Thursday, June 30, 2011

Factual or flaky? No apologies for asking politicians -- June 30, 2011


Chris Wallace’s impertinent question to Michele Bachmann – “Are you a flake?” – landed him in hot water. He apologized both to viewers and to the Republican presidential candidate.

So, OK, let’s stipulate that the question was poorly worded. But the underlying point is worth pursuing.

We are entitled, the saying goes, to our own opinions but not to our own facts. But politicians -- from the president down – have mastered the art of blurring spin and fact. This isn’t new, of course, but the increasingly emotional tenor of our so-called policy debates makes it harder than ever to know straight stuff from fluff.

Fortunately, online tools make it easier to mine for truth. More on that in a minute.

Bachmann, a U.S. representative from Minnesota, is known for shooting from the lip. Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday,” said, “The rap on you here in Washington is that you have a history of questionable statements, some would say gaffes, ranging from talking about anti-American members of Congress on this show – (to) a couple of months ago, when you suggested that NATO airstrikes had killed up to 30,000 civilians.”

Then he asked the flake question. Bachmann’s parry was quick and spirited.

“Well, I think that would be insulting to say something like that, because I'm a serious person,” she declared.

People can argue whether Wallace was sexist, trying to be provocative for ratings’ sake or had some high-minded journalistic motivation. It doesn’t help his credibility that his network continues to pay Sarah Palin, a potential GOP presidential contender, as a commentator.

At the same time, Bachmann’s full-throated Obama bashing and conservatism make her a tea party favorite. As a presidential candidate, she’s facing scrutiny as never before – from her claim that she and her husband raised 23 foster children -- some of the kids reportedly stayed with them only briefly – to her unusual takes on public policy and history.

Fact-checkers at the Pulitzer Prize-winning Web site have analyzed 26 statements by Bachmann since 2009. These are more substantive remarks than whether she said John Quincy Adams for John Adams or got wrong John Wayne’s birthplace. PolitiFact found only one statement of the 26 to be True. One was Mostly True, two Half True, five Barely True, 10 False and seven such whoppers they earned the Pants on Fire designation.

And yet, Bachmann says she’s gaining traction nationally because voters trust her. This says a lot about how angry and disaffected the electorate is.

“They feel like they can trust me because I was very strong when I was in Congress and now the message is, I’m taking that same voice – I’m not changing it – I’m taking it to the White House,” she told the Washington Post this week. “I say what I mean and I mean what I say.”

Well, not exactly.

On CBS’ “Face the Nation” last Sunday, the ever-professional Bob Schieffer also tried to get Bachmann to explain some of her kookier statements. In 2008, she said she was very concerned that Barack Obama may have “anti-America views.”

Is Obama unpatriotic? Schieffer asked. Not at all, Bachmann said. She deflected his other attempts to draw her out. Then he asked if she wished she’d put it differently about Obama.

“Oh, sure there’s a lot of things I wish I would have said differently, of course,” Bachmann said. “But I think the most important thing right now is that we keep the main thing the main thing. And that is, we’ve got to turn the country around because it’s really about the American people. It’s not about us in Washington.”

Nice try, but elections are definitely about politicians. Elections are about choosing who to believe. That’s where robust, nonpartisan fact-checking sites are helpful. PolitiFact, and the Washington Post’s The Fact Checker blog also put Democratic leaders, including President Obama, to the factual test.

Obama’s news conference this week was fact-checked by The Fact Checker’s Glenn Kessler. He gave Obama two Pinocchios (of a possible four) for statements with significant exaggerations that were misleading.

In one case, Obama repeatedly mentioned closing the tax loophole for corporate jets as a fiscally responsible move. He sometimes pitted the jets against student loans and food safety.

A “potent image,” Kessler said, but in light of the $4 trillion goal, “essentially meaningless.” He noted that the item is so small the White House wouldn’t even provide a savings estimate.

“The president should be careful about veering into Michele Bachmann-like hyperbole,” Kessler wrote.

Whoa. That’s a low bar. Citizens should expect more.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Supreme Court hits sour note with Wal-Mart decision -- June 23, 2011 column


In the 1970s, when the classical music world was still a male preserve, major symphony orchestras changed the way they hire musicians.

Instead of letting the music director handpick new hires, orchestras went to a system with auditions open to all. The idea was to end the bias toward male musicians. The plan didn’t work.

While the new review committees were supposed to judge solely on the applicants’ musical abilities, they still could see the performers – and a subconscious bias favored men.

Only when the orchestras adopted “blind” auditions with musicians performing behind opaque screens, their gender hidden, did women make employment progress, according to economists Claudia Goldin of Harvard and Cecilia Rouse of Princeton, who published a 2000 study, “Orchestrating Impartiality,” in The American Economic Review.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the famous study Monday in her dissenting opinion in the Wal-Mart v. Dukes case as a vivid example of how subjective decision making can be a vehicle for discrimination.

