Friday, March 26, 2010

National Catholic Reporter to Pope: "Tell the Truth" about Church's Child Abuse

In a frank editorial posted this morning, the National Catholic Reporter tells Pope Benedict XVI "It's time, past time really" for him to tell the whole truth about his role in the failure of Catholic bishops over several decades to prevent abuse of children. I agree with NCR's assessment that "We now face the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history."

Much of the editorial follows; I've added bold-face to some important sentences:

The Holy Father needs to directly answer questions, in a credible forum, about his role -- as archbishop of Munich (1977-82), as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1982-2005), and as pope (2005-present) -- in the mismanagement of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

We urge this not primarily as journalists seeking a story, but as Catholics who appreciate that extraordinary circumstances require an extraordinary response. Nothing less than a full, personal and public accounting will begin to address the crisis that is engulfing the worldwide church. It is that serious.

With the further revelations March 26 by The New York Times that memos and meeting minutes exist showing that Benedict had to be at least minimally informed that an abuser priest was coming into the archdiocese of Munich and that he further had been assigned without restrictions to pastoral duties, it becomes even more difficult to reconcile the strong language of the pope in his letter to Irish bishops and his own conduct while head of a major see.

No longer can the Vatican simply issue papal messages -- subject to nearly infinite interpretations and highly nuanced constructions -- that are passively "received" by the faithful. No longer can secondary Vatican officials, those who serve the pope, issue statements and expect them to be accepted at face value.

We were originally told by Vatican officials, for example, that in the matter of Fr. Peter Hullermann, Munich Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger approved the priest's transfer to the archdiocese, but had no role in the priest's return to parish ministry, where he again molested children. Rather, it was Fr. Gerhard Gruber, archdiocesan vicar general at the time, who, according to a March 12 Vatican statement, has taken "full responsibility" for restoring the priest to ministry. Gruber, subsequent to his statement, has not made himself available for questions.

We are told, moreover, that the case of Hullermann is the single instance during Ratzinger's tenure in Munich where a sexually errant priest was relocated to a parish where he could molest again. If true, this would be a great exception to what, in the two-and-a-half decades NCR has covered clergy abuse in the church, has been an ironclad rule: Where there is one instance of hierarchical administrative malfeasance, there are more.

Given memos and minutes placing the pope amid the discussions of the matter, we are asked to suspend disbelief even further.

The first reported clergy sex abuse stories, dating back in NCR to 1985, focused on the misconduct of priests who had been taken to court by parents of molested children -- parents who had gone to church officials, but received no solace. Instead, what they received from church officials was denial and counter accusation.

Almost from the beginning of the coverage of these trials, it was clear the clergy sex abuse story had two consistent components: the abusing priest and the cover-up by the bishop.

In nearly every instance, bishops, faced with accusations of child abuse, denied them, even as they shuffled priests to new parishes, even as they covered up their own actions.

In the last decade the story has not gone away. Rather it has continuously reared its head in nation after nation, especially in those countries with a free press and independent judicial system. A dominant characteristic of this story is that where and when it has emerged it has done so without the aid of church hierarchy. To the contrary, it has taken lawsuit after lawsuit, investigative report after investigative report, to bring this horrendous story to necessary light.

Inexorably, a story that began with reports on trials in a few U.S. cities a quarter century back has now moved up the Catholic institutional ladder -- from priests to bishops to national bishops' conferences and to the Vatican itself. This last step is the one we see emerging this month. The new focus is unlikely to end anytime soon.

The focus now is on Benedict. What did he know? When did he know it? How did he act once he knew?

The questions arise not only about his conduct in Munich, but also, based also as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A March 25 Times story, citing information from bishops in the United States, reported that the Vatican had failed to take action against a priest accused of molesting as many as 200 deaf children while working at a school from 1950 to 1974. Correspondence reportedly obtained by the paper showed requests for the defrocking of the priest, Fr. Lawrence Murphy, going directly from U.S. bishops to Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now the Vatican secretary of state. No action was taken against Murphy.

Like it or not, this new focus on the pope and his actions as an archbishop and Vatican official fits the distressing logic of this scandal. For those who have followed this tragedy over the years, the whole episode seems familiar: accusation, revelation, denial and obfuscation, with no bishop held accountable for actions taken on their watch. Yes, there is a depressing madness to this story. Time after time, this is a story of institutional failure of the deepest kind, a failure to defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a failure to put compassion ahead of institutional decisions aimed at short-term benefits and avoiding public scandal.

