Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Civic-minded connections

The human mind, itself a series of connections, tries with all its might to make connections among the many bits of information it examines in the world. The part of our brain that deals with sight is known to fill in the blanks, because our eyes are pixelated; when we look, they do not see every square inch. Similarly, when we read, our minds quickly find the intended meaning of misspelled words or accidentally transposed text. And of course, the configuration of the neurons themselves (from my basic understanding) is a series of electrical flow charts, with new concepts constantly being added in relation to old ones. We know car, then silver car, then Grandma and Grandpa's silver car, then Buick Century, then boat.

In the last few days and weeks I have encountered a terrific series of stories about our country and this election, about how youth are becoming more involved and about how rural people are being ignored. On NPR yesterday I listened to a fantastic discussion of what a next-generation government (namely, an Obama one) might look like, led by the author of a book called Wikinomics. This "Government 2.0" sounded a lot like democracy, and it made me smile.

I am synthesizing all these ideas, looking for the connections. They exist, I am sure of that.

First, there is no question that Barack Obama has tapped into the power of youth unlike any presidential candidate in recent history. I experienced that first-hand on Iowa Caucus night back in January. The young people in the Guttenberg Municipal Building that night were decidedly Obama supporters and not only that, they were leaders. Three young precinct captains, all of them female college students, wore Obama t-shirts. They were the ones rallying the troops, standing on chairs to count voters, heading to other circles to find potential defectors for the Obama delegation. This was not their first night working on the campaign and it would not be the last; one of them, Liz Smith, has landed a job with the Obama campaign for the general election. I hear she starts in July. This scene, of young people working for Obama, has continued to play out across the country:

According to CNN exit polls in the primary states, practically every state - even those the senator fails to win - reflect this trend: In Georgia, for instance, 81 percent of voters age 18-24 cast ballots for Obama. In Wisconsin, it was 79 percent; Utah, 70 percent; Missouri, 69 percent; Alabama, 66 percent; Illinois, South Carolina and Pennsylvania, 65 percent; Louisiana, 66 percent; Tennessee, 56 percent; and New York, 55 percent.
Young people, of course, have different ideas about how government should work than the older people who have traditionally held power. The Government 2.0 discussion highlighted many of these points: that today's young people are more willing to tolerate radical ideas, if only as a starting point for a continuing discussion; that young people tend to see good government as grass roots, with plenty of collaboration, rather than a top-down hierarchy; and, ideologically, young people care far more about healing the environment, finding jobs, making college affordable and ending the Iraq war than they do about fixing Social Security, outlawing abortion and passing constitutional amendments that ban gay marriage.

So what does all this have to do with rural America? In this terrific story by Dee Davis, who once drove John Edwards around rural Kentucky, one can see that the concerns of rural voters are similar to the concerns of youth: the economy, the war and education. Davis correctly and gently criticizes Obama for not actively campaigning in Kentucky (he went only to Louisville and Lexington, the only two counties he won in that state last night). If Obama is to win rural America in November, as some suggest he can, he will have to reach out directly to the 60 million Americans who live outside the city. As Davis notes, and as Thomas Frank pointed out before her, rural voters admire politicians like John Edwards as much or more as they admire Pat Buchanan or George W. Bush. If Obama asks them for their vote, and offers solutions to that great American conundrum, rural poverty, the voters of Appalachia and other rural areas could send that blue state-red state map packing.

Having lived in rural America for the vast majority of my 27 years, I can say that rural Americans, virtually all of them, would appreciate Government 2.0 a lot more than what they've gotten so far. I saw a young man from Kentucky on the news yesterday, sitting with his family on a porch and speaking in a deep drawl. He said that all three candidates are the same, that government won't change until a poor person gets elected. Yet, I also read this terrific story about John Kennedy campaigning for the presidency in West Virginia in 1960:

Kennedy was shaking hands with coal miners in the state one day, when one grizzled old miner held onto his hand and wouldn't let go. "Is it true you're a millionaire's son who never worked a day in your life?" the miner asked.

Kennedy gulped and said, "Yeah, I guess so."

The miner slapped him on the back and said, "Lemme tell you, son, you ain't missed a thing."

Rural Americans, like all of us — especially this generation of young people — want more than anything to be involved, to be part of the solution. Whatever the movement is, if there's a good person in charge, we want to know that he or she knows us and cares about us and will offer a helping hand. In return, we'll do our part. Call it Government 2.0, call it democracy, or call it connecting with the American people. That's what the next president will have to do. It's a connection worth making in every part of this wonderful country.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A community, broken

The federal government raided a meat-packing plant in the northeast Iowa town of Postville on Monday, arresting more than 400 people, the biggest such raid in U.S. history.

The AP has the basic story here.

Postville, located 35 miles from where I grew up, is an atypical community in our corner of the world. The meat-packing plant is the largest producer of Kosher meat in the United States and from what I've read, produces the only meat that Israel will import from the U.S. As a result of the plant's existence, immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Ukraine and Israel have all made Postville home. It is a fascinating intersection of cultures in a mostly white state; several years ago, a University of Iowa professor wrote a book called "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America."

