Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Just received this from my daughter Maren, a day after completing her first triathlon.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Hiding in Plain Sight

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice – – -
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do...

From The Journey by Mary Oliver

I honestly think the healthcare system knows what it has to do to deliver quality care at a sustainable cost: replace the fee-for-service payment model with partial and total capitation; use Electronic Health Records throughout the system; coordinate care; make decisions using evidence-based medicine; and always reward quality of treatment, not quantity of procedures performed. Parts of the system are doing all of this, with terrific results: Kaiser Permanente, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Intermountain Health, Geisinger, to name a few. But much of the work these fine organizations do, plus all the work of just about everybody else, is based on fee-for-service, rewarding quantity, not quality.

What to do? As we all know, there are plenty of voices around us shouting their bad advice, and folks tugging at our ankles, saying "Don't go. Don't change." Inertial resistance to change in a system is a huge force. And if change doesn't in some way originate within the system, it will most likely not stick. That's why most of the cost-containing changes to Medicare  the ACA introduced are exploratory, not prescriptive. In other words, the Act proposes and supports multiple tests, to see what works, what the system will adopt. There are some prescriptions: reduced payments to Medicare Advantage; reducing the annual Market Basket Pricing Update by a multi factor productivity measure (usually from .6 to 1.0%) each year; putting in place a penalty for Hospital Readmissions. But most initiatives are designed for testing, to see what works, to see what will support the system in moving away from fee-for-service, and towards better care coordination and payment for quality.

Based on trends in per Medicare beneficiary spending since the ACA was approved in 2010, it looks like it might be working:

As I pointed out in a recent post, if per capita spending is held flat (i.e., 0% growth), and Medicare (and Medicaid) spending growth is based on enrollment (Baby Boomers turning 65), then the country's budget/entitlement problems are solved, and going forward Debt as a % of GDP will gradually decline:

The problem is that no one has come up with a research-grounded explanation of why per capita Medicare cost growth has flattened. What's worse, almost all of the solid research has focused on the private insurance market, not Medicare or Medicaid, and the generally accepted expert point of view is that most of the slowdown is recession-driven, and cost growth will return (after a lag time) as economic growth picks up (see here). The CBO did a terrific Working Paper in August, 2013, that looked squarely at Medicare, concluded that the recession had nothing to do with the slowdown, and then said that most of the slowdown could not be explained and more research was needed. Here's the  key chart:

Bringing this chart forward to include more recent data simply increases the Unexplained Contribution to Growth. Average Spending Growth 2010-2014 is .6% (vs. 3.8% above); putting this number in, and leaving other adjustments the same (obviously not accurate/needing further work), widens the unexplained gap to 4.7%. So if it's not the economy, not inflation, and not demographics, what is it? Is structural reform underway? Will this slowdown last?

How can we know if the healthcare system has, as the poet would say it, finally figured out what needed to be done, and has begun doing it?  Answer: we can't know for sure; but there is some extremely interesting data indicating that at least part of the Medicare system has figured it out, and is doing the necessary work to keep costs under control. And that data comes from a surprising place: Medicare Advantage.

Until very recently, I knew next to nothing about Medicare Advantage, and what little I knew wasn't very positive. I thought it was an insurance company boondoggle, where they convinced Congress to give a chunk of the Medicare business to private industry, saying they could do it more efficiently than Big Government, but that over the years, with intense lobbying, the benchmark bid targets kept moving up and away from actual Medicare Fee-for-Service per beneficiary costs, with the results that MA was now costing more than normal Medicare.

I knew that the ACA had cut back the bid benchmarks over time, bringing them back much closer to regular Medicare, and generating substantial savings to fund the Bill, with ongoing complaints from MA providers.

