Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Health Care Reform Debate In Perspective

As everyone paying attention has seen, I've done a lot of writing about health care. A lot of it has been in much the same vein as every other liberal-to-socialist blogger on the blogosphere: criticism and polemic on the debate itself. As I've noted before, there's a lack of excellent writing on the substance of the debate. I've decided to try to address the substance again, partially because new readers who find me 'more liberal than radical' may not have seen my earlier commentary on the substance of the debate and partially because I'm still not terribly satisfied with the final form health care reform is taking despite my pleasure that it looks like some basic problems will be addressed.

First and foremost is the substance of the reform actually being discussed in Congress. The right-wing advocates of market reform and the left-wing advocates of national health care policy have both been excluded from the debate. As I (and others) have said before, what is being debated in Congress now is insurance reform. Insurance reform is better than no reform at all. It certainly addresses the real problems of health care in America better than market reform as advocated by the right.

Those problems, which I have also written about before, are basically three-fold:

1.) High consumer costs generated by the inefficient pooling of costs in multiple payment pools. This means multiple partially funded systems of payment and no single fully-funded pool of shared costs. This is entirely opposite to the principle of shared cost. Whereas other insurance can survive this way because it covers against the unexpected, everyone will need medical care at some point in their lives. Thus the inefficiency of the cost-sharing method has a mushroom effect on consumer costs. When one adds to this the cut the insurance companies must take from the consumer to make a profit it only gets higher. So while medical costs really do rise as technology changes, the consumer costs created by our insurance system are the biggest cost problem.

2.) Access to proper care is restricted in a variety of ways. The uninsured frequently forego all but the most urgent care (which is much more expensive) for financial reasons. Insurance companies frequently make their customers jump through hoops to make full use of their benefits, or deny payment entirely if it suits them to do so. Medicaid is difficult to receive (indeed, many of the people who need it are ineligible because of the family requirements) and offers inferior service. Medicare and the Veterans Administration only serve specialized portions of the economy. Thus many people cannot afford to see a doctor, believe they cannot afford to see a doctor, or choose not to see a doctor because they prioritize other financial needs before medical care. Even when one has coverage, there is no guarantee the insurance company will provide full access to necessary care under the current system.

3.) The current health care system puts a tremendous burden on American business. The majority of people with insurance who are not covered by Medicare or Medicaid receive health insurance benefits through their workplace. This infringes their economic freedoms (because their benefits tie them to their job) and it also shifts much of the cost of health care onto the business sector as a de facto tax burden. This latter aspect is worth taking into account among the many problems with American economic policy. I'm no friend of corporate culture, as anyone who reads my stuff knows, but forcing the corporate sector to underwrite what most of the world considers a national issue and a government responsibility is... of questionable capitalist virtue.

The current health care reform proposals in Congress primarily address problem #2. They would require insurance companies to open access to more care to their customers and restrict them from simply dropping their customers or refusing to pay for a variety of reasons. This is a huge improvement not to be ignored. However, it is key to remember that the first and third problems with our current system are only addressed tangentially if at all.

The focus on costs is on medical costs, not consumer costs. While medical costs are a real issue, they are secondary. A better system for paying consumer costs would lower them dramatically without the need to focus on medical costs that can probably not be cut to the degree believed by the advocates of insurance reform. The creation of a competitive, national insurance exchange will probably lower consumer costs somewhat... but it is difficult to say how much and it is possible it won't have a real impact because of the increased standards of quality may keep consumer costs higher than desired. A competitive, robust public option might help to drive costs down somewhat... but it is again very difficult to say how much this will help the guy who already can't afford to buy private insurance.

The economic problem is ignored entirely. First (and perhaps worst) it is assumed that everyone with employer-paid insurance is happy with their coverage and that there is no need for reform of this market. My partner's experiences following surgery have shown, to me, the facts are very different. Employer-paid insurance is in much the same state as private insurance, whether the premiums are lower or not. The public option, as it stands now, would not be available to anyone receiving employer-paid insurance.

In addition, liberals appear to believe that corporations can and should foot the bill instead of government. They advocate increasing employer's responsibility to provide insurance to their employees and punitively taxing those who do not. This may serve the needs of PayGo, but it is aggravating rather than solving problem #3.

None of this is intended to suggest that the insurance reform being discussed in Congress is not better than our current situation. It is. Nor is it meant to rally opposition to said insurance reform. If nothing else can pass, insurance reform needs to pass.

It is meant to put the problem in its proper context and to instill an understanding that this reform is not the 'end' of health care reform. It is a first, shaky step in the right direction. The issues of consumer costs and economic burden will remain to be addressed, and the left must not forget that. We must continue to raise and address these issues to affect future policy debate as much as possible.

To put it more simply, we need massive reform and even the 'liberals' in Congress are not approaching the problem from a sufficiently radical direction. We should support them, but we should keep pushing in the wake of their success.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wall Street Journal Admits Support For Public Option Growing

Yes, that's right.

Citing their own poll, carried out jointly with NBC news, they note that support for a public health insurance plan is up to 48% from 43% during the astroturf attack on town-hall meetings.

I usually don't post a lot of polling data here, but I think this is illustrative. It suggests that conservative opposition to the public option (and health care reform in general) is starting to become counterproductive. While the Journal still claims that Americans are opposed to 'his health-care plan' (meaning President Obama's) 42%-38%, these numbers are far less important than the growing support for the public option.

Naturally, the Republicans don't think so. Per a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY):

Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), said positive movement in favor of the public option is "meaningless" if Americans remain opposed to the broader legislation.

"They can talk about momentum all they want. The momentum is in the Senate Democratic cloakroom. It's not in Topeka, and it's not in Arcadia, Fla.," Mr. Stewart said, referring to the town Mr. Obama was visiting Tuesday.

While this is the kind of argument that is required from a political operative under the current circumstances, it is simply wrong. The reason for this is simple: 'his health-care plan' does not exist. There is no White House bill for those polled to approve or reject. Thus one must assume that opposition to 'his health-care plan' is really disapproval of the plans in Congress now. The plan receiving the most play in the media is the Senate Finance Committee bill. As quite a few writers have said, this is a bad bill. It falls well short of the 'liberal' goals of health care reform and its sops to conservatives are not sufficient to induce the right to support the very idea of health care reform. So it's only natural this bill would not have a very high approval rate the polls. Indeed, as the growth of support for the public plan shows, it is very likely the lack of a public plan in the Finance Committee bill is the reason for significant portion of public opposition to it.

Growing support for the public option means growing support for real health care reform of the kind not provided in the Finance Committee bill as currently written. Plenty of polls, from a plethora of sources, have shown strong support for robust health care reform. Those who do want robust reform will naturally be skeptical of too much moderation in the pursuit of virtue.

The Republican establishment has shot their wad on health care and they know it. While they have successfully created a climate of fear and uncertainty, which is something they do very well, this time it is not going to work to their benefit. It worked in 2004 because it was possible to portray President Bush as a folksy, comforting figure and as a tough guy who would protect the nation. Thus, despite his myriad flaws and incompetencies, they were able to offer fear in one hand and comfort in the other. The problem now is that the Republicans have no leaders to make Americans feel safe about the economy or health care. They can scare Americans about President Obama's reform efforts, but they have nothing to offer to comfort and reassure American voters in its place.

The fact is that, regardless of how the right attempts to portray polling data, Americans want to see the mess the health care industry has become cleaned up. They want to know they can see a doctor if they are hurt or fall ill, they want to know they can do it without going bankrupt, and the current situation is that they do not know either of those things. Republicans can talk about how great American health care is all they want. People who are being sued by their hospital know the real situation.

People do not think they understand HR 3200 or the Finance Committee bill and so they have a hard time supporting them. They understand, or think they understand, the public option and so they can get behind it. As support for the public option grows, it won't matter what Americans think of 'his health-care plan.' Support for the public option means support for robust health care reform and that means the Republicans have lost. Filibusters and bravado may stop legislation, but they won't help the Republican Party. As time goes on and the support for a public option continues to rise, even those who intend to vote against the bill will not want to be seen blocking it from reaching the floor.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Human Resources: The cult of management and why fixing the economy is not enough.

