Topic: Government and Politics

Good News: Health Care Express Slows

Health care “reformers” (meaning those who want to effectively nationalize America’s medical system) have long understood that their best hope in the new political environment is to ram through legislation with the claim that it is an emergency and won’t wait.  The longer the American people think about the increased cost, decreased choice, and other negative impacts of a a government takeover, the less likely they are to support it.

Thankfully, the government health express has slowed noticeably in recent weeks.  Even supporters are coming to doubt that legislation can be approved before Congress goes home in August.  Reports Politico:

Health care reform proponents are growing pessimistic that they can meet President Barack Obama’s August target for passing a bill — saying the next four weeks must fall together perfectly, without a hitch or a hiccup.

The number of weeks that’s happened recently? Zero.

A series of setbacks has made the task of completing floor votes in both chambers virtually insurmountable, given the plodding pace of the Senate. The official line from the White House and the congressional leadership is it’s possible, but privately, there are a dwindling number of aides who would put money on it.

And without a deal by August, the ripple effects could start to endanger the prospect of health care reform this year altogether — chief among them, the closer it gets to the 2010 midterm elections, the harder it will be to get members to make the toughpolitical decisions needed to vote on a bill.

This is good news.  The U.S. health system needs fixing.  But the more rushed they are, the less likely policymakers are to do the right thing.  We need a medical system that is more responsive to consumers and market forces rather than to political forces and government dictates.

Turning Tide?

Mark Krikorian of National Review reminds us that Gene Healy had complained about the “Obama Shop” at Washington’s Union Station, featuring lots of “Obama-related tchotchkes and talismans.” Every shop I’ve been into lately – from Macy’s to 7-11 to the airport souvenir shops – has offered Obamastuff. It’s been oppressive.

But I just passed through Dulles Airport, and guess what the America! store on Concourse C was offering? Sure, they had Obama t-shirts, along with the usual White House shot glasses and Washington Monument paperweights. But as you walked past the store, you saw these t-shirts out front:

  • “I Love My Country; It’s the Government I’m Afraid Of” (an oldie but goodie that I first saw a few years ago)
  • “Don’t Blame Me; I Voted for McCain and Palin” (that one might need a bit of editing)
  • “Where’s My Bailout?” (see it here)

The store is probably a leading indicator of what’s selling. So I’ll be keeping an eye on it on my next trip.

Opening Day at Judiciary Park: Sotomayor On Deck

The first day of the Sotomayor hearings yielded many baseball references but little in the way of home runs and strikeouts—or surprises. Democrats lauded Sotomayor’s rags-to-riches story and career achievements. Republicans questioned the “wise Latina’s” commitment to objectivity, whether she would be a “judicial activist” and—most interesting to me—whether she planned to use foreign law in helping her to interpret the Constitution. These would clearly be the lines of attack and counterattack.

It was all “set pieces”—prepared statements that often said more about the senators themselves than about the nominee. The stars of the show were unquestionably Senators Sessions (R-AL), Graham (R-SC), and Franken (D-SNLMN). Sessions, the ranking member, is armed for bear and has clearly been reading the memos my colleagues around town have been writing. Graham marches to his own (very candid) drummer, pronouncing that Sotomayor would be confirmed unless she had a “complete meltdown.” Franken… well he’s just happy to be on the big stage on his sixth day in office.

Assuming Sotomayor is confirmed, however, this will not be that big a political victory for President Obama. With Democrats holding a 60-40 margin in the Senate, confirmation has long been expected, and the political markets have already discounted for it.  The president will likely see a temporary blip of support, particularly among Hispanics, but not as much as one might think—because those who are high on Sotomayor already support Obama.  Moreover, most people will soon forget the Supreme Court and go back to worrying about their personal economic situation—which the president’s policies are certainly not helping.

In a way, this week’s hearings and the confirmation process generally have more downside potential for the administration than upside.  Not because of the small chance Sotomayor won’t get confirmed—which would be a real blow—but because issues such as affirmative action, property rights, gun rights, and the use of foreign law are all being thrust to the forefront of the news cycle.  These issues, and the debate over judicial philosophy generally, are all winners for the Republicans—if they play their cards right.

