Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Blue Dogs Collecting Cash on the "Long, Strange Trip" of Health Care Reform

If the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead were alive today to witness the nation’s health care reform debate, he’d probably say something like this: “What a long, strange trip it’s been, man.”

Wild-eyed, foaming-at-the-mouth citizens shouting down trembling congressmen at town hall meetings, erstwhile vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin calling reform proposals “evil” and raising the specter of federal “death panels”, posters depicting President Obama with a Hitler mustache, doctors decrying “socialized medicine”, a South Carolina congressman interrupting Obama’s speech to Congress with “You lie!”

You’d think more unity would exist to fix a $2.2 trillion system that in 2000 ranked a miserable 37th among other nations in the quality of its health care. Before things polarized, polls showed 80 percent of Americans unhappy with a system that was consuming a quarter of the federal budget—not to mention individual budgets—yet leaving 47 million citizens without any health insurance. A 2006 poll showed 56 percent of Americans supporting birth-to-death universal government-backed health care.

Whenever things are bad in this country, they’re worse here in Mississippi, where this writer lives. In the state with the highest poverty rate, 21.2 percent, and the lowest wages for its workers, some 37 percent of the under-65 population was without health insurance during some part of the past year.

The state’s leading politicians, used to such dismal statistics, are dealing with the issue in predictable manner. Gov. Barbour worries that federal efforts to expand Medicaid assistance for the poor might unduly burden the state with extra costs—perhaps even push Mississippi into some real tax reform.

Like most Republicans everywhere, Mississippi Republicans can be relied upon to oppose just about anything Obama supports. They remind me of the old Communists in Poland after they’d lost their power. They had a magazine called Nie! Translation: No!—No to everything the new regime wants.

More interesting is the position staked out by Mississippi’s two leading “Blue Dog” Democrats: Congressmen Travis Childers and Gene Taylor. Both oppose the so-called “public option” that 57 percent of Americans support but which the health care industry has spent $263 million to oppose in Congress. The industry has hired 3,300 lobbyists to sway Congress—or six lobbyists for each member of Congress.

Among those lobbyists are the hired guns of the Breaux-Lott firm in Washington, led by former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, a Democrat from Louisiana, and Mississippi’s own Trent Lott, the most stalwart of Republicans. The firm thus far this year has made over $300,000 lobbying for the big pharmaceuticals concerned about their profit margins.

By the way, health insurance companies saw their profits rise from $2.4 billion in 2000 to $12.9 billion in 2007. Their CEOs earned a neat $118.6 million, or 468 times the average worker’s wages.

Veteran Congressman Taylor of the Gulf Coast has received $535,765 in contributions from the health care industry over the past 20 years. North Mississippi’s Childers, only in Congress since the summer of 2008, has already piled up $165,500 in such contributions.

The Blue Dogs in Congress,“Boll Weevil” descendants and most of them Southerners who often act like Republicans in Democrat clothing, are key to the success or failure of health care reform and thus are recipients of much health care industry largesse these days. According to the Capital Eye Blog, contributions to Blue Dog Democrats from the health care industry are 40 percent higher than what non-Blue Dog Democrats get, and even 16 percent higher than what Republicans are getting. Top Blue Dog Mike Ross of Arkansas is in a bit of a controversy these days because of the pharmacy business that he and his pharmacist wife sold in 2007 at a huge profit to, at least in part, a pharmacy industry executive. The controversy extends to the subsequent political contributions Ross received from that same executive and the health care industry in general.

As all these money transactions take place, the little guy out there continues to get socked with rising health care costs. In fact, health care costs to the average family are twice today what they were 10 years ago, and are expected to double again by 2019.

When you look back across the history of politics in this country—and in the South—maybe this “long, strange” trip isn’t so strange after all.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hardboiled Champions of the Little Guy

I've been a lover of the hardboiled school of American writing since the 1980s, when I first picked up a copy of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely. Chandler led me to Dashiell Hammett, who led me to W.R. Burnett's The Asphalt Jungle and James M. Cain. From there I gravitated to Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, and Ross MacDonald. I fell in love with their street-wise, lean-to-the-bone writing style, their edgy, existential view of life, and their empathy with the little guy, the people who get pushed around.

At last, I told myself, here are writers working in an original American style that has the grit and gristle of real life. Like Chandler said in his homage to Hammett, The Simple Art of Murder, these writers tell of a world where "gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities ... where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of money-making."

These were writers with a strong sympathy for the working stiff. In fact, November 2009 will mark the 70th anniversary of the publication of Jim Thompson's Labor History of Oklahoma. Thompson, the most hardboiled of all the hardboiled novelists, had been a hobo, oil rig roughneck, member of the IWW Wobblies, drifter, and avid reader of Karl Marx and Jack London before he made his mark in fiction. He also read the Bible, and agreed with the pro-labor, Depression-era Rev. Lawrence Lay that it was "the poor man's book; its message is the voice of God against tyrants, idlers, and parasites." Read Robert Polito's great biography of Thompson, Savage Art, for the rest of that damned good story.

Dashiell Hammett, author, of course, of The Maltese Falcon, was a Marxist yet a sharp critic of both the Soviet Union and American Communist Party at the same time. He'd been a union buster as a young detective with Pinkerton--once even offered $5,000 to kill the legendary labor organizer and martyr Frank Little. That past haunted him, but he more than made up for it as a supporter of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and an enemy and victim of Joe McCarthy's witch-hunt later in life.

