Big, fat (unfortunate) U.S. secret

You mean, in spite of everything we’ve heard, Obama actually DID GOOD? Amazing.

That’s what Michael Grunwald says in his book The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. He has meticulous, exhaustive data to back up his contention that the stimulus worked, a whole lot was accomplished, but nobody got the word out… and if he’s a voice crying in the wilderness about it at least his book is on the New York Times bestseller list (and in a recent, interesting editorial.)

Grunwald was at the Commonwealth Club a few nights ago, on a panel moderated by Climate One founder Greg Dalton and also including Managing Partner Nancy Pfund of DBL Investors. (Grunwald, in addition to his book-writing adventures, is Senior National Correspondent for Time Magazine.) The panel, titled the Green New Deal, was all about modernizing the electricity grid, cleaning up nuclear waste, improving energy efficiency here and there and saving clean tech jobs… just a few of the things Grunwald says we can thank the $800 billion stimulus bill for having accomplished.

Calling the stimulus “one of the most important and least understood pieces of legislation in the history of the country,” Grunwald says the bill that almost everyone loved to hate  actually “helped prevent a depression while jump-starting the president’s agenda for lasting change. As ambitious and far-reaching as FDR’s New Deal, the Recovery Act is a down payment on the nation’s economic and environmental future, the purest distillation of change in the Obama era.”

Who knew?

Screenshot of Recovery.gov, which went live af...

The power of stories

Do stories really hold the key to the future?

For a storyteller, this is heady stuff. For Jonah Sachs, author of the newly released Winning the Story Wars, it’s serious stuff. The book’s subtitle is Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future and Sachs appeared recently as part of a Commonwealth Club panel, to explain why this is true. The panel was specifically considering environmental stories, part of the Club’s ongoing Climate One program. (The time series below, based on satellite data, shows the annual Arctic sea ice minimum since 1979. More about the Arctic below…)

This time series, based on satellite data, sho...

The panel, moderated by Climate One Founder/Director Greg Dalton, also featured documentary film maker and University of CA, Berkeley journalism professor Jon Else, and Stanford University research associate Carrie Armel

As a power-of-stories example, Sachs cited those of presidential candidates John Kerry and George W. Bush a few years ago. Kerry’s story (you can read a little more about it in Story Wars) managed to come across with a focus on Kerry as a good guy plus some unfortunately dry-sounding proposed programs. Bush and the Republicans managed to project a loftier story about saving the world. Whether you think the world was saved – or endangered – by the Bush presidency, we know whose story won. Sachs quotes James Carville, in Story Wars, as saying the Republicans had a narrative, the Democrats a litany. Litanies don’t seem destined to rule the future.

Moving into the evening’s topic, Sachs spoke about the long and difficult struggle of scientist James Hansen, who spent decades developing data – an impressive list of irrefutable facts – on climate change. Beginning in the early 1980s, Hansen published and promoted his data, certain that people would hear the facts and understand the need for change. Instead, there was mass denial. Hansen has since moved from scientific data to activism – and to the telling of stories in every public arena he can use.

Panel moderator Dalton brought up the story (image) of the polar bear on disappearing ice floes that came to represent climate change. Because not many Americans connect with polar bears; like litanies, the story was easy to ignore.

Is the globe warming? Will switching back to Republican policies save the world? This might be a good time to start telling stories that illuminate truth.

Paul Krugman is my hero

Paul Krugman, Laureate of the Sveriges Riksban...
Paul Krugman, Laureate of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2008 at a press conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Paul Krugman says call it what it is: a depression. “A recession is when things are going down; a depression is when things are down, and stay that way for a long time.”

Krugman offered this opening comment to a sell-out crowd in San Francisco, where he was highlighting a Commonwealth Club event and promoting his new book, End This Depression Now. Ending this depression now is entirely possible, if you believe Nobel Prize-winner Krugman, and this writer believes Paul Krugman. Aside from in-house economist Bud Johns, who has accurately foretold so many economic events as to be spooky even if he hasn’t yet won a Nobel Prize, Krugman is the only living person able to make economic sense to my mathematically-challenged right-brained self. During his San Francisco talk he ticked off enough data to paint the picture — and it is not a pretty picture. Krugman compared the problematic impasse to a family car that had broken down. Its battery was dead. A new battery would make it run. But the man of the house refused to recognize the bad battery or consent to getting a new one, suggesting instead that the rest of the family just walk or take the bus. “You have a problem,” Krugman noted, “but the problem isn’t with the battery.”

So how to fix it? Before offering the answer, Krugman said first we have to understand that “government workers” aren’t the evil bureaucrats in Washington, but are the teachers, firefighters, service workers everywhere who are out of work, with their numbers threatening to be increased. Then he listed steps he would recommend:

First, a huge infusion of money (none of this timid stuff, which Krugman reminds us is what had FDR triggering a double-dip depression in the late 1930s) from the feds to the states, so they can start re-hiring those teachers and public sector workers.

