Put your shoulder to the wheel

Put your shoulder to the wheel

Those who are reading this are, to a certain degree, dissatisfied with things the way they are. Being a Mormon Democrat is not for the faint of heart; no one who is guilty of thinking “all is well in Zion” is a member of this club. While we are grateful to be Americans, grateful for our testimonies of the Savior and the restored Gospel, and (I think especially as Democrats) conscious of how all these blessings come from our Heavenly Father, we believe things can be better. A short list of our frustrations includes the following:

Why do many of our fellow Latter-day Saints seem blind to many of the injustices in today’s America?

How can a people who read the Book of Mormon every day think that a political philosophy that worships wealth, idolizes rich people, demonizes poor people and whose religious base consists of fundamentalists who deny Mormons are Christian somehow reflects their values? How can these same people read King Benjamin and complain about ‘welfare moms’ taking their pittance away from us ‘hard working people’ while ignoring the vastly larger sums the rich and powerful are pilfering to line their already fat pockets?

How can the one predominantly Mormon state in the nation, whose people supposedly value families and children so much, consistently be rock-bottom in support for public education?

How can the descendants of the loyal followers of Brigham Young not be outraged at the environmental mess we have made of Brother Brigham’s Zion?

I could go on, but you get the point. Yeah, we’re frustrated.

It’s time we do something besides sit around the table and complain to each other. An election is coming up, and it’s time to put our shoulders to the wheel and get to work. The LDS Dems have experienced explosive growth the last few years, and we’re all excited about that, but this is more than a social club. Pick a few Democratic candidates that share your values. They don’t have to be Latter-day Saints. Donate to their campaigns. Volunteer to walk with them in your neighborhoods. If your health doesn’t permit that, make phone calls. Hold a house party and get a roomful of people together to meet your candidates.

Most importantly, speak up. I was getting my recommend signed several months ago by a wonderful councilor in our stake presidency. We got to talking afterwards and he asked about my plans for running for the Utah Legislature. After learning I was running as a Democrat, he leaned in and whispered (even though we were alone): “My son and I have been discussing this for a year now, and we’ve decided we’re Democrats!”

My response was simple: My good friend, stop whispering!

 

Obama didn’t build that

Obama didn’t build that

Since the crisis in Ukraine took center stage in the news a little over a month ago, we could have added to the list of death and taxes another absolute certainty of life: that Republicans would blame the whole thing on Obama.

We’ve heard the usual accusations from John McCain and Lindsey Graham that all the world’s problems are due to Obama not being hawkish enough. We’ve witnessed Mitt Romney strutting around the talk show circuit crowing that he was “right” about Putin and Obama was wrong. We’ve heard that America is less respected in the world since Obama became President. (Which is why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the sole but important accomplishment of not being George W. Bush. Good call, guys.) Maybe my favorite was the statement by one of America’s most respected former Secretaries of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld that a trained monkey could do better on foreign policy than Obama. (The snarky sarcasm in that last sentence makes me feel a bit guilty. Guess I should repent.)

Sen. Dick Durbin has reminded Romney and other Republicans that they have short, selective memories. In that spirit, and to have a little fun, I’m going to paraphrase one of the Republican’s most notorious mis-quotes of the President to point out a few facts.

I’ve always felt that a robust foreign policy should include a credible threat of military force toward the world’s evil doers. However, this is a double-edged sword; actually using military force in protracted wars sours the American public on military intervention, making future threats less credible. The world’s bad guys, which include Assad in Syria, the ayatollahs in Iran, and Comrade Putin, know any threat of U.S. military force is mere posturing, thanks to Americans being war weary from the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama didn’t build that.

Contributing to the reticence of Americans and the citizens of our NATO allies toward military intervention is the global economic crisis. The huge debt accumulated from the unfunded military adventures during the Bush administration, combined with the Great Recession, means we simply cannot afford another Iraq or Afghanistan. Economic hard times in Europe have caused our allies to slash military spending. We are simply not in the same place economically to pursue military intervention today as we were at the end of the Clinton years, when the debt was coming down and the economy was growing.

Obama didn’t build that.

