Category Archives: All Politics Is Local

Why the Healthy Should Buy Health Insurance

I’m the daughter and sister of insurance agents. I understand that an insurance program is an agreement to provide buyers of insurance with funds to overcome some kind of misfortune. Examples include automobile accidents, house fires, and illnesses, to name a few.

For the insurance provider not to go broke, payments into the insurance program must be enough to accumulate funds needed to pay out for the misfortunes.

A provider of automobile accident insurance would soon go broke if the provider allowed people to begin the insurance after having an accident. Likewise, so would a company providing house insurance if people were allowed to begin fire insurance after having a fire and expecting to receive funds.

In a sense, insurance programs are community programs. Some are profit driven. Others, like social security for the elderly, are not. Even with social security, however, workers are required pay into social security whether they know they will live to old age or not.

Popular sections of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) include the provisions covering preexisting conditions and those guaranteeing people’s continued coverage even if they get sick.

Highly unpopular, however, is the mandate that all must purchase health insurance or pay a penalty.

Unfortunately, adopting a plan with the first two requirements is most likely impossible unless all people are required to have a policy or pay a penalty. Health insurance, no more than car or house insurance, needs regular payments over a long period of time to balance the outgoing.

Otherwise, it becomes too expensive. The cost of caring for sick people is too expensive unless a large group of people pay for coverage.

Of course, people with health insurance are more likely to enjoy good health than people without it.

If their insurance covers doctor visits, they are more likely to have regular checkups. They are more likely to visit a doctor when they first have symptoms of an illness rather than later when the illness may require longer and more expensive treatment.

The term”health” insurance is instructive. The primary goal is better health, rather than paying to correct ill health. It’s also less expensive in the long run.

Deep State: What Is It, and Do We Have One?

A “conspiracy of powerful, unelected bureaucrats secretly pursing their own agenda” is one definition of a deep state, according to Jon D. Michaels in Foreign Affairs. ( “Trump and the Deep State,” September/October 2017).

This type of nation does exist, says Michaels. As examples, he includes Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey, “where shadowy elites in the military and government ministries have been known to countermand or simply defy democratic directives.”

The United States, Michaels points out, is operated much more transparently than the countries mentioned above.

That is why President Trump complains so much about the established news media. Freedom of the press is not some slogan spouted by politicians. It’s been ingrained in our national fabric since before the American Revolution.

When I applied for and eventually was accepted into the U.S. Foreign Service, I had to pass both written and oral exams. Nothing on the exams concerned my political persuasions or my voting record.

My class of Foreign Service officers included various ages and educational levels and previous occupational experience. The dedication, especially of the younger members, impressed me. None of us came in because of who we knew. None of us were political appointees.

The U.S. government is run by and large by mid-level bureaucrats, more of whom live outside Washington than in. These mid-level workers are not appointed by some presidential cabal or political party. They are hired over the years based on professional merit. They run the government and remain through various administrations.

Writes Michaels: “U.S. administrative fragmentation makes it hard for things to get done—but it also makes the notion of a coordinated, secret conspiracy by multiple state actors laughable.”

Landing of Another Black Swan

Hurricane Harvey developed in a short time to an unprecedented rain maker. These unexpected events, sometimes likened to rare black swans, have a way of changing our viewpoints.

As we see nursing home patients waist deep in water in their wheelchairs and families struggling to carry their children to safety, our perceptions change.

We do, in fact, need strong government agencies to rescue these people, to give care in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and to support them in the long term as they seek to rebuild their lives and businesses.

Ordinary citizens will show compassion. Charitable organizations will help, but we will need organized aid that only a strong central government can provide. We will need more money to rebuild, yes, in Texas, but ultimately to replace older infrastructure all over the country.

We all know how unpopular taxes are. Yet taxes are how these programs are paid for. Our tax system must be reformed in a way that does not weigh heaviest on the middle and working classes. Some taxes, like a sales tax, weigh on the poor as well.

