Sunday, February 23, 2014

Reflections: Obamacare and Iraq

A recent newspaper front-page was unintentionally eloquent.

The headline top-left read, “OVER 1 MILLION ADDED TO HEALTH ROLLS.”


The first article concerned the Affordable Care Act. More than 1.1 million signed up in January. A quarter of them were young and probably healthy. Overall, 3.3 million have signed up since Oct. 1, less than the 4.4 million goal.

Republican critics stress the “below the goal” aspect. Democrats call the big January number an “encouraging trend.”

The increase in clients doesn't mean the program will ultimately work; but it's way too soon to know it won't. Industry experts say it'll be years before we know whether the law works, from an economic standpoint – and that determination may differ from state to state. They say first-year numbers mean little. “We've always looked at this as a multi-year journey,” said a Blue Cross executive.

As to the new numbers, I'd say that given the horrible start due to the website disaster, they're doing fairly well on signing people up, despite the best efforts of some to frighten young people away from it.

If I opened a restaurant, hoping to seat 4,400 people over the course of the first six weeks, but the street was closed down much of the time for repairs and I seated 3,300, I don't think I'd shut the doors. I'd feel concerned but encouraged. I'd work my tail off to do better. If my brother-in-law told me my restaurant was a disaster, I'd laugh and tell him something this newspaper won't print.

But talk radio hosts live in a parallel universe where the healthcare law is part of an Obamian plot to make us all slaves of the United Nations, and we're about six weeks away from the end of the world as we know it.

The real world agrees the ACA is neither a stunning success nor an abject failure, and that we won't know for five or six years. Politicians on both sides remind me of sportswriters predicting who'll win the Super Bowl. Everyone acts so certain, with plenty of plausible reasons for either team to win, but then the ball bounces the way it does, one team proves more motivated that day, whatever.

Meanwhile, the second article explained that “hundreds of hardened militants” had broken out of Iraqi jails and joined the Sunni jihad across the region, particularly in Syria. (Apparently the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” sought experienced fighters and engineered some of the breakouts.)

The juxtaposition of the two articles was more thought-provoking than either alone. They symbolize two contrasting bits of history.

In one, a President lies to get us into a war that we don't need to fight and probably shouldn't; the result, fairly predictably, is that we “win” the war but are completely unprepared to administer the country we just took. (“You break it, you bought it!”) We spend zillions of dollars and the lives of many fine young citizens – and killed a great many Iraqis. We eliminated a dictator who was a complete jerk, but left his country in chaos. The people we freed hate us.

As predicted by many, the war hardened hearts against us and created more terrorists. And we fought it why? Because Saddam was a close pal of al-Quaeda's (which he wasn't, being a greedy but secular ruler who worried about Islamic fundamentalists); and because he had weapons of mass destruction (which many correctly predicted did not exist).

In the other. a President tries to take a big step toward universal health care, a laudable goal that's taken as a matter of course in most civilized countries. The law is imperfect. Some of the problems are serious. Some could be fixed if the politicians would agree to fix them, but the opposition won't help patch the law, because it's more fun to stage an unsuccessful vote every week to repeal it. Meanwhile the President's people probably procrastinate about fixing some of the problems they could fix without the other party, because they feel under siege and don't want to give the enemy more ammunition. If the President doesn't try to fix something himself, the Opposition screams that the something is a huge disaster; and if he does try to fix it himself, the Opposition screams that his effort is an admission that the law is a complete piece of crap.

The War in Iraq cost extensive money and lives, destabilized a country, and fanned the flames of terror. The ACA may cost us more money than it should and may not work as well as promised; but it will save lives, and it's already helping millions of our fellow citizens. What we spend on it goes largely to U.S. doctors and hospitals.

Oversimplifying it, would you rather help people to get the medical care they need or start an unnecessary war somewhere?