From a Privates Committee during the elections for delegates to the Pennsylvania State Constitutional Convention, quoted in A People's History of The United States (by Howard Zinn):

"An enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common happiness, of mankind; and therefore every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property."

Clearly, not all of revolutionary America was so unflinchingly capitalist as modern conservative authors would like us to believe. One can witness impulses toward socialism not only in the quote above, but also in the writings of Thomas Paine and in the class warfare of pre-revolutionary Boston. For the latter, Founding Father James Otis in 1762:

"I am forced to get my living by the labour of my hand; and the sweat of my brow, as most of you are and obliged to go thro' good report and evil report, for bitter bread, earned under the frowns of some who have no natural or divine right to be above me, and entirely owe their grandeur and honor to grinding the faces of the poor.. .."

Otis, of course, was defending the rights of the young professional and entrepreneurial class against the entrenched power of landed gentry. His words could serve equally as well today, however, as the indictment of that very professional class by the working class. Class prejudice and class struggle have changed very little since 1762 or 1776 even as many other facts of everyday life have become entirely different. The elite of the professional class look down on the middle and lower echelons of their own profession with the same frosty superiority in Scrooge's eyes when he looked down on Bob Cratchit. That hasn't changed since Dickens' time, even though Bob Cratchit V is better paid these days and Ebenezer Scrooge IV probably gives more money to charity. Yet even Bob is able to look down on the old lady who fries his morning breakfast or the kid taking his money at the register.

One of the most fundamental and least attractive facets of human nature is the need to look down on someone else as inferior in order to feel that we ourselves are superior. This hasn't changed as society has grown more technically advanced, it's merely taken new and stranger forms. Yet it also takes forms that would be very recognizable to the Pennsylvania Privates Committee of 1776, not new or strange at all.

One of those that I am most certain would be quickly understood is the concept of 'human resources.' This is the practice of treating those who work for a company as corporate assets rather than as individual human beings. This concept was pioneered during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, as the first great American corporate powers were expanding too fast and too greatly for the classic negotiation between entrepreneur and employee. They turned to the ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the pioneer of 'managed efficiency' and the inventor of the modern concept of 'scientific management.'

Taylor was not a sociologist but an engineer, and his approach to business was that of an engineer to a machine. Believing that there was 'one best way' to do everything and certain that all one had to do was find that way and then systematize it, Taylor developed four rules from which to run his system. For the purposes of our discussion, the fourth rule is the most important.

4. Divide work nearly equally between managers and workers, so that the managers apply scientific management principles to planning the work and the workers actually perform the tasks.

This was the birth of our modern concept of management and the beginning of the development of the modern concept of human resources as well. Since management was a science, the manager had to be right in their projections and any failure to meet those projections was obviously the fault of the workers. Where supervisors and managers had previously been drawn from the ranks of skilled workers who were promoted for their skills, everything changed. Now it was the understanding of the principles of scientific management that mattered and the manager only needed a broad understanding of the work to be done and not a detailed knowledge of the work itself. Since management was a science, the manager had to be right in their projections and any failure to meet those projections was obviously the fault of the workers.

This was not, strictly, Taylor's intent. It must be noted that his (utopian and probably unrealistic) goal was a partnership between management and labor designed to improve working conditions as much as productivity. The problem was human nature. The human need to feel superior, thus to see others as inferior, is just too powerful to be ignored. When one is responsible for planning and supervising and someone else is responsible for actually doing the work then one is going to feel important and powerful. One will then seek to exercise that power in a myriad collection of petty tyrannies in order to feed that feeling. A modern sociologist would have pointed this out to Taylor immediately, but the social sciences were still in their infancy in Taylor's day.

The results of the application of scientific management is that there are two separate professional classes today. The productive professional class (lawyers, doctors, accountants, salesmen, architects, designers, etc) who actually do something and the managerial class who take credit for a job when it is done. Whereas managers were once intimately acquainted with every aspect of the work being done because of their personal experience in the field, they are increasingly specialists in management without a detailed understanding of the actual work. This means that they are not necessarily truly qualified for their positions, they are simply applying formulae they are taught to believe work. 'Scientific management' has become religious management.

In many ways, it is a cult. Its members are indoctrinated with revealed truth and then warned of the risks of deviating from that truth. When facts or reality collide with the 'truth' they have been taught, their faith denies the real in favor of the 'true.'

Which brings us back to the issue of 'human resources.' Systems do not deal with people, they deal with components. Workers (and even many professionals) become parts in the corporate machine. Managers are charged with operating that machinery. Like many specialized technicians, they are so confident in their own ability that any failure is the fault of inferior tools. Therefore, a suspecialty of technicians is created to put the components of the machine together and make sure that they are functioning properly. The very nature of their job requires a combination of detatchment and understanding that is very nearly impossible to balance. Since it is easier to do the job by being too detatched than by being too understanding, the imbalance rarely works in the favor of the employees of a company.

This is so alien to the spirt of Enlightenment that you may ask why I believe the Pennsylvania Privates Committee of 1776 would recognize such a thing. Well, it was quite common in 17th and 18th century America. It simply was called by a different name.

Perhaps you think that, by comparing the modern attitude of corporate management to corporate employees to slavery, I am being so sensationalistic that this piece is unworthy of being taken seriously at all. Certainly today's workers are enjoying conditions far better than the slaves of antebellum America. Perhaps you believe that the contractual agreement between employer and employee gives employers the right to ask certain sacrifices from employees. I would not totally disagree with that.

The problem is that one cannot have a valid contract with a machine component. One cannot systematize contracts so that everyone is treated precisely the same according to a strict pattern; that is antithetical to the very concept of negotiation and of the contractual relationship. Nor can a one-sided agreement that places the employee at the employer's absolute whim until they choose to quit but offers no restriction on those whims be truly called a 'contract.' This is particularly true if one party can void the contract 'at will' but the other can only do so without penalty when specific conditions are met.

When employees are 'resources' and not human beings, then employers feel the entitlement of ownership. While there are practical questions that certainly make some infringement on the personal sphere of employees necessary, while they are working, there is also a moral line to be drawn between the genuine interests of the business and the infringement of basic human dignity for the bottom line.

As long as this does not change, then it really does not make a huge difference whether we are in recession or enjoying tremendous economic growth. Some people will enjoy vastly more of the American freedoms we take for granted than others. Those people will bear the bulk of the responsibility for the mistakes and failures of American society while the cogs in the machines they operate will bear the bulk of the burden of the consequences of those failures.

The people most responsible for economic downturn will bear the least risk of it actually harming them. As our own recent economic experience has shown.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Fox News for President?

With so much being said on the left and the right about the hostility between Fox News and the White House, it is perhaps only natural that some on the right are pushing for Fox News architect and Fox Studios boss Roger Ailes to run for president. Nor would the notion of a corporate CEO heading up the GOP ticket be entirely at odds with the neoconservative movement's 'government of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations' philosophy of economics and policy.

Leaving Fox News, and Ailes himself, aside for the moment it is still an item of trivia emblematic of our times. This year has seen corporate entities collude to block major labor reform, judges plead guilty to criminal charges related to judicial misconduct on behalf of private prison corporations, and military contractors bring massive pressure to bear on legislators to prevent the government from ceasing to grant contracts to corporations that cover up incidences of alleged rape. These are just three incidents of the most egregious corporate encroachment upon the public sphere. It doesn't take the little things that happen every day into account. When corporations have a such a deeply entitled sense of their ownership of the United States of America, the idea that a corporate CEO should run for president as the standard bearer of the corporate party is almost obvious.

Then throw Fox News back into the picture. The network has a documented history of misrepresenting the news in order to beat a neoconservative political drum. They have been conducting a non-stop offensive against Barack Obama since before he was even the official Democratic nominee. It has only intensified since he was actually elected. Combine this with the culture of corporate entitlement choking the oxygen from the collective brain of the Republican Party and the neoconservative establishment and the notion that the CEO of Fox would be an obvious presidential candidate becomes even more obvious.