What I had not known was that MA is a managed care with capitation model; that the geographic-specific bid price per beneficiary was an "all-in" number (all Part A and B medical costs (Prescription Drugs handled separately), admin expenses and profits included); that the famous rebates were awarded as a percentage of the difference between the bid price and the reference price for that geographic area; that the rebate percent was awarded on a Five Star Provider quality measurement system, with larger rebates going to those with higher rankings; and that rebates had to be used to help beneficiaries lower their premium payments or to give them additional benefits (drug, vision, dental, etc.). 

I also had no idea what the per beneficiary cost trends had been, since the information is almost completely hidden. Don't really think CMS is trying to fool or deceive us; I have concluded that the individual claims are not reported with other Part A or Part B spending because MA claims are paid by the MA Plan Payers, not Medicare central.

I searched and googled for a long time. Finally I hit pay dirt: on page 157 of the 2014 CMS Trustees Report, a section began labeled Private Health Plans, and there was the history and all the data, with the key page being 168, reproduced here:

Using info from this Table; focusing only on "Local CCP (Coordinated Care Plan)" which covers the vast bulk of the enrollees; and excluding rebates (marketing, not health dollars), I came up with the following chart showing trends in per beneficiary bids to trends in Part A/B in FFS Medicare:

The above tells me that MA delivered all Part A and Part B care in 2014 for an average bid of $8,671 per beneficiary, 16% below the $10,339 average for FFS Medicare; and even adding the $799 MA rebate back in, gives only a $9,470 total, still 8% below Medicare. Per beneficiary MA costs have been gradually declining since 2009, opening up the gap with FFS Medicare - MA 9.5% lower in 2009; now 16% lower.

Remember when Managed Care drove healthcare costs down in the mid-90s', until people rebelled against the "Only Say No" rationing mentality of the HMO providers, and the business dried up. Not so now. Take a look at this enrollment chart:

How about quality of care? Take a look at this Boston Consulting Group study, a long, but extraordinary read. BCG analyzed 3 million claims, roughly split between normal FFS Medicare and Medicare Advantage: in almost every example the MA model delivered better quality with less utilization. It certainly looks to me like MA, with its Managed Care delivery system, is consistently giving high quality care at a predictable and managed cost.

And if I'm right about this, then the following chart showing CMS' forward projections (much like CBO's) simply doesn't make sense:

Why will the MA costs move up sharply in 2017? CMS/CBO will say they are tied to the FFS numbers; but MA has already demonstrated an ability to open the gap with FFS spending. The above chart simply doesn't make sense. The flattening of the FFS Medicare numbers from 2010-2014 might be said to be a fluke, a move away from the mean. You cannot say that about MA, where the Bid Offered reflects a commitment to manage their part of the system to that number. It is not a happy accident. It's a Managed Plan.

Medicare Advantage is, I believe, the miracle hiding in plain sight that should give us confidence that the overall Medicare system will slowly work its way to the efficiencies MA has found, and that we have a good chance of holding per beneficiary costs flat, thus accomplishing an extraordinary reversal of our healthcare cost and budget trends.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Budget Game Has Changed

Evidence is mounting that per beneficiary Medicare costs are flattening or dropping. The chart above shows the trend in per beneficiary cost growth since 1980. Before now, the only "off trend" period was 1998-1999. Turns out this short drop in cost growth was caused by the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, which significantly adjusted and cut payment rates. Providers complained loudly, and the Balanced Budget Refinement Act of 1999 reduced many of these cuts and put Medicare back on its strong annual growth in spending per beneficiary.

Beginning roughly in 2010, another slowdown began, this time with no immediate adjustment in Medicare payment rates: the ACA was passed in March, 2010, but the first payment rate adjustment didn't occur until 2012, when the annual market basket inflation adjustment was reduced from 3% to 2%.