The strategies employed so far -- taking the legal path, obscuring the truth, and doing everything possible to protect perpetrators as well as the church's reputation and treasury -- have failed miserably.

We now face the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history. How this crisis is handled by Benedict, what he says and does, how he responds and what remedies he seeks, will likely determine the future health of our church for decades, if not centuries, to come.

It is time, past time really, for direct answers to difficult questions. It is time to tell the truth.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Republicans, Not Content to Destroy Their Party, Take Aim at Democracy Itself

Political commentary on the GOP's refusal to abide by the majority vote on the health care legislation has tended to focus on the likely failure of two major Republican strategies and how that might seal the demise of the Republican Party as a viable political entity.

Those concerns are well founded and well articulated. But they miss a larger point lurking first in the racial and gay slurs that mobs have hurled at Democratic officials in the last few days, then by actual vandalism and assassination threats.

Each time the misguided Republican strategies fail, the angrier and more desperate the fascist, racist, gun-toting fringe of the tea-baggers becomes. Now that they have become so frustrated that they are threatening to shoot office holders elected by majority vote--who have committed the 'tyranny' of passing legislation by majority vote--their threat to the survival of democracy in America is a clear and present danger. It needs to be our deepest concern.

Some of the political commentary focused on the futility of the Republicans trying to run against the health care law in November.

The Houston Chronicle editorialized that the Republicans were on the "wrong side of history" and that they should not be surprised when the voters tell them so: "It will be interesting to see how receptive voters will be to a pitch to reinstate higher drug prices for the elderly, permit insurance companies to resume denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and cancel tax breaks for individuals and small businesses to pay for policies."

In his Political Memo in the New York Times, Adam Nagourney warned the Republicans that they were about to compound the failure of their political strategy in Congress with a failure of political strategy in the mid-term elections.

Like the Houston Chronicle, he cited provisions of the bill that will be "broadly popular with the public." He also noted that "more contentious" provisions of the bill "including the mandate for the uninsured to obtain coverage, do not take effect for years." But to highlight how much damage the Republicans were really doing to themselves, Nagourney quoted a respected conservative political analyst:

David Frum, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative research organization, said Republicans had tried to defeat the bill to undermine Mr. Obama politically, but in the process had given up a chance of influencing a huge bill. Mr. Frum said his party’s stance sowed doubts with the public about its ideas and leadership credentials, and ultimately failed in a way that expanded Mr. Obama’s power.

“The political imperative crowded out the policy imperative,” Mr. Frum said. “And the Republicans have now lost both.”

“When our core group discover that this thing is not as catastrophic as advertised, they are going to be less energized than they are right now,” Mr. Frum said.

He warned that the energy Republicans were finding now among base voters would fade.

Other analysis focused on the futility of the legal challenges mounted by 14 state attorneys general, all but one a Republican. The Houston Chronicle called these Republican officials "sore losers" and said all they were doing was wasting precious taxpayer time and money.

A professor of law at Washington and Lee University agreed, telling CNN in excruciating detail that the states' legal position was full of holes and had about as much chance of prevailing as a snowball in hell.

These points, though well taken, miss the bigger picture: the Republican march into irrelevance has been a long time coming and may now be irreversible; but it could bring down much more than a failed political party.

It reached its previous nadir in follies like bungling an unfunded war in Iraq, establishing unfunded drug benefits for seniors and so ham-stringing federal enforcement agencies that Wall Street pursued greed at any cost and the economy tanked here and around the globe. Then they piled new atrocity upon that by opposing stimulus bills aimed at fixing their economic mess and health care reform that they once thought was a very good idea.

So frankly, the country should shed no tears if the Republican Party meets its final demise.

But if we have no good reason to keep the Republicans from destroying themselves, we have every reason to stop them from destroying the country. We need to focus on how the fascists they pander to are reacting to Republican defeats: they are rejecting democracy itself.

The Republicans are very much in danger of transitioning from the party of no to the party of treason. The majority in Congress need to make the GOP members accountable for violating their oaths to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." And the Justice Department needs to prosecute all who incite treason and all who threaten the extermination of elected officials faithfully doing the jobs the voters elected them to do.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Bishops' President Distorts Catholic Health Association's Stance on Health Reform

In a commentary posted yesterday, Washington Post syndicated columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. puzzles over why Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, would say the Catholic Health Association's support for the health care bill came in part because, unlike the bishops, "They believe ... that the defects that they do recognize can be corrected after passage of the final bill" -- when in fact that is not the CHA's position at all!

