August 2009 Archives

In the news: Schwarzenegger eyes revamp of California's pension programs

[Gov.] Schwarzenegger wants legislation creating a two-tier system that would deliver lower benefits to newly hired public employees -- not only state workers but firefighters, police officers, teachers, and other local-government employees.

Along with proposed cutbacks in retiree health benefits, Schwarzenegger says, the plan would save $90 billion over the next 30 years.

California's conservatives complain that our public employees are paid too well and have really good health care and pension benefits.

Progressives say that the POINT of progressive policies is for people to get better pay, health care, benefits, and pensions. 

Conclusion: If you don't want to have good pay, good health care and a good retirement plan then go ahead and vote for conservatives.



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The end of an era

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With the passing of Senator Edward M. Kennedy this week, we have come to the official end of an extraordinary era and family legacy. There are still many of us left who cut our political teeth on the Kennedy's-- listening to the newly elected, handsome young man with the appalling Boston accent (this is not intended as an insult, I'm from Boston myself) call us to service to our country. We also remember his younger brother, Bobby trying to pick up the mantle during the turbulent days of the Viet Nam War and asking why we can't live our dreams. We had remaining within our midst for many decades the youngest of nine children "Teddy" who ended up carrying the torch of an ill-fated family. Now even he is gone and we are left to mourn the passing of one family's response to the call to public service.

One cannot ignore in the mix, the less visible but equally committed Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who passed away only a few short weeks ago. Her work in establishing the Special Olympics was no less notable in its impact on the lives of thousands of families around the world.

Teddy Kennedy was a large and boisterous man. He was passionate, he was charming and he was imperfect. A scar on his legacy will be that horrible summer's night when he drove off a bridge in Chappaquidick that took the life of a young woman and left him forever with a blot on his work. Nonetheless, and with that being said, it is his powerful and positive legacy that we should and must remember of him and his life's work championing the cause of the needy and the poor among us.

A wonderful vignette is circulating on you-tube that captures his passion in a speech to a group about the importance of universal healthcare. Classic Teddy. Passionate. Personal. Genuinely heartfelt. No observor can hear or see him without agreeing that he truly cared, understood the need for better healthcare and felt the pain he had endured himself, having survived a terrible plane crash that killed two others and with family medical crises that stalked his children for years.

 


Growing up in Boston in the 60's, I remember watching his debate against another great political Boston family, the McCormacks. I remember so vividly watching our black and white T.V. when his adversary, Edward McCormack taunted the 30 year old youngest of 11 Kennedy kids by saying, " I'll bet if your name were Edward Moore, and not Edward Moore Kennedy, you wouldn't even be here tonight". Even though he may have been right, Teddy although clearly annoyed, kept his cool and responded, again with that heavy Boston accent, about the purpose and value of public service. .

While the Kennedy's out-dueled the McCormacks on this one, and Teddy entered the U.S. Senate, that bitterness never hampered Teddy in his effort to be a great Senator. He had an Irishman's love of the bitters and a good story. He had an enormous love of his children and a hearty meal.

I had the good fortune of serving as an intern in his office when he was the Majority Whip. At the same time, he was dealing with the cancer of his eldest son and the terrible asthma problems of his youngest, Patrick. He had lost his remaining two older brothers in the intervening years and  had become the father figure to their families and their broods.

Ted Kennedy was clearly a child of privilege and wealth. He is reputed to never have carried any money with him so that his staff would always make sure they had real currency with them when staffing him.  But he was always approachable and funny, with a quick wit and humorous tale to tell at the drop of a hat. 

His office was a gallery of family pictures of sparklingly handsome, toothy people almost always photographed in the out-of-doors, always smiling, whether it was playing football, sailing, skiing or just being there. It was almost hard to believe that this very same family had suffered so much at the hands of assassins and war. (Eldest of the siblings was Joe Kennedy Jr. who died as a fighter pilot in World War Two and Joe Srs. first hope for a Catholic President).

I heard Senator Kennedy give many speeches over the course of his career. He had that incredible Kennedy charisma, with those sparkling blue eyes and as he got older, that mane of stunning white hair. He mellowed, especially after marrying his wife and now widow, Vicki in 1992 and seemed to settle into his role as America's elder statesman. He had found his niche, was comfortable with it and his life and with the opportunity to lead the Senate's liberals as its spokesman and champion.

