Monday, November 30, 2009

Afghanistan: probably more of the same tomorrow

We will probably find out the President's plan for Afghanistan during his public address tomorrow. Most reports, based on information from allied sources in Europe and possible administration leaks, seem to indicate that he will symbolically ask for slightly fewer new troops than his general McChrystal has asked for -- probably somewhere around 35,000. Many estimate that it costs about $1 million dollars per year for each soldier sent, so you can do the math for yourself. My experience is that estimates like these are almost uniformly optimistic. (Remember that the Bush-Cheney hawks told us that the Iraq adventure would virtually pay for itself -- yet it has cost us over $1 trillion.)

And: It ain't gonna work. Look at the previous "surge" in Iraq. Yes, it increased stability somewhat, but Iraq is less stable than it was before we invaded. After a trillion dollars, hundreds of thousands dead and many more crippled and mutilated, the country is worse off in terms of security and infrastructure than under Saddam. This was a heavy price for the people of Iraq to pay, not that they were ever consulted on the matter.

In Afghanistan we have effectively driven out al-Qaeda, but there is still no effective central government to replace the Taliban, who are themselves resurgent, albeit in an altered form. Furthermore, al-Qaeda itself has regrouped in a far more dangerous setting: Pakistan -- a country with nuclear weapons and possibly a lot of nuclear material that is relatively unguarded (see the Wall Street Journal article from last May). In addition, al-Qaeda is currently running terror camps in Somalia, a country that, in effect, has no government, and what is does have is strongly radical Islamist. Then there's Yemen and possibly other countries in north Africa and -- who knows where? Can we invade them all?

This military "strategy" simply can not work, and we can't afford to print enough money to finance it. "Print money" is not an exaggeration: that is how all of these wars are paid for, since it is now forbidden to raise taxes on anyone at any time, even war profiteers. Of course there are the usual isolated "calls" to institute a war tax, but it will never happen: Obama won't push it, the Democrats don't have the votes, and the Republicans will never raise taxes or do anything constructive lest the Democrats be perceived as accomplishing something. So there you have it, a recipe for the further economic decline of the U.S.

Now is the time for new thinking on war and terror, and for bold "outside the box" initiatives. And, that is precisely what we are not getting. We have to remove most of our troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia and fight terror through diplomacy, anti-imperialism, real humanitarian aid, and intelligence -- in all meanings of that word. We should start inspecting all incoming container ships and bring our airport security up to the level of the Israelis'.

It is still instructive to skim through the 9/11 Commission Final Report to see how the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 could have been thwarted without invading anyone's country and without the terrible losses that were incurred later. 3000 were killed on 9/11 and many hundreds of thousands were made to pay with their lives for that preventable crime, without achieving one iota of real security. If another attack comes, it will not come from terrorists in Afghanistan; does that make anyone feel secure?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Healthcare, Afghanistan, Summers at Harvard

As I said in a previous blog, the Democrats have narrowed their options considerably on healthcare. Nevertheless, it is important that they pass some sort of reform. This view is echoed in today's N.Y. Times (Fighting the Wrong Healtcare Battle) by Princeton professor Paul Starr, former healthcare advisor to Pres. Clinton. He pretty much sums up the positive possibilities that are still available to Congress.

For what it's worth, Massachusetts interim Senator Paul G. Kirk, writing in today's Boston Globe , urges the President not to commit any more troops to Afghanistan. My position is that, in fact, that the President should begin to withdraw troops: see this blog.

Finally, the Globe reminds us that Harvard University lost not just nearly $10 billion of its $27 billion endowment but also nearly $2 billion of its operating budget. In spite of warnings from in-house financial experts, supposed wunderkind -- and chief economic advisor to President Obama -- Lawrence Summers overruled responsible and knowledgeable dissenters and allowed this money, needed to pay for running the University, to be invested along with the endowment in the already suspect financial markets of 2006-2007. That this speculative type of investment had paid off previously is, of course, irrelevent; after all, people buying into the market in early 1929 could say the same. The fact is, Summers had been advocating lax control of investment banking for years, and he turned out to be wrong (as in "wrong, wrong, wrong").

