advice from a fake consultant

out-of-the-box thinking about politics, economics, and more…

On Paying For Immoral Things, Or, Is Stupak On To Something? November 10, 2009

There has been a great wailing and gnashing of teeth over the past day or so as those who follow the healthcare debate react to the Stupak/Some Creepy Republican Guy Amendment.

The Amendment, which is apparently intended to respond to conservative Democrats’ concerns that too many women were voting for the Party in recent elections, was attached to the House’s version of healthcare reform legislation that was voted out of the House this weekend.

The goal is to limit women’s access to reproductive medicine services, particularly abortions; this based on the concept that citizens of good conscience shouldn’t have their tax dollars used to fund activities they find morally repugnant.

At first blush, I was on the mild end of the wailing and gnashing spectrum myself…but having taken a day to mull the thing over, I’m starting to think that maybe we should take a look at the thinking behind this…and I’m also starting to think that, properly applied, Stupak’s logic deserves a more important place in our own vision of how a progressive government might work.

It’s Political Judo Day today, Gentle Reader, and by the time we’re done here it’s entirely possible that you’ll see Stupak’s logic in a whole new light.

So let’s go back a moment and reconsider what Stupak wants: his religious beliefs are offended by the concept of abortion, and he is taking steps to ensure that the government is not using his taxpayer dollars to pay for the procedure.

This precedent is fascinating—and what I’m inviting you to do today is to consider, for a moment, what our government might look like if we take his logic and…extend it a bit.

“…In the game of life, the house edge is called Time. In whatever we do, Nature charges us for doing it in the currency of time…”

–Bob Stupak, Yes, You Can Win!

I always try to find common ground with those I oppose, and the most logical place to start would be to consider the fact that Stupak and I are both morally offended by the idea that we use taxpayer dollars to go around killing people.

So where do we differ?

For starters, I find it morally offensive that my taxpayer dollars are used, on a daily basis, to fund the actual killing of actual, living, people by my Government…so, Congressman Stupak, in the name of finding common ground, how about if the same day your Amendment goes into effect we also stop funding any military activities that might reasonably be expected to, as I hear people say, “stop a beating heart”, so as to prevent offending my religious sensibilities?

John Allen Muhammad, the so-called “Washington Sniper”, is scheduled to be executed today. Are you prepared to support legislation, Congressman Stupak, which will prevent his “post-term abortion” and the potential abortions of all those other human lives on Death Rows around this country if those state-sponsored abortions are as much of an affront to my religious beliefs as they should be to yours?

During the more or less four months worth of slow-walking and stalling that we have seen so far in this process 15,000 Americans have died…or, if you prefer, five 9/11s…simply because they have no health insurance—and unless your religion is a lot more bloodthirsty than mine, the abortions of 15,000 people because of the…what’s the word I’m looking for here…let’s see…could it be…sloth…of your colleagues should be an act as reprehensible as the greatest of blasphemies ever recorded in The Bible.

With that in mind, are you prepared to join me in cutting off the use of my taxpayer dollars to fund the salaries, the “public option” health care, and the office operations of those legislators who are behind these killings?

What else do we do that’s aborting lives on a daily basis that I’m sure Congressman Stupak would be glad to allow me, as a result of the offense to my conscience (and, presumably, his), to “negatively fund with extreme prejudice”?

There’s that Drug War, of course, and whatever we’re doing in those secret prisons—and public ones—and subsidies for those who clear mountains and poison lands…not to mention the tax dollars I’ve been providing for a company who did electrical work that’s aborting soldiers.

So whaddaya think, Congressman Stupak?

Since you’re so proud of your pro-life credentials, are you ready to stand up with me and defend the principle that all human lives deserve to be protected, and that we have the right to withhold funding for all those activities that are morally repugnant…or are you just another one of those “enablers” who helped kill 15,000 people this past few months?

Enquiring minds want to know.

 

On Using Mr. Bullhorn, Or, DC Health Summit Thursday: Come Say Hi…Loudly October 21, 2009

It was a long hot August for those who would like to see health care reform, as rabid “Town Hall” protesters proffered visions of public options that would lead to death panels and socialism and government tax collectors with special alien mind control powers that would use sex education and child indoctrination and black helicopters as the means for gay people to impose their dangerous agenda on the innocent, God-fearing citizens of someplace in Mississippi that I’m not likely to ever visit.

