Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What exactly do I mean when I say I'm a capitalist?

As I have noted in several pieces, true capitalism (a truly free market) is governed not by omnipotent-but-invisible 'market forces' or the quasi-deistic being known as 'the Market' (or even the quasi-deistic being known as Milton Friedman, still far too popular with too many in Washington) but rather by all participants acting in enlightened self interest. Note that I said 'all participants': business, consumers, employees, government, and the human beings who compose the former and the latter. The word 'enlightened' is important too.

In theory, this is something we learn at a young age: what we want and what we need are not always the same thing and we don't always want what is best for us, so it is important to carefully consider the consequences of our actions, and deliberately hurting others to get what we want is wrong. We all need some form of what society calls 'love', which can take a wide variety of forms. Yet sex or the physical lust for sex are not love. If we act on our sexual desires without considering the consequences of our actions, we can hurt ourselves and others in a great many ways. We all need to eat, yet gluttony is more than simple hunger. We all, because of the facts of our economic system, need money to survive; but greed is not the simple need for the security of money.

'Enlightened' self interest is difficult. It requires that we know what is genuinely best for us, which can be a very difficult proposition. We have trouble, at times, knowing when to stop eating before we get a bellyache or gain too much weight to be healthy. If we eat too much, we get sick. Clearly, eating so much we get sick is not in our best interest no matter how good the food or how much of it we think we want. We find, in the end, we didn't really know what we wanted.

Consumers and employees are people, businesses and government are made up of people. So why do we expect all of these people to act in a way we know we ourselves do not always act, and assume such a process will be entirely self-regulating with no need for interference of any kind? For all the talk of hard-nosed common sense bandied about by today's champions of the 'free market', the very assumption on which they base their economic science is entirely against what they know of human nature. It is dependent on everyone knowing exactly what is best for themselves, always acting in that way, and not allowing any degree of persuasion to convince them that what is bad for them is good for them. If you really think about all of this long enough, it makes a lot less sense than socialized medicine or ending the war on drugs.

There is also a trick in the concept of freedom: if everyone is free, then what is to stop people from using their freedom to deprive others of theirs? This is why the federal system of checks and balances was designed in government: to ensure a government able to administer a nation in order to preserve the freedoms of its citizens while preventing that government from itself depriving its citizens of their freedoms. So why do we not use the same logical reasoning and apply it to economics, instead of applying a monetarist economic standard based entirely on faith that 'it is thus'?

So then, what is a genuine free market?

Let's start with what we mean by freedom.

English has so many words and concepts for freedom that it is sometimes difficult to define all of them. 'License' is used in more than one way, as are 'liberty' and 'freedom', and 'independence' is not something entirely possible in an economic sense. Nothing in an economy is 'independent', every economic facet (business, consumers, employees, government) depends on the others.

So I am going to abandon English entirely in defining the free market, ironic since the first capitalist thinkers wrote in English, and use the language of Communism, Russian, to double the irony.

Russian has two different words that both carry very different concepts of freedom. 'Volia' is total freedom from all outside authority: the license to do what you please, when you please, if you have the capacity to do so. You may do anything that you can do, anytime you wish to do it. It is freedom without any limitation whatsoever. The problem with volia is that its exercise may deprive others of their own freedom, and those with the greatest capacity to do as they wish have all the freedom. Those without the capacity to stop them have none. When a political conservative uses the word 'free market' the concept he means is equivalent to volia.

Svoboda is the concept of civil and social liberties and responsibilities shared among the members of a society. The Western concept of democratic political freedom is analogous to svoboda. It is not without limit, proper exercise of svoboda means that one respects the rights and priveleges of others while excercising their own. Individuals do not have individual svoboda, everyone shares in it. In the ideal Western democratic setting, svoboda is shared equally by all in society. We all have the same basic rights, the opportunity to earn or lose the same priveleges based on our merits, and the same responsibilities to respect the rights and priveleges of others.

I believe in a truly free market system in which business, consumers, employees, government, and the people who make up the former and latter of those institutions share svoboda within the complete economy. Business owners and corporate management understand their responsibilities to their employees and customers and their priveleges and responsibilities under the law and act accordingly. Employees' rights are respected and they understand their responsibilities to their employer and under the law. Consumers are aware of their rights and recourses if wronged, while aware of their own responsibilities within the economy. Government acts as an honest broker between employer and employee and business and consumer, regulating against abuses.

