Love it. Just love it.
Today are the Texas and California county Democratic conventions (with one Texas exception, happening tomorrow), and some of my twitter buds are liveblogging via Twitter. Here’s an excerpt from @lnewcomer‘s (web site here) live stream:
Momocrats Socalmom (Donna) and Glennia are at the California State Convention (which you can also view via webcast at their web site) are also liveblogging:
- Speeches seem to cover the same topics: education, Iraq, global warming, healthcare. Beat McCain. about 2 hours ago from web
- John Garamendi gave a good speech. Hit the highlights. No body has beaten Jerry Brown. He rocks AND rolls. about 2 hours ago from web
- Next up: Cal Controller John Chiang. about 3 hours ago from web
Donna is sending updates to the blog.
It’s all very interesting and in the case of Texas, in particular, is a real exercise in civics. We never learned stuff about the kind of efforts at voter suppression that have gone on in Texas in school. Eye-opening stuff. JavaJenn will be blogging her experience at Collin County’s convention — the only one postponed until tomorrow because of issues with venue and accessibility.
This is, of course, the message of the Clinton campaign. Hope doesn’t pay for $3/gallon gas, hope doesn’t pay for medical bills, hope doesn’t pay overdue mortgages, hope doesn’t fill the prescriptions at the drug store, hope doesn’t pay. Bill Clinton restated this again at a campaign stop where he appealed to supporters for — you guessed it — hope.
Hope that supporters would vote and attend the caucus Tuesday night, hope that Hillary could hold onto her candidacy via the Alamo, hope that her message would resonate with voters.
This, from the man who came from the “town called Hope”. How sad that ambition springs so eternal that the Clinton campaign would be nothing more than a massive effort to tell voters in this nation that the status quo is all that matters, hope is dead, and screw all the people sacrificing time, effort, money and talent to get that hope message heard, because what really matters is ‘experience’.
Another irony coming out of the Clinton campaign: 16 years ago, a little-known governor from Hope, AK was challenging another Democratic party stalwart for the nomination, and ultimately framed his entire candidacy and election around…hope.
At the turn of this century, those hopes had been dashed by the Whitewater investigation, the constant rumors and leaks about womanizing and the final blow of seeing my hopes impeached on the floor of the House of Representatives. The real hope-killer was Bill Clinton, who forgot he had enemies waiting for DNA on a blue dress.
But then, there’s the work of his foundation, the good work. And inside of that work is hope. It gives hope, endeavors to improve lives. Out of that hope, Bill Clinton’s reputation began to be rehabilitated (at least, with me), until this campaign, when once again, the selfish strategy is to dash the hopes of millions to give his wife the opportunity to restore the Clinton name to the White House. This too, is a hope. A hope predicated on the destruction of others’ hope, born out of arrogance.
Having Hillary Clinton appear on Saturday Night Live and reverse-whine about press bias, hearing her scold me for daring to hope, watching her try to hijack the “grass-roots movement” which can only be attributed to the hard work of others, is certainly enough to confound hope. It’s a dissonance, a minor chord in a major opus. There is the sense of unreality, as though the true goal is to force voters to make a commitment to hope or despair. Which of us wants despair?
The video I posted earlier really is the answer to the Clinton mantra of hopelessness. The Obama campaign is not about what HE can do alone, but about what WE can do together. Consider this: Over 1 million donors in 2008. Over 1 million phone calls made to Ohio and Texas by volunteers, before the big phone party that just began a few minutes ago. A goal of 1 million doors canvassed by March 4th. Do you suppose those 1 million donors, callers, canvassers are hopeless? Do you suppose that when they hang up the phone, make their donation, walk another block their ownership ends?
Of course not. Because for us (yes, I am one of them), the hope isn’t that Barack Obama will fix everything. That’s Hillary’s message. No, the hope is that WE will be what WE hope for. That WE will be heard. That WE will be permitted to take action, to mobilize, to create the change we all hope for. That my veteran son without a home of his own will have a future where he can hope, where there is opportunity, where he isn’t wondering where his next dollar will come from, where the only opportunity is a minimum-wage job at Blockbuster. He doesn’t want a hope-killer, he wants a hopemongerer. He’s looking for opportunity, and maybe a little bit of recognition for his military job well-done.
Hillary Clinton’s message is a hypocritical one, because she doesn’t really want to kill hope. She just wants it to be hope in her, placed in a cynical, selfish way. The kind of hope where we hope Republicans don’t shred what’s left of her character in an effort to block her election. The kind of hope where she triangulates in order to move the bar milli-inches forward. The kind of hope where white is black, up is down, down is up, and everything spins differently depending on the press cycle. That kind.
