Monday, August 31, 2009

Why we will never have universal health care, Part Two

John Avalon is not the only one slobbering out the "if only the DFHs on the left would be reasonable this would all be done in a flash!" shtick.

For example, George Stephanopoulos is out there with the bizarre claim - made on The O'Reilly Factor, let it be noted - that Ted Kennedy would have ditched the public option, a truly inane claim that is becoming conventional wisdom among the punditocracy despite it (or, equally likely because of it) being grounded in neither fact nor statement nor past practice of the man who called universal coverage "the cause of my life." You could disagree on Kennedy's goals (and many other things about him) but it takes an exceptionally high cranial density to doubt his sincerity and determination.

A more extended claim is made by Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein, who also invokes Kennedy's memory in the course of insisting "there is a deal to be had here if only Democrats would be willing to take it."
And while there will be plenty of liberal Democrats who will be fuming about all the compromises forced upon them, somewhere from above will come a familiar voice with that distinctly Boston accent, whispering, "The dream will never die. Take the deal."
But in his own bizarre twist on this, Pearlstein hastens to add that this supposed "deal" will not gain support from the GOPper leadership in Congress, who are "determined to derail any health reform plan." Instead, it aims to win "broad support" from the public. That is, it's not a "deal" at all, it's a hodgepodge of notions that have caught Pearlstein's fancy and now he wants to use the pages of the Washington Post to show how clever he is.

Leave aside the inconvenient fact that the idea of a government-run health care program has consistently enjoyed such "broad support" and in fact still does enjoy such support: According to a SurveyUSA poll released August 20, a whopping 77% of those surveyed said it was "extremely important" or "quite important" that any final bill provide the "choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan" - that is, include some version of the "strong public option." Leave that aside and take a closer look at what's in this non-existent "deal," the one deserving of such massive public endorsement. It includes individual mandates, state-level co-ops, "lower-cost, high-deductible plans," low-income subsidies, employer mandates (at 50% of the cost of insurance and exempting small businesses), a 25% tax on "extravagant" health insurance benefits, "malpractice reform," and "cost containment" for Medicare and Medicaid.

This is the "deal" that, Pearlstein assures us, would win the support not only of "wavering moderate Democrats" but also of "a sizeable number of Republicans" whose desire to be "on the right side of history" would surely outstrip their desire to be on the right side of the party leadership. He's quite touching (more likely, touched) in his faith in others' devotion to "history," but he insisted himself the idea was to win broad public support. Judge it by that standard.

Public support? This deserves public support? Is that a joke?

Rather, it's a package any insurance executive, any Big Pharma executive, could love. First, it requires every individual to have insurance - and, lacking any form of public option, that means from a private insurance company: Whether they get it directly, through the toothless co-ops which Pearlstein hides behind the word "exchanges," or through work, it's still from a private, profit-driven corporation. They have to have such insurance whether or not they can afford it and the plan commits the government to paying the cost for those who can't. Translation: A multi-billion dollar annual taxpayer handout from the federal government to the health insurance industry, partly paid for by increased taxes on workers (usually unionized ones) who managed to secure good plans. On the other hand, there is no mention of increased taxes on the rich as a means of payment and the only mention of a cost to corporations is a levy on those larger companies who find paying that levy is more profitable than paying 50% of the cost of insurance for their employees - a percentage lower than most of those employers who do offer coverage pay now.

Co-ops? I've already cited the demonstrated failures of co-ops to offer lower costs or to expand coverage; I'll just add here that state-level co-ops would be even weaker, even less able to have the economic clout needed to have an impact, than a federal-level one would.

As for those "lower-cost, high-deductible plans," we checked some of them out when we were without insurance a couple of years ago. We quickly realized that they were utterly useless to us - because while we could afford the lower premiums, we'd never get any benefit from the insurance because we couldn't afford the deductibles. They might be of use to some small number of people looking solely for catastrophic coverage - but they do not provide access to regular health care.

Next, "malpractice reform," is another right-wing dream project. The costs related to medical malpractice are a very small part of overall health care costs. In 2004, the Congressional Budget Office calculated it at less than 2% of total spending, adding that evidence for claims of additional costs related to "defensive medicine" (such as "conducting excessive procedures") is "weak or inconclusive." And in July, a study by Americans for Insurance Reform calculated the combined cost of medical malpractice premiums and claims at less than 0.7% of health care costs. "Malpractice reform" will not control or reduce costs. What it will do is protect corporations against individuals and the powerful against the weak - which is why the right-wing loves it.

(Avalon also brought up this idea: "If Obama embraced a proposal like medical-malpractice reform, performing a bit of political judo, they [i.e., the right wing] wouldn’t know what to do." Which only shows the vacuity of his thinking: Of course they would know what to do. They would celebrate their victory and look at whatever was the next item on their list. Fool.)

Which leaves "cost containment" for Medicare and Medicaid. Such containment, let it be noted well, is not to be applied to the actual cost of health care or to private insurance premiums. Oh, no, we can't do that, that would interfere with the Choice that the Free Market (pbui) provides. Only government programs are to get such attention. Government programs whose costs are driven mostly the cost of health care - so as the latter continues to rise, so do the former. What is being proposed, then, in the absence of any meaningful program of cost containment in health care, is a biennial declaration of the need to cut benefits to participants of government-run health care programs in order to "control costs" amid, you can be sure, much tut-tutting about the "failures of government programs."

So this is the "deal" that the public is supposed to embrace and that Ted Kennedy would endorse: Untold billions of dollars funneled to the insurance industry for lowest-common-denominator coverage that often enough will not provide access to regular care, paid for in part out of the pockets of unionized workers, and a program which will generate constant downward pressure on government-run programs while protecting the well-placed and the powerful and allowing costs and premiums and most importantly profits - with their associated stresses and bankruptcies among consumers - to continue to rise unabated. (To later be addressed, no doubt, by further tightening the rules for individuals trying to declare bankruptcy.)

Pearlstein had it wrong. Kennedy won't be whispering, "The dream will never die. Take the deal." He'll be whispering "The dream will never die. Go to hell."

Why we will never have universal health care, Part One

Updated A week and a-half ago, Tgirsch at LeanLeft set out out to, as he (I assume teasingly) put it, "intentionally antagonize" me by linking to a column by one John Avalon at The Daily Beast which argued that those pushing for a public option in any health care reform bill are engaging in "all or nothing" thinking. That, Avalon insisted, is "self-defeating stupidity" and insisting on a public option is the behavior of "extremists" that will not only kill any possible reform bill but will thus damage the entire liberal-reformist prospect.

