Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Half Full or Half Empty?

The most difficult problem of political analysis is trying to determine just what the facts really mean. This means any political analysis is inherently guesswork. As an example (and proof that I am not perfect) I give you this: I believed that Avigdor Lieberman's political blood feud with the Ultraorthodox Jewish party Shas, his quasi-socialist domestic agenda, his hunger for personal political 'respectability', and his commitment to the concept of 'land for peace' would trump the fact that the fact of shared racism and lead him to tell Benjamin Netanyahu to go to hell in favor of the greater legitimacy of serving in a broader coalition government led by Kadimah. Obviously, I was pretty wrong. Was this wishful thinking on my part or merely a misunderstanding of what was really important to Lieberman? Was it a combination of both?

Naturally the most frequent reason for differences in political analyses is partisan. If one watched CNN at all during the election cycle last year then one could see the partisan bias dripping from every word the Democratic and Republican analysts said. The Republican analysts were particular egregious in their attempt represent the entire country as frightening right wing nuts and represent the views of people like Sarah Palin as mainstream. All the same, Democratic analysts were certainly equally partisan in their presentation of the facts of the election.

Of course partisanship is not the only reason for such differences.

Yesterday Robert Creamer wrote, on HuffPo, that momentum for the public option is growing. Citing the votes in the Senate Finance Committee, in which the public option received ten votes in the second go round:

This robust support for the public option -- in what most observers consider the most conservative committee in the Senate -- signals a sea change in Congressional opinion toward the public option. The odds are now very high that some form of public health insurance option will be included on the final bill when it emerges from a House-Senate Conference Committee later this fall and is ultimately passed by Congress.

Great news isn't it?

Just about an hour and a half after Creamer wrote that the public option was gaining momentum, HuffPo staff writer Jason Linkins used the exact same facts to come to the exact opposite conclusions:

Today, the Senate Finance Committee rebuffed two amendments to include the public option in its health care reform bill. The first amendment, offered by Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) went down 15-8. The second, put forward by Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), failed to pass by a 13-10 vote.

So, now what? Is the public option dead? Will the fight go on? Yesterday, Democratic consultant Peter Feld assayed today's committee machinations and warned: "Spoiler alert: the public option goes down in a ritual sacrifice of which this is step one." Want to bet he's wrong?

Being a columnist, Linkins answers his own question:

I'd advise against it...

For the record, after having read both articles, I see where both are coming from. Creamer is focusing his analysis on the fact that the public option picked up two votes the second time it was put to the question. Linkins is focusing his own argument on a general (and justified) skepticism of the Senate Democrats' willingness to overplay their hand. Speaking clearly from a critical perspective it is important to note that Creamer's logical reasoning the more sound of the two analyses. The problem is that Senate votes are not 'logical', they are human undertakings in which quite a few illogical decisions are made.

If this were about logic, after all, we'd have passed 'Medicare For All' when Nixon was president.

Linkins' analyses brings up something important that I cannot let pass. Six years of a Republican House under Bill Clinton and six more of a Republican House and Senate under George Bush have made many liberals extremely cynical. Furthermore the Democratic House and Senate of the first two years of the Clinton administration did not inspire anymore confidence than did the Democratic House and Senate of the last two years of the Bush administration. There is a certain justification for this cynicism.

That said, we cannot afford to be permanently cynical. Ongoing cynicism will merely weaken our resolve. We need to be optimistic of ultimate success even when short term success is unlikely. We need staying power. Right now we do not have it.

If we do not develop the optimism to see when the glass is half full and fight to fill it then the glass will always remain half empty. Over time, if the glass remains half-empty, eventually the right will drain it.

Food for thought.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Radical Fundamentals

I find that I am drawn more and more from the philosophical and policy writing that originally motivated me to start a blog to a strange sub-genre of literary criticism. The criticism of blogs and policy writing may be something my tiny collection of readers really wishes to focus upon. It's probably not going to completely stop anytime soon. It's just impossible not to offer criticism of much of the commentary being circulated today. I am, however, going to refocus my energies on my own (quasi-)original thought and social criticism as well. I don't want this blog to become a 'Daily Howler' about blogs.

So today I am going to break things down to the basics. What really matters?

This an unbelievably broad question. The liberal movement of today answers it in an extremely scatter-shot fashion. The Republican accusation that the Democratic Party focuses on 'group rights' over 'individual rights' is truer than I find comfortable. Moreover, the liberal Democrats who focus even on those 'group rights' are not the dominant power in their own party. The dominant faction, the Democratic Leadership Council, is committed to carefully balancing all those group rights so that everyone is 'happy' but the public is not offended by the tilt toward liberalism. This takes the idea of 'felicific calculus' to a whole new universe. Shouldn't there be a way to boil all the interests of the groups 'the left' represents down into a coherent, single list of priorities?

The 'group rights' approach is based on the premise that everyone best gets 'their share' if we individually advocate for each group. The problem is that we get so bogged down in group advocacy that the issue of collective advocacy for society can get lost in the shuffle.

Again we ask, 'What really matters?'

I think it can be boiled down to a few core points. There are four key concerns of a civil society:

1.) Justice/Natural Rights - This includes quite a bit. First and foremost it means ensuring that all members of society enjoy equal protection of the law. It also means making certain that there is always someone to advocate for the individual dignity of any member of society. It is also critical that we remember a key maxim: 'My freedom ends where your nose begins.' There is a key element of personal responsibility inherent in freedom. Not the counterfeit 'personal responsibility' argued by conservatives, but genuine responsibility to give one's best effort and to respect the rights and freedoms of other members of society. This is not exclusive to the working and middle classes or the poor either. The corporate classes and the wealthy must also respect the individual rights of others and the law should not grant them undue license to disregard those rights. 'Justice' also includes the problem of law enforcement in a civil society, but it is very important to remember that the purpose of law enforcement must be the protection of the rights of all members of society. Police power must not be a means of social or political control over the poor and the working class. Civil rights agendas fall into this category and the overarching goal of securing the rights of all members of society should be put above identity politics.

2.) The Economy - This includes the obvious but it also covers quite a bit not generally considered in this light. Alternative energy, environmental questions, and other issues of sustainability are core economic concerns whether the right wishes to admit it or not. Simply ignoring the issue will not make the problems go away and conservative 'optimism' increasingly looks a refusal to accept the facts as they are. It is certainly true that not all 'green' complaints are equally valid. Criticism of agrotechnology that has saved a billion lives worldwide is simply moronic. Yet it is equally moronic to believe we can continue to exhaust natural resources at a railroad pace and not expect unpleasant consequences. We must also, no matter how unpleasant the right and the center find the prospect, also seriously consider means to effectively prevent the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively small number of individuals and corporate entities. This concentration of wealth prevents money from properly circulating, which harms the economy directly. It also creates undue power and influence which is a danger to the freedom of civil society.

3.) Health care - It is important that society be able to provide for the health of its members. We are the only major industrialized nation in the world not to make some effort to do so. Of the industrialized nations that make such an effort, the majority provide care to their citizens much more effectively at less cost. This does not necessitate a national health service or a single payer national insurance system. Though those systems are the most economical way of controlling the costs of the system and the most effective way to provide access to care to all members of society they are not the only alternatives. It is important, however, that we do so. We should work for that goal until it is achieved and we should constantly work for improvement of the system short of that final goal. This is both an economic issue and a moral issue. It is important enough to deserve inclusion in its own right.