If today measured tomorrow, there would be no reason to hope. If yesterday measured tomorrow, there would be no reason to hope. What the Clintons don’t understand is that there is no anointing here. There are no entitlements, not even to nominations. They can’t kill hope and expect to raise hopes. They can’t ‘get real’ and ask us to imagine — hope for — a time where healthcare will be available to everyone, where education is reformed, where THEY do it all for US.
What they miss is this: We really ARE what we hope for. Not THEM. Not HIM. US. That New American Majority who clearly understands what sacrifice means, because we are already sacrificing our time, resources and energy toward an investment in our ability to reframe the future in a brighter, better way. If we’re making this sacrifice now, we’re willing to do it later, long after President Obama takes office, it’s because we understand that hope isn’t just emotion and pretty thoughts. Hope energizes, spurs action, mobilizes and inspires individuals to understand what it means to participate — indeed, to OWN — instead of standing idly by.
That’s bigger than the Clinton ‘hope is dead’ message or the McCain ‘be afraid’ message. It’s the same resolve that put men on the moon. It’s the same resolve that brings a candidate to the fore who is the unlikeliest candidate in the history of this nation and it’s the same resolve that will put him in the White House along with a mandate for that change we all hope for. The manifestation of hope is action — positive action which proves hope DOES pay.
The Pew Research Center released the findings of a voter survey conducted around the Presidential candidates today, specifically analyzing their perceived strengths and weaknesses in various policy areas when compared to each other. Voters believe that Barack Obama will win the nomination by an astounding margin — 70% believe he will win it versus 17% who believe Hillary Clinton will win it. However, when pure voter preference is measured, the margin decreases — 49% Obama; 40% Clinton.
I don’t want to spend too much time on the specifics — it’s all available on the Pew Research site — but one area worth noting is where Obama measures up next to McCain. When voters were asked whether the candidates had provided enough information on their policies, 36% said Obama had and 56% said he had not, compared to 67% who said Clinton had and 28% who said she has not. Further, they perceive Obama as “not tough enough”.
In the debate on Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton mentioned withdrawing 1-2 brigades per month from Iraq. The typical size of a brigade is 4,000-5,000 troops. There are approximately 180,000-200,000 US troops in Iraq right now, roughly the same number that were sent to Vietnam. That was the extent of her specifics.
Jeffrey Feldman has written an excellent three-point plan of how he believes the Democrats need to frame Iraq. For Barack Obama, sooner is better than later in this regard in order to begin to demonstrate his command of the specific facts and his specific policies around Iraq. The three points are:
- End the Occupation – The key word here is ‘occupation’. Changing the frame from war (a justifiable freedom-fighting act) to occupation (an aggressive, unwanted intrusion) pushes back on McCain’s attempt to frame this as a struggle against Al Qaeda which we will “lose” by withdrawing. When it’s framed as an “occupation”, withdrawal becomes a moral act, an act of strength and respect to the Iraqi people. It also calls it what it is — an unwelcome incursion into another sovereign nation. It is an occupation.
- Move Toward a Diplomatic Summit – By calling for a diplomatic solution and discussion with Iraq’s leaders, the Iraq problems are framed in terms of peaceful solutions and mutual agreement, instead of “cutting and running”, which is how McCain will attempt to frame it. As Feldman points out, if the Bush administration decides to initiate a summit to pre-empt the Democrats, the Democrats can still take credit for it as the ones forcefully pushing the idea to the American people, not to mention getting the Bush Administration to do something besides use force.
- Approach Iraq as Part of a Bigger Picture – Feldman suggests a frame like “Smart Security”, where Iraq is framed into a larger plan for regional security, which would include Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other players in the region. There is no better time than now for this to happen, with the Pakistani election result effectively deposing the Musharraf regime in favor of a completely new government. As Feldman points out, by placing Iraq into a larger perspective, the electorate begins to understand the stark differences between the McCain-Bush doctrines of remaining in the region and using force for 100, 1,000, even 100,000 years and comparing that to a shift in solutions from military to diplomatic.
Barack Obama has some unique qualities in the area of foreign policy that work to his advantage, and he should begin to emphasize these inside of his more specific discussions of the plan for Iraq. He understands the value of knowing the cultural and societal values of a region. He lived in Indonesia during a time of unrest, he is well-regarded internationally for his desire to end the occupation of Iraq and begin to rebuild relationships based on solid diplomatic footing, and he is the polar opposite of George Bush in terms of his approach to conflict. He’s demonstrated an even temper and firm approach to conflict, and has the ability to see a bigger picture. And as trite as this may sound, he does have the ability to inspire, and that is true abroad even as it is here.
