16And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:
17And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.
If Arizona’s draconian new law has put immigration back in the public consciousness, the proposal for a national “biometric ID” is about to trigger nightmares in this country’s Christian id. The Democrats who drafted a new immigration law aren’t just “tone deaf,” as blogger John Cole says (although they’re certainly that.) The bill’s content and language are going to terrify and outrage lots of evangelical Christians, and could even lead to violence.
Before they try to pass this law, there are a few videos they really ought to watch.
This bill couldn't be more inflammatory in both content and language to those who take their Gospel straight … and literal. A quick listen to what's currently being preached on YouTube and AM radio today will confirm that. And generations of kids from evangelicals families recall their terror at the dictatorship and disasters shown in the End Times films known collectively as the "Rapture" series. In these films, a world dictatorship demands that everyone identify themselves and be entered into a database while being marked with an "image of the beast."
How will people who take these ideas as literal truth respond to the new law? As Congressional magazine The Hill reports, “Democratic leaders have proposed requiring every worker in the nation to carry a national identification card with biometric information, such as a fingerprint, within the next six years, according to a draft of the measure." And the "biometric ID" system has been given a name that seems to come straight out of End Times prophecy.
To some evangelicals, the “mark” or “image of the beast” predicted in Revelations has come true through computer technology (called a “Golden calf” in one of the Rapture films). Bar codes were their original object of dread, as shown in this scene from Rapture film Image of the Beast. In it a young programmer discovers the truth about bar codes after glancing down at a book called “Computer Prophecies”:
Bar codes, as this site explains, are believed by some evangelicals to contain a hidden Number of the Beast (666). Today, however, their fear is directed more toward tracking chips (RFIDs) and other biometric technology, as seen in this evangelically-produced "news" clip:
Preacher Hal Lindsey makes the same point:
Don't know who Hal Lindsey is? His Rapture book, The Late, Great Planet Earth, came out in 1970 and was reportedly the best-selling nonfiction book of the decade. We're not talking about an obscure phenomenon: It sold 28 million copies. Then there’s this newsy clip:
It opens with a montage of Orwellian scenes, followed (at about 1m 30 secs) by a reference to “top CFR agent Diane Sawyer” (“CFR” is the “Council on Foreign Relations”). Then comes an Andy Rooney clip where he says he’d happily receive a biochip to show he’s “one of the good guys,” as well other sinister allusions from the world of biometric tracking.
This is the cultural climate, the worldview in which some evangelicals receive every news item. How does the draft legislation look through this lens?
To the evangelical mind, the logical next step is to implant this information directly in the human body. The law sounds, at least to the untrained ear, as if it comes pretty close. It reads in part: ““The cardholder’s identity will be verified by matching the biometric identifier stored within the microprocessing chip on the card to the identifier provided by the cardholder that shall be read by the scanner used by the employer.”
The Hill adds, “The Social Security Administration has estimated that 3.6 million Americans would have to visit SSA field offices to correct mistakes in records or else risk losing their jobs. “ It sounds like a prophecy fulfilled. Remember: “No man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name,” says Revelation 13:17.
The need to "report to field offices" is also likely to remind some evangelicals of UNITE, the one-world dictatorship from the Tribulation films (“UNITE” stands for “United Nations Imperium of Total Emergency.” It will also trigger a long-simmering paranoia toward Federal government (which, some believe, is an agent of the Council on Foreign Relations – today’s version of UNITE. )
It’s not just the tracking or the invasion of privacy that they fear. The Mark of the Beast is specifically an economic tag. The attached clip from Years of the Beast, another film about the End Times, illustrates the dreaded coming of the orders to submit:
“Everybody in this residence will be expected to report and to be registered,” says the sinister lawman. “At that time you will the opportunity to pledge your allegiance to the Prince and to the New World Order … and receive … the economic mark …”
The lawman adds: “Those who refuse to receive the economic mark will be considered outside the New World Order and an enemy of the State.”
The Economic Mark. It may sound absurd to urban ears, but these prophecies are a source for both belief and terror, and quite a few Americans believe in them. Remember the warning from Revelations: "No man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark …”
In language and content, this law almost seems designed to trigger apocalyptic fears. And just when it seems the symbolism can't get any worse, it gets worse. Way worse. What’s the name of the proposed “national biometric ID system”?
That’s an acronym for “Biometric Enrollment, Locally stored Information and Electronic Verification of Employment.” But it might just as well be a neon sign indicating that we’ve just instituting the false One World Church, the Whore of Babylon and consorter with kings described in the prophecies and feared in church communities across rural America.
