Friday, March 26, 2010

Happy Birthday Nancy Pelosi!!!

I wasn’t a fan at first, but now Nancy Pelosi is my number one feminist hero.
We wouldn’t have gotten health care without her. According to Harold Meyerson

The president's insistence on a big bill that guaranteed nearly universal coverage -- a position he was encouraged to maintain by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who played Margaret Thatcher to Obama's George H.W. Bush in this tale -- is what motivated the base organizations to go all out for the bill…

In the process, Obama and Pelosi became a legislative force that Democrats have not seen since Lyndon Johnson. Pelosi's contribution, no less than Obama's, is one for the history books. While there have been notable House speakers over the past century -- Pelosi is the first speaker in more than 100 years whose role in the passage of major reform was indispensable.

If I had known about it, I would have been among the Daily Kos bloggers who sent Speaker Pelosi thousands of roses:

"Thanks to the community at Daily Kos, and others who joined in, Speaker Pelosi received thousands of roses this morning for her 70th birthday," Pelosi's staff wrote. "She sent half of the roses to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and is distributing the other half to hill staff to thank them for all their hard work on the health reform legislation."

When Pelosi first became speaker, I recall having some difficulty with her hyper-feminine affect, her delicate lady-like beauty, and expensive wardrobe. In appearance, she reminded me a little of Nancy Reagan.

My first feminist heroes in the world of electoral politics were Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug and they became for me the template for feminist politicians.

Initially, it was hard for me to believe that someone like Pelosi could be as strong and tenacious as women like Chisholm and Abzug How wrong I was!

Although a lot of Tea Party types would no doubt disagree, I think It’s good experience to have one’s preconceptions challenged.

I had another such experience in the past week when 59,000 nuns broke with the Catholic bishops and issued a public statement supporting Obama’s health care reform plan. They declared the plan abortion neutral and thus gave much needed cover to anti-abortion Democrats.

As a product (or should I say victim?) of 12 years of Catholic education the 1950’s and early 60’s, I’ve never had anything good to say about nuns. However, our country is changing and that includes the Catholic Church. In my day it would have been unthinkable for nuns to publicly oppose the church hierarchy. (No doubt all the sex scandals in the Catholic Church have weakened the authority of the hierarchy and made such a challenge a good deal easier.)

So in addition to the amazing Speaker Pelosi, I now count 59,000 nuns among my heroes!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

I didn’t expect to feel euphoric when the health care bill was passed.

I didn’t expect to feel euphoric when the health care bill was passed. It’s not what I had hoped for—-no public option and restrictions on funding for abortion.

But, nonetheless, this is huge. The expansion of Medicaid is major redistribution, especially as much of it is paid for by new taxes on families earning in excess of $250,000.

So,yes, there are aspects of the bill I am not happy about, but this legislation is part of the redistributionist project that began with the new Deal, continued with the Civil Rights Movement (which was a redistribution of power rather than of wealth), continued with Medicare and now finally with health care as a right of all citizens.

Just as Social Security (which excluded the majority of share croppers and domestic workers and thus effectively excluded the majority of African-Americans) was amended, this bill (which excludes undocumented workers) will eventually be fixed.

And yes, we will eventually overturn the Hyde amendment which denies abortion coverage to women on Medicaid.

At every step, there have been those who have said, “I have mine, why do we need to create social programs for “others." Fortunately this narrow, mean-spirited approach was defeated again last night.

This battle has never been about just health care. The ugly racist, homophobic language of the Tea Party people has made clear what we have long suspected: this is about who has fundamental rights in our society. As House Majority Whip James Clyburn stated:

I heard people saying things today I've not heard since March 15th, 1960, when I was marching to try and get off the back of the bus," Clyburn said. "This is incredible, shocking to me."
He added, "A lot of us have said for a long time that none of this is about healthcare at all. It's about extending a basic fundamental right to people who are less powerful."

Thank you Speaker Pelosi and President Obama!!

Now we have to work to make this better just as previous generations worked to amend the flaws in the original social security legislation.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Does political activism make us happy?

One of my facebook friends sent me a link to a recent Guardian article by Aditya Chakrabortty summarizing recent research claiming to demonstrate a link between happiness and political activism:

According to Chakrabortty :

Marching in the drizzle against wars in far-off countries, writing letters protesting the government's latest reactionary policy, sitting through interminable meetings that keep sprouting Any Other Business. It may be noble, but political activism is hardly a barrel of laughs. And yet it makes you happier.
So find two university psychologists in new research that looks for the first time at the link between political activity and wellbeing. Malte Klar and Tim Kasser started by interviewing two sets of around 350 college students, both about their degree of political engagement and their levels of happiness and optimism. Both times, they found that those most inclined to go on a demo were also the cheeriest.

