Eduardo Galeano: Remembering a Giant of Latin American Literature – posted 4/19/2015

April 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Possibly some readers will remember this incident from 2009. At the Summit of the Americas conference, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Obama shook hands. Chavez also gave Obama a book. The book was Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries in the Pillage of a Continent. The author of that book was the Uraguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano.

The book immediately soared on Amazon but based on his reaction, it appeared Obama was unfamiliar with the book. He was quoted saying he thought Chavez was giving him a book that Chavez himself had written. For whatever reason, probably a smartalecky one, Chavez gave Obama the Spanish version. Obama doesn’t know Spanish.

I thought of this incident when I heard Galeano had died on April 13. While he was famous in Latin America and he had been famous there since the 1970’s, he was much less known in the United States.You had to look around to find an obituary. I did hear a story on NPR about his death. When I asked various friends of mine about Galeano, most had never heard of him.

So why does Galeano matter? Honestly, we do not usually pay attention to any writers, especially those from outside the United States. I will give my reasons.

Galeano made me look at the world differently. He looked at Latin American history in a way most Americans have not considered. It is a bottom up history, sympathetic to the poor people of his region. Plus he is a great and charming storyteller and the history is anything but dry. He saw a connection between the underdevelopment of Latin America and the great wealth in the United States and Europe. A passage from the start of Open Veins will give a flavor:

“The division of labor among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing. Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations. Centuries passed, and Latin America perfected its role. We are no longer in the era of marvels when fact surpassed fable and imagination was shamed by the trophies of conquest – the lodes of gold, the mountains of silver. But our region still works as a menial. It continues to exist at the service of others’ needs, as a source and reserve of oil and iron, of copper and meat, of fruit and coffee, the raw materials and food destined for rich countries which profit more from consuming them than Latin America does from producing them.”

Part of what set Galeano apart was not just his passion for remembering things others wanted forgotten. It was also his poetic and feeling style. In her introduction to The Open Veins of Latin America, Isabel Allende described Galeano this way:

“He is one of the most interesting authors ever to come out of Latin America, a region known for its great literary names. His work is a mixture of meticulous detail, political conviction, poetic flair, and good storytelling. He has walked up and down Latin America listening to the voices of the poor and the oppressed, as well as those of the leaders and the intellectuals…He has opposed military dictatorships and all forms of brutality and exploitation, facing unthinkable risks in defense of human rights. He has more first-hand knowledge of Latin America than anybody else I can think of, and uses it to tell the world of the dreams and disillusions, the hopes and the failures of its people. He is an adventurer with a talent for history, a compassionate heart, and a soft sense of humor.”

Galeano did live his convictions. After the military coup in Uraguay in 1973, Galeano had to go into exile. He had been imprisoned briefly. He first went to Argentina but he had to flee there as well. He then went to live in Spain. The right wing military governments in Uraguay, Argentina and Chile all banned Open Veins of Latin America. When Galeano left Argentina, his name was on the death squads list.

He was not able to return to Uraguay until 1985 when democracy was finally restored. The story of that era in Latin America in the 1970’s is not sufficiently understood. It was a horror show of dirty wars where Latin American militaries savaged their own civilian populations in the name of a war against terror. Galeano was fortunate to have escaped with his life.

After he returned to Uraguay in 1985, Galeano again took up journalism. He resurrected Marcha (renamed Brecha), a periodical which had been shut down by the military. Doing journalism was nothing new for Galeano. He had actually started his newspaper career at the age of 14 drawing cartoons for El Sol, the weekly of the Uraguayan Socialist Party. He then went on to write for Marcha and another left wing daily, La Epoca.

Even though he wrote many books, Galeano did not belittle journalism. In an interview with the Spanish newpaper. El Pais, he said,

“There is a tradition that sees journalism as the dark side of literature with bookwriting at its zenith. I don’t agree. I think that all written work constitutes literature, even graffiti. I have been writing books for many years but I am trained as a journalist , and the stamp is still on me. I am grateful to journalism for waking me up to the realities of the world.”

Galeano has written a number of other books that deserve mention. I liked Upside Down which is written in a very simple, direct style. There are many others but I will name Days and Nights of Love and War and Memories of Fire.

