Anecdotes from The American Healthcare Front

teacher-kidney.jpg
Teacher at exit ramp looking for a kidney donation

I have some issues with my ears periodically, and over the past week, it felt like one was developing a minor infection. It felt full a lot and started to become painful. I knew that I was going to need to give it some medical attention. I thought about going to my primary care team at Emory, formerly Harken Health. In the Harken days, primary care appointments were included in your insurance and you could schedule to go by any time. They also managed patient load so providers would have time to develop relationships, and they partnered with health coaches that could deal with the para-medical stuff so the medical pros could focus on things requiring their specific skill set. Now that Harken’s gone, Emory still has great staff, but works like a regular doctor’s office – scheduling visits always takes a few days, visits are shorter, and the health coaches, where they exist, are swamped and can’t give the individual attention my Harken coach gave.

The ER was out of the question, that’s a minimum of $2K spend and a distraction from people who need truly urgent, serious care. (Don’t believe me? Stop by an ER and try it for yourself. A friend of mine had stress-related chest pain due to the amount he was working and how little pay he was receiving to cope with the other stressors in his life and got slapped with a $5K bill.)

Urgent care is probably the best option, but that was going to run me a bit as well. Not too much, maybe a hundred or so. But of course I already pay several hundred a month for insurance, so that’s frustrating that my insurance is really more “hit by a bus” insurance than health care.

I ended up repurposing some antibiotic ointment I had for a recent eye injury that unequivocally required a doctor’s visit (that I’m sure I’ll get a hearty bill for soon), and it worked. I’ll keep at it for a few days to make sure it’s good.

Now, I have the means to get decent health care, even if it’s not convenient and a little pricey. What are people who have no flexibility in their schedule doing? What do you do when taking a half-day off work means you may be eating ramen next week, or nothing, because you’ll be fired “at-will”? And what happens when you face a real challenge that’s out of your control, like the teacher above who needs a kidney to live? If he can find the kidney, he will probably have decent health care as a state employee, but what if he didn’t have great insurance? Who would pay for that?

Those who support interdependent community do ourselves a disservice by allowing Medicaid for all, or any of the other public options, to be portrayed as an altruistically valuable but optional program, a gift to the neediest among us. It’s not a matter of kindness and convenience, without which life would be a little less pleasant but still bearable. People are choosing between medical bills and house payments, between medical bills and food. And it doesn’t take a significant condition or a bad decision.

We in the middle class especially make the mistake of thinking that we are where we are because of good decisions. The rich are lucky, sure, accidents of birth, right place, right time, but not us. We scrimp and save. We plan. We forego instant gratification for the long term, and look at our lives as a result. If we can do it, anyone can.

The truth is, we make the same bad decisions as the poor all the time. We buy a car that’s a hundred a month more than we should be paying. We spring for that dessert, or that hotel upgrade, or that extra night out on the town. The only difference is that we are not on the line between sustainable and unsustainable, and have a bigger cushion to absorb those mistakes. If you are making just enough to live on, springing for dessert could make you miss a payment. Missing a payment causes you to hit fees that push up your effective interest rate into triple digits. And the spiral begins.

I listened to a couple on NPR a couple of years ago that ran a food truck in Wisconsin. They were struggling, as the spouse with a corporate job had lost it, and lost their benefits along with it. When asked how they would deal with the cost of health care as they aged, they shrugged (with indecision rather than indifference) and finally stated that their children would take care of it.

I don’t believe this couple was intentionally so selfish as to burden their children with such a responsibility. But the language of American self-sufficiency has backed us into a corner. We cannot conceive of a world where a public good is actually, well, good. However, we readily imagine that a giant corporation motivated by profit will take care of our needs as well as our consumer desires. We respond with a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, where anyone on the wrong side of a law that protects the right to profit without regard to human cost deserves nothing, deserves to be cast aside. We are the worthy ones, because we currently have what appears like favor, but instead is simply utility to a soulless, unfeeling set of economic machinery.

As usual, any critique of the current order by an American must be met with “but I’m not talking about socialism!” So let’s get that out of the way. Public goods controlled by elected or especially appointed authorities who are not accountable to the people is just authoritarianism. This is what we saw in every single country that we love to hold up as inevitable outcomes of socialism. So no, I’m not talking about turning America into a giant commune or turning everything over to the government, certainly not while we have an apathetic republic that won’t hold its elected officials accountable in any consistent way. I’m also not talking about eliminating inequality. Human nature is to be rewarded in a proportion to effort, and any system that doesn’t allow that will eventually be overthrown by one that does.

But why do we think that this relentless pursuit of profit is the best of all possible worlds? We generate money printing machines that consume the landscape and crush the spirits of the people, and aggregate more and more for the machine’s makers. More importantly, we have created a mythology around poverty that causes us to see it more as damnation from a god that has refused your feeble sacrifice, while wealth is a blessing and a reward from a god that respects your hard work. This mythology is why we have the IRS losing money to chase small debts while corporations that evade billions in taxes are ignored. It’s why we won’t pay for Medicaid for All and are trying to dismantle food programs, quality public education, and other portions of the safety net, even though evidence keeps coming back that these investments are cheaper than the alternative.

