“If by a "Liberal" they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal", then I'm proud to say I'm a "Liberal.”
John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage

Poverty in America

Robert Reich Explains the Economy

Tea Party Pubic Service Announcement

May 11, 2010

Health Care Reform Index

46.3 million - Number of Americans without health insurance

45,000 - Number of Americans, without health insurance, who die each year due to preventable causes, according to a study by Harvard Medical School

32 million - Number of uninsured Americans who will be able to get health insurance under the new law

45.2 million - Number of older Americans enrolled in Medicare

160.6 million - Number of Americans who get their health insurance through their employer

112.2 million - Number of low and moderate income Americans who will receive subsidies to purchase health insurance

$5,761 - Per capita health care spending in the US, the highest in the world

15 - Per cent of total US GDP spent on health care, the highest in the developed world

6.8 - Infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births, highest in the developed world

77 - Life expectancy in the US, ranking fifth in the world

2.3 trillion -Amount spent by Americans on health care in 2007, the last year that statistics are available

390 billion - Amount of savings to be realized by Medicare in the next decade while protecting basic benefits

26 -The age until which children will be able to remain under their parents insurance coverage

143 billion - Amount of deficit reduction in next ten years attributed to health care reform

0 - Number of undocumented immigrants who will be able to purchase health insurance, even with their own money, from the state health care exchanges

0.9 - Per cent increase in Medicare taxes for individuals earning more than $200,000 or couples earning more than $250,000 per year

3.8 - Per cent tax on unearned income for those same high-income earners

100 - Per cent of members of Congress who will be required to purchase health insurance through the state run health exchanges beginning in 2014

1 - Number of western, industrialized countries without universal health care – the United States

0 - Number of Republicans in Congress who voted for health care reform

0 - Distance that health care reform moves the country closer to socialism

May 4, 2010

Tea Party Index

41 - Per cent of Tea Party members who believe President Obama was NOT born in the United States

52 - Per cent of Tea Party members who believe “too much has been made of the problems facing black people”

31 - Per cent of Americans who approve of the Tea party movement

89 - Per cent of tea Party members who are white

40 - Per cent of Tea Party members who are 45 years old or older

61 - Per cent of Tea Party members who are male

44 - Per cent of Tea Party members who identify as “born again”

$285,000 - Amount contributed to Scott Brown’s campaign by the Tea Party

$12 million - Amount Sarah Palin has earned in speaking fees since losing her bid for Vice-President

2.3 million - Number of copies of Sarah Palin’s autobiography sold to date

$1 million - Amount of three-year contract Fox News gave Sarah Palin to serve as a contributor to the news

$250,00 - Amount Sarah Palin is paid per episode for her Learning Channel reality show about Alaska

$100,00 - Amount the Tea Party paid Sarah Palin for her keynote address at their first national convention

91 - Per cent of Tea Party members who support smaller government with fewer services

95 - Per cent of all American households that received a tax cut in 2009

10 - Per cent increase in the average IRS tax refund over last year

2 - Per cent of Tea Party members that think taxes were cut last year

44 - Per cent of Tea Party members who believe taxes were increased last year

86 - Per cent of Tea Party members believe that taxes are too high

57 - Per cent of Americans who believe taxes are too high

1 - Per cent of richest families that earn 24% of all income in the country

400 -Number of richest taxpayers who saw their income double in 2009 and their taxes reduced by 50%

65 - Per cent of Tea Party members who believe Social security is a form of Socialism

92 - Per cent of Tea Party members who believe the US is moving more towards Socialism than Capitalism

May 3, 2010

Bernie Sanders on Wall Street Reform

Sanders Op-Ed: Real Wall Street Reform
By Sen. Bernie Sanders

April 23, 2010

Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman and one of the architects of financial deregulation, recently testified to the effect that no one could have predicted the Wall Street collapse of 2008. Really?

As a member of the House Financial Services Committee, this is what I said on the floor of the House in 1999 as I voted against the Gramm-Leach-Bliley bank deregulation bill: “I believe this legislation, in its current form, will do more harm than good. It will lead to fewer banks and financial service providers; increased charges and fees for individual consumers and small businesses; diminished credit for rural America; and taxpayer exposure to potential loses should a financial conglomerate fail. It will lead to more mega-mergers; a small number of corporations dominating the financial service industry; and further concentration of economic power in our country.”

Frankly, it didn’t take a PhD in finance to come to this conclusion. If you lock a heroin addict in a room with heroin, you shouldn’t be shocked if he overdoses. If you give unlimited license to Wall Street speculators, whose only function is to make as much money as possible, you shouldn’t be surprised when the result is greed on steroids, reckless behavior and a disaster for ordinary people.

Today, as a result of that uncontrollable greed, millions of Americans have lost their jobs, health care and homes and our country continues to struggle through a disastrous recession. Disgust at Wall Street is profound. The American people want change as to how Wall Street functions, real change. Congress must deliver.

We must be clear that real and meaningful financial reform will not come easy. When Wall Street and the financial sector successfully fought for deregulation they poured some $5 billion into lobbying and campaign contributions over a 10-year period. Now, as Congress begins to address financial reform, they’re at it again. In 2009, the major financial interests spent $300 million in lobbying and the money continues to flow like water.

In my view, the real and transformational financial reform we need must include the following elements:

Break Up Huge Banks The four major U.S. banks – Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Well-Fargo – issue two-thirds of the credit cards in this country, write half the mortgages and collectively hold $7.4 trillion in assets, about 52 percent of the nation’s estimated total output last year. Incredibly, despite all of them being bailed out during the Wall Street meltdown because they were “too big to fail,” three of them (Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo) are now bigger than before the bailout. But this is an issue which goes beyond the danger of “too big to fail” and future taxpayer liability. We must break up these behemoths because of the incredible economic power they exert on the economy through their concentration of ownership and enormous competitive advantages.

Financial Institutions Must be Integrated Into the Real Economy At a time when we are in the midst of a major recession, it is insane that our largest financial institutions continue to trade trillions in esoteric financial instruments which makes Wall Street the largest gambling casino in the world. We need to create a financial system which invests in the real economy, and helps create millions of new jobs by providing small and medium businesses with the credit they desperately need. We also need investments to rebuild our manufacturing sector, transform our energy system and create modern transportation and infrastructure systems. We don’t need banks pushing home mortgages on people who can’t afford them. We don’t need huge amounts being “bet” on whether housing securities go up or down or what the price of oil will be six months from now.

National Usury Legislation Major financial institutions have, in many ways, become nothing less than loan-sharking operations. Today, millions of Americans who pay their bills on time are now forced to pay 25 or 30 percent interest rates. That is not only obscene but, according to every major religion, immoral. Banks cannot be allowed to engage in usury and charge outrageous interest rates. We must cap interest rates for private banks at the same level as we do for credit unions – 15 percent except under exceptional circumstances.

Transparency at the Federal Reserve The Federal Reserve cannot continue to operate in almost total secrecy. During the bailout, large financial institutions received trillions of dollars in zero or near-zero interest loans. Who received those loans and under what terms? The Fed isn’t telling. Did some of them turn around and, in a mammoth welfare scam, invest that Fed money in government treasury bonds at 3 percent or 4 percent interest rates? The Fed refuses to say. It’s time we had transparency at the Fed so that the American people know what our central bank is doing.

May 1, 2010

Bill Moyers on the New American Plutonomy

BILL MOYERS April 30, 2010

You've no doubt figured out my bias by now. I've hardly kept it a secret. In this regard, I take my cue from the late Edward R. Murrow, the Moses of broadcast news.

