Congress. I Don’t Even.

It’s been a while since I posted anything about politics. You can thank Congress for this one.

It’s kind of stupid that I even feel the need to write this, isn’t it? I mean, not that I feel the need, but that I am compelled to feel the need. It’s stupid that parts of the federal government are shut down because someone is throwing a temper tantrum on Capitol Hill.

In case you’ve (perhaps understandably) willfully ignored what’s been going on but are kind enough not to willfully ignore this post, here’s the deal: parts of the government are shut down right now because a faction of Republicans in the House wanted to force through a bill that would fund the government with riders attached that would require changes to the Affordable Care Act. Or, as people trying to malign it started calling it a while back, Obamacare.

Because Obama is obviously synonymous with everything terrible in the world, in their rhetoric. And maybe you agree. And you have that right.

See, I’m not saying the Affordable Care Act is perfect. I’m not even saying you have to like it in order to read this post. Rather, what I’m saying is… how the FUCK do we get to a point in government where one faction of one part of Congress can hold up FUNDING THE GOVERNMENT because they don’t like ONE law?

Here’s what: The Affordable Care Act was passed by a majority vote in both the House and the Senate in 2010. A lot of people didn’t like how that went down, and I get that. But it went down nonetheless. Majority vote. Bicameral legislature. Passed. Then signed into law by the President of the United States. (Not President Of People Who Like Him But Not People Who Don’t. We don’t have that office.) When there was shouting about constitutionality, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law, by a 5-4 vote, with the deciding vote cast by typically conservative Chief Justice John Roberts.

In other words: done deal by democratic due process celebrated by Americans since 1776.

Since its passage, Republicans (probably not all of them, I know) have tried literally 42 times to defund the Affordable Care Act. And last night, they tried for the 43rd time, by attaching caveats on the ACA to the bill that would determine federal funding of the government.

That’s not representative democracy. That’s hostage-taking for ransom.

And then today I see Michele Bachmann, who didn’t make much sense in 2011/12 and still doesn’t, hugging on a veteran who was just trying to visit the World War II Memorial in DC (which was technically closed, but fortunately some people decided not to be ass-hats and let these men in), and claiming that she and her colleagues were “just trying to protect the lives and health care of these wonderful (smooch on the cheek) men.”

I don’t know why, but I draw a line at condescending to an entire nation while literally hanging on an elderly man who helped save the entire fucking planet from tyrannical government, and then 70 years later managed to get himself together for a flight from his home to DC to visit a memorial that honors the service members who fell alongside him, only to find that the asshole government has said, “Sorry, park’s closed,” and then suffer the bullshit camera-mugging nonsensical antics of a politician who couldn’t be moved to say, “I’m so sorry that my wing of my party is standing in your way.”

My grandfathers fought in that war. Every time I see that memorial, or the stories of the men visiting it, I miss them. There’s  no way in hell I’d let Michele Bachmann or any other self-serving politician of any party anywhere near them at that sacred place.

Alright, I’m done with the Michele Bachmann part of this.

The larger point, you probably have figured out, is that I can’t believe we’re willing to allow a faction of our government to shut down the operation because they don’t like a law they already passed. There are procedures in place for repealing laws, or parts of laws. Attaching riders to critical unrelated bills are not part of those procedures.

And before you tell me we aren’t willing to allow it, tell me whether you’re willing to find out who voted to shut down the government and what their motives were, and whether you’re willing to vote them out next November.

Those service members who visit the WWII Memorial arrive on what are called Honor Flights, by the way. Maybe Congress should take a few.

Common Sense

My friend Bud at Older Eyes posted today the second part of his thoughts on gun rights and gun violence. I started to respond to his post and then realized I was basically writing a blog post in his comments section. Rather than hog that space, I’m posting my response to him here, as a broadened topic. Please read his posts, In the Crossfire and In the Crossfire, Too, so that you understand to what I am responding here. 

I work in a business where statistics are used to prove success and justify rates and fees. (A lot of businesses work that way, of course.) I have often been able to easily explain away a competitor’s statistic about being more successful than my company because I know how they manipulate the data. Of course, I know how we manipulate it, too.

One of the key things about understanding that, though, is understanding that there’s more than one way to be misleading, but there’s also more than one way to be right, and nobody is lying. In my business, in the end, all that matters is which element of the stats matters most to the buyer.

That’s what’s frustrating about statistics that really matter, like those counting up deaths and injury from guns. And that’s why neither side is lying, both sides are right, and both sides are manipulating the argument.

Bud at Older Eyes uses the term “In the Crossfire” in two recent posts to convey his feelings on gun ownership: moderate. In the middle of a fight. You may think I’m not “in the crossfire” on this, given my previous posts. You may have found my post, Newtown, to be more about the heart than the head. But if we step away from the extremes of soulful emotion and cold analysis, we can find one thing that governs most of life pretty successfully: common sense.

Part of the reason the NRA pushes for zero restriction on the right to bear arms is that the founding fathers established that right in part to guard against the tyranny of government. We hear references to Hitler and other cruel government leaders who disarmed the masses before systematically executing them. While I have faith in my country and don’t believe its leaders would ever do such a thing, I understand why the right to defend against it matters so much to so many people. 

As I have previously mentioned, I also understand that some people hunt for food, others hunt for sport, some feel that guns are necessary to protect themselves in their homes and others feel that no right guaranteed by the founding fathers should be taken away, and once we start limiting one, we’ll be on the road to limiting more… or taking them away completely.

Bud makes the point that we’re hearing extreme arguments on either side of the topic, and I agree with him completely. I don’t think that NRA executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre is really doing anyone any favors in his speeches since Newtown (or ever, actually). There are a lot of gun owners and gun rights advocates who do not believe he represents them well. I understand his points, but I think he could make them with much more sensitivity and much less bombastic rhetoric.

As could those who oppose guns with equal vehemence.

