Saturday, March 27, 2010

Lights Out Night

Back in Pittsburgh, when I had a column in the weekly paper, I was sitting in a bar near the Pitt campus talking with a few casual acquaintances. The conversation drifted to the most recent "Light-Up Night," when downtown Pittsburgh turned on all the office building lights, usually to show off to a national TV audience during a Monday Night Football game or some such occasion. A young woman in the group wondered what it would be like if instead all the lights were turned off--we might actually see what the sky over Pittsburgh looked like.

I immediately stole the idea and proposed a "Lights-Out Night" in my next column. Now the idea has become a reality: cities in 121 countries are participating tonight in Earth Hour-- organized by the World Wildlife Fund, cities go dark (sort of) for an hour (between 8:30 and 9:30 pm local time), to support efforts to address global heating.

Landmarks to go dark for Earth Hour for the first time in 2010 include South Dakota's Mount Rushmore, Niagara Falls at the U.S.-Canada border, the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, the Great Pyramids in Egypt, Table Mountain in South Africa, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan.

I don't know if Pittsburgh or our little cities hereabouts are participating, but apparently people on their own are joining in:"Cities and businesses are the ones you're always hearing about, because they have the skyscrapers and the big marquees. But Earth Hour has always been an event about families and individuals as well," Aun said.

The intent is different from Lights Out Night, but in participating cities, the opportunity I saw is being included--people are also being urged to look up and see a night sky they may not otherwise see as clearly.

And tonight offers a neat show: The moon should be gorgeous on the night of March 27, as it will be its closest to Earth for the whole month around midnight that night. But in addition to the usually visible moon, sky-watchers can look for the bright star Regulus shining above the moon, Saturn near the moon's lower left, the star Spica below Saturn, and another star Arcturus down and to the left.

And then there's, well, the rest of the universe.

The Roles of Gubment: Predator Protection

To start wrapping things up for now on the health insurance reform bill--the first of two observations on the roles of government.

In terms of what it does best for American society, government has two basic functions: it does for the country what individuals and smaller groups cannot do for themselves, and it protects individuals, groups within the society, and the society as a whole, when no other institution or entity can (or will.)

Individuals, groups and other institutions benefit from both functions, including businesses. Without government building and maintaining infrastructure--the roads, bridges, ports etc.--or performing necessary support and regulatory functions to keep vital institutions running--businesses would not prosper. Without government setting the rules that all businesses must adhere to, the competitive necessity would sooner or later drive them all into helpless destruction and self-destruction. When not playing political games, businesses know this, and they look to government to fulfill both functions.

But government also protects citizens from the harmful effects of predatory capitalism. That capitalism is predatory isn't controversial; using different words perhaps, it's capitalism's proudest boast. Dog eat dog. Survival of the fittest--it's no wonder that Darwin got his first and most enthusiastic hearing among American robber barons and other 19th century capitalists, who embraced especially the Herbert Spencer interpretation and its application to society known as Social Darwinism.

The mechanism of predatory capitalism is simple, and there's no better recent example than health insurers. Thanks in part to the 1990s debate on health insurance and the ultimate failure of the Clinton plan, new and old health insurance companies coopted the new and apparently efficient system known as HMOs--Health Maintenance Organizations. At first a thousand such flowers bloomed, but not for long. The logic of predatory capitalism is for small companies to merge until they become big enough to simple absorb smaller companies--the big fish eat the little fish, until there are only a few fish in the sea, or in the case of health insurers, just one or two fish in each lake (or state.)

At first, in order to grow and establish market share, these companies offered lots of services at affordable rates. But as they ate up the competition, they took tighter control of services, cut costs while raising prices. That's the privilege of monopoly, and monopoly is the natural goal of predatory capitalism.

Only government can protect people against the excesses of predatory capitalism. It's a dynamic and messy process most of the time. Government bureaucracies commit their own excesses, but at least government has mechanisms of accountability, like courts and elections. Health insurers are the latest monopolies to operate outside and above the law, in the ways that counted most. They are in the best business in the world--they charge money for services they refuse to render. Well, the best outside war zones: outfits like Blackwater and Halliburton that steal billions, as well as arms manufacturers who can count on repeat customers since their products are immediately destroyed.

I saw President Kennedy in 1962 speak with disgust that the U.S. was 30 years behind England and years behind most of Europe in providing health care for its citizens. But maybe even more to the point, such is the power of predatory capitalism in the U.S.--economic, political and power over the imagination--that we've actually allowed a predatory capitalist business to traffic in human life and suffering.

So maybe this law doesn't do enough to see that decent health care is provided to all Americans, absent at least a public option. But it does attempt to de-fang the predators known as insurance companies, and offer protection to citizens. And the one policy that did get bipartisan support--ending their anti-trust exemption--may turn out to be a pretty good tool as well.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Towards the Future

There are a lot of white people--like those today in Iowa--who aren't fomenting Civil War III (see post below.) The future includes more of all races like four year old "'Lil Barack," who met his presidential namesake today, also in Iowa. Click photos to enlarge.

