Who’s protecting abusive payday lending? Follow the money.

March 29, 2015

Legislation to rein in payday lenders, who trap some of Kentucky’s most vulnerable people in cycles of debt, died last week in the state Senate, but federal regulators are now stepping up to the plate.

payday-loanSen. Alice Forgy Kerr, a Lexington Republican, sponsored a bill that would limit payday loan interest rates, which can approach 400 percent, to 36 percent, the limit the U.S. Department of Defense sets for loans to military personnel.

The bill was supported by consumer advocates, as well as by both liberal and conservative church groups on moral grounds. But it died in the State and Local Government Committee. Wonder if that had anything to do with the payday lending industry’s campaign contributions to some legislators?

Last Thursday, President Barack Obama and the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced plans for a federal crackdown on payday lenders.

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Lexington Republican who has received several hundred thousand dollars in contributions from financial services companies, issued a press release March 19 about proposed legislation to curb the CFPB’s “reckless regulatory overreaches.”

Looks more like an attempt to muzzle a watchdog that protects citizens from Barr’s corporate benefactors.

Fancy Farm: unfiltered politics and spicy barbecue worth the trip

August 2, 2014

140802FancyFarm-TE0027 Jim Weise, a retired Army lawyer from Elizabethtown, campaigns for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell at the Fancy Farm Picnic. Photo by Tom Eblen



FANCY FARM — This time each year, I am often asked why I drive four hours to a tiny town and sit in sweltering heat to hear politicians make wisecracks and partisan crowds scream at them. It can’t just be for the barbecue.

No, I tell them, it isn’t just for the barbecue. But my share of the nine tons of spicy pork and mutton, home-grown vegetables and homemade pies prepared by the good folks of St. Jerome Parish is always worth the drive.

I go to the Fancy Farm Picnic because, in this age of big-money lobbyists and TV attack ads, it is the only place where Kentucky’s most powerful politicians must face voters from both sides, the press and each other in a setting they can’t control.

The 134th annual picnic Saturday did not disappoint. And the stars of the show — Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes — performed well under pressure.

Partisan activists come in from all over the region to crowd under a metal roof — Democratics on one side, Republicans on the other — wave signs, cheer their candidates and boo their opponents. This year’s crowd was reportedly the biggest in history, but it did a better job than usual of heeding organizers’ pleas for civility.

The main attraction was the Senate race, because it is the first time in decades that Democrats have a shot at beating the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history.

Polls show McConnell and Grimes essentially tied with an undecided electorate of less than 10 percent.

McConnell is an old pro on the Fancy Farm stump, and he focused his remarks on trying to paint Grimes as an inexperienced novice and puppet of liberals and President Barack Obama. He likened her lack of experience for high office to Obama, who ran for the presidency while in his first term as a senator from Illinois.

“He was only two years into his first job when he started campaigning for the next one. Sound familiar?” McConnell said of Obama. “He really didn’t have any qualifications at all. Sound familiar?”

I had to wonder if McConnell’s comments made his Republican colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, squirm in his seat on the stage. Paul, an eye surgeon, was elected in 2010 with no previous government experience, and he is now actively pursuing presidential ambitions.

Grimes, 35, was 6 years old when McConnell, 72, first took office in 1985. But she showed no respect for her elder. She accused him of being a Washington obstructionist who is out of touch with working Kentuckians and their needs. She said creating jobs, raising the minimum wage and legislation requiring equal pay for women would be her priorities.

Will Fancy Farm change the Senate race? Probably not, because neither candidate made any serious missteps. As the old saying goes, a good Fancy Farm performance doesn’t really help a candidate, but a bad performance can ruin a campaign.

The picnic gave an early preview of next year’s governor’s race, with Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway promoting his candidacy and Republican Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer making his bid official.

State Auditor Adam Edelen, who decided against running for governor next year, is still one of the Democrats’ best stump speakers and clearly sees a future for himself in politics. Appearances by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo made people wonder if they are eyeing bigger ambitions.

Sure, Fancy Farm might be nothing more than a lot of political theater packaged with great food. But it sure beats TV attack ads.

The morning after: Where does America go from here?

November 7, 2012

No matter which presidential candidate you voted for, you should take a few minutes today to watch the classy speeches both men gave to their supporters in the wee hours of this morning.

There are some common themes in these speeches that conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, must embrace if America is to remain a great and prosperous nation.