That is capitalism, because it is the only free market in which 'free' is anything other than a word. Modern institutions such as immensely powerful corporations, monolithic commercial advertising at all levels of culture, corporate tax incentives and subsidies, monopolies and cartels that circumvent fair competition, and the increasing shift away from raising capital to produce wealth to making a profit off the raising of capital are not institutions of capitalism. While some of these trends are impossible to reverse, government regulation can reverse others and moderate the rest. Under such circumstances, such regulation is not contrary to the spirit of capitalism but defending it from the unrestained excess enjoyed by those whose volia is currently secured by their money and power.

Many of the world's economies are increasingly seeking to follow the Western example of the free market. Let's get to work to make it something that is, once again, worth following, shall we?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Health Care Reform: What Do We Want to Accomplish?

I am going to turn my attention away from 'negative' writing about Republicans or corporations and focus back on 'positive' issue-related material this week.

The health care debate is raging again. Howard Dean and Kathleen Reardon are writing busily about the subject of national health policy on HuffPo and one gets the idea they are targetting each other: especially when the latter singles the former out by name. I see that as sort of a dead give away. Both make highly valid points, and it is a shame that they are spending time beating on each other over tactics instead of writing more of actual substance on the subject. I understand why Governor Dean feels that Professor Reardon is mistaken to give credence to congressional Republican posturing about the stimulus bill's medical content and agree with his characterization of the representatives in question and his defense of government studies into the cost and efficacity of medical treatment. Yet I also understand Professor Reardon's reaction to the governor's column.

So I am not going to write about the health care elements of the stimulus bill, or again mention either of the two authors for whom I have an equal and healthy respect. Nor, despite my strong temptation, am I going to write about one of the most well-meaning but wrong-headed ideas I have ever seen from a purported expert. Said expert linked their idea in reply to Governor Dean's posting, and I will simply say I am slightly aghast at the cold-blooded utiliatarianism implicit in the notion.

Instead I am going to be practical and ask a straight-forward question.

What do we want health care reform to accomplish?

This is not a simple question. There are many ideas from various people on the right (yes, ideas from the right, it's true) about how to widen 'health coverage.' Some of them, when examined on face value, sound very practical. However, all 'coverage' is not equal and 'coverage' does not guarantee 'care'. If one spends half the year arguing with one's carrier about whether one's flexible spending expenditures are legitimate and is expected to provide documentation of those expenditures not explicitly required in the paperwork received with the program, while one's flexible spending account is frozen and one is still required to pay for it while frozen, clearly 'coverage' isn't good enough in that instance. So simply covering everyone, as Governor Mitt Romney did in Massachusetts, is not enough.

At the very base minimum, then, health care reform should provide more people currently being sued by hospitals for expensive procedures that rich people get for far lower fees because of their insurance with health care and legal protection from such lawsuit. Medicaid could be extended to cover everyone who does not receive health insurance from their employers, period, while private health insurance could be required to meet minimum standards based on Medicaid or Medicare. Neither of these programs is perfect, but compared to some HMOs they are a dream come true. This is roughly along the lines of the program President Obama described in his election campaign.

I believe we can do better. I favor a national, single payer medical program. I believe the HMOs can be nationalized quickly and efficiently and incorporated into and expanded Medicaid/Medicare system subsidized by payroll taxes. Everyone who works pays their payroll taxes, everyone who does not receives traditional Medicaid until they are working again. This is superior to the existing, separate systems of shared costs used by the HMOs because everyone would be sharing costs on a national level. Essentially, this would be a national HMO. It would have government oversight and be accountable to elected representatives, who would be accountable to their constituents. Oversight power should be strictly defined and limited: the oversight committee should not have the power to gut the system or to dictate policy, only to audit and review performance and police corruption. Bureaucracy should be vastly trimmed over its present level in private HMOs: qualified doctors and informed patients should make medical decisions together without the interference of a man in a suit with a friendly smile, a plastic name tage, and a roll of red tape and a black marker in his pocket.