Sister Carol Keehan is president of the Catholic Health Association, whose members, Dionne notes, "include 600 Catholic hospitals and 1,400 nursing homes." Keehan told Dionne that George's assertion was "flatly not true" (his words). Quoting her, he wrote:

"We're not saying that," she said. Her organization believes the bill as currently written guarantees that there will be no federal funding for abortion and does not need to be "corrected." Why the bishops would distort the position of the church's major health association is, to be charitable, a mystery.

Dionne said Keehan was particularly troubled by the bishops' opposition to the Senate language on abortion, because she and her organization were directly involved in crafting it -- working with two Democratic senators strongly opposed to abortion, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Again in Dionne's words:

She loyally refuses to criticize the bishops but argues that their interpretation of the abortion language is simply wrong...

“We looked at the bill. We spent a lot of time with Sens. Casey and Nelson,” she said in an interview. “We agreed to support it because we believe it meets the test of no federal funding for abortion. Perhaps the language is not the way I would write it, but it meets the test. … I was not going to take a little bit of abortion (in the bill) to get federal funding.”

She added: “I can't walk away from extending coverage to more than 30 million people.”

It's hard not to see this as more evidence for the position I have advance here before: that the true aim of the bishops is not to uphold the Hyde Amendment's current restrictions on using federal funds for abortions, but to use the bill's new federal involvement in health-care funding as a pretext to also limit abortion coverage by private insurers.

As Dionne notes, it is unconscionable for the U.S. bishops to hold health-care reform hostage to this new agenda and make its rejection their excuse for defecting from the health-care equity they have championed for decades.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

National Catholic Reporter Defends CHA, Applauds U.S. Nuns, Urges Health Reform

The National Catholic Reporter has just posted an editorial defending the Catholic Health Association against criticism by some U.S. bishops, applauding the 59,000 U.S. women religious who asked Congress to pass the pending health-care reform, and adding its own endorsement of the measure. The editorial accused the bishops of putting out more than one "red herring" about the measure's true impact on abortions. Part of the editorial follows:

Much of the focus on the bill in these last days, and not only in the Catholic world, has been on its provisions regarding abortion. All sides agreed to abide by the spirit of the Hyde Amendment, which for more than 30 years has banned federal funding of abortion. But the Hyde Amendment applies to government programs only, and trying to fit its stipulations to a private insurance marketplace is a bit like putting a potato skin on an apple. Pro-choice advocates could not understand why a government that currently subsidizes abortion coverage through the tax code should balk at subsidizing private plans that cover abortion in the insurance exchanges the bill establishes. They have a point. Pro-life groups understandably worry that opening the door to federal funding of abortion, even indirectly, risks further encroachments on Hyde. They have a point, too.

This being a political debate, it was bound to get nasty. And nasty it has gotten. The Catholic Health Association and its leadership is taking heat for their courageous stance in favor of the bill; the nearly 60,000 women religious who endorsed the measure yesterday, even as their congregations face scrutiny from Rome on other matters, should be applauded.

While we acknowledge the thoughtful tone of the statement by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the president of the U.S. bishops' conference, some of his confreres have taken it upon themselves to impugn CHA's motives, the competence of its leadership, or both.

Part of the difference between the positions taken by the Catholic Health Association as well as by the leaders of the women's religious communities, and that taken by the USCCB has to do with their different roles. CHA actually knows how health care is provided at the ground level. The USCCB's inside-the-beltway analysis is focused on possible scenarios, many of them worst-case scenarios. The U.S. bishops' conference is right to worry about such things and the sisters are right to put those worries in perspective.

In any event, what is being debated is not the morality of abortion but the politics of abortion, and there is plenty of room for honest and respectful disagreement among Catholics about politics.

That said, the bishops have to be clear that some of their talking points might lead honest observers to question their competence -- or worse. In the past week or so, much has been made of the bill's provision of $7 billion dollars to community health centers. The National Right to Life Committee chimed in that this money could go to pay for abortions at clinics run by Planned Parenthood. Back to Logic 101: All Planned Parenthood clinics may be clinics, but not all health care clinics are Planned Parenthood clinics. The community health centers in question do not, never have, and have no intention of performing abortions, and they are prohibited by statute from doing so. This is a red herring and it was profoundly disappointing to see the USCCB Web site give credence to it.