Galeano was also a soccer fanatic. He adored the sport and wrote a book titled Football in Sun and Shadow. I expect soccer fans would love it.

It made me sad that Galeano’s death was passing too unnoticed. I will end with another Galeano quote:

“One writes out of a need to communicate and to commune with others, to denounce that which gives pain and to share that which gives happiness. One writes against one’s solitude and against the solitude of others. One assumes that literature transmits knowledge and affects the behavior and language of those who read…One writes, in reality, for the people whose luck or misfortune one identifies with – the hungry, the sleepless, the rebels, and the wretched of this earth – and the majority of them are illiterate.”

Book Review: “Young Thurgood” by Larry S. Gibson – posted 4/12/2015

April 12, 2015 4 comments

My friend Paul recommended this book and with good reason. Young Thurgood by law professor Larry S. Gibson is a very enjoyable and educational read based on extremely comprehensive research. Professor Gibson did a fantastic job of sleuthing to dig up stories and information. The book presents a vivid picture of the young Thurgood Marshall long before his tenure as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. It succeeds in showing the world in which Marshall grew up, a world in which vigilante justice sometimes competed against the rule of law. It shows how the young Marshall got his legal career off the ground.

Although it is not that long ago, the world of Marshall’s youth is insufficiently understood today. It was a world in which lynchings of black men had not been so unusual. Gibson points out that from 1890 to 1940, 5000 black Americans were lynched in the United States. Racism defined America and rigidly circumscribed the lives of all minorities.

Marshall grew up in Maryland. He personally experienced the world of vicious segregation. Gibson says that in the period from 1882 to 1930 Maryland ranked twenty-seventh out of the 48 states in the number of lynchings that occurred within its borders. 33 lynchings had occurred in Maryland.

I mention lynchings because the 1933 lynching of a black man named George Armwood figured in Marshall’s early career. He was fresh out of law school, 23 years old, and he and ten other black lawyers sought a meeting with Maryland’s governor to see what the governor planned to do about what happened to Armwood. Marshall became a lawyer one week before the Armwood lynching.

Until 1885, Maryland had restricted the practice of law to white males only. It was still a big deal that Marshall could become a lawyer. Gibson says only 60 African Americans had been lawyers in Maryland before Marshall was admitted to the Bar. It took a legal challenge to permit Black lawyers to practice as Bar members. Many jurisdictions allowed no Black lawyers.

Gibson includes the results of a survey conducted in 1928 about the status of Black lawyers in the South. The responses are eye-opening and racist as hell. Here is one from Taylor County, Fla.: “No Negro lawyer in this county now nor as ever been. A Negro lawyer would be as much out of place here as a snowball would be in Hades.”

Marshall pointedly challenged Governor Ritchie at their meeting about the Armwood lynching and asked: “Is there an investigation taking place in the state police department?” Governor Ritchie did not directly answer and the state response was the usual do-nothing. Gibson shows how Marshall aggressively pursued the anti-lynching effort. He joined the coalition effort to pass anti-lynching legislation, the Costigan-Wagner Bill, in Congress. He repeatedly wrote Maryland’s senator, Senator Tydings to push him to support the legislation.

Marshall researched prior lynchings and showed that most lynching victims were not, in fact, rape suspects. Debunking that stereotype, he showed that Blacks accused of minor offenses had typically been the ones brutally victimized. While no one was ever held accountable for Armwood’s lynching, Gibson states that Armwood was the last person ever to be lynched in Maryland. Marshall’s efforts and the anti-lynching coalition did have some positive effect although the Costigan-Wagner Bill went down to defeat in Congress because of a filibuster by Southern senators.

I don’t think Marshall would have been surprised by all the police shootings of young Black men in the 21st century. There is a direct line from his experience to what we see today.

There are many good stories in Young Thurgood. It was interesting to see the tension between his civil rights cases and his need to support himself. He went through periods of being absolutely financially desperate. To make ends meet, Marshall worked a night job at the Baltimore City Department of Health as a clinic clerk. He had to track sexually transmitted diseases. This was at the same time as he handled major civil rights cases, tort suits, divorces, and other legal matters. Marshall said, “Nobody cares which twenty-three hours in a day I work.”

