Thursday, November 26, 2009

On Thanksgiving - Thoughts on Charity

It's Thanksgiving today. I am grateful that I have my health, my darling husband, my beloved kids, my wonderful friends who are like family to me. I am grateful that I will be eating a meal today with our big, fine family, and that there will be more than enough food for everyone. I am grateful that I have a roof over my head; a warm, safe place to sleep. I have a job; I have clean clothes. And it doesn't matter to 'whom' I am grateful - or if indeed it is 'anyone' at all; I am just grateful - counting my blessings makes me appreciate what I do have and keeps me from being unsatisfied because of what I don't have. It's an exercise in mental health for me.

Many of us are doing 'charitable' things on this day; gratitude for me - and for many others - involves giving to those who do not have these things that I include in my gratitude list. There are people that believe that government should not be in the business of helping those in need; that it should be taken care of through private charitable giving. Many of these same people, however, simultaneously feel that 'charity' should only go to people who meet their own specific criteria as to whether they are 'deserving' or not, and that the 'haves' ought to get to decide whether or not to help the 'have-nots'.

If you think deeper on this you will see that these particular 'haves' are acting as though they believe that the 'have-nots' are that way by choice. If this were indeed the case, then the 'haves' should have the right to choose whether or not they should offer their help. They pay lip service to the idea that the poor are deserving of help, but the reality is that they believe that 'laziness and poor choices' are the primary determining factors for poverty, and to help them is to reinforce and reward those factors by 'confiscating' from those who are not lazy and do not make poor choices. Those in need should be judged and punished by those who have more, or they will continue on their immoral path.

Yes, there are a small percentage of people who 'take advantage of the system', and even for those - is that such an enviable way of life, to receive the relatively small amount of assistance that public support entails? The ones to criticize are the ones who steal big; those people who really 'game the system' live in mansions and are lauded for their entrepreneurship.  But most people (and more than ever in these difficult times) are in need due to no fault of their own, and it is our responsibility as a society to provide a safety net that includes help for a way out of poverty with dignity, not a punitive, finger-pointing, judgmental sort of 'charity' which is not charity at all but arrogance.

The difference is in the assumption that poverty is a choice. If indeed I choose not to work, not to take care of myself and my family, and you choose to work and are therefore successful, then you are indeed within your rights to decide whether or not to help me with your own resources, and to use your judgment to decide whether I am deserving of your charity. However, that is not very often the case  - it is the exception, not the rule. You don't 'have' everything you have simply due to your own awesomeness, and as a society, we are better off as a whole if we help those who fall through the cracks. We help ourselves by helping the 'least of these', as the Prince of Peace knew very well.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

In Which I Finally Meet My First Reviewer, David Swanson!

Last night, I attended a local event for David Swanson, who is currently touring with his new book Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union, sponsored by Winograd for Congress 2010, Progressive Democrats of America, Code Pink, Westside Progressives & Ilene Proctor's Great Mind Series. Lila Garrett from KPFK's "Connect the Dots" and Marcy Winograd moderated, and it was a very illuminating and interesting evening. Swanson is one of the most informed, informative, thoughtful and active progressives I know, and his book reflects his years of work both inside and outside the Beltway, giving him a unique and valuable perspective.

His talk, while it touched on the major themes of his book, was not really about the book itself, but about what the book was written to address: namely, the necessity of finding a way to make the voice of the people more powerful through a re-examination and reorganization of our current broken system of government representation. The supposed 'three branches of government' which are meant to be a system of checks and balances, where each branch is held in check by the other two and no one branch is more powerful than the others, are badly askew. The executive branch, which was intended not to make law, but to execute law made by Congress, has morphed into a law unto itself, having taken for itself the right to write law through 'signing statements' changing laws written by Congress, or by simply making up its own laws by issuing 'executive orders'. We saw this happen most egregiously under the Bush Administration, but the larger problem that many of us saw coming has come to pass also - that this 'unitary executive' power would extend to subsequent Presidents, who would have no incentive to let go of that power. We are already seeing evidence of this in the Obama Administration.

