The real economic freedom in America

On Monday, Barack Obama delivered his second Inaugural Address. While the Right and the Left will argue over what was said there, here is the passage that I think embraces the struggle over not only “entitlements,” but of wages and unions, the dignity of work and the value of one’s life over another.

We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

Systems that take care of our common needs free us to contribute more deeply. Teachers just want to teach, welders want weld. They do not want to be fighting their employers for job security, a livable wage or decent working conditions. That is why we need unions. The energy teachers spend fending off the barbarians nipping at their heels is energy that saps them from being outstanding teachers. Same with artists, poets, writers, musicians, journalists and philosophers. They just want to create, not worry and fight about making enough to make a living. When we rob them of their work, we rob ourselves of our own cultural advancement.

Doctors want to treat patients, not fill out forms, run small businesses and fight insurance companies. Every battle with an insurance agent robs us all of that doctor’s potential contribution to advancing health care to its exception.

Most of us will get old. Most of us will need medical care. All of us need education. When we free ourselves of that worry of how we will gain an education, survive our old age and our health, we free ourselves to live and contribute more deeply. This is not a liberal idea; this is a community idea. This is one area that our government can and should help us achieve.

It is not about cost. It is not about socialism. It is not about creating a nation of takers or Welfare Queens. It is about extracting excellence from citizens by freeing them from the anxiety of old age, student loan debt and bankruptcy due to ill health.

We should keep in mind that when the Founders drafted those documents Conservatives claw back to some almost two hundred fifty years ago, they were looking toward the future and seeing us as we are today. Perhaps we should honor them by looking forward to the country the United States of America will be in the next two hundred fifty years instead of pining to get back to the good ol’ days of the Founders.

Income disparity during snow days

snow day in ohio

I heard the blizzard warnings last night on the television and immediately thought all the news stations were just salivating at the chance to finally scare the living crap out of us with spun-up winter weather.

Shortly after sun-up this morning, I knew I was wrong. We were getting some real winter weather.

I’m lucky. I don’t have to go into my office to make a living. I just need an Internet connection and a laptop. I can redirect my office phone to my cell phone with a few clicks and log into servers from anywhere I can get WiFi.

But many employees are not as lucky. Many employees who work for retail and fast food places at or near minimum wage are not only expected to show up for work during bad weather, but will probably get their hours cut or fired if they show up late or not at all. In addition, many will also choose to sleep in their cars after their shift today so they won’t be late for work tomorrow morning.

Something to think about on Boxing Day when those of us who are more fortunate are supposed to be mindful of those less fortunate and labor in service for our comfort.

A photo speaks a thousands words and one editorial point of view

On the evening of September 11, 2001, my family piled into the car and we drove to a restaurant to have dinner. During the five mile drive on a mostly deserted freeway, we talked about the events of the day and how the kids felt about them. My daughter — who was 10 at the time — was the most affected. As we passed by a gas station, she noticed a line of cars forming and blurted out, “Daddy, my friend said we should get gas NOW because it will be $10/gal by night. It’s already $5/gal in Indiana!”

I smiled because I could. I was driving and she couldn’t see my face from the back seat.

I asked her why she thought that was true? I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it amounted to ‘prices moving west to east’ just like the weather. We talked through this a bit more and then she realized that the logic her friend had was not entirely accurate. Prices don’t work like weather patterns.

Last week, The New York Times started a “What’s going on in this picture?” as part of their Newspaper in Education program, the Learning Network. It has been several years since I created newspaper lesson plans so I found myself a bit rusty as to why this bothered me so much. Then I remembered my recent exchanges with @NeilHedley on editorial point of view on some photos during this election cycle and found my bearings.

I don’t mean to disparage The New York Times and their Newspaper in Education program. They are following a model that has been set for a long time by educators. But I think we can do better by our kids.

During my time at Newspapers in Education at the Dayton Daily News, we did not play “guess what this is” games. We crafted the KidsINK pages like they were real editorial. That meant photos captions that explained what was going on in the photo.

But that does not mean the photo was not carefully edited. Photos on the KidsINK pages were as carefully chosen and cropped as were the words to describe them as were the words written to tell the story. The editorial point of view of photos mattered then 10-14 years ago and matters even more today.

Stick with me.

Part of what is challenging about teaching literature or history — and this case, news — is relying on the student to “discover” the plot that is somehow buried in a sea of words or behind a series of pixels on a photo. For most of them, withholdig the plot or what is happening in a photo seems like “gotcha” learning. Kids today are not in short supply with people telling them what they are looking at.

Finding out the facts or the plot is easier than ever with tools like Wikipedia and Google. The primary skill most students need now is not the ability to discover what is happening, but whether or not what they are being told and shown is factual and true.