Marshall was an extraordinarily hard worker. While at law school, he was always working when he wasn’t in class. He had been too poor to live in Washington DC where his law school, Howard University, was located. He lived in Baltimore and commuted to DC six days a week on the train. After getting up at 5am, he walked a mile to the B & O station on Mount Royal Avenue, He then had to walk to law school.

Gibson recounts the different jobs Marshall held including railroad waiter, assistant law school librarian, and waiter at a fancy country club resort. Marshall was very popular and socially adept in any setting. He had a very sunny and friendly disposition.

It turned out that Marshall’s winning personality and positive disposition served him well in many different contexts. Gibson describes Marshall this way:

“A gregarious person and a natural politician, Marshall enjoyed conversing with persons of all economic levels. As a lawyer he was diplomatic and collegial, disarming adversaries and defusing tense situations with personal charm and humor. Eight summers as a waiter had cultivated tact and skill in quickly assessing people and situations, and these interpersonal skills helped him greatly during his early career.”

Marshall had a remarkable talent of being reasonable with those who disagreed with him. Gibson says that ability flowed from his experience as a competitive debater in high school and college. He was a good listener. Gibson portrays Marshall as anything but a know-it-all. He said others described Marshall as “a sponge”, soaking up the ideas of those around him. He was pragmatic.

Gibson shows how Marshall was always ready to directly approach the people who had the most authority to address situations in which he was engaged. He famously had a relationship with J. Edgar Hoover. Marshall had a great sense of humor and that also helped him. There was one story Gibson told that I cannot pass on recounting.

“When Marshall met Great Britain’s Prince Edward, His Highness asked Marshall “Do you care to hear my opinion of lawyers?” to which Marshall reportedly responded with a smile, “Only if you care to hear my opinion of princes”.

The cases Marshall handled as a young lawyer were most impressive and varied. Gibson does a good job of getting into the cases and the challenges Marshall faced. In 1935, Marshall, on behalf of a Black student and Amherst College graduate, Donald Murray, filed suit against the University of Maryland School of Law, which at the time would not allow any Black students at the school. The case ultimately went to trial and Marshall prevailed on an equal protection basis. Marshall did all the work on appeal and he again won at the Maryland Court of Appeals.

The Murray case opened the door nationally to desegregation of schools and other government facilities. If his career with impact litigation ended there that would have still been huge but it was only the very beginning. Marshall had a long career litigating before he became a judge.

Marshall also was counsel on a case that addressed racial discrimination in school teacher pay for teachers in Maryland. Using his customary careful grasp of the facts, Marshall showed how on average Black teachers were paid 53.9% of what white teachers earned for doing the same work. Marshall filed four lawsuits around the issue, including one in federal court, and he again prevailed using equal protection.

The ruling in this case provided the foundation for teacher pay litigation throughout the South.

I am not doing justice to the breadth of cases described by Gibson. He shows Marshall’s losses as well as his wins. Gibson also does a good job of showing how Marshall emerged from a tradition of courageous and effective Black attorneys in Baltimore. Marshall had great mentors who modelled how to be an effective civil rights lawyer. Gibson singles out Charles Houston who played a critically helpful role in Marshall’s life. But there was also Everett Waring, W. Ashbie Hawkins and Warner T. McGuinn. Each deserves more than passing mention. Waring was the first African American to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was also the first African American member of the Maryland Bar. He was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1885.

In reading about Marshall, it is hard not to be impressed and inspired by what one man could do. His example is genuinely remarkable and warrants close study. Both as a lawyer and a judge, he is an outstanding role model. By any measure his accomplishments were staggering. I plan to write more about Marshall.

My friend Paul did not steer me wrong. Check out the book.

Militarism and Perpetual War as a Way of Life – posted 4/5/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/9/2015

April 5, 2015 3 comments

New Hampshire is now beginning to experience that riveting and recurring ritual: the migration and influx of presidential candidates. All of us in the Granite State get the opportunity to see and question all those who are trying out for that most megalomaniacal of roles. Whether at house parties or at large events, we can usually get up close and personal with the candidates. This is so New Hampshire.

In assessing the potential 2016 field on both the Democratic and Republican side, I remain concerned about the narrowness of the policy options presented by both major parties. While we often focus on the difference between Democrats and Republicans, I submit the parties have too much in common. This is especially true when it comes to foreign policy and the view of America’s role in the world.

