Thursday, October 31, 2013

How I Became A Red Sox Fan

I’m a big Red Sox fan. I won’t begin to compare myself to someone who was born in 1919 and stuck with them through thick and thin – I don’t know that kind of hometown or sports sorrow – but my loyalty is now forever to Boston. That’s my bedroom desk at right.

It wasn’t always this way. Outside of my adoption, I don’t think there’s any question I get asked more than, “How the heck did you become a Red Sox fan?” See, I grew up a die-hard Houston Astros fan, to the point that a college newspaper op-ed writer I have still never met wrote, “Hardcore baseball fans, and especially the gentleman on campus who attractively sports the Astros warm-up jacket and cowboy hat, know well the name Craig Biggio.”

Bagwell, Biggio, and Billy “the Kid” Wagner were my heroes, the team won the division almost every year, and there were few better starting rotations than Shane Reynolds, Darryl Kile (my first baseball card - may that giant of a man rest in peace), Jose Lima, Mike Hampton, and even Randy Johnson. Even the later names Beltran, Berkman, Oswalt, Miller, Dotel, and Lidge loom large in my mind. I founded one of the largest Astros bulletin boards online (back when bulletin boards were a thing) and kept it going for many years. To the end of my days, Jeff Bagwell will always be my favorite player, and that late '90s squad will always and forever be my boyhood and hometown team, the one you can bury me with.

But there just weren’t that many of us. Even without an NFL team – the Oilers were gone and the Texans not yet arrived – it was still a football town. The baseball folks were mostly fairweather fans, especially when Andy Pettite and Roger Clemens (my favorite pitcher even pre-Houston, but a loathsome traitor to the game) came to town. I was by no means the only exception to the rule, but a true baseball culture just didn’t exist.

In 2005, I went to New Hampshire – Red Sox Nation – for college. The Astros made the World Series for the first time ever and I. Went. Nuts. Game Four of the NLDS was one of the greatest games ever played – at 18 innings, greatest two games, really – and the very first photos of me on Facebook are from the night we won the NLCS. It was great until we lost, but even then, I was sick as a dog and refused to miss a game, even down 3-0. Every game was close and Bagwell and Biggio finally got to play in a Series. It was amazing, but, not that I knew it yet, it was both the pinnacle and finale of my now-past time as a then-life-long Astros fan.

The divorce (amicable) and remarriage went down like this. I was married to the Astros, and I was faithful. I never wanted to become a Red Sox fan, and I fought it every step of the way until it was final. It all started when this cute little girl named Boston flirted with me at the bar for years, but I always said no, I’m married. But she kept at it, and I couldn’t resist – after many years, in late 2006, I finally cracked and said, well hey, one dinner as old friends won’t hurt. But it didn’t stop at dinner. The first kiss happened, and then it was a full-blown affair. Before long, I was in couples counseling. Interleague play was always complicated, but every year my loyalties shifted closer to the Sox. I remember in 2008 and 2009 actively telling friends, “We’re separated, but I just can’t sign those divorce papers.” Well, eventually I did sign them – but at least we could raise the kids together. I still had a favorite NL team and favorite AL team, even after the one I’d want to win a Series against each other shifted. But then the Astros moved to the AL, and I had to choose.

I chose Boston – and friends, I’m on my second and final marriage. It was not my call, but I love her and I wouldn't have it any other way.

How did all that come to be? The Red Sox had both a baseball culture and a history that the Astros will never be able to claim. I went to downtown Boston for the first time in September 2007, and literally two out of every three people had some sort of Sox gear on. You just don’t see that in Houston. And you knew they weren’t fairweather fans, not after that stretch from 1918 to 2004. Then of course, the history of the Red Sox is the history of baseball: Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Babe Ruth, the New York rivalry. Those were the two baseball things – culture and history – I had yearned for all my life, to the point that the Red Sox had already always been my second favorite team and my favorite AL team, years before I ever went to New England. I wasn't even a fan yet in 2003, and watching Aaron F'n Boone hurt like hell. Plus, Boston always seemed like a sister city to Houston, one that was simultaneously both more blue collar and more academic. Both were scrappy, and neither had won a World Series since the ‘Stros’ inception. Even in high school, still an Astros fan through and through, I argued passionately that Ted Williams was the greatest position player to ever play the game – and of course, Jeff Bagwell came up through the Boston farm system.