"Wunderkind-ness" in economics is a lot like momentum in sports: it's something you have until you don't have it anymore. I am not an economist, so I don't really understand how one gets to be called an economics guru. In mathematics (my profession before I retired) one knows who is a genius: you simply read what they have proved. With few exceptions, theorems remain theorems. In other fields the criteria are much less clear, and certainly more contingent and qualified.

Oddly enough, Summers is not referred to as a "previous wunderkind" in newspaper articles, and so he soldiers along, whispering self-confident advice in Obama's ear about how to correct an economic disaster he himself had helped create. Was Obama thinking "This man knew enough to create this mess, he must know enough to get us out of it"? I guess I'll sign off with that bit of tortured logic.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Pass the bill, fix it later; stop the Republicans

Here's how I think the Senate healthcare bill will play out. Reid will compromise with Olympia Snowe and substitute her "trigger" proposal for his "states opt out" proposal. There may also be a "states opt in" proposal.

I think that Democrats will also have to adopt an anti-abortion provision similar to the odious House plan. Although I have some sympathy for the position that "elective" abortions are immoral, I agree with Barney Frank that most of the hardcore "right to lifers" believe that life starts a conception and ends at birth. They are quite willing to sacrifice the health and well being of millions in order not so much to prevent abortions as to make them back-breakingly expensive for poor people. Since a lot of these religious conservatives oppose contraception for unmarried couples, and some (Catholic bishops) oppose all contraception, the net result seems to be a really unpleasant anti-human position for which I have no sympathy. Unfortunately, folks who really care about the well-being of other people can't seem to garner the votes necessary to pass reasonable legislation. That's just the reality.

As I've said before, it is unlikely that the Dems will get another chance at healthcare reform for a long time, since they will probably lose seats next election. Any kind of healthcare they can pass now -- even a pretty flawed bill -- can be amended later, as was Social Security (which was always actually pretty good) and Medicare. Furthermore, defeating healthcare will do damage to Obama politically and help the Republicans. Although many have already forgotten, Republicans can do terrible damage to this country, as we have seen from the mess that Bush and his Republican rubber-stamp Congress left us. This is not in the realm of opinion: it is historical fact. The Dems lost control of Congress already under Clinton, and everything since is pure Republican.

One other thing: Social Security and Medicare withholding should be uncapped for all incomes above say $200,000. I would say all incomes but the number $200,000 seems to be bandied about since Obama promised not to raise taxes on the "middle class."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Step one: Dems win at least a beginning

The good news this morning is that healthcare reform is still alive in the Senate, as the Democratic leadership confirms it has the 60 votes needed to bring its bill to the floor for debate. Whether they will have the votes to close off this debate when it comes time to vote on the bill itself remains to be seen.

I guess I was relieved when it appeared a few days ago that Blanche Lincoln and Mary Landrieu were the doubtful votes, since they represent states whose residents are generally lower-income and very much in need of affordable health insurance. I think it will be difficult for them, later, to vote against any reasonable bill that will help their constituents, so I am hopeful on that score. We still haven't heard from the anti-abortion people. Reid's bill does the usual end-run, forbidding direct federal funds for policies that pay for abortions, substituting some form of careful sequestering of funds which I don't believe will work to mollify opponents. This will be a sticking point and I think there may be a move toward strong restrictions like those in the House bill. I hope that progressive senators will understand how important it is to pass some version of this bill, since they'll likely not even have the votes for a weak bill after the midterm elections. There are many ways to help get low-income people financial assistance to obtain abortions, including private charities etc. We are not talking huge sums of money here, for that one (supplementary) coverage.

