Friday, February 26, 2010

Elephants in the Summit Room: Gland Old Party Offers 10% Solution and 1% Wallop

I subjected myself to watching almost all of yesterday's seven-hour health summit, except for about 90 minutes after the lunch break, when I had to attend some continuing professional education on the internet.

In the view of some commentators, that puts me in not very savory company: presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who's also a professor at Houston's Rice University, thinks "Only the infirm or unemployed could have possibly sat home and watched it all."

Actually, the live audience was probably a bit larger than that. I, for example, am retired but not yet on Medicare; so I have time to monitor the progress (if any) of political and religious change I consider important. As a retired federal employee, progress on health care reform is near the very top of my list. And, by the way, I watched the first three hours of the summit in a library, with my laptop on WiFi, with earphones.

I hope Brinkley and other commentators are wrong, when they dismiss the summit as only a stunt and a spectacle. Granted, a chief aim of the proceedings was to give the Democrats cover on the issue of bipartisan cooperation. But the Republicans did such a wonderful job of demonstrating why they will never cooperate.

There were elephants plopping in the conference room every hour--stubborn Republican talking points, usually bereft of fact, that made President Obama's point for him: the tired white male conservatives of the Gland Old Party have no intention of ever supporting real health care reform, no matter how many of their alternatives the Democrats include. Their constituents require them to block any health care reform at all, and once again they make securing their base more important than the welfare of the United States.

I never heard anyone in the room say it. But the biggest elephant in the room was in the contrast between the number of uninsured whom the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says would get insurance under the parties' very different health plans: roughly 30 million under the Democratic bills, and 3 million under a bill introduced by House Minority Leader John Boehner.

So compared to the Democrats, the Republican view of 'real' health reform is a 10% solution: their philosophy and their constituents will only allow them to achieve reducing the ranks of 47 million uninsured nationally by 3 million people.

Could any proposal be more transparently cynical? Is it any wonder that Boehner's bill takes up only 10% as many pages as the Democratic measure? The Republicans think a 10% solution will change something. Right. It will make the health care situation worse. As Obama and others observed, baby steps won't cut it; they will make the problem that much harder to fix.

Actually, the achievement is even more paltry. If 47 million is roughly the accurate number of Americans without health insurance, the Democrats would be addressing 64% of the problem. Helping only 3 million, the Republicans would be addressing less than 1%. Leaving 36% still uninsured is unacceptable. Leaving 99% still uninsured is criminal.

A second large elephant was John McCain.

First, the Republicans put the Democrats in the position where they must have 60 Senate votes for cloture. The Republicans know that has two include two Independents who sometimes vote with the Democrats, and several centrist Democrats from conservative states who will soon face very tight races with Republicans. So this gives all 60 senators who favor the legislation an individual veto power over its contents. Some of the more greedy use their veto power to secure unseemly deals for their states. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, doing his best to emulate Lyndon Johnson in his hey day, makes the deals necessary to get their votes. And along comes John McCain to regurgitate his campaign slogan, "This is not change we can believe in."

Please. Yes, it's politics as usual. But frankly the Republicans knew damn well that the bill's proponents would have to play politics as usual, because the Republicans insisted in running their Senate caucus like a Borg cube and ruthlessly casting their 40 votes in lockstep.

So McCain, as the liberal Jesuits used to say of their conservative colleagues when I was in college, takes off the old man and puts on . . . the old woman! He whines about an outcome he and his colleagues did their damnedest to ensure. How genuine.

A third large elephant was the absolute evil of high-risk pools.

The Democrats did an excellent job demonstrating how the insurance companies create the health-care equivalent of leper colonies--ostracizing the terminally ill, the chronically ill and anyone whose condition costs big bucks to treat into pools with no one else. The pool gets no income from the young, the healthy or those with complaints that can be treated cheaply. As a result, the pool and its insured play out a death spiral where the income stagnates, the costs rise dramatically, and eventually the policy-owners become unable to pay.

