Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Social Security, and insecurity

Today I'm on the security line… social security that is.

I was listening to Diane Rehm show in WAMU, and they were discussing the private accounts or partial privatization of Social Security. In fact, I would probably be ok with that, if you could prove me that it does not mean that if things don't go right for you, you won't be left on the dark. However, that does not seem to be the historical truth in the US.

I used to work as a social worker in Florida, with a case load full of elderly people living off Social Security, and if they were not living in poverty, I don't know what poverty is. Social Security as it is right now, hardly covers the basic needs of many. Therefore, how could it be that those private accounts will take care of that as handsomely as their proponents insist they will?
As always, all I have are questions.

1. The proponent of the private accounts, James Glassman, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and host of TechCentralStation.com, insisted in saying that the system should have something for those who are "irresponsible," or even get "unlucky." This was just a second after Diane mentioned that the best estimates of the system imply that 80% of people would do well, but 20% would do worse. For Mr. Glassman, those 20% of the population are just "irresponsible" and a very small percentage may be unlucky. My question are: 1. there would be no space for "irresponsibility" since supposedly the system will ensure that everybody will only invest in "very secure" stocks and bonds, therefore, who are those 20% of irresponsible people? Could those be, in fact, the poorest of the society? Is someone making less than 7 dollars the hour and therefore investing a ridiculous amount in the stock market, irresponsible? He insisted in saying that people should take care of themselves, and I don't think anybody would disagree with that, except that now, it has been shown that increasing for instance the amount people could invest in things such as 401K and IRAs do not help the poorest people, because they hardly have any money to invest to begin with.

2. Compare this with the Prepaid College Plans, and the College Investment Trust Funds. The prepaid option implies you pay a certain amount, and you get the four years of education you paid for in advance. That's a state guarantee to you. Sort of like Social Security. However, in the trust funds you will reap the benefits, or the loses of whatever amount you put in. Reality now is: we invested in both in Virginia. We have the guarantee for the prepaid plan, but we have LOST money -literally, not just that the return has been small, but that we have put more money in than there is now in the account- in the trust fund. That's the reality of the market. Period. You may win big, you may lose big. That's why Social SECURITY exists. Because you need to guarantee the people that have worked all their lives and contributed to our society will have a decent retirement, and won't be left to the ups and downs of the market. We bear a common risk, and take a common responsibility. I understand that probably the States may not be able to guarantee their entire promises regarding the college plans, but then a solution will have to be implemented. Probably we will need to contribute more. Probably future investors in the plan will also have to contribute much more. Probably (much needed) caps to the ever increasing cost of higher education will have to be put in place. These are called adjustments, not doing away with the program. Of course, this is a minor problem compared with Social Security, because at the end of the day, college is only four years.

3. If I were to complain about the performance of the "very secure, and stable" blend of stocks and bonds in which the Trust Fund money have been invested I will receive the following answer: "past performance is not guarantee of future performance" and "the stock market, as we all know, took a dip in the late 90s." And that is, in fact, the truth. But that's why we could not put people's retirement in that kind of insecure security, because in fact, now, my daughter is about to go to college…and the money just is not there. We were very responsible, we put as much as we could there, and now it results that we would have been better off leaving the money in a savings account. I'm not complaining -well, maybe a little- because I knew the risks we were taking when we invested. All boils down to RISK.

4. Back to the late 90s. The stock market took a dip, the bubble burst, etc. and many people lost their 401k and their retirement investments. In fact, lets think just in the people that have worked on Enron all their lives and believed they'll have a very comfortable retirement after 30 years on the company. Many thought they had half a million dollars there waiting for them. (Of course, you don't put all your eggs in one basket, and all that, but that's not the point I'm making here.) Well, the company is no more, and they are now asking "you want paper or plastic?" Probably, the market could over a 40 years span actually be beneficial to you, but my question is: what happen to those who, at the time of their retirement, the market just goes down? How could one ask someone, less than 5 years after a market down turn that shook everybody's bank accounts, to just trust the knowledge of the market and put your retirement on its hands?