4.) Education - This is another moral issue of grave importance. It is less important to economics than our culture had made it but our increasing linkage of employment to education means that the economics of education cannot be ignored either. This is an area in which we are stuck in a moral and fiscal quagmire. Our educational policy is coercive and dehumanizing. It is also highly inconsistent in its rate of success. Even if it were completely successful it would still be immoral. We systematically strip children of their individuality as people and treat them as identical copies of the fictional 'average child.' A tiny minority of children fit into the system. Most simply go along and do not make waves, their gain from the system dubious. A significant number, however, are destroyed by the educational system. Their faith in their own abilities, their belief in their own future, and their understanding of life and society are crushed by a system that has more in common with the prison system than compassionate teaching. This is not the fault of teaching or teachers, but of bureaucratization of the education system until the schools exist to justify the system of administration. Our schools are something very close to fascist and neither liberals nor conservatives appear ready or able to address that fact. Furthermore, a rather ridiculous 'populist' movement to 'democratize' education has eroded the ability of teachers to teach. This is being replaced by the politicization of curricula in every subject from science to history. This cannot be allowed to continue. There needs to be a limit to the tyranny of the ballot box and school is a very good place to draw the line.

Here it is then: a four point diagram of the issues that most fundamentally concern a civil society. We have a long ways to go in every one.

My challenge to both parties is to stop quibbling about who can take more money from corporations and get their asses into gear.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The National Security State: Remember when Ike said something about this?

Former Colorado Senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart has started a blog: Matters of Principle. Senator Hart has cogently contributed to the Huffington Post for some time. The transition to his own blog is an obvious next step and I am eager to see how the undertaking goes. I liked his this offering, which was also posted on HuffPo, very much.

Senator Hart outlines what he calls 'the national security state.'

"The National Security Act of 1947 was the statutory basis for defining America’s role in the world post-World War II and for conducting the Cold War. It established a new Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and the United States Air Force as a new military service. For more than six decades, it has also been the source of authority for the president as commander-in-chief."

Though the American Civil War was the prototype for the 'imperial presidency' and the model for the dominant picture of the 'American President' in the 20th Century was drawn by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt, because of the Great Depression and WWII, enjoyed unprecedented national and global power. He was elected president four times, also unprecedented. Only Ulysses S. Grant had run more than twice and Grant was not even nominated by the Republican Party on his third try. Roosevelt was the defining personality of the 1930s and the 1940s, even after his death. The National Security Act of 1947 was written with the view that the president would manage the Cold War the way President Roosevelt had managed WWII.

Here comes the rub: FDR was a wartime president who enjoyed broad wartime powers based on a situation of worldwide emergency. Even before the US entry into WWII, the rest of the world was at war for a period of two years. When America entered into the war it became the dominant force among the allies. Due to American resources and British and Soviet need, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the Duke of Marlborough on a global scale. The National Security Act of 1947 was written during peacetime. The powers granted the president through the NSA has given American presidents wartime powers in time of peace to the best of their ability to wield them ever since.

Can you see why this is inherently dangerous?

If you can't, then consider this:

"Despite the fact that our Constitution, Article I, section 8, gives Congress solely the power to “provide for the common defense” and “declare War,” it is not accidental that no declaration of war has been authorized since 1941, even while we waged war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and dozens of other venues. Presidents now decide when and where we will wage war."

Due to the power given to the executive through the NSA, the single defining change in the law post-WWII, the president has been able to fight wars at his discretion without a Congressional declararion. For this the justification was the Cold War and the tool that made it possible was unprecedented peacetime authority and a vastly expanded national security apparat. As Hart says, all of this power is a trap for the man who wields it all. He can exercise authority over this national security apparatus, as Hart says, but he can't get away from it.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last president to command an army personally, understood this. It was very much the point of his last speech as president. Everyone knows the famous line:

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Much of our history since Eisenhower is based not on remembering this warning, but forgetting it. Many of the crimes, failures, and tragedies connected to the Iraq War and the Bush Administration as a whole were intimately connected to the failure of subsequent American presidents to heed this warning. In the wake of WWII, every American president has used this national security apparatus to advance its own agenda around the world. While this was justified first by the Cold War, then the so-called 'War on Drugs, and now the 'Global War on Terror' it is really all the same thing.

As Hart says:

"This helps explain the demented insistence on the part of the Bush administration to create, or perhaps merely ratify, the “unitary executive,” a notion based on the premise that all executive power resides in the president and Congress has no authority to question his actions as they relate to national security. In this context “national security” is so broadly defined as to include virtually everything.'

This is the consequence of the concept of President-as-Generalissimo. Even President Obama, who ran against this concept, has been unable to escape it. Hart makes comment on this. It is echoed by this piece from Ron Chusid at Liberal Values.

Hart puts his finger right on the current situation:

"All this might make some plausible sense, but only if two things were true: one, that we are now locked into a kind of semi-permanent era of conflict and danger; and two that James Madison and his colleagues had not gone to considerable pains to create a genius system of checked-and-balanced government where power is concentrated in no single branch."

Hart finishes by saying that our chief concern should be what James Madison would think of this, but I strongly disagree.

Our real chief concern should be whether the concept of a 'semi-permanent era of conflict and danfer' is something that we, as American, can afford to accept. This concept has prevailed since the beginning of the Cold War. The only exception has been the brief period between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks. Americans who grew up during the Cold War find the return to that mentality unremarkable.

That desperately needs to change.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

On Truth

Note: This article originally appeared on Wednesday in different form. The original article contained factual errors that I was unwilling to leave in place. Responsibility for those errors is mine and I apologize to anyone who read the incorrect article. I offer this rewritten piece in its place, hopefully as some amount of compensation.

- Chris

The moral outrage of the immoral, the ethical standards of the unethical, the intellectual chauvinism of of the intellectually bankrupt, and the calls for truth of liars began to bore me in the 1990s. I am less dismayed now by the fact that the basic rhetoric and tactics of the right have not changed than I am that even people ON the right can still tolerate it.

I've been spending this week commenting on the most active of the two liberal blogs I follow (Dr. Ron Chusid's Liberal Values and The Anonymous Liberal... a doctor and a lawyer, which I find immensely poetic) and doing web research for a piece on poverty. In the course of both of these activities I was struck by two things. The first of these was the pure shamelessness in which 'thinkers' on the right present a specious argument with bald-faced purity even as they accuse the left of great evil and dishonesty. The second of these was the strange sense of innocence (or perhaps glee) with which these statements are made.

One of part of the process of researching an article on poverty was the attempt to find out what conservatives have to say about it. The answer was, 'not much.' Nearly every right wing blog reference to poverty online is connected in some way to an attack on policies perceived as 'liberal' by the writer. There is very little writing about actual poverty, whether or not it is a problem, or what should be done about it. The intellectual desert of conservative thoughts and writing on poverty surprised me a great deal, though in retrospect I should have expected it.

Christ, whom many on the right claim tells them what to do and when to do it on a personal basis, had a great deal to say about poverty. He spoke of charity, of caring for the poor, and of society's responsibility to its least members.

He also had interesting things to say about wealth, things which do not sit next to right wing policies very well.