Some evangelicals voted for Obama in the last election. That's less likely to happen if the Democratic Party is pushing legislation that seems to have come from a 1970's Christian movie.
Could the response to this proposed law really become violent? Consider this scene, from the Rapture film Image of the Beast. In it, the film's protagonist sacrifices a child's life and encourages him to die happily and go to Jesus.
“Now I ask you,” he says after convincing the child to die. “The boy’s free. He belongs to Jesus Christ … (pause) … What can you do to him now?”
Millions of people - no, tens of millions - have seen these films and read these books. The people who believe in this message are virtuous and just, according to their own lights and beliefs. And most of them are benign. But these are the kinds of ideas, images, and beliefs that can trigger violence under the right circumstances.
Some people will argue that these are fringe characters that should be ignored. Others will argue that they can't be convinced to participate in civil society. But some of these people were convinced to vote, or to abstain from conservative voting. And avoiding violence should be a public goal. Besides, it's not as if Republicans can't be "agents of the CFR," too. Bush was accused of unveiling "the mark of the beast" when he attempted to pass immigration reform.
You don’t have to be Evangelical to oppose this law, of course, which is why the ACLU and other civil liberties groups are against it. I'm against it, too. But the real opposition – the scary kind - could well come from the world of fundamentalist Christianity. Many Evangelicals believe we’re living in the times prophesied in Matthew 24:
7For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places; 8All these are the beginning of sorrows; 9Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake.
10And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another ...
16… flee into the mountains: 17Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: 18Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes … 40Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
41Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. 42Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
How do we know the hour of his coming? We don’t. Evangelicals who are vigilant in awaiting the End will see this law as an imposition of Satan’s dictatorship, another sign that the new Romans are here and must be resisted. They’ll stay ready for Judgment Day, understanding that we know not the hour but seeing in this law another confirmation that it's coming soon and without warning.
“The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night,” says 2 Peter 3:10. The resistance to this law could come the very same way.
Technorati Tags: biometric id, democratic party, dick durbin, end times, hal lindsey, image of the beast, immigration reform, late great planet earth, mark of the beast, Matthew 24, rapture films, Revelation 13, Revelations, thief films, UNITE
It's a Washington truism. But is it true?
Progressives in Washington have been lectured in a condescending tone countless times: You crazy hippies don't understand how hard it is to raise money and succeed in politics nowadays. Consider the House Financial Services Committee. It costs a lot to run for Congress, so it's expected that members of a committee like this one will stay friendly with the businesses they regulate. How else can they raise the cash they need for re-election? Members on both sides of the aisle are able to draw in hundreds of thousands of dollars by staying bank-friendly, even in an off-election year.
It may not look pretty, insiders will tell you, but that's how the game is played. So guess which Committee member raked in the most campaign contributions in 2009?
That would be the same Alan Grayson who has infuriated bankers with his aggressive stance, the same Alan Grayson who has pushed to "unmask the Fed" and insisted that Ben Bernanke "come clean" about which institutions received bailout money, the same Alan Grayson who said the voting on his bill to tax bonuses for bailout recipients will show which Republicans are "on the take."
Grayson's aggressive, in-your-face style makes a lot of other Democrats uncomfortable. In the gentleman-and-ladies-don't-perspire-they-glow world of Washington, he's not afraid to show some sweat. But this is more about substance than style. Grayson's been able to leverage a populist, anti-corporate style into a campaign money machine that outstrips that of his Wall Street-compliant colleagues. Is there a model there for other progressives?
Some will say the Grayson phenomenon can't be replicated. He's become a magnet for progressive fundraising, drawing cash from all over the country. If there were a hundred Alan Graysons, each wouldn't be able to draw as much in contributions. Now that the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling has completely unshackled the political buying power of the corporate dollar, they'll say, Democrats can't win without bank-friendly policies. But is that true?
Consider this: However much liberals want those Wall Street dollars, they'll never be able to do it on policy alone. Right-wingers will always win on that score. But it's important to remember that Wall Street campaign money isn't brave money. It's hedge-your-bet money. The reason Democrats got so much last year is because Wall Street knew they were going to win. So think of the progressive fundraising stance toward Wall Street as embodying four simple principles:
1. Banker contributions will go where the winners are.
2. Popular sentiment is very anti-bank right now.
3. Politicians who want to rein in bankers' excesses will be popular.
4. Popular politicians will draw votes -- and bankers' money.
And bankers aren't the only ones with cash right now. When it comes to big campaign dollars, the Supreme Court ruling left one other player on the field: Unions. Progressives are going to find it hard to court banker bucks with pro-Wall Street policies and also get the union donations and grassroots support they'll need to keep winning elections.
