Lessons in leadership and work from the AHCA mess, plus a letter to my congressman

Well, last week was interesting, wasn't it?

I want to start with some thoughts on Obamacare, and the reason I want to do that is so you don't think I'm a cheerleader.

The Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") is not perfect. It's barely even good. It did a couple of good things, like making sure anybody who wanted health care could get it, and made sure that if you had a preexisting condition, you could get a policy.

It's also way too expensive for most of us in the middle class (I say most of us, because I think some people who think they're paying too much would be paying way more on the open market, if they could get insurance at all). It's harder to figure out what's going to be covered under my plan — I can pick a doctor in my network, but it takes a lot of work to figure out which tests (if any) are carried out by labs in my network.

The deductible plans under Obamacare are ludicrous. Ten years ago, insurance cost me about $160 a month. If I went to the doctor, I paid $10 and insurance covered the rest. If I went to the eye doctor, I paid $20 and insurance covered the rest. If I got glasses, insurance covered roughly the cost of basic lenses and I was responsible for the frames and any lens upgrade I might want.

Now, it costs about three times as much for insurance (granted I'm older and I have a second person on my insurance and there's been inflation). But the kicker is, the first $5,000 of in-network care comes out of my pocket, outside of one physical. The insurance company negotiates down the cost of care, but doesn't kick in anything except a physical until I've spent over $10,000 (the cost of insurance plus the deductible).

Obamacare, in other words, is not amazing. But it's what we have, so that's where we have to start from.

Here's the thing: In all the years since we've known Obamacare isn't amazing, nobody's bothered to start writing something amazing.

And then Donald Trump was elected president, with one of his major campaign promises being to repeal Obamacare.

If anybody had been doing one iota of real work on health care over the last seven years, we would have had some idea of the basics of a new plan that could have helped us move forward.

There are plenty of career politicians in both houses of Congress — people who would certainly have been around to reap the benefits of their work whenever it came to fruition.

Not that that's why you do it. Remember, you're entitled to work hard, and that's basically it.

Instead, what we wound up with was a quickly-hacked-together piece of legislation that some people were affectionately calling repeal and go fuck yourself.

This is not what you get if you spend seven years putting together a good foundation and then refine some of the details. It's what you get when you assume that people fall in line behind you instead of actually asking them what they want.

It takes 218 votes to get a piece of legislation through the House. It has to be a pretty good piece of legislation, then, not something that gets hacked together.

Lesson One, then, is do the work.

Lesson Two is work with your colleagues.


Two more lessons learned came straight from the top.

Lesson Three: Don't give ultimatums. The president told the House to pass the bill or forget about it. Trump's been in office just over two months, and he left everything on the field on health care? That's even an insult to athletes who actually go out there and leave everything on the field.

If you leave everything on the field, you focused on nothing but this game, gave it everything you had, and are so exhausted at the end that you'll have to deal with the emotion of the result later. For now, all you can do is scrape yourself together and try to pull off your shirt so you can get off in the shower.

Not one of those things describes anyone in the legacy of the AHCA.

Lesson Four: Take some responsibility. And even if you don't control the whole process, understand who can actually help you. If instead you're angry at your son-in-law for being off skiing with your daughter and your grandkids, you clearly don't understand that your son-in-law's job is basically to say what he thinks should happen and hold your hand when things don't go your way.

Jared Kushner doesn't write policy and he doesn't vote on it. And frankly, if he didn't think this was a battle worth fighting, that's his business, not yours.


This is the letter I wrote to Congressman Buddy Carter on Sunday after I received his weekly newsletter. I'll update when I get a response. He only accepts email from his constituents, so unless you're in the first Georgia district, you can just read and enjoy (or whatever).

Congressman Carter,

You write in your most recent email to constituents (March 26, 2017) that "Obamacare is a disaster," and you list many reasons why that may be true.

You also blame a "small number of [your] colleagues in the House" for failure to pass the AHCA.

If a small number of your colleagues were against the AHCA, it would have passed -- at least 218 of them must have been against it.

The problem with dwelling on the faults of Obamacare is that you create no solutions.

Obamacare was always imperfect, and nobody -- Democrat or Republican -- has tried to fix it or work out any of the kinks in the past seven years.