Bottom line: The current legislation is not "pro-abortion," and there is no, repeat no, federal funding of abortion in the bill.

Meanwhile, writing in The Washington Post last Sunday, T.R. Reid, a first-rate journalist, a Catholic, and author of "The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care." argues persuasively that industrialized countries that achieve universal or near-universal insurance coverage have a demonstrably lower abortion rate than we have in the United States. It should matter to those who believe in the sacredness of all human life that this legislation will not only provide health care to those who don't currently possess it, but will encourage women facing crisis pregnancies to choose life. Given the intractable nature of the abortion debate in the United States, this amounts to a pro-life victory of historic proportions.

When Social Security first passed in the 1930s, and Medicare first passed in the 1960s, the bills were insufficient to the problems the laws were designed to address. For example, in order to secure the support of Southern senators, the original Social Security bill exempted sharecroppers from its concern, as the current health care bill exempts immigrants. But, over time, the problems were remedied and both Social Security and Medicare have become essential parts of our nation's social fabric. They embody that solidarity which is the goal of Catholic social teaching.

The current health care bill, for all of its problems and all of its controversies, will further turn our society in the direction of solidarity and away from the Social Darwinism its opponents prefer.

59,000 U.S. Nuns and the Catholic Health Association Urge Health Reform Passage

Right on the heels of the Catholic Health Association's announcement that it is parting ways with the U.S. Bishops' opposition to health-care reform, representatives of 59,000 U.S. women religious delivered a letter to every member of Congress yesterday urging them to vote in favor of the pending legislation. Signers of the letter include the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and, according to the National Catholic Reporter, "the leaders of more than four dozen U.S. congregations of women religious."

What is significant is that both Catholic groups do not buy the bishops' position that the reform bill would weaken current restrictions on using federal funds for abortions. That tends to confirm recent analysis here that the bishops' true intent is to add to the current restrictions, not just maintain them.

Also significant is that Catholics more directly involved in health care than the bishops are telling the bishops and their conservative allies in Congress that they have got it wrong. This is precisely the way we do morality in post-Vatican II Catholicism. The bishops don't understand that yet, but maybe this can be another teachable moment for a few of them. The text of the letter follows.

Dear Members of Congress:

We write to urge you to cast a life-affirming “yes” vote when the Senate health care bill (H.R. 3590) comes to the floor of the House for a vote as early as this week. We join the Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA), which represents 1,200 Catholic sponsors, systems, facilities and related organizations, in saying: the time is now for health reform AND the Senate bill is a good way forward.

As the heads of major Catholic women’s religious orders in the United States, we represent 59,000 Catholic Sisters in the United States who respond to needs of people in many ways. Among our other ministries we are responsible for running many of our nation’s hospital systems as well as free clinics throughout the country.

We have witnessed firsthand the impact of our national health care crisis, particularly its impact on women, children and people who are poor. We see the toll on families who have delayed seeking care due to a lack of health insurance coverage or lack of funds with which to pay high deductibles and co-pays. We have counseled and prayed with men, women and children who have been denied health care coverage by insurance companies. We have witnessed early and avoidable deaths because of delayed medical treatment.

The health care bill that has been passed by the Senate and that will be voted on by the House will expand coverage to over 30 million uninsured Americans. While it is an imperfect measure, it is a crucial next step in realizing health care for all. It will invest in preventative care. It will bar insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. It will make crucial investments in community health centers that largely serve poor women and children. And despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions. It will uphold longstanding conscience protections and it will make historic new investments – $250 million – in support of pregnant women. This is the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it.

Congress must act. We are asking every member of our community to contact their congressional representatives this week. In this Lenten time, we have launched nationwide prayer vigils for health care reform. We are praying for those who currently lack health care. We are praying for the nearly 45,000 who will lose their lives this year if Congress fails to act. We are also praying for you and your fellow Members of Congress as you complete your work in the coming days. For us, this health care reform is a faith mandate for life and dignity of all of our people.

