Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Obama Rebound Begins

Things were hairy there for a couple of months, what with the government shutdown (Republicans' fault) and the still incomprehensible fail of the healthcare website (all you, Democrats), but slowly and surely, things seem to be turning around, just in time for the holidays.

For example, House Speaker John Boehner did a nice job showing that the healthcare website wasn't such a bad experience after all. In fact, a health insurance representative tried to call him, but hung up after Boehner kept him on hold for 35 minutes. Even better, the ACA is changing the way that hospitals are treating patients, cutting down on procedures that might not be necessary, and generally becoming more efficient. And part-time workers will have more choices come January, which will replace the spare options they have now for more robust policies.

The best part, though, is that thousands of people are effectively signing up for health insurance through state exchanges and Medicaid, and will soon have a much better experience on healthcare.gov. I went on the site and breezed through the process here in New Jersey. In late October, that didn't happen.

On the foreign front, the president and John Kerry have been working with the leaders of five other nations and have come up with what they think is a plausible plan to monitor Iran's nuclear capacity and loosen some of the sanctions that have squeezed a good deal of pulp out of Teheran's economy. This is not only a pivot for Obama away from confrontation and war toward a more diplomatic-centered policy, but it reinforces the notion that he's at heart a man of peace who can finally see his vision of a more engaged Middle East come to fruition. And so far, Americans seem to support his efforts.

Of course, this will be a long, messy process. The Saudis and Israelis are wary and nervous about a reinvigorated Iran, and for good reason. Iran threatens the Saudi near-monopoly on oil in the region and their Sunni government is a natural enemy for the Iranian Shiite mullahs who really run the country. Israel is, of course, afraid that Iran will ignore any limits placed on it by a treaty and once their economy improves, will go ahead and build nuclear weapons and use them on Jerusalem.

If you thought it was difficult to solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, then this will be well-nigh impossible, but it has to work. Iran once had a vibrant economy and the people are committed to a free-market system. The religious leaders might have to make more concessions to the business sector, as the Chinese Communist Party has done in the name of capitalism, and my sense is that a rising middle class will not look kindly on a regime that would threaten that prosperity with a risky and suicidal strike on Israel. And really, do you think Iran would nuke the Old City, with its timeless Muslim shrines? I might be naive, but I don't.

As for the Saudis, they have been fed on American weapons and support, while suppressing any free speech or political movements that could give women the right to drive, much less tolerate a free press or alternative political parties. Yet we see them as an ally and the somewhat more free Iranians as the third leg of the axis of evil. Never forget that 15 of the 19 September 11 conspirators were radicalized Saudis. That says something about the level of repression inside that country. I suspect that their bigger fear is what their society will need to undergo in order to compete in a world where Iran and Iraq have freer economies.

Clearly, we are at the beginning of the process and Obama and Kerry have to make sure that Israel is protected from any mischief, nuclear or otherwise. But Israel also has to solve its own problem with settlements and a two state solution to the Palestinian problem. Interesting times indeed.

The Republicans, and some influential Democrats such as Charles Schumer of New York, have lined up against the Iran agreement and the Republicans continue to hope and pray that people don't sign up for health care. In addition, the House has said that they won't be voting on the immigration bill this year (though most Americans support a path to citizenship), and this while Chris Christie is considering supporting a Dreamer bill in New Jersey (or at least the idea of one). As long as the GOP hard right continues to play hardball, the Democrats will begin to look better and better as we move towards November. Something to be thankful for?

You bet.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Common Core: At Least the Website Works

I am nothing if not a good sport and an optimist by temperament, so when I read this NJ Spotlight article about a website full of great information and resources for teaching the Common Core Curriculum Standards, I took a look. The site, njcore.org, is well-designed, if a bit busy, and you can sign up to post resources.

If you teach Language Arts and Mathematics, there are probably some good resources for the effective teacher, but as a high school history teacher, there was nothing on the site. Nada. Zilch. Not even a pretense that teaching history is in any way important or even part of the curriculum. Perhaps more will be added later, but at this point, the state has no interest in engaging anyone who doesn't teach the tested subjects. And that's to be expected because it's been clear for a couple of years that the NJ Department of Education is focused on testing to the exclusion of a rich, varied, integrative curriculum..

Clearly this is still a work in progress and there's a distinct possibility that it will grow into a valued resource. It has a good deal of competition from other, more established sites and its success will be determined by how well it meets teachers' needs. The comments on the NJ Spotlight article are negative so far, with this being the most telling:
So, I click on the link in the article, then I click on NJMC, I choose Mathematics, then Kindergarten, I click on Unit 1, then I click on SLO 1 Count by ones up to 10.
Then I click on the 3 lesson plans, choose the first one listed called "Subitizing " (huh???) and Lesson Seed 7.EE.A.2.

It's a lesson on area using the expression 25(x+10)-13a.