5. Entire companies are unable to deliver on their pension promises (well, the Bush administration will take care of that by helping the companies partake with those promises without major consequences) because the markets have not been what they expected. But now, we the people, and specially the poorest people should expect that, while the billions of United Airlines did not produce enough return on the investment, our 40 dollars per month will certainly make us millionaires by age 65. Who needs Social Security, anyway?

I make a salary that is way over the poverty level -although I have been down there, too-, and I requested to have 2% taken from it to go to my 401k, and I put another 1% on my IRA, plus 3% to my two daughters prepaid college plans. Well, there is no much left after I do that to take care of the over 10K day care cost, and the summer camps for the kids, so Mom can go to work. And, what is worst, what I'm putting in that 401K will only carry me through retirement if the stock market goes up so high that there is no bank capable to take care of Bill Gates' money. So, I wonder what can poorer people invest on their "private accounts."

I think probably the government should actually force people to save, by forcing them or creating enough incentives for them to contribute to IRAs accounts, and 401K, but don't tinker with the only cushion people have to fall back on. In fact, I would be ok with not taking any money from my SS after I retire if I make a sufficient amount of money to live comfortably without using my SS retirement. There is a price we all need to pay to live in a civilized society. I come from a poor country, and I have visited extensively other poorer countries. Poverty is not fun, and poverty is contagious. There is no such thing as living as a millionaire in a slump. If we don't stop poverty, we would be surprised how it comes back at us.

I'm amazed every time I take the kids to the doctor and pay the co pay and things like that. How uninsured people do? I just learned, for instance, that the orthodoncy to my daughter will cost $2,500 out of pocket -and we have health insurance-. Is orthodoncy in the luxury category?? People are already living without many things that are essential. I guess the next revolution, what Jefferson insisted that was necessary every now and then, will be over health care… and probably social security.

I must say that the other presenter at the show was Jacob Hacker, associate professor of political science at Yale University, fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of a forthcoming book entitled “The Great Risk Shift." He made much more sense, in fact.

Quick addition

How interesting, I was just talking about health care and the poor, and look what I just found:
Posted on Wed, Feb. 23, 2005
Pulling the plug on school clinics

BY NICOLE WHITE
nwhite@herald.com


Here inside this pale-pink portable room on the campus of Miami Beach's Fienberg-Fisher Elementary, the everyday pains of being an elementary school student are soothed away.

Nurses dispense medicine for earaches, headaches and the flu, treat those besieged by chickenpox, pinkeye and asthma and marvel at the self-diagnosis of a 6-year-old who tells a nurse practitioner that her stomach pain cannot be from a ruptured appendix. She doesn't have one.

But this and other school-based community health clinics, which serve the children of Miami-Dade and Broward counties' working poor, are in peril of closing.

Others have been quietly laying off employees and cutting back services or have already closed.

The clinic at Nautilus Middle School, also in Miami Beach, is set to close at the end of the month, Fienberg-Fisher in June. Six other clinics have closed in Miami-Dade since 2003, including the clinic at R.R Moton Elementary in Homestead run by the University of Miami School of Nursing.

''We had lines of students all day long,'' said Rosemary Hall, former director of the clinic at R.R. Moton. ``It was a great piece of healthcare that we had there. I don't know what they're doing now.''

Three of the six school-based health clinics in North Broward have closed in recent years: the Seagull School in Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach's Ely High School Health Center and Charles Drew Family Resource Center.

COMMISSION MEETING

At its meeting today, the Miami Beach Commission will discuss giving the clinics in its city enough aid to stay open through the end of the year, said Commissioner Matti Bower.

''Many of these children are from the lowest economic strata in our city -- a city that is believed to be very wealthy,'' Bower said. ``There has to be something we can all do to fix this.''

Ninety percent of the 680 students at Fienberg-Fisher use the clinic. Dozens more from an adjoining day-care center also are registered there.

''They know my child,'' said Cindy Ferraiudo, who watched as her daughter, Danielle Cespedes, 10, was examined by the clinic's nurse practitioner, Linda Washington-Brown.

''They can't do this to us and close this clinic. Too many kids who don't have medical coverage rely on this clinic,'' she said.

SAME FUNDING POOL

The clinics, though located on school campuses in both counties, are run primarily by community-based healthcare providers who all tap the same funding pool: federal and state grants; private donations and in-kind contributions from local hospitals. But with healthcare costs rising and grants not being renewed, providers say they have no choice but to close some facilities.