Ed Murrow told his generation of journalists bias is okay as long as you don't try to hide it. So here, one more time, is mine: plutocracy and democracy don't mix. Plutocracy, the rule of the rich, political power controlled by the wealthy.

Plutocracy is not an American word but it's become an American phenomenon. Back in the fall of 2005, the Wall Street giant Citigroup even coined a variation on it, plutonomy, an economic system where the privileged few make sure the rich get richer with government on their side. By the next spring, Citigroup decided the time had come to publicly "bang the drum on plutonomy."

And bang they did, with an "equity strategy" for their investors, entitled, "Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer." Here are some excerpts:

"Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper...[and] take an increasing share of income and wealth over the last 20 years..."

"...the top 10%, particularly the top 1% of the US-- the plutonomists in our parlance-- have benefited disproportionately from the recent productivity surge in the US...[and] from globalization and the productivity boom, at the relative expense of labor."

"...[and they] are likely to get even wealthier in the coming years. [Because] the dynamics of plutonomy are still intact."

And so they were, before the great collapse of 2008. And so they are, today, after the fall. While millions of people have lost their jobs, their homes, and their savings, the plutonomists are doing just fine. In some cases, even better, thanks to our bailout of the big banks which meant record profits and record bonuses for Wall Street.

Now why is this? Because over the past 30 years the plutocrats, or plutonomists — choose your poison — have used their vastly increased wealth to capture the flag and assure the government does their bidding. Remember that Citigroup reference to "market-friendly governments" on their side? It hasn't mattered which party has been in power — government has done Wall Street's bidding.

Don't blame the lobbyists, by the way; they are simply the mules of politics, delivering the drug of choice to a political class addicted to cash — what polite circles call "campaign contributions" and Tony Soprano would call "protection."

This marriage of money and politics has produced an America of gross inequality at the top and low social mobility at the bottom, with little but anxiety and dread in between, as middle class Americans feel the ground falling out from under their feet. According to a study from the Pew Research Center last month, nine out of ten Americans give our national economy a negative rating. Eight out of ten report difficulty finding jobs in their communities, and seven out of ten say they experienced job-related or financial problems over the past year.

So it is that like those populists of that earlier era, millions of Americans have awakened to a sobering reality: they live in a plutocracy, where they are disposable. Then, the remedy was a popular insurgency that ignited the spark of democracy.

Now we have come to another parting of the ways, and once again the fate and character of our country are up for grabs.

So along with Jim Hightower and Iowa's concerned citizens, and many of you, I am biased: democracy only works when we claim it as our own.

April 23, 2010

Earth Day Index

4.39 the number of pounds of trash thrown away each day by the average American

10% amount of solid waste in US that gets recycled

18 billion the number of disposable diapers thrown away each year

2.5 million plastic bottles are thrown away every hour in America

4 million the number of tons of junk mail delivered in America every year

650 the average number of pounds of paper used by each American in one year

43,000 the number of tons of food thrown out in the US every day

270 million the number of tires thrown away annually in the US

2 the number of manmade structures seen from space, the Great Wall of China and the Fresh Kills Landfill in NYC

900 million the number of trees cut down annually for US paper and pulp mills

5% the percentage of the world’s population that lives in the US

33% the percentage of the earth’s timber and paper consumed by Americans

96% the amount of energy saved using a recycled aluminum can rather than making a can from ore

95% the amount of reduction in air pollution manufacturing an aluminum can from recycled materials rather than ore

97% the amount of reduction in water pollution manufacturing an aluminum can from recycled materials rather than ore

1 million the number of gallons of water that can be contaminated from improperly disposing of one quart of engine oil

4 million the number of tons of wrapping paper and shopping bags thrown away during the holiday season in the US

9 cubic yards the amount of landfill space saved by recycling one ton of cardboard

60 pounds the amount of air pollutants avoided by producing one ton of recycled paper

April 19, 2010

U.S. Inequality Index

81% increase in net worth enjoyed by top 5% of wealthiest US households between 1979-2005

1.1% decrease in net worth experienced by lowest 20% of income households during the same period

50% the amount that US worker productivity has increased since 1970 while average wages declined

$20.3 billion the amount paid out in Wall Street bonuses in 2009

38% amount of total US income growth that went to the top .1% of Americans between 1978-2008

400 number of American families whose income quintupled from $16 million to $87 million from 1992-2007

13% the average income loss experienced by American families during that same period

99 the increase in new American billionaires between 2001-2007 bringing the total to 400

18.6% the number of American families with zero net worth

17 million number of US households that experienced food insecurity in 2008

200,000 number of US veterans who are homeless on any given night

1.35 million number of US children who experience homelessness in a twelve month period

25% reduction in public housing vouchers between 1999-2006

$114 billion reduction in federal funding for affordable housing between 2004-2007

13.2 per centage of US citizens living below the official poverty level

14.4 million number of US children living below poverty level

April 18, 2010

What Do We Get For Our US Tax Dollars?

We like to think of Europeans as poor overtaxed serfs but the benefits they receive show the shortcomings of the US system

By Steven Hill

April 16, 2010 "The Guardian" -- Most Americans seem to regard 15 April – the day income tax returns are due to the Internal Revenue Service – as a recurring tragedy on the order of a biblical plague. Particularly this year, with US government deficits soaring, everyone from the Teabaggers to Senate Republicans are reviving a scary Friday the 13th scenario from the 1990s about a return to Big Government. Recently Rudy Giuliani even stated that President Obama was moving us towards – heaven forbid – European social democracy.

Europe frequently plays the punching bag role during these moments because there is a perception that the poor Europeans are overtaxed serfs. But a closer look reveals that this is a myth that prevents Americans from understanding the vast shortcomings of our own system.

A few years ago, an American acquaintance of mine who lives in Sweden told me that, quite by chance, he and his Swedish wife were in New York City and ended up sharing a limousine to the theatre district with a southern US senator and his wife. This senator, a conservative, anti-tax Democrat, asked my acquaintance about Sweden and swaggeringly commented about "all those taxes the Swedes pay". To which this American replied, "The problem with Americans and their taxes is that we get nothing for them." He then went on to tell the senator about the comprehensive level of services and benefits that Swedes receive.

"If Americans knew what Swedes receive for their taxes, we would probably riot," he told the senator. The rest of the ride to the theatre district was unsurprisingly quiet.

The fact is, in return for their taxes, Europeans are receiving a generous support system for families and individuals for which Americans must pay exorbitantly, out-of-pocket, if we are to receive it at all. That includes quality healthcare for every single person, the average cost of which is about half of what Americans pay, even as various studies show that Europeans achieve healthier results.

But that's not all. In return for their taxes, Europeans also are receiving affordable childcare, a decent retirement pension, free or inexpensive university education, job retraining, paid sick leave, paid parental leave, ample vacations, affordable housing, senior care, efficient mass transportation and more. In order to receive the same level of benefits as Europeans, most Americans fork out a ton of money in out-of-pocket payments, in addition to our taxes.

For example, while 47 million Americans don't have any health insurance at all, many who do are paying escalating premiums and deductibles. Indeed, Anthem Blue Cross announced that its premiums will increase by up to 40%.

But Europeans receive healthcare in return for a modest amount deducted from their paychecks.
Friends have told me they are saving nearly a hundred thousand dollars for their children's college education, and most young Americans graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. But many European children attend for free or nearly so (depending on the country).

Childcare in the US costs over $12,000 annually for a family with two children, but in Europe it cost about one-sixth that amount, and the quality is far superior. Millions of Americans are stuffing as much as possible into their IRAs and 401(k)s because social security provides only about half the retirement income needed. But the more generous European retirement system provides about 75-85% (depending on the country) of retirement income. Either way, you pay.