And ya know what? he says with his eyes lighting up like a five-year old about to reveal some secret. You know all you have to do to make the flowers bloom and save Tinkerbell? Jettison the public option in favor of some mythical perfect vision of co-ops anf guess what? "The reasonable edge of the opposition evaporates."

Now, the fact is, this bilge does not deserve serious response for a couple of reasons, one of which is that he is the former chief speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani and a former associate editor for the New York Sun and why liberals, progressives, and other assorted lefties are supposed to take advice from a jerk like that escapes me.

A second is that it spews the bullcrap that there is a "reasonable" opposition to serious health care reform - and does it even though he himself says "the RNC is already at work trying to paint even the co-op as government-run health care," trying to undercut his own preferred, his own save-the-day, option even before it's been formally proposed.

And a third is that it's the same old, same old: The left had better not insist on something, they better not say "this far and no farther," 'cause if they do, they will DIE!! In the eyes of Avalon and the rest of his buffoonish ilk, the left is not allowed, is never allowed, to say "this just isn't good enough." While the right (and I include the Blue Dogs in that category on this) must be appeased at all costs, the left must be scolded and slammed for daring to show a spine.

Still, it does deserve note for its perfect distillation of what passes for strategic thinking on the part of the "reasonable" Democrats - you know, the ones who aren't self-defeating extremists. And distillation is a particularly apt word because I swear he must have been drunk to come up with this crap.

Insisting on a strong public option is "all or nothing" and we should "compromise?" Hogwash! What everyone seems to forget is that the "public option" was the compromise! Single-payer has traditionally drawn public support in polls over the years, but its advocates - which included, at one time, Barack Obama - were to accept that that was "off the table" at least for now, but that in its place there would be a program that at minimum was intended to provide universal access.

And now we're supposed to compromise on the compromise and go to co-ops? Unbelievable. (Well, no, not unbelievable; all too believable. But it should be unbelievable.) The blunt fact is that while co-ops are fine on their own merits, in dealing with the issues at hand they are unquestionably utter failures: They do not offer lower costs overall and they will not significantly reduce the number of uninsured. Anything that fails at both of those - lowering costs and reducing the uninsured - and especially which fails at the latter cannot be considered reform in any meaningful sense of the word. And I really do not care what "I'll take the nail out of the stick I'm hitting you with" improvements are left over. No significant reduction in the number of uninsured - in fact, let me change that to a more general and more meaningful form, no significant expansion in access to care - equals no reform.

In a response to my comment on his "intentionally antagonizing" post, Tgirsch said:
From where I sit, and end to rescission, the preexisting condition nonsense, gender-based rate disparities, and rate hikes because you got sick, while far from being the comprehensive reform we really need, would all be worth having.
To which I replied:
Of course they would. And if those kinds of changes had been the goal from the beginning, I’d say well done. But they weren’t, and you have to do the whole equation, not just half. What do you lose in the course of getting those? What is the price? If the price is politicos and corporations being able to say “okay, we’ve done health care reform,” which means facing another generation of rising costs, rising premiums and rising deductibles, rising bankruptcies, rising numbers without coverage or access, another generation of living in a nation ranked, what was it because I’ve no time to look it up now, 30-something in health care - I say the price is too high.
The point here is that negotiations are supposed to involve give and take, give-to-get: "I'll drop this if you'll include that." But so far, it's all been about what we'll give and nothing about what we'll get in return. And that's been as true for the supposed "pragmatists" as it has been for the "extremists." It's about time we realized that every time we, meaning everyone on our whole side of the debate, offer some compromise, the response we get is "that's great, now what else will you give up?"

Out of curiosity, maybe there is something but I don't know of it so someone tell me, can anyone name anything which in the course of all these "negotiations" has been added to these bills that makes them stronger than they were when they were first introduced? I don't even mean made the whole bill necessarily stronger, but a provision that makes some aspect of the bill, I dunno, price controls or access or something, better than the original version, even at the cost of weakening some other equally-important provision. (No examples that involve giving up a diamond here to get a rhinestone there.) Anyone? With "Gang of Six" GOPper Senator Mike Enzi openly declaring "It's not where I get them to compromise, it's what I get them to leave out," let's just say I do not expect a lot of responses.

Yes, yes, I know all about sausage-making, probably more than a lot of folks reading this, having been involved in it myself. I know you never get everything you want. That's why you should never start out proposing what you will settle for or what you think will pass. You shoot for the max and then, if necessary, negotiate back to what you'll settle for.

But at some point there has to be that minimum which you will settle for. There has to be a point where you say "this far and no farther." And for me, a bill that does not have a strong public option - which is the only thing actually on the table that has the potential to get some coverage to a big hunk of the uninsured, that is, to widely expand access - crosses that line. Crosses into "too far."

So I will reverse the argument of Avalon and his fellow travelers from "if they don't pass something, anything, that can be made palatable to the naysayers, it'll be political suicide" to "if under these conditions, with big majorities, majority public support, control of the bully pulpit, and the vast power of the White House to bring pressure on recalcitrant party members, if under these conditions they can't pass something actually worth passing, they don't deserve political life."

Updated to include the reference to the RNC attacking co-ops and the link to the US ranking in health care.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Something that I think says a great deal about Ted Kennedy was the fact the über-conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby once said that he had a lot of respect for him even though he had been, in Jacoby's view, on the wrong side of every major issue.

Why? Because, Jacoby said, Kennedy never backed down from who he was at his core. He was a great negotiator, knew when and how far to compromise - but he never strayed from his principles, never pretended to believe other than what he believed, never pretended to be other than what he was, even when his brand of liberalism was in eclipse and appeared to some to be in permanent decline. He stood by his beliefs and never denied them, and Jacoby admitted to finding that praiseworthy.

That is, as those of my particular persuasion would put it, he was not a trimmer.

When you have lived a political life spanning nearly 50 years during which - not after which, when you are safely off the stage, but during which - even your ideological opponents have to honor your skills, your sincerity, and your steadfastness, that is a life worth having lived.

One other thought: I personally think Kennedy really hit his stride as a result of the 1980 presidential primary campaign, which he of course lost to Jimmy Carter. Kennedy was the more liberal of the two so I would have preferred Kennedy. But something I realized watching that campaign is that Ted Kennedy did not actually want to be president. It was more that he was expected to be by his family (which was always important to him) and the media. He was running, it became clear to me, not out of his desires but out of others'. Freed from that expectation by his defeat, he could go on to be "the liberal lion of the Senate."

