Sherrod’s Softball

Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, was back on Capitol Hill today to testify about the Affordable Care Act and the troubled website.  According to NBC News, was “grilled” by both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Finance Committee.

Except, apparently, for Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown.  If the rest of the hearing was a grilling, Senator Brown must have been in charge of the backyard softball game.  NPR reports that Senator Brown asked Sebelius to talk about the law’s legacy:  “What are people going to say about the Affordable Care Act in five years and in 48 years?”

Huh?  The Secretary has presided over the most disastrous rollout of a federal program in living memory, the country is currently grappling with the fallout from that failure and other issues posed by the Act, and Senator Brown is channeling his inner Oprah and asking Secretary Sebelius to speculate about a legacy?

In fairness, these kinds of politicized questions aren’t unusual.  As the NPR story also reports, a Republican Senator used his entire allotment of time to make a critical speech, without asking Secretary Sebelius a single question.  What’s the point of having Cabinet officers testify if they aren’t asked questions?

These partisan antics are the kinds of things that drive me nuts about Congress.  There are dozens of entirely legitimate questions to ask Secretary Sebelius about how this landmark statute is working, why the website wasn’t better designed, and other topics of great interest to Americans who are trying to understand why the rollout of “Obamacare” could be so mishandled and what they must do to comply with a complicated statute.  Can’t members of Congress lay aside their party affiliations and their desires to make speeches, even once in a while, actually ask questions that should be answered, and get answers that will help them to decide how we can move forward?

His Way Was “My Way”

NPR has been running a series on “Mom and Dad’s record collection,” where celebrities and average folks talk about a record their parents had that was associated with a particular memory or otherwise had a special meaning.

In the Webner household of my youth, Mom and Dad had an eclectic album collection — including some 78 rpm records — that featured classical pieces, swing, big beat, and the OSU marching band.  They didn’t often listen to music, but when they did, one song stood out ahead of the rest:  Frank Sinatra’s recording of My Way.

My father was by nature a quiet person, but give him a drink or two and My Way would be taken from its place of honor on the record rack and played like it was the national anthem.  If my Uncle Tony were in town, he and Dad were likely to stand up, spread their arms wide, and belt out the song with great gusto.  The lyrics, about a dying man who reflects on his life and the blows he’s taken but is proud that he did things his way, obviously spoke to something deep within them.  To others, the song might seem like a maudlin and over-the-top bit of self-congratulation by a stubborn egotist.

What was it about My Way that has such resonance for a car dealer and a stockbroker?  How many shopkeepers, pharmacists, accountants and other members of the corporate culture of the ’60s and ’70s similarly identified with the character in that song?

I think the attraction of the song was aspirational.  These were men who had their jobs and did their jobs, providing for their families and, in the process, undoubtedly making countless compromises.  They might go out for a drink after work, but for the most part they played their well-defined role in the world.  They identified with the rugged individualist in the song who insisted on doing what he pleased, even if their lives didn’t necessarily permit them to be that person.  When the song was played, it was a chance for them to let that tamped down inner individualist roar, in a way he never could in real life.

Fannie Mae, Baby Won’t You Please Sell A Home?

NPR ran a very interesting story about Fannie Mae, the government-sponsored enterprise that was supposed to support stable, affordable housing markets in the United States.  Fannie Mae itself became unstable during the economic crash in 2008.  Since Fannie Mae went into conservatorship in September 2008, taxpayers have supported it to the tune of a mind-boggling $86 billion.

What’s interesting about the NPR story is not the crushing cost of Fannie Mae — that sad story has been known for years — but the continuing costs imposed by the fact that Fannie Mae is the largest owner of foreclosed properties in America.  Fannie Mae owns a stunning 153,000 foreclosed homes, which means that it must pay to mow the yards, trim the shrubs, paint the exteriors, and engage in the other upkeep costs that normally would be borne by homeowners.  NPR estimates that Fannie Mae pays more than $36 million a year just in lawnmowing fees.  Fannie Mae also is generally considered to be the largest purchaser of paint and general appliances in America.  Of course, people in the neighborhoods where the foreclosed properties are located are counting on Fannie Mae to spend what is necessary to keep the places from becoming rundown hellholes that destroy neighborhood property values.  And, our government being what it is, one wonders how Fannie Mae decides whom to hire for all of the lawnmowing and home upkeep jobs for those many distressed properties.

Fannie Mae’s efforts clearly contributed to the housing bubble, and now those efforts leave us in the absurd position where the federal government is saddled with unwanted properties that will impose costs for years.  Our approach to government clearly has taken a wrong turn when a program, however well-intentioned, leaves our federal government owning more than 150,000 private residences and being the largest customer for home fix-up products and services in the country.

Explaining The Housing Market Doldrums

Yesterday I heard a segment of NPR’s Talk of the Nation that discussed the housing market in America.  The host and his guests discussed how housing prices may have bottomed out, how buying a home is cheaper than renting in some areas, how buying a home and making those monthly mortgage payments is a good step toward financial discipline and accumulation of personal wealth, and other factors that weigh in favor of buying a house.  They seemed mystified about why American consumers aren’t flooding into realtor offices to snap up homes at bargain basement prices.

I don’t think there should be much mystery about why the housing market is in the doldrums, however.  In my view, it is almost completely attributable to a lack of confidence and optimism about the future.  Many people in America have been deeply rattled by the economic turmoil of the past few years.  They’ve seen friends thrown out of work and bright young college graduates unable to find a job.  They’ve seen the value of their 401(k) portfolio on a roller-coaster ride and, if they are an existing homeowner, they’ve seen the value of their home fall with the bursting of the housing bubble.  What’s more, over the past few years they’ve heard assurances from economists and politicians about an economic recovery and confident predictions of dropping unemployment rates and robust economic growth, and those bullish assurances and predictions have consistently proven to be unfounded.

