Sunday, September 27, 2009

Alan Khazei Opens His U.S. Senate Campaign Office

Alan Khazei has opened his campaign office at 55 Temple Place at Downtown Crossing in Boston. Alan is running for the U.S. Senate seat that was held by Ted Kennedy until his death in August. The Democratic Primary is December 8, just 72 days away.

Visitors are welcomed at the door, even though the office is overflowing.

You can sign up for anything from collecting ballot petition signatures, to making phone calls to voters, to housing a staffer or two.

Candidate Alan Khazei (right) and his campaign manager Teresa Vilmain (left) talk to supporters.

The Hole in the Heart of Boston

The idea was to redevelop the historic Filene's department store and turn the block-long complex on Washington Street in Downtown Crossing into a 38-story tower of condominiums and hotel, office, and retail space. In a nod to the past, the Filene's facade and parts of two buildings were to be kept.

Demolition of the old buildings began in spring 2008. But the $700 million price tag has proved too much in the midst of the financial crisis, and construction halted in fall of 2008.

The project was supposed to be completed in 2010, but is now stalled, leaving a hole in the heart of Boston.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Acorn Doesn't Fall Far from the Tree

ACORN (the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now) has been kicked to the curb by its longtime political supporters after getting caught on some embarassing videos. It has lost funding in Congress and contracts with the Census and the IRS.

Former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger has been hired by ACORN to lead an independent inquiry. Whether he is able to rehabilitate the controversial organization remains to be seen.

Here in Cambridge we have a lot of acorn work this year for the street sweepers.

Friday, September 18, 2009

An Insult or Salute to the U.S. Flag?

I was surprised to see the U.S. Flag flying from a tree in Brattle Square tonight. But on close examination it wasn't.

I can't decide whether this flag insults or salutes the United States of America. This blog posting is made possible by at least three of the companies whose logos are shown in the field of stars (Intel, Microsoft, and Google). While no doubt meant as a protest, I take it is as a congratulation.

Note: we turned this image on its side for greater readability.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Health Care Town Hall, Massachusetts Style

There has been nothing in my memory quite like the town halls being held around the country by members of Congress to discuss and take questions on the proposed health care reform. So when I got the email invitation to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry’s health care town hall, I knew I had to go see for myself what all the fuss is about.

The town hall meeting took place last Wednesday evening at neighboring Somerville High School. It was to start at 7:30pm, with the advice to arrive at 6:30pm for seating.

How to get there from Harvard Square? To drive was out of the question. There was no likelihood of parking at the high school, and parking on a nearby residential street would surely earn a ticket for not having a Somerville resident parking sticker. I could walk the two miles, but that would take 40 minutes. I could bicycle, but that would mean pedaling home through the city after dark, and I don’t have a heavy duty bike lock for city use. I could take a cab, but that seemed an unnecessary expense. And how would I find a cab to get back home? No real viable or affordable private options.

That left me the public option, the bus, which should just take 10 minutes. The bus station is just two blocks from work and I arrived on the underground platform for the 86 Bus at 6:15pm. I’ve just missed the 6:12pm bus, but there is another at 6:29pm, so I wait. And I wait. And every bus in the city goes by except the 86 Bus. I would consider bailing to a longer subway to bus connection route, if not for all the loud speaker announcements of service delays on the Red Line subway. Finally, 30 minutes later the 86 Bus arrives. I will say in that bus driver’s defense that he was on time for 6:46pm. The bus for 6:29pm just never came.

So I boarded and swiped my CharlieCard. Yes, they named the electronic payment cards after the guy in the old folk song that the Kingston Trio made famous back in the 1950s:

“Well, did he ever return? No, he never returned and his fate is still unlearned. He may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston. He's the man who never returned.”

My CharlieCard worked fine, but the woman two or three behind me didn’t have enough money left on hers so we sat there awhile watching her and the bus driver negotiate the CharlieCard machine and alternative forms of payment. The bus is double full, so I stand and we hit every single stop you can make. And anyone can make the bus stop by pushing the Request Stop button, so that’s a lot of stops.

Still, it’s only 7:15pm as I walk up Prospect Hill, and hour later but 15 minutes early. Then I see the line. It starts at the front door of Somerville High School snakes down the sidewalk on the high school grounds along the front of the building, makes a loop through the parking lot, doubles back and trails down the sidewalk along the street in front of the high school.

