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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

The curse of binary thinking

In behavior, culture, domestic life, education, life, politics, religion, US on July 17, 2014 at 2:39 am

By Caitlin Kelly

When we started dating 14 years ago my now-husband drove me nuts with the phrase he still uses, (and which I now just laugh at):

“We could do one of two things”…

I’m sure — Broadside readers being a smart, educated bunch — some of you surely know, and can explain to me, the underpinnings of such a narrow worldview.

american-flag-2a

It feels these days as though everyone has joined one side of another. Our worldview is binary:

All or nothing.

Black or white.

Right or wrong.

Gay or straight.

Liberal or conservative.

Pro-choice or pro-life.

Gun control advocate or “gun nut” (not my phrase!)

It feels absurdly and, to me increasingly, stupidly, American.

Hello…Congress?

When most of us know, or realize, that life is a hell of a lot more complicated than that. It is shaded and nuanced. And our most firmly and fixed beliefs can change over time.

I had two moments of this recently, both within an hour, one on-line arguing, (and quickly withdrawing from useless online arguments), with some woman I don’t know in a on-line forum, and the other at my local hardware store.

I was struck, hard, by the realization how easy it is to fall into a habit of thinking (why?) in terms of either/or, not both. Exclusion, not inclusion. Narrowing, not expanding, our notions of the possible.

People who speak several languages and/or have lived for long periods outside of their home culture and/or are married to or partnered with someone of a very different background often move beyond this limited thinking because it is challenged every day.

What we consider “normal” is simply normal for us.

The first argument was over work and its relative importance in our lives.

Americans — especially those who have never lived beyond their borders — often feel that working really hard all the time is the single most useful thing to do with one’s life. Being “successful” materially is the classic goal. And a very skimpy social safety net ensures that few can stray far from the grindstone because unless you’re debt-free, rich and/or have a shit-ton of savings, you will soon be broke and homeless and then, missy, you’ll be sorry!

The woman I was arguing with, a manager within my industry, kept positing two poles — marathoner/ambitious/admirable or useless/annoying/slacker. For fucks’ sake.

Very few people love their work every day until they die. If they do, awesome! But making anyone who doesn’t agree feel the same way somehow less than, or imputing slackerdom to their ambivalence, is bullshit.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Some people actually work for the money. Not passion.

For many people — and not simply “slackers” — their true passions and joys lie beyond the workplace: faith, family, travel, volunteer work, pets, and/or creative projects that simply make them, and others, happy.

My second “Duh!” moment happened while trying to buy gray matte-finish paint for our balcony railings. There was only white and black on offer. The sales clerk and I stood there staring at the cans, my frustration growing, his boredom blossoming.

I was pissed there wasn’t exactly what I wanted — when it was right there in front of me for the seeing of it, and making it myself.

Black plus white = gray.

How embarrassing that it took us so long to figure that out. I felt like an utter fool for not noticing that right away. It was a great wake-up call.

Do you find yourself trapped into this way of thinking?

What would it take for you to even consider the value of the other side of an argument?

A country splintering into angry shards

In behavior, business, cities, culture, domestic life, immigration, news, politics, urban life, US on February 20, 2014 at 12:37 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Americans know the expression, E pluribus unum.

(Here’s a definition)

american-flag-2a

The idea is that, with more than 300 million people sharing a sense of national identity, we’re all just American.

Not really.

Not any more.

Every day now seems to offer another horrific story of racial, economic and political division splintering the country into angry, gun-toting, vitriol-spewing shards.

Two men shot and killed two people who were behaving, they thought, disrespectfully — one, texting in a movie theater:

It started with a father sending text messages to his daughter during the previews of a movie.

It ended with the 43-year-old man shot dead amid the theater seats, and a 71-year-old retired police officer in custody.

The shooting Monday during a 1:20 p.m. showing of “Lone Survivor” at a Wesley Chapel, Florida, movie theater escalated from an objection to cell phone use, to a series of arguments, to the sudden and deadly shooting, according to police and witnesses.

the other, annoyed by music from a nearby vehicle:

It was November 23, 2012, when Michael Dunn pulled into a gas station in Jacksonville, parking next to a red Dodge Durango full of teenagers.

The teens had pulled in for gum and cigarettes; Dunn, meanwhile, had just left his son’s wedding with his fiancee, who’d gone inside the convenience store for wine and chips.

Dunn didn’t like the loud music — “rap crap,” as he called it — coming from the teens’ SUV. So he asked them to turn it down.

What followed next depends on whom you believe. Dunn claimed Davis threatened him, and he decided to take matter into his own hands upon seeing what he thought was the barrel of a gun sticking out of the Durango.

