Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Memory


To say I was born and raised in New York City would be a little misleading because in my memories of New York in the 40s and 50s, the city was a collection of small towns or villages. I was born in Woodside, a section of the borough of Queens, and the skyscrapers and streets of Manhattan were as remote to me as China would be to my grandchildren today.

Because of our insularity I can’t be sure if a Thanksgiving custom we had back then was unique to Woodside or whether it could have been found elsewhere throughout the great metropolis. Anyone else I’ve mentioned it to had never heard of it including my wife who was born a little bit north of the City in White Plains, the hub of Westchester county.

Anyway, on Thanksgiving morning the children in our neighborhood would dress up as bums or hobos. It didn’t take much since we would usually wear our clothes until they literally fell apart. We would take our most worn and tattered clothing and rip and tear them a little more. Then, we would blacken a cork over a candle and smear it over our faces to simulate dirt. I remember my grandmother giving me a little pouch with a drawstring, or was it a pillowcase, that we hobos could sling over our shoulders.

Then, we were ready to make the rounds of our neighbors to ask, “anything for thanksgiving.” Inevitably, they would answer our plea with some of the bounty from the meal they were preparing. Usually it would be apples, or walnuts, or sometimes a few pennies. Don’t laugh. Twenty pennies were enough to buy a Spalding (Spaldeen), the elite of bouncing rubber balls used by us in so many street games.

I don’t know where the “anything for thanksgiving” custom came from. We lived in a small neighborhood that seemed to have been mainly Irish with a mixture of Italians. In my nearby Catholic school the majority of the kids seemed to have Irish names. There were Ryans, Regans, Dunphys, Moylans, and Healys. However, A few blocks down busy 69th Street were the Napolitanos who ran the grocery store. In the other direction lived the dreaded Gallos whose kids were the toughest in the school.

But I’m not sure that “anything for thanksgiving”  was an ethnic custom. We were a predominately Catholic neighborhood and the idea of thanksgiving was part of our religious heritage even though none of us knew that the word “Eucharist” meant “Thanksgiving.” On the other hand, it could have been a peculiarly American response to the end of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Nothing had marked the depression so much as homeless men on bread lines or riding the rails. These were the hobos that we children imitated. Even though most of us could be considered poor, at least we and our neighbors would be able to sit down that afternoon in our homes to the best meal of the year. 

We did have a lot to be thankful for. The Depression was over, the men had returned from the terrible war, and the NY Yankees were on the verge of recovering their past glory.

Just one footnote. Halloween was practically nothing to us in Woodside, Queens. We did not trick or treat or dress ourselves up in costumes. For us it was All Hallows eve, or the eve of All Saints Day one of the great Holy Days of obligation. My only Halloween memory is filling stockings with baking or talcum powder and hitting each other with them.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Washington Insiders

St. Croix Review

In last week’s post on the Tea Party I mentioned a review of a recent book about Washington insiders entitled “This Town, Two Parties and a Funeral—plus plenty of valet parking!” by Mark Leibovich, a veteran Washington journalist. The review appeared in the Oct. 2013 issue of the St. Croix Review, a small but highly readable journal of opinion edited by Barry MacDonald.

I would just like to quote a few examples from MacDonald’s review that illustrate how Washington insiders, whether Republican and Democrat, often work together to achieve their own self-interested goals. In his summary MacDonald wrote,
Americans on the left should see that the many programs designed to uplift the poor have worked precisely as designed: the redistributors of money are uplifted, the poor remain poor.
Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Democrat fundraiser recently won a narrow Senatorial election from Virginia with the help of his Clinton patrons. McAuliffe had been a major fundraiser for the Clinton administration who later became chairman of the Democrat party. Many have probably seen him debating on TV with Ed Gillespie, the former head of the Republican party. In Macdonald’s review of the Leibovich book  we learn,

Ed and Terry are “outstanding friends.” They “forged a green room marriage” ( the green room is the place where people wait before appearing on a political talk show). Ed and Terry would tangle on air, each slinging their respective talking points as chairman of the opposing parties.
After leaving their positions they became partners on the paid speaker’s circuit: “top dog” Democrat and Republican putting on a show ($50000 a pop) disagreeing without being disagreeable.
Ed Gillespie and Democrat Jack Quinn are also “dear” friends and former business partners.
They formed a partnership: Quinn Gillespie and Associates, believed to be one of the first bipartisan “one-stop-shopping firms” lobbying successful members of both parties.
According to MacDonald, “50 percent of Senators and 42 percent of Congressmen become lobbyists. Also, “tens of thousands” of congressional staff move into lobbying jobs.