Civil War III

The American Civil War in the 1860s was the deadliest in American history, with some 620,000 soldiers killed. Because of the nature of this war, virtually all the deaths and injuries were American, both military and civilian, and all the destruction was in the United States.

So the Civil War is singular. But major underlying issues of that war had descendants that contributed to continuing conflict and violence in the U.S., that flared into focused public conflict and violence in the Civil Rights era.

In the mid 19th century, the South depended on slavery for its agrarian economy, chiefly cotton. The North had an industrial economy, and its farms did not depend on slaves. It's difficult to call the South's support of slavery "racism," since the white leaders and citizens of the North by and large did not consider people indigenous to Africa, then called Negroes, as their equals in most ways. If not "equally" racist, the prevailing view in all of America was racist.

Whether Southerners were "more racist" is conjectural. That they supported their arguments for slavery with racist rhetoric is undeniable. Similarly, they defended their economic position (dependent on slavery) with the principle, or at least the rhetoric, of state's rights.

A century later, some of the same elements played into to the confrontations of the Civil Rights era (late 1950s through the 1960s.) By losing the Civil War, and losing slavery, the South did take a big economic hit, and arguably had not recovered a century later. While cities grew in the North, Midwest and West, the South remained far less urban.

Especially after the Civil War, the South was characterized as backward and undereducated. Southerners considered the North as elitist, overeducated and overbearing. The hostility on both sides had elements that were defined by class. The South had its own culture, defined by its own brand of Christian fundamentalism, as well as by a continuing sense of being aggrieved and oppressed. White Southerners in some ways defined themselves in contrast to Negroes, but also seemed to feel that, as in the Civil War, the North--and the federal government--threatened their economic position and way of life by changing the status of Southern Negroes.

Though of course nowhere near the violence of the Civil War, the Civil Rights struggle did involve violence and death--including innocent children, white as well as black Civil Rights workers, and a leader whose life is now celebrated with a national holiday. In the South, city and state governments resisted changing discriminatory laws and in some cases fomented violence against Civil Rights advocates. Officials and political leaders incited violence and opposition by white citizens.

When the Civil Rights struggle moved North, the violence and opposition of some white citizens showed a commonality: they, too, felt threatened by racial equality. Apart from a racial repugnance, they believed as well that racial equality threatened their way of life and their economic status. Ending discrimination in hiring etc. meant more competition for jobs and contracts, and efforts to compensate for past discrimination made that worse.

The fears and resentments handed down, augmented and amplified from the Civil War were still most potent in the South--where federal Civil Rights legislation led to the Democrats losing the "Solid South" forever--but the underlying class-oriented component had strengthened and spread to the whole country. The archetype of "the North" became less geographically centered, and became a perceived oppression by a powerful cabal.

In the 1960s, historian Richard Hofstader defined some of these beliefs in his books, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Anti-Intellectualism in the United States. The perceived characteristics and membership of this cabal had changed over time, but there are two common threads: perceived class distinctions (expressed in wealth, power and education) and specific threats to what whites had, seemingly by right of white supremacy. Those who believed this most intensely tended to be the most economically and culturally vulnerable lower middle class whites, supported by politicians, religious leaders and others who made their living feeding this frenzy.

This is not to say that racism did not and does not remain within the ranks of middle class and wealthy whites. It does, and it functions to support political positions that seek to funnel even more wealth to the wealthy. This is also a protection of class position, but in this case, there's often willingness to rob from lower classes, regardless of race.

After the laws of the land changed to institute legal equality, and black Americans became more integrated into everyday life and the larger culture, overt racism died down. But writers such as Thomas Frank noted that even in the 21st century, white racism remained a potent political and cultural force, although couched in euphemisms and code words. It seems pretty clear now that the election of America's first black President in 2008--particularly in combination with the Great Recession-- brought these fears, resentments and hostilities closer to the surface, expressed in an anger and in the rhetoric of violence. If the Civil Rights era was in effect Civil War II, we now seem in the midst of Civil War III.

I'm not going to catalogue the latest manifestations--the violence and threats directed at Democratic Members of Congress ostensibly over the health insurance reform bill--especially since they continue to grow in number and seriousness. Fortunately the news is widely reporting them, and they are being discussed on TV and the Internet. Instead I want to speculate on the underlying elements.

