Sunday, August 30, 2009

The (Nauseous) Obama Hitler Comparison.

During this summer of Town-Hall Meeting madness, I thought the Obama = Hitler placards were just the expression of some insignificant nut-jobs, but now I see this analogy taking hold in the right-wing media and I find it very troubling.
  • Hannity on Foxnews whose guest compared Obama policies to Nazism (a claim not only Hannity did not rebuke but seemed to condone as you can see on this video)

Last Thursday, I had a personal encounter with some of those right-wing extremists. As I was downtown Boston to see the motorcade of Ted Kennedy’s funeral, I saw a group of people singing and holding an Obama/Hitler sign (right there on the Commons by the Park Street subway station).
I decided to take a picture and talk to them to try to understand their approach. It turns out they were supporters of Lyndon LaRouche, the conspiracy theorist who patented the Obama-is-Nazi theme. Incidentally, he is also a defender of the authenticity of The Protocols of Zion and claims that Hitler was brought to power by the British and Wall street and that he didn’t actually write Mein Kampf.
In fact, that’s exactly what those people you see on the picture told me. They compared the U.S. bailout to Hitler’s support of banks, claiming at the same time that Hitler was a socialist. They also said that the goal of healthcare reform is to murder the mentally ill, the terminally ill, the invalids, and the disabled just like Hitler’s. (Although, strangely, they did not talk about the Jews).
Of course, by that point, I knew that talking to them was a waste of my time - they see anyone who disagrees as either ignorant and a victim of the cabal or as part of it and downright evil.
The Larouche supporters may not be many but they have caught media attention. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the LaRouche supporters have “contributed to the divisiveness surrounding the public debate on health care reform by producing and disseminating materials comparing President Barack Obama and other government officials to Hitler, Nazis and fascists, and by attending Congressional "town hall" meeting and other events around the country.
A good example is last week’s much-watched video of the exchange (see our post) between Rep. Barney Frank and a mad woman who claimed that President Barack Obama supported “a Nazi policy” endorsing euthanasia whom Mr. Frank asked simply, “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” which was all over the news. It turns out that the woman in question (a certain Rachel Brown) belongs to the “LaRouche Youth Movement”.

At the same time, there has been an attempt in some conservative circles to re-write history by claiming that Hitler was a socialist, and that the progressiveness of Wilson was a fascist movement. (if you start googling it, it gets scary).
The ridicule of such claims may make you smile but those pernicious images have been all over the regular news channels like NBC, MSNBC or CNN and they only add fuel to an already inflammatory atmosphere. Some people have even come to Town Hall Meetings with guns, and a pastor has recently called for the murder of President Obama. No wonder the death threats against Obama have increased by 400%.

These ‘protesters’ are outside the norm of course but there are enough nuts out there that might act upon the hate-speech and the Larouche and Foxnews people will bear a responsibility if anything should happen. Even comparing Obama to Hitler or the government to Nazism is a way to call for murder or terrorism. What else do you do with pure evil? The other scary part is that so many Americans are ignorant about history and so eager for conspiracy theories (which is a very American habit) that they are more likely to believe in any revionsionist view of history.
This blog is all for freedom of expression but hate speech should (no, must) have limits, especially on a channel as popular as Foxnews and I cannot believe that so many public figures can get away with publically wishing for the death of the U.S. president or with making fun of killing the Speaker of the House. It’s about time the GOP made a stance against such extremist views and stop trying to reap such evil fruit .


Monday, August 24, 2009

The French Healthcare Explained to the Americans (in a nutshell)

Following the false rumors I hear about healthcare in Europe, I think it is more than appropriate for this blog to say a few things about the French healthcare system in order to debunk the myths propagated by Foxnews and its clique.

Last night, Sean Hannity had a special entitled “Universal Nightmare” during which he lashed against socialized and single-payers of Canada, Britain and France. It must be noted, for starter, that, contrary to what MrHannity said, France does NOT have a single payer system. France utilizes a mix of government and market-based systems.

Only about 60 to 90% of most health care costs are covered by the public system and the remaining is covered by private insurers and 92% of the French have them.

In case of costly or long-term ailments (Cancer, Aids, etc..) however, the public system covers 100% of the costs (in a nutshell, the sicker you are, the more coverage, care, and treatment you get).

It should also be noted that most of those private insurers are actually non-profit mutual insurers (referred to as “mutuelle” in French) and so no one is denied insurance (on the ground of pre-existing conditions or other) and no one is asked about their medical background. Those who can’t afford private insurance have "universal health coverage".

99% of French residents are covered by the national health insurance scheme and about 92% of French residents have complementary private “mutuelles”.