Along with the enhanced power of the executive, we also have a Congress which is unable to really represent the people, due to the way that the House and the Senate are currently set up. The allotment of members of the House of Representatives for each state has not been changed in many years, even though the population of these states has ballooned far beyond any one House member's ability to truly represent the people of their district. For example, CA-36 currently has about 700,000 constituents with one person to represent them. It is unrealistic, given the increase in population from when the districts were drawn up and Representatives allotted, to expect one Congressperson to be able to properly advocate for that many citizens. Swanson suggests increasing the House and doing away with the Senate altogether, and perhaps having a large citizen-based advocacy group in each state. I don't know enough about the mechanics of that to argue for or against that idea, but Swanson, with his hands-on experience and knowledge of the inner workings of our government, has taken on the big solutions, and I applaud him for that.

It was a remarkable evening, and I was so glad to get to meet David Swanson in person at last, as well as seeing Marcy Winograd - who is forging ahead with a strong progressive campaign to unseat Jane Harman in 2010 - my hero Vincent Bugliosi, and my friend Bree Walker, who will soon be back on the airwaves with her powerful progressive voice.

"We the People" need to speak out more than ever. Our work is only starting, and David Swanson made the point that I have been talking about for a while now - that we may not see the change we want in our own lifetimes, but most important social change is like that. The abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights movement, womens' suffrage, workers' rights and the union movement, and American independence itself, came about through several generations of work with no guarantee of success, and we must work as hard as that for our progressive values.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Mad As Hell

Will fight health care with every fiber of his being, and the last gasp of his oxygen tank...

In Which I Travel To Our Nation's Capital and Attend a Lovely Tea-Party

The timing could not have been more fortuitous.

I am, once again, here in Washington, DC with Americans United for Separation of Church and State - along with many of my favorite bloggers -  for their annual conference. The West Coasters got in a day early, and I managed to do 3 live music broadcasts yesterday and got a good night's sleep in preparation for the festivities tonight.

Little did I know what riches would be in store for me today!

As I strolled along this morning, sightseeing around Capitol Hill, I spied a colorfully-clad man reading a speech to an interested gaggle of three or four people. His young son held up a yellow "Don't Tread On Me" flag. He informed us that they were voting on the health-care bill today and to be sure to come back at one o'clock for the big rally.

I had heard that the teabaggers were planning another rally to stop government takeover of health care, but I didn't know that they would be having it while I was here. It was almost as if they had planned it especially for me!

So, after enjoying a visit to the Folger Shakespeare Museum, we ambled on over back to the Capitol, where the promised party was in full swing! I could hear the dulcet tones of the one and only Michele Bachmann braying across the lawn, where around 250 millions of outraged Americans were raising their voices in opposition to the stealing of their freedoms.

Naturally, I was agog. Being a total fangirl of the amazing Bachmann, I was simply beside myself with joy at seeing her in person. But - my thrills were about to be compounded, because who did La Bachmann introduce but the legendary firebrand, ├╝ber-patriot Jean Schmidt!!!

Yes, you read that right. What a bonanza! Double the pleasure, double the fun!

Stay tuned for more teabaggery later - I'm on my way to meet up with my fellow bloggers down at the hotel lounge!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Marcy Winograd on Big Pharma and Patent Medicine

Marcy Winograd has an excellent diary up at Daily Kos (please read/recommend if you're so inclined!) regarding the pharmaceutical industry's stranglehold on patents for "biologics" - cutting-edge, life-saving drugs. The new health care bill includes an amendment by Representatives Anna Eshoo and Joe Barton which will grant 12 years of patent protection for these biologics. Marcy writes:
While it’s clear, as Rep. Eshoo points out in her counter-blog, that the Eshoo amendment, limits for the first time patent protection for exorbitant cancer and HIV drugs, it’s also true that a minimum 12-year monopoly that allows Roche-Genentech to charge cancer patients with breast or brain tumors $185,000 per year for Avastin  or Abbot Labs to suddenly increase its prices five-fold for Norvir, a key ingredient in the AIDS-HIV cocktail, constitutes an excessive stranglehold on access to medicine desperately needed, not only here but worldwide where AIDS leaves a trail of tears throughout Africa.