But after I started visiting Boston in 2006, that first trip for my first Springsteen concert, I was sold. I’m not an East Coast guy and can’t wait to get back to the mountain west, but damn, I do love that city.

I still have that Astros starter jacket, which my dad gave me to much delight after weeks of pre-Christmas begging, and will still wear it sometimes, never with shame. "Texas forever." And of course I still wear one of several cowboy hats when I can, and do sometimes feel the pang of the past. But as we all know, going home to mom and dad’s house can simultaneously feel like home yet not quite right. We find a new family, and a new home. We never, ever give the old one up, and it’s always a part of us, but as the Apostle Paul said, we do put away childish things. It’s just one more of the thousand ways baseball represents real life – I try to remember my ex fondly (an ex whom I gave Red Sox earrings, no less), but at the end of the day, the past is past and Boston Strong and that’s all there is to it. Wicked cool.

Tonight, for the first pure time in my life, my team won the World Series – and it’s really nice. Really fucking nice. It needs to happen more often. And with Lester, Pedey, a resurgent Lackey, Koji Time, Napoli’s beard, and hopefully more Big Papi at the helm, it WILL happen more often.

Go Sox. ‘Nuff said, said McGreevy. And I don’t disagree. Bah bah bah, good times never seemed so good.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

My interview with Cory Booker

Congratulations to Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, on his election to the U.S Senate tonight! Hizzoner is only the fourth black man ever elected to the U.S. Senate, and the 9th to serve. I have met two of those nine men: Booker and now-President Obama. I am not humble-bragging; it is unconscionable that a 26 year-old could ever meet over 20% of the country's black senators, not presently, but historically.

Mayor Booker is an amazing man - one of the brightest and most energetic people I have ever met. Here is an interview with and an article about him I did in 2009 for the now-defunct Dartmouth Free Press. (I wasn't humble-bragging in the first paragraph... but maybe just a little in the second...)

Governing Through Community: Cory Booker, an activist in charge
January 2009
By Nathan S. Empsall

As DFP staff writers and progressive foot soldiers across the country will painfully attest, activists can spend years fighting for their pet issues and not gain an inch, only to see a quick snap of a finger from the right person move the issue forward a mile. Now that the right person is doing the snapping in Washington, many of the things we were unable to accomplish in eight years happened in less than a week: the order to close Gitmo, the end of military tribunals, new equal pay protections, and so much more.

Fortunately, the right fingers have been snapping in Newark, New Jersey since 2006, when the city’s 281,000 residents put an activist in charge, electing the then-37-year-old Democrat Cory Booker mayor. Booker visited Dartmouth on January 26 to give a Rockefeller Center speech entitled “How to Change the World with Your Bare Hands,” meet with student reporters, attend an AGORA lunch, and guest lecture a Sociology course. Yet it would be a disservice to the progressive cause for me to write a simple review of that visit; Booker’s career, values, and accomplishments merit an article unto their own. This is a man who no one can call a hypocrite. He doesn’t just fight for the poor; he lives with them, staying in public housing projects rather than the fancy suburbs more common to his old Yale and Stanford classmates.

Under Booker’s watch, Newark has led the nation in violent crime reduction for two years in a row—and he’s done it through increased efficiency and community involvement, not by curtailing civil liberties. Everything the Mayor says, whether to an overflow lecture crowd or a voter on the street, is spoken with a driving, optimistic force. That tone can be surprising, coming from a 250-pound vegetarian football player who doesn’t drink, but Booker’s passion for building strong communities is contagious: “We now are drinking deeply from wells that we did not dig. We are eating fruit from trees we did not plant… We that have all these gifts and these fruits have but one obligation, and that’s to engage in the cause of America and make these promises real. This is the cause and this is the ideal: ‘I am a part of something.’”

Like many of the DFP’s readers, Booker’s activist days started young. As an undergraduate at Stanford, he ran a local crisis hotline and organized after-school programs for kids in East Palo Alto. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he helped run a mentoring program for low-income youth. Then, at Yale Law School, he co-founded a legal clinic to help New Haven’s low-income communities. And if that wasn’t enough, upon graduating from Yale Law in 1997, Booker, like another young African-American leader we all know, chose not to pursue a job at a high-paying legal firm but instead became a community organizer, working at the Newark Youth Project and the Urban Justice Center in New York City.

