Category: economy

The Democratic Party and Healthcare – Preserving Obamacare Cannot Be The End Game

While our current attention is on the Republican Party’s transfer of wealth to the rich and corporations through the charade of a healthcare reform, the Democratic Party needs to face up to its future and the future of our healthcare system in particular.

The Global Context

The chart shown here tells you everything you need to know about the outrageous amounts of money we pay versus the astonishingly poor outcomes for our health. Basically we pay twice (200% more) than almost every other developed country in the world for healthcare that is distinctly second rate.1 To put it simply we have a healthcare system that is ripping us off and laughing all the way to the golf course. It is a market system that incentivizes tests, procedures, and prescriptions, not health. It is a market system in which the providers, doctors, hospitals, insurance and pharmaceutical companies set prices as they wish.  Our healthcare system consumes just shy of 20% of our economic output. Our developed country competitors use 8%-10% of their output.

click for large size.

Preserving Obamacare is not enough to bridge these gaps.

Obamacare addresses the lack of access to healthcare in a significant but hardly comprehensive manner. It only hints at changes to the incentives and pricing that drive the unhealthy outcomes. Obamacare is not the solution. Better than nothing, but given the enormous resources being spent and the fundamental failings of the outcomes it is not sufficient.

Health Not Profits

In order to create a world class healthcare system we need to focus it on health not profits. Every other developed country long ago recognized that a market based system would not work because health is not a commodity like corn, cars, or cell phones. It is complex, multi-dimensional, and emotional. It requires a system capable of a holistic approach to people and the society they live in. Each of the countries with universal healthcare approaches implementation very differently in the details, but all have some sort of national/regional health budget that is negotiated with the various constituents. This amounts to a lump sum per person with which the health system operates to deliver health outcomes. The proof that it works is in the chart above. 

Outrage and Political Will – Stop Taking Big Money from the Rich and Corporations

The Democratic Party must absorb the reality of our situation. We need to develop and express some outrage at the current healthcare providers. It will not be a simple task to bring a sector of the economy that consumes nearly a fifth of economic output to understand that we cannot allow this to continue. We need them to evolve to a system that consumes a tenth while vastly improving healthcare for the entire population. A basic truth here is that we as a society cannot and should not allow one sector to consume so many resources, so inequitably, for such poor outcomes. In the global context this is not sustainable and makes us less competitive and less flexible to meet the changes. 

None of this will happen as long as Democrats are taking money from the rich and corporations. If there is a single lesson from the Bernie Sanders campaign it is that with messages and programs that reflect the needs of the vast majority of Americans, you can raise enough money to fight off the Republican Party and its wealthy and corporate sponsors. Time to start now.

  1. The US ranks 56th in infant mortality out of 225 countries; 48th in maternal mortality out of 184; and 42nd in life expectancy at birth out of 224. – source Current CIA The World Factbook – https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/ accessed 5/13/2017 []

Trickle-Down Returns to Enrich the Rich

As the rest of us are recovering from the outrageous Senate healthcare bill released this week, Trump and the Republican Party are having closed door meetings to shape their “reforms” to the Federal tax system. Get ready for a resurgence of rhetoric about how enriching the rich will generate a surge in economic activity that will raise all boats. There will be lots of talk about “pro-growth tax reforms”. This is the return of 1980s trickle-down economics. The basic notion is that if you put more money in the pockets of the rich and corporations they will invest in creating new businesses and jobs. Thus the money trickles down to the bottom. Trump and his Republican Party allies have already claimed that this will increase the growth rate of the economy from its recent typical of 1.5% to 2% annual growth to over 3%. The difference of this one percent has enormous implications. At 2% growth the economy doubles in 36 years. At 3% growth it doubles in only 24 years.1

Trickle-Down – The Reality 

BUT, no economist, banker, or corporate chieftain not on the payroll of Trump and the Republicans believes this will happen. Leaving aside all sorts of analysis about demographics (aging population), technology, and global competition, history and current events provides a fairly comprehensive rebuke to these trickle down cover stories for the Republican give backs to the rich and corporations. Trickle-down economics was invented in the early 1980’s to explain the wisdom of Ronald Reagan’s tax “reforms”. Much space was taken up with displays of Prof. Arthur Laffer’s demand curves that were passed off as proof from the academy that enriching the rich and corporations would unleash a new wave of economic activity. Nothing like that happened in the 1980s. Nothing like that happened in the first decade of this century after Bush II’s big tax cuts.2 And most recently in Kansas, the Republican dominated State legislature had to override the governor’s veto of tax increases after a 5 year experiment there with trickle-down drove the state nearly to bankruptcy.3