In many cases, single-payer health care would be preferable to even the best private health insurance. It would eliminate a major financial strain on corporations struggling to survive difficult economic times. Freed of the responsibility to pay for their employee's health care, they would also lose one of the powerful levers that allows them to feel a sense of ownership of their employees. In that sense, single-payer would be good for employer and employee.

I see only one true objection to nationalization and that is the issue of liability. HMOs, with Republican support, have sought to eliminate their accountability for the damage their decisions to provide or not provide health care cause and have frequently been successful. It can be argued that with nationalization, the government will have even more incentive to limit the patient's right to hold health care professionals and provider's liable. However, I believe that the genuine difference between legitimate and 'frivolous' complaints is much clearer than conservatives like to pretend. Ultimately, the strength of any claim is proven in court. If someone wins a lawsuit, then a judge and jury clearly did not find it frivolous. A single payer system could formulate a uniform system of compensation and accountability for malpractice, something lacking in our private system. This too could actually be an improvement. Most importantly, with no bureaucrat empowered to deny care based on cost, the issue of HMO negligence would cease to exist. The course of care recommended by the doctor and agreed to by the patient would always be followed.

The losers in this system are the various health insurance corporations in the medical business and trial lawyers who represent or sue them. However, the management of the corporations in question are hardly paupers. They have their golden parachutes ready, whatever happens. Trial lawyers will never lack for cases.

If one really looks at the big picture, socialized medicine isn't radical at all.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Corporations Strike Again: Jailing Children in the Name of Big Business

My readers may have been noting an angrier tone in some of my writing since this new year began. One would think that would not be the case. During the election, with so much Republican propaganda to complain about, I tried to focus on issue-oriented writing. With President Obama in office, I should be happy and writing celebratory paens to the stimulus package, the Hilda Solis appointment, the end of the global gag rule, Leon Panetta's CIA appointment, and so on, should I not?

Trust me. Part of me wants to. Yet plenty of people are writing about the pros and cons of President Obama's actions, whether to praise or damn. I find my focus moving to other things, not necessarily things people are not writing about, but certainly things people are not writing about in quite the frame I see them.

The biggest economic problem in the United States is our erroneous belief that our economic system is free market capitalism. Nothing could be further from the truth. A free market is a market free from manipulation or interference. Conservatives believe that because a government does not interfere, a market is automatically free, because in the mind of a conservative it is government power that most threatens freedom. This is simply not true. We have a Constitution and the powers of the government are constrained and limited by it. Corporations, on the other hand, can only be constrained by the government. Our government, for nearly thirty years (Presidents Carter and Clinton are not immune from blame, though Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush are the guiltiest perpetrators) we have been removing the constraints government has been placing on business since Teddy Roosevelt.

As a result, our press is no longer free because it is controlled by corporate advertising dollars. Our elections are no longer free because the right of corporations to donate money is considered equal to an individual's right of free speech. Our rights of free speech are restricted because 'at will' employment laws means that your employer has the right to fire you if he doesn't like something you said on your day off, off company property or wrote on the internet. Our markets are not free because corporations use mergers and buyouts to form monopolies and our anti-trust laws go unenforced, and because a wealthy and powerful corporation has the ability to drive an entrepreneur providing better products ot services out of the market with sheer money, regardless of the 'market forces' conservatives worship.

As it turns out, according to the Associated Press, our courts are no longer free either.

Two judges in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania are scheduled to plead guilty to fraud charges in federal court today. I assume that this plea and shockingly lenient sentence (seven years) is in exchange for full disclosure of their relationships with PA Child Care LLC and Western PA Child Care LLC and testimony against the officers of same. However, unless these plea bargains lead to convictions on RICO charges (among other things) for the officers of the companies in question, I'm not sure letting the judges off the hook is worth it. Our court system has a shockingly poor record of properly dealing with corporate criminals. I'd hate to see the judges get off with seven years and the corporations in question get off with a fine.

My anger, however, is getting in the way of sharing the particulars of the crime in question. I apologize.

The two judges admit to taking more than two and a half million dollars in payoffs to send kids to prison.

No, you didn't read that wrong.

