Bob Schwartz

Month: September, 2013

The Government Shutdown and Masturbating Fetuses

Rep. Michael Burgess
In the contentious Saturday night House debate on the Continuing Resolution to fund the federal government—a resolution that guts Obamacare and will almost certainly lead to a partial government shutdown—Republican Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas revealed a little known fact about the Affordable Care Act: it was “never intended to be law,” even though it obviously is. How so?

And here’s the real crux, Mr. Speaker. Here’s what’s really wrong and why Washington is in such a lather right now: The Affordable Care Act was never intended to become law. It was a vehicle to get the Senators home on Christmas Eve before the snowstorm. It was never intended to be law. The law that was passed by the Senate was a rough draft. It’s equivalent to saying the dog ate my homework so I turned in the rough draft; and, unfortunately, the rough draft got signed into law the following March, and that’s why there’s so much difficulty with this.
Congressional Record, September 28, 2013

Who is Rep. Burgess and why is he saying these things? He is a medical doctor, an ob/gyn, and has become one of the Republican Congressional experts on health care. Research shows that he has some other interesting views. This from U.S. News on June 18 of this year:

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, said Monday he is opposed to abortion because fetuses masturbate in the womb, and so can feel both pleasure and pain.

“Watch a sonogram of a 15-week baby, and they have movements that are purposeful,” said Burgess, citing his experience as an OB/GYN, during a House Rules Committee hearing on a GOP bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks. “They stroke their face. If they’re a male baby, they may have their hand between their legs. If they feel pleasure, why is it so hard to think that they could feel pain?”

His comments were first reported by women’s health site RH Reality Check.

But Burgess’s argument isn’t based in science, doctors say. “We certainly can see a movement of a fetus during that time, but in terms of any knowledge about pleasure or pain – there are no data to assess,” says Jeanne Conry, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a professional association for OB/GYNs. “We don’t know enough about the biology and the science.”

One more medical opinion from Rep./Dr. Burgess on the country’s sickness: President Obama must be impeached. Burgess said to a Tea Party questioner in 2011: “It needs to happen, and I agree with you it would tie things up. No question about that.”

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Life Lessons from the End of the Regular Baseball Season

MLB Standings
The 162 games of the regular Major League Baseball season are over. Now the League Championship Series begin. For those who don’t care about baseball—or who think it a stupid waste of time—some generalized random thoughts about life lessons we can learn.

Cleveland Indians: The Indians closed the season with a ten-game winning streak. 10-0. That itself is a big deal. A bigger deal is that it came at the end of the season and kept them in the running for a spot in the playoffs.

Life Lesson: Winning streaks are good, well-timed winning streaks are better.

Boston Red Sox: Up until 2004, the Red Sox were one of the two legendary non-winners of World Series (Chicago Cubs are the other). Some attributed this to their selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919. Prior to that, the Red Sox were one of baseball’s great teams. After, the so-called Curse of the Bambino took over. They did get their mojo back, winning the World Series in 2004 and 2007, and having another great season this time around, with a 97-65 record—the best in baseball.

Life Lesson 1: Hang in there.

Life Lesson 2: There is no Curse of the Bambino.

Miami Marlins: The Marlins have the strangest history of any modern expansion team, maybe of any major league team at all. A rich guy owned them when they began in 1993. He bought a lot of talent, which led to their winning a World Series in 1997. He got rid of all the high-priced players before the next season, and so the World Champions had a record of 54-78. He sold the team to another rich guy, who would later own the Boston Red Sox. Before leaving, that rich guy set the stage for another World Series win in 2003. The current rich guy, who had previously owned a team that is now defunct, bought the Marlins just before that championship. He has subsequently changed his approach to baseball every year in a style that can be described as either whimsical or self-serving. To entice the leaders of South Florida to spend hundreds of millions on a new ballpark, he beefed up the team with lots of expensive talent for the 2012 season. He got the park, but the talent fizzled there, with a record of 69-93. He got rid of the talent, went for cheap and mostly untried young players, and the Marlins finished this season at 62-100. The most infamous upshot of his profitable penny-pinching was trading Miguel Cabrera to the Detroit Tigers in 2007, because he knew he could never pay what Cabrera might one day be worth. Cabrera is now almost certainly the greatest hitter of his generation, so it may not be the Curse of the Miguelito, but it’s close.