''We're facing a catastrophe,'' said Kathryn Abbate, executive director of the Miami Beach Community Health Center. The center has used a federal grant to fund much of the services provided at the clinics at Fienberg-Fisher, Nautilus and Miami Beach High since 1996.

The grants used to supplement the clinics at elementary and middle schools have expired. It costs $500,000 annually to operate the Miami Beach clinics in danger of closing, Abbate said.

POOR CHOICES

The choices were grim, said Abbate: scale back services at the two health centers that serve thousands of patients at full service sites or close the school clinics.

''No one wants to close these clinics, but the reality is we have no money to do both,'' Abbate said.

Funding for these types of clinics is complex.

Miami-Dade and Broward schools do not have a dedicated line item in the state budget for healthcare in schools.

In a different era, a school nurse was part of every school's support staff. Today, funding for school health is so limited that even school nurses are rare: According to Miami-Dade school officials, there are 14 nurses spread among the district's 340 schools.

In Miami-Dade, 19 schools receive state funding to provide a social worker on site. Students at these schools also get access to primary healthcare via a medical van that visits as needed.

Another 24 schools -- down from 26 two years ago -- have what providers call a "mini doctor's office'' or full-service clinic on site in which a nurse practitioner can diagnose and dispense medication to students. Those are run by community-based organizations that get their funding from multiple sources.

An example: The John T. MacDonald Foundation at the University of Miami School of Medicine established a $6.5 million grant to provide full-service clinics at five schools in North Miami Beach.

More than half the 8,100 students in the five schools are registered at the clinics, said Patricia Stauffer, program administrator.

CHILDREN'S NEEDS

''I don't think people really understand the power of being there when kids really need you,'' said Stauffer. ``They're struggling. All of us are just wondering what the future might hold for us . . . but we're plugging along.''

Healthcare providers are lobbying for funding in the near future. But to do this they need to get legislation passed defining what their services would be.

State Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, has sponsored a bill to do that when the Legislature meets next month.

''There's a true need for this, no question about it,'' Wilson said.

Meanwhile, the work continues.

BUSY MONDAYS

On Monday mornings, just minutes after the bell declares the start of a new school week, the nurse practitioner and medical assistant at Fienberg-Fisher prepare for their busiest day.

Dozens of kids with ailments stream in. Their parents rattle off the symptoms: fever, runny nose, stomach pains.

Eighty-two percent of the students who have used the clinic since August returned to class, said Fienberg-Fisher Principal Olga Figueras.

Closing a clinic as large as the one at Fienberg-Fisher would be devastating, said Wilma Steiner, the school district's instructional supervisor for health.

''We have found through the years that the most efficient and effective way to deliver health services is where the children are,'' Steiner said. ``It's a win-win all around.''

© 2005 Herald.com and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.miami.com

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Friday, February 18, 2005

Bush's Barberini Faun

I would add a few lines to Dowd's column this time. In fact, I have been trying to make time to do a list of lies from the Bush Administration -I realize, though, that's a full time job-. What I don't get to understand is how they get away with this on regular basis. Just the Medicare legislation, the cost of which was hidden from the begining just to gain that one vote that help passing it -you remember the charade, don't you? The three hours of arm twisting to force that particular vote.-
If my recollection isn't wrong, the passing of that legislation was based on the promise that the cost wouldn't be more than the amount agreed upon.(I don't remember the exact number.) That cost has just duplicated.
If this were a business with the corporate world that Bush so loves, that obvious lie would result in the cancellation of the transaction, since one of the parties made a false statement from the begining. But now, we are just stuck with it.
I guess we would need to do some reviewing of the ways we do legislation in this country. How come we have to keep going with a legislation that went through riding on a lie? Well, yeah, but that would mean we would need to leave Iraq today.

Well, back to my friend Maureen Dowd and her latest Bush's Barberini Faun. It's so fun, that I'll steal it from the NYT and just past it here for your enjoyment:


I am very impressed with James Guckert, a k a Jeff Gannon.