Americans' private spending on old-age care is nearly three times higher per capita than in Europe because Americans must self-finance a significant share of their own senior care. Sixty million American workers have no paid sick leave, millions more have no paid parental leave following a birth, and so must self-finance their own time off. But Europeans receive all this in exchange for their taxes.

Americans also tend to pay more in local and state taxes, as well as in property taxes. Americans also pay hidden taxes, such as $300bn annually in federal tax breaks to businesses that provide health benefits to their employees. When you sum up the total balance sheet, it turns out that Americans pay out just as much as Europeans – but we receive a lot less for our money.

Unfortunately these sorts of complexities are not calculated into simplistic analyses like Forbes' annual Tax Misery Index, a "study" which shows European nations as the most miserable and the low-tax United States as happy as a clam – right next to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

But Forbes only adds up income tax, social security, sales tax or VAT and a few other minor fees. A thorough analysis would need to create a ledger in which all the supports and services Europeans receive are listed on one side and the amount of taxes and any additional fees they pay are listed on the other; and then do a similar analysis for Americans, listing what Americans pay in taxes as well as out-of-pocket expenses for those same services.

In this economically competitive age, increasingly these kinds of services are necessary to ensure healthy, happy and productive families and workers.

Europeans have these supports, but most Americans do not unless you pay a ton out of pocket. Or unless you are a member of Congress, which of course provide European-level support for its members and their families.

That's something to keep in mind on 15 April. Happy Tax Day.

April 6, 2010

The Dangerous Drift Back Towards Segregated Schools

by Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children's Defense Fund, is part of Change.org's Changemakers network, comprised of leading voices for social change.

Two recent decisions by school boards in North Carolina are local signs of a troubling national trend towards resegregation in public schools. In New Hanover County, which includes Wilmington, parents and advocates spent much of last year debating a new middle school redistricting plan that would focus on "neighborhood schools," essentially resegregating the schools by race and economic class because our neighborhoods look that way.

School board member Elizabeth Redenbaugh was the only White and only Republican member to join two Black Democratic colleagues in opposing the new plan. In a letter sent to parents and fellow board members last fall, Redenbaugh described some of what she was seeing: "I have literally had parents...approach me and state, ‘The bottom line is this: I do not want my children in school with black children.' I have had parents ask me why we do anything at all for the black children in our county. They look me in the eye and say, ‘we have spent so much money on black children . . . Nothing helps. I don't know why we even try anymore'...Such statements literally grieve my heart and beg the question: Who is my neighbor?" But despite the concerns Redenbaugh and her colleagues shared, they were ultimately overruled by the other members early this year in a 4-3 vote.

Meanwhile, in Wake County, North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, schools may be moving backwards in a similar direction. Wake County has been lauded for its student assignment policy to balance schools using socioeconomic status augmented by a comprehensive program of magnet schools. But on March 24, the Wake County School Board voted to begin studying a new districting plan that would change the current busing system and reassign students based on "neighborhood attendance zones"-a return to potentially more segregated schools because of the neighborhood demographics. Advocates for Wake County's current socially and economically integrated school system are fighting to prevent this change. But these significant decisions represent a very disturbing trend across the country. The sad truth is that the dream Dr. King rightly considered one of the greatest victories of the Civil Rights Movement-the desegregation of our nation's schools-is unraveling before our eyes.

Desegregated schools grew in the years directly following the Civil Rights Movement, but since 1988, racial resegregation in public schools has been rising slowly and systematically. In June 2007, both the spirit and intent of the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision were assaulted when the Supreme Court acknowledged in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education the benefits of racially diverse schools for all students who attend them, but ruled that desegregation plans that assign students to schools on the basis of race are unconstitutional. At a time when the number of poor and minority children in America is growing and the number of White middle-class children is decreasing, our schools are once again becoming isolated by race and class. Plans like the diversity policy and magnet school program that have been in place in Wake County, which focused primarily on socioeconomic status instead of race, helped produce integrated schools with broad appeal and academic achievement gains; this two-pronged approach was lauded as another method of achieving diversity without concentrating children in racially isolated, high-poverty schools. But as the recent school board decision there shows, even those successful measures are now under attack.

The problem, as leading expert Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles and others have argued, is that segregated schools are not good for any of our children. We already know they are disastrous for poor and minority students, for whom there is a strong connection between school segregation, failing schools, and high dropout rates. Almost half of America's Black students and nearly two-fifths of Latino students attend high schools that have been labeled "dropout factories" by Johns Hopkins University researchers and the U.S. Department of Education, where less than 60 percent of the freshman class will graduate in four years. But studies of the outcomes of inter-district transfer programs also show that while programs designed to improve integration significantly improve the life chances of children who are transferred in, they do not have a negative effect on the academic progress of students in the receiving district-one of the apparent fears of many parents. In fact, as Orfield and others note, integration has been shown to benefit children on both sides.

As our society becomes more and more diverse, it is critically important that children from all backgrounds learn to interact with one another productively. When parents are allowed to hold on to the outdated beliefs that sending their children to a "diverse" school means sending them to an inferior school, it does their own children a disservice. In a rapidly globalizing world, returning to segregated schools would be another missed opportunity for all of America's children. We have so far left to go. We can't afford to take any more steps backwards.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund and in 2000, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award

March 13, 2010

The Public Option is Not Dead - We Can still Act


Dear Leader Reid:

We respectfully ask that you bring for a vote before the full Senate a public health insurance option under budget reconciliation rules.

There are four fundamental reasons why we support this approach – its potential for billions of dollars in cost savings; the growing need to increase competition and lower costs for the consumer; the history of using reconciliation for significant pieces of health care legislation; and the continued public support for a public option.

A Public Option Is an Important Tool for Restoring Fiscal Discipline.

As Democrats, we pledged that the Senate health care reform package would address skyrocketing health care costs and relieve overburdened American families and small businesses from annual double-digit health care cost increases. And that it would do so without adding a dime to the national debt.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) determined that the Senate health reform bill is actually better than deficit neutral. It would reduce the deficit by over $130 billion in the first ten years and up to $1 trillion in the first 20 years.
These cost savings are an important start. But a strong public option can be the centerpiece of an even better package of cost saving measures. CBO estimated that various public option proposals in the House save at least $25 billion. Even $1 billion in savings would qualify it for consideration under reconciliation.

Put simply, including a strong public option is one of the best, most fiscally responsible ways to reform our health insurance system.

A Public Option Would Provide Americans with a Low-Cost Alternative and Improve Market Competitiveness.
A strong public option would create better competition in our health insurance markets. Many Americans have no or little real choice of health insurance provider. Far too often, it’s “take it or leave it” for families and small businesses. This lack of competition drives up costs and leaves private health insurance companies with little incentive to provide quality customer service.

A recent Health Care for America Now report on private insurance companies found that the largest five for-profit health insurance providers made $12 billion in profits last year, yet they actually dropped 2.7 million people from coverage. Private insurance – by gouging the public even during a severe economic recession – has shown it cannot function in the public’s interest without a public alternative. Americans have nowhere to turn. That is not healthy market competition, and it is not good for the public.

If families or individuals like their current coverage through a private insurance company, then they can keep that coverage. And in some markets where consumers have many alternatives, a public option may be less necessary. But many local markets have broken down, with only one or two insurance providers available to consumers. Each and every health insurance market should have real choices for consumers.

There is a history of using reconciliation for significant pieces of health care legislation.

