Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Let’s just pray health care away

   This is what passes for good government in a seriously retrograde moment in the 21st century.

   Texas Gov. Rick Perry the other day declared a three-day period of prayer to bring rain. And not just for that, but (clear throat) for the "the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal way of life."

    He did this with a straight face. Texans were left to wonder: If it doesn't mist after Day 3, what then? Blame government? Or God?

    On the straight-face front, Congressman Tom Price, R-Ga., has defended Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to voucherize Medicare as giving individuals "greater liberty, greater choices."

     With, um, $6,400 a year in extra out-of-pocket costs apiece by 2022.

     Never you mind, says the GOP. Sloughing Medicare onto the private sector will lower health-care costs. Look at how competition in health insurance has resulted in lowered premiums.

     Oh, wait. Americans spend more on health care — $5,711 per person — than any others on the planet, twice what the British pay. America's "competitive" health care market has seen two decades of double-digit inflation.

      A cogent essay in Time magazine, quoting Yale School of Management's Fiona Scott Morton, explains why the elixir of the free market hasn't and won't bring health care prices down. 

      First, health care is not a "substitutable" commodity like, say, consumer electronics. We don't plan to have appendectomies. They aren't discretionary purchases. And we don't shop for providers like we would flip-flops and sunscreen.

       Second, under those circumstances, industry consolidation, and with it soft-shoe collusion, conspires to keep prices, and profits, artificially aloft.

       Rewarding consumers with choices? Not at all. Ryan's plan would "ration demand rather than expand coverage," says Time. That brings us back to that figure: $6,400 a year. The Congressional Budget Office projects Ryan's remedy would cost Medicare beneficiaries that much to match today's benefits in 2022.

      In other words, it isn't about choices or competition. It's about cutting Medicare at the knees, starving it of tax dollars, and awarding what's left to industry scavengers.

      Look at what the Republicans intend for Medicare, Medicaid, and the lusted-for slaying of "Obamacare." Imagine a time when the U.S. government revs the helicopters, Saigon-style, and evacuates the health-care theater altogether, leaving millions in despair.

      As pointed out in a New York Times editorial calling Ryan's costs controls "sketchy," the Republicans are determined to torpedo an independent board built into health care reform to monitor how money is spent on Medicare. Believe it or not, the GOP argument  is that such a board would be in a position of "rationing"" health care under Medicare.

     Yale's Morton says Ryan's proposal "is not solving the problem" of health-care costs, "it's solving the cost of government's health care. You'll have people who can't afford it. They'll just die."

     Emasculate Medicare. Ditto Medicaid. Repeal the Affordable Health Care Act. Blow away measures to control health-care costs.

     This isn't about improving health care ("choice") or lowering costs. This is about sounding the retreat on health coverage for the elderly, the poor and the working poor.

     By no stretch of the imagination, with their prescription, can today's Republican envision a day when Americans are healthier and when fewer are on the cusp of health-care catastrophe every day of their lives.

      This brings to mind, on the straight-face front, a $2.3 million study once funded under the Bush administration to see if prayer proved therapeutic against clinical illnesses.

      And so, under a state-federal partnership: We pray for wetness and wellness for us all.

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



Monday, April 18, 2011

Forget 'birthers' — 'thirders' are scarier

   Donald Trump leads other Republicans by 9 points in a new Public Policy Polling presidential survey. That tells us this much: Democrats, you haven't had as bad a year as you think.

   If Trump is the Republicans' offering to lead us, Walter Mondale at last may be able to surrender that traveling trophy for worst modern-day Electoral College pummeling.

   But, wait. It says here that Trump is a dead-solid lock to get at least 33 percent of the popular vote, if not a vote more.

   How can I make that preliminary prediction? That's easy.

   Based on any number of polls, one of three Americans could be led to believe anything — particularly if damning about Barack Obama. And they would vote for anybody else — even a body in the late stages of decomposition.

    If asked, "Do you believe President Obama was Patient Zero for Chagas disease?" One third of Americans would answer "yes." And then fearfully look the ailment up.

    It's a fascinating parlor game to see what this particular third of the nation is asserting — or buying, as it were.