The Democrats aim to abolish such pools and ensure that any insurance pool have a productive mix of healthy and sick, young and old, rich and poor--all with minimum coverage standards that would apply in every state. The Republicans favor the status quo. Shame on them.

The final large elephant was the Republican dismay at the legislative process.

They professed horror that if they failed to get their way--i.e., have the Democrats shelve their bills and "start over," so that the Republicans could demonize their contents for several more months--the Democrats would resort to passing the bill as several budget reconciliation measures, a rare and radical tactic, heaven forfend.

An excellent article in the New York Times February 24th shows that since the reconciliation procedure was adopted in a 1974 budget law--during the last year of Richard Nixon's presidency and with the Democrats in control of Congress--reconciliation bills have made it through Congress 22 times. Of those acts, 16 were passed when Republicans were the majority party.

The first use of reconciliation to enact major legislation was to pass a package of spending cuts to offset President Ronald Reagan's tax cuts. Among other Republican uses of reconciliation acts, the article cites: "the signature tax cuts of President George W. Bush, the 1996 overhaul of the welfare system, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicare Advantage insurance policies and the Cobra program allowing people who leave a job to pay to keep the health coverage their employer provided (the 'R' and 'A' in Cobra stand for 'reconciliation act'). "

So for the Republicans to cry foul over a Democratic threat to pass health care reform by reconciliation is about as disingenuous as it gets. Again, it is politics as usual and again it is Republicans who are resorting to it first.

Hopefully one way or another--through live viewing or sound bites or fact-checking or more thoughtful analysis--enough voters will get the point: the Republicans are intent on obstructing the health reform Americans want.

That's Obama's best hope, either for embarrassing a few Republicans who can no longer abide the comic chutzpah of their peers, or failing that, for using reconciliation and convincing the voters that the legislation was well worth saving and the Republicans gave them no other choice.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Even 76% of Conservatives Oppose Supremes Giving Free Speech Rights to Corporations

Yahoo News reports that a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that roughly 80% of Americans believed the Supreme Court's conservative majority erred in extending individual free speech rights to corporations and labor unions who pay for political advertising.

Although the ruling has long been championed by conservative ideologues--most prominently, George Will--the poll found that even 76% of Republicans oppose it, joined by 81% of independents and 85% of Democrats. Evidently most Americans know judicial activism when they see it, and they decline to be bamboozled by conservative judicial activists masquerading as constitutional literalists.

Have we finally found an issue that both parties can agree on? Most of the Yahoo News article follows:

Much has been made of late about the hyper-partisan political environment in America...

But it appears that one issue does unite Americans across the political spectrum.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that the vast majority of Americans are vehemently opposed to a recent Supreme Court ruling that opens the door for corporations, labor unions, and other organizations to spend money directly from their general funds to influence campaigns.

As noted by the Post's Dan Eggen, the poll's findings show "remarkably strong agreement" across the board, with roughly 80% of Americans saying that they're against the Court's 5-4 decision. Even more remarkable may be that opposition by Republicans, Democrats, and Independents were all near the same 80% opposition range. Specifically, 85% of Democrats, 81% of Independents, and 76% of Republicans opposed it. In short, "everyone hates" the ruling...

The findings of the poll are a bit surprising considering the fact that the case split the Supreme Court, with the five conservative justices in favor and the four more liberal justices against it. The decision was almost universally hailed by Republicans in Washington, who saw it as a victory for the free speech provided for under the Constitution, while President Obama and prominent Democrats in Washington almost universally derided it as a dark day for American democracy.

However, Sen. John McCain, one of the original sponsors of the campaign finance law struck down by Court's decision and one of its few prominent Republican opponents, may have been prophetic when he predicted Americans would turn against the Court. McCain told CBS's "Face the Nation" that there would be a "backlash" once awareness grew about "the amounts of union and corporate money that's going to go into political campaigns."

Perhaps the new poll numbers show that McCain might have been onto something.