'Now behold, one came and said to him, "Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?
So He said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments."
He said to Him, "Which ones?"
Jesus said to him, "'You shall not murder'; 'You shall not commit adultery'; 'You shall not steal'; 'You shall not bear false witness'; 'Honor your father and your mother'; and 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'"
The young man said to him, "All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?"
Jesus said to him, "If you want to be prefect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

-- Matthew 19:16-24'

As you can see, the Jesus of the Gospels saw wealth and poverty very differently from the politicians who would marshal the forces of the religious right on their own behalf today. When a faction that claims Biblical and Godly authority for their every action ignores the words of scripture, just how trustworthy are they?

The Anonymous Liberal describes House Minority Whip Eric Cantor's response to a constituent at a health care town hall meeting. The following transcript of the exchange is from his site, but is originally from Alan Colmes.

"CONSTITUENT: I have a very close relative, a woman in her early forties, who did have a wonderful, high-paying job, owns her own home and is a real contributing member of society. She lost her job. Just a couple of weeks ago, she found out that she has tumors in her belly and that she needs an operation. Her doctors told her that they are growing and that she needs to get this operation quickly. She has no insurance.


CANTOR: First of all I guess I would ask what the situation is in terms of income eligibility and the existing programs that are out there. Because if we look at the uninsured that are out there right now, there is probably 23, 24% of the uninsured that is already eligible for an existing government program [...] Beyond that, I know that there are programs, there are charitable organizations, there are hospitals here who do provide charity care if there’s an instance of indigency and the individual is not eligible for existing programs that there can be some cooperative effort. No one in this country, given who we are, should be sitting without an option to be addressed."
As the Anonymous Liberal says aptly:

"Faced with this all too common scenario, Cantor has nothing to offer. The suggestions he eventually comes up with are profoundly unhelpful and deeply hypocritical. This outspoken opponent of government-run health care suggests, feebly, that perhaps the woman might qualify for an existing government program. This, of course, is highly unlikely given that she owns her home and just recently lost her job..."

The irony of this, of course, is that Cantor and other conservatives would cut existing government programs if their views of health care prevailed in House and Senate. I have written about this before.

The party that claims to be the guardian of American morality has abandoned basic moral values. There are no facts behind their 'truth.' There is no Jesus in their 'Christianity.' There is no logic in their 'common sense.' There is no patriotism in their worship of all things 'American.'

This is immensely dangerous. While, in recent years, this appears to have caused many sensible people of moderate and conservative views to step away from the Republican Party and movement conservatism it has also enflamed the passions of those who desperately want to believe they are better than their neighbors. The right has kindled a populist elitism that combines the worst features of both and sells authoritarian truth with anti-authoritarian lies of the worst kind while shamelessly pointing to the very facts that prove their intellectual bankruptcy.

Yet they have faith to move mountains.

Can you think of anything more dangerous than a lunatic with faith?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Reality Based Politics: How do you fight people who don't live in the real world?

Everyone has heard, by now, about the decision to strip ACORN of federal funding. Republicans have been crowing about it. The way the news media has fixed on one non-profit political action group whose entire agenda is about helping poor Americans fully integrate into economic and political society is fascinating. It shows that the 'Reagan Revolution' really has fundamentally changed the way America views the problem of poverty. The political debate is no longer about poverty. It's about demonizing and criminalizing the poor and those who would help them.

The way that the majority of the Democrats in Congress jumped on the conservative bandwagon in this case is more disturbing. The House voted 345-75 to strip ACORN of federal support. 345 congressmen of both parties believe that scapegoating this one organization is the best solution to the Republican attacks that haven't stopped since the election? It all points to one basic fact: political perception is more important to politicians than reality.

Republicans, sadly, are still better at reframing reality to fit their political perceptions than are Democrats. In one sense, this is a good thing. We don't want both sides undertaking the same effort to warp reality to suit their political purposes. It would be great, however, if the Democrats put more effort into finding a way to frame reality as it is and communicate the facts of policies that are better fitted to the world in which we live. This problem eludes them repeatedly.

The reaction to the Republican victory over a tiny, underfunded organization that is entirely dependent on donations and federal assistance to function is a bit over the top. Not only was the enemy entirely non-threatening, but it was entirely unequipped to defend itself against the attacks of a national political machine. Even after the victory has been won, the enemies of ACORN continue to attack. Jenn Q Public writes a vociferous assault on 'child sex trafficking' and manages to somehow make ACORN the villains of the modern world of white slavery. I am certain she believes she is calling it as she sees it, which is the scary part.

Those interested can find the best answer to this kind of manic trampling on the corpse of the beaten enemy here, penned by the Anonymous Liberal:

"That the GOP and its conservative supporters would single out this particular organization for such intense demonization is telling. In September of last year, the entire world came perilously close to complete financial catastrophe. We're still not out of the woods and we're deep within one of the worst recessions in U.S. history. This situation was brought about by the recklessness and greed of our banks and financial institutions, most of which had to be bailed out at enormous cost to the American taxpayer (exponentially more than all of the tax dollars given to ACORN over the years). The people who brought about this near catastrophe, for the most, profited immensely from it. These very same institutions, propped up by the American taxpayer, are once again raking in large profits.

But rather than focus their anger on these folks, conservatives choose to go after an organization composed almost entirely of low-paid community organizers, an organization that could never hope to have even a small fraction of the clout or the ability to affect the overall direction of the country that Wall Street bankers have. ACORN's relative lack of political influence was on full display yesterday, when the U.S. Senate (in which Democrats have a supermajority) not only entertained a vote to defund ACORN, but approved it by a huge margin (with only seven Democrats opposing)."

Since he defends those who cannot defend themselves, and condemns those who would play the role of the bully so effectively, I'll move on to the real problem.

Ron Chusid of Liberal values has written about what he calls 'reality-based politics' for a long time. In a post from January of this year, he very effectively highlighted the problem with the modern political right:

"Currently the sets of views which primarily separate liberals from conservatives are 1) support for liberty by the left and opposition to the authoritarian views of the right and 2) having a reality-based viewpoint as opposed to the anti-intellectualism of the right."

It's very hard for me to disagree, and I'm not the only one who gets it.

On Huffington Post, attorney/author/psychologist Bryant Welch attacks the problem head on and holds nothing back in a shockingly clinical description of conservative political tactics and their victims.

Welch says:

"We take our sense of what is real and what is not real for granted. We shouldn't. We each actually form our own unique "reality sense" with our mind that assimilates an infinitely complex bombardment of stimuli from outside us and from within. It is no simple task, and the most miraculous part of the human mind is that it is able to create a coherent reality at all.

The problem is that in times of extreme uncertainty the mind has a hard time creating this reality sense. The mind becomes confused. This can be caused by external events in our world, such as rapid change or inner psychological states -- for example, when we are experiencing strong emotions like paranoia, envy, or challenges to our sexual identity."

Much of this is fairly straight-forward empiricism, with a touch of Immanuel Kant. It's important to keep it mind, however. While 'reality' certainly exists in an objective sense, it is very true that our perceptions of reality can vary widely from what is peering back in at us.

"And this is where things go awry. Current right-wing politics is an art form that is designed to re-define reality for a class of people who are increasingly unable to establish their own sense of reality. Instead, they succumb and become increasingly dependent on someone else to tell them what is real and what is not real. In their regressed psychological state, under certain conditions, many people will accept as real whatever they are told by an authoritative sounding figure be it Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Bill O'Reilly."