Where the Christians have it right is that this is a heart issue. America loved the social safety net when it primarily benefited white men in the New Deal era. When the program was expanded to benefit more Americans through the Great Society, subsequent administrations quickly set to work dismantling them. Beyond the cost savings many properly implemented programs could bring, we have to ask ourselves what intangible cost our individual lack of accountability to our community brings. Are we safer when everyone is on their own financially? Are we less stressed when everyone has to work long days in cold environments? Are we happier when our neighbor cannot be counted on to care for us if we’re in need? Are we freer when every gift we give has conditions?

Who is my neighbor? And what is my obligation to them?

Fifty

Fifty years.
Fifty years since one of the greatest theologians and social activists of the 20th Century was shot down.
 
Who is Rev. Dr. King to you?
 
To too many Americans, he is a messiah of cheap grace, who finished the work of racial reconciliation in his blood, because it was too hard for us. In this false good news story, we are now clean, blameless, and above reproach. For this group of us, challenging systems and behaviors that persist is insulting, unreasonable, and unfair.
 
To many more of us, he’s a Great Figure of History, like Frederick Douglass, George Washington, and so on. For this group of us work is important, formative, but vague and disconnected from our daily lives.
 
As I meditate on his life and death today, I think about how far we can progress in fifty years. When I went to my college Reunions parade for the first time in the 90s, the fiftieth anniversary alumni had their first black members. My class wasn’t at the proportion of the country as a whole, but there were hundreds of us. When my father registered people in the Alabama countryside to vote fifty years ago, the experience seemed more like one of the countries we cluck at today, with citizens afraid to vote because what might follow was state-sanctioned murder by the white members of the community. Today, it’s a short and easy trip to Memorial Drive to vote early, or across to a nearby church to vote on the day. I’m far more worried about being late for work or late for dinner as a result of voting than I am about making it back home.
 
Despite this, we still have problems. Racial animus wasn’t erased, it was buried. Individuals who actually got to experience life with people from other racial groups were better for it, as we found none of us neatly fit into the stereotypes and tropes created to keep things as they were, or created to protect the vulnerable. (As an aside, something you must understand is that while white stereotypes can be hurtful and unfair, they were created to protect vulnerable people of color in a system designed to keep them oppressed and to eliminate those who got out of line, while stereotypes about people of color were designed to dehumanize and justify the continuance of same system. So while we should let go of all stereotyping, the hand-wringing and false equivalence should be released as well.) But as black people moved in, white people moved out. Old laws that were explicitly, undeniably racist, were not removed from the books, but simply (usually) not enforced.

Grandparents and parents who grew up in a system designed to protect their benefits and raise their preferences at the expense of everyone else taught their children how unfair it was that these people now were getting such large slices of the pie. Looking at the slivers being cut for others, they’d say, “Why, there’s hardly any left for us! We used to have the whole pie, and now these people who didn’t even help bake it get to eat it up. What about us? We’ll starve!” All the while, their eyes remained averted from the kitchen where the pie was made.

We plow on as resolute and relentless individuals, completely unaffected by the portions of the past we find distasteful, and clinging to those portions of the past we think are critical. We have had no lament about where we have been, no place to process any sense of collective shame or guilt. We have had no reconciliation. Given this, is it any surprise that we have elected leaders at multiple levels of government who are individualistic, who have no sense of shame or guilt, who have no ability to weep with those who weep?We could speculate about what King would do or say if he were still here to guide, to be a conscience, but there are only a few people who have studied him enough to be qualified to do that. What I’m more interested in is what I’m going to do and what you’re going to do.

If you are white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of non-white people in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • When I disagree with non-white people about where we are on race in this country, do I look for other non-white people to validate my beliefs?
  • Have I ever borne an emotional burden about something they’ve experienced regarding race with a non-white brother or sister?
  • Have I ever felt shame or guilt, untempered by resentment or resistance, around the way things are in this country, even if they’re not my fault?

If you are not white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people of different ethnicities than myself where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of someone non-white of a different ethnicity in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • Do I center the pain of my ethnic group and compare it quantitatively against the pain other ethnic groups have experienced, or do I lament with other stories of injustice?
  • To what extent am I complicit in holding up systems of power that unfairly preference those that have historically held power?

The reason why none of these questions are reciprocal toward white people is because since white is the historically dominant group, all of these preference raising questions come naturally. It’s not anything magical about the notion of whiteness; it’s just how cultural dominance works. You will be in relationship with the dominant group in some form. You will be under leadership from someone in the dominant group. You will understand their preferences and cater to them if you want to thrive. So for those of us new to this conversation, please understand this isn’t a finger-wag at something you were born with. This is about being intentional about dismantling imbalances in systems of power.

When I hear King the philosopher and social activist speak, I hear him asking us to seek the Beloved Community. When I hear King the pastor speak, I hear him asking us to lay down our preferences at the Cross and seek the well-being of our brothers and sisters at both an individual and systemic level.

