Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Indexing of healthcare plans

What part of indexing doesn't Congress understand?

Apparently every part.

Minimum wage was never indexed for inflation. For a long time neither was Social Security.

The Alternative Minimum Tax was never indexed for inflation, so now a tax on the very rich is becoming, each year, more and more of a disaster for the middle class.

It's as if nobody on Capital Hill can understand elementary math and percentages. If the cost of living goes up say 5% per year, then a salary that was adequate would have to double after about 15 years to maintain the same purchasing power.

The Senate healthcare bill puts a large tax on so-called "Cadillac" healthcare plans -- ones that cost a family more that $23,000 per year. The tax would be 40% on amounts exceeding that number. Doesn't sound like so much now (unless you sacrificed a salary increase to buy a very good plan to protect your family). However, the cost of healthcare is not increasing at 5% per year; it's more like 15%. At that rate, the not unreasonable $12,500 plan will cost $25,000 in only 5 years; thus, the Ford plan will have become a Cadillac in cost, without any change in coverage.

This taxation of healthcare without indexing is a terrible idea, and it is wholeheartedly supported by the Obama administration. It's another example of a problem that politicians promise will be fixed some time in the future. That's what they said about the Alternative Minimum Tax but it was never really repaired, just covered with a Band-Aid each year.

There may come a time during the reconciliation process where the healthcare bill becomes so bad that even I won't support it any longer.

Will we ever have a political party that actually is dedicated to protecting the people instead of big business?

Monday, December 28, 2009

How and where do we pay for security?

So far, all acts of terrorism against Americans that have taken place on American soil could have been prevented by more careful and intelligent screening. Had the 9/11 terrorists been stopped, on the basis of information about some of them that was known at the time, things would look a lot different today.

On the other hand, screening itself has come under pressure. There have been complaints that garment-penetrating video devices and routine "pat-downs" violate passenger privacy and cause long lines and inconveniences. So what is the trade-off here?

Of course, no one forces anyone to fly, and certainly there are domestic alternatives.

More importantly, however, it is simply wrong to concentrate our efforts and resources on an external "war on terror" which takes place in other peoples' homelands. Tragic as the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were, resulting in the deaths of at least 3000 people, our campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have killed tens if not hundreds of times as many innocents through "collateral damage." Yet, as we are now seeing, in spite of all the slaughter, we have yet to take serious steps domestically to neutralize terrorists at or on our shores. The true costs of air travel in terms of both pollution and security are not being confronted. We seem to worry more about inconveniences and minor impositions on the privacy of Americans than we do about the life and limbs of others that we so easily have sacrificed to try to buy security overseas.

It's time to do the right thing: bring home the troops and bombs and drones, and take care of homeland security by concentrating on our airlines, shipping and cities.

(I know there is still a massive security problem in Pakistan which might get worse if the Taliban becomes very strong in Afghanistan. I believe that this can be handled via close work with both Pakistan and the U.N. There is much that has been written about this issue, as well as the role of India. I hope to discuss these issues in a future blog.)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Security craziness; healthcare bill merging

We now find out that the father of the man who tried to blow up the plane in Detroit, a prominent Nigerian banker, had previously warned authorities that his son seemed to have become a dangerous radical. We should all be demanding to know why, with this advance warning, the passenger was allowed to board without being at least very carefully searched. I think some heads should roll (figuratively that is). See yesterday's blog.

And here's some more craziness (quoted from the Times):

“The system has worked really very, very smoothly over the course of the past several days,” Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary said, in an interview on “This Week” on ABC. Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, used nearly the same language on “Face the Nation” on CBS, , saying that “in many ways, this system has worked.”

To which I reply with the classical double positive: "Yeah, right."

Also, today's N.Y. Times editorial has a pretty reasonable account and recommendations on the coming merger of the House and Senate healthcare bills; the link is HERE.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

This is security?

According to the news sources today, a passenger tried to destroy an airplane as it was landing in Detroit. The incident points out how misguided the Bush-Obama "war on terrorism" has become. We are spending maybe a billion dollars a day working with corrupt warlords in Afghanistan and warring sects in Iraq, in order to neutralize maybe a hundred or so al-Qaeda members in those countries. Meanwhile, a man who was known to government security agencies was able to board a plane of one of our major airlines -- Northwestern -- with incendiary chemicals taped to his legs. How is this responsible airport security? If lists of terrorist suspects are not used to detain and inspect them when they enter an airport, then why are these lists kept?

As usual, it is much more swashbuckling to invade and bomb other countries rather than use intelligence and imagination to defend our own borders. We still don't inspect more than a tiny tiny fraction of the container ships entering our ports. My mother who is in her nineties must remove her shoes for inspection if she flies, but computerized databases of potential terrorists are apparently not used to single out people for more careful searches.

Whatever one's opinion of Israeli politics, it is inconceivable that this could happen on El-Al.

It is clear that al-Qaeda can set up "training camps" probably at dozens of sites throughout the world, and we can't bomb them all. Did the existence of such sites prevent a disfunctional and divided national security apparatus from detaining known terrorist suspects when they boarded planes at Logan airport on 9/11? Maybe the terrorists learned how to use specialized tools like box-cutters at their camps in Afghanistan, but they learned how to fly planes -- into buildings -- right here in the U.S.A.

