The state of health care reform

As everyone knows, the rollout of the Affordable Care Act has been pretty bumpy what with website problems, Congress not providing funding for getting the word out, and states refusing expanded Medicaid even if it is free money.  There have been surprises also.  The red state of Kentucky with a Democratic Governor, Steve Beshear, is running a successful program.  Connecticut has an online program that it is thinking of selling to other states.  Massachusetts with the original universal health care program hired the same folks that messed up the federal website resulting in problem after problem resulting in a backlog in processing paper applications.

In the meanwhile, the Congressional Republicans would still like to either eliminate or defund the ACA, but as Greg Sargent wrote recently in the Washington Post people are beginning to move away from supporting those actions.

Obamacare is a disaster for Democrats, and a certain winner for Republicans. That’s what we keep hearing, anyway.

So why does it look as if the percentage of Americans who favor repeal may have actually shrunk since its rollout problems began?

That’s what the February tracking poll for the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests. To be sure, the new poll finds that opinion of the law is more negative than positive: 47 percent of Americans view the law unfavorably, while 35 percent view it favorably (though opinions have improved a bit since October).

But unfavorable views have not translated into support for the GOP position of repeal; indeed the repeal position may have lost ground since the October rollout problems, while a clear majority favors keeping and improving the law.

Some Kaiser survey results

Some Kaiser survey results

I think most people, including President Obama, would say that the ACA could be improved.  Any piece of legislation of that scope is going to have parts that don’t work well or have unintended consequences which need fixing.  And they need fixing in a systematic way and not just on the fly through delays and exceptions as the administration has been trying to do.  The poll results show support for making fixes.

The poll shows that 48 percent want to keep and improve the law, and another eight percent want to keep it as is — for a total of 56 percent who want to keep it. (50 percent of independents want to keep and fix.)

Meanwhile, 19 percent want to repeal the law and not replace it, while 12 percent want to repeal and replace with a GOP alternative — totaling 31 percent.

Back in October Kaiser found that 37 percent want repeal/replace or just repeal, versus 47 percent who want to keep/expand it. There was a temporary spike for repeal in December, at the height of the problems; now it appears to be back down to below where it was.

In fairness, the wording is not directly parallel. The new poll offers respondents the option of keep and improve, while the October poll offered folks keep or expand. But this underscores the point: When people are offered keep and improve — the Dem stance — support for keeping the law grows.

Paul Krugman pointed out in his last New York Times column that Republican attempts to find horror stories have so far not really succeeded.

Remember the “death tax”? The estate tax is quite literally a millionaire’s tax — a tax that affects only a tiny minority of the population, and is mostly paid by a handful of very wealthy heirs. Nonetheless, right-wingers have successfully convinced many voters that the tax is a cruel burden on ordinary Americans — that all across the nation small businesses and family farms are being broken up to pay crushing estate tax liabilities.

You might think that such heart-wrenching cases are actually quite rare, but you’d be wrong: they aren’t rare; they’re nonexistent. In particular, nobody has ever come up with a real modern example of a family farm sold to meet estate taxes. The whole “death tax” campaign has rested on eliciting human sympathy for purely imaginary victims.

And now they’re trying a similar campaign against health reform.

Krugman cites the Response to the State of the Union Address.

 In the official G.O.P. response to the State of the Union address, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers alluded to the case of “Bette in Spokane,” who supposedly lost her good health insurance coverage and was forced to pay nearly $700 more a month in premiums. Local reporters located the real Bette, and found that the story was completely misleading: her original policy provided very little protection, and she could get a much better plan for much less than the claimed cost.

Louisiana is running ads about people losing health care insurance with actors.

In Michigan, Americans for Prosperity is running an ad that does feature a real person. But is she telling a real story? In the ad, Julia Boonstra, who is suffering from leukemia, declares that her insurance has been canceled, that the new policy will have unaffordable out-of-pocket costs, and that “If I do not receive my medication, I will die.” But Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post tried to check the facts, and learned that thanks to lower premiums she will almost surely save nearly as much if not more than she will be paying in higher out-of-pocket costs. A spokesman for Americans for Prosperity responded to questions about the numbers with bluster and double-talk — this is about “a real person suffering from blood cancer, not some neat and tidy White House PowerPoint.”

Even supporters of health reform are somewhat surprised by the right’s apparent inability to come up with real cases of hardship. Surely there must be some people somewhere actually being hurt by a reform that affects millions of Americans. Why can’t the right find these people and exploit them?

The most likely answer is that the true losers from Obamacare generally aren’t very sympathetic. For the most part, they’re either very affluent people affected by the special taxes that help finance reform, or at least moderately well-off young men in very good health who can no longer buy cheap, minimalist plans. Neither group would play well in tear-jerker ads.

There is about a month left to sign-up before one has to pay a tax penalty for not having coverage for 2014.  The last number reported was 4 million sign-ups.  A priority:  Get the young and healthy to sign-up.

.

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Chart from Kaiser via the Washington Post

Picture of buttons from sites.tufts.edu

Micro-housing for the homeless

Here in Boston as well as in other cities there has been a lot of talk about small apartment with lower rents for young professionals.  The Boston Globe had a story last July about the effort to drop both unit size and price.

The kitchen and living area of a 530-square-foot apartment at Factory 63 in the Innovation District (top).