Looking at 2068, what kind of country do we want for our grandchildren? Do we want a country that’s still in a cold Civil War that’s now 200 years old? Do we want a country that sits in resentment, fear, and individualistic separation? Or do we want to make the braver, harder, choice, and plow forward in love, letting lament and a sense of righteous shame break our stone hearts and remake them as flesh, then letting our collective love and intimate knowledge of each other heal and reconcile?

It sounds like a pipe dream when you put it like that. But just sixty years ago, I’m sure someone sat at their dinner table and thought “I appreciate what King is saying, but he’s crazy. Things will never change.”

As-Is

This house is falling apart.
The paint crinkles, bends backward,
ripples like skin on cold soup.
Beneath, drywall experiences ennui,
waits for a purpose beyond demarcation.
The ceiling and the walls recede.
The floor bends, tilts to one side or the other.

The load-bearing wall talked to me this morning.
She’d had enough of the weight.
She told me how, overwhelmed by the pain,
she whimpered at night. The floors creaked
in sympathy, but then were silent.
The front wall said, “me too,” but offered no buttress.

This house is falling apart.
One day, the occupants who so blithely reside
will find themselves awakened to a crash,
as a wall awkwardly ambles down a suburban side street
and facades, shocked by their loss of bearings,
try not to crush them on the way down.

-C. G. Brown
2 April 2018

“God Is In Control.”

Advance Note: You’ll see me use the word “conservative” a lot in this. While there is overlap with the political meaning, I intend it less as opposed to politically liberal and more specifically referring to the traditionalist and fundamentalist perspective of the conservative Christian church in America. I’m doing my best to look at a conservative witness against itself and against the Gospel rather than against a liberal witness or liberal view on the Gospel. 

I recently had an exchange with a friend about the current state of politics in America. Like many, even though she’s not a Trump fan, she downplayed my concern about Trump’s authoritarian leanings, citing that he was just one man. I said “sure, but the Republican Congress is moving in lockstep with him from a policy perspective.” She said, “not always.” I responded, “Name one major policy area where they haven’t. ACA? Consumer Protection? Deregulation? Immigration? Foreign Relations?” We could not identify an area off-hand, and I’m also not aware of any Republican-led initiatives that prompted Trump to use his veto power.

She responded to my restatement of concern about where America could end up with a favorite phrase of comfort among evangelically-minded people: “God is in control. God is sovereign.” I was reminded in that moment of an exchange I’d had in 2016 on social media with a friend who was pretty much diametrically opposed to me politically, where she responded to my fears of a then merely-possible Trump presidency with the same statement.

Another friend with whom I was conversing pointed out that that comforting phrase about God’s sovereignty is seldom used to assuage fears of cultural change, or immigrants, or crime. It only seems to appear when people are expressing concerns about conservatism going too far. Regardless of intent, the phrase can seem to the listener to be saying, “God is in control because I am comfortable, and it doesn’t matter if you are not.”

Like Paul, I can claim the title “chief among sinners” in seeking my own comfort and convenience, though I actively work against it. However, the Church is supposed to be a place where we support each other through the incredibly rewarding but often quite uncomfortable and countercultural life of Christianity. What is this desire that has taken hold in the American Church for comfort above witness? Comfort above compassion?

“God is in control.” is a phrase that reminds me not to worry or obsess about temporal matters, however massive they may seem at the time. It breaks me out of my navel-gazing social media loops and friend circles to recognize that both problems and solutions are bigger than I am. It reminds me to recognize that the arc and scope of God’s goodness is not limited to my narrow view, but expands and unfolds at the periphery and beyond.

Much of the American evangelical church uses this powerful phrase now as a blindfold, a gag, and binding rope. It blinds the speaker to human needs directly in front of them. It silences those that complain about social injustice by telling them that there is a problem with their faith if they don’t see how God’s point of view is aligned with the speaker’s, even if it is hurting the listener. And it ties the hands of both, telling them to be passive and let God’s wonderful plan finish playing out without meddling.

If God’s sovereignty means that I should not take any action to protest against conservative policies that seem to be literally killing people either through hostility or inaction, then why does God’s sovereignty not equally apply when I see abortions being allowed, or cultural changes that I don’t agree with spreading, or when immigrants come across our border to seek a better life? Why is it that when it is a conservative point of view that needs assurance and patience, we need to take action in protest or policy change? But when the concern is that the conservative perspective has become Pharasaic, or that it has become a hypocritical, compromised witness, then God’s sovereignty becomes a call to be still, silent, and show a passive grace.

God is in control. Yes. God is sovereign. Absolutely. But if you’re saying it to reinforce your comfort, your culture, your understanding to someone else who is challenging those things, then it’s time to re-examine your heart. Would you still say God is in control if it were you who was uncomfortable? If it were you who were being persecuted or treated unjustly? And if not, who is?

2017 Georgia Sixth District Election – A Post-Primary Analysis

The Congressional primary for US House District GA-06 was held yesterday. As expected, the election went to a runoff. I have some thoughts on how the race shook out, having followed it closely since I decided not to run on January 5. My thoughts are my own and don’t represent any party or organization of which I’m a member. I’m also no Nate Silver. But let’s talk about it anyway.