“Managers, like all humankind, may be prey to biases of which they are unaware,” Ginsburg observed dryly. “The risk of discrimination is heightened when those managers are predominantly of one sex, and are steeped in a corporate culture that perpetuates gender stereotypes.”

Ginsburg noted that at Wal-Mart women held 70 percent of the hourly jobs but only 33 percent of the management positions. Women were paid less than men in every region of the country. One manager told an employee that “men are here to make a career and women aren’t.”

Promotions amounted to a “tap on the shoulder” system in which vacancies were not regularly posted and managers chose whom to promote on subjective grounds, she wrote.

Joining Ginsburg in her dissent were the two other women justices – Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – and Justice Stephen Breyer.

In a 5-4 split, the court’s majority ruled that the women employees lacked the strong evidence necessary for a class-action suit and threw the case out. Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion held that Wal-Mart had a corporate policy against discrimination, and its 3,400 store managers were given wide latitude in pay and promotions.

“In a company of Wal-Mart’s size and geographical scope, it is quite unbelievable that all managers would exercise their discretion in a common way without some common direction,” Scalia wrote. Siding with him were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

But Ginsburg raises an important point with the orchestras. Even if the bias toward hiring male musicians was unwitting, it was wrong. We don’t have to prove intent to find that discrimination exists. Unintentional discrimination is also unlawful.

Under the law, employers can be found guilty of discrimination if they have policies or practices that, although neutral, are disproportionately negative for persons in a legally protected group. Age, race, gender and disability are protected categories.

The employment law firm Frank and Breslow tells employers on its site: “If, for example, you have a predominantly white work force and primarily hire on the basis of recommendations you receive from current employees, your work force will most likely remain predominantly white. You may be deemed to be guilty of unintentional racial discrimination.”

The Supreme Court wasn’t deciding whether Wal-Mart was guilty of discrimination. It was deciding whether Betty Dukes and a handful of other plaintiffs had presented the proof necessary to allow them to stand in for the 1.5 million women Wal-Mart employees and former employees they said had suffered discrimination. The men dismissed the case and the women.

Ginsburg, 78, has been fighting gender discrimination most of her life. At Harvard Law, the dean asked Ginsburg and the few other women students how it felt to occupy space that could have gone to deserving men. After she graduated with honors, Ginsburg found few law firms had any interest in hiring her. She taught law.

Later, as head of the Women’s Rights division of the ACLU she successfully argued five gender discrimination cases in the Supreme Court.

During oral arguments in March in the Wal-Mart case, Ginsburg asked attorneys, “Isn’t there some responsibility on the company to say, is gender discrimination at work, and if it is, isn’t there any obligation to stop it?”

The answer should be an unequivocal yes. Symphony orchestras figured that out long ago.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

No to shredding Medicaid's safety net -- June 16, 2011 column


Nobody wants to be poor or sick, but being both in America soon may get a lot worse.

Congressional negotiators who are hammering out a deal to raise the national debt limit reportedly are eyeing Medicaid, the health program for the poor, as the biggest source of spending cuts.

“Medicaid suddenly looks like the sacrificial lamb,” says Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. “Absolutely no.”

But with both Medicare and Social Security off the table, Medicaid is a tempting target. Even though it has a huge constituency -- Medicaid covers one in four Americans – its enrollees are poor children and their mothers, the disabled and seniors in nursing homes. Many enrollees don’t vote and they surely don’t hire lobbyists, which in Washington makes them nearly invisible.

Few politicians stand up for the poor – or for the shared American values of half a century ago.

On Monday, though, the senator whose name is synonymous with great wealth talked about the sense of mutual obligation and community that LBJ’s vision of a Great Society ignited in the 1960s with Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, VISTA and the Peace Corps.

“There’s no government program that more fully embodies our nation’s tradition of community than Medicaid,” Rockefeller said on the Senate floor. “Medicaid is part of the fabric of our great nation.”

That fabric is in danger of being shredded. Under Medicaid’s federal-state partnership, anyone who meets certain criteria is eligible for benefits. During economic downturns, its ranks grow rapidly. Cash-strapped states are struggling to cut back on optional services and some are demanding more flexibility to cut eligibility.

The budget plan passed by House Republicans cuts Medicaid by upwards of $750 billion over 10 years and turns the program into a block grant, allowing states to remake the program as they see fit. The Senate has rejected the House plan. The bipartisan negotiations over the debt ceiling are unlikely to go that far, but various ways to cap Medicaid are being considered.

Rockefeller and 36 other Senate Democrats sent Obama a letter June 7 saying they will oppose attempts to change Medicaid into a block grant.