The old saying “once bitten, twice shy” applies here.  Americans don’t want to bet right now on economic growth; they understand that we teetering on the brink of dropping into another recessionary period.  They just want to hang on to their jobs, hunker down, and wait until things improve in the real world and not just in some academic’s econometric models.  Signing your name on a 30-year mortgage is a really big step.  Why would you want to do it if you don’t have any confidence that you will keep your job and that better economic days lie ahead?

Getting “Our Financial House In Order” And Playing “Talking Points” Bingo

The older I get, the more I am irked by the incessant use of “talking points.”  It’s bad enough that we all know that “talking points” are prepared for every governmental figure who is the subject of an interview, but it’s even worse when the “talking points” are used so often that the canned nature of the supposedly spontaneous “interview” becomes obvious to even the dullest citizen.  And it is even worse when the “talking points” use a phrase that is so devoid of meaning that they reflect an intent to obfuscate rather than enlighten.

Melody Barnes

So it was this morning, when NPR’s Morning Edition broadcast an “interview” with Melody Barnes, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, about tonight’s State of the Union speech.  (The transcript of the interview is here.)  The programmed nature of Barnes’ responses became clear immediately, when she used “financial house in order” twice during her answer to the very first question.  At that point, I felt like I should be playing “talking points bingo” and taking a slug of beer every time she used the phrase during the interview.  And in fact she used it at least two more times.  Wasn’t she embarrassed to keep repeating the same thing over and over?  I’m sure she is an intelligent, witty person, but the constant resort to the “talking points” made her sound like a robot.  When I got home I checked, and sure enough Press Secretary Robert Gibbs used the same “fiscal house in order” comment in his briefing yesterday.  I’d be willing to bet that the other Obama Administration officials being interviewed elsewhere in the media today used “getting our financial house in order” repeatedly in their responses to questions.

What does getting our “financial house in order” even mean?  It sounds like a carefully focus group-tested phrase that every listener infuses with her or his own meaning.  Some may think it means raising taxes, some may think it means cutting spending, and some may think it means “investing” through more government spending.  It doesn’t have any true meaning — and that is probably the point.  It’s a way of sounding like you are saying something without saying anything at all.

If President Obama uses the phrase “getting our financial house in order” during his State of the Union speech I will be disappointed — and I’ll probably say “bingo” and drink a beer.  I’m sick of politicians who won’t tell us what they actually intend to do, and even sicker of politicians who play ridiculous word games to try to mask their true plans.

An NPR Disappointment

I am a National Public Radio listener.  I almost always listen to Morning Edition on the way to work, All Things Considered on the way home from work, and the NPR lineup on Saturday morning.  I’ve heard Juan Williams express his opinions on NPR countless times.

When I heard that NPR had fired Williams for comments he made on Fox News, I was surprised.  When I read his full comments, I was even more surprised, and when I heard that NPR had concluded that his comments were inconsistent with their internal policies, I was shocked.  Are we really to the point where making an honest comment about feeling concern, in a much broader context, is sufficient to give rise to a dismissal?  And what exactly are the NPR policies that were violated?  As a listener, don’t I have a right to know what kind of speech codes NPR is applying to its commentators?  (And, incidentally, why didn’t those codes prevent me from hearing countless droning Daniel Schorr commentaries that inevitably circled back to the Nixon era?)

I know that many people consider NPR to be a bastion of liberal bias, but I’ve always appreciated its presentation of the news.  It profoundly disappoints me that NPR would give a long-time, respected commentator the boot for expressing honest views that cannot even remotely be construed as hate speech.  I am appalled to hear about this kind of censorship, and it causes me to lose enormous respect for NPR as a member of the news media.

Let Reporters Report

I listen to NPR’s Morning Edition on my way to work.  I like it because, during my 25-minute commute, I get a pretty good sense of whether anything significant has happened in the world in that last few hours.  I also usually get to hear a more in-depth extended piece about an interesting topic, like what is happening in a foreign land or a developing social phenomenon.

One thing about Morning Edition drives me nuts, however.  I call it “conversational news.”  It occurs when the host — and it always seems to be Steve Inskeep — talks with an NPR reporter in the field.  Rather than the reporter just delivering his report, he or she and Steve will have a stilted conversation during which Steve will inevitably say “I’m confused — didn’t the government just take the opposite position?” or something similar that consciously attempts to move the story along.  My hypothesis is that, somewhere along the way, NPR decided that a reporter just delivering his or her report, perhaps with an interview comment or two spliced in, was not sufficiently exciting for listeners.  As a result, we get the silly back and forth between the seemingly perpetually confused host and the reporter who seeks to bring order out of chaos.

Dear NPR:  Please just let the reporters report!  Don’t waste our time and insult our intelligence with the phony and contrived discussions.  They are exceptionally irritating and detract from what is otherwise a fine news program.

This I Believe

One of my favorite continuing NPR features is “This I Believe,” which is based on a 1950s radio program of the same name hosted by Edgar R. Murrow. It features ordinary Americans who, in three-minute increments, share their deeply held philosophies. The series is coming to an end after four years, which is a shame. It is one of the few places in the mainstream media where you can hear the unvarnished thoughts and genuine voices of everyday citizens about how they try to live their lives.

What do I believe? In the power of saying “thank you.”