But prosecutors asserted that it was Dunn who lost control, firing three volleys of shots — 10 bullets total — at the SUV over music he didn’t like.

Here’s a recent New York Times piece on the ongoing battle to integrate poorer Americans into the wealthy precincts of Westchester County, which stretches from the Hudson River in the west to Long Island Sound.

I live in this county, in a town that has always been, and continues to be, economically and racially mixed: subsidized housing for the poor; rental apartments and houses; owned single-family houses, owned multiple-family houses, co-op apartments and condominiums.

In our town of 10,000, you can find a $10 loaf of bread at one food store while another shop sits between two projects — New York jargon for government-subsidized housing. Here’s a recent story I wrote about Tarrytown, explaining its diversity and appeal.

It’s one of several reasons I felt at home where when I arrived in 1989 and, even though the town has changed with the influx of much wealthier residents in recent years, (many fleeing Brooklyn and Manhattan’s real estate prices), I still like that diversity.

But the town of Chappaqua, a 15-minute drive north of us, is home to former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with a median income of $163,201.

From the Times story:

Few places on the planet are as enviable as this Westchester County hamlet.

Stately houses are set on spacious, hilly lots shaded by old trees; its village center has gourmet restaurants and bakeries; its schools are top notch and its 9,400 residents have a median household income of $163,201, ranking the area roughly 40th among America’s wealthiest communities.

It is no surprise that Chappaqua is the home of a past president and perhaps a future one, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as a Hollywood star or two.

But the hamlet — like many other affluent, overwhelmingly white localities across the country such as Garden City on Long Island, Wellesley in Massachusetts, Marin County in California and several neighborhoods in New York City — has been churned up by plans to build new housing for people of much lower incomes, including black and Hispanic newcomers.

A developer is offering to build 28 units of affordable rental housing with caps on family earnings, though with no income floor; families of four earning no more than roughly $64,000 would qualify, as would poorer families, including those who receive federal vouchers.

It’s been said that Americans today have very few unifying experiences where rich and poor alike are subject to the same stresses and challenges — as they were in the Depression and WWII.

Today, with income inequality the highest since the Gilded Era, the nation feels as though it’s splintering into armed camps, whether the armaments are literal guns or a six or seven or eight-figure income.

Here’s a post from The Root:

Although economic downturns disproportionately affect black unemployment and home ownership, working-class and college-educated whites are now feeling the sting of restricted opportunity. In his book Angry White Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel describes how these men often blame the trifecta of feminism, affirmative action and immigration for their woes.

The relative devaluing of white privilege has been interpreted as racial oppression of whites and “reverse discrimination.” Opinion polls (pdf) suggest that half of all white Americans now see themselves as the targets of racism, and that number pushes past 60 percent among self-identified Republicans and among those who watch Fox News.

It’s a frightening and depressing trend, certainly for those of us who chose to come to the United States from another country with all the idealism and hope that every immigrant brings.

(And yet, watching terrible images of Syrians fleeing their homeland, and Venezuela erupting into protests and Ukraine killing protestors there…this is not [yet] that.)

How do you feel?

Do you see this sort of class warfare or random, ugly violence playing out where you live?

What, if anything, could address it?

Who do you (still) trust?

In behavior, business, Crime, culture, domestic life, education, life, love, Money, movies, news, politics on January 9, 2014 at 1:08 am

By Caitlin Kelly

trust-torn

If — bless you, my child! — you still actually trust any institution, charity, government, authority figure, public servant, media outlet or corporate entity, it’s been a remarkably shitty few weeks:

The NSA is spying on everyone.

Target’s database of customers got hacked.

Snapchat, too.

Retired New York City cops and firefighters — 106 of whom faked post 9/11 trauma — ripped off Social Security for $21.4 million.

A Bronx assemblyman is charged with accepting $20,000 worth of bribes to help four local businessmen.

New Jersey governor — and soon-to-be Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie — is now caught up in a new political scandal.

I moved to New York in 1989, my NYC-born mother’s advice ringing in my ears: “People lie.”

Why, yes, they do. In astonishing numbers.

I grew up in Toronto, hardly a hamlet, but in a country with 10 times fewer people than the United States, where you can commit a whole pile ‘o crimes, move states (even keeping your name!) and start all over again. In Canada, if you lie, cheat and steal, the odds are exponentially higher that people in your professional and/or social circles will realize you’re a lying sack of shit and your odds of repeating your felonies and misdemeanors — or mere lies — probably somewhat lower as a result.

Not here!

