Are We As Crazy as They Think? MS Town Hall Meeting
I was originally going to compose a long post about the emotional rollercoaster that was last night's town hall meeting on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Keep in mind that these are people still bitter over their battles with insurance companies post-Katrina, so would they have a more nuanced view of a public option plan designed to compete with the tyrannical health insurance companies? Ah, one can dream. But still, I had my surprises and disappointments, and I left (disgusted, early) still nursing a love/hate relationship with my home state.
In a part of the country where being on time is often seen as being early, the parking lot of our meeting facility was full forty minutes before the meeting started. Cars were backed up over the hill of a nearby bridge, barely moving as police ushered people into the parking lot. A line from the entrance snaked across the entire lot, and I got in behind a 60-something couple who conversed with a man of about 50.
The 60-year-old woman was tall, thin, with a sun-worn face and wearing a denim jacket composed of American flag swatches. She was showing off her belt buckle--bought at a gun show--which had the barrel of a gun engraved on it and pointed outward at innocent bystanders. Her husband's shirt proclaimed that he hearted NY. The 50-year-old man wore office clothes, but seemed to appreciate the gun belt buckle that his new acquaintance was extolling. I saw a van nearby with stickers reading, "I'm already against the next war" and "War is terrorism with a bigger budget." I guessed it didn't belong to any of these three people.
The woman was telling the 50-year-old man not to log on to any government website (on the healthcare bill, I think) because, "they have you if you do." By the context of the conversation, she seemed to think that the government could spy on you from these websites. I just wanted to warn you people. ;)
So, in general, they bitched about government healthcare. I talked to them a little bit. The woman said that until she got on Medicare, she was "cash and carry" for her medical bills. I asked what she would have done if she had gotten in a car wreck and had huge emergency bills. She said her car insurance would cover hospital bills from a car wreck, but if she had a hospital bill to pay, she could make small payments to the hospital no-interest. She said that the hospital hated it, but she wouldn't put it on her credit card when the interest had just gone up to 25%.
The woman and the 50-year-old office worker man talked about how they wouldn't give to charities like the United Way. "Most of that money goes into the pocket of somebody in their office," the man said. He went on to say that he would give to his neighbors--he gave one $300 after Katrina and wasn't worried when he got it back--but he wouldn't help these big charities.
The lady agreed, but said she did give to the Salvation Army. They helped her years ago when she was broke and alone with two kids. "It was my own fault," she said. "I took up with the wrong man and got stranded." The Salvation Army helped her until she got a job. Her new boss gave her grocery money before her first pay day. She went to a landlord and told him that she had just gotten a job but had no money and no place to stay, so he had her pick an apartment and just pay when she could. Her first Christmas, people from work showed up with presents and a Christmas tree for her kids, while she stood there sobbing. She was from out-of-state, but she said when she had lived here that people had been so nice that, after moving out of Mississippi for a job, she resolved to come back when she got older. She and the 50-year-old man talked about the importance of paying it forward (she said she had some tenants who hadn't paid rent in a year, but how could she throw them out?). They talked about people who abuse welfare (the man had a sister who had been on welfare for 35 years) and about people who abused their FEMA money. The man said his State Farm insurance had gone up 40% after Katrina and was about to go up a huge amount again.
So I reflected on this as we got into the building and were asked to sign in. Here were people who did believe in helping their neighbors, but their definition of neighbor was a small, select group. This woman was helped years ago by virtual strangers, so perhaps, somewhere deep down, she believes that anyone in need could get help in the same way. Why would the government need to intervene? In her eyes, they waste and misuse. When studies come out to show "The Most Giving State" (this includes charity, tips, etc.), Mississippi comes out on top many times1. I have always struggled to understand how on one hand, when I look at my home state I see a people who are very generous and on the other hand, I see a people who are suspicious.
If I had a second of home state pride, it was all about to evaporate as I got into the building (standing room only), and took my place along the wall.
Our Representative Gene Taylor started by announcing that, "Town hall meetings always start with a prayer and a pledge." This got a standing ovation. People stood, and the men took their caps off and bowed their heads. After the pledge, we had another prayer for a local soldier from the next county who was killed in Iraq and had a public funeral.
Poor Gene, a conservative Democrat who often votes with Republicans, was going to need all the prayer he could get soon. He started to talk about all he had done for the local defense industry. Cutting costs here. Trying to get top-of-the-line tanks to have sloping bottoms, thereby saving soldiers lives that would have been taken in the flat-bottom tanks that are so vulnerable to landmines. He fought Rumsfeld, who didn't want to spend as much for some of these innovations. As he went on, every once in a while, someone would shout that they wanted to get to healthcare. To get on with it.