In any event, tomorrow the real fun begins—with the blue team tossing softballs at the nominee and the red team sending the high heat.

Mandate for Taxes?

The New York Times reports that House Democrats want to raise money for health care with a $550 billion tax hike on people who produce the most wealth. The Times says,

the proposal is perhaps the clearest expression yet of the mandate that Democrats believe they won last November, when voters expanded Democratic majorities in Congress and sent Barack Obama to the White House.

If Democrats think they won a mandate for huge tax increases – without talking about them – then 2010 ought to be fun.

Making Airline Travel as Unpleasant as Possible

The Transportation Safety Administration long has made air travel as unpleasant as possible without obvious regard to the impact on safety.  Thankfully, the TSA recently dropped the inane procedure of asking to see your boarding pass as you passed through the checkpoint – a few feet away from where you entered the security line, at which point you had shown both your boarding pass and ID. 

However, there are proposals afoot in Congress to set new carry-on luggage restrictions, to be enforced by the TSA, even though they would do nothing to enhance security.  An inch either way on the heighth or width of a bag wouldn’t help any terrorists intent on taking over an airplane.  But the proposed restrictions would inconvenience travelers and allow the airlines to fob off on government what should be their own responsibility for setting luggage standards. 

TSA also has restarted ad hoc inspections of boarding passengers.  At least flights as well as passengers are targeted randomly.  After 9/11 the TSA conducted secondary inspections for every flight.  The process suggested that the initial inspections were unreliable, delayed passengers, and led experienced flyers to game the process.  It was critical to try to hit the front of the line while the inspectors were busy bothering someone else.  There was no full-proof system, but I learned that being first or second in line was particularly dangerous.

Finally TSA dropped the practice.  And, as far as I am aware, no planes were hijacked or terrorist acts committed as a result.  But TSA recently restarted the inspections, though on a random basis.

I had to remember my old lessons last week, when I ran into the routine on my return home from a trip during which I addressed students about liberty.  Luckily I was able to get on board, rather than get stuck as TSA personnel pawed through bags already screened at the security check point.

There’s no fool-proof way to ensure security for air travel.  Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to inconvenience passengers while only looking like one is ensuring airline security.

Retiring General Counsel’s Shocking Admission: The NEA Is a Union!

YouTube video that catches Bob Chanin, retiring general counsel of the National Education Association, calling right-wing groups ”bastards” for attacking his soon-to-be-former employer has recently been making the rounds. Not surprisingly, some right-wingers haven’t been too happy about Chanin’s retirement speech, not caring for the “bastard” label. I, however, want to thank Mr. Chanin for his salty valedictory. 

Why? First off, because his pugnacious presentation has a certain Teamsters feel to it, furnishing almost visceral confirmation that the National Education Association is a labor union pure-and-simple — not the high-brow “professional employee organization” it bills itself as — ready to slash tires or do whatever else it thinks necessary to get its way.

But I’m especially grateful because Mr. Chanin all but declares that the NEA is a power-obsessed, hyper-political union that serves not children, but adults. Of course, anyone who has followed the NEA knows that — indeed, its exactly what we should expect considering that it’s the adults who pay the dues — but it’s a shocking admission from someone so high in the association, and a reality the public all too often misses.

What follows is my transcription of the speech’s most revelatory section. Of course, if you would prefer to catch all the inflections, hemming and hawing, and crowd reactions, you can just watch the video. If you’re going to do that, either start at the beginning for the whole address (obviously) or go to about the 15-minute mark to hit the really revealing stuff. And maybe, when you’re done either reading or watching, send Mr. Chanin a retirement card with a little thank you note in it. After all, giving this honesty-filled speech could very well be the best thing he’s ever done for children or the public:

Why are these conservative and right-wing bastards picking on NEA and its affiliates? I will tell you why: It is the price we pay for success. NEA and its affiliates have been singled out because they are the most effective unions in the United States. And they are the nation’s leading advocates for public education and the type of liberal social and economic agenda that these groups find unacceptable….