And there's small business, too: While smaller companies can't contribute the sheer volume of dollars larger ones can, in total they represent a sizable chunk of change. A better-regulated Wall Street will mean more credit for these kinds of businesses, and that in turn could free up more campaign cash for those who push smarter banking policy.
Sen. Sherrod Brown understands the need for more credit to small businesses. As he said this week, ""What I hear now is consistently about credit. It's always about credit. (Businesses) tell me they have the capacity to grow, they tell me they have new customers and the old customers are coming back. They'd like to know what we're doing on the health bill, of course, but I don't think that's stopping companies from moving forward with what they need to do if they could get credit."
Sen. Brown has introduced a bill to use $30 billion in TARP repayments to free more loans to small businesses, and another one to raise taxes on bonuses paid by companies that received TARP funding.
Sherrod Brown is on to something. These proposals aren't just smart policy - they're smart politics. They could lead to increased voter support and new sources of campaign contributions. Those who oppose these measure could face a backlash from angry voters who wonder why they're not doing a better job stewarding taxpayer money, and why they're so "anti-business" that they won't help companies get back on their feet - which would lead to more hiring.
There is a way out for elected progressives - a way to do the right thing and enhance, not endanger, their chances of re-election. But it will take a little courage, and the willingness to step out of their comfort zones. Hopefully Rep. Grayson and Sen. Brown - two leaders with very different styles but similar strategies - will lead the way for others to follow.
And it could work.
The plan is to channel anti-Wall Street rage into an overall fury at "them" - big government, "liberal elites," everybody who seems to be better off than you and your family - and turn that rage toward the political party that most favors banks. It's not a new game. It's been going on since Nixon and Agnew inverted the historical understanding of the GOP as the party of big business and successfully painted the Democrats as a snobby group of elitists.
It's based on a simple bait-and-switch: Make sure that people stay angry at the bailout, which will essentially be history by the time of the next major election, and keep them from thinking about deregulation, which was the initial cause of the crisis. Emphasize the big bonuses - an artifact of the bailout - and ignore the rapacious and greedy behavior permitted by the weakening of oversight and actions like the repeal of Glass-Steagall.
That plan needs Democrats clumsy enough to let themselves be painted into a corner, despite their more middle-class-friendly proposals. Sadly, as back in Nixon's day, Dems seem happy to oblige. The President's hapless remarks yesterday about bonuses for Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein weren't quite as bad as some have painted them, when taken in context - but the problem is what Democrats haven't yet learned: People don't take remarks like these "in context." Nuance isn't an effective response to fury or desperation.
Democrats disparage Palin's speaking skills, but she spoke to the public's frustration much more effectively: "While people on Main Street look for jobs, people on Wall Street -- they're collecting billions and billions in your bailout bonuses ... Where are the consequences? They helped to get us into this worst economic situation since the Great Depression. Where are the consequences?"
Contrast that with Obama's "I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen ... I, like most of the American people, don't begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system." Palin came across like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, while the President sounded like Mr. Drysdale from The Beverly Hillbillies.
Granted, the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision makes groveling for corporate cash an even greater part of the political process than before. Even reliable Democratic ATMs like JPMorganChase (led by "very savvy businessman" Dimon) are firing a warning shot across Democrats' bow by stuffing fat wads of cash in the GOP kitty. Not that Democrats aren't benefiting plenty from Wall Street largesse - Chuck Schumer's still their #1 Capitol Hill beneficiary - but Dems are pushing for tighter regulation and far better oversight than the GOP would provide (not enough, but better.)
The irony is that this "populist" movement was a creation of the wealthy and privileged from the start. The "tea party" phrase arose, supposedly spontaneously, from the lips of CNBC reporter Rick Santelli. Santelli, a former futures trader himself, led a televised mock "uprising" of other traders - the very people responsible for the problem - against any effort to help homeowners seduced or duped by banks offering irresponsible mortgages. (A more odious display of sanctimonious self-righteousness is almost unimaginable.) Yet a variety of domain names related to the phrase "Tea Party" had already been registered before Santelli used the term, by organizations tied to ultraconservative and Republican interests. (More here - apologies for the repellent title, but the reporting's good.)