How often does an enterprising young man, heralded in press reports as both a reporter and a contributor to such sites as Hotmilitarystud.com, Workingboys.net, Militaryescorts.com, MilitaryescortsM4M.com and Meetlocalmen.com, get to question the president of the United States?

Who knew that a hotmilitarystud wanting to meetlocalmen could so easily get to be face2face with the commander in chief?

It's hard to believe the White House could hit rock bottom on credibility again, but it has, in a bizarre maelstrom that plays like a dark comedy. How does it credential a man with a double life and a secret past?

"Jeff Gannon" was waved into the press room nearly every day for two years as the conservative correspondent for two political Web sites operated by a wealthy Texas Republican. Scott McClellan often called on the pseudoreporter for softball questions.

Howard Kurtz reported in The Washington Post yesterday that although Mr. Guckert had denied launching the provocative Web sites - one described him as " 'military, muscular, masculine and discrete' (sic)" - a Web designer in California said "that he had designed a gay escort site for Gannon and had posted naked pictures of Gannon at the client's request."

And The Wilmington News-Journal in Delaware reported that Mr. Guckert was delinquent in $20,700 in personal income tax from 1991 to 1994.

I'm still mystified by this story. I was rejected for a White House press pass at the start of the Bush administration, but someone with an alias, a tax evasion problem and Internet pictures where he posed like the "Barberini Faun" is credentialed to cover a White House that won a second term by mining homophobia and preaching family values?

At first when I tried to complain about not getting my pass renewed, even though I'd been covering presidents and first ladies since 1986, no one called me back. Finally, when Mr. McClellan replaced Ari Fleischer, he said he'd renew the pass - after a new Secret Service background check that would last several months.

In an era when security concerns are paramount, what kind of Secret Service background check did James Guckert get so he could saunter into the West Wing every day under an assumed name while he was doing full-frontal advertising for stud services for $1,200 a weekend? He used a driver's license that said James Guckert to get into the White House, then, once inside, switched to his alter ego, asking questions as Jeff Gannon.

Mr. McClellan shrugged this off to Editor & Publisher magazine, oddly noting, "People use aliases all the time in life, from journalists to actors."

I know the F.B.I. computers don't work, but this is ridiculous. After getting gobsmacked by the louche sagas of Mr. Guckert and Bernard Kerik, the White House vetters should consider adding someone with some blogging experience.

Does the Bush team love everything military so much that even a military-stud Web site is a recommendation?

Or maybe Gannon/Guckert's willingness to shill free for the White House, even on gay issues, was endearing. One of his stories mocked John Kerry's "pro-homosexual platform" with the headline "Kerry Could Become First Gay President."

With the Bushies, if you're their friend, anything goes. If you're their critic, nothing goes. They're waging a jihad against journalists - buying them off so they'll promote administration programs, trying to put them in jail for doing their jobs and replacing them with ringers.

At last month's press conference, Jeff Gannon asked Mr. Bush how he could work with Democrats "who seem to have divorced themselves from reality." But Bush officials have divorced themselves from reality.

They flipped TV's in the West Wing and Air Force One to Fox News. They paid conservative columnists handsomely to promote administration programs. Federal agencies distributed packaged "news" video releases with faux anchors so local news outlets would run them. As CNN reported, the Pentagon produces Web sites with "news" articles intended to influence opinion abroad and at home, but you have to look hard for the disclaimer: "Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense." The agencies spent a whopping $88 million spinning reality in 2004, splurging on P.R. contracts.

Even the Nixon White House didn't do anything this creepy. It's worse than hating the press. It's an attempt to reinvent it.

E-mail: liberties@nytimes.com

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Forget Armor. All You Need Is Love

Please, enjoy this column from Frank Rich...I have nothing to add.
January 30, 2005
FRANK RICH
Forget Armor. All You Need Is Love

JAN. 30 is here at last, and the light is at the end of the tunnel, again. By my estimate, Iraq's election day is the fifth time that American troops have been almost on their way home from an about-to-be pacified Iraq. The four other incipient V-I days were the liberation of Baghdad (April 9, 2003), President Bush's declaration that "major combat operations have ended" (May 1, 2003), the arrest of Saddam Hussein (Dec. 14, 2003) and the handover of sovereignty to our puppet of choice, Ayad Allawi (June 28, 2004). And this isn't even counting the two "decisive" battles for our nouveau Tet, Falluja. Iraq is Vietnam on speed - the false endings of that tragic decade re-enacted and compressed in jump cuts, a quagmire retooled for the MTV attention span.