These, frankly, are not the people to whom we need to listen. They are simply the people to whom we are given the most access. As has so often been the case in this country, we are exposed only to the extremes and left to feel alone in the middle. The middle is not exciting. The middle is not good television.

There is the argument that mental health is the real issue. The trouble with that is that it’s not. It is an issue, surely, and it deserves attention. But (at the risk of engaging in statistical analysis) the mentally ill are much more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators thereof. Not everyone who has committed a violent crime with a gun – be it a mass shooting or a smaller scale murder – is mentally ill. There is a specific definition for mental illness, and though most of us believe one has to be “off” in some way in order to commit murder, especially on a grand scale, that doesn’t mean those people would medically qualify as mentally ill.

And there is the argument that guns are not the only issue, but seem to be the only issue on the table for a vote. That’s true. While it is not accurate or fair to say no one is proposing improvements to mental health care, access and screening before a gun purchase, it is true that guns are by far the more – dare I say targeted? - aspect of the discussion. Gun rights advocates  insist that it brings into specific relief the “left-wing agenda” to take people’s guns away. That’s really not the reason. It requires only slightly deeper thought to understand the reason: we can’t legislate mental illness. We can’t legislate what people find entertaining. We can’t legislate how families do or do not function, the moral fabric of society, the lack of pride or opportunity. We have seen these problems unfold for decades and we have not been able to stop them. Knowing the numbers has not helped.

What we can do is moderate them. Work to improve access to mental health care, break down the stigma associated with mental illness. Continue to rate and enforce ratings on movies and video games. Give people an understanding of why a healthy family life is important, give communities the tools to flourish, give individuals a vision of what they could be or do or achieve if they have the right skills, opportunities and faith in themselves.

If we look at some of the fairly rational, balanced proposals on gun policy before us, we can see them as moderation, rather than aberration. They cannot accomplish any of the things I’ve mentioned above. But they can help bring down the number of gun-related injuries and deaths in this country.

Common sense would dictate that the existence of armor-piercing or exploding bullets is fundamentally unnecessary and does great disservice to those who advocate for gun rights. Common sense would dictate that the people’s right to bear arms is not infringed by disallowing certain types; after all, completely unrestricted rights to bear arms could lead to the purchase of flame-throwers and rocket-propelled grenades, but we don’t allow that. Common sense would dictate that doing absolutely nothing would be a total failure of the government to listen to the people, and a total failure of the people to do anything but shake their heads.

Common sense would also dictate that banning assault weapons and cop-killer bullets, and requiring universal background checks, and seriously cracking down on illegal guns, won’t end all crimes and killings with guns.

But, if I may be frank, we’re not really trying to end them all. We’re trying to make them harder to accomplish, and these measures are a start. And we need to start, instead of tsking our tongues and shrugging our shoulders. We can argue down emotion. We can qualify and manipulate statistics. We can make things difficult that don’t need to be difficult, as we do with the political side of this issue.

But it is hard to refute common sense.

 

In Order To Form A More Perfect Union

Listening to the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sing Battle Hymn, could not help but well up. It is an indescribable emotion: some parts pride, some parts humility, some parts inspiration, some parts trepidation… all the things that, after all, established this country in 1776.

This is not a day about American dominance. It is not a day about might making right. This is a day on which Americans remember with reverence and soul-stirring honor that we have so many more blessings than so many others, and that we had a hand in their benediction. That it is our privilege, our birthright, our hallmark and our obligation to carry forth those blessings to the generations who come after us in this land, and that we spread their promise to those who have not yet lived them.

So many thoughts flooded my mind… my grandparents – the first Americans of my family, who not long after their birth into citizenry joined the worldwide fight to preserve all of humanity from tyranny. My great-grandparents, who believed in the promise of the country enough to come here from their homelands and never go back. Of those who fought not because they liked war but because they loved peace, and who killed not because they held up death but because they believed so fervently in life.

I miss my grandparents today.

What I felt when I looked at that expansive sea of people who had gathered in the nation’s capital to witness a quadrennial history overcame me. In this nation where there is so much anger and spite, there were hundreds of thousands united not in violence and uproar, but in peace and hope. We are a people who remember always the strength of a union that so many presidents and citizens who came before us refused to allow to founder. It is not the hubris of living in the best of lands that fills me with such raw emotion. As tears rolled down my cheeks I knew, it is the blessing of having been born in a place that allows me to believe in something better because we have so many times seen something better dawn.

I was not raised to shout my patriotism from rooftops, though there is no one in my family who is not a patriot. I came from a long line of military servicemen and I have cousins who serve today, but we are not boisterous or staunch in military oaths. I believe there is danger in not only resting on, but shouting about the laurels of being an American, that we must ever be mindful of the need for striving toward a more perfect union. I do not know from where comes the feelings that swell within me today. I only know that I hope it never, ever fades.

In an age when we seem continually inspired more by horror than by hope, when fear seems to push us toward action more than understanding, today is a day when we are reminded that there is nothing so powerful as the promise of a free life in a free land, and that our task is not yet done, that our efforts are perpetual, that our delcaration was made in order to form a more perfect union, that those words invoke the unending walk with  steady hands on the plow.That as much as we honor those forefathers who established this country and struggled privately to keep it, those years and that union was, by definition, by the compulsion set forth on parchment, less perfect than now. That the truest way to honor them is not as omiscient gods but as great beginners.

That, with malice toward none and charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, we must strive together to finish the work we are in.

That that work is never finished.

That our truth is marching on.

On the Seventh Day of Christmas

On the seventh day of Christmas, Congress surprised absolutely no one and managed to still work a win-win.

It was late afternoon when word came that the House would not vote on any deal to avert the “fiscal cliff.” The Senate went ahead with a vote in the wee hours of 2013. I don’t remember the movie well enough to know whether that makes the House Thelma or Louise, but what I do know is this: that move (or lack thereof) was totally expected. And not really because they wanted to stand their supposed high-ground. It was more because of posturing.

I know. It’s shocking.