Election campaigns necessarily focus on our differences and competing ideas. But governing an almost evenly divided nation requires building consensus around shared goals and values. If there is one lesson we can draw from the past four years, this is it: When governing becomes nothing more than a constant political campaign, the result is gridlock.

This is the question Americans face the morning after this election: Do we want to keep fighting, or work together to solve our problems?

We can learn some lessons from the pre-election hurricane

November 4, 2012

It didn’t take long for a couple of fringe preachers to proclaim that Hurricane Sandy was God’s retribution for homosexuality and other aspects of society they don’t like.

Such freakish, attention-seeking claims have become as common as the freakish weather that inspires them. But that doesn’t mean God or the forces of nature aren’t trying to tell us something.

There are a couple of obvious lessons in this pre-election hurricane, which killed at least 40 people and caused perhaps $50 billion worth of damage in the Northeast.

The first lesson is that Americans and their leaders should stop ignoring climate change and its increasingly disastrous effects. As the new cover of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine says in bold letters above a news photo of a flooded cityscape, “It’s global warming, stupid.”

Scientists say climate change can’t be directly blamed for any particular storm, or even hurricanes in general. But there is strong scientific evidence that man’s carbon emissions have increased the frequency and severity of destructive weather.

Global warming has caused sea levels to rise, and that magnified the storm surge responsible for so much of Sandy’s destruction.

Yet, climate change has barely been mentioned during the presidential campaign of 2012, which may end up being the warmest year on record. You can attribute that to willful ignorance and complacency on the part of a large segment of the population — and the encouragement of that ignorance and complacency by powerful business interests and the politicians who do their bidding.

You can find some of the most blatant examples of this in Kentucky, where the coal industry and its favored politicians have waged a “war on coal” propaganda campaign, which in reality is a campaign against clean air, clean water and public health.

Appalachian coal reserves are dwindling and cheap natural gas has eroded coal’s markets, but the industry seems determined to extract every last bit of profit from Kentucky, no matter how much damage it does.

The lack of action to address climate change underscores a failure of leadership in both government and business.

President Barack Obama rarely spoke about climate change during this campaign, because he knew it would hurt him politically. Instead, he trumpeted domestic oil drilling and “clean coal” technology, which is still more oxymoron than reality.

Challenger Mitt Romney was even worse. At the Republican National Convention, he mentioned climate change only mockingly. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” he said. “My promise is to help you and your family.”

There is strong scientific consensus on climate change, but acknowledging and addressing it remains politically controversial. That is because fighting climate change would threaten economic interests invested in the status quo — and because it would require citizens and businesses to make some sacrifices. Heaven forbid that any American should be asked to sacrifice, even if the future of mankind may depend on it.

And that brings us to a second obvious lesson from Hurricane Sandy.

For at least three decades, many political leaders — especially Republicans — have won elections by offering simplistic and unrealistic solutions to increasingly difficult problems. Tell voters what they want to hear, then blame the consequences on the other guys.

Storms such as hurricanes Sandy and Katrina underscore the inadequacy of our aging national infrastructure — and the likelihood that climate change will force us to repair and rebuild it more frequently in the future.

Rather than cutting taxes, piling up debt and wasting money on unnecessary weapons systems and wars of choice, we should be investing in the physical and human infrastructure that will keep America safe, secure and economically prosperous in the future.

Natural disasters remind us that sufficient and efficient government is essential. During the GOP primary, Romney suggested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s work could be turned back to the states, or even privatized.

Since Hurricane Sandy, though, he has ignored reporters’ questions on the subject.

If religious leaders are seeking sermon topics from this pre-election hurricane, here are a few possibilities: greed, selfishness, complacency and why leadership matters.


Musings, ‘malarkey’ and other stuff from the Veep debate

October 14, 2012

The vice presidential candidates came to Kentucky for one of the most substantive debates in years — a clear, energetic argument over policy differences that left their bosses’ recent performance in the dust.

Here are some observations from Thursday night’s debate at Centre College in Danville between Vice President Joe Biden and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Memorable malarkey

Political pundits love memorable debate lines, and they figured these two Irish Catholic candidates would not disappoint. Only minutes into the debate, Biden delivered the first of many colorful rebuttals to Ryan’s sometimes inaccurate characterizations of the Obama administration’s record.