“We are unwilling to allow the federal government to walk away from Medicaid’s 68 million beneficiaries, the providers that serve them, and the urban and rural communities in which they live,” the letter said. Four additional Democratic senators sent separate letters.

In West Virginia, Medicaid covers the cost of 50 percent of all births. Nationally, it covers 40 percent of all births. But even in West Virginia, the two Democratic senators are divided; Sen. Joe Manchin didn’t send a letter to Obama.

After he sent his letter, Rockefeller said, “We’re counting on the White House to stand firm on our values here.”

While Obama did expand Medicaid to cover millions more adults through his health care reform law, the president has left debt-ceiling negotiations to Vice President Joe Biden. Obama seems more eager to use Medicaid as a campaign issue next year than to hold the line now.

At a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Boston last month, Obama said: “We’re slashing Medicaid so that poor kids or middle-class families who’ve got a child who’s autistic…or has some other disability is not going to be cared for. That’s not the America I believe in. That’s not who we are…And so I think this will be a very clarifying debate between now and November of next year. And I am confident that if we get our message out, that we will win. ”

To be sure, Medicaid hardly exemplifies government that works as intended. Studies have shown that adults on Medicaid have difficulty accessing out-patient care. A new study in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine found that children with Medicaid wait longer for appointments with specialists, if they can get appointments at all, than do children with regular insurance.

There’s a reason Congress traditionally has exempted entitlement programs like Medicaid from deficit-reduction measures.

As Rockefeller said in the Senate, “Some people are born wealthy. Some people are born very poor. Some people are born in between. Some people are born wealthy and then become poor. Some people are born poor and then become wealthy. But while they are down, they have a safety net, and it is called Medicaid.”

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The logic of lifting the debt limit -- June 9, 2011 column


A large majority of people believe the nation’s economy would tank if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling. It follows logically that a large majority would favor raising the debt ceiling.

Forget logic. Barely half of Americans favor raising the debt limit, even if Congress also sharply cuts spending. That sobering news in The Washington Post appeared under the headline: “Americans are conflicted about raising the debt limit.”

What? “Americans have a collective death wish about the economy” wouldn’t fit on the page?

Seventy-one percent of people thought failing to raise the debt limit would cause serious harm to the economy, but only 51 percent supported raising the limit while making deep spending cuts, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.

People have heard the dire warnings about what happens if we default on our financial obligations -- and they just don’t care? Are they really saying, “Let’s throw the economy under the train right now. It’s still weak and won’t put up much of a fight”?

I don’t think so, not for a minute. Nobody wants the economy to fail. People are desperate for jobs and economic security. Something else must be going on. Another response in the Post survey crystallized the political problem behind the debt ceiling question.

Asked which political party would do a better job coping with the big problems facing the country over the next few years, one person in five volunteered “neither.” Neither. That’s harsh. And entirely logical.

Neither party has come through the last couple of years dusted in gold. Overall, people trust Democrats more than Republicans, 41 percent to 32 percent, the poll found, but Democrats can't feel good knowing only two people in five have confidence in them.

Washington exists in a parallel universe where the drama concerns how deeply to slash spending and remake government. Poll after poll shows there’s no great appetite in the country for the kinds of big programmatic changes being considered. People favor spending about the same for Medicare and Medicaid.

Interestingly, seniors oppose the Medicare restructuring passed by House Republicans even though they’d be protected and the changes would affect only younger retirees.

I’m not saying we can’t think of worthy cuts. But we know, if we think about it, that each cut comes with a cost.

The federal workforce? Pluck that low-hanging fruit. We surely don’t need so many bureaucrats, uh, unless they’re the physicians and scientists at the National Institutes of Health curing cancer. Them we need.

Congressional pay? Surely I’m not alone in my unhappy thoughts that my tax dollars go toward the $174,000-a-year salary, plus benefits, of one Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y.

Waste, fraud and abuse? Our old friends. We should stamp out all three, absolutely, and every administration tries. Even the Pentagon isn’t buying $600 toilets and $400 hammers anymore.

The home mortgage interest deduction is a classic example of how difficult it is to curb tax expenditures, the tax code’s revenue losers. President Obama and his bipartisan fiscal commission proposed scaling back the deduction. It’s logical as the deduction is costly and favors wealthier taxpayers.

Some 35 million Americans claim the mortgage deduction, and it will cost the federal government $131 billion in lost revenue in 2012 alone, according to Calvin Johnson, a tax professor at the University of Texas. To take the deduction, though, you have to itemize, and only the top third of wage earners itemize. Two-thirds of taxpayers aren’t even eligible for the break.

Johnson also told David Kocieniewski of The New York Times last year, “No one can make a serious intellectual argument in favor of the mortgage interest deduction.” And he said, “Why should the government subsidize homeowners rather than renters? The only thing it’s good for is middle-class votes.”