My first husband lied to me for months, then left. Later, as the lonely and insecure victim of a skilled con artist, back in 1998, I saw how effectively one’s buttons — (good looks! charm! intelligence! devoted attention!) can be pushed — by someone in the determined pursuit of a wholly different goal than one expects.

It amazes me, in a good way, how much trust is absolutely foundational to a functional world — whether your dog trusting you to walk him or her, even in -25 degree weather, or your boss relying on your skills to keep his or her company ethically profitable.

Every client who chooses to hire me freelance is placing their trust in me, an action I never take lightly. I think one of my USPs (keck — unique selling propositions) is that I almost never get it wrong; in 20 years writing for The New York Times, only three (damn them!) corrections.

Each time I apologized immediately and sincerely to my wronged source and editor. Luckily, all were gracious and forgiving.

I suspect we’re more forgiving of someone who is (briefly) fallible than falsely flawless.

Trust is not an endlessly renewable resource.

I recently re-watched the terrific film “An Education”, starring Carey Mulligan in her break-out role as a naive, bookish 16-year-old who falls hard for a charming liar, (is there any other kind?), and learns quite a bit as a result. So does her family, won over by David’s gorgeous car, smooth manners and apparently elitist connections.

Here’s American business guru Seth Godin on who we choose to read (deeply) and whose ideas we click past and dismiss:

TL;DR is internet talk for “too long; didn’t read”. It’s also a sad, dangerous symptom of the malfunctions caused by the internet tsunami…That mindset, of focusing merely on what’s fast, is now a common reaction to many online options.

There’s a checklist, punchline mentality that’s dangerous and easy to adopt. Enough with the build up, wrap this up, let me check it off, categorize it and quickly get to the next thing… c’mon, c’mon, too late, TL;DR…

Let’s agree on two things:

1. There are thousands of times as many things available to read as there were a decade ago. It’s possible that in fact there are millions as many.

2. Now that everyone can write, publish, email you stuff and generally make noise, everyone might and many people already are.

As a result, there’s too much noise, too much poorly written, overly written, defensively written and generally useless stuff cluttering your life.

When we had trusted curators it was easy. We read what we were supposed to read, we read what we trusted, regardless of how long it was, because the curator was taking a risk and promising us it was worth it. No longer. Now, it’s up to us.

We’re all susceptible to someone and their siren song: great sex, access to power, scintillating charm, a cool car, seductive flattery.

The comfort of feeling safe, even if we’re very much not…

How about you?

Who do you trust — fully, implicitly, cautiously — and why?

Have you ever had your trust  abused?

What happened after that?

Which America will we choose today?

In behavior, History, life, news, politics, US on November 6, 2012 at 12:03 am
100 highest counties by median household income

100 highest counties by median household income (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 2008, I went with Jose to vote.

We went to a nearby local synagogue where the voting machines were set up, and a neighbor was overseeing it. I went into the voting booth with Jose and watched him vote for Obama, and I burst into tears of excitement and, yes, hope.

I was still working my retail job then, at a suburban mall, for The North Face, and all day long there was a tremendous, palpable sense of excitement. We asked every customer: “Have you voted yet?” Our managers kept checking the internet all day long to see the results.

This year, with the race neck-and-neck, I fear mightily for the result…and with the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy, voting is physically impossible for many residents of New York and New Jersey.

On Sunday, The New York Times wrote a light-hearted story about how Americans always threaten to move to more-liberal Canada if the Republican candidate wins.

As a Canadian, I have another country I could move to only a 90-minute flight away, one filled with family and old friends and which, if we really tried hard, we could probably both find jobs. But it’s never that simple.

And Europeans are watching this election cycle with some dismay as well.

Columnist Simon Kuper, writing in the Financial Times:

In politics and economics, we diverged spectacularly. George W. Bush introduced a peculiarly non-European evangelical Christianity into presidential politics. He landed Europeans in two wars that we ended up regretting. He shattered the belief that western countries stood together for human rights. Our mutual trade waned: in the decade to 2007, even before the economic crisis, the share of the European Union’s imports coming from the US halved to just 12 per cent.

Meanwhile, as money flooded American politics like never before, US elections came to provide Europeans with an alien spectacle of plutocrats fighting aristocrats. Here’s a typical line from The Economist, about Pennsylvania’s senate race: “Though Mr Casey is the son of a popular former governor, Mr Smith has vowed to spend millions of dollars of his own fortune on the campaign, lashing Mr Casey …”About $5.8bn will be spent nationwide in these elections, says the Center for Responsive Politics. By contrast, as David Cameron noted recently on the Late Show with David Letterman, British political parties cannot even advertise on TV.