The raid has dominated local newscasts this week and everywhere I go, people are talking about it. For those who believe that Iowa is just another one of those bigoted states where people just want to "round up all the illegals and send 'em back where they came from," think again. While that sentiment surely exists, it's not the dominant one I've heard expressed this week.

No, most people are talking about how much damage the federal government has done to Postville. They're also talking about why in the world the company that runs the plant, Agriprocessors, is not being charged with any crimes. Our governor, Chet Culver, and the local U.S. House rep, Bruce Braley, are both inquiring about that as well, which hopefully will produce some results. The immigrants have also filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, which you can read about here.

For every person who was arrested on Monday, there is at least one heart-wrenching story to be told. Perhaps the most telling story, though, about how damaging the raid has been, is about one person who wasn't arrested. It's the story the Postville superintendent of schools is telling, about how his top student had to go into hiding because while the boy's father is a legal immigrant, his mother is not. The Gazette published the story earlier this week.

The superintendent's primary frustration is with Congress, for not doing something about immigration. The strange thing about this issue is that the three remaining presidential candidates and President Bush all basically agree on what needs to be done, though the Democrats' plan would make the pathway to citizenship less difficult for immigrants than the Republicans' plan, by not forcing them to return home after their time as guest workers is over. Regardless, the problem here is clearly people like Rep. Steve King (R-IA), Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs, who would rather see us build a giant wall around our country and fence out the Americans who welcome our Latino neighbors.

People who spout anti-immigrant hate always fall on the wrong side of history. We are a nation of immigrants. A wise woman once told me that our willingness to recognize the humanity of all people, to bestow individuals with unprecedented freedom and to open doors to the American dream, is what makes this country so great. She's absolutely right. Let us not forget it.

Friday, May 9, 2008

One year in the books

That's all she wrote for first year. This morning the majority of the 1L class, including me, handed in our journal packets. A week's worth of schoolwork after finals — not something most of us care to repeat anytime soon. But it's done, and so officially is our first year of law school! It's quite a relief, to be sure.

Try as I might, I don't know that I'll come up with anything profound to say about the first year in retrospect. It was harder than I thought it would be, and not for the reasons I had expected it would be hard. Grading on a curve makes people more competitive, yet we all seek validation from our peers — we want to know that we're on the right track. Friendships change constantly; time breathes down our necks, moving faster than it ever has before. We all think differently now, a progression that's only just begun. We choose our words carefully because we have to. People are quick to point out errors here, to find faults. But it's not a flaw, or at least I don't see it that way; I believe it's of necessity that we parse and issue-spot. As different as our paths will be, those will certainly be our jobs.

I can't say whether I like law school; somehow, it now seems like the wrong question. There is too much going on here to like or dislike it all. But there I go, parsing already. I'll never be the same again. None of us will.

I've packed the bare necessities in my car. Hello, summer.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Voters Who Wear Black Robes

Some who wear black robes get to vote. Some don't.

You wouldn't know it from recent media coverage, but the Supreme Court continues to hand down decisions and quite often, they suck. Within the last few weeks, the Court upheld an Indiana law requiring all voters to show a photo ID. In a 6-3 ruling, the Court said that the law, which is heavily supported by those (Republicans) who purport to fear voter fraud and heavily opposed by those (Democrats) who actually fear voter suppression. While the proponents of the law could show no actual evidence of voter fraud, a majority of the Court clearly believed them.

Well, nothing like a quick reality check. In the Indiana primary today, a dozen nuns, all in their 80s and 90s, showed up to vote but were turned away — by one of their own! — because they did not have driver's licenses. Moreover, they were denied provisional ballots because it would be impossible for them to get processed by the Indiana DMV within the necessary 10-day period before the state certifies the election. Some of the nuns — one was 98 — showed up in wheelchairs with outdated passports. The story is really quite appalling. Read it here.

I mention the bit about media coverage because of an outstanding study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The nonpartisan group does empirical research, tracking which media outlets are covering which stories, and how much. The PEJ concluded that last week, in all the coverage of the 2008 campaign, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was mentioned in 42% of the stories, while Sen. Hillary Clinton (she's still running for president, folks) was mentioned in 41% of stories. This is troublesome.

According to the PEJ study, of all the stories last week, the campaign ranked first, receiving 38% of the coverage. Understandable, perhaps. Coverage of the Supreme Court, by the way, was 10th, at 1%.

Too bad for the nuns. Like the justices, they wear black robes, too, but I guess their votes don't matter.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Health Care

The culture, it is a-changin':
WASHINGTON -- Some people marry for love, some for companionship, and others for status or money. Now comes another reason to get hitched: health insurance.

