Friday, December 6, 2013

Of Websites And Healthcare

Will Americans ever get tired of arguing incessantly about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka “Obamacare”?  Inflamed by news media personalities seeking ratings and politicians seeking power gains, this national argument has been unending for almost six tiring years.  From Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008; through Congressional debate and passage in 2009-2010; through years of wasted monthly House resolutions to repeal Obamacare that went nowhere; through a Supreme Court case in 2012 that affirmed it as constitutional; and through a government shutdown in 2013 caused by a radical minority that accomplished nothing except for more governmental and national economic chaos.

Granted, the initial rollout of the online insurance exchange signup program was a mess.  Any new computer system has its shakedown period and crazy kinks to be resolved.  But this was a technology project that personified bad management.  Truth is, governments – federal, state and local – have never been very good at technology development.  The IRS spent decades trying unsuccessfully to upgrade and integrate their systems.  The Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense are currently trying to integrate their systems to share medical records between veterans and active military personnel; so far a disaster going nowhere.

There are many reasons for government technology failures and shortcomings, many of which I have seen firsthand as a former IT professional in the public sector.  Not bad people, but bad conditions.  Too many constituencies to please; too much intractable “business as usual” thinking; inadequate leadership and decision-making authority; and all too typically, insufficient funding.  Add in the interconnection complexity of the new Obamacare insurance exchanges across the country, and you have a very difficult technology system to be developed and installed under high visibility.  Good technology project leadership would have: gotten support and advice from technology people in the insurance private sector who create such websites every day; lined everyone up with a solid project plan; given clear marching orders to all involved; and provided adequate, if not overwhelming,  resources.  Especially given that the Affordable Care Act is this president’s signature legacy accomplishment.  In private industry, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius would most certainly have been summarily and deservedly fired for this poor outcome.

Unfortunately, the list of people vested in ACA’s failure is long: doomsday naysayers; untruthful politicians; CEOs now blaming Obamacare as the excuse for reducing employee benefits that they have been wanting to do for a long time; hypocrites who argue that private industry is best qualified to fix health care shortcomings that they created in the first place.  But the website will get fixed.  People will then sign up for new insurance.  Most people whose policies have been cancelled – often polices that should never have been sold due to their deceptive coverage limitations – will find new affordable policies, if not cheaper and with greater benefits, to replace their lost coverage.  And the full impact of the changes to the odious practices of the health insurance companies – e.g. preexisting conditions, limitations on coverage, caps on benefits – will become cemented in.  If all of the noisy objections would quiet down, then by the end of 2014, and certainly by the 2016 presidential election, the ACA would finally have become simply “the law and practice of the land.”

The byproduct of this continually inane and hysterical debate is what thereby has been ignored in the national conversation.  I.e. the real health care issues facing America.  Issues such as the continually escalating cost of delivering our health care.  The hidden rate schedule that is inexplicable and non-comparable among health care institutions.  The absence of a rational discussion about health services and death decisions for the elderly.  The lack of “buyer selection” in choosing health solutions and providers due to unpublished rates and a multi-tiered byzantine web of providers looking to be paid.  A system that rewards doing more tests / more drugs / more surgery rather than prevention of illness.  A for-profit industry – often masquerading as “benevolent non-profit or charitable institutions” – that increasingly measures success not by the good health of its clients but by the salaries and dividends that it returns to its insiders.  A system of insurance coverage for medical costs that is tied to one’s employment status, and the generosity (or not) of the individual employer.  It is an industry that is misdirected, with excessively layered costs, funded by backroom deal-making, with an uninformed buyer floundering in the marketplace.

Health care skills and knowledge in America may be second-to-none in the world.  But in covering our population, providing access to these services, and paying reasonable charges based upon quality/price market competition as is required of most all other industries, our health care industry is an overwhelming mess.  America is “a country that pays too much and gets too little from its health care system, whose costs, at nearly 18% of GDP, limit [its] ability to grow and invest and compete globally.  Compared with other developed countries, the U.S. has more uninsured, fewer doctors per capita, and lower life expectancies.”  (TIME, “Race For The Cure,” 12/2/2013)

These are the real issues that need thoughtful, deep, and forward-looking discussions.  But they are discussions that are not happening on a national scale.  And they will not happen as long as “medical news” focuses only on grandiose announcements of scientific research results, political game-playing, and a rallying cause for the anti-government disaffected.

Almost two-thirds of personal bankruptcies in America are attributable to health care debt.  Millions of people avoid seeking needed health care because of high costs and personal affordability.  Real people are suffering or dying for lack of access to adequate care.  When the Affordable Care Act finally settles in, when the media moves on to the next big disaster or controversial story, when the politicians find the new big fundraiser topic, when the din of this cacophonic noise finally quiets down, when all the distractions finally go away – will anyone then start the badly needed, serious conversation about health services and its delivery systems in America?

It is about issues of substance, not bumper stickers or theatrics.  It is a conversation worth having.  It is a conversation worth having now.

©  2013   Randy Bell

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Our Seven Branches Of Government

The Constitution of the United States is a marvelous document.  Yet it is a document few Americans have actually read, even though many speak of it with authoritative certainty.  It is remarkable in the structure – and the underlying concepts – of our collective governance.  It is even more remarkable when one considers it in the light of its time – establishing a unique form of government without precedence and then unheard of throughout the world, yet crafted in only four months of meeting time.  But a most captivating aspect of this document is the very personal, all-too-human stories of the 55 men who went about this work.  Stories of their widely divergent individual opinions, their passion for those beliefs, yet their willingness and ability to reach for a greater, more over-arching unifying goal.  Then the follow-up story of the subsequent cliff-hanging, just-barely adoption of their work by the citizenry.  These stories deserve many retellings, but that is far beyond the scope of this small blog.

We all know from our school civics classes that our Constitution created three branches of government.  The Legislature branch (Congress) was divided into two parts, each defined in extensive detail – a legislature being the principal form of government previously known to the Constitutional creators.  The Executive branch (President) was spelled out next after much debate about what such a role should be, given that it was the first non-royal executive in a world filled with kings wielding near-absolute power.  Lastly established was the Judiciary branch (Supreme and lesser Courts), almost an afterthought about which little was said regarding its intended powers.  Its driving definition was to ensure that judges would be free from an overpowering President or Congress.

Among these three institutions, a whole series of operating conditions and interlocking techniques was instituted to ensure that no branch could operate independently, usurp the powers of another branch, or threaten the freedoms so recently obtain by the blood of the Revolutionary War.  These checks and balance intentionally make for slow decision-making and “inefficient” action by a government serving widely diverse people, but they effectively control the beast that could so easily run out of the control of the citizen population for whom it exists.  Cumbersome, but all very neat and tidy, openly visible and well defined.

Except that 225 years later, the actual reality is that we now have seven branches for our federal government.  With these added four, some are visible, some are not, many operate without restraint or approved “rules of the game” defined and adopted by the citizenry.  The world of governance has changed dramatically since 1789.