One of the issues that Hurricane Sandy laid bare is the extraordinary and growing divide between rich and poor in the United States. Note: I’ve added the boldface.

From The New York Times:

The rich got richer and the poor got poorer in New York City last year as the poverty rate reached its highest point in more than a decade, and the income gap in Manhattan, already wider than almost anywhere else in the country, rivaled disparities in sub-Saharan Africa…

“To see the poverty rate jump almost a full percentage point is not a good sign,” said David R. Jones, the president of the Community Service Society of New York, an antipoverty advocacy and research group. “We’re still seeing really high rates of unemployment, while jobs have been growing in an anemic way and the jobs that have been created are really low-wage.”

“These poverty numbers reflect a national challenge: the U.S. economy has shifted and too many people are getting left behind without the skills they need to compete and succeed,” Samantha Levine, the mayor’s deputy press secretary, said on Wednesday. “As President Clinton recently said, ‘The old economy is not coming back,’ and that’s why the mayor believes we need a new national approach to job creation and education, one that gives everyone a chance to rise up the economic ladder.”

Median household income in the city last year was $49,461, just below the national median and down $821 from the year before (compared with a national decline of $642). Median earnings for workers fell sharply to $32,210 from $33,287 — much more than the national decline.)

New Yorkers at the bottom end of the income spectrum lost ground, while those at the top gained.

Median income for the lowest fifth was $8,844, down $463 from 2010. For the highest, it was $223,285, up $1,919.

In Manhattan, the disparity was even starker. The lowest fifth made $9,681, while the highest took home $391,022. The wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites made more than 40 times what the lowest fifth reported, a widening gap (it was 38 times, the year before) surpassed by only a few developing countries, including Namibia and Sierra Leone.

Reading The New York Times, (Jose’s employer of 29 years, and for whom I write freelance), is a dizzying example of this split nation. On the news pages are horror stories of long-term unemployment and, now, a $50 billion economic loss from Hurricane Sandy — with a major cold front and storm due to arrive here in two days’ time, when thousands still have no light, heat or power in their homes.

Those who even have homes.

Yet, in the Sunday Times was a Macy’s ad for a $23,000 engagement ring and an editorial page offering second homes in Palm Springs, California, the cheapest of which (!) is over $1 million.

So, voters can choose Romney’s world, in which he knows people who own Nascar teams and, if you need money for college, you just borrow it from your parents.

Or you can re-choose Obama, whose performance could have been a lot better, but who, at least, has some clear understanding of, and compassion for, the weak and poor, the old and struggling.

When I hear Romney, with that weird, fake tight smile and his Mom jeans, tell us he’ll create millions of jobs, all I can think is — what a liar. He won’t have that kind of unadulterated power, no matter how sexy and comforting that sounds. He’ll kill Obamacare and, with it, plunge millions of desperate and terrified Americans back into the vicious maelstrom of trying to buy full-price healthcare on the open market.

There are two Americas now.

One is weak and very frightened: old, ill, poor, poorly educated, unable to afford re-training, who can’t afford the childcare to get to school or don’t have computers to train from home or don’t even speak English well enough or don’t have the right skills to do the higher-wage work they need to leave poverty behind. A quarter of American homes are “underwater”, worth less than their mortgages, un-sellable.

The middle class is sliding into poverty. Wages are stagnant and costs skyrocketing, especially food and gasoline, in a nation largely built for people who travel by private automobile. Millions, especially those over the age of 50, have been seeking a new job for more than a year.

The rich are set. They glide past us in their gleaming Escalades and Mercedes and Maseratis and Ferraris. They live in 20,000 square foot mansions and send their children to private schools — so who cares if the public schools are lousy? Not their problem! Their kids and grand-kids have trust funds and powerful connections with which to access the best jobs, tutored by $125/hour experts so their test scores will beat those of the kids who can’t possibly afford that sort of help, assuring them entry into the schools of their choice.

The poor, the middle class, the struggles of others — an annoying abstraction!

I spoke recently to a 1% crowd, at a library in Scarsdale, New York — where the median income is $250,000 and the median house price is $1.2 million. It’s a 30-minute drive from our town, in the same county, where the median income is about $80,000, double what it was when I moved here in 1989.

I spoke, with my usual passion, about my personal experience of moving from a highly-paid newspaper job, at 50, to $11/hr. selling overpriced clothing, part-time, in an upscale mall. I wrote a book about it. I also speak for millions of other low-wage workers in this economy, most of whom struggle mightily on pitiful wages.