Sarah Kliff of Vox was digging through the most recent CMS Trustees' Report, and she was stunned to come across this "deep data chart" on page 283:

From this she put together the following chart, showing how per beneficiary spending has flatlined in the Hospital Insurance portion of Medicare:

The charts above deal with Medicare per beneficiary cost growth. Information is less plentiful for Medicaid per capita spending, due to high turnover in the membership base, but here is a chart put together from a number of CBO Medicaid Focus Briefs put out before the annual 10 year Budget Outlook, generally published in March each year. Here we see per beneficiary Medicaid costs declining:

What would happen if this trend continued? What would our budget picture look like if Medicare and Medicaid per beneficiary costs stayed constant? In particular, what would happen to the critical Debt to GDP ration? I downloaded the CBO 2014-2024 Budget Outlook model, then adjusted it to hold per beneficiary cost growth for Medicare and Medicaid at zero. Here are the results for the ratio of combined Medicare/Medicaid spending to GDP and the Debt/GDP levels for two scenarios - current CBO forecast and that forecast revised to hold per beneficiary spending constant:

Because Medicare and Medicaid take a decreasing share of our resources, deficits gradually decline, moving below the rate of GDP growth (and staying there), thus allowing the Debt/GDP ratio to decline.

With zero per capita spending growth - in other words, with Medicare and Medicaid spending growing only with enrollment - Debt to GDP ratios drop gradually over the 10 year period. Budget deficits stay below GDP growth, allowing the debt ratio to improve.

But this is a far cry from what CMS and the CBO are forecasting. Here's CMS' forecast for per capita Hospital Spending:

And here's the CBO:

How do they support this resumption in per beneficiary cost growth in 2016, after a five year hiatus? Nothing much is said: CMS is silent; CBO presents some discussion of competing research viewpoints on overall economy-wide healthcare cost trends; mentions one of its own papers (here) saying the Medicare cost slowdown is most likely not recession related; then presumptively uses a 3% per beneficiary annual cost growth average, plus the anticipated 3% annual growth in enrollment as the baby boom is absorbed into Medicare. The result is the same it seems to have always been: we're OK for now, but we're in trouble in the long term, as we watch Medicare/Medicaid take an ever-increasing share of our national resources, leaving the country with an untenable long term structural budget problem.

The "healthcare cost slowdown is recession-related and therefore temporary" school got a big boost last week with the Health Affairs publication of a peer-reviewed research report showing how markets that were the hardest hit by the recession (Las Vegas, Birmingham, AL), measured in local/regional employment trends, showed the biggest healthcare cost slowdown, versus markets (Trenton, Dallas) that were relatively unscathed by the Great Recession. In fact,the hard hit Las Vegas and Birmingham markets showed private insurance-based healthcare costs growing from 5.4-7.2% per annum, where similar costs in the less affected Trenton and Dallas markets grew from 28 to 29%. The research concluded that: the recession/economy/income accounts for 70% of the healthcare cost slowdown; systemic changes in healthcare delivery are not that important, and we can expect cost growth to resume (with a lag effect) as the economy picks up steam.

I'm not equipped to argue the case with regards to the private market, but I will claim that the research results simply don't apply to the public, Medicare/Medicaid markets. Enrollees in these programs have minimal out of pocket costs. In fact, for Medicare those already low costs have been coming down: premiums held flat and closing the Part D Prescription Drug Care donut hole. Recession and the resultant changing income levels should have no effect on utilization in either program. Turns out the CBO publishes amazing county-level Medicare per beneficiary spending trends(here). I decided to check the same four counties the Health Affairs researchers had reviewed. Here are per beneficiary Medicare spending results for the two "hard hit" counties (Las Vegas and Birmingham) and the two that came out of the Recession "relatively unscathed" (Trenton and Dallas). As you can see: no difference - the per beneficiary spending slowdown showed almost identical trends in all four counties:

So what IS going on? If the Recession is not the slowdown's cause, and enrollee out-of-pockets are actually coming down (as opposed to going up markedly in the private insurance marketplace), why are per person costs flattening? The fair answer is that I don't really know; but there are things the evidence points to.