“With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey,” Biden said, using an old-fashioned Irish term for nonsense. “This is a bunch of stuff,” he continued, puzzling moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who asked what he meant.

“Well it means it’s simply inaccurate,” Biden explained.

“It’s Irish,” Ryan added.

“We Irish call it malarkey,” Biden continued.

Photo by Mark Cornelison

Biden seemed determined not to repeat Obama’s mistake of not aggressively challenging Romney’s characterizations of the nation’s problems, how they came about and how the administration has tried to address them.

When Ryan criticized the more than $800 billion in federal “stimulus” spending the Obama administration used early in its term to try to keep the Great Recession it inherited from becoming a depression, Biden made a spirited defense.

Republicans have claimed “stimulus” spending as a waste of money that created no jobs, although the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that it created between 1.4 million and 3.3 million jobs.

Biden then tried to make Ryan look like a hypocrite by noting that he had twice sought “stimulus” money for Wisconsin companies.

No pushover

Ryan, who at age 42 is 27 years younger than Biden, was poised and articulate. He calmly held his own for most of the debate.

Ryan was a much more convincing advocate for conservative economic policies than Romney, who in his first debate suddenly morphed from an arch-conservative trying to shore up his base to a moderate trying to win over undecided voters.

Ryan and Biden’s point-counterpoint arguments about Social Security, Medicare, tax policy and approaches to deficit reduction underscored the sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats on economic issues. It was as good a discussion by party standard-bearers as voters are likely to hear this fall.

Ryan had done his homework and spoke knowledgeably about foreign policy. But while he sharply criticized the Obama administration’s actions regarding Libya, Iran and Syria, he was unable to say specifically what a Romney administration would do differently.

That gave Biden an opening to portray Ryan and Romney’s criticisms as “bluster” and “loose talk”. He implied that their attitudes could be as dangerous as the Bush administration swagger that got America mired in long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The last thing we need now is another war,” Biden said.

No ‘civility’ pledge

For the record, both campaigns declined a request from Centre’s student government leaders to sign a new “civility pledge.” The pledge was a voluntary but popular student initiative last year intended to govern their own conduct.

The pledge says: “I promise to do my best, be my best, and respect the members and property of our Centre community.”

“They thought it was a good idea, but I think they were averse to setting a precedent,” said Patrick Cho, Centre’s student government president. “It was disappointing, but I understand why.”

Debate demeanor

Televised debates are as much about theatrical performance as substance. How a candidate presents himself is often more important than what he has to say. Most voters seem to want confident, empathetic leaders, not policy wonks.

Aggressiveness tends to be seen as a sign of strength, as long as it doesn’t go too far. Passivity is viewed a sign of weakness. But the line is thin and subjective.

Republicans complained after the debate that Biden was rude and condescending toward Ryan. But Democrats said the same thing about Romney’s demeanor toward Obama during their Oct. 3 debate in Denver. What do most undecided voters think? We will find out on election day.


Can Biden’s Danville performance give Obama campaign a rebound?

October 7, 2012

Who could have guessed that President Barack Obama would suddenly be depending on Vice President Joe Biden’s communications skills to get his re-election campaign back on track? That’s right, the same Joe Biden who has an uncanny ability to say the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But that’s the way it is as Centre College in Danville plays host Thursday to Campaign 2012’s next big event: the only vice presidential debate between Biden and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Centre was already feeling good about having been chosen to host the veep debate for the second time in a dozen years. Now, thanks to Obama’s feeble performance last Wednesday in his first debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even more attention will be focused on Danville.

“The interest and the contacts have really picked up in the past few days,” said Centre spokesman Michael Strysick.

More than 3,200 media credentials have been issued for the debate, including 600 to international journalists and broadcast technicians from 40 countries.

Credentialing closed a couple of weeks ago, but interest was already strong because of Ryan’s selection for the GOP ticket. It raised hopes that this would be more than the usual vice presidential debate — a sparring match between two people whose election is of no real consequence unless something happens to the president.

When Biden faced off four years ago in St. Louis against Sarah Palin, much of the anticipation focused on whether she would be able to convey a coherent thought.

But Ryan is the anti-Palin: smart and articulate, with a strong command of policy and data. He is one of conservatism’s rising intellectuals. Among many GOP faithful, especially Tea Party types, Ryan is more popular and respected than Romney.