Nevertheless, get ready for another round of bull shit Republican propaganda about “pro-growth tax policies”, unleashing the over-regulated, over-taxed job creators, and a great surge in economic growth. The forces of free-market capitalism just need to be freed from the shackles of government. You will here all of this and more. The media will continue to do its job of repeating all of this. You need to be clear that the vicious Republican Party is at work for their masters among the rich and corporations. There job is making sure that the 40 year stagnation in incomes for the 80% will not change course and the flood of wealth will continue to those at the top. 

 

  1. This is the rule of thumb exercise. To calculate how many years a given percent of growth or interest will take to double the initial amount you divide 72 by the growth rate – e.g. 72/2=36. []
  2. See “Trump’s Big Tax Cut Is Unadulterated Trickle-Down Fundamentalism” by Justin Miller 4/25/2017 at The American Prospect []
  3. Read “Epic fail of Kansas’ tax-cut plan offers a lesson for us all” by Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune 6/20/2017 []

Regulations vs Protections – more than just words

In a recent stream of comments about a post in GossipsOfRivertown, “More about Dumped Cement” Virginia Martin wrote to me: 

Mark Orton said “This is why we have government regulations.” Linguist George Lakoff would say the term “regulations” is ill-considered. He’d say they’re protections. This is why we have government protections.

I thanked Virginia for pointing this out and promised to try out “protections” in place of “regulations”. The word “regulation” has been used as an epithet and rhetorical sledge hammer by Republicans and the centrist Bill Clinton Democrats as part of a general campaign to discredit anything that the government might do. This is part of the decades long political strategy of the rich and corporations to puff up the delights of “free markets”.1 One might wonder what word we might use in place of “de-regulation” ? De-protect? Un-protect? Deregulation is so often projected as inherently a positive action yet that is hardly so. There is a parallel with the current efforts by the Republicans to “reform” health care laws.

The story of government regulation is complicated by the way in which the rich and corporations have come to dominate the writing of regulations.

  1. Here we are avoiding another word, “neoliberal” that most academics and political wonks use to describe the ideology of Thatcher, Reagan, and Clinton. The first time I came across this word I was totally confused. Liberal meant Roosevelt, unions, public education, etc. Then I realized that “liberal” in “neoliberal” referred to the use of that term as applied to 19th century liberals like Locke, Mill, Bentham and so on. Small government, maximum individual freedom thinkers. []

Dumping Concrete: a law of capitalism In action – a local example

Thanks to GossipsOfRivertown for the image.

The May 3rd post “Unbelievable” on our favorite local blog GossipsOfRivertown.blogspot.com caught our attention. This F.H.Stickles concrete truck dumping waste concrete next to a stream running into the Hudson River is a local demonstration of one of the central laws of capitalism.

For more pictures of this incident go here.

Every company seeks to get someone else to pay for as many of its costs of doing business as possible. The laws of capitalism require this. If all of Stickles’ competitors are similarly avoiding the costs of disposing of their waste concrete they must do likewise. Otherwise their cost of doing business would be higher. In the short term their profits will be lower. In the longer term they will be forced out of business because they will have to charge higher prices. This is so regardless of the moral values or sense of community of the owners of F.H.Stickles. This how capitalism works.

United Airlines, Monopoly/Oligopoly, The Natural Laws of Capitalism

From: http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2017/04/15/united-airlines-new-policy/

The recent incident in which United Airlines used the Chicago Police Department to enforce its corporate policies has already roused plenty of comments. Many have focused on the clumsiness, even callousness of the policy and its later justifications by senior managers. This is missing a more telling point about airline travel today.

In the US four airlines control over 80%1 of the seats and in many regional markets the competition veers towards a state of monopoly. There is simply no effective competitive controls on what the airlines can charge and under what conditions.