First, it's essential to understand what we're looking at (and here, I will focus on Medicare): when reviewing Medicare "spending trends", you are not really looking at spending; rather you are seeing provider billing information. Providers treat patients, then bill Medicare per a preset pricing list according to diagnostic related groups, or DRG's. Medicare spending is a country-wide buildup, provider by provider, of DRG's billed for services provided. The actual costs of providing those particular mix of services are nowhere reflected in Medicare billing. Spending over the allowed DRG limit is simply shifted  to other patient categories (private insurance, private pay, charity). Almost all providers bill above the allowed per-DRG Medicare rate; but costs for the more efficient providers can line up with these DRG rates.

So Medicare spending trends over time are an unusually clean and precise look at trends in patient utilization (both usage and mix of services, or complexity of usage). In this light, since we are in a billing, not a spending model, inflation doesn't happen all the time, at different rates throughout the year; it happens once a year, with a different "market basket rate adjustment" depending on service category. For example, the Part A/Hospital Insurance market basket up date for 2012 was 2%, after taking off (for the first time, per ACA) 1% for the multi- factor, economy-wide, 10 year average productivity adjustment.

Billing, not spending. And therefore an unusually good approximation of system utilization for our prototypical average, or composite patient. What's happening here? Some will argue that with the arrival of the Baby Boomers beginning in 2010, the Medicare pool is getting younger, therefore healthier. This is most likely true, though the impact of moving annual enrollment growth from 2-3% to 3-4% is likely quite modest, though certainly helpful.  Speaking quite broadly, I think evidence will start to show that the healthcare provider system is getting more efficient - less utilization/complexity to support our "average/composite" patient. We can begin to see this clearly in Medicare (and probably Medicaid); it will take more time in the private insurance sector.

There are two huge and converging trends in healthcare that I believe are causing the entire system to become self-organizing around the desire to reach these difficult, yet attainable objectives: Electronic Health Records (EHR) and the movement away from fee-for-service. There are other initiatives (penalties for hospital readmissions, for example), but these two hold the key. Providers want to achieve both; they are, I believe, convinced that they must achieve both, and quickly, in order to be successful in the evolving healthcare order of things.

Each initiative requires big provider investments and transformational changes in culture. Many providers will fail. Many more will be gobbled up as providers seek scale and more forward, cross-functional integration.The examples of giant organizations like The Mayo Clinic are powerful: where all services are under one ownership/organizational roof,and there is no, or little quantity incentive. Mayo is the quintessential accountable care organization, where patient costs are low, in large part because patient care is brilliantly coordinated, EHR is (and has been) largely in place, and quality care is the obsessive focus, not quantity of procedures performed (often the fee-for-service incentive results).

No one can predict exactly what this will all look like in 5 to 10 years. But what we can say with confidence is that these two powerful trends are happening: the movement to EHR and the shift away from fee-for-service. Just last week, Health Affairs reported on the extraordinary progress the system is making towards EHR: 59% of hospitals now have basic EHR in place, up from 15% in 2010. There are, and will be problems on the way to full adoption, but this train is moving fast.

So moving back into the Medicare/Medicaid cost forecasting arena, do you agree withCMS and the CBO that per beneficiary costs will restart their historical 3-5% growth trend? I don't. If I'm right, how long will it take the system to catch up and adjust their forecasts? I can't say, but my guess is: 2-3 years at a minimum. Democrats will, quite rightly, push this in the 2016 election, if per capita costs stay flat for Medicare and Medicaid. Conservatives will trumpet the news loudly when overall healthcare spending moves up, due to the large ACA coverage expansion . Progressives will need to work hard to keep the focus on per capita costs, not total spending.

As a progressive, feel we are moving into very rich terrain: the healthcare system has been transformed, and now is taking on the job of transforming itself, which all systems will do, when they select a new identity, as long as the system remains open, sufficient information is provided to all relevant players, and relationships between players are well coordinated.  Probably the most important policy change needed to speed this change is to find more ways to reward providers for not performing services, in other words by not spending/billing for added procedures because you (the provider) have found a better way to treat the patient and thereby eliminate procedures done in the past.