Ever since Andrew Jackson’s presidency, the Executive has been the dominate branch, replacing the traditional supremacy of the Legislature.  The vastness of this governmental bureaucracy can be overpowering as it seeks to fulfill an increasing public demand for services.  As a result, administrative procedures and regulations often surpass the intended primacy of legislative laws.  The two branches of Congress have each adopted procedural rules that make a mockery of our first Congress, and turn upside down the fundamental concept of “majority rules.”  The Supreme Court has become simply an extension of the legislative divisions and debate, with a continual series of 5-4 decisions between “liberal” and “conservative” judges – effectively surrendering its intended role as independent arbiters of truth and law, beholden to no political faction.

As messy and tangled up as our Constitutional government may have now become, the bigger threat to our commitment to representative democracy are the four de facto additional branches.  They were never envisioned by the Constitutional creators, yet they wield great (if not greater) power in what government decides and how it operates.

The new 4th branch is the “political party.”  These institutions showed up pretty quickly after the start of our government, groups of strongly opposing views whose in-fighting drove George Washington to exasperation.  Many political parties have come and gone over the years, often built around issue-specific agendas or charismatic personalities.  But for the last 150 years, the Republican and Democratic parties have dominated, albeit often with contrarian sub-wings (e.g. the old Dixiecrats; the current Tea Party).  Loyalty to Party, voting by Party platform, voting to promote the Party’s political standing and power, now often trumps voting by individual conscience or to fulfill constituent opinions and goals.  A committee chairman of the majority party and from another electoral jurisdiction often has far more influence over my life than does my own elected representative.  Representative democracy loses to selfish gains in political power.

The 5th branch is the army of paid lobbyists who camp on the doors of Congressional and/or Executive branch offices.  Highly paid, with plenty of campaign funds to distribute (directly or indirectly), they quietly, invisibly and highly effectively dictate what laws, what regulations, will be adopted.  All with a narrow and specific view of self-interest, not public interest, obtaining special favors or exemptions for their sponsors.  Special treatment not available to Mr. & Mrs. Public.  The Supreme Court may have demanded “one person, one vote,” but lobbyists ensure that not all voters count equally.

The 6th branch is the Communications industry.  Newspapers, magazines, newsletters, cable television news shows, internet news channels, individual blogs, and social media.  An avalanche of words beyond digestibility, more and more served up without factual or intelligent discrimination.  Reporters versus “commentators,” yet neither is bound to balanced perspective or “truth” except maybe by individual choice and personal ethics.  Minor celebrities are given major air time simply to feed the insatiable demand to fill the 24x7 news void, and to maximize revenues.  In the face of this onslaught, citizens are forced to pick their news, and they often pick the news that confirms what they already believe rather than hear the debate that shakes up and educates our deeper understandings.  In this splintering of our news, true information is lost and the emotional appeals of demagogues succeed.  “More” news has not proven to be “better” news.

The 7th branch is made up of the new political action committees (PACs).  Turned loose financially by the Supreme Court, these shadowy groups now spend virtually unlimited dollars to promote any one-sided cause or candidate that they choose.  Big dollars from a very small number of very rich people.  They fund negative ads that reduce broad, complicated issues to bumper sticker slogans.  They distort our knowing of the pertinent facts of these issues, and distort the conclusions that we draw.  A very select few disproportionally dominate “The Message,” adding little to public decision-making.  So far, to our credit, Americans have generally resisted being bought out by the big money.  Spending levels have not necessarily equated with electoral success.  But can Americans continue to resist these “temptations of the devil”?

We are a long way removed from the Founders’ concept of the citizen-politician who gives to public service and then returns to farm or business.  A long way removed from citizen control of their representatives, our direct connection to representative democracy.  Unfortunately, the very ones empowered to bring Constitutional reform and definition to these four additional branches of government are these seven branches themselves, each of whom has have no interest in reducing their role and influence (versus expanding it!).  Yet if not controlled, it is an influence that is far greater than the three branches our Constitution originally established.  If we as citizens are to effectively change this unchartered and unauthorized form of restructured government – and change it we must – it starts with full recognition and acceptance of the reality of what our form of government has actually become.  And it is a form that we were not taught in that civics class of long ago.

© 2013 Randy Bell       

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Governing On The Precipice

How many times can one walk to the extreme edge of the cliff before finally falling off?  And when one thusly falls, is it an “accident” of unforeseen outcomes or is it a suicide step?  Such are the questions raised about the recent absurd government shutdown and debt ceiling near default on our financial (and moral) obligations.

Mercifully, this craziness did finally come to a protracted end.  But only after the drama and stage characters burned themselves out from their own intensity.  The episode became a farcical comedy whereby the nation with the biggest economy in the world and the most powerful military, who was the creator of modern democracy, managed to look like a foolish 2nd- or 3rd-rate developing country in chaos.  There were a lot of speeches, a lot of maneuvering, a lot of bravado grandstanding.  But in the end, virtually nothing tangible was achieved except our own humiliation.  The losers were bodies piled atop each other all over Washington.  Some examples:

1.     The American Economy: By some estimates, around $24B was pulled out of the economy at the very time when recovery from the 2008 Wall Street debacle was slowly showing good promise.  So much stupidity from the party that has been preaching that business and the economy is supposedly priority #1.

2.     Job Improvement:  We are still hurting badly from the number of people unemployed.  So what did Congress do?  It threw almost a million government employees involuntarily out of work, and companies froze hiring due to the uncertainty of our future economic direction.

3.     Congress: Its approval rating now stands at less than 10%.  Congress’ job is to legislate, but virtually no legislation is being passed.  Which is why 2/3rds of the population now believes ALL Congresspersons should be thrown out of their office – including their own representatives (a first!).

4.     Majority Rules: One of our most basic rules of governance is that a simple majority rules.  The Senate gave away that principle a decade ago when virtually every decision became subject to a filibuster requiring a 60% majority vote.  Now the House has joined into that anti-democratic process with its own rule that nothing can be brought to a vote unless a majority of the controlling party in power approves.  Which means that 115 Republicans (only 27% of the full House) effectively controls the legislative agenda – except that in reality it only took around 50 Tea Partiers (11% of the full House) to intimidate the other 181 Republicans out of fear of losing their next primary campaign to a further-Rightist.

5.     Business Republicans: Long the stalwart backers of the Republican Party, they were sent reeling by this shutdown and threat of insolvency.  Lower government costs (and thereby taxes) equals less income for government contractors.  A debt default would send financial markets and American equity into free-fall.  Not what any business leader wants.  These once old friends of Congressional Republicans are calling for sanity, refusing to return Congressional phone calls, and pulling their financial backing and promising to redirect it to less extreme future candidates.

6.     The American People: Real people were hurt by this shutdown: public/private employees out of work; vacation-goers to national facilities; government employees trying to pay their mortgage; poor people trying to put food on the table; children locked out of Headstart programs; university research scientists whose work stopped; parents trying to protect their families from unhealthy products; small business owners scraping by.  It is a long list of real people who suffered real harm.  All for no necessary reason, certainly not from their own doing.