Part of the reason that opposition was so rabid was because health care interests were spending millions upon millions of dollars doing…well, doing whatever the opposite of giving a distemper shot to the angry mob might be, anyway.

So wouldn’t it be great if all the CEOs of all those health care interests were to gather at one time and place so you could, shall we say, gently express your own thoughts regarding the issues of reform and public options?

By an amazing coincidence, that’s exactly what’s going to happen Thursday in Washington, DC, as the Patient Centered Primary Care Cooperative (PCPCC) holds its Annual Summit.

Follow along, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know.

The Who, The What

There are two important bits of setting up that are required to make this story work; and the first is to explain who the PCPCC is, exactly. To quote their website:

“The Patient Centered Primary Care Collaborative is a coalition of major employers, consumer groups, patient quality organizations, health plans, labor unions, hospitals, clinicians and many others who have joined together to develop and advance the patient centered medical home. The Collaborative has well over 500 members.

The Collaborative believes that, if implemented, the patient centered medical home will improve the health of patients and the viability of the health care delivery system. In order to accomplish our goal, employers, consumers, patients, clinicians and payers have agreed that it is essential to support a better model of compensating clinicians.”

The “patient centered medical home”?

Is that anything like “precious bodily fluids“?

Actually, the original idea was to create a “home” where a patient’s scattered medical records could be gathered. Forty years later, the concept has evolved to a “home doctor” who coordinates all your health and wellness care from all your providers.

This is a huge shift in how care is delivered (and how healthcare dollars would be distributed), which is why the Collaborative has so many members…including seven of the top ten health insurers in the country.

The Why

I’ve been getting emails that tell me CEOs such as Stephen Helmsley of UnitedHealth and Angela Braly of WellPoint (insert booing and hissing here) will be present–and these are the exact people that you should be giving a “Town Hall-like” welcome of their own when they hit Washington.

Groups such as Democracy for America and TrueMajority will be working together to bring people who have been personally affected by the insurance crisis to the meeting–even though we’re not invited inside to support something like, oh, I don’t know…maybe a public option?

They want you to attend as well, to make lots of noise, and to send the message that we won’t be ignored. It’s a critical time in the debate, as there are Democrats yet to be convinced, and if you can be at this meeting it will capture media attention that could help move those Democrats to our positions.

The Where, The When

The event takes place in Washington DC all day Thursday (from 9-4:30) at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, conveniently located at 801 Mount Vernon Place NW; just six blocks from the Executive Office Building and the White House complex…and, on its south side, just 50 feet from K Street, the “Glitter Gulch” of lobbying.

There’s a handy Metro station, and if you walk to the south end of the Convention Center (the Mt. Vernon Square end of the building) you’ll find that the American Federation of Labor occupies a building across the street from the Square on the west side–and National Public Radio occupies a building diagonally across the Square on the east side.

So if you’re planning to be in Washington Thursday–or you’ve been looking for an excuse to visit–make a day of it: stroll by the White House, see lobbyists and unions and National Public Radio at work…and most importantly of all, make sure the CEOs of the health insurers in attendance get the same kind of rousing “Town Hall” welcome at the Convention Center that they spent millions of dollars to create in our own home towns.

In other words, bring Mr. Bullhorn–and the extra batteries.

Of course, I don’t want to make this too much of a hard sell.

After all, it’s not as if your life depends on you attending some–hey, wait a minute…actually, I guess it kind of does.

 

On Learning To Love Homegrown, Or, Baucus’ Fundraising Considered October 9, 2009

So we are now finding out the answers to some of our questions about which members of Congress actually represent We, the People…and which ones represent, Them, the Corporate Masters.

We have seen a Democratic Senator propose a policy that would put people in jail for not buying health insurance and a Democratic President who has taken numerous public beatings from those on the left side of the fence for his inability to ram something through a group of people…and yes, folks, the entendre was intentional.

But most of all, we’ve been asking ourselves: “why would Democratic Members of Congress who will eventually want us to vote for them vote against something that nearly all voting Democrats are inclined to vote for?”

Today’s conversation attempts to answer that question by looking at exactly how money and influence flow through a key politician, Montana’s Senator Max Baucus—and in doing so, we examine some ugly political realities that have to be resolved before we can hope to convince certain Members of Congress to vote for what their constituents actually want when it really counts.