A system that rewards for services performed (FFS) needs, dare I say, a way to "reward abstinence," if that abstinence is congruent with the best healthcare practices and supports/nurtures the patient. Peter Orzag, formerly CBO Director, now at Citibank, and on the Board of Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, is a clear voice calling for CMS to find ways to pay for quality, including rewarding providers for not doing procedures in certain circumstances. He tells us that Mt. Sinai is "bleeding money" by finding more and more ways to keep patients out of the OR and out of their hospital, believing that fee for service is on its way out, and the system will start paying for quality, and for doing a better job of keeping patients healthy.

The politics of this is something else. The Right will resist this for as long as possible, because it means they can't scream for budget cuts or the dismantling of entitlements. The CMS and CBO will be typically slow to change their fundamental assumptions about the healthcare future.

But it's happening. We need to get ourselves together to magnify the power of this crucial transformation of our collective healthcare and therefore overall budget future.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Obama Doctrine

Nancy LeTourneau was the first to frame what the President said in this big policy speech last Wednesday in Brussels, Belgium as an Obama Doctrine. I believe this framing is very appropriate. Nancy identifies three central elements of this emergent Doctrine:
  • establishing and defending international norms - In the current case of Crimea and the Ukraine, the norms are self-determination, the integrity of national borders, and the prohibition against a stronger country changing a weaker country's borders by force.
  • operating through partnership, not power, to discipline norm-breakers - Here, with Russia's annexation of the Crimea, there is no military response to Russia's actions. Rather a partnership of concerned nations will work together to fashion a series of non-military responses: diplomatic isolation; expulsion from the G8;  economic sanctions (as much as possible, directed against the ruling oligarchs, not the Russian people); facing the Russian Security Council veto, secure an overwhelming condemnation of the Crimean referendum in a General Assembly vote (100 voted to condemn, where Bush got only 14 in the 2008 Russian incursion into Georgia); invite and support a rapid (90 day) review, country by country, of alternatives to Gazprom/Russian gas; provide very substantial, multilateral economic support to the Ukraine; work to split Russia from its traditional ally (China) with some success already (China abstained and did not vote with Russia in the Security Council).
  • when conflicts arise, keep a clear diplomatic off-ramp open - With every pronouncement, the President has been clear that this problem can only be solved diplomatically, that we are not trying to put Russia down - rather we are trying to support and enforce international norms which have benefitted all of us. Friday, Putin called the President. Today Kerry and Lavrov are meeting in Paris. It's quite likely this will not prove the end of this crisis; but it does clearly establish the process that needs to be followed when resolution does occur.
Will this work? Ian Bremmer, in his New York Times oped, thinks not. In fact he is certain any attempt at sanctions will fail. He (along with many other very smart analysts) thinks we need to more fully understand the Russian perspective - that the Crimea belonged to them, and that the West has been relentlessly trying to encircle them since the Fall of the Wall, and that as our understanding deepens, we will lighten up on the critique. Roger Cohen, in his Thursday New York Times oped, having listened to Obama's Brussels' speech, seems to metaphorically throw in the towel, saying how can the US or Europe engage in elevated appeals to principle, when our own houses are so out of order.

Ambassador Michael McFaul (until mid-February, our Ambassador to Russia) and Fareed Zakaria have completely different takes. One of my favorite analysts, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, penned his op-ed in Britain's The Telegraph on Wednesday - "Putin's Russia Caught in US and Chinese Double-Pincer". From my perspective, the smart money is on Obama.

The stakes are high here. Can we have a world where the leading powers follow an agreed set of rules - rules which can guarantee that smaller nations don't have to always look over their shoulder to see which great power might gobble them up. Will the rules of the jungle apply, where the mighty can feast on the midgets to their heart's delight; or can we, as an international community, agree on a different set of rules, ones that protect both the meek and the mighty?