James Cain was a labor writer before he became famous as author of The Postman Always Rings Twice. He made a name for himself covering the struggles of coal miners in West Virginia, earning his writing stripes as a hard-nosed reporter covering working people and their lives. Ross MacDonald expressed his sympathies through his fictional detective Lew Archer. In The Ivory Grin, a woman asks Archer, "You are on our side, Mr. Archer?"

"The side of justice when I can find it," Archer responds. "When I can't find it, I'm for the underdog."

Read Cornell Woolrich's premier scholar, Francis Nevins, on that modern-day Poe's view of the Depression: "For Woolrich, (the Depression) means a frightened little guy in a rundown apartment with a hungry wife and children, no money, no job, and desperation eating him like a cancer. The dominant political reality is a police force made up of a few decent cops and a horde of sociopaths licensed to torture and kill, whose outrages are casually accepted by all concerned, not least by the victims."

The list goes on. Two other writers deserve mention. They didn't come out of the genre but are definitely fellow travelers. Nelson Algren, author of The Neon Wilderness and other classics about Chicago's mean streets, once had this to say:

"Behind Business's billboards and Business's headlines and Business's pulpits and Business's press, and Business's arsenals, behind the car ads and the subtitles and the commercials, the people of Dickens and Dostoevsky yet endure."

Maybe the best line goes to an Englishman, Eric Ambler, the author of A Coffin for Dimitrios and a half-dozen other haunting, Angst-laden pre-World War II classics. Writing about war, he said, "It is not important who pulled the trigger, but who paid for the bullet."

I've long been a collector of old hardboiled novels from the '40s, '50s, and later, and you'll see a few of them in the accompanying photograph. These writers left their mark. You see it in the work of modern-day writers like Pete Dexter, William Kennedy, and my friend Ace Atkins (no relation). In fact, read Ace's latest novel, Devil's Garden, which deals with Hammett, Little, and silent film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

It's an American way of writing about an American way of life.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Father Tobin rails against injustice

RAYMOND, Miss. – Father Jeremy Tobin has come a long way from his old stomping grounds.

The 68-year-old priest, grandson of Irish immigrants, and “Canon Regular” of the nearly 900-year-old Norbertine order grew up in the streets of Chicago, studied the priesthood during the heady Vatican II revolution, and earned his stripes as a social justice crusader during and after the days of rage and protest that were the late ‘60s.

Today he’s one of a half-dozen priests at the Norbertine Priory of St. Moses the Black, a 106-acre refuge devoted both to contemplation and social action, and set so far off the beaten track in the rural woodlands south of Jackson that it takes a act of faith to find it.

“I have a monastic spirituality,” Tobin told me during a recent interview at the priory.

Forgive me, Father, if I raised my eyebrows. The Jeremy Tobin I know is one of the fieriest, most passionate champions of the poor and working class I’ve ever met, proof that the fine old tradition of “labor priests” like Monsignors George Higgins and Charles Owen Rice is alive and well in the Deep South—a tradition given a recent boost in Pope Benedict’s strikingly pro-labor encyclical Veritas in Caritate (“Truth in Charity”).

I had yet to understand that Norbert’s 12th century call to his followers to be “a minister of Christ and servant of the people” means: be prayerful but also active and involved. “O priest, your office is not meant for your personal use,” Norbert told his flock.

Let’s hear a few samples of Tobin’s oratory and Norbertine spirit in speeches to the United Auto Workers and civil rights-era veterans as well as in his monthly column with the Catholic diocesan newspaper, the Mississippi Catholic:

On labor unions: “When workers unite for just and fair wages, for just and humane working conditions, they engage in God’s work.”

On companies that pit workers against workers: “They use foreign labor and cheat the workers, but make citizens feel robbed. It is an old con. … We are not fooled.”

On immigrant workers: “The very symbols and hallowed buildings of America were built by slave labor. … The railroads were built by Chinese laborers. … Were they legal? What is legal? … Slavery was legal, but it was an abomination that split the country, and we still live with its curse. … People are not illegal. Things are illegal.”

On politicians and media personalities who demagogue the immigration issue: “To take the chicken pluckers and semi-literate people from Central America and make them a security risk is the biggest racist scam I know of.”

On civil rights: “The movement is not dead by any means. It is alive and well, and updated to the times. Young people today are committed to the liberation of people of color worldwide.”

On the screaming town hall critics of national health care reform: “It is amazing the level of stupidity out there. We need to start teaching civics in school again.”

Janna Avalon, editor of the Mississippi Catholic, said Tobin provides a needed voice. “He has gone out on a limb on immigrants, wrote about Ted Kennedy (the late senator and noted liberal). I appreciate how he is not afraid to venture into national politics and talk about Catholic leadership.”

For all his fiery oratory and deep-felt commitment to social justice, Tobin is a hail-fellow-well-met kind of guy, quick and easy to laugh and chuckle, his eyes twinkling over his mustache and goatee. He loves Mississippi, his home for the past 11 years, and in his column for the Mississippi Catholic, he often takes time away from serious issues to smell the roses.

“Sometimes I … miss the sirens and the train whistles” of the big city, he once wrote. But “here I am looking out into the woods learning about something I never heard of, muscadine, and getting excited about it, and five kinds of oak, and what you can do with it. … It is never about me, or you. It is about experiencing each day as a special gift from God.”

I’ve got a feeling that old medieval activist Norbert would approve such sentiments.