Government Regulations: “People Protectors,” not “Job Killers”

Reichprofile(from Robert Reich via Facebook) Every speaker at C-PAC, the conservative rage-a-thon, has condemned government regulations as “job killers.” Wrong. They’re people protecters. Most Americans remember how deregulation of Wall Street led to 2008’s near meltdown, inadequate regulation of off-shore drilling resulted in BP’s blowout, and, more recently, how a leaky storage tank of toxic chemicals made Charleston’s groundwater undrinkable, and GM’s unwillingness to fix faulty ignitions are linked to at least 13 deaths. The fact is, because corporations are under ever-greater pressure to show fat profits, any workers, consumers, small investors or innocent bystanders who stand in the way are endangered unless regulations protect them.

But regulations are worthless if inadequately enforced (Republicans have been slashing the budgets of enforcement agencies) and if penalties for violating them aren’t high enough (rule of thumb: The size of the penalty multiplied by the probability of getting caught must be higher than the profits to be made by skirting the regulation). Regulations can even spur job growth if they push companies to innovate in order to meet their goals (California’s fuel-economy standards, for example, have spawned a new generation of automobiles, along with new jobs).

Conservatives Try (and Fail) To Tie Ukraine to Keystone XL Pipeline

From former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (via Facebook)

ReichprofileConservatives never let a foreign-policy crisis go to waste. Consider today’s right-wing talking points linking the crisis in Ukraine to approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Paul Ryan says approval of the pipeline would “signal America is open for energy business and America will be helping our allies with energy resources so that they can be less dependent on Russian energy resources.” Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly says “the Keystone pipeline must be approved. Why? Because Russia is blackmailing Europe over energy … the more oil and natural gas the USA and Canada can produce and distribute, the weaker Russia becomes on the world stage.”

This is pure baloney for at least three reasons: (1) Even if approved, construction of the pipeline would take at least a year — hardly a timely response to the crisis in Ukraine, (2) even at full capacity, oil from Canada’s tar sands would deliver 830,000 barrels per day, barely a trickle in a global oil market that consumes 92 million barrels a day — and therefore would have almost no impact on Russia’s oil sales, and (3) Russia’s real bargaining strength comes in its supplies of natural gas to Europe, but natural gas is difficult and costly to transfer and store in cargo ships bound to Europe from American ports.

Atlanta’s Gridlock and Conservatives’ “About Face” On Assessing Blame

Being that i was raised in Georgia, spent a few years living in and/or near Atlanta, and also just so happened to live in Louisiana through three hurricanes – including the now-infamous Katrina – I feel as if I have a unique perspective with which to share.

In 2005, Louisiana (and national) conservative “Friday Morning Quarterbacks” couldn’t resist putting their post-Katrina blame assessment on Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco – the lone southern governor who also happened to be a Democrat.  Never mind that her having to work with a buffoon for a New Orleans mayor, and a buffoon of a U.S. President who’d appointed a buffoon to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who she also had to deal with; no, all of the failings of the government response to Louisiana’s deadliest storm in decades fell on Democrat governor Kathleen Blanco.

Now, while I’d be glad to re-visit how Blanco was wrongly blamed for a multitude of shortcomings that she had little-to-nothing to do with, let’s instead focus on the recent gridlock on the streets and highways of the greater metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia area.

courtesy PzFeed@twitter.com

courtesy PzFeed@twitter.com

Local and national meteorologists, including those from the National Weather Service (by whom Governor Nathan Deal  is informed of pressing weather matters that affect his state) were eyeing “Winter Storm Leon” and it’s potential impacts on many southern states unaccustomed to winter storms.  However, in the aftermath of a colossal traffic jam yesterday, Governor Deal said the storm was “unexpected.”

Seriously?

From the Weather Channel:

“We have been confronted with an unexpected winter storm that has hit the metropolitan Atlanta area,” the governor said.

But a timeline of winter storm watches, warnings, and advisories paints a different picture, one that shows that the governor and other government officials had nearly a day to prepare for significant impacts from Winter Storm Leon.

“The entire metro Atlanta area was under a winter storm watch early Monday morning, giving plenty of time to prepare for a worst-case scenario,” said weather.com meteorologist Chris Dolce. “By late Monday afternoon and evening, confidence increased that significant snow would impact Atlanta and winter storm warnings (south metro) and winter weather advisories (north metro) were issued.”

Despite Monday’s warnings and advisories, the governor said that as of Tuesday at 10 a.m. “it was still in most of the forecasts anticipated that the city of Atlanta would only have a mild dusting or a very small accumulation, if any. And that the majority of the effects of the storm would be south of here. Preparations were made for those predictions.”