Some of the mechanisms of Civil War III are repeated: politicians and other leaders inflaming and exploiting and directing the resentments; the rhetoric of state's rights and of oppression by powerful sinister forces. Instead of overtly naming regional, ethnic, racial or religious enemies, the rhetoric follows from the 1950s McCarthyite tactic of ascribing an ideology that moreover has deceptive and subversive intent (i.e. "socialism" and the imagery of Hitler, Stalin, etc.) But the racial component is pretty obvious, especially in the ingenious combination of racial subtext and conspiracy in the persistent charge that President Obama was not born in the U.S, or that he is secretly a Muslim ( a religion both identified racially and as foreign source of terrorism.)

A recent Harris poll confirms an earlier poll's finding that a majority of Republicans surveyed profess to believe that President Obama is a socialist and a Muslim. Such beliefs--and others, such as the "birther" contention, Obama as totalitarian and Democrats as threatening liberty --are central to the Tea Party movement, with a membership that is overwhelmingly white.

In what may be a difference, this phenomenon is financed and directed to a large extent by some corporations and their political P.R. and lobbying firms. This is perhaps only a reflection of the increased sophistication necessary for a fast-paced, media-dominated culture. But it is not at all unusual for the most powerful business interests to manipulate those much further down in the class system, in order to protect and extend their political and economic power. It's at least as old as kings convincing peasants to fight their wars by demonizing some neighboring country or tribe.

But why are such issues as health care or climate change inflaming Civil War III, if it is actually an outgrowth of the previous Civil Wars? Some of it is because these are advocated by President Obama, and anything a black President does is at least symbolically a threat. At least, that is the political calculation made and exploited by Republican professional politicians and political consultants.

But it is probably more direct than that. Despite the fact that white people are victims of the insurance companies, or that lower middle class whites are primary victims of growing income inequality, it may well be that the healthcare reforms are seen as benefiting mostly blacks, Latinos and Asian immigrants. After all, it was the federal government that gave racial minorities more economic power. This is just one more federal attempt to weaken the competitive position of lower middle class whites--especially white men, who arguably are taking the brunt of Great Recession unemployment as well as elements of economic and social change. This may be couched in the language of taxes and deficit, but the persistence of this belief in the face of facts that counter it suggest there's something more behind it.

There is also the rhetoric of state's rights, the beleagued sense of federal power and conspiratorial forces. But once again they revolve around elements of race and class.

Similarly, while some component of anti-choice ideology is sincerely based on religious conviction and a visceral support of life, some of it is fueled by class resentment (the image of choice advocates as rich white women and Hollywood stars), and some of it is probably part of a fear that poorer whites are targeted for extinction that goes back to the alarm over eugenics in the early 20th century. Almost certainly, the demographic reality of a growing non-white population--of whites as a soon-to-be minority race-- plays into all of these fears.

There's probably a class component even in climate crisis denial. As one writer put it, they are convinced "that it's a hoax cooked up by self-righteous environmentalist elites who can't stand to see common people have their mechanized fun." (ecologist J. Baird Callicott in Gaia in Turmoil.)

In any case, several people--including those who were victims of violence in the 60s--have noted that the current wave of violence and violent rhetoric and advocacy is reminiscent of the Civil Rights era. (This includes slurs not much heard since then.) I believe that's partly because the sources are the same, with the additions and alterations of history, that go back to the original Civil War. (As does some of the rhetoric. Secession anyone?) While the proportion and eventual political power of the white resenters is shrinking, they can still be still mortally dangerous. Their rhetoric of a Last Stand should be taken very seriously.

We need to be clear about taking the current threat seriously, if we are to avoid the horror of violence and assassination. Those who want to provoke more widespread racial and class violence may see this as their best opportunity. We also need to look beyond the political and ideological talk to the deep sources of these impulses. They tell us that those who are inflaming extremism and violence are sanctioning violent expression of powerful resentments and anger, and that they are responsible for any violence that ensues.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Our presence here today is remarkable and improbable. With all the punditry, all of the lobbying, all of the game-playing that passes for governing in Washington, it’s been easy at times to doubt our ability to do such a big thing, such a complicated thing; to wonder if there are limits to what we, as a people, can still achieve. It’s easy to succumb to the sense of cynicism about what’s possible in this country.

But today, we are affirming that essential truth -– a truth every generation is called to rediscover for itself –- that we are not a nation that scales back its aspirations. We are not a nation that falls prey to doubt or mistrust. We don't fall prey to fear. We are not a nation that does what’s easy. That’s not who we are. That’s not how we got here.

We are a nation that faces its challenges and accepts its responsibilities. We are a nation that does what is hard. What is necessary. What is right. Here, in this country, we shape our own destiny. That is what we do. That is who we are. That is what makes us the United States of America.

And we have now just enshrined, as soon as I sign this bill, the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health care. And it is an extraordinary achievement that has happened because of all of you and all the advocates all across the country.

So, thank you. Thank you. God bless you, and may God bless the United States."

