Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Tortoise and the Best Hair

This morning I heard 3 different Republicans say a variation of the same thing:  “We will protect your freedoms by reversing the encroachment of growing government.”

Great line. This has been the talking point that all Republicans across the country have hammered since Sputnik first circled the Earth. And why not?  It resonates and there is a lot of evidence of that “growing government” by which to give the cause credibility.

But, there is a problem.  Big problem.  Do you know which party grows government?  Yes…Democrats.  AND REPUBLICANS!

In fact, I’m being a little soft here so as not to create too much animosity at the start from my Republican friends.  The truth is, Republican leadership has grown government every bit as much, if not more in the past 40 years.

Government surveilance programs have certainly gotten our attention as the most directly frightening evidence of Big Brother Government and current Republicans cite the NSA under President Obama as one of those expansions.  But it is only a continuation of the programs from the previous administration and is an outgrowth of the Patriot Act to “enhance law enforcement investigatory tools,” penned by Republicans and signed into law by President Bush in 2001.

Spending comes up a lot as evidence of government growth.  But, whereas total government spending dropped in 10 out of the 16 quarters during Obama’s first term, it rose in 13 of President Reagan’s first 16 quarters.  George W Bush’s first 16 quarters saw the same 13 quarter rise.average-government-spending

In the interest of fairness I don’t believe that President Obama sought austerity or that Presidents Reagan and Bush were inclined to be bigger spenders. Rather these numbers are reflective of the economies they inherited.  Each president saw a recession in their first term, but Obama’s was by far the worst and it led to severe cutbacks in state and local spending.

However, I am saying that to call President Obama the spender whose government has expanded the most, is erroneous.  It fact, it is an outright lie.

Welfare is always the conservative’s starting point in today’s spending conversation and it should be noted that the only significant welfare reform to ever pass was engineered during the Clinton administration.   Even though this was to the ire of many liberals, it was a Democratic president who signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act which made welfare entitlements require work development and limited time frames under the title “Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.”

How about military spending?  Well, if colonialism is still part of our foreign policy (and it is), then military spending is going to increase.  Certainly a pre-emptive war falls under imperialist expansion.  The cost of two wars over 10 years was been over 1.5 trillion dollars and that is not from policy that’s exclusive to Democrats; it has been a joint effort.  Any way you slice that pie, we have to consider our war strategies and proliferation a shared responsibility.

Gun rights are included in the Republican rhetoric concerning government encroachment, but it has to be confusing to realize that during the Obama administration there were no major new restrictions on guns or gun owners.  President Obama urged states to enforce existing laws, but in many states, gun laws loosened.

Granted the lack of new legislation to expand background checks was because a Republican controlled House stalled any Democratic initiative, but it still has to bethCA87JY01 a head scratcher to remember that it was Ronald Reagan (hands down the best hair in presidential history), that supported the last significant gun control measures in the 1990s:  1993’s Brady Bill and 1994’s Assault Weapons Ban.

I guess we’re going to have to talk about repressive taxes, too.  It is difficult to talk any Republican into taking President Reagan down from the Mount Rushmore of Tax Cutters, but he actually raised taxes 11 times.  While overall tax percentages came down, it was mostly from the top, while allowing fewer tax breaks at the bottom, just like George W Bush immitated 20 years later.  And every time that is done a recession follows the temporary economic growth…so, maybe. ..oh, never mind!

I read a post on a conservative website that included “religion” as a right being suppressed by liberals.  Apparently, to some people, the recognition of all religious freedom (also known as upholding the First Amendment) is an encroachment on Christianity.

Is government being too expansive when it stops a rancher, who refuses to pay taxes on the public land that he uses, from letting his cattle graze that land?  Some conservative pundits are being dismissive by pretending that it’s a liberal cause to save a desert tortoise (a cause which annoys the crap out of 503_1a28751_tortoisepeople who don’t value life other than their own), but that is just this reality’s B-story.

Public lands are a big deal out West as almost everyone depends on them. They are used for recreational activities like hiking, fishing, hunting and skiing and they are critical to people’s livelihood for timber, drilling oil, mining coal and for cattle.

It was President Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican, but also a great progressive) who signed The Antiquities Act which gave the President the sole authority to restrict the use of Public Land in the interests of preservation.

It aggravates law abiding, tax paying, environment and public rights respecting citizens, like me, that I pay to use and protect those resources while a self-centered, anti-government, fair-weather libertarian thinks his personal freedom dictates that he doesn’t have to and can do as he pleases.  http://www.latimes.com/opinion/topoftheticket/la-na-tt-cliven-bundys-militiamen-20140421,0,1467054.story?track=rss#axzz2zuvAdWob

And then, of course, there’s Health Care Reform.  While government involvement in the health market undeniably broadens the scope of government, there is something paradoxical about feeling infringed upon for losing our “right” to jeopardize our health or to carry insurance policies that were so useless that they were not actually insurance.

All of the issues I’ve raised here will be (and should be) debated and many of us will fall on different sides of those debates.  The point is that platitudes being used about “spending” and “government encroachment” and “losing our liberties” are confounding and distracting the public from the truth.  There are more complex and revealing realities with shared responsibilities for any result of government.  But, when candidates convince voters that their side is innocent of the very things they accuse the other of doing, and when they are elected on that premise only to betray their promise, the electorate loses.