A quick review of the organizers behind what the National Journal calls "12 Key Tea Party Players to Watch" gives us the following:
- A Republican Senator (Tom Coburn)
- A wealthy New York real estate developer (Howard Rich)
- the ultraconservative head of Koch Industries (David Koch)
- a former Republican House Majority Leader (Dick Armey)
- the son of a Republican Member of Congress (Ned Ryun)
- the former campaign manager for a Republican Member of Congress (Frank Anderson)
- a former Republican member of the California Assembly (Howard Kaloogian)
- a fulminating Fox News mouthpiece (Glenn Beck)
- a former speechwriter for George H. W. Bush (Michael Johns)
It seems as if the only influential individual without glaring ties to the GOP or the ultra-right is the organizer of the Convention that hosted Palin, and he's a Nashville DUI attorney. (Write your own joke, as Ed McMahon used to say.) If the GOP/Tea Party connection isn't obvious enough already, in South Carolina they made it official. The Republican party and the Tea Partiers agreed to share a variety of resources, turning a long-time flirtation into a vow of marriage.
The "anti-bank" Tea Party movement's a Republican front, and Republicans are actively marketing themselves to Wall Street as a better - make that even better - bang for their campaign contribution buck than the Democrats.
The GOP's push for "less regulation" is exactly what the banking industry needs to confirm its absolute dominance over the American economy. It would ensure that its excesses are never curbed, perpetuating a system where bankers reap the rewards of success and taxpayers bear the cost of failure. And what's the other centerpiece of Republican economic policy?
Privatizing Social Security.
Where would everybody's Social Security dollars go under a privatization scheme? Why, to Wall Street, of course. The Tea Party plan is simple: Use anti-bank rage to help the Republicans win, so they can give banks even more power. Can the banksters really outsmart the Democrats and pull off a trick like that? From the look of things, the answer might well be:You betcha.
It hurts to lose a Senate seat but, hey - setbacks happen in politics. What's really discouraging is the sight of Democrats, from the White House on down, refusing to accept responsibility for their own part in this loss. That, more than the loss itself, is reason for grave concern about health reform - and the party's future.
I thought people involved in failure were supposed to look at their part in the problem, then step up and take responsibility for it. Watching the Democrats, those thoughts feel like relics from an archaic age. In old Britain, chivalric values required a Lady or Gentleman who let their side down to go into their study with a pistol and "do the right thing." Not these folks: They're too busy taking pot shots at each other.
It is, as Daffy Duck might observe, "an exathperatin' development."
There's plenty of blame to go around. Nate Silver's conclusions about what went wrong are smart and incisive. His back-of-the-envelope appraisal suggests that the seat would have remained Democratic if not for either one of two factors: Martha Coakley's terrible campaign, and a national environment that's turned toxic for Democrats. That means that the Coakley campaign and those responsible for the national environment (i.e. the Party leadership) are both responsible.
Forget the Coakley people for now, since they've had their shot: What are party leaders saying? Everybody's grandstanding, pushing their own agendas. Evan Bayh, for example, insists the problem is that Democrats haven't followed his centrist agenda. And let's review Joe Lieberman's recent comments ... Ah, let's not. The guy already gets too much press.
Both Lieberman and Bayh are wrong, anyway. Here are the first results from after-vote polling in Massachusetts: By a 3 to 2 margin, Obama voters who voted for Brown thought that Obama's reform bill "doesn't go far enough." And those Obama voters who didn't bother voting felt that way by a 6 to 1 margin. 82% of Obama voters who went for Brown (and 86% of those who stayed home) support a public option. And 57% of Brown voters said that Obama is "not delivering enough" on change.
Are you listening, Democrats? Or do the voices of the Lieberman/Bayh do-nothing caucus ring louder in your ears? We hear what we want to hear, after all. Case in point: Before the first vote was even cast, Rahm Emanuel was already blaming Coakley - and Coakley alone - for the loss of the seat. And David Axelrod was insisting that the unpopularity of the health reform bill was due the "caricature" its opponents had painted. Is the problem only caricature, and even a little content ? Besides, who's responsible for messaging around there?
Bill Scher asks a logical question: How could Massachusetts voters who like their own reform (58% are in favor) oppose a national health initiative that looks so similar? One answer is clear from the polling: 61% believe the government can't afford to pay for it, even though reform could reduce the deficit. Another sign comes from the same poll that showed 58% support: People who have been directly affected by the law like it less.