Catholic Scholars Ask Pope to Encourage More Research Before Canonizing Pius XII

The National Catholic Reporter has an article today from Catholic News Service saying that 19 Catholic theologians and historians have asked Pope Benedict XVI not to canonize Pope Pius XII until more research is completed on the World War II pope's efforts to stop the Holocaust. The article:

Nineteen Catholic scholars of theology and history are asking Pope Benedict XVI to slow the process of the sainthood cause of Pope Pius XII.

Saying that much more research needs to be done on the papacy of the mid-20th century pope, the scholars said in a Feb. 16 letter to Pope Benedict that "history needs distance and perspective" before definitive conclusions can be reached on the role of Pope Pius during World War II and the Holocaust.

Leading the effort are Servite Father John Pawlikowski, professor of ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and Holy Cross Father Kevin Spicer, associate professor of history at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass.

In an e-mail to CNS sent late Feb. 17, Father Pawlikowski told Catholic News Service the scholars are not opposed to Pope Pius' canonization.

"We sent this letter because we feel that too often the issue of Pius XII is portrayed as one of Jewish concern," Father Pawlikowski wrote. "We wanted to make it clear that some Catholics who have worked on Holocaust issues have serious concerns about advancing the cause of Pius XII at this time."

Monday, February 08, 2010

"Game Over" for Tax Cuts, David Stockman Tells Republicans in PBS Interview

"The Republicans think their mission in life is to cut taxes. Sorry -- game over. We're now in the tax-raising business. And we're going to be in the tax-raising business for the next decade."

The Republicans, and most Americans, will want to turn a deaf ear to this advice. But we all ought to listen--not only because it's an accurate assessment of the current state of our Union, but especially because of who's making it.

The source is not Paul Krugman or Thomas Friedman or E.J. Dionne, or any of the other liberal experts conservatives love to hate. The source is David Stockman, the supply-side budget chief of the Reagan administration and self-described Wall Street "gunslinger," in an interview Friday with Paul Solmon on PBS.

Solmon was following up on Stockman's equally surprising January 18th op-ed piece in the New York Times, praising President Obama's proposed tax on big banks:

"While supply-side catechism insists that lower taxes are a growth tonic, the theory also argues that if you want less of something, tax it more. The economy desperately needs less of our bloated, unproductive and increasingly parasitic banking system."

Stockman argued that the Fed and the U.S. Treasury have been enablers of Wall Street's worst instincts:

"National economic policy has come to this absurd pass because for decades the Fed has juiced the banking system with excessive reserves. With this monetary fuel, the banks manufactured, aggressively at first and then recklessly, a tide of new loans and deposits. When Wall Street’s “heart attack” struck in September 2008, bank liabilities had reached 100 percent of gross domestic product — double the ratio of a few decades earlier.

"This was a measurement of the perilous extent to which bad investments, financed by debt, had come to distort the warp and woof of the economy. Behind the worthless loans stands a vast assemblage of redundant housing units, shopping malls, office buildings, warehouses, tanning salons and fast food restaurants. These superfluous fixed assets had, over the past decade, given rise to a hothouse economy of jobs that have now vanished...

"The baleful reality is that the big banks, the freakish offspring of the Fed’s easy money, are dangerous institutions, deeply embedded in a bull market culture of entitlement and greed. This is why the Obama tax is welcome: its underlying policy message is that big banking must get smaller because it does too little that is useful, productive or efficient."

In the interview with Solmon, Stockman argued for an absolute partition between investment banks and banks with federally insured deposits:

"I would give the administration credit for trying to move us back to something that's a lot saner than trillion-dollar banks being propped up by the taxpayers, which is exactly where we are today.

"The fact is, Wall Street is entirely involved in capital markets activity, which is fine. But that's free market activity. They shouldn't be involved in it if they have got deposit insurance and if they have got the Fed window behind them. That's for deposit banks, not for gunslingers and for hedge funds and for capital market players.

Is Stockman uncomfortable sounding like so many critics of the economy on the left? He told Solmon:

"I'm mortified by that thought. But, at some point, you have to ask, what's good policy? And we have gotten into this syndrome, I think, over the last 20 years, where policy of the Treasury and of the Fed has been dictated by Wall Street, that, if Wall Street threatens to have a hissy fit, or the stock market is going to go down, the Fed has basically capitulated and is creating a very unstable and dangerous financial system in our economy."

