Friday, October 29, 2010

Bonanza Column 209: It’s Time for an End to Politics as Usual

As I write this column, the mid-term election is only days away – by the time you read it it will be over, or nearly so. People I talk to, from every part of the country, are unanimous in saying they will breathe a sigh of relief when it's over, regardless of their political preferences. It seems as though each succeeding campaign gets nastier, dirtier, and more negative. Couple this with the length of our political season (which my European friends find astounding), and by now everyone has serious voter fatigue.

What's amazing to me is that office-seekers and their advisors continue to do this and believe that somehow it will be effective. The documented fact is that most voters have made up their minds long before election day, and it's the relatively small number of undecided voters who will be swayed. If a voter is undecided, then presumably they are not hard core partisans, and are interested enough in the issues to think about them and not respond along ideological lines, at least for the office or question they are thinking about. Why would anyone think that a voter like that would respond to negative attacks, lies, half-truths, shaded truths, and general stridency?

Over the past decade or so a new line of research in psychology called "positive psychology" or "positive organizational psychology" (POP) has shown convincing evidence that if you want to influence or change people's behavior, it is easier and more effective to do so by focusing on what works rather than what's wrong, enhancing and building on people's and organizations' strengths and assets rather than trying to fix their weaknesses and flaws. Lest you think this is some new age California fad, the research began at the University of Michigan, and has been extensively documented.

I've seen POP applied in my own and others' work with organizations, executives, and managers, producing really amazing results. In his new book "Drive," author Daniel Pink makes a convincing case for the idea that people are motivated more by their seeing meaning, purpose, and contribution in their work than by money or security, by carrots or sticks. It's reasonable to assume that this holds true in other parts of their lives as well – certainly in family and community life, and in politics as well.

Despite this, political campaigns seem to appeal to people's worst nature. Fear, greed, protecting myself and my own at the expense of the community, racism, sexism, homophobia – all these were themes of the campaigns this year along with lies so blatant and ridiculous that to tell them indicates a serious lack of respect for the voting public's intelligence.

Maybe it's time for a real change in our political system. First of all, let's stop pretending that party affiliation, on either side, has anything to do with certain offices. Law enforcement (the Sheriff, the District Attorney, the Attorney General) should be non-political – presumably when someone is arrested or prosecuted, neither their nor the prosecutor's (nor the judge's) political ideology should matter. Financial offices – Treasurer, Controller, etc. – should be about sound finance and personal integrity, not Republican or Democrat, right or left. Local offices, some of which are nominally non-partisan on the ballot, should be genuinely non-partisan, and those such as Constable that are currently partisan shouldn't be.

And then let's demand that our politicians run on the issues and on their actual record in and out of office. Keep religion and ideology out of it – if you're opposed to, say, abortion or gay marriage or if you're for those issues, give us real thinking, not slogans or religious (or anti-religious) cant. I don't know about you, but if either side on any issue can't come up with a reasoned, fact-based argument, then I think they should just say so – they're against it on personal, moral, religious, or ethical grounds and leave it at that, not try to back up what is a personal position with specious claims or pseudo-reasoning. And be clear I'm talking about both sides of the aisle here – I have no problem with fact-based, purpose-driven arguments, and I understand that sometimes there is purpose-driven with no basis in fact – I can respect an authentic commitment that I don't agree with – just don't try to convince me that it's right or wrong. It's your position, and I can respect that.

We have a short breather until the run-up to the next elections in 2012. Can we use it to try to remember that every one, Republican or Democrat, right or left, straight or gay, man or woman, white, yellow, brown, and black, is an American and has those rights the founders felt were inalienable. Can't we all try to get along?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bonanza Column 208 – The Clinic Cannot Close

What was your reaction to the story in last week's Bonanza regarding the impending closing of the Incline Village Family Health Center (Searching for healthy solutions: Impending health clinic closure worries low-income locals)? I suspect many people didn't even read it – after all, if you're not a "low-income local" it doesn't affect you, does it? Or does it?