“The idea of covering even the early stages of the cynical and increasingly retrograde campaign has already plunged me into a condition bordering on terminal despair, and if I thought I might have to stay with these people all the way to November I would change my name and seek work as a professional alligator poacher in the swamps around Lake Okeechobee.”

–Hunter S. Thompson, Jimmy Carter and the Great Leap of Faith

Now any normal person trying to analyze last year’s election would have said something like “the fact that Obama was promoting a new type of politics—and that a large majority of the public liked what they were seeing—should have meant that politicians would finally do what the public wanted”…and if you’re as cynical as I am, you might have thought that the fact that Obama is the most successful fundraiser in the history of politics would have made other candidates figure that supporting Obama, politically, would be the easy way to put more cheddar in their own pockets.

But here’s the thing: Senator Baucus has been in Washington, in the same job, since 1978, which is about three years short of half of his entire life (and he spent those three years in the House), and unless he wakes up dead one morning or Montana secedes from the Union he’s pretty much guaranteed to be there until at least January 2015.

In those three decades he’s been able to create, and then “outsource”, his own independent fundraising operation—and he’s been so good at doing this that he can donate money from his own Political Action Committee (Glacier PAC) to other Democrats, which is the Congressional version of acquiring really cool “Magic: The Gathering” cards now in an effort to both control votes today and become a more powerful player later on.

He did it by cultivating people in his own office who later went on to become lobbyists. At least 24 of ‘em. Since Baucus now runs the Senate Finance Committee and every bill in the Senate that needs money has to pass through his Committee for approval, all those hard working lobbyists now lobby…wait for it…their former boss.

This creates a fundraising “virtuous circle”: “Baucus-affiliated” lobbyists sell access to Baucus…and part of the price of that access is donating to Baucus…which, since “the fix is in”, creates legislative successes that lead to more people wanting more access for bigger favors…which makes the prices all go up, creating more power and influence for Baucus and his orbiting constellation of homegrown lobbyists.

And now that the enterprise has reached the point where the entourage has gone on to have their own entourages, Obama’s vision of “change you can believe in” is sounding more like a promise to screw up a perfectly good hustle than it is a way to run a country.

So how does all this influence the healthcare debate?

At the moment, Baucus could literally coach a basketball team of former staff members who now lobby Baucus on behalf of health care clients:

David Castagnetti of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, Inc. is the vertically integrated busy beaver of the group, representing drug powerhouses Abbot, AstraZeneca, and Biogen, device manufacturers like GE Medical, service providers like Humana and the American Clinical Lab Association, and AHIP, the trade association of health insurers, among others.

Jeff Forbes, who is currently self-employed, is representing drug maker Roche Group, Manor Care (who provides long-term care services in nursing homes and other environments), and the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed), a group which includes many of the big players in the medical business.

–Roger Blauwet (he of DC’s Canfield and Associates), is representing Wyeth and Pfizer (two more major drug manufacturers), the Association of Financial Guaranty Insurers, who are the “reinsurers” who help carry risk for other insurers (in return for a piece of the action), and the Rx Benefits Coalition, which reports that it represents companies that support “market solutions” to make prescription drugs available.

Some clients feel that their needs require more than one “Baucus alumnus” on the payroll, which is why Scott Olsen and Jeff Forbes are working for biotech giant Amgen (along with about 150 other lobbyists), David Castagnetti and Angela Hofmann are slogging it out for Wal-Mart, and Roger Blauwet and Castagnetti are both hoofing it for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), who is, literally, the “Big PhRMA” that everyone talks about.

Drug manufacturer Merck hired three of the anointed: Forbes, Blauwet and Castagnetti.

All of this effort is working—and working well. According to OpenSecrets.org, somewhere in the range of $4.5 million has been donated to Baucus during his career by insurance and healthcare interests.

It isn’t just health care, either. Because somewhere around two dozen former Baucus staffers turned lobbyists are “home on the Washington range”, no matter what is being debated in Congress, Baucus gets paid (two quick examples of his Committee’s jurisdiction: changes in tax policy and financial industry regulation—or the lack of it).

In truth, “Baucus gets paid” is probably a bit too cynical.