The kitchen and living area of a 530-square-foot apartment at Factory 63 in the Innovation District (top).

Last month, Shen [Kairos Shen, Chief Planner for the Boston Redevelopment Authority] drafted a memo to the Zoning Board of Appeals stating that the BRA supports smaller sizes for all unit types near transit stops. In addition to 450-square-foot studios, it is also allowing one bedrooms to drop to 625 square feet from 750; and two bedrooms to 850 feet from 900 feet.

The change is a compromise with critics who have pressed the Menino administration to allow units as small as 350 square feet — known as microapartments — to help cut housing costs. So far, the administration is only allowing those units to be built in the South Boston Innovation District, where it is still testing whether they are viable and being priced at affordable levels.

“So far we’re seeing those apartments rent for $2,100, $2,200, and $2,300 a month,” Shen said. “That’s beyond what everyone expected, so we have to have a better mechanism in place to ensure that the pricing is fair.”

Boston is one of many high-cost cities immersed in a nationwide debate over minimum housing sizes. San Francisco is now allowing units as small as 220 square feet, and cities from Des Moines to Chicago to Portland, Ore., are experimenting with smaller units. In Seattle, developers are building apartments as small as 140 square feet.

Having read about these small units for young professionals, the recent New York Times story about an innovative housing solution for a group of homeless persons caught my eye.  It was  a long story in the Home and Garden section which most often features high-end renovations and not affordable housing.

On Christmas Eve, Kevin Johnson received the following gifts: a bed and mattress, a blanket and sheets, a desk and chair, a toilet and sink, towels and washcloths, toothpaste and floss, and a brand-new house.

Mr. Johnson, a 48-year-old day laborer, did not find that last item beneath the Christmas tree, although it nearly would have fit. At 144 square feet — 8 by 18 feet, or roughly the dimensions of a Chevrolet Suburban — the rental house was small. Tiny would be a better descriptor. It was just half the size of the “micro” apartments that former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proposed for New York City.

Quixote Village opened Dec. 24 on 2.1 acres in an industrial park near Washington’s capital.

Quixote Village opened Dec. 24 on 2.1 acres in an industrial park near Washington’s capital.

What really made the project unique was not only the size of the units but the fact that they were built for a specific group of homeless persons, Camp Quixote,  who were involved in siting and design.

Beyond its recent good fortune, the settlement was — and is — exceptional. Quixote Village, as it is now called, practices self-governance, with elected leadership and membership rules. While a nonprofit board called Panza funds and guides the project, needing help is not the same thing as being helpless. As Mr. Johnson likes to say, “I’m homeless, not stupid.”

A planning committee, including Mr. Johnson, collaborated with Garner Miller, an architect, to create the new village’s site layout and living model. Later, the plans were presented to an all-camp assembly. “Those were some of the best-run and most efficient meetings I’ve ever been involved in,” said Mr. Miller, a partner at MSGS Architects. “I would do those over a school board any day.”

The residents lobbied for a horseshoe layout rather than clusters of cottages, in order to minimize cliques. And they traded interior area for sitting porches. The social space lies outside the cottage. Or as Mr. Johnson put it, “If I don’t want to see anybody, I don’t have to.”

The size also cuts the cost of construction.

Some advantages to building small are obvious. Ginger Segel, of the nonprofit developer Community Frameworks, points to construction costs at Quixote Village of just $19,000 a unit (which included paying labor at the prevailing commercial wage). Showers, laundry and a shared kitchen have been concentrated in a community center. When you add in the cost of site preparation and the community building, the 30 finished units cost $88,000 each.

By comparison, Ms. Segel, 48, said, “I think the typical studio apartment for a homeless adult in western Washington costs between $200,000 and $250,000 to build.” In a sense, though, the difference is meaningless. Olympia and surrounding Thurston County hadn’t built any such housing for homeless adults since 2007.

The units, unlike the micro apartments built for young professionals, have no kitchens, laundry or shower facilities.  Those are housed in a community center.  Creating Quixote Village took state funding, the city donating the vacant industrial park land, and a number of churches that had worked with Camp Quixote.  The rent is,  for the most part, subsidized.

Residents wanted a horseshoe layout rather than a cluster and traded interior space for sitting porches.

Residents wanted a horseshoe layout rather than a cluster and traded interior space for sitting porches.

For some of the residents a unit at Quixote Village may turn out to model Housing First.

Jon Waddey … describes Quixote Village “not as an end, but a means.” He had been cooking in a restaurant that closed, and bottomed out in jail on a felony heroin possession.

Even after starting methadone, he was in no state to look for another job. “I had a huge beard,” he said. “I needed a place to shave and shower. I just needed a place to feel human.”

At other homeless shelters, the staff rummaged through your bags, breathalyzed you and kicked you out from morning to evening time. “It’s a horrible feeling having no place to be,” Mr. Waddey, 41, said. At a facility like that, “you’re really made to feel where you’re at.”

Of his new cottage, he said: “I absolutely love it. I have my little writing desk, my reading desk, a lovely view of the trees. In a way, that’s what I’ve always wanted.”

A few weeks after settling into Quixote Village, Mr. Waddey was starting to investigate how long it would take at the Evergreen State College to finish his long-deferred undergraduate degree. At night, he was making his way through the John le Carré BBC mini-series “Smiley’s People,” and cooking for friends in the community kitchen.

