Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Government Run"

With an unbelievable amount of work and lobbying and much fanfare, President Obama signed a health care reform bill of enormous magnitude. One of Ted Kennedy’s sons went to his grave at Arlington and left a note there, “The unfinished business is done.”

There are good things about this health care reform, starting with the fact that every citizen will have health care. Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but I agree with those who think it is a step in the right direction. At the same time, only a fool could overlook the fact that drug companies made no concessions in this bill and will continue to make many trips to the bank in the years to come. And that even after over 100 changes that Republicans wanted to see in this bill were put in, not one Republican voted for it. And the racial slurs and gay bashing that greeted some Congresspeople was sickening and depressing.

The simple fact is that health care reform remains a need to which there is only one solution: universal health care. I want to share with readers a YouTube video made by Joshua Busch at Community Coalition in Los Angeles. I think Josh has captured in a hilarious and incisive form, the ridiculousness of the debate about “government run" health care.

We have all got to be clearer with friends, family and strangers on trains that the phrase “government run” is a description of many things we take for granted and that we value.

After you watch this video, please go out onto the nearest socialist sidewalk and strike up a conversation with someone about “government run.” Do this at least five times a day for the next four years.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Taxing Nonprofits?

With Tax Day only three weeks away, this article about the move by cash-strapped states and cities to revoke the tax exemptions of nonprofits takes on greater importance. There is no doubt that the recession is crippling state budgets, which are not permitted to run deficits (unlike the federal government). But the pain that states and cities have been feeling is only going to get worse in the next year or two.

The federal funding going to states through the stimulus bill is going to run out because the stimulus was too small (especially when compared to the bank bailouts). In many cases the stimulus is what made it possible for states to close budget gaps in FY2009. Some state officials are already looking ahead to the end of the stimulus funding and calling it a “cliff effect.”

So with the cliff approaching, it’s completely reasonable for states to look in every crack and corner for revenues, but taking from one commons to boost another is short-sighted.

The response by nonprofits in the article is appropriately measured. The last thing we should do is contribute in any way to the anti-tax, anti-government chorus of the tea partiers. However, it seems that there is a need to be able to distinguish between the struggling nonprofits that are not in a financial position to both meet the social service and budgetary gaps of state and local government, and the huge institutions that are nonprofits-in-name-only.

It is hard to provide a reason for Harvard to not contribute to the city’s budget in exchange for the water and sewer services it uses. But the small nonprofits giving food, shelter and other services to the millions of people who have lost their jobs in this recession need to be able to devote their resources to their primary mission.

The proposal by the Pennsylvania State Senator to impose an “essential services fee” according to the amount of property owned by nonprofits seems like a fair and reasonable way to distinguish between the small struggling nonprofits that most of us think of, and the huge universities, hospitals, and corporatized charities that are in much better financial positions to be called on to contribute to balancing the budgets of cities and states. This is especially true if such nonprofits are really operating as real estate moguls, as the State Senator claims in the article.

As states and cities try to figure out how to balance their budgets, the principle should be to call on those most able to pay to step up. Obviously, that principle should lead states to close the corporate tax loopholes, breaks and abatements enjoyed by the banks and corporations that have been the first to experience the economic recovery that everyone else is waiting to see trickle down to the ground. And similarly, there are some nonprofits-in-name-only that should be contributing to the commons-project of shoring up state’s dire financial straits.

But just as small businesses don’t want to get lumped in with huge multinationals, struggling nonprofits should continue to be exempted from any temporary taxes or fees applied to the huge hospitals and other institutions. Most small nonprofits are already contributing to the commons by virtue of the work they do and the services they provide.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Every St. Patrick’s Day, I remember how I loved to read the Lives of the Saints when I was a teenager. I grew up a Methodist and we don’t really believe in saints, but I still loved the stories of St. Katherine of Sienna (famous for shaking her fist at God and shouting, “If this is how you treat your friends, it is a wonder you have any” when she was thrown out of her carriage and into the mud by a runaway horse) or St. Francis who called everybody and everything brother and sister.

St. Patrick’s Day is one of the most famous and fun holidays in countries where Catholicism is prominent, and anywhere there is a strong Irish presence. St. Patrick (387-493) really did exist. Two letters he wrote survive and many eyewitnesses tell stories about him. The problem with St. Patrick, as with most of the saints, is that the stories about them rarely contain more than a grain of truth.

People who write biographies of saints are called “hagiographers” and they have written widely about Patrick. He is credited with driving all snakes out of Ireland, of being able to induce darkness and earthquakes, and of converting thousands of Druids to Christianity.

Biographies of saints would not meet any modern day standards of journalism and often bear little resemblance to anything that could be true, even if one believes, as I do, in miracles. So I wonder why I loved them as a teenager and still have a warm place in my heart for them? I think because they told me things that I needed to believe at the time: for example, that it is fine, (in fact, holy), to defy convention, to be ostracized from family, to believe deeply in a cause.

I doubt anyone today calls him or herself a hagiographer, although I think some ghostwriters and advertising copy writers would give hagiographers a run for their money. This St. Patrick’s Day I want to recapture some of the inspiration I gained from the Lives of the Saints, particularly in regard to being willing to take risks and make sacrifices for a greater good.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Forclosures: What was the question again?

My neighbor just adopted a dog named Molly. She is a retriever mix (with emphasis on mix) from the Humane Society. The Humane Society got the dog from a couple who gets the dogs from shelters in southern California (this dog is from San Diego) which are overrun with animals which people have had to give up because they have lost their homes in the foreclosure crisis. This couple (and apparently there are many such Good Samaritans) go to shelters and get dogs that are about to be euthanized (this dog was one day away from death), rescue them and bring them to the Bay Area where there are more possibilities for adoption. This dog was apparently given up by a woman who lost her job, then her home, and has left California. The dog is adorable and very well behaved. Clearly her former owner provided her a good home in the years she had a home.

Now this woman’s home sits empty and eventually it will be auctioned for a fraction of what she paid. I look at this dog and think of the agony in just this one story. I imagine this woman I do not know. She has a steady and decently paying job and manages to buy a house. She feels settled down enough to go to a shelter and adopt a puppy. A year passes and now with the puppy full grown, she loses her job. A few months later with her unemployment is running out and her savings are gone, she can no longer pay her mortgage. She has to leave her house. She makes a difficult decision to give up the dog rather than try to keep it with her. She has lost almost as much as people do in a military invasion.

What is a commons solution to helping people keep their private property, particularly when the scale of foreclosure is so large? There are many creative solutions being proposed, but any solution must begin with the person affected at the center and not the bank. “What will help this woman and her dog stay in her home?” is a very different question from “What should a bank do with a person who can’t pay her mortgage?” The first step in transforming this economy is to ask entirely different questions.