Booker inherited his passion from his parents and grandparents, themselves activists. In his Rocky lecture, he said his grandfather always told him “that my degree was paid for by the sweat and toil of others, and that I could learn more from the lady on the fifth floor of the projects than in the classroom.” And so in 1998, with these words in mind, the former Rhodes scholar moved into Brick Towers, a high-rise Newark apartment known for its drug trafficking. Booker lived in the tower for two years before running for City Council and did not move out until the building was torn down in 2006, when he moved to an even more violent part of town.

Booker’s stay at Brick Towers was more than just a show of solidarity. As he wrote on The Huffington Post, “To fight for change, I worked with the tenant leader, a woman who is fearsome in her love of her community, and dozens of other residents/American heroes. Eventually, the slumlord was convicted for some of his crimes, the rampant drug trade was moved out of the complex, [and] the day care center in the building was revived.”

Yet Booker, always crashing the gates, says that his first year on the City Council was the toughest year of his life: The police “accidentally” tapped his phones, he and his staff were routinely denied their paychecks, and none of his budget reform proposals ever passed the City Council.

One evening in 1999, after a neighbor challenged him on his growing despair, Booker went home and “just opened up the Bible, and there staring at me was this passage from Matthew that says if you have faith the size of a mustard seed you can [move mountains]—but the next passage says sometimes you have to fast and pray.” Sometimes you have to fast and pray. Booker set up a tent outside the violent Garden Spires apartments and declared that he would go on a hunger strike until the drug dealers cleared out. Although the first night was a fearful stand-off, the stunt gained media attention the next day and hundreds of supporters came to join him. Booker met with the drug dealers to talk things out, and by the tenth day of the strike, the building owner agreed to invest in more security and the Mayor promised more police patrol

Yet despite keeping his promise to increase police patrols, Mayor James was no reformer. Booker ran against the 16-year incumbent in 2002, a race chronicled in Marshall Curry’s Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight. Booker’s campaign was an uplifting one, promising to bring new life to Newark and lower its nation-leading crime rates. Mayor James responded with the worst smears and dirty tricks imaginable, calling Booker a white Republican,” “a faggot white boy,” and a KKK-funded Jew—all on the record. Curry was harassed and manhandled by James surrogates at multiple rallies, and at one point was told he could film anyone present except the mayor and point his camera everywhere but where the mayor was standing. Voter data was stolen from Booker’s campaign headquarters, churches were threatened with code issues when ministers spoke out against the mayor; businesses that hung Booker signs in their windows saw neighborhood police patrols drop; and public housing tenants were afraid to hang Booker signs for fear they’d be kicked out. Yet the media—despite several local reporters fearing for their own lives—refused to dive into the fear and violence, covering it as a “rough-and-tumble” circus.

The campaign quickly became the center of American black politics. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton came to stump for James while Cornel West and Spike Lee threw their support behind Booker. James ultimately won, but by just six points, He declined to seek a sixth term in 2006, and was convicted of five counts of fraud and sentenced to twenty-seven months in jail in June 2008.

Booker, however, did run again in 2006 and was elected by the largest margin in Newark history. The Rhodes Scholar, a man given to quoting Gandhi and Langston Hughes at the drop of a hat, took office in June 2006 while still living in a building with sporadic heat and non-existent hot water. During an interview period with student newspapers before his lecture, I asked Booker how he stayed accessible to the public now that he no longer lives in Brick Towers. He bragged about starting Newark’s first city TV and radio stations, an interactive website, and a 311 line, but what impressed me most was that he holds occasional office hours for 6-8 hours at a time. Clearly Booker can’t give a job to everyone who asks or release every grieving mother’s son from jail, but often, listening to a person or referring them to other sources can be enough. At the very least, having office hours keeps Booker connected to his citizens’ immediate concerns.

Equally unorthodox are Booker’s law enforcements methods. Increased police efficiency, new shift rotations, and unprecedented levels of community involvement are one thing, but it’s not every mayor who spends several hours each night joining his police officers for ride-alongs and talking to addicts on street corners. But where orthodoxy has failed, unorthodoxy often works, and under Booker’s watch Newark has led the nation in violent crime reduction for two years in a row and become the fastest growing city in the Northeast.