Yet, at 3:38 a.m. Tuesday, more than 6 hours before governor Deal’s timeline, the National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning, indicating an even higher level of potential impact from Winter Storm Leon .

“Confidence increased more by early Tuesday morning that significant snow would affect Atlanta and winter storm warnings were posted for the entire metro area at 3:38 a.m,” Dolce said.

Still, in the face of numerous watches, warnings, and advisories over a three day span, Gov. Deal felt unprepared.

“There are certain things we don’t have control over and one of those is the weather. This came rather unexpectedly. The time frame in which it hit was a very short time frame.”

Except, as the Weather Channel’s time frame (here) points out, there was ample warning and time for the state to step into action.

Earlier today, I found myself engaging in a back-and-forth with a Charleston, SC-area conservative radio host – Bryan Crabtree.  Crabtree believes local school boards and Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed are as much to blame as the governor.  Here’s the problem with that defense/deflection: only the governor actually governs over the entire metropolitan Atlanta area.  Atlanta (population 450,000) is the central city of the metro area (population 5.5 million).  Reed is literally mayor of less than 10% of the area’s residents.  The school systems?  Well, there’s the city of Atlanta, Fulton, Dekalb, and you have to throw in Cobb county, as well, since the southern-most portion of that county is served by the Interstate 285 loop.

And all of them would’ve been under orders to cancel school or to send students home – even in a staggered schedule – from only one desk; that of Governor Nathan Deal.

Now, New Orleanians probably know what “contra-flow” is, but for the rest of you who don’t – imagine an interstate highway where both sides go in the same direction.  That’s what contra-flow is, and it’s VERY effective at helping to evacuate large numbers of people/vehicles.  Because of the Atlanta area’s expansive interstate highway grid, such an endeavor could only have been ordered from one desk; that of Governor Nathan Deal.

Put those two orders in motion and yesterday’s calamity in the streets of metro Atlanta would have never been as severe as they wound up being.

So the question is, where are all those right-wing “Friday Morning Quarterbacks,” when a governor shows no leadership in the eye of a storm?

P.S. Do I NEED to mention that Atlanta has more interstate highway miles, per square inch, than any other metropolitan area in the country?  And that it’s mass rail transit system – MARTA – is given little chance to expand when expansion is constantly and persistently voted down and demonized by suburban politicians?

We’ve Lost Sight In What These Holidays Are Meant To Be About

Ethan and I were talking over dinner and I probably wasn’t doing a very good job conveying what was on my mind, but I think I’ve decided that when we have kids, I want us to try and minimize the over-saturation of the marketing monster this time of year has become.

This is LITERALLY the first photo Google displays when you type in "Black Friday" for an image search.

(courtesy: technobuffalo.com) This is LITERALLY the first photo Google displays when you image search “Black Friday.”

Face it; we’re sheep.  We’re made to believe we HAVE to camp out on holidays meant for spending time with loved ones so we can buy another flat screen or “PS this or XBox that” at a CRAZY price (if there are enough quantities when we finally get inside).  We’re inundated with marketing campaigns that program not only us but our kids what the “must-have” items are each year, instead of deciding for ourselves what WE want or need.

I mean, how many GROWN-UPS fall for the “get her some pricey jewelry” or “tie the big bow around a $40,000+ sedan and park it in the driveway” gimmick?  Too many.

Hey, don’t get me wrong; the lights, the songs, some presents … all nice.  And I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but I sure wish the “war on Christmas” idiots would turn their attention to what’s REALLY “attacking” Christmas.  Macy’s.  Toys ‘R Us.  Walmart.  Lexus?

Personally, I’d rather we rewarded our kid(s) with bicycles and Playstations after an “all-A’s” report card, and instead got a few odds and ends at Christmas time.  Or after doing something selfless and having not been goaded to.

Today, I enjoyed some time out of the office to participate in the local Sertoma Club Christmas charity event; a few dozen volunteers were matched with some of the area’s poorest kids, given a budget and some info about the child, and tasked with helping them pick out some new clothes, shoes and a toy or two, as well.

My 8-year old partner was a blast to shop with: cute as a button and as sweet as could be. She was also (thankfully) pretty decisive about the clothing and shoes she liked (I, uncharacteristically have no skill with girls’ clothing).

What I enjoy most about participating in this function… these little ones give a “re-charge” to my faith in humanity’s future. The kids are wonderful; with all they could be jaded or bummed out about, they find joy in a little trip to KMart and some shopping with a total stranger. They’re all friends with each other, no matter the color or gender or size. They’re appreciative. They’re kind.

