I was sitting in an airport (it happened to be JFK, of all places), waiting for a connecting flight, when a young man sat down next to me. He was holding a newspaper.
Now the sight of a guy in his 20s holding a newspaper is, in itself, surprising in this WIFI world. But what really got me was the large-type headline: KENNEDY SLAIN ON DALLAS STREET.
For a second I thought I'd entered the Twilight Zone.
When I checked a newsstand, I saw what was going on. They were selling facsimile copies of the issue of the Dallas Morning News that came out 50 years ago, right after President Kennedy was murdered.
The anniversary of Kennedy's assassination has been a major media event. While there are doubtless some who would like to chalk this up to the supposedly liberal media's desire to distract us from the on-going mess that's befallen Obama's effort to fix our healthcare system, the fact is that the Kennedy saga remains one of America's most compelling — and vexing — stories.
Whether Kennedy was an effective leader or a charismatic poseur remains at issue, as, of course, do the circumstances of his death. Did Oswald act alone? Was there a conspiracy involving the Mob and the CIA? Pulling on any single Kennedy-related string leads inevitably to the root cellar of American mythology.
For Baby Boomers like myself, Kennedy's killing was a dark watershed, a lesson in the blunt force of mortality broadcast live and uninterrupted on network TV.
But while the Kennedy assassination was a formative experience for many of us, it hit our parents like a wrecking ball. Whether they voted for him or not (and many did not), he was emphatically a member of their generation, the first of their own to serve as president.
Where his predecessor, Eisenhower, had been the Supreme Commander during World War II, Kennedy commanded a PT Boat, an experience that led to his becoming a genuine war hero. This democratized Kennedy for a vast cross section of Americans who might otherwise have been turned off by his elite upbringing.
Instead, they found him energizing, a fitting symbol for America's postwar sense of imperial cool.
For all the contemporary fascination with Kennedy, it is hard to imagine someone like him being elected president today. His sophistication would be considered suspect, if not downright off-putting. This should tell us something about how our culture has changed. For better or worse, where people once wanted to be like the president, they now want the president to be more like them. The idea that John Kennedy might be the kind of guy you could sit and have a beer with simply didn't compute.
My family and I once visited the site in Dallas where Kennedy was shot. I remember being shocked by the force of that experience. It was a bright and beautiful day. But I couldn't shake the feeling that something crucial about my country died there.
When Mike Huber, now in his capacity as president of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, released a statement opposing HJR-6, the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, he highlighted an increasing tension between Indianapolis and the rest of the state.
Tellingly, while Huber and the Indy Chamber have openly opposed writing homophobia into the state's constitution, the Indiana Chamber has chosen not to take a stand. In a statement delivered via a chamber spokeswoman, Kevin Brinegar, Indiana Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, told NUVO, "We have members on both sides of the issue, so we have not adopted a position either in favor of or opposed to the proposed constitutional amendment."
The disconnect between Indianapolis and the rural and exurban parts of the state over who can or cannot be married is just the latest example of the gulf between the state's city dwellers and our country (and exurban) cousins. But this rupture isn't unique to Indiana. It's happening on a global scale.
As scholars Michele Acuto and Parag Khanna observe in a recent paper, "Nations are no longer driving globalization — cities are the world is undergoing a massive structural change, which, in turn, is going to affect our politics, economies and our very identities."
Half the world's population, they point out, is now living in cities for the first time in human history. This is making cities more potent as political entities than states or even nations.
Cities, for example, are pulling ahead of so-called sovereign nations in trying to tackle climate change. The C40 initiative, an alliance of mayors from 60 cities around the world, is dedicated to finding practical ways of reducing the carbon footprint in urban areas.
Cities drive global economic activity. Acuto and Khanna cite a McKinsey Global Institute study that shows the world's economic activity can be tracked according to what's going on in 400 metro areas. They point to recent international mergers of stock exchanges, beginning with New York and Frankfort and, pending, between London and Toronto, Sidney and Singapore and Chicago and Sao Paulo, to name just a few.
Global inequality, they contend, has become more stark within countries, than across national borders.
This echoes what we see, albeit on a less magisterial scale, in Indiana. This state would be almost unthinkable without Indianapolis to give it economic and cultural credibility. Yet, as in so many other parts of the United States, political decisions and social policies are controlled to an unrepresentative degree by people living where the culture tends to be retrogressively homogenous, and the economy is hollowed out.
