Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An Open Letter to Mike Rogers on Health Care Reform

Congressman Rogers,

Your position on health care reform is a great disservice to your constituents. Are you not concerned about the many Michiganders who have not, in your words "earned" health insurance? Michigan is among the states hardest hit by our recent economic turmoil, and over one million Michiganders are now uninsured. You bill yourself as a populist, but your lengthy time in the beltway and generous congressional insurance plan seems to have desensitized you to the plight of those you claim to represent. The uninsured are not in their predicament because they are "lazy" or have not "earned" insurance. Our country has a broken health system with a perverse incentive structure. We do not guarantee medical care for all our citizens, and we are the only developed nation on the planet not to do so.

If arguments about social justice do not move you, consider the outrageous expense we currently incur by using hospital emergency rooms for routine medical care. Preventative care could save dollars and lives, and yet you seem to be so blinded by your ideology that you are concerned with neither, seeing only an illusory specter of "big government."

My intent is not to offend you, Congressman, but my strong language IS intended to communicate to you that there are economic as well as ethical reasons that serious health care reform is a must. Even as you rail against current proposals, you offer little alternative but a bill that stiffens the penalties for health care fraud and corruption. Criminal penalties are not the solution to our health care crisis.

I know, as will anyone who runs a quick search for your campaign contributions, that your top three industry donors are, in order, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and health professionals, and that you've received over $100,000 from them. I understand that there are practical realities to politics, Congressman Rogers, but please, for the sake of all those depending on you to represent us, serve the citizens of Michigan before you serve your campaign contributors. Support the ongoing efforts to reform our broken health care system.

J.C. Kibbey

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Beginning of the End in Iraq?

The Senate has just voted, 75-23, in favor of a non-binding resolution supporting the partitioning of Iraq into a loose confederation of majority Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish states, respectively.

The resolution was supported by Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KA), both running distantly behind for their parties' respective presidential nominations. Are we finally reaching the bipartisan consensus on the war in Iraq that we've been saying is "right around the corner" for months?

I'm thrilled that it took the nice people in Washington - on both sides of the aisle - four and a half years to realize that our approach from day one was just not a good idea at all. Of course, maybe the Democrats will stand up and call for an immediate, outright withdrawal because that's what the shortsighted mob mentality of the American public is right now, or maybe the Republicans will stand up and call for the continuation of business-as-usual privatized war because, hey, election season is coming up and it's about time for the Blackwater and Haliburton dollars to start rolling in. They're gonna be needed too, if the Republicans want to hold onto a respectable number of the 22 Senate seats they have up in 2008 versus 12 for the Democrats.

Yessir, if we can just keep the Democrats and the Republicans feuding between unresolvable extremes on Iraq policy, we may be able to keep that right up without getting anything practical accomplished at least until the 2008 elections.

Maybe, if we're really lucky, we can keep staying away from real issues like we've been doing. We could avoid talking about things like restructuring social security, tacking the health care problem that's bad and getting worse by the day, and keep the pressure off China to float the yuan while the dollar collapses under us. If we can avoid all that and go forward with a government bailout of the shortsighted profit-mongers in the mortgage industry (to prove we didn't learn anything from the Savings & Loan crisis in the 1980s), and continue to ignore our municipality-level water mismanagement and -

Oh, right, yes - hi. As I was saying, if we keep up this unresolvable ideological posturing on issues like Iraq, the two major parties should be able to keep swimming in more and more lobbying dollars just about long enough to run our economy, and probably our civil liberties, right into the ground.

But it looks like maybe we won't be able to keep it up for too much longer, what with the pragmatic bipartisan compromises and all. But seriously, who ever would have thought about a group of "states" banding together, under some kind of loose "articles of confederation?"

How un-American.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Media Thinks You're Stupid (and So Does the Government!)

Bad news: the nanny state doesn't really know best, and the media doesn't really care to tell you about it.