Reminds me a lot of what I enjoyed about coaching t-ball years back.

Oh; back to “the holidays.”  My new 8-year old friend’s mom doesn’t celebrate Christmas.  Eh, maybe it’s her religious choice or maybe it’s a financial burden.  Either way, we’ve all lost sight of what the holiday season is supposed to be comprised of.

Ironically, in Washington, politicians are aiming to reduce food stamp benefits (fa la la la la … ) and here we are, as a society, fighting over some crap at Walmart.  More irony?  Those folks working at Walmart – odds are they’re relying on those food stamps because Walmart ain’t about paying living wages to the non-managerial folks.  They say a raise would affect your “everyday low prices,” but the truth is, a $100 trip would cost you an additional $1.10 if their minimum wage was raised to $12.00 across the country.  That’s IF Walmart just didn’t eat the costs without passing it on; or IF Walmart ended their stock buyback practice (which mostly only makes the Walton family more wealthy than they already are – which is more wealthy then the lowest 40% of the country combined).

Where’s the “values” crowd on values we NEED to be better at?  This is the season of Jesus’ birth, and yet, I don’t see a whole lot of “Christian” influence on this country.  I believe this much … if he DOES come back, and sees all this, some of y’all are gonna have some ‘splainin’ to do.

Why Leaving Turner Field Is The Right Move for Braves & Fans

I’ll admit; when I first got the news, I thought “that’s absurd.”  The Atlanta Braves announced Monday that they’d be leaving Turner Field to build a new stadium in nearby Cobb County, and my immediate reaction was “that makes no sense.”

Turner Field, current "home of the Braves"

Turner Field, current “home of the Braves”

Turner Field – home to the Braves since the 1997 season – isn’t old enough a ballpark to become an abandoned relic, I thought. It’s so much of an improvement over the old Fulton County (cookie cutter) Stadium that it’s an incredible waste to let the franchise walk away from a facility with plenty of tread still left on her tires, I said.

But the more I dug into this, and the more I read up, and heck, the more I remembered how I, myself, found plenty to “nitpick” about Turner Field, the more it made sense.  And not just for the Braves and their fans, but for the city of Atlanta and the region, too, honestly.

Let’s face it: the Braves will never build a “Camden Yards.”  I’m not even certain their new stadium will be anything of a “lasting treasure,” honestly; I mean, how “classic” can ANYthing be if it’s built in the corner between two interstate highways, after all?  That’s certainly never going to be confused with “Wrigleyville.”  But my point is, Turner Field wasn’t anything close to a “keeper,” either.

It was built for the 1996 Olympic Games, hastily retrofitted for baseball, and in an area of town that had never developed around its predecessor; an area that didn’t develop around it, either.  It wasn’t some gem wedged into a city block with quirky dimensions necessitated by its confines.  It wasn’t near downtown and lacked any “breathtaking” outfield vista.  It was … just a fairly decent baseball stadium.  Unspectacular, but very adequate.  It was, frankly, too big, came with very little “charm” or interesting dynamics to it, and had started to become over-run with corporate logos and statues that didn’t even bother blending in with the ballpark’s aesthetics – such as they blandly were.

The Braves apparently spent a few years complaining about The Ted’s shortcomings (who knew?) and kept pointing out issues I noticed with the park all along.  Where’s the MARTA light rail stop at the stadium?  Why did anyone think a baseball team not in New York or Los Angeles needed 50,000 seats?  And where’s the “neighborhood ambiance” that was supposed to crop up around the park?

The light rail never came; the cavernous upper deck was never trimmed down (a la U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago) and those parking lots around Turner Field weren’t improving any property values in that area of town.

The Braves' new "neighborhood."

The Braves’ new “neighborhood.”

Whereas at first I alarmingly questioned this move, now I get it.  The Braves and neighboring Cobb County have an arrangement to build a new baseball stadium near the I-75/I-285 interchange, with 60 acres of land around the park for the Braves themselves to develop.  Tens of thousands of pre-and-post-game patrons will now have retail and food & beverage options around the park.  The Braves become an entire neighborhood’s “landlord,” and Cobb County gets some sweet tax revenues.

Where the fans are, the Braves are going

Where the fans are, the Braves are going

In their statement, press release and on their “new stadium website,” the Braves even alluded to mass transit: a veritable MUST for this endeavor to succeed.  While the Braves deftly pointed out, via a red-dotted map, where most of their attendees lived in the north metro, what they truly NEEDED to address was bettering accessibility.  Sure, most metro Atlantans have a car, but most metro Atlantans abhor traffic, too.  And after a hard day’s work, you’d be hard-pressed to find more than five or six thousand families, on a weeknight, who cared to get back in their cars and deal with more gridlock to get to the stadium, pay to park, walk to the stadium, and enjoy the game - especially with high definition television plugged into almost every game, in those families’ living rooms.

