Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Yes, it's a tax — and hooray for that

   I'll never forget Sen. Phil Gramm, the staunch fiscal hawk and self-proclaimed budget-balancer, telling me how it was just fine for the Reagan administration to enact the nation's largest peacetime military buildup without raising taxes to pay for it.

  Borrowing, he said, was the American way. "You do it for your house, don't you?"

  And so we did, to spend the Soviets under the table in the '80s, to secure Kuwait militarily in the '90s and to pulverize and reconstitute Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s. And we didn't find the revenue for trillions of dollars more of what we as a nation decided we needed, or wanted, to do.

    So it should be with a sense of relief, and not that same old derision, that readers should behold something they probably didn't know existed related to the Affordable Care Act.

   In policy-maker speak it's called a revenue device. In reality, it's a tax.

   Wait? Something many of us will pay? The answer is yes, and hooray for that.

    Included in the ACA was a tax on health insurers and makers of pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Call it a windfall profits tax. These corporations were, after all, going to be beneficiaries of a massive public-private quest to insure more Americans.

   That tax, which takes effect Sept. 30, is projected to raise $116 billion over the next 10 years and help pay for subsidies available through state health exchanges and the expansion of Medicaid. Other key revenue devices have been savings in Medicare reimbursement and taxes on so-called "Cadillac" insurance plans that benefit the wealthy.

   Yes, I know. This seems so alien: actually paying for something the nation decides it needs. You would think we would try the same thing with highways, bridges and endless wars.

   Not surprisingly, with insurers underwriting the effort, opponents are attempting to revoke the tax.

   And it's not surprising to see breathless reports such as USA Today's recent headline, "Who's paying new Obamacare tax? You" It sounds very scandalous.

    The report pointed out that states themselves will pay some of the tax, as they contract with managed-care providers for Medicaid, and those providers are on the hook.

  That means the headline is true. This is a broad-based tax for which costs will be passed on to me and thee.

   Sure, such a tax sounds surreptitious verging on wrong. But let's face it. This is the way we raise revenue anymore, wrong though it is. What would be right would be using our progressive income tax system to pay for what government does rather than with backdoor means such as excise taxes.

   So, call it what you will. A tax. A broad-based tax. Say it with me. Breathe in. Breathe out.

    "The tax on health insurers is a small price to pay for helping to extend health coverage to 25 million more Americans without increasing the deficit," writes Paul Van de Water, an analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

      It is scandalous that over the last quarter century the nation has been entranced by a something-for-nothing mentality pitched by so-called fiscal conservatives who were simply postponing days of reckoning.

     What we have endured are deficits by design by people who, on the altar of senseless tax cuts and blank checks for the military, would gut the support system for America's less fortunate.

    Well, now we're helping some of those less fortunate with their health insurance. And, oh, and by the way, last month the federal deficit, at $119 billion, was down 13 percent from last August, the lowest in six years.

   Phil Gramm, now retired and comfortable with his federal benefits, would be the first to say, "That's not how we do things around here."

    Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Cease fire in cafeteria food fight

   Back in the '70s as a reporter for the college newspaper, I went to a faculty nutrition expert for a story about hunger in America.

   Sounded relevant, right?

   Well, "hunger" had barely escaped my lips before the professor turned the pretext of my visit around.

   Not to dismiss hunger, he said, but the nation had a bigger problem in the works: obesity.

   How prophetic he was, way back then before "low- fat" and "high-carb" were even in our vocabulary, way before losing pounds was grounds for a reality TV show.

   That prescient professor's words come to mind when I think of Michelle Obama's crusade for leaner, livelier children. She has latched onto the central health issue of our times, and good for her, and for us.

   She has campaigned with Carrie Nation vigor for healthier school lunches and the purging of junk food from schools.

  The first lady's intentions are true and her objective righteous, but something about her campaign brings me back to the initial topic that took me to that college professor: hunger in America.

  Principally, I'm concerned about mounds of celery sticks and the truckloads of baked squash going into the dumpster when kids decide they'd rather starve than eat the "healthy foods" that new federal initiatives are dishing their way.

  The first lady is defending with vigor the tight restrictions on school lunches in the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. However, reports from school cafeterias indicate a lot of students are opting for hunger rather than what's healthy.

  Critics say the standards have resulted in less participation in school lunches. As a supporter of school lunches dating back to the first steaming tray I carted to my table in first grade, this troubles me.

   Similarly troubling are reports of staggering amounts of food thrown away when children turn up their noses at it. For, what would be a nutritionist's dream can be a second-grader's nightmare.

   Sure, it's not good for children to have excessively fatty and sodium-saturated foods for lunch. It's worse, however, for them to have no food at all.