The Mayor is certainly not one to rest on his laurels. He hopes to improve downtown Newark by building affordable housing for artists and creating a jazz renaissance, ultimately bringing in 10,000 new residents without displacing any of the current tenants who he says believed and stayed in Newark through all its tough times. Booker’s vision includes funding for parks, green-spaces, and new education initiatives like charter schools that close if they don’t outperform public schools.

Booker’s love for the city and for its people is palpable. Nothing makes him angrier than when a reporter or comedian advances the old stereotypes of Newark as a decrepit, depressing slum. As he told several student reporters, “I was inspired by the hope in Newark long before I became mayor. I fell deeply in love with the city because of the community, because of the people there who had this enduring, unyielding sense of hope and vision of what Newark is about… The people in my community are so inspiring to me and sustain me in times that I thought the mountain might be too high to climb or the challenges too great.”

It is not his politics that have allowed Booker to move Newark so far forward in such a short amount of time, but his values and his energy. His philosophy of government is one of community and of hope. Hope, he says, is “recognition of the darkness but still believing the light can overcome, no matter what.”

“This country is going to necessitate a tremendous amount of sacrifice and commitment from ordinary people to make our country real… This could be the Joshua generation. While Moses did not make it to the Promised Land, this generation can.”

Booker’s vision is rooted in history and in the belief that we all share not only a Declaration of Independence but also a declaration of interdependence:  Speaking of his own darkest times, Booker told me, “I just remember, it’s not about you at that point, and you realize, as much as you might think you’re capable and confident, how dependent you are on the strength of others. This realization of interdependency was such a gift to me.”

Racial diversity, Booker says, is an important part of this community. He hopes that rather than looking past our racial differences, we will come to embrace them. As he told me, “To not understand the racial complexities of our nation is to miss the opportunities within and the strongest power that comes from being a diverse nation… The benefit of America is our diversity, and if we’re going to accept that truth, we have to deal with the racial disparities in our nation.” In his Rocky lecture, he added, “I want a country that has rich Irish heritage and rich Korean heritage that I can go and experience and luxuriate in.”

The New York Times Magazine profiled Booker in an August 2008 article about the generational shift in black leaders. Older civil rights leaders like Reps. John Lewis and James Clyburn continue to serve as visible reminders of a past we long to forget, but younger leaders like Booker and his friend the president have begun to challenge them in primaries and offer newer, broader ways of thinking. Yet Booker also told the Times reporter, “I want people to ask me about nonproliferation. I want them to run to me to speak about the situation in the Middle East. I don’t want to be the person that’s turned to when CNN talks about black leaders.”

The Mayor of Newark will never be asked about nonproliferation or Ehud Olmert’s war crimes, but maybe Cory Booker will be. It is easy to see him as a Senator, Cabinet officer, or even, after last November, President. Yet all of that is beside the point, for if his philosophy of government through community is correct, then it is not Cory Booker’s individual future that matters, but our collective future. The Rocky lecture was packed to the gills. Only one student left before the Q&A, a time usually reserved for dozens to make a polite exit. Perhaps this bodes well for our generation’s answer to the President’s call to public service. One can only hope.

Monday, October 07, 2013

The return of Musical Mondays: The Steep Canyon Rangers

Facebook friends know how obsessed I am with the Steep Canyon Rangers - I've seen them four times live this year (once with musician and comedian Steve Martin) and chatted with a couple of the band members. They are some of the most talented people I've ever met - but blog readers (all none of you, since I stopped writing for so long) haven't heard me talk about them at all. Time to change that. In fact, these guys are so damn good that I'm going to break with Musical Monday tradition and post three clips instead of one.

After my last concert, at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, in September, I got to meet Woody Platt, the lead singer and guitarist. The above song was one of the things we talked about. I asked him not about the lyrics, since he's not the songwriter, but the music itself. I told him I absolutely love the way he and Graham's voices weave together on that number, and he grinned and said, "Yeah, it's really cool, isn't it?" I asked him what the technical name for that is, since it's not quite counterpoint. To paraphrase his answer, I don't dare use quote marks: Well, yeah, it's not really counterpoint... it's kind of call-and-response, but it isn't really call-and-response, either. (weird grin) I'm supposed to be the devil, y'know? But I wanted Graham to do that part. His voice would have been way better for it. (Me: Why don't you flip?) Because he knows the words, and does a great job of telling the story. But anyway, yeah, it's a little call-and-response, but it's more of a counterpoint. There isn't really a technical term for it, it's just cool.