"Tests reveal high chemical levels in kids' bodies," according to a recent article on CNN.com. We are quickly told two things: first, that fire retardant clothing has large amounts of a chemical called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or "PBDEs," in it, and second, that American children are wearing said fire retardant clothing.

Unfortunately, PBDEs cause cancer. Oops; the kids that the CNN story were about had concentrations of chemicals - including PBDEs - up to seven times higher than their parents did. So far most of the studies about PBDEs causing cancer have been done on animals, but - yes, it's anecdotal, but think about it - are you aware of anything that causes cancer in animals that's harmless to humans?

Babies wear a lot of fire-retardant clothing because the American government, via the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, has mandated that infants' sleepwear be flame retardant (an effort in the ongoing battle against infants lighting themselves on fire in their sleep). The government has kindly seen fit to exempt sleepwear for infants under 9 months from the regulations, which is almost more damning because it shows pretty clearly that the government has some awareness of how dangerous these chemicals are. Quite a bit of awareness, in fact. Anybody dealing with p-bromodiphenyl ether (a PBDE compound) is required to follow the EPA's rules under the federal hazardous waste management program. Washington (the West coast one) has already banned PBDEs in their state.

So, our babies (that are 9 months or older!) are wearing clothing containing toxic chemicals. Now, I would not be thrilled, but I could see this happening occasionally, accidentally (think the lead paint recalls from China earlier this year). But mandated by federal law?

Apparently in 1973, people were really concerned about children setting themselves on fire. Yes, okay, I think we can all get behind the idea that children being burned alive is a very bad thing, but our concern about it was vastly misplaced. In 1970, before the regulations took effect, there were 60 deaths of children under 15 as a result of fire. In 1987, there were only two. It's quite a jump in logic to say that this decrease was just the result of the fire-retardant clothing laws, since an uncountable other number of things happened in those 17 years that could have affected these numbers, and because the majority of the people under 15 are not wearing baby sleepwear. But even assuming that all that gain was because of the regulation, what's the trade-off we're making? Let's assume we're saving 58 lives a year - or, hey, even up it to 80, since the U.S. population's increased by about a third since 1970. In doing so, we're exposing right around ten million kids a year to a carcinogenic chemical. We collectively swallowed the spider to kill the fly.

But take heart! Now we know how dangerous PBDEs are, the media will get the word out, people will realize they don't want their kids exposed to the stuff, and they'll pester the government about it until they do something... right?

Sort of. But people seem to be getting their information about PBDEs - and all toxic chemicals - from very bad places. For the CNN article, they spoke to Elizabeth Whelan, the head of "the American Council on Science and Health, a public health advocacy group." She says that "trace levels of industrial chemicals in our bodies do not necessarily pose health risks."

Hmm, the American Council on Science and Health. Sounds like a good, reputable group of people on the subject of toxic chemicals. A quick Google of the group - which it seems like CNN would have done - reveals that they're funded by people who absolutely don't want bad things coming to light about industrial chemicals. To name a few: Dow Chemical, Pfizer, Exxon-Mobil, Monsanto, and the Altria Group (formerly Phillip-Morris). There are plenty more.

The FDA is now "working with chemical manufacturers" to determine the dangers of PBDEs and other industrial chemicals. They have also set up a voluntary testing program for chemical manufacturers to test - if they want - they safety of their chemicals.

This is a disgrace. If CNN wants to quote an industry lapdog for their reporting, fine. But they have an obligation to disclose that they're giving you information from a very interested party. There's tons and tons of organizations with pleasant-sounding names just like the "American Council on Science and Health" that are industry front groups - when people read about them, they sound legitimate, and CNN is happy to oblige them. Possibly because people like Pfizer and Exxon-Mobil and Monsanto are also fueling big advertising dollars to CNN.

So the media's not telling us what we need to know, and the government is going at the problem of toxic chemicals in everyday items with the help of the chemical industry.

They're paying off our newsmen. They're paying off our politicans. The chemical industry is not the only place where this sort of thing happens.