But in at least one way we are not back in Vietnam. Iraq hawks, like Vietnam hawks before them, often take the line that to criticize America's mission in Iraq is to attack the troops. That paradigm just doesn't hold. Americans, including those opposed to the war, love the troops (Lynndie England always excepted). Not even the most unhinged Bush hater is calling our all-volunteer army "baby killers." This time, paradoxically enough, it is often those who claim to love the troops the most - and who have the political power to help alleviate their sacrifice - who turn out to be the troops' false friends.

There was, for instance, according to the Los Angeles Times, "nary a mention" of the Iraq war or "the prices paid by American soldiers and their families" at the lavish Inauguration bash thrown for the grandees of the Christian right by the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition at Washington's Ritz-Carlton. This crowd cares about the troops much the way the Fifth Avenue swells in the 1936 Hollywood classic "My Man Godfrey" cared about the "forgotten men" of the Depression - as fashion ornaments and rhetorical conveniences. In that screwball comedy, a socialite on a scavenger hunt collects a genuine squatter from the shantytown along the East River. "All you have to do is go to the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel with me," she tells her recruit, "and I'll show you to a few people and then I'll send you right back."

In this same vein, television's ceremonial coverage of the Inauguration, much of which resembled the martial pageantry broadcast by state-owned networks in banana republics, made a dutiful show out of the White House's claim that the four-day bacchanal was a salute to the troops. The only commentator to rudely call attention to the disconnect between that fictional pretense and the reality was Judy Bachrach, a writer for Vanity Fair, who dared say on Fox News that the inaugural's military ball and prayer service would not keep troops "safe and warm" in their "flimsy" Humvees in Iraq. She was promptly given the hook. (The riveting three-minute clip, labeled "Fair and Balanced Inauguration," can be found at ifilm.com, where it has seized the "most popular" slot once owned by Jon Stewart's slapdown of Tucker Carlson.)

Alas, there were no Fox News cameras to capture what may have been the week's most surreal "salute" to the troops, the "Heroes Red, White and Blue Inaugural Ball" attended by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. The event's celebrity stars included the Fox correspondent Geraldo Rivera, who had been booted from Iraq at the start of the war for compromising "operational security" by telling his viewers the position of the American troops he loves so much. He joked to the crowd that his deployment as an "overpaid" reporter was tantamount to that of an "underpaid hero" in battle. The attendees from Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital, some of whose long-term care must be picked up by private foundations because of government stinginess, responded with "deafening silence," reported Roxanne Roberts of The Washington Post. Ms. Roberts understandably left the party after the night's big act: Nile Rodgers and Chic sang the lyrics "Clap your hands, hoo!" and "Dance to the beat" to "a group of soldiers missing hands and legs."

All the TV time eaten up by the Inaugural froufrou - including "the most boring parade in America," as one network news producer covering it described it to me - would have been better spent broadcasting a true tribute to the American troops in Iraq: a new documentary titled "Gunner Palace." This movie, which opens in theaters March 4, is currently on an advance tour through towns near military bases like Colorado Springs, Colo. (Fort Carson), Killeen, Tex. (Fort Hood) and Columbus, Ga. (Fort Benning). Its directors, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, found that American troops in Iraq often see their lives as real-life approximations of "M*A*S*H," "Platoon," "Full Metal Jacket," and, given the many 21st-century teenagers among the troops, " 'Jackass' Goes to War." But their film's tone is original. This sweet yet utterly unsentimental movie synthesizes the contradictions of a war that is at once Vietnam redux and the un-Vietnam.