Yet to whom Lee Terry (R-NE) said when asked  if he would refuse his salary during the shutdown he voted for, “I’ve got a nice house and kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it.  Giving away our paycheck …is just not going to fly.”  And Steve Pearce (R-NM) recommended that the newly unemployed just “call your bank and get a short-term loan to tide you through.”  Pearce has been rated as the 46th-richest member of Congress.

7.     International Leadership:  We who serve as the economic backbone and force for stability in the world, have frightened the world by appearing as the least stable of all.  The damage may prove irreparable.

8.     The Tea Party: In the aftermath of this debacle, these extremists on the far Right tried to put on a game face, talking about “sticking to their principles” and “making a statement.”  But the bottom line is that the Tea Party lost everything.  Defunding Obamacare – ostensibly the reason for this financial attack – was neither altered nor defunded in any way.  No government spending was reduced.  No practical gameplan for success or “exist strategy” ever existed.  They managed to make the Speaker of the House look like a non-leader essentially held under “House arrest.”  Ted Cruz will raise big bucks for his campaign committee; but he has eliminated himself from any peer Republican support or future national leadership role.  Even the often unfathomable televangelist Pat Robertson said “The Republicans have got to wave the white flag and say ‘We fought the good fight, now it’s over.’  They cannot shut the government down and then bring about a default ... It would be devastating economically to every human being.”

9.     Principles: Whatever one’s beliefs may be, at least own them, take responsibility for them, and be consistent about them in your public statements and actions.  But this episode was a poster-child for hypocrisy.  Rightists who refused to compromise or negotiate for four months now argued that the shutdown was caused by the President/Senate Democrats not compromising.  Those who shut down the government one day were photo-opting at the World War II Memorial the next day berating park rangers who had appropriately shut down the facility.  What did Congresspersons think was going to happen when they cut off government funding?  In the end these numerous shallow ploys did not fool the American people.  Which is why the majority of Americans blamed the shutdown on Republicans.

The long list of “losers” goes beyond just these.  Some say Obama “won” because he got everything he wanted: a clean funding resolution; a raised debt ceiling; an unchanged Obamacare program.  An incredulous Representative Peter King (R-NY) described the outcome by saying “This Party is going nuts … After shutting down the government for 2½ weeks, laying off 800,000 people, all the damaged we caused, all we would end up doing was taking away health insurance from congressional employees.  That’s it?  That’s what you go to war for?  That’s what we shut down the United States government for?”
But what really won was our Constitution, a reaffirmation of our Founders’ wisdom.  They had feared that this new thing called “democracy” run by “the People” could open the way to anarchy by “the masses.”  Hence all the checks and balances built into that Constitution to prevent momentary mass hysteria and minority demagogues from pushing the government into extremes – just as this shutdown/debt-ceiling hysteria exemplified.  By the refusal to allow the far Right to dictate our future by their deplorable conduct, these protections of the Constitution worked as intended.  That is the only good takeaway from this whole episode.
Three months from now, the same deadlines will reappear; will we repeat this same irrationality?  The Tea-Partiers will likely be unchanged and unrepentant; zealots do not change their views or their tactics given their own self-righteousness along with their arrogance.  The real question is whether moderate, rational Republicans will have the courage to stand up and say “enough” to these zealots, reject their extremism, and return the Republican Party to its responsible, conservative basis.
Representative Charles Boustany (R-LA) observed about his Party and the Tea Partiers, “There are members with a different agenda.  And I am not sure that they are Republicans and I’m not sure they’re conservative.”  Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) said, “The decision to shut down the government has been viewed, rightfully, by the American people as irresponsible governing.”  But then again, that same Richard Burr also said, “I'm not as concerned as the President is on the debt ceiling, because the only people buying our bonds right now is the Federal Reserve.  So it's like scaring ourselves."  All conveniently ignoring the truth that nearly $6 trillion – almost half of outstanding debt held by the public – is owned by foreign governments.
We will have to see where the “Republican” brand goes.  We will have to see if public memories last until November 2014.  So far, I am skeptical and not hopeful.  I hope I am wrong on this one.
“This country is in very hard times, there’s no question about it.  But we’ll dig ourselves out of it once again if we can stop yelling at each other for ½ hour.”  (Garrison Keilor)
© 2013  Randy Bell

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Painting With A Broad Brush

Watching the current chaos in Washington is both maddeningly frustrating yet a captivating observation of our lives in contemporary America.  We see both the good and the bad of our human character on full display.  The blogosphere and social media pages have been filled with people’s commentary about the government shutdown and our impending bankruptcy.  Some of that commentary has been genuine and thoughtful in expressing various beliefs and perceptions, regardless of one’s political positions.  But some has been our worst expressions reflecting our very deeply divided country, serving no other purpose but to just add one more brick to that growing wall that divides us.

A particularly odious recent posting that made me wince was a young writer who chose to complain about the beneficiaries of “entitlement programs,” railing against such citizens as the homeless, Medicaid recipients, and food stamp grocery buyers.  The supposed “solution” to this handout environment that she feels serves as a drag on our culture, economy and government is simply for those people to just “get a job.”  It is an opinion/solution that conveniently ignores the reality of all the jobs that no longer exist due to the structural changes in our economy (decrease in manufacturing; increase in technology and financial services); the jobs shipped overseas; the corporations sitting on their abundant cash and not hiring due to the uncertainty of the chaos in Washington.  There are many reasons why we have almost 8% unemployment.

Nevertheless, I can somewhat personally relate to people who have that attitude and point of view.  40 years ago after my separation from my first wife, I found myself living in downtown Boston in a small 1-room basement apartment with the bathroom located across the hall.  Money was very scarce at that point in time, even though I was still employed (i.e. one of what we now call the “working poor”).  It was all quite a comedown from owning my 3-bedroom ranch house in the outer suburbs.  On one of my monthly grocery shopping expeditions, I found myself behind a person unloading her cart for checkout.  Item after item of fresh fruits and vegetables, orange juice, meats, and yes snacks and deserts, came out of that cart.  All items nowhere to be seen in my cart.  And when it came time to pay, she handed over a package of food stamps along with some cash.  Over the next several days in the retelling of this incident to friends, I was still angry and frustrated by her “entitlement” while I went under-nourished in spite of holding a fulltime job.

It was only later that, with time, patience, maturity and no doubt with God’s good grace and assistance, I was gradually able to understand the real reason for my anger at that unknown shopper.  Making one set of life choices had given me a wonderful family and a “successful” financial and social life in suburban America.  Yet it was in my making another set of life choices that I now found myself in that basement apartment.  I knew my personal story.  But I had no idea what that shopper’s personal story was, why those food stamps were in her purse and not equally in my billfold.  The truth behind my anger was that she had exposed my own vulnerabilities; my anger was at myself.  She had made me confront my own life’s decisions, and laid bare the starkness of my current end result.  As most all religions teach us, no life should be defined by comparisons of what others have or do not have.  The only definition that matters is the one we define for our own self, and the spiritual relationships we bring to it.