So while there’s nothing concrete ABOUT light rail to this new stadium, the Braves having wanted it at The Ted before, and mentioning it in their statements now, tells you they know there’s untapped potential within the Atlanta area for more fans to attend games.

The Braves get to rake in extra revenue from their new, wholly-owned “neighborhood,” just when they need it most, too.  Their television contract, compared to many of the newer TV deals, is pitiful.  In the “arms race,” they were losing ground for salary dollars.  This is a game-changer.

For the city of Atlanta, as mayor Kaseem Reed put it, they’ll be off the hook for a $150 to $200 million improvement bill and get to, instead, pivot towards developing a prime piece of real estate along I-75/85 and I-20.  And with a $900 million backlog of infrastructure improvements, $150-200 million can go a long way.

So now we all wait – with baited breath – to see what KIND of stadium the Braves have designed for them.  We know it’ll be an improvement over Fulton County Stadium and Turner Field, and before anyone get dour at the prospects of there being no booming downtown skyline to see from the park, let me remind you of this: one of the better ballparks in the league right now is Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies.  It’s a terrific baseball park, loaded with character and quirks, and it’s nowhere near downtown Philadelphia.

The Braves will definitely not have something like Fenway to call home.

The Braves will definitely not have something like Fenway to call home.

Will we get a Fenway Park?  No, but then who’s gotten one since, anyhow?  Will it be anything like AT&T Park in San Francisco?  No, and mostly because Atlanta lacks such scenic areas to take advantage of.  Can the Braves get a new home more like Citizens Bank Park?  Absolutely.  And if Braves’ fans pack it the way Phillies fans did that gem, the Braves will be major players for the next 10-15 seasons – before a better TV contract is possible.

Debunking the right’s latest Obamacare spin

By Geoffrey Cowley

Geoffre-Cowley-mugshot

Geoffrey Cowley

For a president who has spent five years fighting for health care reform, this should be a blissful moment. Insurance exchanges have opened in all 50 states, more governors are embracing the historic expansion of health care for the poor, and Obamacare’s fiercest congressional opponents have neutered themselves with their government shutdown.

Instead, the administration is slogging through one of the toughest weeks since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law three years ago. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius faces a congressional interrogation Wednesday for the troubled rollout of the government’s online insurance marketplace. And as the president speaks Wednesday at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, he faces yet another political mess, this one over the cancellation of millions of individual insurance plans that don’t meet the ACA’s minimum standards for coverage.

This latest political storm blew in last weekend, when media outlets started reporting that many people who buy their health coverage directly from insurance companies will have to switch plans in 2014. Their old policies don’t cover the essential health benefits the law requires, so they must now shop for new ones that do. Some people will face higher premiums as a result.

The president has never explained this. He persists in claiming the Affordable Care Act won’t force anyone to switch insurance policies. “If you like your health plan, you will be able to keep your health plan,” he says, ignoring the fact that the health care law could invalidate a quarter of the 14 million individual health policies Americans now hold.

But as critics excoriate the administration for misleading the public, here’s a point to bear in mind. The affected consumers aren’t getting ripped off. Most will get more for care their money under the new system than they ever could have hoped for under the old.

The Affordable Care Act was designed not just to expand insurance coverage but to protect consumers who buy it. Compared to people who get group coverage through their jobs, folks seeking individual health policies have long had a raw deal. Those with pre-existing health conditions have either been denied coverage or charged prohibitive rates, and those deemed insurable have gotten plans with high deductibles and limited coverage. On average, plans sold on the individual market covered just 60% of their subscribers’ medical costs in 2010, researchers reported in Health Affairs last year, while group plans covered 83%. In addition to other fees and copays, the average individual subscriber paid a $2,858 annual deductible—nearly four times the $751 that group plans charged.

To correct these distortions, the health care law requires that products sold as health insurance offer the buyer a minimum level of financial protection. Specifically, the law identifies 10 essential health benefits—ranging from maternity care to lab tests and prescription drugs—that all plans must cover as of January 1, 2014. It also limits the sums that insured people can be charged out-of-pocket for their care. Policies sold before March 23, 2010, are exempt from the law, but most of those have been replaced by newer plans that still fall short of the new benchmarks. Studies suggest that half to three-quarters of current individual plans no longer pass muster. Many individual subscribers have switched from one substandard plan to another during the past three years, so their current ones won’t be grandfathered in.

