Category: politics

The Global Context of the US Healthcare Debate

The solution to our healthcare fiasco is first to recognize its true nature and then to face down those who are consuming a fifth of our economic output while producing profoundly bad results. We need to take a much broader view in order to see that, compared to the rest of the developed countries, a) our current healthcare results are abysmal and b) our current healthcare costs are obscene.

America’s Longest War and Attorney General Sessions

Attorney General Sessions clearly knows no history, even that of his own lifetime. He is just another petty, cyclical political hack thrust into a prominent position.

Nixon’s War on Drugs which Sessions is now re-intensifying began as a cynical campaign tactic. As described by John Erhlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy adviser:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”1

  1. https://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/ accssed 5/13/2017 []

Firing Comey and Trump as Solipsism

In his letter firing James Comey, now former Director of the FBI, Trump once again displayed the completely self-centered world that he inhabits. The second paragraph in this thankfully short letter reads:

While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.

Trump – understanding the pathology

The strangeness that is Trump seems an endless topic of conversation. Several months ago I wondered about early signs of dementia in “Is Trump Showing Signs of Ageing?” Ongoing I have wondered about his weird speech patterns. Over the last day I have come on three sources that shed further light on his pathology, well beyond the obvious pathologies of narcissism, self-aggrandizement, and endless lying.

Number 1Why the Trump Transcripts Are So Maddening to Read by Michael Erard in The Awl. Mr. Erard is a writer and linguist. He provides an interesting take on the structure of Trump’s language. 

This is the talking of someone with power, the sort of power that doesn’t come from consensus-building and organizing. We don’t really need a transcript to tell us this, but it’s there. Trump talks to occupy space and run down the clock. He’s prompted to speak by a question but rarely answers the question; he only has to talk long enough to execute his turn in the conversation before the questioner wrests it away. That’s the extent of the coherence. Otherwise, he cajoles, he lies, he brags, he cuts down, and the effect on the transcript reader is nowhere near what Trump can have intended.

Obama, Wall St. and Big Money

Edited 5/9/2017 

(Originally published as “Obama and the Future of the Democratic Party”)

President Obama achieved some remarkable things during his eight years. Action on income and wealth inequality were not among them. He surrounded himself, especially on the economic front, with people who had direct connections to Wall St. or academic economics. He famously made a speech in 2013 announcing that income inequality was “the defining challenge of our time”.1 Then, faced with attacks from within the Democratic Party and all Republicans that he was engaging in “class warfare”, he beat a hasty retreat. The rhetoric was trotted out but he proposed nothing and did nothing.

Citibank and Obama’s Cabinet

  1. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/12/04/remarks-president-economic-mobility []

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. []

Trump Loves Australia’s Universal Government Paid Healthcare, “Better than ours”

Trump loves Australia’s universal healthcare:

Speaking to Australian Prime Minster Trumbull, Trump said, “We have a failing healthcare. I shouldn’t say this to our great gentleman and my friend from Australia, because you have better healthcare than we do.” A day later Trump repeated his praise for the Australian healthcare system, “Of course the Australians have better healthcare than we do – everybody does,” he wrote on Twitter. “Obamacare is dead! But our healthcare will soon be great.”1 Of course in a rare moment of speaking the truth Trump is right about both assertions. Everyone in the developed world has better healthcare than us and at a shocking fraction of the cost.

Trump told Malcolm Turnbull: ‘We have a failing healthcare. I shouldn’t say this to our great gentleman and my friend from Australia, because you have better healthcare than we do.’ Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Does Trump know Australia spends $5,495 per person per year vs our $9,990 (yep 66% more!!) for healthcare that ranks in the top ten in the world? Our rank?? 42nd for life span and 54th for infant mortality (see 2015 CIA World Factbook on this). Exactly how the Republican healthcare bill will improve on this performance is unknown. They passed it through Congress without even waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to grade it for cost and effectiveness. Better to vote out of religious fervor than be bothered by how many millions would be thrown off health insurance. 

BTW – Australia is not an outlier in spending and results . All of our developed world competitors have a similar showing.

  1. https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/05/trump-healthcare-australia-better-malcolm-turnbull []

Justice in America – Not

A central dogma of American politics and culture is the rule of law. The ever present blind scales of justice are trotted out with such regularity that the briefest glimpse serves to remind us that we live in a country with a uniquely fair and just system of law. Of course, if you have ever had the slightest encounter with the reality of this system you will already know that it is only those with money for whom this system produces any justice, and for them more money assures more justice.

Recently I came across the Prison Policy Initiative as a new source of information on how our judicial system actually works. PPI just released a new pie chart and other graphs, “How many people are locked up in the United States?”

Congressman Faso and the proposed American Health Care Act

Congressman Faso

Today I received an email from my Congressman, John Faso, concerning the proposed American Health Care Act. It included a link to a Republican website that speaks to their proposed legislation and a link to the the actual legislation. Asking me to read the legislation is insulting because though I am fairly literate it is well known that the language of legislation is a swamp of references to other pieces of legislation frequently calling for comprehensive knowledge of the topic to even begin understanding its implications. 

The site also spends a lot of time bad-mouthing Obamacare. I get it. Republicans don’t like Obamacare. The question is how will they improve upon it??

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/ []