The unpopularity of national reform in Massachusetts wouldn't have been a surprise if Democrats had been more willing to look at the data there: While a whopping 79% of Massachusetts residents wanted to keep their reform, according to a Boston Globe/Harvard School of Public Health poll from last September, they "were nearly evenly split on whether Massachusetts could afford to continue with the law." Why? Because that state's reform hasn't done enough to contain costs - and neither would the President's. That poll was an overlooked warning sign.
Obama's let-Congress-do-it process also hurt. It cast a spotlight on the Senate, giving the public a front-row seat as concession after concession was made to the insurance industry. Even if the end result resembles Massachusetts', the unseemly spectacle tainted it - and its architects.
As Massachusetts voters cried out for meaningful cost containment, the White House decided to emphasize the "Cadillac tax" as its solution. But that tax unfairly targets people based on demographics and won't contain costs. (More info here.) And polls show that it's wildly unpopular. So after remaining passive while the popular public option died, the Administration finally weighed in - by pushing an ineffective and essentially indiscriminate tax based on widely-challenged, right-leaning economic theory.
And Dems seem to have forgotten that Massachusetts is more liberal than the country overall. 58% support there could translate to much less support nationwide. Even in that progressive state, a majority of people want reform improved - and that's with no organized resistance from the Right! Replicate that law in Red States, with Republicans in full revolt and tea-partiers parading in the streets, and you could be facing disaster. Throw in a regressive middle-class tax and the public perception that special interests drove the process, and the picture gets downright ugly.
Sadly, there's no sign that Democratic leaders are paying attention. Sure, they can pass the Senate bill as is, but that could hurt them - unless they immediately pass an amendment which creates a public option. The reconciliation process would be entirely appropriate, since a public option would decrease the Federal deficit. They could pass some genuine cost-containment measures that way, too, and jettison the neo-right-wing rain dance that is the Cadillac tax.
We only can hope that Democrats eventually learn from this experience, that they'll stop placing blame and start taking responsibility. There's a word for that:
As Year One of the Obama Era draws to a close, the recent Arianna Huffington/David Plouffe exchange illustrates a structural defect in the coalition Obama's seeking to build. And make no mistake: Some might call it The Year of Living Non-Dangerously, but it looks more like a deliberate strategy. It's not waffling or weakness: Barack Obama wants to become the Tony Blair of American politics.
The President seems to be deliberately moving his party rightward in order to capture the political spectrum from center/right to left, freezing out the Republican Party. It worked for Blair, but will it work here? Or will he lose his base in the process, damaging his own effectiveness? 365 days after his election, here are some pointed - and sometimes painful - questions.
In many ways disappointment with the Obama Presidency was inevitable. The President consciously (and tactically) presented himself as all things to all people, a kind of Rorschach Test on which people could project their own hopes and dreams. But a million different dreams had to collapse into a single reality when the real-life Presidency began, in much the same way that a "probability wave" of many trajectories collapses into a single photon in physics.
But it's more than that. The campaign made implicit promises of trustworthiness and new-style politics, as well as some explicit promises that have been jettisoned without explanation. He reversed himself on key health care pledges without explaining to his supporters why, and he broke his promise on ending government security much the same way. His handling of government spying abuses raises our first question: Would we have ever learned about Watergate if Barack Obama had been President?
He did not run as a center-Right Democrat, nor did he promise to restore the Clinton Administration if elected. There may be good reasons to govern from the center-Right, but he hasn't given his supporters the courtesy of an explanation. And the Clinton Administration was a deep pool of extraordinary talent, so it was wise to draw from it - in most cases. But in many critical jobs - especially Treasury - his choices have been disappointingly weak.
Then there's the whole issue of governing from the center. Here the question becomes, Would Barack Obama be a better President today if he had never read 'Team of Rivals'? Sure, it's inspiring to read how Lincoln drew his bitter opponents into his government, wisely and selflessly. But, leaving aside the challenge some historians have made to that book's thesis, is the President learning that some of his rivals may not have the same high moral standards as Lincoln's? Most politicians want to please everyone, especially those that don't like them. Let us hope that this emotional impulse is not being masked in the cloak of false pragmatism. In other words, Has the President written the wrong future biography for himself? Is he aspiring to be Lincoln when the times call for Roosevelt?
Which leads us to the next question: Is the President's Big Tent big enough to include his supporters? The President has projected an almost visceral dislike of bloggers, and his Cabinet boasts few DC outsiders like the ones that formed his initial base. Rahm Emanuel showered progressive activists with "F bombs" recently. By contrast, during his Presidency Bill Clinton spoke with warmth and empathy about the ragtag protesters at Seattle's World Trade Organization meeting. Many get the sense that Obama sees young (and not so young) activists as foolish and naive, a source of unpredictability and disorder that just makes him uncomfortable. That impression may be false, but it is an impression nevertheless.