Ok, the next song, from their brand new album out just last month - and I actually got to buy it before it even came out, since they were selling it at that Birchmere show. :D

This last one's a little longer, but Nicky's the best damn fiddler you will EVER see, bar none. That said, the clip doesn't do him justice. I probably shouldn't even post it - this is just one you abso-friggin-lutely have to see live, and is part of the reason I keep going back for more (that and how much more amazing their vocal harmonies sound in person). And as you'll note, Steve Martin is in this clip too. He's not part of the band, but they often tour together with a joint show.

Boehner needs to hear from these mothers

Here's another email I sent to the SierraRise community yesterday. The writing was definitely a team effort on this one.

Dear Friend,

Share on Facebook!
Share on Facebook!
Jessica moved from Texas to North Carolina to settle down and raise a family. But with just one income from her retail job, it's hard to make ends meet. It's about to get even harder -- if the government shutdown continues for even a few more days, the clinic that helps her feed her four-year old son may close. [1]

Speaker Boehner has the votes to prevent this and end the shutdown now. The SierraRise community sent him over 50,000 messages last week -- including yours! -- but the stakes are only getting higher.

We've put together an image that puts the focus on moms like Jessica -- and need to spread it far and wide to put pressure the House to end the shutdown.

Share the story of America's vulnerable mothers and children on Facebook so that your friends will join you in reminding the tea party House: This shutdown is not a game!

(Not on Facebook? Click here to email the original petition to your friends instead!)

The government has been dark for five days because Speaker Boehner and the tea party have so far refused to vote on a straightforward funding bill. From EPA staff out of work to kids with cancer being turned away from treatment, millions of Americans are feeling the pain. [2, 3]

Things are about to get even worse for 9 million low-income mothers who rely on the WIC program to feed their children. These mothers have no other safety net and, in many cases, no other affordable way to feed their children. One estimate is that funds will run out in just two days if the shutdown continues, and then moms like Jessica will have to make some really tough choices.

We can’t let that happen, not to them. Speaker Boehner has the power right now to end this senseless shutdown of services and get the government going again. He and the tea party extremists need to be reminded that this isn't a game -- real people are being impacted. 9 million mothers and their children.

50,000 voices is a huge start, but it still takes a little more to get the Speaker's attention. Will you harness our momentum by sharing this image on Facebook?

Jessica isn't alone. The stories keep pouring in from across the country, and we need to make sure they're heard in Washington.

Nicole in Grand Rapids, MI, has two daughters, a two-year old and an eight-month old. She told a local reporter, "You're angry because they are taking from the kids, but you're confused because you don't know what's the next step -- I work, and I can't afford to pay rent, and buy food and buy milk." [4]

In Allentown, PA, Cierra asked about her four-month old son, "What's going to happen to my baby? ... Am I going to have to scrounge up the little bit of change I do have for formula?" [5]

It's just heartbreaking -- and completely preventable. We need to put a face on what's at risk. Stand with America's most vulnerable citizens: our young children and new mothers. Will you share our graphic and demand an end to the shutdown today?

Standing together,

Nathan Empsall
SierraRise Senior Campaigner


1. Evans, Meghann (2013 October 3). "Some worried government shutdown will affect WIC." Winston-Salem Journal.

2. Achenbach, Joel (2013 October 2). "NIH trials turn away new patients as shutdown obstructs work of scientists, researchers." Washington Post.

3. Bravender, Robin and Emily Yehle (2013 October 4). "EPA enforcement takes severe hit under shutdown." Environment & Energy Publishing.

4. Walker, Heather (2013 October 1). "Gov't shutdown may affect WIC funding: Moms confused, hurt at possible loss of food aid." WOOD TV8.

5. Rubinkam, Michael (2013 October 3). "Poor moms fear loss of subsidized infant formula if government shutdown drags on." Associated Press via the Duluth News Tribune.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

What Obamacare does, and what the shutdown does

(A friend asked me for my thoughts on the Affordable Care Act. Thought I should turn my answer into a blog post.)

The quick summary: I support the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare). It's a far, far cry from perfect legislation and has a lot of flaws, but it's much better than the previous status quo. Even if I opposed it, however, I would not support shutting down the government over it. I'm no expert, but I am a well-read news junkie and political professional, and I've included a lot of links and sources in this post you can follow for more information.

