September 12, 2009

The Michael Moore Medical Insurance Reform Act

It occurs to me that as unlikely as it might have been that a fellow with Michael Moore's BMI would have nevertheless wound up being the conscience of the health care debate, such has indeed proved to be the case. The two salient points that might survive the Congressional fiasco currently underway are the foci of Moore's movie "SiCKO:" to wit, insurance companies should not be allowed to do business if they systematically exclude people with "preexisting conditions" and they should not be allowed to drop insureds from coverage simply because they get sick, i.e., need the insurance they've been paying thousands of dollars for.

And then Congress ought to fold up the circus tent and move on to the next town.

I watched Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn) on Real Time last night, a very sharp, genuinely liberal Congressman with a quick wit, combative nature and high IQ talk about Congress's missed opportunity. He made the obvious point that Obama gave the game away at the start by deciding to work within the existing medical insurance framework. Once you do that, there's not much to talk about, although Obama keeps talking, as he did Wednesday night. One thing I've learned about Prez O is that you should wait a couple of days after one of his speeches before you gauge your own reaction. He's so good at speaking, at the art of oration itself, that you forget about content. There was virtually no content, other than the Two SiCKO Points, and those are good ones. So pass a bill that does exactly those two things and forget the rest, because the rest (a) will not bring down costs and (b) will not expand coverage in the "revenue neutral" way that Obama says it will. There is no way to provide health insurance to 50 million uninsured Americans through the existing predatory private insurance industry without some political entity, the federal govt. or the states (through Medicaid), going bust-o.

President Obama said at the outset that replacing the private insurance system "would be too disruptive," although he would like a Single Payer system. It's clear O doesn't like disruption; for example, during the speech he assured the Republican blowhards that whatever plan gets passed, no federal money would be provided for abortions. Thus, for some reason he feels compelled to reassure us that women (and probably the neediest of women) who need this Constitutionally protected, perfectly legal procedure can't have it, because it upsets Republicans when women exercise their Constitutional rights. He was also clear that undocumented aliens will receive no benefits for any notional "public option;" since neither Congress nor Obama has any intention of ever dealing with the problem of illegal immigration, this means that uninsured undocumented aliens will continue to use emergency rooms as their primary care physician. This sounds tough and jingoist and winds up being stupid.

I hope, as we nation build in Afghanistan, that we do it right over there from the outset. The billions that we spend there can include a model universal health care system to provide cradle-to-grave free access paid for by taxes. The years when America might have done that have obviously passed, but it's still a good idea.

Meanwhile, the Obama Wall Street reforms seem to be dying a slow death as the overmatched White House does battle with the legal sharks of Manhattan. It's only because they're doing things out of order. Moore's new movie opens in a few weeks and will outline the sweet spots. Thank goodness somene is still working hard on our problems.

September 11, 2009

Is America Actually Still Capable of Great Things?

Odd that President Obama even felt the need to reassure us on that point Wednesday night, don't you think? What has been going on that would call our capability into question?

I was musing out loud to a friend recently about the rough congruence of a normal lifespan and big societal changes. Life is change, the Buddha tells us. Suppose, I said, you had been a man born in Dresden, Germany, in 1910. By the age of 4, the Great War would have commenced and lasted until you were age 8. A few years after the that, the Weimar Republic would have succumbed to one of the great episodes of hyperinflation in world history. That set the stage for the rise of Hitler and the Brownshirts in the 1920's, and by 1933 (age 23 for unser Mann) the Third Reich ran the state with murderous, totalitarian control. When this German reached the age of 29, World War II would have begun, and if he were able-bodied, chances are he would have been conscripted into the Wehrmacht. If he survived the war, he would have returned to a hometown utterly destroyed by Allied bombing. The Soviets who arrived in the eastern part of Germany as a liberation army decided not to leave, so now Der Mann finds himself a citizen of the GDR, a Soviet satellite, a Communist government replacing Fascism. At the age of 35 he is perhaps trained in whatever heavy industry the Soviet Central Committee decides is appropriate for East Germany. Dresden is rebuilt, much of it in the inimitable Soviet style. This state of affairs continues until 1989, when the Berlin Wall is torn down, and as our Mann expires in 1990, at the age of 80, talk is rife about reunification with the West, bringing the country of his birth full circle.

