Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Hijacked Political Process

To take back the ship, control the money

By: Mike Krauss
Bucks County Courier Times

There has been a lot of commentary describing the U.S. government as “gridlocked,” or “frozen.” Typical was a recent cover story in Time Magazine by a professor of “political science and journalism” who sought to explain “Why Washington’s Tied Up in Knots” and what to do about it.

According to the good professor, the problem is that the federal government is held hostage by partisan and polarized political parties, incapable of the cooperation required to get results. His call for cooperation was echoed on the next page by former GOP congressional leader Newt Gingrich.

What rot. There’s lots of cooperation and plenty gets done in Washington.

Republican Gingrich worked side by side with Democrat Clinton to set up the Wall Street casino. When Wall Street crapped out, Presidents Bush and Obama and both parties in Congress joined forces to bail it out. And both parties are cooperating brilliantly to insure that no one responsible for the looting of America will ever be held accountable for their actions, let alone be prosecuted and sent to jail.

Democrats and Republicans together approved with almost complete unanimity a U.S. military budget that is now larger than all other nations combined.

For over thirty years, presidents and congressional leaders of both parties have labored shoulder to shoulder to defend corporate profit and the wealth of the wealthy from the threat of good wages, affordable health care and a rising standard of living for ordinary Americans.

And they get results:

Wall Street and America’s super wealthy have an ever larger share of America’s corporate profit and private wealth. It required taking the jobs, homes and savings of tens of millions of Americans, but Democrats and Republicans working together got the job done.

American manufacturing has been decimated and the good paying jobs sent abroad. The new health care legislation protects the profits of insurers, drug manufacturers and ambulance chasing lawyers. A gargantuan military is deployed mindlessly around the globe to feed the insatiable appetite of defense contractors while the public schools fail.

This is possible not because the two political parties are partisan, but because they are bought, and work in lock step to protect their buyers. In this they are abetted by much of the national media, now owned by corporate conglomerates whose profits are protected by the government they “report” on.

The teamwork is almost flawless.

Perhaps the best way to understand what has happened to the United States is to think of the nation as a ship, a modern luxury liner. The ship has been hijacked, The captain and crew have gone over to the hijackers.

For a while, the passengers didn’t notice. Meals still got served, the toilets worked and there was lots of entertainment for the entire family.

But suddenly, all the things the passengers thought they had paid for are available only for an additional cost; while the captain, crew and hijackers are living it up on the penthouse deck with the passengers’ money.

The passengers will have to fight to get the ship back. It is all about the money.

For example, the first remedy proposed for the mock-ill described in the Time essay was to hold open primary elections for candidates for president and Congress, no more caucuses, so that independent voters can moderate the extremes of right and left that now dominate those elections.

But the real problem is not Republican and Democratic candidates with starkly different views on the issues. Clear choices are not inherently evil. The problem is that these elections cost a fortune, and to raise the money the candidates of both parties must turn to the hijackers and take their orders with their money.

Open primary elections without lower election costs and an alternative source of funding is a half measure that will accomplish little.

The second remedy proposed in the Time essay was to create more issue focused media forums with civil debate and pointed discussion. I almost laughed when I read it. This is the sort of wishful thinking that perhaps only a professor of political science and journalism could propose with a straight face.

What is possible is equal access to the media, so that all candidates can get their message out. But again, it must be affordable and paid for.

Finally, the Time essay asked readers to imagine the many benefits if federal elections included lots of “latter day (Ross) Perots, cranky, independent candidates determined to punish both parties for not getting anything done.”

This bordered on the infantile. Ross Perot was a billionaire with lots of his own money to spend. And while crankiness has a certain charm, as a rule it is not an asset when dealing with a nation as complex as the U.S., world leaders as touchy as the Chinese and enemies as ruthlessly immoral as terrorists.

What is needed are seasoned leaders with the experience and political skills their jobs require. The United States has no shortage of such people. But the cost of elections and the source of funds either drives them from the political process or drives them into the waiting arms of the profiteers who have seized control of American government to protect their wealth.

To take back the ship, Americans must take control of the hijackers’ arsenal – the money now flooding the political process.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tea Party To The Rescue?

A war that must be waged: Cleansing a corrupt system

By: Mike Krauss
Bucks County Courier Times

Americans do not need a poll to tell them that President Obama has lost the confidence of a lot of their fellow citizens - including many who voted for him - and that Congress is disliked almost to contempt.

How did this happen?