Life Lesson 1: When Eve complained to her nemesis in the Garden of Eden, the legless one who convinced her to break bad, the reply was simple: What are you complaining about? You knew all along that I was a snake.

Life Lesson 2: It’s all fun and games, but business is business. Not being cynical, just realistic. Whether you’re a fan of politics or music or baseball or whatever, enjoy the show, but don’t forget that.

Barbara Jordan v. Ted Cruz

Barbara Jordan - Ted Cruz
Regular readers of this blog know about the late Representative Barbara Jordan, one of the great speakers in modern American history, and one of the most distinguished members of Congress in her generation. We have seen few like her in recent years—because there have been few like her at all.

She shares one thing and one thing only with Ted Cruz: both represented Texas citizens in Congress. Besides that, they might as well be from different planets—politically, morally, intellectually, rhetorically, in just about any category you can name.

Barbara Jordan was born and raised in a black district of Houston. To say that she transcended any challenges she faced is saying nothing: her talents and compassion took her to the height of American political respect and significance. Ted Cruz was born in Canada, an apparent embarrassment for him, given that he has renounced his Canadian citizenship. He was raised somewhere, though there is no way to tell that he is “from” Texas other than the designation on his office. He has probably visited Houston, though it doesn’t seem his kind of place.

While at Harvard Law School, Ted Cruz reportedly refused to study with students who did not have undergraduate degrees from Harvard, Princeton or Yale. Even the “minor” Ivy League schools like Penn or Columbia weren’t good enough. Barbara Jordan attended Texas Southern University and then Boston University Law School. Well below minor status. However, she was a national champion debater at Texas Southern, where she beat Yale and Brown, and tied Harvard. And, presumably, would beat Ted Cruz in debate too.

Barbara Jordan was a model of intelligent political pragmatism, toughness tempered by compassion. She believed that character was paramount. Her rhetoric, rated in the range of FDR, JFK and MLK, could be uplifting or withering. She never spoke for twenty-one hours straight because she never had to. But if she had, it might be mesmerizing, start to finish. Ted Cruz is the model of something.

A Senate filled with one hundred Barbara Jordans would not be to everyone’s ideological taste, but no one would worry that they were being hoodwinked or being used as part of someone’s ambitious scheme, or that the country was in existential peril. The nation would be better for it. A Senate filled with one hundred Ted Cruzes is something else—perhaps a sign that beyond just shutting down the government, we should just close the doors on the American enterprise entirely.

We miss you Barbara. And we need you.

Un-Americans in Congress

Capitol Flag
The first appearance of un-Americanism came during the American Revolution. Conservative colonists who remained loyal to the British crown were reviled by those who pledged their fortunes to a new and forward-looking vision. To the Patriots, the Loyalists were backward-looking un-Americans—even though “America” was not quite yet a reality.

The next appearance came during the Civil War. This time, a powerful portion of American citizens and leaders made philosophical and economic arguments that being a “real American” meant having the freedom to own people as property and, if that was taken away, the freedom to split the nation. Many other Americans disagreed, and in a war that took 620,000 lives, having a united nation and government was established as the bedrock of Americanism. Disagree and fight vigorously to change policy and direction, but when your initiatives threaten the integrity of that union, your Americanism is in question or even forfeited.

Right now, Republican members of Congress are on track to bring parts of the American government to a standstill, and probably damage a still-unstable American economy. This is un-American. Pointing fingers and trying to avoid accountability is childish; at least take credit or blame if the principles are so important. We need adult Americans. What we seem to be getting in some quarters are childish un-Americans. Nothing could be more sad or dangerous.

Music: Royals by Lorde

Lorde

When you’re a young pop music fanatic, you spend half your time listening. Music is life, life is music. When you get older, you still love it, but it takes its place among so many other occupiers. Which is why some of us who really do care and appreciate end up as “middle of the day” discoverers instead of early adopters.