As respected historian and retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich has eloquently written the last several years, the world is a different place than it was when the Cold War ended over two decades ago. Dana Millibank summarized the situation nicely in his recent column, “The World Is Just Not That Into Us.” Following the economic model perfected by America, many of the world’s developing countries’ economies are rapidly expanding. (Shouldn’t we be happy about that?) This gives these new nations growing influence on the global stage. Simply stated, America can no longer snap her fingers and force the world to bend to her will. As the developing countries close the economic gap with the current crop of rich countries, a trend which cannot be stopped, the influence of the U.S. on global affairs will inevitably wane. You can jeer or cheer those facts, but they’re still facts.

Obama didn’t build that.

Finally, wise Americans for years have warned us of the importance of finding alternatives to fossil fuels. One of the main reasons for this is to end the influence of petro dictators on global affairs. Putin is one of those petro dictators, and the stranglehold he has over Europe’s energy supplies enables him to thumb his nose at world opinion and do whatever he pleases. It places huge constraints on the level of economic sanctions America can get our allies in Europe to agree to.

Obama didn’t build that.

Americans need to have some patience. Putin may appear to be winning this battle, but I agree with Tom Friedman that we need to look at the long view. Ukrainians are looking at her eastern European neighbors like Poland, Romania and the Baltic States, and comparing how those nations are doing with Russia, Belarus and themselves – and the club they want to join becomes pretty clear. It may take years, but when the oil and gas wells start to run dry, Russians will come to the same conclusion.

Democrats prefer democracy

Now that Utah State Senator Curt Bramble’s negotiated compromise with the Count My Vote proponents appears to be headed for a vote in the Legislature, cries of dismay from the extremist wing of the GOP have become deafening. A complaint by Rep. Mike Noel especially caught my eye (especially combined with his cry that Mitt Romney had – gasp! – hurt his feelings!):

“To me, the scariest voter is the uninformed voter.”

I can think of a few things more scary, Mike.

To me, the scariest voter is the voter that believes he deserves more say in how our country is run than his fellow citizens. They have a name for that: oligarchy. It sure ain’t democracy. One of the things that pushed me into being a Utah Democrat was hearing Republican delegates in 2005 call in to the Doug Wright show one afternoon explaining why they deserved more say in how the state was run than their clueless fellow citizens (especially if those citizens were registered Democrats). The arrogance of those people really shocked me. Rep. Noel makes it clear they haven’t repented.

These folks argue that it’s none of the public’s business how the Republican Party chooses their candidates. What arrogance. The taxpayer foots the bill for our elections; our system of electing our representatives belongs to the people, not to any political party.

While we’re talking uninformed voters, Mike: Which voter is more uninformed? The voter who is maybe a little superficial in how she investigates the candidates and issues, but remains open minded – or the voter who is so rigid in his ideology that his mind is completely closed to facts, evidence or any sort of rational argument that disagrees with his cherished beliefs? Neither of the above is ideal – but if I had to choose, I think we would be much better off with the first. Modern Republicans remind me of the old Mark Twain quote: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know that ain’t so.”

The Utah Legislature in general, and the fact that we sent John Swallow to the AG’s office and Mike Lee to the US Senate, are irrefutable examples that the current system is not working for Utah.

Kudos to Senator Bramble for bucking the extremists in his party and trying to find a workable compromise that maybe, just maybe, will be a good solution that balances the rights of the public with the concerns of political activists.

Congress: Do your job

Congress: Do your job

The conservatives are screaming bloody murder over President Obama’s stated plan this year to use his executive power to bypass Congress when necessary in solving some of the nation’s most pressing problems. And I have to admit: I’m a little uncomfortable myself. Like most Americans, I revere the Constitution and the concept of separation of powers.

The question is: Who is at fault for this problem?

To answer that, a few case studies from history might be instructive.

In the late Middle Ages, the largest and most powerful nation in Europe was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and from Germany and Austria almost to Moscow. Almost all of what we know as Eastern Europe, include much of today’s Russia, was contained within its borders.

Except for avid students of European history, the above paragraph is probably mildly surprising. Most of you have probably never heard of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Where did this large, powerful nation go? We have Poland and Lithuania today, but these nations are hardly world powers. What happened?