This is extremely cogent, and does very well to describe why otherwise intelligent people can believe that Sarah Palin is a strong feminist figure victimized by misogynist culture for her strength. It also does well to show why the dark fantasies of Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck are so appealing to people who feel adrift in a world that can't possibly be 'real' as they define reality. However, while Welch offers a clear solution:

"So what should progressives do? Do we have to be like the far right and beat them at their own game? No, not at all. But we do have to hoist them on their own petard. We have to expose the manipulations and the manipulators with a torrential counterattack that is focused on the manipulations, not a message that emphasizes some irrelevant "positive" message such as how important health reform is.

Instead, we need to harness the rage that is ubiquitous in this country because of all the uncertainty and the confusion. That is the energy that is driving health care and most political life in America at the present time. We need to harness it for constructive purposes, exposing the puppeteers and the corporate interests that are behind them. Health care is ultimately a populist issue, but we are not igniting the populist rage that drives all populism. Until progressives learn this lesson they will lose"

While I certainly agree that we are not doing enough to harness the anger in Americans, the reason the left is not engaged in this activity is because most of us on the left want to solve problems and soothe that anger. We don't want to make it worse or to exploit it. We fail to understand, too often, the difference between addressing anger legitimately and indulging it. If we can address that populist anger legitimately, then we might have a chance.

Can we do it?

I have to admit that, as I read more and more of the lies and insanity being spouted on the right, I am becoming more and more angry myself. I am sure that I am no the only one. We need to focus that anger into practical action. We are not in a debate. We are in a fight to establish a view of the real world in those who can still see it and to prevent a genuinely dark force from establishing hold of America. I hate to use that kind of mystical language, but that is the only description I can find accurate anymore.

What can one call an attempt to rewrite reality for political gain?

That's evil on the level of a comic book villain, here in the real world.

What are you going to do to fight it?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Yes, I'm Going to Pile On Max Baucus and Kent Conrad Too

Prior to day's piece, I've written six pieces about health care this year. More of them have been critical than not. I've attacked specific elements of reform bills. I've attacked whole reform bills as intellectually dishonest attempts to defund Medicare and exposing the Republicans as the only people actually advocating rationing. I've posted frank criticisms of many of the core 'religious' elements to arguments about free market health care. I've even proposed my own national health care bill. Clearly, I feel fairly strongly about the issue.

I've not been a fan of the Senate Finance Committee bill for some time. One of the early pieces I wrote critiquing the reform process was in reference to the original Senate bill as it left Teddy Kennedy's committee. I was already less than completely happy with it.

Well, Senators Max Baucus and Kent Conrad have gone and come up with something even worse. Dr. Ron Chusid of Liberal Values pointed out key problems with the Finance Committee bill back in early August and suggested it might actually be worse than no reform at all. As Bob Cesca and RJ Eskow both write on Huffington Post, the final Finance Committee bill is possibly even worse. Ryan Grim writes that the Baucus bill is already facing signficant resistance among Democratic senators and most of the Democrats in the House.

I'm going to pile on too. I'm not going to rehash every point that Cesca and Eskow make, except to say that I agree with their view of many aspects of the bill. It has the potential to do considerable economic damage to American business, seniors, and the working class. A provision to tax 'Caddillac' insurance benefits will double the burden already laid on older consumers by a fee scale that allows older customers to be charged as much as five times as much as younger consumers... a fee scale that completely wipes out the benefits provided by eliminating restrictions against and fees for consumers with pre-existing conditions. 'Health reform', if the Baucus bill passes, could actually end up making it more expensive for the average American to purchase insurance. At the same time, the individual mandate has not been dropped. The public option, of course, is gone.

The real damage done by the Baucus bill is in a provision that chop-blocks what would otherwise be the best provision in the bill before the bill even leaves Committee. Instead of a public option, the bill would empower health consumers to form their own co-ops to insure their own health care costs. I've more than once admitted to a strain of a certain kind of socialism, and that part of me certainly likes the idea of health insurance co-ops having the power to compete aggressively with the private insurance market. It would give many ordinary Americans an alternative to private insurance that could actually be superior to a government run plan. Conservatives have understood just how powerful co-ops could be in lowering health care costs and empowering health care consumers. That's why Ed Morrissey took the time to rail against them on Hot Air. Legitimately empowered health insurance cooperatives would be a very serious competitor for the insurance industry.

The trouble is that the Baucus bill kills co-ops before they get started. While allowing consumers to form cooperatives to cover their health care costs, it specifically denies those cooperatives collective bargaining power over fees. So the insurance companies would enjoy a huge advantage in competition, while the co-ops would be hampered in their ability to provide quality coverage at an affordable cost. When the single best part of the bill is so badly crippled by its own language, it becomes difficult to support the bill at all.

Baucus and Conrad become the real villains of this affair. Baucus has written a bill that gives the insurance companies everything they have asked for in order not to oppose reform. Yet the bill does not include enough comprehensive reform of the system to justify the concessions. If the bill contained a public option, a robust subsidy for those who cannot afford insruance but do not qualify for Medicaid, or a robust strengthening and widening of Medicaid to cover those unable to otherwise comply with the individual mandate then one could argue that the concessions might be worth it. Instead there is no public option, the subsidy is depressingly shallow, and the Medicaid benefits made available for those unable to otherwise comply with the mandate has been described as 'Medicaid lite.' When one considers how inferior Medicaid already is, this is simply unconscionable.

While Republicans have lied about the threat of any reform, Baucus has completely castrated reform in the hopes of winning Republican support. He has utterly failed to do so. Not one of the three Republicans in the 'Gang of Six' has signed on to the Baucus bill, not even Olympia Snowe... who is arguably more liberal than Baucus. Despite this, Baucus claims a belief that the bill will pick up support from Republicans on the Senate floor. I don't know what motivates this fount of optimism. Perhaps it is the same kind of 'we hope it is true therefore it must be true' thinking that impelled the Bush Administration to tell us all how easy the Iraq war would be.

Max Baucus needs to be run out of the Senate. He needs to be challenged by an aggressive liberal primary opponent who makes health care reform and the Baucus bill the central issue of the primary campaign. With this bill, with his lack of regard for the needs of the country, he has single-handedly stepped up to the plate for the role of scapegoat if this round of reform fails. If his excrable brand of 'reform' passes, he's clearly the man to blame.

Either way, we all need to make sure he becomes the face of Republican resistance to reform. It's what he has chosen to become in his quest for 'bi-partisanship.'

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The 'Showboat Judge'? A Lost Icon?

1907: Standard Oil is under criminal investigation for corruption charges levied by federal prosecutors in Illinois. The charge is that Standard Oil executives accepted significant kickbacks from railroad companies (thus vastly lowering their real freight costs) in exchange for a preferred business relationship that allowed both the oil trust and the railroads in question to limit their rivals' ability to compete. Federal circuit judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, unimpressed with the explanations given by Standard Oil executives, subpoenas oil duke John D. Rockefeller and puts him on the stand to explain or refute the charges. He ends the trial by levying a 27 million dollar fine against Standard Oil, a figure that in today's money becomes astronomical.