What I really should say is that Baucus has been exceptionally successful in listening to all points of view when considering ways to make the lives of every American all they can be, that the people who get listened to are exceptionally grateful for this attention, that millions and millions of dollars worth of gratitude have been funneled to Baucus over the years because he’s such a good listener, and that, from now until at least 2015, if you need a Senator to support “status quo you can believe in” you might want to try launching a great big brick of cheddar into the Senator’s constellation.

So the next time someone asks you how “change you can believe in” could have possibly morphed into “buy insurance or we’ll put you in jail”…well, now you know—and given the choice, wouldn’t you rather watch someone make sausage?

 

On Life In The Modern World, Or, What If Jesus Was An HMO? September 30, 2009

Those among us who are familiar with the Bible will recall that Jesus Christ himself was an active member of the health care community as he travelled about the Holy Land.

It is reported that he practiced within multiple medical specialties, and his works as both an ophthalmologist and a neurologist are recounted within the verses of the Gospels.

But what if Jesus had been practicing medicine in the therapeutic environment we’re familiar with today?

In today’s conversation we’ll be tagging along with Jesus as he takes a few calls at his HMO’s Customer Care Center—and by the time we get done you should be able to bring a whole new take to those discussions you‘ve been having about why reform matters.

“…a blind man, Bartimaeus…was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

…Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”

So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.”

Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”

“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight…”

Mark 10:45-52

“Thank you for calling Customer Care. This is Jesus. How may I help you?”

“Hi, I was recently treated by you in Jericho for blindness—“

“Can I get your account number, sir?”

“J32-21515”

“Oh, yes. Is this Bartimaeus?”

“Yes it is.”

“So what can I do for you today?”

“Well, I went to check my mail, and I found a bill from you for 42,554 shekels for the eye treatment, and I don’t understand why you want me to pay this bill.”

“Well, give me a second while I look that up…ahhh, OK, I understand what happened. You see, I did perform the eye treatment, but your policy requires you to be referred by your Primary Care Physician for any specialist treatment and pre-approved by someone here at Customer Care before we can be liable for any costs of care, and the computer says that you didn’t do any of that first…so, I apologize, but we won’t be able to make any adjustments to this account.

Is there anything else I can do for you today, Bartimaeus?”

“Well, how am I supposed to pay this bill? I don’t have this kind of money. Can’t you perform a miracle or something to help me out here?”

“Well, sir, I can’t do that, but what I can do is transfer you to our Collections Department, who can help you make payment arrangements…”

Needless to say, the call went downhill from there.

“Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed…

One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked…”

John 5:3-8

“…so you say you were lame and I made you walk, and now you’re getting calls from a collections agency that wants to garnish your ass?”

“Yes, Jesus, that’s correct.”

“Well, it says here that that back in Tishri of 12 AD you had severe boils and lesions, which is a preexisting condition. Now when I asked you if you wanted to get well you never disclosed any of this, and I don’t see it anywhere in your application packet, either.

Your policy requires you to inform us of any medical treatments you received before you became a policyholder, and because you failed to make a true and complete statement in your application we have to reject this claim.

I really do apologize, but we won’t be able to make any adjustments to this account.”

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed:

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

1 Peter 5:1-4

“We didn’t know what to expect when he came here, but in just a few months Jesus has shown us what can happen when the Son of God is a Customer Care Representative.

His average call volumes are more than double those of any other rep, and when you listen to him take calls…well, when you hear him tell someone that they won’t be getting their benefits…it’s almost like he has some divine power over the customers or something, and that’s why today I’ve gathered you together to announce that Jesus is going to be transferred from the call center to the Executive Training Program.

Additionally, because Jesus did not adjust a single claim in favor of a customer for the last three months we’re also giving him the “Employee of the Quarter” award, which means he gets three days off with pay that he can take anytime he wants, a check for $500, and, of course, Jesus gets to use the parking space right by the front door for his Hummer.

We expect really great things from Jesus in the future, and while we will miss Him here at Customer Care I think we can safely say that with Jesus running the show this company is going to remain profitable for decades to come.”

 

On Understanding Your Market, Or, Mr. Obama, We Need To Talk September 9, 2009

So it’s the day of the big speech, Mr. President, and we got trouble with a capital “T” right here in Health Care City.