I was and am clearly to the left of Ted Kennedy and I often enough felt frustrated at the conventional wisdom that he defined the left end of "acceptable" discourse. Unlike Jeff Jacoby, my disagreements with Kennedy were usually (but not always) ones of degree, not kind. But like Jeff Jacoby, at the end of the day I had to admire Kennedy's determination, his steadfastness, the strength of his convictions. He had my well-earned respect.

And so I'm not going to issue any farewells. Instead, on his behalf and all others who believe that as a nation, as a people, we can be better than what we are, I will say
the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.
Footnote: This is a video, in four parts, of his speech at the 1980 Dem convention:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Another Footnote: What was I just saying about eliminationist rhetoric and comparing unfavored people to insects?

This is the response of "Jeff from WI" to a comment at Michelle Malkin's aptly-named blog Hot Air that said of Kennedy's death, "I have sympathy for his children who just lost their father":
Normally peoples children should be off limits to ones attacks. But in the Kennedy family I’m reminded that a house infested with roaches is sometimes hard to kill off.
And so the death becomes a teachable moment about the right.

(In fairness, I will note that Ed Morrissey's original post which provoked that and a number of equally-vile responses was itself respectful. So much for good intentions in dealing with your own crowd, Ed.)

Speaking of guns and such

Among the reasons why the open brandishing of guns at town hall meetings and at least one presidential appearance (yes, I know they weren't "brandished" in the legal meaning of the term; I don't care) disturbs me so is the general air of threat and menace it's intended to create - particularly because that threat is not just rhetorical.

Last week, Frank Rich told Rachel Maddow that he
has become increasingly concerned about similarities between the “political rage” he sees today and that which preceded the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963
because of the increase in violent rhetoric directed against the Obama administration.
“I’ve been worried for some time, even before the events surrounding these health care town halls,” Rich [said] on Wednesday. “It began during the campaign, where people were shouting ‘treason’ and worse about Obama at Palin rallies - and, essentially, no one in the Republican Party would condemn it. ... It’s just been stepping up ever since then.” ...

Rich suggested that although President Obama is hopefully well-protected, he sees a potential for something like the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995. “I think we have to worry about right-wing political violence ... that doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in a presidential assassination,” he told Maddow.
Rich is hardly the first to raise such concerns. Dave Neiwert and Sara Robinson at Orcinus have for the past few years tracked the growth of what they call "eliminationist" rhetoric, where your political opponents are no longer "opponents" but "enemies" and those who are different from you socially, ethnically, racially, by sexual preference, whatever, are not merely "different" or even "offensive" but an "infestation" - and they are not to be merely denied or defeated, they are to be destroyed, "eliminated" like vermin, like the cockroaches to which they are often likened. It is a violent, hating thread at the seam of right-wing rhetoric directed at blacks, Muslims, gays and lesbians, undocumented workers, anti-war protesters, whoever is the convenient target of the moment.

I called it, too, the day following the election:
But let's be clear here: Obama overwhelmingly won the electoral vote, but he won the popular vote by just 52-46. That's a clear margin, to be sure, but hardly genuine "mandate" territory. We are still a divided nation and the wackos and nutballs populating the right edge of our political discourse are not going to go away. I do not even expect a moderation in their rhetoric; in fact I expect it to escalate.
And so it has, to the point where earlier this month even hard conservative David Frum felt compelled to call leading right wing voices on it:
The Nazi comparisons from Rush Limbaugh; broadcaster Mark Levin asserting that President Obama is "literally at war with the American people"; former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin claiming that the president was planning "death panels" to extirpate the aged and disabled; the charges that the president is a fascist, a socialist, a Marxist, an illegitimate Kenyan fraud, that he "harbors a deep resentment of America," that he feels a "deep-seated hatred of white people," that his government is preparing concentration camps, that it is operating snitch lines, that it is planning to wipe away American liberties": All this hysterical and provocative talk invites, incites, and prepares a prefabricated justification for violence.

And indeed some conservative broadcasters are lovingly anticipating just such an outcome.

Here's Fox News' Glenn Beck clucking sympathetically that white males are being driven into murderous rage by "political correctness."

Here again is Beck chuckling as he play-acts the poisoning of Nancy Pelosi.

Just yesterday, the radio host Sean Hannity openly contemplated violence - and primly tut-tutted that if it occurs, the president will have only himself to blame.
That attitude by the right-wing broadcasters draws on the fanaticism and hatred that drives their audiences and then feeds it back, reinforcing it in a reproductive cycle of increasing fury that self-justifies, even celebrates, both their paranoia and their bigotry, a fury marked by undeniable calls for violence and assassination.

A wonderfully insightful observation on this came from one of those supposedly-funny-but-usually-not people Keith Olbermann sometimes has on at the end of Countdown. I actually don't remember which one it was - they all kind of blend together in their not-funny-ness - but I do remember this one bright moment, when he, whoever it was, said in the wake of right wing mobs screaming at town hall meetings that "I want my America back!" that the birthers and the deathers are going to get together and "just cut to the chase" and issue t-shirts reading "Can't you see he's colored?"

But do not forget for a moment that Barack Obama is not the cause of this, he is merely the focal point - a useful one for the racism and xenophobia that underlies much of the right-wing rage, to be sure, but still a focus, not a source. As the work at Orcinus makes more than clear, this kind of thinking predates Obama and was already on the rise and would have continued, frankly, no matter who was elected: Obama becomes a source of rage; McCain would have become a source of validation of it.

This is, bluntly, a dangerous time and I am honestly concerned about outbreaks of serious, overt political violence. That does not mean it will happen, only that there is the real potential for it. Dismissing concerns about people deliberately wearing guns to public events, as is being routinely done by far too many, with "they weren't breaking the law" and "well, I wouldn't do it, but..." and to label them as at worst harmless cranks whose real "crime" is to possibly provoke people who favor gun control to organize is to engage in willful blindness of a sort that could have tragic consequences.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Passing thought

This was prompted by the sneers emanating from the right wing over people being upset about some over-compensating nitwits carrying leaded guns to town hall meetings about health care, sneers that ran along the lines of "Ain't no law against it" and "Ah guhta right!"

True, they broke no law but such episodes always bring up the argument over the Second Amendment, specifically, over the meaning of the first half of the Amendment ("A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State") and how it affects or doesn't affect the second half ("the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed").