Here are some other examples:

John Breaux, a former Democrat Congressman and Senator, remarked that his vote could not be bought but “could be rented.” …After leaving the Senate John started his own lobbying firm just down the road from the White House.
Democrat Senator Byron Dorgan was “quick to get all contemptuously righteous about people on the Hill cashing in their public service.” After retiring he joined Arent Fox. Former Senators aren’t allowed to lobby for two years, so Byron doesn’t, but he “oversees a staff of lobbyists.”
The top prize for hypocrisy might go to Dick Gephardt, a former Democrat Speaker of the House, who prided himself for being a champion of organized labor.

Upon retirement Dick joined the Washington office of DLA Piper, and then started his own lobbying outfit, Gephardt Government Affairs. His corporate clients included Goldman Sachs, Boeing Company, Visa Inc., and Spirit AeroSystems, where he directed a “tough anti-union campaign.”
While a Congressman, Dick supported a House resolution condemning the Armenian genocide of 1915. While a lobbyist working for the Turkish government (being paid $70000 a month) he opposed the resolution condemning the Armenian genocide…
In conclusion, I would just like to mention Representative James Himes from Connecticut. Himes is a relatively new arrival on the political scene but he easily won re-election from Connecticut’s wealthy Fourth Congressional district. Just the other day a recent newspaper article indicated that he spends his spare time heading up the powerful Democrat Congressional Fundraising operation. In other words, he is in charge of getting Democrat Congressmen and women to cough up funds from their own war chests to support the re-election efforts of their fellow Democrats. Who is Himes really working for? He is supposed to represent his constituents. Why is he spending his time working for the re-election of people in Nevada or Louisiana?

Our Constitution begins with the phrase, “We the People.” Maybe it should be changed to “We the Pigeons.”


Monday, November 18, 2013

Tea Party Debacle?


The shut down of the Federal Government a few weeks ago seems to have been almost completely forgotten.  Fears of a global economic meltdown have subsided, and most Americans have readily accepted the media mantra that the Tea Party was to blame and that it and the Republican Party have been badly damaged by the debacle. But was the Tea Party to blame?

First, let’s dismiss the attempt to make Senator Ted Cruz of Texas the arch-villain of the shutdown. Cruz is a Republican Senator and while he might be somewhat outspoken, he has no actual power in the Democrat controlled Senate. Moreover, the Senate leadership refused to allow any votes on the various budget proposals sent to it by the House of Representatives. In fact, Senate Majority leader, Harry Reid, would not even allow discussion.

The House of Representatives actually sent two budget bills up to the Senate but they were dead in the water. So the shutdown was the result of a conflict between the Republican controlled House of Representatives and President Obama. In the House the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, had to walk a tightrope since many conservative members resisted any compromise with the intransigent President. 

 Boehner, who obviously could not count on any support from Democrat members, had difficulty controlling members of his own party. In particular, the difficulty was with the 50 to 60 Republican members who were identified with the “Tea Party” although the media liked to call them right wing radicals. During the controversy it struck me as odd that such a small minority, most of whom were elected recently, could have such influence.

Nevertheless, the finger pointing, especially by the media, was all directed at the Tea Party. Why?

I know that most members of Congress are elected over and over again for almost as long as they want to serve. Incumbents of either party are re-elected over 95% of the time. But still the House of Representatives, more than any other part of our government, is supposed to represent the people of this country. The so-called Tea Party members did not get their positions by a kind of coup. They were all elected by constituents in the home states and often by wide majorities. To attack them is to attack the people who elected them.

Moreover, most of them were elected in the past two or four years. They must reflect something that is really going on in the country. There are many other issues that bother Americans but no one can deny that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is the main issue.

From the first, Obamacare was suspect. The way it was pushed through Congress was suspect. At that time both Houses of Congress were controlled by Democrats but even then Democrat leadership had to resort to foul play to get it passed. Some Senators got special treatment for their states. Also, remember that the Senate version was different from the House version but that instead of going through a reconciliation process, the House of Representatives was “deemed” to have agreed with the Senate version.

