Tuesday, September 29, 2009

One Step Closer to Peace in Afghanistan

Antiwar activists, foreign policy realists and fans of Woodrow Wilson's principle of national self-determination should celebrate as the New York Times reports that many within both the Obama Administration and the military are skeptical of General Stanley McChrystal's plan to escalate the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan with a massive new commitment of additional troops and resources. It seems that the president is considering other options for moving forward in Afghanistan, including focusing a smaller number of troops on fighting terrorists rather than a directing larger number of troops to undertake a long-term project of nation-building with a necessarily imperialistic character.

I am ecstatic at this news. It shows that the White House is realistic about its approach to the Middle East but more importantly it demonstrates that there are people in the Obama Administration who are seriously opposed to an indefinite occupation of the Middle East on the basis of muddily defined national interests. I find it refreshing to see that the mainstream foreign policy establishment in Washington seems to have learned some lessons from making the terrible mistake of going along with the faith-based imperialism initiated by the Bush Administration just over six years ago. The neocons dug us into a very deep hole when they got a chance to run the country. General McChrystal and Admiral Mike Mullen have determined that the best strategy moving forward is to keep digging. Fortunately, more thoughtful leaders have begun to consider that it's time to start figuring out how to get out of the hole.

I want to single out that other old political star and US Senator from the state of Massachusetts for praise:
In an interview, Senator Kerry, who met with Admiral Mullen last week, said that he had not made up his mind about the troop buildup, but that in Vietnam, “the underlying assumptions were flawed, and the number of troops weren’t going to make a difference.”

The fraudulent elections in Afghanistan that apparently "reelected" the US-backed corruption hound Hamid Karzai should recall chilling memories of the illegitimate governments propped up by the US in South Vietnam. Senator Kerry is exactly right to pay close attention to the underlying assumptions of this proposal to escalate our involvement in a violent quagmire.

Why the Public Option Is Central to Health Care Reform

Imagine your ideal health insurance plan. First of all, it’s there when you need it; so when you get sick, you get care. It can’t be cancelled because of a loophole. It allows you to make your own health care decisions with consultation from your doctor and no interference from insurance company bureaucrats. It won’t discriminate against you because of gender or a preexisting condition. It’s affordable, which means no exorbitant out-of-pocket expenses, deductibles or co-pays. There’s also no arbitrary cap on how much care you can get over your lifetime or in any given year. It doesn’t disappear if you lose your job and it doesn’t change if you change jobs. And it fully covers all check-ups and tests that helps you avoid getting sick in the fist place.

The Medicare-like public insurance plan included in the bill that has passed four out of five congressional committees and the health care agenda that President Obama campaigned on last fall fits the ideal health insurance plan I described in the previous paragraph exactly. That’s what the public option actually is. It doesn’t discriminate because of preexisting conditions, it doesn’t allow insurance company bureaucrats get between you and your doctor and it’s always going to be there when you need it. Because it isn’t based on profit, there is no reason for it to deny you care when you get sick. And it would actually reduce the federal budget deficit by billions of dollars each year.

This is the argument that the White House and Congressional Democrats should have been making for the last six months. Instead, they broke the health care reform plan that they proposed into little pieces that don’t make sense on their own. They confused ordinary folks by talking about ten different things in isolation instead of one thing that almost anyone could support. If they had argued for the ideal health insurance plan that provides security and peace of mind for individuals and families alike, they would have naturally made Jacob Hacker’s great idea for a Medicare-like public plan that would compete with private insurance into the centerpiece of health care reform. And this argument would have been far less confusing and far more successful.

In addition, they used a term (‘public option’) that only wonks could love to describe the best idea in their reform proposal. Whether they had called it the American health plan that guarantees care for all Americans as George Lakoff has proposed or Health Plan USA as Senator Chuck Schumer suggested back in May or Medicare Part E (the ‘e’ stands for ‘everyone’) as Mark Kleiman recently mused, nearly any of the alternative names I’ve heard would have been better than ‘public option.’ As a term, public option doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t even sound like it has anything to do with health care or insurance. If you asked most of the people you know who voted for Barack Obama but who aren’t also political junkies what the ‘public option’ is, they probably couldn’t tell you. What’s more, if you explained the public option to them and then asked them about the public option again in a few weeks, they probably won’t remember what it is.