Security begins at home. End the military adventure and bring the troops home.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Partisan rancor

(I am healthcare-bill-ed out. We'll have to wait and see what happens to the House and Senate versions. I figure that the Senate will get its way on both no public option and the abortion language.)

It is getting tiring reading about the newly discovered "partisan rancor" in Congress. This rancor, in fact, makes a lot of sense. It actually started with the realignment of the parties under Nixon, with a large number of conservatives and Dixiecrats in the south moving from the Democrats to the G.O.P. This was a good thing, since it clarified the political options somewhat: the progressivism of FDR was not a good match for the racial politics of George Wallace (AL), Strom Thurmond (SC), Richard Russell (GA), James Eastland (MS) et. al. Richard Nixon's political advisor Kevin Phillips has long been associated with this "Southern Strategy" idea, though he certainly wasn't its creator. Conservatism, with its promise of weak federal enforcement of civil rights, was a natural setting for segregationists -- just as its advocacy of deregulation provides a natural setting for industrial polluters and producers of dangerous products.

The 1964 election, in which conservative Barry Goldwater lost to L.B.J. was the turning point. Afterwards began a systematic purge of the moderate "Rockefeller" Republicans. The process is nearly complete.

A second divisive element was red-baiting. This technique had been, of course, thoroughly bipartisan since even before Lenin. Together with racism, it was a standard anti-unionionization tool, since it was used to divide working people. (The Communist Party U.S.A. surely had a lot of faults, but it was, for many years, one of the few groups in the U.S. to take a consistent anti-racist position.) However, it was Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy who thoroughly embraced it and honed it as a political tool. It has since become a central weapon in the "conservative" arsenal. Even now the most centrist Democrats -- such as Obama, for example -- are loudly denounced by more than just fringes of the G.O.P. as Marxists. This is not just random "partisan rancor" but Republican endorsed -- indeed fostered -- political mudslinging.

Finally, and most absolutist, is the Republican embrace of religious fundamentalists. There is nothing so single-minded and self-righteous as a group of people who have, by their own claim, a direct conduit to the very word of God. These are the shock troops of a cultural war that was unilaterally declared by conservatives against Americans who don't share their religious values. The central controversy of course has been abortion. While many -- possibly most -- Americans are conflicted about this issue, the intransigence and absolutism of the so-called "Right to Lifers" goes far beyond mere rancor. They state, without qualification, that their opponents are either murderers or accessories to murder. For most of these people, abortion is the only issue that they vote on. There is, of course, no way of changing their minds. The point is, by embracing them the G.O.P. has made absolute rancor a central plank in their platform.

So where do the Democrats stand in all this rancor? They have never purged themselves. They represent a tiny group of "leftists" (maybe only Bernie Sanders), a large group of actual "centrists" (somewhere between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson), and a sprinkling of conservatives (somewhat to the right of the late Nelson Rockefeller). Like their Republican counterparts, most take a lot of money from lobbyists. However, they have some diversity, since they make a point of trying to include women and minority groups. Since they represent a relatively broad spectrum of political thought, they are not the instigators of this political rancor we hear so much about. If they were as united as their opponents there would never be any question about their ability to break filibusters. Al,so, they would have used reconciliation the way George Bush used it to pass his tax breaks for the rich.

The Party Of the Rich has as its strategy the elimination of every vestige of government activism except as it benefits the wealthy and well-connected. The central idea is to weaken government financially as much as possible, either by outright cuts in programs, or by inefficiences -- such as massive tax cuts for the wealthy -- that waste its money. Grover Norquist, founder of the right-wing "Club for Growth", put it concisely: “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” (so much for the Republicans' concern over Medicare and Social Security): "Starving the Beast" as they call it (for more documentation, Google the term).

In short, there is political rancor because the POR has instigated it through their single-minded minions: the "tea party"-ers, the anti-abortion Taliban, and the "every liberal is a commie" crowd. Rancor didn't just happen, it is a planned political technique employed aggressively by the POR to bring down the current President and his party.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Avatar: movie review

I have never written a movie review before, but I'll give it a shot, simply because "Avatar" has raised many political issues in addition to esthetic ones.

First of all, except for some pretty impressive technological feats, the movie is quite derivative in several aspects. The idealization of cultures that are "close to the earth" (in this case, a far-away moon) has been around a long time -- the 1990 Kevin Costner film "Dances With Wolves" certainly comes to mind as a model. Next, the lush and natural scenery and computer-generated exotic creatures appeared early and often in "Jurassic Park" (1993). Finally, the bad-guys' vast and ponderous machines of destruction appeared at least as early as "Star Wars" (1977). (Also, even I remember the headless fighting machine controlled by a single person, responding to hand and leg movements like a gigantic punching pantograph. Didn't Ridley -- Sigourney Weaver's previous avatar -- use one in Cameron's "Alien" or some "Alien" redux?)

What seems to create the biggest stir in "Avatar" is its politics. James Cameron, the director, has supposedly stated in an interview that it is about how "greed and imperialism tend to destroy the environment." (The only reference I have for this quote is a column by Will Heaven in the Telegraph (UK). Heaven thinks the film is "racist" -- a charge I dispute below.)
With or without Mr. Cameron's confirmation, this is clearly the major theme.