Are there cheaters who game the food stamp program (and other such assistance programs) and take “unfair” advantage of it?  Of course.  And they should be identified and prosecuted fully.  There will always be some 5% or more of people in any grouping who will act unethically if not illegally.  Just as there are 5+% of doctors and medical service providers who collude to defraud Medicare by creating false patients or delivering false services.  Or 5+% of businesspersons who stuff inappropriate ingredients into their products.  Or 5+% of charity or religious figures who skim donations into their personal pockets.  Or 5+% of Wall Street financiers who deceived the public through risky investments and bad mortgages, but still walk around in their $1000 suits and live in multi-million dollar homes.  Or 5+% of public servants and politicians who accept bribes and payoffs to give “special favors” and preferential treatment to rich donors.  In truth, there is always “the 5%” in any group looking to defraud others.  And that 5%  knows no boundaries of race, color, gender, religion, economic status, or any other such subgroupings.

When a person (like this young writer) says broadly disparaging things about segments of our community, after 40 years I continue to ask the same question of that person: have you ever personally met a Muslim, Jew or Catholic that you have so universally maligned?  Have you ever spent a day together with a limited-education coal miner in Appalachia?  Have you ever talked directly to an urban-poor African-American mother and learned her personal story and particular circumstances?  Have you ever really LISTENED to a homeless person or a person on unemployment benefits rather than just talking constantly TO them?  Have you ever reached out to find a human face of a homosexual man or woman?  Ultimately, what do you truly know about “those people” you are so resentful or scared of?

It is easy for us to demonize groups of people who we do not personally know, especially when that demonizing comes from ignorance, anger or our own arrogance.  About people whose circumstances we do not understand.  Whose way of being is completely outside our own experience.  It is much harder to do that when we know their names, see their faces, and have a real listening conversation with them.

When we paint people with a wide, inexact brush, we color all people as the same even though they are not.  Even though we know we ourselves are not all the same as others.  Such painting is not only disrespectful of others, but additionally has another bad consequence: the brush also drops paint on us, and thereby also colors us into something more unrecognizable with each stroke.  Colors us as something we might be horrified to see if we looked into a mirror after we finished our painting.  We may think we are just painting a picture of other human beings.  In fact, we are painting a very revealing self-portrait of our own true inner being.  And sometimes that portrait is not a very pretty picture.

“The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know anything about.”  (Wayne Dyer)

© 2013   Randy Bell

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Shutdowns and Obamacare

On my 9/1/2013 posting on this blog, I alerted us to steel ourselves for yet another melodrama coming out of Washington.  But this time it would be an old, repeated melodrama regarding the federal budget and the Affordable Care Act.  Once again we would be headed into reruns of past debates, leaving immediate pressing needs unattended.  Sure enough, as the Syria issue and the “do we bomb or not” question fades from the headlines, the spending “debate” is once again front and center – spurred by the need for a budget for the new fiscal year starting October 1, and hitting the debt limit shortly thereafter.

This time around, House Republicans have married their 1-note campaign against the legally-passed and Constitutionally-upheld “Obamacare” with their spending cut campaign.  They recently passed yet another Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the federal government for less than three months, yet again abrogating their Constitutional responsibility to (timely) initiate and pass a budget to fund our government’s operations.  But this time they coupled that CR with a complete defunding of Obama’s health program – their 42nd meaningless and futile attempt to scrap Obamacare.  This latest maneuver will once again go nowhere, wasting everyone’s time while ducking a real spending plan that addresses our needs.

Since Obamacare seems to be “the end of America, our freedoms, and our economy as we know it,” perhaps we should once again look at some of its provisions to better understand its seeming inherent evil.  Some principal new requirements under this law include:

-Requiring that any preexisting medical conditions must be covered if a person seeks new medical insurance, ending the practice of those people who need medical care the most being blocked from coverage, or trapped in a job for fear of losing coverage on an existing illness;

-ending the practice of having ceilings (annual or lifetime) on one’s health care costs, which left supposedly insured people liable for the costs above these arbitrary ceilings;

-allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ policy until age 26, an important consideration for new graduates entering the workforce under a mountain of college debt;

-reducing the cost of prescription drugs under Medicare Part D coverage for seniors;

-requiring all taxpayers to have medical insurance, thereby expanding the pool of people covered and reducing premium charges to the individual, as well as to reduce the use of hospital emergency rooms as “free clinics” for the uninsured (the most expensive treatment, all underwritten by the insured population);

-leaving existing health insurance programs in place, so people who already have health insurance have to make NO CHANGE in their current insurance or medical providers;

-requiring that all companies with over 50 employees with individual employees working a minimum of 30 hours/week be provided with health insurance, thereby significantly reducing the number of uninsured people among the “working poor” population;

-providing new state-run insurance exchanges, with subsidies for low-income individuals, where people who have no coverage or whose employer does not offer an insurance option can buy health insurance;

-allowing states to significantly expand their Medicaid health programs for the poor, with funding predominately underwritten by the federal government;

-mandating a number of preventive screenings and medical services for seniors at no cost;

-setting a minimum percentage of premium dollars received by insurance companies that must be applied to the delivery of actual medical services, versus being passed on to stockholders as profit.

The actual Affordable Care Act refutes many of the lies said about it by self-serving politicians like Michelle Bachman, Sarah Palin, and countless other anti-Obama zealots.  Lies such as:

-the creation of “death panels” who will decide who lives or dies by determining who will get certain medical services and who will not.  If any such death panels exist, they exist in the insurance companies who decide – often arbitrarily and after-the-fact – what your policy covers and what it does not;

-Obamacare will bankrupt the country due to its supposedly high cost.  In point of fact, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projected long ago a DECLINE in health costs due to this same Obamacare;

-Obamacare will wreak havoc on small-business companies who cannot absorb this new insurance cost.  In fact, it is these same anti-Obamacare people who are also insisting that health insurance be an “employment benefit” instead of a basic right of citizenship – and many unscrupulous employers have long used any excuse possible to deny insurance coverage to their low-waged employees;

-that currently insured people will be forced to change their doctor, hospital or insurer of choice.  As noted above, it just ain’t so.

The radical right-wing has milked millions of dollars from the public by exploiting health fears among Americans, and has wasted millions of dollars trying to defeat any improvements in our health care system.  A system under which we pay more for our health care than any other country, yet show far less measureable quality of outcomes than many of those same countries.  For all our spending, millions of Americans, regardless of the severity of their medical needs, have no access to those very expensive health care services due to the costs involved.  To date, ZERO alternative proposals have been offered to improve health care access and outcomes, and to reduce these obscene costs.

So instead of just railing against something called “Obamacare,” passing nonsensical Congressional resolutions to overturn it, and forcing the shutdown of government to try to eliminate this law, I pose these questions on behalf of the American people: which of the features listed above would you eliminate from the Public benefit, and why?  If there are just certain parts of the Act you oppose, why don’t you introduce targeted legislation to alter those, versus canceling ALL provisions?  Which of these features are so odious that they are worth shutting down virtually all government services to the public?  What concrete features and steps would you offer in replacement of this Act – instead of spouting the usual rhetorical platitudes praising “American free enterprise” and decrying non-existent “socialized medicine” in lieu of real solutions?

