Saturday, January 31, 2009


With the Republican Party flailing and try to find its way in an evolving political landscape, the election of Michael Steele, the first African-American to lead the party, smacks of the Palinism (picking someone because they bare a superficial resemblance to some popular candidate) that seems to be pervading Republican decisions. While I hope the move is a genuine sign of change, I hesistate to imagine that being likely. With around 95% of African-American voters voting for Obama and, similarly, an overwhelming majority of Latinos (around 66%), Republicans have a lot of work to do in order to appeal more widely. As the U.S. demographically shifts to being a minority majority country, the increasingly white, rural, ultra-conservative, and xenophobic GOP of people like Rush Limbaugh will not suffice. At this point I honestly can't imagine how this change would take place, and it will take a lot of soul-searching on behalf of Republican leaders to bring about such a large change in strategy. 

However, though Democrats clearly came away with a huge victory this year, supporters need to be wary here as well. While many in the Democratic party speak of grassroots change and reference progressive issues, when the time comes to defend those issues, they are often forgotten. The most recent example was a provision in the stimulus package that would have subsidized birth control and family planning services for the poor. This measure was lambasted as shelling out millions of dollars, when in actuality, all real estimates highlighted that it would save the U.S. far more money than it would cost. At the first sign of protest, Democrats dropped this provision from the bill without so much as a fight, only to not even be able to garner ONE Republican vote for the stimulus in the house. This rapid capitulation doesn't bode well for the rest of the session, I hope I am proved wrong.

I guess it doesn't take long for optimism to die...

National Health Policy Conference 2009!!!!

This Monday and Tuesday I will be attending the National Health Policy Conference, here in downtown Washington, D.C. It is really exciting for me because the scheduled sessions look really great. It will also be the first official function were I will be going as a GAO employee. There are a few other people from GAO going (GAO has a lot of great opportunities to attend conferences and other professional education events) and I am really looking forward to seeing how it goes. There are a lot of people scheduled to be at the conference that will be playing a critical role in any upcoming health care reform and so it will be neat to see how it unfolds.

I am also excited that it will be one of the first places that I will be handing out my business cards. It is nice that at GAO I have the flexibility to be away from the office for a couple days and still have it considered work.  I am probably most excited about Jeanne Labrew, the Deputy Director of the White House Office of Health Reform, being there. She co-authored Critical recently with Tom Daschle and will be playing a very key role in health reform. It will be interesting to hear her take on when the process is likely to start. Also, Senator Max Baucus and Representative Pete Stark, who both chair crucially important committees on health, will be present. While there have been differing signals on how quickly health reform will move, it will be exciting to watch it unfold, and to play a role, even a minor one, in that reform.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Capital City Lights

It has been really fun to be in D.C. over the inauguration. While Heather and I didn't end up making it to the inauguration (we gave up after seeing how crazy the crowd was at our Metro stop), we have really enjoyed the build up and being able to feel like a part of the excitement. The job I am in really provides for an opportunity (and responsibility) for keeping up to date on what is going on in Washington. I am continually amazed at how proximity allows for such a different level of knowledge and understanding of the relevant issues. It is still neat for me to see all of the events going on (like the set up for one of the inaugural balls right across the street from where I work). Also there always seems to be some sort of protest going on in D.C. Heather and I have had a great time taking it all in and making time to do fun things.

It has also been really exciting to be here as the Congress gears up in the New Year. There is a real sense of excitement and opportunity. There also appears to be a chance for some actual bipartisanship. However, it is clear that the old dysfunctional working relationship between Democrats and Republicans continues to simmer just under the surface. It is easy to understand why Americans get so frustrated with Congress. It appears there is some truth to the notion that being in Congress too long skews your priorities. It seems that many Senators and Representatives on both sides of the aisle are more focused on spurning their colleagues than creating quality public policy.

This focus on rivalry and partisanship plays a large role in Americans generally having such a poor opinion of Congress, with recent approval ratings around twenty percent. It is hard to imagine that changing significantly unless Congress changes the way it functions. It is hard to tell at this point if the bipartisanship is genuine or if it was just a period of good feelings that will soon be replaced with tired rhetoric. I am much more optimistic than usual about these matters, maybe because I am now a part of Congress. 

Driving out to the FDA yesterday from the GAO building reminded me how beautiful the city is and how little driving I have actually done around it. Heather and I will definitely have to do some exploring by car at some point. I am so used to seeing the Metro as my main mode of transportation that I don't even consider driving for anything other than going further away from D.C. I am sure Heather will get some great pictures out of it.

Fairness vs Injustice

Issues of race, gender, and ethnicity have been a hot issue in recent weeks. Many in the media are writing about whether the election of Barack Obama represents the beginning of a "post-racial" America. This notion, that race no longer defines a person's status and trajectory, is in theory interesting but in reality serves only to further marginalize those who suffer under the yoke of injustice. The very fact that it is such a big deal to elect an African American president speaks to the fact that we have not come as far as many seem to hope. 

Race and ethnicity have always been tricky and taboo subjects not only in the U.S. but around the world. Most people take race as a given category that people fit into, largely ignorant of the fact that races and ethnicities are socially constructed. By socially constructed I am referring to their origin in the historical context in which the categories are created and then changed over time. For example, in many countries in Latin America, race is viewed extremely differently. In some countries there are fifty or more gradations of perceived ethnicity on a spectrum of white, black, and indigenous. In many of these countries, while skin color is taken into account, other factors like wealth, dress, and social status serve to determine a person's "true" ethnicity.

We often lose sight that when we talk about someone being African-American or White, that these categories lack real meaning and are just the most current incarnation of labels. To try to homogenize such diverse groups of peoples into simple categories often leads to spurious assumptions. For example, the issue of hypertension in African Americans is often tied to a variety of things, from genetics to adaptive selection during slavery. However, these simple notions break apart when we understand that genetic differences between any two given African Americans are larger than between any given African American and a person of any other race. We know definitively that the genes that affect skin color have nothing to do with hypertension, particularly on the large scale that is proposed. However, social forces have been found to be the most likely candidate for being the reason for higher rates of hypertension. Feelings of stress/anxiety and perceptions of discrimination have been found to play a major role in creating higher rates of hypertension among almost all populations. This has been found to be particularly true among African Americans. I don't for a moment want to imply that just because these categories are socially created that they do not have power. They have real power in how people are treated, how they are perceived, and even how they perceive themselves. However, their overwhelming power does not mean that knowing they are socially constructed is fruitless. It allows for a better understanding of what can and must be done to bring about a more just and equitable system.  

I don't want any of the above to take away from the overwhelming happiness I feel about Barack Obama being elected President, but we have to keep in mind the vast inequities suffered by African Americans and other marginalized populations. There is much work to be done, and understanding where we stand is a good place to start.