What are you gonna do? Do we follow the traditional Democratic Party legislative process of passing…something…at any cost, assuming the entire time that the Left and the Netroots will “go along with the program”, or is there a risk that the calculus doesn’t work as well today as it did in 1994 and 1996?

Well, lucky for you, I’m a fake consultant, and I know a few things about your “target market”, so before you answer that question…we need to talk.

So the common sense approach to handling this situation is to make any deal required to get a bill passed, because otherwise your entire Presidency will be tagged as “strong on oratory but unable to govern”. Since the Far Left supports Democrats today and won’t be supporting the Republican Party under any circumstances, they’ll have no choice but to follow the “centrist” (read: “bluedog”) Democratic lead.

What you don’t want to do, common sense tells us, is demand that reform contain elements that simply are too tough to get through Congress. Insisting on a public option is absolutely out of the question, the new “preexisting conditions” requirements would be too onerous on the insurance companies—and requiring everyone to purchase insurance, with no public option competition at all to moderate the prices private insurers charge, and, for that matter, no guarantee of universal coverage, somehow makes perfect sense.

To mollify those who will object, we can hold out “triggers” as a compromise: in other words, Government says “hey, let’s wait a few years, and if the insurance companies still haven’t changed their ways…then we’ll do something.”

If you decide upon this approach, then the speech you want to give is to remind the Far Left and those pesky bloggers that political progress is incremental, you take what you can get, and that we can always come back later and make this whole stew of compromise better than what we propose to cook today.

While that’s a pretty good approach…most of the time…it won’t be this time.

There are two major reasons why, and, ironically, they’re both derived from your success in 2008.

Right off the bat, this strategy assumes the millions of new voters—and even more importantly, donors—that you attracted in 2008 are Democrats, and that, no matter what, they will continue to support Democrats. The problem is, they’re not….and they won’t.

Why? Because the vast majority of those new voters weren’t “redirected” from another Democratic candidate. Instead, they were “political non-participants” who had previously held no political affiliation whatsoever—and other than supporting you personally, the vast majority of those new voters have no long-term political affiliation now, other than, perhaps, “Progressive”.

The only reason they voted for you in the first place was because you were out promoting that whole “change you can believe in” thing. They saw you on TV telling people that universal access to care “…is a moral responsibility and a right for our country…”, and saying you would:

“…set up a government plan that would allow people who otherwise don’t have health insurance because of a preexisting condition, like my mother had, or at least what the insurance said was a preexisting condition, let them get health insurance”.

At that same evening’s event (the Democratic Presidential Debate of January 31, 2008), they also saw you say this:

“…because my view is that the reason people don’t have health care… [w]hat they’re struggling with is they can’t afford the health care. And so I emphasize reducing costs. My belief is that if we make it affordable, if we provide subsidies to those who can’t afford it, they will buy it.

Senator Clinton…believes that we have to force people who don’t have health insurance to buy it. Otherwise, there will be a lot of people who don’t get it.

…I think that it is important for us to recognize that if, in fact, you are going to mandate the purchase of insurance and it’s not affordable, then there’s going to have to be some enforcement mechanism that the government uses. And they may charge people who already don’t have health care fines, or have to take it out of their paychecks. And that, I don’t think, is helping those without health insurance.”

The fact that you said all those things brings us to problem number two: if you don’t live up to your…exceptionally public…campaign promises, you’re gonna get YouTubed.

Forget about the Republicans. The Netroots will dig these quotes up in about two seconds—in multi-part harmony, I suspect—and all of a sudden, all those “new voters” who helped put you over the top last time, instead of seeing change they can believe in, are going to start seeing you as the “same old same old”…and if that happens, they won’t be voting Democratic again (or for anyone else, for that matter) for years to come.

And if they won’t vote for you…they most assuredly won’t be giving money to Democratic causes and candidates…including you in 2012.

You have to understand, it’s a question of trust. We want to believe that you’ll do the right thing, but we have been lied to for eight years straight…and we now fundamentally mistrust our elected representatives…including you.

Not all the news here, however, is bad news.

There is a way to turn all this to your advantage, and it basically involves “leapfrogging” the opposition.