Landis's decision was overturned on appeal, and the final fine levied was far lower. All the same, Landis's haling of Rockefeller into court and forcing him to answer for the crimes committed by his employees was a bold move. It was an important step in the antitrust battles of the Gilded Age.

Landis was what we used to call a 'showboat judge.' He used his judicial discretion to its fullest extent and acted as he believed right. While he was hardly a hero overall (he was a virulent racist who ended the US career of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson on Mann Act charges, dearth on organized labor, and as commissioner of baseball he kept the sport segregated his entire term), his actions in that courtroom on 1907 were certainly heroic.

Of course, the most famous 'showboat judge' might be Associate Justice William J. Brennan of the Supreme Court. The late Justice Brennan is able to boast of a career of heroic judicial actions. The high court certainly needs another Brennan.

2009: Judge Jed Rakoff disallows a 33 million dollar settlement between the SEC and Bank of America. Rakoff had held up the settlement last month. Judge Rakoff demanded to know why the SEC had not pursued a criminal investigation of the charges against specific Bank of America executives instead of merely opening and quickly attempting to settle a civil case against the megabank. In his final ruling, Rakoff touched on a key note we should all take to heart:

'Rakoff, in his ruling, found that the settlement "suggests a rather cynical relationship between the parties: the SEC gets to claim that it is exposing wrongdoing on the part of the Bank of America in a high-profile merger, the bank's management gets to claim that they have been coerced into an onerous settlement by overzealous regulators. And all this is done at the expense, not only of the shareholders, but also of the truth."'

A cynical relationship between the SEC and one of the entities it regulates? Impossible! Not the SEC! Didn't they heroically enforce banking regulations to protect smaller American lenders, American citizens, and the US economy!?

Well, no... they didn't. There has been a cynical relationship between the SEC and most of Wall Street since Ronald Reagan's presidency, and under the Bush Administration the SEC was a 'yes man' for the megabanks.

Good for Judge Rakoff for calling at least one part of the problem to light.

The SEC's case against BofA must now go to trial, which means more of the details of the matters for which the bank was being investigated will come to light. Actual facts might be uncovered by the American people and the American government and those facts might lead to real action, or real demand for real action, in the effort to reform our financial markets.

Best of all? New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's office is preparing to hale the executives in question into state court to answer criminal charges. So Judge Rakoff's firm moral stand has succeeded in producing legal results, even if not from the branch of the federal government that should have produced those results on its own in the first place.

Corporate pirates need to learn that our economy is not the blue Caribbean and they cannot simply rape and pillage as they please. To that end, we need more 'showboat judges.'

Judge Rakoff, thank you.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Norman Borlaug -- RIP

Norman Borlaug saved the world, and many Americans don't even know who he is. Borlaug is an American hero, yet American schoolchildren are not taught about him in school.

Now he has passed on, at the age of 95, succumbing to complications of cancer in Dallas, Texas. All the necessary obituaries will be run around the country and those who read the obits will be educated about a great man and his service to the world.

Borlaug single-handedly disproved (or at least delayed) Malthusian theories of ultimate economic doom.

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich's book 'The Population Bomb' predicted global catastrophe due to overpopulation. The human race was breeding itself into extinction, Ehrlich said, and a desperate campaign of population control was necessary to stop it. Ehrlich claimed that the global population was growing faster than global food production rates and pointed to the inability of India to feed itself as proof of his theories. Little did he know he was being proven wrong even as he wrote his book.

In the 1960s, Norman Borlaug almost single-handedly began the 'green revolution' in agricultural science. His 'dwarfing' process (among other breakthroughs) changed farming completely. Ironically, his 'revolution' began in 1965. Three years before Ehrlich's book.

Today, food production outstrips population growth by quite a bit. While famine is still with us, the leading cause is political instability and corruption interfering with effective distribution.

Instead of arguing whether or not to teach 'creation science', don't you think our schools should be teaching young Americans about the Americans scientist who saved the world?

Update: Conservative crusader Jenn Q Public has taken note of Dr. Borlaug's passing as well. Though she takes some pointed shots at environmentalists in her own writing that I cannot completely endorse, it's hard to deny the lack of respect for Dr. Borlaug's work in some circles. The viciousness of some of the more ignorant comments on the Huffington Post's obituary for the great man is simply astounding. Any self proclaimed 'environmentalist' who stakes out a position that the lives of one billion human beings were not worth saving because of the 'overpopulation' to which Borlaug's work has led (in their somewhat ignorant view) is occupying the same ground as the advocates of big business who deny global warming in order to justify their profits or the 'Christians' who oppose abortion to save the life and health of a 9 year old rape victim.

All are fools and villains together.

Glenn Beck: Wally George Writ Large?

I don't know if any of the few readers I have know who Wally George was or not. He was a decidedly local personality in the Los Angeles area, his show Hot Seat was carried by a local Anaheim station and frequently focused on issues specific to Orange County, CA. To get an idea of the style and tone of his show, you need to know this: he accused tv hosts like Geraldo Rivera and Jerry Springer of ripping him off.

George was a 'conservative pundit', if by such a phrase one means 'reactionary bigot out to get as much attention as possible.' Orange County consists of the six most conservative congressional districts in California and local politics are frequently flavored by racial and economic tensions more commonly associated with the Deep South than California. George's show format consisted of inviting a single guest for an interview. Generally, that guest would hold policy positions that most liberals would consider extremely moderate. The guest would be bombarded by abusive questions without being allowed to properly answer and would be accused of 'socialism' without any grounds given for the charge.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Glenn Beck.

Beck is engaging in George's hectoring, abusive tactics and is equally guilty of not giving his targets the opportunity to directly reply to his charges. In one sense, Beck is worse than George. Wally George at least had his targets on his show. Glenn Beck is not that brave.

Beck, like George, enjoys a home court advantage that is hard to match. George had a local tv show in the most conservative county of what was, in the 1980s, still a conservative state. His audience was predisposed to accept any attack on 'liberals' as valid. Beck, on Fox News, enjoys a national audience equally pre-disposed to sympathize with any attack against any member of the Obama Administration.

If the administration had the sense to simply ignore Glenn Beck, this might not be a problem. Unfortunately, it has not done so. The resignation of Van Jones and the reslotting of Yosi Sergant into a new job have created the idea that the administration gives some credence to Beck's charges.

Witness this comment on HuffPo:

"Beck is starting to grow on me. I don't think the govt would be making so many changes if there weren't credible things behind them. I looked around over the past week and I realized that nobody else is reporting on some of these things... yet the govt is still making changes based on the evidence he's showing (by that i mean videos, clips, etc., not what he babbles about).

van jones - down
nea - busted
acorn - dumped by census, fires employees

im sure there are similar people in GOP,,, but why isn't anybody pulling out the video evidence, etc.?"


"Its too bad that 1 man must do all of the investigation and research that we should expect from the MSM. Sorry state of affairs I would say for journalism in our nation. Go are doing courageous work that noone else in the MSM has the cahones to do! The others are still trying to figure out how what to make of that tingling feeling running up their legs!"

These are comments on Huffington Post, not on HotAir or The Other McCain Blog.

Beck is coming very close to giving himself the kind of influence in national politics that George enjoyed in Orange County politics: the influence of the rabid McCarthyist who offers nothing and attacks anyone who does.