The film is not exactly subtle. In case you haven't seen it yet, the plot is set up in the first few minutes. A large party of spaceships from Earth have arrived on a distant earth-sized moon called Pandora. Pandora is a lush tropical paradise of wonderful plants and creatures vaguely reminiscent of early Earth. The CG rendering is absolutely gorgeous -- perhaps the highpoint of the film. The intelligent creatures, called Na'vi, are very tall, exquisitely slim and catlike bluish hominoids. They are clearly in tune with their roots. This is a pun in the sense that they have a way of connecting their appendage of root-like animated tendrils with parts of various plants and animals to achieve some sort of interspecies non-verbal communication. Human scientists later claim that the Pandora's entire tree system is interconnected by an astronomical number of rootlets as well.

Unfortunately for Pandora, humans have discovered it contains large deposits of something they are willing to do just about anything to obtain, a valuable but rare chemical called, naturally, "unobtainium" -- just about the only intentional bit of humor in the whole film.

Most of the flotilla consists of military equipment and personel, but there is also a small group of scientists who are taken along for PR and more sinister purposes. The scientists, headed by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) have found a way of combining Na'vi DNA with the DNA of certain humans to create clones that in most respects are Na'vi but are controlled by the minds of these humans, who remain, entranced, in high-tech pods; thus, the clones are the eponymous avatars. The scientists believe that these avatars will be used to negotiate with the Na'vi for the right to excavate unobtainium. Of course, we all know that this is not going to happen -- else why the mercenary troops and ship after ship of weapons? In fact, one of the clone controllers is not a scientist at all, but Jake Sully, a paralyzed Marine whose recently deceased brother was an actual scientist with the avatar project. Jake is soon recruited by the military to scope out the Na'vi while he is controlling his Na'vi avatar.

Without going too far, let me just say that Jake, while mingling with the Na'vi, learns to respect their oneness with Pandora and its lifeforms, and their noble-savage ways. His education is in the hands of Neytiri, a female -- who is also a person of high rank among the Na'vi. He and she fall in love -- he "goes native" as they say. Eventually Jake must try to save the Na'vi -- and indeed the whole of Pandora -- from the destruction he knows will come at the hands of the expeditionary force of earthlings. In fact, Neytiri teaches him so well that he becomes a leader of sorts, and tries to energize both the Na'vi and the rest Pandora to stave off the inevitable attack by the usual high-tech "star-troopers."

What could be wrong with this pretty simple plot, pitting a cruel, mechanized, environment- destroying military against a peaceful hunter-gatherer society of beautiful and ecology-respecting cat-people?

There are two main criticisms I have encountered. First, that the Na'vi are portrayed, in a condescending way, as primitives who are naive about technology and desperately in need of a leader sophisticated in the devious ways of earthlings, to alert them to their danger. This leads to the second objection: the Na'vi can only be saved by a member of the "highly advanced" race of invaders; namely by Jake and his avatar. As some put it: the dark-skinned natives must be saved by a white man with a guilty conscience -- a "traitor to his race."

Well, I just don't buy this rather knee-jerk left-oid critique. It misses the point of what the picture is and what Cameron is trying to do. "Avatar" is a very high-tech example of good old agitprop: propaganda -- pushing of ideas -- expressed so as to appeal to the emotions. Its message and basic story are not particularly subtle -- about the level of a comic book -- but it is constructed in a very deliberate manner to evoke a sympathetic response. Here are some key points.

1. The bad guys are really bad. In fact, they are unabashedly modeled on the "Ugly American", 21st century version. The head military honcho, Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is a combination of the worst small-town racist macho cop you've ever seen in a movie, with the original unstoppable Terminator. The entire force exudes the worst of U.S. military bravado, and cruelty. Make no mistake: these are not generic earthlings we're talking about, this is explicitly the U.S. military in its "shock and awe," blast the towel-heads fullness. ("Shock and Awe" and "War against Terror" are phrases that I recall actually hearing in the movie.) They are comic-book bad, and they have modern technology on their side, which makes high-tech look bad also. That's the way Cameron sets it up, and that's the way a lot of people feel.

2. The Na'vi are really good, in the sentimental way that lots of people now feel about indigenous cultures. Of course it's unrealistic: Africans helped sell their fellows into slavery; Native Americans burned forests to concentrate game -- there are plenty of examples. That doesn't matter for agitprop -- it's making the point, in easy-to-understand terms, that it's good to work with your planet, not against it.

3. Liberal guilt is good -- any manifestations of a guilty conscience arising from actual guilt is a very good thing. After all, would you recommend the alternative: doing evil and not feeling bad about it, and not atoning? It is standard fare in morality tales for people to become redeemed via righting wrongs for which they felt responsible -- in fact, were complicit. Jake had to try to help the Na'vi after it became clear that his avatar reports were being used to destroy the Na'vi -- that's the way these stories work. Would it be better if he said: "Screw the gooks"?

