Hear Kavanaugh Out or Get Out

I am exceedingly disappointed in disability community leaders. They are engaging in what Senator Ben Sasse recently referred to as “theatrics.” While theatrics may, admittedly, serve a purpose in some advocacy pursuits, the theatrics prompting interruptions of Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings are meritless. Beyond that, they reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of the Supreme Court. I’m embarrassed that disability community leaders have hijacked the Kavanaugh hearings to reveal, at best, ignorance, and at worst, manipulation by Democratic Party operatives.

Yesterday I was having a conversation with two friends who also advocate within the disability community. One friend shared that she had written letters oppositing Kavanaugh’s nomination. I asked why she disagreed with Kavanaugh’s pending appointment to the Supreme Court, and she was surprised I did not know that he is “against” people with disabilities. How so, I asked. My friend said that he had made statements revealing his bias against people with disabilities. Yet, when I asked for further details, she could not seem to remember the words he used. Round and round we went, but my friend either could not or would not specifically identify what actions Kavanagh had taken that offended her so deeply.

My other friend jumped in, telling me Kavanagh forced two women with disabilities to have abortions against their will. I said I found that highly unlikely, as Judge Kavanaugh is a self-identified Catholic. I suggested, instead, that he had upheld a surrogate decision-making policy in the Doe Tarlow v. D.C. decision. Surrogate decision-making policies were at issue because the women had been deemed unable to give consent. Importantly, this decision tells us nothing about Judge Kavanaugh’s personal thoughts about people with disabilities. Instead, the decision reveals only that the surrogate decision-making  policies at issue in the decision were constitutional and appropriately applied.

Now, I’m not saying that I agree with the underlying policy Kavanaugh upheld. And we don’t know whether Kavanaugh did, either. Critically, the role of a judge is to interpret the law – not to determine whether a law is “good” or “bad,” and most certainly not to make it. Indeed, I believe these are the fundamental facts that leaders within the disability community fail to grasp. By coming out so strongly against Kavanaugh, and by insinuating that he is a less-than-honorable man, they look rather foolish.

I am concerned that when the disability community needs to advocate for or against a particular piece of legislation – as it should do – too many bridges will have been burned on the Republican side of the aisle. I’ve never witnessed the disability community come out en force against pro-“choice” judicial nominees who think nothing of a woman engaging in her right to selectively abort a fetus on the basis of its disability. Similarly, I’ve not seen disability community leaders interrupt hearings of judicial nominees that support creating a judicially-recognized right to physician-assisted suicide. So why all the fuss about a Supreme Court candidate nominated by a Republican president?

Even worse, I am concerned that the disability rights movement will have lost some of its credibility, demonstrating its fundamental misunderstanding of balance of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Simply, the judiciary does not create law. People with disabilities would be better-served if more attention spent getting focusing on the legislative branch and its ability to create law – that is where the community can have real, lasting influence in improving conditions for all people with disabilities.

Review: The Poverty Industry

One of my clients recently recommended that I read Professor Daniel Hatcher‘s The Poverty Industry. So I did. Now I understand why my client was so adamant that I read the book, and with the same urgency, I recommend that you do the same.

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Hatcher addresses the “poverty industry,” akin to the military industrial complex of which President Eisenhower warned. But it’s worse than that:

In 2011, the defense industry spent in excess of $134 million on government lobbying efforts. Impressive. But the healthcare industry spent almost four times that amount – more than half a billion dollars, including a significant focus on lobbying related to government healthcare problems for the poor. The defense industry also spent almost $24 million in 2011 on campaign contributions, but the healthcare industry multiplied that amount by almost eleven. In fact, campaign contributions made only on behalf of hospitals and nursing homes were about equal to all the campaign contributions made on behalf of the entire defense industry.

Not many Americans are aware of the extent to which private interests are intimately involved in healthcare aspects of what Hatcher refers to as “fiscal federalism.” Most of us believe that the federal government provides money to states, and permits states to deliver those funds to vulnerable populations in a manner most meaningful to the particular circumstances of those populations. But private contractors are interjected into this relationship, creating the iron triangle and the worrisome statistics noted above.