Both parties support an utterly bloated military budget. They agree the Pentagon needs much more money. President Obama thinks the Pentagon should get $534 billion in 2016. He asked for an additional $51 billion to pay for operations in the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. This represents a roughly $38 billion increase from the 2015 base budget. It does not include separate additional programs through the Department of Energy for nuclear weapons.

The Republicans support spending even more money on the military. Senator McCain was quoted favoring $17 billion beyond what President Obama requested. The Republicans have been arguing that America under Obama is “in retreat”. They suggest ramping up the war against ISIS with possible boots on the ground. They also contemplate attacking Iran. Not surprisingly, they also oppose the recent successful negotiations limiting the Iranian nuclear program.

Sums of money like $534 billion are almost incomprehensible to grasp but I think we need to look hard at what that money would be used for. Clearly on the menu is money for a permanent troop presence in Afghanistan, money for the war against ISIS, money for a possible ground war in Iraq, money for new F-35 combat aircraft and also new ballistic missile submarines.

As one military observer, William Hartung, has pointed out, all this money amounts to a huge Pentagon slush fund. We have no idea where much of it goes. How much goes for black ops and how much goes for total electronic surveillance of god knows who? How can that be compatible with democracy? Shouldn’t we know where all that money is going?

I think it is astonishing how all the hypervigilant, tightfisted House legislators on the Republican side can want to replace Medicare with a voucher-like private insurance option while being so cavalier about profligate military spending. Need a new weapon system? No problem.

The assumptions that underlie such out-of-control military spending deserve attention. America now appears to be accepting war all the time. Wars, for the most part, used to be time-limited. The War on Terror is not like that. It is forever and always. To quote New York Times reporter, James Risen:

“America has become accustomed to a permanent state of war. Only a small slice of society – including many poor and rural teenagers – fight and die, while a permanent national security elite rotates among senior government posts, contracting companies, think tanks and television commentary, opportunities that would disappear if America was suddenly at peace. To most of America, war has become not only tolerable but profitable and so there is no longer any great incentives to end it.”

In his book, Pay Any Price, Risen exposes how the old military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned about has evolved into what he calls the homeland security-industrial complex. This national security state, with an expansive view of the role of the military, has embraced the role of world policeman.

The quest is for total global military dominance. Whether via drones, Special Forces, manufactured proxy armies or the use of American troops, we apparently need to be ready to intervene in any hot spot in the world on a moment’s notice. No place is off limits. The web of over 700 military installations and bases we maintain around the globe allows for the possibility of force projection almost anywhere.

I am reminded of an old essay written almost 100 years ago by the writer Randolph Bourne. He wrote a piece entitled War is the Health of the State. To a disturbing degree our economy now depends on war. The livelihood of so many depends on producing and exporting arms and munitions. There are a massive constellation of roles related to our various military endeavors. As Risen points out, management consultants and academics make no money if they determine alleged threats are overblown.

We need to be asking how much is the desire for personal profit, status, and power driving our policy?

Risen argues, and I would agree, our homeland security-industrial complex needs scary enemies to justify the expenditure of ridiculous sums of money. If Americans can be scared out of their wits, mountains of money can be thrown at contractors who fight, to use the words of George W. Bush, “the evildoers”. That is essentially what we have done. We are a nation in search of an enemy.

This is an age-old story of greed and abuse of power. Those who stand to profit from endless war have a vested interest in the promotion and constant reinforcement of fear-mongering. The fact that there is some reality to the threat (ISIS) makes it harder to see our manipulation. No doubt ISIS is horrible but it is the responsibility of Arab nations in the region to fight that battle.

By essentially deregulating national security, we opened the door to privatization and outsourcing. Risen’s book is eye-opening about the outright theft of billions of dollars that the Bush Administration lavished on Iraq. It is a story that has not been told enough. We really do not know where a ton of money transported to Iraq by the Bush Administration disappeared to. Numerous contractors stuffed money away. Risen says that billions are still squirreled away in a bunker in Lebanon. If we still had enough investigative journalists, I would think they would be looking hard at that money trail.

Post 9/11 opportunists saw a chance to make a bundle as did all the policy intellectuals who supported the second Iraq War. Many of these same folks now support a ground war against ISIS. Considering their shameless track record, it is unbelievable that anyone would buy what they are selling as if the Iraq War was not enough. These policy intellectuals, our latest incarnation of the best and the brightest, will not be doing the dying if we are foolish enough to go along with their future war plans.