4. The Na'vi had no idea how cruel the earthling mercenaries could be, and how powerful. How exactly were they to learn? By being totally crushed? How could Jake actually atone for his actions unless he offered to help? Jake, through his avatar, had become one of them. He was not superior in either his bravery or his strength, and he looked just like any other Na'vi. He had learned from Neytiri how to conquor the flying creatures (Banshees); she also told him that five Na'vi had, in the past, conquored the giant flying creature called the Toruk, so he knew from her that it could be done. When he finally tames one, it is not unprecedented, but it gives his warning about the earthlings more verisimilitude. He was just one of many Na'vi warriors who fought the armada, and he wasn't the overall leader, who was the heir designate and major warrior Tsu'Tey. (Tsu'Tey later dies heroically in combat). I don't think Jake's role is any more cultural elitism than Martin Luther King improving his status as a leader by studying Ghandi or theology at Boston University. It is, after all, important to know your enemy. Both King and Ghandi knew that non-violence would work for them. I don't think it would have worked against Hitler or Genghis Khan, and Jake knew it wouldn't work for the Na'vi. He knew, as did the Na'vi themselves, that salvation lay with Pandora itself. It was neither Jake nor the Na'vi alone who saved everyone, it was the myriad creatures of Pandora that came to the rescue and turned the tide (as did the bacteria in "War of the Worlds").

It is, of course, possible to have created a totally different story, one in which there were no avatars and the imperial fleet was destroyed solely by a moon conscious of itself. At one point I thought that, instead of a big battle scene, the Pandora organism itself would cause the ground under the feet and machines of the imperial army to simply liquify and, like quicksand, swallow them. In a way this would have been a much nicer ending, but not because Cameron's version is at all racist. I actually liked the idea of the avatars, of the love story with Neytiri (and her strength and skills), and of Jake's guilt and redemption. Comic books and agitprop have to target the sentimentalities of their audiences.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Congress marches on

Pretty much as expected, the Healthcare Bill moves on, with no public option and annoying abortion restrictions. I was disappointed -- but not surprised -- that the Medicare buy-in was scrapped, but after all, it was a challenge to the beloved health insurance industry. The Dems, once this is passed, need to take the propaganda offensive with spots touting their historic accomplishments, for certainly the Party-Of-the-Rich (POR) will continue attacking it publicly.

But now we move on to the a bill (rep. Frank) and a half (sen. Dodd) to regulate the financial industry. It looks like Chris Dodd will be the new Joe Lieberman -- defending his big campaign contributors to the death. He is one of the largest, if not the largest, recipient of bank and investment industry money. He initially signalled that he would write a bill including consumer safeguards and regulation of risky investment. But Dodd's political fortunes, at least in terms of voter support, is very dubious at this time -- partially because of his previous big-bonuses sell-out during the recent financial crisis. His financial masters no doubt see this vulnerability, and have stepped in to remind him that without their money he is toast. Once people start talking about "negotiating" with the POR you know the end to their usefulness to the public is in sight.

Look for a total cave-in by the Dems and the President on this -- won't be even close, the way it was with healthcare. The financial industry has been the angel for the new Democratic party -- the party of Goldman-Sachs, the party of FDR-not. This will pretty much guarantee the continuation of risky investments, big bonuses, crises and bailouts. Of course, we can't afford another bailout, but don't worry, the fat-cats have well-stocked larders on their yachts and many (tax-sheltered) ports of call in a storm.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Pass it already! Also: What the Dems must do.

In my previous post I referred to an excellent video interview by Bill Moyers of Matt Taibbi (see his piece in Rolling Stone Magazine) and Bob Kuttner (editor, The American Prospect); in case you missed it, it can be found on PBS HERE.

I agree with both Taibbi and Kuttner on the shortcomings of both Obama and the Democratic Party -- especially vis-a-vis healthcare reform. Taibbi thinks that the current Senate bill is so flawed that its passage will hurt the Democrats badly enough that it's best to kill it if it can't be changed during reconciliation with the House bill. Kuttner thinks that the failure of the bill will be so catastrophic that the Democrats and Obama will be crippled and the reactionaries revitalized to the extent that the disaster would be even greater. I agree with Kuttner. Failure of even this travesty of a bill will be played out in the press -- with the active encouragement of the Republicans -- as the defeat of the backbone of Obama's presidency. It will render him a lame duck for the remainder of his term, and the Democrats, with a toothless leader -- ducks don't have teeth -- will pay a heavy price in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

As both Taibbi and Kuttner point out, the three most effective presidents in American history, Lincoln, Roosevelt and LBJ, all were backed and identified with major social and political movements, from which they drew great strength: abolitionism for Lincoln, the labor (and socialist) movement for FDR, and the civil rights for LBJ. At the moment, there is no important movement associatied with Obama, nor is any progressive one on the horizon.

People are angry, frightened and confused by many recent developments. These include, of course, the terrible persistent unemployment resulting from a disastrous financial meltdown, accompanied by a massive bailout for the thoroughly culpable but unrepentent banking and investment industries; also, the massive increases in healthcare, college and home ownership costs; also, shifting gender roles; also, the changes in U.S. demographics which are leading to the decline in the traditional power of the white middle and working classes. This last development, I believe, accounts for a lot of the shockingly virulent attacks on Obama from the right, in which he is characterized as both a communist and fascist, and depicted as an incarnation of both Lenin and Hitler. (I think MLK was only called a communist and Leninist.) When people are upset and fearful, racism usually can't be far away; it, along with red-baiting, has always been a standard tool for fighting unionism and other popular movements.