“I think cooking is one of the most fundamental things you can do,” Mr. Waddey said. “To feed people and see how happy it makes them.”

Is the Quixote Village model sustainable?  Can it be replicated?  Can the residents survive in a former industrial park with drainage problems?  It is much to early to tell, but it has at least provided 29 people shelter, community, and hope.

Photograph:  Boston micro unit John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Photographs of Quixote Village: Jeremy Bittermann for The New York Times

Housing the homeless

Sometimes it just takes an illness in the family or a loss of job often combined with drug or alcohol abuse to make someone homeless.  Throw in the cost of rent – even for an affordable unit – and the scarcity of rental units and you have a problem with housing the homeless.

A view of the Pine Street Inn Homeless Shelter

A view of the Pine Street Inn Homeless Shelter

Each year the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires a census of the homeless population.  This includes people living on the streets, in shelters, in motels, and anyone who, on the night of the census, is in a treatment program or hospital but has no other address.  The City of Boston does its census in December; most other localities in January.  At the end of January, the Boston Globe reported the results for Boston.

The number of men, women, and children living in shelters or on the streets in Boston continues to increase, growing 3.8 percent in 2013 over the previous year, according to an annual city tally.

The city identified 7,255 homeless people living in the city when volunteers conducted the annual homeless census last month, up from 6,992 during its 2012 count.

The census found 1,234 homeless families on the night of the survey, as well as 2,056 homeless children, the first time Boston counted more than 2,000 homeless children since the city began keeping track more than three decades ago.

That’s a lot of people.

While the raw number of homeless people in Boston continues to increase year after year, city officials stress that very few of the city’s homeless adults, just 2.5 percent, are living on the street. The number of homeless living in emergency shelters, domestic violence shelters, hospitals, and substance abuse homes saw significant increases from 2012.

The citywide census located 180 adults who were living on the street, down from 193 in 2012

This has been a very cold winter with lots of snow early.  I’ve learned that many of those 180 persons have mental health issues which make it doubtful that they would move to a shelter or accept housing.  Others prefer the streets to a crowded shelter. Boston reduced the number living on the street with a “housing first” program.  This model moves the person into housing, and then provides supportive services rather than providing services first and then shelter.  The Boston Globe explained it this way in a June 2007 story.

In the past, society’s approach to homeless people with chronic health problems such as addiction has been governed by tough love: Stay in treatment, or you don’t get the opportunity for publicly supported housing. People who could not confront their addiction, the thinking went, could not handle an apartment.

But a new approach, called “housing first,” is gathering momentum. The idea is to target the most difficult cases — the chronically homeless who make up between 10 and 20 percent of the homeless population and spend years cycling between the streets, shelters, jail cells, and emergency rooms — and give them apartments without requiring them to get sober, in the hope that having a place to live will help them address their other problems. More than 150 cities or counties around the country already have programs of some kind or plans to initiate one, and last month the Massachusetts Senate Ways and Means Committee recommended doubling the size of a small pilot program in the state. If the pilot succeeds, proponents say it could force dramatic changes in homeless policy — and a recognition that the current shelter system, built on what they call a punitive moralism, has fundamentally failed.

With money carved from various grants from the state and HUD, the Department of Neighborhood Development built or rehabbed units for people to move into.  Housing First is a collaboration between state and city agencies and several non-profits.  The stability of having a permanent place that does not required moving possession with you with a high risk of theft helps many.  It has also reduced the number of long-term stayers in shelters some of whom had been in shelters so long, they considered them home.  But there are never enough apartments.

I’m not writing this because I have a solution, far from it.  I’m writing this because we need to start thinking about housing for everyone in ways that are different from the traditional ways we think about it.  Many of us equate homeless shelters with housing for the homeless but shelters are not a long-term solution.  In a post to follow, I will talk about an experiment taking place in Washington State.

Photograph of Pine Street Inn from the Pine Street Inn website pinestreetinn.org

Spending and the deficit

There is a lot of information floating around out there, but I just got these charts from my Congressman, Mike Capuano, and I wanted to share them.

The Bottom Line
The statistics and chart below will prove two points despite any rhetoric to the contrary:
  1. Federal spending is headed towards the lowest share of GDP in memory;
  2. The federal government is making great progress towards reducing our annual deficit.
A Note about Federal Spending
If you listen only to a few talking heads you might think that the federal government is engaged in a spending frenzy.  That is actually not the case.  In fact, our government is currently spending LESS than it did in 1974 on discretionary spending programs, the year that detailed economic records were first compiled.
We all know that a dollar doesn’t go as far as it once did – so measuring any spending over a 40 year period demands adjustment.  One way to do this is to look at government spending as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The chart below with data from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) illustrates that in 1974, federal government spending under the Nixon Administration equaled 9.3% of ALL spending in the country (the GDP).  Discretionary spending peaked in 1983 under the Reagan Administration at 10% of GDP.  The most recent figures show that federal spending last year under President Obama fell to just 7.2% of GDP and is estimated to decline even further over the next several years.
Historically, the lowest level of discretionary government spending in the last 40 years occurred in 1999 under the Clinton Administration, and it rose steadily from 6.1% to 7.7% during the George W. Bush Administration.
The point I am trying to make is that it is important to keep federal spending in perspective.  Your federal government today is spending a much smaller share than President Reagan ever did and more spending cuts are coming.  Many of us think it is long past time to face reality and truly consider the future of our country. Do we want good roads? Do we want good schools?  If the answer is yes, then it’s time to start paying for them.
At this point in our nation’s history, we should be investing again in our future. Our economy is improving and the federal budget has stabilized. The notion that federal spending is out of control just isn’t accurate. Take a look at the chart (or click here for a larger version) and table below, which illustrate my argument:
Discretionary Outlays Since 1974
as % of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