I must say that I'm disappointed in Olympia Snowe, since at this hour it seems that she is joining the obstructionist Republicans; it remains to be seen how she will vote on the bill itself. She is probably miffed that Reid substituted his "states can opt out" provision for her "trigger" plan. I can't see how she would think that her Maine constituents would do better with no healthcare bill at all. However, the night is young and we'll have to see what sort of amendments are attached to Reid's bill.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed. The Dems at least must realize how important it is for the party to get something passed. Maybe they can now start dumping on Big Pharma to retrieve some of their currently near-zero populist creds.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

New AP healthcare polls

Recent polls on healthcare show how divorced from actual public opinion a lot of Washington legislators are -- especially Republicans. It also shows some evidence of (possibly intentional) "push polling."

First of all, the public has long supported not just a "Public Option" but full-fledged Single Payer -- i.e. a totally government-operated healthcare system. Of course our representatives have never allowed that to be an option -- they clearly know better what's good for us. When people read about it, it makes sense, but it doesn't make sense to the insurance industry.
A recent AP poll shows that a good majority of Americans support healthcare reform, especially the House version. However, it reports that those who already have healthcare don't want to have to pay more, and would oppose plans that would make them do so. Here is where the "push polling" comes in.

Push polling is the technique of asking questions that may suggest points of view to the person being polled; it is usually done in phony polls by groups with an agenda to "push". A classic example is a telephone poll conducted by supporters of candidate A who ask: "What would you think of candidate B if you heard that she sent regular e-mails to Osama Bin Laden?" You get the idea. Well, the AP poll asked people whether they would still support a healthcare plan if it would make their premiums go up. This suggests that raising premiums is a likely result of healthcare reform. This is simply not necessarily the case, but the issue is complicated, and phrasing the question this way gives opponents of healthcare reform more ammunition to fight it.

Everyone who has insurance is paying a lot for healthcare now. The idiots who say "Just go to the Emergency Room" are suggesting that ER care is somehow free. It isn't, and everyone who pays taxes or insurance premiums is picking up the tab for this particularly inefficient and expensive form of treatment. In addition, people tend not to realize until it is too late that the healthcare that they are paying so much for now is likely to offer very much less coverage than they think. Many folks have all sorts of caps and exclusions written into the fine print of their policies that have proven to be financially disastrous when serious illness strikes. Almost all of these insurance company scams would be illegal under the health plans being considered by Congress. The AP poll, of course, makes no mention of this.

Another AP poll released today said that people would be happy to tax the rich to pay for healthcare. The party of the rich, the GOP, will undoubtedly ignore this, or find some way to spin it. The Democrats should run with it, but they have such a cowardly history of being red-baited that they are basically afraid of real populism or "class warfare" as the rich like to put it. If they don't mount a spirited offensive, building on this popular sentiment, they will once again be outtalked and outpropagandized by the voices of Big Insurance and Big Pharma.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Capuano for Kennedy's seat

I have decided to support Michael Capuano as the Democratic nominee for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat.

The main reason for this decision is that he has a great deal of executive and legislative experience; he also has a law degree. He was an alderman and mayor of Somerville before becoming congressman from Cambridge and environs. As congressman he voted against the Patriot Act and against the Iraq war. You can't ask for better, more independent stands.

I have said on more than one occasion that liberals must learn that change comes only when you have the power that comes from having the votes. Lawyering can be helpful, but basically, unless you have passed the correct laws, trying to do the right thing by using the courts will generally be frustrating, especially when the judges are appointed by the winning political party. Thus, while Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is a good and progressive-minded person, her lack of experience outside the legal field is simply not adequate for the job of U.S. senator. This is not to say that other senators aren't even less qualified, but that is hardly an argument to support her candidacy.

I heard Capuano in person yesterday, and was impressed by both his progressive grounding and his realistic understanding of what is possible in today's Congress. For example, when asked what he would do to advance gun control, he pointed out sadly that advocates such as he simply did not have nearly enough votes, and that previous attempts to register all guns had led to even worse laws. On the other hand, he seems ready to push hard for healthcare reform with a strong public option. He is aware of the problems -- with Republicans and Lieberman -- and suggested that real Democrats call the bluff of the "virtual" filibuster and make opponents actually stage a marathon talk session -- which I have suggested submitting to YouTube. He even raised the possibility of reconciliation to force through a bill with 51 votes.