And the two largest sources of new jobs in this divided United States? Retail and foodservice: low wages, part-time, no benefits, no raises, physically grueling and intellectually deadening.

“Even at $11/hour, they’re still jobs,” said one Scarsdale woman. Yes, they are.

Do you want one?

I didn’t ask her.

Which America do you want?

Which America will we get?

Does journalism still matter to you?

In behavior, blogging, books, culture, journalism, Media, news, politics, US on August 20, 2012 at 3:05 am
Carl Bernstein in Salt Lake City.jpg

Carl Bernstein in Salt Lake City.jpg (Photo credit: Jeremy Franklin)

Do you care about facts?

Context?

Objective truth?

As someone who’s been working in journalism for 30 years, I get up every morning assuming — hoping! — there is still an audience interested in learning something smart and thoughtful about the world they didn’t know the day before.

I say “day” because minute-to-minute “news” is often, unless it’s about a death or natural disaster, wrong, biased, misinformed.

Being the first to report something doesn’t mean being the best.

I don’t use Twitter. When I read my “news feed” on Facebook, I don’t substitute my friends’ opinions, videos and pet photos for an understanding of the world.

But many people now do. For them this is news, traditional media be damned.

Thanks to the Internet, to blogs like this and news that reifies hardened political views, too many people now turn to an echo chamber, listening and reading only those people whose shared vision of the world and its challenges — poverty, reproductive rights, defense, education, health care — comforts, soothes and reassures them that their worldview is right!

What we’re gaining — in a feeling of connectedness and community — we’re also losing by ignoring or shutting out the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree, perhaps violently. If you live in the U.S. and read the liberal New York Times, it’s worth also reading the opinion and editorial page of the Wall Street Journal to see a totally different view of the same issues.

Just because you lean wayyyyyy to the left, or right, doesn’t mean your opinion is accurate because it’s shared by those who shout your tune the loudest.

No matter how much you may disagree, if you refuse to examine and consider other viewpoints, how can you learn how other people think? With a Presidential election here in a few months, it’s certainly going to play out at the ballot box.

You can’t just cover your ears and shout lalalalalalalalalalalala and hope to have a clue what’s going out there.

I read a variety of media, and try to include British and Canadian sources as often as possible. If I were less lazy, I’d also read Spanish and French media. Nor do I assume that any journalist, or media outlet, has some exclusive claim to the truth. I know better!

When it comes to “truth”, there are many different versions.

Here’s a short video interview from the Guardian newspaper with American journalist Carl Bernstein about the issue; he was one of the two Washington Post reporters whose exhaustive, dogged investigative work on former President Richard Nixon led to his resignation.

In his view, the scourge of our era is this closed-eyes/closed-ears attitude. Our unwillingness to listen to one another in order to gain some sort of consensus.

Do you seek out views other than your own?

Why getting sick in America is a really bad idea

In aging, behavior, business, family, Health, life, Medicine, politics, US, work on June 28, 2012 at 2:42 am
May_30_Health_Care_Rally_NP (641)

May_30_Health_Care_Rally_NP (641) (Photo credit: seiuhealthcare775nw)

One element of living in the United States sickens me to my core — the persistent inequality of access to affordable quality health care, something citizens of virtually every other developed nation take for granted.

Today the U.S. Supreme Court will hand down its decision on the constitutionality of what’s been called Obamacare, a mandate requiring all Americans to purchase health insurance. A CNN/ORC International poll released this month showed 43% of Americans favor the law, 37% think it too liberal, and 13% oppose it because it is not liberal enough.

I grew up in Canada, where health care, paid for through taxes, is offered cradle-to-grave by the government. Yes, it has some deficits, but everyone can see a doctor and go to the hospital without fear of medical bankruptcy, common here.

From this week’s New York Times:

When Wendy Parris shattered her ankle, the emergency room put it in an air cast and sent her on her way. Because she had no insurance, doctors did not operate to fix it. A mother of six, Ms. Parris hobbled around for four years, pained by the foot, becoming less mobile and gaining weight.

But in 2008, Oregon opened its Medicaid rolls to some working-age adults living in poverty, like Ms. Parris. Lacking the money to cover everyone, the state established a lottery, and Ms. Parris was one of the 89,824 residents who entered in the hope of winning insurance.

And this, on how confusing and frightening it can be to receive a fistful of enormous medical bills:

With so little pricing information available, expecting people to shop around for quality care at the lowest cost — something that’s not always possible in emergency situations — is also asking a lot of consumers. “I have always found a bit cruel the much-mouthed suggestion that patients should have ‘more skin in the game’ and ‘shop around for cost-effective health care’ in the health care market,” said Uwe E. Reinhardt, a health policy expert and professor at Princeton University, “when patients have so little information easily available on prices and quality to those things.”