Something which I think is highly relevant but rarely considered is an excerpt from Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. That's the section that lays out the powers of Congress, among which are:
To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;

To provide and maintain a navy;

To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces;

To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
It seems to me clear that the framers of the Constitution did not envisage a standing army, that an army would be raised only as necessary and thereafter disbanded (thus the two-year limit on appropriations) and that the militia, regulated and trained in accordance with Congressional mandate, was to be the defense against "insurrections and invasions."

It also seems to me to be clear, then, that the interpretation of the Second Amendment that makes possession of weapons a group, rather than an individual, right, one reserved to the people as a whole rather than to particular individuals, a right that that is thus connected to participation in a militia, is the correct one.

So to all those crowing "I gotta right," no, you don't. You have a privilege. And if you continue to act like spoiled brats and schoolyard bullies, your toys should and properly could be taken away. Unless you prefer to join the state militia.

Not that such will happen, but being able to make the argument provides some comfort somehow.

Footnote: There would undoubtedly be those who would argue that it is wrong of me to interpret the Constitution in terms of the beliefs and expectations of over 200 years ago, that things have changed since then and we have to think about how things are now. Which would be a fair argument if it didn't always come from the same folks who argue that in the case of things like same-sex marriage that in the absence of specific language to the contrary we must lock ourselves into the prejudices of two centuries back.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

We knew it all the time

Alternate title: "Duh" Award.

According to his publisher, in his upcoming book former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge asserts that he
was pushed to raise the security alert on the eve of President Bush's re-election, something he saw as politically motivated and worth resigning over.
Of course, this is hardly surprising news, but it's nice to have it confirmed.

Obligatory reminiscing

Y'know, as a self-confessed "aging hippie" I suppose I should have said something about the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, especially since, um, I was there. Really. I was.

I suppose I didn't because I didn't want to come across as wallowing in nostalgia but I've realized over the past few days of various remembrances that a few of the things that stick out in my memory aren't among those commonly cited. (In fact, "the mud" seems to be the common thread - but "the mud" didn't really happen until after the big thunderstorm on Sunday. Before that, there had been some rain, but it wasn't that bad. And there was a hot sun to dry things out between.)

So I'll just tick off a couple of things I recall that haven't figured so much in the "a look back at" coverage:

- One that couldn't make the coverage 'cause it was purely personal: My friend Craig (first referenced here) and I - who had tickets, dammit - drove up the back roads, avoiding the Thruway and Rt. 17 and thus the multiple-hours-long traffic jams. We parked within 5 miles of the site.

- Coming into the site the first day, there was an entry road and a small rise a few feet high. You went up that rise and looked down at the pasture and OH MY GOD! THERE ARE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF FREAKS! DAMN!

- Foolishly, we left that night to stay at a campsite shelter for hikers on the Appalachian Trail (which proved to be full, forcing us to sleep outside) - and the next day we would up having to park nearly 13 miles away. Walking in the hot sun among the crowds heading to the site, I saw where a family had turned their hose on to offer water to the walkers. I heard the woman telling someone that they originally had intended to ignore the whole thing but when they heard that a neighbor was charging $1 for a glass of water, they were so shocked that they thought they had to do something. "Charging these kids money for water!" she said.

- I was totally blown away by Ravi Shankar.

- I remember Abbie Hoffman announcing from the stage that we were page one of the New York Times.

- I remember the minutes-long standing ovation given to Max Yasgur and him saying something about how it should be a lesson to his generation how "400,000 young people can come together for three days of peace and music and have nothing but peace and music." (Yes, of course, there was other stuff going on and there were a few incidents, but fundamentally, he wasn't far off.)

- Craig noticed and alerted me to the big and amazingly black thunderclouds several minutes before the announcement was made from the stage.

- There is a point where you're wet enough that frankly it doesn't matter anymore, y'know? And you just give up all attempts to stay dry.

- A while after the storm had passed, a number of National Guard helicopters hovered over the crowd. There was sufficient paranoia among the counterculture at the time (not entirely without justification; as the saying goes, "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you") that it caused a little ripple through the throng. What's this? What's going on? The doors are opening. What's happening? And out of the helicopters come thousands and thousands of - daffodils! The National Guard is showering us with daffodils! I tried to catch one but it bounced off my hand and fell into the hands of a small girl next to me who probably wouldn't have gotten one otherwise, so that was cool.

- My favorite memorabilia from the event was not the uncollected tickets (which I might still have somewhere but which I think are now buried in the sands of time) but a newspaper ad that came out later: The long-distance bus company that served the area took out an ad expressing how impressed its drivers were with the patience, kindness, and friendliness of the concert-goers stuck on the buses for upteen hours due to the traffic.

All of which raises that Ultimate Question that always gets asked: Will there ever be another Woodstock?


The thing is, what made Woodstock Woodstock, what made the whole experience what is was, was that it just happened. It wasn't anticipated, it sure as hell wasn't planned (the organizers were prepared for a crowd of up to 50,000, not 10 times that many), it wasn't something anyone set out to create. It just happened.

So no, there will never be another Woodstock. I'm sure that at some point there will be a [blank] or a [blank] and maybe later a [blank], but each of those will be what they are, existing on their own terms, something that - well, that just happened. And it'll be great. But it won't be Woodstock - it will be itself.

The dark side of good news

You likely have seen the news from the other day about the case of Troy Davis, who has been on death row for 18 years after being convicted of killing a cop 20 years ago.

Information that has come out in the time since has cast serious doubt on his guilt. That information includes the fact that seven of nine witnesses have recanted their testimony and the claims of three other witnesses who didn't testify at the trial that someone else (specifically, the state's star witness) was the actual shooter.
The case has attracted worldwide attention, with calls to stop Davis' execution from former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu,
along with Amnesty International, which called the case an example of seeking "finality over fairness."

What's happened now is that, citing "the substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death," the Supreme Court has ordered a a federal judge in Georgia to hold a new evidentiary hearing.

No matter your feelings on the particular case, this turn of events should please you if, like me, you oppose the death penalty on moral and practical grounds. However, this very ruling also points up a dreadful, shocking, moral hole at the core of how we now deal with capital crimes, one which, it seems to me, adds urgency to the opposition.

As the Court's ruling acknowledged in its order to the lower court, for Davis's petition to succeed, he must be presenting evidence "that could not have been obtained at the time of trial (that) clearly establishes petitioner's innocence." That is the standard.

Consider what that means. First, if after the trial you produce new, previously-unavailable evidence that punches holes in the prosecutor's case and clearly establishes reasonable doubt - but which falls short of affirmatively proving innocence - our court system doesn't care. Even in the presence of reasonable doubt, We're going to kill you.