Here’s what you do:

In the speech tonight, you look America in the eye and you tell us that you said all along that we must have a public option if we hope to control costs, you tell us that insurers can’t continue to “exclude” us out of insurance, and that universal coverage is, indeed, a moral obligation for our Nation—and a smart investment to boot.

Tell America that you will fight for them and against the special interests that are trying to hustle us once again. Most importantly—and this will be The Tough Part—tell us that a bad bill is a bill you won’t sign.

You have to tell America that if we don’t get it this year, we’ll have to come back next year and try again. And if we have to, the year after that, and the next, and the next.

You also get to remind America exactly what kind of methods Republicans were wiling to use to advance their position over this past month, and whose interests they’re representing when they do it.

To put it another way, you gave ‘em enough rope, and now it’s time for some noose-tightenin’.

The best part: not only does this approach lay to waste Republican opposition, it reels in the wavering Democrats—and it allows them to go home and tell their constituents that “Barack Obama and I are fighting for people and businesses and jobs while Republicans fight for fat cat insurance companies”.

If it’s done correctly, the 2010 midterms will be y’all’s to lose—but as I said earlier, if you are seen as selling a political product everyone’s seen far too many times before, the cost could be brutal…maybe even “President Palin” brutal.

We all have a busy day today, especially you, Mr. President, so let’s wrap it all up:

You made a lot of campaign promises about public options and universal coverage and ending exclusion abuses, and now it’s come time to make good.

A lot of the people who supported you didn’t do it because you’re a Democrat—and not because they are, either. If you don’t make good, you got a problem, and so do the Democrats, possibly for years to come.

YouTube was a fantastic tool for you and the seed of trouble for many Republicans in ’06 and ’08—but if you’re not careful, the tables will turn, and a lot of the people doing the turning will be to your left.

Do it right and you and the Democrats have a superb opportunity to pivot on the opposition and imprint the Democratic “brand” for a new generation of voters—and donors—and an aggressive approach tonight could be the opening salvo of a message barrage that either forces Republicans to become more moderate, or turns them into a crazier political movement that loses seats and Governors in 2010 and carries even fewer states in the 2012 Presidential than they did in 2008.

Screw it up, and even Tina Fey might not be able to save us from the wrath of “Palin/Gingrich 2012”.

 

On Disarmament, Or, How Congressman Larsen Made A “Town Hall” Work August 16, 2009

We’ve all been hearing the “Town Hall Meeting” stories the past few days, and the images presented have been of gatherings where you might see some current or former official “death panel” for the benefit of the crowd, where the few people who shout the loudest bully the rest into silence, and where threats of physical intimidation are part of the debate.

I attended one of these meetings, and based on what I saw I’m here to tell you that it is possible to hold an event that features none of the images previously described.

Instead, what I say was an event where people asked their questions, the Congressman answered—and from time to time the angry members of the audience got their shout on, too…but not in a way that was able to ever take control of the venue.

There were helpful lessons that can be applied by others who want to have these meetings, and today’s conversation examines what can be done to make them work for you, too.

Let’s start by meeting the players:

Rick Larsen is the Member of Congress representing Washington State’s Second District. A Democrat, he first won his seat in the 2000 election, and in 2008 he defeated former Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart by a 62-38% margin.

The (mostly rural) Second District is bordered by Puget Sound on the west, British Columbia to the north (Vancouver is just a short drive from the I-5 border crossing at Blaine, Washington), the Cascade Mountains to the east, and Seattle’s northern suburbs to the south.

From south to north, major cities include Everett (former fishing, lumber and harbor town), Mount Vernon (the largest town in a region known for tulips and eagles and agriculture and formerly, commercial fishing and lumber), and Bellingham (college town, and, again, former fishing and lumber town). All three towns grew substantially as a result of the Alaska Gold Rush of the 1890s.

There are numerous Indian Tribes within the District, as well as two significant military installations: Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and Naval Station Everett.

Larsen had held a previous Town Hall in Mount Vernon that attracted a crowd that was several times the capacity of the venue, so at the last minute Everett Memorial Stadium was booked for this event.

(Fun Fact: this stadium is the home of the minor-league Everett AquaSox, one of the few sports teams to ever take the field in tie-dye uniforms.)