Second: debt relief, starting with mortgage debt and soon extending to other areas like student loans.

Third — then we get into monetary policy, and not even Bud Johns and Paul Krugman can explain that to yours truly in adequately simplified terms.

So the national debt remains staggering and everybody worries about what we’re bequeathing our grandchildren. At least we might keep the country afloat, mass desperation relieved and families together, and that would be something to bequeath.

Paul Krugman did not approve this over-simplified message. But he still gets my vote.

Handguns, the second amendment and the public safety

One young man with a suitcase, one with a hand...
Image by State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr

Two sides of the gun control debate squared off in San Francisco this week, focus of a mini-battle over the fully loaded question: Does your right to walk around with a loaded gun in public override my right to feel safe when I don’t know if you might go off your rocker? This writer discovered, thanks to a show of hands at the Commonwealth Club sponsored panel, that I was the only unarmed person within a back-of-the-house three-row section. This revelation guarantees discomfort but keeps you alert.

California is among the majority of U.S. states which allow anyone to carry unloaded guns in plain sight, or licensed individuals to carry loaded guns concealed. Variations of gun laws — can you have a few in the car? how about in a restaurant? suppose your taste is for machine guns? — are complex and mind-boggling. Gun proponents fall back on the second amendment; gun-control advocates tend to cite public safety and privacy rights. Reasoned debate is pretty much out of the question.

The tempest in the California teapot arose over gun folks’ dislike of the “may issue” state business. California is a “may issue” state, meaning a permit may be issued to a law-abiding applicant; as opposed to a “shall issue” state, meaning you (law-abiding citizen) will darned well get that permit once you apply. In protest over the “may issue” situation, California gun buffs recently took to the streets — or to the local Starbucks, as the case happened — with prominently displayed weaponry. Some latte drinkers were not amused. Gun buffs were defiant. Starbucks reportedly wishes they had picked Peets. Meanwhile, CA Assemblymember Lori Saldana introduced a bill, AB 1934, to ban “Open Carry,” and the battle was joined.

At the recent panel, Emeryville CA Police Chief Ken James, University of CA Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring and Executive Director Sam Paredes of Gun Owners of California restated most of the familiar arguments. Throughout, James was expressionless, Zimring frowned, and Paredes wore an expression that can generously be described as a not-too-friendly smile. There were assertions (thousands of lives are saved every year by people armed and defending themselves or their neighbors; police don’t need to be stopping people all over the place asking if that gun is loaded; police can’t do their crime-stoppers job without the help of law-abiding, armed citizens; it’s not easy to know when an armed citizen will misuse his arms…) that all have elements of truth and elements of fantasy.

Two details are worth noting, though. Zimring pointed out that in the 2007  Supreme Court decision (District of Columbia v Heller), Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the 5-4 majority, took things a little farther than they had been by specifically mentioning handguns, which had not been invented when the second amendment was written. It’s handguns in public places that tend to rile up both sides. Therefore the hoopla over open carry, Zimring said, is not where the discussion should be. Eventually, the right to bear handgun v right to public safety will need to be settled. In other words, when does your right to pack a gun interfere with my right not to be around you when you do?

At the end of the discussion, moderator John Diaz, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, asked a question about whether panelists were packing heat during this event. Off-duty Police Chief James was not, because he feels guns invite problems. Professor Zimring was not, because he said if he tried to hit a target everyone around would be in trouble. Citizen Paredes was. A concealed weapon, because you never know if another citizen might need you to leap into action. Was it loaded? Yes.

Somehow, this did not make me feel safer.

Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus speaks on micro-lending — and world hope

Muhammad Yunus, Managing Director, Grameen Ban...
Image via Wikipedia

Recently, someone remarked to Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi banker/ economist/ crusader against poverty, that he must be a very rich man.

“I said, why would I be a rich man?” he tells an attentive audience. “Well, you have all those companies; you must be rich to have all those companies.”  Yunus scratches his chin and smiles the beguiling smile that makes you want to be a believer. “Oh. I start these companies, but I would never own them.” You are now a believer.

Yunus was in San Francisco Monday, at a social entrepreneurship program sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. He is winding up a U.S. tour promoting his new book, Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs. In the process, he is promoting a theory that social business — business operated for the benefit of society (such as the poor who are commonly the beneficiaries and owners of Yunus’ companies) — can and should be a viable segment of the global economy.

Grameen Bank, which was begun in 1976 with $27 out of Yunus’ pocket and now provides loans to more than 8,100,000 borrowers — no collateral, just good faith and trust — would seem to prove his point. Defaults on Grameen micro loans are so few as to make Fannie Mae weep.