I hope New Hampshire citizens ask the presidential candidates hard questions about the growth of the homeland security-industrial complex. Questions like: what is an appropriate national security strategy? What are the genuine threats to us in the United States and what are not? When is diplomacy more appropriate than military intervention? What is the strategic role for addressing poverty and climate change? Are there other ways to oppose ISIS than the use of American troops? As I mentioned, how about the role and responsibility of other Arab countries to challenge ISIS?

A powerful argument can be made for a more modest, less expensive foreign policy based on an awareness of the limits of our power. I admit to a very dark view of the results of our frequently interventionist foreign policy over the last 50 years. Both parties seem oblivious to these awful results and blindly blunder forward.

Maybe the most positive thing that could be said is that we avoided a nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That could easily have happened with outcomes too catastrophic to contemplate.

We did not reap any peace dividend after the Soviet Union collapsed. The demise of the Russian threat almost seamlessly led to the War on Terror with new justifications for military spending.

In a short article, I cannot hope to catalogue all the bad things that came out of our interventions in Vietnam and the more recent Iraq War. If we were going to make a list, I would include: so many needless deaths, devastating injuries including blown off body parts, traumatic brain injuries and PTSD, Agent Orange, napalm, tiger cages, return of torture, warrantless wiretaps, rendition, and domestic surveillance of everyone. And that is right off the top.

Generally speaking, we have lowered the bar on good reasons to go to war.

Among the candidates, with the exception of Senator Bernie Sanders (not yet a candidate), no one is even talking about our excessive militarism. No one is asking if the growth of the homeland security-industrial complex poses any dangers for democracy. I do not see candidates saying caution is better than military adventurism.

Since my argument could be misunderstood or deliberately misconstrued, I did want to say that in no way am I criticizing our soldiers who have served honorably and bravely in Vietnam, Iraq, and other war zones. Their sacrifices have been noble. My argument is directed at the architects of policies and the opportunists who try and profit from war. Too often they have sent soldiers to die for no good reason.

As the custodians of the still important, first in the nation primary, let’s make our questions count. Maybe our questions and the candidates’ answers can make some news.

Denise Levertov – posted 3/28/2015

March 28, 2015 3 comments

Americans have a too casual attitude toward war. It is often attributed to the fact no war has been fought on American soil for a very long time. Without first hand experience, Americans lack knowledge of the awfulness of war.

In my lifetime, the Vietnam war was the big war. It was a monument to pointlessness. More recently, we have had the Iraq War which started in 2003. That war was based on lies and falsehoods cooked up by the George W. Bush – Dick Cheney administration.

How many lives have been snuffed out or irreparably damaged by these stupid wars? The mind reels thinking about that. The numbers are vast.

Now we have war-mongering politicians talking about a new war with Iran, not to mention the war against the Islamic State. Have these politicians learned anything from our wars over the last 50 years (and I am leaving smaller wars out)? It would appear not. There is the same blindness, the same uncritical acquiesence and a new generation of young and innocent soldiers to be sacrificed to the gods of war.

But not everybody is so naive.

I first became aware of the poet Denise Levertov because of her opposition to the war in Vietnam. She was outspoken and a fierce critic of American intervention in Vietnam. Levertov’s husband at the time, Mitchell Goodman, was also an activist against the war. Levertov used to speak and read her poems at anti-Vietnam war rallies. I saw her do that. I also saw her read when she visited my old school, Trinity College, in Hartford, Ct. in the early 1970’s.

I thought of Levertov when I was reading Seymour Hersh’s new article in the March 30, 2015 New Yorker about his return visit to My Lai, the scene of the most famous Vietnam massacre. Levertov did see the horror. She did not sugarcoat or lie or look away as was all too common. She would have appreciated Hersh’s piece.

Reading Hersh, I was struck by the lack of American reckoning and remorse for the crimes committed. As Hersh reported, American troops cold-bloodedly murdered 504 victims from 247 families. Among the dead were 182 women. American troops executed 173 children including 56 infants. Although an army jury convicted Lieutenant William Calley of mass murder and sentenced him to life and hard labor, President Nixon intervened and Calley was released from jail. Three months after Nixon left office, Calley was freed altogether. As Hersh points out, he was the only officer ever convicted for his role in the My Lai massacre. Where was the American price paid for this enormous atrocity?