Despite their innocuous sounding names, you see, PA Child Care LLC and Western PA Child Care LLC are not merely a new corporate owned chain of day care centers. They were formed to contract with the state of Pennsylvania to run juvenile detention facilities. The privatizing of penal institutions is a neoconservative weed that has been floating around since the 1990s, and it has successfully taken root in some gardens; including Pennsylvania. Allegedly, it is cheaper and more efficient for a private corporation to run a prison and bill the government than it is for the government to run a prison. There is no actual economic or accounting logic to support this theory, it is based entirely in the neoconservative meme that 'government cannot do anything but redistribute wealth.' The problem of how a corporation can make a profit taking money from the state to run a prison if the state is paying the corporation less than it was paying for the prison itself is never addressed, because the idea is ludicrous. The only way the corporation can make a profit is to cut costs (usually leading to civil rights abuses for the inmates, but who care about convicted felons anyway?) and overcharge the state. It is another method of using the government to rip off the taxpayers that neoconservatives love, file it way with the reconstruction of Iraq and New Orleans and prescription drug benefits.

So why bribe judges to send kids to prison? Well, the bills such companies submit to the governments that pay them are based on their number of inmates. The more inmates they have, the more money they can bilk from the government for doing a job that the government can and should be doing itself. Apparently, through the normal carriage of justice in Pennsylvania, they were not getting enough juvenile offenders to make the kind of money they wished to make.

Still, the solution was easy: bribe judges to lock up kids who normally wouldn't go to prison.

The judges in question denied children legal representation, rushed hearings through the system to maximize the rate of incarcerations, and handed down excessive sentences for minor offenses by first time offenses. In some cases, they appear to have sentenced children to prison in cases where no real crime was actually committed. One girl was sentenced to three months for creating a MySpace page making fun of a school official. I understand schools have been given wide police powers over students, far beyond any reasonable need (a topic for another post), but three months in juvenile hall for something that should not even be a crime is ludicrous.

Don't just read this and forget it. Share it. Tell the story to your friends, send it to your congressman. This is the sort of thing we're talking about when we talk about 'privatization' and 'deregulation': a license for corporations to abuse the system to make a profit.

In my view, the two corporations in question are guilty of the kind of criminal activity for which the RICO laws were written. This was an organized criminal conspiracy to commit fraud against the government, bolstered by corruption of government officials. I want to know why federal prosecutors don't use RICO against corrupt corporations like they would against any other criminal organization? An organized criminal conspiracy that suborns corruption is a threat to the American people and the American Constitution.

When you read conservative opinion, keep this in mind. This is the ultimate result of the kind of completely privatized corporate economy that conservatives want. Consider that the next time some angry internet comment or Fox News rant warns us of creeping socialism.

We live in an age where corporate commercialism has killed free market capitalism and dressed itself up in the victim's skin to prey on the American people.

Is socialism really something we should be afraid of, considering what its alternative has brought us?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

An Open Letter To Three Republicans: Thank You

I sent the following letter, in more personalized form, by email to the offices of Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Though I disagree with them politically on more than one issue, I applaud their ability and willingness to put country before party and vote for the stimulus bill in the Senate. We need more Republicans willing to cross the aisle and reach an effective consensus with the White House and the Democratic congressional majority.

I have criticized the cutting of the bill, and in so doing I have criticized Senator Collins and Senator Nelson of Nebraska. I stand by my statements about the substance of the bill, but I understand the pragmatic need for compromise in politics even if I do not like it. The bill passed in the Senate is not the best bill possible, but it is still a good bill. I do not believe we should stop fighting for the items cut. We should continue to press for them to be passed separately. However, we should give credit where credit is due. These three senators have crossed the aisle, to meet the president Americans elected for his promise of bipartisanship in a fair and bipartisan way. If more of their fellow Republican senators would follow of them, it would be a good thing for the country. I hope they do not allow the backlash they are experiencing from within their party's caucus to do the right thing again in the future. I encourage my readers to send similar letters to these three senators, regardless of their home states. If you live in a state with Republican senatorial representation, send them letters expressing your disappointment that they have not followed the example set by these three. Urge them to do so in the future.