There is substantial Senate precedent for using reconciliation to enact important health care policies. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Medicare Advantage, and the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA), which actually contains the term ‘reconciliation’ in its title, were all enacted under reconciliation.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein and Brookings’ Thomas Mann and Molly Reynolds jointly wrote, “Are Democrats making an egregious power grab by sidestepping the filibuster? Hardly.” They continued that the precedent for using reconciliation to enact major policy changes is “much more extensive . . . than Senate Republicans are willing to admit these days.”

There is strong public support for a public option, across party lines.

The overwhelming majority of Americans want a public option. The latest New York Times poll on this issue, in December, shows that despite the attacks of recent months Americans support the public option 59% to 29%. Support includes 80% of Democrats, 59% of Independents, and even 33% of Republicans.

Much of the public identifies a public option as the key component of health care reform -- and as the best thing we can do to stand up for regular people against big insurance companies. In fact, overall support for health care reform declined steadily as the public option was removed from reform legislation.

Although we strongly support the important reforms made by the Senate-passed health reform package, including a strong public option would improve both its substance and the public’s perception of it. The Senate has an obligation to reform our unworkable health insurance market -- both to reduce costs and to give consumers more choices. A strong public option is the best way to deliver on both of these goals, and we urge its consideration under reconciliation rules.

Michael Bennet (D-CO), U.S. Senator
Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), U.S. Senator
Jeff Merkley (D-OR), U.S. Senator
Sherrod Brown (D-OH), U.S. Senator

Forty-one senators support passing a public option through reconciliation. You can show your support for their efforts and keep the public option alive, go to Democracy for America and take a stand.

February 24, 2010

Obama Introduces White House Health Care Plan - Health Insurance Stocks Rally

While I was watching Toyota’s CEO being grilled by Congress in front of the TV cameras, I was amazed at how angry and inhospitable the Congress members were. Here were our elected representatives making as public a showing as possible that they were concerned about the health and safety of American citizens. They were exercising their sworn duty to protect us from all foreign enemies. And Mr. Toyoda was now the enemy du jour. Yes Toyota had brought this problem on itself and as a result of their not acting quickly enough there are reported to be as many as 34 deaths due to sudden acceleration problems. Now 34 deaths is intolerable and tragic for each and every one of their families. But wouldn’t it also be nice to see our elected representatives equally as exorcised over the 18,000 Americans who die each year of preventable causes because they do not have health care coverage?

But all is well in Muddville. While this sham was proceeding for the cameras, President Obama was getting ready for his “bi-partisan” health care summit. Prior to convening this summit, the President released his own health care reform proposal. It appears that this new proposal is truly bi-partisan. It is a plan that Republicans should love, but cannot do so publicly. All they needed to do was keep saying no to every reasonable proposal, until the White House capitulated and proposed a watered down health care bill that serves first to protect the health insurance industry and only secondly the public. So in the new Washington, bi-partisanship is a Democratic President proposing a plan that is ideologically Republican, providing the Republicans the cover they need to go on opposing the bill making their play for the extreme elements such as the Tea Baggers.

If the health care reform plan introduced this week by President Obama was supposed to reform the health care industry and protect consumers, it seems that somebody forgot to tell the health insurance companies. On the same day that the President revealed his so-called health care overhaul, stocks in two of the largest health insurance providers increased. Humana, Inc. saw its stock prices rise 5.5% and the United Health Group, Inc. saw their stocks increase 3.5%. On the heels of the President’s announcement, the Morgan Stanley Healthcare Payor Index of health insurers increased by 1.6%. Well, at least somebody is happy about the President’s newest iteration of health care reform.

The core of the President’s plan would require all Americans to purchase health insurance, creating an even larger market for private insurers. The plan tries to make this mandate that will force Americans to purchase health insurance from corporate insurers more palatable by claiming that “you will be able to shop among private insurance plans that will be sold in the insurance exchange – a marketplace where you can choose what is right for you.” Actually, the majority of Americans have spoken and decided what is right for them – a public option. In fact there is no mention of a pubic option. Instead the pubic is given the option to choose amongst private insurers – I thought we had that already and that is the root of the problem. Without a public option there is no true competition. A Republican dream, massive government subsidies of private corporations.

Yes there are some good provisions in the bill, but they are long overdue and barely take a step in the direction of fairness and equity. Actually by my count there are two provisions that will go a long way to helping people, and both could have been proposed and passed without the divisiveness that we have had to endure. These are doing away with annual and lifetime limits and pre-existing conditions and closing the so-called Medicare doughnut hole. But even these miniscule improvements are mired down in appeasing the insurance companies and the opposition, the prohibition against pre-existing conditions and lifting the annual and lifetime caps does not go into effect until 2014, and closing the doughnut hole does not go into effect until 2020. If these provisions are designed to correct current injustices, why delay their implementation, other than appeasement?

As way of explanation, the “doughnut hole” refers to Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage. After a Medicare beneficiary reaches the annual limit for prescription drugs they are financially responsible until their prescription drug costs reach the “catastrophic level.” The way it works is that the first $295 spent satisfies the deductible for the year, then from $295 up to $2,700 spent on prescription drugs Medicare covers 75% of the cost. If annual costs for prescription drugs are higher than $2,700, the elderly person must spend an additional $4,350 out of pocket before reaching the catastrophic level. At that point, Medicare will cover 95% of all additional drug costs. This doughnut hole, or gap in coverage, forces millions of retired folks to choose between which medications they will take or to underdose by taking less than the prescribed amount. If we know this is a burden for millions of retired older Americans, why wait ten years to correct it?

Which is the question we all should be asking our President and elected representatives, if we know the system is broken and is not serving us as it should, why then don't we provide the fix that is truly needed? Why tinker around the edges and settle for the slightest incremental change? Mr. Obama, you were elected by an overwhelming margin, partly because you promised Hope and Change. Without change we lose hope, and that is what is happening. Once this sham health care reform is passed, health care will e off the public agenda for decades. Now is the time to get it done. We need bold action, not weak reforms based on some fanciful notion of the possibility of bi-partisanship. Where is the Barack Obama that was elected? Where is the Barack Obama that promised Hope and Change, we need that guy back.

February 11, 2010

How Could $1 Trillion Be Spent

(click on the chart above for a larger image that is easier to read, to see how the average annual funding allocated for the war, of $111 billion, could have been better spent each year for nine years to improve the lives of millions of Americans)

The US Congress has authorized $1 trillion in war spending for Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 through September 2010. That averages out to $111 billion a year. If we were to have spent that same amount of money on human needs, what could we have bought. What could we have gotten for that same amount of money other than thousands of dead civilians and two failed wars?

The amount spent on these two war efforts are a living example of our derailed priorities as a society. When it comes to addressing social issues or meeting real human needs we are told that we cannot afford it. But when we declare war on a country like Iraq, without provocation, we find the money immediately. The question of whether or not we could afford it is never asked.

It is estimated that each year 18,000 Americans die of preventable causes because they do not have access to affordable health care. That mans that there is a greater chance of each one of us dying form a preventable cause without heath insurance than dying form a terrorist act. But in spite of this we choose,as a society, to do nothing about this very real threat tot he lives of so many thousands of Americans year after year. The same legislators that will allocate billions of dollars a year to fight terrorism, stand before us and tell us that we cannot afford to provide universal health care, turning their backs on the thousands of citizens who will die each year as a result.

It is not about whether or not we can afford to address the very real human needs that we are facing such as rising homelessness, increasing hunger, unemployment, more and more people without access to health care, foreclosures, etc, etc.

To try to develop a deeper understanding of these confused priorities I did some simple math to see what $1 trillion dollars over nine years could have provided. I chose to look at seven specific areas that would make an immediate difference in the quality of life of millions of Americans. These included health care, affordable housing, elementary school teachers, child health care, Head Start, college scholarships and Pell grants.

