Monday, July 20, 2009

Keep The Trains Rolling

These last couple of weeks I’ve been pretty annoyed with the DC Metro system. When I moved here, I liked the fact you could see how much time you had before the next train came. That was until I saw there were times you had to wait twenty minutes. I’m on the Red Line and there was a major accident going up toward Maryland, so DC Metro has been very cautious (and rightly so) in running the train. This past weekend another accident occurred in San Francisco on their light-rail system. This is all after a report was issued by The American Society of Civil Engineers that graded America’s infrastructure a D. The report said the main problem was that the current infrastructure is getting old, and there hadn’t been the leadership necessary to push for changes in the system.

We all know the deficit and economic climate that America is facing has put certain constraints on what states can spend money on. This is particularly true for the nations transportation system. Even though ridership is at a fifty year high, ninety-percent of America’s transit agencies have had to cut services or raise fares. The stimulus package set money aside to make improvements for transit infrastructure, but if you talk to the people who run the agencies, they will tell you they also need more money for their operating costs. Past spending measures did not allow funds to be used for operating subways or buses, and the stimulus package originally did not allow for this either. But when Congress had passed the war-funding bill this year, a provision was put in to allow some money from the stimulus to be used to pay for operating costs. While the economy has shrunk, tax collections that agencies rely on have been lower, and current fares that metro agencies charge still only cover a fifth the cost of a ride.

So despite my frustrations, I digress. Public transportation is extremely important to the way people function in their every day lives. Elderly and disabled people rely on these systems to get to the doctor, go food shopping, and allow them to be social and active in their communities. People also rely on this system to go to work. Major cities are already congested with traffic (no one likes rush hour) and not only does public transportation get cars off the road, it has a double impact of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

While Congress has allowed for recent funding to be used for operating costs, this should be done for future transportation spending bills as well. Operating costs are just as important as it is to maintain the system. One cannot be done without the other. Some members of Congress are afraid that transportation agencies will become reliant on the money that will be used for operations. But given the importance of public transportation (not to mention the fact it would save jobs) it is crucial for the federal government to step in order to make sure the nation can operate efficiently.

Something that the transportation agencies themselves can do, is to start to charge their riders fee at the pace of inflation. Now, before you say don’t raise my rates, remember what inflation is. It is the rise of general prices of goods and services. As I mentioned before, one of the problems agencies have is not raising enough revenues to operate. New York just had to raise their rates from $2.00 to $2.50. Having grown up there, I know it has been a few years since they had done so and because of that they lost more money since the amount they were charging was not equal to what the current purchasing power of the dollar is. This means consumers are still paying the same rate it only feels like they are paying more.

So I won’t tweet anymore about how annoyed I was taking the Metro these past couple of weeks. Clearly, important steps need to be taken to make our transportation networks better. Some of these steps can be taken now which will also help the economy. By making infrastructure improvements, people will need to be hired to make the improvements, and then build them on the aging tracks. While the momentum to fight global warming and rely less on foreign oil is high, making the nations transportation system should be a high priority. If it is done correctly, it can be something that America can proudly announce they gave to future generations that will help them run the country.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

American's Can Handle The Truth!

It’s not easy being the CIA now a days. Between the torture at Abu Gharib, Guantimo Bay, and at other secret prisons around the world, America’s intelligence community has been taking a beating in the media which has led to a collapse in public confidence.

In the movie A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson argues we need him (a four star general) on that line defending America and argues the people turn a blind eye because (as he yells at Tom Cruise) “You can’t handle the truth!” Recently though, a lot of truths have come out.

While Jack was arrested for giving an order to kill a American soldier, the latest real controversy is over former Vice President Richard Cheney and what he told the CIA not to do. The CIA was planning assassination attempts on top Al Qaeda officials. Currently, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) are conducting the same type of missions on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan where these officials are thought to be hiding. What the CIA was trying to plan was to place spy’s in foreign countries in order to be able to find and kill the Al Qaeda leaders. During the planning, Vice President Cheney told the CIA not to tell Congress about these plans.

Congress is having a frenzy with this. Key members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are threatening the White House that they will pass legislation granting them more oversight authority. President Obama has said if they do he will veto the legislation. Of course no public statements by President Obama of other White House officials have been made because they want to keep the focus on health care. Why pour gasoline on a small fire?