-                                                              30-
[The column above was printed in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 23 February. 
After writing it, I also articulated the same ideas on our daily radio show ("Speak Up, Las Cruces!" - 8-10 a.m. weekdays on KOBE-AM 1450).  Many of our listeners are extremely negative about the Affordable Care Act.   I'm not sure anyone quite explained to me, though, why an effort to extend health care -- an effort similar to what Republicans had proposed a few years later -- should earn such vilification for Obama from people who don't blink an eye at costly wars that are obviously unnecessary and highly unlikely to advance our national interest.   Obamacare's opponents may ultimately be right that it'll be too costly or won't work; or they may succeed in preventing it from working; but at least it has a reasonable chance and is aimed at a laudable goal.]
[By the way, the newspaper front-page I that sparked these reflections was the New York Times on-line version.] 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Downs Deal - A Window into our Present State Government?

This week three past and present State Fair Commissioners, Republicans appointed by Republican Governors including Susana Martinez, gave testimony suggesting Martinez (or Jay McCleskey) improperly pushed through a contract to help one of her campaign contributors.

One, Tom Tinnin testified that Martinez had tried to intimidate him, in a way no other governor ever had. Martinez appointee Charlotte Rode, testified “They wanted to keep the process secret . . . everyone involved was somehow connected to Jay McCleskey.”

The Downs at Albuquerque “racino” deal, which may exemplify how the Martinez Administration conducts state business, was worth a billion dollars. Martinez let it go through like a petty cash purchase of paper clips.

I talked with Tinnin, who served on the State Board of Finance and Administration for 16 years, under four governors. He quit when Martinez tried to intimidate him. His Committee had the final word on the deal. The proposal looked far too favorable to the Downs and unfavorable to the State. It was a very long lease, and the Downs had proved a very bad manager.

The RFP process for the new lease was a joke. Tinnin had chaired the State Fair Commission for 6 ½ years. The Commission put out such an RFP for at least 90 days to garner national attention and maximize competitive bidding, and advertise it nationally. “We had interest from New Jersey to California.”

When Martinez came in, things changed. The controversial RFP was for 30-days, making the current lessee a prohibitive favorite, since there'd be no national advertising and few competitors would manage to bid.

At the time, the deal looked questionable, as former State Senator Steve Fischmann remarked recently on radio. It generated many allegations and calls for investigations.

I wonder how much potential this case has for awakening centrist voters who've never looked closely at our Governor.

For one thing, it seems to symbolize a lot of the problems in her Administration: an air of secrecy, disappearing emails, intimidation, dubious-looking assistance to a campaign contributor, and McCleskey's central role.

Secondly, the key witnesses weren't progressives, but Republicans with an old-fashioned taste for good government. Tinnin is a rich Republican. Charlotte Rode is a reform-minded Republican with seven kids and a record working as a legislative assistant for Republican State Sen. Mark Boitano, who calls her “a straight shooter.”

Third, the whole thing was painfully obvious: the deal would benefit a campaign contributor; therefore Martinez created an extraordinarily favorable process for that contributor, and tried to intimidate folks who realized that. It was a backroom deal in RFP clothing.

When the eventual RFP came before the Board of Finance and Administration, Tinnin was still on the Board and had expressed concerns about the deal. Martinez invited her to visit him. “She tried to tell me that it was all kosher, how wonderful it was,” but he reiterated his concerns, which she couldn't really answer. “Then she looked at me and said, 'If you disparage any of my people in a public platform, I'm going to take it personally.' Later she said it again. The third time she said it I said, 'Governor, why don't we just agree to disagree.' I'm not going to be intimidated or have my integrity undermined.'” He resigned that day.

The irregularities in this deal are too numerous to list fully here. State Sen. Tim Keller has asked the AG to investigate whether Martinez handpicked the RFP selection committee, in violation of the procurement code; intimidated Commissioners to approve the lease; had staff communicate improperly with Downs during the process; let non-state employees conduct state business; and other issues, including why the Downs, which hadn't made all its payments under the previous lease and had let barns and stables deteriorate badly, was scored as an excellent manager. (Omitted are possible open records act violations.)

Keller was one of the few senators to voice serious concerns about the deal at the time. Asked by Keller during the recent hearing whether the problem was mismanagement or “money and politics?” Tinnin replied, “I think this was planned and they got what they wanted.

