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The Tea Party: Fight the Future – Starring Michele Bachmann and Paul Ryan

01.28.11

If you missed President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union speech on Tuesday, then you probably also didn’t get a chance to see the GOP and Tea Party’s rebuttals, presented by Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin and Rep. Michele Bachman (R) of Minnesota.

Don’t worry: you can just rent it on DVD at your nearest Blockbuster (if those are still around in your neighborhood). Check out the cover:

Jokes, people. Jokes.

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Suicides Claiming More American Troop Casualties than Combat in Afghanistan

01.27.11

Unsavory facts about the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars that don’t get the biggest press tend to make the entire military campaign more real, and thus more difficult to talk about in black and white terms of good vs. evil or us vs. them.

And this could be one of the more disturbing facts to come to light recently:

For the second year in a row, the U.S. military has lost more troops to suicide than it has to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We’re literally killing ourselves over this conflict.

We’ve been in combat in the Middle East for over nine years. Longer than we were involved in World War II. Longer than Vietnam. Longer than the Civil War. And per the Obama Administration’s current plan, we will still have troops in Afghanistan until 2014. That’s nearly 13 years. Unreal.

And these numbers don’t even tell the whole story either:

Figures reported by each of the services last week, for instance, include suicides by members of the Guard and Reserve who were on active duty at the time. The Army and the Navy also add up statistics for certain reservists who kill themselves when they are not on active duty.

But the Air Force and Marine Corps do not include any non-mobilized reservists in their posted numbers. What’s more, none of the services count suicides that occur among a class of reservists known as the Individual Ready Reserve, the more than 123,000 people who are not assigned to particular units.

I’m beyond done with these wars. I’m tired of our money going over to rebuild nations while our own schools and streets lose funding and continue to worsen. I’m sick of all the lives being lost and the countless more ruined by this seemingly endless debacle. The sooner we can come home, the better.

But regardless of when our troops get back, we must focus much more of our attention on the diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorders. We’re sending these men and women – boys and girls – overseas to kill or be killed. To see their friends blown up in front of their eyes. To be separated from their families for years over multiple tours. It takes its toll.

The bigger tragedy, though, is how clueless we still are about mental health.  We still think of depression as a weakness that you just need to suck up and get over it. That it’s all just “in your head,” as if it’s a bad mood or being bummed out. Same with TBIs: that because we don’t see any outward injuries, there must not be lasting effects inside the brain.

I’m not sure we have all the answers or cures for these ailments, but certainly we should be using all of the known ones to treat our troops, making sure that they know they have these resources available to them with no stigma or shame attached. It’s the least we can do.

We are still in the desert.

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Stocks Soar Near 12,000 While Unemployment Stays Steady Near 10 Percent

01.25.11

As the Dow Jones Industrial Average nears 12,000, its highest point since June 2008, unemployment still hovers just below 10 percent.

Just showing how much of a gap there is between perceived and actual economic health.

Meanwhile states are slashing everything from police forces to HIV testing, treatment, and counseling to college funding, and many people think that we’re in the middle of a structural shift that doesn’t seem likely to end the current unemployment rate any time soon.

For those people who still own stock, this is good news: their once vanished equity slowly regaining their worth increases their overall financial independence. And for those who had capital to invest in the market when it was at or near its low, they really should be feeling good about the news.

But for those who didn’t own stock or have 401(k)s, or who used up all of their savings to stay afloat while they were looking for work, this doesn’t help them much. Now, it could be the case that the uptick in jobs is related to this rise in the stock market. Either way, it seems that this news is indicative of one industry doing well: the financial district.

Even though, apparently, those companies saw their stocks drop:

Gains were spread across the market. Financial and health care companies were the only two of the 10 company groups that make up the S&P index to fall.

Odd considering the financial district is still giving itself large bonuses (albeit some of it deferred per new rules) and the health care industry is where much of the job growth exists.

McDonald’s Corp. gained 0.5 percent to $75.38 after it said it meet analyst expectations and warned that rising food costs could affect its margins this year.

J.C. Penny Co. jumped 7 percent to $32.52 after the retailer said it would close some stores and its catalog business to reduce costs.

So, a large retailer company shutting stores – and thus, laying off most likely hundreds of people – is good news worthy of its stock going up? And while McDonald’s showing slight improvement means that those entry-level jobs may stay intact, but those aren’t the types of careers that families can live on.

A bright spot perhaps:

Materials companies rose after a report from the National Association for Business Economics showed that economists are more positive about economic growth and the job market than at any time since the start of the Great Recession in December 2007.

Though the stocks went up based on the speculation that jobs will continue to grow, not on actual job growth. Given what we know about the depths of the unemployment rate, it seems like the stock market could be getting a bit ahead of itself.

