Thursday, December 15, 2011

Assuming the worst? It's not necessary -- Dec. 15, 2011 column


In a holiday mood, my friend Veronica called her brother who lives in another state. After they chatted a few minutes, he said he was “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

He assumed she had bad news, even though Veronica makes a point of calling occasionally just to catch up.

“My own brother thought I had an ulterior motive for the call,” she exclaimed, adding, “Everybody assumes the worst.”

That got me thinking. Assuming the worst has become Americans’ default mode. Polls show we’re in the dumps about the country’s direction, the economy, the Congress, the greedy 1 percent – you name it.

Dwelling on negative thoughts has become a national pastime. News has always been about conflict, of course, but the relentlessness of the 24-7 news cycle accentuates the gloom. It’s always a good career move for politicians and talk show hosts to whip up the fear factor.

Good news exists, but we hardly recognize it. So, let’s reconsider three news stories from the past week.

First, the long war in Iraq finally ended – and our troops will be home with their families for Christmas and Hanukkah.

Second, the waves of people sneaking across the border from Mexico have slowed to a trickle.

And, third, a Democratic senator and a Republican House member actually have been working together on a plan to revamp Medicare.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying any of these stories is an unalloyed tiding of great joy, but each does provide a glimmer of hope as 2011 staggers to a close.

There was no dancing in the streets or kissing in Times Square at the end of the war in Iraq – for good reason. Iraq remains a tinderbox of terrorism, and nobody expects honey and harmony to break out anytime soon. Plus, critics complained President Barack Obama was playing politics with the war’s end.

Obama did oppose the war, but he never campaigned against the troops. The victory lap at Fort Bragg by the president and first lady did feel like a re-election rally, but Obama kept to President George W. Bush’s timetable for withdrawal.

Going forward, Obama promises to make sure Americans don’t forget the fallen or the veterans, reminding that more than 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq, more than 30,000 were wounded and 4,500 Americans died. The returning veterans need more than fine rhetoric; they need jobs.

The good news is our troops are out of Iraq, and nobody proclaimed “Mission Accomplished.”

Immigration promises to loom large next year with the Supreme Court’s decision to take up Arizona’s tough immigration law, and campaigning politicians likely hanging onto the myth of surging undocumented workers.

But fewer Mexicans try to enter the country illegally, and more return to Mexico. Among factors at work: The U.S. downturn removes much of the incentive for coming here, and greater job opportunities are emerging in Mexico. Increased border enforcement and new state laws also discourage migrants.

Before states rush to enact more laws, it’s worth considering whether the illegal immigration problem may be solving itself. The trend may have shifted permanently, some researchers say.

“Even if immigration increases some after this recession, it won’t rebound to the levels we saw in the early 2000s,” Dowell Myers, a University of Southern California demographer, told The Wall Street Journal.

On Capitol Hill, Congress still looks like Humpty Dumpty – so broken nobody can put it together again. But against the odds, House Budget chairman Paul Ryan, Republican from Wisconsin, and Sen. Ron Wyden, Democrat from Oregon, got together to jumpstart debate on Medicare.

Their plan seeks compromise between traditional Democratic and Republican ideas. It would provide premium support for private insurance plans that would compete with traditional Medicare starting in 2022. People have plenty of time to digest the ideas; Ryan and Wyden say they won’t introduce legislation until 2013.

Some news reports inevitably saw the plan through a political lens – as bad news for Democrats who might not be able to use Medicare as a campaign issue next year.

Here’s an alternative. We can see the bipartisan plan as a flicker of positive energy in a time when people assume the worst.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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