On Martinez's behalf, it's fair to ask two questions. Didn't her Democratic predecessor also try to help the same people in some ways that didn't smell too good? (Richardson was pushing Downs, despite its allegedly sloppy management and breaches of contract; and he tried to offer the Downs not just 25 years but 40.) And why the furor now? (Some of the same people have been saying the same things and seeking an investigation since 2011.)

But it's also fair to suggest answers: The widespread sense that Richardson was corrupt was a major reason Martinez was elected. People sought exactly the kind of change she hasn't delivered. And it's fair to wonder if the Downs's critics have been right since 2011.

Whether or not the deal broke the law, it's a pretty clear example of governing for political and financial gain rather than for New Mexico.

[The column above appeared today, Sunday, 16 February in the Las Cruces Sun-News.]

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Predator Masters Master Nothing

We live out where we see and hear coyotes. When they stroll past, I'm happy to see them, if our cat is inside. I'm well aware that they belong here, and maybe we don't. Often we hear a bunch of 'em howling, sometimes quite nearby. I like the sound. It reminds me of the wildness and wonder of this land, particularly as it was. Old vaqueros used to call the coyote “the prairie tenor.”

The coyote is known for his cunning, but he's also tough enough to gnaw his own paw off to escape a trap, if need be. He's a highly adaptable fellow whose kind walked this land a million years before we did but who's learned to live even in our crowded cities.

He's also a family man, somewhat. Like humans, coyotes teach their offspring how to survive in this crazy world, and perhaps even whatever constitutes good manners among coyotes. Like humans, coyotes are sort of monogamous. (Among the various species, humans are at about the midpoint between complete monogamy and complete promiscuity.) Once the female coyote picks a mate they may remain monogamous for years. They may even adopt orphaned pups. Each spring, when litters of pups are born, both parents feed and protect them.

He's as loyal to his friends as the best of us. A U.S. Soldier once fired away at three coyotes with his carbine, wounding one, then watched the other two help the wounded one out of sight. A few people have seen a coyote take a rabbit or other meal to another coyote caught in a trap. Many more have seen coyotes cooperate cleverly in hunting prey. A coyote might roll in the dirt, playing carelessly to distract a few sand-hill cranes while his partner sneaks up on them from the other side. One noted naturalist saw a coyote, hidden behind a rock, lure several pelicans into range by waving her tail, the only part of her visible to them above the rock. Curiosity killed the pelicans, who approached and were blind-sided by another coyote.

In another example of coyotes' cleverness, a rancher in Durango had noticed that a chicken was missing from tree roosts each morning. One night some men kept watch. Approaching unseen, a coyote suddenly appeared beneath the chickens perched on branches. Immediately under the watching chickens, the coyote caught his tail in his mouth, then whirled around in rapid circles, making such a spectacle that one of the chickens, intent on the performance, lost its balance and fell. The coyote trotted away with supper before the amazed men could react.

He's a key player in a delicate desert ecology we'd be wise to preserve. Each adult coyote consumes more than 1,500 rodents annually. (However, he's also responsible for more than half of the predator-caused livestock deaths in the U.S. each year. I can't fault a rancher for shooting a coyote that preys on livestock.)

He's also the subject of interesting myths among the Dineh (Navajo) and others who preceded us here. He's a deity, but a mischievous one, a trickster who can sometimes be a hero.
Our predecessors saw him as a friend, mostly. Commanche legends say that some Commanches learned the coyote language from a boy who had been adopted by a family of coyotes. He taught the earliest Seri how to brush the needles of prickly pear and eat the nopales.

Initially I was going to write this column about the pathetic fellows who gathered here this week to massacre coyotes. They call themselves “Predator Masters,” which sounds like the title of a pre-teen video game.

They're not hunters.