Despite the present political dysfunction, our elected representatives still can come together for a tax system that is fair and asks from the rich what it already demands from the non-rich. Taxes on corporations may indeed be too high, but so are the tax breaks available to them and rarely to ordinary citizens.

At some point, for the United States to continue as a developed society, we will need more money to maintain and improve it—infrastructure, education, preventive health care, security, and hosts of other needs. Middle income citizens are already paying their fair share.

More black swans will land in the future, and we need to prepare for them.

Embassies Without Ambassadors: Who’s In Charge?

About a third of U.S. ambassadors are political appointees under any given president, Democratic or Republican. Massive campaign contributions often count in such appointments.

These appointments are normally to European countries or perhaps to Caribbean island nations. Political ambassadors are rarely appointed to what are known as danger or hardship posts, like Pakistan or Sierra Leone. Those are for the career diplomats.

Unlike most developed nations, we think nothing of sending a diplomatic neophyte to serve in the capitals of our important allies.

Nevertheless, even political appointments have been slow for our current presidential administration. Take Switzerland. The country has been without a U.S. ambassador for seven months, since the ambassador, a political ambassador, resigned, as is customary for political appointees when a new president takes office.

Who’s directing the embassy in Switzerland? As in all of these ambassador-less posts, the second in command oversees operations, almost always a career diplomat, a U.S. Foreign Service professional. In this case, Tara Feret Erath, serves as temporary overseer.

Ms. Erath has served at U.S. posts in Afghanistan, Belgium, Brazil, France, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She speaks German, French, and Portuguese.

One wonders why they don’t just appoint Ms. Erath to be the ambassador.

How The Hiring Freeze Affects Lives

The White House announced a government hiring freeze soon after the current administration took office in January.

Blanket orders often are not well thought out and can have unintended consequences. A recent article in The Foreign Service Journal (July/August, 2017) pinpointed one such consequence. Foreign Service officers, the Americans who staff U.S. embassies and consulates overseas, transfer frequently, moving with their families from one assignment to another.

As American citizens, spouses often fill critical positions at posts, as they move with husbands and wives. The hiring freeze means that they cannot be hired for jobs at their spouse’s new post. They cannot serve as office managers, back up visa officers as they interview foreigners, or help security officers with classified data.

Many of these spouses staff critical positions in U.S. embassies and consulates . The government saves money because they already are in the country and do not have to be moved there or paid housing allowances and other expenses to take the jobs.

Family members who had jobs lined up have suddenly had to change plans. Some must pay for unexpected housing back in Washington as the spouse waits there for the freeze to end. Others must do without the planned salary from the job while waiting at post.

One view from a long-term spouse: “. . . there is absolutely no indication that this administration has any interest in mission staffing, from either a practical or a morale perspective.”

Another says, “It is devastating for families and demoralizing for those blocked out of positions.”

Not to mention damage to U.S. diplomacy as supporting roles remain unfilled.

  Experts Propose; Politicians Decide

“Some of the smartest people on earth have a significant presence on the Internet. Some of the stupidest people, however, reside just one click away.” (Tom Nichols, “How America Lost Faith in Expertise,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2017.)

From taxation to terrorism, we often follow events haphazardly or don’t follow them at all, busy with other things. Yet if we don’t stay on top of the issues that affect our lives, we cede the outcomes to those who yell the loudest and receive the most attention.

It’s easy to do. We live in a complex world, difficult to grasp, not only for us but for our elected representatives as well.

How important, then, Nichols writes, “to choose representatives who can act wisely on our behalf,” representatives willing to listen to those with knowledge of a particular subject.

“Experts can only propose; elected leaders dispose. And politicians are very rarely experts on any of the innumerable subjects that come before them for a decision. . . . China policy and health care and climate change and immigration and taxation, all at the same time . . ..”

Forget those closed legislative sessions, shutting out both the public and those who spend their lives studying the issues that affect us.

