Opinion

The Great Debate

America: The anecdotal nation

In America today, anecdotes have become the new facts.

Consider Obamacare. Opponents have produced ads featuring apparently ordinary Americans telling stories about the travails forced upon them by the Affordable Care Act. One ad, financed by the Koch brothers, highlighted a leukemia sufferer named Julie Boonstra, who claimed that Obamacare had raised the cost of her medications so much that she was faced with death! Pretty dramatic stuff — except that numerous fact-checkers found she would actually save $1,200 under Obamacare.

But what are you going to believe — a sob story or a raft of statistics about the 7.5 million Americans who have signed up and the paltry 1 million folks who had policies canceled?

Or take global warming. Anecdotally speaking, conservatives have insisted that global warming must be a hoax because we have had such cold winters — never mind the scientists who have documented the Earth’s rising temperature. But what are you going to believe — the seasonal chill or the consensus of thousands of climate scientists whose data overwhelmingly support global warming?

Admittedly, anecdotes are an appealing way to dramatize issues. But, as the Boonstra ad and the winter stories demonstrate, there is a problem. However captivating they are, anecdotes often undermine facts – and the truth. Yes, they provide a story, but they seldom provide the whole story. What we get is often misleading, sometimes downright deceptive.

We are especially afflicted in this country. Americans seem to have a greater fondness for anecdotes than citizens of any other nation. Newscasts invariably have human-interest segments; every guest on late-night television must come armed with a funny little story, and no recent State of the Union address is complete without the president pointing up to the gallery and telling the heart-rending stories of his guests there. You could say that we live in Anecdotal America where, as the poet William Carlos Williams said, there are “no ideas but in things.”

Why corporations don’t deserve religious freedom

On March 25 the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, whose outcomes will decide whether corporations can exempt themselves from provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), based on religious beliefs. The cases challenge a provision of the ACA that requires employer-provided insurance plans to include contraception coverage.

The rulings’ importance extends beyond the ACA, however. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, its companion case, are also about Citizens United — which established that corporate personhood includes freedom of speech, exercised, in part, by giving money to political causes. Now the court will decide whether corporations have freedom of religion as well, and whether on the basis of those rights, corporations can deprive services to others.

The court should reject this dangerous assertion. Corporations exist as separate legal entities precisely to distinguish their activities from those of their owners. It is that separation that Hobby Lobby threatens to erase.

2014: Another election about Obamacare

Here we go again.

2014 will be the third election in a row in which Obamacare is the central issue. The Affordable Care Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in March 2010, contributed to a fierce voter backlash against Democrats in November 2010. After the Supreme Court upheld the law in June 2012, the issue seemed to be settled by Obama’s re-election that November.

But no.

The botched Obamacare rollout this year has again thrust the issue to the top of the political agenda. Republicans are counting on opposition to Obamacare to propel them to a majority in the Senate next year. A conservative group is already running an ad attacking Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) for supporting Obamacare: “Next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her. If you don’t, you know what to do.”

2013 came to a close with two big political stories. The government shutdown in October was immensely damaging to Republicans. So damaging that House Republicans defied their conservative base and voted for a compromise budget deal last week. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) attacked the Tea Party, accusing them of pushing congressional Republicans “into this fight to defund Obamacare and shut down the government.” A fight Boehner said all along was unwinnable.

Can states’ rights work for liberals?

Can states’ rights work for liberals? It has always been a conservative cause. Conservatives use states’ rights to resist federal policies that protect civil rights, voting rights and abortion rights. Today, however, federal action is often blocked. So progressive states are passing laws that bypass gridlocked Washington and advance the liberal agenda on their own.

In his famous keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, Barack Obama criticized pundits who “like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states.” His rejoinder: “I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.”

Obama was wrong. Americans have become more and more politically segregated over the past 50 years. Since the 1960s, politics has come to reflect lifestyle and values, and people often choose to live among others who share their lifestyle and values. And therefore their politics.

GOP on Obamacare: Divide and conquer

“Remember the strategy for stopping Obamacare we laid out to you back in July,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Oh.) told the House Republican conference last week. “Targeted legislative strikes aimed at shattering the legislative coalition the president has used to force his law on the nation.”

