Sunday, January 15, 2017

First 2017 Film

I enjoyed my Friday evening watching a movie that I should've seen long ago, The Iron Giant. That was one of the more meaningful movie experiences I've had with Sam.

The Iron Giant Movie Poster Image

Unfortunately it wasn't Caroline's cup of tea, and she had to excuse herself after the scene in which the title character witnessed a the death of a deer at the hand of hunters. She's a sensitive sort.

Sam, however, paid rapt attention throughout the film. And as we neared the climactic battle, Sam and I both predicted what we thought was coming. Sam sadly said to me, "I think I know what's going to happen." I replied that "It ain't going to be happy." Those of you who have seen the movie know of the twist at the very end, though, a twist that seems almost unrealistic. But it's a twist that makes the movie glorious, rather than just deep. I'm glad we stuck around for it.

I was prompted to watch this movie for a few reasons. One of these reasons was the advice of students at school who saw it in a film class last year. One of my colleagues does a wonderful job with that elective and she features The Iron Giant as part of her curriculum. A review of it, also, in Common Sense Media put the bug in my ear for it some time ago. That website has become something of a touchstone for me as a father, convincing me of some good films I might have missed, like Millions and My Neighbor Totoro, as well as advice I should've heeded (like for Hook). The website also stresses the importance of talking with your kids when the film is over, which Sam modeled for me when he asked what I thought the film was trying to teach when it was over.

The Iron Giant is a bit dated. It was made in 1999. It lacks the production values Disney films typically offer. The story isn't as brooding as we've come to expect films to be. But that was in part why I enjoyed it. Yes, it did get heavy. But it gave us that chance to not stay there after it was over.

And the lessons it was imparting were so important. We're not predestined to be bad or good. Children, liberated from adults' temptations to be judgmental, can be powerful agents of redemption. Grown ups can ascribe their worst fears to things they don't understand. I loved how it borrowed from the spirit of other wonderful tales for children like E.T. and Wreck It Ralph. And I'm most glad it gave me an evening to share with my son.

Leading with Inquiry, Week 2

Question for our political leaders: Is access to affordable healthcare coverage a right for Americans?

There's a somewhat confused rush to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which I get to a certain extent. At one time I opposed it quite heartily. Though I've come to think of it as legislation that has done more good than harm, I certainly acknowledge that it has many shortcomings. And the process by which the Democrats rammed it through Congress was regrettable. It's no wonder that Republicans, now enjoying unified government and one of their own (I guess) in the White House, the time seems right to them to remove this legislation.

There is a big however. They don't necessarily have any replacement legislation.

Catherine Rampell's recent blog post on the ACA is worth a read (link). Apparently the majority of Americans like nearly all the major provisions of the legislation except for, wait for it, the individual mandate. In other words, we wants the protections and affordability, but we don't want to share the costs with sicker Americans.

Until we're one of those sicker Americans.

So I'm curious as to how the leaders in Washington are going to solve this riddle. Essentially this comes down to a very old dilemma for Americans: whether equality or liberty is more important. And when it comes to health coverage, there seems to be a mandate to address liberty more than equality. But there might be more support for equality of access than meets the eye.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Leading with Inquiry, Week 1

This week's biggest dust-up concerning our political leadership in Washington was the further clarification of Russia's meddling in our most recent presidential election.


Here a few questions I'd like to pose:

1) Why was Russia so interested in having Donald Trump win the presidential election?

The president-elect and his acolytes contended this week that any Russian meddling didn't have an impact on the results of the election. I'm not sure I agree. But even if one concedes that point, it's important to explain why the government of Russia wanted Trump to win. Is there influence that they hope to gain with a Trump White House? Do they predict a Trump administration to be more friendly to Russian interests? More gullible? Or was it merely payback to Hillary Clinton and the political party of Barack Obama.  It's debatable that Russia's meddling tipped the scales in Trump's favor. What's clear, though, is that they wanted him to be president.

2) To what extent was the Trump campaign aware of Russia's attempts to influence the election in Trump's favor?

Given the means by which the Russians set up phony websites and online personalities, it's not beyond reason to suggest someone in Mr. Trump's campaign was aware of Russia's attempts to put a thumb on the electoral scales? We would learn a great deal from knowing how many, and how far up the food chain, such in-the-know individuals were.

3) Did the director of the FBI, James Comey, consider the Russians' influence in the election when he announced that he was reopening his office's investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server in October?

