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Things to get you started in the morning

Posted on March 31st, 2010 in Culture,ecology,Economy,General,Nature,Politics by Robert Miller

Here is a nice, thoughtful and sympathetic open letter to conservatives, reminding them of a few inconsistencies in their policies and behavior. Perhaps there is something you could add to the list.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize wining author and journalist who has covered most of the wars we have been involved in and carries deep personal knowledge of how societies, like Yugoslavia, disintegrate. He writes for Truthdig and The Nation Institute. Hedges cites the failure of the Democrats to break away from the corporatist stranglehold as the root cause of the disintegration of the country and the appearance of the Right Wing militia crazies who are now springing up all over the country. He sees this breakup of civilization reflected in today’s right wing Christian Militias compounded by acts like Sarah Palin using figure gun sights to target politicians for defeat (death?). Should these militias generate significant violent behavior, repression will be inclusive of the left. Hedges projects that we are on the edge of one of the most dangerous moments in history, with the complete failure of globalization that had itself displaced issues like decent working conditions, equity in wages, responsiveness to the environment and in the midst of that collapse, the elite have no plan, but to slog on and live in gated communities to try and stay above it all. Philosopher Sheldon Wolin describes our condition as “inverted totalitarianism”: unlike classic totalitarianism, the inverted form we are in does not revolve around a leader, a demagogue, but rather we live in the anonymity of the corporate state. We don’t know exactly who pulls the levers of power. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists 932 hate groups throughout the country, with a substantial increase in the past year. But these may not be the people we have to worry about. They don’t include the hateful, mindless tea baggers who are coalescing and many of them are unemployed. In my opinion, full employment would do a lot to get these militia-types thinking about something other than the country falling apart, so much so that they themselves have to do something about it. Matthew Rothschild sees the tea baggers and their Republican support as the beginning of neofascism and who can argue with the evidence? Everyone knows that there are some truly bad things going on, not the least of which is the complete indifference that we are showing towards environmental collapse. Wealthy, healthy stable societies can do something about global climate change and mass extinction, but societies on the verge of collapse can do nothing about their impending march towards an uglier climate and further loss of species, most of which we will never know about because they haven’t been identified yet. Soft bodies don’t leave fossils except in oil shale deposits and they aren’t forming anymore.


The Senate Reconciliation bill brings student loan reform

Posted on March 30th, 2010 in Economy,Education,General by Robert Miller

In the same vote that brought us healthcare delayed, the Senate reconciliation bill brought us a new edge of  progressivism,  delayed far too long in the form of a new Federal program governing student loans for college.  Hidden in the healthcare reconciliation bill passed by the Senate last week, the government took over the entire student loan program, eliminating banks and providing projected savings to the government of about $ 87 billion over a ten-year period.  Obama signed the bill into law yesterday, so that beginning July 1, 100% of college loans will be given and administered by the government. There is a slight improvement in the interest rates, from 8.5 to 7.9% over the bank route, though that does not seem like a giant breakthrough opportunity for debt seekers. But, we did it, we nationalized student loans and the persistence of Fire Dog Lake in promoting this bill may have been central to its passage, by use of their sign-up sheet. The savings from this arrangement will be used to fund more Pell grants and allow them to be indexed to inflation for the first time ever.  A shortage of Pell grants in recent years will be fixed by this bill so that 100% of qualified applicants can receive support. Whereas Pell grants used to cover 75% of college expenses in years past, that number is down to 35%, so pegging the program to inflation should help keep the loan program viable for students. In time, about 8 million students are projected to have their college chances significantly improved and avoid dropping out because of insufficient funds.

This bill sailed through the house, but got blocked in the Senate where all good things come to an end. But the clever tactic of including it in the reconciliation process (part of the savings from the new student loan bill will help pay for the new healthcare insurance bill) dropped it into the can-do box under the radar screen.