As I said a few blogs ago , I don't like Coakley's claim that she would have voted against the House healthcare bill because of its anti-abortion provision -- the "Stupak Amendment". This would probably have killed the healthcare bill before it could even be debated and further altered in the Senate and reconfigured in House-Senate conference committee (if it passed the Senate). Both she and Capuano claim they would vote against any final bill which contains the House anti-abortion language, but I'm not sure exactly what this means. I believe that, given the intransigence of the anti-abortion people as well as anti-healthcare legislators in general, it is necessary for progressives to put pressure on House and Senate leadership by also at least seeming intransigent themselves. There may be a way for true supporters of healthcare reform to compromise on abortion language somewhat less harmful than Stupak -- though click here to see a description of this amendment from the LA Times. I am more inclined to think that Capuano will take this more flexible approach than will Coakley.

The Boston Globe ran a subtly negative piece on Capuano today, constantly describing him as "angry" but without emphasizing that the things he is angry about are the things that many of us are angry about, and with good reason. These range from large unleashed dogs intimidating small children in playgrounds to the criminal wrongs of the Bush administration (not mentioned by the Globe) to the Globe's extensive ink on his campaign contributions -- none of which have led to any accusation of wrongdoing. But read the article for yourself . Anyone with a chip on his shoulder about these things will get my vote.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Where a lot of energy goes

One of the great costs of U.S. military involvement is energy. The amount of fuel used by our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan make them the largest single consumer of energy in the world (except, obviously, the whole U.S.) For some interesting energy facts gleaned from government and industry sources, see this article about military consumption. Remember that our armies don't plug their appliances into indiginous outlets: they carry and use their own generating facilities which burn petroleum products that they haul with them; similarly, tanks and armored vehicles don't buy their gas at roadside pumps in Iraq, for example: they buy it from private U.S. corporations who charge premium prices and probably have no-bid contracts; I doubt that they offer Super Saver Thursday discounts either.

It is useful to remember this when you buy gasoline: the price at the pump reflects the competition between you and the military.

Another reason for high energy costs is the existence of people who use more than their share. This includes not only drivers of gas guzzlers -- they've already been taken to task -- but also the folks who build the large "McMansion" houses. Even relatively efficient ones still require a lot of energy to heat because of their large surface area. Heated garages and large windows also make their owners energy hogs.

Without any fancy technology we can cut our energy costs and keep excess carbon out of the atmosphere by simply controlling sprawling houses via zoning restrictions, eliminating gas guzzling cars, and controlling the testoterone levels of politicians and generals who think we need to solve our problems via an intense military presence throughout the world.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Decrease American forces in Afghanistan

When I heard that President Obama was reviewing the recommendations of General McChrystal concerning increased troop deploymnent to Afghanistan, I figured that it was a foregone conclusion that he would at least partially acquiesce. After all, what president in recent memory has refused to "send in the Marines" -- or at least send in more of them? (Answer: possibly JFK in Vietnam.)

Then there were some cautionary memos from Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and himself an ex-general). Sources seemed to indicate that the president was actually unhappy with all of the troop increase suggestions that he had received. I briefly got my hopes up that Obama might actually decrease the troop levels and replace most of the military spending with social and economic aid. Now it seems that Obama will still send in more troops, but only after a "thorough review" of the aims of the mission, and determination of an exit strategy. This is better than nothing, but I still think that we should start reducing troop level in preparation for disengagement; here's why.

1. The initial reason for the invasion of Afghanistan was to remove the Al-Qaeda training camps and safe-havens that harbored the 9/11 attackers. At the time, the ruling Taliban worked hand-in-hand with Al-Qaeda, and so our invasion drove the Taliban from power at the same time. That was years ago. By all accounts there are very few Al-Qaeda operatives left in Afghanistan -- most operate now out of Pakistan or other places even further away -- and although there has been a resurgence of the Taliban, the new Taliban consists more of warlord types than agents of international terrorism. In fact, the U.S. has achieved some success in dealing with them -- chiefly through various forms of bribery. Military counter-insurgency against these people has met with little success since most of them have constituencies of various sizes and forms within the populace itself.