In 1995 Dr. Rick Tietz started a clinic at the hospital to serve patients who needed health care but did not need the Emergency Department. Ultimately Dr. Tietz brought the clinic under the auspices of the Childrens Cabinet, providing primary care at nominal fees for those who could not otherwise afford health care. Eventually, to make a long story short, the County got involved bringing with it Title 10 funds to underwrite the clinic's operations. In 2007, after some years of the clinic moving around and often operating under battlefield conditions, Nevada Health Centers took over the operation, making it the 22nd or 23rd clinic under their operation.

Nevada Health Centers is a federally funded Community Health Center Program that has operated medical and dental centers in Nevada for 29 years. Since taking over the Incline clinic in 2007, NHC has expanded rapidly, at one point to 31 clinics (they now have 29), and seems to have overextended itself financially. One solution to this overexpansion is to close the Incline clinic. In the Bonanza story NHC CEO Thomas Chase cited finances as the reason for the closure, noting that the clinic ran at a deficit of $120,000 during the past fiscal year, with $160,000 in expenditures to only $40,000 in revenue.

OK, maybe I'm na├»ve, but it seems to me that a clinic that is set up to serve low-income folks isn't going to make much in income, charging $10 for an adult visit and $5 for a child. NHC knew this when it took on the clinic, and at that time we can reasonably assume the management of NHC was taking on getting funding for the clinic – indeed, for all its clinics. Now new management seems to expect the clinic to carry itself, which doesn't happen with this type of operation.

Now here's where it affects you and me. Low-income folks are, inevitably going to need health care services for themselves and their children. So without the clinic, where will they go? To the ER at the hospital. As you know, ER services are expensive, regardless of how minor the treatment may be. The ER will not, as a matter of policy, refuse services to anyone, without regard to ability to pay. I have no doubt that the folks who now go to the clinic would pay if they could – I'm told they pay the clinic's fees willingly and gladly – but they simply can't pay the ER's prices, so the hospital absorbs the costs and, inevitably passes the losses on in higher fees to those who can pay – you and me. In addition, these non-emergency cases in the ER impose an added burden of triage on the ER staff and can delay or interfere with services to genuine emergency cases.

Who are these clinic patrons? A few were interviewed in last week's article; they are working people – some are seasonal employees, some employed in service jobs in the community. They are mothers, fathers, school children, grand parents. I'm told almost 600 families will be affected by the clinic's closing – that's around 2000 people who will, by default, become ER patients or will suffer from a lack of health care. Here. In our town.

I, for one, say this cannot be allowed to stand. NHC should step up to its responsibility to the community, and we as a community should demand that they do so. The hospital has extended its hand to help in any way it can, and we as a community should do no less. Every religion and moral code has in its principles some version of "as you treat the least among you, so you treat Me;" We need to keep this in mind – our community is what it is not only because of the wealthy and retired among us but also because of the working folks who keep it all running. They take care of the rest of us in many ways – it's time to repay that.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bonanza Column 207 – Election Endorsements

As you'll see elsewhere in this week's website and paper, the Bonanza has made its endorsements for various offices affecting us here at the Lake as well as on Washoe County Question 2. Mostly I agree with the paper, and where we disagree it's pretty minor. Nevertheless, in response to requests I've received, I'm going to chime in with mine.

Most will come as no surprise to regular readers of this column, and I won't rehash those arguments that I've made, sometimes more than once, in previous columns. So, for the record, Reid for Senator, Reid for Governor, Whomes for DA, and No on Question 2. The Senate and DA races seem like no-brainers to me. Angle has showed herself over and over again to be incapable of governing her mouth, much less the country, and most of the serious opposition to her seems to me to be coming from out of state interests whose interests would be served by getting rid of Harry Reid, but who have no interest in what's good for Nevada. Gammick has blocked the Tax Revolt's efforts to collect the tax refunds that the courts have said are coming to us, and that alone should be enough to make the difference.

The Governor's race is a closer call for me. I've liked Brian Sandoval for a while, and admire the commitment it takes to give up a Federal judgeship for a shot at other public service. However, his performance in the campaign has been lackluster to say the least, and he has failed to divulge any specific plans to back up his platitudes. Rory Reid, on the other hand has been open and explicit about his education and fiscal proposals. Campaign rhetoric is always a case of "we shall see," but at least Rory has given us something for which we can hold him to account, and I also like his plans better, so he gets my nod.