Student loans began with the Federal Family Education Loan Program, created in 1965. Under Clinton, the Department of Education began its own direct loan program and most schools would sign up for one vs the other (bank vs Fed), not both. At that time, the Federal Government would set the rates and terms. Once at 20% of all student loans, as our economy went south, the percentage of direct Federal loans has grown, now at about 35% and soon to be 100% of all new student loans. Banks can still give loans, but they will not be secured by the Federal Government and will presumably be prohibitive in cost–so be wary!

Loan repayment schedules have been improved. The new bill will limit payments to 10 percent of discretionary income and forgive balances after 20 years. But these changes only apply to loans taken out by new borrowers on or after July 1, 2014. They are not retroactive.

Public-service workers on the income-based repayment plan can have their remaining balances forgiven after 10 years. That’s the same as the old law.

Now the major challenge in front of us, is to make a new economy that provides jobs for college graduates and doesn’t reduce them to competing for the same jobs that high school graduates get in line for. So far there is too much of that going around, especially for an “advanced” “civilized” “modern” society. That is the mother of all assignments for the weekend. How to build a better economy. Here is my first suggestion: any business that is going to be sold by its owners or downsized by a Private Equity firm, is given first opportunity for purchase to the employees, who with government help to secure loans, can assume ownership and try to run the business as a profitable enterprise. Remember that one problem we have is what I call the “Microsoft Problem.” That is too many corporations trying to emulate Microsoft’s unseemly profit margins and as a result, workers pay has stagnated and they did not financially gain as their company productivity went up: savings from that source went into CEO pay and company profit margins to elevate the value of the stock. The golden parachute appeared and the gold watch went in the toilet.   Worker ownership should be less concerned about profits and more concerned about jobs and products. And, we know where the creativity for the place is typically found–yes in the workers. Remember the high financiers of today’s corporate world, understand a leveraged buyout, but don’t know how to make things. Making things is the key to an industrialized society with equitable wealth distribution. Everybody has a skill. We need to get all those Chrisitan militia people back to work as well. They are getting a little scary out in the hinterland.


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What was the best thing to come out of the healthcare bill?

Posted on March 28th, 2010 in Culture,General,Health by Robert Miller

By the time the healthcare bill was signed into law on March 23, 2010 as the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” it looked like a bill designed by Republicans, at least the Republicans we used to know way back when Richard Nixon was President. Indeed, those Republicans might have dreamed about passing such a bill:  for starters, private health insurance companies have been preserved and given millions of new enrollees in exchange for concessions about prior conditions and other issues they should never have been allowed to impose in the first place. Health care stocks went up when the bill passed, in anticipation of the new gains expected for health insurance companies. And, in the last few weeks there was hardly a mention of the public option, something for which the American public has been consistently in favor by 6 out of 10.

After the Massachusetts election, it looked like the Democrats might fold their tent, but even in that state,  the polls showed, on the eve of Brown’s election, that the voters  favored the public option. More savvy politicians realized that the Massachusetts disaster for the Democrats was created because Congress was doing too little, not too much. If there was a revolt, it was against the Democrats for being too soft with their legislation, too poky in getting things done and giving away too much to corporate interests and Republican opposition. Obama was not getting high marks either, as he seemed to be aloof from the debate and one could only wonder if he truly had a passion for one outcome over another. No one knew if he really stood for something.  Rahm Emanuel, White House Chief of Staff, was advising that perhaps they had aimed too high and should lower their sights a bit and  simplify the bill.