The unavoidable answer that Mr. Obama and Congress wish to avoid is that the Wall Street bailout appears to these same Americans as a wholesale sell out to unprecedented fraud and greed, and this has poisoned the well of public trust on which democratic government ultimately depends.

On account of this, the president has lost support for the initiative with which he is most closely identified - changes to health care. Mr. Obama is being punished for legitimizing that fraud and greed.

To be sure, there is a lot of confusion about the purposes, implementation, funding and impact of the health care legislation. It lacks the focus Mr. Obama promised and that, had he delivered, would have made the legislation more easily understood and perhaps more widely supported.

But the argument made most often now by proponents of the legislation is that Americans who oppose it have been hoodwinked - a nice way to say they are too stupid to know what is in their best interest.

Quite apart from the contempt for the people this expresses - which has not gone unnoticed - this argument intentionally avoids the reality: many Americans no longer trust Mr. Obama or the leaders of Congress in either party, and they are striking back.
But Republican leaders who think a defeat for Mr. Obama and the Democratic leaders of Congress is a victory for them are whistling in the wind. A plague on both their houses.

That seems to be the position of the Tea Partiers who, to the extent they have a prescription for the future of America, are united in a common disdain for a central government they no longer trust, and in fact seem to fear.

But the Tea Partiers are so far as unfocused as the health care legislation they oppose. The nearest they come to a policy - a direction - is a reverence for the Constitution and an implied argument that the biggest problem of the United States is an unconstitutional, over-reaching federal authority that threatens individual liberty.

But a reverence for the Constitution and individual liberty will not be enough to rescue the American people from the ongoing catastrophe of decades, which threatens individual liberty far more than federal authority.

The crowning achievement of the Constitution is not limited government. It is representative government. And the great catastrophe of America is not any policy of the federal government - health care, war, education or the rest - but rather that the process by which those policies are put forward and enacted is hopelessly corrupted and unrepresentative of the American people.

Some in the Tea Party recognize this and are examining the political process as never before, perhaps for the first time. They understand that political parties are the tools that the people of a democracy use to get their hands on the machinery of government. They are thinking about trying to get their hands on the GOP.

Good for them.

The social conservatives of the religious right pulled off the same trick in the 1980s. And if all that now happens is that the GOP ceases to be a party obsessed with claims to moral superiority, and becomes instead a party devoted to the politics of limited government, that is at least a step in the right direction.

But at the same time, the GOP is trying to figure out how to swallow the Tea Party. Which one is the cat and which one the canary is not yet clear.

If Tea Partiers want to rescue America, they need to focus not only on the short-term process of getting their members into the GOP at the level of precinct committee people - which they have correctly identified as the controlling if comatose authority of both political parties - but they must also focus on the laws that govern federal elections.

Specifically, there must be wholesale changes to both election law and federal campaign finance law, which together serve to protect incumbents and drive candidates of both parties into the waiting arms of the entrenched, mostly corporate interests who fund their campaigns, and then surround those elected with an army of their henchmen and lobbyists who dominate administrations and the legislative process.

People and candidates are important. But America's corrupted political process will go on electing corrupted officials and producing corrupted legislation until that process is refashioned to represent the broad majority of the American people - and not only the few who now control it.

This is the war which must be waged.

March 19, 2010 02:11 AM

Sunday, March 7, 2010

"The health care bill is not about health care."

The Health Care Deceit

By PAUL CRAIG ROBERTS, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration. His new book, War of the Worlds: How the Economy Was Lost, will be published next month by AK Press/CounterPunch.

The current health care “debate” shows how far gone representative government is in the United States. Members of Congress represent the powerful interest groups that fill their campaign coffers, not the people who vote for them.

The health care bill is not about health care. It is about protecting and increasing the profits of the insurance companies. The main feature of the health care bill is the “individual mandate,” which requires everyone in America to buy health insurance. Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont), a recipient of millions in contributions over his career from the insurance industry, proposes to impose up to a $3,800 fine on Americans who fail to purchase health insurance.

The determination of “our” elected representatives to serve the insurance industry is so compelling that Congress is incapable of recognizing the absurdity of these proposals.

The reason there is a health care crisis in the US is that the cumulative loss of jobs and benefits has swollen the uninsured to approximately 50 million Americans. They cannot afford health insurance any more than employers can afford to provide it.

It is absurd to mandate that people purchase what they cannot afford and to fine them for failing to do so. A person who cannot pay a health insurance premium cannot pay the fine.

