Monday, March 29, 2010

In the Kingdom of the Unhinged

From North of the 49th Parallel, watching the opposition to President Obama's health care legislation has been like watching a play from the Theatre of the Absurd. Those of us who have lived with a more radical version of health care -- single payer -- know that medicare does not put insurance companies out of business; and there are no "death panels."

But as congressmen and women entered the Capitol last Sunday to cast their votes, it was particularly disturbing to hear the slurs which were directed at some of them. And last week, when the bill was reconciled and signed into law by the president, the rhetoric turned even uglier. As rocks were thrown at windows, and the bombastic Rush Limbaugh and the less than brilliant Sarah Palin announced that it was time to get rid of "these bastards," others were suggesting that every Democrat who voted for health care was about to face "Armageddon."

A Baptist minister in Orange County asked his flock to pray for the deaths of the apostates. Choosing Psalm 109 as his text -- "May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow" -- the Rev. Wiley Drake assured his followers that justice would flow down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. It did, indeed, appear that a significant portion of the population -- and all the elected representatives of the Republican Party -- had lost their minds.

It was Frank Rich, in yesterday's New York Times who -- as he does so often -- helped make sense of the nonsensical. "To find a prototype to the overheated reaction to the health care bill," he wrote, "you would have to look a year before Medicare to the Civil Rights Act of 1964."  That bill "signaled an inexorable and immutable change in the very identity of America, not just its governance."

The election of Barack Obama was a similar moment. It served as a sign that American politics had caught up with the rest of the world. No longer were white men in charge. When Tea Partiers shout, "Take our country back!"  they are -- like William F. Buckley -- standing "athwart history yelling STOP." That was Buckley's prime directive; and it led him to support racial segregation -- a position he later admitted was wrong. Those who were spitting on black legislators last weekend have never undergone Buckley's epiphany. But, Rich pointed out, demographics are against them:

The week before the health care vote, the Times reported that births to Asian, black and Hispanic women accounted for 48 percent of all births in America in the 12 months ending in July 2008. By 2012, the next presidential election year, non Hispanic white births will be in a minority. The Tea Party movement is virtually all white. The Republicans haven't had a single African-American in the Senate or the House since 2003 and have had only three since 1935.

It's worth remembering that the first Republican president signed the Emancipation Proclamation, established the land grant colleges and signed the Homestead Act --  all  of which looked forward to the future and the 20th Century. 

The March Backward began when Richard Nixon conceived his Southern Strategy -- which was a cynical attempt to capitalize on the anger white southerners felt after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. It continued when Ronald Reagan began his campaign for the presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi -- where three Civil Rights workers were killed shortly before the act became law. From then on, Republicans began talking in code. Anyone who knew anything about the South understood the code.

The remnants of the Republican Party are those unhinged voters who Nixon courted -- and they have stopped talking in code. The United States has moved on. But a significant number of people, trapped inside their own paranoia, refuse to recognize that fact.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Clock Is Ticking

Now that the opposition parties have rejected the Prime Minister's proposal to let former Justice Frank Iacobucci recommend which documents in the Afghan prisoner file should be made public, the ball is in the Prime Minister's court. The man has a talent for avoiding the consequences of his actions. But, in this case, he's in a box. It appears that he has three options. 

The first is to continue to stonewall.The problem with this strategy is that there are people outside the government, such as Amir Attaran, who know what is in the file. If Mr. Harper continues to ignore the House's order to see the uncensored documents, they will be leaked. Mr. Harper is smart enough to know this. 

That leaves the prime minister with two other options: he can either broaden Mr. Iacobucci's mandate and ask him to conduct a public inquiry; or he can call an election and argue that it is time to put the opposition in its place.

Having seen -- and having taken advantage of -- the political damage which the Gomery inquiry did to Paul Martin's government, Mr. Harper might reject this option. On the other hand, a public inquiry would buy the government time -- as the recent padlocking of Parliament was meant to do; and, if the  public has a short attention span, Mr. Harper might be able to change the channel and send the whole issue down the memory hole. 

However, if Mr. Iacobucci does his job, the revelations from the inquiry would force some departures; and it could eventually lead to the government's defeat in the next election.

Which leads to Mr. Harper's third option -- to call an election.   The advantage of an election is that it might bury the issue. The Conservatives could attempt to turn the discussion to the economy and the "government's action plan." Moreover, an  improving economy might shift public opinion in the government's favour. But elections -- like wars -- seldom go as planned. And the prisoner abuse scandal might sink the Harperites.