Photo courtesy of othermore (other)’s Flickr Photostream.

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Being Treated like a Human Being: The Key to Good Customer Service

01.22.11

It doesn’t take much to provide good customer service.

Honest. I’ve been in a customer service-driven position before and I know the stress and unpleasantness that comes with having to deal with unhappy customers or clients. It can be brutal. Plus, we’re all human and we all have our good days and our not-so-good days. It happens.

But there end up being situations where there’s just a total lack of caring that is unacceptable.

Let’s use my telephone call with my doctor’s office yesterday as an example of how to quickly lose clients. Actually, let’s back up to the day before last:

I called to see about scheduling an appointment. Nothing too extreme – no need to talk to the doctor or ask about a prescription or find out some lab results. It was near the end of the day and the woman at reception answered the phone. I explained about wanting to make an appointment, to which she replied: “My computer isn’t working right now. Can you call back first thing in the morning?”

Okay, sure. I’ve dealt with systems going down on my computer and there’s literally nothing she could do. Fair enough, no biggie.

So I call back the next day (not in the morning, but in the early afternoon) and while a woman answered, it was one of those “Hello, could you please hold for me?” greetings that gave me no option but to hold. Sure, why not. I’m listening to some smooth jazz for nearly two minutes when the phone begins to ring again, as if I’d just called. The other line picks up quickly, it’s the same woman, “Hi, if you continue to hold I’ll be with you in just a minute.” Okay, sure, I reply and in nanoseconds I’m back to the saxophone and electronic drum beats.

Another minute-plus goes by and then it rings again. I imagine this flashing light on her phone going solid and her headset ringing in her ear again while she’s still dealing with a patient in person. This time, though, she’s not nearly as polite about having me hold. She picks up with a curt: “Hello?” What is this a personal line? Hello? Oh hey, Linda, long time no hear, what’s new? C’mon.

It’s clear that she knows it’s me since she knew it was me still waiting from before so it’s not like she doesn’t know that I’m calling for something related to the doctor. Instantly, I’m off-put and caught off guard so I stumble through my response of “Hi, yes, I’m-” to which she doesn’t let me finish and says, “Please hold,” and slams me back to the MIDI tunes.

No more for me. At this point I hung up. She evidently had far more important things to do and her increasing irritation with me — who should’ve been the increasingly irritated one since I’m the one on hold, not her — was not making me excited about having the jazz music turn into a ring again knowing what would greet me on the other end of the phone.

It led me to think that she had no idea how her own hold service worked on the office phones. Either that or she was irritated that the phone line didn’t let her keep someone on hold indefinitely and decided to take it out on me as if I had any control over the fact that the line took itself off hold and rang her line again.

Either way, I’d already had an appointment scheduled as a two-week follow-up, so I went in the morning as previously scheduled. I go to sign in and they ask me the usual about any changes in my insurance. As a matter of fact there had been as of January 1st – which I told them when I came in on the 7th only I didn’t have my physical card yet so I gave the check-in receptionist at that time my pertinent info which she wrote down – but this time I had my brand, spanking new card. Of course, as she makes the copies and changes to my account, it turns out that they had still billed my old insurance despite all of this back on the 7th.

Fantastic!

“How is that going to work, then?” I asked, figuring that there’s no way that Blue Cross will cover the costs if I’m no longer insured by them. She said that it would be fine because they have the new information now. I said, “You mean, you have the new information now to bill today. What about what was billed two weeks ago?” She kind of stumbled and somehow said something that sounded like it’d just work itself out.

Right. This stuff usually just works itself out, doesn’t it?

To top it all off, I’m not all that crazy about my actual doctor so I’m not needing much at this point to call up my new provider and find a different primary care physician.

And then the nurse calls me back to check my vitals and put me into the examination room. She greets me with a “Just come back here, young man,” in a grandmotherly tone that smoothed everything over just fine. She’d always been the one good thing about this office, always cheery and polite no matter how busy the office was, always treating me with respect and courtesy and not making it seem like I was being a nuisance to her.

Look at that: all it really took was being treated like a human being and I’m fine, already forgetting (okay, not really) about the phone calls, the long holds, the jazz music, and the insurance mishaps.

So, like I said before: customer service doesn’t take much. A calm, polite tone and treating me like a human being, not a nuisance. That will warm over errors any day for me. And I think most other people in the world, too.

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House Votes to Repeal Affordable Care Act: Just Symbolic or Signal of Something More?

01.20.11

The GOP-led House of Representatives voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act yesterday, 245-189.

Most likely this is just to placate the base who the rank-and-file riled up heavily in the campaigns last fall with their anti-Obamacare talking points, since a similar measure looks to die in the Senate, which is still led by Democrats. And even were that not the case, President Obama would still have veto power.

