CategoryUnited States

Not afraid of the flu?

There’s America’s problem with healthcare right there. In fact, flu kills more Americans than Ebola has. But the fear-mongering by the media has led people to think that Ebola is kind of a monster killer that’s rampaging through the countryside. Such parents are a menace to the society as they endanger their kids’ lives through ignorance.

It’s a sad day when science loses out to sheer stupidity.

What prompts a change of heart in public policy issues?

This week, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on Proposition 8 in California that banned gay marriage. Rumors are circulating that if nothing else, the SCOTUS will not uphold Prop.8, which if you’re aware of the composition of the Court is surprising. Over the past couple of years, gay marriage has reached a tipping point in public opinion with a majority supporting it. Only as recent as 2004, opposition to gay marriage was so strong that it was credited to have reelected George W. Bush.Merely having it on the ballot of battleground states brought out hordes of conservative hell bent on preserving ‘traditional’ marriage [1].

It is 2013 now and nearly 67% of Californians and more than a majority across the nation support gay marriage. The tipping point, I think, was when the Vice President Joe Biden came out in favor which led to President Obama also overcoming his reluctant opposition. This admittedly may have been due to overwhelming pressure from big donors in Hollywood and NYC who are dedicated to the cause. Earlier this month, the governor of Senator from Ohio, a perennial battleground state, Rob Portman, also came out in favor of gay marriage. However, his motivations, at least publicly, were different. His son is gay and he considered his personal duty to support gay marriage.

Comparing the motivations of these two groups i.e. Biden-Obama and Portman, the latter’s change of heart seems genuine and as a better catalyst for a change in heart. But in terms of public policy and civil rights, is it really? In terms of advocacy and bringing about change among elected officials, what would you prefer to be a more desirable process? Although we look down upon politicians and their changing ways, it is an integral part of a democratic process. Politicians are motivated by their chances of getting reelected and their legacy, if under a term-limit. Most politicians want to be in the forefront of an inevitable wave of change. The public cannot be fooled by someone who just jumps on a bandwagon. At the same time, the politician has to be careful so as to not bet on change that may happen. It is a carefully calculated risk.

In terms of influencing change either through lobbying efforts or threatening to not donate to their next campaign, people can cause politicians to hasten their decision. Although money gets a bad rap, it is often a powerful tool, if harnessed correctly, in the hands of the people. Either that or using tools of publicity campaigns through social media. Politicians respond to external influences. That’s how the political and democratic process work. At least in such case, we know we have a chance.

Now if you consider Rob Portman’s influences, it was personal. It was his son who came out to him as gay and in turn brought him in touch with the issues that face the gay community. He would’ve no chance of knowing that had his son not been gay. So as a public, how are we supposed to deal with such influencing factors? Should we hope that children of politicians who make policy that affect millions are gay? or unemployed? or poor? or disabled? For them to support those issues. There are no external factors that aid us in changing the minds of such politicians. Dick Cheney famously was in favor of gay marriage way back in 2004 coincidentally also because his daughter was gay. But apart from saying so, he didn’t do anything about it. Given our experience with the Iraq war, we know that his voice wasn’t one of the less influential ones in the White House and the policy makers of that time.

While it is appreciable that both Biden-Obama and Portman chose to support gay marriage, it is also important to understand the motivations and subsequently, the opportunities in the future, for influencing such motivations.

Footnotes:
  1. all puns not intended []

The Innocent Take the Fall

Sandy Hook Victims

News started trickling in on Friday morning about a shootout in a school. Initially, I thought it was one of those events that keep happening on a regular basis, as if that is any less disturbing. But as noon approached, more details flowed in and while I was at a holiday luncheon organized by the college, by the time I got out, the horror of it all was evident to all. A deranged shooter had forced his way into an elementary school and slaughtered nearly 20 kids, all aged 6 and 7, in two classrooms and 7 adults, most of them teachers and school administrators. Reading about the incident which lasted nearly an hour was gut-wrenching and although such mass shootings now happen on an alarming basis in the U.S., the young victims made it more painful.