Do we want someone like Beck wielding that kind of influence?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Daggers From The Left: Why are liberals always angry after elections?

This is an anniversary of sorts, my 100th post since starting the blog. I had intended to write something specifically celebratory and engage in some self-adulation. As always, however, design was thwarted by circumstance. I am too angry not to spend some time throwing stones at crows.

The hatchet jobs from liberal writers have begun. HuffPo is just full of attack articles from the left, all about what a horrible president we have and what a horrible job he is doing on health care. Some of this is not new. The left has been criticizing the president on the economy since he put together his an economic team of center-right Clinton Administration retreads and with some legitimacy. It is not entirely unfair criticism, but much of it contains a thread of outraged betrayal that is simply not justified by the facts. The realization that changing Washington is harder than promising to change Washington is not sitting well with the left, despite the fact that they already know this.

The fact that the president is being criticized is not what bothers me. The president deserves criticism for his failure to reform the financial system after bailing it out. He deserves criticism for choosing to lock the advocates of single-payer coverage or a national health care system out of the health care debate. He deserves criticism for surrounding himself with clergy from the extreme religious right as part of his outreach to evangelical voters. He deserves criticism for being too hands-off with Congress as they fumble the health care reform football.

He does not deserve angry hatchet jobs and accusations of betrayal from liberal supporters who did not listen to the very words the man spoke.

President Obama is not a liberal. He did not run as a liberal in the presidential primary, he ran as one of the two most conservative candidates in the field. The liberals who chose to support him in said primary deliberately ignored Rep. Dennis Kucinich (who meets every bread-and-butter policy standard the left could hope for), ex-Senator Mike Gravel (who is an outspoken civil libertarian and was one of the great senatorial 'doves' during the Vietnam War), and the fiery populist rhetoric of John Edwards. President Kucinich, President Gravel, or President Edwards could be accused of 'betrayal' under the present circumstances. President Obama told us exactly what he would do.

He told us that he would seek to ignore the extremes of left and right and find a way to govern by consensus. Independent voters and moderates in both parties licked it up like cream. He did discuss pragmatic policy ideas appealing to liberals, but he also acknowledged that the economy would take priority over everything else. He mollified conservatives at every opportunity and he did not win key battleground states that have traditionally swung Republican by storming them from the left flank.

As president he has made every effort to govern as he said he would: adopting a pragmatic approach and seeking the greatest possible consensus rather than the biggest possible headline. Is this approach valid in the hyper-partisan atmosphere in the Washington of today? Probably not. It's what he promised us, however, and it is what he has made every effort to deliver.

I've written it before, but I will say it again. If liberals want to elect a liberal president, if they want a president to govern by liberal principles, then they will have to vote for a liberal president. Electing a center-right neoconservative whose major difference from many Republicans is that he is somewhat pro-choice, cautiously in favor of gay rights, and pragmatic in his view of international relations is great. One cannot, however, elect such a president to the chorus of angels and declare a liberal revolution.

That's just stupid, and the people attacking President Obama as incompetent or dishonest are stupid as well. He is exactly what he told us he would be, some of us just didn't listen properly.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day Musings

This will be even more disjointed and rambling than my usual offerings because I am simply rattling individual thoughts off the top of my head. I've done this once before and I will likely do it again in the future. So hold on for the ride.

Labor Day is intended to celebrate the contributions of working men and women, and labor unions, to the American economy. Yet our government does nothing to defend many of worker's rights from corporations on a national level. Taft-Hartley still allows the government to assist employers in busting unions. Congress won't pass the EFCA. States are immensely inconsistent in the protections they give to the rights of employees. Yet the federal government has explicitly given credence to the ridiculous joke of corporate person-hood, entitling business entities with the sovereign rights of individual citizens. Why do we go through the fiction of the holiday?

Our workplaces increasingly exhibit more and more common qualities with our schools and prisons (whose resemblance to each other is already frightening) and yet it is 'libertarian' to support corporations over actual human workers?

What cuts into corporate profits more, do you think? The total wages of factory employees making eight dollars an hour or the total wages of executive officers making six and seven figures before bonuses? Why is it always the former who get laid off when times are hard?

I'm entirely aware of all the arguments against forcing people to join unions and they are all great... BUT... who is going to represent that employee's interests and advocate for them against a bureaucratic corporate establishment if they have no union to do so and to ensure proper due process is followed?

Why don't they call 'right to work' something along the lines of 'right to work for minimum wage' or call 'at will employees' something more along the lines of 'disposable?' Are they worried that honesty might not be the best policy?

Anyone else have any musings?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Should we be scared of 'Socialized Education?'

Of course this is a silly question. While we retain free market options for those who can afford them and wish to make use of them, the bulk of our national education system is already 'socialist.' It has been since the Progressive Era.

On a completely unrelated note, it's very likely that a system of 'socialized medicine' would look very much like our system of socialized education. Good and bad with 'free market options' for those unsatisfied. Just thought it should be said.

The real question is this: can we reform socialized education to correct the flaws the current system has created?

Arianna Huffington thinks so. While I have been critical of Ms. Huffington's writings on health care (here and here) lately, this piece deserves praise as well as analysis and criticism. Her idea is certainly bold and sweeping. Ms. Huffington's idea is to break the monopoly that district schools hold on their students by a simple device:

"In a single-payer health care plan, the federal government provides coverage for all U.S. citizens and legal residents. Patients don't go to a government doctor -- they just have the government pay the bill.

And that's how it would work with education. In a single-payer education plan, the federal government, in conjunction with the states, would provide an education allotment for every parent of a K-12 child. Parents would then be free to enroll their child in the school of their choice."

She also argues, with a certain degree of legitimacy, that this would not be a significant increase in out education budget:

"The single-payer health plan would be financed by a payroll tax. In education, the annual cost per child -- equalized for urban and suburban school districts across each state -- would come from the current education funding sources."

So it's really all simply and straight-forward. Which is good, policies should be as simple as possible. However, this may be too simple. Ms. Huffington leaves several questions unanswered.

1.) Does the phrase 'the school of their choice' mean the public school of their choice or any school of their choice?

There are a couple of reasons for asking this question. The first is the obvious one. If the law were defined to mean 'any school of their choice' it would essentially be school vouchers writ large. All of the arguments for and against school vouchers would then apply to this proposal as well. As school vouchers have been advocated in the past, their cons have outweight their pros. This would be present a far greater threat to the public school system than school vouchers alone. If school vouchers take money away from public schools and put it into the private sector, how much worse would a subsidized private school education for any middle class kid whose parents want it be for the public system? We'd risk turning the public system into a bureaucratic ghetto comparable to Medicaid.

It's worth noting that there are countries that do contribute the same set amount of allotted funds for either private or public school and those countries successfully maintain both systems; but those countries have a higher income tax rate than the US. I do not oppose a tax hike to help pay for private school for those students who choose it, but it would be necessary to avoid cutting public school funds to pay for private school tuition.

2.) If the phrase 'the school of their choice' is restricted to public schools, does this mean conventional district schools or does it include charter schools that currently require students to meet strict standards of entry?