FY

Defense

Nondefense

Total

Nixon 1974

5.4

3.9

9.3

Ford 1975

5.4

4.4

9.8

Ford 1976

5.0

4.8

9.8

Carter 1977

4.8

4.9

9.7

Carter 1978

4.6

5.0

9.6

Carter 1979

4.5

4.8

9.3

Carter 1980

4.8

5.1

9.9

Reagan 1981

5.0

4.8

9.8

Reagan 1982

5.6

4.2

9.8

Reagan 1983

5.9

4.1

10.0

Reagan 1984

5.8

3.8

9.6

Reagan 1985

5.9

3.8

9.7

Reagan 1986

6.0

3.6

9.7

Reagan 1987

5.9

3.4

9.3

Reagan 1988

5.6

3.4

9.0

Bush 1989

5.5

3.3

8.8

Bush 1990

5.1

3.4

8.5

Bush 1991

5.2

3.5

8.7

Bush 1992

4.7

3.6

8.3

Clinton 1993

4.3

3.6

7.9

Clinton 1994

3.9

3.6

7.5

Clinton 1995

3.6

3.6

7.2

Clinton 1996

3.3

3.3

6.7

Clinton 1997

3.2

3.2

6.4

Clinton 1998

3.0

3.1

6.2

Clinton 1999

2.9

3.1

6.0

Clinton 2000

2.9

3.1

6.1

GW Bush 2001

2.9

3.2

6.1

GW Bush 2002

3.2

3.5

6.7

GW Bush 2003

3.6

3.7

7.3

GW Bush 2004

3.8

3.6

7.4

GW Bush 2005

3.8

3.7

7.5

GW Bush 2006

3.8

3.6

7.4

GW Bush 2007

3.8

3.4

7.3

GW Bush 2008

4.2

3.5

7.7

Obama 2009

4.6

4.0

8.6

Obama 2010

4.7

4.5

9.1

Obama 2011

4.5

4.2

8.8

Obama 2012

4.2

3.8

8.0

Obama 2013

3.8

3.5

7.2

Obama 2014 EST

3.5

3.4

6.9

Obama 2015 EST

3.3

3.2

6.6

Obama 2016 EST

3.2

3.0

6.2

2017 EST

3.1

2.9

6.0

2018 EST

3.0

2.8

5.8

2019 EST

2.9

2.7

5.7

2020 EST

2.9

2.7

5.6

2021 EST

2.8

2.6

5.4

2022 EST

2.8

2.6

5.4

2023 EST

2.7

2.5

5.3

2024 EST

2.7

2.5

5.2

Sources: Cong Budget Office; Office of Management and Budget

The Federal Deficit
We have heard a lot of talk about the federal deficit. The chart belowshows the amount of the annual deficit, or in some cases, surplus,generated by the federal government.  There are many ways to interpret these statistics and I would like to offer a few comments.
You can see there have been only four years since 1974 wherea surplus was generated– the last three years under PresidentClinton and the first year under PresidentGW Bush.  One could argue that the 2001 surplus should be credited to Clinton policies – butI will leave that aside.  However, it is clear that the federal governmentstarted regenerating deficits under Bush policies – most notably his first tax cut in 2001 (before the 9/11 attack).  Certainly, the terrorist attacks on September 11th and the country’s decision to engage in Afghanistan impacted the economy. However,the federal government made a conscious decision to turn away from fiscal discipline BEFORE September 11th.
One can quickly notice the impact of the 2008 economic crisis and our reaction to it.  Regardless of how you might feel about the stimulus and the bailouts – at least it was clearwhat the short term effect would be on the federal deficit.  I happen to think BOTH those actions were necessary and appropriate to save our economy from an even worse fate. Certainly the bailout should have had more teeth. Remember though it was passed under the Bush Administration so those of us calling for more teeth were drowned out.The only choice we faced was action or inaction, and we chose action. I also believe that the stimulus should have been more targeted on creating jobs.  Unfortunately, Congress never has a choice between perfect options – it is always a choice between imperfect plans.  I understand thatmost people have formed pretty strongopinionsabout the actions that the government took and I will let history decide whether those actions were appropriate.
Since the economic crisis in 2008, the federal government has been making significant and steady progress towards reducing our annual deficit.  The average deficit over the 43 years covered by this table equals 3.1% of the GDP. This chart doesn’t show it, but by the end of the Obama Administration it will be below that historic average. Remember, absolute numbers like these only tell a portion of the story.
My final note on this is historic.  This chart shows the deficits and surpluses under 20 years of Democratic Presidents and 22 years of Republican Presidents … good times and bad … war and peace.  I think the most important measure is the change from one year to the next. Maybe we cannot achieve our goals in one year, but are we making progress?  Based on this chart you can calculate that under Democratic Presidents, the deficit was REDUCED by an average of $22.3 billion each year … under Republican Presidents that Deficit has been INCREASED by an average of $44.5 billion each year.  I’ll let you decide which course is the better one.