The Commonwealth was ruled by an elected king and by the Sejm, a legislative body consisting of the nobles of the country. In the late 1600’s the concept of the liberum veto was introduced in the Sejm. This change allowed any member of the Sejm to veto any legislation, essentially requiring a unanimous vote to pass. About the same time, the members of the Sejm started to be more concerned about their own little fiefdoms rather than the overall good of the nation. The result was that the Commonwealth became ungovernable. Her neighbors took advantage of the situation, and during the latter half of the 18th century, she was literally carved up and partitioned amongst her neighbors; Russia, Prussia and Austria. The American Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kościuszko returned to his native Poland and led a revolution to try to save his country, but by then it was too late.

More recently, we have the example of the depression-era Weimar Republic in Germany, where a bickering, divisive Reichstag resulted in paralyzed government and paved the way for Adolf Hitler to assume power.

There are many more examples, but the lesson is clear: The path to tyranny is paved by dysfunctional government, especially in the legislature, which is the branch most closely tied to the people.

The parallel to the United States in 2014 is clear. One of the major political parties has a curious, perverse incentive: Their ideology claims that the government can’t do anything right, so they have the incentive to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However, the government has to function. We can have honest debates over what the government should do, but once the decision has been made, we must work together to make government function.

My message to congressional Republicans couldn’t be more clear: Are you upset about President Obama trying to do your job? Then why don’t you do your job.

Time for a Tax Increase for Education

Time for a Tax Increase for Education

by  LaWanna “Lou” Shurtliff

Former Utah State Representative Ogden, UT 84403
District 10

Let’s raise taxes to fund education. I know this is a bold statement in Utah where we are expected to do much with little funding, but most polls show that over 60% of Utah citizens are willing to pay more taxes if the money is used for schools.

Believe it or not, in the 1980’s, Utah’s funding per child was about the national average. At the time, we had large families and many children in our schools just as we do now.

Years earlier with a Constitutional Amendment, some forward thinking legislators, I will call them statesmen, earmarked all income tax to go to schools. The Education Fund would support our public schools, kindergarten through 12th grade. This decision would leave the General Fund to take care of the other obligations in the State.

But come 1995, the Legislature saw the money in the Education Fund and wanted to use it as they saw fit. So again, a Constitutional Amendment was put on the ballot that the Education Fund could be used to fund Higher Education. Teachers were concerned about losing this funding, but they were told if they came out against the Amendment that the income rate could be lowered. Also, the worst part was that it was pitting one educational entity against another. The Amendment passed. As a result, in 1996 the public schools were receiving about 98% of the Education Fund. In 2008, the last year that I served in the House, they received 73%.

In 2008, the Legislature passed the “flat tax” rate for income. The idea was to make it easier to file your state income tax. Even though it was touted as a “flat tax,” several items were kept, such as a deduction for children and a deduction for charitable contributions. The change was to be revenue neutral. In other words, taxes would not increase, but the schools would not lose money. The end result: the schools lost approximately $200 million per year.

At the present time, our “flat tax” is 5%; not including the deductions that are still allowed. If we raised that amount to 5 ½%, $275 million would be generated which could lower each classroom by three students or which could be used for needs as assessed in each school district. Six percent would give the schools $550 million. About 10 years ago, Mississippi was on the bottom as far as per child funding. They always used the term “bite the bullet” as they raised taxes to fund their schools. Their funding is now well above ours.

During this recession, many have had to sacrifice; some have not. The hard part of any proposal is trying to decide how people will be affected. We do know that those with large families, including some legislators, end up not paying any income tax.

In the past fifteen years, we have had these two dramatic hits to educational funding. Now is the time that we need to step up to the plate and take care of the students of Utah. Reports are showing that our students are not doing as well as they should. Of the 50 states, Utah is at the bottom of funding by at least $1000 per child. I believe it is time we meet the challenge and increase our income tax rate to meet this crisis of funding in our public schools.

 

Two options for solving the “disincentive to work” problem

A recent op-ed by Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman resulted in a personal epiphany over how we might begin to approach one of the biggest problems in our country: the struggles of the working poor.