Jon Ossoff, the golden boy of the left who rose from his Congressional staffer background with a blessing from John Lewis and a lot of grassroots fundraising, garnered 48.1% of the vote, at 92,390 votes. Karen Handel, former Secretary of State and perennial statewide candidate, rose to the top of a bruising field of 4 credible Republican contenders to get 19.8% of the vote, at 37,993. The other 16 candidates picked up the remaining 32%, with almost all of that going to Bob Gray, a local businessman, Dan Moody, a former state senator, and Judson Hill, a sitting state senator who vacated his seat to run. Since no one got 50% plus 1, the election goes to a runoff on June 20. What do the rest of the numbers tell us?

Missing Voters

I’ll lead with the data which for me was the most disappointing. If we look at the 2016 Presidential Election results in the district, Tom Price, the incumbent, got 201,088 votes. Rodney Stooksbury, a candidate that ran no campaign, had no website, and did not even have a picture, managed to garner 124,917 votes. It’s unsurprising such a candidate didn’t break 40%. What is surprising though is that with all of the energy put into this current race by Democrats, turnout across all 5 Dems added up to a mere 93,911 votes. This is a gap of 31,006 votes. Since we can assume that no one showed up specifically to vote for Stooksbury, that means a quarter of the people that bothered to show up to vote for Hillary Clinton couldn’t be bothered to show up to vote for any Democrat.

I predicted when this election was going on that the district could be won if all the Hillary voters simply showed up again and voted for any Democrat they preferred. With the same proportions, Ossoff would have had a handy victory. So why would so many people stay home?

It’s Hard Out Here for an Independent

There were two candidates who did not make a party declaration: Alexander Hernandez, a local film industry worker, and Andre Pollard, a computer programmer. Between them they managed to garner a whopping 176 votes out of nearly 200,000. If we look at their fundraising totals, we see that Hernandez spent $49.12 per vote and Pollard spent a whopping $95.45 per vote. This sounds bad until we realize that some of the leading candidates had even worse numbers, which I’ll get into in a minute. As I discussed in my article about what I learned in my exploration for a Congressional run, the money is a big deal, because it’s your voice. Hernandez and Pollard weren’t able to lean on a party and para-party infrastructure to speak for them or against their enemies, so they had to rely on their personal relationships. And like most regular people, they didn’t know a lot of rich people, certainly not ones that liked them enough to invest in their victory.

Speaking of which, a political consultant I spoke with during my preparation grilled me and asked, “what’s your path to victory?” He meant, who in the district will support you besides your mom and your neighbor? What demographic segment is looking for you to run and will come out and vote for you, then tell their friends to do the same? What coalition can you build to pull together enough votes to be a credible threat? If you don’t know the answers to those and a bunch of other questions, then don’t bother running; you’re wasting your energy and your own or your friends’ money. You’d be better off finding a candidate that will advance the policy nearest to your heart and volunteering to support them.

Really quickly, I’m not saying “don’t run! Let the two big parties do it!” I heartily encourage anyone who feels the call to run for office. I do think you should run with a goal of winning though; the taste of campaigning that I got showed me that it’s a difficult, thankless grind that isn’t worth doing for your ego or pride alone. So if you are truly neither Democrat-leaning nor Republican-leaning, figure out your path to victory before you run, or figure out how you’re going to make your third party stronger locally.

The Money

I mentioned earlier how the independent candidates spent a crazy amount per vote, right? Let’s take a look at how the other candidates spent:

Name Party Votes Spend Spend Per Vote Percentage
Jon Ossoff Dem. 92,390 $6,183,941 $66.93 48.10%
Karen Handel Rep. 37,993 $279,767 $7.36 19.78%
Bob Gray Rep. 20,755 $321,028 $15.47 10.81%
Dan Moody Rep. 16,994 $1,865,030 $109.75 8.85%
Judson Hill Rep. 16,848 $359,210 $21.32 8.77%
Kurt Wilson Rep. 1,812 $199,149 $109.91 0.94%
David Abroms Rep. 1,637 $155,412 $94.94 0.85%
Ragin Edwards Dem. 502 N/R 0.26%
Ron Slotin Dem. 488 $70,522 $144.51 0.25%
Bruce Levell Rep. 455 N/R 0.24%
Mohammad Ali Bhuiyan Rep. 414 $26,068 $62.97 0.22%
Keith Grawert Rep. 414 $34,106 $82.38 0.22%
Amy Kremer Rep. 349 $15,233 $43.65 0.18%
William Llop Rep. 326 N/R 0.17%
Rebecca Quigg Dem. 304 N/R 0.16%
Richard Keatley Dem. 227 $9,349 $41.19 0.12%
Alexander Hernandez Ind. 121 $5,944 $49.12 0.06%
Andre Pollard Ind. 55 $5,250 $95.45 0.03%

(Thanks to Ballotpedia and the NYT for the data.)

We see from the chart that the most efficient candidate was Karen Handel, at a mere $7.36 per vote, while the least efficient was Ron Slotin, the number two Democrat in the race, at $144.71 per vote. Across the election, a total of $49.61 per vote was spent on average.