The proposed version of the AHCA failed because the president rushed together a new bill and tried to bully it through the House with a "pass it tomorrow or forget about it" dictate, rather than spending the time working with a majority of the House to write good legislation.

It's going to take some time to write good legislation. If it means gut Obamacare and start over, then do that -- don't just pick apart what you and your colleagues don't like and hope it works out.

Look, I am a healthy 40-year-old man with a healthy wife and so far no children. That makes me fairly immune from whatever comes down the pike over the next few years; even if we're blessed with a child or two, we're in pretty good shape.

My parents are not getting any younger, and their premiums are way too expensive under Obamacare, but they would not have been eligible for coverage under the previous system because a bad back or a previous rotator cuff surgery would have been flagged as a preexisting condition.

We're not sure what would have changed for them under AHCA because nobody bothered to tell us what's in it, other than, "it's better."

I want you to understand something, before you read the rest of this letter. I'm a writer by nature, and do a fair bit of writing by trade. I have a vocabulary roughly three times that of the average college graduate. I say that because the words I'm going to use are very strong, and you should know that I'm picking them purposefully. Ready?

Get it the fuck together.

Your constituents know Obamacare isn't working. We're subject to it, unlike you and your colleagues who have federal health care.

You're not struggling. We are.

You don't have to tell us "Obamacare is a disaster." In fact, we'd really like it if you found your own descriptor. We've heard that one before. Chernobyl was a disaster. By that metric, Obamacare is at best annoying.

While you're coming up with words, try some that mean something. Here is what you said about AHCA in your email: "The legislation contains the critical reforms necessary to deliver relief and a patient-centered health care system with the choice and control needed to empower patients. "

In case you need someone to translate your fancy speech for you, that says, "AHCA contains changes that will give patients power."

Give me some details, please.

You don't fix a broken system by calling it a disaster and then hoping you can speak vaguely enough for long enough that people will cheer for the new one.

Do some fucking work.

I know it's difficult. Remember that you are a public servant. You represent us, but you work for us. It's not the job of your constituents to make you feel great about yourself. It's the job of your constituents to ask you to do great things, even if it takes sacrifice and hard work.

Even God never promised us the fruits of our labor, only the labor itself.

Now, take a deep breath, then decide to take some responsibility for working together with 217 (or more) of your colleagues, to write some legislation that's good for your constituents instead of your reelection campaign.

Yours,
Joshua Shear
Savannah, Georgia

I promised to update this if and when Rep. Carter responded, and I did get an email from him on April 7. I'm just going to paste the letter in and let you infer my reaction.

Thank you for contacting me about the urgent need to rescue America’s failing health care system.

As a lifelong health care professional, I have seen first-hand the devastating impact Obamacare has on health care in America, especially in South Georgia where I served patients for more than 30 years. This misguided law has driven up costs, taken away choices, and inserted Washington bureaucrats in to one of the most personal aspects of our lives: our health. It contained $1 trillion in new taxes, kicked 4.7 million Americans off their health care, and created a new class of uninsured with 19.2 million Americans who could not afford the coverage offered them.

I supported the American Health Care Act, which was our plan to rescue patients and families from the Obamacare train wreck. While imperfect, it put aside the failed policies of the past and built on the best ideas from around the country. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office confirmed it would lower costs and empower patients to make their health care decisions. I was disappointed this bill was not brought to the floor for a vote.

Please know that this is not the end. I will not stop working until we empower all patients with access to quality, affordable, patient-centered health care.

Thank you, again, for contacting me and for the benefit of your input. It is an honor to represent you in the United States Congress.

The presidential race and the problem with politics in the US


Note: This podcast was recorded before Ted Cruz's Super Saturday victories and Ben Carson dropping out of the race.

We have problems with our politics these days. I've been holding off on posting about it because I'm not sure I've had reasonable words, but comedian (and UFC commentator, etc.) Joe Rogan and former CIA covert operative Mike Baker really get it right.

Baker, who is more a rationalist than anything else (he has operational issues, for example, with Hillary Clinton — he explains in plain language what happened with her email), spells out the issue with anyone willing to run for the presidency: "There's a certain personality type that's way up its own ass that allows you to think, 'Yes, I should be president of the United States.'"

"We're down to assholes, basically," agrees Rogan. "Bernie Sanders seems like an old kook, he doesn't seem like an asshole," but he doesn't seem to think we should really be voting for anyone who would actually want the job.