From micro loans, Yunus expanded into business ventures on the same basic principle: to achieve one or more social objectives through the operation of the company. The investors/owners can gradually recoup the money invested, but cannot take any dividend beyond that point.

There are now Grameen (the word refers to a rural village) companies in banking, agriculture, healthcare, telecommunications and other areas.  Yunus gave one as an example of why he believes the principle works:

Grameen and Group Danone went into a joint venture to create a yogurt fortified with micro-nutrients to decrease malnutrition for the children of Bangladesh. The yogurt is produced with solar and bio gas energy and is served in environmentally friendly packaging. The first plant started production in Late 2006. The 10-year plan is to establish 50+ plants, create several hundred distribution jobs and self-degradable packaging.

The environment is protected, children get healthy, grow up to create businesses. Yunus spoke of one skeptic saying, “where will I get a job?” and said he explained, “You don’t look for a job, you create a job.”

Grameen Bank has more than 2500 branches — now including three in New York (where Yunus would like to see payday loan and check-cashing operations go out of business), one in Omaha, and in the near future: one in San Francisco. If Yunus is enjoying the proving out of his theories and the lifting of vast numbers of people out of poverty, he may be enjoying most of all the reminiscences about those who scoffed at his notions in the 1970s.

“They said the poor were not credit worthy,” he smiles. “I was told, about non-collateralized loans, ‘You can’t do that!’ After 2008, I wanted to ask, ‘Who is credit-worthy?'”

JFK Counsel Ted Sorensen keeps the dream — and image — alive

Ted Sorensen, special counsel and adviser to John F. Kennedy before and during the Kennedy administration, told a packed house at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club last night that his old friend of Camelot days should be remembered as “a man of peace.”

“The biggest misperception of John F. Kennedy,” Sorensen said in response to an audience question, “is that he was essentially a Cold War hero.  That’s from the familiar paragraph at the beginning of his inaugural address, ‘…that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.'”

More important, Kennedy’s old friend said, are the words toward the end of that address in which he reached out a hand to (the nation’s then-#1 opponent) Russia seeking peace — “a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction”; movement toward arms control —“let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms”; and scientific collaboration — “together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.”

Sorensen, whose earlier book Kennedy: the Classic Biography was on bestseller lists for months, was promoting a current memoir, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, and was appearing in a program sponsored by the humanitarian nonprofit Roots of Peace. Much of the newer book focuses on his years with JFK, beginning with an interview at the age of 24, fresh out of the University of Nebraska law school. When he asked then-senator Kennedy what he would want him to do if hired, Sorensen recalls, he was given a long list of proposed meetings  with powerful figures and the task of “crafting a legislative program for the economic revival of New England, and I thought that was pretty tall cotton.”

Sorensen, who is acknowledged as author of most of Kennedy’s speeches (though not the inaugural), said the President was unjustly criticized for not writing his own. In those days before press secretaries, communication staffers and speechwriting committees, he said, “it was always a collaborative effort” between the two men. “My office was right down the hall from his in the West Wing, and it was just the President and me. Only the President revised and corrected.”

Kennedy, Sorensen said, resisted advice to send combat troops into Vietnam and bombers into North Vietnam, and to use force in other parts of Indochina. “Thank goodness I learned from the Bay of Pigs,” he quoted JFK as saying; “otherwise I’d have listened to (that) advice.”

But as to Kennedy’s assurance, in a 1963 speech, that “the world knows America will never start a war,” Sorensen said, “that was then… I’m not so sure about now.”

In response to an audience question about what he missed the most, Sorensen said he would want the world to remember that Kennedy began to lay the foundation for peace, through such programs as aid to education, civil rights programs and the Peace Corps, and was a man of peace. “I miss having a friend like that in the White House.”

Wyoming: a state of (independent) mind

Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal spoke last night, in a conversation with Climate One founder Greg Dalton, about the future of energy sources and transmission in the U.S.  The event, at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, was titled “The King of Coal” — which Freudenthal arguably is. Use of “clean coal” plus natural gas and renewables such as wind power should all be incorporated into energy policies, he said. And as for regulations, “skip the big mega-statement; pick out a clean energy standard and go do it.”

Freudenthal, who heads a state in which more than half the people (himself not among them) do not believe global warming is real, maintains that once financial benefits of energy efficiency are understood and promoted individuals and corporations will move in this direction. But for now, “solar is not the low-hanging fruit; (green jobs) are mostly wind, and components are made overseas.”

In response to Dalton’s comment about California’s state-wide building codes, Freudenthal said that in Wyoming, “it ain’t gonna happen. The only thing the people of Wyoming resist more than Cheyenne telling them what to do,” he said, “is Washington telling them what to do.”

