Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thank God It's (Nearly) Over -- Dec. 29, 2009 column


A New Year’s message from the president on vacation:

“First of all, I wish everybody a Happy New Year. (The new year) is going to be a great year for America. And we will continue to pursue our mission in fighting terror. We'll work hard to make sure our economy rebounds. But most of all, the nation will continue to embrace the culture of compassion…”

It’s only a matter of time before we get Osama bin Laden, the president said. In the new year, we’ll make sure the health-care system works and people will get good jobs.

That was President George W. Bush in Crawford, Tex., on Dec. 31, 2001.

No wonder most Americans believe the 2000s were a bust.

The decade was a “long, hard slog” and not only, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld predicted in 2003, in Afghanistan and Iraq. As we celebrate a new year and begin a new decade, war, terrorism and a troubled economy remain our toughest problems.

We just had a terrorist incident in which the nation’s homeland security system “failed miserably,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano conceded. She first tried to say the system worked fine.

Only the quick-thinking and courageous passengers and crew of Northwest Flight 253 thwarted the alleged plan of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up the Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day. Had the heroes not acted, the 23-year-old Nigerian extremist could have succeeded in killing more than 200 innocents. Despite being on a terrorist watch list, Abdulmuttallab was able to board the flight with explosives sewn in his pants.

The economy seems to be slowly recovering from an historic recession, but millions remain unemployed and millions have lost their homes. As for the culture of compassion Bush lauded, it’s hard to see it in the fog of tea parties and hate talk.

This year started with soaring optimism as peaceful throngs filled the nation’s capital for the inauguration. President Barack Obama promised to bring change to Washington, but the tone has gotten worse. He’s inching ahead on his signature issue, health-care reform, but most people say they no longer want it.

As we enter 2010, crankiness reigns. Only about one person in four has a positive impression of the last decade, according to a Pew Research Center survey taken a few weeks ago. Asked what word best describes the 2000s, people said “downhill,” along with poor, decline, chaotic, disaster, scary and depressing.

But wait. All is not lost. Here’s a glimmer of, uh, hope amid the gloom. We aren’t giving up. The resilience of the American people is showing through.

Nearly six in 10 Americans believe the next decade will be better, the Pew survey found.

People like some of the technological and social changes of the 00s. They see cell phones, e-mail and the Internet as changes for the better. They approve of the country’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity.

Curiously, although reality TV shows are very popular, more than 60 percent say reality TV is the decade’s biggest social change for the worse.

Here’s something else to be glad about. The FBI reports that violent crime is down. Preliminary figures indicate that murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault declined about 4 percent nationwide from January to June of this year from a year earlier. Despite the recession, property crimes – burglary, theft and motor vehicle thefts – were down 6 percent nationally.

Some analysts say the decline may be because the population is aging, and oldsters commit fewer crimes. In Washington, D.C., where the murder rate is at a 45-year low, the chief of police said the police are getting more tips by text message, so they’re able to investigate and solve crimes more quickly.

So, be glad that we’re finished with the dismal decade, a.k.a. the awful aughts. We’re all getting older, and we have cell phones. Happy New Year.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Makes a 'Smart' Meter so Smart?

'Smart' electrical meters are the next big thing. President Obama has set a goal of installing 40 million over the next few years. What are they and will they save you money?

Check out my story in AARP Bulletin Today and let me know what you think.
-- Marsha

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Politicians at the moat -- Dec. 22, 2009 column


As if people weren’t cynical enough about politicians, Great Britain and the United States have had a year that accentuated the negative.

In Britain, the Telegraph newspaper has regaled readers for months with tales of high-living Members of Parliament and the lavish personal expenses they’ve billed to taxpayers.

A former Conservative Cabinet member deliciously named Douglas Hogg billed his countrymen for “having the moat cleared, piano tuned and stable lights fixed at his country manor house,” the Telegraph reported.

My favorite is Sir Peter Viggers, a 25-year Member of Parliament, whose invoices included nearly $48,000 in gardening expenses and $4,000 for a floating duck house on a pond at his estate. This, as you guessed, is no ordinary duck shelter. It’s nearly 5-feet high and designed to look like an 18th century Swedish building, according to the Telegraph.