While it’s no surprise really that the votes went this way, it still seems like a waste of time, energy, and money. Yet another case of politics over governance – something which can be defended when running for office, or even as the minority group in all branches of government, perhaps. But not for those in power.

Because what good is passing a bill through one branch of government when you know that it has virtually no chance of making it through the other?

At some point, it just comes down to doing something. If the cost-constraining measures don’t work well, instead of just repealing it and going back to the status quo which everyone agreed wasn’t sustainable either, propose a new method. Offer an alternative instead of just going backward. Do something rather than just ensuring that we’ve all done nothing.

Hell, why not grab Rep. Paul Ryan’s health care reform proposal off the shelf and vote on that? That’d be creating an alternative rather than just voting to not do anything.

The notion of sweeping legislation seems to be off the table for Republicans. A big issue that came out of last year’s health care reform was just how huge it was and how even some Congresspeople hadn’t read the whole thing. It makes sense then that the GOP would go after specific reforms one at a time, even if that brings its own issues along, too.

Republicans say there’s no timeline for their “replace” legislation, but if they’re serious, they’ll have to start advancing specific proposals by the summer.

The likeliest prospect Republicans have for success in the short term lies in taking on the 1099 tax reporting requirement for businesses. It’s been widely criticized as a paperwork nightmare. Even the White House wants to scrap the provision, and the Treasury Department has already taken action to limit its scope. But the two political parties disagree on how to go about undoing the requirement, so an early resolution seems unlikely. Lawmakers have time; it doesn’t take effect until next year.

My emphasis. Both parties agree that this specific item in the law should be changed. This is a great place to start: a point of reference on which both can say, “Yeah, that bit doesn’t work.” At least they don’t have to argue that something is broken while the other side says it’s fine. Which means they can just get right to problem solving: “Let’s figure out a way to fix it.” That’s working together. That’s compromise. That’s using different ideas of how things should work to make the law better. Granted that’s no easy task either, whatsoever; but, it’s far more productive than just taking a symbolic vote on total repeal of everything – even the stuff that arguably works.

But Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas still sees value and importance in the general repeal.

“Unless we repeal the law in the House, we don’t have any credibility to do anything. This establishes Republicans’ credibility to negotiate and deal with the Senate and the president.”

I disagree. The GOP could establish credibility just as well – if not even better to a large swath of Americans – by using their majority to provide solutions to those issues they have with the law rather than just scrapping it altogether and starting over again. That merely showcases their voting majority at the expense of their credibility to negotiate – especially when the repeal seems to be falling mainly down party lines.

Given the polls that show that the overall law tends to show up as unfavorable to the majority of Americans while the individual aspects of the law tend to be favorable, the real work needs to be done on improving the parts to make the whole better. Hopefully the House will still seek to achieve these goals even if the repeal dies in the Senate as expected. Then we all win: the GOP saves face by doing what they could to satisfy those campaign promises; and we all get an improved health care system.

Photo courtesy of wallyg’s Flickr Photostream.

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Camden, NJ: Nation’s Second-Most Dangerous City Lays Off Nearly Half Police Force to Close Budget Gap

01.19.11

With many state budgets are deeply in debt, the notion of cutting spending seems like a welcomed choice in balancing the budget. At least until the reality of just what that means comes to fruition.

While we tend to think of long lines at inefficient post offices as the symbol of just how wasteful, lazy, and unnecessary government workers can be, also on the state’s payroll are police officers and firefighters. Both of which all of us want at the ready when we need them to be.

Case in point: Camden, NJ. Already a city struggling before the recession — I was there once and can vouch for its impoverished neighborhood and dangerous streets; a friend was even jumped and robbed by four people while there — now has fallen on even harder times:

About 335 workers, representing one-sixth of the local government work force, lost their jobs, according to Mayor Dana Redd. It was worst in the public safety departments, where nearly half the police force and close to one-third of the city’s firefighters were laid off.

While there are likely elements in the government bureaucracy that could use trimming – or slashing even – to curb spending during this economic downturn, it doesn’t seem like the issue that caused the bloat in the budget was too many police officers. Especially not in the city of Camden, which held the dubious honor of being the second-most dangerous city in the nation in 2009 — a slight improvement after having won the title the previous two years running.

Or perhaps it was:

Kelly Francis, a local government watchdog and president of the city’s NAACP branch, says the city should have been shedding its staff for decades.

He says, for instance, that it was a mistake to use federal grants in the 1990s to bulk up the police department as the city’s population shrunk. The federal funds eventually dried up, leaving the city to pay costs it couldn’t afford.