Revenues

Revenues Change %

Outlays

Outlays Change %

Total Deficit / Surplus

Change $

Nixon 1974

263.2

269.4

-6.1

Ford 1975

279.1

6%

332.3

23%

-53.2

-47.1

Ford 1976

298.1

7%

371.8

12%

-73.7

-20.5

Carter 1977

355.6

19%

409.2

10%

-53.7

20.1

Carter 1978

399.6

12%

458.7

12%

-59.2

-5.5

Carter 1979

463.3

16%

504.0

10%

-40.7

18.5

Carter 1980

517.1

12%

590.9

17%

-73.8

-33.1

Reagan 1981

599.3

16%

678.2

15%

-79.0

-5.1

Reagan 1982

617.8

3%

745.7

10%

-128.0

-49.0

Reagan 1983

600.6

-3%

808.4

8%

-207.8

-79.8

Reagan 1984

666.4

11%

851.8

5%

-185.4

22.4

Reagan 1985

734.0

10%

946.3

11%

-212.3

-26.9

Reagan 1986

769.2

5%

990.4

5%

-221.2

-8.9

Reagan 1987

854.3

11%

1,004.0

1%

-149.7

71.5

Reagan 1988

909.2

6%

1,064.4

6%

-155.2

-5.4

Bush 1989

991.1

9%

1,143.7

7%

-152.6

2.5

Bush 1990

1,032.0

4%

1,253.0

10%

-221.0

-68.4

Bush 1991

1,055.0

2%

1,324.2

6%

-269.2

-48.2

Bush 1992

1,091.2

3%

1,381.5

4%

-290.3

-21.1

Clinton 1993

1,154.3

6%

1,409.4

2%

-255.1

35.3

Clinton 1994

1,258.6

9%

1,461.8

4%

-203.2

51.9

Clinton 1995

1,351.8

7%

1,515.7

4%

-164.0

39.2

Clinton 1996

1,453.1

7%

1,560.5

3%

-107.4

56.5

Clinton 1997

1,579.2

9%

1,601.1

3%

-21.9

85.5

Clinton 1998

1,721.7

9%

1,652.5

3%

69.3

91.2

Clinton 1999

1,827.5

6%

1,701.8

3%

125.6

56.3

Clinton 2000

2,025.2

11%

1,789.0

5%

236.2

110.6

GW Bush 2001

1,991.1

-2%

1,862.8

4%

128.2

-108.0

GW Bush 2002

1,853.1

-7%

2,010.9

8%

-157.8

-286.0

GW Bush 2003

1,782.3

-4%

2,159.9

7%

-377.6

-219.8

GW Bush 2004

1,880.1

5%

2,292.8

6%

-412.7

-35.1

GW Bush 2005

2,153.6

15%

2,472.0

8%

-318.3

94.4

GW Bush 2006

2,406.9

12%

2,655.1

7%

-248.2

70.2

GW Bush 2007

2,568.0

7%

2,728.7

3%

-160.7

87.5

GW Bush 2008

2,524.0

-2%

2,982.5

9%

-458.6

-297.9

Obama 2009

2,105.0

-17%

3,517.7

18%

-1,412.7

-954.1

Obama 2010

2,162.7

3%

3,457.1

-2%

-1,294.4

118.3

Obama 2011

2,303.5

7%

3,603.1

4%

-1,299.6

-5.2

Obama 2012

2,450.2

6%

3,537.1

-2%

-1,087.0

212.6

Obama 2013

2,774.0

13%

3,454.3

-2%

-680.3

406.7

Obama 2014 EST

-514.0

166.3

Obama 2015 EST

-478.0

36.0

Obama 2016 EST

-539.0

-61.0

 

 My bottom line? Let’s spend some money and create some jobs.

Post is cut and pasted from an email update from Congressman Michael Capuano. 7th CD, Massachusetts.

Curling and skating

For me, the Sochi Olympic Games are just about over.  I’ll try to catch the men’s curling finals, but other than that, I’m done.  Yes, I know that there are a few more days to go including hockey, but I probably won’t be watching.  I’ve always loved the skating and this year, decided I needed to figure out curling.  I still don’t understand all the rules of either sport, but I’m getting there.  I just hope that unlike skating, the curling rules don’t keep changing on me.

Curling diagram

Curling diagram

Turns out that curling is very interesting and can be quite dramatic.  It is a game not only of skill, but also of strategy.  As my husband said a reason for kids to learn math and geometry.  It is not fast like hockey, but more like baseball.  Maybe that’s why I like it.

Two stories in the New York Times sum up my feeling about skating this year.  The first was a comment by Gia Kourlas.

…It’s not just the flawed judging system, in which skaters who hope to win a medal must focus more energy on racking up points than on refining their artistic point of view, or even Scott Hamilton’s effusive screech.

Not much has changed since the 2010 Olympics. For many figure skaters, artistry remains that elusive muse. The costumes are appallingly infantile. Why are male skaters so enamored of suspenders? What’s the deal with grown women wearing skating dresses that look as if they were found on the sale rack at the tiara store? It’s as if competitors were still on the junior circuit and hadn’t made a commitment: beauty pageants or skating.