That all happens in the first few minutes of the podcast, by the way. You needn't put yourself through very much of the video above (the first five or seven minutes will be plenty to get you started) to see where they head with the conversation.

Let me be honest with my perspective, before we get too deep in here. I'm a disenchanted liberal. I grew up in a strictly Democratic household, and identified as a Democrat until about 2000, when I really saw Ralph Nader's point. Barack Obama brought my back into the party, but quickly lost me (here's my very hopeful post after his first inauguration, and my jaded look forward after his reelection). I now live in a state with open primaries, so I have no need to register for a party ever again. In political "quizzes," I match up as a left-leaning Libertarian.

Louis C.K. — another comic — writes, in what I think is a really important rant about Donald Trump, puts it nicely:

When I was growing up and when I was a younger man, liberals and conservatives were friends with differences. They weren’t enemies. And it always made sense that everyone gets a president they like for a while and then hates the president for a while.

Around 11 minutes into his discussion with Rogan, Baker points out that somehow compromise is now seen as a weakness. And that's really a major problem for me. That's what we're built on: discourse and compromise. The rhetoric from both sides these days is not only angry, it's vindictive. And that's our fault as voters.

It's been pretty well figured out, I think, that to win a primary, a candidate has to move toward an extreme, and then will have to move to the middle to win a general election. What we don't know is what happens when the president gets into office — on Day 1, is he handed a book (he, here; we haven't had a she yet) of what we know and then he has to look back on his campaign promises and say, "Holy crow, we can't do that!"

Baker says soon we're going to need an end to the two-party system, to really have stronger other options. He also goes on to say he thinks presidential candidates should have to disclose who they'd like in their cabinet: after all, presidents don't know everything about everything, they take advice from their circle. Rogan goes even further, saying maybe we should eliminate the position of president, instead making decisions by committee.

We sort of do that, actually. We need a point person, and the president sort of acts as CEO — the board (cabinet, generals, etc.) gives him all the options, and the president has to make the final call. For example, Baker points out, there's a lawyer in the White House who advises the president on whether the secondary casualties that would result from going after a "high-value target" make it a doable operation.

As for Trump, Rogan says that people like him because he "talks shit," which he clearly does. Personally, I don't want someone who's verbal political tactics are a great way to get into a bar fight. "There's so many goofy white guys who are ready and psyched to have a reality star as president," he says.

C.K., in his rant, calls for people to just read up a little on Trump. "If you do vote for Trump," he writes, "at least look very carefully at him first." Here's a guy who has said he likes people who weren't captured, but further, that John McCain, who was the target of that criticism, "has to be very careful" for criticizing the candidate and that "he'll find out" why. I don't know about you, but the way I read that, any US soldier who gets wounded or captured is going to be in trouble, and that if you say anything bad about Trump, you'd better be prepared for...something.

We do know that Trump wants to change libel laws (that's a conservative publication I linked to, by the way). The Daily Beast (which claims to be independent but seems to lean liberal at a quick glance) has a good explanation of our current laws and Trump's proposed law.

Whatever you think of the Chronicle's take on Trump gutting the First Amendment, I can say that I watched his Super Saturday rally and noted that Trump said, before taking questions, "you know the press is among the most dishonest people created by God, so I would love to take a few questions from these dishonest people." Start around 12:37 here:

If I'd have been there, I probably would have left. As a voter (and Jew and member of the media), I'm scared of Trump; as a journalist, I'm over him. If you could get me to go to cover a rally, I'd be there with duct tape over my mouth.

I'll close with Baker talking about Trump and the American Dream. Baker served the US as a covert CIA officer abroad for many years, and now runs an intelligence agency called Diligence LLC (around 51 minutes into the conversation).

How does it happen that this country — this fantastic country, and again I've spent most of my life overseas — I can go to the deepest darkest shithole out there, somewhere out there [in the] middle of nowhere, and someone will say, "if I go to America and I can work this hard and I can do really well, I just have to, you know, if I can get to America," they still — people out there in the middle of nowhere — still believe the American Dream.

And yet you worry about it, because I think we seem to be giving up on it here. If this is the best we've got, if we're willing to follow this guy down the tunnel, I don't know where we're heading, but it's not good."