2. The use of military power in Afghanistan has become counterproductive. President Karzai himself realizes this and has been talking more and more in nationalistic terms -- even stating that the U.S. interest is not in helping Afghanis but in increasing U.S. security. Not only is this message received sympathetically by more and more Afghanis, there is a great deal of truth in it. While all of us were happy to see girls and young women allowed to be educated again, the U.S. government has built very few schools that we can point to, and done very little with Afghani infrastructure outside what we need for security purposes. Even Gen. McChrystal acknowledges this.

3. There is still the issue of disproportionality. About 3000 people were killed in the U.S. by terrorist attacks on 9/11. That is terrible of course, but decent Americans are not worth more as human beings than decent Afghanis or Pakistanis or Iraqis or ... anybody. The number of innocent civilians who have been killed in U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan is probably around 100 times the number killed on 9/11 -- maybe more (there is a lot of documentation for this estimate). It is also doubtful that we are justified in hunting down and killing Taliban who had nothing to do with 9/11 but are simply fighting against the Karzai government. (Of course, Al-Qaeda is another story.) Also, Secretary of State Clinton still has not come up with a satisfactory answer to the question posed by Pakistani civilians during her recent visit: How do you distinguish the killing of dozens of bystanders in a drone rocket attack, from terrorism in a market place?

4. It is civilians, not armies, who bear most of the brunt of war -- this is an eternal fact. In a non-democracy such as Saddam's Iraq and the Taliban's Afghanistan, the civilians are not directly responsible for the sins of their leaders, but they pay the price. In a democracy, on the other hand, we bear the onus if the leaders we elect and re-elect commit acts of questionable morality. We and our president must be cognizant of this fact at all times when our actions against a populace are careless or punitive.

5. The U.S. motives in all wars for at least the last half-century have been far from pure. In the case of Afghanistan the goal was to punish and remove Al-Qaeda and the Taliban; improving the economic or social lot of the Afghanis was, if anything, a collateral talking point. (I won't even go into the reasons for the Iraq invasion since they have been so totally discredited.) U.S. military operations are also qualitatively different from what they once were. Privatization has resulted in huge transfers of wealth and responsibility from the public military and public treasury to private security and logistics corporations -- e.g. Blackwater, Haliburton, and Halliburton’s former subsidiary KBR. Just as we are upset about reported corruption by President Karzai, the Afghanis (and lots of others) have come to identify the U.S. presence with the bad behavior of our favored contractors.

Whatever threats are posed to us by terrorist activity must be dealt with here, not in other countries. While we have been engaged militarily abroad, we haven’t even seen fit to institute reasonable inspection of container ships arriving at our ports. Al-Qaeda has moved away from Afghanistan and outward to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, other parts of North Africa and even Europe (so says Gen. David Petraeus). We simply can't send U.S. troops to all of these countries -- we can't do Afghanistan over and over whenever we think our security is threatened. We can't afford it in dollars, we can't afford it in world support, and we simply can't afford the moral weight of killing disproportionately so many people.

Obama should decrease the military forces in Afghanistan while increasing non-military aid there. He should also start closing or shrinking military bases throughout the world, starting with Okinawa in Japan. Moving troops and personnel out of Saudi-Arabia is another step that will go a long way to cooling tensions with the Moslem world. No one can believe that we are fighting for democracy in Afghanistan or other places when we are propping up tyrannical regimes solely for cheap oil. Finally, recent tapes and messages indicate that the Sunni-Shiite split is dividing the Sunni Al-Qaeda from the Shiite Iranians. This should further isolate the former, to our advantage.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Abstinence only -- ha, ha, ha.