Tell kids what is going on in the photos; don’t make them guess. Now, ask them, “Do you believe it is true? How about factual? What about the photo makes you think that? What about the photo makes you doubt that? Why do you think it is important that someone thought you should know that?” and then perhaps most importantly, “What do you believe the photojournalist is trying to convince you to believe?”

Skills our kids need to navigate their futures.
Bon Stewert wrote this excellent piece about sending kids out into the wild unprepared. Please read it (but after you finish this post.. I promise, we are almost done.)

Let’s fast-forward to The New York Times’ election day issue (the New York edition, which is different from the National Edition) photo above. A click on the photo will lead us to the full page*. What does this photo tell you?

At first glance, it is the First Family walking on stage before Barack Obama delivered his acceptance speech. But why that particular photo? What else is going on? What about the family, the election and the country did the editors want the readers to know? What is being said in that photo? What is the editorial point of view?

Here is my take. I think the position of the two girls — Sasha and Malia — is screaming volumes about what was accomplished on election night. Look at where they are relative to the president and first lady. They are in front of them, almost leading them on stage. I think the editors are telling us that while Barack Obama may have won a second term, it was really the generation coming after them that won the night. The next generation solidly includes members who are strong, non-white and female and not ever, ever, ever going to be breaking up with America.

In case you think I may be reading too much into the photo, take a look at the library of photos available to the front page editor. The photo featured above was chosen — consciously or subconsciously — for a reason. The photo is a self-contained story that the editor wanted to tell. There is no such thing as “just a pretty photo, embellishing an article” in a newspaper.

Kids need to know what is going on — and they need to go through the discovery process themselves — but they also need truth assessment in far faster and larger quantities than their parents ever did. In many cases, they don’t have the luxury of fact-checking against an encyclopedia or library. Media lies to them in a constant stream in real time; on television, on radio, on the Internet and in conversations with their friends and peers.

*Dear NYT lawyers: Please consider this Fair Use for educational purposes. Please?

Why every private sector company should want single-payer, Medicare-for-all

Yesterday, I made a call to Verizon Wireless to cancel my MiFi card. At $59.99 per month for unlimited use, it was an expense I could live without. But I won’t be saving that money for long.

In March, I am expecting Anthem BCBS of Ohio to increase my health insurance premiums at least 20%. I still have to find about $100.00 in savings I am paying some other private-sector company to break even with where I am today. I may have to stop eating organic food.

I’m most definitely not buying an iPad Mini.

“Why are you canceling your MiFi service?” the woman on the other end asked me, expecting some service issue she could happily resolve with some equipment upgrade.

“Well, I am fixing to transfer some more wealth to the private insurance company, BCBS, that the good folks at the GOP are saying is my freedom of choice,” I explained. “You know, if we had single-payer, Medicare-for-all, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Pretty soon, the medical industry will have all the money we might be paying you.”

With incomes being flat and no sign of them rising, us middle-aged, middle-class folk will have to get the money from somewhere to pay for our medical care. The private-sector medical industry doesn’t show any slowing for their appetite for increasing costs.

If you are a private sector company, why are you not supporting single-payer, Medicare-for-all? In ten years when you wonder why your customers have no money, won’t you at least wonder why the medical services industry is the only growth industry?

Something to think about.

Emergency rooms, magical thinking, and the poor

Emergency Room

To hear Mitt Romney (and many others) tell it, Emergency Rooms are the physical embodiment of Mother Theresa, treating indigents like Jesus treated the lepers. The great seas of health care are suddenly parted for the poor and ill, and outstanding bills just miraculously become absorbed into the ether of write-off’s and tax exemptions.

This type of magical health care thinking isn’t limited to multi-millionaire politicians. Many in the public also believe ER’s effectively fill the wide gap between sickness and insurance. It’s a fallacy that has become so engrained that its standard line — get sick, get treated by an ER, get the tab picked up by someone else — goes nearly undisputed by those on both the right and the left.

That’s simply not the way it works.

Setting aside the fact that ER’s are not mandated to treat what their doctors may consider a non-emergency — a subject which merits its own, separate discussion — many uninsured ER patients find themselves saddled with bills they can’t hope to pay. These bills are not just from the hospital, but from outside physicians, diagnostic services, and laboratories, none of whom are mandated to treat the indigent or uninsured for free.

Depending upon the state and the hospital, uninsured patients may meet with a hospital social worker who will have them fill out forms for state aid or other programs. There is no guarantee of approval, and even when someone does qualify, benefits may not extend to other services rendered in the course of care.