I nearly had to pull off the road when I first heard Royals by Lorde on the radio this week. I was transported, transfixed, whatever transcendent pop music word you want to use. I am about the five millionth person to find out about this phenomenon, but I don’t care.

This is from the Billboard 21 Under 21 list, where Lorde comes in at Number 6, just a few spots below Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus:

Why She’s Hot: At this time last year, Ella Yelich-O’Connor was an unknown 15-year-old in New Zealand, still two months away from releasing her debut EP for free on the Internet. Fast forward one calendar frame, and one of the songs on that EP, “Royals,” is a record-setting hit on Billboard’s Alternative chart and a Top 5 single on the U.S. Hot 100. Its creator, now known as Lorde, is one of the most fascinating new talents in pop music, with sold-out shows, a beguiling debut album titled “Pure Heroine,” and an astoundingly level head about her heightened profile. The head of Lorde’s record label says that she could be “the artist of her generation,” and thousands agree. It’s time to hail Lorde with a spot in this year’s Top 10.

And if everything else about Royals isn’t already plus-perfect, the song itself, written by Lorde and Joel Little, offers a message about rich pop stars from the common people perspective: “we’ll never be royals.”

I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh
I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies
And I’m not proud of my address
In the torn up town, no post code envy

But every song’s like:
Gold teeth
Grey Goose
Tripping in the bathroom
Bloodstains
Ball gowns
Trashing the hotel room

We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams

But everybody’s like:
Crystal
Maybach
Diamonds on your timepiece
Jet planes
Islands
Tigers on a gold leash

We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair

And we’ll never be royals
It don’t run in our blood
That kind of lux just ain’t for us, we crave a different kind of buzz
Let me be your ruler
You can call me queen bee
And baby I’ll rule, I’ll rule, I’ll rule, I’ll rule
Let me live that fantasy

My friends and I we’ve cracked the code
We count our dollars on the train to the party
And everyone who knows us knows
That we’re fine with this, we didn’t come from money

This is the dream for every artist and producer, and for music fans too: something so familiar yet different, something so infinitely listenable and desirable that it is a musical drug. Will Lorde go on to be, as her label says, “the artist of her generation”? They have to say that, there’s a long way to go, and one great track doesn’t make a career. But what a great track and what a great way to start.

Some Republicans Want to Kill the Dog

National Lampoon - Kill the Dog
It is as famous and funnily outrageous as any magazine cover ever: the January 1973 National Lampoon that threatened “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”

That, in a nutshell, is the Republican threat in Congress: agree to every piece of legislation we’ve been unable to pass over the past few years, or we will kill the country—by not passing a budget resolution or not raising the debt ceiling or both.

National Lampoon wasn’t serious, which is what made it funny. If it was a real dog, a loaded gun and a crazy shooter, it would be a crime and a tragedy. Especially if we didn’t buy the magazine and the dog was actually killed.

Some Republicans aren’t exhibiting any sense of humor about this—or sense of perspective or history or citizenship. There is a loaded gun and there is a serious intention to pull the trigger, despite any likely harm. Which would be a crime and a tragedy and not very funny at all.

Ted Cruz and Joe McCarthy

Ted Cruz - Joe McCarthy
For a while now, virulent anti-Obamaism has looked a lot like the anti-Communist vendetta of McCarthyism in the 1950s. Barack Obama is in fact the scary culmination of the fear that swept the nation fifty years ago. Not only are there Communist infiltrators in government offices; the White House itself is in the hands of a godless liberty-taker—or so it seems to millions.

U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy from Wisconsin did not invent this brand of hate and paranoia. He just perfected it through a combination of extreme showboating, angry rhetoric and, most of all, fear. Nothing could be worse than to be branded an enemy of the state (in McCarthyist terms), which might lead to a loss of a citizen’s reputation, job and career or, more to the point, to a politician’s losing office.