These proposals are like solving the homeless problem by requiring the homeless to purchase a house.

In his speech Obama said “we’ll provide tax credits” for “those individuals and small businesses who still can’t afford the lower-priced insurance available in the exchange” and he said low-cost coverage will be offered to those with preexisting medical conditions. A tax credit is useless to those without income unless the credit is refundable, and subsidized coverage doesn’t do much for those millions of Americans with no jobs.

Baucus masquerades as a defender of the health impaired with his proposal to require insurers to provide coverage to all comers as if the problem of health care can be reduced to preexisting conditions and cancelled policies. It was left to Rep. Dennis Kucinich to point out that the health care bill ponies up 30 million more customers for the private insurance companies.

The private sector is no longer the answer, because the income levels of the vast majority of Americans are insufficient to bear the cost of health insurance today. To provide some perspective, the monthly premium for a 60-year old female for a group policy (employer-provided) with Blue Cross Blue Shield in Florida is about $1,200. That comes to $14,400 per year. Only employees in high productivity jobs that can provide both a livable salary and health care can expect to have employer-provided coverage. If a 60-year old female has to buy a non-group policy as an individual, the premium would be even higher. How, for example, is a Wal-Mart shelf stocker or check out clerk going to be able to pay a private insurance premium?

Even the present public option--Medicare--is very expensive to those covered. Basic Medicare is insufficient coverage. Part B has been added, for which about $100 per month is deducted from the covered person’s Social Security check. If the person is still earning or has other retirement income, an “income-related monthly adjustment” is also deducted as part of the Part B premium. And if the person is still working, his earnings are subject to the 2.9 percent Medicare tax.

Even with Part B, Medicare coverage is still insufficient except for the healthy. For many people, additional coverage from private supplementary policies, such as the ones sold by AARP, is necessary. These premiums can be as much as $277 per month. Deductibles remain and prescriptions are only 50% covered. If the drug prescription policy is chosen, the premium is higher.

This leaves a retired person on Medicare who has no other retirement income of significance paying as much as $4,500 per year in premiums in order to create coverage under Medicare that still leaves half of his prescription medicines out-of-pocket. Considering the cost of some prescription medicines, a Medicare-covered person with Part B and a supplementary policy can still face bankruptcy.

Therefore, everyone should take note that a “public option” can leave people with large out-of-pocket costs. I know a professional who has chosen to continue working beyond retirement age. His Medicare coverage with supplemental coverage, Medicare tax, and income-related monthly adjustment comes to $16,400 per year. Those people who want to deny Medicare to the rich will cost the system a lot of money.

What the US needs is a single-payer not-for-profit health system that pays doctors and nurses sufficiently that they will undertake the arduous training and accept the stress and risks of dealing with illness and diseases.

A private health care system worked in the days before expensive medical technology, malpractice suits, high costs of bureaucracy associated with third-party payers and heavy investment in combating fraud, and pressure on insurance companies from Wall Street to improve “shareholder returns.”

Despite the rise in premiums, payments to health care providers, such as doctors, appear to be falling along with coverage to policy holders. The system is no longer functional and no longer makes sense. Health care has become an incidental rather than primary purpose of the health care system. Health care plays second fiddle to insurance company profits and salaries to bureaucrats engaged in fraud prevention and discovery. There is no point in denying coverage to one-sixth of the population in the name of saving a nonexistent private free market health care system.

The only way to reduce the cost of health care is to take the profit and paperwork out of health care.

Nothing humans design will be perfect. However, Congress is making it clear to the public that the wrong issues are front and center, such as the belief of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) and others that illegal aliens and abortions will be covered if government pays the bill.

Debate focuses on subsidiary issues, because Congress no longer writes the bills it passes. As Theodore Lowi made clear in his book, The End of Liberalism, the New Deal transferred law-making from the legislative to the executive branch. Executive branch agencies and departments write bills that they want and hand them off to sponsors in the House and Senate. Powerful interest groups took up the same practice. The interest groups that finance political campaigns expect their bills to be sponsored and passed.

Thus: a health care reform bill based on forcing people to purchase private health insurance and fining them if they do not.

When bills become mired in ideological conflict, as has happened to the health care bill, something usually passes nevertheless. The president, his PR team, and members of Congress want a health care bill on their resume and to be able to claim that they passed a health care bill, regardless of whether it provides any health care.

The cost of adding public expenditures for health care to a budget drowning in red ink from wars, bank bailouts, and stimulus packages means that the most likely outcome of a health care bill will benefit insurance companies and use mandated private coverage to save public money by curtailing Medicare and Medicaid.