In spite of all the tragedy in his life, Edward Moore Kennedy never abandoned the little guy, never gave up the fight for equal dignity for all people and never forgot how his life of privilege compelled him and his family to seek to make life a little better for everyone else.  It is a legacy we will do well to remember. It seems only fitting that he left us and left the stage with the following charge at the 2008 Democratic Convention: "The work begins anew. Hope rises again and The dream lives on." Whether we agreed with Kennedy's vision of a better world or focused too much on his flaws and failings, the one thing we can and should agree upon is that his work has impacted all of us and we are the better for it.


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George Lakoff has a good piece out on how to talk about health care reform.  In The PolicySpeak Disaster for Health Care, Lakoff writes,

How is it possible that the same people who did so well in the campaign have done so badly on health care?

The problem, according to Lakoff, is that they are discussing policy, with lists, instead of telling the bigger story,

PolicySpeak is the principle that: If you just tell people the policy facts, they will reason to the right conclusion and support the policy wholeheartedly.

. . . To many liberals, PolicySpeak sounds like the high road: a rational, public discussion in the best tradition of liberal democracy. Convince the populace rationally on the objective policy merits. Give the facts and figures. Assume self-interest as the motivator of rational choice. Convince people by the logic of the policymakers that the policy is in their interest.

He says tell the story:

Insurance companies are inefficient and wasteful. A large chunk of your health care dollar is not going for health care when you buy from insurance companies.

Insurance companies govern your lives. They have more power over you than even governments have. They make life and death decisions. And they are accountable only to profit, not to citizens.

The health care failure is an insurance company failure. Why keep a failing system? Augment it. Give an alternative.
So go out and tell the story.  In marketing we say not to just list the features, instead talk about the benefits that those features bring to the customer.

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While most of the country, including California, is immersed in the highly controversial health care debate, we here in California are facing our own very significant debate on key reforms that will impact everyone in the State for years to come.


 In addition to talk about a Constitutional Convention to attack our clearly antiquated and unworkable system of governance, including the 2/3 vote for a budget and term-limits, we are facing an equally dramatic set of issues as a result of a commission set up to revise the tax system in our state. Ostensibly to assure fairness and reduce volatility so we can better get through the bad times, the Commission for the 21st Century Economy (also known as COTCE) is at work to develop a set of proposals that the Governor wants the Legislature to vote on at a Special Session he has called for September, shortly after it adjourns for the year.


Just a few problems with this, though. The Commission is heavily weighted with the Governor's business-friendly folks who are seemingly desperate to help their wealthy cohorts avoid their fair share of taxes. Indeed, among the proposals by the Parsky faction of the Commission (Parsky is the Chair appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger), is a "flat tax" which is an estimated $7 Billion give-away to the wealthiest Californians, with the burden of that giveaway falling on the middle-class and the poorest among us. In addition, the Commission's corporate friends want to do away with all corporate taxes and instead impose a "Business Nets Receipts Tax" also known as the BNRT, which is a complicated and dangerously untested hybrid of a European approach to taxation.


 These proposals are the business community's and Schwarzenegger's dream wish-list.  But the progressives on the Commission, headed by former Assemblymember Fred Keeley,  have stepped forward with a proposal that makes a lot more sense and is considered by all but the most extreme anti-tax, anti-government forces, to be a very moderate proposal,. To the consternation of many solid progressives,  it even contains a spending cap. The Republican members should be loving it and jumping at the chance to compromise in order to include this as part of  a "consensus" proposal, which is the mandate of the Commission.


 Among the elements of the Keeley report is proposal to revisit real estate taxes and examine the unequal commercial property  protections that have hurt local governments for the past thirty years, preventing them from having the resources to do their jobs. Keeley also recommends retaining  the current progressive income tax system so that the wealthiest, who have the most money, pay the most in taxes. While still allowing them to keep the majority of their wealth, this provides, quite logically, that those who have the most should pay the most.

 

The progressive's plan also calls for a carbon/pollution tax. With everyone from William Clay Ford, Jr, chairman and CEO of Ford Motor Co. to columnists Thomas Friedman and Charles Krauthammer (among many others), calling for increasing petroleum fuel taxes, or creating an oil price floor, the time to put this on the table and make it part of a serious and honest discussion is now.