“It seems to me there’s an entitlement mentality in the city of Camden,” Francis said. “It’s been at least 40 years that the state’s been bailing out the city.”

An entitlement mentality? Oh yeah: those whiny residents of one of the most dangerous cities in the entire country wanting a more bolstered police presence. How dare they! Don’t they know we’re in the middle of a recession?

On the other hand, it seems that the Camden police force was incredibly high compared to the acceptable average of 1.5 – 2 officers per 1,000 residents, clocking in at 4.7 officers per 1,000 residents prior to the massive layoff, which brings them down to 2.6 officers per 1,000 — still above the average. Then again, being at or near the top of the dangerous cities list means probably needing more than just an average ratio of cops to people.

Camden Mayor Dana Redd blamed the unions for the layoffs:

Redd blamed the public safety employee cuts on their unions, saying they have not been willing to make job-saving concessions or accept the reality that the state government will no longer bail out the city as it has for the past two generations.

The union countered:

The Fraternal Order of Police said the deal would have included a 20 percent pay cut. Union officials said they were open to wage freezes and furlough days.

No other details were given so it’s hard to know exactly which one to get behind. No matter how to slice it, a 20 percent pay cut is massive. Especially given that in this economy many people are stretched even thinner — to lose 1/5th of your pay can actually make it unaffordable for you to stay at that job.

It’s a lose-lose situation, one that no one can truly be happy about. On one hand, you can balance the budget but, in doing so, you layoff 168 police officers in a crime-ridden city. That also means that those officers will now be without work in the already poverty-stricken town across the river from Philadelphia. These officers will most likely go on unemployment, being another drain on government – just not on the city of Camden. And less money in their pockets also means less money going into the local economy. And thus: the cycle continues. While government gets “punished” for their out-of-control spending (or by just getting hit like nearly every other city and state because of the deep recession), Americans lose their jobs.

Seems like it’s going to get worse before it all gets better. And there are no easy answers and even fewer winners in this whole scenario.

Photo courtesy of dougtone’s Flickr Photostream.

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Gun Control and Mental Illness: Can We Prevent Another Tucson?

01.15.11

Jared Lee Loughner’s horrific decision to whip out a Glock semi-automatic handgun on a group of people in Tucson one week ago has caused the national conversation to examine our political rhetoric, mental illness, and gun control.

And just like I never called for more regulations on free speech in the wake of the shooting, I don’t see how banning semi-automatic weapons will make any difference.

A couple things that should be looked at, however are:

  1. How many bullets a cartridge should hold
  2. Screening gun-owners for mental illness

The former wouldn’t be too difficult to do once the law went into effect. The latter, though, opens up a whole new conversation — one that I’m not nearly educated enough on to provide some sort of recommended game plan. Suffice to say that there are a number of factors that would need to be addressed regarding mental health in America: how we treat those with mental illness, and then how to then create proper screenings to prevent those with out the capacity to handle a firearm from obtaining one.

It seems the the main issue is the lack of knowledge on mental disease in general. There’s a growing population of people who think that psychiatry is an evil practice — Scientology comes to mind, with their alternative being to pay them a fortune to have your alien ghosts cast out of you. Given the two options, I’ll go with psychiatry, thank you very much, but that’s a different conversation.

This is a factor for why many people just don’t understand mental illness — or even brain injuries (just ask how the Marines handle TBIs and you’ll see how much people think of them) — and those afflicted have a high chance of getting cast out of society because it’s such a taboo subject. When people mention someone having bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, its almost always in hushed tones followed by a long, dreadful “Ohhhh.”

People fear what they don’t understand; and, frankly, most of us don’t get mental illness. We mistake disease of the brain – the organ – with an ugly dimension of the mind, the psyche. As if those with mental disorders speaks more about the darkness in their souls rather than being something wrong in their body. The more we can study and educate, the fewer people will go untreated. And hopefully the fewer people will go off on violent rampages, all without having to restrict freedoms granted to Americans by the second amendment.

While I see zero reason for the average American needing to own a semi-automatic handgun, much less an unbalanced 21-year-old, since the only thing that weapon is designed to do is kill another human being, I also don’t see much good coming from banning them — those who want them would still be able to find them on the black market.  And if someone wants to unleash hell on a group of innocent people, they’ll find a way.

Or they’ll just pick up a cartridge extension:

Still, as a society, we should make it as difficult as possible and try to limit the carnage as much as we can.  I see the shrinking of cartridges to hold fewer bullets and the outlawing of clip extensions as a good compromise that would prevent a would-be assassin from being able to spray 30-plus rounds without having to reload without rendering them completely ineffective for those who wish to own them for self- and home defense.

Photo courtesy of jyoseph’s Flickr Photostream.