President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the health care overhaul law passed in 2010, tries to make some improvements (though the Supreme Court is expected to rule whether all or some of the law is constitutional this month). But while the law’s changes help you shop around for insurance policies — specifically through its new HealthCare.gov Web site, a one-stop shop that lists all of your insurance options in one place — it’s still unclear how effective the law will be for anyone comparing medical services.

On February 6, 2012, I had my arthritic left hip replaced. Thanks to my husband’s job, we have excellent insurance coverage, but I knew enough to do plenty of questioning, and negotiating, long before that gurney wheeled me into the OR to avoid nasty and costly surprises later. For example, I needed to make sure the surgeon would accept whatever fee my insurance company offered — decisions and prices I have no control over — but which would come bite me on the ass if I didn’t plan ahead.

I also had to make multiple calls to find out:

1) what the anesthesiologist would charge (about $3,800);

2) what my insurance would pay (about $1,000);

3) who would be on the hook for the difference. Me. (I told the billing manager I’d send my tax return to prove my income; $2,800 is a very big number for me.)

Jose, my husband, offered to look at the medical bills as they arrived, as they would only freak me out, not helpful post-surgery. The hospital — for a three-day stay, with no complications, charged $90,000. No, that’s not a typo.

Did they collect it? Probably not, but they routinely try for whatever they can get.

Then my surgeon billed $25,000. (Our insurance covered it all. Thank God.)

But…what if, like millions of Americans, I had no insurance?

Like my friend R, who is young, broke and lives without it. He recently slipped and fell on a wet sidewalk, needed an ambulance and needs physical therapy then surgery. Worst case, he’ll be paying off a huge bill for years, maybe a decade.

In my 24 years in the U.S. I’ve never lived one minute without health insurance; my mother has survived four kinds of cancer and I live an active and athletic life that also puts me at greater risk of injury. How ironic that being active, (fighting the great American scourge of obesity), can put you at risk of losing your shirt financially…

The cost of buying my own insurance, as a freelancer, left me with few additional funds for fun stuff like travel or nice clothes or shoes or replacing things in my home — air conditioner, dishwasher, computer — I needed and relied on. By 2003, it cost me $700 a month.

Health care is a right, not a privilege. We will all get sick or fall down or suffer a complicated labor or discover a tumor or suffer a heart attack. None of us is immune.

Many Americans cannot even purchase health insurance because they have — in that exquisite euphemism — a “pre-existing condition.” If you’re already sick, tough shit!

Seriously?

Life is a pre-existing condition. Americans, and their elected officials, must deal with this reality more effectively.

Time For Fair Wages?

In behavior, business, cities, journalism, Media, news, politics, urban life on May 14, 2011 at 1:03 pm
NYC: City Hall

New York's City Hall. Image by wallyg via Flickr

I’m not a political person. I can’t vote in the U.S. where I’ve lived since 1988, nor in Canada, my country of origin.

As a career journalist, a classic news reporter, my role is to observe and listen and relate the facts, not to jump into the fray and publicly express a strong opinion, taking a stand on the record on a hot political issue.

On May 12, I finally did.

A bill called the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act has been proposed; it would require developers taking government subsidy to develop stadiums, conference centers and malls — all engines of economic development and jobs — to require tenants to pay $10/hour with health insurance, $11.50/hour without it.

That means a full-time worker would take home a munificent $20,000 or so per year — $10,000 less than has been calculated as the bare minimum in a place as costly as New York to survive, let alone thrive.

Because my new book “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” focuses on the daily reality of low-wage work in retail, I was invited to speak out, and given three minutes to read my testimony to New York’s City Council.

The place was packed!

While a huge protest milled on the streets 14 stories below, some 80 people sat for long hours in a hearing room listening to alternating panels of those for the bill and those against it.

What a revelation it was…The power struggles! The threats! The pleas! The battle of the statistics!

No better theater could be found, even on Broadway.

Three men in costly suits argued against the bill — mercilessly hogging a huge chunk of time away from the rest of us — from the Economic Development Corporation. Their dire predictions of doom were relentless: thousands of jobs would be lost; angry developers would only take their projects to — gasp! — New Jersey or elsewhere; passing the bill would mean, they kept repeating, “a Faustian bargain” in which low-skilled workers would lose jobs to higher-skilled ones.

And all those lost construction jobs! Never mind the deliberately careless mixing of jobs that are union-protected and pay well (construction) with those that are not and do not (retail, typically $7-10 hour with no benefits.)