I remember when Bill Clinton was running for president I heard a speech of his in the Boston area. He laid on all sorts of populist phrases and had the crowd cheering wildly. He did this for a week in other campaign stops around the country, and his poll numbers began shooting up. Then, for some reason, he stopped that tack and started saying lots of standard political boiler plate, full of the usual boilerplate of patriotism and apple pie. And his ratings went down. It was almost as if he became fearful of actually engaging people in political feelings that were powerful, different, and important to them.

The only hope for Obama and the Democratic party is to start using public speeches and the traditional communication outlets -- the press and TV -- to promote populist progressive ideas, and to paint their political opponents as elitist, overly wealthy, and greedy; in other words, exposing them for what they really are. The Dems had the opportunity before and just after the last election to rally people behind them with populist messages on taxes, healthcare and economic inequalities, but they didn't, thus squandering an opportunity that was eagerly seized by the tea-partiers and thugs at Fox news. Will they never learn that the time to start the advertising blitz is before you need the support of the voters; waiting till a program is before congress or an election is taking place is already too late.

Can Obama and the Dems learn how to use these things? If they can't, we'll have to wait until the next disaster of the "free market" for an opportunity to rise again.

Taibbi & Kuttner with Bill Moyers

Check this VIDEO out; more later.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Perhaps it is time to consider reconciliation to pass a meaningful healthcare reform bill. Virtually all "reform" has been gutted from the current Senate bill. President Obama, who has been rolled by the united Republican opposition in both houses, is now losing support among progressives in his own party. With neither support from the left nor right, and not much in the middle, he is rapidly becoming a lame duck after barely a year in office.

In the past I have questioned Obama's leadership, but have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, assuming that there was still some scheme or plan up his sleeve other than talking about bipartisanship. But now I have come to believe that "there is no there there." The president is smart and a very good speaker and speech writer, but he can't seem to commit himself to actual leading and taking risks. He may not be Karl Marx or Hitler, but just an Ivy-League Hamlet.

I still think it is essential that the Dems pass some sort of healthcare reform bill. I have now given up hope on anything meaningful coming from the Senate. The current bill will certainly cover more people, but it is clear that a lot of them will not be able to afford it, though they will be required to have coverage. Many of the protections that were necessary, like a cap on total annual out-of-pocket expenses and protection against unreasonable premiums, seem to have been removed. True, policies can not be denied on the basis of pre-existing conditions, but insurance companies can still make policies of this type impossibly expensive. Older Americans will be charged up to 4 times the premiums of younger ones.

The whole point of making insurance mandated was to obtain such a large statistical population base that the cost of unhealthy patients would be balanced out by the savings on healthy ones. That's what insurance is all about. Under the current bill the private insurers get the captive payers of premiums, but have no incentive whatsoever to keep rates low. -- 'cause there's no public option. If the insurance companies keep rates high (as they always have), they will still get payed, but now at the expense of subsidies from taxpayers. Sounds like the usual Bush transfer of wealth from the middle class to the wealthy. Is that what we elected Obama for?

Given that passing no healthcare bill will be a (well-deserved) terrible disaster to the Dems, and passing the current bill which everyone is beginning to hate will be simply a disaster for the Dems, they really have only two reasonable possibilities.

1. Have the Senate pass this nearly worthless bill and hope that some good things will be put back when it goes for reconciliation with the better House bill (good luck) or

2. Have the President and party leaders announce that good things ("public option", Medicare buy-in, cap on expenditures etc.) will be put back in the bill and the whole package will be presented as a "reconciliation" bill under the 1974 budget act. This will enable it to be passed by a simple majority in both houses. The Republicans will shit bricks, but they used reconciliation to ram through Bush tax cuts for the rich on several occasions, so too bad for them. Their opinions hardly should count for much these days.

I think that number 2, accompanied by a big ad campaign and strong attacks on the G.O.P. is the best choice. It may, just may, change Obama's image from eloquent wimp to winner. He should read some of F.D.R.'s old speeches and adapt his style and content accordingly.

The rap on the Democrats is that they can occasionally win elections but can't govern. I'm beginning to think that this is true. If it is, there is not much hope for this country, since the other party has already shown that it is willing to wreck us all in order to help the rich and greedy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Abortion and anti-abortion

It is getting tiresome hearing congressmen say that people who are morally opposed to abortion shouldn't have to pay for someone's abortion. This sounds nice and considerate, but it's humbug because it is not the way a secular democracy works.

For a number of years my wife and I actively opposed the war in Vietnam, which we considered murderous, illegal and immoral (we still feel that way). We withheld some of our taxes -- those which were obviously earmarked for the war, such as the telephone excise tax -- and helped with draft counseling etc. We fully understood that what we were doing was civil disobediance and were prepared to pay the consequences -- which we did, financially, on several occasions. Although it never came to that, I also planned to refuse to serve should I be drafted, and was prepared to go to jail as a consequence. We and most of our friends understood that this was the nature of protest. If we had had the votes, we could have stopped the war by cutting off funds, say. But, the peace movement never had "the votes". We never expected out opponents -- who had the votes -- to grant us a dispensation because of our moral beliefs.