Thirty-nine House Democrats – one in five — voted for the measure. Democratic leaders breathed a cautious sigh of relief. Earlier last week, they feared that 100 or more anxious Democrats might defect. President Barack Obama’s “fix” for the Affordable Care Act, announced on Thursday, held back what might have been a tidal wave of defections.

Republicans want the old Democratic Party back.

That was the deeply divided party that fought over everything — wars, civil rights, spending, taxes. What happened during Obama’s first two years was something of a miracle. The Democratic Party held its majority together. They governed. We experienced something that is routine in a parliamentary system but rare in the United States — party government.

What about Social Security’s rollout?

After the nation’s major social program finally became law, critics regularly blamed it for a slowing economy and a swelling federal bureaucracy. Fierce congressional opposition led to the formation of a blue-ribbon panel to overhaul the measure. Obamacare in 2013? Not quite. It was Social Security in 1937.

Meanwhile, after enrollment began for the far-reaching health insurance initiative, administrators wrestled with myriad, unexpected problems. Implementation, according to the man who oversaw the introduction of Medicare in 1965, “took the form of a whole year of consultation with literally hundreds of people in identified areas of concern.”

The tortuous, often controversial implementation of both Medicare and Social Security serves as an early template for the current controversies over the Obamacare rollout. The ultimate success of those social programs ought to calm the overheated atmosphere surrounding the first days of enrollment for the Affordable Care Act.

Opposing Obamacare: GOP’s defining issue

After the French Revolution, the statesman and diplomat Talleyrand said of the Bourbon kings, “They learned nothing and they forgot nothing.” The same might be said of congressional Republicans after their disastrous government shutdown adventure.

Obamacare survives. That itself is something of a miracle. Look at how many near-death experiences it has been through. The loss of Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 2009 deprived Democrats of the majority they needed to end a Senate filibuster. They managed to circumvent the filibuster by applying a controversial rule that allowed the bill to pass with a simple majority.

Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm election by promising to repeal Obamacare. The House has now voted 46 times — 46 times! — to repeal Obamacare, only to see the votes ignored by the Democratic Senate.

After healthcare mess, do you want D.C. doing your taxes?

The launch of the Obamacare online exchanges this month has been a disaster for the White House.

Even the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, one of MSNBC’s favorite liberal pundits and a prominent proponent of Obamacare, has described the rollout as an unmitigated failure.

“I really don’t think people should soft pedal what a bad launch this is,” Klein said on Morning Joe this week. “They’ve done a terrible job on this website. We’re a couple of weeks in, and people can’t sign up. People have tried 20, 30, 40 times. I mean it’s one thing for that to be true the first three or four days, it’s another thing for it to be true two or three weeks in.”

Ted Cruz: Blackmailer

On October 28, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his supporters may wish to commemorate the feast day of Saint Jude. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes. Because if ever there was a hopeless cause, it is killing the Affordable Care Act.

Fighting for hopeless causes is not uncommon in politics. Think of the nearly two centuries it took to abolish slavery and segregation in the United States. Fighting for a hopeless cause can raise public consciousness about an issue and advance the career of the advocate.

But it has to be seen as a noble effort. Cruz’s effort is anything but noble.

Healthcare reform to end “job lock” for the over-50 crowd

When Carmen Oberai was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago, she knew the treatment would make it tough for her to stay at her job. But she needed the health insurance provided by her employer, so she worked through the illness.

Oberai, 62, works with at-risk pregnant women for a nonprofit agency in Port Charlotte, Florida. “My treatment wasn’t as brutal as they make it sound, but you do get tired as a side-effect, and my work is very demanding,” she says. “I didn’t really know how much time I might need away from work, and I was worried that if I quit I’d lose my insurance and couldn’t get covered anywhere else with my pre-existing condition.”

The health insurance choices for workers like Oberai will change dramatically next year with final implementation of national healthcare reform. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) prohibits insurers from turning away applicants for pre-existing conditions, and that’s expected to turn the key for workers facing “job lock” — people who need to leave their jobs but can’t afford to lose healthcare coverage.

  •