Pace Mr. Plouffe, the base's disappointment with the President is not based on "frustration with the pace of change." It's based on their fear that the President may not really be interested in fundamental change. If that is anyone's fault, then to a large extent the blame lies with the President - and his advisors and communicators.
Some (in the Administration and elsewhere) may say, Who cares? What difference does it make if a group of granola-eating activists and bloggers is unhappy? We've got a center-right coalition to build. We're about the hard work of day-to-day governance. But Democrats would be foolish to assume that any future election will be an easy one. A dispirited base damages a campaign at its foundation, and at its heart. Perhaps the President should consider a sit-down with his critics on the Left, as well as those on the Right. If nothing else, he should use them as an excuse for passing legislation he supports anyway.
Compromise is the lifeblood of politics, as long as it's not done too quickly - or too cynically. Obama's lack of specificity on health reform and his willingness to defer to Congress could be seen as expediency, or as more Rorschach Politics. (As long as it's called "health reform" and it passes, we win. ...) Unnecessary compromise dilutes the outcome, especially when one's opponents lack good will.
We wish the President every success at Year One. We remain guardedly optimistic, despite the disappointments. We would pitch in and help ourselves, if we were welcomed. And we recognize that politics is hard, messy, and filled with compromise. But, if greatness is a combination of talent and historical need, this President has the potential for greatness. So the final question is this one:
Does the President understand that compromising with cynics can lead to a half-cynical outcome?
I didn't write or talk much about the death of Ted Kennedy for a couple of days. I didn't even watch any TV coverage. When I finally did watch the testimonials, I remembered seeing Allen Ginsberg on the Tonight Show many years ago. It was either in early 1969 - before Chappaquiddick - or a couple of years after that incident, when Teddy was once again being discussed as a Presidential contender.
Johnny Carson asked Ginsberg what he thought of Ted Kennedy. Carson clearly thought that the grubby beatnik/hippie sitting before him would go on a tirade about rich suit-and-tie wearing squares and their bummer/ego/death trips and bringdown wars, or words to that effect. While I don't remember the exact words of Ginsberg's reply, the gist of it was: Well, sure, he's part of the system as it currently exists, and yeah, he's working within a mindset that needs to change, but he kinda represents hope and inspiration, and he's really trying to help people, so I sorta love him.
I sorta love him. The comment was striking, both for its casual delivery and the open-hearted generosity of the sentiment. Carson's eyebrows went up in surprise and the conversation went on to something else. To my fourteen or sixteen or seventeen year old self it was a revelation. The false polarity between the world of "straight" engagement and the world of "hipster" art and literature had been stripped away, negated by a simple declaration of love.
Ted Kennedy was a Catholic, not a Buddhist, but the remainder of his life reads like a Bodhisattvic exercise. (In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a"bodhisattva" is an enlightened being who refuses Nirvana and stays in this world to help others.) His brothers flashed across the national stage like shooting stars, brief and brilliant. Teddy's was a slower fire, like the hearth around which a family could gather. He was the one who stayed behind to do the hard work. The dilettante younger brother, the drinker and partier from whom little was expected and less was delivered, the guy who cheated on his exams at Harvard because he couldn't be bothered to study ... he was the brother who spent five decades poring tirelessly over endless pages of legislation and policy briefings. He stayed behind to take care of everyone's children, to fight for the powerless, to do what needed to be done on a daily basis.
His personal struggles were well-known. He "struggled with his demons," people said, using a phrase that might have come straight from Tibetan symbolism. He was forced to expose his human weaknesses in a public way, a way that his brothers did not. I remember seeing him on Boston Common once during those dark days. It was a shocking sight, the once-beautiful scion reduced to an ashen specter. His skin seemed to be the same shade as his gray hair and suit, its surface the puffy texture of warts.
I don't know what tools he used to escape those demons, but people say he found meaning, purpose, and happiness in the hard work of the Senate. He accepted his fate - as a Kennedy, as the Kennedy who survived, as a hard-working solon - with what appeared to be joy and grace. He grew into the shape laid down for him by time and events. The gray lifted. With the brush of years he colored in the silhouette that inspired Allen Ginsberg, of all people, to cherish him so many years ago.
He kept the vow. He stayed behind. He relished the prosaic tasks of human existence. Draw water, carry wood - pass legislation.
He carried on the essential work of the human spirit. We sorta loved him.