In a poll released today, 7% of Americans said they or someone in their household decided to marry in the last year so they could get healthcare benefits via their spouse.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Getting married for health insurance, L.A. TIMES, April 29, 2008,,1,1912378.story

The idea may strike some older Americans as odd, or even sacrilege — but not my generation. I know at least two couples for whom health insurance has dictated the timing, though probably not the ultimate decision, to get married.
Of course, these types of decisions are mere symptoms of the health care crisis in this country, a frequently debated topic in this year's presidential election. In fact, it's one of the most important issues that will continue to draw attention in the six months between now and Tuesday, November 4. Still, as important as this debate will be, much confusion and misinformation abound. Part of this is the media's fault, because they think we're more interested in bowling scores and shots of whiskey, as Elizabeth Edwards pointed out so brilliantly in this op-ed last month. (It's poignantly titled, "Bowling 1, Health Care 0.") But mostly, if we don't know what the debate is about, it's because we haven't taken the time to educate ourselves. The info's all there; we just need to know where to look.

First, some facts. Some of these may be well known, but they bear repeating. (Primary source: the non-partisan National Coalition on Health Care, co-chaired by former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray.)

  • Of the nearly 300 million people in the U.S., 47 million do not have health insurance — about 16 percent of the population.
  • Of those 47 million uninsured, 80 percent are native or naturalized citizens. (We're not just talking about illegal immigrants here.)
  • Since 2000, the number of uninsured has increased by nearly 9 million.
  • While our system is primarily employer-based, about 15 percent of workers did not have health insurance available to them through work in 2005.
  • In 2006, there were 8.7 million American children without health insurance.
  • Nearly 40 percent of the 47 million uninsured Americans have household incomes of $50,000 or more.
  • Employee spending on health insurance premiums has increased 143% since 2000.
  • Only 7% of unemployed Americans can afford COBRA, the continuation health insurance offered by employers when people lose their jobs.
  • The U.S. government pays nearly $100 billion to provide uninsured residents with health care each year.
  • American hospitals provide $34 billion in uncompensated health care annually.
  • Of those Americans who do have health insurance, 29% are under-insured, meaning that they delay medical treatment due to high co-pays or co-insurance. (Here's an eye-opening article about rising health care costs.)
  • Other countries have cheaper, more efficient systems of providing health care than we do, and they don't necessarily sacrifice quality to do it. See, e.g., Japan and France. Canada and the U.K. have single-payer (government-run) systems, while France is employer-based, like the U.S.
For a look at the myriad problems with the health care system, see this list of under-treated conditions, duplications and wildly disparate care depending on the illness. Two examples: nearly 10,000 deaths from pneumonia could be prevented each year through vaccination, and nearly 70,000 more people die from poor control of high blood pressure, another preventable condition.

So, what to do about this mess? Well, if it's up to our presidential candidates, there are three different options. None of them is advocating a single-payer system, like Canada or the U.K. (or Dennis Kucinich). John McCain has attacked the Democrats' plans as an attempt to socialize the American health care system, a suggestion the New York Times debunks quite resoundingly here.

Both Democrats are pushing for versions of universal health insurance. Both plans would expand the employer-based system, giving more tax incentives to small businesses that offer insurance. Both plans allow all Americans the option to keep their current insurance, if they like it, but also create an option to buy insurance from the government, the way House and Senate members do. Both plans focus on reducing premiums and reducing health care costs. Barack Obama's plan mandates health insurance for all children, but does not penalize those who can't afford to buy insurance. Hillary Clinton's plan would mandate insurance for all. Essentially, both Democrats believe that the health insurance market is broken, that government must intervene or the system will continue to spiral out of control. Both Obama's and Clinton's plans are amazingly detailed. Check out the links — whatever your question (e.g., how will they pay for all this?), the websites have the answer.

The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation has a tremendous side-by-side analysis of all three candidates' plans.

The differences between Clinton's plan and Obama's plan are minimal, especially when contrasted with John McCain's plan. Strangely, it is McCain — not the Democrats — who would eviscerate the employer-based system. McCain would cancel the tax incentive for employers to provide health insurance, then provide tax credits of $2,500 to individuals and $5,000 to families to essentially find their own health insurance, because employers likely won't be doing it anymore. Moreover, McCain would make it more difficult for states to get Medicaid reimbursements. In other words, McCain places his faith in the market to fix the health care crisis. Poor people, in particular, would be on their own.

On this issue, I can't put it much better than Elizabeth Edwards, who has had her fair share of experience with the health care system: "Basically John McCain's health care program works very well if you happen to be rich and healthy and not very well if those are not descriptions of you."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

1L no more

That's all she wrote, first year. Today I finished Van Alstyne's 3 1/2-hour closed-book exam (he did give us copies of the Constitution, which actually came in handy), and so the first year has ended. Today, for the first time, I wore my "I (heart) Law School" shirt to school. One of my female classmates threatened, good-naturedly of course, to punch me in the face. Otherwise the shirt was generally well received.

Write-on competition for journals starts tomorrow so for 24 hours, I have no obligations. More reflections later, perhaps. For now, it's a beautiful day in Williamsburg. I'm headed outside.