The Summer of My Discontent
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
I beg forgiveness of William Shakespeare’s spirit for my blatant misuse of his immortal phrase “the winter of our discontent.” I’m not unique in this misconstruction. Here’s the whole quote. Bear with me here. This won’t take long.
Shakespeare’s “Richard The Third” begins with Richard, who will himself become king one day, celebrating his brother’s having ousted the sitting king (Henry VI) to become Edward IV. Richard exults:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low’r'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
The first line of the verse is most often quoted as a complaint, as though “discontent” was followed by a period. It’s not. Richard is saying that the tough times his family has endured (the winter of their discontent) has turned to “glorious summer.”
I love Shakespeare’s use of the English language too much not to issue this apology. But I don’t love Shakespeare enough not to turn his phrase into a complaint of my own. This summer has been, is, and bids fair to be through the autumn solstice and probably beyond, a miserable season. Here’s the worst of it, from my perspective. You can use the comments to add your own details. If you can refute mine, go for it. Make me feel better.
For starters, take my kitchen garden. Please. Last May I gave you a joyous description of what I’d planted. The rains came that night, washing away or rotting most of the seeds I’d lovingly tucked in beneath a thin layer of gorgeous compost we’d made. It rained almost every day through the end of June. On July Fourth weekend I went to my favorite garden shop and bought cauliflower plants to replace the broccoli that was a lost cause (planted from seed). I bought cabbage, eggplant, and bell peppers, and thought I’d have a decent yield after all.
Fuggeddaboudit, as the Sopranos say. The rain continued and the slugs, not my plants, flourished. The clerk at the package store must have her eye on me by now — an old lady coming in once a week and buying a 12-pack of Pabst, the cheapest beer in the store. I told her about the slug fests we put on in our garden — slugs love beer so much they forget to get out of the saucer it’s in and they drown there. She looked at me coldly and murmured something I took to mean, “Yeah, right.”
Until last Friday, daytime temps here seldom got over the mid-70s, even when the seldom-seen sun did shine. But that’s hardly the worst of it. The worst is late blight, a fungus that thrives on dampness and destroys potatoes and tomatoes. It is, the experts say, the same fungus as the one that caused the potato famine in Ireland in the mid-1800s. (I have my doubts that it’s really the same for two reasons: Contemporary accounts told of the stench of infested potato fields, and I have a hard time imagining a living organism — which fungi are — that doesn’t mutate and evolve over a period of 150 years.)
But whether or not it’s the identical fungus, it sure is a killer. I’ve torn up all but one of my tomato plants — the black Brandywine, if you’re keeping track — and Ed, my husband, has taken up all the potato plants he purchased as seed potatoes from the local farmer’s co-op. The ones he grew from the eyes of potatoes we’d bought to eat seem OK.
We took them up, double-bagged them, and took them to the transfer station to be incinerated — hoping our neighbors have done the same — because wind can carry the spores as far as 40 miles and, while we caught ours from commercial farms in the valley, which had the blight weeks before we got it, we don’t want to return the favor. Now we have to either figure out what chemicals we can safely apply to our soil and still retain our right to claim pesticide-free status next year (NOFA Massachusetts will help us here), or hope for an open winter — a cold one without snow cover so that the spores will be killed without treatment — or both. I’m not sure which is worse, a killing freeze, or hazmat suits, which are necessary even to spray copper sulphur, as the experts recommend.
As if that blight’s not bad enough, there’s also the one growing on reform of the way health care is delivered – or not — in the US of A. This month we’ve seen Barack Obama give away the government’s right to negotiate the price of prescription medicines with the pharmaceutical industry — a slap in the face of every elder who is forced to buy Medicare Part D (for disaster) insurance — whether they take prescribed drugs or not — and, if they do, to pay whatever Pharma wants to charge. Let Bob Reich, Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton and a straight shooter if there ever was one, tell you about it:
Last week, after being reported in the Los Angeles Times, the White House confirmed it has promised Big Pharma that any healthcare legislation will bar the government from using its huge purchasing power to negotiate lower drug prices. That’s basically the same deal George W. Bush struck in getting the Medicare drug benefit, and it’s proven a bonanza for the drug industry. A continuation will be an even larger bonanza, given all the Boomers who will be enrolling in Medicare over the next decade. And it will be a gold mine if the deal extends to Medicaid, which will be expanded under most versions of the healthcare bills now emerging from Congress, and to any public option that might be included. (We don’t know how far the deal extends beyond Medicare because its details haven’t been made public.)