CALPERS, California’s 1.4 million employee pension plan, and AARP, the senior insurance group, both opposed the 12-year protection as unsustainable.
Congressman Waxman (D-Santa Monica), Chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee wanted a five-year patent; President Obama supported a seven-year compromise exclusivity on biologics.

"Many members are looking for so-called game changers that would bring more competition and lower costs" in the health-care sector, said Mr. Waxman. "But if we do what the drug companies want and add on long periods of monopoly protection...we will not only lose that opportunity, but guarantee higher drug prices for the foreseeable future."

 Jane Hamsher notes that:

because of an "evergreening" clause that grants drug companies a continued monopoly if they make slight changes to the drug (like creating a once-a-day dose where the original product was three times per day), they will never become generics. Instead of the Waxman-Deal amendment that granted much more reasonable terms to biologic patent holders, Speaker Pelosi chose to include the Eshoo-Barton amendment. And we could all be paying for that choice for the rest of our lives.
 When you couple this with the fact that most insurance companies will not pay for name brands, only for generics, you see what a Catch-22 this is for the average patient, who is in desperate need of these drugs but cannot afford the cost of the name brand, which can be hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Marcy writes:

The real question on biologics, however, reflects deeper issues also mirrored in the single-payer debate.  Just as single-payer advocates object to for-profit insurance companies whose first responsibility is a fiduciary one, to make money for shareholders, health care activists who challenge Big Pharma question whether for-profit corporations, often reliant on partnership money from the taxpayer-supported National Institute of Health,  should be allowed to own the rights to life-saving medicine now out of reach to some 90-million Americans who are uninsured or under-insured, millions more whose insurance companies refuse to cover the costs, as well as much of the Third World living in poverty.  

Selling medicine is not like selling cars or dish washers.  If you can’t buy a car, you can take a bus.  If you can’t buy a dishwasher, you can pick up a rag.  If you can’t buy Norvir, you can suffer with night sweats until you waste away.

No one should own the right to someone else’s life.
I think it's really, really important to, as Marcy says, shine a spotlight on what's happening with Big Pharma, and especially the patent issue.

Yes, they spend money on research. But the building blocks that they use to develop their drugs have been mostly put into place via public funding - NIH and university research. They don't 'invent' drugs out of thin air, from scratch - they use existing research to work from.

I think Marcy is spot on on this issue. It's not a matter of holding up a bill because it's not perfect - it's a matter of raising awareness about how the pharmaceutical industries work, and which politicians are benefiting from their largesse. When insurance companies will not pay for a life-saving name-brand drug but only a generic, it is imperative to find a way to make these drugs available and affordable to those who need them to survive and cannot afford literally millions of dollars in drug costs. Unless these companies developed these drugs completely from scratch, using no one's research or money but their own - and they don't; they certainly benefit from taxpayer money, both past and present - I think that entails a certain obligation to these taxpayers.

That is why I believe that in matters of life and death - which is what health care is - that the purely 'for-profit' corporate model, which is solely responsible to its shareholders and not to the public, is not appropriate. As Marcy pointed out, it's not like selling cars or dishwashers. We need to realize that there is a difference between health care and dishwashers, and treat them differently in the public sphere, as do other industrialized nations.

Marcy Winograd is challenging Blue Dog corporate Democrat Jane Harman in the June 8, 2010 Democratic Party primary.  In 2006, when Winograd jumped into the race just three months before the primary, she mobilized almost 38% of the vote.
To donate to Marcy's progressive challenge, visit