Then, the Supreme Court very kindly saved the proposal by an equal bit of political evasion. The President had always insisted that the “mandate” for every American to purchase coverage was not a tax. While Chief Justice Roberts argued that such a mandate was unconstitutional, he allowed the law to continue by calling the mandate a tax!

Finally, the Administration gave itself four years to get this new system up and rolling. In that period the Tea Party came into existence even before it became clear that the implementation of the overhaul of the Nation’s health care system would be a fiasco.

I know it’s ridiculous to talk about our Constitution anymore. But as I said above the House of Representatives was supposed to be the voice of the people. Originally, the President was elected by an Electoral College chosen by the various states. His term of office was four years. Senators were not elected by popular vote but nominated by state legislatures. They were elected for six years. But Representatives were elected by a direct vote of the people and their terms were limited to two years in order that they would be more responsive to their constituents.

In my opinion the Tea Party has been stigmatized by the ruling class in America, a class made up of politicians, lobbyists, union leaders, and government employees centered in and around Washington D. C. In the October 2013 issue of the St. Croix Review, my favorite journal of opinion, editor Barry MacDonald reviewed a new book, “This Town, Two Parties and a Funeral,,,” about life inside the D.C. beltway. It is a frightening story about how the political elites join together to achieve their own personal goals.

Here is MacDonald’s summation.

Intelligent, observant, caring and involved Americans, on both sides of the political spectrum are bamboozled. We misunderstand when we focus on ideology, because the hearts of the Washington players aren’t invested in ideology—ideology is a tool. The hearts of the players are in self-advancement and in the preservation of the system of self-advancement.
Americans on the left should see that the many programs designed to uplift the poor have worked precisely as designed: the redistributors of money are uplifted, the poor remain poor.
This governing class is not only out of touch with the American people, but it also doesn’t want to be in touch. The public uproar over the President’s proposed military action in Syria forced the President to back down. Fortunately, he was bailed out by Russia’s Vladimir Putin. That uproar now seems minor compared to the furor over the botched opening of the ACA and the loss of medical coverage by millions of Americans. Already, the ruling class is backing down. Who will they blame?


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

President Obama's Promise


In a recent op-ed in the Wall St. Journal Alan Blinder supported the President’s attempt to weasel out of his health care promise by calling the health plans that millions of Americans are losing “sub-par”. I believe the President calls these plans sub-standard. But in his long op-ed defending the Affordable Care Act Mr. Blinder, like the President, never bothered to detail just what was so sub-par about those plans.

Recently, other op-eds as well as letters in the Journal have shown that some of these below standard plans have actually paid substantial benefits to claimants, as well as providing good service to policyholders. One woman even received over 1.2 million in benefits and obviously loved her plan.

So what is so sub-par about these plans? As far as I can tell, they lack a provision for free health club membership. They also fail to provide free contraceptives. I also suspect that they fail to include dental and vision care. I’m sure that in the minds of the President and Mr. Blinder there are other deficiencies but I’m also sure that most people chose coverage that met their needs, especially for large ticket items. Most health care consumers liked their plans because they had chosen the deductible and co-insurance provisions that suited their needs.

Now, despite the President’s promise, millions will lose their coverage and be forced into one size fits all plans that will contain benefits that they neither want nor need.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Health Care in the U.K.

A good friend in England provided a balanced and well thought out response to my recent post (10/22/13) on American health care. Below he describes the system in Great Britain as a mixture of public and private options.

" I’ve been meaning to comment on your blog item on healthcare – not necessarily to contradict, but perhaps offer a different (U.K.) perspective. I was chewing this over with a retired health worker on holiday recently, then I read your blog.

  You’ll remember the rather crazy opening ceremony to the Olympics with the paean of praise to the National Health Service. Well, that was silly and over the top, and the NHS isn’t always wonderful by any means – we’ve had a series of scandals relating to appallingly poor care of the elderly recently. But that’s certainly balanced by some wonderful care over the years shown to my family and friends.

 Last year my youngest son suddenly had two detached retinas – he came very close to losing his sight. The very speedy care he received at our local eye hospital was wonderful – he’s now had a series of operations, and treatment will continue until they are satisfied that everything is as good as possible.