What does this measure of efficiency tell us? First, it’s a reminder of how expensive marketing campaigns are. As I’ve said in the past, an election is a marketing campaign for a product that nobody wants. With all of that spending, they were only able to turn out a little under 200,000 of the about 500,000 eligible voters in the district. The turnout also represents a bit less than 60% of the turnout of the presidential election. Voter apathy is still high.

Second, it shows how much name recognition matters. Everyone knows the name Karen Handel, even if they don’t all know what she’s done. She’s been in public life for a long time, and even though her reputation isn’t pristine, she still was able to pull a significant number of votes simply because people knew who she was.

Third, it shows the advantage of incumbency. Judson Hill managed to get almost exactly the same numbers as Dan Moody with about a fifth of the spending. Both served in the State Senate in Georgia, but Hill as an incumbent was able to draw on his voter base in his Senate district to turn out solid numbers without having to spend nearly as much. He still wasn’t able to pull in the rest of the Congressional district, but with better fundraising, the story may have been different.

One additional note: A reader pointed out to me that there was a lot of PAC money spent on attack ads on Ossoff. When considering this, Republican efficiency numbers look a bit less impressive, as any anti-Ossoff ad helped one of the top 4 Republicans a bit. At least $2.2 million was spent on attack ads, and of course Democratic PACs and groups ran general GOTV efforts as well. All that adds up to even more money in an already budget-busting race, with lots more to come now that the core party spending can be unleashed on each side.

Fall in Love, or Fall in Line?

One of my neighbors, a thoughtful and regular voter, but not particularly politically oriented, was a bit disappointed by Ossoff when they saw him speak. They felt he was wooden and inexperienced. They did vote for him in the end, but they weren’t excited about it. I imagine a number of people felt the same way, but decided not to bother to vote.

I read somewhere recently in a thread on a progressive Facebook group a thought which I will paraphrase. The writer noted that Republicans tend to look for a reason to vote for a candidate, while Democrats tend to look for a reason not to vote for a candidate. While I am a firm believer in voting one’s conscience, I do think that Democrats in particular will have to exercise more pragmatism in general or open elections, and save their fire for party primaries where they can express more specific preferences among a slate of candidates who are all likely to advance mostly agreeable policy. The best is the enemy of the good, and waiting for a candidate with the perfect combination of skill to fend off Republican attacks, gravitas, charisma, and policy may leave us all waiting for a long time.

People who want to see more populist progressivism of the Sanders variety will also need to start showing up at their county Democratic Party meetings. I’m now a post holder for my state house district (something like an at-large precinct captain) [Ed. note: post holders’ duties include but are not limited to field operations and they are voting members of the county organization], and the slots were literally all open when I showed up to my first county party meeting in January. That was when I learned there is literally nothing in the way of me advancing an agenda I believe in that fits anywhere within the party’s big tent. People who grouse about corruption or anointed candidates or the like should take their complaints to the county party. You might discover that there’s a job for you to do to fix it.

Parting Thoughts

  • You can vote in the runoff even if you didn’t vote in the primary, so get out there June 20.
  • If you lean left, don’t grouse over your candidate losing or nitpick Ossoff, just vote for him and then hold him accountable as a constituent.
  • If you lean right, take a look at Handel’s willingness to be independent of Trump, the way that any member of Congress should exercise some independence from the Executive. Make sure she’s putting your district and not the party or the whims of the President first.
  • Regardless, figure out who among your friends didn’t vote. Ask them why. Don’t browbeat them, but try to figure out what would engage them. We get this ridiculous spending under control by caring enough to give some thought and effort to the one thing that can’t be bought — our votes.

 

On Reconciling Christian Principles with Government Programs

President Trump recently proposed a budget which makes a number of cuts to discretionary spending across government agencies. Liberal-leaning folks are predictably up in arms. Conservatives range from mild concern to relief that Trump is finally realizing Grover Norquist’s dream of “reduc[ing] [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” People on the left are wagging their fingers about the hypocrisy of professed Christians being so concerned about performance of programs designed simply to feed the poor and hungry. Conservatives answer with their standard retort that being Christian doesn’t mean you advocate that the government do everything. To them, it’s the job of churches and private citizens to step in and take care of the poor and needy. Who’s right?

As usual, the answer requires a bit of nuanced thinking. Conservatives have a point about their Christian obligations not extending to an explicit call to fund government programs. Other than giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, Jesus himself says little about how we respond to government authority, though he says a lot about how we should individually behave. Paul says more, generally telling us that we should generally abide by the government’s rules and authority, even if we are encouraged to live in a socially countercultural way and not allow human law to subvert God’s law. Generally, the commands on how to live and treat people speak to individuals, not governments. So it is technically fair to say that there’s no call in the Bible to engage in aid through taxation or government programs.

That said, it requires a narrow interpretation of the Bible to assume then that government programs that execute Jesus’s mandates are inherently bad, or even just inherently worse than a church or individual doing the same. While I cannot presume to know the mind of God, why would God not be pleased about a government that distributes some of the taxes it collects for programs to help the poor or needy? Corruption is certainly found in government, but what is forgotten by many who prefer limited government is that government is ultimately just comprised of people, just like any institution. Churches and individual hearts are no less susceptible. In fact, churches have to be on special guard because of their perceived proximity to God’s desire for humanity.