 

There are several more innovative concepts involved, including a determination of how these ideas will impact local tax revenues and thus services. It's interesting stuff for policy and tax wonks, but the implications for every Californian make the discussion an important one.  For more on this proposal and the work that the COTCE is doing, check out their very extensive website at: http://cotce.ca.gov

 

But for those with less than a dissertation's amount of time available, the issue right now is whether Parsky and his business corporate-focused agenda will allow a meaningful discussion of the alternative Keeley plan to see the light of day. Although Chairman Parsky publicly promised to do so at the July 16th meeting, acknowledging his responsibility to try to build consensus,  he has yet to set forth the very important process by which his proposal and the alternative proposals will be evaluated. To date, he's ignored requests by Stephen Levy of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy out of Stanford University to explain the process and methodology to be used to evaluate the disparate proposals. Parsky has also refused to address the demand for transparency in this process or even acknowledge a memo from one of his Republican Commissioners, Becky Morgan, who wrote the Commissioners on August 5th urging the Commission to take the request for openness and transparency very seriously.


 While Parsky has been touting his heavily business-weighted reforms, he has refused to let anyone see how he has gotten to his conclusions that his idea is the better one or that the Keeley plan is a lesser one. We know that statistics can say anything you want them to if you control the process. And Parsky is doing just that. It's a Star Chamber claiming to be sun-light.


For those  who have lost all trust in this governor's ability to run this state, this further refusal by his appointed chair to consider other points of view is just another in a long list of efforts to help the multi-national corporations to the detriment of the hard-working people who live here. If the proposals the Governor's representative has recommended are so wonderful, then let's see the real proof that the numbers and data haven't been manipulated to look like Bernie Madoff's phony balance sheet. If the Keeley proposals aren't valid, then let's see the factual basis for dismissing them.

 

Without this transparency and honesty in the process, the COTCE will be yet another failed  opportunity to help fix the mess in California. A process weighted toward corporate greed is not what we deserve or need in California right now. This disappointment falls directly at the Governor and his appointed Chair's feet. No excuses, Mr. Parsky. If you're really committed to consensus, transparency and honesty in this critical debate, and in achieving real and constructive reform, it's time to  "tear down that wall" of secrecy and let the sun shine in.   


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This is circulating.  We recommend you copy it and email it to friends and relatives:

Once again, for the benefit of the government-can't-get-anything-right flock:

This morning you were awoken by your alarm clock (powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the US Department of Energy). You then took a shower (in the clean water provided by the municipal water utility). After that, you turned on the TV (to one of the FCC regulated channels) to see what the national weather service (of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) determined the weather was going to be like (using satellites designed, built, and launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). You watched this while eating your breakfast of (US Department of Agriculture inspected) cereal and taking your blood pressure medication (which have been determined as safe by the Food and Drug Administration).

At the appropriate time (as regulated by the US congress and kept accurate by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the US Naval Observatory), you get into your (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration approved) automobile and set out to work (on the roads build by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation), possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel (of a quality level determined by the Environmental Protection Agency), paying in cash (legal tender issued by the Federal Reserve Bank). On the way out the door you deposit any mail you have to be sent out (via the US Postal Service) and drop the kids off at (public) school.

After spending another day not being maimed or killed at work (thanks to the workplace regulations imposed by the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), enjoying another two meals (which again do not kill you because of the USDA), you drive your (NHTSA) car back home (on the DOT roads), to your house (which has not burned down in your absence because of the state and local building codes and fire marshal's inspection, and which has not been plundered of all it's valuables thanks to the local police department).

You then log on to the internet (which was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration) and post on www.freerepublic.com, www.redstate.com and fox news forums about how SOCIALISM in medicine is BAD because the government can't do anything right.

The only reason government doesn't work is because conservative Republican administrations defunded and/or patronage staffed them with people with ties to special business interests: to wit the last FDA, Dept of Interior and Agriculture under Bush. No one seems to have a problem with pumping over $500Bil to the Defense Department, which last I heard is a socialized entity.



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In recent weeks, the public discourse in this country has moved from simple dishonesty to mob rule, exemplified by the threatening and hysterical frenzy created by the right-wing talk shows.  This extremely disturbing development has been orchestrated by former Congressman and Republican leader Dick Armey and other politicians who are making millions as hired guns paid to fan the flames of hatred, bigotry and frustration in both enthusiastic and unsuspecting pawns in these extremist games.