I call a friend who lives nearby on my cellphone . He doesn’t want to come when I apprise him of the situation. He says he’s only got one question: “What’s this reform going to do to his health insurance?” He’s a social worker and gets his heath insurance from the city. He likes what he has and doesn’t want to lose it. He suggests I bail.

I get in line, and as the line moves along, it seems that a fair number of the people I’m in line with are pro-health care reform activists. The activist I’m standing in line with says she’s an occupational therapist and acupuncturist. Someone gives her a professionally made sign that says “Reform Now - Insure People, Not Profits.” That’s not fully the message she wants to deliver, so she hunts up someone else who is handing out flyers stating simply “Single Payer”. That’s still not quite the message she wants, so she finds a pen and adds some words to make the sign read “Medicare is Single Payer.”

I want to call my friend back and say that this woman wants to replace his health insurance and everyone else’s with a government system where he or his employer would pay into the government and the government would pay out to his doctor or hospital. But I know he doesn’t want to hear that. And, frankly, neither Senator Kerry nor President Obama want to hear that either, but single payer is what the left wing of the Democratic Party wants to talk about when they talk about health care.

There’s a lot of traffic on the street. Some people stop and ask what’s going on. An older woman driving by says something sarcastic. The activist I’m in line with demands to know if she is on Medicare. “Medicare is Single Payer” she shouts as the woman drives off. Next she confronts a cabbie. A tax driver who doesn’t want universal health care, that’s interesting. Driving a cab does not pay well and I would think that many of the men who do it probably don’t have health insurance. “I don’t like the mandate,” he says.

We have a new program in Massachusetts where uninsured people either have to sign up for health insurance or pay a penalty on their state income tax. The state has set up a Health Connector program to help people shop for health insurance policies online, with choices that meet the state’s seal of approval (Commonwealth Choice). That’s the mandate, although subsidized health insurance (Commonwealth Care) is available for those falling below set income levels. It’s cheaper to pay the tax penalty than to buy the health insurance, but then of course you still don’t have health insurance.

“I’ll bet he’s on Medicare, or maybe Veterans benefits - that’s single payer too” the activist says after the cab has driven off.

I want to tell her that Medicare is not single payer. Yes, the government pays the medical bills of retired senior citizens, but that money gets mixed in with the money being paid from all the insurers and HMOs covering the insured working population. And even among senior citizens there is nongovernmental money coming into the system from Medicare Advantage plans, and retiree health benefit plans like the UAW and management have had in the auto industry. I look around at a few signs protesting the auto industry bailouts.

Now one of the guys behind me wants to share his great idea. “People love Medicare,” he says. “So we should just call the public option Medicare Choice.” All his friends think this is a great idea, and hope he’ll find some way to pass it along to President Obama. (I want to call my friend and tell him some folks want to replace his health insurance plan with Medicare.) And then “our” position on health care will be “pro-choice” they guy behind me says. And what, I think, will that make “their” position, “pro-life”? And I think of all the nonsense about the death panels that the right says President Obama will be instituting to force grandmother’s into euthanasia to reduce costs and pay for the new plan.

Then another guy behind me in line starts talking about hypocrisy. “What we need to be is more hypocritical in our advocacy of this health care plan,” he says. “You know that if the Republicans were in this position they would say whatever they needed to push their program through and worry about that charges of hypocrisy later or not at all,” he continued. “And if we just get our program through now, in a few years everyone will be happy we did it, and no one will care how.”

I don’t want to say anything, but I’m pretty sure that the first rule of hypocrisy is not to announce it in public. But it’s a lot to think about. What if Nancy Pelosi’s support for public option to compete alongside private insurance plans isn’t just to keep the competition honest? What if she means to undermine the existing market for health insurance, so that she can replace it with a single payer plan?

So now I’ve got to decide not just whether I support the plan that is being publicly discussed, but whether that’s the real plan or just the hypocritical plan being used to mask the real plan, and do I like the real plan or is that just the plan I’m supposed to think is real as part of another layer of hypocrisy while really the real plan is something I definitely don’t want like starting another war in the Middle East or Asia.

I see a guy with a sign that says, “More Wars, Less Health Care.” The acupuncturist sees it too. “Is that a joke?” she asks, “I hope that’s a joke.” I consider telling her that the sign is meant to be an ironic statement on where the money that might be used to fund health care is going instead. I think she wants to ask the guy whether he gets Veterans medical benefits. Will it be helpful to point out to her that national defense is single payer?