When you look at the poor job of stewardship the state of Indiana has provided its citizens over the past several decades, it's no wonder more and more young Hoosiers see their only hope for a future in Indianapolis — and that Indianapolis realizes it has more in common with its sister cities, in other parts of the country, and around the world, than within a set of boundaries that mean more on a map than in real life.
"I'll fight for the right of every Hoosier to run our schools, buy our healthcare, and build our roads the Hoosier way. ... To make Indiana the state that works, we must have a governor who's willing to say yes to Indiana and no to Washington, DC."
That was Mike Pence a year ago, when he was running for governor. As a state's rights Republican, he made a big deal out of how what he called "Hoosier common sense" trumped whatever ideas the federal government might have in mind.
So it's more than a little odd that when it came to making health insurance available to Hoosiers, Pence refused to set up an insurance exchange in Indiana, opting instead to send everyone who lives here to the federal government's website.
We know how that's turning out.
Obamacare's website has been an unmitigated disaster, while insurance exchanges created by those states that chose to do the job themselves — Kentucky, for example — have reportedly been working pretty well.
But wait. There's more.
It turns out there was madness to Pence's method. Pence, you will recall, is the man who stormed into a Republican meeting after the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare, declaring this was the worst day for America since 9/11. He's been trying to torpedo the Affordable Care Act ever since. In fact, he's more interested in doing that than in making sure the Hoosiers he supposedly cares so much about get the healthcare they need.
That's why he gave his blessing to Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller's lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service. The suit would block Hoosiers from receiving the financial subsidies that make the Affordable Care Act, well, affordable.
Zoeller's argument meets the very definition of a Catch-22. Since Indiana is making Hoosiers use the federal exchange to shop for health insurance, he thinks they should be disqualified from receiving the federal subsidies intended to help pay for that insurance.
State Rep. Ed DeLaney described Zoeller's lawsuit this way: "We already have told close to 400,000 Hoosiers who live below the poverty level that they will get no relief from the Affordable Care Act because the state of Indiana chooses not to participate in it, even though the taxpayers of this state pay to finance the act.
"Now we are told that ... another 400,000 Hoosiers who make between $15,000 and $80,000 a year in the private sector should not receive any subsidies from the federal government to pay for their health care coverage."
In Mike Pence's Indiana, healthcare is a privilege, not a right. His administration actually prefers spending its time and (our) money suing the federal government to make sure Hoosiers can't get benefits available to citizens in other states.
Is this Pence's idea of making Indiana a competitive destination? Raise the banners high: "Come to Indiana, where the health care's unaffordable, the air's full of fly ash and the water's full of mercury — oh, and where marriage is still between one man and one woman!"
Yeah. That'll work.
Has the sky fallen yet?
I'm asking because after years of threats, warnings and the gnashing of expensively capped teeth, Obamacare has finally arrived.
And the sky, I see, is still up there.
Starting this week, anybody who needs health insurance can shop for it through the markets — called "exchanges" — that have been created for this purpose in every state.
In Indiana, the federal government is responsible for running the health insurance market. That's because our state's governor, Mike Pence, wants nothing to do with Obamacare or, as the law is officially known, the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
You may recall that in June 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the ACA was constitutional, then Rep. Mike Pence stormed into a conclave of his Republican cohorts and exclaimed that said ruling was comparable to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
It's not clear what Pence was thinking at the time. Perhaps it was that Chief Justice John Roberts and the other justices who voted in favor of the ACA were terrorists. Or maybe the idea of going to the doctor without the fear of going broke struck Pence as being a surprise attack on privilege.
In any event, when word got out about his outburst, Pence did what American politicians do best after unguardedly expressing their true selves. He apologized.
Pence, however, is hardly alone in his demonization of a bill that has yet to fully take effect. His fellow House Republicans have voted to repeal Obamacare no less than 41 times. It's been called "a power grab" by Rick Santorum; a "health dictatorship" by Newt Gingrich; and "a crime against democracy" by Michele Bachmann.
And then there's people like me, who are unhappy because the bill seems too complicated, dislike the way it keeps control of our healthcare in the hands of insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and would rather see a single-payer, Medicare for Everyone approach. What's more, because of Gov. Pence's opposition to the ACA, thousands of uninsured, working-poor Hoosiers will be left in the lurch due to Indiana's failure to fully embrace the bill's expansion of Medicaid.
That said, I still think we can be glad Obamacare's time has come. For all its potential glitches and hiccups, the ACA stands to make peoples' lives better in a number of ways.