Finally, there is Ailes himself. Before going into the media business during the Clinton presidency, Ailes was a political gunslinger for the Republican Party. He worked the 1984 and 1988 election campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. So he is not stranger to Republican presidential politics.

Ailes is a logical 'anti-Obama' candidate. The conditions are as primed for such an outside-the-box nomination now as they were when Wendell Wilkie captured the Republican nomination to campaign on behalf of corporations against 'socialism' during the Depression and New Deal. Ailes might not have Wilkie's corporate baggage in the way a bank CEO might; Wilkie was immediately tagged by many Americans as the kind of 'practical' businessman who had let the crash of 1929 happen. Ailes, a professional political propagandist, is likely free of that taint.

Despite the tone of some of the sources for the Politico article linked in the first paragraph, I'm not so sure this is a done thing. Professional propagandists don't always like to take the stage and make targets of themselves. Fox has a laundry list of dishonesties and bad associations with which Ailes could be tagged and I'm not sure he wants to expose himself to that. It might be interesting to see him run, however, just to see whether any of the other potential nominees would be interested in taking Fox on in hopes of winning.

That is probably the reason Ailes won't run. As long as Fox remains the media arm of the Republican Party, the GOP's presidential hopefuls will court it for their benefit. If it looks like Fox wants to take control of the Republican Party, all those who might want that control for themselves might suddenly become crusaders for ethical journalism. This could not only threaten Ailes' candidacy, but also threaten the monolithic power of Fox to make opinion and influence other conservative media and the larger conservative message.

Then we might wish to take the toxic corporate culture of our era into mind: A man like Roger Ailes almost certainly feels that, as a CEO, he is more powerful than any president and the job would only be a demotion.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rapacious Capitalists in Defense of Rape: Why defense contractors want to protect their employees' right to rape one another

Whenever I have had the opportunity, I have always tried hard to draw attention to the inherent abuses inseparable from the current relationship between American business and American government. Well, the opportunity has presented itself once again. They've presented us a with a classic 'good news/bad news' scenario.

First, the good news:

Senator Al Franken (D - MN) added an amendment to a comprehensive defense appropriations bill that would prohibit defense contractors who proactively prevented employees raped by other employees from suing the corporation from receiving defense contracts. This is another bit of proof (the first being Franken's excellent bill to provide disabled veterans with service dogs, co-sponsored with Sen. Johnny Isakson ) that Franken is shaping up to be a very good senator who offers his constituents and the nation more than just another Democrat in the majority. With all due respect to Stuart Smalley, Franken is a much better political thinker, satirist and policy wonk than he is a mainstream comic. Since a gift for acid barbed satire can only lead to a better attitude from which to approach Washington D.C, the Senate is where he almost certainly belongs.

The bad news:

Apparently, major defense contractors do not believe that strong-arming their employees into not bringing suit against them for on-the-job rape by co-workers or superiors is an inappropriate corporate policy. So they are attempting to strong-arm Congress into dropping or weaking the amendment. Does it say more about them or about me that I am not terribly surprised? While I admit to a certain level of misanthropic cynicism about life in general, specifically when it regards corporate activity, I admit it could be the latter... but in this case I really think it says more about them.

Thirty Republicans in the Senate voted against including this amendment in the bill at all and it is very important for everyone suggesting that the GOP is somehow stronger on feminism than liberals to keep that in mind.

However, the Republicans who voted against the amendment (and lost) are less important than corporate pressure and one Democratic senator.

As noted in the link above, the primary target of corporate pressure to weaken or remove the amendment from the bill is Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. He has received a fair amount of money from defense contractors and may be amenable to said pressure. If he is, and if he folds under said pressure and weakens or eliminates the amendment, he will be far more culpable an accessory to violent crime than any of the Republicans who voted against the amendment when it was offered. He will not only be joining them in becoming an accessory after the fact, but he will be betraying one of the most liberal constituencies in the nation for campaign donations.

The real point of this, however, is not how the Republicans are so in thrall to corporate power that they vote against denying business to companies that force rape victims to forfeit their legal rights. Nor is it that a Democratic senator from a 'liberal' state may be no better when the rubber hits the road. The real point is the question of what kind of corporation would pressure lawmakers to prevent an amendment being passed to deny business to corporations that effectively condone rape and make themselves accessories after the fact. What kind of corporation is so obsessed with protecting itself from 'liability' that it would feel the need to 'protect' itself by the means this amendment would deny companies defense contracts for using?

The fact that we have to ask these questions is the answer to them. American corporate culture is so obsessed with liability, so determined to defend the bottom line, that questions of decency and morality are meaningless in the face of money. More importantly, this is precisely what the corporate apologists on the right are telling us is moral and proper. The economic priveleges and powers of corporations are inherently of more value than the rights and basic dignity of their employees. This is volia at its most glaringly honest.

I have somewhat more faith that the amendment will not be either excised or emasculated despite the pressures of defense contractors and the rumors out of Washington. I prefer to think better of Senator Inouye until he proves me wrong. If and when that happens, he will have proven himself to be every bit as bad as the rapists who created the issue themselves.

I don't think that is a radical statement at all.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Who was trying to gut Medicare, again?

The number one insurance industry scare tactic related to health care reform as always been the threat that the government will ration your health care access if any sort of federal health care reform passes. The most recent Republican rallying cry against health care reform has been the notion that Democrats are going to cut Medicare. This trope has been kicking around right wing circles for sometime despite the fact that the only plan that would actually cut or ration Medicare services is a Republican plan whose own sponsor has now abandoned it. Yet the trope has gained a lot of traction in a lot of circles because of the skill of the right wing spin machine in exploiting basic human fears.

All this propaganda aside, Democrats recently tried to pass a bill (originally co-sponsored Republican Senator John Kyl of Arizona) to fix the deeply flawed system which Medicare uses to determine payment to physicians. Congress has, for several years now, been ignoring the system of payment with a series of delaying actions to keep the full damage from being done to the Medicare system. This has allowed 'fiscal conservatives' to claim that money is being saved when, in actuality, the system designed to reduce costs is not being implemented in order to prevent turning Medicare into the same kind of health care ghetto as Medicaid. This is a financial shell game that the Democratic leadership and the White House attempted to bring to and end by simply making the system actually in use the legal system of compensation.

Republicans were having none of that. All but one Senate Republican (Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse) voted against cloture, allowing the anti-reform crowd to filibuster the bill if they wish to do so. Eleven Democratic Senators , unfortunately, joined in them in blocking the bill. The fact that Virginia's two Democratic Senators Mark Warner and Jim Webb joined Tennessee's Republican clowns Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker in opposition to the bill was especially galling. I had thought much better of both men. Original co-sponsor John Kyl (see the Malkin link below) voted against cloture and even denied co-sponsoring the bill.

Michelle Malkin, always ready with something nasty to say in such situations, crowed at the failure of 'Obamacare's bribe to doctors.' I understand the GOP's commitment to the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility, but in this case true fiscal responsibility would be to tell the truth to one's selves and the American people about what one is going to spend on health care. A partisan propaganda machine so determined to convince Americans that health care reform is a threat to Medicare and to seniors should probably be supported by a policy machine willing to step up to the plate and do something to secure the stability of medical access for Medicare recipients. When it is not, it shows the truth: the Republican opponents of health care reform are liars who do not care about the cost of human life and economic drain our current system represents. When their actions prove their lies, it is time to stop taking anything they say seriously.

As a brief aside, I should note that there are those who believe the only possible reason the left might have to heap verbal abuse on Michelle Malkin is misogyny. I think it is far more accurate to say that she invites attack upon herself by proving herself to be a lying and unprincipled shill for a morally bankrupt political machine. When one crows about the defeat of a measure intended to clean up a dirty mess, one invites abuse.

Dr. Ron Chusid write a far more incisive analysis of the situation that those offended by Malkin's line of crap should take the time to read.