But the dynamic for the legislation began to change once talk of a Senate reconciliation process surfaced and, more importantly perhaps, when Obama held his health care summit on February 25th. For me, that was the day that the lion stepped out of his den. It was the game changer.  If you missed it, you can see the whole thing on C-Span, though you probably need to be some kind of wonk lover to sit through the entire day’s event (yes, I stayed home and caught most of it). You will learn something about the bill and you will see how inept the Republican response was and inescapably conclude that their mission was to destroy, not replace (for example does anyone believe that our entire healthcare nightmare will disappear if we impose tort reform?)  It was that one-day summit, very inadequately covered by the press (who completely missed conveying Obama’s grasp of the strategy and the details of the bill and his mastery of the debate), in which Obama embarrassed the Republicans who tried to stand up to him, as he skillfully co-opted any seemingly meritorious suggestions they had (like tort reform, and medicare fraud, which were advanced by some Republicans as the entire reason for runaway healthcare costs; Senator Dick Durbin promptly refuted the idea on tort reform, though it seemed to surface again, because Republicans don’t have any new ideas (tort costs represent less than 1% of the healthcare budget). Republicans were caught flat-footed because they cannot think on their feet, since their ideology and dialogue come from consulting firms, with the talking points for healthcare agreed upon before any healthcare bill was proposed last year. The Republicans will now have to check in for a rhetoric and narrative overhaul at their nearest consulting station. This should be a banner year for consulting firms who cater to the needs of the Republican Party. As a result of the summit meeting, Republican opposition to the bill was much harder to justify, having been smashed during the long meeting, and it also meant that Republicans might have a much harder time explaining their opposition to the bill when confronted by their constituents in the voting booths this fall, especially when the opposing candidate can talk about removing some of the fear out of healthcare risks.   Obama brought out his passion and frustration with Republicans all on the same day. As a policy wonk, he outmaneuvered and flummoxed the Republican opposition. At the end of the summit, it was clear (at least to me) that a bill was going to pass and did so about a month later. It was also clear that day, that Obama had changed everybody’s score card.

After the summit meeting,  focus quickly switched to the House, which passed the historic bill, while the Senate anticlimactically passed the reconciliation bill  a few days later. In retrospect, it all took place with the snap of Obama’s fingers. One can only hope that Obama himself has learned that when he leads, many follow and perhaps he has learned that he’s been too conservative and cautious about having “bipartisan” agreements. Such agreements only weaken the legislation, needlessly prolong the debate and fall into the hands of the Republican opposition, whose objective is to delay, obstruct and kill the Obama Presidency. Many Republicans thought that they had a good chance of killing the healthcare bill as of just a few weeks ago, but now at least one Senator who voted against the bill (Charles Grassley) is claiming he was one of its sponsors. Like the Healthcare bill of March 23, 2010, the Social Security Act was signed by Franklin Roosevelt on August 14, 1935. Although Howard Dean reported that Social Security was passed without Republican Support, more detailed analysis indicates that some Republicans did vote for Social Security (there weren’t too many around then). The two threats against Social Security were mounted by Newt Gingrich with his contract with America and GW Bush with his privatization plan, both of which failed. It appears that of the great momentous social programs enacted into law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Car Act of 2010 is the only one which passed without a single Republican vote.

In many ways the healthcare summit was Obama’s first day as President in the sun. He lived up to expectations and, though hardly a progressive, he stared down the Republican opposition and made them seem like policy wimps–they seemed to complain about the size of the bill because they didn’t want to read it and apparently most of them didn’t. Not a single Republican brought up any issue of substance, outside of the often incorrect talking points they have been using for the past year and all complained about cost, while at the same time being forced to acknowledge that the standard for evaluating the expense of the program was the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) which cited net savings for the plan– it’s their organization. Of equal importance is the fact that within the new healthcare bill, a “Comparative Effectiveness Research” group has been established as a non-profit study group to analyze comparisons for therapy and diagnosis with an eye towards beneficial outcomes. For example, right now there are two different treatments available for the wet form of Age-Related Macular Degeneration, each of which seems to offer equivalent, beneficial outcomes, but for very different costs to the patient.  This group will be responsible for determining the most cost-effective approach based on outcomes. If the two drugs give equivalent outcomes, then strong recommendation will favor the less expensive procedure. This objective strategy offers great reform possibilities, especially as we are beginning to see a whole new host of therapies becoming available and it will take sound judgment to decide which among them is best and most cost-effective. This is a force we have never had before in medicine. It will hopefully lead us into a new era in health care cost controls. We are finally entering the dawn of “molecular medicine.” By the way, the Republicans are complaining about the cuts in Medicare, but that will only happen to those on the “Medicare Advantage” plan, which is the privatized form of Medicare, whose costs are at least 14% higher (many experts have suggested the increase in costs by Medicare Advantage have been much higher than 14%)  than traditional Medicare, with no evidence for improved outcomes. That’s the only part of Medicare that will be scaled back, but of course it’s the one that lots of Republicans prefer.

