The Land Of Opportunity

August 14, 2009

There’s an interesting Barbara Ehrenreich story in the NY Times about the growing criminalization of the poor during the recession. Here’s an telling example:

“A grizzled 62-year-old, he [Mr. Szekely] inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington — the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Fu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972. He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until last December, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants.

It turned out that Mr. Szekely, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs or curse in front of ladies, did indeed have a warrant — for not appearing in court to face a charge of ‘criminal trespassing’ (for sleeping on a sidewalk in a Washington suburb). So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail.”

In general, there are two factors that work against the poor. One is the ‘poor tax.’ Everything is either more expensive or carries greater risk of an unexpected or catastrophic fee or fine for poor people. For example, poor people pay more for car loans and mortgages and credit cards (higher interest rates on all debt in general). Poor people are less likely to be able to purchase a new or quality car so are more susceptible to expensive auto repairs. Or they have to go without a car, which makes many, many things more expensive: there’s the opportunity cost of it taking much longer to get anywhere, limitations on possible jobs because of limitations on commuting options, the inability to frequent big-box or discount stores and a greater reliance on supermarkets and stores in poor neighborhoods, all of which charge more, etc., etc. Poor people are more likely to have late payments or overdrafts, all of which carry substantial penalties. And of course health is a big issue. Poor people are more likely to have jobs that don’t provide paid sick days off from work, so illness translates directly into lost wages. They are more likely to go without healthcare, which means more out-of-pocket expenses for medical emergencies. Fewer opportunities for exercise, greater life stresses, and poorer diet means more medical problems.

The other factor at work is greater susceptibility to problems with the law. Poor neighborhoods, particularly those that are predominantly black or Latino, are more heavily policed. Small infractions, from drug possession to jaywalking to – my favorite of late – disorderly conduct are more likely to be prosecuted. The court system is more hostile to poor people on every level, and poor people cannot afford the same quality legal representation as wealthier citizens. And problems compound faster. Unpaid parking tickets or failures to get inspection stickers more easily translate into contempt of court charges or failures to appear, especially when you cannot afford the initial fines in the first place or hire a lawyer.

In sum, all the things wealthier people take for granted, from simply paying off parking tickets to paying for the tow truck when the car breaks down or renting a car to get to work when yours is in the shop, translate into major crises for poor people, often leading to additional expenses, fines, lost jobs, or even jail. And as the problems accrue, they compound. Once you have a criminal record, you can’t get a job. When you don’t have a job, you can’t afford a place to live. When you live on the street, you can be subject to any one of a gazillion causes for legal harrassment.

Think about all that, and then think about George W. Bush’s remark that the poor can use the emergency room for healthcare. What will the outcomes be for asthma, diabetes, or even far less grave illnesses as gastro-esophogeal reflux, chronic pain problems, anemia, high cholesterol, high blood pressure if you rely on the emergency room?

Completely out of touch with reality.


How Is This Legal?

August 13, 2009

Must-see television:

Is it really me? Is it because I’m a left-wing loon? Should I just embrace the crazy?

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad country.

Apparently, I Am A Nazi

August 9, 2009

Or so says Rush Limbaugh. Nancy Pelosi, it turns out, is similar to Adolf Hitler. And, as Joan Walsh points out, who would have ever predicted that our first black president would turn out to be a Nazi? Wow. What are the odds? I guess it makes sense, though, when you consider that Obama is a racist (according to Glenn Beck, he hates white people, apparently including his own mother, and he hates “white culture,” whatever that is). Hitler, of course, was born in Austria, and then became chancellor of Germany. Obama was born in Kenya or Indonesia or somewhere and became our pretender-usurper False-Dmitri president. And, as many on the right have pointed out, including Beck and Limbaugh, the logo for Obama’s healthcare plan look an awful lot like swastika-type Hitler things. Or something like that.

Sarah Palin has chimed in to tell us that Obama is going to set up “death panels” at which he parents and her child will be judged unfit to live:

“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”

And the wingnuts are showing up at town halls, flipping out and near-rioting over some sort of Nazi euthanasia plan.

And the list goes on and on and on.

My question is, what the living #$%#$% #$%#$% is this? Why is this crazy #$%#$ being covered by the press? Why, after saying crazy nonsense like this, are people like Newt Gingrich and Michelle Malkin asked onto major network news programs? If I said stuff like this at work, I’d be treated like a plague victim. Death panels???? Obama’s a Nazi??? The Democrats are like Nazis because (this is Rush Limbaugh and Jonah Goldberg saying this) the Nazis too were vegetarians and supported animal rights and didn’t like pollution???