Here’s the thing: by waiting to vote, the Republicans in the House, and particularly those who signed some sort of (tax-free!) soul-selling deal to Grover Norquist (who says it’s to the American people, but whatever), can remain avowed not to vote in favor of a tax increase. If the deal the Senate reached late last night contains tax increases, the House Republicans can vote on a re-jiggered deal that reduces the percentage by which those taxes are raised… thereby…

wait for it…

voting to…

… are you ready?

…”cut” taxes.

Semantics, really, but important ones to politicians. In the end, the Democrats will still get some of the new revenues they want, but the Republicans can still say they never voted to hike taxes. Even though essentially they will be voting to do so… but less. They can get away with the distinction because they would not have voted to avert the fiscal cliff by the deadline, thereby “officially” hiking taxes before they voted to retroactively reduce them.

Irritating, right? When there was so much at stake? But I think everyone used the term “fiscal cliff” exactly the way I just did: with quotation marks around it. These kinds of deadlines are always fungible, and almost never as dire as they’re built up to be. Congress made the law that the across-the-board spending cuts would trigger automatically to try to force themselves to do something. But anyone who’s been on a diet knows what that means. Nothing, in the end. You can tell yourself that if you eat a piece of chocolate, you have to work out for an extra half-hour, but will it really make a difference if you don’t? Probably not. Congress knew that all along. And even if they did make a deal well before the deadline, it was never fated to be anything so substantial that it would solve the problems we face financially.

Why is that? Because they’re awfully hard to solve. Back to the diet analogy: if you weigh 1,000 pounds, trying to get down to 200 seems pretty well impossible, doesn’t it? So you lose 20 and see how it goes.

Welcome to 2013.

The debate isn’t going to go away.  You’re going to keep hearing about the spending problems, the debt ceiling, the deficit and more. And it’s only partly because Congress isn’t willing to do the hard things required to get things seriously back on track. The other part is that getting seriously back on track is going to hurt. Everyone. A lot. And until we as the American people are willing to make some serious sacrifice – in Social Security, in Medicare, and in a lot of other areas – yes, including the incredibly bloated defense budget that has been a sacred cow for far too long – we’re going to keep peering over that cliff.

Happy New Year. Same as the Old Year. At least as far as federal funds are concerned.

Now Is the Time

I need someone to explain to me why we must so diligently defend the right to own a gun.

No, really. Someone please explain it to me. Real reasons.

I confess up-front: I hate guns. They are instruments of death, created only for the purpose of injury or killing. That said, I understand that some people need guns to protect themselves or their families from wild animals. I understand that some people need to hunt in order to eat. I understand that some people live in places where they don’t feel safe unless they have one. I have a bit of trouble with that last part, because I don’t think owning a deadly weapon should be a safety blanket, but I don’t live somewhere where I feel I need a gun, so I won’t claim I understand.

But here is the amendment so many people so vociferously and sometimes ferociously defend:

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Why do we always seem to forget about the first half of that amendment and insist on the second half? A well regulated militia securing a free state. Also known as the military and law enforcement. Not everybody and their brother. Everybody and their brother are not a well regulated militia. 

What has happened so many times in our country is not just about the second amendment. It’s about a lot of things. But it does have a lot to do with guns, because the other potential reasons – the breakdown of family, the secularization of society, generational poverty, lack of opportunity, the glorification of violence in mass media – none of those things cause murder with spoons or sticks. Mental illness is a global problem – it does not discriminate based on age or gender, nationality or creed, geography or income level. I will always, always advocate for the mentally ill. I will always insist that we remove the stigma of those who are unwell. I could and might write a whole separate post about it. But there have always been the mad among us… yet there have not always been these kinds of mad acts. Proof of this exists in the numbers of gun-related deaths around the world. My God, we have so many more. And so, so many unsolved. Welcome to America: you’re free to fire. Wave that flag.

And it’s not that I don’t love my country. In fact, it’s the opposite. I love my country so much that I want to stop proving to the world how much tragedy we allow under the guise of defending words ratified 221 years ago (December 15, 1791), presently pushed in the name of commerce, trade and lobbying. There hasn’t always been easy access to guns. But we’ve already slid down the slippery slope. We already have literally hundreds of millions of guns in this country – I heard one estimate that there’s one for every man, woman and child.

The Constitution, the Bill of Rights – these are not the Bible. These are not the infallible words of God. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written by human beings trying to extricate themselves from a king. They had rifles that had to be loaded through the barrel with a tamp, and pistols that puffed smoke when they fired. Bring back Jefferson, bring back Adams, bring back Hamilton and Franklin and all the undersigned, and I swear to God they would all tell us we’re out of our minds for letting everybody who wants to own a gun do so in these times when we are not trying to beat back Redcoats in front of the farm. I swear to God they would want to know how all the people who walk into gun shows and all the people who thrill at the power of the weapon in their hands constitute a well regulated militia.

We are wrong about the Second Amendment. We. Are. Wrong.

But we have slid down the slope, so I can be reasonable. Can gun rights advocates be reasonable, too? I won’t take away your right to own a handgun or a shotgun. But I for damned sure am done with your supposed right to own anything more, or to own, frankly, more than one or two. I am done with your supposed right to own more than ten rounds of regular, non-armor piercing, non-hollow point ammunition for a handgun, or the average number of shotgun shells needed to bag your family’s dinner for a month. It’s just not reasonable. It’s not. And I declare this forcefully because no one has ever been able to explain to me why it is.

Twenty-eight mass shootings since April 1999 and ColumbineTwenty-eight. And every time, those who advocate for gun rights say “now is not the time… don’t politicize the tragedy… guns don’t kill people – people kill people.” I’m done with it. NOW IS THE TIME. Make it political, because gun rights are political. The NRA can go to hell. Twenty children are dead. 

I’m done.

 

american flag

A Note Before You Vote

You didn’t think you were going to get to Tuesday without another political post from me, did you?