Figure skating is gliding, and a jump is a continuation of that flow, a breathtaking release in which the human body conquers gravity and soars. But in competition, jumps have increasingly become cause for anguish. Must we be made to feel so worried? The men’s final, which took place on Friday, made a case for why figure skating has turned into a coldblooded circus act.

Four years ago, quadruple jumps weren’t the norm. Perhaps by 2018, skaters will have figured out how to land them. This year, it was disheartening to see so many go down, a list that included the Japanese gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu. The men’s free skate was as nuanced as a rodeo on ice, where the quadruple jump was the equivalent of a bucking bronco.

I have to say that I just finished watching the women’s free skate and the top 5 or 6 women did have more skating and artistry than the men did, but one still worried that they would go splat.  For Gracie Gold, it was one of the differences between a medal and 4th place, but looking at the final standing, Adelina Sotnikova used her jumps to beat the artistry of Yu-na Kim and Carolina Kostner.  There will be lots of debate about whether she got a hometown Russian advantage or not.  But still the women were much more fun to watch than the men.

Forget about the perennial question: Is figure skating an art or a sport? The main concern is the disintegration of performance quality. In most programs, you can tell that the word “compete” has replaced “perform,” and the effect is devastating as you endure — if you’re a die-hard — rounds of skaters gritting their teeth as they pop from one element to the next.

You could find solace in two skaters. The American Jason Brown, a happier version of Mitch Kramer in the film “Dazed and Confused,” didn’t attempt a quadruple jump. He’s only 19, but his skating is already rich, enhanced by his flexibility, deep edge-work and fleet spins. He performs as he skates; the two are interchangeable. And the French veteran Brian Joubert, whose scores didn’t reflect his artistry, seemed like the only man out there.

I have to say I was surprised by Joubert’s scores; I enjoyed watching him a lot.  I hope that when Jason Brown gets that quad, I hope he doesn’t give up actually skating and performing.

Torvill and Dean 1984

Torvill and Dean 1984

But my favorite is not pairs, but ice dancing.  I discovered it along with millions of others in 1984 when Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean skated Bolero.  This year the ice dancing was dominated by whether Charlie White and Meryl Davis could pull off a gold or the Canadians would repeat.

Ice dancing ended on Monday, and, as expected, the Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White defeated their Canadian rivals Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir for the gold. Both couples have soul: Ms. Virtue and Mr. Moir meld sophistication with emotional, fervent sensitivity, skating with a sweeping creaminess.

And Ms. Davis and Mr. White are fascinating; like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they’re opposites. The tension between Ms. Davis’s cool, exotic plasticity and Mr. White’s surfer bum earthiness forges an unexpected harmony in their skating. They truly skate as if they were dancing: Floating airily from one edge to the other, they skim over the ice with a velvety touch.

That is what skating should be about as far as I’m concerned.  Yes, like curing, it is an athletic even, but also like curling, it should seem effortless and serious fun.

What was terrific about getting to watch the skating live were the commentators Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir.  If for no other reason one had to tune in to see was Johnny was wearing.  The New York Times had this review of them.

One of the eureka moments of the 2012 London Games was that live television and online coverage helped push viewership upward in prime time.

So NBCSN was endowed with live hours to show team figure skating, pairs, ice dancing, and the men’s and women’s programs. And it got its own announcers: Tara Lipinski, the 1998 women’s gold medalist, and Johnny Weir, a two-time Olympian, along with Terry Gannon, who called figure skating for ABC.

NBCSN’s announcers call every skater, every pair and every dance team. NBC’s team calls a sampling.

For example, NBCSN showed all 30 competitors in the men’s short program. NBC taped eight or nine of them.

“Prime time is so time-structured,” said David Michaels, the coordinating producer of figure skating for NBC Olympics. “We do so much juggling.” But with such a continuous flow on NBCSN, Weir and Lipinski have more time to tell stories, often about skaters who never show up on NBC.

Asked if he wanted to call every skating routine, Hamilton said, with a laugh, “I’m not sure I’d want to work that hard.”

Weir said that his skater-after-skater-after-skater schedule has been exhausting. “Tara and I take our work seriously,” he said. “She’s my work wife. And she’s a slave driver, so we sit up and study until she’s satisfied. We not only plan how we look, but we’re up until three in the morning looking at all the skaters’ backgrounds and biographies.”

Tara and Johnny

Tara and Johnny

And today they even had Terry Gannon color-coordinated with his pocket square.

Weir is generally calmer yet colorful. And his chemistry with Lipinski suggests an ongoing, enthusiastic conversation among confidants.

“We’re very good friends, and we have the best time educating people about our sport,” Weir said. Asked if he thinks he has surprised viewers who might have expected analysis as flashy as his wardrobes, he said: “I come from a small town in Pennsylvania, so I’ve spent a lot of time educating my family about my sport. It’s something I’ve learned to do without being aggressive or arrogant.”

And I did learn a lot about what to look for and how certain moves are done by listening to them.  As Gia Kourlas said in her commentary

While never short of opinions, they’re generally quiet during performances. While they get to the nitty-gritty of technique — pointing out when skaters are flat on their feet, or why they fall out of synchronization — they also have information about more obscure aspects of skating, like how ice temperature affects a performance (speed skating requires harder ice than figure skating) or how male ice dancers have been known to build up their heels for extra height.