It's on. The President's assuming direct ownership of the health debate. Draft bills are beginning to circulate on the Hill. Dozens of policy details are being debated. Universal coverage is one way to describe the objective, but here's one that might be better: We need a healthcare bailout for the middle class.
High-income Americans will make out fine, and public programs will be strengthened for lower-income groups. But medical illness caused nearly two-thirds of all bankruptcies, and most of these bankrupt debtors had medical insurance. That raises two questions:
1. What's the value of "universal coverage" if "coverage" isn't providing the financial security people need?
2. If we can rescue troubled banks, what are we doing to rescue families whose "toxic assets" consist of unpaid medical bills for urgently needed care?
It's a mistake to assume that health reform will inevitably ease the financial burden for financially imperiled households. Medical problems caused 62.1% of all bankruptcies in 2007. Three quarters of these bankrupt debtors had health insurance. And 92% of them had medical bills of at least $5000, or 10% of pretax family income.
"10% of pretax family income" is also the figure many health policy analysts say families should be prepared to spend for health care under a mandate. But for many people that was a burdensome figure even before the financial crisis. We can't assume that a policy forcing them to spend that much will be either effective or politically popular. Nevertheless, AP reports House Dems are floating the idea of "slapping an unspecified financial penalty on anyone who refuses to purchase affordable health insurance." That's what is known as an "individual mandate."
Insurance was originally designed to eliminate financial ruin for individuals by distributing costs among many people. Does it make sense to insist that people buy coverage that won't necessarily protect them from disaster?
Feelings run high about this issue among us health policy wonks. Most Democratic/liberal analysts insist that reform can't succeed unless all individuals are first mandated to obtain coverage. The idea's based on sound economics: If some people can opt out, the healthiest are most likely to do so. Then the system will be burdened with sicker enrollees, driving up costs and making it harder to achieve universal coverage.
That's why smart and knowledgeable people like Jonathan Cohn can imply, as he does here, that individual mandates are indistiguishable from "good public policy."
I understand the economics, but here's the concern: The underlying concept of "shared responsibility" is sound, but in other countries - and in Medicare - that responsibility is mainly shared through the progressive mechanism of taxation. Unless carefully designed, individual mandates run the risk of being overly punitive and politically explosive among middle-income Americans.
Consider Sen. Kennedy's new draft proposal. It offers more generous subsidies than other proposals, with a sliding scale of assistance that goes up to $110,000 in income for a family of four. But a lot can happen beneath and near that $110,000 mark, especially in these perilous times. Yearly premiums for family coverage reached $12,680 in 2008 and continue to climb. That's one reason why families struggling to make ends meet sometimes 'bet' that they won't have catastrophic medical costs. That may be a bad bet, but using the levers of government to force them to pay $8,000 to $13,000 in premiums alone might not be the best solution.
And the assumption that mandates are more politically liberal is just that: an assumption. Mandates could, in fact, be economically regressive. They could also give the GOP a hot-button issue for 2010 and 2012. Proposals like Jacob Hacker's, which limit out-of-pocket premium costs to $2,500, go a long way toward addressing those concerns. But they're also costlier from the government side, so they don't seem to be on the table right now (even if those costs could ultimately be offset by improved compliance).
What's the solution? At least one proposal that has been anathema to Democrats might help. The Democrats campaigned against McCain's plan to tax health benefits. But a health tax, like any other, can be either progressive or regressive. (There's a good discussion of the topic here.)
It's true that a tax on all workers receiving health benefits could be disastrous. And nobody's receiving overly luxurious benefits, despite what some partisans claim. As Merrill Goozner observes, there are no "Cadillac health plans" for employees, though that phrase is has become a buzzword. (And Cadillacs are made by GM, where a little help was also needed.)
Here's one possibility: a health benefits tax that kicks in at high income levels. That could conceivably pay for some Hacker-like caps on premiums. It would also have the added benefit of sensitizing corporate decision-makers to the true cost of medical care in this country. It might even motivate more of them to take a proactive stand on health issues.
There are a number of other possible ways to "bail out" the American middle class in health care, too:
1. Phase mandates in slowly, as overall health costs are reduced
through other measures. (This one's unpopular with a number of analysts, but I think unfairly so. It's do-able.)
2. Emphasize the public plan option. (If you're going to lay a heavy cost burden on the middle class, it's a good idea to give them every choice you can.)
3. Develop innovative ways of helping consumers pay their health debts through easy-to-use financing tools at favorable interest rates.