If you are interested in watching a summary of the new healthcare bill, I suggest you view Judy Feder’s excellent presentation on C-Span or go to the Kaiser Family Foundation site which has numerous explanatory sections describing features of the healthcare bill and an excellent pdf available that summarizes the main changes.

For me personally, the healthcare bill was a major disappointment. I have always felt that we must have a nationalized form of  health insurance that is separated from our jobs. That will enhance our personal security about healthcare and eliminate the employer costs which make our manufactured good more expensive and less competitive abroad. The single payer plan was not given any play because of the high level of  corporate money in politics. Before we can truly address the kinds of reforms we need to right our listing ship, we will need campaign finance reform, which right now is facing problems with the Supreme Court, the balance of which has turned to a Civil War era “state’s rights” mentality.

But, despite my disappointment with the healthcare bill, it does fix many things that were not just wrong, but perfectly odious; our healthcare system had become a sinister corporate operation. Some of that will change immediately. I am in hopes that the insurance exchange system, when put into place, will eventually give individuals better insurance options, though it’s unlikely to compete with the more perfect, single payer system that was never seriously under consideration. Nevertheless, perhaps it could serve as the Trojan Horse for eventually bringing in a national healthcare system or “Medicare for All.”

Now the Democrats can run this fall by talking about the ~44,000 lives their bill will save each year when fully implemented and they can hold their heads a little higher by talking about the first major progressive legislation to come along in more than forty years! What I hope we have witnessed is more than the passage of a single piece of legislation, no matter how historic. I hope and believe we have seen the emergence of a new party climate, one in which Democrats of many different stripes can formulate sensible legislation, present it coherently to the public and, with Obama as a President (who hopefully has discovered the power of his leadership), learn to focus more clearly on the next important task that must be immediately addressed–that of building a new economy. Perhaps we have seen the birth of a new source of national energy for the kind of change that got Obama elected in the first place. We have not seen anything like this healthcare bill in Washington for many decades. Maybe we are learning that government can work. One thing is certain: the Republicans were rightfully scared out of their wits about this bill, because they understand from historic behavior that legislation which brings benefits and a sense of social justice are prized by the public and become part of the national mantra of our expectations. It worked all during the New Deal and we can make it work more effectively again by drawing on our successes, buttressed by the fact that the young millennial generation behind us is one of the most liberal-minded and pragmatic generations in our history. We are witnessing the cultural wars beginning to come to an end, even though tea baggers may keep the issues alive for many years. How utterly boring were they and how much did they degrade the fabric of our country? These wars of abortion, gay rights, the drug war and “zero tolerance”  may not be over immediately, but the odds for a better outcome have been dramatically improved. The groups that support these button issues are diminishing in size and influence. So the best thing about the healthcare was perhaps, just maybe the Democrats got their groove back.

My enthusiasm for the future of this country has been stirred by the events of the last two years in which forces that serve the common public good seem to be emerging from a long Rip Van Winkle sleep under a tree that started to rot. And my enthusiasm has surged further by the behavior of our government since the healthcare summit less than two months ago. Yet, there have been highs and lows over the past year and one might have hoped for better outcomes in almost every endeavor we have witnessed on the political landscape. But fear of Republicans is waning and we should all try to accelerate the growth of the absurd tea baggers, who, together with Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, have placed the Republican Party on a calm sea without rudder or compass. Hopefully, they will finally see the ice flows. What these people represent is nothing less than the re-awakening of Jim Crow, without the realization of what he has historically represented or who in fact he really was. Glenn Beck might try to look him up in the phone book. In the meantime, sweet dreams America–you have to wake up tomorrow with a new vision. That’s the pace of modern life, especially when you also have the future health of the planet to worry about.


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