News that the FBI was opening an election that had been closed in the summer might have been the tipping point against Ms. Clinton this fall. The tone of the FBI director in the summer when he announced he was closing the probe didn't help Ms. Clinton either. At many points it seemed like Mr. Comey was failing to exercise caution against injecting his agency into the election. We should be concerned about the motivations of FBI officials who acted more recklessly in this election cycle than in any others in recent memory.


I leave it to people more qualified than me to find answers to these questions, and by that I mean the press. Something that sets us apart from Russia, and many other regimes, is our Constitutionally protected freedom of the press. It's up to us to support that press in its attempts to question and answer questions during this administration, an administration that seems challenged to operate in an ethical and honest way.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lead with Questions

There's a good chance 2017 will be an angry year for me. In 19 days a man is being inaugurated whose candidacy I opposed from the very beginning. I quit the political party to which I had always belonged and for which I had always rooted over that man. I fully expect that in his first year in office, Donald Trump will give me reasons to fulminate. After all, his political capital will have not yet been spent, his party is in control of both houses of Congress. The winds are at his back.

I think about angry voices from the past. For instance, William Lloyd Garrison, who once said that "I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - and I will be heard!" There was also Norman Beale, famous for proclaiming, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" For as thunderously wonderful as these sentiments might be, that's not my style.

In fact, when I was in graduate school for educational leadership, the best advice I got was to lead with inquiry. Question, don't assume. Start a conversation with a question but also lead people and move institutions with questions. Leading with inquiry is also more consistent with giving a new president a chance to make policy and be effective rather than just assuming they'll meet with failure.

So, the top political questions on my mind for the incoming Trump administration and Republican Congress are as follows:

1) What will you do to safeguard and promote the freedom of speech and of the press?

2) What policies will you put in place to counter the structural unemployment that will result from automation?

3) What measures will you implement to maintain the solvency of Social Security?

4) What steps will we take to strengthen and reassure critical allies throughout the world?

5) What measures will be taken to prevent foreigners' interference in American elections?

6) What will the administration do to promote growth of productivity?

7) What policies will you put in place to expand access to medical care?

8) What policies will you put in place to contain the cost of medical care?

9) What policies will you put in place to extend access to credit for lower-income Americans?

10) What measures will you take the guarantee all Americans equal treatment under the law?

That's it for now.

2016

This blog has been largely quiet for the latter part of this year. This is my normal outlet for expression on political and cultural issues. The news has given me more reasons to be frustrated, to be humbled, to be contemplative than it has offered me opportunities to express. I had been hoping to build up toward a profound end-of-the-year post, but the momentum fizzled.

On a bright side, David Barry wrote in today's Washington Post, summarizing 2016 far better than I could. You might find his points of interest here.

If the news gave me little to be happy about, virtually everything else in life made me sing. The past year gave me great times with family and friends, the joy of watching our kids grow, the thrill of doing so with the wonderful companion who is my wife, excellent health, and safe travels. In those respects, 2016 was a great year. Perhaps this is an invitation to me to update the blog where I focus on those matters.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Why One Rereads

Late in the summer I found myself drawn to World War II non-fiction. I read much of a book called Inferno, which I enjoyed a great deal. Then I used a gift card to purchase Antony Beevor's The Second World War. I just finished it today. I enjoyed Beevor's style, a style that saw him often end a chapter with a rather witty interpretive twist. He had a good sense of when to swoop in on minute detail and when to pull away to the big picture. I also developed a good sense of when the detail wouldn't be necessary for me, so I can't say I read every chapter word for word.


World War II was my first and still strongest historical fascination. (The Cold War is a close second.) Rereading a grand history of it still fascinates me, still teaches me. There were quite a few interesting points I learned from Mr. Beevor. To wit:


  • The Allies really struggled to trust one another down the stretch. Even the British and Americans bickered quite often. Perhaps the most serious falling out occurred when America's chief naval officer implied that Britain's Royal Navy in the Pacific was a "liability."
  • The Allies really didn't trust one another much early in the war either, with Britain and France spending much of the spring of 1940 pointing fingers at one another. 
  • I now know what Churchill's "Naughty Document" is, and searching for it online won't mark one as looking for smut. 
  • American and British soldiers showed hesitancy in the final stages of the war in Europe, wondering why it was worth risking their lives to fight an enemy in Germany who was fighting more stubbornly than expected despite the impossibility of victory. 
  • Late in the war, tacticians often struggled between elevating civilian casualties vs. risking soldiers' lives . . . this was as true in Europe as it was in the Pacific. 
  • America, Britain, and Russia truly depended on one another. 
  • America was really well served by two leaders in particular: Eisenhower and Nimitz. Both seemed to really get the whole picture and both seemed to learn from mistakes. 
  • The Chinese often bore costs for strategic decisions made by the U.S.
  • Diplomacy with the French and Poles was a lot tricker throughout the war than I expected. 
As I reread of this war, I was constantly struck with wonder as to how the Germans and Japanese could continue to fight in the face of inevitable defeat. 