It helps that Mr. Weir is a champion of inspired one-liners. While watching several near collisions during a men’s warm-up, he blurted, “It is Nascar out here in the world of rhinestones.”

We were entertained and educated.

So except for men’s curing tomorrow, my Olympics are done.  But I have to say I learned a lot – and had some fun.

Picture of Curling Ice Sheet: uswca.org

Photograph of Torvill and Dean:  The Daily Mail

Photograph of Lipinski and Weir:  John Berry/Getty Images

Maps, urban planning, and open space: the saga of Long Wharf

When I was working, I would often take a walk from the office down to Long Wharf and look out at the harbor.  There is a small open shelter and some benches at the end.  Walking with co-workers, we talked about the plan to build a restaurant and wondered how it would change the peaceful quiet that one found there.  Years passed and nothing happened which was fine with us.

A bit of background.  According the National Park Service,

Construction of Long Wharf began in 1710, though the idea of building a new wharf over the remains of the Barricado—a 2,200 foot long defensive wall/wharf of stone and wood piles that encircled the harbor—had been discussed as early as 1707. The wharf extended from the base of King Street (now State Street) and provided direct access to the commercial center of colonial Boston. By 1711 a number of warehouses had been built atop the wharf, and by 1715 the last 600 feet of wharf were completed.

In its heyday, Long Wharf was 1,586 feet in length and 54 feet wide, providing docking facilities for up to 50 vessels. In the 18th century, Boston was the leading colonial port (it would be surpassed by both New York and Philadelphia by the end of the century). Long Wharf was the nucleus of Boston’s maritime trade—by the end of the 18th century it reigned pre-eminent among Boston’s 80 wharves, handling both international and coastal trade. Its extraordinary length allowed large ships to dock and unload directly into warehouses without the use of   small boats. Because the wharf served   private merchants and the public, who could buy directly from the warehouses and stores on the wharf, it was a marketplace long before the construction of Faneuil Hall (Quincy Market) in the 1820s.

In addition to the economic importance of the wharf, it was also associated with the military history of Boston. Among the events that occurred here were the landing of British troops in 1770 to enforce the King’s laws and the evacuation of the same troops in March 1776; the landing of a vessel from Philadelphia bringing news of the signing of the Declaration of Independence; and during the Revolution, privateers and blockade runners sailed from Long Wharf and military stores were kept in its warehouses.

And today, the NPS describes Long Wharf this way

The Long Wharf and Custom House Block, a National Historic Landmark, is located at the end of State St. and east of Atlantic Ave. in Boston Harbor. The wharf buildings have been converted to residential, commercial and office spaces. On the northwest side of the wharf, a wood planked walkway is lined with benches, and at the end of Long Wharf, there is a large plaza, a covered shelter and a pink stone compass rose, which is  set into the ground. Various tour boat operators are located on the wharf and dock their vessels here.

The plans of the BRA to build a restaurant on the historic wharf may have been ended by the discovery of a National Park Service map.  The story of how the map was found is a fascinating one.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority was so close to realizing its vision of a restaurant on the tip of Long Wharf that you could almost smell the fried clams.

For nearly five years, BRA officials had fought a group of determined North End residents who had raised objections in administrative hearings and state courts.

The BRA spent close to a quarter of a million dollars on legal bills. Last year it finally won a Supreme Judicial Court decision almost certainly clearing the way for a private company to build Doc’s Long Wharf restaurant on the dramatic public space jutting into Boston Harbor.

But it seems that BRA officials, in their zeal to promote waterfront dining, failed to take into account an old map outlining the edge of Long Wharf as protected space. According to a 1980s agreement, the BRA had promised to forever preserve it for outdoor recreation.

Map of Long Wharf with the proposed restaurant marked.

Map of Long Wharf with the proposed restaurant marked.

It took a retired National Park Service employee to read an earlier Globe story, get a map from archives and bring things to a halt.

A retired National Park Service manager, reading about the controversy in the Globe, remembered the map and made a call. Sure enough, the Park Service found the 1980s map in a federal archive in Philadelphia, prompting a state judge to put the restaurant plans on hold in late December and leaving the BRA with ketchup on its face.

“The strange manner in which the [newly discovered map] came to light requires this court” to allow the map into evidence “in the interests of justice,” Suffolk Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Fahey wrote in voiding the restaurant’s state environmental permit and calling for the BRA to reapply, this time using the correct map.

But the  BRA being so convinced that no one else can ever be right seems to be pushing on.

Opponents of the proposed restaurant, many of them neighbors untrained in the law who spent countless hours preparing legal briefs to counter the BRA, said Fahey’s ruling probably settles a debate that should never have begun in the first place. “To us, discovery of the right map means we definitely should win,” said Sanjoy Mahajan, an MIT electrical engineering professor, a former neighbor of the site, and a restaurant opponent. “We think this undercuts the entire BRA case. We only wish it had come to light earlier.”

But the BRA appears determined to plow on. It requested court permission to conduct its own investigation into the map, describing it in court filings as a mere “sketch” and as a “roughly drawn rendering” made by “an unknown individual . . . allegedly found” in archives.