Just a few things to think about before you head to the polls… provided you didn’t vote early.

Who Do You Really Dislike?
Not as in hate. As in, if you have a problem in the political sense, with whom does that problem truly sit? Here’s why I ask: we do a great job making a big deal out of the presidential election. And we should. It’s hugely important. But it’s not the only important thing. There’s also Congress.

Food for thought: Since January 2009 when President Obama was inaugurated, his lowest approval rating was 41% (March 2012). His highest was 57% (May 2011 – right after Osama bin Laden was killed).

Since January 2009, Congress’s lowest approval rating was 10% (August 2012). Its highest was 39% (March 2009).

That means that President Obama’s very lowest approval rating was better than Congress’s very highest. And when the nation was least happy with him, he had still satisfied four times as many people as Congress had.

My point is, a shocking number of people don’t know who represents them in Congress. Given that, they can’t possibly know what that person stands for, how they vote, what positions they take in politically touchy situations, from whom they take money, to whom they’re beholden. So why are we all so angry when they don’t do what we think they should?

The country’s problems are not all about its presidents, and we should pay much more attention to our representatives and senators. If you want to see who your congressperson is, go to www.house.gov/representatives/find/  and you can plug in your zip code to find out. If you want to know how they’ve voted on issues and bills, go to www.opencongress.org. Do it before Tuesday, because they’re all up for re-election. Congressional representatives are elected every two years. If you discover too late that you don’t like what you see, you have two years to keep track of them and get it right next time.

What’s Really A Distraction?
One of the most common refrains this campaign season has been that insert Issue That’s Hurting Party A — here – is a “distraction” put up by Party B. But not everyone finds the same things distracting. In fact, some of us find some of those so-called “distractions” pretty important. There is more than one issue facing this country. It’s not just about the economy. It’s not just about jobs. It’s not just about regulation or deregulation. Or taxes. Or education. Or immigration. Or women’s health. Or abortion. Or federal funding for programs. It’s about all of those things, and to say otherwise is insulting. Don’t dismiss an issue out-of-hand simply because you didn’t feel like listening to the discussion. And don’t allow your leaders to do it, either.

And Speaking Of Self-Interest…
One of the things that disappoints me most about people in general and about American politics specifically is that everything happens because of money. I don’t just mean campaign fundraising or Congressional budgets. Money pushes policy we would otherwise think objectionable on more than one level. I think it’s compromising our (dare I say) moral standard as a union. This is particularly true of political decisions that hurt the communities they affect, rather than helping them. For example: the casino built on the west side of Columbus, Ohio. The west side is poor. The casino is there because the people were powerless to stop it, unlike residents in other parts of the city. And the area around it has only declined. Similar example: Atlantic City. Been there? It’s a hole. The flash of the lights keeps your attention away from the crumbling infrastructure and dilapidated homes. (No jokes about Sandy, please – I have a deep connection to the Jersey Shore, despite my opinion of AC.)

And more and more, we as individuals seem to think only of ourselves. It’s natural to vote one’s interests, but there seems to be a growing insistence that one’s own interests be the only interests one must consider. “Give me everything, or give me death.” Sometimes I find myself wondering whatever happened to the inspiration that came from President Kennedy’s simple call: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Let’s not forget that this is a nation forged in the interest of the greater good, and for everyone’s rights equally. Not just yours.

Yes, Your Vote Does Count
It’s easy to get discouraged when your political leanings are opposite those of your fellow state residents. It’s easy to feel like no one will miss your opinion at the polls. But in a population of 1,000, twenty such opinions can change a race entirely. Yep, just two percent. In 2004, President George W. Bush only got 3,000,176 more votes than John Kerry. Two percent.

But about 21,000,000 registered voters stayed home.

So this is it. I’ve smacked you around with political posts for more than 16 months. I’ve gotten myself worked up. I’ve chased my tail and shaken my head. I’ve done my best (through absolutely no mandate at all from any of you) to share what I hoped were informative and at least mildly entertaining breakdowns. And now we have arrived at the doorstep of yet another moment in American history.

Be part of it.

Vote.

Early Voting: My First Experience

I suppose the second cup of coffee was ill-advised.

I still haven’t closed on the house. To recap: it was set for Tuesday. Then the Atlantic Ocean got all pissed off and the lending banks were like, “Whoa.” Then it was going to be Wednesday. Then it was going to be Thursday. Then it was “looking like” Friday. Then  they said, “it’ll almost definitely be Monday.” Now I’ve just gotten a call saying it’ll probably be Wednesday, because the appraiser insisted on a second look after the storm. Which doesn’t make sense, because shouldn’t that be the inspector?

Fine. Whatever. I just need to lie down.

I had a therapy session with Ali Velshi today, appropriately. I have realized in the last two visits with him that one of the tells of my anxious highs is that I talk a freaking mile a minute. I already talk fast, but whew. My previous therapist (Ali Velshi is my second) used to point it out to me when I was “zooming.” Ali Velshi hasn’t really taken that tack yet, though I did catch him eyeing my foot as I twirled it around and around and around while I talked to him. Unfortunately, what I do for a living and the people I work for are very unforgiving, and that is actually the greater part of the stress. Everyone gets stressed buying a house, and plenty of people have had far worse setbacks than I have. Hell, I could have closed on a house at the Jersey Shore on Friday. It’s work that compounds the problem for me.

Yesterday, after I ran out of boxes and bubble wrap, I turned around in circles in my living room a couple of times before I told myself aloud that I could go vote. And so I did.

What an entertaining hour that was.

It bears noting that this is my first time voting in my particular area, where I’ve only lived for two years. Sadly, this means I have nothing with which to compare the amusement of yesterday’s outing. Usually, I walk in on election day around 9am and it takes all of 15 minutes. Early voting isn’t really my thing – I prefer the patriotic, Sorkinesque rush of the shared First Tuesday In November experience to the wah-wah that it becomes after people have already done their civic duty days or weeks in advance. But alas, since the bank, work, Mother Nature and the universe are conspiring to kill me on or before November 6th, off I went.