Another challenge with the standard conservative Christian position on the role of government is that churches have both an inward-facing and outward-facing obligation. The churches may have mission that they engage in locally or far away, but a primary objective is the cultivation of spiritual life and community among their attendees. While it would be better if people gave more in general so that church coffers were overflowing and churches were able to step into the breach for the needy across the nation, that’s simply not the case for most churches. The churches that do have lots of money often struggle with the challenges Jesus warned us that money brings.

Also, the outward-facing missional work of a Christian church is usually tied to evangelism, the spreading of the Gospel. Conservative Protestant denominations tend to interpret this fairly literally, with telling the message being as important or more important than showing and patiently modeling in one’s life. So, then, what if a person refuses the Gospel? What if they don’t wish to come because they know that that’s what will be served with their soup and bread, or with the clothes they are given? I’m not encouraging anyone to shut their mouth about the Gospel. I’m just asking if the church expects that it can be effective at meeting all types of needs.

On top of all this, the Christian church is no longer hegemonic in America. By this I mean that it’s not the default, dominant framing for most citizens. As church membership declines and more people turn away from faith as it’s historically been understood, the weight on the shoulders of each remaining member increases. It simply isn’t reasonable to assume that the church can serve the needs of everyone.

Even if other people start chipping in out of pocket, we’ve already seen what that looks like. Go to GoFundMe and see which medical requests get funded and which don’t. Popular, well-connected, attractive people get more money than the unpopular, the undesirable, the forgotten. We give to people we care about or think we care about, dropping $25 here, $100 there, while we leave the masses of the invisible at the margins and mercy of government programs that we want to cut so that “real charity” can begin. Why do we think a post-tax world would look any different than GoFundMe writ large, with individuals and small shelters and nonprofits spending more time putting on a good face for well-heeled donors than servicing the needy?

This is the part where some would point out that the liberals or non-religious people out there should put their money where their mouth is and give a lot more to charity. The response: they do give, in the form of taxes. The government is able to achieve some economies of scale with the support programs it funds. Taxes are also a great way to get everyone to participate in programs that improve the state of the society as a whole rather than relying on the goodness of individual hearts. The concern often raised following this assertion is that too much government money is going to the undeserving. I always find the notion of being deserving of grace to be a funny thing to be promulgated by people whose entire faith is predicated on receiving a gift that they did not deserve.

Moreover, when we unpack the notion of an unworthy recipient of government largesse, we often find ourselves envisioning someone very different than ourselves, someone with a different style of dress, different way of speaking, different way of acting, possibly different complexion. Our biases have a way of working themselves into our decisions about who should get what, whether it’s our tax dollars our just our attention.

I consider myself fairly generous, but I hold too tightly to my money, forgetting that I’m only a steward. I don’t manage as well as I should. Why would I assume my neighbors would on average fare any better? I’m always in favor of examining places where we can cut spending waste, where private organizations can serve people more efficiently than government organizations, or where government organizations can be restructured to be made more nimble. What I am not in favor of is the replacement of tax dollars that are helping millions with a reliance on the kindness of each of our individual hearts and our willingness to cheerfully give. I fear that switching to that model will find us coming up painfully short, with a net increase in suffering, all so that we can be satisfied that someone isn’t getting what they don’t deserve.

 

 

Things I Learned Preparing for a Run for Congress

I recently almost launched a candidacy for a US House seat in my district, Georgia’s Sixth. I live in Tom Price’s district and he’s about to go Trump’s cabinet to run the Department of Health and Human Services, which together with the Republican-led Congress, will eviscerate the ACA. I felt what I can only describe as a spiritual call to run this race. The call wasn’t to win, though I would do my level best. The call was to run. As frightened as I was, and as unprepared as I felt in my mind, I had to answer the call.

I talked to my wife first, and once she agreed that we could go on this journey, we began to pray. (Make no mistake, your spouse is your co-candidate from a public relations perspective, so they’d better be ready). I prayed specifically for God to take this desire from me if it were not for me. Instead, the next day, a friend told me about a great event happening in Nashville called The Arena Summit, a rapidly organized conference specifically designed to energize, mobilize, and equip millennial and late Gen-X progressive candidates to run for office. I made a boatload of fantastic connections from around the country and got some great encouragement, mentoring and training. Next, a good friend that I told stepped up to essentially become my campaign manager. He helped me organize, research policy and tighten message, and start to get media together.

I then launched a campaign on CrowdPAC, which is kind of a Kickstarter for campaigns. It lets you raise pledges that turn into real dollars if you file to run, but not if you decide to pull out as I ultimately did. Compliance with election law is probably second only to financial industry compliance for complexity, so having CrowdPAC in my corner to test without having to file all that paperwork helped me see if I had real traction. Thankfully I did, and my friends pledged about $11K toward my potential run, enough to pay filing fees, get initial media done, and get started. (Here’s my page.) It was clear that I was going to be given what I needed, both materially and otherwise.

As you can tell from the first sentence, I didn’t actually launch the candidacy. So what happened?