Hunters I've talked to find them appalling. Hunters search out their prey then manage to shoot it with a rifle. These guys use GPS systems and electronic gizmos that mimic another coyote or potential prey for a coyote, and their weapons have a huge range. (If they'd use a bow and arrow instead of some high-tech system more appropriate for a war, they'd get a real challenge, requiring real skill.) Mindlessly, like the tenderfoot Easterners shooting scores of buffalo from a train, these fellows massacre excessive numbers of coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and mountain lions in a failed effort to feel like men.

But focusing a whole column on these clowns – what's the point? Making fun of them was too easy, like shooting fish in a barrel – or, like shooting coyotes the way the Predator Masters way. Besides, coyotes are more interesting; and have considerably more character and courage.

I feel sorry for the dead coyotes, and for coyotes dragging their injured bodies around toward a slower death.

But I feel sorrier for the fools doing the massacring, who are doomed to continue vainly chasing an ephemeral sense of manhood, unable to kill enough of anything to cure that irritating sense of inadequacy. Sorry, but killing the most coyotes doesn't make you John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, guys.

[This column appeared today, Sunday, 9 February, in the Las Cruces Sun-News.]

[I should add that folks here protested this invasion by idiots.  I couldn't make it; and I felt too strongly that a protest would be received by these fools as evidence of their mastery, as confirmation that they are important and kind of dangerous, which is kind of how they obviously want to feel, and if anything it'd probably add to the appeal of our county to them.  Obviously I agreed thoroughly with the protesters, with the caveat that  complaints I've read addressed to the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum seem misplaced.  I didn't put this in the column because I hadn't gotten a chance to double-check this with the NMFRHM folks, but I'm pretty sure that as a state or quasi-state entity they hadn't much choice.  They didn't hold an event, so far as I know, or a program.  They rented space for two catered suppers.  Just as they rented space to a friend recently for a 75th birthday luncheon and rented space years ago to two other friends for their daughter's wedding.   I'm guessing that if the Progressive Voters' Alliance or the Lesbian Mothers of America asked to rent the same space at the same rate, they'd rent it to them too.  For the most part, I don't think they get to chooseBut I'll double-check.]
[In other news:
--I'm pleased and humbled by the diversity of guests and callers we've had on our radio show, "Speak Up, Las Cruces!" 
--I'm glad a few hummingbirds have chosen to winter over at our place.  We [my wife, really] must be doing something right, in that I've now read hummers will only winter over in an environment that particularly suits them.  Better an environment hummers like than one the Predator Masters feel comfortable in -- though two coyotes raced through here about sunset Saturday, at top speed.
-- Friday evening's First Friday Art Ramble was particularly a pleasure this month.   Enjoyed the furniture of Doug Ricketts at Branigan Cultural Center and the Gustave Baumann wood-cuts and other art at the Art Museum.  The Ricketts furniture is fun, well-built, useful, and imaginative.  For years he used only reclaimed wood and metal from old buildings and windmills, though now he's added some new and beautiful local woods;  Baumann (who died at 90 a while back) was famous for his New Mexico wood-cuts.  These are normally at the museum up in Santa Fe, but here for a visit and worth a look.  But there was much more this Friday: two 19-year-old boys showing at the Rio Grande, Georgina Feltha's work at Creative Harmony, "World Bazaar", show of diverse and unique objects from around the world, and interesting shows at a couple of other favorite galleries we didn't even make it to on Friday, West End Art Depot and Mel Stone's Mesquite Gallery.  We don't buy much, but we did particularly want one of Georgina's pieces (the one on the far left on the wall opposite the door, we'd readily steal some of Doug's pieces if they weren't so big, and some of the Baumann images were appealing and thought-provoking.  So was his story, from his immigration to Chicago at age 10, his father's almost immediate disappearance, which made him sort of the bread-winner, then his rapid and determined rise in the art world, his obvious love of New Mexico, and the variety of his work, from wood-blocks to marionettes, with several other media, including furniture, in between.]

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Panel of Businessfolk to Help on Minimum Wage?

I was glad the Las Cruces City Council didn't pass the measure creating an 18-member advisory panel on the minimum-wage issue.