Just being “against” is no strategy to “promote the general welfare” promised by the Constitution.  As a consequence, we are sailing into the very dangerous – yet avoidable – waters of funding and governance turbulence on a ship captained by fools.

© 2013   Randy Bell

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Syrian Dilemma

Syria is one of those topics that reminds me how fortunate I am to not be the President of the United States.  (A good fortune for many others, I am sure!)  Because this issue starts out as a very bad premise to begin with, and good answers rarely flow from such a bad premise.  There are numerous valid viewpoints that can be argued, each with great validity.  And the tentacles that reach out from Syria, the many dominoes waiting to fall, are just as numerous.  Ultimately, there will be no “right” thing to do; there will only be, at best, the “most appropriate” things to do (or not do).

It may be helpful, just to try to get our arms around this crisis, to break out the subject of Syria into four major subtopics for discussion:

AMERICA AT WAR: Americans are sick of being at war.  Sick of the maiming and killing of so many of our young people.  Sick of all the tax dollars being sucked into these wars and diverted from other badly needed efforts here at home.  And (thankfully) increasingly tired of being the world’s policeman, the place where everyone looks to for leadership and answers, while also being the target of so much anger and resentment in spite of all our sacrifices and “noble efforts.”

The world is rife with tensions, and we are tired of being pulled into seemingly every one of these conflicts.  So in spite of the numbers being killed in Syria, in spite of the humanitarian crush, in spite of the atrocities of petty dictators, most Americans want to pick and choose our involvements far more selectively than in the past.  There is today simply no appetite to fight yet another battle in another far-away ungovernable outpost.  The disastrous ghost of Iraq’s non-existent WMDs looms large.

THE SYRIAN REVOLUTION: Americans are justifiably proud of their biggest gift to the history of civilization: the governance of a major country by a democratic/representative form of government.  We feel it is our duty to spread that concept of democracy across the globe.  Given our own successful revolution needed to establish that freedom and governance, we automatically side with “people’s rebellions” against an autocratic rule.  The “Spirit of 1776” infuses our sympathies.

But this is not 1776.  And Syria (and e.g. Egypt, Iraq, and Libya) is not Colonial America, with an established history of local participatory rule from which to build a democracy.  Democracy is hard, given mankind’s prevailing history, and not everyone is prepared to handle it.  When a violently suppressed or minority people successfully rebels, the swing of the social pendulum can be quite extreme.  Revenge, not democracy, is often the order of the day.  That order can be quite violent itself, whether one speaks of the French Revolution of 1789, or of modern-day Egypt.

Syria is another Afghanistan.  A cruel and despotic government lording over a collection of individual tribes, sects, villages, factions, religious/cultural differences.  Each splinter has its own leaders, its own agenda, its own desired outcomes – which may or may not include democracy for all versus just a new despotic group controlling all others.  Syrian rebels are not Washington’s Continental Army; Syria is a guerilla war with no battle lines and no umbrella war structure.  Regardless of what America might do, there is no guarantee that a post-Assad government will be any better.  We can supply major quantities of humanitarian aid to Syrian communities and their border countries. We can try to help the various rebel factions find “right leaders” and supply the good guys with arms.  But this is not a rebellion we can take on, regardless of the injustices occurring.  We must learn a necessary humility that, even for a “superpower,” some things are simply beyond America’s range and abilities.  The killing will continue in Syria.  There are now in place too many agendas, too many killed already, and far too many motivations for revenge.  Syria will go to the last solder or rebel fighter standing, which may be still years from now.

DIPLOMATIC RESOLUTION: I read of many calls for a “negotiated resolution” rather than American armed intervention, and calls for international diplomatic efforts to squeeze Assad from power.  It leaves me wondering what people think has been going on over the past several years.  Countries have collectively frozen Assad’s assets and instituted economic boycotts and embargoes of goods to his army.  Peace talks have been called for on numerous occasions.  But negotiations require willing and vested partners.

Assad has shown that he is every bit as strong and brutal as his predecessor father.  He looked at the “Arab Spring” revolutions and decided early on to do no negotiations, to slam the door on his protestors.  To stay exactly in his power position and go nowhere else.  And he has partners willing to keep him in power by blocking real international actions: Russia, who provides Syria with arms, trade goods, and funding, while also allowing Vladimir Putin to assert his ego and “stand up to America”; China, who never supports outside intervention in countries’ “internal affairs” lest that same intervention be directed to China’s dictators themselves (e.g. with Tibet); Iran, which is consistently looking to extend its influence across the Middle East.  So keep talking – yes.  Keep maneuvering – yes.  But expect little united action or meaningful negotiation.

CHEMICAL WEAPONS: The Assad regime’s undeniable use of chemical weapons on multiple occasions is an issue totally separate from the Revolution itself.  Chemical weapons, like nuclear weapons, are horrible things capable of mass killing.  Which is why all nations agreed to ban their use after mustard gas killings in World War I.  What has prevented their use over these past 100 years is the understanding that these chemical weapons, like their nuclear counterparts, are too terrible to use, as any such use would invite a reciprocal and escalating attack.  The minute we give implicit sanction to their use, a most dangerous door opens with potentially unimaginable results.  Even Syria’s allies Russia and Iran are squeamish on this war machine escalation, especially as Iran was the victim of Iraq’s use of such weapons during their 1980s war.  So on this issue, the international community must speak up and act.  Regardless of what individual may have actually sent out the order, the community must punish, and severely so, to assure any future Assad, or rogue general, or terrorist that this kind of weaponry is untenable.  (Remember the deadly sarin attack in the Tokyo subway system in 1995 that killed 12 and injured over 5,500?  This is not just a theoretical discussion.)

Complete a thorough United Nations investigation to its scientific conclusion – yes.  Build an action coalition if possible – yes.  But go it alone if necessary to say to others “This time you have gone too far, and you will not go there again” – also yes.  Chemical weapons in the subways of New York City are beyond a nightmare.

In spite of our desire to believe in, and bring out, the inherent good of people, there are simply some people who are willing to do very bad things.  There are some fights we need to pass over and let individuals find their own pathway out.  But there are some fights that can wind up on our own doorstep; those are fights we must stop.  The Syrian Revolution must find its own pathway out, however long and difficult that may be.  A political establishment willing to unleash the horror of chemical war must be stopped – for everyone’s future.

©2013  Randy Bell

Sunday, September 1, 2013

We Have Seen This Movie Before

The second week of September, Congress will reconvene after its annual 5-week August vacation.  Frankly, I cannot think of any group of salaried employees less deserving of a vacation of any length.  So far, this collection of politicians has passed just over 20 bills, on track to be the lowest productive Congress ever.  And of those 20, most all are token statements, of minimally consequential impact.  (“Let’s show our non-partisanship by agreeing to name a bridge in St. Louis after Stan Musial!”)

