A Boisterous Meeting with Republican Congressman, Andy Barr

Andy Barr

On Saturday, I attended a raucous meeting with Andy Barr – the Republican lawmaker who represents Kentucky’s 6th congressional district. About 300 people were there, and were loaded for bear.

In the hubbub before the meeting, a friend told me that Barr had scheduled the Richmond gathering to avoid an even bigger assembly in Lexington. According to my friend, Barr’s original intention was to meet his constituents there at the Kentucky Theater. However, anticipation of a huge angry crowd led the congressman to relocate to Richmond’s smaller community, where he evidently thought fewer would be in attendance. (I’m sure he was surprised that so many people showed up anyway – no less angry, it’s certain, than Lexingtonians.)

Meanwhile back in Lexington, the meeting went on as planned. However, audience questions were addressed to empty chairs representing the “empty suits” who declined their constituents’ invitation, viz. Mr. Barr, Mitch McConnell, and Rand Paul.

The Richmond meeting began with everyone standing, hands over heart reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance.” For me it was the Colin Kaepernick moment I’ve been long promising myself. I remained seated to protest the Neo-fascism increasingly associated with the national banner so profoundly dishonored by our current “leadership.”

Then Barr gave a tedious presentation on Trumpcare. He described it in terms of a “liberation” from the Obamacare that, he said, all of us hate. [The remark drew boos and cries of dissent from the crowd that gave no evidence of Trump supporters other than Mr. Barr’s staffers. (And I found myself even wondering about them!)]

Barr’s Power Point presentation on the American Health Care Act (aka Trumpcare) was full of jargon and blah-blah. The crowd’s jeers showed it was clearly anxious to have its own voice heard. The representative and others from the audience had to repeatedly remind interrupters that they were only prolonging the congressman’s painful monologue, and needed to allow him to finish. Mercifully, he did after about 20 minutes. As one woman later scolded, “You have to learn to do less talking and more listening.”

Some of the questions that followed focused on Donald Trump:

  • “What is it like to work for a bat-poop (sic) crazy idiot like Donald Trump?” one woman asked.
  • “Lyin’ DJT has you Republicans looking like fools,” another commenter added.
  • “As a respecter of the Constitution, what are you going to do about Trump’s obvious breaches of the emoluments clause?” (Art. 1, section 9, clause 8)

However, most questions addressed wider-ranging issues. All of them showed that their posers had done their homework. The questions addressed health care, climate change, discrimination against Muslims, provisions for persons with disabilities, taxes, the defense budget, and defunding of the arts and public radio. Nearly all of the questions were highly charged with emotion.

Responses from the congressman were what you’d expect:

  • Trumpcare offers you choice and saves money.
  • There are many opinions about the extent of human causes of climate change, so we don’t want to act in haste. (This response prompted the questioner to reply, “Sir, your stunning ignorance on this question represents a failure in your solemn responsibility as our representative to be better informed.”)
  • During his speech to congress (9/24/15) even Pope Francis didn’t call for more government laws. (Clearly, Mr. Barr was unfamiliar with the pope’s eco-encyclical Laudato Si’ (LS). There Pope Francis calls on national governments to submit to an international body with legislative authority to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture (LS 53, 173-175).
  • Radical Islamic terrorism is the number one threat facing our country. (Evoking laughter, boos and general dissention from the audience)
  • The budget deficit means we have to cut back on public spending. (Provoking a person beside me to yell out, “How about taxing the rich?”)
  • Defense of the country is my number one responsibility.

Recently, on “Democracy Now,” Ralph Nader reminded viewers of the importance of attending meetings like the one in Richmond. It’s the principal place, Nader said, where citizens can exercise direct power over government officials scared-to-death of losing their jobs in 2018. Until Trump’s election, “Coffee with the Congressman” meetings had more staffers than constituents in attendance. Now across the country, the order of the day features standing room only audiences as loaded for bear as the Richmond crowd.

It’s up to us to keep the pressure on. Let’s make the next meeting even more uncomfortable for our government employees from the insulated Beltway.

Sunday Homily: Jesus Rejects Money and Work: He Embraces ‘Back to Nature’ Abundance

Gandhi Greed

Readings for 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 49:14-15; PS 62: 2-3, 6-9; I COR 4: 1-5; MT 6: 24-34. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/030214.cfm

Today’s liturgy of the word raises the question of work and money – always two difficult elements of life for those claiming to follow Jesus’ Way. They’re difficult because both occupy so much of our attention and lives that they can distract us from what’s really important – what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.” Consequently, in this morning’s Gospel selection, Jesus tells us to back off from both money and work while opening ourselves to the abundance of God’s Kingdom.

For American workaholics, that’s surprising. It’s especially challenging for those who love to attack “the undeserving poor” – that is, workers empowered by government programs even like the Affordable Health Care Act. (I’ll get to that in a minute.)

About money Jesus directly compares the worship of God with the common attitude Americans adopt towards money – or as Jesus puts it, “Mammon” (the name for an idol). It’s impossible, Jesus says, to make money the focus of your life while claiming to serve God. In fact money can make us hate God. But that’s not the surprising part.