The chart above, shows what could have been paid for each year for the nine years of war with the average annual costs of these wars. It is quite amazing to see what a mere $111 billion per year can buy, when it is not being squandered on war. For a larger image that is easier to read, click on the chart.

February 2, 2010

Obama’s 2011 Budget Proposal: How It’s Spent

This is a link to an interactive New York times site that breaks down the entire proposed federal budget for 2011. You can track expenditures by category, where the increases are and where the prosed cuts are. This highly interactive and informative graphic can help anyone begin to understand our priorities as a nation.


January 31, 2010

Are We up to the Obama Challenge? - Is Obama?

In his State of the Union address, president Obama challenged anyone in the Congress with a better plan for health care to come forward, when he said:

“But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Here's what I ask of Congress, though: Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people."

He did not challenge the American people to do so, perhaps because we have already spoken. The majority of Americans have consistently favored a public option for health care insurance. And there is a better plan out there that will provide universal, single-payer coverage. A plan already exists - one that the majority of users are satisfied with – it is called Medicare, and the plan is Medicare for All.

As far back as 1991, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported that “If the nation adopted...[a] single-payer system that paid providers at Medicare’s rates, the population that is currently uninsured could be covered without dramatically increasing national spending on health. In fact, all US residents might be covered by health insurance for roughly the current level of spending or even somewhat less, because of savings in administrative costs and lower payment rates for services used by the privately insured.

Then, two years later in 1993, the CBO again found “Under a single payer system with co-payments ...on average, people would have an additional $54 to spend...more specifically, the increase in taxes... would be about $856 per capita...private-sector costs would decrease by $910 per capita. The net cost of achieving universal insurance coverage under this single payer system would be negative.”

Since 1998, nonpartisan studies of health care in at least nine states demonstrated that singe-payer plans would produce savings in the $billions and expand coverage. These states included Massachusetts, Vermont, Maryland, California, Maine, Rhode Island, Missouri, Kansas and Georgia.

In one example, The Kansas Health Policy Authority hired an outside consulting firm to do a fiscal analysis of expanding coverage. They found that single payer would reduce state health spending by $869 million annually, while expanding coverage to all individuals and families currently without insurance.

In spite of all the evidence that supports single payer, and the citizen support for a public plan, the Congress is still unable and unwilling to consider the one option that would truly benefit the most Americans, and bring us in line with all of the other industrialized countries in the world.

Medicare for All would provide the following:

Universal coverage – guaranteed comprehensive coverage for all Americans
Affordability – 95% of people would pay less than they are currently paying
Choice – Patients would still have a choice of hospitals, physicians and providers.
Cost – Annual savings of approximately $400 billion based upon reducing administrative waste, negotiated hospital costs and bulk purchasing of prescription drugs.

Currently there are over 1,300 private insurance companies and a confusing number of federal and state programs. By enrolling in just one program the administrative waste caused by duplication and excessive paperwork will be reduced. Additionally, through one national plan, the risk is spread much more broadly, reducing costs to individual participants.

Medicare costs are expanding exponentially because it is made up of only the most medically needy demographic – the elderly. By enrolling a broader and younger population the costs are spread more broadly among high users and lower users, benefitting everybody through reduced costs.

Isn’t it time we brought some sanity into the health care debate, and actually made decisions based upon facts and not exaggerations and disinformation.

We can change the debate, by following the simple prescriptions laid out by President Obama in his State of the Union Address where he challenged the Congress to offer an alternative to his plan, and even earlier than that at a town hall meeting in March, 2007 when he extolled the crowd by telling them:
“… if you have a thousand people or a couple of thousand people writing letters I promise you that Congressman or woman pays a lot of attention. They really do. Of course, you’ve got to have a thousand or two thousand people writing letters in every Congressional District or at least in a majority of the Congressional Districts in order to actually implement policy.”

Our work is cut out for us. The lobbyists and special interests do not rest. In fact, in light of the recent Supreme Court decision, the health insurance industry now has carte blanche to spend as freely as they like to influence the outcome of legislation, and to support candidates opposed to health care reform while punishing its supporters.

In fact, the only special interest group that has not been heard in this debate is the American people. Isn’t it time we had our say?

Here are some web sites where you can get more information and can take action. Any of these would be a good place to start - just as long as we start

Medicare for All

Physicians for a National Health Program

Health Care Now

Single Payer Action

Labor Campaign for Single Payer Health Care

Single Payer Now

Unnatural Causes

January 30, 2010

Bob Herbert on Howard Zinn

A Radical Treasure

Think of what this country would be like if Howard Zinn and others like him never bothered to fight for what they believed in.


January 26, 2010

New Study Shows Majority of Americans Still Support Health Care Reform

A new study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Health Care Tracking Poll, clearly demonstrates that the majority of Americans still support health care reform despite media coverage and the disinformation campaign being waged against reform. While Scott Brown’s election upset victory was seen as a referendum on health care, in reality it was a referendum on the power of big money to influence elections and obfuscate the issues. This explanation is supported by the results of the January Health Care Tracking Poll, which clearly demonstrates that when people are asked about specific proposals that are contained in the current health care reform legislation they are more supportive than when asked about their support for health care reform, as they understand it. This dichotomy of opinion demonstrates that supporters of reform have not been as effective in getting their message out as those who oppose reform, and that we should not minimize the impact of corporate money in affecting this outcome.

Let’s take a look at the numbers and see how they clearly demonstrate the success of disinformation.

While only 42% favor the current reform legislation, it is important to note that only 41% say they are opposed to it. Not exactly a groundswell or opposition nor support, but the numbers change drastically when respondents were asked specifics about the plan and their support.

The big-ticket item that the opposition keeps stressing is that we cannot afford this reform and that it will add billions of dollars to the federal deficit. However the federal Office of Management and Budget has found that both the Senate and House proposals would actually result in reducing the federal deficit. But this is just another example of “don’t bother me with the facts.” The study found that 60% of respondents believe that health care reform, as it is currently proposed, will increase the federal deficit. This breaks down along party lines, with 83% of Republicans believing this and 43% of Democrats. But among that crucial and growing electoral demographic – the independent or unaffiliated voter – 68% believe that it would add to the deficit. In light of this, it is easier to understand Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts. Until now it has been credited to “voter anger.” In reality it is a result of voter response to a carefully crafted disinformation campaign. Massachusetts has 1.5 million registered Democrats, 500,000 registered Republicans, but it also has 2 million people registered as independents. It appears that Republicans and independents were open to Brown’s campaign ads claiming that we cannot afford health care reform because it is too expensive and will add to the deficit.

In spite of this, 54% of those polled believe that “given the serious economic conditions facing the country it is more important to take on health care reform now,” while 39% believe that “we cannot afford to take on health care right now.” So one must ask, why do we consistently vote against our own best interests and in the case of health care our own beliefs? Fear is an important motivator, and Brown and the Republicans have been masterful in both creating that fear and then tapping into it to push their agenda and stop meaningful reform. Further confusing the issue, the study found that 42% of respondents expected the country to be better off if reform is passed and 37% expected us to be worse off. It would seem that people are confused rather than angry. But, rather than addressing this confusion, it appears that the Democrats will be responding to the anger message and once again following the Republican playbook with both eyes wide open, going into defensive mode and allowing the opposition to set the agenda and the terms of the debate.

Other issues that are currently contained in the legislation, receiving solid majorities of support include:
• 73% support tax credit to small businesses
• 67% support heath insurance exchanges
• 60% support extending covering dependents through age 25
• 60% support closing the Medicare “doughnut hole”
• 59% support increased income taxes on the wealthy
• 57% support subsidy assistance to individuals
• 56% would support reform if they knew it would help reduce the deficit
• 56% would support reform if it included provisions to cover at least 31 million currently uninsured
• 53% support taxes on drug and medical device manufacturers
• And, despite the hype and hysteria about a public option, 53% say that they would support reform if it contained this option.