President Barack Obama
March 23, 2010

This Year

From President Obama's remarks before signing the health insurance reform bill:

"It will take four years to implement fully many of these reforms, because we need to implement them responsibly. We need to get this right. But a host of desperately needed reforms will take effect right away.

This year, we’ll start offering tax credits to about 4 million small businessmen and women to help them cover the cost of insurance for their employees.

This year, tens of thousands of uninsured Americans with preexisting conditions, the parents of children who have a preexisting condition, will finally be able to purchase the coverage they need. That happens this year.

This year, insurance companies will no longer be able to drop people’s coverage when they get sick. They won’t be able to place lifetime limits or restrictive annual limits on the amount of care they can receive.

This year, all new insurance plans will be required to offer free preventive care. And this year, young adults will be able to stay on their parents’ policies until they’re 26 years old. That happens this year.

And this year, seniors who fall in the coverage gap known as the doughnut hole will start getting some help. They’ll receive $250 to help pay for prescriptions, and that will, over time, fill in the doughnut hole. And I want seniors to know, despite what some have said, these reforms will not cut your guaranteed benefits. In fact, under this law, Americans on Medicare will receive free preventive care without co-payments or deductibles. That begins this year."

The President went on to talk about the insurance exchanges, the other tax credits and provisions that will be phased in over the next four years. But there are other reforms that patients and their families will see in the medical system they encounter, some of them soon, all of them within that four year time frame. Ezra Klein in the Washington Post named several:

Merrill Goozner points out another little-noticed provision in the bill: "Drug and device companies will soon have to report payments to physicians in a national database, thanks to a little noted section of the health care reform bill called the Physician Payments Sunshine Act."

...hospitals will have to post prices. Insurance products will be presented with standardized information, consumer ratings and quality measures. The payments physicians take from drug and device companies will be in a public database. There will be independent funding for research on the relative effectiveness of different treatments. Some of these changes are small and some are big, but put together, the system is going to become a lot more visible in the coming years

As President Obama said later at the Interior Department, the purpose of the bill is not to give the government more control or the insurance companies more control, but to give patients and the people paying the premiums more control over their health care and their health.

The Real Winners

A patient and his doctor pump fists in victory as they watch President Obama sign the healthcare reform act into law. A new poll shows that a plurality of Americans approve.

Emerson for the Day

"If we will take the good we find, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures."
Emerson ("Skepticism") (Here's to photo to enlarge)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"This Is What Change Looks Like"

President Obama watches the House vote to pass the healthcare reform bill in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, with both President Roosevelts looking on from their portraits--two of the many Presidents who tried and failed to get something like this passed. As he watched, Democrats on the House floor were chanting, "Yes We Can."

Then President Obama spoke briefly to the nation, and said: "Tonight, at a time when the pundits said it was no longer possible, we rose above the weight of our politics. We pushed back on the undue influence of special interests. We didn’t give in to mistrust or to cynicism or to fear. Instead, we proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things and tackling our biggest challenges. We proved that this government — a government of the people and by the people — still works for the people."

"Most importantly, today’s vote answers the prayers of every American who has hoped deeply for something to be done about a health care system that works for insurance companies, but not for ordinary people. For most Americans, this debate has never been about abstractions, the fight between right and left, Republican and Democrat — it’s always been about something far more personal. It’s about every American who knows the shock of opening an envelope to see that their premiums just shot up again when times are already tough enough. It’s about every parent who knows the desperation of trying to cover a child with a chronic illness only to be told "no" again and again and again. It’s about every small business owner forced to choose between insuring employees and staying open for business. They are why we committed ourselves to this cause.

Tonight’s vote is not a victory for any one party — it’s a victory for them. It’s a victory for the American people. And it’s a victory for common sense."

"So this isn’t radical reform. But it is major reform. This legislation will not fix everything that ails our health care system. But it moves us decisively in the right direction. This is what change looks like."

In this case, change looked messy, contentious, with opposition dealing in blithe deceptions, and stirring up emotions that had nothing directly to do with the subject. At first change looked certain, then compromised, then defeated, before in the end, change happened--and will continue to happen in the lives of millions of Americans: who can get affordable health insurance, whose insurance will benefit from "reining in the worst excesses and abuses of the insurance industry with some of the toughest consumer protections this country has ever known — so that you are actually getting what you pay for." Who will no longer face being dropped if they get sick, or their children be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition. Young people who can stay on their parents' insurance longer; seniors whose Medicare is strengthened, with no more hole in their prescription drug benefits, and who will get free preventive care, with free preventive care eventually part of everyone's insurance. And more.

The story continues but the drama is just about over for now. "Tonight, we answered the call of history as so many generations of Americans have before us. When faced with crisis, we did not shrink from our challenge — we overcame it. We did not avoid our responsibility — we embraced it. We did not fear our future — we shaped it."