This week, Ted Cruz’s attempt to hog the American stage with his fauxbuster (media are still working on a term for a filibuster that isn’t one) has had a notable effect on some of his Republican Congressional colleagues. Since the 2010 elections, and certainly in the 2012 presidential campaign, there has been a reluctance to publicly break ranks and call an ambitious, self-absorbed blowhard that (e.g., Donald Trump) or a fool a fool (take your pick). In recent days, a few Republican Senators have stopped holding back, realizing that as much as they agree in their opposition to Obama policies, this is not a constructive way to proceed, governmentally or politically. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a loyal Republican and unassailable conservative, said that it appears that to Cruz and others of that ilk, he is just not conservative enough.

This is the Ted Cruz/Joe McCarthy strategy: if you are not with me, you are against America. To torture a quote from King Louis XIV, “America c’est moi.” (I am America). And if you are not for my definition of America, you are an enemy of the state—even if you purport to be a Republican, even if you are a Senator with many more years than my nine months in the Senate. And if you are an enemy of the state, I and my millions of like-minded Americans will destroy you. That is my mission.

Joe McCarthy’s brief demagogic career ended in ignominy (and ill health from his alcoholism). He went from holding center stage to banishment when more and more of his colleagues and the media stood up to his bullying. It wasn’t that anti-Communism went away; it remained a force for years to come and, as pointed out, lives still even in the post-Cold War era. It was that serious people put up with over-ambitious clowns as long as a common agenda is advanced, but at some point even the threat of losing office takes second place to what’s good for America.

In the end, McCarthyism lost to Americanism. Let’s hope that Cruzism suffers the same fate.

What the GOP Can Learn from Pope Francis

Pope Francis
Pope Francis has turned out to be everything his most idealistic supporters hoped for, and then some. For a bonus trick, he may be able to save the Republican Party—politically speaking.

If you’ve only seen the top-line coverage of his interview with the magazine America, or read some quotes, do read the whole thing. It is a multi-dimensional view of a simultaneously simple and complex leader of an enormous—and enormously controversial—enterprise. We are apparently just beginning to see his skills.

For one thing, he is trying to navigate a sea of reformist and conservative elements, a dynamic that has left the Church in turmoil. He is doing this by something outrageously unlike most of what we see in the “sophisticated” twenty-first century. He is leading by staying true to a bedrock of belief, in word and action, but doing it in a way that is learned, thoughtful, humble and realistic. He is stripping away an accretion of institutional and self-interest extras, genuinely trying to get back to the core that made him a priest and a Pope, that brought so many to the Church, and that so many now see forgotten and hypocritized away.

This is a near miracle, and he may be on his way to doing just that. As a bonus, if the Republican Party is paying attention, it can learn something too. It turns out that unalloyed, unconditioned ideals can be both appealing and moral, including love, compassion, humility, tolerance (see the Beatitudes for a complete list). It isn’t easy to make this work in the real world, and it will be controversial and unpleasing to some, particularly those with extreme views.

The Republican Party is in the same position as the Church. There are some core beliefs that are eminently worthy but are being lost and forgotten in layers of maneuvering, narrow-mindedness, arrogance and hypocrisy. Catholics didn’t like that in the Church, and citizens, including some Republicans, don’t like it in the party.

Right at this moment, there is no Pope Francis on the horizon for the Republicans. This may become more apparent in the next few weeks, as some Republicans continue to exhibit a thoughtless, heartless and unproductive stubbornness that flies in the face of everything the party once stood for. Then again, nobody saw Pope Francis coming either. Let’s hope, for the sake of the nation as an economic, political and moral enterprise, that the Republican Pope Francis comes along very soon.

TMFG: Too Many F***ing Guns

.TMFG

People are dying from politeness about guns.

We are a nation of laws, and especially of constitutions, so we talk and write about the Second Amendment. Rich, smart and safe people debate in really fancy buildings, but nothing gets done about guns. The Naval Shipyard shooting, for example, is supposed to demonstrate problems with our mental health system, or with our veterans affairs system, or with a lack of communication between our law enforcement agencies.