He told them something that Verbal would be proud of, but he wasn't as direct as he should be. He showed them all the things our taxes go for, then he showed that Mississippi puts $10 billion into the federal government for taxes but gets $30 billion back. And where does it come from? Someone sarcastically yelled, "The federal government." No one seemed to get the weight of this. Taylor should have made it clear that it comes from other hardworking Americans in other states. In other words, we can't pretend that the government doesn't do anything for us. We are all on the dole, in a way. Now on one hand, compare the wage of an electrician here to one in Maryland or New York, and you'll see a huge difference. Sometimes northern companies used to relocate here (before they started moving to Mexico) because they could pay such lower wages. Our unions are much weaker, in part historically because the wealthy could use racial politics to cripple union growth. This is a drop in the bucket of the analysis that should be done. Basically, if the money isn't here and the jobs aren't here, how do we have it to pay? But, then again, people here don't want to realize the help they are getting.
A few minutes later, it got ugly. Taylor showed us the deficit growth, based on presidents, starting with Regan. You could tell people didn't want him insulting Regan, but when he got to the slide showing problems under Bush, they went wild at the sight of his name. They were so angry about their beloved Bush being insulted. They wanted to hear about how evil Obama is or talk about that bastard Clinton.
Then Taylor tried to show them about the Bush tax plan. He had charts of income from roughly $30,000 to $90, 000 and showed how much money they paid in. Again, he wasn't direct enough. People were bitching and wanted more and more to hear about healthcare. People were angry about hearing criticism of Bush. I was getting angrier and angrier at their stupidity. "Listen!" I yelled once. A few around me shut up, but the crowd was getting nastier and nastier. I thought he wanted to show us that people who make $90, 000 don't pay a fair percentage, but it was hard to focus. He definitely said that Bush cut taxes during war, and no one has ever done this. This increased our deficit. The crowd wouldn't listen and wouldn't let me listen.
As a former teacher and teaching assistant, I knew what Gene Taylor should have done to explain. Simplify the chart. Show that at $30, 000, you pay x percent, all the way down to the people who make millions, and pay Y percent. Pay attention to the percent, not the amount that gets paid in, because the amounts look similar and crowd the chart. DON'T begin by mentioning Bush and don't put his name in the title of the slide, because the crowd already gets its hackles up before you start. Just say, "Let me show you how unfair the recent tax cuts are to the middle class compared to how much they helped the rich." Then mention what year these took place at the end. (This part is still confusing to me when I try to go back and research the details, but at least I tried to listen.)
He told people that insurance companies are not subject to anti-trust regulation. He drew a parallel with how screwed over people were by insurance during Katrina. The crowd sort of listened, but still, they wanted their chance to bitch about healthcare. I can't tell you the profanity that was racing through my mind wanting to come out at these people. He told the crowd that they should fight for insurance companies to not be exempt from anti-trust legislation (I think this exemption happened in '99, and when the crowd wanted to blame it on Clinton, he had to remind them of the Republican congress). He said that the Medicare drug bill that passed under Bush did NOT allow the government to get the cheapest medications. It was a handout to the drug companies. He said that this had to be changed. Here it got funny. "You know about Cialis, " he said. And he kept telling the crowd that "Cialis CR" was $5 a pill, while a nearly identical "Cialis" generic was 50 cents a pill. Why should the government have to pay the pharmaceutical companies for a more expensive pill? he asked.
I think someone on his staff told him that Cialis was for erectile dysfunction. The whole time he kept saying "Cialis," he meant to talk about Ambien. He beat his head with the palm of his hand when he found this out, and laughed, saying, "Chalk it up to me being an old man."
So basically, anything he said about Bush was met by hysteria from the crowd or shouts of, "What about Obama?" When he brought up the fact that a Bush cronie got a contract to move the FEMA trailers for $16,000 per trailer, they weren't even listening. He really didn't drive the point home of how this adds to the deficit.
So, we got to the healthcare questions.
I scrawled brief notes at the meeting, and so all of this recounting may be slightly out-of-order and not exact quotations, but you will get the picture.
A woman stood up and seemed disconnected from the audience with her concerns. She talked about how great Gene Taylor was and about how we should reform the SEC and such. She sounded professional and rehearsed. I agreed with what she said, but it seemed like an act. People kept asking, "What's your question?"
Eventually, a man got up who was pissed. He said he wasn't a Republican or Democrat, but he acted like the government is trying to take away our rights. "We're fighting for our freedom." He doesn't want them "messing with my healthcare." He paid $700 a month for health care, he said, and loved it. And the government is trying to take away our guns. They want us to register them!!
The audience loved him. I considered moving to Canada.