Most of the funding is from a 13.55% payroll tax (employers pay 12.8%, individuals pay 0.75%). There is a 5.25% general social contribution tax on income as well. Thus, there is an approximately a 18.8% on employees for health insurance. There are also dedicated taxes which are assessed on tobacco, alcohol, and pharmaceutical company revenues. (source Healthcare Economist)

The French can choose their doctor as they please, even if recently, a “managed care” practice has been adopted, where patients have a “preferred doctors” who acts as a gatekeeper for (some) specialists.
The freedoms of diagnosis and therapy are highly protected and guaranteed by the system but American physicians earn about twice as much as French physicians. That, however, is somewhat compensated by the facts that there is hardly any practice liability (the legal system is tort-averse) and medical school, however competitive is tuition-free. Finally, there is usually no non-medical personnel – the billing goes directly to the Sécurité Sociale and reimbursement is now electronic.

There is no waiting list and if you go to the Emergency, and if you are seriously ill, you’ll be taken care of immediately without filling in papers or being asked anything. (however, if you go to the ER for something minor, you may have to wait for a while).

This is not to say that the system is perfect - its greatest drawback is cost :
France’s medical costs have been rising sharply, which has led to higher taxes on employers and workers and the national insurance system has been running deficits since 1985 — it currently stands at $13.5 billion. (Wall Street Journal)
Reimbursement of some medication is not as good as it used to be and some people have been complaining. I tend to think that it is also because the French have been pampered and they may need to toughen up. But they will defend their current system at any cost because it has produced results!
Access to health care appears to have produced a healthier nation: France’s infant death rate is 3.9 per 1,000 live births, compared with seven per 1,000 in the U.S.. The country has more hospital beds and doctors per capita than the U.S., and a markedly lower rate of mortality from respiratory disease. And France spends less (10.7% of gross domestic product) on health care than the U.S. (16% of GDP). (WSJ)
With the rising cost, there will definitely need to be some adjustment to be made but I believe that the French are very attached to their healthcare because it has proved to work well, and there will be ready to support it, even it becomes very costly. In the long run though, it can save a lot of money, if nothing else, because people don't wait to be entirely sick or old to get treated.
It is basically a question of priority for a society and what it values as most important. To the French health and education are priorities above any other.


Jon Stewart vs. Betsy McCaughey - a Must-see!

In ase, you missed it (but how could you!), here's the great exchange between Jon Stewart and Betsy McCaughey, the former Lt. Gov. of New York, who is the originator of the death panel myth which claims that covering consultations about living wills is a plan to kill the elderly.
What I like about this is that it is typical of people who have an agenda and don't even read what's the actual text says.
One of the great oucomes of this exchange is that is that McCaughey was forced to resign from her position on the Cantel Medical (a New Jersey medical device company). Who says she may be working for the bad guys.....

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Betsy McCaughey Pt. 1
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Betsy McCaughey Extended Interview Pt. 2
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests


Town Hall Meeting Madness

I always thought of town hall meetings as one of the greatest features of New England politics and of American democracy at large (the principle of direct democracy is nothing new of course; it was practiced by the Greeks and has been in use in Switzerland for centuries). They are supposed to be a place for debate, to hold politicians accountable, to express one’s views and to listen to other views.

This summer, however has proved me wrong. Those meetings have been disrupted by people shouting at each other, calling each other names, impugning the integrity of any elected official and not listening to anything that they are told. In fact, if anything, those meetings have worked against democracy by spreading disinformation, fear and rumors. They have shown the worst side of populism.

The worst part I think has been the Nazi comparison.

It is an insult to the millions who actually suffered and died under the Nazi regime and the people who compare Obama to Hitler or the government to Nazism (or even the Soviet Union) should learn a few things about history – and by the way, I felt the same way when left-wing extremists compared Bush to Hitler, although it was much less visible.
The anti-Obama rhetoric started with the “birthers”, and then it was the “deathers”, or “the death panel-ers” – those who believed that the Medicare covering consultations about living wills is a plan to kill the elderly. In most cases, they have been started by corporately funded lobby groups (see here) and partisan Republican strategists (see here for instance) and fueled by politicians (Sarah Palin for one).
The strangest thing is that so many people seemed to actually buy it. But of course, when fear-mongering videos by conservative advocacy groups like 60plus, or the so-called “Citizen for Better Medicare” both fronts for the pharmaceutical industry, are played to seniors, it is easy to understand why it may scare them (older people are easily afraid of change in the first place).

It is the whole concept of town hall meetings that I’m beginning to doubt – at least when it comes to healthcare. Public opinion is so ill informed and shouting and violent disruptions create unease and anxiety. The whole topic of healthcare is a complex one and people often don’t even know their own system. (like when they claim they don’t want to be under socialized medicine because of their fear of the government but are with Medicare and love it.).
In those meetings, it is whoever shouts the loudest that gets the attention, and has the upper-hand not the one who’s right. It also forces the politician talking to take a defensive posture (one against many) and they appear weak which reinforces the impression that they may be lying. It take someone with a strong personality like Barney Frank to not be swayed.

The problem is also that the narrative is framed by the way the media cover the issue and it is up to them –not only Jon Stewart or Rachel Maddow – to correct the narrative, talk about the real issues, and putting the whole supposedly angry dissenting reaction into context. Don’t count on foxNews for that of course. They’ll fuel the anger. But the other more credible media should be more aggressive in debunking the myths and the lies.