While Levertov is much more than an anti-war poet, I wanted to recognize her for courageous and honorable opposition to the war. She used her poetry to speak out. Poets are ignored in America but I would ask where are the poets now? Where are the Denise Levertovs’ of our day? Our society is lacking moral compass.

To honor and remember Levertov, I wanted to print two of her poems.

What Were They Like? by Denise Levertov

Did the people of Vietnam
use lanterns of stone?
Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone gardens illumined pleasant ways.
Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
it is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.
There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight,
Who can say? It is silent now.

Living by Denise Levertov

The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer

The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day

A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute.

Categories: Uncategorized

Danny Schechter, Your News Dissector (1942-2015)

March 22, 2015 2 comments

I had not planned to write anything this weekend but I could not ignore the death of Danny Schechter, the News Dissector. I lived in Boston during the 1970’s. Danny’s voice on Boston’s progressive rock station WBCN was absolutely unique. He was a most trusted journalist who had a very wide following that was entirely different from the relationship most journalists have with their audience. He was part of the movement for social change and he chronicled events from a decidedly partisan perspective. Boston had a very vibrant alternative culture scene. I also think of the Real Paper and the Boston Phoenix of that era. That news was not homogenized, shallow or phony. Danny always made it lively.

I know Danny had a very successful career in media including working on 20/20 after his Boston period but I will always remember his great reporting at WBCN. This was before BCN went over to all hard rock all the time.

I saw two quotes that I wanted to share about Danny. The first is from Noam Chomsky and the second is from Danny himself. Danny will be missed.

“No one who was in Boston during the days of “Danny Schechter Your News Dissector” can ever forget the exhilaration of those marvelous broadcasts, their enlightenment and insight and humor, often in dark days, a legacy that Danny left behind him when he went on to a remarkable career of critical analysis and breaking through media and doctrinal barriers.” Noam Chomsky

“All I seem to have these days is this keyboard to crank out more condemnations and calls to action, knowing full well, as I do it, that I don’t know what else to do. I am compelled to make media, compelled to do what I can, thinking modestly that perhaps somewhere, in hearts I don’t know, words or images can still stir souls to rise.” Danny Schechter

Categories: Uncategorized

Raising the Minimum Wage is a Blow Against Economic Inequality – posted 3/15/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/21/2015

March 15, 2015 2 comments

The Republican-led Legislature in New Hampshire just killed all bills introduced this session aimed at raising the state’s minimum wage. Both the New Hampshire Senate and the House voted against a minimum wage increase. The bill sponsored by Senator Donna Soucy of Manchester would have raised the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.25 an hour. It also included a further increase up to $10.00 an hour by 2018.

While the actions of the legislators were not surprising, I find the Legislature’s failure to raise the minimum wage reflected a callous disregard for the needs of low wage workers. In 2015, $7.25 an hour is not remotely survivable. There is a sad cluelessness about these votes and an inability to see that stagnant wages, including at the minimum wage level, are hurting our state and nation.

The arguments that have been raised against a minimum wage increase are stale, ahistorical, and not supported by persuasive evidence. They are exactly the same arguments opponents have been making for the last fifteen years. They were made by opponents before the minimum wage was raised to $7.25. I know because earlier in my life, when I worked as a lobbyist for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, I had worked on the issue.

There is nothing new here. Opponents always argue that a minimum wage increase will hurt business, especially small business. They assert, without strong evidence, that there will be job losses. They say that the way to help minimum wage workers is to lift up the economy generally. Supposedly, some gains will trickle down although how that will happen is never clearly spelled out.

We are supposed to ignore the reality that other states in New England have already raised their minimum wage and the sky did not fall.

The minimum wage in Massachusetts is $9.00 an hour. In Vermont and Connecticut, it is $9.15 an hour. Vermont has also approved legislation which increases the minimum to $9.60 in 2016, $10.00 in 2017 and $10.50 in 2018.

These other New England states still appear to be open for business. I have seen no reports of their imminent economic demise.