The hearings lasted from 1:00 p.m. to the evening. I finally got my two minutes (not three) at the mike at 6:00 p.m. — a wall clock with huge red numbers ticking away every second, a noisy blast ringing out twice to signal my time was up.

I argued in favor of the bill. Retail work is one of the few remaining with no emoluments to soften it: taxi drivers, waiters, deliverymen and chambermaids do receive tips. Not associates! Few receive raises or promotions and very few are unionized.

And consider this, from the Gotham Gazette:

In New York City, there are about 34,500 households, representing about 90,000 people, in the top 1 percent. On average, these households have annual incomes of $3.7 million. At the same time, about 900,000 people in New York City — about 10.5 percent of city residents — live in deep poverty. Deep poverty is half of the federal poverty line; for a four-person family, that means an income of $10,500. An annual income of $3.7 million translates into a daily level of $10,137 — more than the average annual family income of those living in deep poverty. According to state tax data, half of the households in New York City have annual incomes below $30,000, an amount that the top 1 percent receives over the course of a holiday weekend.

If New York City were a nation, its level of income concentration would rank 15th worst among 134 countries, between Chile and Honduras. Wall Street, with its stratospheric profits and bonuses, sits within 15 miles of the Bronx — the nation’s poorest urban county.

It was an amazing experience, and an exhausting one, to hear everyone from academics to clergymen arguing for and against this plan. I felt sorry for the politicians, weary and worn out yet hanging in hour after hour trying to make sense of it all.

In Australia — I learned recently — the minimum wage is $15 hour for those under 20; $20 an hour for those older. It’s hard to imagine American legislators ever imposing such high standards. Yes, costs would rise…They already are, and workers still struggle in poverty as corporate bosses keep raking in millions in compensation.

Have you spoken out publicly in favor or or against legislation? How did that feel? What was the result?

The Cost Of Staying Healthy — Or Alive

In behavior, business, Health, Medicine, Money, news, politics, science, US on February 2, 2011 at 5:34 pm
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There are times I read an article about the hideous, unfair mess of what Americans call their “health care system”and I thank God I do not have a weak heart as my pulse begins to race with fury.

This, from The New York Times business pages:

For example, Hillary St. Pierre, a 28-year-old former registered nurse who has Hodgkin’s lymphoma, had expected to reach her insurance plan’s $2 million limit this year. Under the new law, the cap was eliminated when the policy she gets through her husband’s employer was renewed this year.

Ms. St. Pierre, who has already come close once before to losing her coverage because she had reached the plan’s maximum, says she does not know what she will do if the cap is reinstated. “I will be forced to stop treatment or to alter my treatment,” Ms. St. Pierre, who lives in Charlestown, N.H., with her husband and son, said in an e-mail. “I will find a way to continue and survive, but who is going to pay?”

As judges and lawmakers debate the fate of the new health care law, patients like Ms. St. Pierre or Alex Ell, a 22-year-old with hemophilia who lives in Portland, Ore., fear losing one of the law’s key protections. Like Ms. St. Pierre, Mr. Ell expected to reach the limits of his coverage this year if the law had not passed. In 2010, the bill for the clotting factor medicine he needs was $800,000, and his policy has a $1.5 million cap. “It is a close call,” he said.

It is an obscenity, plain and simple in my view, that every American who pays taxes cannot rely on a seamless, safe, affordable way to stay healthy and, when they become ill, have access to excellent care. Because, you know, they’ve got that all figured out in virtually every other nation on earth.

I am acutely aware of what a sham this “system” is because I grew up in Canada and lived there until I was 30. And my friends and family remain there, using a health care system that is so profoundly different in every respect that it is hard to believe sometimes.

My mother, 76, had surgery yesterday in a major Canadian city hospital. Because her condition , while horrible and uncomfortable, was not life-threatening, she had to wait weeks for it. That was lousy for her and for me. But that is how Canada (and other nations) control their health-care costs.

But by the time she had the surgery, she had already been in the hospital since early November, attended to by a physical therapist, an occupational therapist and a variety of physicians.

There are no bills.

There will be no sudden, surprising charges we did not anticipate. We will not have to face medical bills of five or six figures, or bankruptcy because — like most people — we would not be able to pay them.

It is wearying in every possible way to deal with a relative who is ill with multiple conditions, some chronic. It is even more terrifying if that illness is potentially life-threatening.

But to have to worry about paying for it?

What else is there worth having in this life but our health?

What will it take for American politicians to find the most useful organ in the body politic, and physical — a heart?

$250,000 Isn’t Rich? Riiiiight!