BRA spokeswoman Susan Elsbree said: “We are following the process in good faith, and we will get to the bottom of this. Our mission is to get people to enjoy the waterfront, and not let a few neighbors trump the public interest.”

But people do enjoy the park.  On a nice day to sit and watch the boats and the gulls while the breeze blows and it is quiet is a wonderful thing.  I understand the goal of the BRA is development, but one does not have to build everywhere.  When I was working for the City of Somerville, there was a fire and a house was destroyed.  Someone asked Mike Capuano, the Mayor at the time, what he thought should be built there.  His response, “Probably nothing.”  Somerville was, at the time, the most densely populated city in Massachusetts, if not the United States.  It needed some green space and the lot became open space.  Once does not need to build on every square inch of land.

“I don’t know what map they were using before, but I provided them with the one we have on record for that project,” Jack W. Howard, a National Park Service manager, said in an interview.

The new map, pulled from National Park Service files, shows that the proposed restaurant lies squarely within the bounds of a park financed under the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. Federal law prohibits such restaurants in these federally funded parks with few exceptions. Apparently no one had previously asked the Park Service for a copy of the map.

Edward Rizzotto was a young National Park Service manager in the 1980s when a deal was struck for the federal government to provide almost $1 million to clean up the tip of the wharf. He says — and documents later uncovered by restaurant opponents bear this out — that the BRA agreed to record an easement guaranteeing it to be open space for 99 years.

“This was always intended as public open space in perpetuity,” Rizzotto, 70, said during an interview on the park site.

The park reaches into wind-swept Boston Harbor, a 35,000-square-foot plaza paved with granite flagstones, with a bronze plaque proclaiming Long Wharf Park and bearing the BRA’s  name. On one side of the site is an open air brick pavilion that provides shade for summertime picnickers.

More than 25 years passed before the BRA decided in 2006 that more people would enjoy one of the city’s premier outdoor spots if the pavilion were converted into a restaurant and tavern. Agency officials envisioned indoor and outdoor tables, live entertainment, takeout service, and food and alcohol until 1 a.m.

After years of hearings and a pile of legal briefs, a story on the restaurant battle published on the front page of the Globe on Oct. 10, 2012, caught the eye of Rizzotto, he said. He wondered why the restaurant plan had gotten so far when he recalled that the entire area was protected. Rizzotto eventually contacted Howard, the National Park Service manager, with whom he once worked. A search of the archives dredged up the one-page map now central to the case.

By then, the case had been argued before the Supreme Judicial Court but had not been decided. The map circulated among the Park Service, the Environmental Protection Department, the BRA, and restaurant opponents, but no one informed the court of its discovery. Fahey, who ruled on remaining state issues in the restaurant fight nine months after the SJC decision, noted that the BRA did not alert the SJC “that the material it was then considering may be incorrect.”

The Long Wharf area already has the Aquarium and hotels.  I hope that the end of the wharf remains the equivalent of open space.  As I learned 18 years ago, there is no need to build on every square inch of land.

Mayor Marty Walsh has called for a financial and programmatic audit of the BRA.  I hope the auditors look at this incident and ask why so much tax payer money was spent of legal fees.  Maybe it could have been spent on some new benches instead.

Map is from court filing and published in the Boston Globe.

Red-tailed hawks on Fort Hill

The other day I saw a large bird perched in one of the maple trees near our back porch/balcony.  It’s a tree that many blue jays, mourning doves, cardinals and house sparrows use as a staging area before swooping down to the feeders and window boxes we keep filled with seed.  The light wasn’t too good and the bird didn’t look all that big.  The first day, we thought it was some kind of hawk, but couldn’t see the colors.  The second day, I could clearly see the white breast and dark back.  Eastern Kingbird?  Folks on the Great Backyard Bird Count Facebook page said too early in the season for a kingbird.  Maybe a Sharp-shinned hawk.

This afternoon, we saw the bird up close – like just on the other side of the kitchen window close.  It was clearly an immature Red Tailed Hawk.  We always leave our Christmas tree tied to the porch rail and it is still green and has most of its needles.  The sparrows use it for shelter.  And they needed it today!  When the Red-tail  flew by the first time, some of the 50-60 house sparrows flew away.  But when he landed on the porch, the tree held maybe 10 of them chirping away.  For about 2 minutes, my husband, Mr. Bunter (one of our cats), and I watched the poor red-tail trying to figure out how to catch one of the sparrows.  He flew from one window box to the other.  He tried to shimmy down one of the porch rail posts near the tree.  He landed on the table under the window so he could study us and the birds in the tree.

When he flew off for a second, probably to re-group, the sparrows made their escape.  When he came back, there was no more chirping in the tree.  No lunch today for Mr. Red-tail.  And later, my husband, watched 3 hawks circling the park and flying off in the direction of Jamaica Plain.

Juvenile Red Tailed Hawk

Juvenile Red Tailed Hawk

A number of years ago, a mature red-tail swooped on to the porch and grabbed a rock dove (pigeon) and proceeded to eat the entire bird while we watched.  I think he left a couple of feathers. We also had a young red-tail fly into a neighbor’s open window.  The Audubon and Animal Rescue people were called and he was rescued unhurt.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Red-tailed Hawks are the most common kind.  One sees them circling around when you are driving along the interstates or on back roads.  But we’ve been lucky to have see two of them close up.

Photograph from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site, All About Birds.