4. Ensure than health benefits include appropriate caps on out-of-pocket costs.
Universal coverage without universal financial security would be a Pyrrhic victory. The President and Congress can ensure successful health reform by making sure that American families can receive the care they need at a price they can afford.
A couple of years ago some of us took Merle Haggard's rejection of the Bush Administration and the Iraq war as a sign that disaster was imminent for the GOP. A new country hit doesn't spell the same kind of doom for Obama and the Democrats - yet - but it reveals a vulnerability that they'd be foolish to ignore.
Country singer John Rich helped change the sound of country music as half of the duo "Big and Rich" ("Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy") and as part of the "Muzik Mafia" production team. He and his partners modernized country's soundwith hip-hop and modern rock textures while staying true to its rural roots. John Rich isn't the icon that Merle is, although he's a huge star in country circles. Nor is he an unpredictable "antipartisan" like the Hag. In fact, Rich is a committed Republican activist. While his "Raising McCain" theme song didn't exactly turn the tide for his candidate last year, he's found his voice now. Democrats should sit up and take notice.
"Shuttin' Detroit Down" is a strong tune with emotional appeal and a blunt message: "While they're livin' it up on Wall Street in that New York City town/here in the real world they're shutting Detroit down." The lyrics evoke images of homeless farmers and retired auto workers whose pensions plans are slashed "while the boss man takes his bonus pay and jets on out of town."
"I see all these big shots whining on my evening news,
About how they're losing billions and it's up to me and you
To come running to the rescue.
Well pardon me if I don't shed a tear.
their selling make believe and we don't buy that here."
Is the song playing on the same "us-vs-them" regional loyalties that Sarah Palin tried to tap in the last election? Absolutely. In the song's world, "DC" and "New York" are places of privilege while Detroit and the rest of the country are "real." But where Gov. Palin sounded strident and unsympathetic, John Rich comes across as warm and empathetic.
Why should the President and Congress take note of a hit country song? Because music can be a glimpse into the national psyche, even in this age of prefabricated pop and country. Because music can reshape the national psyche, by taking powerful emotions and channeling them for or against political parties. And because the Administration has been sounding a series of wrong notes where the bailout and the stimulus plan are concerned.
There are three ways the Administration's economic rescue plan could have been designed and presented, after all: as helping the economy, as aiding major financial institutions, or as helping bankers themselves. While the first would have been ideal, the Administration chose to target institutional bailouts rather than consumer rescue. And their reluctance to fire Wall Street executives, even after giving GM's chief the heave-ho, gives added weight to the perception that DC loves Wall Street fatcats.
It didn't help that agreements with AIG Financial executives were deemed sacrosanct by Geither and Co. even after union workers were forced to amend their contracts. Democrats might be frustrated by the idea that Republicans could benefit from the resulting frustration. After all, many GOP leaders spread anti-union misinformation in order to encourage the "shuttin' down" of Detroit. That led unlikely populist Dick Cheney to warn Republicans against becoming the Herbert Hoover Party.) But it's happened before.
So when John Rich argues that "they're bailing out them bankers," the Administration hasn't made it easy to argue with him. Maybe that's why he was able to recruit Mickey Rourke and notorious country music leftist Kris Kristofferson - bless his soul, that can't be easy - to act in the song's offical vide.
"Shuttin' Detroit Down" winds up sounding like a mash-up of "Okie From Muskogee" and "Roger and Me." Here's a idea for the next bailout song: In our world, the American worker is a hero who's "too big to fail."
Ladies and gentlemen: In this corner, Mickey Rourke and Kris Kristofferson. In that corner, Tim Geithner and Lawrence Summers (with his hundreds of thousands in speaking fees to Wall Street firms). Who do you think is going to win that bout?
Some of us keep waiting for the President and his team to summon their legendary communications skills and do a better job of selling their plan. We're still waiting. Overconfidence would be a grave mistake on their part. Sure, the President's approval numbers are still high - but not dazzlingly so when compared to other Presidents at this point in their terms.
"Shuttin' Detroit Down" gives voice to the growing perception that the Admininstration's plans favor wealthy investors over Mr. and Ms. Main Street America. The song points the way toward what could be called Rehab for Republicans. They've won elections before by posing as the party of the people with "calloused hands" who, per John Rich, "can't afford to die." They could do it again.
Democrats celebrated when President Obama won Indiana last year. "Shuttin' Detroit Down" is the opening shot in the next battle for Indiana, and all the other places just like it. The Democrats needs to show that they can win there again - and that they deserve to win there.
(originally written for The Huffington Post)