I was already facing what’s called a “jungle primary”, where Democrats and Republicans run on the same ballot and the top two finishers go to runoff, regardless of party. There were 3 Democrats in the race, one of whom (Sally Harrell) was to be the party’s unofficial choice. I was to be number 4, but then a guy named Jon Ossoff entered the race with 2 local Congressmen’s endorsements (one of whom was John Lewis) and $250,000 in commitments. I saw no path to victory through two establishment candidates.

None of that is super important though. Let’s talk about what I learned.

Elections Are Expensive – And It’s Not “Because Corruption”

We all know elections are expensive. We usually dismiss it and talk about the corrupting influence of money in politics, “buying a Congressman”, and so on. However, in researching this candidacy, I learned that there is a very simple reason why there’s so much money in politics. Advertising is expensive.

Imagine you just built the WonderWidget 3000. It’s something that people need, but they don’t know it yet. They complain about their SoSoSpindle 1994s but don’t ever bother to go to the store to change them out or even call in to the manufacturer to get repairs done. So now you’ve got to convince a large group (say, about 500,000 people) that they need to get up, go to the store, and pick up a WonderWidget 3000 right now. But it’s going to take 2 years for you to see if the WonderWidget will work better than the SoSoSpindle you already have. How do you do it?

A hell of a lot of advertising, that’s how. You send out mailers (even at 10 cents a piece per person, that’s $50,000 every time you mail them). You run TV ads in their market (hundreds of thousands). You send out WonderWidget reps to extol the virtues of the product. Maybe WonderWidget fans will work for free, but someone’s got to organize them, and that person has to be paid.

That’s essentially what any campaign looks like. You are the WonderWidget: beautiful and powerful, but unproven. The incumbent (or the incumbent way of thinking) is the SoSoSpindle: not that great, but running in people’s homes right now. So just like with a product, you have to convince people that they have to go out of their way to acquire a new product, stop using the old one, and use the new one long enough to see the differences, which may not be obvious because they aren’t always paying attention anyway. That takes advertising dollars, and that’s what a lot of the campaign’s spend is, not anything shadier or more nefarious than that.

Raising Money Is Time Consuming. . . 

So how do we get the money to run these ad campaigns and pay the teams? In a Federal race, individuals can only give $2,700 per candidate per election. There are loopholes, such as primaries and runoffs being counted as separate elections, but the rule generally holds. Besides, except for the very well off or very politically committed, most people won’t be able to afford giving out money in $2,700, non-tax-deductible chunks. Political Action Committees (PACs) can give a bit more, $5,000 per year total per candidate, but they can’t collect donations from corporations or unions. Super PACs can raise and spend as much as they like from whomever they like as long as they disclose their donors periodically and do not coordinate with candidate’s campaigns.

In general, if you see an ad for a candidate, it’s from the candidate’s campaign paid for out of raised dollars. If you see an ad against a candidate that doesn’t mention the favored opponent’s name or about an issue, it’s probably a SuperPAC. Parties get to spend a pretty substantial amount of money too on behalf of a candidate, but they only do that in general elections; the purpose of primaries is for candidates to demonstrate strength in internecine combat.

Given the advertising requirements above, a typical Congressional seat requires about $2,000,000 in fund raising. That’s two million dollars, raised every two years, entirely from individuals and PACs. (Senate seats are closer to ten million, but can be a lot more depending on the size of the state). If you assume your average committed person is giving out maybe $100 to their favorite candidate, that’s 20,000 donors that you’d need. In practice, there are quite a few large donors and PACs out there. Even so, it’d still take 400 PACs or 740 donors maxing out to hit the target just for a House seat.

This means a lot of time spent on the phone. In the campaign world, they call it “call time”, and your average candidate will do 30-50 hours a week of it. On the phone, calling up everyone they’ve ever met, and asking them for as much money as they can stomach giving. As I’ve learned to say, “The path to Congress runs through a windowless room.” And by the way, that doesn’t stop when they reach office. They have to find time in between all that legislating and representing to raise two million more for the next race.

. . . But Money Is Your Voice

As I alluded to earlier, most people don’t care about your WonderWidget. They don’t even really care about their SoSoSpindle. So given the fundraising realities I outlined above, what is a candidate to do? If you had a choice of calling up a bunch of rich people and asking them for money a thousand dollars at a time or calling up a bunch of middle-class people and asking them for money 20 dollars at a time, which would you choose? The unfortunate side effect of this is that you end up spending a lot of your time and energy around richer people who have different concerns and problems than the average constituent. To paraphrase Jason Kander‘s speech at the Arena Summit, “You spend a lot of time around people that America has been really, really good to.”

The influence of the rich on elections is an emergent phenomenon. It’s not a conspiracy; it’s mathematics. If every person of voting age committed to a) voting hell or high water, and b) donating $20 to their favorite candidate in each general election, you’d see ten million new dollars entering a typical House race every time, and candidates could take most of those 30-50 hours they spend dialing for dollars and go out and actually talk to people living with the results of current policy. I am not advocating for public financing of elections as a tax. I am advocating for public participation in elections as a civic duty, and that means with a few dollars out of all of our pockets as well.