Hence the frustration. “All we’ve been hearing the last three years is, if you like your policy you can keep it,” LA real estate agent Deborah Cavallaro told the Los Angeles Times. “I’m infuriated because I was lied to.”

Cavallaro received a notice from Anthem Blue Cross this month, saying her cut-rate policy was being canceled because it didn’t meet even the lowest of the four coverage levels that insurers can offer in the new health care exchanges (bronze, silver, gold and platinum). The company said she could get a bronze plan for $484 per month—an increase of about $190. “I just won’t have health insurance because I can’t pay this increase,” she told the paper.

But for every Deborah Cavallaro, there is probably at least one Judith Goss. Goss is a Michigan retail worker who got an inexpensive “mini-med” policy while working at Talbots and kept it going for $65 a month after losing her job. “I was aware that it wasn’t a great plan,” she told Consumer Reports last year, “but I wasn’t concerned because I wasn’t sick.”

When she did get sick—with breast cancer—she quickly surpassed her plan’s four-figure annual spending limits and ended up postponing treatment while she scrounged for $30,000 to cover her bills. As White House spokesman Joshua Earnest says, “Those cheap individual policies seem like a great deal until you actually have to use them.”

Real health insurance would have cost Goss more up front. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, that kind of coverage is now available—at subsidized rates—through a health care exchange. The law effectively discounts premium prices for people earning up to four times the federal poverty wage ($45,960 for an individual, $94,200 for a family of four). And according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half of the 14 million Americans now insured through the individual market will qualify for subsidies when they enroll in qualified plans through the exchanges.

A shift of such magnitude was always bound to make waves. The Obama administration could have smoothed them by explaining—early and often—what consumers stand to gain from higher health care standards. The president’s “keep your plan” promises look misinformed or even dishonest now that the revolution is here. But while Obama may suffer politically, consumers are still getting a good deal. Some may pay more for coverage, but they’ll be buying real security.

Geoffrey Cowley is a veteran journalist and advocate who has spent nearly three decades covering health, science and public policy. He joined MSNBC in January 2013 to report on the politics of health. While closely following the national debate over health care reform, he also writes frequently about the health impact of social inequality—from unintended pregnancy to obesity, chronic disease and early death—and the prospects for easing health disparities.

SC GOV: Is Vincent Sheehan Going To Lose By Losing LGBT Votes?

SheheenTo the surprise of no one, South Carolina state legislator Vincent Sheehen has again mounted a campaign to win the state’s governor’s office, which sets up a rematch between he and incumbent Nikki Haley.  Last go-round, Haley narrowly beat Sheheean with about a 56,800 vote margin; pretty close for such a “red” state, right?

In the wake of the state’s first same-sex marriage legal challenge, Sheheen re-enforced his opposition to gay marriage, as did Haley (no surprise on her part).   The reaction from the LGBT community has been … well, diverse.  There are many (myself included) who are disappointed.

“Maybe one day we’ll actually see a difference between Republican candidates and Democratic candidates on equality in South Carolina,” former Sheheen staffer Laurin Manning posted on Facebook. “Or maybe we’ll have to wait for all of them to come around fifty years after the rest of the country does so.”

There are those, such as South Carolina Equality executive director Ryan Wilson (who I admire from “Facebook-afar”), who’ve vowed to volunteer and campaign for Sheheen anyhow.  Credit where it’s due: Sheheen DID appear at Charleston’s pride event late last month.   The telling part?

Sheheen’s campaign didn’t publicize his speech at the Pride event, and campaign manager Andrew Whalen didn’t respond to e-mailed questions about it Monday. No local press reported it. 

 

Is the LGBT community Sheheena’s “ugly girlfriend?”  You know the type; he doesn’t mind her personally, but is worried his friends will shame him for cozying up with her.

More importantly, if his opposition is a political calculation, isn’t it a bad one? He lost his bid to be governor last time by less than 58,000 votes. If the “10% of the population” adage holds true, that means there’s about 470,000 LGBT residents in the state. If half of them are registered voters, that’s 235,000. If only half of them voted, that’s 117,500. Truthfully, he only needs 25% of the LGBT registered voters to show up for him. That’s 58,750 or so.

If the too-typical southern Democrat thinking here is “look Republican enough to woo some voters,” chances are great that he wouldn’t cull many – if any – of those votes.  No Republican is going to vote for a Democrat in this state.  At least not more than a handful; but it’s my belief he stands to disenfranchise an important voting bloc by standing firm in his opposition to marriage equality.

He needs those voters to be motivated; more importantly, he needs to “evolve” because it’s the right thing to do.  There’s still plenty of time on the clock, but it’s ticking, and his opposition is ticking folks off.