The important social issues of the day have been ignored or are in process of being swept aside.  Reforms in gun ownership are dead, even though 90% of Americans wanted some kind of action.  So it is clear that the opinions of the American public have been closed out of the discussions.  (Which only leaves you to ponder and speculate about who our congresspersons are listening to.)  Immigration reform, in another overweight bill that passed the Senate amid much hullabaloo, is now heading to its funeral service already planned in the House.  Restoration of some Voting Rights Act provisions struck down by the Supreme Court will not even get seriously introduced for consideration.

No, all of these issues (along with others) are going to be pushed aside in the coming months for yet another repeat argument over government spending – which itself is a disguise for a more basic attack on the purpose of government itself.  On October 1st, the current fiscal year ends, having been propped up by endless “continuing resolutions” to keep the government level-funded through the year.  (Of course, “level” now reflects the drastic, indiscriminate cuts of sequestration from last spring that were supposedly never intended to happen.)  So now what we will spend in FY 2014 will be the focus of the next big argument.

Shortly thereafter, we will once again bump up against our national debt ceiling limit.  And we will have yet another insane Congressional argument over whether we should pay our debts or not – debts incurred to fund Congress’ own spending decisions already made.  It assumes that we spent our money, then realized we spent more than we can afford, so we just default and go bankrupt as a “solution.”  But in the government’s case, its default would become a world-wide default and economic meltdown well beyond the 2008 Great Recession.  It is the ultimate fiscal mismanagement.  And the mis-managers are the same ones now asking us to trust their judgment to fix it all.  Speaker John Boehner has promised a “whale of a fight” over raising the limit.  It is a fight that should not even be fought in the first place.

Tax reform?  Badly needed.  A major key towards economic growth.  But the question of “fair share” has been completely perverted by a Tax Code that favors certain groups over others, or gives direct benefit to individuals with sufficient purchasing power of influence.  But there is not a chance in hell that tax reform will rise to any level of serious conversation or action.

Within all of this nonsensical discussion, yet another old issue will resurface: the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”).  Republican opposition to health care reform was defeated in the Senate, in the House, and to people’s ultimate surprise, in the Supreme Court.  Public polls show increasing support for the Act as more of its provisions are implemented.  Yet the opposition, not to be deterred by reality, refuses to move on and continues to fight over what has already been decided.  The Republican dominated House has now voted over 40 TIMES to repeal this legislation – all to no productive end whatsoever.  More token, symbolic, and meaningless gestures except to raise funds for political campaign treasuries.

Meanwhile we watch some sleazy CEOs using Obamacare as the cover story for other lousy decision-making.  Employee working schedules of highly profitable companies are being reduced to keep employees below the 30-hour threshold for health coverage.  Similarly, hiring is being limited to stay below the 50-employee threshold.  The CEO of Papa John's Pizza argued that providing health care to its employees to meet the Affordable Care specifications would “raise prices on all pizza products”; follow-up research by independent economists concluded that this increase would amount to 1-2 cents per slice.  Trust me, I would be perfectly happy to pay even a whole nickel more to help provide health care to already low-paid employees.  Fortunately, some socially responsible CEOs are getting on with “the new normal.”  Starbucks will continue providing health coverage for employees with as few as 20 hours/week.  Even Wal-Mart has announced additional low-cost insurance options, including coverage for domestic partners/same sex couples – although it still needs to expand the pool of employees covered.

Yes, the biggest flaw of the ACA is that it still replies on one’s employee status as the source and eligibility for health insurance.  I support those employers who object to paying this added and uncompetitive cost.  But such complaints need to be redirected towards achieving a wholly different, and non-employer based, funding base.  Until that time, health care will remain the private insurance company / employer-provided / Congress-endorsed social contract for providing health care.

The bigger issue in all of this is the tiredness of these discussions.  Spending budgets; debt ceilings; Obamacare; shutting down the government.  These are all old news.  Legislation and constitutionality has long been decided.  Budget deficits have been consistently shrinking each of the last several  years.  The economy is growing, albeit slowly and without the proper government support needed.  The American character used to be to fight the good fight over areas of disagreement.  But once the decision was made, accept it and move on to the next issues.  But this Congress is stuck in a time warp, stomping their feet over their losses like petulant children in the school playground.

It is time to move on.  Time to deal with today’s ignored issues, not re-hassling the past.  Even as we try to remain vigilant against further political radicalism and division, the American people are increasingly tuning out listening to these clanging political voices.  And with good cause.

We’ve seen this movie before.  We’ve read this book before and know how it ends.  It is time for a new script, one that will likely require a new set of actors.

©2013  Randy Bell

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Where Fear Takes Us

Fear is a powerful motivator, a defining force directing many of our decisions.  It underpins and creates many of our strong negative emotions and actions – anger, rage, frustration, revenge, defensiveness, hatred, bullying, violence.

Fear begins at our earliest age, in infancy and childhood, as a reaction to our helplessness to forces and events that surround and impact us.  Somewhere along our way we suffer from real and perceived, physical and mental, hurts that condition us.  Finally, we learn about the finality of death that ultimately awaits each of us – and brings worry and sadness to all those who love and seek to protect us.  From all of these sources, fear thrives in the very foundation of our being.

Given the early age that fear is created, we likely have little choice about its being fundamental to our makeup.  But if fear is a fixed given from which we may feel powerless, our response to it is decidedly variable and within a measure of our control.  Each of us retains the right and the power to choose whether will we live a life of fear, be defined by fear, or be limited by fear.  Or will we simply acknowledge that fear, and then move on and partake of much good that life has to offer?  Not to live a reckless life, daring danger into our presence, ignoring our responsibilities to ourselves and to others.  But to look our fears in the eye and move through them, knowing that the roll of the dice can turn out in many different ways.  Our meeting with death will come when it is supposed to, even if it is a time not of our preferred choice.

If one chooses, one can certainly see much danger in one’s surroundings.  Disease, drunk drivers, domestic and foreign terrorists, criminal violence, snooping governments, faulty construction, polluted food and waters, transportation accidents, etc.  The potential dangers are endless.  The average life expectancy continues to steadily increase from a century ago, but it is the unexpected and “innocent” deaths and injuries – e.g. the Boston Marathon bombings – that garner the headlines.

Unfortunately, as there are endless potential ways that our fears can be realized, there are also endless people who prey on those fears.  Companies that sell goods and services to “protect” us from our fears coming true – even if they are highly unlikely events for us.  Commentators who sell us ideas and literature – conspiracy theories, unproven dangers, racial / religious biases – all designed to affirm the correctness and righteousness of our fears.  Politicians who capitalize on our fears in order to pass laws and advance their own power and political authority over us, while truth is sidelined as a casualty to our overreactions.  We collectively spend billions of dollars, and allow people into our lives who do not serve us well, all because of our fears.

So we have politicians across many of our states building their reputations by appealing to our fears.  Easy access to firearms is inexplicably made easier rather than harder as a response to firearm violence.  North Carolina just approved allowing guns at public schools if locked in a car; and concealed weapons in bars “if the owner does not object.”  What could possibly go wrong with these ideas?