The details: The ACA can be summarized -- warning, gross oversimplification coming -- in three buckets. The first two are very popular. The third is where most of the controversy lies, but is what makes the first two possible. On that note, it's worth pointing out right at the top that though most people say they oppose the law, some of those same polls show they also don't know what's in it. And when they're asked if they support this specific policy or that specific policy, they do, without realizing they're part of the ACA. (Indeed, Obamacare has a 46-29 approval rating and the ACA is at 37-22 in a recent CNBC poll, but one's a nickname for the same legislation.)

(Rather than cite every single fact of the ACA contents I'm about to list, though I cite many, here are two other summaries: Ezra Klein and the Kaiser Family Foundation).

First, the ACA forces some reforms of insurance itself. The biggest piece here is that it bans insurance companies from turning away new customers who are already sick -- ie, who have a "pre-existing condition". That kind of discrimination made sense for someone who gamed the system by waiting to buy insurance until they were sick, but what about someone who got sick when they couldn't afford insurance and can now never get it, or who lost their job & insurance while already sick? Equally importantly, one such "pre-existing conditions" was being a woman, because you might get pregnant and cost the insurance company more, so women often paid 50% more than men for an equal product. That's now illegal. Other reforms include a ban on lifetime caps, allowing younger people to stay on their parents' insurance until they're 26, Medicare cost cutting measures to help lower the cost curve (if not actual cost) of health care (yes, it may lead to rationing, but if one opposes that, it's worth noting that the insurance corporations already do it)(this is what Palin called the death panel, but it's for whole policies, not individual grandmas), requiring the inclusion of maternity care and birth control in policies (some conservatives, especially Catholics, argue that this is an assault on religious freedom, not just for religious organizations -- I might agree -- but also for religious small business owners -- I don't), requiring insurance companies to spend a certain % on actual care rather than overhead, and more. Because of some of these cost-cutting and efficiency-increasing reforms and a few other provisions (fees on those who opt out, more efficiency in certain Medicare programs, and a few other small taxes and fees), despite a big price tag, the law actually REDUCES the deficit.

The second bucket: It expands insurance coverage. What launched this month are these exchanges or marketplaces where people can browse many different health insurance plans. The bill also includes subsidies for folks up to 400% of the poverty level (how much you can get is tied to your income). So all of a sudden, better insurance at a lower price than ever before is available to many of the nation's 47 million uninsured legal residents. Just this week, many now-former opponents are finding they can save lots of money and get better care.

Third, the only way to make this work is to require everyone to get insurance -- the individual mandate. By bringing in more young and healthy consumers, the insurance companies are able to afford everything I outlined above; otherwise, it would be a huge burden for them. But, it's not just a revenue necessity if you want the above. It's also good policy -- when someone without insurance gets sick and can't pay their hospital bills, one of two things happens. Either the price for everyone else goes up, like with shoplifting, or the government picks up the tab. And of course, preventive care or catching diseases early is much cheaper than waiting until you're really sick. So requiring everyone to have health care will both make all of the above possible and lower costs. BUT, this is the most controversial provision, more so even than rationing, requiring birth control coverage, or even new taxes. Libertarians and right-wing conservatives say it's an assault on our freedom -- that the government shouldn't be able to force us to buy something we don't want. I disagree for at least three big reasons: The benefits far outweigh the costs; my freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins (quoting Justice Holmes), hence the second point in this paragraph; and if we can require driver's insurance for getting a car, why can't we require health insurance for using health care -- and how could we morally block the uninsured from using it? We'd be a country of people bleeding in the streets.

One other mandate is that businesses with at least 50 employees must give insurance to their employees or pay a small fine. (Another attack on our liberties, I guess.) This is blunted by the facts that new tax credits will help small businesses and that 96% of businesses over 50 employees already offer health care anyway. Some, like Trader Joe's and Home Depot, have even decided to cancel existing insurance for part-time employees because they can get better insurance for less on the exchanges. (There has been a drop in workers' hours lately that many blame on the cost of the employer mandate, but other economic factors may also be at play.)