Contractors like MAXIMUS and PCG (the Public Consulting Group) operate internationally, helping governments’ take advantage of financial opportunities. What opportunities that we talking about? Taking Social Security benefits from children in the foster care system.  Taking Medicaid payments for nursing home care, and applying them to state general fund coffers or other projects that have absolutely no linkage to care of the elderly. (By the way, such contractors are often also hired by the federal government for audit activities, creating a scenario in which they are responsible for checking off on their own behavior.)

One of the examples Hatcher shares in the book hits close to home. The Marion County Health & Hospital Corporation in Indianapolis began buying for-profit nursing homes throughout Indiana. It then contracted with American Senior Communities to manage them. Owning the nursing homes permitted the claiming of more federal dollars, which would presumably be used to increase the quality of care nursing home residents were receiving. (Note that Indiana rates abysmally in regard to the quality of care experienced by nursing home residents.) In fact, the Indiana General Assembly passed a bill that would require any additional federal dollars to be spent on nursing homes. However, Governor Frank O’Bannon vetoed the bill, allowing the federal dollars to be routed elsewhere. Ultimately, they were used to fund Eskenazi Hospital. Quality of care in Indiana’s nursing homes is still deplorable.

The Poverty Industry describes numerous other examples of private companies – often with shareholders to keep in mind – working with the government to take advantage of those to whom the money was intended. It is a great eye-opener, and is likely to disturb you like no other non-fiction book on the market. I strongly recommend that everyone read this and then look into how their own state manages public benefits coming from the federal government.

Review: The Smear

I’ve read a bunch of books since my last review, but none of them lent themselves to a review on this website. This afternoon, I finished reading Sharyl Attkisson’s The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote. (Yes, long title, long book. But one worth reading.) Anyone who is concerned with the declining state of American media – which should, presumably, be everyone – should read this book for a behind-the-scenes account of transactional journalism, super PACs, and the smear.

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Attkisson is an Emmy award-winning journalist, frustrated with how the media has become a unit of propaganda. One day, a couple of congressional staffers approached  her with dirt on their opponent. Attkisson was a disgusted:

I let the thought swirl around in my head. These men are being paid tax dollars to supposedly serve the public interest working for a member of Congress. Instead, they are using time on the clock to smear political enemies.

But this is the status quo in contemporary Washington, D.C.

Working with friendly journalists isn’t the only tactic used by those wanting to discredit an enemy.  The Internet is also a powerful propaganda tool. Attkisson describes a tactic known as “astroturfing,” which allows PR firms, nonprofits, and anyone else to sway public opinion anonymously online. Entities can create hundreds of anonymous online profiles to make it appear that there is grassroots support when none truly exists.

Perhaps most disturbingly, Attkisson documents how Democrats attempted an astroturfing campaign against “fake news.” At the time, Media Matters and President Obama were proclaiming citizens were deeply concerned about the onslaught of fake news, and that something must be done about it. Both Obama and Media Matters trainees called for websites, including Google and Facebook, to curate news. The problems? The American public is not calling out for the First Amendment to be restricted; surveys do not support that fake news is one of the biggest concerns of the American electorate. Media matters and Obama are overselling the threat of fake media, as perceived by Americans at large. The second concern is that, to solve the “threat” of fake media, Obama and Media Matters are calling upon Google, Facebook, and other companies to curate news. Such a “solution” leads to serious concerns about censorship and protection of the First Amendment. (Although Democrats’ plans fizzled when Trump co-opted the term “fake media,” it is still deeply worrisome that Google and Facebook may curate news to the advantage of a singular ideology.)

My biggest critique of this book is that it focuses almost exclusively on the 2016 election. I realize Attkisson is a political reporter, but it would be interesting to see how the smear affects those outside of politics, if at all.Anyway, if you are a propagandist in the making, are a journalist, or have an interest in learning about how the powerful are trying to manipulate you, check out The Smear.

Review: Devil’s Bargain

Not long ago, I quickly finished Joshua Green‘s Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. I actually read it after Bannon left the White House; I never really understood the controversy over his entry or exit in the Trump Administration, and bought the book in order to provide insight. To an extent, the book was helpful, but only insofar as providing the typical left-of-center perspective dished out via the mainstream media.