Compared with such extravagances, the mini-scandal that has enlivened the Senate health-care debate seems Puritanical.

Democratic senators negotiated secret side deals for their votes on health-care reform, and Republicans accused them of taxpayer-funded bribery and corruption. But the Americans have no smoking moat.

So far, it appears that the Democrats’ intention with their private deals was to improve the lives of their constituents through better health care.

To be sure, the Senate leadership’s need to secure 60 votes to pass health-care reform made the bargaining unsavory, but it’s hardly news that members of Congress work hard to bring home the bacon. Republicans also have had their snouts in the trough over the years.

Still, after the last presidential election with all the talk about change in Washington, it’s disappointing to watch Democrats’ full-throated defense of business as usual.

“Every senator uses whatever leverage they have to help their states,” David Axelrod, top campaign strategist for Barack Obama and now a senior White House adviser, said Sunday on CNN. “That’s the way is has been. That’s the way it will always be.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested that senators who failed to win a goodie or two for their constituents were negligent.

“There are 100 senators here, and I don’t know that there’s a senator that doesn’t have something in this bill that isn’t important to them,” Reid told reporters. “If they don’t have something in it important to them, then it doesn’t speak well of them.”

You had to feel sorry for freshman Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado who confessed on the Senate floor that he hadn’t gotten a thing for his state and was going to vote for health-care reform anyway.

This doesn’t inspire confidence. Last month, Gallup reported that 55 percent of Americans believe the honesty and ethical standards of “members of Congress” were low or very low. That survey, taken before news broke about the special deals, also found that senators fared slightly better, with 49 percent of Americans saying senators had low or very low ethical standards.

Americans hate the idea that a powerful senator can get special treatment for his state, paid for by the rest of us. Congressional earmarks supposedly were banned. But if special projects live, we need full disclosure of who is seeking what.

Many people criticized Sen. Ben Nelson’s deal to get Nebraska a free ride on a nationwide expansion of Medicaid. But if taxpayers are going to pay for something parochial, it’s better that it’s health care for poor people than a “bridge to nowhere.”

Among other deals: A health-care facility was proposed for an unnamed state where there is only one public medical and dental school. Sen. Chris Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, owned up to writing the measure and said he hoped Connecticut would qualify. He also insisted, perhaps disingenuously, that the state would have to compete for the money.

Under another, Medicare coverage would be extended to victims of asbestos poisoning, which Sen. Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, explained, benefits the people of Libby, Mont., who have been sickened by dust from a vermiculite mine.

In Britain, Sir Peter of the duck house says he always followed the rules, but he’s not standing for re-election. Many others caught in the expenses scandal are bowing out.

Here, Republicans will use the special deals against Democrats in the 2010 congressional elections.

Whoever wins, though, we need full disclosure of the special projects formerly known as earmarks. Some things don’t change.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Health-care reform in prose, not poetry -- Dec. 17, 2009 column


Leave it to the sausage-makers in Washington to labor for months and produce a hot dog nobody wants.

Once hungry for meaty health-care reform, many Americans have lost their appetite for the junk food the Senate is concocting. A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll released Thursday found that 44 percent of those surveyed now favor keeping the current health-care system, and 41 percent favor passing an overhaul.

In March, as President Barack Obama launched reform with a forum at the White House, nearly three-fourths of Americans supported government efforts to remake the health-care system, polls reported. What happened?

The heart of the problem is that Obama lost the war of words. Remember what former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo said, “We campaign in poetry. We govern in prose.”

Candidate Obama made many people eager for health-care reform with populist poetry about universal coverage, more choices, lower costs and an open process of drafting reform.

Here’s Obama at a town hall in Chester, Va., in August 2008, "I'm going to have all the negotiations around a big table. We'll have doctors and nurses and hospital administrators. Insurance companies, drug companies -- they'll get a seat at the table, they just won't be able to buy every chair.

“But what we will do is, we'll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies. And so, that approach, I think is what is going to allow people to stay involved in this process," he said.

The reality was far different. After the televised kick-off event, reform negotiations moved to back rooms. That gave Obama’s foes plenty of time to warn about a government takeover of health care, socialism and death panels. Summer brought vociferous critics to congressional town hall meetings. And just this month, a few cranky senators dictated substantial changes that turned off progressives.