Now, the Vice President should not have told the CIA to withhold information from Congress. Congress has every right to oversee what the executive branch is doing. When Leon Panetta came out and said the CIA was not truthful when informing Congress about the use of torture, a commission should have been convened to investigate why this information was withheld, and make recommendations to make sure it does not happen again.

In the case of torture, the past administration was clearly trying to cover it up. The only way the public and Congress found out about what was going on at Gitmo was because a memo by the Red Cross was leaked to the press. American’s were shocked by this news and President Bush even claimed the tactics being used were not torture. If you’re going to fight a war to protect your way of living, you should also make sure the laws that bind your society are being followed.

It is important to note that the plans for the assassination attempts never came to be implemented, and Panetta stopped the Agency from developing them. But let’s assume for a second that Congress did know about what the CIA was planning. Is it really plausible to believe that those members who knew about the plans would come out and say those people (who planned the attacks on September 11th 2001) should not be gone after? I don’t think so. Even now there has been no talk about whether the CIA should or should not have been doing these plans, Congress was only mad because they weren’t told that these plans were being developed. If they were, what controversy would we be talking about?

How people perceive things in the media greatly affects the way Congress goes about making laws. People hated the fact that TARP was a bailout. Congressional Democrats should know that they are not going to win their next election based on what authority the Intelligence Committees have. It is easy to get caught up in the frenzy of what is almost a secret world. Movies and television shows are made about it. So while I’m no fan of the former Vice President, my advice to Democrats is not to take your eye off the ball and work on something (like healthcare) which scores big points with the public.

Between the news of torture, having not found any WMD’s in Iraq, and 9/11, people still seem to be trying to get on with their lives. So there you have it, American’s can handle the truth, and so should Congress.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Healthcare, Here We Come

So insurance companies like to say that the federal government won't be able to keep health care costs down, you won't be able to choose your doctor, and you'll have some bureaucrat telling the doctors what treatments they can and cannot perform on their patients. I will now explain why these arguments are wrong.

Case in point: Health Maintenance Organization's (HMO). These companies were started in the 1990's and was thought to have solved the problem of rising health costs. Groups of people would join a HMO and the organization would negotiate on behalf of the people in thier gr0up. This drove health care costs down. Why? Because doctors wanted to treat the patients. It's their job, it's how they make a living. When doctors saw the potential amount of patients they would be able to get they would take the HMO's insurance because they then had the chance to get more patients and earn more money.

So, a big group of people joined a health care plan which was able to drive costs down, sound familiar? President Obama and Democrats in Congress want to create a federal program in order to do the same thing. With close to 50 million people without health insurance in this country, the government would be able to charge less to join the federal program and negotiate for a large amount of people, driving down health care costs. Doctors will want to be involved in the government's program because once again (you guessed it!) it's how they make a living.

And for the last two arguments; as I said before doctors will want/need to be in this program because they provide a service and therefore need people to serve. There will be plenty of people who will join the government program also even if they already have insurance (unless of course they like paying all those high costs to private companies). I also do not feel threatened by a bureaucrat telling a doctor what to do. The fact of the matter is that's not their job. Their job would be to make sure people are getting the coverage they need so doctors can provide their services. Last time I checked, older people wanted to be covered by Medicare and Medicaid and I haven't heard anyone say those programs don't work.

Not to mention the new computer system passed in the last stimulous package. This will help estimate medical costs and also allow doctors to know what treatments work better then others which will also help drive costs down.

Even Wal-Mart is on board. The retail giant loves to say that now 90% of their employees have health coverage. And yes, they admit most of them are covered through government programs.

Congressman Charles Rangel yesterday announced how the Democrats plan to pay for a new federal health care plan. They will be raising taxes on individuals who earn $280,000 and up a long with couples earning $350,000 or more. The plan will raise an estimated $540 billion over ten years while the program itself is supposed to cost $1 trillion in the same amount of time.

When polled, the vast majority of American's say they are willing to pay higher taxes so everyone can receive health insurance. This plan just makes too much sense to pass up. Those who are against this program are the insurance companies who are afraid of the competition. I'm confident that health insurance will be afforded to everyone in this country. Congress wants to get something done though before the August recess, so for everyone's sake, let's hope none of them get sick.