During 14 years in the House, Ryan has become a leader in developing and proposing conservative fiscal policies. He is most famous for his draconian budget plan that would cut $5 trillion in government spending over a decade.

While Biden is an experienced legislator who campaigns with a man-of-the-people folksiness, he has never been considered a thought leader. House Speaker John Boehner predicted this summer that the Ryan-Biden debate could be “the greatest show on the planet.”

“With these two on the same stage,” Village Voice political blogger John Surico wrote last week, “we have a situation that is akin to a Thanksgiving Dinner where the dorky cousin is trying to outsmart the drunken uncle.”

But if Biden can avoid his gift of gaffe, he has a chance do well on Centre’s stage. That is because televised debates are more about performance than policy. They favor showmen over wonks, which is a big reason that Romney came off looking so much better than Obama did last Wednesday night.

Obama didn’t make mistakes; he just missed opportunities. He rambled while Romney was crisp. He was passive while Romney was assertive. Romney’s sudden shift from right-wing rhetoric to moderate reason seemed to throw Obama off balance. Romney looked straight into the camera when he spoke; Obama’s eyes were too often focused elsewhere.

The single vice presidential debate is particularly well-suited for sharp elbows. The debaters often can get away with saying meaner things than the top guys on the ticket. Both Ryan and Biden are likely to spend more time going after the presidential candidate who isn’t there than the guy across the stage.

Debates tend to favor challengers, because incumbents have a record to defend. But, in this case, Biden has an opportunity to make hay by attacking Ryan’s radical proposals for reshaping the federal budget and Medicare.

Ryan is coming to Danville to attack the Obama administration’s record, but also to try to sell his and Romney’s ideas.

Biden’s challenge will be to defend the administration’s record and explain why Romney and Ryan are wrong. He must show more passion and energy than Obama did last week. But here’s the question: Can Biden go on the offensive without being offensive?

Kentucky’s moment in the campaign spotlight should be a good show.


Cutting spending shouldn’t shortchange investment

January 30, 2011

As I was watching President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech on TV Tuesday night, I got a text message on my cell phone from Mayor Jim Gray: “Geez I think the prez is gonna start talking abt Henry Clay next!”

Obama had just been saying that, while huge deficits require some cuts in federal spending, the nation must renew its commitment to investing in the research and infrastructure needed to ensure long-term economic prosperity.

The president did not mention Clay, the U.S. senator, House Speaker and four-time presidential candidate from Lexington who lived from 1777 to 1852. But Gray had referred to him repeatedly a few hours earlier when he delivered a similar message in his first State of the Merged Government speech.

Gray said that while Lexington government must stop spending more than it takes in, the city still must find ways to make smart investments for the future.

“In order to make our city a center of economic innovation, we must keep growing our quality-of-life infrastructure,” Gray said, noting the city’s recent investments in downtown streets and sidewalks, rural land preservation, the arts and recreational trails.

He also called for a privately financed study to assess the costs and benefits of renovating and expanding Rupp Arena and the adjacent downtown convention center. Those facilities are important drivers of Lexington’s economy, and they must remain competitive, he said.

“Business men and women recognize there are times when we have to spend money to make money by investing in the brand,” Gray said.

Nobody embodied that economic truth more than Henry Clay.

Clay is best remembered as “the great compromiser” for his ability to cut deals with opposing political factions. But perhaps his greatest legacy was what he called the “American System.” That involved federal investment in roads, canals and other infrastructure to promote both economic development and national security.

Clay argued that public infrastructure was essential for American industry to compete with foreign imports, which then came from Britain rather than China. Then, as now, free-market extremists objected. Clay’s nemesis was Andrew Jackson, who if he were alive today would probably be trying to lead the Tea Party.

Their big showdown came when President Jackson vetoed federal funding for the road between Lexington and the Ohio River at Maysville — essentially what we now know as U.S. Highway 68. Clay said the road was important for interstate commerce in the growing West, but Jackson thought federal funding for it was unconstitutional. Over time, Clay’s beliefs prevailed. Had they not, the union would not likely have survived the Civil War.

In their zeal to slash most “government spending,” Tea Partiers also want to stop decades of public investment in infrastructure, education, social welfare, health care, the arts and quality of life. But where would American free enterprise be today without that investment?

How could businesses have prospered without roads, bridges, airports and public education — not to mention all of the federally funded basic medical research and that government project now known as the Internet?