Wait, the Nazis wore shirts and pants? DEMOCRATS wear shirts and pants!!! They’re Nazis!!! ARE YOU SHITTING ME??

People, this is entirely beneath us. I have nothing to offer in a healthcare “debate” that involves Hitler, Nazis, killing old people, FEMA death camps, a black Nazi fake president, and God only knows what else. I understand that insurance companies need to protect their $$$, and they’ll do it any way possible. I understand that the Republicans could care less about the content of any healthcare legislation and are just looking to defeat Obama’s #1 legislative project, willing to say whatever they need to to accomplish that. But really, “death panels?” We’re going to go THERE? And there are a lot of people out there who believe it??

So the press covers this garbage. I’m not saying they support it (except FOX), but they cover it: look at the crazies at the town hall meeting! look at Senator Crazypants calling Obama a serial killer! And instead of discussing health insurance reform, we discuss the circus. Which helps them to defeat the actual bill. Then we all pretend the actual bill is sooooo complicated that we CAN’T understand it.

We have two major problems in this country related to healthcare. One is that a large portion of the public has no healthcare. We’re the only industrialized nation that doesn’t provide healthcare to all its citizens. Added to that portion with no healthcare is the portion that either has too little insurance or could be dropped from insurance pretty damn quick. With millions of people either with no care, or having to worry about losing the little coverage they do have if they get sick, or possible bankruptcy if they get very ill, that’s unacceptable. It’s unfair, it hurts the country as a whole, and it drags down our economy.

The other problem is that we spent way too much on healthcare relative to what we get out of it (obviously we need to kill some old people to save money!!!). Some of this results from the uninsured – a pregnancy test, say, at a doctor’s office or at home costs a lot less than at the ER. Addressing a medical issue early with a doctor is cheaper than waiting until it’s an emergency and going to the ER. In general, sending people with no insurance to the ER is about the most wasteful and inefficient way to give them healthcare, and that’s all they have if they can’t pay out of pocket for everything. Also, costs are rising rapidly. We use wasteful procedures, pay far more for pharmaceuticals here than in other countries (trips to Canada, anyone?), and put too little effort into preventive medicine.

The plans (more than one proposal is floating around right now) under consideration on Capitol Hill address these two problems. None of them are ideal – they are all extremely watered down from what true “progressives” or “liberals” would prefer. Any changes would still leave in place (a) the same system we have now with private insurance supplied through your employer, and (b) Medicare covering those over 65. That’s the core of our system now, and it’ll remain the core of any future system. Is that the best way to go? No, I don’t think so. But that’s what we’re going to have. Insurance will be better regulated. It will be much harder, for example, for insurance companies to drop people with “pre-exiting conditions” that are suddenly discovered once they become ill. Obviously the insurance companies don’t like that. The government will also provide subsidies for small businesses and poor families to get insurance. There’s not enough in the plan to keep costs down, however. One way to do that was to force private insurers to compete with a “public plan,” basically something similar to what federal employees like Michele Bachmann have now (while she rants and raves about the horrors of government-provided medicine — the Palins have government-provided insurance as well). In most markets in this country, there are only one or two insurers (e.g., BCBS has a virtual monopoly on insurance in Alabama, Wellpoint the same in Indiana). A public option would provide competition in what are now remarkably uncompetitive markets.

But let’s look at the status quo. More and more people are uninsured or underinsured. In terms of health outcomes – infant mortality, life expectancy, quality years of life – we rank behind every other wealthy nation. We’re last. The World Health Organization ranks us behind every other industrialized healthcare on every dimension. Meanwhile, costs go up and up. Despite having shitty healthcare, we pay FAR more than other countries do. France gets better outcomes by paying 2/3 the amount. If we don’t do anything, it will get worse and worse.

And this may be our last chance.

But hey, the black guy who’s president could be a Kenyan Nazi. We should check that out before he sets up the death panels.

My original post on the Skip Gates arrest incident came before the media circus, and I’ve been wary of posting on it again because there are far more important things going on in the world, but I want to clarify a few things (and correct some, too).