In no way is any of this socialism, ie, where "the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution" are held by the government. The ACA does not force anyone to have government-run insurance like Canada; in fact, it doesn't even give anyone new that choice via a "public option." Instead, this actually forces people into doing business with the PRIVATE insurance companies. This is indeed a MARKET-BASED solution based on ideas from… wait for it… Republicans in 1989 and again in 1993. Small wonder the one governor to do something similar at a state level was the business-minded Mitt Romney in 2006.

So yeah, I support it. I tried to mention some of the opposition's arguments in order to be fair, but I think these trade-offs are worth it. It's certainly not ideal, for many reasons, I acknowledge that. A public option would save money and be more efficient. It's more focused on expanding coverage than it is lowering costs, but we need both. There are still many, many problems left to solve, including that: insurance and care shouldn't be for-profit or tied to employment; the Medicare "doc fix" that costs doctors a fortune unless fixed annually still exists; many GOP governors are turning down the law's paid-for Medicaid expansion on principle and thus some poor folks will remain uninsured; and for-profit hospital systems will still order way too many unnecessary tests because they know insurance companies will pay for them, thus driving up costs for all of us. But despite these flaws, some problems are fixed and the new ones that have been created are smaller than the ones that were fixed, for a net gain.

Yes, like with any new law, it has not just gaps but glitches and failures -- the website rollout has highlighted a few. No big new law is perfect, but as implementation exposes flaws, Congress usually fixes them -- look how many times Medicare's been overhauled. That's not happening now; the GOP refuses to let those bills pass. Either live with the broken law and suffer the political consequences or repeal all of it, they say, which hurts Americans. Not to be overly partisan, but just looking at the facts, I can't help but believe that's spiteful, harmful, and perhaps even unpatriotic.

But even if I didn't support the ACA, I would still be opposed to shutting down the government over it. When the government shut down in 1995, it was because Congress and the president couldn't agree over HOW to fund it. This time, they're saying we'll only do X if you do Y on a separate issue, even though we basically all agree on X. The votes exist to pass a straightforward spending bill, but the Speaker of the House won't bring it tothe floor. Instead, he's putting party before country and bowing to a majority of his caucus -- a majority of the majority, but a minority of the chamber -- that says don't fund the government unless a recently re-elected president agrees to defund or delay his biggest accomplishment. And it's not just a majority of our elected lawmakers who would support a "clean" funding bill if they could vote on it, but a majority of Americans. 72% oppose halting the government over health care (Quinnipiac) -- but no vote is allowed. Can you imagine anything more undemocratic (lower-case d)?

The law was passed and signed. Obama then campaigned on it and was re-elected by a comfortable margin, Democrats expanded their Senate majority and won a plurality of the popular vote for the House (but thanks to gerrymandering, not a majority of seats), and the Supreme Court ruled the law Constitutional. And now a reduced GOP majority in one half of one branch won't do their jobs and fund the government unless the other side gives up their entire agenda? That kind of tactic is unprecedented in modern history. Don't get me wrong; I wouldn't ask the GOP to stop trying to change or even repeal Obamacare -- that's what they stand for (or rather, against) -- but there's a huge tactical middle ground between shutting down the government and giving up. Shutting down the government means 800,000 workers without paychecks; a hit to the small businesses near their offices like lunch delis and Walgreens; no EPAenforcement of clean air or clean water; a potential suspension of the WIC program that helps 9 million low-income moms feed their children; shuttered National Parks (that's not just ruined vacations, but a huge economic blow to park-border towns like West Yellowstone, MT or Forks, WA); a suspension of safety inspections for food, new drugs, and new consumer products like toys and cars; a suspension in science and cancer research funds; a slimmed-down FEMAand National Weather Center just as another hurricane barrels through the Gulf; kids with cancer being turned away from new treatment at the NIH; no veteran's benefits or disability checks; a halt to the CDC flu program at the beginning of flu season; no processing of new mortgages or small business loans; and so on and so forth. How the hell is that worth fighting expanded access to affordable health care, no matter what the law's specific provisions may be? And like I say, the votes exist to end this shutdown right now. The Senate can't pass the House bill, but the House can pass the Senate bill; Boehner just won't give it a vote. Also, this.

I have problems with the Democrats too, but this is not "a pox on both your houses." Some of the best lawmakers we've ever had were Republicans, but they're sure not in office right now.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Pissed off (Or, Boehner: ENOUGH.)

This is an email I sent to the SierraRise community on behalf of the Sierra Club on Wednesday.