Since 2014, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, West Virginia and the District of Columbia have all passed minimum wage increases. A 2013 law will increase California’s minimum wage to $10.00 by 2016.

Seattle and San Francisco are phasing in $15.00 an hour and Chicago is rising to $13.00. Los Angeles is raising the city’s minimum to $13.25 over 3 years.

There will always be Chicken Littles predicting doom. Chicken Littles do not bother to explain how the minimum wage can be raised dramatically in other locations without all the predicted dire consequences.

The biggest problem I have with the arguments against raising the minimum wage is their lack of context. Opponents do not situate the minimum wage issue inside the context of our increasing economic inequality. Minimum wage workers have been losing for a long time now. They are a grim part of the picture of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

Since I think context matters, let me outline how I see the minimum wage fitting into the bigger picture. Since 1979, the wages for the vast majority of American workers, including minimum wage workers, have either stagnated or declined. At the same time, wealth of the upper one percent has skyrocketed. The one percenters have claimed a larger and larger share of the economic pie. Consider that the average CEO makes 774 times more than a minimum wage worker and 331 times more than an average worker.

Over the last 35 years, that ratio has gotten more and more extreme.

I think wage stagnation has fueled our economic inequality and minimum wage workers are a prime example. When the minimum wage does not increase for an extended period, its inflation-adjusted value erodes. It has been estimated that since 1968 the minimum wage has lost more than 40 % of its value to inflation. If it had kept pace with inflation, the minimum wage would now be around $10.38 an hour.

Taking no steps to raise the minimum wage guarantees a continuation and exacerbation of economic inequality. Workers need added income just to keep up with the costs of rent, food, heat, child care and higher education to name some typical expenses.

I would acknowledge there are more complexities than I am addressing but I stand by my argument for higher wages. Mass purchasing power can contribute to a healthier economy. Our lopsided distribution of wealth actually restricts markets.

As presidential candidates start popping up in New Hampshire like spring flowers (or weeds), they all need to be asked where they stand on the minimum wage. They also should be asked about the stagnation and decline of wages which have been central to our economic inequality.

A 2014 poll conducted by Hart Research Associates shows that 75% of Americans – including 53% of Republicans – support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50 by 2020. 63% of Americans supported an even greater increase in the minimum wage to $15.00 by 2020. Gary Molyneux of Hart Research had this to say about the poll:

“The findings here are very clear: Americans, regardless of region, socioeconomic status or demographic distinction, strongly favor a very significant increase in the federal minimum wage.”

In spite of our Legislature’s short-sighted action, you can count on this issue returning.

Reauthorization and Beyond: The Medicaid Expansion Must Continue – posted 3/8/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/15/2015

March 8, 2015 1 comment

When the New Hampshire Legislature passed the Medicaid expansion in 2014, there was one noteworthy wrinkle. The very creative Medicaid expansion plan had a sunset provision which meant it must be reauthorized by our new Legislature.That reauthorization, as part of the general budget discussion, is under review by legislators now.

Let’s be clear about what the Medicaid expansion has done. It uses available federal funds to offer health coverage to lower-income adults up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. So far it has attracted 36,404 new recipients to the Medicaid rolls in New Hampshire. It is expected an additional 25,000 will enroll over the next six years, assuming the Medicaid expansion is reauthorized.

Overwhelmingly, the new enrollees are from low income working families. These are exactly the people who had been uninsured prior to the legislation because they could not afford the cost of health insurance. That lack of affordability is the major reason why so many do not have insurance.

New Hampshire must now consider whether the program will continue or whether it will throw thousands off the insurance they have newly obtained. Early program results have been promising. The New Hampshire Hospital Association just released a study showing that in 2014 there was a 17% reduction in the number of emergency room patients without insurance compared to 2013.

Failure to reauthorize would be the kiss of death for health insurance for these many thousands of newly insured. It is hard to estimate the damage if the Medicaid expansion goes away but I think it would be huge.

Realistically, there is no likelihood a Republican-led legislature would be crafting any alternative health insurance plan in 2015-2016 to insure low and moderate income New Hampshire citizens. Based on the available evidence, snow is more likely in July.