It is time for that phony program called "abstinence-only" sex-ed to be given the boot. Since the Bushies pushed it as a reward to its bible-thumper supporters, pregnancy rates for teens has climbed (see Washington Post). Of course, unless you are a fundamentalist or have no idea what sexuality -- especially teen sexuality -- is about, you would know instantly that the whole concept of abstinence-only prevention of pregnancy is inane.

Since about 1/3 of teenage pregnancies end in abortion, you would think that the folks who are so worried about abortions -- worried enough to force an amendment in the House healthcare bill forbidding insurance coverage with Federal funds -- would, maybe, try to prevent abortions by preventing unwanted conception. But no. Oddly enough, a lot of these folks think that contraception encourages sexual activity among teens. Thus, ironically, pregnancy and childbirth, which these people supposedly hold sacred, play the role, in their eyes, of an effective punishment hanging over the heads of young people who engage in sex -- somehow preventing them from doing it. Yeah, right.

Too bad this didn't seem to get mentioned in the healthcare debate about abortion.

Abortion and the Massachusetts Senate seat

Here in Massachusetts there is a field of four Democratic candidates vying in a nomination runoff (December 8) for a special election (January 19) to succeed the late Ted Kennedy; winning this nomination is virtually tantamount to winning the Senate seat. The current front-runner, and only woman in this race, is Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.

The four candidates were not that different in their positions on most issues -- at least not until today. Without being expressly pressed on the issue, Coakley volunteered that the abortion prohibitions in the House-passed healthcare reform bill were so intolerable that, if she were in the Senate, she would oppose the bill. Given that the bill will receive not more than 1 or 2 Republican votes, and that it needs 60 to avoid a (virtual) filibuster, this would kill it. The other candidates were quick to distance themselves from this position, creating an actual difference between them and Coakley. My guess is that she had gotten uneasy about her frontrunner position and felt that she needed to make some sort of a move to at least cement her support among women, who are probably her prime constituency.

I think she made both a strategic political mistake and an ethical one as well. Given the strong support for the President in Massachusetts, and the fact that the Commonwealth is only one of three states to have experimented with healthcare for all, I don't believe her willingness to undermine Obama's main legislative goal will get her the votes that she gambled for. Also, support for abortion rights in Massachusetts, where there are many Catholics, may not be as strong as she thinks.

On the ethical side, it seems questionable that it is correct to pass up the opportunity to get healthcare for millions of uninsured women -- and men -- outside of Massachusetts, simply because the bill does not cover abortions. It isn't that the bill criminalizes the procedure, it just makes coverage unavailable for anyone receiving a federal subsidy. The danger to poor and uninsured women posed by diseases -- e.g. cancer, hepatitis, AIDS, diabetes, heart disease and stroke -- is far greater than the financial threat of an uncovered abortion. This point has already been made by the other candidates and widely in the press.

Well, what about Dennis Kucinich, who actually voted against the flawed bill in the House? First of all, as I suggested in yesterday's blog, he was probably well-aware of the support it had, and might well have voted differently had his vote been the deciding one. Coakley explicitly said she would vote against such a measure in any case. Had, in fact, Kucinich's vote doomed the bill, the same criticism that applies to Coakley would apply to him.

So-called "liberals" have to realize that political gains are essentially made through the ballot box. What you can get is determined by what you can pass. If the liberals had the votes, there wouldn't be an anti-abortion clause in the House bill -- but there is. If the liberals had the votes, there would be a single-payer bill -- but there isn't. What we have now is just the possibility of some sort of healthcare bill -- and a very imperfect one at that -- actually becoming law. If this should happen, there are years and years to make improvements, just as there have been improvements in Social Security (indexing, for example) and Medicare (a better-than-nothing drug plan). If nothing gets passed, there is a good chance that Republicans will pick up enough seats in next year's elections to make any plan impossible. In fact, failure of healthcare reform, in and of itself, may make the electorate, with its 48 hour memory, more likely to vote against Democrats and for the other party -- the one really committed to big business, Wall Street, and large private insurance companies (see Traitor Joe Lieberman).