The advisory panel would have included two persons from each of: the Catholic Diocese, Communidades en Accion de Fe (CAFE), Community of Hope, the Restaurant Workers Union, the Progressive Voters Alliance, and the County Democratic Party.

I didn't understand the need for a panel – particularly panel dominated by folks on one side of the issue.

We elect city councilors to make decisions. They're meant to make even controversial decisions that may make a large minority (or a majority) of city voters angry. Comes with the territory. You don't get to punt.

Councilors would rightly point out that even with the panel, they'd retain decision-making powers. Routine citizen input includes oral statements meetings and work-sessions, letters, and even more complex written submissions. What could the panel say that such input couldn't? Nothing.

If they want a panel, why not a panel panel of economists, social scientists, political scientists, and business and labor leaders, along with a judge or lawyer?

By the way, I got that list of proposed panelists in the second paragraph wrong. Of those groups, only CAFE was on the list. The proposed members also included builders, six business owners, the three chambers of commerce, business professors, and the “Hotel, Restaurant and Tourist Industry.”

Plenty of business people on the panel, including three business profs; but no economists or social scientists.

In short, the proposed panel is stacked.

Greg Smith and Miguel Silva are smart fellows. They must have noticed the proposed panel's business orientation.

Apparently the panel's purpose was not merely to help reach a conclusion, but to create a process in which both sides would necessarily talk to each other. A collaborative process that might help citizens find some common ground. “The last time we brought this up, we divided the community. This approach provides an opportunity for collaboration rather than division,” Silva said.

Businesspersons on the panel, in their investigation and information-gathering, would necessarily hear directly from minimum-wage workers. The process of creating a reasonable basis for the panel's advice would require different segments of the community to talk to each other. (A more balanced panel would help.)

Does that purpose makes the panel worthwhile? I still think it's cumbersome and probably adds little to other forms of discussion. However, it failed on a 3-3 vote, in Mayor Miyagashima's absence, and he'll likely favor it, so we'll see.

On the merits of raising the minimum wage locally? On balance, I tend to favor it, but I'll listen to the discussion with interest.

Economic studies tend to suggest it'd be a wise move.

But I've been thinking about what I heard from a lady who called the radio show recently. She runs a small, local day-care center. New and untrained workers she pays less than the proposed minimum wage. Labor is her business's main expense. If the minimum wage went up, so would her rates, which might price her services out of range for a lot of working parents.

Do we raise the minimum wage and by how much are not the only issues. Should the ordinance include a cost-of-living or other automatic annual increase? Should the hike take effect immediately, at some later date, or gradually? Councilor Silva spoke highly of Albuquerque's ordinance as particularly well thought out.

In any case, this is an issue we'll hear a lot about this year – during the next month in Santa Fe, most of the year in Washington, and for at least several months in Las Cruces. At the most recent Municipal League meeting in Seattle, city officials from around the country listed it as a major issue they'd be working on in 2014.

We should keep in mind that while raising the minimum wage would almost certainly be a good step toward helping more working families surmount the poverty level, (1) it will likely cause some problems initially and (2) it won't really address the terrible economic inequality in our country.

Our economic inequality now resembles third-world countries. ere, CEO's make about 350 times the salary of the rank-and-file worker in their companies. That ratio is about 200 in Canada, 147 om Germany, and between 58 and 93 in several other major countries I looked at. It's also way higher than in the U.S. a few decades ago. Locally, 30% of families in this county are said to live in poverty.

Why should we care? This extreme leaves poor folks less healthy and more in debt; it makes for more crime and less democracy; and it impedes economic growth.

I'm glad Las Cruces is looking at the issue carefully rather than just jumping in; but they don't need a special panel of businessfolk, each of whom could step up to the microphone with the rest of us. If they want such a panel, use it to help counsel small businesses on how best to survive the impact of the change.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 2 February, 2014.  I think we're also scheduled to discuss the issue on our radio show, "Speak Up, Las Cruces!", on Wednesday, 5 February, at 8:00 a.m.   The show airs 8-10 each weekday morning on KOBE-AM 1450.  Miguel Silva will be there, and I'm hoping also for a leading businessperson.]