Let me remind you: Any bonanza for the drug industry means higher health-care costs for the rest of us, which is one reason why critics of the emerging healthcare plans, including the Congressional Budget Office, are so worried about their failure to adequately stem future healthcare costs. To be sure, as part of its deal with the White House, Big Pharma apparently has promised to cut future drug costs by $80 billion. But neither the industry nor the White House nor any congressional committee has announced exactly where the $80 billion in savings will show up nor how this portion of the deal will be enforced. In any event, you can bet that the bonanza Big Pharma will reap far exceeds $80 billion. Otherwise, why would it have agreed?
And now we see the “public option” — the only hope we have of getting insurance companies to cut their bloated administrative costs — a lot of which, I’ve heard from people involved in filing insurance claims, on the one hand, and processing them, on the other. I’ve heard stories about how health insurance company claims processors let forms sit for months, then scour them for trivial errors — the one that sticks in my mind is a misplaced comma — so they can be returned as improper, forcing the doctor’s office, hospital or, worst of all, the patient seeking reimbursement, to begin the filing process all over again.
I’ll be happy to eat crow, in front of god and everybody, if I turn out to be wrong. But I think what we’re going to wind up with is a bill that forces people to pay for insurance they can’t afford, punishes them if they don’t (the much-vaunted Massachusetts model, put through the Great and General Court by former governor Mitt Romney, whose main talent is buying failing companies, firing workers, and then selling the companies for a profit,) strips states of the right to negotiate drug prices for Medicaid recipients, and gets Obama’s blessing as a step forward.
I blame Obama because he’s been more interested in getting some love from Republicans (fat chance) than on keeping faith with the people who sacrificed time and treasure to put him in the White House. I’m angry that the President sucked up the likes of Chuck Grassley, who brags that he “stuck a finger in the dike” and will never vote for the final legislation, no matter what.
A good manager tells the people who work for him what results he wants and gets out of the way while they make it happen. On the surface, that looks like Obama’s management style. But it isn’t. It couldn’t be. The people who do the legislative work are called Representative and Senator, and they don’t work for Obama. In principle, they work for the people who vote in their district or state. At one point in health reform’s short history, more than 70% of those people favored the public option. It should have been a slam dunk, but for Obama’s obsession with “non-partisanship” — a non-starter if ever there was one. How can you expect sore losers to join in your efforts at reform. How can you expect cooperation from people who won’t accept that a man of biracial ancestry lives in the White House?
Without a public, Medicare-like option, health care reform is a bandaid for a system in critical condition. There’s no way to push private insurers to become more efficient and provide better value to Americans without being forced to compete with a public option. And there’s no way to get overall health-care costs down without a public option that has the authority and scale to negotiate lower costs with pharmaceutical companies, doctors, hospitals, and other providers — thereby opening the way for private insurers to do the same.
It’s been clear from the start that the private insurers and other parts of the medical-industrial complex have hated the idea of the public option, for precisely these reasons. A public option would cut deeply into their current profits. That’s why they’ve been willing to spend a fortune on lobbyists, threaten and intimidate legislators and ordinary Americans, and even rattle Obama’s cage to the point where the Administration is about to give up on it.
The White House wonders why there hasn’t been more support for universal health care coming from progressives, grass-roots Democrats, and Independents. I’ll tell you why. It’s because the White House has never made an explicit commitment to a public option.
Senator Kent Conrad’s ersatz public option — his regional “cooperatives” — won’t have the scale or authority to do what a public option would do. That’s why some Republicans say they could buy it. What’s Conrad’s response? “The fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for a public option. There never have been,” he tells “FOX News Sunday.” Conrad is wrong. If Obama tells Senate Democrats he will not sign a healthcare reform bill without a public option, there will be enough votes in the United States Senate for a public option.
I urge you to make it absolutely clear to everyone you know, everyone who cares about universal health care and what it will mean to our country, that the bill must contain a real public option. Tell that to your representatives in Congress. Tell that to the White House. If you are receiving piles of emails from the Obama email system asking you to click in favor of health care, do not do so unless or until you know it has a clear public option. Do not send money unless or until the White House makes clear its support for a public option.
This isn’t just Obama’s test. It’s our test.
You can let the President know what you think of this by writing to him at the Office of Public Engagement web page. You can find contact information for your Representative and Senators by clicking here and here. Unless you know beyond doubt that they are committed to serving your best interests and not collecting campaign money from those who couldn’t care less about your health if it interferes with their riches, you need to make your legislators hear from you.
If you’re stuck for what to say, take a look at Thom Hartmann’s open letter to Barack Obama. He proposes a simple alternative to the public option: a law opening Medicare to anyone willing to pay for it, if they’re under 65. There is precedent for this. In 1972 Medicare was expanded to cover people with disabilities.
You can click on the print version of Hartmann’s letter, copy it, and paste it into the message space on the the White House page and those of your legislators (links are above.)
Don’t let this day go by without making the people who got elected by saying they care about you hear from you. Let’s turn this summer of discontent into an autumn of joy.