Solmon asked how Stockman squared this with his "starve-the-beast" argument during the Reagan administration, i.e., that tax cuts would force government to cut spending. That's when Stockman acknowledged how much things have changed in the last few decades:

"I think the lesson of the last 25 years is that it doesn't work. You can keep cutting taxes until you reach the point where this year -- or the year just ended, we spent $3.6 trillion, and we only collected $2.2 trillion.

"So, we are now so far out of kilter that it's irrelevant. Taxes are going to have to be raised. And the beast needs to be trimmed back. But it can't be starved enough to even begin to cope with our fiscal problem. And this is where I think all the politicians are faking in both parties, but the Republicans especially."

Unlike most conservatives, Stockman understands that times have changed and that the federal government desperately needs revenue, not just to carry out its most basic functions, but also to put a stop to business practices that have driven the economy into the ground.

Whether the Republicans will join Stockman in thinking twice about conservative tax dogma remains to be seen. But the country will continue to spiral downward if they do not.

Conservative analysts like George Will and Charles Krauthammer and the crowd at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal like to bemoan what they call the American "entitlement culture." They believe what's most fundamentally wrong with our country is retired people who feel entitled to Social Security and Medicare, sick people who feel entitled to health care, unemployed people who feel entitled to government assistance, state and local governments who feel entitled to bailouts from federal tax dollars, etc. There is little that government does that escapes their scorn.

What the conservatives refuse to acknowledge is the over-arching entitlement they have been claiming for four decades: the entitlement of U.S. citizens not to be taxed. The logical outcome of that entitlement is no government at all--even for the few things they'd really like government to do.

Going back to California's Proposition 13 in 1978, conservatives have successfully promoted the fantasy that government can sustain itself without revenue. The fantasy has never been true. But true believers like David Stockman have not been able to face it--not until the financial disasters we've suffered since 2007.

Now that time and facts have overwhelmed his theory, Stockman has bravely acknowledged them. His devotees, alas, are still busy avoiding the facts, denying history and working to starve government into even more dangerous paralysis. As Stockman says so aptly about cutting taxes, "game over." Let's move on, while we still can.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Jon Stewart Tells It Like It Is: Bill O'Reilly Is "the Voice of Sanity" at Fox News

MSNBC has posted an Associated Press article and a video clip in which "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart says Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly has "become in some ways the voice of sanity" at Fox news.

Addressing the host on "The O'Reilly Factor," Stewart added post-haste: “although that’s like being the thinnest kid at fat camp.”

Faux News' daily failure to be "fair and balanced" has been well documented, here and elsewhere. So of course I applaud Stewart for telling it like it is. Unfortunately, the network's talent for turning intelligent political discourse into pablum still paralyzes every attempt in Washington to resolve anything. Faux News needs to be embarrassed a lot more, until the public grasps how seldom Murdoch & Company tell the truth.

Here are more excerpts from the AP article, with one correction from the video's soundtrack:

Stewart tossed off jokes but also criticized Fox for being a “cyclonic perpetual [e]motion machine” opposing President Barack Obama.

“They have taken reasonable concerns about this president and this economy and turned it into a full-fledged panic attack about the next coming of Chairman Mao,” Stewart said.

Fox “is the most passionate and sells the clearest narrative of all the news networks, if ... you’re still referring to it in that manner,” Stewart said.

O’Reilly pointed out that Fox is like a newspaper with news and opinion pages, an idea Stewart poked fun at.

“Fox in and of itself doesn’t say you’re a news network all day,” he said. “What is it, you’re news from 9 to 11, then you’re opinion, then you’re news again from 1 to 2:30 except for the Jewish holidays? And then on alternate parking days you’re news, but Christmas, you’re not?”

But he did criticize Obama for not taking control of his agenda.

“It allows too much room for different narratives to take hold, for instance, a narrative that might emanate from a news organization of this ilk,” he said.