Despite the occasional snarky comments you hear about poor people being lazy, there are tens of millions of American families where both spouses are working full-time, or even multiple jobs, and still struggling to make ends meet. One thing Krugman admits in his column is that the current safety net has huge disincentives for improving one’s economic situation. This is not because America’s working poor are lazy. It’s because the current system of public assistance tapers too rapidly. Working more hours, taking a second job, or sending your spouse into the workplace could result in an effective tax rate on that new income of up to 80%, as the government takes away assistance almost at the same rate as income increases. If the system penalizes you for improving yourself, it will of course affect the choices you make. The Affordable Care Act makes an honest attempt to remedy this situation in regards to access to health care (in the states where Republicans allow it to function), but in general, it’s still true that those who are on full public assistance are sometimes better off than those who are working hard to try to support themselves.

There are theoretically only two ways to remedy the above incentive problem:

  1. Dramatically reduce or eliminate public assistance. If there is little or no public assistance for poor Americans, the tapering question is moot.
  2. Reduce the rate of change for tapering public assistance from earned income sources, with an eye toward eliminating the disincentive for self-improvement. This could be done many different ways; through the tax code (such as making the earned income tax credit more generous), through temporary “underemployment” benefits, or direct assistance.

The first proposal would result in an increase in human suffering, especially for children, and arguably would hurt the economy by reducing already suppressed consumer demand.

The second proposal successfully solves the incentive problem, while reducing human suffering and adding demand dollars to the economy. It would be one of the simplest ways to begin to address what President Obama has rightly called the challenge of our time: persistent income inequality and the separation of Americans into economic classes with little economic mobility.

The second solution does have one drawback: It would cost more. And by definition, given what we’re trying to accomplish (removing disincentives for self-improvement among the working poor), that cost would have to be borne by higher income Americans.

Conservatives would obviously balk at the second idea. But there is one argument that they could not make: That it would be just another government give-away to lazy freeloaders. The people who would be helped by this approach are the hardest working Americans of us all. The whole idea would be to ensure their efforts at self-improvement are not in vain.

It remains to be seen if the President or any mainstream elected Democrats out there are courageous enough to pick up the gauntlet that Professor Krugman has thrown down.

 

 

A few thoughts on marriage

A few thoughts on marriage

A few (personal) thoughts on Judge Robert Shelby’s historic ruling on Utah’s Amendment 3 in December.

As a practicing, temple-endowed Latter-day Saint who was sealed for time and eternity to my high-school sweetheart almost 36 years ago, I believe that the religious sacrament I call marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman.

However, here’s the problem: Others have deeply held religious views that marriage between individuals of the same gender is also approved by God. This creates an uncomfortable quandary (or at least it should) for a people who believe in a modern scripture that reads “We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government”. The quandary is especially uncomfortable when Amendment 3 opponents are able to produce quotes by John Taylor and Brigham Young condemning monogamy (i.e. traditional marriage) that use much the same language as today’s opponents of same-sex marriage.

How do you decide whose religious belief gets enacted into law, when there is no consensus? The obvious answer is you can’t. Because of this, well-meaning supporters of Amendment 3, including attorneys in Utah’s AG office, have tried to translate religious arguments into secular and legal ones. It is from this perspective that Judge Shelby decided arguments that same-sex marriage was harmful to traditional marriage did not hold water. In their latest appeal to the Supreme Court for a stay to Judge Shelby’s decision, the AG’s office sent a subtle signal about the legal weakness of their case when they dropped the procreation argument. Attempts have been made by Amendment 3 supporters in editorial columns in Utah newspapers the last month to state logical, legally sound secular arguments for their support, and to any fair-minded person, these arguments come across as stilted and strained.

I think we have to admit that the only logically sound arguments for opposition to same sex marriage are religious ones, and the soundness of such arguments depends upon whether one accepts that particular religious viewpoint.

Given the political climate in Utah, the Attorney General’s office probably doesn’t have any choice but to pursue all avenues of appeal to Judge Shelby’s decision. But it’s hard to see that effort succeeding in turning back the sweep of history.