It should be noted that Republicans alone are not to blame. Democratic Senators Evan Bayh (IN), Robert Byrd (WV), Kent Conrad (ND), Byron Dorgan (NM), Russ Feingold (WI), Herb Kohl (WI), Claire McCaskill (MO), Bill Nelson (FL), Jon Tester (MT), Mark Warner and Jim Webb (VA), Ron Wyden (OR) were joined by Independent caucus-mate Joe Lieberman (CT) in backing the Republicans in this idiotic perpetuation of a corrupt lie. I can only speculate on their reasons. Nelson is the most surprising, as he represents a great many seniors in Florida and was said to be shaky on the Baucus bill because some of its features might look bad to Medicare recipients. So he is willing to vote against properly paying their doctors instead?

More surprising, perhaps, is that Republican-in-Democrat's-clothing Ben Nelson of Nebraska voted in favor of cloture.

Those of you happily polishing your Democratic Party tie tacks should keep this in mind. Not everyone you are voting for is on your side anymore than the Republicans you are voting against. Some of the people choosing to oppose this real fix to a broken payment system were people for whom I had a great deal of respect before seeing the list of votes. Those people have dropped several notches.

All of this goes to show just how deep the tendrils of the insurance companies are sunk into fighting health care reform at all costs. The people claiming to be defending seniors from health care reform stabbed those they claimed to be defending in the back and are crowing about their great accomplishments. Some of those who should have been committed to truly defending seniors from conservative daggers instead helped the right-wingers aim the knives.

What makes my teeth grind the most, however, is Robert Byrd voting against a Medicare fix. I realize he has the full benefits of the Congressional Health Plan at his own disposal, but you would think he'd have a little understanding and compassion for the elderly. All things considered.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Brief Moment of Self-Expression

Thanks to the hat tip from Southern Beale a few days ago, I've been experiencing an increase in traffic lately. If my stat counter is to be believed, a small but significant number of new readers are checking me out. I have some new commentary being offered by people who've never commented before. All of this is great and makes me smile.

Since I have been getting this new attention, I thought I would take the time to blather on about myself and my blog for those who aren't quite sure what's up.

First, a brief autobiographical essay:

I was born in Southern California and grew up in the Greater Los Angeles metroplex. My parents have been registered Republicans all their lives, but don't let this fool you. My father, despite his fiscal conservatism, is very libertarian on social issues and a strong believer in an improved (as opposed to merely expanded) social safety net. My mother is, and always has been, a straight-up liberal Rockefeller Republican. Couple this with the communal and collectivist sociology of the Mennonite Church in which I received my religious education and you can see that it's only natural I ended up on the left, regardless of the political party to which my parents belonged on paper.

Despite where I ended up, as a teen I flirted with conservative and libertarian politics because of my belief in certain elements of common sense economic and constitutional principles. The problem is that those common sense principles, which conservatives and libertarians rhetorically espouse, had nothing to do with actual right-wing politics. As I learned more about economics and political science, I was drawn more and more to the left. I changed my registration to the Democratic Party in my very early twenties and now, like my parents, my party registration is largely on paper; I am significantly to the left of most mainstream Democrats.

It was also in my early twenties that I met my partner, whom I love very much. For reasons of economics, we moved from California to East Tennessee and I now live in the Tri-Cities roughly half-way between Kingsport and Bristol. In Tennessee, we have had our own experiences with poverty before our circumstances finally stabilized.

It's a lot easier to describe what I believe and oppose than to fit myself into an easy political niche. I believe in free will and reject any notion of predestination, which immediately separates me from the religious right on pretty much every social and moral issue. We enjoy the freedom of individual conscience as long as we respect the natural rights of our fellow human beings. This puts me at odds with libertarians and economic conservatives whose version of individual liberty is simply a lack of regulation that places no limitation on the rights of those with the money and power to do so to shamelessly violate the rights of others. Real individual freedom is impossible in a social and economic environment in which one's degree of liberty is increased by one's wealth and those with less wealth do not enjoy equality before the law with the rich. I would describe myself as 'libertarian' only so far as I believe in the importance of personal freedom. I do not place particular faith in the natural superiority of the 'free market.'

Indeed, it is the nature of the 'free market' where my real left-wing thinking begins. I have written, in the past, about the nature and varying definitions of freedom. It is a word with many shades and meanings that means different things to different people. When speaking about freedom in the political and economic sense, I find it most useful to abandon English and instead make use of the more clear distinctions between definitions of freedom in Russian.

There are two entirely different words for freedom in Russian and they mean two entirely different things. The first word, which represents the freedom advocated by many on the right wing and among the most active anti-statists, is volia. In English, the literal translation of volia would be less 'freedom' and more 'license.' It is the absolute negative freedom espoused by libertarians, the freedom from outside authority. One can do as one pleases and can only be stopped by force. One has the absolute right to respond with force in the face of such an attempt to restrain one's chosen activities. There are no limits to volia, no responsibility to respect any authority or law. It is the ideal freedom of bandits, buccaneers, corporations, Cossacks, and libertarians.

The are some obvious problems with this concept if one examines it closely. First and foremost, volia is not for everyone. It is a Nietzchean or Orwellian freedom for the favored few; the ubermensch is not bound by the same moral laws as the average man and some animals are more equal than others. This form of freedom is for those with the will and power to make it real and everyone else who tries to exercise it gets ground into the dust. When the right-wing in America talks about 'freedom', 'free markets', or 'individual rights' they mean volia. This is freedom for the 'special' people who 'deserve' it, something else I've written about.

The next time one reads a conservative writer going on about 'liberal elitism' or 'arrogance', I hope they keep all this in mind.

The second Russian word for 'freedom' is 'svoboda.' Where volia is absolute and unlimited in scope, and thus very specifically limited to those able to take it and hold it by force, svoboda is something in which everyone shares. No one person can possess svoboda alone, svoboda is the freedom shared by a social body aware of each other's rights and their own responsibilities to each other. It's the freedom that the Apostles talk about in the Bible, shared by the early Christian communities who practiced their own form of democratic socialism. It is the freedom that the tragic Russian Revolution was intended to bring to Russia and the freedom that we, as Americans, brag about but rarely appreciate or protect.

To put it simply, I am utterly opposed to volia and dedicated to the reality of svoboda and its expansion to include the entire American community. That is what this blog is about.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Energy Policy, Environmental Policy, and National Security

Climate change is a real, ongoing phenomenon and human action has contributed to its aggravation. That is a scientific fact. I want to get that out of the way before I begin to ramble in twelve directions at once. There are real environmental dangers facing the world and it is important that we are able to confront them; either we must find real ways to minimize our impact on our world or we must find real methods of dealing with the consequences of our mucking up the world. No sane or intelligent person should doubt or deny this.

That said, no one really has any idea how to successfully go about this. Not really, not yet. We know the problem but not the solution. This has created the usual dichotomy in such circumstances. On the right hand we have the people who deny, publicly at least, that there even is a problem or say that we can't do anything about it without more information. On the left hand we have the panic driven activists who suggest anything and everything to stave off global catastrophe.

Southern Beale has been writing about 'astroturf' fronts for the oil companies fighting the administration's cap and trade proposals. Her last three pieces (here, here, and here) have all been on the topic of the environment, the oil companies' attempts to create 'grassroots' opposition to the administration in order to protect what they perceive as a threat to their bottom line, and what environmentalists are doing in return. All of this has had me thinking about the issue a great deal. It occurred to me, during my one hour break between my two stretches of work this morning, that I haven't written a really obnoxiously wonkish and geeky policy piece for a little while.

So all the new readers over the last couple days (high guys!) get to suffer through this for the first time. Forgive my malicious laugh.

I am going to start, as I always attempt, with a statement of the real problem in critically realistic terms:

Climate change is happening.

Not my deliberate phrasing. I did not say 'climate change will happen', 'climate change is happening but', or 'we can prevent climate change by' or any other similar phrasing parsed to fit an agenda. This not about the advancement of agendas, this is about the critical appraisal of the reality of the problem.

Climate change is happening. Now. There is no reset button, no miracle cure, no magic whistle. That bird has flown and all that is left in the cage is the guano. Anyone, right or left, who tells you differently is selling something. There may or may not be ways to reduce the affect we continue to have on climate change in order to ameliorate the actual problems it creates or we may have to start planning to respond to those problems now. I am thinking both is the best bet. In other words, if you've been writing about polar bears drowning to get people aware of the melting ice caps, stop now. Start writing about donating to the World Wildlife Fund and creating a Russian/Canadian/American conservation program to save the polar bears. The ice isn't going to magically refreeze because we switch to solar panels tomorrow.