 

The fury is stoked and blessed by an ideology that cares little for the country and seeks to realize the dreams of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, i.e., to cause our President to fail.  Most of the anger, however, arises from the failure of uncontrolled right-wing politics and so-called "free-marketeering" that has put the nation on the brink, cost so many American jobs and created economic uncertainty.

 

When discourse moves from lively and colorful discussion to shouting, threats and violence, those who seek logical and fact-based debate and respectful dialogue intended to produce constructive and meaningful solutions are pushed aside as decibels of disruption are raised beyond control.  How can participants in "town hall" discussions exchange ideas when no one listens because they are too busy shouting and insulting the speakers.

 

It is almost impossible to know where all this is leading.  It is important, though, to acknowledge how the debate has moved away from what is acceptable and what we're accustomed to as Americans and into a world ripe with anger, fear irrationality and violence.

 

There are parallels to the behavior of Bill O'Reilly inciting violence against Dr. George Tiller.  Encouraging lunatics to commit acts of violence is itself criminal for which people like O'Reilly should be held accountable.  Without accountability, incitement simply continues.  Our President and other leaders are hung in effigy, with swastikas smeared on signs bearing their names, and people tote guns to meetings about health care reform with suggestions that it is time to purge our country through revolution and blood letting.  This is not democracy; this is mob rule, and it should not be tolerated.

 

There is a significant distinction between healthy debate and disruptive dissent.  The issues facing our country are too important and complex to be subjected to the fury unleashed upon those who do not share the opinions of extremists.  Many of those who are angry and frustrated have been fed a pile of misinformation and outright lies to protect insurance companies and anti-Obamaites who care little for developing a true and effective fix for our state and a broken health care system.  Their only goal is to inflict  mortal injury on government and the Obama administration.  We can't let that happen. How we tone down the rhetoric and correct the lies and distortions is no easy task, but it is one we must pursue. 

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How do you reconcile a conservative philosophy that says government is bad and taxes should be cut, and at the same time advocates policies that put lots and lots of people in jail for all kinds of things?  Well, you can't.

The original idea for California's Three Strikes law was sound: most violence is committed by a very few people and if you can identify and imprison those people, you can make the rest of us much, much safer.  But the conservatives managed to turn this sound idea into an initiative that invites prosecutors to decide to prosecute people under this law for any serious crime, violent or not, and technical or not, as long as they have two priors.  So people who, for example, committed a crime as a child, then "copped a plea" to avoid risking a serious conviction thirty years prior, can now be sent to prison for life.

As a result, today California has more than 170,000 people in prisons designed to hold about half as many.  One out of every five prisoners in California is serving a life sentence.  In California defendants have received, for example, a life sentence for stealing a piece of pizza, a life sentence for stealing three tracksuits, a life sentence for stealing a 50-cent pack of doughnuts, a life sentence for possessing .03 grams of drugs, a life sentence for stalking and a life sentence for stealing golf clubs. But when you put so many people in prisons that have their budgets cut year after year what you can't get is sufficient medical care or sufficient living space.

So a federal court has taken a look at California's policies of putting more and more people into jail for longer and longer sentences for more and more things, while at the same time cutting budgets for medical care.  The court found that this constitutes "cruel and unusual" punishment.  From the article,

"California's prison system is operating at 190 percent of its design capacity of 79,828 inmates, and the judges said the state must devise an inmate reduction plan within 45 days, after which a remedial order will be issued.

. . . "The convergence of tough-on-crime policies and an unwillingness to expend the necessary funds to support the population growth has brought California's prisons to the breaking point," the judges said."
At Calitics David Dayen writes,

This is a policy failure driven by a political failure, a cowardly series of actions that arises from a broken system of government. ... politicians have played on people's fears for 30 years and, faced with the tragedy they created, delayed and procrastinated until it became so torturous that the courts had to step in.  From the three-strikes law to the 1,000 sentencing laws passed by the Legislature, all increasing sentences, nobody comes out looking good in this failure of leadership.
Given the fiscal mess our state is in now is the time for appropriate reform of all institutions.  Let's make it right, let's make it work and let's make it just.  That is a progressive approach.

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This page is an archive of entries from August 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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