And No on Question 2 is another no-brainer – there is no conceivable upside for us in Washoe County spending money on studying the question of consolidation, because there is no upside to consolidation for anyone but the City of Reno.

For IVGID and the Fire District, I go three-quarters of the way with the Bonanza. We have what is arguably the finest fire protection in the country. Don Epstein and Gene Murrietta have served ably on the Fire Board, and deserve another term if they want it. Don't change horses in the middle of a race you're winning. For IVGID, I enthusiastically concur with the paper's endorsement of Bruce Simonian – I supported him in the primary and he has continued to show really good ideas and good sense in his campaign. For the other seat I go with Gene Brockman. Now if I had Gene's long record of distinguished service, I think I would retire to elder statesman status. But Gene wants to continue to serve, and with his experience and his incredible network of relationships with other municipal officials statewide, we'd be crazy not to take him up on it.

Now to briefly look at some other races, Dean Heller's bid to retain his seat in the House has received relatively little notice. While there are two people on the ballot opposing Heller, only one, Nancy Price of Sparks seems like a serious candidate. I don't know much about her but I do know this – when people from Incline went to DC to speak to Heller, Ensign, and Reid about the fight against pancreatic cancer they were received graciously and taken seriously by the two Senators' offices and rudely blown off by Heller's. That and his undistinguished record in the House are enough for me to pull the lever for Price.

Finally, Ross Miller, Kate Marshall, and Kim Wallin have all done a better than good job as Secretary of State, Treasurer, and Controller respectively and have earned the opportunity to continue the work they've started. Catherine Cortez Masto, despite her unfathomable endorsement of Gammick, has been an excellent Attorney General and should be retained in office as should Sheriff Mike Haley.

That's it; don't forget to vote!

Friday, October 08, 2010

Bonanza Column Number 205 – The First Amendment

I don't know anyone worth taking seriously who is not in favor of freedom of speech. "First Amendment Rights," while not absolute (see "shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater"), are probably the most sacred Constitutional guarantee of all to an overwhelming majority of Americans.

It gets hard, though, when that sacred right is exercised by someone you find morally repugnant. It doesn't matter if it's the KKK, the ACLU, the Right or the Left, everyone seems to have a point at which they say "yes, free speech, but not that free." Such is the case for me with the twin hate-mongerers Terry Jones and Fred Phelps. I have to swallow hard and remind myself that, in a free society, any restriction on speech or expression must be taken under very serious consideration and pass some very stringent tests regarding public safety, clear and present danger, and the like lest we become like so many countries where speech is limited to what the government or representatives of a supposed majority say is OK.

Jones, you'll remember, is the pastor of a 50-member church, most of the members his own family, in Gainesville, Florida who made news by threatening to publicly burn copies of the Holy Qu'ran a month or so ago. He garnered media attention way out of proportion to any sane estimate of his importance, and was arguably responsible for deaths of US troops in Afghanistan when Muslim elements there didn't bother to wait to see if any books got burned and took lethal umbrage at the suggestion that they might be.

Phelps, also a "pastor" travels around the country with his family (including his lawyer who, conveniently, is also his daughter) and demonstrates at the funerals of service people killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with signs that say things like "God hates Gays" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" (no kidding – you can look it up) because, in his twisted mind, America's war deaths are God's punishment for the US tolerating homosexuality in our midst.

Both these individuals are execrable in so many ways, starting with cloaking themselves in the mantle of Christian clergy, that it's leaves decent people speechless with outrage just to think of them. You don't have to like or approve of Islam or homosexuality – that's your business – but simple human decency and the principles on which the Constitution was written and on which this country was founded are revolted by what they say and do.

Notwithstanding that, however, we must stand for their right to say and do those things. We do not, however, have to shield them from the consequences of their actions. The City of Gainesville has presented Jones with a bill for $200,000 for added security and other expenses incurred by the City because of his stunt. I sincerely hope they will do everything in their power to collect it, and that, as reported, it will bankrupt financially his "church," which is already bankrupt morally. There are two axioms of free speech – one is the "fire in a theater" principle cited earlier and the other states that "your right to swing your arm freely ends at the other person's nose," and that is what we are dealing with here. In addition, I think that the families of those killed as a direct result of Jones' actions have grounds to sue him as well.