For Kindergarten?

Another lesson says there are 18 cookies in each batch requiring 2 cups of flower. How much flower for 12 dozen?


Stay tuned.

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Good News for Obama: The Right Will Rise Again

Don't get me wrong. What's happened over the past five weeks has been a colossal, epic failure on President Obama's part. All he needed to say about the health care law was that you could keep your insurance if it met minimum standards, and then he needed to repeat those standards. He also needed to repeat the benefits of the law, from covering preexisting conditions to free physicals, checkups and flu shots. But Obama thought that passage of the law was enough and that the government didn't need to publicize what was on public record. Big mistake. Now he's gotten caught in a web that the right wing has been spinning since 2010. It's ugly. It's sobering. It's a mess. And it hurts.

And now for the good news. Obama's opponents are still the same gang that shut down the government, opposes marriage equality, wants to voucherize Medicare and cut $40 billion from the food stamp program, denies global warming, thinks transvaginal ultrasounds are effective public policy, supports testing public school students at the expense of a real curriculum, opposes immigration reform and continues to want to deport large numbers of Hispanics.

In the 1990s, my father used to say that Newt Gingrich was the best thing that ever happened to Bill Clinton. The Tea Party and John Boehner are the best things to happen to Barack Obama. His approval ratings are down now, but they''ll rebound because the right wing hasn't changed.

Their main vulnerability is their belief that the health care law has imperiled every part of Obama's agenda. What they forget is that prior to the shutdown, the GOP's ideas were extreme and unpopular. My sense is that they'll get even more extreme because they see Obama at a critical point in his presidency. Healthcare.gov will not make the Republicans look any better on women, Hispanics, social programs and, yes, health care.

The health care mess will also leave the front pages soon because the website will be fixed and more people will successfully sign up for care. Also, fiscal negotiations are just around the corner and the right has left itself vulnerable because they've pretty much promised not to shut the government down again and they'd be crazier than even I think they are to not raise the debt ceiling. Plus, the press will get tired of this story and move on to other things.

In the end, though, the real advantage is that we're talking about trying to insure people against catastrophic expenses by providing them with health insurance. Never forget that.

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

The President Lied About Health Care (GW Bush, I Mean)

President Obama has certainly got himself into a pickle over his health care law, but that really shouldn't surprise anyone who's been paying attention to the issue since 2009 when the law was first formulated. Throughout its life, the ACA has been the bastard child of this administration. They haven't explained it well from the outset, let it meander all over the map when it was being debated (remember the special Nebraska amendment to the law?), didn't publicize the law's benefits, allowed the rabid opposition to define quaint terms such as "death panels" when referring to it, and now is struggling to fix a flawed website and clarify why the president would say that you could keep your insurance if you liked it when, in fact, you cannot.

Other than that, it's been smooooooth sailing.

But then I accessed my memory banks and remembered that our old pal GW Bush also had a health care rollout that was rocky from the start and involved the same kind of Congressional contretemps, but a more damnable set of lies and threats than the Obama Administration ever considered.

To start, here's a lovely, and angry, Forbes story from 2009 that not only criticizes the Obama health care law, but reserves special venom for the Bush Medicare Prescription Plan of 2003. The article is mainly about the deficit, but is instructive as it relates to our current debate:

Recall the situation in 2003. The Bush administration was already projecting the largest deficit in American history–$475 billion in fiscal year 2004, according to the July 2003 mid-session budget review. But a big election was coming up that Bush and his party were desperately fearful of losing. So they decided to win it by buying the votes of America’s seniors by giving them an expensive new program to pay for their prescription drugs.

Recall, too, that Medicare was already broke in every meaningful sense of the term. According to the 2003 Medicare trustees report, spending for Medicare was projected to rise much more rapidly than the payroll tax as the baby boomers retired. Consequently, the rational thing for Congress to do would have been to find ways of cutting its costs. Instead, Republicans voted to vastly increase them–and the federal deficit–by $395 billion between 2004 and 2013.

However, the Bush administration knew this figure was not accurate because Medicare’s chief actuary, Richard Foster, had concluded, well before passage, that the more likely cost would be $534 billion. Tom Scully, a Republican political appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services, threatened to fire him if he dared to make that information public before the vote. (See this report by the HHS inspector general and this article by Foster.)

That last paragraph is the most relevant. The Bush Administration knew that it was blatantly lying to the American public about the cost of the program, and its famous donut hole which forced seniors to pay thousands in out-of-pocket expenses (and which Obama's ACA gets rid of), and threatened to fire the hard-working, and correct, public servant who dared to make the lies public. An inquiry later in 2004 confirmed that Scully had indeed been threatened with his job.

The rollout of the Medicare Prescription Plan was similarly troubled, and of course there were calls to scrap it, but Representative John Boehner thankfully saw the benefits of the bill and asked the public for patience. Oh, how times have changed.