Political Parties Matter

We often pick on the Democratic or Republican Parties for being sclerotic, locked in old ways of thinking, or corrupt. At the ground level though, parties do significant work, engaging motivated constituents, talking with local community organizations and alliances, building consensus. And they do this quiet, unglamorous work, over years, in large part so candidates don’t have to. The end result is that the party workers have relationships with key influencers in communities around the country, and they bring those relationships to bear for party-approved candidates. Some county and state organizations have problems too and need to be reworked, no doubt. But that’s not an indictment of the party system, that’s an identification of a specific problem that needs to be fixed.

I was going to run as an outside candidate in the Democratic Party. This meant that no county organizations would back me. No unions or community groups that worked closely with the party would say a word or lift a finger to help. No state assembly members would lend their voice to my cause. This meant that the only chance I had was to convince the people individually, which takes a lot more time, and more money.

My platform wasn’t 100% aligned with the Democrats, and there are a lot of Republicans in my district who, as one said, would see “Chick-Fil-A open on Sunday before I vote for a Democrat” (for those outside of the area, that’s a very Atlanta way of saying “when pigs fly”). So why didn’t I run as an Independent?

Third Parties Are Hard

I could run as an Independent and have a better shot of winning some moderates. However, remember all the money I talked about from above? Remember all the relationships? Even as an outside Democrat, if I showed popular appeal and fundraising ability, the party could switch to back me. However, as an Independent, I’d better have my own cash. Few traditional Democratic donors would switch to back me. The party would offer no assistance, and depending on my stances, could actively campaign against me.

And let’s say I won as an Independent. I beat the odds!  I changed the political system in America! Right?  Nope. In 2018, I’d have to run against a Democrat and a Republican, then beat the stronger one in a runoff since none of us would likely get 50% of the vote. And you’d better believe that both parties would pour national dollars into that runoff.

If you’re Bloomberg or even just ordinary rich, these kinds of things aren’t necessarily a problem; you can write your own checks until the candidate-specific momentum builds. If you’re a normal candidate, you have to raise in spite of that. Rinse and repeat until you have so much individual respect that they give up 3 or 4 terms later, if you can last that long.

So how do we build a useful third party? It’s really hard for two reasons.

First, that unglamorous work that parties do has to be done, and you can’t speed it up. You have to build the alliances with key influencers one by one. You have to run local candidates, then state assembly candidates. You can’t start at the presidency, and even federal offices are hard.

Second, the tents of the two parties are really broad. Any message that’s resonant with more than a few people will get co-opted. The Tea Party was an insurgent movement that was essentially a third party. (Don’t get caught up in the astroturf versus grassroots debate; the point is that it was a threat to both Democrats and Republicans.) Their ideas got co-opted by the Republicans and pulled the entire party closer to that way of thinking. One could argue that the Republican Party is in fact now the Tea Party by another name. But there are still just two major parties. And the same would happen if Sanders/Warren progressivism animates the left into sustained action. The Democratic Party would co-opt and adjust and become a Progressive Party by another name.

I learned a lot of more boring but important minutia about the mechanics of campaigning, but I’ll spare you that. Here’s the big takeaway:

You Are Still In Charge!

No matter how much money you raise, the election authorities don’t count dollars. They count votes. Turnout is dismal, around 50-60% for Presidential elections, and as low as 5-10% for special elections or local. This means that you’re letting a couple hundred people in some cases decide your local tax rate, or whether a new park gets built, or what your school is going to change. The decisions that impact your life are deeply local, and the only thing between you and the world you want is you taking the time to research the issues a bit and vote.

You don’t have to be a policy wonk. Just show up at your town hall meetings and ask questions. Heck, just call the office of your city councillors and ask for an appointment. Failing that, ask one of those motivated party operatives to explain a local issue to you in simpler terms. There are people that know these things inside and out, either for love or for money, and they can help you become an informed voter without you changing your life.

If I learned one thing from making a serious exploration of political candidacy, it’s that our apathy is why things are not where we want them to be. I’m more inspired than ever to be engaged, to understand the issues from multiple angles, and to be a voter that participates with both my consistent presence and dollars. And, as my friend pointed out, the more voters that are present, the fewer dollars are needed to advertise and raise awareness.

For my friends who like to talk about corruption at every level of government and “politricks”, stop it. Seriously. Your active discouragement is destroying our country. When people stop believing in the power of the vote and the power of their personal voice, that’s when those who seek personal gain at your expense win. Commit to one political event per quarter. Commit to showing up at every. single. election. And commit to getting a strong handle on one local issue a year, whether it’s your local school, the millage rate, the police department’s record, or whatever.

One last thing. Democrat or Republican, stop voting blindly with your party. Get an understanding of what your “hills to die on” are, and what doesn’t actually matter in your daily life. When candidates know they have to work with an informed electorate and no votes are promised, that’s when you see moves to sanity rather than toward what gets the few motivated voters frothing at the mouth the most.

I’m more inspired and hopeful about what America and our democratic process can still do than I could have possibly been if I had stayed on the sidelines. My journey isn’t for all of us to take. There are no shortcuts though, everyone. It’s on each of us to make the commitment. Spend just one hour a month understanding your local landscape and what can be changed. Twelve hours of your attention in the entire year would change our country permanently.