As Senator John McCain recently pointed out, the most important consideration isn’t winning the next election but governing wisely for the people.

Dictatorship: Such an Efficient Form of Government

From the standpoint of efficiency, dictatorship is attractive. No lengthy election campaigns. No disagreement among the dictator’s supporters. No troubling scrutiny from a questioning press.

After a period of wars and uncertainty, some populations welcome a strong man (usually a man) like Hitler, who will end strife and allow citizens more certainty to go about their lives.

The problem is that even the most patriotic strongman is often corrupted by the power he possesses. He will begin to believe that he has all knowledge and that everything he does is ordained by a higher reality. He often attempts to pass power to family members and close friends, founding, in reality, a family fief.

No legislature or judiciary holds a dictator in check. The progress he might make when first taking office dissipates into cronyism and nepotism, a selfish dividing of a country’s resources among a few top contenders.

Representative government, by contrast, can be messy and time consuming, but over the long run has the potential to better serve the citizens.

However, the disadvantage of representative government is that, if it is to work, competent people must be elected. For that to happen, the electorate must be informed about issues.

In other words, effective government is more about us, not the leaders. It has to do with the responsibility we take or don’t take as citizens to learn and vote intelligently.

We Love to Hate Foreign Aid

Possibly no program of the United States government is more despised by Americans than aid given by the U.S. to other countries.

A cartoon depicts one taxpayer saying to the Internal Revenue Service: “I hope you give my money to some nice country.”

The cartoon is based on a myth but one widely believed: that the U.S. gives money by the fistfuls to other countries for social programs.

In fact, about one percent of the U.S. budget proposed by Obama in 2016 went to foreign aid, including military aid.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study in 2015 found that the average American thought about 26 percent of the U.S. budget went to foreign assistance.

The five countries who receive the most aid are: Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan.

Much of the aid is military assistance, overseen by the Department of Defense.

A much smaller percentage of the aid budget is for humanitarian assistance programs, such as those dealing with health and food, usually overseen by the Department of State.

Any program devised by humans can always be made better and more efficient. Certainly changing times demand new ways of doing things.

However, in calling for drastic cuts at the Department of State of about 29 percent, the budget may cut assistance programs that benefit both the recipients and the United States.

They include programs to cut down on infections from AIDS, to prevent maternal deaths from childbirth, and to provide services for improving children’s health. Healthy, educated children grow into productive adults, more likely to contribute to a functioning society, one that resists radicalism and terrorism.

In fighting diseases like the Ebola virus, containment is easier when the U.S. already has established health programs, as well as personnel, in the affected countries in embassies and other missions.

For a better understanding of foreign aid, explore a link from the Council on Foreign Relations.

They’re Walking Out the Door: What “Draining the Swamp” Means

David Rank, senior U.S. diplomat to China, recently resigned because he said he could not, in good conscience, represent President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord to the Chinese government. Walking out the door was a diplomat with twenty-seven years of foreign policy experience and one reported to be fluent in the language of the country where he supported U.S. foreign policy.

Rank said the withdrawal from the Paris accord broke three barriers for him. It was a mistake from a foreign policy perspective. It bothered him as a parent. And it conflicted with his Christian faith.

When we talk blithely about cleaning the government’s house, we should remember the sacrifices some of those supposed “swamp dwellers” have endured. In an interview with Robert Siegel on NPR (June 28 2017), Rank alluded to career duties that caused him to be absent during family milestones: the birth of one of his children and also the deaths of his parents.

Others have given more. Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed by a mob in Libya as he attempted to carry out U.S. foreign policy in that country. Anne Smedinghoff, a young political diplomacy officer, was killed by a roadside bomb while on the way to deliver books to Afghan school children.

We so often win militarily but neglect the harder issues that follow. The needs remaining after the end of a war require day to day contact with shattered populations trying to rebuild.