If the signage can’t properly direct me to the where I should park for early voting, we’re off to a bad start. Just sayin’.

Eventually, though, I found the appropriate lot, and entered what used to be a school building and is now used for police and fire training to find an environment not unlike what I imagine Soviet Russia to be. Which, you have to grant, is ironic.

Don’t get me wrong. It actually went very smoothly. But first, we were corralled into a former gymnasium full of rows of chairs. Everything was painted cinderblock. Colors were drab. The chairs were Machiavellian. (I’m mixing metaphors. Deal with it.) We all had to sit next to each other – no empty chairs between voters, for the sake of the republic. And I’m fine with that, but not everyone else was. The election officials kept asking, “Is this an empty seat?” as if it were some sort of outrage.

Every so often, they’d take the first row of congregants. The rest of us didn’t know where those people went. It was kind of scary. But when they’d take the first row, then everybody had to get up and move exactly one row up from their previous seated position.

Can I tell you something? It’s troubling that not everyone can handle this kind of “upset.”

The woman next to me was one of those people.

“What?! Oh, hell naw. No. Why it have to be like this?” she wanted to know.

Lady, just effing move up one seat. This is not hard. Do it.

While a small child wailed behind me and her mother continued a conversation on her cell phone, we played the musical chairs game. Sans music. I will admit that my eyes were directed almost entirely upon my phone during this wait, but only because I forgot to bring a book. Then I heard someone saying, “Take care, now,” while the click-clack of her heels reverberated through the room. I looked up.

It was the mayor.

Meh. Back to my phone. Interestingly, though she’s popular and has done a very good job (and is not up for re-election this year), no one jumped up to talk to her or shake her hand. She just walked on through.

She looks good, though. Lost a lot of weight. G’ahead, girl.

Some couple who might have come from an Eastern Bloc country kept trying to jump the line. This nearly caused bedlam. I don’t know if they genuinely didn’t understand the process or what, but I found myself mildly irritated with the people who were unhappy about it. We still all get to vote. Who the hell cares if they vote before you? 

It’s interesting to see the passions ignited at a polling place. Apparently, not only is it essential that we are given our right to vote; it is also essential that we are given our right to vote in the precise order of which we entered the building.

Settle down, y’all. Russia ain’t near closed yet.

Eventually, I was in the front row. When it was time to move me and my compatriots, we went to another holding cell, where a few people got upset about the order in which we were lined up and I remembered that I should probably just sit quietly and not try to fix anything. This is the part where random people started trying to tell the election officials how to do their jobs.

Hold up. You couldn’t handle moving up ah row. You think you can tell an election official how to keep an orderly line? You still get to vote. Even though I’m pretty sure at this point that you probably shouldn’t.

After another waiting period, we got to move into the actual voting area. There: more line issues. Apparently it’s difficult to form a line. This is the part where I started worrying about the entire voting process and wondering if dictatorship wasn’t really the best way to go. But the election official easily found me in the list of city residents and handed me my electronic card. Then I joined another line (all lines were marked by – of course- gray tape) and waited for a Trapper-Keepered voting machine to become available.

If you’re a regular reader, you know I’ve done my homework, so actually voting didn’t take long. There were no glitches with technology. All went well. I handed in my electronic card and left the building.

Some people in the parking lot tried to drive out the wrong way. I briefly pondered whether the police directing traffic should find out their names, go back inside, find their voting cards and pull them due to a total lack of intelligence.

But no. That’s not how this country works. Never has. It does not matter whether you are smart or not. Frankly, not everyone is blessed with the same degree of sense, common or otherwise. But everyone is granted the right to vote.

God bless America.

And I mean that.

******
PS. Know what I did while I waited to vote? Joined Twitter. Grudgingly. Follow me over on the right where you see the little birdie.

 

The Race For Second

Alright, so I’m late. I didn’t really mean to be, and I was questioned about it, but I’m here now with the probably-no-longer-material-to-you wrap-up of the vice-presidential debate.

The night began with Vice-President Biden practically blinding everyone with his teeth. The thing about the vice-president seems to be this: he’s totally authentic. You don’t have to like him, but you don’t get the sense from him that anything he does or says is insincere. When Mitt Romney grins, let’s face it, it seems put-on. When President Obama grins, sometimes it seems a little swaggering. But when Vice-President Biden grins, he just seems to be having a heckuva good time. The Irish love a good debate. Or argument. Or bare-knuckled old-timey fist fight in which they wear pants held up by a string around the waist.

For the record: I attribute 98% of Mr. Biden’s personality to his Irishness. That includes facial expressions.

And, as it turns out, the facial expressions were what might have boosted both the interests and the ire of viewers. If you’ve watched Mr. Biden for years and years, you know that he often expresses his thoughts with his face. (I do it, too – it gets me in trouble – and in this and our Irishness, I am a kindred spirit.) If you pay attention beyond the grins, you see his eyes go Laser Mode almost immediately after the grin disappears. When that happens, I think it means the grin was the first offsetting reaction to frustration, aggravation or anger. Like a mirthless chuckle.

Most of the times Mr. Biden busted out the Cheshire Cat, it was because he thought Rep. Paul Ryan had said something untrue. A lot of those times, he was at least half right.

Now, given the nature of politics and humanity, both men said stuff that was at least partially untrue throughout the night. To me, the most glaring untruth from Mr. Biden was the claim that the administration didn’t know the deaths at the US consulate in Libya were a terrorist attack in the early days afterward. Why do I think that’s glaringly untrue? Because I posted that government investigators were looking into signs that it was terrorist attack less than 48 hours after it happened, and I didn’t make that up. I’ve never understood the administration’s pushing of the stupid freaking YouTube video as the entire cause of that event. It does no one any good: it portrays Muslims as a bunch of ignorant savages ready to riot and kill at the slightest provocation; it makes the government look vulnerable to something as simple as a YouTube clip; and it ignores the actual problem at hand in the region, dumbing down a multi-national push for democracy currently stuck in the “unstable” position into nothing more than a viral video gone supernova.