And how do you enforce these rules? In a nuclear age, military conflict between the great powers is unthinkable. So what happens when a great power wants to eat up its neighbor? Are we pretty much helpless? Until now, the answer was pretty much - Yes. Nobody could stop us from invading Iraq, and nobody did. Nobody could stop NATO from bombing Kosovo, and nobody did. So Putin says to himself, "Since the US won't use military force, no one can stop us from invading the Crimea, and probably the Ukraine, and nobody will." Until Obama did.

Will it stick? I think so, over time. Mostly because I think Obama looks at this episode of unacceptable Russian norm-breaking, as very similar to what the GOP tried to do with the Government shutdown, and their requirement that Obama negotiate over the national debt. Obama said no to the GOP and meant it. Everybody knew he would cave. He didn't. The stakes were too high. And that's right where I think we are today - the stakes are too high to just back off and give the Crimea to Russia. Bad precedent. Big countries must follow the rules, just like the small ones. If they don't, chaos follows.

But being determined might not be enough if our President did not know how to genuinely ask others to help. It's hard for us to understand what a big deal this is: Obama is telling everyone that he cannot do this alone, that he needs help from every country that recognizes the value of defending international norms - whether that help comes in the form of a UN General Assembly vote, or hard-nosed economic sanctions. US Presidents never ask for help, at least not publicly. And that's precisely what Obama did in his Brussels speech. Simply extraordinary.

This may take a week, a month, a year, or more. But starting with Wednesday's speech (above), we are watching our President lead us, and whatever other countries will join to help, in a non-violent war against the old paradigm that says, "Might makes right." Or "He who has the gold, rules."

He is leading the world in establishing certain norms that say all of us have value; that we all deserve to be heard; and that the more powerful should not be allowed to run roughshod over us.

These are norms worth fighting for.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

I Am My Brother's Keeper

(from theobamadiary.com-President with Christian Campagne from BAM)

A gathering and presentation like this shows the astonishing authenticity of this man. These can be tricky waters for him, as his early Beer Summit and his more recent comments on Trayvon Martin have shown. Adversaries are always waiting for him to "play the race card": They want to hear him complain about institutional racism and how it prevents minority progress (presumably due to white prejudice and dominance); and they especially want to find ways he is trying to provide special programs and privileges for the "victimized" minorities, at the expense (presumptively) of whites. And we shouldn't forget the GOP trope that being your "Brother's Keeper" leads you into the dreaded territory of communalism and away from the sacred ground of becoming a "job creator". And, finally, there's the always lurking possibility that this will be one more Obama effort to enlarge the domain of Big Government at the expense of individual and family.

All of these needle eyes were "seamlessly" threaded. A bravura performance, and even Bill O'Reilly rose at the end to shake the President's hand.

But I want to highlight something else: the tangible, visible-while-invisible connection he establishes and demonstrates with Christian from BAM (Becoming A Man), and with all the boys/young men gathered behind him. Watch how the President listens to Christian's introduction of him, making occasional gestures or expressions, but mostly holding himself quietly, so the attention wouldn't shift from young Christian to him. Notice both of their movements and expressions when Christian tells the audience what the President had shared a year ago "in Circle" with the young men from BAM - that he had, in fact, goofed off from time to time in school. Notice the quiet dignity and diligence with which the President connects with each young man, including a touchingly long head-on-the-President's-shoulder hug with one boy, before he leaves the room.

This is pure Presence - being right here, right now, and nowhere else, with a Beginner's Mind and an Open Heart, focusing so completely that the small "s" self (the Ego, the Busy Mind) drops away, and Big Mind/Big Heart is what is there. The pure and utter Mastery of the Peaceful Warrior. Our President as Integral Leader.

And I haven't even talked about the program itself! Wonderful public-private partnership with multiple, and varying players, depending on the location (city by city). $200MM in new Foundation support, over and above the initial $150MM commitment. A great call to minority families, particularly fathers. And a powerful call to each young man present (and those watching at a distance) to personal responsibility and hard work.