Gone from the Senate bill are universal coverage, cost-containment measures and lower drug prices through importation. A public option or another plan to compete with the insurance companies? Nope. Allowing those 55 and over to buy into Medicare? That’s gone too.

Obama was determined not to be Bill Clinton, who presented a fully formed health-care plan that critics picked apart, that he failed to stake out essentials for Congress to include in a final bill. Obama wanted bipartisan support, but Republicans rebuffed him.

The thorniest issue was always cost. Obama said he could pay for the overhaul without raising taxes for anyone making less than $250,000. This led to a vague plan to cut $500 billion from Medicare – without, he said, harming seniors’ medical care.

Many seniors didn’t believe it possible, and congressional Republicans ratcheted up fear with talk of rationing and pulling the plug on grandma.

Progressives and liberals were enraged when Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., demanded an end to the public option and the Medicare buy-in provision.

Howard Dean wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post Thursday, “I know health reform when I see it, and there isn’t much left in the Senate bill.”

Dean, a former governor of Vermont, presidential candidate and Democratic national chairman, wants Congress to start over.

But if Obama could not make the case this year that the country would be better off after reform, it’s hard to see how a delay would help the argument.

“We are on the precipice” of health-care change, he said after a meeting with Senate Democrats at the White House the other day. His critics gleefully agreed that the country is on a cliff, about to leap into the abyss.

Obama signaled he’s also ready to use fear, warning in an interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson that if Congress fails to act, individual premiums will rise, employers will drop coverage and “the federal government will go bankrupt.”

The Senate may yet pass something. A Senate-House conference committee could restore some of the meaty provisions in a compromise bill and send it to the White House. Obama will declare an historic victory. He’ll tout the triumph in his State of the Union address.

But he’ll be speaking in prose, not poetry.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Getting the holiday spirit -- Dec. 10, 2009 column


A doo-wop quartet sang in Washington’s Metro Center subway station the other day, enlivening the daily commute and picking up a little extra cash.

“Why do fools fall in love?” the men sang, slapping their chests and clapping to the beat. Most of the passengers, accustomed to such performers, kept their distance and averted their eyes. Some even turned their backs as they waited for the train.

But a man in a wheelchair rolled close to enjoy the show. He nodded in time to the music.

A man in a good wool coat and polished shoes strode up, dropped some coins for the singers and handed the man in the wheelchair a dollar bill. The recipient frowned and shrugged as if to say no, he wasn’t asking. Then he pocketed the stranger’s gift and smiled.

It was a warm moment in a city that’s not known for its heart.

The holiday season is its own gift, a reminder of what’s important in life. Most of the year, especially in tough times like these, we tend to get wrapped up in our own struggles. Then, suddenly, something happens to remind us that individual acts of kindness do count. Little things can make a difference.

At the White House, the holiday theme is “Reflect, Rejoice, Renew.” Some 800 ornaments from previous administrations went to community groups around the country to be redecorated with favorite local landmarks and returned to adorn the Christmas trees. The 18-foot Douglas fir in the Blue Room has LED lights.

If the theme and decorations are low key, though, the Obamas are hardly stinting on holiday cheer. This year’s gingerbread White House is a 56-inch by 29-inch behemoth, reportedly weighing in at 390 pounds. That’s 140 pounds of cake and 250 pounds of white chocolate icing.

The president and first lady sent a couple of hundred thousand cards that read “Season’s Greetings” and “May your family have a joyous holiday season and a new year blessed with hope and happiness.” There was no mention of Christmas and no Bible verse, as was the practice of George W. Bush.

The Obamas are welcoming 50,000 guests at holiday parties, which White House aides say is about the same number as in previous years. First lady Michelle Obama announced that White House employees are supporting local food banks and the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program.

Last year, Toys for Tots distributed shiny, new toys to 7.6 million children in 650 communities nationwide. I was surprised to learn that the Marines won’t accept military- or firearm-themed toys. No toy guns, not even ones that squirt water. The Toys for Tots Web site notes that gifts of books, games and sports equipment “make a significant contribution to the educational, social and recreational interests of these children.”

