Our American Discourse, Ep. 22: While the World Burns, a More Sustainable Future Is in the Making

At this very moment, wildfires rage across Southern California. Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas are picking up the pieces from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. These are only the latest instances of an increasingly volatile and destructive climate. But there is hope. Even as the United States withdraws from the Paris Agreement “for Sustainable Development,” cities, states, and private companies are rushing to fill the void. Sustainability is becoming a win-win-win: environmentally, socially, and even financially. The question is, are we too late?

In this episode, Christine Harada gives us an optimism that sustainability can prevail — and tangible proof that we can make it happen right in our own backyard.

Continue reading “Our American Discourse, Ep. 22: While the World Burns, a More Sustainable Future Is in the Making”

Guess Who Tried to Prevent the VA Crisis — and Who Stood in Their Way!

The Three Trillion Dollar War

Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz predicted the VA scandal.

Back in 2008, the eminent researchers — one a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, the other a Nobel laureate in economics — published a book called The Three Trillion Dollar War, where they argued that most Americans were drastically underestimating the cost of the Iraq War. They didn’t specifically describe the events that have unfolded in recent weeks, but they did point out the enormous burden that would be placed on the VA system as veterans returned from Iraq — a burden that we were not preparing for.

And that was before the surge in Afghanistan.

Upon taking the oath of office, Barack Obama tripled U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, sending over 60,000 troops into combat. Only now, five years later, have troop levels reverted to the level they were at when he took office. So you can add 60,000 troops for five years on top of the costs projected by Bilmes and Stiglitz — projections that were verified and replicated by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, as well as Nobel laureate Lawrence Klein, the father of modern economic forecasting.

And yet, Congress refused to boost the VA budget.

For years, discretionary funding for the VA health care system had been growing at approximately 6 percent per year, slightly less than health care costs for the average American family, making it the most cost-efficient system in the country. Meanwhile, it ranked at the top of quality rankings, better than all its private competitors, year after year. It was the best medical care system in America.

That is, until the troops came home.

“Republicans beat back a Democratic attempt to provide almost $2 billion in additional health care funding for veterans,” reported the Washington Post in 2005, “rejecting claims that Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals are in crisis.”

The following year, Bilmes told ABC News, “In 2004, the VA had a backlog of 400,000 cases. Last year it was 500,000 cases. Now the backlog is 600,000 cases. That’s just in two years. And the big wave of returning Iraqi veterans has not even hit yet.”

And yet, the VA budget kept growing by 6 percent per year, as if the war didn’t exist at all.

As if that wasn’t a big enough problem… “Proposed cuts in Department of Veterans Affairs spending on major construction and non-recurring maintenance threaten to derail efforts to update the department’s aging infrastructure,” reported the Washington Post in 2012. And so, Democratic Senator Patty Murray led the charge to boost the VA’s construction funding, only to have it beat down by Republicans.

Later that year, Paul Ryan, the Republican chair of the House Budget Committee, released the party’s annual budget proposal. Had it become law, the VA would’ve sustained billions of dollars in budget cuts, forcing smaller facilities to shut down in rural areas.

So it wasn’t surprising to Senator Murray when allegations surfaced of VA hospitals lying about the number of veterans on their waiting lists because they didn’t want the world to know that they were unable to give their patients lifesaving treatments. “In an environment where everybody is told, ‘Keep the cost down. Don’t tell me anything costs more.’ — it creates a culture out there for people to cook the books,” she said in a recent interview.

Who would’ve ever thought, after years of relentless cost-cutting in the halls of Washington, that the federal government actually spends our money on important stuff? Who would’ve thought that wars cost money, and tax cuts cost money, and maintaining our infrastructure costs money? Not the Republicans, that’s for sure. While the Bush administration plunged us into two wars and cut taxes on the rich, who were already taking a bigger piece of the pie than they had since the Roaring Twenties, Republicans in Congress were blocking every Democratic attempt to give the VA the funding they needed to give our veterans the medical care they were promised. And then, when the Obama administration tried to correct this funding crisis, Republicans responded by proposing deeper spending cuts.

Let this be a warning to every politician and every voter who thinks we can cut our way to prosperity: Those dollar figures represent real services that the government provides to real people. Every cut has a cost, and not just in money. In lives.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.

Staying in Afghanistan Is a Recipe for More Terrorism

Global Opposition to U.S. Drone StrikesBarack Obama is daring the terrorists. He’s standing in their front yard. He’s calling them out.

Of course, that’s not how it’s reported. “U.S. ‘nowhere near’ decision to pull all troops out of Afghanistan,” was the understated Reuters headline. Under negotiation is an agreement keeping 8,000 to 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan “through 2024 and beyond.” Also on the table are night raids and drone strikes that Afghan President Hamid Karzai refuses to allow.

This is madness. “If the job is not done,” said the Russian ambassador to Kabul, “then several thousand troops…will not be able to do the job that 150,000 troops couldn’t do.”

The only thing worse than the hopelessness of this plan is the backwardness of it. In an effort to prevent terrorism, we are continuing the very thing that creates terrorism: our presence!