In and through it all, we see and experience our President demonstrating great personal mastery.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I am Privileged, So Some Learning is Hard

That's my picture. Pretty well sums it up. More precisely, it sums up a certain dimension of "me": white, male, physically large and strong, probably affluent and well-educated (sort of looks that way and it's true) - in short, privileged. I have never faced "negative" discrimination, where I was treated badly because of what my outside appearance "said" to people I would meet. Lots of "positive" discrimination - special preferential treatment, most likely because the experience of power, of being powerful, becomes a habit, an assumption, that is somehow carried in the body, and people recognize it. Also, I look like an overweight, but still passable linebacker - someone you don't mess with if you don't have to. And yes, I have resources. I am part of the 1%.

I simply have no idea what it's like to be looked at and immediately disliked, despised or merely diminished because of what my appearance communicated to the onlooker about my status, my relevance, my power. In business deals through the years, I have experienced being looked at as an object, with certain measurable assets those I was negotiating with wanted; but this was a game, a ritual that had a beginning, middle and end - and I was doing some of the same myself. I really have no idea what it is like to be looked at as an object all the time, an object with presumably desired functions (sexual pleasure - a woman; physical or mental output - workers as mere inputs to production; and the like).

It's not that I haven't experienced vulnerability and, from that place, fear: My Mom was ambivalent about herself, and therefore me. My Dad always was, and remains (as an active, still curious 97 year old) like a god. I grew up suspecting Mom was right and I would never measure up. Failing terrified me and was not an option; so I did what I was good at (academics) and avoided what I wasn't so good at (sports, social life/friends). Girls were difficult, but sex was terrifying, and remained so for a long time. So I have experience of vulnerability, but none of discrimination based on "outside stuff".

So learning to enter the mind-space of people who face discrimination as part of their daily life is hard. And that's why this article in yesterday's Atlantic.com by Ta-Nehisi Coates is so important. TNC is talking with Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, who was gunned down by Michael Dunn because his music was too loud. TNC, using his own words and those of Jordan's mother, recreates for us the mind-space of the black, male teenager with language and images that first bring me into his head, then Lucia McBath's, then Jordan Davis' , then TNC's own 13 year old son who came with his Dad to the interview, and then into the lovely and mysterious mind recesses of our own children and grandchildren - those spaces we take and have some responsibility in forming, defining, and inspiring. Reading TNC's article I was at once a bit ashamed, in awe, and deeply grateful; because we one per centers have a lot of work to do, and we cannot easily do it by ourselves. We need the firm hand and inspired guidance of Ta-Nehisi Coates and those amazing soul teachers like him. Excerpts:

Last Thursday, I took my son to meet Lucia McBath, because he is 13, about the age when a black boy begins to directly understand what his country thinks of him. His parents cannot save him. His parents cannot save both his person and his humanity. At 13, I learned that whole streets were prohibited to me, that ways of speaking, walking, and laughing made me a target. That is because within the relative peace of America, great violence—institutional, interpersonal, existential—marks the black experience...

She stood. It was time to go. I am not objective. I gave her a hug. I told her I wanted the world to see her, and to see Jordan. She said she thinks I want the world to see "him." She was nodding to my son. She added, "And him representing all of us." He was sitting there just as I have taught him—listening, not talking. 

Now she addressed him, "You exist," she told him. "You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you. You have to be you. And you can never be afraid of being you."

She gave my son a hug and then went upstairs to pack.

Monday, February 24, 2014

I have Tears in my Eyes

(from theobamadiary.com)

Watching Michelle Obama talk to the cast of "The Trip to Bountiful" and to the assembled young college students, moved me to tears. What is it about the "zone" in which the First Lady spoke, and that same zone she easily evoked in me, that moves me so? Such hope. Such confidence that this will all work out. Her energy. Her call to action to the students: (more or less, she says) "To carry on the work (of Cicely Tyson and Carrie Underwood), you must get right. You must get right in the head (pointing to her left temple). You've got to be clear, solid, centered. And you will be. You will take up this banner, taking the mantle from us, and carry this work forward..."

How utterly marvelous!