Florida (and now other states are considering) passed something called a “Stand Your Ground” law.  A law that overturns hundreds of years of legal precedent as well as our human progress towards becoming a “civilized society.”  We have long been taught to first minimize damage in a threatening situation; if at all possible, to retreat if threatened.  A violent response can only be a choice of last resort.  Now in Florida, it is shoot first if you simply feel threatened, whether the threat is actually reasonable or justified or not.  Then you can explain later, and with no punitive consequences.  The law of the gunslinger used to be confined to “West of the Pecos.”  Now it is open season for the quickest draw West of the Atlantic Coast.

Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African-American kid, was stalked by a white Hispanic man with a gun who had a history of looking to be a self-proclaimed vigilante hero in his neighborhood.  He was a known trouble-rouser in the 911 emergency office who was told that night to cease following Trayvon and leave any problems to real police officers.  But the stalker refused those instructions and continued his provocative pursuit, and came upon Trayvon and threatened him.  These are the admitted facts in this case.  In the ensuing confrontation, this acknowledged instigator shot Trayvon because HE felt threatened by the unarmed young man he had accosted.  The armed instigator shot to kill because his unarmed defender tried to defend himself.  If Trayvon had been armed and shot the man threatening him, would not Stand Your Ground have been his proper defense?  But would a Florida jury have found a young, armed Black man innocent of killing a White adult?

It is madness.  A madness I could never explain to my grandchildren.  A madness I cannot explain, much less justify, to myself.  This is where unmanaged fear takes us.  Into a world turned upside down, turning back and feeding upon itself.  Where we kill each other over religious differences, racial differences, economic differences, political differences – all the while proclaiming that we all want the right to be different and be protected to go our own way.  We keep saying we need to talk about why we fear, why we hate, why we act against people who are different from us.  Instead, yet another purveyor of hate walks free in the bright sun, his young victim buried in the darkness of the dirt.  And countless more trigger-happy haters are now primed to follow his example.

God spare us from the zealots and the vigilantes.  And from the politicians, businesses and organizers who thrive on our fears.  And God spare us from ourselves when we succumb to their preying reach into our fears.  What we fear becomes what fears us.  What we hate becomes what hates us.  We need to manage our reasonable fears, and reject our unreasonable fears and the dark beliefs and places to which they take us.  Instead, we need to live openly and confidently from the better place that exists in our hearts. 

©2013 Randy Bell

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Not-So-Supreme Decisions

June is always a busy month for observers of the U.S. Supreme Court.  It is the end of the annual judicial term, and the Court often announces its “blockbuster” decisions at that time.  This year four decisions were announced on some of the most contentious and sensitive issues around.  But what was also most interesting was not just what the Court decided, but what they did NOT decide.

Take Affirmative Action (AA).  AA is a “judicial remedy” that came out of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.  It requires entities guilty of past discrimination to make up for and remedy it by over-compensating the future hiring or placement of the class of discriminated victims.  To its supporters, it has been a major tool over the past 50 years to successfully correct many workplace discrimination abuses.  To its critics, favoring one race over another – even for corrective or noble purposes – is yet more discrimination on its face, two wrongs making no right.  There is also a belief that AA’s objectives of equal treatment and opportunity have been achieved in today’s workplace reality, and so the use of the tool should be ended.

The University of Texas-Austin uses racial mix as a criteria to create a diverse student body, believing that exposure to diverse peoples is a major benefit from a college education.  A lower federal court accepted UT’s defense that race was a “last resort” criterion to achieve its diversity aims.  Several members of the Supreme Court expressed critical opinions about this use of Affirmative Action, thereby putting higher education “on notice” to proceed with caution.  But in the end, they did not overturn the UT practice.  They merely sent the case back down to the lower court to re-review “with greater scrutiny and skepticism.”  It was a warning shot across the Affirmative Action bow, though not a fatal blow.  But clearly AA is now a tool to be used carefully and infrequently.  In the end, racial outcomes and fairness will still be the concern.  And other examples of AA’s uses will come to the Court once again to be tested.

Another issue from the 1960s was with the Civil Rights Act of 1965.  That law made possible an enormous expansion of voter participation from racial minorities.  It included a provision that some specified state and local entities that had a long history of racial discrimination in voting would have to have any change in their voting laws pre-cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).  Such pre-clearance thereby prevented many continuing attempts to circumvent the free expression of voting rights.  Congress has near-unanimously renewed the law on multiple occasions ever since its initial passing.

50 years later, the Court determined that the objective of this provision had been achieved for some of the listed entities.  African-Americans now out-vote their White counterparts in many of these jurisdictions, and are now heavily represented in public offices.  Meanwhile, there are some wholly new jurisdictions that have their own new set of issues.  So the Court said that the old list of named entities was outdated, had to go, and communities should not be held captive interminably to past mistakes of 50 years ago.

It is a reasonable and fair legal conclusion on its face.  The Court actually left the pre-clearance feature in place.  It just required a new list of discriminating entities based upon current data and conditions across the country.  It also left intact the DOJ’s ability to sue entities for current discriminatory practices.  So contrary to many editorializers, the Court did not “gut” the Voting Rights Act.
The problem is a logistical one.  And it is a serious problem.  A revised list of offending entities must come from Congress.  And as we know, our current Congress is incapable of passing anything meaningful.  So no new list is likely forthcoming, much less imminent.  Further, lawsuits filed case-by-case after the fact is long, slow, expensive, and laborious.  How the DOJ will react to the flood of new voter ID laws, gerrymandering of voting districts, and other nonsensical actions now racing through various statehouses is hard to predict.  The Supreme Court may have ruled.  But the jury is still out on whether they will be able to succeed in bringing the law into “current reality.”

Which brings us to the two big decisions around same-sex marriage.  One was the California “Prop 8” ballot initiative the voters passed to ban such marriages. The Court had an option to issue a comprehensive ruling about the constitutionality of barring same-sex marriages, but chose not to.  Instead, they made a narrow technical ruling that these particular plaintiffs had no legal standing to sue to overturn the lower court ruling that invalidated Prop 8.  So it essentially threw out the case and said nothing about whether or not same-sex marriage is universally constitutional.  It opted to wait awhile longer for more of American society to collectively move further on this issue.  But this issue will be back on their doorstep.  In the meantime, California has now joined the growing ranks of states allowing such marriages.

The more interesting ruling was on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed by Congress in the 1990s.  DOMA prevented federal benefits and guarantees that are given to “married couples” from being extended to legally married same-sex couples.  DOMA was struck down for same-sex couples living is a state that legally recognizes their marriage.  For this Court, marriage is a marriage is a marriage.  It does not come in gradations.

As expected, the conservative Right went apoplectic over this one.  The supposedly “conservative-friendly” Court had once again – after approving Obamacare – failed them.  Yet the very great irony on this decision is that the ruling was based upon accepting one of the conservatives’ most prized ideals – states’ rights – and then turned that idea on its head.  Each state has always been the primary defining authority of who is “married” within its jurisdiction.  13 states now consider same-sex marriages as fully legal.  Hence, in acknowledging the primacy of the states on this topic, the Court said the federal government has no right to discriminate (or de facto invalidate or override) such state decisions!  For conservatives, it was a classic example of “be careful what you ask for.”