In the meantime, LDS Dems have a great opportunity to change the discussion. If the goal is strengthening the family – who can disagree with that? Why not start a discussion of things we agree on, and how we can take effective, concrete steps to strengthen traditional families?

Here is one example. Leaders as diverse as Ezra Taft Benson, Hillary Clinton and Robert Reich have argued forcefully that full-time care by a parent in the early stages of a child’s life is a worthy goal for society. If that is true, if we all agree on that, then why is it that the “godless socialists” in Europe have parental leave policies that are so much more family-friendly that we do? My own daughter gave birth to a beautiful daughter six months ago, but little Mariah was born with significant health problems related to being one of the “little people” (the new kinder term for dwarfism). The crush of medical bills made it necessary for my daughter to go back to work just a few short weeks after birth. Thank goodness for a good girlfriend who was able to care for this handicapped child, but how can one describe this situation as “family friendly”?

Our fellow Mormons claim strengthening the traditional family is their most important priority, and Judge Shelby’s ruling has brought that subject to the forefront. It’s an opportune time to forcefully point out how damaging conservative economic policies have been to the traditional family.

In closing: A wise and good friend, who is a member of a stake presidency, made an interesting comment in a Sunday School class recently. He said that we as Latter-day Saints believe the ideal family is a father and mother married in the temple for life and raising their own children in righteousness. But he went on to say that upholding this ideal is not mutually exclusive to recognizing the reality that there are other types of families, and we need to find a way to serve and strengthen all families. There are single parent families. There are families like my wife and I who are raising a grandson. And yes, the unavoidable fact is that there are families where two members of the same gender are making a life together. I am hopeful that recent events might act as a catalyst to help us begin working on the things that we can agree on to strengthen all families.

 

My discovery of “It Takes A Village”

My discovery of “It Takes A Village”

A few weeks ago, we had our 4th Sunday lesson in priesthood meeting on Elder Christofferson’s talk “The Moral Force of Women” from last October’s conference. Although I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the lack of political talk in our new Ogden ward (compared with our old ward, where I would often come home from church with blood running down the corners of my mouth from biting my tongue), that particular lesson did contain the obligatory attacks from some of the older gentlemen on the “women libbers”. At one point, the teacher brought up Hillary Clinton’s book, “It Takes a Village”, and resurrected that old Bob Dole snark: “No, maam, it takes a family.” Then the teacher proceeded to claim that Mrs. Clinton’s book denigrated the role of traditional families in her book.

Well, I knew he hadn’t read it and based his opinion on one smart-alecky sentence from a political opponent. I would have called him on it, until I realized: I hadn’t read it either!

Thanks to the miracle of technology, within an hour from arriving home from church, the 2006 second edition of “It Takes a Village” was on the Kindle reader on my smartphone. (I don’t know about you, but the ease of getting a new book from the Kindle Store sure makes it hard to keep on a reasonable book budget.) I’ve been reading it during lunch the last few weeks, and was left with one overriding impression: Not only was Bob Dole and our priesthood instructor dead wrong; I believe if you took the text from that book, put it in a different cover with a new name, and pasted the name of a General Authority on the front, it would be an instant best seller at Deseret Book. I’ve never read anything more supportive of the traditional family, or more sympathetic to our traditional LDS values.

The chapter on divorce was especially emotional for me. I think everyone knows about President Clinton’s troubled childhood. Mrs. Clinton had good, supportive parents, but her mother, Dorothy Rodham, came from a broken home. She tells the heartbreaking story of how her 8-year old mother and her 3-year old younger sister were put on a train in Chicago by their father for a three-day trip, all alone, to live with their grandparents in Los Angeles. Our little grandson Silas, who lives with us, turns eight in April. I just can’t imagine! I have never read more passionate arguments about the scourge of divorce on the lives of young children than those contained in that chapter, or a more clarion call for us to do better as a society. Suddenly, I had an epiphany about Mrs. Clinton’s own life. There have been all sorts of nefarious theories about why she stayed with her husband after his well-publicized problems with keeping his marriage covenants, but it became clear to me that she simply hated divorce, and loved Chelsea too much to allow their family to be split up. If conservative leaders in our country were as committed to keeping marriages together “for better or worse” as Hillary Clinton has been, our nation would be a much friendlier place for traditional families. The contrast between her and folks like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich is stark indeed. (Speaking of snark: I loved the one-liner from the late night comedian in early 2012 who said the only Republican presidential candidates that had only one wife were the two Mormons.)