The question gets put to me, “What do you think of John Kerry?” That brings me back to why we are actually here, for Senator Kerry’s town hall, and its now about 7:30pm, when this thing is supposed to start. I play safe and answer, “I’ve never really liked him much.” “Have you met him personally?” the acupuncturist asks. “No,” I say but I know several people who have. “I’ve met him a few times,” she says, “and he can be such a weasel.”

The rest of the line has also begun to talk about John Kerry. “He’s not done anything courageous since 1971,” the hypocrisy guy offers. “He’s not like Ted Kennedy,” offers another. “Can you imagine Ted fighting for universal health care for 40 years,” one says, “I think I would have given up after 20.” A case can be made that Ted gave up after 10, I think to myself.

We come upon a guy holding a hand-drawn sign that says “John Kerry – not one drop of blood.” It’s got 3 purple hearts drawn in a corner. This is the old swift boat slander that Kerry didn’t earn his medals in Vietnam. It’s funny. I’m waiting for activists to jump all over the guy. They’ve just been berating Kerry themselves. Even the guy who was advocating the tactic of hypocrisy passes up the perfect opportunity to practice.

One of the activists hands me her sign, and then wanders off down the line so I’m stuck with it. It says

Sen. Kerry! Stick to Kennedy’s Principles:

• Universal
• Affordable
• Big Public Pool

I can agree with all of that, particularly since public pool can mean so many things besides just single payer or government payer. Only later I see the fine print: (Non-profit! HMO-free!). My company’s health plan is an HMO. In fact, we are just switching from one HMO to another. So I guess I’m the hypocrite after all.

We finally get to the door. No signs allowed, so those all go into a pile. But the acupuncturist who has pinned the “Medicare is Single Payer” flyer to her chest gets in with that.

It’s 7:45pm and the introductions have started. We get a quick peak into the auditorium where the town hall is taking place. Then we are ushered down a long hallway to the gymnasium. That’s where the overflow audience is being seated. The main bleachers are already full, but I find a seat in the bleachers on one side. They’ve set up a big screen to simulcast the proceedings from the auditorium. The whole thing has an eerie feel of big brother, if big brother were run by your high school AV Club.

They’ve gotten through the introductions and John Kerry is talking now. This speech will go on for about 40 minutes before he takes the first questions. The high school janitors wheel in some racks of metal folding chairs. Some people are still sitting on the floor. I’m realizing that there must be a couple of thousand people in the gym, and probably less than half that in the auditorium.

If this town hall were being run on democratic principles of majority rules, John Kerry would speak to the gym and let the smaller number of people in the auditorium watch on the big screen.

It’s about 8:25 pm when the town hall is finally opened up for questions. They’ve passed out numbers and are drawing lots for who can ask questions. Some of the activists are grumbling, and in our section a couple of guys in white coats dressed like doctors announce that they if they can’t ask questions, they are leaving. This is an advance man’s nightmare, but John Kerry does finally acknowledge the gymnasium and some aides show up to take written questions from the gym. The 2 guys in the white coats are already gone.

So what does John Kerry have to say? The one thing he wants us to know, that he guarantees is that if you like the insurance you have now, you’ll be able to keep it. That’s the answer to my friend’s question, so I guess he didn’t need to come after all.

After 3 or 4 questions, he finally got the single payer question directly. “Isn’t it obvious?” was the way it was asked. And his long-winded answer was we aren’t starting from zero but from a highly developed health care system and that they don’t have 60 votes for single payer in the Senate. After that answer, around 9pm, about a third of the audience walked out of the gymnasium. I can’t say whether they were all disappointed single payer activists, or just folks who decided it was time to go home.

We did eventually come to a questioner who got booed. A woman who described herself as an artist from Cambridge who had lived in London under their National Health Service for 10 years. Let’s see artist, Cambridge, London for 10 years – return of the idle rich would be a good bet. Her two points are: What in our Constitution compels us to provide universal health care as a right? And what about the dangers of big government? She had a third point I can’t recall.

And sometime after that, around 9:40pm, I decided to leave myself. There were no cabs or buses to be seen. So I took the libertarian option for a 40 minute walk home.