On a trip across the US, I spoke to several people in dire straights due to medical debt. One of them was a homeless man in his 30s. John M. was a single laborer who was working a temp job when he was hit with over $8,000 in medical bills for non-work related wound that had led to a staph infection. In the hospital, he met with a social worker who helped him apply for aid. Later, he received notice that he didn’t qualify due to his income and status as a single person. The bills started pouring in, not just from the hospital, but from doctors whose names he didn’t recognize and labs that had processed his tests.

When bills like John’s go unpaid, hospitals and other businesses may “write them off,” but contrary to what many people may believe, this does not mean that they disappear. Collection agencies buy such debts for pennies on the dollar and then may vigorously pursue the patient-debtor, through judgments, wage garnishments, and bank account liens. To add to the confusion, medical debts can be bought and sold many times over, involving an almost incomprehensible string of collection agencies.

Like many people with medical debt, John attempted to work with the collection agencies on a payment plan, but there were too many of them, each demanding that their bill take precedence. Desperate for relief, John went to an agency that specializes in helping debtors reach payment agreements and was told he didn’t make enough to carry the minimum monthly payment that would be required. At that point, John considered filing for bankruptcy, but he couldn’t afford the attorney’s fees.

Four years after his illness, with his credit ruined and with several court judgments against him, John’s low wages were garnished and he could no longer afford his rent. He applied for a second job as a cashier at a home goods store and was told that they’d run his credit report as a matter of practice. It was the same at other places he applied. While he was never told why he wasn’t hired, he suspected that his low score had something to do with the lack of call-backs, particularly since he’d never had such a problem finding a minimum wage job before.

John scrambled for a cheaper place to live, but none of them were cheap enough to make up for the loss of wages, and all of them required better credit than his. He was told he’d need a cosigner or a larger deposit, neither of which he had. Feeling he had no choice, John quit his job and found work with another temp agency, hoping to outrun his garnishment and at least catch up on his rent. Within two months, the collection agencies had found his new place of employment and set the wheels in motion to collect their pay. John was eventually evicted. Jobless, he lived out of his 14 year-old truck for a while, but then his truck died and he couldn’t afford repairs. He sold it for scrap so that he could eat. He showed up at the county day labor office every weekday, hoping to make enough money to rent a motel room. Sometimes there was work, sometimes there wasn’t. Sometimes he slept in shelters, but many times he slept in the streets. When winter got to be too much, he scraped together enough to take a bus to a warmer climate. When I met him, he was among many of Florida’s homeless and his prospects for crawling out of the hole were dimmer than ever.

Of course, not all stories are as extreme as John’s, but the fact that some are is a stark reminder of how easily a life can be unraveled, particularly when medical debt can bring a host of life-altering consequences.

Some people do end up qualifying for State programs, and there are some hospitals which have developed their own foundations to assist in care, but there’s no national uniformity to the system. While an uninsured person at one hospital may qualify to have their ER charges reduced or paid for by another entity, another person, at another hospital, may not.

In any case, medical debt is on the rise and collection agencies are becoming increasingly aggressive in pursuing debtors.

The Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that sponsors health care research, estimates that 22 million Americans were contacted by collection agencies for unpaid medical bills in 2005. That increased to 30 million Americans in 2010. – March 2012, USA Today

As the article in USA Today points out, credit may be wrecked even when medical debt is paid. Slow and late payments can stay on records for seven years, and as much as ten if there is a judgment involved. There is also a valid and growing concern that collection agencies are misusing the court system to have debtors thrown in jail, adding the element of warrants and jail time to people’s background checks which, like poor credit, may diminish their future employment and housing opportunities. Poverty by itself is a vicious cycle that is difficult to escape. Adding collections, garnishments, judgments, bad credit, and arrests to the list of obstacles can make it nearly impossible. In the bigger picture, it would seem to do more harm to our economy and social structure to keep people locked in the cycle of medical debt for years on end, rather than to offer them a real solution.

Despite receiving tax exemptions to care for the uninsured and poor, some hospitals have gone so far as to sue these patients for what they are owed. Others, as noted, turn their debts over to collection agencies. In the mix are the outside services which are not given the same exemptions, and which aren’t subject to the same guidelines.

The result of all of this is that both patients and the medical care industry are suffering, while collection agencies are growing richer. By 2007, the number of collection agents had doubled from the early 1990s, while industry revenue tripled to $15 billion (on $40 billion in collected debt).

So, no, emergency rooms are not the answer for America’s sick and uninsured. The illness that’s treated today should not result in years of financial consequences, which not only affects individuals, but society as a whole. To what end is a culture that binds people to medical debt in ways that may cost them their homes, jobs, and futures? To what end is a medical system that only increases the need for shelters, welfare, and other social services — while burdening the healthcare industry with millions of dollars in extra costs? An America that grows poverty is not as valuable as an America that grows potential. Anyone who would argue against that is as short-sighted as they are unreasonable.