As has been pointed out by other observers, the bill makes a difference insofar as it prevents denial of coverage to children with pre-existing conditions, enables adults up to the age of 26 to stay on their parents' health plans, prohibits rescinding coverage as well as lifetime and annual limits, and requires new health plans to provide free preventive care without cost-sharing such as co-pays and deductibles.
But I suspect the bill's biggest impact will likely be felt in how it changes the ways people think about their jobs.
For generations, Americans have linked health insurance and employment. Our jobs have not only been our source of income, they have also provided vital health insurance benefits. This approach took hold during World War II, when employers started adding insurance benefits to employment packages as a way of attracting workers during a labor shortage.
In 1945, President Truman proposed an optional, national health insurance program. The idea was popular, but shot down by, among others, the national Chamber of Commerce and the American Medical Association, who branded it socialism.
The employer-based system worked pretty well for awhile. But over the last 30 years, as medical costs have risen, the terms of insurance policies have grown stingier and stingier. This has cost both employers and workers. Now, while most people continue to be insured through their workplaces, their coverage is less expansive and more expensive.
Onerous as it is, this situation is still preferable to having no coverage at all. A serious accident or chronic illness can turn a life into a financial ruin. That's why anyone who has a job with health insurance will do almost anything to stay where they are. And if you're a worker with a chronic illness or condition, holding on to your job can be a matter of life and death.
This situation is bad for everybody. It makes younger workers feel stuck and keeps older workers hanging on for dear life. It doesn't do employers any good in terms of productivity, or profits.
By cutting the knot binding work and healthcare, the ACA stands to make younger workers more mobile, able to follow opportunities without fear that an accident or troubling diagnosis will derail them. It provides older workers the security of knowing that if they are unable to work, they can still get coverage.
This is new. Whatever Obamacare's limitations, the decoupling of work and healthcare represents a kind of liberation. No, the sky's not falling. It's actually looking pretty good.
I just got back from my niece's wedding in New Mexico. She's enjoying a successful career as a nurse; met a guy who seems like the real deal and, together, they are riding off into what promises to be a splendid future.
I'm sure glad she didn't grow up in Indiana.
That was my first thought upon getting home and finding "The Status of Girls in Indiana," a new report from Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame that claims to be the first study of how girls between the ages of 10 and 19 in this state are doing.
The results are enough to make you think that, for girls, life in this state is caught in a kind of time warp.
According to the report, our high school girls are more likely to be overweight (18.5 percent) than girls in other states. At the same time, they are also more likely to take diet pills, laxatives or resort to vomiting to lose weight.
And 20 percent of girls do not engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity on any given day.
Hoosier girls are more likely to graduate from high school than Hoosier boys, but they do worse on most standardized tests. Although they best the boys on Advanced Placement tests having to do with foreign languages and arts, they fall behind when it comes to math and science.
The chances of a girl being forced to have sex are higher in Indiana than the national average; approximately 15 percent of female high school students here report having been raped.
Finally, middle school girls are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol or use prescription drugs than boys in the same age group.
Kristin JehringKuter, one of this project's leaders, and an Assistant Professor of Math, said she was surprised by the mental health and body image data: "I didn't realize that the figures of girls affected by depression and suicide were as high as they are, and that girls in the eighth grade seem to struggle the most with these issues."
Carol Mooney, Saint Mary's president added: "Depression, inactivity, and obesity were significantly higher in Indiana than in the rest of the nation. Suicide rates were also statistically higher."
Mooney and JehringKuter are quick to say that many girls in Indiana are doing fine. But this doesn't make up for the fact that so many are behind their counterparts in other states.
What's going on?
While it is tempting to make sweeping generalizations about something being cracked in the state's culture, to speculate that our obsessions with sports, guns and internal combustion have preserved Indiana as a kind of boys' club, this may miss a larger issue — Indiana's dismal rate of personal income.
Last week, the state's most recent ISTEP scores were released. Guess what: Carmel and Zionsville, Indiana's two wealthiest communities, ranked No.1 and 2 in the percentage of students who passed the test last spring.
Meanwhile, the state's lowest-income school districts, places like East Chicago, Medora, Gary and Indianapolis, were at the bottom of the list.
Family income, in other words, looks like a definite predictor of how well a kid — girl or boy — is likely to do in school.
Kids, of course, may be affluent and still be plagued by eating disorders and suicidal thoughts like those afflicting so many Hoosier girls.
But in a state where, in some parts, the standard of living can be decades behind what passes for average in the rest of the country, the linkage between personal incomes and the quality of girls' lives seems impossible to ignore.