Mrs. Clinton had extraordinary credentials for writing this book. During her years at Yale Law School, she participated in ground breaking research into childhood health and development, and her book is filled with both the passion for the importance of loving homes and the science supporting her passion.

The theme of “It Takes a Village” is simple: Hillary Clinton argues passionately that our communities need to do a much better job of supporting traditional families and the precious children than live in those homes. Bob Dole’s snarky remark couldn’t have been more wrong. It reinforces my anger at an LDS culture that automatically assumes that conservatives are pro-family and progressives are anti-family. I am embarrassed now that it took me this long to read this landmark book, and it makes me more dedicated than ever to the cause of speaking out against that falsehood. I gained a new appreciation for Mrs. Clinton and the strength of her character. Makes me even more proud to be a Democrat! You can count me in as one American who would be thrilled to see her become our first woman President.

A kinder, gentler Mike Lee?

A few weeks ago, just after the end of the shutdown, Senator Mike Lee gave a speech to the Heritage Foundation. The tone made me wonder, “Who are you and where is Mike Lee?” The partisan firebrand was nowhere to be seen, and in its place was this reasonable sounding man who claimed the GOP’s message wasn’t relevant to most of the country, that they’d lost their rich intellectual tradition from the Reagan era, and – finally! -  said conservatives needed to come up with an alternative to health care reform rather than just throw rocks at Obamacare.

Now, we in Utah believe in repentance. If a kinder, gentler Mike Lee has arrived, it would be a great thing for our state. He does seem like a genuinely nice guy, if somewhat misguided, so I would be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt – even if the probable incentive for this possible change of heart is his cratering approval numbers.

But in the spirit of “bringing forth fruits meet for repentance”, I’d like to concentrate on one important aspect of his speech. Senator Lee admitted we need to do something about the broken ladder of upward mobility in America. The gap between rich and poor is greater than any time since the Great Depression, and studies show economic mobility in our nation is lower than any other developed country. If a child is born to a poor family, the barriers to her rising out of poverty in America are nearly insurmountable. Surely this must be considered one of the most pressing issues we face.

I’m wondering if Sen. Lee is ready to acknowledge that some dearly held Republican policies have contributed to this serious problem.

Take supply side economics. The admitted goal of these policies was to transfer more of the nation’s ongoing wealth to the “job creators”. Hence the huge cuts to upper income tax rates and investment and inheritance taxes, coupled with payroll tax increases and elimination of middle income tax exemptions and cuts to social programs for the poor. We now know from hindsight these policies also resulted in an explosion of “rent-seeking capitalists”, who make their fortunes not from creating new wealth but by transferring existing wealth into their own pockets. (Dylan Rattigan coined the colorful term “greedy b**tards” for this type of capitalist.)

The claim was that the benefits from these policies were supposed to “trickle down”. The evidence is indisputable: Instead, there was (using a term coined by Utah business tycoon and mid-20th century Federal Reserve chair Marriner Eccles) a “giant suction pump” pulling all the nation’s wealth into the hands of a few at the top.

Which of these policies is Senator Lee now willing to admit helped create today’s huge gap between rich and poor, and what changes would he support to reverse the trend?

Here’s another thought: Conservatives hold up the 1950’s as a time when everything was right in America, but one characteristic of that period was that almost 40% of American workers belonged to a union. It is no coincidence that the stagnation in middle class wages correlates to a huge drop in union membership.

Conservatives like to point to anecdotes that demonstrate union corruption (some of which are a half-century old), but occasional bad apples are found in every human endeavor. I didn’t see any Republicans calling for the end of corporations after Enron and Tyco. The fact is that large corporations will always have a power advantage over workers, and collective bargaining is one way to mitigate that imbalance. Large retailers like Costco and Starbucks have proven you can pay your employees a livable wage with benefits and remain profitable. As they have in the past, unions could help make these fair practices more universal.