So maybe the idea that things must always stay the same through the laws of inertia is something of a myth. America, because of poor, short-sighted leadership and business practices, transmogrified itself from the manufacturing colossus of the 1950's, during my own youth, to its present hollowed-out "consumer" economy, dependent on foreign borrowing for its solvency and for overseas manufacturing for most of its everyday needs. Unlike Der Mann, Americans have never been exactly confronted with some immutable sign that Things Have Changed: when your city is destroyed and your German rulers are overthrown in favor of Soviet stooges answering to Moscow, it's hard to pretend it's the same-old same-old.

It seems likely that during my lifetime, we will witness the end of American financial hegemony in the sense that the dollar will no longer be the world's fiat currency. This fact alone will bring about huge changes, since it won't be possible to print valuable currency as a way out of debt or to control the cost of basic commodities by pricing everything in dollars. China, India, Brazil, Russia, the Eurozone, will all have a lot more to say about how such things are done. These changes are inevitable and are already underway. Our era of "legacy" domination is coming to a close.

So I don't know the answer to Barack's question. I think it's unfortunate, really, that he decided it was the best political course to do "a lot of big things at once." That strikes me as a survival of the old style of American Exceptionalism. It would have been much better to start with a job-creating, sustainable effort to rework the energy grid so we can move toward self-sufficiency. But maybe all these old pols who have been in Washington, D.C. forever, and refuse to see (or are incapable of seeing) how much things have changed need to find out the hard way, and have history happen to them (and to us) as der alte Herr Mann did in his.

September 10, 2009

Three impossible things after breakfast

As always, a plethora of topics presents itself. I can think of three things, which is not as impressive as the Lewis Carroll character who could think of six impossible things before breakfast. But I try.

For example, and here's a h/t to Dan: in August the Social Security fund went negative to the tune of $6 billion. Were you aware of that? It does not seem to be receiving much play in the news. It is, however, an absolutely titanic (heh-heh) development. The Social Security fund is a piggy bank for Congress. When they run out of money (that is, on Day 1 of the fiscal year), they reach into this fund and take out the FICA taxes you pay in and replace it with an IOU. These IOUs, which presently stretch from here to Neptune, are in lieu of, you know, the cash you paid in. How will the IOUs be repaid (another way of asking: what the flock is the Social Security Trust Fund exactly?) and the difference made up between payments to present retirees and the inflow from cash-strapped workers? By floating more IOUs, of course, what we call "Treasury obligations."

Right now you might be thinking to yourself: is there a material, relevant difference between this approach and what Bernie Madoff is doing a hundred fifty for? Well, let's subject it to a little lawyerly dissection. In both cases, the Perp (the Treasury or Madoff) has the same problem. People who invested earlier want their money back, with interest. The Treasury (and Bernie) no can do - they don't have the money on hand. Bernie spent it on villas in Palm Beach, Montauk and France, the Treasury (through its mafiosi in Congress) on cruise missiles, overseas bases and the F-22. So far we're tracking nicely. So what to do? Bernie kept scamming investors and used their money to pay off the earlier investors. The Treasury floats more notes & bonds to the Fed, the Chinese and Saudi Arabia, although the latter two "indirect bidders" may also get the actual money from the Fed, when the Fed buys the mortgage-backed securities (MBS) which these FCBs (foreign central banks) bought from the Ponzi operations known as Fannie & Freddie.