One final point. A study was done by Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz on the true cost of the Iraq occupation. Conservative estimates say that it will cost 1 TRILLION dollars. Stiglitz reports that the true cost is 3 Trillion Dollars to the US alone, and that’s a conservative estimate. Obama should hammer that number home, along with what didn’t happen as a result:
By way of context, Stiglitz and Bilmes list what even one of these trillions could have paid for: 8 million housing units, or 15 million public school teachers, or healthcare for 530 million children for a year, or scholarships to university for 43 million students. Three trillion could have fixed America’s social security problem for half a century. America, says Stiglitz, is currently spending $5bn a year in Africa, and worrying about being outflanked by China there: “Five billion is roughly 10 days’ fighting, so you get a new metric of thinking about everything.”
Recently President Bush tried to justify the costs of the occupation by claiming that the economy was stimulated by the goods being manufactured in the US for the military (the old military-industrial complex). But Stiglitz found otherwise, stating:
Thus, any idea that war is good for the economy, Stiglitz and Bilmes argue, is a myth. A persuasive myth, of course, and in specific cases, such as world war two, one that has seemed to be true – but in 1939, America and Europe were in a depression; there was all sorts of possible supply in the market, but people didn’t have the cash to buy anything. Making armaments meant jobs, more people with more disposable income, and so on – but peacetime western economies these days operate near full employment. As Stiglitz and Bilmes put it, “Money spent on armaments is money poured down the drain”; far better to invest in education, infrastructure, research, health, and reap the rewards in the long term. But any idea that war can be divorced from the economy is also naive. “A lot of people didn’t expect the economy to take over the war as the major issue [in the American election],” says Stiglitz, “because people did not expect the economy to be as weak as it is. I sort of did. So one of the points of this book is that we don’t have two issues in this campaign – we have one issue. Or at least, the two are very, very closely linked together.”
Far better, he suggests, to leave rapidly and in a dignified manner, and to spend some of it on helping Iraqis reconstruct their own country – and the rest on investing in and strengthening the American economy, so that it can retain its independence, and have the wherewithal, at least, to play a responsible role in the world.
This is an economist speaking — a highly respected one. An economist who is analyzing the risk-benefit of an unwelcome incursion into a sovereign country over a span of time longer than World War II. He has some scathing indictments of the Bush administration, saying that there has been no coherent policy, just a Bush “policy of convenience”. His bottom-line message is this: The economy and the occupation are inextricably linked, and the economy will continue to spiral downward until the occupation ends. Therefore, end it.
The Democrats need to take hold of this and clearly explain it to the blue collar workers, the moms, the dads, the seniors, the college students, everyone. They need to own this piece of the debate by being clear and specific. I could even imagine a policy speech or podcast or video which explains this. The Obama campaign has been so creative with the video that I’d really love to see them communicate a clear and cogent and very specific plan for Iraq using this method.
Go away, Ralph Nader. We don’t want you to run. We don’t need you to run for President. You’re the past, not the future. Go away. Please. Wasn’t 2000 reason enough?
There are representatives in the Congress actively pursuing impeachment. Single payer health insurance isn’t the answer, for reasons like these.
Side note to Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton: It’s not enough to expand availability of health insurance and make it affordable. Reforms of the insurance industry and a stop to pharma price-fixing have to be addressed, too.
I have spent the past 28 years administering employee benefit plans covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, commonly known as ERISA. Your 401(k) plan, your profit sharing plan, even your employer-provided health insurance are all covered under ERISA in one form or another. Broad-sweeping, progressive, and even radical for its time, ERISA has come to be one of the most solid pieces of social legislation passed.
Were it not for some leaders with passion and vision, it would never have happened at all.
A Brief History
Employer-provided pension plans were in much the same condition as our current health care system. Before ERISA, pension plans were minimally regulated and were not viewed as a social obligation, but as a gift from the employer to the employee. Enjoying tax-favored treatment from the early 1900’s on, by the 1950’s financial abuse of the plans was rampant. Benefit definitions were discriminatory and fluid, assets were used and abused to the benefit of the employer and very often, the detriment of the employee.
The monumental failure of the Studebaker plan highlighted the abysmal state of the pension industry and abuse taking place within union pension plans and outside. At the point of the plan’s termination, the group who had reached age 60 received full benefits (this included the executives of Studebaker, by the way), the group aged 40-59 received 15% of their earned benefits, and the rest of the employees received nothing, despite having funded part of their benefits through union contributions made during the course of their employment.