And what if it does "clearly establish petitioner's innocence?" If that evidence could have been obtained at time of trial, if maybe it was there but you just didn't know about it or if maybe you were the victim of incompetent representation, our court system doesn't care. Even if we know you're innocent, we're going to kill you.

Why? Because, our court system says, we don't want to be bothered dealing with this. Death penalty cases are an annoyance, an inconvenience. We're tired of people filing multiple petitions on a single case as people try to avoid being electrocuted or hanged or poisoned or shot. So we're going to set an extremely high, almost impossible, bar: You really get just one shot, the trial. After that, you want reconsideration? You not only have to produce previously unavailable evidence (not previously unintroduced, previously unavailable), but the burden of proof has shifted to you; it's no longer "innocent until proven guilty," it's now "guilty until proven innocent."

Because after all, you're not a person, you're not a life, you're a docket number. And what has justice got to do with legal philosophy?

Footnote 1: Antonin Scalia, writing in dissent of the Court's ruling, said “This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.” And he's right - SCOTUS has never held that it's unconstitutional to knowingly execute an innocent person provided certain procedural formalties have been observed. Ponder that for a while.

Footnote 2: In Joni Mitchell's song "Sex Kills," she says she saw a license plate and "It said 'Just Ice'/Is justice just ice?/Governed by greed and lust?/Just the strong doing what they can/And the weak suffering what they must?"

I think the Troy Davis case and the attitude about the death penalty it points up are evidence for the answer being "yes."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Necessary footnote to the preceding

Let's be absolutely clear about something: The "public option" was no panacea. Hell, it wasn't even a pan, never mind an acea. According to a preliminary analysis done by the Congressional Budget Office in July, the main House bill, the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act, would leave 16 to 17 million people still uninsured ten years from now. Earlier in the month, the CBO's preliminary analysis of the bill passing through the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions found it would leave 33 million still uninsured after the program was fully instituted.

Nope, not a panacea.

What it was, was what I called it: "the minimum requirement for making the proposals moving through Congress worth passing."

But that is not to say there aren't other, far superior, alternatives out there. But they were dissed where they were not dismissed by the Dimcrats and the Kewl Kids as too far out there to get any support (which is why, in that previous post, I very deliberately referred to the public option as the only thing "generally discussed") - even though some variety of national health insurance, defined as a government-run insurance program that would cover all or most all Americans, has been consistently supported by about 60-65% of respondents in a number of polls over the past five years. In addition, two of those polls specifically mentioned single-payer: one in December 2007 had 54% supporting it; one in July 2009 showed a plurality of 49% in favor.

DemConWatch suggests that latter number may be lower than it should be because the uninsured were under-represented in the survey sample while those with higher education (and therefore possibly higher-paying jobs with better insurance coverage) and older people (who tend to be more conservative) were over-represented. Even if none of that affected the total, it still means 49% support, which is hardly an "out there" position except among cowardly Democrats and their faux progressive enablers.

So, at the very least, single-payer has significant public support - far more than the screeching tea-baggers who have been driven to such levels of paranoia in their insular world bounded by Rush Limbaugh et. al., Fox News, and right-wing PR hacks that fantasies about black helicopters and faked Moon landings seem reasonable by comparison.

But that doesn't matter, having a plurality or even a majority doesn't matter, because it's the Blue Dogs and other assorted buffoons who must be pleased and appeased because - and I have said this so many times my jaw aches and I hesitate to do it again because of the fights it has started in the past - they know they can take us for granted. They trust that no matter what they do, we'll still vote for them because, y'know, god forbid the other one should win, right?

Anyway, all that said, there is a bill in the House for a single-payer system. It's HR 676 and it's been languishing in House subcommittees since it was introduced in 2007 and re-introduced in the new Congress that began in January. Sponsored by John Conyers, it has 86 co-sponsors. Nancy Pelosi, after having declared single-payer was "off the table," has now promised a vote on HR 676 before the end of the year. Considering the timing (well after the "health care reform" bills are supposed to have passed) and the fact that the deal seems to have arisen because the Dem leadership got wrong-footed by a proposed amendment by a single-payer supporter, it appears to be little more than a sop - but it still means that single-payer advocates have at least forced the misleadership to acknowledge them, which is a small step but it's still a step. And the possibility of seeing perhaps 100+ members of the House vote for a single-payer plan could be a building block (even though it would undoubtedly be described by the media -all of it - as having been "overwhelmingly rejected").

For information on single-payer and updates on the legislative side, two sources are Physicians for a National Health Program and Health Care - NOW!

On the other hand, if you want something that's really off the radar, try finding advocates for my preference: a National Health Care System, which, as I've said twice before but will say again because it bears repeating, would be
layered from neighborhood-level clinics through community hospitals and regional health centers up to a small number of national district hospitals for special, rare, or unusually complex treatments. The workers in all those facilities are federal employees. Ethical and financial oversight is exercised by committees of the public and health care workers at each level. The system is primarily financed through taxes with payment, if any, for services based strictly on ability to pay.

If alongside that a private system persists for those who can afford the luxury, fine. In fact, good, because those people will still be paying their full share of taxes to support the system (no tax deductions for private insurance) while reducing the demands on it.

My wife is a registered nurse who often laments the idea that the health care industry is becoming ever-more "industry" and ever-less "health care." She continues to cling to the ideal that the needs of the patient, not the needs of accountants or investors, should be the focus of health care workers. Ultimately, a not-for-profit national health care system is the only way to get there.
You want quality, affordable, health care for all? You have to take the profit out of it. Oh, and if the effect would be the collapse of the private health insurance industry? I truly don't think it would - there are, again, always those ready and able to pay for some special treatment - but if it did, I really don't give a crap. Some things are just more important than others.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

An unhealthy diet

Updated The idea of health care for all is dead. Even the more modest goal of something that might reasonably be called health care reform is toast - fresh, warm toast slathered with butter and strawberry jam and laid on the table of the health insurance industry, already groaning under the weight of goodies and greed.

Okay, not quite. The funeral of health care for all, complete with eulogies about how its death actually proves it's in robust health along with how up is down, black is white, and failure is success, hasn't actually been performed and the toast hasn't actually come out of the toaster. But close enough:
A North Dakota Democratic senator who is at the center of the effort to find a health care compromise in the Senate told Fox News’ Chris Wallace that there are not enough votes to pass a public option for health insurance, and the long struggle by Democratic congressional leaders and President Barack Obama “is just a wasted effort.”