Dear Friend,

Take action today!House Speaker John Boehner is putting party ahead of country. He has the votes to end the shutdown right now, but he won't do it -- instead, he's letting a small group of tea party extremists overrule the majority of representatives.

I'm downright pissed -- are you?

Without a functioning U.S. government, 94% of EPA staff are out of a job -- not bad for Big Coal. And who was Boehner dining with on Friday night instead of negotiating? Why, none other than Big Coal executives.

Meanwhile, our national parks, from Yosemite to Cuyahoga Valley, are closed to families -- but not to private oil and gas leases. [1] Hiking and picnics are out, but corporate profit from public land has never been more in.

Nearly one million workers without a paycheck. No new mortgage or small business loans. Superstorm Sandy cleanup delayed. [2] Cancer research and food safety inspections on hold. [3] Everyone suffers from a government shutdown -- everyone except the corporate polluters.

A routine funding bill has the votes to pass, but Speaker Boehner won't even let it on the floor. Tell him to get his act together and put country before party today!

While Boehner and the tea party are playing games, real people are being impacted across the country -- like the Illinois National Guard members who still need to show up for work, but might not get paid. [4] Or the deli owner in Seattle who serves many federal employees and said, "I don't think [Congress] is thinking of people like us. If they keep going like this, how will we pay our rent?" [5] (Members of Congress, however, will still get paid.)

The House has the votes to pass a straightforward funding bill, but Boehner is blocking it. It would only take 17 Republicans joining with Democrats to pass a bill -- and Republicans even admit those 17 votes exist! [6] -- but Boehner won't allow it. A straightforward funding bill has the support of a majority of representatives in the House, but not of tea party Republicans, and that's all the Speaker cares about [7], the ultimate definition of putting party before country.

The Tea Party hasn't been able to get their way by winning elections -- so now they're holding our government hostage. But that's not how democracy works. As Senator John McCain told his colleagues last week, "Elections have consequences." The people re-elected President Obama and re-affirmed his agenda last November -- these extremists are just the worst kind of sore losers.

We can't let a small minority of extremists run our country. It's time we speak out against the broken system! Demand an end to the shutdown today!

Oh, sure, these jokers claim they're listening to the American public -- but that's a bald-faced lie. In a major new poll, 69% of Americans said Congressional Republicans are acting like "spoiled children." Another poll found that 72% of Americans oppose shutting down the government over health care. [8, 9]

This brinkmanship is undemocratic and, quite frankly, downright insane. Speaker Boehner needs to listen to the will of the people before the damage to our country gets even worse.

Tell Speaker Boehner to do his job and represent the will of the people, not the extremists in this party.

In it together,

Nathan Empsall
SierraRise Senior Campaigner

P.S. This is a minor detail, but I thought you might also want to know that a government shutdown means no more National Zoo panda cam, either.[10] To keep up with the latest campaigns and memes -- from the serious issues like the shutdown to the lighter stuff like those adorable pandas -- like SierraRise on Facebook!

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1. Goad, Jessica (2013 September 26). "National Parks Will Close To The Public But Stay Open To Drilling If The Government Shuts Down." Think Progress.

2. Herman, Malia Rulon (2013 September 27). "Government shutdown could affect Sandy rebuilding." South Jersey Courier-Post.

3. Plumer, Brad (2013 October 1). "The nine most painful impacts of a government shutdown." Washington Post.

4. Kilkenny, Allison (2013 October 1). "Federal Workers Nationwide Protest Government Shutdown." The Nation.

5. Song, Kyung M. and Alexa Vaughn (2013 October 1). "Local workers brace for government shutdown." Seattle Times.

6. James, Frank (2013 September 30). "Countdown To Shutdown: A Closure Appears Inevitable." NPR.

7. Capehart, Jonathan (2013 September 27). "Boehner’s choice: his caucus or our country." Washington Post.

8. Logiurato, Brett (2013 September 30). "POLL: Republicans Are Acting Like 'Spoiled Children' Over Obamacare." Business Insider.

9. Klein, Ezra and Evan Soltas (2013 October 1). "Wonkbook: Obamacare is alive but Congress doing its job is dead." Washington Post.

10. AP staff (2013 September 30). "National Zoo Panda Cam Goes Dark in Shutdown" ABC News.

Photo credit: Flickr user CincMatt, CC by 2.0