    The most recent poll I find on the origin of Obama's birth — and since when do said matters come down to polling data? — finds that, sure enough, roughly 30 percent of Americans don't think he was born here. It wouldn't matter what factcheck.org (type in "Obama birth"), or even the righter-than-right National Review say in ridiculing the notion. These people believe what they believe.

     "Birthers" like Trump are only a curious subset of a curiouser set. They are among the "thirders," one third of us — those who defy most logic, and most evidence, supplying their own brand of it at every turn, often aided by Fox News and rabbit holes of hoax, innuendo and pseudo-information on the Internet.

     What defines a thirder? Assertions like these:

      A thirder believes that Saddam Hussein was tied to the 9/11 attacks. Still.

      A thirder believes that the WMDs were found. The media are just covering it up.

      A thirder believes that Sarah Palin, George W. Bush and Joe the Plumber are well-read.

      A thirder believes that if Mike Huckabee says Obama was born in Kenya, that settles it.

      A thirder believes that despite every intimation of every founder in designing a framework for many faiths, what they really had in mind was a Christian nation.

      A thirder believes still that AIDS is a punishment from God for being a male homosexual.

      A thirder believes that evolution is a lie, as is climate change and most of whatever most scientists say — and where are their birth certificates?

      A thirder believes that global warming is Al Gore's theory.

      The fact that a third of Americans believe these things explains why Glenn Beck can rustle up a crowd verging on huge at the Lincoln Memorial. One-third is a lot of us, and many of those people have day privileges.

     It's enough, for sure, for "tea parties" to form and to rivet the media's and Republican politicians' attention, and for many to believe that in the sound, fury and quaint signs like "Obama's plan: white slavery" these people speak for America.

    Well, they do, for one third of America. Check the polls.

    Karl Rove understood this. He knew that if his party focused on keeping one third of us in a froth based on hot-button issues like abortion, gay marriage and, of course, menacing Muslims, all a candidate need to do is win a relatively small portion of the reasonable, or reasoned vote, to have the one-vote majority to hold office. Even if that one vote was in the Supreme Court.

     Donald Trump can do the same. Or Sarah Palin. Or Mike Huckabee. Or Newt Gingrich.

     Which of them will be the first to try out that "white slavery" slogan?

     Come on, candidates. Listen to the voice of the people.

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

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On school reform, call off the Bushes

     Oh, lord, deliver our school children from the Bush brothers.

     Their dad was famously described by Ann Richards as "born on third base, and thinks he's a triple." That was a might harsh.

     But let's face it. For George W. to have stepped forward as the answer to public schools' every question — that stretched a double out of a dribbler.

     Unfortunately, tragically, his answers for the nation's schools remain the end of every argument.

      Americans were led to believe that school achievement in Bush's Texas was equidistant between the towns of Hunky and Dory. I know differently.

      My sons were educated in Texas. Whatever they achieved, and it was considerable, was in spite of, not because of "school accountability." What Bush touted on the campaign trail as benefiting my children — raising standards, you know — was the worst thing that happened to their schooling, with no second, third or fourth place to award in that contest.

     Now Bush has retired to dust his trophies and hawk his memoirs. Who is here — never you fear — to offer his advice for our schools but brother Jeb.

     The Washington Post reports that the former Florida governor has become a favored adviser on what to do next, supping with conservative policymakers and President Obama alike.

     His big ideas: Based on test scores, give every school a grade from A to F. Give vouchers to students in low-performing schools. Implement merit teacher pay based largely on test scores, and phase out teacher tenure.

      Yes, let's take standardized tests, overemphasized already, and overemphasize them some more. America's parents clamor for that. Do you hear them?

      Let's stigmatize as many schools as possible, not because we want to improve them but because their failure drives demand for free-market panaceas like for-profit charter schools and vouchers that fund church schools.

     It's amazing how assorted school reformers say that quality teachers are the essence of their quest. And then they set out in every way to make it impossible for great teachers to succeed.

    And we aren't just talking about pensions and pay. These same policymakers push for larger class sizes. They  write love sonnets to the tough love of punitive "accountability" policies like the one Jeb Bush touts.

    Rest assured, the very best way to drive good teachers to another campus is to pronounce their campus a failing one. Go ahead. Try it.