But once again, what was left unanswered?  De facto, the Court recognized the legality of same-sex marriage in those states where they have been authorized.  They have not yet ruled on whether the remaining states can prohibit such marriages – just as the court was called upon to rule 50 years ago regarding laws banning interracial marriage.  Further, states have always had reciprocal agreements among themselves to honor marriages conferred in other states.  So when a legally married same-sex couple in Massachusetts moves to North Carolina, where such marriages are now prohibited by a state constitutional amendment hurriedly passed in 2010, will their marriage still be considered legal?  Will DOMA then intercede and become valid and still apply to this North Carolina couple?  This is the next case coming to the Court.

Stay tuned.  None of these Rights and Citizenship issues is done quite yet.  The Court is not done quite yet.  We are not done quite yet.

©2013 Randy Bell

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Secret About Secrets

Recently, a reader wrote to me asking about my thoughts on the NSA revelations and the whistleblower.  My response was not quickly forthcoming, as I feel drawn in multiple directions by its several implications.

The first issue is the accusation of governmental spying.  If the nature of the National Security Agency’s activities is as reported, then it is questionable to describe it as “spying.”  The agency is gathering together existing data from commercial communications networks and loading it all into one super-database.  The stated intention is that if a terrorist threat arises, this database would facilitate quickly identifying linkages among potential suspects.  No phone conversations are listened to; no emails are read.  NSA is simply gathering together and logging existing information.  To take this second step requires a court-ordered warrant as is standard for any other review of otherwise confidential personal information.  No new data has been created.

We already have much personal information that we have surrendered to thousands of computer networks.  Information that is tracked long after its moment of creation.  Information that is available in criminal investigations when proven justified.  As long as a court warrant stands between the details of this information and law enforcement, it is hard to see how the fact of my phone call (versus the content) differs from records of my fingerprints, bank and credit card transactions, my motor vehicle and driving records, or the frequency of my voting (versus who I voted for).  Or the new databases of DNA data.

The counterforce to our privacy rights is the very real threat from terrorists.  Americans have become very fearful of various physical and mental threats over the past two decades.  And more desirous of avoiding even the natural risks of life, much less the crimes of terrorist actions.  Hence more demands for “guaranteed safety” – a goal that is not at all achievable.  We see this evidenced in all the finger pointing that goes on after a terror incident (e.g. in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing).  The expectation of absolute safety keeps rising even as the techniques of the terrorists grow ever more sophisticated and pervasive.

In some instances, our fears have led to an excessive surrender of our rights of privacy.  Hence my strong abhorrence of the post-9/11 “Patriot Act” that was not at all patriotic.  But some surrender is required.  It is the reality of the global linkages and terrorist partnerships that exist in today’s digitally-connected world.  If we keep demanding greater protection, then we have to grant greater access to the available tools that can provide that protection.  This is going to be a delicate balancing dance we will be performing for the foreseeable future, an improvised dance as situations arise each day.

Which brings us to the issue of secrets and whistleblowers.  Not everyone in the world is our friend.  We need to not create enemies and false demons where they do not exist.  But we do need to respond appropriately to those who genuinely intend to harm us.  How we go about that response must, at times, be kept secret in order to be effective.  The surprise attack is still often more effective than the frontal assault.  These defensive tactics are valid “national security secrets.”  Unfortunately, we have a penchant for over-classifying too much information as “secret.”  When that over-information is revealed by a courageous whistleblower, I applaud those efforts.  That light of transparency keeps lesser men and women from hiding their corrupt and self-interested actions.  But when someone inappropriately reveals genuinely secure information, especially when it endangers the lives of people who live every day in personal risk as they work to protect the public, then that is not being a “whistleblower.”  That is someone putting personal self-righteousness ahead of reasonable judgment about consequences.

Over 40 years ago, Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg released “The Pentagon Papers” – a secret historical analysis commissioned by the Pentagon that ultimately documented the lies and underhanded hidden dealings that contributed to the morass of the Viet Nam War.  Yet there was no security apparatus or spy operative names or public safety tactics revealed by that release.  The information made public served to inform the debate while jeopardizing no one’s safety.  After Ellsberg made his revelation, he then nobly stood to face the consequences of his actions against the American legal system.  I continue to regard Daniel Ellsberg very highly for his reasoned action and his willingness to take ownership for what he did.

No so with this NSA release.  Edward Snowden is not a whistleblower.  He is a criminal who violated his signed oath of confidentiality without regard for his consequences, or without consideration of a balanced review of rights versus safety.  He has acknowledged that he sought his NSA job specifically to access these secrets in order to reveal them to the American public.  Yet the information has also simultaneously gone to unfriendly terrorists and foreign governments.  He dumped the information out, then ran off seeking asylum from countries who are the epitome of government secrets and a lack of freedom of speech and press.  He is not the whistleblower who reveals corporate pollution, false drug research trials, or political corruption, and thereby stimulates needed correction.  Instead, his actions have endangered the lives of many innocent people.  He is the wrong person on the wrong topic at the wrong time with the wrong outcomes.

Balancing rights versus safety, privacy versus citizen responsibility, whistleblowing versus treason, is very hard.  In this particular instance, I am willing to call reasonable a database that only tracks instances of data, versus listening to my conversations which is unreasonable.  I am willing to give credence to the oversight of the courts and to the bipartisan support from Congressional leaders who have known about and monitored this program since its inception.  But this acceptance is not a blanket one.  It is still a case-by-case discussion, and an assessment of each person-by-person whistleblower.  And unless it is absolutely otherwise necessary, the default remains for the government to stay out of my personal life.

The true overriding “big picture” issue here is the idea of secrets themselves.  We increasingly live in a “tell-all” Facebook age where sharing the details of our lives – even with near-strangers – has become the expectation.  Post-Woodward & Bernstein, the media builds upon that new culture and presumes how dare one not be forthcoming to any question they ask – whether pertinent or not.  And all conversations within government are expected to be made public.  Secrets are seen inherently as being bad.

But there is a case for secrets.  We all have parts of our lives and history not intended for public consumption.  Performance conversations between a manager and an employee are not appropriate to tell other employees.  Debates to determine policy and to give guidance to leaders require secrecy around frank discussions to develop best-considered recommendations.  One of the greatest government secrets of all was the four months of meetings which produced our marvelous Constitution – a total secrecy kept from the public by all convention delegates.  James Madison later reflected that had there not been such secrecy to allow for wide-open discussions and changes of opinions, our Constitution which embodies our freedoms would never have been produced.  So let us not have a modern-day knee-jerk reaction to secrecy itself.  Let us pause to judge the appropriateness of each secret on its own merits.  And judge the revelation of that secret, and the revealer, on the broadest measure of its consequences.

©2013 Randy Bell