Is Senator Lee willing to take the lead in ending the long-standing Republican animosity to organized labor?

Yes, there are non-political factors that have contributed to the wealth gap like the rise in technology and globalization, but the fact remains that other developed nations have done far better than we to ensure the fruits of economic growth are shared by everyone. Senator Lee is correct. America’s huge gap between rich and poor is a serious problem. I hope he will follow the example of Bill Clinton in the 1990’s in admitting the policy failures of his own party and take the lead in charting a new course.

 

Healthcare.gov: Take a deep breath

Confession: I am not a professional computer programmer. However, in my job as a reliability engineer and someone who works with data, writing computer code is an interesting and challenging part of the job.

A recent project makes me somewhat sympathetic to the folks getting lambasted over the problems with the healthcare.gov website. I was tasked with creating a global website for my company where test data from prototype airbag inflators would be stored. This required code where several programs communicated with each other to create graphs and other output, where multiple inflator plants worldwide needed to be able to enter data, and where even more facilities needed to be able to access it in a straightforward, user-friendly manner.

You fellow programmers out there will be nodding in understanding at the following: I tested the beegeebers out of the thing before I rolled it out to others in the global organization for “beta testing”; a term for getting people working with it before implementation to help find and fix the bugs. Sure enough, flaws started to be discovered by real people using it that I hadn’t caught, and these problems continued to trickle in for about six weeks. Finally, at that point, we released the thing for general use.

I think everyone understands the concept that computers are stupid machines. They simply do exactly what you tell them to and have no skill at all in reading human minds. Computer code is extremely complex except for the simplest functions, and it’s understood that testing and de-bug can be challenging and take some time.

With this introduction, I have to shake my head in amusement over Republicans using the healthcare.gov problems as another excuse to tell us America is doomed to extinction because of Obamacare. I can’t believe those folks haven’t caught the hint that we are all sick and tired of this modern version of “Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer On The Wall”.

When I say “amused”, I’m referring to the fact that there are multiple sweet ironies in this story.

I’m amused when they use healtcare.gov to claim “the government can’t do anything right”, when it has been private contractors constructing the site from day one. There’s also the insinuation that these problems don’t happen in the business world. My response to that: Can you say “Microsoft Vista”?

I have to laugh also that one of their ideological cast-in-concrete axioms is absolutely true in this case: Individual states could do these websites much better than the federal government. And not because computer programmers automatically undergo a lobotomy when they take a check from the Treasury Department. A piece of software that has to accommodate the rules and regulations of 30 states and which insurance companies are offering what in which state will be orders of magnitude more complex. The authors of the Affordable Care Act assumed most states would manage their own insurance exchanges. This assumption didn’t factor in the intransigence of Republican governors who would do anything to hinder its success. From all accounts, state-run insurance exchanges seem to be working much better.

Which leads to the greatest irony of all. It appears the place where the Affordable Care Act exchange is working best of all is in deep-red Kentucky, home state of two of Obamacare’s fiercest critics, Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell. And unlike certain other red-state Democrats (who we know and love), Democratic Governor Steve Beshear has been an unabashed cheerleader for Obamacare. His administration created their own state exchange and has labored tirelessly to make it work – and unsurprisingly, it is working. Thousands of Kentuckians who have never been able to afford health insurance are signing up every day.

No doubt the rollout of healthcare.gov didn’t work as advertised, and could have been done better. One especially worrisome thing (for you fellow geeks out there who understand object-oriented programming) is the word that there are a lot more lines of code than required, meaning there’s been unnecessary duplication. That will complicate finding and fixing the bugs.

But at the end of the day, buggy computer software gets de-bugged every day of the week in our modern world. Of course they’ll fix it. And Republican governors who should have followed the example of Governor Beshear are as much to blame as anyone for the problems. Don’t complain when something doesn’t work when you’ve worked tirelessly to sabotage it.

When all is said and done, you will be able to add this to the “death panels” list as one of the hundreds of false “the sky is falling” claims made by Republicans about Obamacare.