An African-American lady got up after him. She said she appreciated that he had healthcare, but what about those millions who have lost their jobs and couldn't pay $700 a month for health care? I clapped. A smattering of others enthusiastically clapped. That's when the booing started. The majority was nasty, though the woman's comment was--unlike the previous comment--evenly given and levelheaded. Anyway, I consider myself a Christian who *tries* to consider the less fortunate. Apparently these people think that Christianity is not based on helping the poor. Even scarier, these people don't realize that they could lose their jobs and there could be NO MONEY to help them with healthcare expenses. Our current systems are going broke, as Taylor said, and I know most people can't afford to pay out-of-pocket for insurance or to pay directly for healthcare.
I thought it wrong to boo anyone. I would clap when I supported or be silent, because I thought people should be heard. It was frustrating to see such rudeness. Anyway, one man got up and said that his nephew in New Zealand had a rotator cuff injury and had to wear a sling for months because he couldn't see the doctor. I wondered if he wasn't just planted there. He didn't sound like he grew up around here based on his accent, though he claimed he was from here. We do have Yankees :) who've moved in (like that woman in line), but I just wondered about his story. Of course, everyone agreed about the dangers of government healthcare.
I had come to the meeting considering asking a question, but I saw there was no reasoning with anyone. Taylor got huge applause when he announced, "And you all know by now" that he wouldn't support government healthcare for everyone. I knew that he'd said in earlier meetings that he wasn't for a public option. That is why I almost didn't go to the meeting.
Anyway, I considered leaving early. I saw more questions than I wrote about here, but it was all the same. One African American man from near me called out, "Have you supported any of Obama's bills, Rep. Taylor?" Taylor looked like he had to think for a minute. "That's right. That tells me everything I need to know," the man said. "Why don't you just join the Republicans?"
Someone else said, "Join us. We need you, Gene!"
The first man said, "Why do you vote so much like the Republicans?"
Taylor said he thought he voted like an American.
Well, soon I'd had enough. I'd seen an hour of the lynch mob--I mean, meeting. I asked a policeman standing nearby if I could leave from the side doors, while noticing that a man from outside had his ear pressed to the space between them. "One out is one in!" he pleaded with the policeman as I left. There were other people kept outside because the building had reached capacity. I went to my car.
I was so charged with anger as I left that I swear I considered moving. What the hell am I doing here? I am working on getting a homeless ministry started with my church. I am helping take care of my mom and grandma, who are fairly independent but would be unhappy and in an assisted living home otherwise. I have five pets and have had a hard time getting a job. Where would I go?
I kept thinking how stupid those people were. They are so transfixed on the fear that someone poorer would take something of theirs or that the evil government will hurt them, that they CAN'T see corporations and the rich taking from them. The condescension that these middle and working class people have for their imaginary version of the distant poor is the condescension that many wealthy people and corporations have for them. The poor are not as dangerous to them as the wealthy. Their death panels are as real as Santa Claus.
FoxNews, Rush Limbaugh, Big Pharma are not their friends. Some of this they see, but they are blind to most of it. They fear Obama, and he isn't perfect, but why weren't they protesting Bush? Where were they for 8 years?
I got home and tried to tell my mom what I saw. I told her how they missed the whole point of the taxes chart. "You get it, don't you?" I said.
"Yes," she said weakly. Her mouth and hands always tremble, unforeseen permanent side effects from medications. One of her medicines is $800 a month, and we are nearing the 'gap' in her Humana plan. There is no generic available. She would be in a state hospital--in desperate circumstances--without it.
I have no good end to this. I think that people will have to get more desperate....more jobs lost...more healthcare benefits down the toilet...before they pay attention, before they see that Fox is not their friend. I thought of telling Taylor how to simplify his presentation if I could catch his ear. From Podunk, Mississippi, where I try to love my neighbor (though it's easier to love folks I meet on the internet), I'm signing off. As for a better tomorrow, we'll see.
1. Some people say that the logic of the study is faulty, because since we are a poor state, what we give seems to be such a high percentage of our income, BUT I don't see another way to figure it other than by percentage. We can't give money that we don't make.
P.S. If we don't get the bill this time, maybe a place to start is to press to repeal what happened in '99. Republicans often complain about homeowner's insurance, too, so surely they would be willing to admit that insurance companies should be subject to antitrust regulations. I also thought--what if we offer a government *option* for social service workers? I interviewed for a job with a shelter, and I would have insurance, but even if married or if I had a child, I would have to pay for theirs with no help. Of course, this would scare someone off from a social service job. If we said, "These people serve their country. Why can't we help these financially struggling services?" maybe then people would slowly get more used to the idea of gov't healthcare.