So what about the most glaring untruth from Rep. Ryan? Sadly, it’s not an original line. It was when he called the Affordable Care Act a “government takeover of healthcare.” The healthcare law relies on private industry. In fact, it wouldn’t work without private industry. Its founding principle is that private industry exists and should continue to exist. The Republicans came up with a zinger line for the electorate back in 2010 and they’re still fiercely hanging on, but it’s simply a total falsehood.

Of course, there was a lot more to the debate that was far more nuanced, and for me as a viewer (and a wonk), it was, really, a fantastic political event. It featured a great deal of detail on both sides, but if we have to judge which candidate was the more specific, it would have to have been Vice-President Biden. Several times, Rep. Ryan was unable to be specific, although he made it appear on the surface as though he was, laying out  “bullet points” that comprise the Romney/Ryan plan. They sound great, but it’s impossible to back them up with specific action because it can’t be done without the full cooperation of Congress, and no one knows if they’ll get that. If you question that statement, consider this: a good chunk of the Romney/Ryan plan includes cutting back on tax deductions, credits and loopholes. Let’s see if Congress is okay with giving up significant drawdowns of the mortgage tax break. That’s not a hypothetical. It’s in the plan.

Ever since the Romney/Ryan campaign started pushing it, I’ve questioned their insistence that they will create 12 million jobs in four years. That insistence, and that number, is based on hoped-for results from non-specifically determined pathways, again, relying on the cooperation of Congress. Says a Romney ad: “First, my energy independence policy means more than 3 million new jobs, many of them in manufacturing. My tax reform plan to lower rates for the middle class and for small business creates 7 million more. And expanding trade, cracking down on China and improving job training takes us to over 12 million new jobs.”

Well… he’s said nothing about how. On what does that energy independence plan depend? How, in particular, do those three things in the last sentence really push his plan over 12 million? And you’ll notice that the seven million jobs rely on the aforementioned hoped-for tax plan.

And by the way: 12 million jobs in four years amounts to about 250,000 jobs per month. Romney himself has said that a normal recovery would grow jobs at 500,000 per month.

Why am I talking so much about Mr. Romney when I’m summarizing a debate between Mr. Ryan and VP Biden? Because Romney’s tax and budget plans come largely from Mr. Ryan.

Mr. Ryan said job growth in September was slower than it was in August. Both numbers were small, but he was wrong. In August the economy added 96,000 jobs. In September, 114,000. He was right that both numbers were smaller than the additions in July:  163,000. What no one seems to talk about is what we were warned about back in February and March, when jobs numbers were higher than expected: it was because of the mild winter, and it would mean lower job creation numbers in the summer.

There were a lot of interruptions in this debate, coming entirely from Vice-President Biden. If you don’t like the Vice-President or the President, or if you don’t like politics much at all, you probably didn’t care for the argumentativeness. But Mr. Biden did his job in this debate. He came out firing on all cylinders and ready to challenge the inaccuracies that might come from his sparring partner. That’s exactly what President Obama did not do in the presidential debate the week before, and he paid for it. Mr. Biden hit hard at Mr. Romney’s “47%” mess… something the president didn’t mention once. He hit hard at the things that were blatant misstatements, like when Rep. Ryan claimed his Medicare plan had bipartisan support and that its cosponsor was a democrat from Oregon (in reality, there is zero support from democrats; the original Oregonian democratic co-sponsor withdrew his support after Ryan revamped the plan). Mr. Biden may have been what some people consider rude, but when the facts are at stake, sometimes couth deserves a wide berth.

But if politics are perception, Mr. Ryan definitely came off as calm, informed, articulate, prepared and controlled. I personally found some of his at-the-camera speeches a little rehearsed and robotic… something Mr. Biden never projects.

In the end, if we have to pick winners and losers, there are three ways to break this debate down. The first is in terms of actual information and facts, and in that, the debate was pretty much a tie. Both sides lied a little (although Mr. Biden lied less than Mr. Ryan) and both sides were very knowledgeable. If it’s about style, and you prefer calm to contention, then Mr. Ryan had the edge. The third is about party performance. Both men did their top-of-ticket running mates good on the night, but Mr. Biden made the greatest strides because his team had higher to climb after the president’s disappointing performance the week before. He got the president’s base to come down off the ledge while proving the Romney/Ryan team dishonest on a few points.

As always, I encourage you to read the transcript or watch the debate, which was 90 minutes. And here is the link to politifact.com’s fact-checking page.

 

The Thinking Voter’s Debate

There are a lot of people who haven’t paid much attention to the presidential race so far. They may know for whom they’re voting, but base their decision on very little education. For them, last night’s debate mattered.

They might be voting for Mitt Romney.

Unless they like PBS, which he promised to desubsidize as part of a plan to defund everything he deems unworthy of borrowing money from China. Despite professing a love of Big Bird. Who immediately ended up trending on Twitter.

That’s a lot of programs on the chopping block, so if you’re a fan of things like art and culture and  umpteen other less touchy-feely things subsidized by the government, you might be a little concerned by this.

Mr. Romney clearly outperformed President Obama in last night’s face-off in Denver. The debate was civil, there were no fireworks, and it offered a lot of detail and lots of mentions of Bowles-Simpson (actually officially Simpson-Bowles), which people who don’t pay attention to politics may have never heard of. (It was a bi-partisan commission formed in 2009 to make no-holds-barred suggestions for how to trim spending and the deficit. Neither candidate loved it 100%, but both candidates liked it to some degree.)

For those who haven’t paid attention to politics, this would have been the problem with last night’s debate: it was info-heavy, which is exactly what they want but not exactly what keeps their interest… since, by virtue of not having been paying attention, they don’t know what the candidates were talking about.