A recent Ball State study found that average per capita income in Indiana in 2010 only made it as high as the national average in 1996. Indiana ranked 40th among states for 2010 per capita income.
The Ball State researchers then took 2010 Indiana wages, adjusted for inflation, and assigned each county the year in which its standard of living was equal to that of the nation. In Marion County, for example, average personal income was equivalent to the national average in 1999. This put Marion ahead of most other counties in the state. In LaGrange, earnings came in at 1964, the year the Beatles first played on Ed Sullivan; Miami and Starke were still in the disco era: 1975.
But Hamilton and Boone Counties, those ISTEP winners, were also the only counties in the entire state to come out ahead of the national average. "Standard of living raises all boats," said Michael Hicks, director of Ball State's Center for Business and Economic Research.
Hicks could have been talking about the lives of girls in Indiana. Next time some Hoosier politician boasts about our low cost of living, or how keeping wages low is good for business, find out if (s)he has a daughter.
At the end of August, Mayor Greg Ballard announced the city of Indianapolis was filing public nuisance lawsuits against the owners of a pair of apartment complexes, where it appears the chances of getting a good night's sleep are close to zero.
According to the lawsuits, there have been more than 3,200 police runs and over 200 public health and code enforcement investigations at these places, whose names, the Esmeralda and Heather Ridge, make a half-hearted attempt at evoking a quality of life their residents can only begin to imagine. I doubt leases at these people traps make mention of assault, armed robbery or homicide, but all have, at one time or another, turned out to be part of the package.
"It is absolutely critical to our efforts to combat crime and improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods that we crack down on negligent property owners," said Mayor Ballard in a press release. "We must hold property owners accountable for draining unnecessary public resources and damaging our communities."
To which I — and I'm sure a lot of people with the bad luck to be living anywhere near one of these toxic hives — say, "Bravo!"
The mayor could have pussy-footed around this issue. He could have gone on doing what is typical in cases like this, and continued sending cops and other first responders to these places, one desperate call at a time.
He could, in other words, have continued to place the responsibility for the bad behavior in these places on the heads of each and every perpetrator.
This, however, would have ignored the forest for the trees.
But this is the way things often go in America. We'll scratch and scratch at a rash, rather than go after the poison that causes it. That's because our notion of freedom is based on a rather narrow interpretation of personal responsibility. This is fine up to a point: If somebody attacks someone else, there's nothing for it but to bring the attacker in. That much is obvious.
Not so obvious is when trouble is perpetuated because people — in this case, landlords — are, in effect, enabling bad behavior by turning a blind eye on their properties. They may claim they can't be held responsible for the actions of their tenants. Yet bad things keep happening. A pattern emerges.
Indianapolis is right to pin the blame on these donkeys. As the mayor suggests, the city needs to take action on behalf of the other people in the neighborhoods that are inevitably affected by being in close proximity to these landlords' cynicism.
This makes me wonder if other, seemingly intractable, problems might not benefit from a similar approach. Think of what follows as a modest proposal.
This year, the incidence of gun violence among teenagers in the city has been a cause for alarm. In many instances, observers see a connection between the alienation leading many of these kids to violence and chronic high school drop-out rates. "In some ways, it is easier for a child in 46218 [zip code] to get a gun than an education," U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett told a gathering at the Eastern Star Church last February.
Then, after an outbreak of violence at Circle Centre Mall, Public Safety Director Troy Riggs said: "We're going to look at making parents accountable, making them come and pick up their children. And if they do any damage, and if there's a way, then we're going to hold them accountable in court."
Surely, if we can throw the book at landlords for turning their buildings into criminal hot spots, we can hold parents responsible for things their children do, especially when those children are doing things with guns.
This means bumping up against another version of what we like to call freedom — and challenging what we mean by personal responsibility. Anyone who wants to be a parent is free to do so in our society. But by now we know that just as some apartment complexes can be called socially toxic, the same can be said about what we (all too) loosely call families.
The trouble is that while a great deal is at stake every time another person is brought into this world, that person's parents, unless they commit the grossest forms of abuse or neglect, are accountable to nobody.
That's freedom for you.
But what if every time a kid was caught committing a crime with a gun, a parent paid a real price? What if when a kid dropped out of school, a parent was penalized?
Howls of protest would arise. People would chafe at what they would surely call government's heavy hand. But more kids might do better in school. Some streets and neighborhoods might even be safer.
And we might learn to think of these things as a kind of freedom, too.