As always, there were tales of heroism of teachers shielding the kids and falling in a hail of bullets. The shootout ended with the perpetrator killing himself [1]. Details were sketchy as people searched to make sense of it all. The perpetrator was clearly mentally disturbed and his needs were ignored by a gun-crazy mother. But there are crazy people in every country in the world yet in few instances, can they have such devastating effect. The United States holds its guns dear and has even enshrined their ownership in the vaguely worded Second Amendment [2]. But as the victims have gotten younger and younger, something has gotta give. An inept terrorist tried to light his shoe on fire and now we all have to take off our shoes at the airport. Another crazy guy tried to light a fire in his underwear and now we have to consent to walk through a ‘naked’ scanner. Surely after all these shootings over the past decade including that of a Congresswoman, there must be at least be a conversation on the need for heavy-duty assault weapons that gun aficionados feel they must own, not in a warzone, but in a Connecticut suburbia.

As new parents, we are definitely more disturbed by the events since no place now can be considered safe enough for your children. At least terrorists target airplanes and historically significant structures but the terrorists among us target shopping malls, movie theaters, and elementary schools. I know what kind of terrorists I am more scared of. Yet we spend a far disproportionate amount of our security resources on the former while letting their latter run amok and unaddressed. The NRA with its unabashed support for all types of guns and ammunition are directly responsible for abetting such actions. If the killing of innocent six and seven year olds cannot turn things around, I don’t know what will. This country has addressed several difficult issues in its short tumultuous history so I’m certain that the needs of the safety and security of the innocent shall eventually triumph. Until then, I sincerely hope that there aren’t anymore such avoidable incidents. I hope.

Footnotes:
  1. The inevitable punishment of a death penalty for such a dastardly crime doesn’t seem to deter the ones determined to die in a self-determined blaze of glory []
  2. It’s all in the second comma, they tell me []

Phir Se Obama

Election maps

Source: Election maps.

So Obama won…again. The United States map weighted by electoral votes held by each state show the extent of his victory. Although marginally less than his 2008 victory, it was more significant because he was re-elected in a period of economic downturn albeit recovering slowly and he no longer enjoyed the historic benefit of being the first African-American president.

There have been reams written on why Romney lost which incidentally are directly proportional to reams written on why he wouldn’t lose. For a change, math won; as it always does. Primarily because Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight used probabilistic measures with hajjar polls as inputs and various other variables as controlling factors. It was surreal to see how even on election night political pundits kept denying the inevitable outcome. But it was fun reading Nate Silver’s blog (I’m halfway through his excellent book) during the election in lieu of crappy election analysis that pervades most election reporting. Although I dare not admit it (oops!), I’m going to miss it.

Relying on the middle class in another country

This is what the liberal writer Matt Taibbi invokes when, in Rolling Stone magazine, he deplores the rich for living “in a stateless global archipelago of privilege — a collection of private schools, tax havens and gated residential communities with little or no connection to the outside world.”

But you could also find the idea far afield from Rolling Stone in The American Conservative magazine last month, where Mike Lofgren, an aide to Republicans in Congress for 16 years, decried the “secession” of American elites. “Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place and ruling it, but not of it,” Mr. Lofgren wrote. “If one can afford private security, public safety is of no concern; if one owns a Gulfstream jet, crumbling bridges cause less apprehension.”

Source: NYTimes.

An excellent article by Anand Giridhardas highlights the malaise that I have been for long thinking afflicts America. As he points out in the paragraph following the one excerpted above, this was and still is often true in countries like Brazil, India, Haiti, etc. but not yet in America. One of the most populist lines in every other American political speech describes how anyone can come here and succeed. But now more than ever, it is becoming more of an applause line that is rarely true in reality.

One of my personal favorite ‘conspiracy’ theories (or not) for this decline or feeling of apathy among this country’s elite/rich is that, they don’t have to rely on the middle class that lives in the U.S. anymore. After globalizations, most companies find their markets spread all across the world so even if America’s middle class can’t afford it, perhaps the sheer number in China or India’s middle class make up for it. More so for the investing class of rich people like Romney who live off capital gains who no longer have to rely on the American companies. So when your livelihood doesn’t really depend on how your countrymen are doing, you are less likely to be sympathetic to their declining wages or quality of life. You have no rational self-interest in protecting much less preserving their welfare. Earlier, proximity was a big factor but with rapid strides in telecommunication and transportation, that is no longer a factor. Hence as inter-countries’ ties get closer, intra-country ties get further.