We urge you to vote “yes” for life by voting yes for health care reform in H.R. 3590.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

U.S. Must Convince Israel: Of the Three Things You Want, You Can Only Have Two

New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman had an excellent analysis yesterday, arguing that Israel, moderate Arabs and the U.S. should support Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's proposal for creating a Palestinian state. Friedman argues that it is the only proposal that (1) protects their interests, (2) resolves the conflict between Israelis and the indigenous Palestinians of the West Bank, and (3) successfully establishes Palestine on the West Bank. All other proposals ultimately destroy both claimants to the land.

Friedman's description of "Fayyadism" is straight-forward: Fayyad calls for "a nonviolent struggle, for building noncorrupt transparent institutions and effective police and paramilitary units, which even the Israeli Army says are doing a good job; and then, once they are all up and running, declare a Palestinian state in the West Bank by 2011."

Friedman is at his best in explaining why Israel has no choice but to accept Fayyad's plan: of the three things Israelis want most, the logic of the situation will allow them to achieve only two. Fayyad's strategy would give them the best two of the three.

Friedman makes these points in one paragraph. I re-format it here to let each of the three choices stand out:

Ever since Israel occupied the West Bank and its Palestinian population in 1967, Israelis have faced a dilemma: Do they want a Jewish state, a democratic state and state in all of the land of Israel (Israel plus the West Bank)? In this world, they can have only two out of three.

Israel can be Jewish and democratic, but not if it keeps the West Bank, because the Palestinians there plus all the Israeli Arabs will eventually outnumber the Jews.

It can be Jewish and keep the West Bank, but then it can’t be democratic; Arabs will be the majority.

It can be democratic and keep the West Bank, but then it can’t be Jewish.

Friedman argues that Israel's only choice is to be Jewish and democratic--and concede the West Bank to Palestine. He thinks Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands this, or he would not have accepted the two-state solution in principle: "But his government is an impossible mix of moderate Labor Party and hard-line religious and nationalist ideologues who actually believe Israel can have all three if it just hangs tough."

The "big U.S. strategy" for the Middle East, Friedman concludes, should be to go all out for Fayyad's proposal and convince Israel it is the only way forward, if Israelis and Palestinians are ever to live in peace, and if the Palestinian wound, which pains Muslims globally and focuses their hostility on Jews and their supporters, is ever to be healed.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The REPUBLICANS Have Driven Government Takeover of Health Care for Two Decades

We've heard ad nauseam the Republican claim that the Democratic health-care reform proposals would mean a federal government takeover of one-sixth of the national economy.

Enter Newsweek's Daniel Gross, who posted an important analysis yesterday that attacks Republican claim on two fronts. First, he says, "the proposed health care reform does not take over the system in any sense"--as the chagrin of most liberals amply shows. Second, the expansion of federal involvement in health care since 1990 has been almost entirely the doing of Republicans, who either pushed it directly or caused situations that forced more federal involvement. Thanks to the Republicans, the government has already taken over one-twelfth of the national economy! In fact, it is the Democrats who are trying to contain that trend.

Following is most of the Newsweek analysis. [Be aware: if you link to the CDC's "big annual report," it will want to load a 10.25 MB file to your computer.]

There have been lots of absurdities in the debate—such as it is—about health care reform. There's the hypocrisy of people dependent on government-run health care complaining about government-run health care. And now comes the Republican canard that the current health care reform proposal constitutes a government takeover of one-sixth of the economy. Here are Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina making precisely that argument.

First, the proposed health care reform does not take over the system in any sense. Much to the chagrin of progressives, the bills under consideration don't contain a public option and don't provide for a single payer. In fact, they provide subsidies for millions of people to purchase private insurance.

Second, . . . We're already halfway toward socialized medicine, but not because of Obamacare. . . Over the last couple of decades, as the private sector has done a miserable job controlling costs, as employers have felt less and less compelled to offer health care benefits as a condition of employment, as the population has aged, and as the government created new health care entitlements, the government has been slowly assuming a higher portion of health care spending in the United States—or "taking it over."

Check out Table 123 in the CDC's big annual report. In 1990, health care expenditures in the United States were split, 60-40, between the private and public sectors. By 2000, the ratio had fallen to 55.9-44.1. In other words, in the 1990s, a period in which Republicans controlled the House for six years, the share of health spending controlled by the government rose by 10 percent. The trend continued in the period from 2000 to 2008, when Republicans controlled the White House and largely controlled Congress. The recession boosted the poverty rate, making more people eligible for Medicaid, and led to the reduction of millions of payroll jobs, which led to losses in job-related insurance.* By 2008, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, private health care expenditures had fallen to 52.7 percent and public had risen to 47.3 percent. In pretty much every year of the Bush administration, the government "took over" a greater chunk of the health care sector. And many of the Republicans who are complaining about reform proposals today didn't utter a peep. In fact, they helped the process along by voting for the Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2003. (Hat tip to Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic for the references.)