It is not my intention to take a deliberately fatalistic approach to the problem, but the simple fact is that the problem is not 'how to stop global warming.' Climate change is happening and one cannot just stop it or reverse it, human science does not have that power at this point in time.

This is not to say that we should not explore alternative energy. We should, for a wide range of reasons. First and foremost is the fact that while we may not be able to stop or reverse climate change we might be able to affect the degree of damage the process does to the world.

However, green activists need to keep quite a few facts in mind. There is no (and, more importantly, will never be) technology available to support modern civilization with zero impact on the environment. It doesn't work that way. Hybrid car batteries save fossil fuels and reduce air pollution. Their manufacture also creates toxic waste that must be safely disposed of, and the batteries themselves become toxic waste when exhausted. Hydrogen fuel cells are not an energy source, they are merely a means of energy storage and transfer. This means that a hydrogen car runs entirely clean... but the fuel cells must still be manufactured using electricity, gasoline, nuclear power, or some other primary energy source. Which means that there is still an environmental impact. Solar power requires a great deal of space for solar panels, takes a great deal of time to generate energy, and is difficult to easily store/transfer. Wind power is quicker, but it still requires a lot of space and has the same storage transfer problems. Both require technology that produces significant industrial waste. Hydroelectric power is amazing and versatile... but it has a massive environmental impact on watersheds and wildlife.

I think everyone gets my point. We have to either start the Luddite Revolution now, which I think would be awfully silly, or admit to ourselves that we are going to continue to damage our environment no matter how we finally decide to power our civilization. There is no 'green revolution' because nothing we, as humanity, develop will be truly green for at least the next few centuries.

Before the oil companies start donating money to keep my blog going, however, I have even harsher reality for them. The world's oil supply is finite. One can believe or disbelieve in the precise predictions made by specific economists and geophysicists using various models, but the fact remains that oil is not a renewable resource. This means it is absolutely necessary that the world adopt alternative energy models and that the United States adopt a comprehensive energy policy and plan for transition away from oil and coal as the primary energy supply for the economy for reasons entirely economic. Environmental benefits accrued from such a transition are difficult to predict for certain. It is possible that the effects of climate change could be moderated to some degree but impossible to predict that degree.

This all brings me to policy. For all the right wing claims about innovation in the free market, much of 'free market' innovation has been driven by government research grants, government contracts, or both. Television, as we know it, was developed by defense contractors before the military licensed the technology to private corporations and the original developer of commercial television technology for RCA worked on the government project first. Other television pioneers also received grants from either the US or foreign governments for their work. The number of valuable commercial patents that have been sold to private corporations by NASA is staggering.

Yes, all the innovation comes from the free market. Really.

We need a robust program of government grants for alternate energy sources and plastics technologies that do no require crude oil. Period. Natural gas, hydroelectric, solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, everything; we particularly need to finance hydroelectric, geothermal, and fusion research as there is still untapped or undeveloped technology in all these areas. Nuclear fission may be useful and necessary in the short term, as part of a transition away from oil and coal, but it is a dead end because of the expense and difficult of safely disposing of radioactive waste.

The corporate research labs spend their time on what is profitable now or will be profitable when easily perfected. They do not 'waste' time on what might be profitable in twenty years without incentive. They are making too much money one existing technologies to explore new technologies without incentive.

As much as possible, additional grants should be made available to scientists not affiliated with corporate labs in any way. If the government wants to sell the patents later, I suppose that's a price that may have to be paid (though I don't like it), but we need to have scientists who do not serve a corporate agenda working on matters this serious.

More than for any other crisis facing the world, the the energy and environmental crises are directly the fault of corporate profiteering. I don't think it's radical to suggest they might not be as interested in solving them as the rest of us.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Arlen Specter on Health Care

From Think Progess:
Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA), who until late April of this year was a lifelong Republican, castigated his former party this morning on Fox News. Specter ripped the GOP for refusing to be a good-faith negotiator in the health care debate:

'On the Republican side, it’s no, no, no. A party of obstructionism. … You have responsible Republicans who had been in the Senate — like Howard Baker, Bob Dole, or Bill Frist — who say Republicans ought to cooperate. Well, they’re not cooperating.

Specter also indicated he would fight hard for the public option. “I’m not prepared to recede at all. I think the public option is gaining momentum,” he said. “I am not going to step back a bit. I am going to fight for the best public option."

The original story Think Progress blurb (linked above) includes a forty second video of Specter waxing querulous against the GOP. I was rather impressed in one sense. The quoted article included another link to this story. He sounds like an old line New Dealer promising Medicare For All in the Nixon administration when he gets on his ear. It's an amusing change of tenor. When Specter originally changed parties earlier this year he said, "I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture.'' Now he is promising to be a liberal lion on the health care issue.

Naturally there are political issues at stake. Specter represents a state where, by his own calculations when he himself changed parties, 200,000 of his constituents switched from the GOP to the Democratic Party on issues like labor and health care. He had been facing a challenge from a threatening primary challenger as a Republican and his core support base has gradually shifted parties. He is still facing a more liberal Democratic Party challenger this mid-term and so it certainly behooves him to be a strong liberal voice on health care in order to convince his new party that he would serve them better than a new face.

If it means a better health care bill, however, good for Arlen Specter. While I've never been certain I'd vote for him if I lived in Pennsylvania, I've always felt that he was a genuinely independent lawmaker who stood for his constituents over party ideology. Since the interests of many of his constituents are directly related to his new party's ideology on health care, he is likely much more comfortable as a Democrat.

Living in Tennessee, I'm not directly concerned in Specter's continuing political fortunes... but it is terribly difficult not to root for him just to spite the GOP.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

'The Worst Person in the World?' - Certainly one of the worst in Louisiana

I live in the South, specifically the Hillbilly Triangle (the Kentucky-North Carolina-Tennessee-Virginia border, more specifically the Tri-Cities of TN), and I have some awareness of the local cultural attitudes. I read frequent protestations online, from right-wing Southern circles, about how racism is no more prevalent in the South than anywhere else even if one hears more low-class honesty about it in some parts of society. I find this has both true and false elements.

The true elements are pretty basic: people are people and human beings are naturally flawed. The rest of the nation is not magically free from racism. Economic segregation has largely kept urban black and Hispanic populations in their ghettoes despite the civil rights movement. Racial violence turned formerly middle-class black suburbs like Watts into extensions of the ghetto during the civil rights era and its aftermath. The reason that racial violence was such a major problem outside the South in the years following the heyday of the civil rights era is simple: in the absence of legal segregation the federal government never forced the same desegregation on the urban North to the same degree it forced such action in the South. Whether one approves or disapproves of the forcible action to reverse legal segregation or the lack of forcible action to reverse economic segregation, it led to unequal integration of society. Southern society often is more integrated than Northern as a result.

Many people, however, confuse lack of segregation with lack of racism. Economic segregation in the North does not automatically imply more racism anymore than greater forced integration in the South automatically implies less. The fact that integration was forced, in fact, contributes to resentments that create new racists.

I've now gone three paragraphs without leading into my main topic, which is something I've been trying to cut down, but for those of you have have borne with me I'm going to start making my real point: a justice of the peace would not be allowed to continue to deny marriage licenses to interracial couples for two and a half years in California.

I don't know if everyone has read about Keith Bardwell or not. If your home page is or includes a news aggregator, odds are that you have. If you haven't, I'll briefly recap: he is a Louisiana justice-of-the-peace who will likely soon be facing a civil rights charge from the US Justice Department for refusing to grant a marriage license to an interracial couple. If you have, you know the man is pretty despicable and his defense of his actions is pretty lame.

"I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way," Bardwell told the Associated Press on Thursday. "I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else."

Now, I shouldn't have to dissect this for most of my readers. It speaks for itself. I will anyway, because it pisses me off and because I am a pedantic geek even when not pissed off.