The hard work of building a functioning society will be done, if it is done, by the local governments. This is when we need American diplomats to work with them to push again and again for a society that serves its people, not a few warlords, their corruption tempting the re-emergence of radicals. The work needs to be targeted and appropriate. It takes time and it requires a trained, focused diplomatic effort.

Will enough people remain for those efforts after we drain the swamp?

Attacking the Right to Know

Long before the American Revolution, Americans created a free press, enshrining the right to know what their leaders are doing and to comment on their actions.

In the mid 1730’s, the newspaper owner of the New York Weekly Journal, John Peter Zenger, severely criticized a corrupt royal governor. Zenger was charged before the court with seditious libel. His lawyer argued that Zenger had printed the truth, even if it was critical of the governor. Based on that argument, the jury refused to convict Zenger. Over a period of time, this judgement contributed to truth as the principal argument for press freedom during times of controversy.

A Sedition Act in the tumultuous 1790’s, held that anyone who impeded the policies of the government or defamed its officials, including the president, would be subject to fine and imprisonment. Enforcement ended after Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800.

The United States has suffered many divisive periods. What is presented as news has not always been as responsible as it might have been. However, the right of citizens to debate and criticize their officials in the media is a long-cherished stone in the wall against abuse of power by those in office.

President Trump appears unable to accept criticism. Even further, his administration apparently wishes to banish any unfavorable reporting about his administration’s policies. Trump and his officials brand even reputable, long established news organizations as existing to create “fake” news.

Check Trump’s own tweets for a long list of unsubstantiated fake news.

One only has to consider Russia or Turkey to see what happens when people who disagree with officials are silenced.

We Need a Third Political Party, Maybe Even a Fourth

Our two main political parties once cooperated to govern the country. Now, according to reports, Democrats and Republicans are hardening to the extent that parents supporting one party become upset if their children wish to marry someone from the other party.

Third parties have been around for a long time, but they tend to focus on a few issues. What if enough brave politicians (hopefully this term is not an oxymoron) broke off from one or, better, both political parties, to form a true third party. This party would not be tied to a few particular issues but have a broad agenda like Democrats and Republicans do now, but a moderate one.

This new party would be a centrist party. As a minority third party, members would often hold the deciding votes on congressional legislation. They would shore up either Democrats or Republicans at different times, depending on a need to swing left or right to correct extremist views. A third party would polish off the hard edges of polarization and enable Congress to function again.

It might attract those who are so turned off by traditional political parties that they don’t vote.

Alternatively, we might create not one, but two political parties. One would be center left and one center right. They would counteract swings to hard left or hard right.

We need another party (or two) for better choices.

Praise for the Senate Health Care Bill

Dr. Ben Danielson, senior medical director at a Seattle children’s clinic, commented on the current health care bill before the Senate:

“I have to start off by, I guess, congratulating all the millionaires on the incredible gift they are about to get. I always wondered what you get for the person who has everything, and now I know; it’s cutting benefits to young children, poor families, the infirm, the elderly.”(Quoted by Danny Westneat, The Seattle Times, “Doctor Calls GOP’s Bluff on Health Bill,” June 25, 2017.)

The sarcasm of the obviously frustrated doctor aside, what might a truly praiseworthy health care bill look like?

First of all, it would provide preventive based health care for every American. The goal is health care that encourages healthy lives, not just paying medical bills when we are sick.

Compare it to preventive maintenance on our cars. People who care about their vehicles don’t wait to change the oil after it’s become so dirty that it begins to damage the engine. We change oil at set times and perform other maintenance checks as well: brakes, tires, and so on.

Preventive health care requires care for the healthy at least as much as for the sick. It works best when it begins early and lasts throughout life. Requiring all to buy health insurance that pays for regular checkups saves money in the long run.

Today, the money we spend on health insurance for the elderly is more expensive because we didn’t begin it an earlier age.

Starting healthcare at the beginning of a life has the potential to lessen drug abuse, not to mention obesity and other health challenges.

Prevention is so much less expensive than emergency room management.