What is surprising is that Jesus’ claim comes very close to saying that loving God should make us hate money. That seems to be the meaning of his words recorded in today’s selection from Matthew. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

In other words, there’s a choice to be made here: serve God or money; hate and despise money or hate and despise God. No one can have it both ways. The text seems to bear that reading, don’t you think?

Of course Jesus’ pronouncement will lead many to “clarify” his words to mean don’t be attached to money. It’s the service of money – it’s making money your master – they would explain, that causes hatred of God.

Okay. But who among us (even financiers, banksters and hedge fund managers) would claim to serve money even though they spend all their waking hours scheming about it. Who would admit that they’re attached to money, or have made it their master? Even those 85 individuals proud of owning as much as half the human race would probably deny that they “serve” money or that it’s their master. (And if they’re right, we can stop our discussion right here!)

On the other hand, those wishing to have it both ways might go further. They might invoke “nature.” They might point out we obviously can’t do without money; it’s a product of nature (human nature) they might say. Some might even argue we can’t even do without capitalism and its drive to “maximize profit.” Capitalism and profit maximization simply represent the inescapable way the world works. They are reflections of the natural order. If they allow 85 people to own more than half the world, so be it. That’s simply natural. (Please hold that thought.)

Such talk about nature brings us to my second point – Jesus’ attitude towards work and those who choose not to. Here he definitely has a “back to nature” approach. And once again, it’s surprising. Jesus is not talking about the naturalness of competition or of the law of supply and demand.

In today’s reading from Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says clearly that the natural order not only minimizes the importance of money (at the very least); it also minimizes the importance of work. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says, “they don’t sow or reap or store food in barns.” Or “Consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin.” Learn from them both. Follow their example.

Say what? Is Jesus intention here to discourage work itself? (Talk about contradicting “American” values!) It’s easy to draw that conclusion, I think. After all, he seems to be saying don’t sow or reap or store products in warehouses. Don’t toil or spin. It’s a short step from there to saying, “Don’t work!”

Besides that, Jesus seems to have lived out that latter implication. I mean as an able-bodied 30-something, he left his job as a carpenter to wander from village to village in Palestine philosophizing and apparently living on hand-outs. On the road, he had no home and must have sought shelter from friends. Moreover, he got rough fishermen to leave their nets and follow his example of what appears to be idleness as far as economic productivity is concerned.

In fact, Republicans today would clearly regard Jesus and his apostles as examples of the idle undeserving poor – not to say bums – living off the donations of hard working people. I mean, does that contradict our Protestant Work Ethic, or what?

And that brings me to that Obamacare business.

Did you follow last month’s flap over the Congressional Budget Office’s Report on jobs and President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act (ACA)? It said that the ACA would induce 2.5 million people to leave work. They’d escape “job lock” – i.e. the inability to leave employment because doing so would lose them health coverage.

All hell broke loose.

When Paul Ryan (R-Wis) heard that, hypocrisy demanded that he and his Republican cronies reverse their position on “job lock.” Formerly they were against it. In fact a couple of years ago, Ryan said,”[The] key question that ought to be addressed in any healthcare reform legislation is, are we going to continue job-lock or are we going to allow individuals more choice and portability to fit the 21st century workforce?”

Now, however, since freedom from “job lock” represented a boon of the ACA, Ryan and the Republicans had changed their tune. They quickly became opponents of “more choice and portability.” Having realized that Obamacare will not eliminate jobs, but increase worker freedom to change jobs or leave the workforce altogether, GOP spokespersons were forced to readopt their familiar tack of demonizing empowered workers and the poor.

This meant that mothers and fathers leaving coveted jobs at McDonalds or as greeters in Wal-Mart to spend more time with their families were characterized as slackers and lazy. According to Ryan, such people lose respect for “the dignity of work.” They were worthy of their traditional rank among Republicans’ favorite target, the undeserving poor. (Never mind that Ryan has done everything he can to undermine labor’s dignity – but that’s another story.)

The point is that Jesus and his sainted friends were not only among the undeserving poor, they flaunted it. They recognized that according to God’s natural order, the world belongs to all creatures including the birds and flowers. If its resources were shared according to Jesus’ Kingdom values, there’d be enough for everyone – just as there was for birds and flowers in Jesus’ day.

So in minimizing the importance of money and praising freedom from work, Jesus was not being unrealistic or some starry-eyed hippy. Instead (as always) he was proclaiming the Kingdom of God. In God’s order, he insisted, there is abundance for everyone – or as Gandhi said enough for everyone’s need, but not for their greed.

Realizing the reality of God’s and nature’s abundance – and not giving in to the world’s myth of scarcity, overwork, and focus on money – should give workers and those not belonging to Ryan’s 1% courage to demand what is their birthright.

That natural condition is a life without worry about making ends meet and with enough leisure to enjoy life just like the birds and flowers.