As for Phelps, he's already been sued - by Al Snyder, the father of a fallen soldier who was so devastated by the Phelps family's demonstration at his son's funeral that he could find no way to deal with it other than to try to stop them. It seems unlikely that Snyder will succeed – Phelps and his family are punctilious about the letter of the law as regards their odious demonstrations and they will most likely be sheltered by the First Amendment. Worse, Snyder is suing them at his own expense while Phelps, as noted, travels with his built-in lawyer.

We can't stop the likes of Jones or Phelps – to do so would be to endanger everyone's First Amendment rights – but we can do everything in our power to see that they don't profit from their actions, either financially or by gaining notoriety. And we can exercise our own right to speak by denouncing them as decent human beings must.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Bonanza Column 205 - Groupthink

My column last week on the possibility of starting to listen to each other drew some interesting responses. One frequent commenter whose comments I've found to be pretty thoughtful more often than not, took the occasion to challenge me to have my column not be a "collection of talking points" but to present both sides of issues and initiate a dialogue.

Others were, to be charitable, not so thoughtful. One demonstrated severe tunnel vision by picking up on the brief mention I made of IB in a list of controversies to (yet again) voice tired old arguments against that program. Others replied that since I am a progressive and a Democrat, that disqualified everything I'd said – I belong to "the party of lies," am like Joseph Stalin, and "the Democrats are a party of vile hateful and divisive people." Really? Democrats have a corner on that market?

OK, let me try again. First of all, I'm not sure what "talking points" are, but as near as I can make out, they are anything someone you disagree with says. What you say, on the other hand, is considered discourse. So I can't promise that my reader won't hear what I say as talking points – in fact, I can guarantee that they will. One dictionary defines a "talking point" as "A specific topic raised in a conversation or argument which is intended as a basis for further discussion, especially one which represents a point of view." This is a political column and an opinion piece, so hopefully talking points are exactly what I'm raising.

I do try to get my facts right. I'm often accused of having them wrong by those who disagree with me, but they rarely give any evidence that I'm incorrect – when they do (and they have) I think I've been pretty reliable about correcting myself, in print, and in a timely manner. So to that correspondent, here's what I can promise: I will "represent a point of view" – specifically the Liberal/Progressive point of view, which often corresponds to the Democratic Party's view, though not always. I'll do that, to the best of my ability, in a way that is fact-based, and will provoke discussion. I know that that is what my counterpart Jim Clark intends as well, from the other side of the political spectrum.

To the other respondents, I can only say again "Really?" I do not deny that Democrats, particularly during the Bush administration, said some nasty things. Some Democrats also said nasty things during the Vietnam War about Lyndon Johnson. And Republicans said nasty things about Clinton, Gore, and Kerry. In both cases, some of the things were true and some were not, and some persist. The Tea Party folks are particularly prone to say some really vicious things, many of which have been proved to be patently untrue. So when you say you don't want to listen because the other side are liars and vile and hateful and divisive, presumably you feel we don't owe you the courtesy either.

More importantly, and back to the real message of the column, as long as we don't have to listen to each other, we will continue to see only our point of view. Now if you're convinced that your point of view is absolutely right and any other point of view therefore absolutely wrong, that will work out just fine. And you will be a fool. Nobody – not Republicans or Democrats, not Liberals or Conservatives, not Sarah Palin or Barack Obama – has a lock on the truth. If there is a smartest person on Earth, that person is not as smart as he or she would be if they thought together with another or others. That's not my opinion, it's scientific fact.

Groupthink, defined as a process of reasoning or decision-making by a group, especially one characterized by uncritical acceptance or conformity to a perceived majority view, has proven time and time again to result in really bad decisions, whichever side of the political aisle is engaging in it. The Bay of Pigs was a disaster due to Groupthink (that's where the term originated) and Groupthink was identified as a root cause of the Challenger disaster that cost the lives of seven Astronauts. Apparently my correspondents think this is a good thing. They will not be surprised to hear that I don't agree. Hopefully you don't either.