There’s nothing wrong with concern of government overreach and encroachment.  We should all be aware of our personal liberties.  What is wrong is disingenuous rhetoric.  What is wrong is lying.

Both sides are guilty of that one, but…I’m being soft again…only one side has made it their continuing platform.

I’m With Stupid

My ex-wife thinks I’m stupid.  Okay, that, in and of itself, is not unusual; lots of people think I’m stupid.  And when we’re talking about the perceptions of ex-spouses, I’m sure the incidence of perceived stupidity is high, but my problem is that my ex is pretty smart and so when she calls me “stupid” I have reason to pause.

Pause.

300px-Stuart_SmalleyOkay, I’m not stoo-pid (“…and I’m good enough and doggonit, people like me!”).  What I am is a person who is unable to wrap his mind around insurance (and assembling shelves from IKEA).

4405_explodedDiagramReally smart people can read schematic diagrams with ease or hear presentations from the Blue Cross/Blue Shield guy and discern what plans make the most sense.

I, on the other hand, am confused as soon as I read:  “The party of the first part coveted to convey its entire interest in the subject real property to the party of the second part.”

And that’s not even a legal brief; those are the instructions for the nightstand I bought.

Where I really get confused, and where my ex-wife thinks I am several tickets shy of a packed house, is when it comes to understanding insurance.

Our youngest son was born with some problems in both of his ears.  He can hear, but does not have the full spectrum of response in either ear.  We are way past “tubes” and this is a case of some inner ear apparatus never having fully developed.  He has had two operations where cartilage has been grafted from one area into another to close gaps, but so far, nothing has been 100% successful and so he is going in for another.

Without going into unnecessary details, I simply do not understand what is covered, to what degree, how deductibles are met, what medications my insurance covers, and why I pay so much in premiums to have so little covered.

My ex is a dentist gh1and perhaps there was a medical coding and billing class included in the curriculum and so this is second nature to her; the problem comes in explaining all of it to Gabby Hayes and for Gabby to ask questions that don’t annoy her.

This is not a post about the high costs of medicine or an indictment of health insurance companies (or my ex-wife); this is a post about how important matters have become so complicated that it takes a doctorate to understand them.

“If insurance is the only way to offset astronomical health costs,” (again, to myself), “is it fair that we need an industry in between the insurance companies and our best interests to interpret and define what is out there?”

The answer is probably “yes,” but that doesn’t solve the fundamental life issue I am trying to explore here:  How did we let things get so complex?

I usually begin writing with a thought already in my head and this windup has been somewhat rhetorical.  I do have a meta-physical idea as to why our lives have gotten so complex.

fear02It is because of….our FEARS.

The fear that we will be killed.  Or hurt.  Fear that we will lose, be lied to, forget, taken advantage of, exploited, cheated, cajoled, left out, left in, left to die, left to live, given less, too much, starved or drowned.

We are afraid and so we create provisions, instructions, diagrams, briefs, and orders to clarify, explain, disclose, divulge, divest and disclaim, everything and anything that could confuse, confound or confute in order to placate and protect our interests, needs, investments, wants and….fears.

Fear is a vital, emotional response to perceived danger, and it’s important.  If we didn’tfear-brain feel fear, we couldn’t protect ourselves from threats.  It is as primal and integrated into our being as anything can be, including hunger, thirst or our need to be loved.

Fear may occur in response to anything perceived as a risk to health or life, status, security, or even wealth and anything held valuable.

For this reason society (particularly an advanced industrial one) creates a matrix of systems designed around assuaging our fears.  So tax codes and insurance programs have become complex to navigate around lawsuits, counter suits, and claims so that we (we, meaning you, me, government and insurance companies) have the least amount of exposure to myriad vulnerabilities.

But, this is where I get scared because with increased complexity comes increased confusion and consequences.

Just the other day I read a post from a friend who did his own taxes (God forbid) and made a small $60 mistake.  The IRS has descended on him with threats of withholding income and property liens.

I guess he should have called H&R Block.

Another friend recently called his attorney and is in the middle of translating legalese to understand insurance-ese because in the fine print of his health insurance agreement his condition required another opinion that he never got.

Apparently, the profuse bleeding led him to make a hasty decision.

And I got an earful when I asked my ex-wife if she was using my insurance to get medication for our son because it was my understanding that the plan I chose had a co-pay that would only be $2 instead of $75.  Apparently that is only for generics in a 3 tier prescription drug program that I didn’t understand.

But, I am kind of stupid that way.

Mr. Kroeger Goes To Des Moines

Mr_ Smith Goes to WashingtonRecently, I joined a group that was invited to the State Capitol to petition legislators during the 85th Iowa General Assembly, and I must admit to being a bit awestruck.  Even as a salty old wonk that has followed, written and lectured about government and civic duty for decades, I felt like a grade-schooler on a field trip; I was amazed at the majesty of it all.