By my count, roughly 2500 were present—but there was an interesting distribution: it appeared to me that the “Diamond Club” seats right behind home plate, and the two sections on either side, were thickly populated with supporters of reform, with opponents “flanking” them to the left and right. The main entrance is on the third base side, and the seats filled up from that side as well, with the seats out past first base being the most empty.

It was not “high summer”, by any means, and at “game time” (5 PM) we had a cloudy sky and a temperature of roughly 65 degrees.

Larsen stood on the field near home plate, and as soon as he started speaking you could see he had three advantages: the large outdoor venue meant that no single person could shout down the meeting, Larsen’s access to the PA system meant that he could always be heard even if a group tried to “chant out” the meeting, and his use of “runners” to take the microphone to each questioner meant no “in your face” screaming matches were going to take place.

Another smart move: Larsen limited his discussion to one specific bill (HR 3200), which allowed him to avoid having to speculate as to what might or might not be in any other possible proposal.

Beyond that, he made it clear in his opening remarks that he would be willing to spend up to 2 ½ hours to answer questions and that the microphone would be getting to every section, in turn, as much as needed; this seemed to remove much of the concern that people would be shut down and left unable to ask questions.

Additionally, he was more than willing to challenge those with whom he disagreed, as evidenced by his answer to one question from the crowd:

“I’ve got facts on my side and you’ve got Glenn Beck on your side…”

At the same time, he was able to use the PA and personal attention to his advantage during questioning. The “runners with mic” system made sure that all questions, from supporters and opponents, could not be drowned out, and by giving real attention to each questioner and presenting a “non form-letter” response (the PA assuring that his answer also could not be drowned out), Larsen was able to show that this was indeed a conversation and not a shouting match.

The crowd also acted as a moderating influence. A number of the questions came from people who seemed as reasonable as they could be, and when some extremist language was presented, the crowd exerted its own influence.

Here’s an example: a questioner asked the Congressman and the crowd to try to come up with one example of Government ever doing anything right, or words to that effect. The crowd offered some supportive cheers.

A couple of questioners later, a man stood up and told the crowd that he did not appreciate the last 20 years of his life being disrespected. He pointed out that the United States Navy, in which he serves, is the finest military force of its kind on the planet (this, in what is today very much a Navy town)…and all of a sudden, the “Government can’t do anything right” supporters, many of whom appeared to be military retirees (based on their age and choice of hats), found themselves…moderated.

About 90 minutes in Larsen called for a “7th inning stretch”, but much of the crowd took that as an invitation to leave, particularly as it was beginning to get cold, and it was starting to rain. Within a few minutes roughly 1500 of the original 2500 people had left.

The event, all in all, was kept under control, and those who came to disrupt were unsuccessful in creating an environment where that could happen…and a lot of that was because of the efforts of Larsen and his staff.

The goal of this exercise is not to go through all the questions and answers and crowd reactions, but I will tell you that I heard a woman behind us asking out loud about what would happen to senior citizens if the Government ever took over Medicare, which I found both profoundly humorous and profoundly sad.

So what can we make from all of this?

First off, a large venue makes it much tougher for any individual or group to take over the event.

Getting your people into a cohesive group near the center of the action is also quite helpful.

Ensuring that the PA is loud enough to always overpower any “disrupters” is vital.

Making sure the crowd understands that nearly everyone who wants to will get to ask questions matters—and it also matters if you appear to be giving reasonable answers to reasonable questions.

Be a bit of a parent, and call the kids out when they deserve it.

Finally, if a questioner says Government can’t do anything right—ask ‘em why they want to disrespect the brave men and women of our Armed Forces. If you’re in Texas…or North Carolina…or California…or Florida—ask ‘em twice.

If you are going to have to campaign for office every two years (and as a Member of Congress, you do), creating a positive image that transcends electoral cycles can be a great thing. These Town Halls offer that opportunity—and if you do it right, you’ll be able to say that you “listened to the voters” and “stood up for the People” and “made the tough decisions”, despite the efforts of special interests to “hijack the process”, for years to come.

And that, Future Candidates, is not a bad image to take on the campaign trail.

SPECIAL NOTE: We note today the recent passage of Les Paul. Many will remember him as the man who made the electric guitar famous, and still others will remember his work with Mary Ford…but if you have ever stood behind turntables or made a mix or a mashup, you should know that everything you’re doing today also came straight from the mind of Les Paul, who was just about the only person on the planet Earth making 24-track overdub recordings all the way back in 1951.