  Naturally, this has become a partisan tempest. Republicans in Congress want to jettison anything that smells of Obama, of course.

   The first lady vows not to give an inch. But she should.

   I think of school lunches a little like I think of public schools themselves: magnificent in concept, but susceptible to crippling dictates from afar.

  Against a backdrop of childhood obesity, initiatives that take away anything sweet or salutary — special-occasion cupcakes, for instance — smacks of the mentality that says it is schools alone that must solve all the social ills of our world. Get real.

    Just as teachers should not be expected to be social workers, neither should schools be expected to be fat farms.

    However, if unhealthy food is our focus, let's acknowledge the role of profit-first policies by which school cafeterias have become proxies for fast-food corporations. Those venders make big bucks dishing out fare for which the term "nutritious" is considered an affront.

    If federal guidelines can dislodge these players from the scene, then much good will have come from them, with more nutritious lunches and less profiteering at children's expense.

    Nonetheless, the first lady needs to retool her pet initiative to focus first on getting children to eat. That was the case with the school lunches I remember. They were hot; they were wholesome; they had vegetables; they had good entrees; they had dessert. Result: We returned to class without the sound of cats serenading in our bellies.

   Oh, and after lunch we had recess, something else the school micromanagers would take away to carve more time out for tests and test prep. Daily physical activity is something the first lady advocates with the same vigor; so again, good for her and us.

   What children eat day and night is a very valid concern, but it's foolish and wrong to assign to school lunch the weight of the world.

   Long-time newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.  

Monday, September 1, 2014

‘Overkill’: A 21st century term for inexcusable policing

  When fire hoses sent black bodies skidding and writhing along the sidewalks of Birmingham in 1963, a lot of white people, high and dry, nodded, "Well, if that's what it takes to keep the peace . . . "

  And so it goes, 51 years later: different police-tactic horrors, but the same nodding of the self-satisfied and oblivious.

  Here's what also remains the same: the construction of straw men to allow the unaffected to dismiss the grievances of the affected.

  When blacks marched in the South for basic human rights, the barkers of the status quo pointed to the influence of "agitators" like "known Communist" Martin Luther King Jr. Today, hear similar commentary aimed at Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

  You know: "Those people" wouldn't have a grievance if people like King, and Jackson, and especially Sharpton, didn't show up to tell them they had one.

   Also: "Sharpton gets face time when a white cop kills an unarmed black teen. Where is he when blacks kill blacks in Chicago?" Jon Stewart made note of that throw-away claim, one being trotted out on Fox News; then he rolled tape of Sharpton in Chicago urging an end to that violence.

  What we are witnessing, whether in the robo-cop responses in Ferguson or those of the at-a-distance, "oh well" chorus, is the same mentality that objectifies those on society's margins. Black Americans couldn't possibly have grievances. Don't we have a black president and Affirmative Action?

  Yes, blacks have grievances, and too often they involve overzealous police.

  Whether the situation is the offense known as "driving while black," or the tragedy in which an unarmed black youth dies at an officer's hands, black Americans cannot help but keep count.

  In Ferguson, Mo., we have a textbook example of how not to keep the peace – one that should cause observers to choose another term for that old standby, "police brutality." Try "police overkill."

  It's not just that an officer shot and killed Michael Brown. It's that when the situation called for calm and conciliation, the police became the 7th Cavalry.

  HBO's John Oliver made hay of the Ferguson cops dressed in military gear, replete with camouflage. Camo? "If they want to blend in with their surroundings, they should be dressed like a Dollar Store."

  It would have been a lot more efficient to sweep the street of protesters and "Guantanamize" them as enemy combatants.

  Overkill it was, whether the "combatants" were Ferguson residents or members of the media. In sum, the powers-that-be acted like rank amateurs instead of the professionals they are hired to be.

  Maybe the most irresponsible thing the Ferguson police did was release the video in which Brown appears to rip off some stogies in a convenience store. This the nation saw before ascertaining anything real about the situation that led to his death.

  This video, of course, is used by some to justify what happened to the young man. The video leaves little doubt that Brown broke the law. Then again, in this country's history, many a young black man faced the ultimate penalty -- hanging from a tree branch, in too many cases -- for a petty offense.

  Blown out of proportion by the media? Not a chance. What happened in Ferguson fully merits national inspection and introspection. One important consideration there and elsewhere: a scandalous paucity of minority police officers. Ferguson, a majority-black town, had only four black officers on a force of 50.

  "When trust is absent," writes Time magazine's David von Drehle, "It leaves a peculiar vacuum that feeds flames rather than starves them."

  Some law enforcement agencies arm themselves for war when they should be building trust instead. The result: police overkill.

  Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.