Monday, February 1, 2010

Haiti and Health Reform: We need real leadership

There is a lot bad in the world, and compared to people in many places, people in the US are doing OK. The most obvious and well-covered venue of desperation is Haiti, where the earthquake smashed a country that had been set up for failure, figuratively raped and pillaged by wealthy nations, including the United State, for two centuries. Less publicized is the horrific situation in the Congo, characterized by literal rape and pillage as painfully described by Nicholas Kristof in his New York Times Op-Ed January 31, 2010, “Orphaned, Raped and Ignored”. I won’t repeat the details – it is a must-read – but he leads with “Sometimes I wish eastern Congo could suffer an earthquake or a tsunami, so that it might finally get the attention it needs. The barbaric civil war being waged here is the most lethal conflict since World War II and has claimed at least 30 times as many lives as the Haiti earthquake.” And, worse, provides details that almost make one hope that with him.

The American people have responded in a truly humanitarian way to the crisis in Haiti, and it gives me new faith in the American people, if not their leaders. Many of us who have money have written checks and made pledges, but so have those without. People on fixed incomes have sent their last $5 or $10. Writing about her volunteer work with Heart to Heart in the Kansas City suburbs a week or so ago, my friend Pat Kelly writes:

The number and type of people donating goods to the Heart to Heart trailer this afternoon was moving in itself. The live broadcaster from 1540 AM, a local Hispanic radio station wound up hauling boxes with two members of his family who decided to stay and help. Hispanic families, clearly not wealthy, driving very minimal cars, opened their trunks which were full of bottled water, canned goods, toilet paper. Cars with three infant seats in the back seat pulled out bags and bags just purchased from Target and Walmart with soaps, alcohol, hygienic products. Three different guys in lawn service pick-up trucks stopped by with checks or cash. African-American couples, mostly older, had full back seats of donations. There were at least three times as many Blacks and Hispanic donating as Whites--and this was on Shawnee Mission Parkway at Roe, not in the urban core.”

Yes. These people understand what hard times are. Understand how important it is to share and to help and to give. It is a wonderful response, the only comprehensibly human response, people giving all that they have to give. It is also something the bankers, and too many of the privileged in our national leadership either do not understand or reject. In their selfish cruelty they may disparage such giving as weakness, but of course they are wrong; generosity and caring and social consciousness are strength.

And so what will this mean for health care reform bill, I have no idea. Despite being made fun of by everyone from Barack Obama to Jon Stewart, the Republicans are going to continue to revel in being the “party of no”, of sitting on their hands and glowering at the State of the Union, of being completely uncivil when the President walks into their den, and hoping (no, believing) that acting in this way is going to get them “street cred” with the American people. They are, as identified by Frank Rich (“The State of the Union Is Comatose”, NY Times January 31, 2010), the “unpatriotic opposition”.

May it will; maybe the majority of the American people are attracted to mean looking white guys with their arms folded, responding to controversy in a manner that suggests they haven’t had a thought in a long time, but I don’t think so. Because so many of us are, as our response to the crisis in Haiti demonstrates, a caring people. On the other hand, it could be their only available strategy, since every time they trot out “facts” they are completely wrong, and a lot of folks seem to have the bad taste to want to point this out. So, at this point, I will wait and see what happens. There is a better solution – Medicare for all, pass it, let it happen, let the Republicans and insurance companies choke on their bile, and let us move forward. Obama gave a good speech; it is time for him to follow it up.

Health care is only the start. Dealing with the financial industry, in a firm and decisive manner, is also on the agenda. There have been many references to the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, and in particular the aggressive investigations led by Ferdinand Pecora. Citing the actions of a more recent president, Frank Rich’s January 24, 2010 column “After the Massachusetts Massacre”, describes John Kennedy’s dressing down of Richard Reeves, the president of US Steel, in 1962. I look, however, to an even earlier president, Theodore Roosevelt, who broke up the Standard Oil monopoly. If we have banks that are “too big to fail”, the obvious solution is: let’s not have them; break them up. I think that the fact that the one thing that everyone from every sector can agree on is that the banks and financial sector is comprised of heartless, evil people whose greed plunged our nation and world into the worst financial crisis since 1929, it is time to take strong action. Who will oppose it save the Geithners and Summers’? Here is another opportunity for the Republicans, who have been playing populist like they were George W. Bush paintball warriors; they can rush to the defense of Goldman Sachs and Citigroup and see if the American people support them. I don’t think so.

President Obama said many good things in his State of the Union speech (and some not so good ones), but he needs to follow these statements up. Rich (Jan 31) suggests “Obama should turn up the heat on both the G.O.P’s record of fiscal recklessness and its mad-dog obstructionism. He should stop paying lip service to the fantasy that his Congressional opposition has serious ideas to contribute to the cleanup. Better still, he should publicize exactly what those ‘ideas’ are.” His budget proposal is not encouraging, emphasizing increases in defense spending and decreases in domestic services.

There is a lot to do, and there are leaders who get it. As an underlying assumption, I believe that the best statement was: “In these difficult times, the government believes it is important to continue working toward a society in which people feel a sense of togetherness, respect one another and share responsibility.” Absolutely.

Of course, that was not President Obama, but Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in her Speech from the Throne (NY Times, January 27, 2010). But I keep hoping that the US can also have leaders who can get it, and can act on it. What would be really wonderful is if they could act as nobly as the plain folks in Kansas City.

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