     Also built into this template of failure are the testing system and standards that consider "raising the bar" to be the ultimate virtue. But rather than benefiting children, this assures only that more schools will "fail" and therefore make private schools (through vouchers) and for-profit charters more alluring.

    Here's the irony, and a sick one indeed: The biggest selling feature for private schools and charters is that they don't labor under the same stifling dead weights of corporate-style, top-down, one-size-fits-all mandates dished out by governors like the Bushes. Indeed, flexibility and creativity in instruction are why charter schools seem like "the answer." If that is so, if that works, you would think policymakers would want to free public schools to do the same.

     The saddest thing of all is that most Americans are clueless about how "accountability" — read:  enforced standardization — has sapped education of its vitality. Every American should see the film, "Race to Nowhere," about how standardized testing and varied forms of pressure have left many students basket cases, while condensing, pressure-cooker-style, from tomato to paste, the entirety of education to one five-word question: "Is it on the test?"

      I promise you, the Bushes would not wish this for their children. They would want a real education, one in Technicolor, with a high fascination quotient and a low standardization quotient. But for the rest of America's school children? It's the answer. End of argument.

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

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Shared sacrifice: not a chance

    It was Idi Amin who once said, "In any country there must be people who have to die." He was making himself that allowance in reference to sundry uprisings, mass graves and his own political survival. Barbaric? Well, sure.

    His form of leadership brings to mind the sacrifice of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona.

    Not a resident of Amin's Uganda but of our own fair United States, her body was found on Valentine's Day in a garbage bag in a truck alongside Florida's Interstate 95.

    No third-world peninsula: Florida is looking into what became of Nubia. The evidence is that the private agency unto which her welfare was assigned under a state privatization initiative simply screwed up in leaving her with foster parents whom police now implicate in her death. You wonder what is the Ugandan word for "cost of doing business."

       The interesting thing about this story: Now that a little light has shone on the for-profits doing the Sunshine State's bidding, Floridians find that child welfare executives, by way of tax dollars, are making six-figure salaries, some over $200,000. And how are they doing?

       Several years ago Texas Republicans were striving with all their might to reduce the number of children served by the Children's Health Insurance Program, under which the state gets three federal dollars for every dollar, a buck state budget writers will surrender much the way one might eliminate a kidney stone. Amid the screaming and yelping over an "ounce of prevention" approach to healthier children, a report detailed how politically connected private contractors for CHIP had overcharged the state $200 million. I'm flipping through my Ugandan dictionary for a word that describes such an atrocity.

      We are in a period when state lawmakers and governors in stiff collars make statements about the need for broad-based sacrifice to address budget shortfalls.

      The thing is, these policymakers have a very limited idea of shared sacrifice.

      Recently when Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich targeted the obscene largesse of public employee unions (sounds obscene, unless you consider them to be, say, teachers), limiting their collective bargaining power, a study found that teacher pay in Ohio had declined nearly 4 percent over 2008 and 2009. Teacher pay nationally? Over those two years it rose at a breathtaking — well, OK — 2 percent.

     You see, when people who would rather pay profiteers than public servants talk about shared sacrifice, they make sure those at the lowest end of the pecking order, and closest to the public served, take the hit.

     Really,  who is actually sacrificing these days? (Hint: Not the big-bellied person drawing the Hitler mustache on our president at your nearest tea party event.) Here are the people sacrificing: teachers, grade schoolers, high schoolers, college students, the frail elderly, people in the trenches working in social services, and the people they serve — like 10-year-old Nubia.

     What glory to have heard all those patriots, amid the height of the "war on terror," say how everyone needed to do their part to win, win, win. By and large, what was their part? Flag pins. Little bitty Old Glorys in tatters from their car antennas.

      Who sacrificed? Soldiers who went without sufficient protection against IEDs. Families that watched enlistees and reservists get pulled into a stop-loss quagmire.

      Who profited? Contractors overcharging taxpayers for every staple and water bottle.

       Legions of sunshine patriots looked the other way while the war costs mushroomed in off-budget convenience. A tax increase to pay for two wars bought at once? Out of the question. It would hurt the economy, you know. The deficit be damned. Federal income tax rates went down, not up.

       Some people have to die. And some have to sacrifice now that our budgets are overrun. But not you. Not me. Right?

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