This is a hugely important question. Charter schools are frequently waved about by some educators as the solution to the public education problem. Certainly they offer an ability to innovate beyond the standard public school format. The problem is that charter schools' current success is artificial. Charter schools cherry pick the best students with grade requirements, admissions tests, or test score requirements. This guarantees they will 'succeed' while contributing to public school 'failure.' For charter schools to truly work, they have to be open to every student who wishes to go there and more public schools have to use a charter school system to grant academic freedom to the teachers and administration to run the school that works best for its students. This will be necessary for schools to compete in a free system.

3.) How will schools be allowed to compete to avoid overcrowding?

I already answered this question, but I'll raise the problem anyway: freedom to choose any school one wants will inevitably trigger a rush from the worst schools to the best if the current system remains unchanged. This requires reform allowing public schools to successfully compete with private schools and each other be implemented before opening up the system. The obvious answer is to make every public school a charter school. This allows administration and faculty to tailor their curriculum to their students for maximum results and the ability to at least try to reach every kid.

This, after all, is the real problem with American public education: the stultifying effect of the system on the classroom. We run our schools the way we run our prisons and make inmates out of our children. As long as this is the case, making our kids spend more time in school is like making innocent people spend more time in jail.

Ms. Huffington's idea has a lot of merit. I have addressed it with a critical eye less in the interest of deconstructing it than with the intent of improving it. I hope someone else does the same with my own analysis. This is the kind of attempt to solve real problems that Congress should be taking under advisement.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Football Economics: Suing the People Who Pay to Maintain Your Sport?

Here's something a little outside my normal fare. I've recently used one example from outside the mainstream of political debate to highlight some basic facts about the immigration issue. Boxer Abner Mares is the very archetype of the immigration issue as it genuinely affects American society. On a less positive and uplifting note, the Washington Redskins are proving themselves an example of the corporate-consumer relationship as it affects the American economy. It isn't pretty.

The Redskins are suing fans who have entered into long-term season ticket contracts. These contracts offer season tickets to purchasers at a significant discount in exchange for a commitment to purchase said tickets every year of the contract's duration. The fans in question are not being sued because of money that the organization has lost. They are being sued for breach of contract because they cannot afford to buy season tickets this year. The customers being sued, overwhelmingly, are individuals who have taken significant economic damage from the credit crisis of 2008. Examples given in the linked piece include:

A real estate agent whose business has been wiped out by the collapse of the housing market.

A car salesman who lost his job.

A developer whose business is hurting so badly that he had to make drastic labor cuts.

This is not even a case of a corporation chewing up the poor, these people were comfortably upper middle class before the credit crash. They were able to enter into agreements in good faith based on their income. There was no reason to believe they would not be able to fulfill their commitments. Their only reason for defaulting on their contracts was an unforeseen disaster that they had no way of predicting. It is telling that many of them, in their new circumstances, cannot even afford to retain lawyers to fight the lawsuit.

It is also important to remember that we are not talking about genuine losses. The Redskins (through the subsidiary that owns the stadium, Wfi Stadium Inc.) have already pocketed the money from all tickets already purchased. They are not suing for money they have lost. They are suing for money they now will not earn because of the change of economic circumstances. This appears straightforward at first glance, they want to make sure the contract is honored.

The problem is, by not selling those season tickets at the discount rate, they now have the ability to sell those season tickets at full price or to sell the individual seats per game at a far higher rate than the seats would have fetched reserved for season ticket holders. So they stand to make more money by voiding the agreements than they stand to lose. They will certainly sell the tickets, regardless of the awards they receive in court, if the defendants cannot pay the judgments. Football games routinely sell out, which means the freeing up of new seats allows them to sell tickets in situations where they would not normally be able to sell them. At, I must repeat, full price. Which means they stand to make more money than they lose and anything they do collect from the people they are suing is simply gravy.

Contract law is on the Redskins' side, most likely. I am not a contract lawyer, but it would appear to me that a binding agreement would have to favor the Redskins in this case. However, there is clearly no breach of good faith here and it is only right to void the contracts and keep what's already been paid while the fans go without their tickets. No harm, no foul for either side. Especially with the increased revenue from the freedom to sell those season tickets at a higher price or to sell individual seats on a per game basis at a much greater total profit.

More importantly, however, is the fact that this lawsuit threatens the Redskins' brand. By suing their fans, the team risks undermining their credibility with the consumers on whom their business depends. Releasing the fans from their contracts does not harm the team and enahances their brand as 'fan friendly.' Suing their fans presents a completely different picture. One can tick down the history of professional sports to find owners who have lost a great deal of money or been forced to sell their teams because of the damage done to the brand by their business decisions. It's not hard at all.

This is merely an example of a problem widespread throughout American corporate culture. The American corporation frequently fails to understand its best interests vis a vis the best interests of its customers. It views its relationship with consumers as written in stone and does not consider how its actions might affect its relationship with those consumers. The myths of supply side economics allow one to believe that advertising dollars will magically replace every customer lost. The problem is that advertising costs money and the increased marketing and PR budget necessary to offset customer loss raises the price of the product... thus it risks making the product more difficult for consumers to purchase and losing even more of its market share. This cycle is self-repeating. The more customers are lost, the more advertising is necessary, and the more the added expense of advertising increased product price the more consumers are priced out of the market.

This is basic economics and, if the world really worked the way the advocates of the 'free market' claim that it works, corporations would not fall into this trap. The American auto industry is an excellent example they they do. The Washington Redskins are setting themselves up as the next General Motors.

Perhaps they should simply show some sense now, take the money and run, and avoid the cycle before it starts.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Spam/Commerical Comment Policy

I've not had much of a problem with this, primarily because of the low traffic here, but today I had to delete a comment from my most recent posting because it was simply and only spam.

My content policy is clearly placed on the left hand side of this screen. It specifically notes that commercial announcements and spam are going to be deleted. If you are trying to generate hits for a website via spam links, it won't do any good to post them here. I'll just take them down.

I have a free speech policy on topical debate. If you disagree with me, swear, throw around racial or religious epithets, or attack my positions or character great. Just make sure it's topical. Anything someone says in a comment, in my view, reflects on them. I denounce objectionable statements rather than simply deleting them.

But I'm not going to leave spam links on my blog. Sorry.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Economics of Health Care: Bank Bailouts, Insurance Bailouts, and Health Care Reform

In an article written last night, Arianna Huffington made an interesting attempt to conflate the bank bailout with health care reform and advance the idea that President Obama's handling of the former has created opposition to the latter. I'm a fan of Arianna Huffington, and I enjoy her writing (when reads her facility with the English language in print one entirely forgets her 'deer in the headlight' traffic accident guest hosting the Rachel Maddow Show) very much. However, I am afraid that she is more comfortable criticizing than analyzing and more practiced in finding fault and making complaint than she is in serious political policy or theory. I tend to view her as an excellent political critic, but not always the best political analyst.

Here analysis in this piece strikes me as wanting. Her thesis is that President Obama's handling of the bank bailout is at least partly responsible for public opposition to health care reform. It is true that the bank bailout is deserving of criticism. Rather than bail-out small banks, the government bailed out the biggest banking concerns (in some cases mandating or bank-rolling mergers) and the result was that the banking cartel is smaller and more powerful than it was before the credit crunch. Ms. Huffington is correct to note this, but is not entirely correct to blame it on President Obama in its entirety. While many of the executions of policy went into action while he was President and he did argue for a bail out as a senator and presidential candidate (and thus is certainly not absolved entirely of responsibility for the bailout either), TARP was passed on President Bush's watch in response to the aggressive lobbying of President Bush's Secretary of the Treasury. TARP is a Bush administration bill and it can be argued that Senator Obama and other leading Democrats in both houses of Congress were responsible for inserting the few redeeming features the bill contains.