But we are also a nation of plain talk. Just ask Joe Biden and others. So it is time for polite and respectful people to speak openly and plainly. Constitutional arguments and political realities have their place, but so does this: There are too many f***ing guns. That is why and how too many are killed and injured—in our homes, on our streets, in our schools, in our movie theaters, in our military facilities.

Feel free to engage in extended discussion and political action; that is what we do in a democratic society. But sometimes, it can be therapeutic to speak truth to nonsense.

Four words. Four letters. TMFG. If you believe it, say it.

Some Little Truths About Obamacare

Affordable Care Act

You may not want to think or talk about the Affordable Care Act. Who can blame you? Politicos and talking heads are doing enough for all of us.

And yet, October 1 marks the start of people reading the menu of health insurance options and deciding which way to go. Which is why the volume of debate is once again up to 11 and why it is harder than ever, even after all this time, to make sense of any of it.

Previous posts have covered the process: how ACA is based on a Republican proposal, how Republicans ran screaming away from their own proposal, how the Supreme Court narrowly allowed it to proceed, etc. Now is the time to consider the substance and the merits, reluctantly. Reluctant because some kind of truly broad and truly affordable health coverage really is necessary for a civilized, modern and (in some segments) wealthy society, so a critique should not appear to deny that. Reluctant because, under the circumstances, ACA may really be the best we can do, even if that is not saying much.

But here are a few truths.

1. This is the most complicated, Rube Goldberg-like social program in American history. Comparisons to Social Security and Medicare—as in “people were skeptical or opposed to Social Security and now these programs are an integral part of American life”—are inapposite. Think: one concept, one law. That may be oversimplifying, but not much. Social Security was and is a way to create a fund to help older and disabled Americans who can’t help themselves. The way it’s evolved may be complicated and not to all tastes, but the basic concept remains. The same can be said about Medicare.

The single concept of ACA is more elusive, despite the name making clear it is about affordability. Separate from the execution and success in that regard, ACA is also about the reach and availability of coverage. More properly, it might be called the Market-Based Universally Available Affordable Care Act, a name that would hint at its complexity.

2. It may be too complicated to manage. To get to the truth of this, we have to look bigger. Bigger, as in the manageability or not of the American government. The loud complaint from some corners is that the government is “too big.” This is a misplaced critique. The problem is that very big enterprises are very hard to manage effectively. Just shrinking an unoptimally managed enterprise lessens the damage and the cost, but it doesn’t change the fact of ill management. Scientific management tells us that in theory any enterprise of any size can be managed, by discovering or devising the appropriate principles and executing soundly. But there is a cousin to “too big to fail” that is “too big to run.” Maybe the government is that.

Maybe the ACA is that also, too big and too complicated. Which touches back to the idea of its not having one single concept. It seems clear, as it did to the ACA proponents, that so-called universal, single-payer health care would never be accepted in “free market” America. If that wasn’t always clear, the debacle of the Clintoncare proposal, engineered by Hillary during the Clinton administration, put it out of reach for a generation. The only way to get anything, rather than nothing, was to patch together components that were variously consistent with popular ideas, market mechanisms, federalism, healthy business and industry interests, along with political and legal constraints. The wonder isn’t that a combination car/boat/plane gets designed and built. The wonder is that it can drive or float or fly.

3. The American political environment is distrustful, skeptical and toxic. Social Security was born during the worst economic crisis ever. So the building of an historic safety net was fitting. But on top of that, even with virulent opposition, there was a widespread understanding that we were all Americans, and part of that was caring for others, and part of that care was trusting that the government would, within the limits of human fallibility and self-interest, do the right thing.

We can pray for the return of that context, but it isn’t today. Today we have an unprecedented spectacle of a small but powerful segment of the country working desperately, and maybe effectively, to make sure that ACA is repealed or at least fails miserably. The reasons are as complex as the act itself, a bit about the shortcomings of the law, but, not surprisingly, mostly about politics. Proponents find themselves in the position of defending the act, promising to improve it, and trying to make it work—all the while perhaps harboring doubts in the places they can’t talk about that it won’t, not entirely.

Let’s hope it does work, a little. Because American health care is so broken, and for the moment, this is what we’ve got.