Which option will the prime minister choose?  The best option for all parties would be a public inquiry. It is a time honoured parliamentary tradition. But Mr. Harper has already shown that he has little respect for parliamentary traditions. And he clearly takes pleasure in sticking it to his opponents. At present, polls suggest that none of the parties would win a majority. But, if he could talk himself into it, Harper might roll the dice. 

If -- when all was said and done -- the Conservatives found themselves in opposition, Harper would probably return in a sulk to Alberta. If the government again won a minority , the knives would come out. So he might make one last attempt to seize the brass ring. If he succeeds, we are all in deep trouble.

Whichever option the prime minister chooses, the clock is ticking. We are headed for a showdown.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Thirteen Days

Last week, my wife picked up a DVD with this title. Apparently, the film bombed at the box office. She found it in a bin at one of our local stores -- the equivalent of the remainder shelf at your local bookstore.

As I watched the film this weekend, I was taken back to my days  as an elementary school student, when I ducked under my desk in the absurd hope that, in the event of a nuclear attack, I would be spared. And I remembered the day when, as a fledgling high school student, I left for school -- not knowing if I would make it home that night. 

It was October 24, 1962. The United States Navy had built a blockade around Cuba. The whole world knew we were on the edge of Armageddon. I remember being in class when the intercom came on with a live radio report that the Russian freighters had turned back. I got on the bus and returned to my parents' home in Montreal.

I did not understand at the time that the crisis would go on for several more days. And I did not read until years later that it ended with the United States removing missiles from Turkey, while Russia removed its missiles from Cuba. 

The film documented the meetings and heated discussions between President Kennedy and his advisors, as they struggled to arrive at a solution to the crisis. At one point, Kennedy told some of them that he had recently read Barbara Tuchman's book, The Guns of August, a history of the events leading up to World War I.  

I was reminded of Tuchman's definition of  wooden-headedness, which she offered in a subsequent bookThe March of Folly. Wooden-headedness, wrote Tuchman, "consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing onself to be deflected by the facts."

Most of Kennedy's advisors, including the joint chiefs and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, favoured an invasion of Cuba. Kennedy and his brother Robert were not convinced that invasion was the best course of action. But they lived in the shadow of their father, who had advocated appeasing Hitler. They risked looking weak. 

Most members of the Kennedy administration, however, had served as front line soldiers and officers during World War II; and they were aware by experience, if not by acquaintance, of what Karl von Clausewitz had written in On War: that war is "politics by other means;" and, that  it "increases the uncertainty of every circumstance and deranges the course of events."

The proof of war's unpredictability occurred off Cuba, when a Russian submarine came between the freighters which were carrying  the disputed armaments and the American armada. When the Russian ships refused to change course, Kennedy gave the order to blow the submarine out of the water. Suddenly, however, the freighters slowed down. Kennedy quickly countermanded his order and -- luckily for all of us -- the communication was received in time. Kennedy understood just how close the world had come to "mutually assured destruction;" and, unencumbered by wooden-headedness, he began to work on a nuclear test ban treaty.

Not everything worked out so positively in the Kennedy administration. There was, of course, the matter of Vietnam -- although recently released documents suggest that, before he was assassinated, the president had decided to remove all American troops from Vietnam by 1964. We will never know what would have happened.

But, as I watched the film, I could not help but think of the second Bush administration and the run up to the invasion of Iraq. The caution the Kennedys displayed was nowhere in evidence. Instead, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney served as prime examples of wooden-headedness. It would appear that Bush's and Cheney's lack of battlefield experience -- which both men worked very hard to avoid -- had something to do with the "preconceived fixed notions" with which they faced the world after September 11th.

Beyond that, the Cuban missile crisis proved that history is not an uncontrollable series of events. Character -- and intelligence -- make a difference. And, despite his personal flaws -- flaws which George W. Bush evidently does not possess -- the world can be grateful that Joseph P Kennedy's son was in office in 1962, instead of George H.W. Bush's son.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The American Battle for Health Care

Barbara O'Brien -- who blogs at Mahablog, and who occasionally writes for Crooks and Liars and Alternet -- reflects the frustration many Americans feel as they watch President Obama attempt to steer a health care bill through Congress. 

