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No Time Like the Present

By Frank Gruber

What a week in Santa Monica. The Police Department reports that crime is at its lowest levels since 1960 and pollsters from San Diego report that both locals and visitors not only visit downtown Santa Monica a lot and spend big money here but enjoy doing so. ("Crime Drops to Lowest Level in 40 years" and "Downtown Gets High Marks," both Jan. 23, 2004)

What's a columnist to do?

Is it any surprise that when everyone in the world wants to live in the place you live it turns out that things aren't half as miserable here as you'd think they were from listening to City Council meetings on KCRW, watching Planning Commission meetings on CitiTV, and reading letters to the editor?

Or reflect on this -- next time you're reading some editorial full of half-baked nostalgia about the good old days when life in Santa Monica was lived in a warm suburban/beach town/small town glow before all the apartments were built in which most Santa Monicans now live and they hadn't opened up the mental institutions and urban renewed all the skid rows in the world and you could drive to Hollywood in ten minutes when you weren't walking to your job at Douglas -- that with two or three or four times the day and night time population we had then, we have less crime now.

Maybe I can interview a water main that's about to burst.

* * *

Then there is the supermarket strike and lockout. Are any of us doing enough to show solidarity with the 71,000 men and women walking the picket line, burning through their savings, protecting the health insurance of anyone who gets it from his or her employer?

I know I haven't done enough. I haven't written enough about the strike, but more important I haven't yet adopted a striking family, as I could and you could and which I promise to do this week. Here's how: call the Harry Bridges Institute at (310) 831-2397 and ask to help one of the neediest union families.

* * *

Health care is shaping up as the economic issue of our time. The costs of a dysfunctional system are such that one would even have sympathy for employers stuck with the bills if the employers weren't -- as in the case of the grocery store chains -- so often so craven about the whole thing.

One politician who is trying to do something about the problem is our own state senator, Sheila Kuehl. I heard her speak last week about SB921, the bill she has proposed to create a single payer system, much like Medicare, for all Californians.

Somewhere in the order of 25 to 30 percent of the $150 billion Californians spend on health care each year goes to administrative costs. Compare that to the costs of administering Medicare: about five percent.

Sen. Kuehl's key point is that we can't afford not to adopt a more efficient system that is also fair and equitable and, for that matter, moral in that access to health care is not a function of wealth or who is one's employer.

In the 1930's the federal government made the decision that health care would become not a protected right but the subject of collective bargaining. As unions became stronger and negotiated for health care insurance, employers had to follow suit for non-unionized workers, too.

Twenty-five years of the decline of the labor movement in the face of mostly Republican control in Washington has resulted in a near collapse of the system.

Now the insured as well as the uninsured are fighting back. Last year the California legislature passed SB2, requiring medium-sized and larger employers to provide insurance. Part of the idea is to level the playing field between employers that provide insurance and those who don't.

But with 7.3 million uninsured people in California, who cost the taxpayers billions by using emergency rooms for their primary care, with even conscientious employers struggling to keep up with the costs of health benefits, something has to give.

The timing could be right for Sen. Kuehl's bill. With everyone except the CEO's of the insurance companies sick of the current system, why not?

* * *

With everything in Santa Monica going so great, I can afford to spend a few paragraphs on national politics.

Iowa: what a concept. In my view Howard Dean peaked a few weeks before the caucuses and that's why -- not because of his "I Have a Scream" speech -- he will not rebound from his poor showing. From now on it looks like John Kerry versus Wesley Clark with John Edwards making it interesting.

But all the candidates, and all Democrats, owe Howard Dean a lot. When not so long ago it was all despair and accommodation among Democrats, when the Republicans alone were setting the agenda, he showed us the way out.

Last week's New York Times/CBS poll showed President Bush losing 45 percent to 43 percent to an "unnamed" Democrat. While these numbers don't predict anything (incumbent Jimmy Carter was higher in the polls in Jan. 1980 and incumbent Bill Clinton was lower in Jan. 1996), they do show that in the face of the Republican machine the Democrats are strong enough to win.

The most interesting moment of last week's debate for me came when Brit Hume asked Senator John Edwards yet another question trying to bait the candidates on some "family values" type issue, in this case gay marriage.

Sen. Edwards threw the question right back. He refused to answer. He asked why not one question all night to any of the candidates had been about the 35 million Americans living in poverty.

For me that was a Dean moment.

If Democrats nominate a better candidate, so be it, but thank you, Howard.

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