Is this at all confusing? That's what criminal trials are for, to parse the evidence and break it down into easy-to-follow charts and exhibits. The Treasury & Fed, and their operational arm, Congress, hope you won't go to so much trouble. Still, it's difficult to see, so far, what real difference there is between Bernie and Eraserhead (Tim Geithner). Both are selling investments (in Bernie's case, the Blue Sky itself; in Tim's, the fraudulent promise to pay back what the Treasury will never in fact pay back, i.e., the national debt). All that Eraserhead can actually do is keep adding to the debt the Treasury has already accrued in order to meet the demands of investors who "redeem" and a Congress with a ravenous appetite for huge military expenditures. When Madoff's early marks made demands for redemption, the game was rolled up by the FBI. The federal government, however, is the FBI, among other things, so there's no one to roll them up. Could this explain why the SEC slept through Madoff's 20-year Ponzi scheme? It just seemed like S.O.P.

You can see that the last thing the Treasury needs right now is to discover that a reliable slush fund (your FICA payments) has turned into a really draggy debt. Where the hell are they supposed to steal money now? Going back to the analogy, which seems to have legs, the FICA "trust fund" is a little like one of Bernie's easy touches, a cousin or something, where he could go when the pressure got intense from some stranger who wanted to see the long green. As in Bernie's case, what's causing the tide to go out, revealing a vast shorescape of old tires and broken whiskey bottles, is the Tasered American "consumer" economy. People aren't paying in FICA taxes because they got no income.

The whole Social Security scam wasn't supposed to "go negative" until about 2017 under the fantasy projections of the Congressional Budget Office; that is, the FICA slush fund was supposed to be around till then and not become another dreary obligation. August, 2009, is a little sooner than planned, all must admit. Hey look: they can "seasonally adjust" the deficit and prove there will still be a surplus for the fiscal year ending in about 20 days. Just you wait. And for fiscal year 2010, beginning in 21 days? Well, we've done some projections based on the rapidly improving economy and it doesn't seem to us there's anything to worry about right now, or in 2010, or...look at this glossy brochure! And I can guarantee results, a comfortable 12% return on your money made possible by our proprietary investment strategies which take advantage of, hey, where you going? And who are you calling on the phone?

September 08, 2009

Manufacturing Consent, Updated

I've been reading Glenn Greenwald's blog for a long time, from the days when it was just a lonely, detached site floating in the blogosphere to its present, prominent position on In the old days it was called "Unclaimed Territory," and that's still the general idea. Glenn has found a niche from which to bedevil and harass the Establishment Pundits, and he has a great time doing it.

I would say that he has two central themes. The first is that Beltway Conventional Wisdom, that consensus of elite opinion formed by the politicians and the toadying journalists who "cover" them, often varies to a marked degree from the general consensus of opinion among Ordinary Americans, that irrelevant cohort the politicians nominally represent but ignore completely when it gets in the way of instructions from their corporate lobbyist masters. The second idea Glenn pounds away at is the general sense that the Media-Political Complex has developed a kind of self-protective ethos which refuses to impose any sort of accountability or responsibility on the elites (Media or Political) so long as the act in question is (a) performed by one of them and (b) consistent with the Beltway Conventional Wisdom.

A couple of examples suffice to illustrate the ideas. On the torture question, the Establishment Punditocracy, such as David Broder of the Washington Post, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek or Joe Klein (famous anonymous author of Primary Colors) argue against any sort of investigation or prosecution of Bush officials (including the low-level CIA interrogators who will apparently be the "target" of Eric Holder's Abu Ghraib style whitewash) is a "criminalization of policy differences," "retributive," and altogether Not Done. By and large, Barack Obama has gone along with the Beltway approach, although he hems and haws as if he were seriously considering doing something else (he won't, under the principle that past criminal acts are not the proper subject of present prosecution; only future possible acts should be punished now through preventive detention of those who are not presently guilty but might be if we give them a chance. If you have any doubt that we now live completely in an Orwellian universe, re-read that last part and absorb that it describes present reality).