We tend to forget that Tommy Douglas faced many of the same frustrations and distortions in his battle to bring public health care to Saskatchewan. It was his drive and his courage which made Medicare a reality for all Canadians. Like Senator Kennedy, Douglas left a legacy which has long outlived him.

The benefits of public health care are myriad. In this guest post, Ms. O'Brien touches on just a few:

Would Health Care Reform Help You?

Many obstacles and stumbling blocks remain in the way of health care reform. The House and Senate bills will have to be merged, and then the House and Senate both will vote on the final bill. We don’t yet know what will be in the final bill, or if the final bill will be passed into law. Passage will be especially difficult in the Senate, where it will need 60 votes to pass. It is still possible that after all this angst, just one grandstanding senator could kill the whole thing.

But just for fun, let’s look at what conventional wisdom says will be in the final bill and see if there is anything in it that will be an immediate benefit to people with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related disease.

It is likely that the final bill will provide additional funding for state high-risk insurance pools. Currently more than 30 states run such pools, which are nonprofit, state-sponsored health insurance plans for people who can’t buy insurance because of pre-existing conditions. The biggest problem with such pools is that, often, the insurance they offer is too expensive for many who might need it. Both the Senate and House bills provide $5 billion in subsidies for state high-risk pools to make the insurance more affordable.

Under the Senate bill, beginning in 2014, private companies would no longer be able to deny coverage to adults with pre-existing conditions, nor could they charge higher premiums for people with pre-existing conditions. Until then, the state high-risk pools could provide some help.

Closing the Medicare Part D coverage gap — also called the “doughnut hole” — is another potential provision that could help some patients with asbestos-related disease. The “doughnut hole” is the gap between the coverage for yearly out-of-pocket expenses provided by Medicare Part D and Medicare’s “catastrophic coverage” threshold.

For example, in 2009 Medicare Part D paid at least 75 percent of what patients paid for prescription drugs up to $2,700. After that, patients must pay for all of their prescription medications until what they have paid exceeds $6,154. At that point, the catastrophic coverage takes over, and Medicare pays for all but 5 percent of the patient’s drug bills. The final health care reform bill probably will provide for paying at least 50 percent of out-of-pocket costs in the doughnut hole.

You may have heard the bills include budget cuts to the Medicare program, and this has been a big concern to many people. Proponents of the bill insist that savings can be found to pay for the cuts, and that people who depend on Medicare won’t face reduced services. But this is a complex issue that I want to address in a later post.

The long-term provisions probably will include many other provisions that would benefit patients with asbestos-related disease, including increased funding for medical research. Although there are many complaints about the bill coming from all parts of the political spectrum, on the whole it would be a huge benefit to many people.
— Barbara O’Brien
March 9, 2010

Monday, March 08, 2010

A Justification for Selfishness

The Conservatives' proposed budget -- which was the highlight of last week's return of Parliament  -- was a remarkable document, for several reasons. But it was most remarkable for its optimistic projections of economic growth. 

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty claimed that the economists he consulted assured him that Canada would experience "moderate growth" for the next five years. But one should remember that, the last time he consulted economists, none of them (according to Mr Flaherty) forecast the recession -- which arrived, full blown, shortly after the Conservatives were elected.

As the above clip demonstrates, Mr. Flaherty has a talent for denial -- as does his boss, the Prime Minister. After all, it was Mr. Harper who claimed during the election campaign that "The country will not go into recession next year and will lead the G7 countries." And it was Mr. Flaherty who promised that "We will not run a deficit." Yet, this week, the Finance Minister boldly asserted that -- while the country is now in hock to the tune of $55.9 billion -- it is not facing a structural deficit, despite what Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page claims; and, therefore, there is no need to raise taxes.

Except the budget does raise taxes -- by increasing Employment Insurance premiums an additional fifteen cents on every $100 of insurable earnings. This tax increase is broad based. It hits everyone who brings home a pay cheque. But, as he raised taxes on every working Canadian, Mr. Flaherty reduced taxes on corporations yet again. When the Conservatives came to power, the corporate tax rate was 22.12%; they reduced it to 19.5% two years ago, then to 18% last year. The government plans to further reduce the rate to 15% by 2012. "We are staying the course," Mr. Flaherty bragged,  "to having the lowest corporate income tax rate in the G7 (group of nations) by 2012."