Italy’s Healthcare System Much Better than Ours

Health Care

Following our arrival in Tuscany on the first leg of our journey to India, our extended family had some medical problems, one of them serious.

Less seriously, I ran out of a medication I’ve been taking. More seriously, my wife, Peggy, contracted a virulent case of poison ivy. Most serious of all, Carla, my daughter’s au pair from Mexico, came down with appendicitis. Each of these incidents highlighted the superiority of the Italian medical system to what we have in the United States, and the direction we must take to improve our healthcare procedures.

Begin with my running out of pills. . . . I tried to get my prescription filled before leaving the states. Since we’ll be gone for nearly 5 months, and I need to take one pill each day, I decided that I’d buy180 pills from my local Rite Aid. My doctor gave me the “script” without any trouble. However, my pharmacist informed me that I needed my insurance company’s O.K. to cover the cost. That would be about $100 for 30 pills, with my co-pay being $8.00.

So one month before leaving home, I phoned my insurance company. After three phone calls by me and a couple by my pharmacist – all preceded by lengthy and repetitious “conversations” with an automated responder – permission was granted.

However when I actually tried to obtain the pills just before departure, neither I nor my pharmacist was able to do so. There was no record of the previously granted permission. So the process had to start all over again, and I had no time to spare.

More phone calls . . . . More conversations with machines . . . . Lengthy arguments with “representatives” and their supervisors. . . . More than an hour wasted . . . . In the end, permission refused.

By contrast, when I arrived in Tuscany, I tried to get the prescription filled at the local pharmacy. After complimenting my Italian, the pharmacist simply asked “How many boxes do you want?”

“How much will they cost?” I asked.

“Six dollars a box,” came the reply.

“I’ll take two for now,” I answered.

I gave the pharmacist the money. She gave me my two boxes of pills. She never asked to see a prescription. I went on my way wondering about the $102 dollars somehow “saved” in the transaction.

And then there’s the case of my wife’s poison ivy. She came down with that after doing some yard work just before leaving our home in Berea, Kentucky. It was pretty severe – so much so in fact that her arms swelled and the rash covered both of them and had spread to her face, neck and torso.

So off to the pharmacy she went. She obtained some anti-rash skin cream there. When that proved ineffective, she visited the walk-in clinic attached to the pharmacy. She joined the line of about 10 people waiting to see the doctor about their varying ailments.

When her turn came, Peggy was examined, and the doctor prescribed some pills – 2 different kinds. They were purchased at the neighboring pharmacy for a total of about $20.00.

Problem solved. No cost for the doctor’s visit. No insurance cards or discussion of money. No phone calls to the insurance company, its machines, “representatives,” and supervisors. No paper work. Hmm. . . .

Carla came down with appendicitis just before we arrived in Panzano, the small town in the Chianti region of Tuscany where we were staying.

After experiencing severe stomach pains, she went to the pharmacy’s walk-in clinic, was quickly diagnosed and whisked off to the hospital in Firenze by ambulance.

They operated immediately. Before admitting her to the operating theater, the administration asked only to see Carla’s passport, for identification purposes. Afterwards, she was hospitalized for three full days. She was released with a simple “arrivederci” and an appointment to return in a week’s time to remove her stitches. Once again there was no discussion of money or payment. And, according to Carla, her treatment was top notch.

By the way, she wasn’t using Mexico as a point of comparison. She had experienced a gall bladder operation in Connecticut about a year earlier. She’s still receiving bi-weekly communications from the hospital about payments and insurance coverage.

Recently former President Bill Clinton, the so-called “Secretary in Charge of Explaining Sh*t,” spoke about the inferiority of the U.S. medical system and how curing its ills would benefit the economy.
It’s the most expensive system in the world, he remarked. Our country spends 17.9% of its gross domestic product on health care. Yet the U.S. is ranked (at best) about 25th in terms of its quality. Italy and France are far ahead of it.

Do you want to transform the economy Clinton asked? Reform the medical system, and reduce the share of GDP devoted to health care to the level achieved by Switzerland and the Netherlands – about 12%.

“The difference between 17.9 percent and 12 percent is $1 trillion a year,” Clinton said. “A trillion dollars that could go to pay raises, or to hire new employees or to make investments that would make our economy grow faster or to provide more capital to start small businesses or to expand others or to support diversifying and strengthening agriculture. You name it. A trillion dollars is a lot of money to spot our competitors in a highly competitive global economy.”

To implement Clinton’s recommendation, it would be necessary to introduce a Single Payer health care system into the U.S. President Obama wanted to move toward that system when he pledged to make a “public option” part of Obamacare. That meant, of course, giving people a choice between the ultra-expensive and globally inferior system we endure in the U.S. on the one hand, and something like the Italian system my family has just experienced on the other.

However, to please his opponents, Obama quickly took the public option off the table even before negotiations about health care reform began.

Bankrolled by Big Pharma and the insurance lobby, Obama’s opponents knew that most of us would choose what we’ve experienced in Italy over the inefficient, bureaucratic, and budget-busting monster that’s ruining our economy.