I guess this applies to the Tea Party groups as well as to the left of center, feminist groups I identify with--although the tea party folks strike me as far more angry than “happy.”

Klar and Kasser’s research provides some support for what I’ve observed. I remember as a young activist marveling at all the old communists who seemed so cheerful handing out their leaflets and copies of the Daily World. They seemed so much more alive than most of the old people I knew.

And yes, people on the left can be just as angry and embittered as any tea party type, but for the most part the people I have known in social movements have always seemed so much more alive and engaged with the world than the non-activists.

Although the projects changed in response to changes in my life circumstances and the political possibilities of the time, activism has been a constant thread in my life. Like many young people who came of age in the 60’s, my activist projects were the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. After a brief involvement in far left politics, I backed away from trying to change the world and focused on changes I could make in my own backyard. When my son entered public school, I began a whole new very rewarding second career (unpaid of course) as a public school activist.

In the aftermath of Reagan’s election in 1980, a real shift occurred. As I watched the Reagan administration build up the military budget and starve social programs, I realized I could no longer afford to vote for protest candidates.In the early 80’s I discovered my real activist passion--feminism. I missed the early 70’s golden age of feminist activism thanks to participation in groups which viewed feminism as a petit bourgeois deviation, but I’ve made up for it in the last 30 years!

I managed to combine feminist activism with involvement in electoral politics by working to elect feminist candidates and encouraging more women to become involved in grassroots politics. The last 8 years as Philadelphia NOW chapter president was probably my most satisfying activist project.

Now that I am retired, both from my teaching job and my main volunteer job as Phila NOW President, I've started looking around for new activist projects. I have the time!

I’ve been involved in setting up a new organization, Southeastern Pennsylvania NOW PAC, I am still a Democratic committeeperson and am now running for Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee. (Forty years ago, I would not have believed that I would end my activist days as a democratic committeeperson. But at this stage in my life, slow gradual change is all I can imagine. There is a reason that revolutions are always made by the young.)

One of the wonderful things about an activist career is that there is always the opportunity for learning something new-–options not always available in paid employment. I ran for the board of Philly Cam, our local cable access station, and now have the opportunity to learn about something totally new(to me).

I didn’t set about to do all this to become happy, and I’m not sure if I would call myself “happy”—-whatever that means—-but I feel engaged and part of the world and hope to keep this up as long as I can.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I finally got a chance to hear President Obama in person: his health care speech at Arcadia University

Well, I finally got a chance to hear President Obama in person. During the campaign I was still teaching and didn’t have the time to wait in line for tickets and get there 3-4 hours early to get a good seat. I’m kind of phobic about huge crowds, so I didn’t go to the open air events such as the huge Independence Hall rally in Philly in late spring, 2008. And of course those $1,000 a ticket receptions were way out of reach.

But now that I’m retired, I had the time to track down tickets and get to the event several hours early—although unfortunately not early enough to get a good seat. My first perk after 25+ years of grunt work as a Democratic committee person—2 tickets to Obama’s speech at Arcadia University

Obama’s speech was powerful, outlining all the good things his health care plan would accomplish: no denial of coverage for preexisting conditions; no lifetime caps on coverage; expansion of Medicaid for low-income people; subsidies for working families and what got the biggest applause given that the room was packed with college students—allowing young people to stay on their parents’ plan until age 26.

It may not be the single payer plan I’d like to see if I could wave a magic wand and get exactly what I want, but it may be the best plan that’s achievable in the current political environment.

I’ve lost all patience with middle class progressives who want to kill the bill and start over. They almost seem to be competing with each other: “I’m more disillusioned with Obama than you are.”

I’ve yet to meet a "kill the bill" progressive (?)who is not a middle class person with health insurance. These folks may have the luxury of waiting for the perfect bill, but low income Americans and those with preexisting conditions do not. The expansion of Medicaid is a huge step forward. As health care expert Paul Starr wrote in the American Prospect

…the legislation as a whole, with its expansion of Medicaid and insurance subsidies to people with low incomes, would be the biggest, most redistributive economic-security program in decades.

Granted, the bill is far from perfect, but it establishes the principle that government has a responsibility to ensure access to health care for all citizens. We’ll gradually improve it; as Tom Harkin (or was it Daschle?), described it, this is a “starter bill.”

The President’s speech at Arcadia has inspired this aging activist to work a little harder to get this done!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Should we do more to encourage those older works who can afford to retire to make room for young workers?