First, after hearing what Lucia Whalen, the original 911 caller, had to say, I have to apologize for saying there was anything racist about her report. It seems she was reluctant to call the police and was prompted to do so by an “elderly woman” from the neighborhood. She said to the 911 dispatcher that it was possible the people entering the house lived there. And she said nothing about the men being black. In fact, she said nothing about their races at all, and when prompted by the dispatcher said she thought one may be Hispanic and that she did not see the other. To be honest, I feel bad for the woman and can only imagine the invective thrown at her. She’s probably been called a racist 10,000 times at this point, basically for nothing. I can completely imagine myself in her exact same situation (although I’d be less likely to call the police, for a variety of reasons, none of which make me a better person).

Second, I’m tired of the term “racial profiling” being thrown around with respect to this incident. Racial profiling doesn’t mean any and all sorts of racial bias by police. It means disproportionately stopping or searching members of certain groups because of assumptions about that group rather than anything specific to the case itself. If cops pull over black people on the highway with greater frequency than other groups, that’s profiling. This case would be profiling if the cop has witnessed the entry and suspected a break-in based partly on race. But that’s not what happened.

Third, the most enraging things about the incident to me are (a) the arrest for “disorderly conduct” and (b) the public reaction. Nothing has changed my outrage over a man being arrested IN HIS OWN HOME for, essentially, being rude to a cop, insinuating he’s a racist, and questioning the legitimacy of his actions. I wasn’t there and don’t know what Gates said (although I strongly doubt he said “I’ll see your mama outside” – I think I’d bet everything I own that he didn’t). However, I don’t think that there is anything you could say, in your own kitchen, to a police officer that would justify arrest. Do I think it’s wise to talk trash to a cop? No – I wouldn’t do it, and I wouldn’t because I know all too well what the likely reaction would be. Do I think it’s ethically or morally justified to mouth off to cops? Sometimes, but there are many times it’s not. It may be unwise, rude, obnoxious, inappropriate, whatever. But these are all distinct from ILLEGAL. In free societies, people get arrested for crimes, not for pissing off police officers. If Gates were interfering with the police’s duties, or obstructing them in some way, or inciting riot or violence, or putting someone in danger, that of course would be different. But Gates was simply mouthing off to a cop in his house. You could argue that makes him a big asshole (I’d disagree, but that’s at least a legitimate argument), but it doesn’t make him a criminal. The power of arrest is not a trivial one. The police are not given this power, or the power to use deadly force, on a whim. They are given this power to enforce the law and protect the citizenry. They were given this power by the citizenry for that specific purpose, and are trusted to use that power in a legal and legitimate fashion. Make no mistake – I understand that being a police officer is a tough job. A very tough job. But many people with tough, serious, dangerous, or potentially deadly jobs do not have the power to arrest or use deadly force against others. The police do not have that power to retaliate against someone who pisses them off, annoys them, or hurts their feelings. The laws do not exist for that purpose. Yet, the police have relied on laws against things like disorderly conduct to do just that. Don’t believe me? Try it out. The next time a cop comes into your house, for whatever reason, tell him you’re a communist who thinks that all cops are fat pieces of shit. I assure you of two things: (1) the First Amendment affirms your right to do this, and (2) the cop’s concern for your First Amendment rights will amount to two things: jack and shit. The First Amendment is there to protect the annoying, in-your-face speech we don’t like. It’s not there to protect nice speech at the tea party. Nobody’s worried about the authorities denying that speech. It’s there to protect the war protesters, the skinheads, the NAMBLA people, the conspiracy theorists, and the assholes.

Of course, the above somehow makes me a left-wing radical in this country. Watching the public reaction to the Gates incident has led me to believe that many, many people in this country are all in favor of handing tremendous – authoritarian, really – power to the police. Police have a tough job and put their lives on the line, and we shouldn’t mouth off to them. They need to be concerned about watching their backs, not your tree-hugging right to be an asshole and talk trash. This attitude fits better with an occupying army than a police force. The police are empowered as they are to protect our rights. That’s their very purpose. The idea that we need to abandon some of those rights to suit the police stands the whole principle of our republic on its head. The Boston cop who referred to Gates as a “banana-eating jungle monkey” said it best when he claimed that “suspects” have no rights. The conception of law enforcement in this country has been one of a legally authorized gang of thugs fighting a war against an opposing gang of criminals. We send police into neighborhoods to subdue these criminals. Everybody else had better get out of the way. The goal is now to stop the bad people – the criminals, the terrorists, the threats to America and our “freedom” and “way of life.” The rights that we are abandoning to do this? Last I checked, those WERE our freedoms and our way of life. Otherwise what, exactly, is the point?