Let’s talk about the most common refrain we’ve heard throughout the campaigns: job creation.

Mitt Romney says if he’s elected, he’ll help create 12 million jobs in his first term. How he’ll do that remains mostly a mystery, though he says that fostering energy independence will create four million of them. His ideas for energy independence include increasing the production of “clean coal.”

“I like coal,” he declared simply.

And I laughed out loud because it sounded so much like Brick Tamland’s “I love lamp.”

He did not mention green energy initiatives at all.

The president has long been about fostering new energy alternatives, and he does claim that, while he supports green energy initiatives, drilling for oil is up under his administration. And it is, but as Mr. Romney pointed out, it’s up on private land. On public land, it’s down significantly.

I’m not going to turn this into a debate over energy, but the Obama Administration has made it very clear that it’s time to actually do what we’ve been talking about doing since the 1970s and create energy alternatives. His Republican counterparts, including Mr. Romney, don’t want to do it because it doesn’t have a big enough profit margin. It’s clear on which side the planet loses, and frankly, on which side consumers, in the short term, lose. If you want to think long-term, you go with the president’s plans. If you want to think consumer short-term, you go with the Republican plan.

But it’s difficult to argue that any amount of job creation would be meaningful without an increase in American manufacturing. To that end, both candidates want to decrease the tax rate on American businesses, particularly manufacturing, in order to encourage them to keep their business here instead of outsourcing jobs. The president wants to drop the corporate tax rate to 25%. It’s currently 35%. The president also said that, right now, businesses get a tax break to ship their jobs overseas. Mr. Romney replied that he has no idea what the president is talking about.

This is where I had the  biggest problem with the president’s performance. If you were watching on a network that provided a split-screen at that moment, you saw the president make a face that I inferred to mean, “Well if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you don’t know enough.” But he never verbalized it. Time after time, there were clear disagreements that the president never took the opportunity to voice, corrections he never tried to make. I don’t know why. But that was frustrating to watch. 

Mr. Romney said his plan for America basically has five parts: energy independence, open trade, ensuring skills for work in part by having the best schools in the world, championing small business and a balanced budget.

Sounds fantastic. How?

Didn’t really say.

But Mr. Romney did come to this debate extremely well-prepared. He cited specifics in numbers that went a long way toward informing Americans about what is going on in the economy, and the president simply repeated two: Romney’s supposed plan for five trillion dollars in tax cuts along with an increase of two trillion in military spending that he said the military hasn’t asked for. It’s a decent argument, because his point was it can’t be done without revenue (and Mr. Romney has refused to consider tax increases of any kind). The problem is that Mr. Romney responded that he does not have a plan to cut five trillion in taxes, and the president never laid out his reason for using the number. He just repeated it.

What I found interesting about Mr. Romney’s assertions, though, was that he insisted that he would not reduce the “share of taxes” on the wealthiest Americans. This is a new verbage. This is the first time in the campaign that he has said this. What he means is that, while he would decrease the income tax level for the wealthiest Americans, they would wind up paying just as much because he would also close loopholes and decrease available deductions, exemptions and credits. It’s not a stretch to understand why he might not have mentioned this before: either he didn’t have the idea before, or it’s a little scary to American homeowners to hear they may lose the tax deduction for their mortgage pr maybe even – dare he? – pay a higher tax rate on capital gains. Mr.Romney did not say which deductions and credits he’d change, but in the past when questioned, he has said he would have to work with Congress to establish them. That adds the layer of uncertainty: he can say this is what he’ll do, but he can’t do it unless Congress agrees, and though he may have a friendly Congress, it will be hard to get them to go along with things like decreasing the amount of tax deduction available for mortgage loan interest, for example.

His implication is that it’s a zero-sum game, which it’s not, but it was another specific citation that made Mr. Romney look like he knew more about the economy than the president did.

It’s not that the president gave no specifics in the debate. He said he wants to hire 100,000 new math and science teachers and create two million slots in community colleges to give people opportunities for less expensive higher education. He said he’s cut taxes on small businesses 18 times. He said the average American family has seen its tax burden decrease by $3,600. And he drove home the point that Mr. Romney’s plan for closing the loopholes, trimming the deductions and credits, etc., will not be enough to pay for his plans for tax cuts and to pay down the deficit as he says he wants to do. Plus he says independent economists have determined that under Romney’s plan, the average American family would pay $2,000 more in taxes per year… for nothing.

He’s saying it’s impossible to get the fiscal debt down without asking for more revenue. It’s not a new point, but this was the first time he got to explain why Mr. Romney’s plan won’t work, even if it does get through Congress.

The other specific conversation I found intriguing was the one about tax rates for small businesses. The president says that, for 97% of small businesses, the tax rate will not increase. But Mr. Romney pointed out that the three percent that’s left employs 25% of American workers. And he says the increase on that three percent, from 35% to 40%, will cost 700,000 jobs.

I don’t know where he got his numbers; he didn’t say. But the president didn’t argue, though I sensed he wanted to.

That’s a point you have to argue.

What he did say is that Mr. Romney defines small businesses differently, and that somehow under Mr. Romney’s definition, Donald Trump owns a small business. I don’t know what that means and he didn’t explain it.

What the president did explain was that he hasn’t been shy about trimming wasteful spending in the federal government. He pointed out that he’s eliminated 77 programs, 18 of which were for education, because they just weren’t doing enough. He said he’d cut $50 billion in waste and trimmed a trillion dollars from the federal discretionary spending budget – the largest since Eisenhower was in office.

Mr. Romney went a long way to clarify his lack of extremism when it comes to regulation. He expressed very clearly that he understands that regulation is necessary in order for capitalism to function well. What he didn’t balance with that is his laissez-faire approach to failing markets. He reiterated that he wouldn’t have classified banks as “too big to fail,” and while that’s a good populist approach, it doesn’t take into account the fact that if those banks had gone under, they would have taken millions of jobs and investments with them. It also reminded the attentive viewer that Mr. Romney would not have bailed out the auto industry – arguably the single most important manufacturing industry the country has left – an industry that reported last month that its sales are up… 41% for Toyota, 12% for Chrysler, 2% for General Motors (Ford was flat) over last year.