“The fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for the public option, there never have been, so to continue to chase that rabbit is just a wasted effort,” Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) said on Fox News Sunday.
That could be regarded as just huffing and puffing to boost his own ideas and enhance his own importance in the debate, except for the fact that the White House is practicing playing "Taps."
The public health care options is not “essential,” and consumer choice, market competition and reform of private health insurance regulations should be the focus of the health care debate, Heath and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told CNN’s John King Sunday.
The same day, Robert Gibbs said on Face the Nation that "the bottom line for this for the president is, what we have to have is choice and competition in the insurance market." As The Hill put it, Gibbs "stopped far short of earlier calls insisting on a public plan."

And on Saturday, Obama himself called a public option "just one sliver" of the issue.

In other words, the so-called "public option," the minimum requirement for making the proposals moving through Congress worth passing, the only thing generally discussed that could possibly provide an effective option for the uninsured (and even at that would leave several million still uninsured) and be a counterweight to the economic power of the insurance industry, is on its last legs and the way we know that is that the White House is trying to find a graceful way out of supporting it, a way to let it die without being labeled as having lost a political battle.

(Sidebar: Marc Ambinder reports in The Atlantic that White House officials are objecting to the understanding that the administration is backing away from the public option: He described one unnamed offical as saying the WH "did not intend to change its messaging" and cited Linda Douglass, director of health reform communications for the administration, as saying that Obama still wants a public option in the final bill. However, Douglass also said the administration believes it is not the most important element of the plan and the fact remains Obama called it "one sliver" of reform. While this doesn't directly contradict the careful White House language of the past few weeks, it remains true that that very language was a shift from pronouncements early on and having it said three times in two days by people speaking for the administration nailed it down. The message becomes "we'd like to have a public option, but we're not going to fight for it - if it's there, it's there; if it's not, it's not." Nothing there changes my judgment about the Obama crowd's intentions.)

So it's not a public option that's important, it's "competition and choice."

"Competition," indeed. Just what the hell sort of "competition" are you imagining? Where is the competition if no one outside the health insurance industry is offering an insurance plan? What, we're going to make them compete with each other like some national version of some deal? With all the desperate searching for cost-cutting by employers, if getting insurers to lower (or even contain) costs in competing with each other for business was going to work, don't you think it would already be happening instead of seeing premiums continue to rise at twice the rate of inflation?

"Choice," indeed. What sort of "choice" are you envisioning? Being more able to choose just which inadequate, budget-busting plan is going to get to tell you "that's not covered?"

Oh, now wait a minute, because there, we know the answer: The Next Big Thing, it appears, is to be "co-ops" - of what form and how organized depending on the particular speaker assuming they even give such details, which they generally don't. Lacking such non-existent details, such "co-ops" do not even rise to the level of a proposal, much less a program. Instead, they're a slogan. A bumper sticker. A feel-good tonic that implies much but actually promises little or nothing.

As a result, it's pretend-reformer Conrad's preferred option. Right-wing flake Sen. Richard Shelby says it's "something we should look at." The White House is on board, too, as Sebelius clearly indicated on Sunday.

There's only one little problem: They don't work.

In 2002, The Commonwealth Fund did a study of the actual experiences of such health insurance "purchasing cooperatives" around the country and found that while there were some successes, "success" apparently being defined as continued operations rather than fulfilling promises of lower costs, there were also "notable failures." Ultimately, the study concluded that
[t]he principal advantage that current co-ops offer to small employers is not lower premiums but the opportunity for individual employees to select different health plans from the variety the co-op offers.
In other words, as noted,
[c]o-ops offer choice, but not lower costs. This fact was recently illustrated by the nation's largest health insurance co-op, Puget Sound Health, announcing a 13% rate increase for 2010, a larger increase than several of the major private insurers in the state.
(Interestingly, Puget Sound Health was the example Kent Conrad pointed to as a successful insurance co-op.)

What's more, the Fund found, co-ops could hypothetically offer better prices, but that depends on reaching “critical mass,” a size big enough to have the market clout necessary - and that "is difficult." It's a Catch-22: Getting a sufficient number of decent health plans to participate requires having a big enough market share to draw them - but getting that market share requires having enough of a variety of decent plans to offer. And as noted,
[h]ow likely do you think it is good private insurers will offer good plans to any federal co-op scheme they already want to kill?
The Commonwealth Fund study also found, very significantly (and with my emphasis added),
[e]ven if co-ops could offer lower premiums, they could not substantially reduce the number of uninsured because the premium reductions would not be big enough to induce large numbers of uninsured employers and uninsured workers to opt for coverage.
[c]o-ops are likely to become an important source of health coverage only if some significant change makes them the favored or perhaps the sole source of coverage for particular groups. This could happen, for example, ... if government offered co-ops as the source of coverage for individuals who receive certain kinds of subsidies.
Or, to put it more simply, if the government just outright bought coverage for the uninsured at market rates from the private insurance companies.

In light of all that, I guess it's not surprising that some sort of "nonprofit insurance cooperatives" is the preferred option of - wait for it - the insurance companies! Right along with the far right as embodied in the Heritage Foundation, attempting to give a patina of rationality to their corporate boot-licking.

And so again, again, again,

- even as more than half of bankruptcy filings are related to health care expenses, and 68% of those are filed by people who have health insurance - meaning that over a third of all personal bankruptcies result from health care expenses among people who already have insurance;

- even as the cost of health insurance premiums more than doubled between 1999 and 2008 while workers’ earnings stagnated;

- even as the average annual cost for family insurance coverage hit $12,700 in 2008, and is still rising;

- even as every year an estimated one million Americans go to Mexico for medical and health care because they can't afford it at home;

- even as a group that was founded to bring free health care to remote areas of the world now finds it appropriate to do the same across the USA;

- even as former CIGNA executive turned whistleblower Wendell Potter reports that insurance companies intentionally "confuse their customers and dump the sick, all so they can satisfy Wall Street investors";

still again those very same industry bloodsuckers and greedheads get to determine what constitutes "reform" via the use of lies, deceit, misdirection, front groups, and distribution of talking points to the talk radio nutzoids - and do it largely without pushback because the dopes, dimwits, and assorted mouth-breathers that make up the leadership of the Democratic Party and way, way too many of those who define what passes for progressives in this country were so goddam concerned about being "pragmatic" and "practical" that they opted to push for what they thought could pass instead of for what they wanted - and so wound up with far less than the former precisely because they took the latter off the table without even trying.

And didn't I say it? Didn't I?