Free markets are good. But if everything were left up to the ebb and flow of the marketplace, Americans would be less healthy, less educated and have far less economic opportunity.

The strong cities and nations of the future won’t get that way by private investment and individual effort alone. That is why, for example, China and other nations are investing billions in clean energy research and technology while many American companies prefer to fund political and public relations campaigns to deny both climate change and inevitable change.

Government taxing and spending is a delicate balance that must constantly be debated and adjusted. But just as excessive public debt and wasteful spending are bad for the economy, so is a failure to make sufficient public investments in the future.

People who call for simplistic solutions to complex problems put America’s economic future and national security at risk, as Clay recognized nearly two centuries ago.

History may not repeat itself, as the saying goes, but it sure does echo.

Unless economy improves, GOP’s wave will ebb

November 8, 2010

This “wave” election was all about the economy. Republicans would be wise not to make the same mistake Democrats did two years ago and think it was about them and their ideology.

An increasingly frustrated electorate doesn’t really want conservatives or liberals to “take back” America. It just wants them to fix the economy. Now.

That will be hard, and not just because our complex economic problems were long in the making. Republicans and Democrats are too concerned about their own political power to work together, make tough choices and tell voters the truth.

Neither party has the political courage to say we must cut wasteful spending, invest in physical and social infrastructure, and, yes, raise taxes if we want a strong, sustainable economy unencumbered by debt.

A recent McClatchy-Marist Poll of registered voters found that, by a 77 percent to 22 percent margin, most want Republicans to work with President Barack Obama to solve problems rather than stand firm to the point of gridlock.

Don’t hold your breath. Many of the Democrats and Republicans swept out of office this year were moderates. Hard-liners on both sides have now been joined by a handful of Tea Party conservatives, who will make compromise even more difficult. Besides, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said his top priority is making Obama a one-term president.

“I’m afraid we’re in for a period of deadlock over the next couple of years,” said Charles Haywood, retired dean of the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics, who has helped shape economic policy in this state for decades.

“My expectation for the next two years is that it’s just going to be a campaign for the presidency,” Haywood said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

For one thing, the economy is unlikely to see new stimulus spending. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated in August that federal stimulus spending increased the number of people employed by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million and lowered the unemployment rate by between 0.7 and 1.8 percentage points.

But Republicans campaigned against stimulus spending, citing deficit fears. Now they control the House of Representatives, where spending bills originate. That new political reality led the Federal Reserve last week to launch a stimulus of its own, essentially pumping $600 billion into the banking system.

Liberal economists such as Nobel laureate Paul Krugman have argued that the stimulus wasn’t more effective because it wasn’t big enough. Haywood thinks a problem was that federal bureaucracy kept stimulus money from being spent quickly or efficiently enough.

“The anti-government political movement may be right for the wrong reason,” he said. “It’s not that government programs are bad. It’s the failure to get them implemented efficiently.”

Tea partiers’ calls for a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution are foolish, Haywood said. Deficit spending is a vital tool for reviving a weak economy; the problem comes when it persists in good times.

Rather than being worried about the federal deficit now, Haywood said, politicians should focus on bringing down the nation’s international trade deficit. That will be hard to do politically, because Americans have become hooked on cheap foreign imports.

Reducing the trade deficit would likely mean allowing the dollar to fall in value, Haywood said. It also would mean changing tax rules to encourage companies to keep manufacturing jobs here — strengthening the middle class and average people’s ability to fuel the economy with consumer spending — rather than shipping manufacturing jobs overseas, where cheap labor boosts corporate profits.

American history shows that neither the political right nor the left have all the answers to creating long-term prosperity. Both Republicans and Democrats must figure out how to temper their ideologies and political ambitions and work together for the good of the country.

If the economy hasn’t improved substantially two years from now, we could see another “wave” election. Republicans and Democrats should both know this by now: the thing about waves is that they go out just as surely as they come in.

Coffee Party prepares for convention in Louisville

August 14, 2010

Conservative anger boiled over in response to the financial crisis, the bailouts and President Barack Obama’s election. A rant on cable television by CNBC personality Rick Santelli helped focus that anger into what became the Tea Party movement.

But when some Tea Party activists began turning town hall meetings about health care reform into shouting matches, documentary filmmaker Annabel Park went on a rant of her own.

