Monday, December 21, 2009

Caution: Caution Ahead

If you’re looking for holiday cheer, you've come to the wrong place. As I watch the wrangling in Washington over health care, my despair over the state of politics in America deepens. Even though reform seems to be progressing, it's not clear who this reform helps, except the insurance companies.

I concur with Thomas Jefferson that the government that governs least, governs best. But there are problems so big that only government can logically tackle them; with this one, uninsured people are going bankrupt because of the cost of medical care. With premiums increasing, insured people don't have it so good either.

Admittedly, this is a complicated issue, because it involves three major industries: the medical profession, the insurance companies, and the legal profession. As the spouse of a doctor, I know that one of the big contributors to medical costs is malpractice premiums, but Congress doesn't seem to want to address that particular part of the triad (in part because most of them are lawyers).

Politicians have demurred about solving this problem previously, saying that gridlock prevents it. But now that the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the White House are all run by Democrats, they no longer have that excuse. So what's the hold-up?

It's not just health care. Back in 1973, the U.S. economy was thrown into recession and turmoil by an OPEC oil boycott. Today, 36 years later, we are no less dependent on Middle East oil than we were then. In my mind, we should have started investing in high-speed inter-city and intra-city mass transit years ago, because it gives us the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to solving multiple problems:

    ● We could decrease pollution and slow global warming
    ● We would be sending less money to the terrorists who want to kill us
    ● We could give people more job options if they had an easier time getting to different cities in the same region
    ● We could spend less money on roads
    ● We could even evacuate cities faster in the event of natural disaster (imagine how a high-speed rail link between New Orleans and Houston could have helped in preparing for Katrina)

But our representatives — and I use the term loosely — are seemingly incapable of thinking big. I wrote to one of my senators, liberal Democrat Barbara Boxer, a while ago about this, and ended my letter saying that a mass-transit program was as important to us now as the interstate highway system was in the 1950s. I got a note back saying, "Thank you for your letter about the interstate highway system." (I also have an idea for mini-maglev vehicles, if any venture capitalists out there are interested.)

So what are politicians focusing on? I can't speak for others, but I know that my congresswoman, Democrat Anna Eshoo, has decided that the most important issue facing the United States today is ... wait for it ... the fact that television commercials are too loud. In the face of deficits, health care, war, and unemployment, she has decided that the most important use of her time is making sure that the volume of commercials does not exceed that of the associated telecast.

I'm not smart enough to understand why this idiocy is happening. I have my theories. In California, and perhaps in other parts of the country, I fear we have gerrymandered our way to congressional districts that are safe — that is, so highly populated with citizens on the right and the left that representatives have little opposition and thus little fear of being thrown out of office. You'd think that would make them more adventurous, not less, but even so, they don’t seem to want to do anything that will be seen as pioneering.

And what of our president, who seems to have grown excessively cautious, even though he came into office with a stunning mandate? (I knew he wasn't going to be a shining liberal; I went to college with Punahou grads, and none of them were liberals.) He was such an inspirational candidate, promising change we could believe in. It may be the holidays, but I’m having trouble believing.

All I see are the same problems bounced from congressional term to congressional term, with no one tackling real solutions. All the while, politicians, even after they're out of office, take advantage of terrific health care and pension plans that their constituents no longer have access to.

I never used to worry about this problem. When you're young, there always seems to be plenty of time to fix issues. When you're young, politicians are older, and presumably wiser. But things are different now. For the first time in my life, the president of the United States is younger than I am. The problems are obvious, the solutions perhaps less so, but doing nothing is not an option. If politicians are so powerful, why are they so cautious?

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