Monday, November 9, 2009

On narrowing options

As the Democrats made more and more compromises and sellouts -- more and more mistakes -- their options narrowed. At one point, fresh from an historic election, flush with good will, and in the midst of a serious economic crisis, Barack Obama had the opportunity to make a serious difference in the economy. Instead, he compromised with the banking industry and Wall street. Part of his campaign was the slogan: "You cannot use the same people and expect to get a different result." In a wonderful interview on the Daily Show,
Jon Stewart asked Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe why, given this statement, Obama seems to rely on the advice of Timothy Geitner (Treasury) and Henry Paulson [I would have added Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin as well] -- people with strong ties to the Wall Street firms that were largely responsible for the crisis. Plouffe had no answer except to say, basically, trust Obama. In any case, it shows that Stewart can ask the tough questions, unlike network news which was disgracing itself (once again) with its mindless coverage of the recent election.

By passing up the opportunity to institute meaningful control over investment banking and executive compensation (rewards for largely asocial or antisocial behavior), Obama missed the chance of picking up real public support. This gave the Glenn Beck crowd an opening to sound positively populist This was yet another missed opportunity for the Dems, who seem to be in thrall to the rich and slick-talking banking crowd. (This in spite of repeated and very public warnings from Paul Krugman, Robert Reich and others.) The moment has passed and their options are correspondingly limited since banks are now calling the shots again. Bank profits and executive compensation are up, many are paying back their bailouts, and they are once again trotting out their still-unregulated and poisonous financial "instruments" as well as usurious credit rates. All while refusing to help the businesses that desperately need loans.

The same is happening with healthcare reform, but at least something may be salvaged. Which brings me to Dennis Kucinich, who, on principle at least, is once again 100% correct. He was one of the few Democrats to vote No on the House healthcare bill. I am sure that he had counted the votes and knew quite well that the bill would pass by a slim margin without him. A number of people asked how a "liberal" could vote against the bill, but his reasons are no secret: he posted them on his website. The House bill -- like the Senate bill -- is a giveaway to the insurance industry, granting them enormous profits by requiring healthcare for many millions of people, while allowing a public option for only a small number -- not enough to provide real competition. He did propose a successful amendment which would have allowed states to set up their own "public options"; however, this was stripped away in the final version, presumably with the nod from the administration.

As I said, Kucinich is correct in principle. However, at this point, as in the banking situation, the options have dwindled. Had the Dems made real reform -- single-payer or a very strong public option -- truly the centerpiece, and had they effectively propagandized ("Medicare For All"), they might had made an effective first-strike in public opinion. But that didn't happen, at least partially due to a weak message from Obama. However, the "Public Option" isn't really necessary for true reform; not every country with effective universal healthcare has single-payer or even public option coverage. What is needed is effective regulation of the healthcare insurance industry, especially the rates it charges. This can be achieved through a threat of the public option, as in Reid's bill, or Olympia Snowe's idea of a "trigger" option. At this point the Dems must work with what they have, which includes Snowe. They should try to neutralize Lieberman in private -- perhaps brought around to Reid's bill with a little pressure; if that is impossible, he should be jettisoned in favor of Snowe. Later, he can be purged as the Stalinists used to say.

The point now is for the Dems to get something passed. Like the mainstream media, the public has a memory of about 48 hours -- they've already forgotten that it was the GOP, with its de-regulation and tax-breaks for the rich, that got us into the mess we're in. They have forgotten -- if they ever realized -- that the dependence on workplace health insurance has contributed to the competitive weakness of most American industries (with the exception of insurance providers of course). If the Dems can pass some sort of healthcare bill now, it can be corrected in the future; if they fail, it will be another disaster for them.

When your options have been limited, and the consequences of inaction are dire, you have to go with what is legislatively possible -- Kucinich take note -- and hope that there will be another day to correct things.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rex Stout had words for it

After reading the superficial analyses in today's papers (especially the Globe/AP) about the "significance" of two GOP victories in meaningless governor's races, I can't help but recall Nero Wolfe's immortal words to his factotum Archie Goodwin: "Pfui! Fatuous nonsense."