Damn it all to hell. Just damn it all to hell.

Footnote: The picture at the top is via Eli at Left I on the News, who is good enough to be checked occasionally even though I think he too often lets his ideology act like blinders, narrowing his vision, instead having it act, as it should, like sunglasses, cutting through the glare.

Updated with the Marc Ambinder report.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

I'm off to see the wizard

Going on vacation for a few days. Don't expect to see any new posts before next Friday.

Here we go again

This is from a few days ago, but I thought it worth mentioning anyway for both a political and an egotistical reason.

Via Dan at Pruning Shears I learned of an update in the case of Binyam Mohamed, who has sued in British courts, alleging he was a victim of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, as a result of which he was brutally tortured in Pakistan before spending over four years in the prison at Guantánamo Bay until he was released - without charge - in February.

According to official statements at a hearing on the case, Hillary Clinton personally told British Foreign Secretary David Miliband that the US would cut off all intelligence sharing with the UK if a short summary of the treatment inflicted on Mohamed during his time at Gitmo was made part of the public record.
A hearing was told that the move [to release the information] could cause "serious harm" to Britain's national security and potentially put the lives of British citizens at risk.

Karen Steyn, representing Mr Miliband, told two senior judges that members of the Obama administration, including Mrs Clinton, had made clear that intelligence sharing between the two countries "would" be reconsidered if the court went ahead with plans to publish the information. ...

Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Lloyd Jones reluctantly agreed to leave the passage out of the judgment on August 2008 because of evidence from Mr Miliband of a potential "threat" to cut off security co-operation if the classified evidence was made public.
But that threat, obviously, came from the Bush administration. Now, however, the threat has been directly attributed to the Obama administration. And in no uncertain terms.
In lengthy and heated exchanges, Lord Justice Thomas repeatedly pressed Miss Steyn on whether Mr Miliband had been told personally that a warning had come directly from the Obama administration.

Insisting that there could be no "wriggle room" on the issue, the judge said: "He (Mr Miliband) understands the position of the US government is that it would risk the intelligence relationship with the United Kingdom with the result that there would be a serious risk to the national security of the UK and that would endanger the men, women and children of the United Kingdom – that is really what Mrs Clinton is saying according to the Foreign Secretary?"

Miss Steyn said that Mr Miliband had made it "absolutely plain".
The situation arises because Jeppesen UK, a division of Boeing and a target of Mohamed’s suit, which accuses the airline of running "ghost planes" for the CIA, has dropped its attempt to get the case thrown out before trial in the face of hundreds of pages of evidence provided by Mohamed's lawyers supporting their claims against the company.

But the torture of Mohamed might not be the only issue. Revealingly, the US government is trying to get a similar suit against Jeppesen filed in the US by the ACLU thrown out on a "national security" claim. And
[a]n investigator for Reprieve, an activist group that is supporting Mohamed’s legal actions, told the Guardian that the really valuable information to be gleaned from Mohamed’s lawsuits would not be about which airlines flew the suspects, but which countries colluded with the United States to torture suspects.

The investigator said “the CIA could not have acted alone and the case would raise questions over which governments were complicit in extraordinary rendition,” the Guardian reports.
That may be the real source of concern: Not just what is revealed about the particular man but about the entire enterprise and who the guilty parties are. And the Obama administration is - yet again - embracing the worldview of the Bushites.

That's the political reason for mentioning this. So what's the egotistical reason?

It's that I called it five months ago. Back on March 11, I reported on an earlier statement by the two judges involved in the case that they were "powerless" to reveal information about the torture of Mohamed in the face of a warning from Milibrand that the US would stop sharing intelligence if they did so.

At the time, the threat involved was the one made in August 2008 - but Mohamed's lawyers told the court that they had contacted the Obama administration in February only to be told the threat stood.

The point here is that at that time, Miliband denied the charge, insisting there had been "no threat" from the US. But right after he issued his denial, the White House "thanked the UK government for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information" and said this would "preserve the long-standing intelligence sharing relationship that enables both countries to protect their citizens." I said at the time:
Exactly how that is supposed to be read as anything other than a confirmation that the threats were made - and endorsed in February by the Obama administration - is quite beyond me.
And, as it developed, properly so.

Pausing to take stockpile

In the interregnum between August 6 and August 9, it seemed appropriate to include the following, even though it's not about nuclear weapons.
In what could be seen as a message to Iran and North Korea, the U.S. Department of Defense is looking to speed the development of the largest bomb ever used by the United States, in hopes of having the massive device ready for deployment in July, 2010.

The device, weighing in at a stunning 30,000 lbs., is designed to penetrate through hardened surfaces and destroy underground structures.

“The department has asked for reprogramming of about 68 million dollars to start production for some of these in 2009,” Pentagon spokesman Brian Whitman said. “This will help it accelerate some if it’s approved.”
The "MOP," for "Massive Ordnance Penetrator," is 20 feet long, carries 5300 pounds of explosives, and is designed to penetrate 200 feet of dry earth before exploding. It is 10 times more powerful than the bomb it replaces.

Admittedly, with just over 2.5 tons of explosives, it's a popgun compared to nuclear weapons - the Hiroshima bomb, small by later standards, had a yield equivalent to 14,000 tons of TNT. Now, the difference isn't truly as big as it sounds since modern explosives are considerably more efficient than TNT, but the point remains. Still, it's a reminder that just because we're not paying attention, it doesn't means that new weapons are not being developed and deployed, and being done with specific purposes in mind:
“It’s very possible that the Pentagon wants to send a signal to various countries, particularly Iran and North Korea, that the United States is developing a viable military option against their nuclear programs,” [Kenneth] Katzman [of the Congressional Research Service] told the [European publication Adelaide] Daily.
Because nuclear weapons are bad! Very bad! So bad that we have to build brand new weapons to keep anyone else from getting them even as we grandly pat ourselves on the back for planning on having "only" 2500 nuclear weapons deployed two years from now. Yay, us.

Footnote: The 2008 National Defense Authorization Act requires the Secretaries of Defense, Energy, and State to jointly "conduct a comprehensive review" of our nuclear weapons posture and programs and to make a report by the end of 2009. So maybe the discussion that might generate will cause the continuing existence of these behemoths of brutality to again penetrate our political consciousness.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Hero worship

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Pinning the bizarro meter

As kind of a follow-up to the Henry Louis Gates story, I learn via the Boston Globe (via RawStory) that
Justin Barrett, the Boston police officer suspended from the force for his e-mail likening Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., to a "banana-eating jungle monkey," has filed a lawsuit against the Police Department, police commissioner, and mayor, saying the city violated his civil and due process rights.