Not exactly. The housing industry has suffered a lot over the last few years, and this hardly is the time to add economic stress. The National Association of Home Builders has a Web effort Rep. Gary G. Miller, R-Calif., introduced a sense of the Congress resolution that says the deduction should be left unrestricted. More than 150 cosponsors have signed on.

And there’s this. Asked whether the deduction should be eliminated, 61 percent of Americans said no. This was true even though only 43 percent said they personally took the deduction, a Gallup-USA Today poll found in April.

Like the seniors who want to preserve Medicare for their younger friends and relatives, people who don’t take the mortgage deduction want others to benefit. We’re all in this together.

That’s so logical even politicians should understand it.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Atlanta courtroom is next for legal drama over health care reform law

From the AARP Bulletin:

The heated battle over the new health care law continues in the courts and in the states, with the next major legal encounter coming in Atlanta on June 8, when a federal appellate court will hear a multi-state lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law. Of all the legal challenges, that case appears to be on an express train to the Supreme Court.

Read more of my story at

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Celebrating nation's history -- but not Palin's way -- June 2, 2011 column


Like many Americans, the Palin family of Alaska and Arizona is on vacation. Sarah Palin says she hopes her “One Nation Tour” will raise public awareness of the foundations of America.

One thing is clear. Palin’s idea of a family vacation is nothing like most people’s. We don’t hype our trips with high-falutin’ causes or names. We don’t decorate our vehicles with our signatures and gaudy images of the Constitution. And we don’t use our travels as a fund-raising gimmick for our political action committees (our what?) or to bedevil the news media.

Palin is right about one thing, though. Historic sites and national parks are worth visiting.

And a visit is more than a pause. Palin spent all of 45 minutes at Mount Vernon, and less than an hour at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Even on a private, guided tour – the Barracuda doesn’t stand in line -- that’s race walking through history.

Palin can have her heavy-with-portent flash stops in the presidential powerhouse states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but that’s hardly a vacation. It’s mushing through a trial Iditarod-presidential campaign.

Visiting national parks and historic sites can be relaxing, educational and awe-inspiring. Vacations can show us how much we don’t know and whet our appetites to learn more about American history and genius.

I use the word genius intentionally. Over Memorial Day weekend, I visited the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. On a wind-swept hill with a stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean and Albemarle Sound is the 60-foot monument to the first flights of Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1903.

An inscription says the granite monument commemorates the Wright brothers’ conquest of the air -- “conceived by genius (and) achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.”

We throw the word genius around, but here it fits, as do resolve and faith. The Wright brothers -- inveterate tinkerers who repaired and built bicycles in Dayton, Ohio -- had genius, resolve and faith in ample supply. It took years to accomplish their goal of free, sustained flight in a power-driven machine.

In May 1900, Wilbur Wright, 33, wrote Octave Chanute, a wealthy businessman, a letter that began, "For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life."

Orville Wright, later describing the first flight, wrote: “Our minds became so obsessed with it that we could do little other work.”

On the monument to the brothers’ achievement are the proudly chiseled words, “Erected by Congress.” Congress approved the memorial and President Coolidge signed the legislation in 1927. It was built during the Great Depression.

At home, I found online an article by Herbert Peele in The Daily Advance in Elizabeth City, N.C., on Nov. 18, 1932, the day before the memorial was dedicated. Until the Wright brothers, someone who wanted to “put the stamp of utter impracticability” on a proposed action had only to say, “He can no more do that than he can fly,” Peele wrote.

Publisher Peele noted that the Wright brothers’ achievement had not been recognized immediately. Twenty-five years passed after the first flight and before the memorial’s cornerstone was laid. But Peele was certain the achievement would shine forever.

On the centennial of the first flight in 2003, President George W. Bush went to Kill Devil Hills. Some hoped the president would announce a new era in space exploration. He didn’t, and a highly anticipated flight re-creation fell flat, literally. There wasn’t enough wind, and the wooden biplane never got off the ground.

Today, the relentless news cycle is filled with dire reports of budget cuts, war and economic turmoil. The need to celebrate ingenuity, hard work – and genius -- is surely as strong today as it was in the 1930s.

The National Park Service is studying whether add historic sites commemorating the life of Cesar Chavez, the 1960s’ farm labor movement leader, in California and Arizona. Chavez is a hero to millions, and the issue has become a cause célèbre, especially among Mexican Americans. A decision is expected later this year.

Someday families on vacation may visit the place where Chavez ended a hunger strike by sharing bread with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.

At the Wright Brothers Memorial, families walk the wide, flat, sandy field where markers show the length of the four flights on Dec. 17, 1903.

The day I was there, three brothers timed each other while running the length of the first flight, which lasted just 12 seconds.

“I beat the plane!” one boy shouted, savoring a moment in history.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.