So, it would seem the public is not angry, but rather we are confused. Solid majorities want heath care reform that would include expanded coverage for the uninsured, that would include the much maligned public option and would include increased taxes for the wealthy and drug companies. To understand the impact of awareness of what is actually contained in the proposed legislation and support for this legislation, the researches cross-referenced respondents awareness about components of the legislative efforts with their support for reform. Again, these findings demonstrated that there is much misunderstanding about what the proposed reforms actually are and what their impact will be.

Only 15% of respondents acknowledged that they were aware that the proposed reforms would actually reduce the federal deficit, but 56% stated that they would be more likely to support reform when they were informed of this fact. Only 44% were aware that the now infamous Medicare doughnut hole would be closed, but 60% said they would support legislation that contained that element. Forty-eight per cent of respondents were aware that coverage would be extended to 25 years old, but upon hearing that this as already contained in the legislation, 60% said they could support it.

These are just a few examples of how supporters of health care reform have failed to get their message out, and how effective opponents were at getting out misinformation that turned voter support against reform.

As the Democrats circle the wagons and get ready to retreat even further on health care reform, they should pause a moment and take stock of their primary failure – getting out correct information about the bill. While they are scrambling to regroup in the face of the Republican victory in Massachusetts, the biggest risk is taking away the wrong message from this electoral defeat. Voters are confused and in many cased disappointed. They need a consistent and coherent message and something that they can believe in. These are two things the Democrats have not been able to put forth, leaving the field open to disinformation intended to create voter confusion and anger.

Perhaps the best example of how successful this disinformation campaign was at creating anger based upon confusion was the battle cry heard over the summer of “keep the government out of my Medicare.” Amazing how opponents were able to convince people that the government was not capable of providing quality health programs, even though the majority of Medicare recipients are satisfied with their health coverage. In the most convoluted of reasoning, people believed that if they were happy with Medicare, it could not be a government program - solipsistic thinking at its worst.

Rather than retreat, we need to see an aggressive campaign to inform the public and to put a real public option back into the legislation. Isn’t it time we gave the people what we want and need, not what corporate America would have us believe is good for us?

January 24, 2010

What did the Supreme Court just do to our democracy? | freespeechforpeople.org

We the people can take back our democracy, but we must act NOW!

Follow this link, watch the video, then take action!

What did the Supreme Court just do to our democracy? | freespeechforpeople.org

January 23, 2010

Corporations are People Too

If indeed corporations are people as the supreme court would have us believe, shouldn’t they also be held to the rule of law, pay taxes and fulfill their communitarian role in society. Instead we have American corporations, benefitting from government protectionism and historically low tax rates, that relocate their corporate offices offshore to avoid taxes and build factories in third world countries to avoid US government regulations such as health and safety, minimum wage, right to organize and other basic human rights that we take for granted.

In a well publicized sham a few months ago, the US government embarrassed the Swiss government into revealing US holders of numbered Swiss bank accounts. Well now that corporations are people too, why are we not forcing those US corporations with fancy, and albeit empty offices in the Cayman Islands and other tax free havens to pay their fair share of taxes as American corporations.

Along these lines, the five Supreme Court judges who just gave our democracy away to corporate control, did not even specify in their ruling that a corporation had to be an American corporation to influence US elections. So these former US corporations who have created bogus operations in places like the Cayman Island to avoid paying taxes, now have carte blanche to use the money they save in taxes to influence US elections. But as bad as that may seem, this ruling opens the way for any foreigh corporation to exert undue influence in any US election. So all the billions that we send to countries like China and Saudi Arabia may finally come back to the US – in the form of influence peddling. Of course we all know that is already going on but now it will be legal and above board.

One not too absurd scenario that this could lead too, as far out as it seems, is that Al Qaeda can constitute itself as a legal corporation, using a phony front, like so many illegal operations already do, and use its resources to influence US elections rather than spending their money on guns and bombs. Wouldn’t that be ironic, Al Qaeda wins through legal means following the play book set forth by the US Supreme Court.

If you want to see how this decision can play itself out, we can look at a less phantasmagorical example. In fact we have to look no further than the recent Senate election in Massachusetts. Currently, there is no actual limit on corporate spending in federal elections, only that corporations can’t give directly. So to get around this, corporations have been donating millions to front organizations, without limit, to influence elections. One such recipient of this corporate largesse has been the US Chamber of Commerce. Each year, the Chamber accepts millions from US corporations and places so-called issues ads in races across the country.

In the last weeks of the very short special election in Massachusetts, the US Chamber of Commerce spent $1 million supporting Scott Brown. Before this onslaught of ads funded by corporations through the Chamber, polls showed Brown trailing Martha Coakley by about fifteen points. Once the ads fueled by this largesse hit the airwaves and the web, Brown started gaining in the polls and Coakley’s lead began to shrink. The final vote gave Brown a five-point lead, winning 52% to 47%. Perhaps the most successful intrusion of corporate influence since the now infamous Harry and Louise ads that helped to defeat the Clinton attempt at health care reform.

Is it a coincidence that both Coakleys’ defeat and the Supreme court decision opening the corporate floodgates to infuence elections and legislation occurred in the same week? And is it a coincidence that these two events also happened in the same week that President Obama released his plans to reguate banks? Perhaps the message to Mr. Obama and the public here is that if you try to regulate financial institutions so that they do not cause another financial meltdown, they will have their representatives on the court ensure that they can continue in their profligate ways without regard to the collateral damage caused. Another example f the pernicious influence of unlimited corporate funds. Now your vote is worthless, and don't let anybody suggest differently.

January 21, 2010

Democracy – Sold to the Highest Bidder

Is it mere coincidence that on the same day that Goldman Sachs – rescued by billions in tax dollars - announces $16.2 billion in bonuses, the Supreme Court rules that corporations have the same free speech rights as persons and are not subject to spending limits in political campaigns?

The court split along party lines, the Republican majority voting in favor and the democratic minority opposing. Funny, how the conservative hue and cry about activist judges has not been heard on this ruling. It seems that judges are only accused of being “activist” when they protect the rights of real people.

This ruling will go down, or at least it should, as the day that democracy, or what is left of it, in the US was sold to the highest bidder.

This is like that show on TV, “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” Well, when it comes to the majority on the Roberts court, the answer is NO! Any fifth grader could tell you without much hesitation that a corporation is not a person. If it were it would be able to vote and to hold office. Ooops, maybe I shouldn’t say that so loud, what if Justice Roberts got that idea, who knows where it could lead. Essentially the justices have ruled that money is free speech. Well then again, back to the fifth graders who could tell the justices that if money is free speech then speech is not free.

Ordinary citizens do not have access to the airwaves or to print or web advertising to get their message and opinions across. If corporations can afford to purchase airtime and individuals cannot, then to make this ruling truly just all airtime should be free thereby allowing equal access. But it seems that equal access is another concept that the court does not get, but many fifth graders would understand.

Let’s look at one simple scenario to see how this new ruling could play itself out. Today Goldman Sachs announced the distribution of $1.6 billion in bonuses, averaging approximately $500,000 per employee. If the corporation, in order to exercise its free speech rights on proposed legislation regulating banks and investment firms, decided to hold back just 10% of its bonus awards. That would leave an average bonus of $450,000. Still none to shabby.