One oddity of the national debate around Medicaid expansion has been the emergence of the perspective that it is fine to be uninsured. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has best articulated this position. With 22% of its residents uninsured, Texas holds the brutal distinction of having the highest rate of uninsured people in the country. In February, Republican presidential candidate Perry, on a campaign swing in New Hampshire, was quoted, saying:

“Texas has been criticized for having a large number of uninsured. But that’s what Texans wanted. They did not want a large government program forcing everyone to purchase insurance.”

I could be wrong but I do not believe any other major politician has spoken up for the alleged value of being uninsured. Perry is the first to brag about it like it is a golden badge to wear proudly. In Texas, Perry and his brand of extreme conservatives have denied 1.5 million low income people the chance to be insured. This is the estimated number of low income people in Texas who would benefit from a Medicaid expansion.

Only in the United States is there a serious debate about the value of insurance coverage for protecting health. That debate has been long settled in all other advanced industrial countries. All recognize the importance of being insured. Not to recognize that is almost the equivalent of being a flat earther.

So how is it that some have come to devalue having health insurance? Cynically, I think many of those who do the devaluing have plenty of money and they have good health insurance. Like Rick Perry, they advocate no health insurance for others.

I expect these liberty lovers who tout the freedom to be uninsured have never had a personal health crisis where they faced the future with no insurance or inadequate insurance. If they had had that kind of personal experience and they still believed in this “freedom”, you would have to wonder if there was a screw loose.

I had my own personal wake-up call and increased awareness about the importance of health insurance when I was 42. After going on a long, freezing winter hike, I came home and realized there was a slight swelling under my left arm. The next day I went over to New London Hospital to see my primary care physician. I do remember the look on his face when he examined me. He was as white as a sheet and he said I needed to see a surgeon for a biopsy.

I arranged for that, had it done at New London Hospital and then waited two weeks for the results. The verdict: malignant melanoma. Probably like many relatively young patients, I went through shock and disbelief. I was healthy. How could that person in the medical records be me?

Then I had to figure out what to do next. It was not that easy. Different doctors suggested different treatment. I went to see a radiation oncologist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. He suggested radiation. Then I went to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to see a surgical oncologist. He suggested surgery. It was hard not to notice that doctors were businessmen who wanted business.

I did my own research and decided on surgery as the most effective treatment. I had been very impressed by the surgical oncologist I saw.

Meanwhile, the medical bills started cascading in. They were extremely confusing and I had insurance. It was honestly hard to tell how much you owed. I felt like I needed an interpreter to understand the bills. I was left with the impression that a cash register starts ringing the second you enter medical facilities and it keeps going while you are there.

I did end up having surgery which was successful. (I am still here.) The insurer required a Massachusetts pay rate when my insurance was New Hampshire-based. Even after my insurer paid, I still owed a sizable balance. I talked to my oncologist and asked him if he would accept the New Hampshire pay rate as payment in full. He very graciously agreed and waived the cost difference between state plans. Still, there were a raft of other bills that flooded in. It took me a while to resolve everything.

I had insurance and I can only imagine the outcome if I had no insurance. I probably would not have been able to see that fine oncologist. I am not sure I would have ever gotten out from under the avalanche of medical bills. It would have meant a financial burial.

There is a significant body of social science research about the costs of being uninsured. Maybe it is stating the obvious but when people lack health insurance, they are much less likely to go to the doctor when they have a medical issue because they cannot afford the treatment. They must pay out of pocket and that is a big disincentive. Medical expenses compete against other necessities requiring payment.

Lack of health insurance has led to thousands of avoidable deaths, poorly managed conditions, and undetected or untreated cancers. Lacking insurance is generally recognized as the sixth leading cause of death for people ages 25 to 64 behind cancer, heart disease, injuries, suicides and cerebrovascular disease.

I have not touched on the financial benefits to our state of having the Medicaid expansion. It has brought hundreds of millions of dollars into the New Hampshire economy. For the enrollees, they can spend their money on other needs. They do not have to worry about paying medical bills that were previously unaffordable. More generally, for the state and for local government, there is a significant cost-saving. These folks will not be downshifting medical costs onto city and town welfare.

Legislators need to find a way to get the reauthorization done. Even if only looked at from an economic angle, there is too much money on the table to pass up. By any rational cost benefit analysis, the cost to the state is very small compared to the benefits gained.

I do think the narrative of this story is very American. It is about inclusion and consideration for the health and well-being of more New Hampshire citizens.

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