Justice-of-the-peace Bardwell is not a racist. He's just an anti-misceganist. Of course, the concept of miscegany is a racist concept itself. Subscribing to belief in the concept and opposing it is racist and there isn't a nice way to say it. A statement like Bardwell's is self-condemnation of not only racism, but also a total failure to understand racism. While it may or may not be a tribute to Bardwell's open-mindedness and racial toleration that he does not have a 'Coloured' toilet installed in his home, it is certainly proof of his ignorance of even simple good manners that he believes we should be impressed with him because of it.

Bardwell is also either less than totally honest or less than totally intelligent when he claims he didn't do anything wrong.

"I've been a justice of the peace for 34 years and I don't think I've mistreated anybody," Bardwell said. "I've made some mistakes, but you have too. I didn't tell this couple they couldn't get married. I just told them I wouldn't do it."

If he had granted a license but not performed the ceremony, this would be correct. The problem is that he refused them a marriage license. Now, someone of strong libertarian leanings can and should be outraged that the US government requires people to pay for licenses to get married. It's also certainly a legitimate (if incorrect, in my view) libertarian argument to say that the justice-of-the-peace is not forced to marry a couple if he disapproves, as long as he grants them the license to get married. However, denying a marriage license is explicitly telling a couple they cannot be married even if Bardwell knows or believes someone else will grant that permission. That's what the license is: permission to get married.

It's hard to decide whether Bardwell is stupid or whether he thinks we are. Either way, there is a real problem.

This is not a partisan issue, thankfully. Republican Governor Bobby Jindal has called for Bardwell's firing. I'm no fan of Governor Jindal's, but he clearly understands racism when he sees it. He is certainly doing the right thing here.

Partisan issue or not, it is certainly an issue that should have Americans angry.

The real problem, however, is not Bardwell himself. Bardwell speculates that for the two and a half years he has been denying interracial couples permission to marry he has denied about four couples' licenses. Only one couple has complained? No one in the clerk's office has question these denials? That says something about racial attitudes in Lousiana that can't totally be ignored or wiped away. If this were an isolated incident, then one could say it said nothing about anyone but Bardwell. It's not. It's happened three times before and went by without comment. That suggests a larger problem.

I don't think it's terribly radical to say that Governor Jindal should be calling for an audit of peace court records in Bardwell's corner of the state and not just Bardwel''s firing.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The New Elitism: Yes, right-wingers think they are better than you.

In a couple of my recent offerings (On Truth and 'Is Conservatism Brain Dead?') I've made mention of 'populism' and 'elitism' in the same phrase. I know that 'populist elitism' sounds like an oxymoron. It is, however, the defining cornerstone of Republican political strategy. It is also the defining cornerstone, specifically, of the motivations of the religious right.

The right has accused the left of 'elitism' for years, generations even. Thomas Jefferson, in many ways the founder of 'neoconservatism', was accusing Alexander Hamilton of seeking to foster an aristocracy before the ink on the constitution was dry. I've drawn attention to the irony of Jefferson's claims on behalf of 'the common man' and his attacks on Hamilton as an 'aristocrat' before and I probably won't ever get tired of it. Jefferson's own deeply ingrained elitism was plain to see in the fact that the straight-forward effect of Jeffersonianism is to protect the entrenched wealth, power, and privelege of the upper classes. The fact that Jefferson himself may have been ignorant of this and genuinely believed himself to be a 'yeoman' is open to debate, much of his writing and policy suggest a naive utopianism that makes this very possible. It does not change the effect of Jeffersonianism on society.

So, as we can see, even the tactic of steeping elitism in populist rhetoric is not new. What is new and interesting is the growing practice, on the religious right, of cultural elitism coloring every aspect of a populist movement. The core facet of this is, of course, an absolute faith in their own moral superiority.

There are those on the right who deny this aspect of the modern conservative movement and who occasionally seek to distance themselves from it. Yet they consistently buy into its key tropes; from the victimization of Sarah Palin to the idea that the words 'Democrat' and 'liberal' are somehow interchangeable because nearly everyone who doesn't accept core conservative dogmas has already been run out of the GOP. There are quite a few Americans who are far from 'liberal' who have gravitated to the Democrats not because of their 'liberalism' but because they don't believe that the ideas espoused by the 'conservative' and 'libertarian' blocs of the GOP are either conservative or libertarian. As a pragmatic democratic socialist and a philosophical anarcho-socialist, I can assure you that the Democratic Party is a very long way from being a 'liberal' party... let alone 'communist.'

The issue is not about 'communism' or even 'liberalism' as much as some right wing crackpots would like you to believe that it is. It is not even about 'secularism', though secularists are naturally going to drift away from religious extremism of any kind. It's about the belief that one American subculture has the right to force its interpretation of religion and morality onto the rest of American society.

With a tiny number of possible exceptions, the majority of the leaders of today's conservative movement (and the Republican Party, either actively or by their association with and defense of the movement) are concerned with one of two objects:

The first is the furthering of this brand of populist elitism and establishing the 'proper' stamp on American moral values. They would establish this by law and thus deprive all those who do not believe as they do of key constitutional rights. One doesn't just have to look at Proposition 8 in California for proof of this. One can look at the activities in school boards and educational associations all over the nation as they seek to 'democratize' the classroom to conform to their moral totalitarianism. As a Christian, I believe their view of religion is incorrect and dangerous. As a believer in American values, I believe their agenda is totally at odds with constitutional government and natural human rights.

The second is the exploitation of the former brand of 'populist' elitism to further genuinely elitist aims. As I mentioned above, aristocrats have been exploiting populism since Jefferson. It is only natural that today's elitists (who are 'managers' rather than 'aristocrats') seek to do the same thing. Many forms of 'individualism' and 'libertarianism', by placing too much faith in the free market and ignoring coercive power other than that of government, naturally further this kind of oligarchy. Indeed, supporting an oligarchic 'managerial' system of government and society through populist rhetoric is an even older tradition than Jefferson. It goes back to the Roman Senate of the Roman Republic. The modern neoconservative movement is more brazen, as they embrace the managerial culture and its bureaucratic elitism in naked and dirty hands.

One of the best examples of this embrace of the cultural, moral, and religious elitism embraced by this populist conservative movement is this: so far, of the various potential, declared, or projected candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 only one has not either expressly committed to a personal belief in literal Biblical creationism or advocated its teaching in schools. The lone holdout, Mitt Romney, has presumably not done so because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (along with the Roman Catholic Church and those other Catholic churches in communion with it and Orthodox Judaism) acknowledges scientific evolution as one of its doctrinal tenets.

The 'elitism' feared by the religious right and many conservatives who have whole-heartedly embraced their tropes is best summed up by someone whose views on religion were at least as wrong as theirs:

“From the naturalistic point of view, all men are equal. There are only two exceptions to this rule of naturalistic equality: geniuses and idiots.” -- Mikhail Bakunin

After all, let's face it. Those on the right who are terrified by science, education, individual freedom of conscience and believe their moral standard should be applied to all Americans of all faiths regardless of their beliefs?

They aren't geniuses.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

This Land Was Made For You and Me: Some thoughts on poverty.

As the sun was shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving, and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting, a voice was saying
(Might have been Woody!)
"This land was made for you and me!"

-- As sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary

Just after Martin Luther King Day I wrote a brief piece about Dr. King, Woody Guthrie, and poverty. I had intended to write a longer piece on poverty, but was sidetracked and instead wrote a very angry piece about the truth of what the Bible says about wealth vs the prevailing right wing political theology of prosperity. I often write with a focus on economics. This makes it very easy to outline the practical aspects of what I am saying but it can obscure the emotion that motivates it. I don't want the fact that I am a pedantic geek to give anyone the idea that I don't care.

As I noted in the original piece, Guthrie wrote during the Depression and his work was filled with a biting anger at the state of poverty in which many Americans found themselves. Guthrie was also angry at the wealthy, whom he felt were so concerned with protecting and increasing their wealth that they made the plight of the poor worse. The fact that many of the poor of the Depression had not been poor before the Depression made him even angrier. The wealthy and the powerful were not only hardening their hearts against the poor but also against their former neighbors and friends. This was not just greed or lack of compassion. This was betrayal.