A more personal example of this happened to my grandmother. My grandfather worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad for 51 years. He was murdered either on the job or just after leaving his job in 1971. He had worked past his normal retirement date with no corresponding increase in benefits. A loyal union member, he had also contributed many thousands of dollars to that pension plan over the course of his employment with SP. When my grandmother went to claim his Railroad Retirement benefits as his surviving widow, she was denied all benefits. Because he was still an active employee and had not begun to receive payment of his benefits, she was denied survivor benefits which she would have received if he had been retired and paid his earned pension. My grandmother was forced to live the rest of her life with the tragedy of his death in an extremely precarious financial situation. She only had her own Social Security benefits that she earned during her years of employment (he was a Railroad employee and therefore exempt from Social Security), and a very small life insurance policy that paid double indemnity. When she passed away, she still owed 5 years of her 30-year mortgage on the only asset she had left.
Her story was not unusual. Similarly, we’ve arrived at a time where health care is controlled by insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and litigators. Like pensions, health care benefits for employees have been regarded as a gift rather than an extension of the compensation package for employees, and like pensions, rampant abuses and profit-taking abound. Health care policy is determined on a state-by-state basis with no overall federal mandate and no consistent policy. As a consequence, insurance companies are able to tailor their policies to the state’s rules and regulations, which is to their benefit in some states; to their detriment in others.
What ERISA Accomplished
ERISA laid the foundation for broad reform of pension plan operations and responsibility. It established four basic principles:
- Required Reporting and Disclosure of Financial and Operational Information
- Required Standards of Conduct for Fiduciaries and Related Parties (and penalties for non-compliance)
- Defined Internal Revenue Code provisions to govern the operation of pension plans and preserve tax-deferred status
- Established the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) to insure certain guaranteed pension benefits
Although the PBGC (Title IV of ERISA) is probably the most controversial prong of ERISA reforms today, for the most part, all four prongs have withstood the test of time to the benefit of every employee who has been covered by a qualified pension plan. Every few years Congress amends various provisions to meet their tax goals, but still, for the most part, ERISA is a solid and significant law that benefits each and every American. Despite those amendments, the basic principles of ERISA remain inviolate 34 years after its passage.
Why ERISA Succeeds
Here are the fundamental reasons that I believe ERISA has withstood the test of time:
- It established broad-based principles for the establishment and maintenance of employee benefit plans: disclosure, responsibility, compliance and benefit guarantees.
- It split the regulatory oversight responsibility between three different agencies: the IRS, the Department of Labor, and the PBGC, allocating specific responsibilities to each agency.
- It was not an attempt to amend the status quo, but instead approached pension reform from the standpoint of what should have been implemented at the start.
- Compliance was phased in over a short period of time in reasonable increments, which minimized the economic disruption.
- Because ERISA was drafted with a broad, sweeping reform brush, amendments made subsequent to its passage have remained largely within the letter and spirit of the law. I can think of one exception which was repealed shortly after its passage and was specifically intended to reduce employer tax deductions in a budget bill. But most legislation passed which touches on or amends ERISA remains within the constraints of the original intent — to ensure that employees’ retirement funds are inviolate, prudently invested, and benefits are available and earned in a non-discriminatory fashion to all covered employees.
- ERISA pre-empted individual state pension laws and brought the universe of pension plans under a federal umbrella, ensuring consistent treatment no matter what state one lived in.
Why Health Care Reform Should Follow The ERISA Model
I believe any health care reform plan will also need solid foundational pillars to its foundation in order to succeed. They are:
- Universal Availability, Portability and Choice of Plan Defined by Federal Law, pre-empting state laws.
- Federal limits on malpractice claims
- Mandatory reporting, disclosure and transparent operations of insurance companies and related entities (including pharmacy benefit providers)
- Broad minimum benefit and funding requirements
- Parity in incentives for employers and individuals in the form of tax deductions and/or credits for Health Savings Accounts and payment of health insurance premiums (currently available only to employers)
The Democratic candidates have all put forward meaningful health care reform proposals. However, I don’t believe they go far enough, because they don’t define an overall policy going forward which will guide future legislative bodies when considering reforms. Further, they don’t assign clear lines of responsibility for enforcement and accountability that I can see. I believe it’s essential for the candidates to begin the process with a clean slate and clear vision rather than trying to reshape what is in place now for the future.
The architects of ERISA, led by John Erlenborn and John Dent, were passionate about their belief that the only pension reform worth making would be lasting reform, and lasting reform meant beginning with a clean slate and clear-cut principles. Any effort at health care reform that does not follow these same principles is doomed to fail in the long run, because it will be the domain of all of those who lobby for their own interest at the expense of those most in need. What health care reform needs is a leader who is willing to take risks, define broad policy-based principles for implementation and administration, create carrots for compliance and participation and sticks for exploitation. Anything less will be no reform at all.