20140401_140344That being said….there was a strange brew of optimism along with frustration as we talked to lawmakers about our initiative; I was simultaneously emboldened by the process and….a little aggravated.

Let me start by telling you about the initiative.

A Not-For-Profit foundation called “Sing Me to Heaven” presented themselves to my Rotary Club in January and we were uniquely moved by their mission.  That mission is to provide low income families who have lost a child with financial assistance toward funeral costs.

“Sing Me to Heaven” was created in 2011 after Jennifer Mehlert, a young mother, lost her daughter Natalie and suffered the reality of financial burden during her overwhelming grief.  Along with her own mother, Diane McIntosh, they committed themselves, in Natalie’s memory, to help other parents, usually young, who have no insurance or financial security, with up to $2000 toward funeral costs.  The intention and hope is to alleviate some of the pain and burden the grieving family suffers. (www.singmetoheaven.org )

The bill asks for a one-time grant of $100,000 to set up an infrastructure and also to promote the organization so that it can self-fund into perpetuity.

While there are counties and funeral homes that provide assistance to bury children, there are still hundreds of families annually, in Iowa alone, who do not receive help, and SMTH is the only organization in the country attempting to bridge that gap.

From a personal perspective, not only do I feel that this is a worthy cause to support but I believe that it is an opportunity for the State of Iowa to affirm its place in the nation as a compassionate state that believes in the quality of life.  By assuring that no family in Iowa, who has suffered life’s most unimaginable loss, will be denied the proper burial of their child, our state can be proud as the First in the Nation to do so.

So….back to the Capitol.

For those who don’t know, citizens, ordinary folks like you and me, can wait outside of the House of Representatives and petition lawmakers.  There is a note that you fill out stating your purpose (in our case a bill has been filed by Representative Bob Kressig) and who you would like to talk to, that is given to the Doorman.  The Doorman 20140401_120821delivers it to a Page who, in turn, presents it to a representative inside.

The representative may not be present or they may have other pressing matters, but more often than not, they will come out of the chamber to speak to you.

A conversation ensues where we first present the details of our bill and respond to their questions.  But, the ultimate purpose is to get their support so that it is, at least, offered to go to a committee for discussion.  Obviously, the more representatives who support your cause, the more likely it will be put into the Session agenda.

I should preface, that Rep. Kressig also called a Press Conference where news agencies that cover Des Moines are invited to hear about the case we’re going to lobby.  As a marketer, I certainly understand the strategy; the more buzz, the more attention, the more likely we are to be taken seriously.

Now the good news….

Every representative we talked to (around 10), whether a Democrat or a Republican (and at least one who aligns with the Tea Party) was engaged and respectful.  I’m not going to mention names because I have no intention here of holding anyone to the fire (I have mentioned Bob Kressig, however, because he has been a champion for this bill) but I was sincerely impressed by their genuine desire to do good work for the people of Iowa.  I don’t believe that one single person resides in that chamber to collect a (very) meager paycheck or who is not there to serve to the best of their ability.

The fact that people can come to the Capitol to petition or redress their government, to20140401_130912-1 ears that will listen, reminded me of the fundamental concept of our representative democracy.  The Capitol Building is filled with concerned citizens, activist groups, students and legislators who are trying to make a positive difference in our lives.

I have always said that the most elemental obligation of every citizen is to cast informed votes, but my eyes were opened to something every bit as crucial:  the activity of a government of, for and by the People.

Most of us can do far more than argue on Facebook and in bars; we can stand in the hallways of government to make our voices heard.

Now the bad news….

While every representative was, indeed, thoughtful and engaged, they nevertheless followed their party-line rhetoric.  To the “D’s” this was a can-do initiative, but to the “R’s” there was a wall of “I don’t think we have the money” or “We’ll look at this next year.”

More frustrating were the political procedures that even the representatives themselves admitted created processes of confusion.

“I think this is a Policy Bill and you need to take it to the Senate.”

“This falls under Human Health and Services and you need to go there first.”

“This is an Appropriations Committee bill and we have our budget set.”

“I don’t think we need a committee discussion on this.”

“If we were to put this into our budget what do we say to the myriad other requests that we’ll deny?”

Representative Kressig is not deterred or surprised by any of this.  He knows how, what, where and to whom, we have to maneuver, but it was impossible not to feel, even with the accessibility to the Legislature, that the machinery of politics can leave us out in the cold when their hands are tied by political favors, allegiances and more popular priorities.

But, there’s good news again….

The press we’ve received, letters to the editor to papers all over the state, has made us a real story.  Other citizens are seeing the value of compassion that Iowa can afford and that it distinguishes our commitment to the Quality of Life.  And some legislators are coming forward to acknowledge this opportunity to show their constituents that government is not always at odds with itself, and can serve the public good.  (https://news.google.com/news/i/story?ncl=dw0OwKu09TyLR9MTTbAnap6hzugaM&q=sing+me+to+heaven&lr=English&hl=en)

The lesson from this story?

Politics are cold, but people are not.  When people believe in something, whether as politicians or voters, we can make progress.  Budgets, appropriations, committees, alliances, debts and the press are all part of the process, but it is the passion of our beliefs that propel us into action and can lead us toward effective change.