  Some years ago my grandson was born prematurely – it had been a difficult pregnancy. He needed to remain in the maternity unit for a week – a small apartment was provided so both of his parents could be with him for those first few days – at no cost.
  A few years ago my wife found a lump in one of those places that women fear most. Within a week she was at the hospital having a biopsy, and all, thankfully, turned out benign. The following week it was removed.

A good friend foolishly ignored symptoms he shouldn’t have done. One day he collapsed and was rushed into hospital with advanced bowel cancer. There followed two months in hospital, and two major operations. It may not be the end of it yet – but the treatment couldn’t have been better.

  What’s good is that, even for the poorest, visiting a GP or getting children vaccinated is free, and all necessary treatment is covered. My GP is good – not as good, though, as my last one, now retired, who told me once that my liver function was far too good for a man of my age and I clearly wasn’t drinking enough alcohol! (He was an Irishman with a great sense of humour.)

  It’s often assumed that there is an either/or situation in medicine – either state funded, or private medical insurance. This isn’t so in the UK. As it happened, my son was covered by private medical insurance provided by his employer. When he weighed it up, it made more sense not to claim – there was a (relatively small) excess to pay if he did so, and the free care was excellent anyway. A while back I took a different route – I needed eye surgery to correct a squint (strabismus) that has always bugged me, and for which I’d been operated on by the NHS previously. It had got worse again. It wasn’t urgent, and, yes, there would have been a waiting list, so I simply paid for it at the local private hospital so I could have it done when it suited me.

  You may quite reasonably say that taking out private medical insurance in the UK means you are paying twice. Well, yes, you are – the National Insurance Contribution (which I’m not now paying as I’m over 65!) and the insurance premium. But comparing costs, the total of both these is quite a bit less than Medical Insurance costs in the US. So you can opt out of the NHS and it’s still cheaper. Even if it wasn’t, I think paying a little extra to help out others who cannot afford treatment is an ethical thing to do.

    I’m aware that compulsory enrolment in a healthcare scheme goes against the grain in the U.S. – the advantage of it, though, is its simplicity and efficiency. The Brits like it – which demonstrates, I suppose, one of those cultural differences between the U.S. and Europe.

   Folk from the U.S. we have spoken to of our age (mainly my wife's chums on Facebook!) have told us how difficult it is to get insurance once you are over 60,  and how there are limits on what can be claimed per treatment – a problem for those with chronic conditions. The treatment itself, though, is first rate - my (insured) mother had a stroke when in Florida and the treatment was superb - it saved her life.  Of course, not all is wonderful with the system here. In particular, problems are looming because of the aging population - those free blood pressure pills are keeping us all alive long after we should have been conveniently buried! I guess this problem exists everywhere. When my wife's mother had a stroke (at a similar age to my mother) our feeling was that, although the treatment was O.K., we felt the attitude was 'she's too old to make it worthwhile', the opposite of my mother in the U.S. who was told she was too young to give up.

I do agree with your remarks on life expectancy. That’s mainly to do with lifestyle. Traditionally, the Mediterranean diet is the one to go for, though even there there are problems – the traditional diet, high in olive oil, was fine when most people did hard manual work. Now people sit at computers but still eat the same diet, which is why heart problems have increased hugely around the Mediterranean!

   From what I’ve read of the Obamacare proposals I tend to agree with you that it all looks expensive and inefficient. All I’d say is – there are better ways of doing it."

The mixture of public and private options in the U.K. that he describes above would appear to be the norm throughout Europe. Sadly, I do not believe it will be possible in the U.S. under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Each day in the U.S. it becomes increasingly clear that individuals will lose their individual and even group insurance plans and be forced into the one-size fits all government sponsored plan. President Obama's assertion, "If you like your insurance plan, you can keep it," has turned out to be one of the biggest  deceptions in the annals of the U.S. Presidency. It will go down in history along with "Read my new taxes;" and "I did not have sex with that woman."

I turns out that President Obama really meant was that "you could keep your policy if he liked it." He insists on calling these policies substandard even when most of them were doing a really good job. He doesn't define what he means by substandard, but it would seem that they lacked low cost benefits like health club memberships and contraceptives. For hospital bills and high cost procedures it would seem that they were doing a more than standard job.