This not the Great Depression, but it is the worst economic disaster to befall the United States since. Journalists and op/ed writers alike have taken to calling it 'The Great Recession.' The most fundamental difference between Great Recession and Great Depression is in the economic status of the victims. During the 1930s, many wealthy and powerful people were reduced to penurious vagrants because they were the people to whom the stock market catered. The middle and working classes were collateral damage. The poorest Americans were least affected, their circumstances had not been much better before the Depression. Our current economic plight is very different: the middle and working classes have taken the bullet for the wealthy. Many who have not lost their houses or their jobs have seen their retirement benefits reduced to pennies on the dollar because those benefits were invested in the financial markets that took the hit.

Guthrie was angry about something else too. There were poor Americans before the Great Depression and poor Americans after it. Poverty did not go away because the Depression ended. This still has not changed. Poverty was with us before the Great Recession and it will be with us after. Poverty is a problem that needs to be addressed independently from the economy. Simply getting the economy back on track will not make things better for everyone. Robert Reich has noted that economic recovery on Wall Street does not mean things are better for the rest of the country. Even Reich fails to mention that there are many people whose quality of life will not change in a meaningful way even after the economy has made a complete recovery.

Bill Clinton came into office during a recession and left office with the budget in surplus and the economy strong. Yet this made very little difference for many people whose quality of life was made much worse by the gutting of the American social safety net that greatly facilitated those budget surpluses. A strong economy does not buy groceries or pay rent for a family of four in Butler, TN.

'The Great Society' envisioned by Lyndon Johnson included victory in the 'War on Poverty.' One can argue that this was utopian dreaming with no chance of true success if one wishes, but one cannot justify the slow transformation of Johnson's 'War on Poverty' into the modern right wing war on the poor. The poor number the vast majority of the victims of both crime and the criminal justice system that is supposed to protect them from criminals. Access to the full protection of the law and full enjoyment of one's constitutional rights become difficult when one cannot afford a lawyer to defend those rights. There is a whole industry of pawnbrokers, paycheck advance loan offices, and other loan sharks (legal and illegal) who profit from American poverty.

I do not pretend to know the solution to the problem, though there are certainly programs designed to address other problems that would definitely help. Meaningful reform in areas of health care, employment law, education, and criminal justice would go a long way toward helping the poor without bringing back 'The Great Society.'

As a critical realist I know the problem of poverty cannot be completely solved. Laws of economics mean that there will always be poor people. That doesn't mean we should like it and not do the best we can.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Let's Talk About the Nobel Peace Prize Shall We?

Obviously, while I was taking my normal two days off from both my work and the internet, there was some very big news.

Equally obviously, the shocking (I'm not ashamed to use that word, left-wing or not) announcement that the President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize has engendered a bit of discussion. Republican writers have already started to lay into the president on this little 'issue.'

Now, obviously, the President knows that he has not yet accomplished anything worthy of the award and said so himself while expressing himself to be somewhat nonplussed. The simple fact is that the biggest reason he was given the award is that he is not George W. Bush. Europeans feel comfortable with the president again, as they had not when George W. Bush was trying to treat them all like client-states. This makes a huge difference in the deliberations of the Nobel Prize Committee and let's face it, the Nobel Prize has always been awarded on subtle political judgments as much as by plain (and quite subjective) merit. While it is surprising that President Obama received the prize it is not hard to recognize the context in which it happened.

As Ron Chusid quotes quote former Carter administration speechwriter Jerome Doolittle:

1. What do you expect from a bunch of socialists?

2. Not that I’m a racist, but I know affirmative action when I see it.

3. Carter, Gore, Obama? Do we see a pattern here?

4. A clumsy attempt by Europe to save a failing presidency.

5. The Norwegians are just using Obama to slap George W. Bush in the face.

6. Besides, who cares what a bunch of geeks in Oslo think? The International Olympic Committee speaks for the whole world.

7. No thinking person has taken the Nobel Peace Prize seriously since Reagan didn’t win one for ending the Cold War.

8. We elect a president to keep America safe, not to win prizes.

9. True leadership is not an international popularity contest.

10. Peace is no big deal anyway. No, wait a minute. Strike that last one.

Can we take a moment to all admit to each other, in our secret hearts (regardless of whether we are left or right wing and consider the decision legitimate or bogus) that there is probably a significant amount of truth to reason #5 up there? Hrrrrrm?

Let's face it. President George W. Bush is not the most popular American president in European history. There is still a lot of bad blood circulating about him in European circles. There is a joke that posits a punchline in which Sarkoczy tells Putin 'not to pull a Bush.' Is it really that easy to dismiss all suspicion that prevailing European attitudes did not suggest the desirability of a firm rebuke of George W. Bush at the Nobel prizes? I can't do it.

Of course, having accepted the strawman premise offered by reason #5 above, I have to counter with this: does the fact that they would really feel so strongly about President Bush to feel the need to administer such a rebuke mean more about President Obama than it does President Bush? Could European attitudes toward President Bush influence their attitudes toward President Obama so very strongly if there were not some sort of substance to their issues with President Bush? If their issues with President Bush carried real weight, and if President Obama has addressed those issues and their disapproval of Bush thus translated into approval of Obama... would that not speak far more to the negative credit of President Bush than President Obama? Would it not work to his positive credit that he had actually begun to reverse this problem?

If one is to infer that this Nobel prize in some degree constitutes 'a slap in Bush's face' then one must also infer that President Obama has done something to show improvement in the eyes of European consensus. Which would, regardless of its worthiness for a Nobel Prize, be an accomplishment. So one cannot accept that inference as a valid reason without undermining the theory that President Obama is totally unaccomplished or without substance as Republicans would have us believe.

So let's be serious. Of course, President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize is not the most deeply meaningful ever awarded in one sense. It is deeply meaningful, however, in showing just how deeply the strain of American neoconservatism advocated by the Bush-Cheney school of Republican thought has offended Europe and in demonstrating that someone has started to do something about it before it is too late for such an attempt to matter. There is clearly a context that explains everything quite rationally.

I actually think it was a poor choice. If one wishes to discuss a genuinely worthy recipient then how about Virgin's Richard Branson, who has done more than any other Western businessman to attempt to really generate prosperity in the Third World and help those nations to develop their own identities rather than simply slavishly copying the West in every way? That may be a little out of the box (and you thought I hated corporations) but it's certainly based in a clear and legitimate context.

Of course, so was President Obama to the actual Prize Committee.

Who would the Republicans choose in President Obama's place?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

'Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?'

The question above was asked by Steven F. Hayward in this Sunday's Washington Post. Heyward is not a liberal attacking conservatism's philosophical and intellectual foundations but, rather, a conservative bemoaning the lack of intellectual heft among the ideological leadership of the movement. The spirit of Mr. Hayward's article is best summed up in this quote from his last paragraph:

The single largest defect of modern conservatism, in my mind, is its insufficient ability to challenge liberalism at the intellectual level, in particular over the meaning and nature of progress. In response to the left's belief in political solutions for everything, the right must do better than merely invoking "markets" and "liberty."

This is, in somewhat altered words, the very same indictment leveled against today's conservative writers, television and radio pundits, and political leadership by the left. The right is suffering from a drastic drought of thought and policy. There is, increasingly, far less 'idea' in its 'ideology' than ever before.

I know I'm not alone on the left in wanting to see an intellectually robust conservative movement challenging assumed truths among the liberal establishment. A viable opposition gives Americans freedom of choice and it challenges liberals to deliver on their promises and reevaluate their dogmas. The current state of American politics is a shambles. An intellectually vital liberal movement is weighed down by the accumulated emotional baggage of twelve years of cynicism with GOP control of the House, Senate, White House, or all the above. The GOP has lost all touch with its conservative and its progressive roots. Instead it has become the battleground between a neoconservative movement which combines the worst qualities of conservatives and liberals while neglecting the core philosophical values of both and a twisted populist movement entirely opposed to intellectualism or individual moral freedom.