From watching a few of the Sunday talk-shows yesterday (Meet the Press, or better yet, George Stephanopoulos’s This Week), there is hope and it seems that they are beginning to tackle the core of the issue. It’s about time…..


Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Mzungu Lightning NYC Marathon Training Video

We're going to do something unusual by publishing this video made by a friend of a friend's.
First, because we'd like to help, then, because it has to do with crosscultural differences (albeit not Franco-American per se), and finally (and maybe most importantly for our readers) because it's a fun video.
Oh, and Africa (The Congo) is also the place where both members of this blog - the Joker and the Thief - first met and began their friendship, so it speaks to us....
Enjoy and feel free to donate at Unicef.


Saturday, August 08, 2009

Sea, cars and sun.

I just spent 2 weeks off in Southern California and it really is the best place to be on vacation – it’s convenient, laid-back and most importantly the climate is really the best in the world (even compared to Europe) in summer and so your body can rest fully.

The temperature in the midsummer goes from an average high of 77°F (25°C)to a low of 65°F (18°C) at night. It has the advantage of maritime and Mediterranean climates. Of course, I’m talking of just the few miles by the coast, from the Santa Monica bay to San Diego, not the Central Valley or the desert which can be hell (and often is).
No other place on earth has such an ideal climate in the summer months and it is the best in the country in the winter, which may explain why so many people live there and why it is so expensive.
But like anywhere else, there’s another side to the coin and in California, I think it is the high dependence on cars. More than the earthquakes or the fires when the Santa Ana wind blows, I think the car culture in California is what would be the hardest for a European like me to get adjusted to.
One the one hand, the road system is very convenient of course. Once you have figured out the freeway system, you don’t even need a map. And then, there’s always parking no matter where you go, even if you may have to pay for it. (However, you often find free parking if you are willing to walk 10 minutes which most people don’t seem ready to do). In fact, pretty much everything can be drive-thru so you don’t even need to park (Too much work!).

In many ways, Californian drivers are really pampered which may be why they are … the worst drivers! Of course, it all depends on your conception of a good driver but when you come from the East Coast or Europe, the way people drive in SoCa gets really REALLY annoying.
For one, they have absolutely no concept of faster traffic on the left lane and slower traffic on the right, which makes it very difficult to drive fast enough (and I’m not even talking really fast, just barely above the 65 mph limit) even on a six-lane freeway, and I suspect they just don't care (the "whatever" mentality so tyical of SoCa has its drawbacks) or that they simply have too many lanes.
Then, they take forever to turn, park and maneuver, even if it’s totally safe and if there’s plenty of room for them to do so. And they get totally freaked out if you are less than 30 inches (50 centimeters) from their car when you park. God forbid you may scratch their beautiful monstrous SUVs!

Of course, those are things that most Europeans experience when they come anywhere in the United-States but Californian have turned them into an artform.
I know it is cultural, I know it is because they are so used to having much more space than we do, but it is nonetheless annoying. I mean, it is perfectly okay when you’re on vacation, but I think it would take some time for me to adjust if I lived there and had to hurry to work in the morning for instance.
And then there’s the very fact that with a very few exceptions, you need a car to go anywhere. It is the worst place with this density of population for public transit. Everything is so spread out. You might think it is only natural that people decided to spread out and use their cars since they had so much space to begin with. Besides, Americans have always cherished personal freedom and mobility, rugged individualism and masculine force - look at the size of those SUVs!.
Surprisingly this has not always been the case. There was a time when an efficient mass transit system in Southern California using streetcars, light rail, and buses existed. It was the Pacific Electric Railway better known by the locals as “Red Cars” and the “Yellow Cars”. It interconnected system interconnected cities in Los Angeles and Orange Counties and also connected to Riverside County and San Bernardino County in the Inland Empire.

You might think such a system was doomed to fail with the rising of cars, but it turns out that the demise of the electric railway system was given a little push by the car and the oil industries. Basically, General Motors (along with Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum and a few others) created a holding to secretly buy street cars companies and dismantle them or replace them with buses manufactured by GM. In 1947, they were charged with conspiracy. It was known as the Great American streetcar scandal.

Granted, the demise of the trolley system was probably a matter of time and it disappeared in many other countries, including France. The environment was certainly not a concern back then – in fact, at the beginning, cars were seen as improvement over the horses and their dirty manure. Yet, it is a cautionary tale for the present when you consider new urban initiatives such as Platinum Triangle in Anaheim (CA) and its more transit-oriented environment or the expansion of Metrolink, the rather new (1991) regional rail system that serves Southern California. There is a real war going on with lobbyists of all kinds and in this economic crisis, and budget crisis, the way money is spent on infrastucture will shape the future of the rgion.

One thing that might help is people’s concern for the environment (even if it has slightly decreased recently) and the continuing congestion in the region. A strong and efficient transportation infrastructure is needed but it will take years.

In the meantime, and despite its car culture, traffic congestion, earthquakes and fires, Southern California is probably still one of the best places to live and definitely the best for a relaxing vacation.