Now, the corporation as person, has $1.6 billion dollars to spend to defeat the proposed banking legislation. That could buy an army of lobbyists, hundreds of hours of advertising on TV and reams of print advertising. In addition it could pay for operatives on the ground in every congressional district in the country. That would indeed be the end of any legislation restricting the unsavory and risky practices of financial firms that lead us to the brink of disaster.

In light of this dangerous decision by the Supreme Court, I end with a few relevant quotes from Thomas Jefferson:

The system of banking [is] a blot left in all our Constitutions, which, if not covered, will end in their destruction... I sincerely believe that banking institutions are more dangerous than standing armies; and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity... is but swindling futurity on a large scale.

I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

This founding father could give Nostradamus a run for his money, it seems that way back in the very beginnings of the 19th century, Jefferson was able to predict the state of affairs at the dawn of the 21st century.

Today the Supreme Court sold our imperfect democracy to the highest bidder, but we the people can and must take it back.

January 19, 2010

The News From Massachusetts

They will probably call it the Massachusetts miracle, the seat that Ted Kennedy held in the senate for 47 years going to a Republican. Not just any Republican, but one who has vowed to stop health care reform! To call that ironic would be an understatement.

While the Democrats scamble to do damage control, and Scott Brown is polishing his truck, the stage will be turned over to the pundits and talking heads who will try to make sense out of this. In the end, Martha Coakley will take the fall for not be a good enough campaigner and taking victory for granted while Scott Brown crawled and clawed his way to victory. That would reduce this election to a mere popularity contest, which it was not.

So I will join in with these pundits and feel free to interpret the results as well. Let me start by saying there should be no mistake about what happened here in Massachusetts. Martha Coakley did not lose this election alone, in fact this was not an election about Martha Coakley versus Scott Brown, this was a referendum on the national Democratic Party and its failure to stand for something.

People are not angry, or disillusioned because the President has not fixed the economy in one year, after it took Bush eight years to wreck it. They are angry because the majority of people wanted to believe that things would be different. That the last presidential election really was about hope and change. Instead we got more of the same. Bailouts of Wall Street, escalation of the war in Afghanistan, a health plan without a public option that was favored by a majority of Americans, no let up in sight in home foreclosures and a Democratic majority that has allowed itself to be stifled by a Republican minority.

Perhaps the voters are tired of being used. Democrats talk of change when running for office, then turn their backs on their base once elected. Maybe this election was about saying “we’re tired and we ain’t gonna take it anymore.” Maybe this should really be seen as a wake up call for Democrats, start acting like Democrats and stop hiding behind the false threat of a filibuster. Everything is not negotiable. There must be certain values and ideals that you stand for.

Martha Coakley had the misfortune of being the first test of voter anger and disappointment, and Scott Brown had the advantage of being able to tap into that reservoir. If this is not to be a sign of things to come, then the Democrats have to start acting like Democrats and do what they were given a mandate to do. Let’s move away from the same old tired politics and people who got us into this economic mess, and give the people what they voted for in 2008 – change and hope.

Barack Obama promised hope and gave hope to millions of voices that had not been heard before, youth and minority youth in particular. It is a dangerous thing to give people hope, and then not deliver on that promise. In the words of Jessie de la Cruz of the United Farmworkers Union as quoted by Studs Terkel “Hope Dies Last.” Once that hope is gone and their belief in the system fades along with it, what hope do any of us have for long-term, systemic change.

If nothing else, the Massachusetts miracle or upset, depending which side of the aisle you are on, should not go unheeded. It is a loud wake up call, let’s hope somebody in the White House and in Congress is listening.

January 9, 2010

Hope Amid Devastation - Success in the face of Neglect

Amid all the devastation that is still New Orleans, the real stories of Katrina are the stories of the people of New Orleans. Those that survived and those that did not. Those that are still scattered like fallen leaves across the United States, separated from family, friends and all that is familiar, without the resources to return home or a home to return to. The stories of those that tried to ride out the storm and those that fled with just the shirts on their backs. And there are the stories of those who tried to rebuild only to find roadblocks every step of the way, whether they be government regulations, loss of required documentation, not knowing about available services until too late or those that fell victim to unscrupulous contractors and government officials.

And there are also the stories of those residents who found a calling in the aftermath of Katrina and have not only vowed to rebuild, but in the process of trying to understand what it means to return home have learned that to build community one must participate in community. I have met and continue to meet many of these people, who have come back, but in the process of returning have become part of something larger than themselves.

One such person that I had the pleasure of meeting was Mack McClendon. A man who grew up in the housing projects of the Lower 9th Ward. After returning to find his home uninhabitable he purchased a vacant and damaged warehouse to begin a business of restoring antique cars. Having obtained the building and preparing to embark on his dream Mack began to understand that what his community needed was a place and a way to recreate community. If people were going to be encouraged to return home, they would need something to return to, and this was more important than attaining his own personal dream. The Lower 9th lacked infrastructure and community services. In a community where there were multiple pubic schools, there was only one charter school. The government, through the federal Road Home program, was purchasing and demolishing homes, creating vast tracts of vacant land. Mack came to the realization that to help recreate this sense of community, the Lower 9th needed a community center more than it needed antique car restoration.

Today, Mack has dedicated himself and his meager financial resources to developing the Lower 9th Ward Village Community Center. All of his energies are devoted to building community and giving people something to return home to. As he described his own personal metamorphosis “we all have a light within us, but that light is not turned on. Then something happens and turns that light on. Once it is on it cannot be turned off. However some people never turn that light on and die without knowing what it is like.” This community center is his light, it is shining bright and it has become his passion. As he says it best, “ I have the least financial resources that I have ever had, but I am now the richest that I have ever been.

According to a March 2009 report by CNN, the Lower 9th was home to 19,000 people before Katrina, but less than 19% of these residents have returned, with a total population now of a mere 3,600 people. The others are scattered throughout the country, plopped down in unfamiliar surroundings by their government, with no means of returning home. Prior to Katrina, the Lower 9th had the one of the highest proportions of black home ownership in the country. Yet, the media has portrayed this once vibrant community as a low income, crime-ridden community that was blighted.

Mack’s story is just one of the many untold stories of people working hard to do what the government should be doing to rebuild these devastated communities.

Another person that I had the pleasure of meeting is Clifford Washington, the Coordinator of Volunteers at the Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network (NENA), a “resident-based approach to comprehensive rebuilding.” Clifford is a member of a large family with deep roots in the Lower 9th Ward. After Katrina, he and his wife and children were relocated first to Texas and then to North Carolina. They both left jobs in North Carolina to return to New Orleans to be with family. When a student that was with me asked Clifford if he was concerned about returning to a place where a hurricane can do so much damage, he responded by saying that the hurricanes are a part of life here just as the fires or earthquakes are a part of life in California and other natural disasters are part of living in other areas. Then, demonstrating the resilience that I have come to see in so many of the people who have returned, he stated that at least with a hurricane there can be several days warning, which is not possible for people living in earthquake or forest fire areas.

Ending my meetings with each of these extraordinary men, I thanked them for their time, and each said how grateful they were that people, like the Wheelock students, were coming to help and how much it means to the residents and those still hoping to return knowing that people out there care and are still aware of their continuing struggles.

In this installment, I would like to highlight one more person that I had the pleasure of meeting - Steve a volunteer at Camp Hope. Although not really a camp, this former parochial school building is home to up to 300 volunteers from around the country coming to help rebuild. The building that Camp Hope is located in is surrounded by blocks and blocks of vacant land and scattered homes that have been rehabilitated or are waiting to be renovated. These vacant lots are littered with the artifacts of community, setting the stage for one to only imagine the community and the people that inhabited it. The building has been leased from the Archdiocese by the St. Bernard Parish government for a six-year period. Without the homes and the families that once inhabited this community there is no longer a need for a school. Camp Hope is where the twenty-five student volunteers from Wheelock College that I have traveled here with are staying, along with other groups from churches, colleges and families that have come to help.