Al Qaeda “has been precise in telling America the reasons [it’s] waging war on us,” according to CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who tracked Osama bin Laden from 1996 to 1999. “None of the reasons have anything to do with our freedom, liberty, and democracy, but have everything to do with U.S. policies and actions in the Muslim world.”

In his book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, political scientist Robert Pape analyzed every known case of suicide bombers from 1980 to 2005. He found that “what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.” Specifically, he discovered that “al Qaeda is today less a product of Islamic fundamentalism than of a simple strategic goal: to compel the United States and its Western allies to withdraw combat forces from the Arabian Peninsula and other Muslim countries.”

The Obama administration can’t pretend that it doesn’t know this fact. In 2004, the Pentagon concluded that “American direct involvement in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies. Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies. [In] the eyes of the Muslim world, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering.”

Firsthand accounts confirm these conclusions. British journalist Johann Hari interviewed former Islamic militants who had since rejected jihad. He probed them, in independent interviews, about what made them join the cause in the first place. “Every one of them said the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 — from Guantanamo to Iraq — made jihadism seem more like an accurate description of the world.” One of them put it this way: “You’d see Bush on the television building torture camps and bombing Muslims and you think — anything is justified to stop this. What are we meant to do, just stand still and let him cut our throats?”

New York Times reporter David Rohde saw this attitude up close when the Taliban held him hostage for seven months. Looking back on his captors, he remembered, “Commanders fixated on the deaths of Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian civilians in military airstrikes, as well as the American detention of Muslim prisoners who had been held for years without being charged.”

BBC journalist Owen Bennett-Jones found the same reaction in his research on the drone strike that killed Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud earlier this year. “Although many Pakistanis were happy that Mehsud was no long threatening them,” Bennett-Jones reports, “their relief was outweighed by the thought that the US’s use of drones in Pakistan was an unacceptable breach of sovereignty and a national humiliation.” The result was “a wave of sympathy in the country” for Mehsud and his fellow terrorists.

“As I travelled around the Middle East during the Arab Spring,” writes Bennett-Jones in this week’s London Review of Books, “the word that most often cropped up in the slogans in various capitals was not ‘freedom’ – the one the Western media recognised and highlighted – but ‘dignity.'”

These are the sad facts of a desperate region. We do not condone their violence, but we must understand their motives.

American troops, night raids, and drone strikes in Afghanistan will only make it easier for terrorists and insurgents to recruit angry young men to fight and die for their cause. By extending the occupation into perpetuity, we are not stopping terrorism at the source, as President Obama would have us believe. We are multiplying their ranks. We are taunting and humiliating them. We are endangering our nation.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.

Looking Overseas Gives Us Reasons to Be Thankful for Obamacare

U.S. Adults Are More Likely to Skip Care and Struggle with Medical Bills Than Adults in Peer Countries

This Thanksgiving, a lot of Americans will be giving thanks for Obamacare.

By the end of this month, HealthCare.gov will be able to handle 800,000 users per day, enough to enroll everyone who needs coverage by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the state-run exchanges are reporting “a November enrollment surge,” precisely as the Obama administration predicted. (Massachusetts also experienced a late enrollment surge when they adopted an individual mandate in 2006.) Everyday, we hear new stories about Americans who are saving thousands of dollars on their insurance costs, including House Speaker John Boehner, whose new Obamacare insurance will cost pennies on the dollar of his six-figure income.

And not a moment too soon. Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Commonwealth Fund published the results of their latest survey of eleven industrialized countries, including the United States, where they asked people about their experiences with the health care system in the past year. Their findings are a sad reminder of just how bad the status quo is — and why we demanded health reform in the first place.

Many Americans don’t go to the doctor when they’re sick because they can’t afford it. Many don’t go to the pharmacy or take their medicine. Add it all up, and 37 percent of Americans had some sort of “cost-related access problem” in the past year.

That kind of problem isn’t nearly as common in the Netherlands, where it only affects 22 percent of the population. Or France, where the number drops to 18 percent. Or Canada, where it’s 13 percent. Or the UK, where it’s 4 percent.

Fair enough, you might say. More people have more access, but they also have to wait in line longer, right? Not necessarily.

In fact, in most countries, the majority of the population could see a doctor within a day of their request. The United States placed second-to-last in this category. A quarter of our population had to wait six days or more — a little better than Canada, but far worse than Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the UK.

But that’s primary care. The United States is known for its specialists, where 76 percent of the population got an appointment in less than four weeks and only 6 percent had to wait two months or more. That’s a heck of a lot better than Australia, where only 51 percent got an appointment in less than four weeks and 18 percent had to wait two months or more. Or Canada, where the numbers are 39 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

But it’s about the same as the Netherlands, where the numbers are 75 percent and 3 percent. And the UK, where they’re 80 percent and 7 percent. And even Germany isn’t far behind, at 72 percent and 10 percent.

So it’s a mixed bag, but we’re certainly not in the lead.