 

On Making Money, Or, Art Can Help New Orleans August 7, 2009

The long, lazy days of summer are upon us, and it’s time to have a little fun—but it’s also a great opportunity to volunteer a bit of spare time for a good cause.

So imagine how cool it would be if you could combine the two…and even better, do it in a way that doesn’t take a bite out of your wallet…and even better yet, if it was something you and the kids could do together.

Imagine no more, because it has been done; which is why today we are going to be talking about lead in the soil of New Orleans, Operation Paydirt…and Fundred Dollar Bills.

So here’s what’s up: in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina all sorts of specialists went to New Orleans to see how they might help. Among those were environmental artist Mel Chin (who had previously participated in the GALA Committee’s project to “sneak” original works of conceptual art into the show “Melrose Place”).

Chin studied the community, and came to the conclusion that a huge problem existed that had nothing to do with Katrina: lead had contaminated the soil…and it was collecting in the blood of the children living there.

This is not good: lead poisoning in children has been linked to anemia, permanent nerve damage, mental retardation…and behavioral disorders that can result, literally, in a life of crime.

As it turns out, lead had been accumulating since the 1920s, either as lead paint scrapings or paint dust had fallen to earth or as the exhaust smoke from automobiles burning leaded gasoline settled to the ground. (It’s estimated that every year as much as five tons of lead were deposited in New Orleans’ soil as a result of the volume of vehicle traffic before leaded gasoline was banned.)

Hotspots exist throughout the city, but the worst contamination is to be found in the city’s Uptown, Downtown, and French Quarter Districts, with levels as high as 1200 parts per million (ppm) reported in some soil samples (levels below 150 ppm are considered “lead-free”).

The Department of Health and Human Service’s Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry reports that in 1993 nearly half of the city’s children (44%) were designated as “lead poisoned” by virtue of having blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL). 14% of the children tested had levels above 20 ug/dL, double the “not poisoned” standard.

“The disaster was in the soil before the disaster.”

Mel Chin, March 2008

Are you thinking “I’m glad that’s not my city’s problem?” Are you sure about that? Boston, Baltimore, and Minneapolis/St. Paul are among the many US cities known to have serious contamination issues. (The locations most likely to be affected are older cities with higher traffic volumes.)

Until now, no one has been willing to provide the money to get a cleanup underway…and that’s where Mel Chin—and you, Gentle Reader—come into the picture.

Chin has begun a project that seeks to gather 3,000,000 “signatures”, if you will, to an “art petition” that he intends to present to Congress this fall in an effort to shake the money loose.

Art petition, you say?

That’s exactly correct: Chin wants you to create what he calls “Fundred Dollar Bills”, which are made from blank “templates” that resemble US $ 100 bills. You, the kids, and more or less 3,000,000 of your closest friends do your part by first downloading and then filling in the templates with designs, drawings, personal statements…pretty much any darn thing you can fit into a seven by four inch space…and then returning the completed bills to the nearest collection center.

The bills will be collected and transported to Washington, DC. Chin hopes to “exchange” the $300,000,000 represented by the Fundreds for $300,000,000 in real live Congressional appropriations to start the cleanup process in New Orleans (“Operation Paydirt”, as he’s calling it).

This had been promoted, in a big way, as a classroom project, and lots of schools and arts organizations around the country are joining in the effort.

“…we’re asking children [to produce the art] not because we want to use them, but they are the most affected by lead, and they have a right to have some expression in this.”

Mel Chin, March 2008

The pickups are scheduled to begin in November, which means it’s time to get out the crayons, or gel pens (or, if you really take your conceptual art seriously, a garden pond pump, bucket, hose, sprinkler, and several colors of acrylic paint; the idea being to create the perfect Jackson Pollock effect), design some Fundreds, and let’s see if we can’t help make lives better for some kids that have been dealing with this for so long that some of them are today collecting Social Security.

So how about that?

A project that seeks money to clean up soil that is causing brain damage to the kids of New Orleans…money that, as far as I can see, is the truest form of “stimulus spending” there could ever be…and you get to help create the art petition that could really make a difference in deciding whether this happens or not.

All in all, that’s a pretty good way to spend a lazy summer day.