Steve lost everything to Katrina, his house, his car, his pet and several months after the storm his wife passed away. Although Steve’s home is just a slab of concrete today and he has hopes of rebuilding in the future, he now spends his time helping to make Camp Hope home for hundreds of volunteers who are helping to rebuild the homes of others. In addition to his volunteer work at the camp he is trying to help bring as many people home as possible. The pain that Steve experiences is palpable when he talks about how the government sent people all over the country, sometimes breaking up families, without telling them where they were going and without providing them the means to return home.

These are just thee of the extraordinary people that I have met during my week in New Orleans. The others include the twenty-five Wheelock students who sacrificed a large part of their semester break, paying their own way to come to New Orleans to help people they have never met, doing things like hanging drywall, demolding a house, painting, hanging doors and window sills. These young women did not shy away from the dirty, difficult and challenging tasks they were given, and in doing so learned about issues of race, class, community, civic engagement and how our government could fail so miserably in helping its own citizens. The question that kept coming up for the students and the people working to revitalize the communities so profoundly affected by Katrina was “ if this is America, and these are American citizens and communities, how could this devastation still exist four years later, with so little progress made?

January 6, 2010

Greetings From the Town that America Forgot.

As I spend more time in New Orleans communities that are struggling to come back from Katrina, I learn more and more of the shortness of our collective memories as Americans. Katrina is still happening here, it is not a thing of the past. The continuing impacts of the hurricane are a daily fact of life in New Orleans, unless of course you never step out of the French Quarter, where all is fun, food and music.

As New Orleans inches ever so slowly toward recovery more questions than answers remain. How could the country that created the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II tolerate such wide spread destruction and choose to do so little about it? Why do so many Americans think that just because four years have passed that things are just fine down here? Will the recent court decision finding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers partially at fault for the flooding and the ensuing devastation, mean that homeowners who cannot afford to rebuild will be able to call on the federal government to take responsibility for it role in the flooding?

While these questions remain unanswered, thousands of former New Orleans residents wait in a state of perpetual limbo, unable to return to their homes, or to rebuild on the sites where their homes once stood.

While driving around the affected areas I noticed numerous hand painted signs advertising services that cut tall grass. I had never seen signs for such a service before New Orleans. Finding an explanation for the proliferation of tall grass cutters, I also found another example of how we punish people for falling victim to circumstances beyond their control and then kicking them while they’re down. It seems that it is punishable by a $500 daily fine if you allow your grass to grow over eighteen inches high. But if your house is uninhabitable or no longer exists and all you own is an empty lot, and you have been relocated outside of the area, you are till responsible for keeping your grass trimmed. Clearly a difficult task for someone who has lost everything. So, if you are unable to cut your grass, and you are fined $500 for each day that the grass is taller than eighteen inches, it won’t be long before you cannot afford to pay your outstanding fines. As the penalties pile up, and it becomes less likely that you will be able to pay, the government can step in and seize your property for default on the outstanding fines. You can imagine where this is going. As the government accumulates more and larger tracts of real estate, it can then turn the land over to developers to build new homes that are not affordable to former residents.

The injustice in this should be apparent to the most casual observer, but it goes on. Wouldn’t it make more sense for local government to provide the grass cutting service, rather than being eager to fine people and confiscate property? But this is New Orleans, where contractors have been known to take deposits for rebuilding or repairing homes and then disappear, and where the current Mayor, Ray Ngin, is being investigated for allegedly going on a luxury Hawaiian vacation paid for by a real estate developer.

Just another day in the Big Easy

January 4, 2010

A Message From New Orleans

Greetings from New Orleans where they are experiencing the coldest January weather in more than twelve years. I am down here with a group of Wheelock College students engaged in a service learning project. Twenty-five young women from Wheelock traveled from Boston to New Orleans to spend a week helping to rebuild homes devastated in Hurricane Katrina four years ago. The President of Wheelock has made a ten-year commitment, on the part of the school, to help in the rebuilding of New Orleans. This week’s trip is the seventh trip sponsored by the College.

Now you may be asking yourself, New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina? That was years ago, hasn't that been taken care of? So many of the young people on this trip have gotten that very same reaction. So the simple answer to that question is that not very much has been done in the past four years to rebuild this City devastated by Katrina. Yes there is a lot of rebuilding going on but barely enough to make a dent in the devastation that resulted.

We are working on four houses in St. Bernard and Orleans Parishes, under the guidance of the St. Bernard Project. This organization is dedicated to helping to rebuild St Bernard parish, home to 67,000 people before Katrina left its mark. As a result of the Hurricane all 27,000 homes in the Parish were rendered uninhabitable, when the entire Parish was inundated with up to twenty feet of water for four weeks. Since Katrina, only one-third of the residents have returned, most of whom are living in FEMA trailers or in their attics that were above the high water level.

What were once vibrant communities with schools, stores, playgrounds and modest homes, are now vast tracts of empty land, abandoned or empty homes, gutted shells interspersed with renovated or newly built homes. Driving through these communities, one sees block after block of seemingly vacant lots. However, upon closer inspection you begin to notice that these are not vacant lots, they still contain the remnants of thousands of homes. Slabs of concrete, driveways, stoops, patios – all reveal the sad fact that these were once places where people lived, laughed, loved and raised their families. Now they resemble ghost towns that are ever so slowly being reclaimed.

Progress is slow but steady. Utilizing all volunteer labor, the St. Bernard Project is able to renovate a home and make it habitable for a mere $15,000. Utilizing thousands of volunteers from all over the country, they have completed the renovation of 257 homes. An incredible feat, but a mere drop in the bucket compared to the enormity of the devastation. This volunteer labor is necessary because most residents cannot afford to rebuild their homes because they did not have flood insurance. A couple of years before Katrina, the federal government inspected the levees and decided that they were sufficient o protect this area from flooding and rezoned the Parish out of the flood zone. No longer in a flood zone, it was reasonable to drop flood insurance and save a significant amount of money each year. Having made the decision to redraw the flood zone, the federal government takes no responsibility to help these people rebuild their homes and their lives.

Next door in the Lower Ninth Ward, where we watched people on TV huddling on their roofs waiting to be rescued, the rebuilding is as slow as the rescue efforts were four years ago. Brad Pitt, through his Make It Right Foundation, has been utilizing international teams of architects to design new homes that are green and designed to withstand flooding. Many of these homes are ultramodern and somewhat phantasmagorical, but they do make a statement. However, even with his celebrity and access to resources, the Make It Right Foundation, has a goal of building only 150 new homes.

It is shameful that in the Untied States, we cannot even provide the funds needed to rebuild a city after a natural disaster. A small portion of the annual budgets to wage the wasteful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could be used to fund the rebuilding of New Orleans. With a little foresight, we could have rebuilt New Orleans as the first “green city” in the United States. Instead as time goes on and the government amasses large tracts of land that once supported thousands of modest homes, this land will be turned over to developers to build homes that do not serve the needs of the residents that lived here prior to Katrina.

More to come from New Orleans in the next few days. There is more to the story than the devastation of homes, the real impact is in the devastation of communities and the impact on families. And the real story is how the United States has turned its back on its fellow citizens in need. Our brief collective memories must be expanded to stay with a problem until it is finished. Why hasn’t President Obama made the same commitment to the people of New Orleans that the has made to the people of Afghanistan – t stay with the job until it is completed successfully?