I’m a retiree with no plans of ever again entering the paid work force, but I’m nonetheless really worried about the grim unemployment statistics. I worry about the young people in my life who might be facing long-term joblessness and I worry about the consequences for our society.

Should we do more to encourage those older works who can afford to retire to make room for young workers? My decision to retire was based primarily on my own exhaustion and longing to do something different with my life, not on an altruistic desire to make room for younger workers. But although altruism did not drive my decision, I was happy to make room for a younger teacher who would bring fresh ideas and energy to the classroom. There are too many young teachers out there who can't find jobs.

Don Peck’s article in the March 2010 Atlantic points out that the problem of long-term joblessness is the not just a consequence of the current recession but rather of fundamental changes in the structure of the economy. Peck describes the consequences of our jobless recovery--if it is indeed a recovery:

The effects of pervasive joblessness—on family, politics, society—take time to incubate, and they show themselves only slowly. But ultimately, they leave deep marks that endure long after boom times have returned. Some of these marks are just now becoming visible, and even if the economy magically and fully recovers tomorrow, new ones will continue to appear. The longer our economic slump lasts, the deeper they’ll be.
If it persists much longer, this era of high joblessness will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults—and quite possibly those of the children behind them as well.

The grim picture includes research based in my home town of Philadelphia. Peck cites the work of sociologist Kathryn Edin:

Communities with large numbers of unmarried, jobless men take on an unsavory character over time. Edin’s research team spent part of last summer in Northeast and South Philadelphia, conducting in-depth interviews with residents. She says she was struck by what she saw: “These white working-class communities—once strong, vibrant, proud communities, often organized around big industries—they’re just in terrible straits. The social fabric of these places is just shredding. There’s little engagement in religious life, and the old civic organizations that people used to belong to are fading. Drugs have ravaged these communities, along with divorce, alcoholism, violence. I hang around these neighborhoods in South Philadelphia, and I think, ‘This is beginning to look like the black inner-city neighborhoods we’ve been studying for the past 20 years.’ When young men can’t transition into formal-sector jobs, they sell drugs and drink and do drugs. And it wreaks havoc on family life.

Peck’s article is a powerful warning but short on solutions. The Obama administration is doing the right thing with investment in green technology and pressuring banks to start lending to small businesses, but it clearly isn’t going to be enough.

In addition to job creation we need to think more creatively about job sharing, such as the ideas about work sharing reported by Robert Pollen in his recent Nation article:

In the same vein are work-sharing programs that extend unemployment compensation to workers who accept reduced hours that then enable their companies to avoid outright layoffs. Indeed, work-sharing can be even more effective and fairer than traditional unemployment insurance, since it spreads the reductions in work hours across a wide group of workers rather than concentrating the effects of the recession on the minority of workers who become completely jobless. Work-sharing programs have long been a major part of the social safety net in Western Europe. Over this recession, Germany has been especially aggressive in extending these benefits to prevent rising unemployment.(my emphasis)

We need to spread the jobs around. Lowering the age at which one is eligible for Medicare might make some older workers decide to retire. Our society has been pushing workers to stay in the paid work force by gradually raising the age at which they are eligible for full retirement benefits. But either we pay more in social security and Medicare by encouraging older workers to leave the workforce or we’ll be paying more in unemployment compensation--not to mention the range of social ills resulting from a generation of young people who can’t find steady employment.

European societies have historically encouraged early retirement to make room for young workers. With plunging birth rates, some European societies are rethinking generous early retirement policies. But the United States with its relatively youthful population is in a position to move in this direction.

I hope some of my seventy something friends who are still teaching aren’t reading this, but I think reinstituting the mandatory retirement age for college professors might be a good idea. In the past, the law allowed institutions of higher education to set a mandatory retirement age and most did so. Now there is no mandatory retirement age and professors can work as long as they choose.

Also, there used to be a limit to what seniors eligible for a full retirement check could earn without their earnings counting against their social security check. Now there is no limit and a 66 year old worker can pull in a high six figure salary and still collect a full social security check. Social security was never intended to be the icing on the cake and this policy needs to be rethought. Possibly, savings here could be applied to lowering the age for eligibility for Medicare.

There’s no one solution and we need to think about both job creation and job sharing. And job sharing should involve sharing across the generations. To return to Peck’s cautionary tale:

We are living through a slow-motion social catastrophe, one that could stain our culture and weaken our nation for many, many years to come. We have a civic—and indeed a moral—responsibility to do everything in our power to stop it now, before it gets even worse.