CMS also notes that thanks to these trends, public spending will soon outpace private spending—even in the absence of significant reform. "As a result of more rapid growth in public spending, the public share of total health care spending is expected to rise from 47 percent in 2008, exceed 50 percent by 2012, and then reach nearly 52 percent by 2019."

So, to reiterate, we're already half way toward fully socialized medicine. The government has already taken over one-twelfth of the economy—and more every day. That's the status quo the opponents of reform are defending.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Another Reason to Reform Health Care: "To Improve Americans' Sense of Security"

As one of his chief arguments for the necessity of health care reform, President Obama has tried to sell the point that the current system is such a major drag on the national economy and the federal budget that improving it is critical to economic recovery and slowing the growth of the national debt.

Not everyone buys it, and opponents charge that the specific plan he is supporting might actually have the reverse impact: i.e., retard economic recovery by increasing the cost of health insurance and increase the nation's indebtedness to pay for more unfunded entitlement programs. Never mind that the Congressional Budget Office disputes those outcomes. The opponents, after all, have never been known to let facts get in their way.

In the middle of all this, a syndicated columnist has just added an important nuance to Obama's economic argument for health reform. In an analysis published March 2nd, the Providence Journal's Froma Harrop suggests that ending Americans' terror at losing their health insurance might just be key to whether or not consumer confidence returns anytime soon.

The nexus she makes between consumers' willingness to spend and their fear of facing serious illness without health insurance may not be immediately obvious. Indeed, I'm not aware of anyone who has made it before. But once the nexus is brought to our attention, the point becomes so self-evident that it's very difficult to ignore.

Harrop launches her conclusion from an unlikely platform: "Americans who shopped till they dropped have stopped. Per capita consumption is down for two straight years, according to Booz & Co.'s new study of U.S. spending behavior. That hasn't happened since the Great Depression."

Booz suggests that the Great Recession has had such a gut-punching impact that, in Harrop's words, it has "changed American spending habits in lasting ways."

No income group has been immune from this change, but the impact is greatest on the middle and lower-income consumers who are the engine of U.S. retail sales. Harrop continues:

"Discretionary spending has fallen in every income group, and the lower the income, the deeper the plunge. More disturbing, though, is the growing pessimism. Only 31 percent of those surveyed said their household's financial status would improve over the next year, while 32 percent thought it would get worse."

So what does all this have to do with health care? Let Harrop make the connection, in her own words:

"As the American economy climbs out of the recessionary pits, the kind of consumer that will emerge with it is becoming evident: not much of one. Only 18 percent of respondents told Booz that they plan to spend on clothing and shoes at pre-recession levels. That leaves over four in five American shoppers saying they won't hit the stores like they used to.

"So Americans' normally sunny outlook has fundamentally changed. The magic pills used to dull the pain of global competition are gone. No more housing bubbles to spin illusions of wealth, no more big loans for the little people, no more charge cards to recent bankrupts.

"The most obvious mood-enhancer is to improve Americans' sense of security. Like so much else that plagues our economy, this should start with health care. The loss of medical coverage remains the perpetual American nightmare. The unemployed can often replace much of their previous income by cobbling together a couple of part-time jobs. But if they lose health coverage along with the full-time position, they're out in the cold."

The argument seems iron-clad, and long overdue. It confirms Obama's argument that economic recovery depends to a large extent on real health care reform--but it adds an important reason that no one has highlighted to date: people are not going to spend on consumer goods when they live in horror of not being able to afford health care. Until that horror is banished, all they can do is save, and pray.

Harrop concludes with an wry contrast between health care security in the U.S. and Canada:

"How interesting that consumer confidence rose in Canada last month, while it fell sharply in the United States. Canadians know that if a family member falls sick, the family won't lose their house to medical bills. They know that a layoff won't leave them uninsured. That's a huge pillow of security.