We are just beginning to emerge from the wreckage of the economic policies of the last thirty years. Those policies brought us to the edge of another Great Depression; and this government continues to believe that more of the same is the way to prosperity. Girded with that certitude, the Finance Minister boarded a government jet and flew off to southwestern Ontario to sell his plan. The cost of the flight was just under $9000. It would have cost just over $800 to fly commercially; but we were told that Mr. Flaherty's schedule required that he fly on government aircraft.

The latest budget lays bare this government's priorities. And it proves that John Kenneth Galbraith was right when he wrote, "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."

Monday, March 01, 2010

When "Freedom" Means "Privilege"

In Saturday's Toronto Star, Tom Walkom noted that, over the last fifteen years in this country, we have seen reverse class resentment. "Class resentment used to be the preserve of the left," he wrote. "Indeed, the entire post welfare state was designed to better the conditions of the poor, thereby ensuring that these class resentments didn't get out of hand."

But things have changed. These days "class resentments have been turned on their head. The focus of anger is not the silk hatted capitalist, but his unionized workers, with their job protection guarantees, their pension plans and their good wages."

The Harper government has signaled that its unionized work force is now under the gun. Their argument is that, if private sector benefits have been pared back because of the financial meltdown, then it is only fair that public employees share the same pain as their brothers and sisters on the shop floor. On the surface, it sounds like a matter of simple justice.

But, as Walkom points out, that argument ignores the causes of the recession and the damage neoclassical economics has done to those folks on the shop floor. For thirty years, the ideologues of the right have tried to dismantle the progressive income tax system. They have  argued, as has our prime minister, that there is no such thing as a good tax; and that,  if taxes are a necessary evil, then the best tax is a simple tax -- a flat tax -- on both the rich and the poor. And in their search for tax simplicity, they have maintained that corporate taxes are redundant, because corporations are owned by people; and, therefore, people who own corporate shares are taxed twice -- on income and dividends.

They ignore the fact that some people start life with more advantages than others -- claiming that just because some are born with silver spoons in their mouths, there is no reason why they should  pay more than anyone else. "Freedom," they say, means freedom from progressive taxes. Outcomes might be unequal; but that is the result of honest toil, not the result of privilege. And, therefore, it is necessary to demonize those on welfare who, although they were not born to privilege, have the audacity to demand privileged outcomes. That was Mike Harris' argument when he came to power in 1995.

And when he appointed John Snobelen -- a high school dropout -- as Ontario's Minister of Education, Harris argued that the management expertise Snobelen had acquired at the helm of his own waste management company made him the ideal candidate for the job. He neglected to mention that Snobelen had inherited the company from his father. Applying the principles of waste management to education, Snobelen created a mess which he left to others to clean up.

George W. Bush -- a man who former Texas governor Ann Richards liked to say was "born with a silver foot in his mouth" -- followed the same philosophy as the Harris government; and he left catastrophe in his wake -- whether it was the aftermath of Katrina or the aftermath of the Wall Street Meltdown.

Now, in the upcoming budget, the Harper government -- which contains three charter members of the Harris government --  Minister of Finance Jim Flahlerty,  Minister of Industry Tony Clement and Minister of Transportation John Baird -- plans to follow the same playbook. "For the Harper Conservatives," Walkom wrote:
all this is useful. First, it removes the focus from the country's real pension problems: Most Canadians don't have workplace pensions; those who do have found their plans savaged by this recession. British Columbia and Alberta have suggested ways of dealing with this, as have the federal New Democrats and the Liberals. The Harper government has done nothing. Second, and more important, an attack on public sector pensions refocuses class resentment along lines more amenable to the Conservative government.

As was the case with prorogation, this is an attempt to create a diversion. The best way to do nothing -- and to get away with it -- is to have the public look away. And the effect of doing nothing is to further entrench the privileges of the wealthy. If someone from that class, like TD president Ed Clark, suggests that people like him should pay more taxes, the Harperites immediately demonize him as an enemy of the little man. Clark, they say, wants to raise the taxes of ordinary folks. However, even people like Michael Bliss -- a steadfast defender of the government in recent months -- have suggested that the government should demand more from the wealthy.

The question is, how long can Mr. Harper and his confreres maintain this fantasy? They are betting that the public is too stupid to figure out what is going on. My bet is that they are wrong. Ordinary folks have a visceral understanding of the difference between freedom and privilege.