(However, for a spot-on take, see Gail Collins in today's Times.)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A note to Olympia Snowe

First, see my last blog on the election in N.Y. State. The right-wing bullies of talk radio and corporate excess will try to do to Olympia Snowe of Maine what they did to Dede Scozzafava: enforce ideological purity or force her off the ballot.

What Olympia Snowe should do is switch parties. She doesn't belong with the one-size-fits-all Republican reactionaries. She is already to the left of a whole bunch of Democrats, and is very popular in Maine. Time to desert the sinking ship and move out of Republicanland before the mind-police try to do her in.

Conservatives lose big

I don't give the same weight to yesterday's election results as some other writers. There were only two races that I actually cared about: the gay marriage repeal in Maine and the election in upstate NY. I was disappointed in the former and very happy with the latter.

The governorship race in New Jersey was supposed to be close, but it turned out not to be. Corzine, like his alma mater Goldman-Sacks, was deservedly unpopular, but there is hardly ever an excuse for voting in a Republican; nevertheless, people do it, as they did yesterday. The race in Virginia was touted as a test of Obama, but that idea was a creation of the media. The Republican McDonnell had been favored by a wide margin for a long time. The race might have been close if black voters had turned out for his Democratic opponent Deeds the way they turned out for Obama last year -- but no. This was a disappointment but not really surprising or necessarily significant.

I was a bit surprised by the passage of the gay marriage repeal in Maine. I was hoping that the presumed old yankee live-and-let-live spirit would overcome the "guns, gays and God" rural tendencies -- but no. Portland, Bangor and a few other cities voted against the repeal, but it was not enough to overcome the big turnout in the boonies and the French-Roman Catholic votes in places like Lewiston (I haven't seen detailed tallies yet). Too bad, but gay marriage has come a long way in the last dozen years or so. I'm personally against the state endorsing any kind of marriage. Medical and economic "rights" should be based on civil unions for everyone, with religious or other ritualistic "marriage" services optional.

So, finally, there was the truly significant victory of Democrat Bill Owens over conservative Republican Douglas Hoffman in the Saranac Lake congressional district of northern NY state. This district had gone Republican for over a century! It would have continued so had not the original Republican candidate, moderate Dede Scozzafava, been driven off the ballot by the conservative bullies Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, the "Club for Growth" and the National Standard -- also aided and abetted by pop politics dabbler Sarah Palin. Scozzafava's sin was maintaining a vestige of reasonableness on some issues like the stimulus plan and gay marriage. This is unacceptible to the conservative thought police, who launched all-out war on her. You'd think she was some modern-day Stalinist or Maoist. The Republican party may be reactionary and clinging to old, failed policies, but the conservative emirate is truly gibbering and totally out of touch with all but a sliver of corporate Bourbons and talk-radio ditto-heads. But that's not just my opinion: they directly and inequivocably lost a seat that had been safely Republican for over 100 years. They explicitly made it a test of their power and influence, and they lost. As I had optimistically hoped, even the people of this politically rightish district could not abide a bunch of out-of-state bullies pushing political purity.

This election was not a test of Obama, it was a test of right-wing political power: Limbaugh, Beck and company lost big.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Plus ca change

Outsiders have been getting shot (and killed) in Afghanistan for a mighty long time -- with little to show for it. As part of the imperialist British army, a well-known doctor received a bullet in the (left) shoulder from a locally-made rifle called the Jezail. He nearly died, and was saved only by the heroic efforts of his orderly.

This was on July 27, 1880 near the once again well-known Kandahar province. The doctor was John H. Watson, who later became the associate and scribe for Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle's famous stories. Watson was, of course, fictional, but the long history of carnage in Afghanistan unfortunately was not. Here is part of what Rudyard Kipling had to say about it, more than a century ago:

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!

The above is from "The Young British Soldier"; this link also has a very interesting history of the British wars in Afghanistan.