In behavior, business, culture, Money, news on September 22, 2010 at 3:41 pm
Without money
Image by Toban Black via Flickr

Here’s a recent blog post that makes me want to throw a chair:

But for all the moral outrage one can level at a person bitching about making “only” $250K, know that $250K per annum is much closer to the minimum starting point you need to bank in order to have a shot at “making it” in the expensive cities of America. Living the dream requires a whole hell of a lot more…. if you are earning $50,000 a year, the prospect of earning $250,000 a year probably seems like a panacea. Think about it: you’d be earning five times as much! I’ve yet to meet the person who wouldn’t love to quintuple his or her salary. From the perspective of a person making $50,000 a year or less (the subset could also be called “most Americans”), the person or family making $250,000 a year is rich.

Except he’s not…

In fact, most people who make $250K aren’t even sitting there thinking: “Ooh, if I bust my ass and play my cards right, being ‘rich’ is just around the corner for me and my family.” If, God forbid, $250K also represents all you have, being truly rich is probably not even an option for you. You can’t “invest” in anything with the piddling savings you’ve stowed away. You can’t “buy” anything, other then maybe a family home and a some consumer assets that will start to depreciate the minute you breathe on them…

No, if you are making $250K a year, what gets you out of bed every morning isn’t even the desire to become rich. Instead, you’re motivated by the white-knuckle fear that something will go wrong and you’ll be cast back down with the sodomites who struggle valiantly to eke out an existence on $50K or less. You are certainly not rich, but you are terrified of becoming poor.

This is why living in New York City, and its self-regarding suburbs, makes for such delicious comedy. On a combined income of $250,000, it’s true — that a $5 million home is out of reach.

Boo hoo.

There is nothing more terrifying to the better-off, (as the writer, a Harvard-educated attorney at least admits), than the notion you might slide back down that greasy pole.

Then what? A cardboard box under a bridge?

Our household income, with no kids, is less than half this amount. That’s still a fortune to many people in this country.

In downstate New York, sadly, it’s a bit of a joke. Crossing any bridge costs $3 to $9 in tolls, one-way. Two hours’ parking in a Manhattan garage can easily run $20-40. My sweetie takes a commuter train to work — at an annual cost of almost $3,000, none of it tax-deductible. The maintenance on our one-bedroom suburban apartment is now almost $900 a month, with three increases in the past three years. No choice in the matter; if we don’t like it, sell and move!

We own one vehicle, paid off, nine years old. My income is less than half what I made in my last staff job. Good thing I didn’t buy a bigger home or take out huge loans…

The problem of talking about money is that it’s rarely just about money. It’s really about entitlement. It’s about Who You Think You Are. The gut-grinding knowledge that all that Ivy League striving may leave you owning only one home (not the two or three or four owned by the people you attended school with and, for many of the strivers I know, spend their entire lives comparing themselves with.)

Keeping up with the Jones — certainly when, as one attorney I know is doing, schooling four children privately ($100,000 a year in tuition alone) — can kill you.

I wake up daily deeply grateful for: safe, clean housing, healthy food, caring neighbors, my health, a functioning, insured vehicle, health insurance, some savings. It’s a lot.

It’s enough.

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$22.50 Per Pill? Now I’m In Pain

In behavior, business, Health, Medicine, Money, news on September 3, 2010 at 7:11 pm
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Image by seiuhealthcare775nw via Flickr

Just as today’s New York Times reports that businesses are shoving their health care costs onto workers (and Robert Reich bemoans the nation’s appalling growing income inequality), it’s time to re-up a prescription I’m on for three months, one pill a week.

Luckily, my pharmacist knows I’m no millionaire and called to warn me the pills would cost $90 for four. Wow. I could just go knock back two decent martinis and kill my pain that way. But no, this is a drug that builds bone and I need some more of it, so generic might be my only choice.

I grew up in Canada, whose regulatory environment, and healthcare system, is not run entirely for profit but to minimize costs and maximize patient care. I was younger and healthier so almost never needed a prescription for anything.

Drug prices in the U.S. leave me open-mouthed. I know my pills are dirt cheap compared to many others.

But what a charming whack on the kneecaps! I need those pills to help my hip, to avoid a $50,000 surgery that will demand a 4 to six-week recovery and rehab, another challenge for someone self-employed who doesn’t get paid sick days.

I work, I get paid. I don’t work, I don’t.

Millions of Americans fear and loathe any medical system that doesn’t offer the choice of a supermarket and the speed of a Concorde. But when you’re faced with a stagnant, falling or no income — and rising medical costs — it’s no time to have your wallet’s contents surgically removed by corporate greed.

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