The whole notion of Ford paying their workers enough to buy the cars they manufacture goes out of the window when instead you increasingly rely on Chinese middle class buying your cars. Why care if MediCare is going bankrupt when you can simply afford the best care anywhere in the world or can simply fly to India to get the cheapest comparable healthcare? Although this country was founded on individualism, there was a strong sense of community and societal responsibility. This sentiment cannot be put into law and nor should it be. It was part of their moral fiber and institutional memory. I’m just afraid that this sentiment that make this country great might just be eroding a little.

ObamaCare upheld

While I’m loathe to calling it ObamaCare, it has been referred to as such by both parties enough so as to negate any perceived negativity that it was intended to begin with. ObamaCare or Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was upheld (with caveats) by the Supreme Court of the United States today. In a surprising and unexpected move, the Chief Justice John Roberts joined the liberal judges in saving Obama’s landmark and signature legislative achievement. While the law in full is difficult to explain in its entirety, this Reddit comment comes close to explaining it like you’re a five year old.

However, the majority opinion on why the case was in front of the Supreme Court and why was it in danger of being stricken down can be best explained by SCOTUSBlog‘s succinct summary:

“In Plain English: The Affordable Care Act, including its individual mandate that virtually all Americans buy health insurance, is constitutional. There were not five votes to uphold it on the ground that Congress could use its power to regulate commerce between the states to require everyone to buy health insurance. However, five Justices agreed that the penalty that someone must pay if he refuses to buy insurance is a kind of tax that Congress can impose using its taxing power. That is all that matters. Because the mandate survives, the Court did not need to decide what other parts of the statute were constitutional, except for a provision that required states to comply with new eligibility requirements for Medicaid or risk losing their funding. On that question, the Court held that the provision is constitutional as long as states would only lose new funds if they didn’t comply with the new requirements, rather than all of their funding.”

If you read the above two links, you will know more about ObamaCare than 95% of Americans who identify with it purely on ideological grounds. Of course, it is not the perfect solution but given the politics and the dire situation of healthcare, it is, in my opinion, a step in the right direction. If you aren’t satisfied by these two links, you are free to read the full official opinion as written by the Justices or the full text of the bill. You may be intimidated by the legalese. It takes reading more than half a dozen such opinions to get the hang of it; something that I had to do for my Law and Planning class (by the end of the class, I had actually begun to enjoy reading briefs and opinions).

What this means for Obama’s electoral chances is a secondary concern but for millions of uninsured and underinsured, it is a much-needed relief from the uncertainty of the past two years. If the GOP, that is head-scratchingly staunchly against any healthcare reform, gets to control both houses in the Congress and the White House, they may choose to repeal it (remote possibility but still a possibility). So in that sense, it is very important politically for those who care, to get out and vote in November.

Turning the Corner?

The December jobs report is good news. Very good news. Payrolls increased by 200,000 — and the growth was spread relatively evenly across the economy. Retail added 28,000 jobs. Manufacturing added 23,000 jobs. Transportation and warehousing added 50,000 jobs — 43,000 of them in the “couriers and messenging” subcategory, which suggests some of those gains are temporary holiday hires. Health care added 23,000 jobs. Food services added 24,000. Mining added 7,000 jobs. The only payrolls that shrunk in December were government payrolls: we lost another 12,000 public-sector jobs.

The December numbers also give us an opportunity to step back and look at 2011 as a whole. The economy gained 1.9 million private-sector jobs and lost 280,000 public-sector jobs. The unemployment rate dropped from 9 percent to 8.5 percent.

[Source: The Washington Post]

This news definitely comes as a relief to all of us; even the ones without a job yet as it gives them hope that the U.S. economy might be turning a corner. Obviously, do not underestimate the GOP’s resolve to screw things up or to dampen the spirits because a lousy economy is their best chance at regaining the presidency. I hope the American public is at least smart enough to see past this charade and obvious attempts to halt all efforts that might seem to be helping the economy. The chart below [source: The Washington Post] is a friendly reminder to efforts at painting this president as a big government socialist when in fact on his watch nearly quarter million public-sector jobs were cut.

Jobs public private 2011

However, if you step back a little and plot this chart over the past four years to include the final Bush year, we gain a little more perspective. The bottom of the barrel in this graph is December-January 2009 where things were looking desperate. George Bush in spite of his conservative leanings still offered the biggest bailout in history but this current crop of conservatives are to the right of Bush so imagine the plight if one of them takes office. We just might see a classic sine curve. By then, things might be too late.