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Green’s initial description of Bannon is “as a colorful version of a recognizable Washington character type: the political grifter seeking to profit from the latest trend.” He is also repeatedly portrayed as slovenly, apparently having only recently decided to “swap[] the cargo shorts for cargo pants and toss[] a blazer over his many layers of shirting.” His motto? “Honey badger don’t give a shit.”

Much more interesting than Green’s perspectives on Bannon are those regarding Trump. Reportedly, Trump is incredibly superstitious, going so far as to throw salt over his shoulder during meals. Apparently Corey Lewandowski and Trump had a falling out as Lewandowski believed that, because Trump treated him as a son, he could act like one. Not the case. Green also writes that Governor Chris Christie also irked Trump, repeatedly attempting to ingratiate himself with the family and refusing to respect Trump’s personal space.

Gossip about individual quirks aside (and Green does make a point of noting that his writing is extensively sourced), the book speculates that Trump became serious about running for president after he was humiliated at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner by President Obama and Seth Meyers. He did run, and when Paul Manafort’s efforts to mold Trump into a more conventional candidate began tanking the campaign, the Mercer family encouraged Trump to bring Bannon on board.

The book discusses Bannon’s background, both personally and professionally, but never really explains why he is so incredibly disliked, aside from his efforts to have the Clintons discredited. Although Green appears to dislike populism, in general, he never offers policy arguments to illustrate why Bannon’s platforms are wrong or inappropriate. While I did learn gossipy tidbits mentioned above, Devil’s Bargain falls flat when it comes to anything more than that.

Review: Dangerous

I really hesitated before purchasing Milo Yiannopoulos DangerousI was afraid of the controversy that reading the book in public might entail. One of my work colleagues and I discussed Milo and his movement after the riot that followed him at Berkeley. Before hearing about the massive damage left in his wake, I had never heard of him, nor read his Breitbart columns. Shortly after the Berkeley incident, Milo made the news again, resigning from Breitbart after allegations that he supported pedophilia. So, you can imagine why I was leery.

It turns out that Milo relishes the spotlight, referring to himself as a “dangerous faggot” and adopting the drag persona Ivana Wall. His book describes the role he’s created for himself, eagerly pushing boundaries and challenging liberals who try to suppress the free speech of himself and others. Milo promises readers that he is a “good troll,” only using “a certain level of disregard for other people’s feelings” when “reasoned argument and polite entreaty have failed.

Nonetheless, in Dangerous, Milo is occasionally downright mean for no apparent purpose, other than getting himself put squarely back in the limelight. Milo regularly complains about “ugly women” and “fat people,” yet claims he only trolls “deserving targets,” including “the disabled.” What did people with disabilities ever do to get on Milo’s bad side? I find his attitude toward people with disabilities particularly ironic given that Milo claims HIV/AIDS is still a problem worthy of attention, particularly amongst the gay male population. Funny that, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was being passed, disability advocates fought tenaciously to get HIV/AIDS recognized as a disability within the Act’s protection.

The surprising thing is that Milo actually has many astute points. Particularly in regard to social media censorship and the millennial generation’s engagement in the political sphere, Milo has many thoughts worthy of discussion. Because I actually learned something from Dangerous – something interesting, I promise, completely aside from name-calling – I feel compelled to recommend that others give the book a chance. At the same time, I understand if and why you don’t. Fortunately, you have to freedom to expose yourself to Milo. (I’m sure he’d get a kick out of it!)

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Review: Rising Star

Earlier this week I finally finished David J. Garrow’s Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. I say finally for a few reasons. The book is so long – my e-book, in regular typeface, was about 2,000 pages – and so detailed that it reminded me of War and Peace. In fact, the first chapter opens with 1970s Chicago, well before Obama ever set foot there. And it contains so many different characters that it’s difficult to keep everyone straight. Nonetheless, Garrow effectively shows the inner war and peace Obama encountered on his path to the presidency.

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Those who read Obama’s Dreams From My Father are familiar with the gist of Obama’s background. His mother is a white American and his father was a black Kenyan.  Neither parent was physically present for the majority of Obama’s childhood, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents after living with his mother and stepfather for several years in Indonesia. Obama describes himself, in his autobiography, as someone searching for identity and place.

