent 30 years in denial and it’s high time to stand straight and face the facts.

The facts are that, contrary to common assertions, we can’t grow or inflate our way out of this big ugly. Yet, unless we want to just subscribe to the contemporary American IBG (I’ll Be Gone) ethic, we need to do our best to address the issues and to do so with some haste. Things will only get worse until we do.

Resolution obviously won’t be easy, but the good news is that we can make it happen, and we’ll all be stronger for the wear. Real patriots will take this challenge in the spirit that created our great nation. They will demand that our politicians immediately stop the destructive rhetoric, cease their incessant partisan bickering, and open a meaningful dialog to address this real and pertinent issue. And they will also accept that the way out will require that we all make sacrifices.

Thankfully, I’m not a politician, and I don’t have to worry about getting reelected, so I can tell it like it is. The fact is that big holes need big shovels, and we’ve done a lot of digging. Our way out is going to be painful. So conservatives, suck it up, because we’re going to need to raise taxes, and liberals, bite your tongues, because social programs will have to see cuts. Social Security and Medicare have to be reformed and the defense budget will need a serious overhaul. It’s time for transformational change, change that will require nonpartisan solutions. I’m sure that recovery will provide plenty to piss off every American, but the only alternative to some scorched buttocks is to just sit in the kettle and be cooked. You’ll have to make your choice. I’ve already made mine.

If you’re interested in more information, please take the time to watch I.O.U.S.A. And when you’re finished, please do get involved. You can start by taking action and writing Congress.

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Apr 012010
A surgical team from Wilford Hall Medical Cent...
Image via Wikipedia

Do you believe that all Americans should have access to healthcare? Can you answer this question with a simple “yes or no?” Do you think the inquiry immediately begs other questions? Is cost an issue in your mind? These and many other questions are at the heart of the heated debate over healthcare in America. But the raging arguments never seem to address the core issues, at least not in a substantive manner. Instead, hyperbole has become the rule of the day.

Real leadership would require that the debate be taken back to its root, at the point where we, as a nation, must answer the values question, the question regarding access for all Americans. This question is essentially ethical in nature and should be addressed in that isolated context. Whether or not we can afford the corresponding solution is a practical matter that also demands attention, but it shouldn’t be allowed to impact our basic ethical decision.

Personally, I cannot fathom the rationale supporting a negative response to the primary question. My answer is, “Absolutely yes!” I have no doubt that the only legitimate response is acknowledgement; the only appropriate ethical position is that healthcare is a right, not an entitlement. So, does this make me a supporter of the healthcare “reform” that President Obama just signed into law?

Ignoring the bitter taste left in my mouth from the way in which our Congress passed the healthcare legislation, I will admit that it does address some serious issues. An unbiased analysis of the Democratic position must acknowledge that the bill does indeed promise to provide healthcare to some 32 million nonelderly Americans who would otherwise not have coverage. But that same analysis might not be so pro-Democrat when investigating the legitimacy of their claims of fiscal responsibility.

It is true that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the combined bill (H.R. 3590, as passed by the Senate, and the reconciliation proposal) will reduce the federal budget deficit by $143 billion over the next 10 years. This is the fact upon which the Democrats rest their claim of fiscal soundness. But how credible is this assertion?

A close look at the CBO report reveals that, while the basic analysis reflects such a savings, the likelihood of that outcome is not so substantial. The problem is that the analysis is rife with potential holes and assumptions. For example, taking only the probable discretionary costs into account (IRS enforcement, DHHS administration, and explicit authorization for grant and other programs), which the CBO projects to be as much as an additional $70 billion over that same 10 years, the actual deficit reduction would be nearly cut in half.

Discretionary costs aside, the $143 billion estimate is based only on changes in direct spending and revenue, but even within this category there are some line items that give cause for concern. One such item is the reduction in Medicare FFS (fee for service) costs. Identified as a $196 billion cost reduction in the CBO estimate, the savings is wholly dependent upon Congress staying the course with regard to physician payment rates. Should they decide instead to approve legislation that increases said payments, all bets may be off.  In fact, the CBO estimates that if H.R. 3961 were passed, which it already was by the House in the fall of 2009, the budget deficit would be increased by $59 billion. So much for the reduction and fiscal responsibility.

To be fair, maybe there is some small chance that Congress could stay their hand and resist raising Medicare payment rates, even in the face of doctors refusing to provide services at the 21 percent rate reduction scheduled for this April. So, let’s for a moment put on our rose colored glasses and assume it’s so — does that seal the deal for sound fiscal practices? I’m sorry, but “no.” We’re still left with some serious potential issues that give reason for skepticism.

One such issue is the validity of the estimate of the funding required to subsidize health insurance purchases. The CBO sets this number at $350 billion over that 10-year window.  This projection may be high, and it may be low.  The CBO states that chances are about equal, either way, and I certainly don’t have a crystal ball, but in the absence of any real reform, I think most people would agree on where the smart money would be. I mean, how many unscrupulous rate increases, like the 39 percent recently levied by Anthem Blue Cross in California, did the CBO include in their analysis?

Taken together, these issues definitely cast some doubt on the fiscal character of the healthcare legislation. Add to the mess, the intentional skewing of the numbers related to reductions projected from the CLASS (Community Living Assistance Services and Support) program and your doubt will likely turn to dismay. CLASS accounts for $70 billion of savings in the CBO estimates. It does this through the miracle of advanced premiums being collected for 5 years prior to any benefits being paid. Sound a little like sleight of hand? I think we can agree that the practice is dubious at best.

As much as I’m in favor of providing healthcare for ALL Americans, in the end, I’m afraid I have to call it straight up — the great Democrat healthcare victory is really just a sham. It is nothing more than the latest round of underfunded legislation adding to the $56 trillion black hole that is our national debt and entitlement liability.

America is in desperate need of real healthcare reform, and what was just written into law is not it. Real reform will address the issues that cause healthcare services to be so costly. It will remedy medical malpractice, include provisions to encourage healthier lifestyles, replace fee-for-service payments with a manageable system, and likely establish a central program that provides basic healthcare for one and all.

I’m not in the Republican, “Repeal and Replace” camp, but I can certainly see that we’re a very long way from real reform. With the Baby Boomers coming into retirement age, the time to act is now. That Black Hole isn’t getting any smaller.

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