Those who believe that abortion is murder have a religious belief about when life starts. Some day they may have the votes to amend the Constitution or, in some other legislative way or judicial way, make abortion once again illegal. But until such time, it remains legal and they have no right whatsoever to prevent their tax money from paying for it. All they can do is refuse to pay taxes, as we did in protesting the war, and take the consequences. That's the way it works. If they, as we, think that our tax money should not be bailing out A.I.G. and hedge funds and risk-taking banks that make millionaires out of their CEO's, then they can find some means of protest, but they can't expect the government to pass laws exempting them from paying their taxes. Neither can they expect those of us who view abortion differently to cave in to their views, no matter how earnestly they hold them.

In fact, the case against abortion is even weaker than the case against speculative banks, since it rests solely on religious belief. In this country we have a separation between church and state. Folks can't expect to be exempted from taxes solely because they have moral objections to some of the uses to which these taxes are put. If that were the case there would be tax anarchy, since there are hundreds of causes that people could claim objection to, from saving (or killing) whales to using (or not using) fossil fuels, to plural (or monogamous) marriage, to maintaining armies, to helping (or not helping) the less fortunate. Anyone can cook up a moral or religious principle to justify opposing something they don't like. Should Jews be allowed to withhold that portion of their taxes that is used to prepare pork dishes for heads-of-state banquets?

Because politicians are afraid of one-issue zealots -- and here I mean the hard-core anti-abortionists -- they let this minority push them around. There's not much the rest of us can do about it, but let's not get all sentimental about them having to pay taxes for something that only they abhor: heck, lots of us do this all the time, and we all have the option of performing civil disobediance and taking the consequences.

For the record, I don't believe the fetus is a person during the first trimester; I am concerned and uncertain about the second semester, and I believe the fetus is a real person -- and likely capable of surviving outside the womb -- during a good part of the last trimester. Consequently, I am quite OK with 1st trimester abortions, uneasy about 2nd trimester ones, but wouldn't make them illegal. As for my general position -- including 3rd trimester abortions, here is it:

1. In EVERY case the life of the mother has precedence over the life of the fetus and
2. The mother ALWAYS has a right to have the fetus removed from her body at any time, but does NOT have the right to have a viable fetus killed (except in case 1.)

(Note: "viable" means "is likely to live outside the womb.")

I welcome comments.

Lieberman, Nelson NO, Snowe Collins YES

Too late: The Dems caved in to Lieberman.

Not too late: Don't cave in to Nelson.

Time to negotiate with rational people: Snowe and Collins, as I've said before. There's not much left of healthcare "reform" but we need to pass it to keep Obama from lameduck-hood.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Traitor Joe again

I guess I've said it a lot, but it bears repeating: jettison Lieberman. He is unreasonable, sanctimonious and undependable, and should have been subject to party discipline more than a year ago when he became a McCain supporter. What set this off is Lieberman just announcing that he'll vote to scuttle healthcare reform if it includes the option of letting uninsured people age 55-65 buying in, at full cost, to Medicare. This is exactly an option that Lieberman unequivocally supported barely 3 months ago, as you can see from this video. What a scoundrel!

Of course, the Senate Democrats have all but abandoned the "reform" in healthcare reform -- what else could they do when they established their willingness, from the beginning, to cave in on anything that would discomfit the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. As I've said before, this bill is now all about not embarrassing Obama and making him a lame-duck president after just a year in office. (Lame duck because it will guarantee that the opposition will defeat him via the pseudo-fillibuster on anything that matters.) This would give the G.O.P. reactionaries a propaganda advantage in the minds of the forgetful public; the party of the rich and powerful has been exactly about one thing: destroying Obama at all and any cost.

In connection with this, one can not underestimate the importance of fighting the resurgence of the Big Lie: the current recession is the fault of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and environmentalism and income taxes and Medicare and other "liberal" policies. You can read it in the WSJ editorial page or the Hannity Forum on the Web etc. It's as if A.I.G. and unregulated derivatives and subprime loans had never existed. T.A.R.P., started under Bush, is now somehow, in this revisionist view, an Obama program. The war in Iraq is rarely mentioned, and Obama will be criticized for anything that happens there or in Afghanistan -- wars that were both started and bungled by the Bush administration.

Of course, the Democrats are only marginally better, as a party, than the other one. Clinton and many of his economic advisors (e.g. Rubin, Geitner and Summers) were big advocates of deregulation, as was Alan Greenspan, whom Clinton never disputed. Goldman-Sachs, then as now, has been a shadow Council of Economic Advisors. However, the missteps of Clinton and company were done over in spades during 8 years of Bush-Cheney. Unfortunately, the public seems to have a memory of only a few months, so it doesn't seem to matter who did what.

Unless and until the Democrats have some sort of party principles and some sort of party discipline, they will be ineffective, either as a majority or as an opposition. Which brings me back to Lieberman. Apparently at Obama's request, he was brought back into the Democratic caucus without losing his coveted chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee. This move was unpopular among rank and file Democrats then, and is even more so now -- see a new poll reported by The Atlantic. If the healthcare bill fails, it is essential, essential, that he lose his chairmanship, be purged from the majority caucus, and be publicly condemned as the major culprit in the demise of universal healthcare. The people of Connecticut (one of the wealthiest states) should have to pay, by the loss of his power, for re-electing him after he lost the Democratic primary. In a democracy, actions at the ballot box must have collective consequences.