"The American masses are unlikely to resume their heroic shopping sprees anytime soon (nor would that be desirable). But government policies that ease the terror of personal catastrophe are sure to lift the animal spirits of the American consumer — and that would help the economy a great deal."


Monday, March 01, 2010

Obama Has Mandate to Move Health Reform Forward, Houston Chronicle Says

In an editorial published in its Sunday print edition, the Houston Chronicle says the public wants real health care reform and is tired of Republican efforts to block it. The editorial said that far from being "the statist caricature its GOP critics would have the nation believe," the Democratic plan is "centrist and reasonable." It urged the President and his party to move forward on their own and said the voters would reward them. The editorial follows:

President Barack Obama's much-anticipated health care summit was clarifying. Nearly seven hours of talk on Thursday made plain that the divide between Democrats and Republicans is wide and likely unbridgeable.

But the summit also made this much clear: Most Americans believe that health care reform is needed. We would argue that gives Obama and the Democrats a clear mandate to move forward on their own.

Health care reform is too important to this economy, to the millions of Americans who go without, and even to well-insured Americans whose premiums continue to soar, to be put off for a moment longer.

The president's plan has many critics, including many in the liberal wing of Obama's own party. But the plan is not the statist caricature its GOP critics would have the nation believe. On the contrary, it is centrist and reasonable. And it is greatly needed.

The president was wise to resist the imploring of Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to scrap the current plan and start over. Given the degree of difference between the views of the two parties, that is likely a road that would lead nowhere.

Obama and the Democrats should specifically not be cowed from using the parliamentary device known as reconciliation to push the number of votes needed for Senate passage down from 60 to a simple majority of 51 in the upper chamber.

There is no shame in relying upon the smaller majority in the Senate. It has been used before by the same Republicans who now criticize it. The real crime would be to let this moment of opportunity for reform pass without action.

It will take stronger leadership than Obama has so far shown to stiffen the resolve of wavering centrist Democrats in the House of Representatives and bring health care reform. It will also take greater presidential leadership to overcome the drumbeat of misinformation about the plan from moneyed special interests.

It is worth the risk. We believe voters will reward Obama and the Democrats for showing the courage to move forward on their own. More important, the rewards of doing so will be shown in a strengthened economy and greater economic security for American workers and their families.

GOP 'Plan' Would Make Health Care "Even More Brutal" for the Uninsured

On Friday I noted several glaring deficiencies in the Gland Old Party's so-called plan for health care reform. Over the weekend I noticed that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has highlighted another.

Not content with reducing the ranks of the uninsured by only 1%--compared to a 64% reduction for the Democratic plan--and exacerbating the downward spiral of patients in high risk pools, the Republicans would make a new mess: "the people losing insurance would be those who need it most. Under the Republican plan, the American health care system would become even more brutal than it is now."

The following excerpts make Krugman's point:

What really struck me about the meeting. . .was the inability of Republicans to explain how they propose dealing with the issue that, rightly, is at the emotional center of much health care debate: the plight of Americans who suffer from pre-existing medical conditions. In other advanced countries, everyone gets essential care whatever their medical history. But in America, a bout of cancer, an inherited genetic disorder, or even, in some states, having been a victim of domestic violence can make you uninsurable, and thus make adequate health care unaffordable.

One of the great virtues of the Democratic plan is that it would finally put an end to this unacceptable case of American exceptionalism. But what’s the Republican answer? Mr. Alexander was strangely inarticulate on the matter, saying only that “House Republicans have some ideas about how my friend in Tullahoma can continue to afford insurance for his wife who has had breast cancer.” He offered no clue about what those ideas might be.

In reality, House Republicans don’t have anything to offer to Americans with troubled medical histories. On the contrary, their big idea — allowing unrestricted competition across state lines — would lead to a race to the bottom. The states with the weakest regulations — for example, those that allow insurance companies to deny coverage to victims of domestic violence — would set the standards for the nation as a whole. The result would be to afflict the afflicted, to make the lives of Americans with pre-existing conditions even harder.

Don’t take my word for it. Look at the Congressional Budget Office analysis of the House G.O.P. plan. That analysis is discreetly worded, with the budget office declaring somewhat obscurely that while the number of uninsured Americans wouldn’t change much, “the pool of people without health insurance would end up being less healthy, on average, than under current law.” But here’s the translation: While some people would gain insurance, the people losing insurance would be those who need it most. Under the Republican plan, the American health care system would become even more brutal than it is now.