The torture in question includes waterboarding, but also many other things which have been done to detainees in the Great War on Terror which clearly violate the Geneva Conventions. These are war crimes and felonies under U.S. and international law. There's no serious debate about that anymore. We're not going to do anything about it, however, and thus the Obama Administration has decided to violate the mandatory provisions of the Convention Against Torture (signed by Reagan) which require that we do.

In that last sentence I previewed the trick (I like to think of it as a technique) which Glenn uses over and over to nail the Beltway Blowhards. Glenn's a lawyer turned writer but he has not forgotten a basic technique of cross-examination: the restatement of the effect of words used by the person testifying. Broder, Alter, Klein, et al write in high-minded prose about the pressing needs of the country and echo (or originate) the call to "look forward" which Barack also originated (or now echoes) rather than back at the past, and to excuse the excesses (as they're daintily called) of the Bush Gang to avoid a partisan fight which spoils the happy camaraderie at the cocktail parties in Georgetown the "journalists" and politicians all like to attend together. This stuff sounds good, I guess, but what Glenn does is to restate their position in ways that make these self-regarding "liberals" squirm with discomfort. Greenwald writes that their position is one of "insistence that there be no investigations" and that political elites must never be held to the same standards regarding criminality which apply to all other Americans. This is what Broder/Alter/Klein are actually arguing, but they can't stand the idea of another journalist calling them on their shit so blatantly, so inescapably. So lately (and this is the fun part) Alter (who's writing a book on Obama and doesn't want to mess up his access) and Klein (at least these two) have begun a kind of vendetta against Greenwald to discredit him as "irresponsible" and "untrustworthy." Of course, what else could he be: he's not one of the Insiders.

All of which Greenwald simply reproduces in his own column.

The other theme running through Greenwald's blogs is similar to the first but slightly different. This is the idea that the actual consensus of opinion in the United States is other than what it is, and the difference results from the refraction of reality through the prism of Beltway priorities. Glenn hilariously dissects a recent "round table" on Meet the Press where Tom Friedman (the neocons' darling at the NY Times), Harold Ford Jr., Rudy Giuliani and Tom Brokaw "debate" the Afghanistan war. As Glenn points out, 57% of the American populace now oppose this dumb war but you would never, for a second, deduce this reality from listening to these guys talk. All that is discussed in such a round table are the nuances of how we should continue the war indefinitely. Friedman, in passing and between Serious Pronouncements, made a point of attacking the Internet, and one can imagine why. Before blogging became so dominant, Porn-Stache Tom (h/t: Matt Taiibi) never had his sacred texts challenged by the hoi polloi at large, such as his shameless cheerleading for the Iraq invasion (in which he said that the real purpose of the invasion was to say to the Muslim world: "Suck..On..This"). Thanks to the many in the Blogosphere who have challenged his poorly written screeds, we now know that he's (a) completely inconsistent and (b) a dim bulb who should not be setting policy for the local Rotary Club, let alone Washington, D.C. The incredible damage he has done with his airhead pontificating in favor of Flat World trade policies and unnecessary, ruinously expensive invasions makes one tremble for the country. This guy is an Opinion Maker?

I don't know if Glenn appreciates how much of the theoretical groundwork for his writing was laid by the erratic genius Noam Chomsky, but I think Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent presaged a lot of what Greenwald is doing. Chomsky was ahead of his time and seemed radical in suggesting that the "range" of opinion among a few corporately-held media outlets and the politicians they kowtow to for access would inevitably narrow until, for example, the two choices for Aghanistan become (1) increasing the disaster with more troops and money or (2) maintaining the disaster by simply doing what we're doing ad infinitum. Doing something sane and logical, like packing up and leaving, is not something, as Glenn says archly, that Serious people in the Beltway ever consider. Chomsky's nightmare vision is now our everyday reality. Prophets are rarely honored in their time.