  1. corrected from 60% on 4/20/17 []

Building the New American Economy – Not

The title of this short book, only 130 pages, Building the New American Economy: smart, fair, & sustainable by Jeffrey D. Sachs with a foreword by Bernie Sanders (Columbia University Press, 2017) is unfortunately misleading. There is much here about the new economy. The misleading part is that there is very little about its construction, the building of the new economy.

Sachs covers many important issues in a thorough, efficient fashion. If you need a primer or a tune up about the economy this is a good place to start. These include: investment in our society, infrastructure, Federal budget, income inequality, healthcare, energy, military and the empire (not his phrase), and innovation. If you have been reading my postings over the last 5 or so years much of this will seem a bit deja vu.

Thoughts on Standard Economics

I’ve been looking through Paul Krugman’s textbook Macroeconomics (Krugman and Wells, 4th edition, 2015) and came on Principle #2 – “The opportunity cost of an item—what you must give up in order to get it—is its true cost….The concept of opportunity cost is crucial to understanding individual choice because, in the end, all costs are opportunity costs. That’s because every choice you make means forgoing some other alternative.”

In this standard economics model, a central feature of capitalism gets swept under the rug or simply not mentioned, external costs. Many of the total costs of capitalist products are hidden from the pricing system, yet we all live with the consequences of the fact that capitalist markets require producers to socialize (externalize) as many costs as possible. Much of the history of the capitalist era is a struggle over who pays for these external costs. The capitalists wanted to continue to have someone else pay. Others began to push back.

BEHEMOTH (BEI XI MO SHOU) at TSL Hudson

This 2015 movie by Chinese director Liang Zhao is filled with great cinematography and sounds. It trades back and forth between scenes of enormous horizon gulping coal mines, under ground mines, iron making, and ends with scenes of a ghost city filled with enormous apartment blocks in a newly developed but vacant city West of Beijing. But, the most arresting part of the movie is its focus on the workers, men and women, in this relentlessly grim, polluted environment. The only narration is text read over scenes with a nude figure huddled on the ground in front of this devastation. It alludes to Dante’s Inferno.

Behemoth is a refresher course on why capitalism, whether in its American or Chinese variant, needs government regulation, strong regulation to prevent this egregious exploitation of the earth and mankind. Of course this presumes the government is in the hands of the people and nota tool of the rich and corporations. Therein lies the crisis.

The movie runs at TSL over this weekend and the two following. Here is TSL’s calendar.

Also playing at TSL is I Am Not Your Negro, the wonderful, challenging movie about James Baldwin.

Job (Business) Killing Regulations

Ever since Ronald Reagan told us in his 1981 Inaugural Address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” government bashing by right-wingers, Republicans and many Democrats has been a constant drumbeat of political rhetoric. Now we have Trump with his “Kill 2 regulations for every new one” and a government dominated by Republicans for whom destroying government has been an objective for decades. We are faced with the probable destruction of many government agencies whose job it is to protect us from capitalism.

Someone Else Will Pay – A Basic Feature of the Capitalist Economy

One of the basic features of capitalism is the requirement that businesses avoid any costs that they can. Basically they are required by the rules of the competitive game to get someone else to pay for anything they can shirk off. Without countervailing forces, the government, unions, and other social organizations, stepping in, capitalists will externalize any cost they can. This results in capitalist firms destroying the environment by unsustainable exploitation of the earth (see mines, forests, rivers, oceans); polluting the environment (air, water, landscape); maintaining unsafe working conditions; paying wages below that required for people to have a sustainable life; engaging in speculative risky gambling (see our financial sector for the most recent egregious examples of this); creating and marketing products and services based on manipulating demand through false, misleading and manipulative advertising.

None of this being done because capitalists are evil people.

This happens because the rules of the capitalist game require it to happen. If another firm, lets say a paper mill, is avoiding the costs of cleaning the water used in production before returning it to the river, the competitor paper mill must do the same. Otherwise, their paper would cost much more and they would not survive in the marketplace. Without government, unions, and social groups setting the rules of the game with regard to “external costs” capitalist firms must cast off as many costs as possible. This is the simple inescapable law of capitalist competition.