“Let’s start a coffee party,” she wrote on her Facebook page in February 2009, “and have real political dialogue with substance and compassion.”

Like Santelli, Park inspired an anxious public, and it led her and others to start the Coffee Party movement. The loose coalition of Facebook friends now numbers more than 277,000. The Coffee Party USA’s first national convention will be in Louisville, Sept. 24-26.

The Coffee Party “gives voice to Americans who want to see cooperation in government,” the group’s mission statement says. “We recognize that the federal government is not the enemy of the people, but the expression of our collective will, and that we must participate in the democratic process in order to address the challenges that we face as Americans.”

In short, Park said in an interview last week, the group wants to change the tone of our national political conversation.

Park, who volunteered in Obama’s campaign, said that because of the Coffee Party’s origins as a reaction to the Tea Party, it has appealed more to liberals and moderates. But an increasingly diverse group of members is emerging, and she hopes libertarians and conservatives also will attend the Louisville convention.

One day-long session will discuss the U.S. Constitution and whether it should be amended in response to the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opened the way for more special-interest money in politics. That session will be led by Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor, and Mark McKinnon, a former communication strategist for former President George W. Bush and John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee.

Aside from promoting civil dialogue and cooperation, the Coffee Party organizers’ main concern is lessening the influence of special interests in politics and government so individual citizens have more say, Park said.

Another discussion topic will be independent voters. “Why is it that so many people are leaving both parties and registering as independents?” Park wondered. “To me, it’s a statement about the two-party system itself, not just the state of the two parties.”

Park said Coffee Party organizers, who promoted get-togethers in coffee shops across the country in March, wanted to hold their first convention in the Midwest. “We wanted to get away from the East Coast-West Coast mentality,” she said.

Kentucky has an active Coffee Party chapter, and its members worked hard to put together a good convention proposal, said spokesman Trent Garrison, a college geology teacher who lives in Frankfort.

“We’ve found these kinds of discussions helpful,” Garrison said. “Our liberal and conservative members find they have more in common than they think.”

Park said she has no idea how many people will attend the convention at the Galt House. Early registrations are being taken online (CoffeePartyUSA.com) at a cost of $150 ($40 for students and $120 for seniors.) The Coffee Party has no major funders, but relies on small online donations from individuals for what little money it needs, she said.

Park doesn’t know what will come out of the convention. Her vision for the Coffee Party is to rally people of all political persuasions around the idea of more effective problem-solving.

“There is a constructive way, and it requires being respectful and civil, and not impugning each others’ motives and calling each other names,” she said. “If citizens can learn this, hopefully it will affect the people in Washington. They’ve got to change their culture, because we’re losing respect for them.”

Obama speech flap: Did adults learn anything?

September 8, 2009

With all of the public attention focused on President Barack Obama’s speech to the nation’s school children, I had to wonder: Did the adults learn anything?

Obama urged kids to study hard and not give up, even if they don’t like some classes or things are tough at home. He reminded students that each of them has special abilities, and it’s their responsibility to develop them.

The president acknowledged that, like many of us, he was “a little bit of a goof-off” when he was young. He told kids that success takes hard work, and nobody else will do it for them.

It was a speech that could have been delivered by any responsible leader, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative.

AP Photo by Stew Milne

AP Photo by Stew Milne

It was a pep talk about personal responsibility, not politics. But from the way the right-wing fringe and some Republican Party officials reacted to it beforehand, you would have thought Obama was planning to sprout horns and advocate devil worship.

There was a lot of bluster about Obama “overstepping his authority,” even though previous presidents have made similar speeches. Timid school officials offered opt-outs for students whose parents objected. Cowardly school officials skipped the speech all together.

Steve Robertson, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, last week called Obama’s plan to speak to children “very concerning and kind of creepy” and an attempt “to circumvent parents” and “gain direct access to our children.”

Robertson and some talk radio entertainers focused on an ill-chosen phrase that federal education bureaucrats used in material prepared for teachers. The phrase, suggesting teachers could have students write letters to themselves about how they can “help the president,” was reworded to how they “can achieve their … education goals.”

It seemed like a lame excuse for objecting to a presidential speech, because that’s exactly what it was.

Some GOP leaders have no interest in working with Obama and other Democrats, whether it’s rebuilding the economy, reforming health care or anything else. They just want to see Obama fail.