The letter I sent them is as follows:

Senatosr Collins, Snowe, and Specter,

I am not one of your constituents, but I want to thank you anyway. I want to thank you for caring more about the country than about partisan politics, and for helping to pass a bill I believe the country needs. I am a registered Democrat and rather a liberal, so there are issues on which I am sure we disagree. I don't want to floridly say that I wish I lived in your Maine or Pennsylvania so I could vote for you, because I do not honestly know if I would vote for you or not.

That said, I admire you. What you have done has won my respect and my gratitude. I maintain a blog, The Eclectic Radical (www.eclecticradical.blogspot.com) and I will be posting a copy of this email to that blog as well as sending it to the three of you and I will speak well of your patriotism and conviction to do what is right for America. Thank you.

Though I have indicated that I would like a reply, do not feel obligated to give one. I realize I am not one of your constituents. I do hope you read this, however, because I want you to know how I feel.


Christopher M. Richards

Friday, February 6, 2009

Extra, Extra, Read All About It: The Past and Future of Newspapers

The title of this post is two fold. First, the obvious newspaper joke. Second, this is an extra addition to my normal weekly blog schedule: special and exclusive for my readers. Heh.

This is a reply to an article on Huffington Post by Diane Francis, advocating government subsidy for newspapers. In it, she rather legitimately bemoans both the financial state of the newspaper industry and the overly commercial, entertainment-first 'journalism' of network, cable, and internet media. In it, she makes some valid points about the 'white knights' currently becoming the new generation of press barons and the need for an outlet for legitimate journalism of honesty, ethics, and integrity. She makes some interesting points, and I agree that government support of the newspaper industry is an idea worth exploring. My only concern would be that government support not become government control. I am fine with the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post receiving my tax dollars in return for a quality product. I do not want USA Today (already of questionable merit) to become the American version of 'Pravda.'

What bears some attention, however, is that the imploding newspaper business model is a relatively recent thing. The idea of genuine journalism in the modern sense, and of journalistic ethics and integrity, is very new. It evolved, slowly, during the Progressive Era of the century's turn and just before. Investigative reporters, writing in newspapers, nonfiction books, and novels based on fact were given the label 'muckrakers' as they began to expose the corruption and lack of concern for ordinary Americans in much of American business and political life. Many of them were leftists, not merely liberals but socialists or communists, concerned deeply with the rights, livelihood, and safety of the ordinary American. This was the origin of the 'liberal media' so condemned today by the right wing, and its existence was a positive improvement on American life in many ways. They began to share 'the truth' with the nation.

Prior to the Progressive Era, newspapers mixed genuine journalism (largely written by amateur correspondents) with political propaganda (written by ruthless professionals) and frequently mingled the two in ways that would be abhorrent to today's watchdogs of 'journalistic integrity' and would closer mirror the writing of Bob Novak, Richard Reeves, and other members of the class of political writer we now call 'pundits.' 'Real news' was frequently full of political meaning and political propaganda was treated no differently than real news. In other words, every newspaper was someone's personal Fox News, dedicated to their viewpoints.

The first American newspapers were founded by European propagandists at the behest of the first American political parties. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton financed the establishment of newspapers whose sole purpose was to communicate the party line to the nation. Most local newspapers were similarly sponsored by local political interests in either support of or opposition to the state (or colonial, prior to independence) governments. They were funded not by their circulation or by advertisement, but by those who wished to see their views published and were willing to pay for it.

Sadly, we appear to be living in times where we are seeing a reversion to that model. Television news has become pseudojournalistic entertainment dominated by scandal, tragedy, and 'gotcha' reporting. The quasi-exception, Fox News, is a perfect mirror of the original political newspapers of America... and their journalistic content leans toward the same unfortunate trends as their competitors. Newspapers are dying, as television engages the public more forcefully and the internet offers much the same content for free.

However, I do not believe that television and the internet are the real reason that newspapers are dying. I believe that the majority of the public increasingly wants the callow tabloid journalism of newsmagazines and television news. Newspapers are too boring for them, even if their writers try to match television content callow for callow. They want to see video of disasters, not photographs, and they want to hear the anger, disgust, or quiver in the anchor's voice as she shares the news with them. They want to be entertained.