Medicare Part E for everyone explains itself. An American health plan or Health Plan USA are practically impervious to effective political attacks and they accurately describe the simple but easy to support nature of what the so-called ‘public option’ actually is. And while it’s too late to fix this problem now, we can learn from it. From this moment forward, banish the term “two-thirds rule” from your vocabulary. Call it “minority rule” or anything that conveys what it actually means rather than some code that only wonks and political junkies can understand.

Finally, I want to note that a health care reform plan that doesn’t include a Medicare-like insurance plan (NOT a ‘co-op’) to compete with private insurance plans might still make life better and health care more secure more hundreds of millions of Americans. I am fully aware that I am lucky to have the luxury of secure health insurance right now and so I can think about this in relatively abstract terms. But while health care reform without something along the lines of Medicare Part E for everyone may still be able to make the health care system in this country a lot better, it will also signal two things. First, Democrats in Washington still do not know how to talk about policy in a comprehensible way. Second, Democrats in Washington (including those in the White House) are beholden to the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies to a degree that should be disturbing to anyone who put time and money into electing them last fall.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Washington Post Worries About World’s Wealthiest People So You Don’t Have To

Aside from the indispensable Ezra Klein, I don’t usually read the Washington Post because it seems to have adopted a policy of deliberately misleading its readers on its editorial page while its news section…well, the less said, the better. But the other day as I was walking into Moffitt Library, a WaPo headline caught my eye and I had to stop to see if I was hallucinating.

The headline read “World's Wealthy Pay a Price In Crisis.” I blinked and rubbed my eyes in disbelief. The richest people in America were richer in 2007 than at any time since the 1920s. Similar statistics showed the same story around the world. Many economists and policy analysts further believed that the rich were the only people seeing real income gains from growth across the entire economy for many years before the recession. Since the recession began, I understand that the rich became slightly poorer than before. Instead of being unimaginably wealthy, they are now only obscenely wealthy. But the US government bailed out the banks last fall, offering the greatest protection in a time of crisis to some of the richest people in the world. And already Wall Street financial firms are paying their executives as much or more than before the crash.

The Post’s article is about all the trouble the wealthy elite are having during the recession. The value of their stocks has dropped, the businesses they own may face more regulation in the wake of the largest financial crisis in eighty years, and worst of all they may have to pay more taxes in coming years. Life is so tough for millionaires these days that governments are even starting to investigate their widespread tax evasion by cracking down on offshore tax shelters and Swiss bank accounts.

Seriously, this could have been a satire of how the Post’s editors are completely out of touch with reality. Has no one told the editors of this major newspaper that 15 million Americans (or nearly ten percent of the adult workforce) are jobless and struggling? In what universe would you interpret the group of people who did better than anyone else before a crisis, suffered less than anyone else during the crisis and are already doing far better than anyone else after the crisis as the group of people who “pa[id] a price” for that crisis? What kind of “price” does the Post think the wealthy on Wall Street would have “paid” had the federal government attempted to save the financial system in a way that didn’t directly transfer money from taxpayers to high-income bankers?

Americans have lost $6 trillion in housing wealth. Granted, some of those Americans are among the wealthy that the Post is so quick to defend. But most are middle class Americans who are now underwater on their mortgages. I don’t know about you, but I would prefer to see the value drop on my second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth homes than to owe more money on the only home I have than the house is actually worth.

The people who are really paying a price for this financial crisis and resultant recession are ordinary people who work hard, play by the rules and don’t bitch about their tax bill to reporters for major newspapers. They have lost their jobs, their homes and in many cases, their dreams of retiring with dignity. The Washington Post has a responsibility to keep this in mind when they write stories about who wins and loses in major recessions.