The talking heads of the right-wing media relentlessly bash Obama. They shamelessly distort facts, incite fear and call anyone who disagrees with them radical, socialist or even communist. It’s a profitable business model, because gullible listeners lap it up.

Obama is no radical, unless you think “middle of the road” means the right shoulder. But there are radicals out there, on both sides of the political spectrum, and this episode is a good reminder that responsible people should be wary of them.

American politics has always been messy, but it works pretty well. In robust, fact-based discussions among responsible people, ideology usually gives way to artful compromise and practical solutions. One of history’s best examples was Lexington’s own Henry Clay.

On the other hand, history’s ills can usually be traced to political or religious ideology and extremism, from Mao’s China and Hitler’s Germany to the Spanish Inquisition and modern Islamic terrorism. Those perpetrators believed they were right and their opponents were evil, and they had no reservations about saying or doing whatever it took to win.

Obama’s agenda and proposals should be carefully studied and vigorously debated. Thoughtful discussion could lead to good compromises, better ideas and ultimately solutions for the nation’s problems, some of which can be traced to past examples of ideology trumping common sense.

That has become more difficult, though, because modern communications technology amplifies the voices of irresponsible extremists, ideologues and the willfully ignorant people who follow them.

The best lesson to take away from the president’s speech to school children is that personal responsibility is a good concept for adults, too.

Fear “socialized” medicine? We’ve had it for decades

August 20, 2009

There’s a fascinating audio clip on YouTube. It’s from a 1961 phonograph record in which a politically ambitious entertainer named Ronald Reagan tries his best to scare people about “socialized medicine.”

The threat he warns about is legislation to create the program we now know as Medicare.

So here we are, nearly a half-century later, with talk radio entertainers and some Republican politicians trying their best to scare people about “socialized medicine.”

They see a threat in almost any meaningful reform of America’s inadequate health care insurance system.

Some of their scare tactics, such as baseless claims about plans for “death panels,” are truly outrageous. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin might actually believe some of the crazy things she says, but other GOP leaders who lend legitimacy to such hogwash are simply seeking political advantage. They seem to have no interest in improving health care; only in seeing President Barack Obama fail.

What makes the recent tone of the national health care debate so ridiculous is that Americans have had “socialized medicine” for decades, and it has worked pretty well.

The popular Medicare program that Ronald Reagan warned against — and later tried to deny he ever opposed — covers 43 million people who are disabled or age 65 and older. Then there’s government health care for veterans and insurance for public employees. Members of Congress have especially good government health care plans.

My biggest fear about health care reform is that we won’t get any. My biggest concern about Obama’s approach is that it isn’t ambitious enough, especially now that he seems willing to give up on a government insurance option.

There are many improvements that can be made in our current system with electronic medical records and various cost-containment strategies. But I think the long-term solution is some form of single-payer health insurance involving privately delivered medical care — like Medicare.

Why wouldn’t it work to open Medicare, or something like it, to more people? That could provide a safety net. Then, individuals or groups could buy supplemental private insurance if they wanted more coverage and could afford it, as Medicare recipients often do.

Every major industrialized nation except ours has some form of universal health care. Are the “socialized medicine” systems in Canada, Australia, Britain and other European nations perfect? Of course not.

But here’s what you see in the United States that you don’t see in those countries: millions of people with no health care coverage. That includes nearly 600,000 Kentuckians, or 14 percent of the state’s population, according to U.S. Census estimates.

Here’s what else you don’t see in those countries: Millions more people who are scared of losing health insurance coverage if they get sick or lose their job. People who can’t get coverage because of “pre-existing” conditions. And people who see their life savings depleted because they get sick.

You also don’t see businesses struggling to pay spiraling health care costs for employees and retirees while trying to compete in an increasingly global economy with foreign businesses that don’t bear such burdens.

Talk show entertainers and Republican partisans have done an effective job of whipping up the frightened, ill-informed citizens we see at public meetings and protests across the country.

But if they want to rant about “socialized medicine,” they should put their money where their mouths are.

Members of Congress who oppose a government health insurance option for citizens should give up their own government coverage. Let them try to buy a similar plan in the private market.

Then they, the media hacks and other self-described “freedom-loving conservatives” should march down to their local Medicare office and renounce their “socialized medicine” benefits, now and in the future.

Yes, I know. Fat chance.