Perhaps Beevor's best writing came in the summary, when he was ruminating on the massive loss of life in central and eastern Europe. That's where the greatest loss of life occurred in the European theater. Beevor urges the readers to think of this area and its inhabitants as inexorably caught between the two great millstones of the mid-twentieth century: totalitarian Germany and totalitarian Russia. And despite Allied victory, the restoration of freedom to Western Europe came at the expense of the freedom of surviving peoples caught between those millstones. 

America sacrificied mightily in World War II, and nothing in the book shook my belief that calling those G.I.'s the Greatest Generation is fitting and proper. We were fortunate, though, not to be caught between those millstones, for the sacrifices those people had to make are horrifying to contemplate. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Noisy Bill

My son, Sam, recently suffered a fracture of one of his body's least consequential bones, the first bone of the pinkie finger of his non-dominant hand (left). All is well now, we think. The cast is off. He's back to playing the violin, showering without a bread bag serving as an improvised glove, and running around like a 10-year-old boy. Also, the cause of science has been advanced by the new life forms discovered underneath the dirtiest cast in the Western World.

A bill arrived, however, indicating that the whole saga might not be over. Apparently I owe another $100 dollars because that is the "patient's responsibility." Hmmm. I'm understandably curious why we owe another $100 after having paid a $100 copay at the hospital as well as another $25 copay to the office of the doctor who operated on Sam and put the cast in place. Perhaps this is the hospital's cut? Perhaps the doctor seeing him in office counts as a separate economic activity from the same doctor performing surgery two floors below that office the next day. I'm sure I'll find out we owe it. We'll pay.

A moment of humility: I think about how many families would have their finances wrecked by an unanticipated $225 of medical expenses. We're fortunate. And Sam's care was excellent. And when the doctor said it could be less adequately set (at probably lower expense) we didn't hesitate to have it done the right way.

Let's get back to that bill, though.


Note that there are several numbers on here. The first, $13,170 seems to be the total cost of the surgery. Next, $1,691 is the amount my insurer paid. Then there's $11,379.00 which is listed as "Write-Off." Finally we get to $100. That's our share.

Wait a minute, a write-off of $11,379? That's not a write-off. That's a decent used car. That's more than half a vacation for four to Europe. That's a semester of tuition at a public university. That's months' accumulation of wages for someone earning minimum wage. That's a lot of money.

I don't know much about what medical technology and expertise cost. However, $1,691 seems like a relatively small sum for the expertise, labor, and technology involved in my son's procedure. $13,170 seems grossly inflated.

So, what's the real price? I haven't a clue.

I've spent a lot of time contemplating the cost of medical coverage in the U.S. I followed the debate over Obamacare with rapt attention. I've followed news on it since it's been enacted. I examine carefully what politicians say about it and attempts to reform it. I've also moved through a spectrum of opinions on that measure, from outright objection to it to acceptance of it. Generally, I want to let the markets use the pricing mechanism to determine what we make, how we should make it, and who should get what we make. A marketplace, however, relies on prices acting as signals to the participants. Prices rising or falling in particular ways cue producers and consumers to more wisely use the resources available. But markets fail to work well when price signals can't cut through noise that distracts from prudent decision-making. And markets fail even more profoundly when the prices become noise themselves. And that's where we might just be with health coverage in our country.

We heard before the election that Obamacare premiums were spiking by 25% or more. But then we heard (at a quieter volume) that government subsidies would pick up some of that increase.

We hear about mandates and Cadillac taxes. Regulations, too. We hear about premiums, deductibles, and co-pays. It's a lot of jargon that most of us partially understand. It's a lot of economic reality that families experience to different degrees of severity. My eyes are more aware of it now that I went through a broken pinkie finger with my son.

There's no such thing as a free lunch. Those lunches only get more expensive when the cost is obscured, passed on, and "written off."