This week in political correctness (or is it?): Trump, Schumer, Mexicans, the Confederate flag and the Washington Redskins

Wow, it's an interesting week in political correctness, or whatever we're calling it these days.

Let's see. Should we start with the Confederate flag, Mexicans or the Washington Redskins? Hmm. Maybe Mexicans.

You may have heard that the Miss USA Pageant had to set up streaming video on its own website after being dropped by Univision and NBC (and later picked up by Reelz) after pageant owner Donald Trump called Mexicans "rapists." You know who else called Mexicans "rapists" (or insinuated that they are)? Comedian Amy Schumer. A couple of WaPo columnists are saying she should be Donald Trump's running mate.

Really, what I think they're saying, is that Schumer has a new movie out and a show on Comedy Central and maybe you should put up a boycott. Uh...here's the thing. Schumer is a comedian. She's trying to get a laugh. If she tries a joke and it doesn't work, she won't use it anymore. If people find her funny, she'll keep saying it, even if she doesn't believe it.

Donald Trump is trying to be president of the United States. You know, the guy who helps make laws and is expected to be able to talk to other world leaders about international policy.

Nobody really thinks Tom Segura wants to gain 800 pounds or that Louis CK thinks it's ridiculous that people have Chinese babies or Daniel Tosh this his his sister getting raped is a good practical joke. Know why? They're comedians. Donald Trump? Not a comedian. If Trump's elected, the president of Mexico can skip the Amy Schumer movie but is stuck sharing a border with a guy who said publicly he's probably a criminal.

On to the Confederate flag.

The biggest debate right now, of course, is the Confederate flag flying at the South Carolina Capitol. It's been there since South Carolina joined the Confederacy integration movements in the 1960s. It represents racism to some people, states' rights to other people, and a whole bunch of other stuff to other folks.

The question facing the government is, should it come down? The state Senate said yes it should, and the House debated for 11 hours before agreeing.

Of course it should come down BUT here's why. It represents nothing more than a rooting interest, and it's at a government building. The U.S. flag is a symbol of the United States. The South Carolina state flag is a symbol of South Carolina. The Confederate flag is a symbol of a union of states that hasn't existed in 150 years, and now represents a variety of things to a variety of people.

They might as well put up a Gamecocks banner and wait for the Tigers fans to lose it.

Ever since the Charleston church shooting, the Confederate flag debate has also seeped into popular culture. Golfer Bubba Watson said he'll remove the Confederate flag from atop his "General Lee" (the car from "Dukes of Hazzard," a show TV Land pulled).

Some are really angry about that. They say TV Land and Bubba Watson are bowing to popular pressure; they're "selling out." Of course they are! You know what happens to television stations when people stop watching? They go off the air. Know what happens when people won't buy tickets to PGA events because one of the athletes is doing something to bother them? The PGA takes away his livelihood. Of course they'll bow to popular pressure. That's how they stay popular, because that's how definitions work.

On almost a side note, some NASCAR fans in Daytona were flying the Confederate flag — sometimes above the U.S. flag. Now, I get the flying of the Confederate flag, but above the U.S. flag? That's at the very least disrespectful (and a violation of U.S. flag code); it might actually be treasonous. As in, actionably so. As in, your choice of what you fly on top of your camper could get you drawn and quartered.

More: Minnesota firefighter suspended for flying Confederate flag on fire truck »

Another thing that happened this week is a judge said the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office was right to cancel the trademark of the NFL's Washington Redskins. The trademark was canceled last year, though the team can keep the trademark until it completes the appeals process.

Under section 37 C.F.R. 1.211, Publication of applications, of the trademark code, subsection (d):

The Office may refuse to publish an application, or to include a portion of an application in the patent application publication (§ 1.215), if publication of the application or portion thereof would violate Federal or state law, or if the application or portion thereof contains offensive or disparaging material.

Essentially, under the determination that the term "Redskins" is offensive, the team can't hold a trademark on the name. That's not to say the team name has to change, but if they lose the trademark, they lose that big money on licensing. You or I or anyone else could start making Washington Redskins shirts or hats or bumper stickers or dog collars without paying the team for the use of the name. That's a huge business in sports.

That one's the most interesting to me, I think, because there's no precedent for it, it deals with a privately held business (even if the business is WAY in the public eye) and the outcome is going to swing millions of dollars in one direction or another and affect owners, employees and patrons all differently.