This is not a donut

Cosby Show

Cosby Show

Mitt Romney released his final 2011 taxes today and the media are all over it like there is some precious jewel they will uncover. For me, the fact that he has been arrogantly obstinate about not releasing more than two years tells me all I need to know about his character.

I was content with that until Chris Hayes from the UP w/ Chris Hayes Show tweeted something rather pointed this afternoon about Mitt’s tax returns that got me thinking.

I think it’s actually morally condemnable to take “extraordinary” measures to avoid taxes, even if legal. #hashout

I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that everything on the Romney tax returns is entirely legal. Every deduction, every exemption and every income category complies with the letter of the law. And that is the crux of the issue Hayes was getting at.

Chris is young. He is not a grizzled, hardened small business person — yet — so we can forgive him his moralizing for a moment. But this got me thinking about how Mitt sees the tax code and why it is a peek into his character. For this point to stick, we need to climb into the Wayback Machine to the ’80s and watch a short clip of a Cosby Show episode. This is the one where Claire was invited to be on a panel for a Sunday morning show much like Hayes’ except the pastries were kept in the green room.

It’s a good thing we’ve evolved and let the pastries join us at the table. Let’s watch.

The scene that aligns with Mitt’s behavior and Hayes’ tweet is when Hector say, “This is not a donut!” as he bites hungrily into a chocolate-glazed long john. He is technically correct; a long john is not a donut. But it really IS a donut. You and I would call a long john a donut. So would Claire. And Cliff Huxtable knows damn well that a long john — and even a danish which he eventually bites into — is a donut.

This is what the “morally condemnable” bit is that I think Hayes is referring to. While Mitt’s tax avoidance may be perfectly legal, it is immoral to dance on the letter of the law as you force the spirit of the law to give up the ghost.

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Mitt the painter

While all the cable news shows are struggling with how to balance the odd appearance of Clint Eastwood and covering Mitt Romney’s speech, I went back and looked at the transcript and watched the video more times than one dog should be allowed. I nearly went deaf with all the dog whistles, but I soldiered on, trying to get to the essence of what he was saying.

The speech kinda rambled, trying to cover too many things too quickly, but one phrase popped out that lays bare the Romney thinking. It’s at about minute 33:50. So far, I think all the “analysts” have missed it. They may have been too busy focusing on the applause in the house instead of the words being said on stage.

President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. MY promise…is to help you and your family.

For months, we have been told the GOP was the party of big ideas, of bold and brave decisions. I think this one statement — buried right after the five-part jobs creation plan that appeared to be ripped out of a freshman economics textbook — crystalizes what a Romney presidency would really be like. It is the one thing in the speech that is consistent with his life and his campaign.

While President Obama works to solve the structural problems that creates the symptoms, a President Romney would focus on solving the symptoms. What does it help your family if they are in a nice house that is being swallowed up by the rising tides?

In short, we will paint over the water stains, flip this country and sell it to the highest bidder. Romney’s America is not a country that needs the foundation shored up and invested in, it is a 1 1/2 story bungalow with a crumbling foundation that just needs a new coat of paint.

This is the essence of what Romney did at Bain Capital. He found a fixer-upper, leveraged it to suck wealth out of it for a few owners at the top and discarded it or sold it off to the suckers who thought they were getting a good deal. That’s not a bad thing, that is what private equity is supposed to be good at. But I’m pretty sure it is not the skill set a president needs.

America needs infrastructure investment like health care, modern railways, education, roads, bridges, communications, modernized banking, environment and power. She also needs help with the intangible infrastructure like happiness, relief from chronic anxiety and a boost of confidence. And yes, she needs more hope and change.

America does not need more paint on her walls.

Seventeen minutes that changed the world

Like many Americans, I stayed up late last night to listen to Governor Chris Christie deliver the keynote address at the Republican National Convention. I wanted to hear how Mitt Romney will transform the stagnant economy, how he will inspire us all to get up each morning and work; not because we have to, but because we are eager to build something our children and their children’s children can be proud of.

I was disappointed. What I heard was a tirade about how we need to quit whining, walk it off and get back into the coal mine. You haven’t yet lost all the fingers on your hands and your back is not yet broken.

When he finished speaking, I lifted my broken body from the coach, silently turned off the television and shuffled off to bed, feeling not only uninspired but a little more depressed. I prayed silently that I not wake up in the morning. Not in Chris Christie’s America.

But I did wake up. And on a whim — for the sake of comparison — I Googled Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote speech. I was reminded that life is lived in the moments, that seventeen minutes in a life can make a difference. Whether or not you voted — or will vote — for Barack Obama, would you not really want to live in an inspired America than a downtrodden and drepressing one?


On C_SPAN

I want to live there. I think many, many more do as well.