Jobs growth in last four years

[source; red are the Bush years and blue are the Obama years]. I hope every American sees these two graphs before they vote in November. Ultimately, they’ll get the government they deserve.

Update: For even a better perspective on the lag in recovery, check out the following graph that shows the severity of the recession we are/were in. The improvement is steady but slow. However, as Jim Tankersley at the Atlantic warns, this growth can be disrupted due to any tumultuous news such as an U.S.-Iran confrontation. However, 2011 has been quite a rocky year and that did not stem the improvement so we can hope.

Recoverygraph banner CR

Iowa is irrelevant again…for the next three years

The Iowa caucuses for the Republican presidential nominee concluded last night with Mitt ‘flip-flop’ Romney beating Rick ‘anal seepage’ Santorum by a mere 8 votes. And believe it or not, Mitt Romney after spending nearly 2 years in Iowa (technically he has been campaigning since 2007) managed to win 6 votes less than what he did in 2008 when he lost to McCain. He only managed to win 25% of the vote. So only 1 in 4 GOP Iowans think he should be the Republican nominee.

Continue reading

The Ten Commandments of The American Religion

It’s a fickle and false religion, used to replace the ideologies we (a country of immigrants) escaped. Random high priests lurk all over the Internet, ready to pounce. Below are the Ten Commandments of the American Religion, as I see them.

[Link to The Ten Commandments of The American Religion]

Although a home owner, I can attest to the home ownership myth. If you are buying a home for investment or stability, don’t. Unfortunately, the location of a good home is a proxy for a better neighborhood with better schools and lower crime rate which makes it seem like buying a home is a pivotal factor. I’m not so sure about the ‘going to college’ myth. Not everyone is a born genius. A college education gives you head start over your other average peers who chose not to. You will earn more than they do and will lead more stable lives. Of course, if you want to change the world and are endowed to do so, nothing else you do will matter.

Primer on H.R. 3012

H.R. 3012 for dummies – and what you can do:

This is for those of you who are in the green card process (especially from countries like India and China) Actually, it even applies to you if you plan to apply for a green card in future through your employer.

(Via aditya’s posterous)

An excellent primer by Aditya on H.R.3012, an immigration-related bill, that will ease a lot of problems and help millions of legal immigrants in this country. However, if you are affected by this bill or know someone who is, we need action on your part in form of letters and phone calls to the Congressmen and Senators and financial contribution to Immigration Voice, who is lobbying for this pro-business bill. Please do your part.

Watching the World Burn

Alfred Pennyworth: A long time ago, I was in Burma, my friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never found anyone who traded with him. One day I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.

Bruce Wayne: Then why steal them?

Alfred Pennyworth: Because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

[Source: The Dark Knight (2008) – Memorable quotes]

Does the quote in bold highlighted above remind you of a certain political entity in the United States today? After nearly demanded that the U.S. default on its debt by not raising the debt ceiling, the Republicans and more specifically the Tea Baggers are not livid that they are being blamed for being responsible for the S&P downgrade. As Charles Johnson over at Little Green Football says it, why shy away from it? Be proud and own it. You are now responsible for the United States losing its credibility. In fact, S&P explicitly points to Republicans as a reason for the downgrade although you’ll be hard pressed to see the media mention the fact.

Well, what can we say? These Tea Baggers just like to see their country burn. Yup, the GOP slogan was right – Country First. Maybe the world next? I hope not.

What Happens After You Die?

No matter how many sacrifices you make to Lady Death, no matter how rich the offerings you lay before her altar, she will know where to find you. When she comes, she will hold you tight, and she will never let you go. Don’t be frightened. She takes us all.

[Source: Los Angeles magazine] Nominated for 2011 National Magazine Awards, this (long) article is an excellent narrative on what actually happens after you die…on Earth. Nope, it doesn’t mention the bright light at the end of the tunnel and you are unlikely to know about the process once you are dead. Grim at times, the author doesn’t shy away from making you acquainted with some brutal and often morbid realities. Not everyone is lucky enough to die in their sleep and not everyone dies with people that love them around them. At the core, our biggest fear is that no one will miss us when we are gone. Unfortunately, for many people it comes true.