This is not okay. Tell your friends. Write your congressmen. Don't buy products from these people - in most cases, there are alternatives. Stand on a chair in the middle of an intersection and yell at the top of your lungs that you're mad as hell and you're not going to take it anymore! But do something. I will not go softly into that good night, into this endless hellish cycle of consumerism and greed of which our government and our industries are two sides of the same coin.

And neither should you.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

You Don't Just Vote on Election Day

In 1776, as the American Revolution was fermenting, Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet called "Common Sense," pointing out what he felt was obvious about the injustice of British rule, the biggest issue of the day.

Two hundred and thirty-one years later we seem to be once again in need of someone to point out the obvious. The U.S. health care system is a joke that would be funny if it wasn't costing lives. Our political system is sullied beyond recognition by corporate dollars. We are lucky to get a 60% voter turnout for a presidential election.

Sadly, Thomas Paine is dead and the mainstream media (a clich├ęd term, I know) seems unwilling to take his place; yes, the same free press that Mr. Paine saw 25,000 Americans die for now airs more coverage on Paris Hilton's DUI than it does on the ongoing massacre in Darfur. (To put the Revolutionary War casualties in perspective, they represented about 1% of the population at the time, or, adjusted for "inflation," 3,000,000 dead Americans in 2007).

So here we are, all dressed up Constitutionally but with no place to go. We all like to blame the press, the government, the amazingly ambiguous "corporations." How many people hear about federal attorneys being fired because they didn't like the administration's politics on CNN, and change the channel? Enough to make a difference. I once had the opportunity for a sit-down with a guy (who will here remain nameless) that works in a media think tank in Washington. During out conversation, he described CNN headquarters in Atlanta to me, and one thing in particular stuck out in my mind: on the wall in their "war room" is a big screen with an ever-moving graph that shows, at any given moment, how many people are tuned in to their channel. As a business, they depend on advertising dollars, which depend on their number of viewers, so they are incentivized in the extreme to maximize viewing. When the graph starts to go down, they change the story. On the whole, when they report on things like Darfur, like Gaza or the West Bank or climate change, their graph goes down. And the story changes.

"Well," someone might indignantly point out, "they ought to show the NEWS, not just whatever the most people want to see." This is the basic mindset of the "it's the fault of the 'corporations'" set. Let's own up, shall we? There could scarcely be a more democratic means of determining news coverage than this. Granted, it's thrown somewhat to mob rule, but such, sadly, is the way with democracy. CNN is not a bad company because they're displaying news that people want to see, and I don't find it disconcerting in the least that they adjust their coverage to show what people want to watch. What DOES worry me is that people tend to shy away from relevant stories in this way.

Yes, it's an anecdotal example, but it's intended only as a microcosm to understand the decay of media in America. Advertising to a group of people with their heads in the sand is hard. So the media, showing perfect business sense, stays away from it. So we have Paris Hilton, Jimmy the water-skiing squirrel, and so on. Because that's what people watch.

This is not an isolated example. We don't just vote with ballots anymore; in fact, that's the least of it. We vote with our eyes for what material generates high ad revenue. We vote with our wallets on all kinds of things. How many times has somebody thought that it's not a big deal, they can afford a few extra bucks for gas, and bought a Jeep Commander instead of a Prius? How many times has someone thought, maybe I can make back those few dollars I'm losing on gas by shopping at Wal-Mart, despite the fact that I disapprove of their labor practices?

This is, of course, a free country. You may buy a Jeep Commander if you like, and you may shop at Wal-Mart if you like. But do not allow yourself the delusional luxury of believing that your actions exist in a vacuum. When you buy the Commander, you are, using your wallet, voting "no" on whether climate change is an important issue to you. When you shop at Wal-Mart, you are voting "no" on whether workers' rights are important to you. If you don't like the way a company is behaving, DON'T BUY FROM THEM. If you don't like the superficial news coverage that you see on a certain channel, DON'T WATCH IT. You vote every single day, whether you know it or not, for SOMETHING. What you vote for is up to you - if you're informed.