The White House has launched a “Feed a Neighbor” program on serve.gov, which includes information on how to participate locally and a downloadable anti-hunger tool kit.

These measures come as charitable giving is down. Two-thirds of public charities reported decreases in donations last year, according to the Giving USA report released in June. The overall decline was small, however, about 2 percent less than in 2007. Charities report greater demand for food, housing and other help.

The recession, swine flu and concerns about drunk driving and sexual harassment have dampened corporate holiday spirits around the country. Many companies are cutting back on holiday parties this year. Still, about 62 percent of companies plan holiday parties, according to a survey by the Challenger, Gray & Christmas consulting firm. That’s down from 77 percent of companies having parties last year and 90 percent in 2007.

In the nation’s capital, some companies and associations are saving money with holiday pot luck dinners or going for happy hour instead of a restaurant lunch or dinner. Some have switched from Secret Santa presents in the office to Toys for Tots donations.

The Wall Street Journal’s wsj.com reported on creative ways some companies are rewarding employees in the post-bonus world. Executives at the Proforma Support Center in Cleveland have promised to clean the snow off all 100 employees’ vehicles at least once a month this winter. The executives also treating employees to breakfast weekly.

At Metro Center, I got on the train and turned back to see the quartet still singing. The man in the wheelchair lingered, enjoying the music.

(c)2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Put troops first -- Dec. 3, 2009 column


What’s wrong with this picture? The commander in chief orders 30,000 more troops to war in Afghanistan, and the nation is riveted on a couple of glittery White House party-crashers.

But not entirely. We’re also gripped by a golfer’s extramarital adventures. The day after President Obama’s televised speech, a cable TV network invited viewers to answer this urgent question: Do you accept Tiger Woods’ apology?

And in the nation’s capital, where it’s always about who’s up and who’s down, pundits debate the implications of Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy on next year’s congressional elections.

President Kennedy had it right. Life is unfair.

Fair would be turning first to the men and women in uniform and their families who sacrifice to keep us safe. Fair would be saying thank you to troops for going yet another extra mile. Fair would find everybody on the home front pitching in to try to lessen the burden for those who serve.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that we’re in tough times, and many people have lost their jobs and homes. We all know life is unfair, and everybody needs a break. Few morsels are as delicious as the foibles of the rich and famous. I get why the top search word on Google the other day was “transgressions,” which Tiger Woods used in his online apology. That so many wanted to know the definition would be funny -- if it weren’t a sad commentary on our priorities.

We need to remember what’s important. The disconnect between civilian and military life occurs partly because we have an all-volunteer force. Only one-half of 1 percent of Americans serve in the military. With such a small group bearing so heavy a burden, it’s easy – unless you live near a military base -- to live as if the nation were at peace.

Meanwhile, tired troops endure multiple, revolving deployments, and families wait and worry at home. Sadly, they’re used to it. Life is unfair.

Wondering about the context of Kennedy’s remark, I found the transcript of a March 1962 presidential news conference. A reporter asked JFK about protests by military reservists who had been mobilized during the Berlin crisis the previous fall and were eager to be released.

“There is always inequity in life. Some men are killed in a war and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country, and some men are stationed in the Antarctic and some are stationed in San Francisco,” the president said. “It's very hard in military or in personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair.”

More than four decades later, military morale is suffering and suicides of active-duty personnel are up for the fifth straight year. The additional troops will head into harm’s way in a war that’s supported by less than half the people.

Fifty-two percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup last month said they thought the cost of the war in Afghanistan in money and lives was not worth it. People were split on whether it would be better to draw down troops (45 percent said yes) or add more troops (46 percent).

Obama tried to rally support by evoking the country’s unity when the war in Afghanistan started, “bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear.”

He said, “I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again. I believe with every fiber of my being that we – as Americans – can still come together behind a common purpose.” He’s still an optimist.

His new approach of sending at least 30,000 more troops next year and beginning to withdraw troops in July 2111 is getting kicked from the left and the right. Some Democrats argue we should send no more troops, while Republicans argue that the 18-month timeline to begin withdrawal is too soon and tips our hand.

Rarely mentioned, however, are the men and women who will obey the orders and risk their lives for us. They won’t rake in a fortune or fame or live a luxurious lifestyle. Life is unfair. We owe them.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.