The problem is that Mr. Hayward's idea of intellectualism starts well enough, but then falls short of the mark. I certainly have a great deal of respect for the late William F. Buckley Jr. and his undeniable intellectual heft, but the examples that Mr. Hayward cites of modern bright spots in the search for new conservative intellectuals fall short.

About the only recent successful title that harkens back to the older intellectual style is Jonah Goldberg's "Liberal Fascism," which argues that modern liberalism has much more in common with European fascism than conservatism has ever had. But because it deployed the incendiary f-word, the book was perceived as a mood-of-the-moment populist work, even though I predict that it will have a long shelf life as a serious work.

Citing Jonah Goldberg's work of intellectually dishonest political polemic as the scholarly heir to the work of Buckley, Friedman, or Fukuyama is evidence that Mr. Hayward himself is part of the same conservative intellectual wasteland he bemoans. Goldberg does not propose policy or advance theory, instead he busies himself with the attacking of a fascist strawman given a liberal label so as to avoid having to think for himself. It's not even his strawman, it's one borrowed from Ann Coulter. The fact that Coulter is one of the 'sound bite conservatives' listed as poor substitutes for the great conservative thinkers in Mr. Hayward's own piece casts some doubt on the sound intellectual basis for Goldberg's work.

Hayward also cites Glenn Beck as a sign of hope for the future of conservative intellectualism. Glenn Beck?

So Hayward is correct in his assessment of conservatism's problems but falls short on finding solutions because he himself appears to be part of that problem. "Better than invoking 'markets' and 'liberty'"would appear to mean comparing liberals to fascists by means of intellectual dishonesty. It is worth noting that the 'intellectual work' of his own whose poor sales performance he bemoans is not a work of theory or policy. It is a political history of the Reagan years in two volumes.

The reason for the dearth of intellectualism in the conservative movement is because neither of the two fundamental conservative ideological wellsprings of today are particularly friendly toward intellectualism.

On the one hand we have the neoconservative movement. This movement can best be defined, politically, as 'corporate populism.' In an economic sense, it is fundamentally mercantilist rather than capitalist. The idea is that state sponsorship of business (and the wealthy corporate managerial class that runs business) and the inclusion of business into the governmental circles of economic policy will ensure prosperity. The goal of the neoconservatives is the 'ownership society' advocated by Republicans not too many years ago and could be far better described as a 'management society.' Managerial types find intellectuals useful but are dismissive of real individualism, which they believe undermine corporations and states alike. Intellectuals are just another 'human resource.'

On the other hand is the religious right. For obvious reasons, the religious right is entirely hostile to any intellectualism that contradicts its own dogma. The embrace a nasty 'populist' streak that indicts all dissenters as 'elitist.' Their advocation for 'ordinary Americans' is dubious at best. Their 'populism' is itself elitist. Only those who share their views can claim any legitimacy at all and those who disagree with them are automatically wrong because they disagree. They are rooted entirely in what Ayn Rand called the 'Argument from Faith' and the 'Argument from Tradition.' Religious dogma and 'traditional values' are inherently superior to anything new. Thus anything new or anything that threatens to contradict dogma are automatically evil. Rand's 'Argument from Logic', on which she based the fundamental pinions of libertarian capitalist conservatism as she saw it, is itself suspect because of the threat logic presents to dogma. Anyone arguing from logic or expressing rational basis for why their ideas are better is an 'elitist' who considers themselves better than their opponent. This last is particularly ironic as the fundamental assumption of the religious right is that they are inherently superior by dint of salvation and dissenters are inherently wrong and likely inherently damned.

This 'populist elitism' has become the grass roots of the conservative movement and the base of the Republican Party. Its leaders attempt to assert themselves over the movement as a whole while neoconservatives seek to manipulate the grass roots to their advantage.

So we have a conservative movement with two heads. The first head is fundamentally opposed to what could be properly called 'conservative priniciples' and is instead an authoritarian and utopian ideology of 'management.' The second head nurtures many core conservative principles but is entirely opposed to intellectualism. Both are inherently hostile to individuality, the first being hostile to anything that threatens the corporate body and the latter being hostile to individual moral freedom.

Add this to the inability of theauthor to properly differentiate intellectual vitality from either self-referential politico-historical scholarship or intellectually dishonest polemic and it's hard to see a solution to the problem that Mr. Hayward describes.

Note: Thanks to the blog Delaware Liberal and blogger 'Unstable Isotope' for bringing Mr. Hayward's piece to my attention.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Real New World Order

On his blog, Matters of Principle, former Senator Gary Hart writes:

For about 300 or 350 years most conflicts in the world, or at least the major ones, were between and among nation-states, that is one country fighting another or several fighting each other. More often than not these conflicts were about boundaries, territory, aggrieved minorities, religious or ethnic friction, or simply raw power.

Conventional nation-state wars evolved into large armies wearing national uniforms, employing ever more sophisticated large weapons, often meeting in decisive battles in more or less open fields. These conflicts created their own rules embodied in international law and Geneva conventions.

Beginning sometime in the post-World War II time of colonial disintegration, so-called wars of national liberation sprang up, one country trying to rid itself of an occupying power. This produced guerilla tactics—non-uniformed, indigenous forces using light weapons, hit-and-run methods, and often hitting civilian targets. These kinds of conflicts proliferated when the bi-polar lid of the Cold War was lifted. We experienced this unconventional warfare in Vietnam as the Soviets did (and now the U.S. does) in Afghanistan.

Largely under the threat of weapons of mass destruction, nation-state wars are declining. But irregular, unconventional conflicts are expanding. History may record its inaugural date as September 11, 2001, but its roots are at least a half-century older.

This is all true and, arguably, so obvious one does not even need to state it. However, it is something terribly important to keep in mind when it comes to foreign policy and defense policy. The question is no longer about whether a nation can invade another nation or repel an invasion of its own soil but instead of how it can best respond to a multitude of small scale threats.

The Bush Administration cast these small threats in the familiar role of one all encompassing threat and initiated the so-called 'Global War on Terror.' Bush apologists and many conservatives who otherwise don't have much good to say about Bush will say, 'We haven't been attacked since 9/11 so the Bush Doctrine worked.' It's important to remember that we hadn't been attacked on American soil for nearly a decade before 9/11. So something others did worked as well, arguably better than what Bush was doing before 9/11.

As satisfying as it is to jump on Bush for the errors of judgement prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center, it is still important to remember that one hundred percent security is not possible in a free society. The fact that the attacks happened is less important than the reaction to them. Bush's reaction was the dawn of a new age of American Imperialism and unilateral action. The demonstration that the United States could react with overwhelming force was probably very comforting to a lot of voters, regardless of their political affiliation. It certainly made Dennis Miller feel better.

The problem is that, however it made us feel, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq probably didn't do terribly much to address the real threat of small scale terrorist attack around the world. Instead we gained responsibility for two countries. Iraq appears to have been a successful effort in nation building, but we won't really know for years to come. The Soviet Union's 'nation building' efforts in Eastern Europe and Central Asia looked terribly successful for about eighty years. Afghanistan continues to be a quagmire.

I'm not proposing the complete abandonment of a conventional military. That would be irresponsible in a dangerous world. However, we need to gear that military toward the real threats to American security. As John Kerry said in 2004, we need to able to coordinate law enforcement and intelligence efforts with a surgical response to specific small-scale threats. We also need to understand there is no one overweening enemy. The SCGWOT is a farce. We face quite a lot of little enemies.

One of the fundamental disappointments I have with the Obama Administration is that they have not totally addressed this issue. President Obama emphasized Afghanistan so as not to appear too 'dovish' to Middle American voters who wanted a tough president. Now he is stuck dealing with that very big mess. Many of the civil rights issues raised by the Bush Administration's Homeland Security agenda remain unaddressed.

The economy and health care have distracted from many of these issue for many on the left. It's important that we change our foreign policy and security policy to suit a changing world. To avoid ending on a completely critical note, it is important to give President Obama a great deal of credit for his handling of political issues involving Russia. The cancellation of the misguided missile shield facilities in Poland the Czech Republic has led to Russia withdrawing its threat to veto tougher UN action against Iran.