Garrow unravels the vignettes written by Obama, and digs much deeper into Obama’s past.  While many of Obama’s Hawaiian friends from childhood remembered him as a smart and laid-back individual, Obama’s book doesn’t necessarily portray the same, but instead describes racial conflict. Garrow, instead, posits that Obama actually became more aware of racial conflict and identity while at Occidental College.  It was then that Obama ceased allowing friends to call him “Barry,” and became “Barack.” It was then that he chose his identity as black (rather than someone of multiple ethnicities.)

Another fascinating portion of the book follows Obama’s relationship with Sheila Jager. Garrow suggests that Obama ultimately broke up with Jager because Obama believed that he could not successfully run for higher political office unless he developed ties in the African-American community by marrying a woman from the same. Michelle Robinson filled that role perfectly. (And Michelle Obama did all that she could to keep her husband from running for office, believing politics was beneath his talents.)

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about President Obama, Chicago politics, or campaigning. While the book focuses on both the personal and the political, the personal accounts, gleaned through interviews Obama’s friends and relations, were the most interesting. They provide insight into the motivations of a man that led America for eight years.

Budget Concerns

I haven’t written about politics lately, but I’m moved to do so given the Trump Administration budget proposal announced last month. The proposed budget has met criticism from seemingly everyone, regardless of political affiliation. Indeed, this post is also intended as a critique, though geared specifically toward how the budget is likely to affect Americans with disabilities.

Granted, many people with disabilities, as well as organizations supporting groups of people with disabilities, have been outspokenly opposed to the proposed budget. In fact, the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, self-described as “a coalition of approximately 100 national disability organizations,” has firmly called upon Congress to “reject” the proposed budget. Two women who self-identify as disabled, Stacey Milbern and Patty Berne, talk about being “terrified” at the prospect of living under the proposed budget, and suggest that changes demanded by implementation would go to “the core of being able to live.”

Most concerning the majority of people with disabilities are the proposed funding levels for Social Security and Medicaid, despite Candidate Trump’s promises not to revoke social safety nets. Although OMB Director Mick Mulvaney has attempted to explain that the proposed budget works to cease the growth of spending, rather than seriously cut funding, it’s difficult to understand how capping spending will not have an adverse effect on people with disabilities over time. Insurance companies will likely continue to pay exorbitant amounts for medical treatment, which counteracts any government attempt to reduce healthcare spending. Indeed, at this point, this Republican has to conclude that the only ways to seriously reduce medical expenses involves either completely removing the federal government from health insurance or mandating universal coverage.

I am dismayed by multiple Facebook posts friends that say Trump, Mulvaney, and Republicans, either together or individually, are working to kill people with disabilities. I have no doubt in my mind that these posts are hyperbolic and false. Nevertheless, I understand the fears of the Facebook posters. Federal law requires Medicaid to cover nursing homes days for eligible beneficiaries, but does not require Medicaid to cover care in home and community-based settings. This is disturbing, first, because home-based long-term care is generally overwhelmingly cheaper than institutional care. If OMB and Congress is worried about healthcare spending, why not flip this paradigm? Second, an overwhelming number of people with disabilities would prefer to live at home than in nursing homes. However, if States have less money to work with, they may need to reduce home-based care in order to cover the mandatory nursing home coverage. Unfortunately, I doubt that many congressmen understand the nuances of Medicaid statutes and regulations, and fear that these concerns will go under their radar.

Also concerning is the fact that the proposed budget wants to merge multiple disability programs into a single entity. For example, State Council on Developmental Disabilities, the Independent Living Program, and funding for traumatic brain injuries would be merged into a single Partnership for Innovation, Inclusion, and Independence.  Budgets for each would be reduced across the board. So, the proposed budget would reduce the ability of the aforementioned advocacy groups to speak up and address concerns like institutional bias discussed above. Even more concerning, the Independent Living movement and the developmental disability community are not always on the same page when it comes to the implementation of solutions. Should this portion of the proposed budget pass, I anticipate more division in the disability community and greater discord overall.

Certainly, the proposed budget is not completely negative. I’m one of the few people I’m aware of that is not completely adverse to the idea of Medicaid block grants. Many are concerned that block granting will  reduce not only the amounts of services available under State Medicaid programs, but also reduce rights and remedies available to beneficiaries. While this is certainly a possibility, I also believe that Medicaid ripe for reform and the ability to innovate at the local level holds promise.

What do you think?