And yes, in spite of the fact that the article was based in Los Angeles and deals with mortuaries and undertakers, the author must be commended for not once mentioning ‘Six Feet Under’. Until I read this article, my only understanding of what might happen to my mortal remains came from that TV show.

Bone-Headed Immigration Policies

Meanwhile, entrepreneurship is booming in countries that compete with us. And more than half a million doctors, scientists, researchers, and engineers in the U.S. are stuck in “immigration limbo”. They are on temporary work visas and are waiting for permanent-resident visas, which are in extremely short supply. These workers can’t start companies, justify buying houses, or grow deep roots in their communities. Once they get in line for a visa, they can’t even accept a promotion or change jobs. They could be required to leave the U.S. immediately—without notice—if their employer lays them off.  Rather than live in constant fear and stagnate in their careers, many are returning home.

[Source: Why Silicon Valley Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Returning Home]Vivek Wadhwa writing at TechCrunch highlight the singularly important issue that is denting America’s competitiveness yet every Congressman in Washington is obsessed with abortion! Except for this report on Nightly News, the mainstream media seems to be clueless as well as America seems be completely ignorant of this impending crisis toward loss of competitiveness.

I have seen and talked to several people who are in the same boat and stuck in the limbo of long Green Card lines with their current employers whether they are happy or not watching their non-Indian or non-Chinese colleagues climb their career ladders swiftly. This uncertainty not only affects people but also the country as people’s intellectual abilities are often not allocated to their most productive use, economically speaking. In fact, one of the bizarre regulations even restricts the employees from working beyond 40 hours for employers other than those who are sponsoring their H1-B visas. So any kind of startup business or employment an immigrant might wish to pursue in their free time hence adding to the economy and the tax payroll is expressly forbidden and can be considered a violation of their immigration status.

When Thomas Friedman coined the phrase, “The world is flat” or Fareed Zakaria talked about the Post-American World, they not only took aim at America’s clueless at this changing nature of the world economy but also highlighted the growing competitiveness of other nations. These nations in Europe and Asia are smartly tapping into the frustrations of immigrants in America and doing their best to attract them to their borders. Yet with increasing incidences of such ‘reverse brain drain’, American government seems unaware of global realities and instead of focusing on reforming legal immigration, it focuses on exploiting the politics involved in illegal immigration. Earlier America had the standard of life and effectiveness of its government to make those on the fence lean toward its side but other countries including erstwhile developing ones like India and China are fast catching up making the decision to go back much easier.

The question remains, when will America wake up to the realities of the changed economic order and when it does, will it be too late?

The End of DADT

Barack Obama signed the DADT (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) Repeal bill into law today morning. This effectively ended one of the surprising remnants of discrimination in the United States Armed Forces. After a long battle with the Republicans who insisted on holding on to this despicable law, the Democrats finally managed to fulfill one of Obama’s campaign promises. The gay community rightly kept up the pressure and Congress eventually drafted the repeal as a standalone bill before the 111th Congress is dissolved in January. History will look back at this time and wonder why such a no-brainer was delayed for such a long time.

The most despicable opposition came from the so-called defender of the military, John McCain who in his umpteen campaigns for the Presidency had displayed an illusion of moderation. He was exposed and was flailing badly as toward the end of the debate, he predicted Marines might lose their feet if DADT was repealed (WTF, right?) Aren’t we all glad that McCain didn’t win any of his campaigns and now I feel we dodged a bullet in not Sarah Palin as Vice-President but in fact, in John McCain as President. The man has clearly abandoned any values he pretended to have and has descended into senility. I hope history remembers him for the vile double-faced geezer that he is.

As far as the gay community is concerned, this is a major victory and will bring them back to the Democratic fold. No individual should be ever refused an opportunity to fight for his or her country especially in a time, as Republicans keep reminding us, of war. As Chris Rock astutely observed, “if they want to fight, let them fight coz I ain’t fighting”. Amen to that.

Want to Govern or Just be in Power?

The fact is that one of our two great political parties has made it clear that it has no interest in making America governable, unless it’s doing the governing. And that party now controls one house of Congress, which means that the country will not, in fact, be governable without that party’s cooperation — cooperation that won’t be forthcoming.

[Source: There Will Be Blood] And why not; the party that was widely labeled the ‘Party of No’ just won the House in a landslide. Of course, the Republicans will interpret this as a mandate to create gridlock. In the meantime, America suffers.