It's important for Democrats and other supporters of the ACA to see the long term benefits of the law and that it's working very well in states that have set up their own exchanges. If more states had done this, without the right wing hissy fits that are causing myriad problems, we would not be talking about a mammoth political problem. We would be talking about how seamlessly the program is working and how people were now getting insurance for less than they were paying, or were getting it for the first time, ever.

And if other governors were not callous, mean, thick-headed and, in some cases, not very bright, and took the Medicaid money that the federal government was offering, then even more poor people would be getting care. Because they aren't taking the money, many hospitals are finding that they can't take care of people who need their services. This is why the law will succeed and it will result in people asking for their coverage from the politicains who can't seem to do the right thing.

The lesson here is patience. The website will be fixed and the law will begin to help the very people it was meant to help. Like all laws, though, it will not help everyone, and there will be winners and losers. Right now, the losers have the spotlight. The winners will emerge later, but they will emerge.

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Friday, November 8, 2013

The Health of the State

If nothing else, the press is having a field day, or a month anyway, with the government shutdown and now the contretemps over the health care website and law. I'm sure you've read the articles and have seen the overblown videos from from both sides of the political divide. There aren't more for me to add.

What's been lost in the tree-to-tree debate is the forest of actual health care and the health of United States citizens. Yes, President Obama should have said that those people whose insurance policies do not meet the minimum standards set by the ACA would indeed need to upgrade them. That inattention to detail is exactly what can derail a noble point, especially given the rabid opposition he faces in Congress. But the larger point is that more people will have better health plans, and, presumably, better health.

The other issue that's been buried is the relative success of the exchanges in states that have functioning representative democracies and not one-party GOP monopolies who don't seem to care whether their poorest residents get Medicaid relief or, in the case of New Jersey, a governor who aspires to national office. In states such as New York, Oregon, Kentucky and California, people are signing up for health care and, for the most part, are finding it both easy and cost-effective to do so (OK, OK...here's a link).

Which proves that the law is working and that it's here to stay and that ultimately it will do what it set out to do and the GOP knows it. That's why they only have the political issue to focus on. By next October, the ACA will be a net plus for the Democrats. The website will be fixed and more people will be demanding that all states fully cover their Medicaid populations.

There will be no place to hide for those who believe that it's an American right to be sick and have other people pay for it, or for those who perversely call it freedom when people are denied access to a government entitlement like Medicaid, or who say it's un-American for the government to provide access to checkups, physicals, reproductive health or to have insurance companies cover people with preexisting conditions.

I've always believed that if you do the right thing, eventually the people in your orbit will notice and reward you for it, even if at times you are punished for your good deeds. The health care law and the sentiment behind it is worthy, moral, ethical and in the best sense of the word, healthy. This, in the end, is what will ensure its success.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Uh Oh: Christie Shows His True Color

If you haven't seen the picture, here it is:

This is Governor Christie scolding a teacher on Saturday for questioning his education policies. A full accounting of the event can be found on Jersey Jazzman's site. But as always with this governor, the picture really tells the story.

Here is a man who wants to be president, who wants to be a role model, and who wants to brook no opposition. He's only succeeded at the latter. This is what we get when we elect former prosecutors to public office. Prosecutors, remember, are true believers who are always, always, always right. Even when they're wrong. But they never are wrong, so the point is proven. Challenging them is a challenge to the natural order of things.

Remember when New Jersey missed out on some wonderful federal Race to the Top dollars because Christie nixed the application that included some concessions to the New Jersey Education Association? That couldn't be Christie's fault, even though it was, so he fired Education Commissioner Brett Schundler.

And when Christie's budget numbers didn't add up and the state economist, David Rosen, called him on it? And it turned out that Rosen was right? The governor never admitted he was wrong on the numbers because, well... Christie is never wrong.

So now we have an example of a teacher asking the governor why he's against teachers, and his response is clearly venomous. Does he really think that teachers are supposed to like what he's said and done over the past four years? Has he convinced himself that trying to tear down the NJEA, overtly accusing teachers of bringing pro-union sentiment into their classrooms, and saying that the public schools in New Jersey are failing would be popular among the education set? If this is his response to a teacher when his reelection is looking promising, just imagine his response in a national race when the press won't let a story go just because the governor wants it to.

As for being a role model, Christie said in the first debate that he didn't think his style was anything but telling people the truth and that New Jerseyans appreciated his candor. Now we know what that really means: I'm right, you're wrong and I'm going to bully you into believing me. This man is no role model, and he never will be.

But there is a remedy to all of this. On Tuesday, vote for Barbara Buono. She knows how to speak to people, but more importantly, she knows how to listen to people. She will make us proud as our governor. And she will do right by families, workers, the environment and our long-term future.

Remember this on November 5.

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