And the president did hit back on Romney’s point with a bottom line that’s hard to debate: when the economy crashed in 2008, was it because there was too much regulation? No. It was because there wasn’t enough, and things were allowed to run wild. So he made sure that every bailout given was returned 100% plus interest (he’s right), and he instituted the toughest reforms since the 1930s.

You’ll recall that’s directly after the stock market crash of 1929.

Much has been made among the punditry about the president seeking reelection with the highest rate of unemployment since FDR. That stands to reason, doesn’t it? He’s also dealt with the greatest economic crisis since FDR. I went looking for a breakdow”n of unemployment rates in presidential election years and couldn’t find a comprehensive list that dated back before 1956, but I’d be willing to bet that Mr. Obama and Mr. Roosevelt were the only presidents who had to run when unemployment was above 7%. It’s an arbitrary comparison that I believe a thinking voter has to dismiss.

And that’s really the key here, as it always is. The voter has to think. The voter can’t fall for things that seem substantial but aren’t. Today, I found this post on Facebook: “What our economy runs on is free people pursuing their dreams. That’s what makes America work.”

That’s a meaningless jumble of words meant to stir patriotism without thought. The American economy runs on a lot more than that. The post came from the Romney campaign.

Think before you “like” a candidate.

Doctors and Bankers: A Cautionary Tale

So.

Yesterday was the mortgage loan application, for fun. The lending officer came to my apartment to do it. Lovely. I mean, kind of weird, but lovely. They’re a small mom & pop company of independent agents who process loans and, of course, sell them to a bank (most likely Wells Fargo or GMAC), and they also do homeowners insurance. They’re very nice people, they motivated me to clean, and I detect no hints of intent to screw me. Plus they didn’t even want a glass of water.

Anyway. The loan officer, who is darling, pulled out all the paperwork from what she’d run on my financial history since 1977, and that’s when it hit.

Remember when I had that endoscopy back in February? And remember how my insurance through the contract with my union is an asshole and didn’t pay nearly what they should? And so I appealed their coverage? And the doctors in question (anesthesiologist and pathologist) knew of the appeals? And I had made good-faith payments to both of them in the amount of 20% of the total bills, which is what I believed I actually owed, to hold the accounts? I had even updated them both at the beginning of the second week of September.

Yeah. Pathologist still sent me to collections. On September 12th.

And didn’t tell me.

Two weeks later, I hadn’t even heard from the collections agency.

It showed up on two of the three credit reporting companies, TransUnion and Equifax. I had checked all three to make sure there were no errors or “red lights.” Nothing had shown up, but I think I checked about two days before the pathologist sent me to fiscal purgatory. Take a wild guess what that did to my credit score.

Dropped me 97 points.

I have excellent credit. Seriously. I was hovering near 800 in my scores before this hit. Now I’ve dropped below 700 on TransUnion and Equifax (the report didn’t show up on Experian).

If you could have felt what happened to my stomach when this woman showed me this report, you would have thought you’d just summitted the highest point of any roller coaster known to man and then fallen from it in an uncontrollable corkscrew.

Emphasis on screw.

The very kind and empathetic woman assured me that this would not affect my ability to get the loan. Apparently, lenders understand that doctors, insurance companies and unions in contracts with insurance companies are assholes, so they have a provision that says that outstanding medical collections within reason are permissible. If I were getting an FHA loan, any medical bill outstanding in the amount of $1000 or more would be a problem. But I’m not getting an FHA loan (and this particular collection was only for $358. Combined with the anesthesiologist, it’s more than $1,000, but the anesthesiologist isn’t an asshole).

As I told the lending officer: it’s not that I can’t pay the bill. It’s that I shouldn’t have to. It’s that the insurance company did as they are wont to do and tried to refuse payment, and the pathologist’s office decided to be disingenuous and vindictive even after they’d been paid about 40% of the bill.

She completely understood. But the fact remained: this was going to be an issue. It had already nicked me for a quarter of a percent on the loan’s interest rate. If I didn’t get it cleared up right away, it could haunt me.

So as soon as, and I mean as soon as I had signed and initialed umpteen pieces of paper (including the one that said what I will pay if I wind up playing out the loan for its full 30 years – I laughed out loud) and the loan officer had left, I got on the horn to the collections agency. The debt is now, begrudgingly, paid, and they faxed a letter to the loan officer saying that the report had been made to TransUnion and Equifax in error, the debt was paid in full and they would be removing the report from my credit history permanently.

Phew.

But here’s the hook: it will still take up to 30 days to reflect on my credit report. And the removal of that blemish does not mean my scores will go back up to 795. If I’m lucky, they will go to 720 (though the one on Experian will remain at 790 or higher). So I’m left to “build up my credit” from a huge blow, through no fault of my own. Sure, I still have really good credit. But it was only one bill, from one doctor, due to one fight with an insurance company through the union, that hit me so hard.

As I was told, the reason it hit me that hard is that I don’t have “qualified debt.” In my stellar credit history, there is nothing more cumbersome than a car loan, which is much easier to get than a mortgage. If I had a previous mortgage loan, the hit wouldn’t have been nearly as hard.

After I got off the phone with the collections agency I didn’t know existed, I fired off a furiously-typed missive to two of my three sisters (the ones who are homeowners – the youngest didn’t get it – she’s 22 and a worrier and didn’t need to know), knocked back a martini, blessed the Russians for their contribution to society and told myself there was nothing else I could do. I just have to wait until I hear from the bank about the loan.

This morning I woke to discover that my back has absorbed all the stress of the last week and is no longer cooperating with the rest of my body.

Hell if I’m going to the doctor.

******
Now on my bookshelf: Do Not Ask What Good We Do – Robert Draper