In most countries, it’s a lot easier to get after-hours care than in the United States. Only 35 percent of American doctors have an arrangement to take care of their patients after the office is closed — by far the lowest percentage of all the countries surveyed. In Canada, it’s 46 percent. In France, it’s 76 percent. In Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK, it’s 90 percent or higher.

And the doctors have a lot more problems in the United States, where the paperwork piles up. One in three — 32 percent — reported significant paperwork or payment problems in 2013, compared to 23 percent in France, 17 percent in Germany, 15 percent in Canada, and 4 percent in the UK.

No wonder everyone else is happier with their health care than we are.

Only 25 percent of Americans think their health system works well. In the other countries, that approval rating ranges from 40 percent in France to 63 percent in the UK.

Whereas 27 percent of Americans think the health system needs to be completely rebuilt, that disapproval rating ranges from 12 percent in Norway to 4 percent in the UK.

That’s a lot of numbers, but they all tell the same story: The United States has the most complicated, most expensive, and most frustrating health care system in the industrialized world — and none of that is due to Obamacare, most of which took effect after the survey.

In fact, Obamacare is moving our system closer to our international counterparts. Based on these numbers, I’d say that’s definitely something to be thankful for.

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An abbreviated version of this op-ed was published in Friday’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel. This version was published in the Huffington Post.

Four Myths — and the Truth! — About the Individual Mandate

Obamacare Individual Mandate Penalty

Last week, the Obama administration announced that it was delaying the “employer mandate” in the Affordable Care Act, the part that requires large employers to provide health insurance to their employees. The employer mandate was supposed to take effect in 2014. Now, it’s scheduled to begin in 2015.

This week, Congressional Republicans have responded by demanding that the “individual mandate” be postponed a year as well. This proposal has prompted a debate filled with misunderstandings and misleading propaganda. Here’s the truth behind the myths…

Myth #1: Next year, everyone who doesn’t have health insurance will have to pay a $2,000 penalty.

The most basic problem with the individual mandate is that no one seems to know exactly what it is. I’ve heard people throw out all sorts of numbers, most of which make it sound more expensive than it really is.

Here’s what the ACA actually says: Next year, in 2014, every adult who doesn’t have health insurance will have to pay a $95 penalty. Every child will have to pay $47.50. If you file taxes as a family instead of an individual, the penalty is $285 or 1 percent of your family’s income, whichever is greater.

That’s a far cry from $2,000.

In 2015, the penalty goes up to $325 for adults, $162.50 for children, and $975 or 2 percent of income for families. In 2016, it reaches its peak of $695 for adults, $347.50 for children, and $2,085 or 2.5 percent of income for families. That’s probably where the $2,000 figure came from. As you can see, it’s not nearly as burdensome in the proper context.

Myth #2: The individual mandate can be postponed with little or no negative consequences.

Beginning on January 1, 2014, insurance companies will no longer be able to charge different premiums to different consumers based on health status, a.k.a. “pre-existing conditions.” The only factors they can consider in setting premiums are geography, age, tobacco use, and individual versus family plans.

They cannot charge women more than men. They cannot charge sick consumers more than healthy ones. They cannot charge you more if you work in an industry that happens to have higher health care costs. They cannot raise your premium if you’ve gotten sick while you’ve been on their plan.

This is one of the most popular parts of the ACA. It appeals to our sense of basic fairness. Most Americans consider it an outrage that insurers have been discriminating against women and the sick.

But there’s a problem with these new rules: If insurers charge the same premiums for healthy and sick people, the healthy ones can no longer pay the cheaper rates they’ve been used to. As a result, they won’t buy insurance, leaving only the sick people in the pool. Sick people are expensive for insurers. They receive more health care than they pay for. Insurers will have to raise premiums in what is known as a “death spiral,” making insurance unaffordable for everyone.

That’s why we need the individual mandate. In order for these new rules to work, everyone has to buy insurance, including healthy people. If Congressional Republicans get their way and postpone the individual mandate, we could be looking at astronomically high insurance premiums in 2014.

Myth #3: The individual mandate was first invented and proposed by Democrats.

In October 1989, the conservative Heritage Foundation, a leading Republican think tank, published the first policy paper proposing an individual mandate. In November 1993, Republican Senator John H. Chafee introduced the first bill in Congress that contained an individual mandate. The bill had 18 Republican co-sponsors.

The individual mandate was a Republican invention from a time when it was not yet heresy for a Republican politician to advocate providing affordable health insurance to every American without a government takeover of the industry.

Myth #4: The individual mandate is socialized insurance.

Why are we still talking about Canada and England? Just the other day, I received an email from a Republican reader reciting the problems with government-run health insurance. So what? ObamaCare is nothing like the Canadian or British system.

The individual mandate requires Americans to buy private insurance. That’s why insurance companies have posted double-digit gains on the stock market since the ACA became law. The values of Aetna and UnitedHealth have nearly doubled in only three years.

In fact, no major American politician is proposing a government-run system. Like it or not, private insurance will be around for a long time to come. The only question is, will everyone be able to afford it?

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An abbreviated version of this op-ed was published in yesterday’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.