The public’s interest is not considered to be the important determinant. The politicians have to please the insurance companies and reduce health care expenditures in order to save money for another decade or two of war in the Middle East.

The telltale part of Obama’s speech was the applause in response to his pledge that “I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits.” Yet, Obama and his fellow politicians have no hesitation to add trillions of dollars to the deficit in order to fund wars.

The profits of military/security companies are partly recycled into campaign contributions. To cut war spending in order to finance a public health care system would cost politicians campaign contributions from both the insurance industry and the military/security industry.
Politicians are not going to allow that to happen.

It was the war in Afghanistan, not health care, that President Obama declared to be a “necessity.”

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Ain't we got dumb?

One-two punch: more lies, damn lies and statistics

By: Mike Krauss
Bucks County Courier Times

Whoever first made the now famous observation - "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics." - would surely marvel at the incessant use today's American leaders make of all three.

Among the biggest lies of modern times - maybe of all time - was that the Wall Street bailout was intended to rescue the American people. And as the lie became apparent, a second lie became necessary, endlessly repeated over a year of always "unexpected" bad news, that the U.S. economy is recovering.

Mr. Obama was party to both lies. But with his claim to see "green shoots" springing up all over the place, he began to sound like some drugged out hippie.

"Oh wow, man. Green shoots. Cool."

It was embarrassing. So the president and almost every Democratic member of Congress began talking about all the jobs "created or saved," showing up wherever any federal money was spent, and getting creative with statistics. The same way they have been creative with counting the unemployed, by simply not counting those out of work for over a year.

Lies, damn lies and statistics.

The only people who have recovered in the United States are the rich, while the poor get poorer and millions of the middle class are wiped out and made poor. An entire generation of young Americans and legions of adult males have been condemned to long-term unemployment.

In this context, the president's announcement of more funds to get more American children to graduate high school is certainly a good step - one third now do not graduate. But it is a Band-aid on a hemorrhage.

It may keep a few million kids off the streets for a few more years, but only to move them into the next statistic - the one third that graduate with no useful skills to become unemployed.

And there is the lie de jour being served by Mr. Obama now: his health care proposals are paid for. In fact, the excise tax that is vital to pay for the plan will not go into effect until 2018, if the Congress at that time approves it. Fat chance.

Contrary to the slogan, Congress has never embraced "tax and spend." The actual policy for more than 30 years has been "spend and borrow," and pass the bill to the future.

And now the administration and Congress are readying a one-two, damn lie punch.

Lie One. There is no real money for the people - jobs, health care, keeping families in their homes and children off food stamps. But Wall Street, American corporations and the super rich are rolling in money.

Wall Street posted record profits by getting trillions of dollars virtually interest free from the American people, and then loaning it back at 3 percent! The watchdog group Tax Analysts recently made public an IRS report that the average income of the 400 "top earning" American families increased in five years almost fivefold, from $18 million to $87 million a year.

Those profits and incomes could be taxed as they were in the 1950s and 1960s, when America was prosperous and before the lie of "trickle down" was first peddled.

And the U.S. military budget is now larger than that of all other nations combined. (Read that again.) It could be reduced.

Instead, the Obama administration and Congress have set up a bipartisan commission to "reform" Social Security and Medicare. By reform, they mean of course to further reduce funding for the needs of ordinary Americans.

This assault on the remaining support for the middle class is being justified by Lie Two, the biggest damn lie of all: this never ending emergency is the fault of the American people.

Mr. Obama has repeatedly scolded that Americans have been too good to themselves for too long. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman actually compared the American people to locusts (While Wall Street devours the harvest), pronouncing them "profligate."

In every other modern industrial democracy, every citizen has paid for and receives good health care. Many Europeans get six weeks annual paid vacation, full pensions far earlier than Americans, day care for working parents and generous education benefits.

But many Americans must work two jobs - if they can find one - to make ends meet, or turn to credit card debt to stay above water, and homes are being foreclosed right and left, families live in cars, day care is a luxury, one in four children is reduced to food stamps, health care is unavailable or unaffordable, the cost of a college education puts it out of reach for more millions daily, and Medicare and Social Security are about to get slashed.

Boy, that's some high flying lifestyle. Makes me downright ashamed. Mr. President, I demand that you cut Social Security and Medicare, please!

Lies and damn lies in America, as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Ain't we got dumb?

March 03, 2010