I have a great deal of respect for professional journalists and high regard for journalistic ethics. I have a very dim view of what American journalism appears to me to have become, and I am disgusted that newspapers are dying. Ms. Francis's suggestion of government subsidy may be the only way to save them, but if this is the case then which newspapers shall be saved and how shall we decide?

Journalists deserve to be paid for their work and a venue in which to work. I strive to avoid journalism and focus solely on opinion because I do not wish to present the appearance that this blog is intended as anything but my personal soap box. I would like to see newspapers survive, and to survive as organs of journalism rather than tabloid entertainment.

The question is this: can they?

What does the future hold? Government subsidy can not save every newspaper in every city in all fifty states, and the question of which newspapers are to be saved and which allowed to die raises thorny political questions. I support a genuine national newspaper, not the news in brief of USA Today but a national newspaper along the model of the New York Times, Washington Post, or Los Angeles Times. Yet would such a thing simply become what I mentioned before, the American version of 'Pravda'? It is a danger, but Public Television shows us that government financing does not guarantee a government organ.

The biggest danger we face to the free press is the fact that no one appears to want to pay for the free press. They prefer the commercial media, subsidized by corporations. They prefer the internet, where information is shared by those with an agenda in sharing it.

We may have to face the fact that we are entering a period, like the Progressive Era, where the media and the press undergo drastic changes for good or ill.

If that is the case, the question becomes not how to save the old media, but to create the new media in the proper image.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

My Own Worst Enemy: No, Not A Cancelled TV Show... the Democratic Party

Andrew Taylor wrote today, for the AP and the Huffington Post, that the Democrats do not have the necessary votes to pass their economic package in the Senate. Before moving on to my real point, I will make passing mention of the sloppy journalism in this statement. The Democrats have the votes to pass the bill, what they lack are the majority of votes necessary to prevent a filibuster. While this is a small distinction, it is an important one. It changes the game from 'the Democrats are unable to pass legislation' to 'the Republicans are deliberately holding up needed economic reform because of the very same failed devotion to faith-based economic principles that caused the economic collapse in the first place.' As you can see, there is a notable difference between the tone of those two statements and they have a completely different effect on the reader.

That said, the villain of this piece is not a die-hard Republican conservative. Did we really expect them to vote for a spending bill? Of course not. Nor is it completely ridiculous to expect moderate Republicans who might be expected to vote for the bill to want a bit of political cover on some of the more 'liberal' elements.

No, the real villain of the current Capitol Hill drama is a Democrat: Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Rather than support his party and his president, Senator Nelson is essentially threatening to join a conservative filibuster unless the bill (already somewhat worked over in the House, where it was not necessary) is made more 'bipartisan' and more tax cuts are added and more spending removed. If he wished to display his bipartisanship by joining the conservatives in voting against the bill, as a symbol, I could understand. Helping to prevent the bill from coming to the floor without a thorough gutting, however, is not acceptable.

Conservative Democrats have always been the greatest foil of Democratic presidents, since Franklin Roosevelt made the Democratic Party the nation's liberal party permanently in the 1930s. From Robert Byrd (yes, that Robert Byrd) and Strom Thurmond (yes, my fellow Gen Xers, he was once a Dem, as hard as that is to believe now) taking on Harry Truman over integration of the military, to LBJ needing to rally support from Rockefeller Republicans to pass his legislation, to Sam Nunn taking on Bill Clinton over gays in the military and national health care policy, Democratic Senators have been the most dogged foes of liberal reform. Indeed, even 'liberal' Democrats in the Senate run to the center far too often.

This begs the question: how are we to achieve meaningful social progress? The major national party best equipped to champion a liberal agenda is unwilling to commit to a major political fight over the principles behind such an agenda. The major national political party that has shown itself willing to stick to its principles at all costs is wholly committed to the principles that prevent progress and reform. The minor parties are a ridiculous joke, the workouse orphans of our political system. They cry for gruel and no one listens.

Liberals need to make the kind of commitment to fight for the Democratic Party that conservatives made to fight for the Republican Party. When that fight is won, and it will be a hard fight, liberals will need to commit to another hard fight for their legitimate share of the national political podium.

I am pleasantly surprised by President Obama's commitment to fight for his own principles, but they are not wholly mine. All the same, when the choice is between progress and stasis, I support my president. Senator Nelson should do the same.