I still think the Dems will get a healthcare bill through, but even if it passes, it will be a mostly hollow bill, enriching the insurance industry, and largely because of Lieberman's obstructionism.

I'll have more to say about Ben Nelson and the anti-abortion crowd later.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Barney Frank and online gambling

It turns out that my congressman Barney Frank, whom I'm generally a fan of, is working hard to legalize online gambling. More precisely, working hard to overturn a law which makes online gambling effectively impossible by forbidding the use of credit cards to pay for it. (There is an exception: online credit card gambling on horse races is currently quite legal.)

This law was passed in the later days of the Bush administration, probably as a gift to his fundamentalist (and anti-gambling) base. Frank is a self-proclaimed non-gambler, but seems to be enjoying his status as an icon of the professional gambling interests. My guess is that they have no other use for him, but they do like his stand on paying gambling debts with plastic. He has also collected more than $50,000 in campaign contributions from these people.

Mr. Frank claims that people should have a right to spend their money on legal activities as they see fit.

Frank's position is OK as a sort of general principle, but of course it can't be taken too literally. After all, it is legal to finance political campaigns, but not legal to give unlimited amounts of money to them -- especially anonymously. (I believe that Frank supports this kind of "campaign finance reform". ) It is also legal to buy alcohol, but not if you are underage or try to drink more in a bar when you have reached the limits of sobriety; in fact, bartenders have been held liable for drunken accidents when they failed to cut off the customers who subsequently caused them. It is also legal to buy legal drugs, but some of them require a doctor's prescription in order to protect people from their potential dangers.

So it is for online credit-card gambling. Unlike cash gambling, where (with some exceptions) you can't spend what you don't have, debts rung up through, say, online plastic poker can quickly max out one or more credit cards. Since credit-card companies regularly give people credit lines well above their ability to pay in a reasonable time, this can have disastrous effects. The main potential victims are compulsive gamblers and younger people with access to their parents' credit cards. I have read of dozens of accounts illustrating this; there must be thousands more that don't get reported. These date from before the enactment of the law that Frank is challenging.

I am not against gambling and I am not against online gambling, even with credit cards. But, something extremely careful must be done to prevent financial disasters from happening to vulnerable people. If credit cards are used, the least that should be required is that they be used only before the gambling is to take place, not to finance that "one last big hand" to make back money just lost -- the Gambler's Ruin. I can see people setting up limited accounts at gambling sites, using credit cards, for a fixed amount of money, and well in advance of play. The sites would have to check the cards' limits and perhaps only allow a certain percentage. The sites would also have to obtain written verification from the owner of the card, via the address associated with the card. This would require, then, that parents acknowledge that their card is being used for gambling purposes. It would also give the card issuers time to check the bona fides of the gambling site. You would think that banks would want to do this, but apparently they may not be currently liable for fraudulent commercial sites.

This is just the beginning. We need a lot of thoughtful preparation before we open up an activity that can lead to much personal harm.

(Just out of curiosity, does anyone know of any other federal law that restricts the use of credit cards in purchasing legal goods or services?)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Regulating Wall Street

Since banks and financial institutions are some of the largest contributors to senators and representatives, it is no surprise that these organizations have become less and less regulated in recent times. The last serious attempt to curb their speculative excesses occurred during the grandparent of all financial disasters, the Great Depression. The regulations put into effect then -- including the Glass-Steagall act -- have been gradually but continuously eroded, most rapidly during the Clinton and Bush administrations.

The House just passed (today) Barney Frank's bill to re-regulate certain aspects of the financial industry, including not just banks but "private equity" investment houses. It would, for the first time, regulate derivatives, equities whose worth depends on the speculative value of other securities such as mortgages and insurance policies. It would also set up a kind of consumer protection agency for public investors.

Opposition consists mostly of ludicrous begging of the question, such as the charges that it would add ponderous regulations and expenses for the financial industry. Well duh! The lack of regulation just led us to the loss of trillions of dollars and tens of millions of jobs. Fly-by-night speculators and quick-profit traders have been bailed out and enriched at the expense of the vast majority of Americans. Tough ponderous regulation of their activities is exactly what we need to slow them down. However much regulations may cost to put in place and enforce can only be a tiny fraction of what their absence has cost us so far, and may cost us in the future if we don't have themn.

Part of the bill creates a way of dismantling large organizations deemed "too big to fail." Frank's House committee specified that the cost of doing this, when said businesses seem to be in a death spiral -- as were Bank of America, CitiCorp, AIG etc. not so long ago -- would be paid for by a tax on all financial corporations. Seems fair to me -- especially since, for once, the American taxpayers won't have to foot the bill run up by the Wall Street high flyers.

Let's hope the supporters of the bill can preempt the Big Lie campaign about it that is already being ramped up: "Government Interference", "Anti-Wall-Street, Anti-Business" etc. etc.

You betcha!