The 18-page lawsuit accuses the three parties of "conspiring to intentionally inflict emotional distress and conspiring to intentionally interfere with the property rights, due process rights, and civil rights of the plaintiff." ...

According to the lawsuit, the mayor and commissioner’s actions caused Barrett pain and suffering, mental anguish, emotional distress, posttraumatic stress, sleeplessness, indignities and embarrassment, degradation, injury to reputation, and restrictions on personal freedom.
So if I understand correctly, this jackass twerp who used the term "jungle monkey" not once but four times and said he would have pepper sprayed Gates in the face for his "belligerent non-compliance" (which seems to go back to what I was saying the other day) thinks he has some kind of constitutional right to be a racist cop.

This suit should be laughed out of court and he should be booted - and laughed - off the force. Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis, who stripped Barrett of his badge and gun and suspended him, said "These racist opinions and feelings have no place in this department or in our society and will not be tolerated." Let's hope he stands by that.

Meanwhile, Professor Gates, who has had to change his cellphone number and email address, reports receiving death threats and even bomb threats. Harvard University, which owns the house, has suggested he consider moving.

Oh, and think about checking out some of the comments at the first link, which is to Boston's right-wing excuse for a newspaper, the Herald - especially those that started to take great delight in calling him Henry Louis Hates and claim he deliberately provoked the incident to gain press attention.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Another new rule

Media Matters just reported on Michelle Malkin's new book, the title of which pretty much sums up the argument: Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies. Now, considering the people Obama has around him, it's not like she has nothing to work with. But still, this bit struck me as hilarious:
Barack Obama[, Malkin writes,] owns this cabinet of tax cheats, crooks, and cronies. It is his and his alone. In the era of "new politics," judge him as you would judge other mere mortals. Judge him not by the company that preceded him.
Judge him by the company he keeps.
Which, you have to admit is quite funny as it amounts to an admission that "the company that preceded him," which Malkin slobberingly adulated, was actually so very bad that this group of "tax cheats, crooks, and cronies" looks good by comparison.
Which means it's time for another addition to my list of rules of rightwing arguing:

Rule #15: Seize control of the Clock of History. Insist that all events outside the time frame most advantageous to your argument are irrelevant and must not be considered.

Footnote: There was also a variation of Rule #11 about continuing to use debunked claims. Dave Neiwert notes how the overall form of Malkin's argument - the corrupt president and the wife as behind-the-scenes manipulator - is the same as was wielded against the Clintons. If the GOPpers recycled everything like they recycle claims, the environment would be a heck of a lot cleaner.

Footnote to the preceding

I was going to post this last night but changed my mind because it didn't really seem sufficiently relevant - but a comment from the estimable Tgirsch of LeanLeft changed my mind and maybe it will serve some purpose.

Writing of the Gates case, he said
I really don't think this was a case of racial profiling, as it's been made out to be. I think it's a case of a cop being an asshole. Gates may have been an asshole, too, for all I know, but being an asshole isn't a crime, and if a cop busted into MY house accusing me of being there illegally, I imagine I'd be an asshole, too.
I've had run-ins with cops - and I have to say that in a couple of those cases it dawned on the cop that they were in the wrong and I found it amusing to watch them find a way to back out without backing down - that is, without admitting error - which usually consisted of leaving me with some command to do or not do something I would or wouldn't have done anyway.

But I recall two fairly recent occasions that seem relevant here because they could have escalated but didn't. And I think the reason neither did is significant.

The first was a few years ago. I had driven to another state to visit a friend but for various reasons - including that traffic was much lighter than I anticipated - I arrived hours early, at about 2pm. My friend had told me she would not be home until around 6pm as she would be visiting her parents that day. So with nowhere to go and no way to reach her as I knew neither her parents' address nor their phone number, I got a soda and settled in my car to wait.

About an hour later, maybe a little more, a police cruiser pulled up next to my car and two cops asked me to get out of my car and produce ID, which I did. It was all very professional and after a time they said fine and one of them actually apologized for having to bother me. I laughed and said "A strange man sitting alone in a car with out-of-state plates on a street where children are coming home from school? I was surprised you weren't here sooner."

And it was literally true: I had been expecting them to come from the moment I settled in.

The other case was last fall. My wife and I had just recently moved into our new place. One night we had some trouble with the keys which resulted in my aiming my car's headlights onto the lawn and my wife waving a flashlight around. We got in but a little while later there was a knock at the door which proved to be two cops, one at the door, the other holding back as backup. The cop at the door said they had gotten a call from a neighbor about suspicious activity at the place and asked if I could prove it was my home.

I showed my driver's license which had my photo and the address. He looked at it, said fine, sorry to bother you but we had to check it out and we chatted amiably for a half-minute or so which concluded with me saying "be glad it worked out this way" and him saying that he hoped his whole night would go this way.

In each case I was calm and cooperative. Why? Certainly not because I was intimidated or fearful - but because in each case I understood what was going on. In the first case I was expecting to be checked out and I knew why; in the other the cop straight away, first thing, gave me a sound and legitimate reason for asking for ID. (I should note in fairness that in the first case the cops did give a reason; they said they had gotten a call about "a strange man in a car" or something like that. In that case, though, even if they hadn't given a reason I would have known why they were there. Still, they did the right thing by telling me why they came by.)

The point of both of these stories is that had conditions been different, the outcome might have been different. If the cops hadn't acted professionally, I might have reacted differently. If the cop who came to the door had come on aggressively and just demanded ID without saying why, I know that my reaction would have been one of "Excuse me? Just who the hell do you think you are?" (Actually, I think my exact words would have been more like "Uh, why?" And I would expect the answer to be produced before my ID was.)

I don't know how Crowley came on to Gates. Maybe he was gruff, brusque, arrogant, even threatening. Or maybe he was polite and professional. I don't know and I'm not judging him here. What I do know is that too many cops are too ready to think that domination is the name of the game and offering explanations undermines that domination by putting the other person on a similar level to themselves.

That is foolish and dangerous yet all too common. I believe nothing is more likely to make what should be a professional, calm encounter into a confrontation than giving people the feeling that they are being subjected to arbitrary authority - being, that is, bullied. Put another way, I think former DC Deputy Chief of Police Robert Klotz was wrong: The frequent triggering event for confrontations is not "contempt of cop" but "contempt of citizen."

Which again raises the question: In what kind of society do we wish to live?
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