Ode to Former Nixon Speechwriter

William Safire died today. Many have memorialized him as an oracle of language and a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist, but I will always remember him as the man who wrote speeches for a president who committed war crimes against millions of people in Vietnam and Cambodia while simultaneously abusing executive power to harass and terrorize his political enemies at home.

Some may argue that it would be more polite to ignore his ignoble past serving the worst president in US history in order to eulogize him for his more positive contributions. But that would mean sweeping aside his more recent work spreading lies and disseminating distortions for another terrible president in order to promote yet another needless war that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

I would always prefer to be charitable towards the recently deceased, but this is a man who did not seem to feel much remorse for his role in manipulating language in service of an ideology of deception and destruction.

Coal and Oil Companies Should Clean Up Their Own Mess

Earlier this year, President Obama asked Congress to send him legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America. Democratic leaders in Congress have been quick to respond. The House of Representatives has already passed a major climate and energy bill that will transform our energy economy. The US Senate is taking the proposal up as you read this.

But even as the wheels of progress have begun to move the country forward, a growing chorus on the right have begun to challenge the president’s ambitious agenda as bad for American business and therefore bad for the American consumer. Setting legal limits on the allowable amounts of climate change pollution seems to attract controversy despite its firm grounding in the longstanding tradition of using regulation to preserve public goods. The public has long supported – by large margins – regulating the dangerous byproducts produced by the burning of fossil fuels in order to protect public health. Carbon dioxide is simply the latest pollutant that we now know clearly causes detrimental problems for society.

The Clean Air Act sets limits and imposes additional costs on energy production. The price of energy might well drop if we abolish the laws that currently regulate air pollution. One could argue that it would be good for American business and American consumers. But the quality of our air would surely drop substantially causing higher rates of asthma in children and countless other serious costs to the public.

Currently, coal companies receive a huge implicit subsidy because the public accepts all the costs and responsibilities related to the massive carbon emissions of coal power plants. Instead of allowing the biggest carbon emitters to force us to pay for the consequences of their pollution, we must set a reasonable price on carbon that will make low carbon energy technology a lucrative investment. Fortunately, this policy is not as painful as many try to make it sound. It will spur innovation that will create new jobs and significantly strengthen our economy over the long term. It is exactly the change we need this year and it’s the change the American people voted for last fall.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

In Support of the Public Option

President Obama has set a clear goal of comprehensive health care reform before the end of this year. He has boldly determined that deferring urgent changes to the American health care system cannot wait another year. But in accomplishing this goal, Congress has a responsibility to make sure health care reform serves the public interest and not the narrow goals of Washington lobbyists.

In the growing debate over President Obama's health care plan, insurance companies have made very clear their opposition to the provision of the option of an afforable public health insurance plan to every American. This opposition is based entirely on the insurance industry's fear that a viable public insurance option will cut into the potential future profits of the industry.

From the beginning of the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama has argued that every American has right to an affordable health insurance plan that will be there when it's needed. The not-for-profit, Medicare-like public insurance plan included in the House health care bill and the Senate HELP Committee bill fulfill this goal. But this is not an abstract, philosophical policy stance. Including such a public plan is key to preventing future cartel-like behavior among private health insurers. This is because the pricing inside the health insurance exchange that lies at the heart of the proposed reforms will rely on insurer bidding on the price of converage. If private insurers decide to collectively bid 20 percent higher than necessary in order to expand profits for shareholders and executive, that will cost the American people hundreds of billions in higher premiums and wasted taxpayer dollars.

A viable public health insurance option will keep the insurance industry honest and including such an option in health care reform is a no-lose bargain for the American people. If a public insurance option proves inefficient or undesirable, individuals will be able to choose from a variety of private plans. If a public plan is effective, it will keep costs low and quality high across the marketplace. And when President Obama signs a health care reform bill that includes the choice of robust public insurance option for Americans, it will be proof that the grip of the special interests over our Congress is loosening and Washington is really changing.