I should note, in the interest of full disclosure, that I am not philosophically or ideologically opposed to bank bailouts. Other socialists, such as Senator Bernie Sanders (I - Vermont), are. I have a very high regard for the senator and his knowledge and opinions, but I respectfully disagree with him on this issue. I am very much opposed to the ultimate form the bailout took, and to its effect of concentrating control of the financial market into an even smaller cartel of big banking concerns than had controlled it previously. I would have rather seen some of the worst offenders forcibly turned over to the control of their stockholders as credit unions, with the bank executives kicked to the curb, and then the bailout money given to the new credit unions (and to the remaining banks with significant strings attached.) Dwelling on my preferences overlong, however, is sort of useless. What is done is done.

I don't think any of this really has much to do with opposition to health care reform. Why not? Well, the very same people most opposed to the 'way President Obama handled the bank bailout' fall into two categories:

1.) Hardline paleoconservatives and libertarians who view any government intervention in economic and business matters as absolutely verboten.

2.) Equally hardline populists, New Dealers, radicals, and socialists (four widely disparate groups who do not always have anything else in common but a few basic areas of economic agreement) who view banks and corporations as 'the enemy' and thus believe government's job is to 'keep them in line' so they don't screw up rather than to bail them out when they do screw up.

The first category includes all the Republicans opposed to TARP when Bush was president (among others), and the latter category includes people like me as well as genuine lefty Democrats like Dennis Kucinich. However, regardless of whether these people fall into category 1 or 2, they will have ideological reactions to health care reform entirely unrelated to their opinions on the bank bailout. Indeed, their ideological reactions to health care reform are far too strong for the bailout to affect them either way.

The people in Category 1 (and some of the populists in Category 2) will be opposed to health care reform because it is health care reform. They will be against it on principle. There would be no way to make them support it, because they are opposed to the very idea on basic ideological principle. Blaming their reaction to health care reform on the bank bailout would be like blaming a hurricane on Microsoft. It's simply entirely ridiculous. Category 1 and those members of Category 2 who think like them on 'welfare' and 'entitlements' will simply always oppose health care reform. Period. They may say (as Roy Blount did) that they have no intention of offering any ideas at all, or the may say (as Judd Gregg and John McCain did) that they have an idea for 'reform' that merely makes the biggest problems with our current system worse. Either way, they will oppose real reform of the health care market designed to give access to health care to more Americans because doing so would raise their taxes. As it will.

The people in Category 2 (save some of the populists mentioned previously) are going to be four-square in favor of health care reform for the exact same reasons they are pissed off about the bank bailout. They are pissed off about the health insurance industry, as they have every reason and right to be. They want to see meaningful health care reform pass, and they want to see it pass fast. Some of them have wanted health care reform since the 1930s, some since the 1960s, and some since the 1970s or 1990s... but they have all wanted meaningful health care reform to pass for at least 15 years. They aren't going to oppose health care reform now because of the bank bailout.

Indeed, the people involved in the health care debate who may have been most influenced by the bank bailout are Democrats in both houses of Congress. While there is no discussion of direct handouts of easy cash to the health care industry yet, certain aspects of both HR 3200 and the bill the Senate Finance Committee is currently mangling (most notably the individual mandate that those not otherwise covered purchase private insurance) have the tone of an insurance industry bailout.

It is this fact, combined with poor media parsing of presidential comments on the subject, that have contributed to the large degree of ambivalence toward health care reform among the general population that widely favored it before the debate began and the increasing hostility toward the particular ideas being advanced by those most strongly supportive of reform in principle. The addition of virulently divisive Republican propaganda does not help, but I believe the majority of the individuals cooling on health care are doing so less because of Republican propaganda (which is primarily believed by those receptive to it, which is to say those opposed to health care reform) than because of the haphazard and mismanaged way in which Democrats are handling the reform ball and the media coverage of same. To be fair, however, the media also deserves a great deal of criticism for the manner in which they are handling the current Republican propaganda barrage. Can you imagine how history would have gone if the media had covered Republican opposition to Medicare in the same kind of irresponsibly serious manner in which they are handling the Republican claims about the extremely moderate bills Democrats are tossing around now? Not to refute such lies whenever mentioning them is to give those lies credence in order to maintain an appearance of neutrality in politics. That is an egregious violation of journalistic ethics.

'Opposition' to health care as it stands now is currently lumped into three groups:

A.) Those members of Category 1 in our previous breakdown, plus some populists with similar views on 'entitlements', who are ideologically opposed to serious health care reform. Period.

B.) The members of Category 2 in our previous breakdown who are having difficulty accepting the reform ideas on the table as 'serious', question the White House commitment to serious reform, or both.

C.) Those people who (because of the ineffective salesmanship of liberal Democrats, the ridiculous shilly-shallying of moderate Democrats, the propaganda of Republican opponents of reform, and the incompetent coverage of the debate by the mainstrea media) do not have a genuine grasp of the issue. Some of these people are truly 'opposed' to health care reform because of misconceptions they have drawn from the smoke and mirrors surrounding the debate. Most, however, have gone from strongly supporting health care to being deeply ambivalent about health care because not enough of a concerted effort has been made by anyone (either the reformers or the media) to educate them about the factual details therein. A few others have misconception of the entire issue for a variety of reasons.

Group A and Group C include some people who likely cannot be won over at all. This is most all of Group A, though there are some populists who could possibly be won over with a strong and honest indictment of the health insurance industry. Most of Group C should be amenable to direct, honest, forceful, passionate arguments on behalf of health care reform by advocates who believe strongly in it. The exceptions are fools with such a desperate miscomprehension of our health care system that they believe making insurance companies pay for doctors educating Americans to eat bran flakes will lower health care costs so much that insurance premiums will fall and universal coverage will just happen. Even they, however, might be reached if someone could actually educate them on the realities of our health care system.

Group B might be harder to win over with the bills currently on the table, but a strong commitment to meaningful reform and a serious ear turned to their concerns... and a little bit of input into the legislative process for them would not hurt... and I believe the White House would see a lot of positive response. The biggest complaint from the single payer and national health service advocates on the left is not that they are not getting their way, but they have been left out of the equation entirely and their views unsolicited. Even if Congress ultimately decides upon an individual mandate, the single-payer and nation health service advocates have a great deal of valuable input about the economic facts of health care which need to be considered in serious reform proposals. The right dismisses proven economic practice in favor of economic theory that is best described as a religious cult and the center is dangerously close to wading into that same water on the issue of health care. The real economics on this issue are on the left and the real economics are necessary to the debate even if the solutions of the left are not adopted at this point in time.

Of course, the same sincere expression of serious commitment that could close the sale with Group B would also succeed in educating many in Group C. The putative excuse for excluding Group B, winning over at least some part of Group A, is useless. To win this fight, all the advocates of serious health reform must be brought on board and then they should work together to inform the uninformed and educate the uneducated. Most people who don't know what's going on or what it is all about want to know. Badly. Their lack of knowledge is the reason for their ambivalence.