The wide-ranging talk was filmed for re-broadcast and will be available in podcast.

Healthcare: Could We Get A Moral Commitment?

Is there a simple way to get universal healthcare in this country? In a word, yes. Or rather, in two words: moral commitment. If we were to make a moral commitment to what is, after all, only the fair, humane, equitable thing to do, author/reporter T. R. Reid told an audience at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club today, there would be no problem.

Reid, a reporter for the Washington Post, documentary film maker and NPR commentator, was in town to promote his new book, “The Healing of America: A Global Quest for a Better, Cheaper and Fairer Health Care .” In it he tells the story of his journey around the world in the company of a painful shoulder, consultations about which were his introduction to personal encounters with health care systems of every sort. He also met with government representatives and policy makers across several continents.  It is an informative and highly readable (no pun intended, that’s just an appropriate adjective) book.

Reid outlined the four primary models of health care currently in existence on our small planet, each with different versions of who pays and who provides. In Britain’s socialized medicine model, health care is the government’s job and it does both. A “mirror image” of this plan is that put into place in Germany shortly after the country was established in the late 18th century, a “National Health System” in which the providers — doctors, clinics, etc. — are private but the payer — government — is public. Workers are covered through their employers. One advantage to both, Reid points out, is that everyone buys into preventive care. He told of British ads asking passersby if their feet hurt, and urging them to visit a podiatrist right away if so; “It’s free.” Or commercials featuring a coughing “Mum” and giving a phone number to call so a nurse may visit. “It’s free.” Each is aimed at diagnosing other illnesses early, and/or preventing the spread of disease.

The Canadian Medicare (that’s where Lyndon Johnson got the name for our elder care) system now copied by Australia, Taiwan and others would have had Reid waiting an long as a year for consultation and treatment of his shoulder. Although he proclaimed his pain to be a very present issue, it was not seen as an urgent need to the primary care doctor he consulted. It is this often extensive wait for non-urgent care that is most criticized (especially by Americans) about the Canadian system. But Reid got a Canadian answer to that. “We Canadians,” he was told, “don’t mind waiting, as long as rich Canadians have to wait as long as poor Canadians.”

The fourth model cited is the out-of-pocket model, which Reid illustrated with a story of climbing a mountain in Nepal to seek shoulder relief. At the top of the mountain, in an extremely simple one-room building with its four walls painted in four different colors, the doctor explained his payment was generally in whatever the patient could afford. Someone relatively well off might pay in funds, others in whatever they had. Many of the patients could pay only by painting the facility, the doctor said; they seldom had the same color of paint, and thus the many-hued room.

“We have them all,” Reid told a hushed audience: Native Americans and veterans have the British/NHS; over-65, the Canadian Medicare; working people, Germany’s system. But 40+ million Americans have medical care equivalent to Afghanistan or Angola, and tens of thousands of Americans die every year because they cannot afford medical care.

One audience member called Reid on that issue, saying hospitals were required to treat people who came to them, but he was not backing down. True, he replied, if someone is actively dying or about to give birth, hospitals cannot turn him or her away. But for cases (such as one cited at the beginning of The Healing of America) of lupus, or diabetes, or in countless other instances, the inability to pay for necessary care causes ongoing pain and death for thousands.

Other audience questions raised the illegal immigrant issue. In most countries, it simply would not be an issue, he said. Citing Britain as an example, he said “you get (care) whether you’re a citizen or not.” Reid also said the public option is a non-issue elsewhere, because “you don’t need it.” And he threw in another few illustrations that argue for reform: In Britain, you have to cover everyone, you have to pay every claim, and you have to pay every claim fast. In Switzerland, if a claim is not paid within five days, the next month’s premium is free. In Germany you have a choice of well over 100 insurance companies; if you don’t like one, you simply switch to another.

Having set out to answer the question of how other countries provide health care for all of their citizens, Reid said he then turned to the why. Why every other wealthy, industrialized, developed country in the world has universal coverage and the U.S. does not. Others have it, he said, because “they think it’s fairer, equitable, humane, just — and these are moral issues. Health care reflects a country’s moral values.”

It was clear that Reid, like most in his audience, sees the U.S. as having moral values. “If we had the political will,” he commented, “other countries could show us the way.”

But the author was pessimistic about the possibility of universal care coming out of the current reform efforts. Asked how it might somehow come to the U.S., he said it could well be the way Canada’s plan came about; “we might get it state by state.” The Californians listening might have taken heart. Twice that state has passed single payer plans, only to have them vetoed by their governor. Reid suggested that other states might also be ready to implement statewide health coverage.

As to his painful shoulder, its current status was not given. Presumably, it will be necessary to read the book to find out.