(Let's hope it also kills a few jobs -- those of the overpaid corporate CEOs.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Major movement on healthcare

Healthcare reform in the Senate is proceeding pretty much as I had expected.., er, hoped. The Office of Personel Management plan, combined with lowering the age for Medicare enrollment, has turned out to be a winner. It looks like both Republican senators from Maine -- Snowe and Collins -- like the idea, as do Democratic waverers Lincoln and Landrieu; even Lieberman seems at least lukewarm.

The next issue is abortion. It is unclear exactly how adament Ben Nelson is about not voting for the bill unless it contains a Stupak-like amendment (the one passed by the House). Nelson's attempt at including such a measure failed, but he hasn't definitively ruled out voting for the bill anyway. Getting Snowe and Collins on board may make the issue moot, however.

Assuming the Dems get 60 votes, the bill still has to be reconciled with the House version, which contains a "public option." I don't think that this will be a problem: the House will go along with the Senate version on this issue. What may be trickier is the Stupak anti-abortion amendment supporters. However, it will be much more difficult for Democrats in the House (who have a commanding majority) to scuttle the bill over abortion once it has already passed the Senate; also, supporters need only a simple majority in the House. I'm sure Obama and the party leaders will put the screws to them.

I make a hopeful guess that the current Senate bill will, in fact, pass narrowly in the Senate -- assuming it gets a reasonable expense report card from the Congressional Budget Office -- and that the House will go along with the Senate version.

Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Obama's speech & healthcare this week

Since I last blogged, about a week ago, we've gone through Obama's speech, healthcare debate in the Senate, gate crashers at the White House, and Tiger Woods' feet of clay. So, OK, here goes.

1. Obama's speech was pretty much as expected, and it doesn't change my arguments for starting to remove our troops; if anything, the situation is worse because now no one (besides John Kerry) seems to think that his plan has any real chance of succeeding. We don't have the money, as the President himself conceded, nor the troops as several generals have pointed out, nor the will to make sacrifices like instituting a war tax. I believe that Obama has made an honest attempt at finding some sort of "middle ground": the problem is that the problem has no middle ground solution. The sop he threw to the anti-war faction -- which now seems to be a majority of people both here and abroad -- is a date for beginning the pullback of forces. If that date does not represent a real commitment to withdraw our troops, as seems to be the case, then we are in for a siege that will not work and that we can't afford. If it is a real commitment, then, as most military experts seem to agree, we can't possibly "win" since our opponents will simply wait us out, while we have no realistic hope of a suddenly revved up Afghan army and police to replace us. And then we still have to face al-Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia.

2. The good news in the healthcare debate is that Olympia Snowe is once again a player. As I've said many times, she is more of a "mensch" than many so-called Democrats, and I think she genuinely wants reasonably-priced universal healthcare, as opposed to nearly all of the other Republicans and Joe Lieberman. She is currently working on a promising plan that may involve the Office of Personel Management becoming a bargaining agent for the uninsured. Since a meaningful "public option" -- much less single-payer -- has long been a dead issue (though still supported by a majority of the public), new ideas are needed and this may be a good one. Most of the discussion is now going on behind the scenes in the Senate. However, if a good compromise plan is worked out, Snowe may bring her Maine colleague Susan Collins into the fold as well, so Lieberman can be left to twist in the wind. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

I hate to say it, but it is becoming clear that we have to support Obama and hope that his programs succeed, simply because, if he badly loses favor either over Afghanistan or healthcare, it will help the party of the rich to regain power and continue in their effort to transfer more wealth to the wealthy. This is not merely a matter of opinion: 8 years of Bush and company have driven this country into a ditch from which we may never be towed. We simply can't afford any more of the same. The Democrats should have been running daily spots reminding people who got us into this mess. It's not too late now; Americans have very short memories...

BTW, each day it becomes clearer that the Republican party has no agenda other than to embarrass and undermine the President. They are now voting to make healthcare more expensive by cutting out cost-saving measures that were put in to make the reform actual reform. The G.O.P. is so beneath contempt, so bankrupt of any positive ideas other than more tax cuts for the wealthy, that I don't think I will even mention them in future blogs. If you want to hear attacks on these bottom-feeders, you might as well tune in to MSNBC.

3. What do White House gate-crashers and Jurassic Park have in common? They both show, one through reality, the other through fiction, that the non-linear world is neither entirely predictable nor controllable. In both cases, the "good guys" had state-of-the-art equipment: cell-phones, motion detectors, psychological profiles for the Secret Service, and a can't-possibly-reproduce all-female dinosaur population for the Jurassic Park scientists. And yet, things just didn't work out.

4. About Tiger Woods: It's been fun reading all the gossip, but there's nothing to say. Too bad people, even rich and famous ones, can't find happiness in their families.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Guns and Butter but no new taxes -- again!

See retired general Douglas Macgregor's short and highly critical analysis of Obama's deployment plans in today's N.Y. Times.

Also in today's Times, Bob Herbert has very fine column, making pretty much the same points I've been making the past few weeks.

Unfortunately, Obama has succumbed to the standard weakness of U.S. presidents: fear of seeming weak and inordinate respect for military theories and the military in general. I'm afraid tonight's speech will be a big disappointment (at least for me). Lyndon Johnson also had big plans for America, domestically (the "Great Society") and in Viet Nam; all he needed was a few more troops, just a few more...