At first glance, some of you may find these attacks troubling. But you would be wrong. They are, in fact, really a good thing. When I first came to NEA in the early ’60s it had few enemies, and was almost never criticized, attacked, or even mentioned in the media. This was because no one really gave a damn about what NEA did, or what NEA said. It was the proverbial sleeping giant: a conservative, apolitical, do-nothing organization.

But then, NEA began to change. It embraced collective bargaining. It supported teacher strikes. It established a political action committee. It spoke out for affirmative action, and it defended gay and lesbian rights. What NEA said and did began to matter. And the more we said and did, the more we pissed people off. And, in turn, the more enemies we made.

So the bad news, or depending on your point of view, the good news, is that NEA and its affiliates will continue to be attacked by conservative and right-wing groups as long as we continue to be effective advocates for public education, for education employees, and for human and civil rights.

And that brings me to my final, and most important point. Which is why, at least in my opinion, NEA and its affiliates are such effective advocates. Despite what some among us would like to believe, it is not because of our creative ideas. It is not because of the merit of our positions. It is not because we care about children. And it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child. NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power. And we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year because they believe that we are the unions that can most effectively represent them, the unions that can protect their rights and advance their interests as education employees.

This is not to say that the concern of NEA and its affiliates with closing achievement gaps, reducing dropout rates, improving teacher quality, and the like are unimportant or inappropriate. To the contrary, these are the goals that guide the work we do. But they need not and must not be achieved at the expense of due process, employee rights, and collective bargaining. That simply is too high a price to pay!

When all is said and done, NEA and its affiliates must never lose sight of the fact that they are unions, and what unions do first and foremost is represent their members.

Death to Power Point!

put-them-to-sleepThat’s not quite the point of T. X. Hammes’ article in the current Armed Forces Journal, but it’s pretty close.  My familiarity with Power Point has been much more on the academic than DOD side, but my understanding is that academics are nothing when compared to Pentagon planners when it comes to egregious abuse of Power Point.  Here’s Hammes:

Before PowerPoint, staffs prepared succinct two- or three-page summaries of key issues. The decision-maker would read a paper, have time to think it over and then convene a meeting with either the full staff or just the experts involved to discuss the key points of the paper. Of course, the staff involved in the discussion would also have read the paper and had time to prepare to discuss the issues. In contrast, today, a decision-maker sits through a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation followed by five minutes of discussion and then is expected to make a decision. Compounding the problem, often his staff will have received only a five-minute briefing from the action officer on the way to the presentation and thus will not be well-prepared to discuss the issues. This entire process clearly has a toxic effect on staff work and decision-making.

The art of slide-ology

Let’s start by examining the impact on staff work. Rather than the intellectually demanding work of condensing a complex issue to two pages of clear text, the staff instead works to create 20 to 60 slides. Time is wasted on deciding which pictures to put on the slides, how to build complex illustrations, and what bullets should be included. I have even heard conversations about what font to use and what colors. Most damaging is the reduction of complex issues to bullet points. Obviously, bullets are not the same as complete sentences, which require developing coherent thoughts. Instead of forcing officers to learn the art of summarizing complex issues into coherent arguments, staff work now places a premium on slide building. Slide-ology has become an art in itself, while thinking is often relegated to producing bullets.

Hammes makes a number of excellent points, including his mention of my pet peeve, the presenter who places full paragraphs on slides (preceded, of course, by a bullet, which makes it more Power Point-y), and then proceeds to read the paragraphs to his audience and calls this a “briefing.”  Of course, humans can read faster than they can speak.  One wonders whether there could be any real value in a brief provided by someone who does not understand this. 

Hammes closes by mentioning that one excuse for using Power Point in this way is that

senior leaders don’t have time to be pre-briefed on all the decisions they make. If that is the case, they are involved in too many decisions. When the default position is that you are too busy to prepare properly to make a decision, it means you are making bad decisions.

Sage wisdom.  Some of us might argue that there are many indications that folks in the Pentagon are “involved in too many decisions,” but the entropic debasement of thought there, enabled by Power Point, is as good a sign as any.