The EPA is a favorite target of government bashing. Let’s look back to why the EPA was formed in 1970 by Republican President Nixon. Many readers are too young to have first hand knowledge of how widespread environmental pollution used to be.

From the Empire St building – photo by Neil Boenzi originally published in NYTimes.

New York City looked like this in 1966. That’s not fog, that is smog, a noxious pall of automobile exhaust and emissions from power plants, petro/chemical plants and others. These days you have to travel to Beijing and other places without an EPA to experience this first hand

Another example

Here is a comparative shot from Los Angeles – 1968 – 2005.

From: http://geoprojectgrp7.blogspot.com/2015/03/air-pollution-in-los-angeles-location.html

Rivers on Fire

Industry polluted water so badly that some burned. Here is a short documentary on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. It begins with a snip from Randy Newman’s song “Burn On”1 :

The catalog of capitalism’s inevitable sins is way too long for this brief piece. The breadth of the costs of this central feature is quite astonishing and in some perverse way, inventive. In recent years we have seen new forms of externalized costs unthought of earlier. Do a search on “farm waste pollution” or “chemical pollution” for more examples from our current situation.

You Eat the Next Cost Avoidance Every Day

Another cost that capitalists seek to reduce, or eliminate, is labor, wages and salaries. The food industry is a good example of where non-union, minority workers are exploited because no one will protect them from the cost avoiding behavior of the capitalist system. Without government protections capitalists will pay as low a wage as possible regardless of whether the wage allows workers to live a reasonable life, raise their families and educate their children. Capitalism is not concerned with how the human resources of society survive and reproduce the next generation of workers.

The food we eat every day is plentiful and comparatively inexpensive because the farms that grow it are largely outside the protections of fair labor and minimum wage laws. Many farm workers are undocumented migrant workers from Mexico and other countries to our South. “Annually, the average income of crop workers is between $10,000 to $12,499 for individuals and $15,000 to $17,499 for a family. To give you an idea, the federal poverty line is $10,830 for an individual or $22,050 for a family of four (in 2009). Thus, according to NAWS, 30% of all farm workers had total family incomes below the poverty line.”2 Many are migrants and therefore their children do not have stable school lives. 

This is not a new story. In 1960 Edward R. Morrow reported on this exploitation in one of the most famous documentaries of the TV history, Harvest of Shame. The facts today are only marginally better than 57 years ago.

Externalized costs, cost avoidance and shirking wherever possible are structural features of capitalism that people can and must control. Capitalism is structurally unable to control these outcomes. It has no capacity to see or react to the consequences of the actions of it participants. It requires perpetual mindless growth with no regard to any needs outside of its own needs. People and nature be damned.  With the present weakness of unions and other social forces, government is the tool. We must take the government back from the rich and corporations. Capitalism was created through the joint action of government and private entrepreneurs. It is not some ideal system, rather the result of struggle between various elements in society.  Its present structure is the result of more than forty years of political action by the rich and corporations furthering their ends. Time now for the vast majority to assert their needs to be expressed in the economy.

  1. audio of song here: https://youtu.be/VtW8RkI3-c4 []
  2. http://nfwm.org/education-center/farm-worker-issues/low-wages/ []

Diversity and Identity Politics Is A Deadend

Progressives have to declare class war as a central strategy. Otherwise we will all be sitting at the dinner table basking in our glorious diversity with nothing to eat.

For many good reasons identity and diversity have dominated our politics for decades.  Progressives celebrate its expansion and Republicans and their brethren on the right pretty universally engage in either dog whistle or outright racist politics. 

Simultaneously the rich and corporations have been fighting a class war. They have succeeded beyond belief. As is well known, for 90% of the population real incomes have been flat for the past 40 yrs. Meanwhile, the rich and corporations have gotten fabulously rich. Richer than at any time in history. And, to make things worse they have done this while hiding behind free-market (neoliberal) ideology that has impoverished the government and the public sphere of our lives. Our infrastructure is crumbling, education is outrageously expensive, sending many students to decades of indebtedness. Our health system costs more than twice any of our developed country cohort and delivers third world results. 

Progressives, time to fight back. Diversity and identity without a fair share of the pie is not going to make you happy.