Watching "Gunner Palace" - the title refers to the 2-3 Field Artillery's headquarters, the gutted former Uday Hussein palace in Baghdad - you realize the American mission is probably doomed even as you admire the men and women who volunteered to execute it. Here, at last, are the promised scenes of our troops pursuing a humanitarian agenda. Delighted kids follow the soldiers like pied pipers; schools re-open; a fledgling local government council receives a genial and unobtrusive helping American hand. In one moving scene, Specialist James Moats tenderly cradles a tiny baby at an Iraqi orphanage while talking about the birth of his own first son back home: "I've seen pictures but I haven't got to hold him yet." He's not complaining, just explaining. He is living in the moment, offering his heart fully to the vulnerable infant in the crook of his arm.

These scenes are set against others in which the troops, many of them from small towns "that read like an atlas of forgotten America," have to make do with substandard support from their own government. "It'll probably slow down the shrapnel so that it stays in your body instead of going straight through," says one soldier as he tries to find humor in the frail scrap metal with which he must armor his vehicle. Eventually many of his peers, however proud to serve, are daunted by what they see around them: the futility of snuffing out a growing insurgency, the fecklessness of the Iraqi troops they earnestly try to train, the impracticality of bestowing democracy on a populace that often regards Americans either indifferently or as occupiers. When "The Ride of the Valkyries" is heard in "Gunner Palace," it does not signal a rip-roaring campaign as it did in "Apocalypse Now" but, fittingly for this war, a perilous but often fruitless door-to-door search for insurgents in an urban neighborhood.

It says much about the distance between the homefront and these troops that the Motion Picture Association of America this month blithely awarded "Gunner Palace" an "R" rating - which means that it cannot be seen without parental supervision by 16-year-old high-school kids soon to be targeted by military recruiters. (The filmmakers are appealing this verdict.) The reason for the "R" is not violence - there is virtually none on screen - but language, since some of the troops chronicle their Iraq experience by transposing it into occasionally scatological hip-hop verse.

The Bush administration's National Endowment for the Arts, eager to demonstrate that it, too, loves the troops, announced with much self-congratulatory fanfare that it will publish its own anthology of returning veterans' writings about their wartime experience ("Operation Homecoming") - by spring 2006. In "Gunner Palace," you can sample this art right now, unexpurgated - if you're over 16. Here's one freestyle lyric from Sgt. Nick Moncrief, a 24-year-old father of two: "I noticed that my face is aging so quickly/ Cuz I've seen more than your average man in his 50's." True, he does go on to use a four-letter word - to accentuate his evocation of metal ripping through skin and bones. The Traditional Values Coalition would no doubt lobby to shut down the endowment were it to disseminate such filth.

Another of the movie's soldiers, Robert Beatty, a 33-year-old Army lifer with three children back home, wonders whether Americans who "don't have any direct family members in the military" regard the war as anything other than "just entertainment" and guesses that they lost interest once "major combat" had given way to the far deadlier minor combat that followed. A Gallup poll last year showed that most Americans might fall into that group, since two-thirds of those surveyed had no relative, friend or co-worker serving in Iraq. Does that vast unconnected majority understand what's going on there? Sergeant Beatty gives his answer in one of the film's most poignant passages: "If you watch this, you're going to go get your popcorn out of the microwave and talk about what I say. You'll forget me by the end. ..."

The words land so hard because we are already forgetting, or at least turning our backs. In Washington the gears are shifting to all Social Security all the time. A fast growing plurality of the country wants troops withdrawn from Iraq, but being so detached from the war they are unlikely to make a stink about it. The civilian leaders who conceived this adventure are clever at maintaining the false illusion that the end is just around the corner anyway.

They do this by moving the goal posts for "mission accomplished" as frequently as they have changed the rationale for us entering this war in the first place. In the walk-up to the Inauguration, even Iraq's Election Day was quietly downsized in importance so a sixth V-I Day further off in the future could be substituted. Dick Cheney told Don Imus on Inauguration morning that "we can bring our boys home" and that "our mission is complete" once the Iraqis "can defend themselves." What that means, and when exactly that might be is, shall we say, unclear. President Bush and Prime Minister Allawi told the press in unison last September that there were "nearly 100,000 fully trained and equipped" Iraqi security forces ready to carry out that self-defense. Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month that there are 120,000. Time magazine says this week that the actual figure of fully trained ground soldiers is 14,000, but hey: in patriotism as it's been redefined for this war, loving the troops means never having to say you're sorry - or even having to say the word Iraq in an Inaugural address.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company