Saturday, October 26, 2013

Editorial: Obamacare Survives


John Boehner’s miserable performance as the nominal head of the House of Representatives during the recent showdown over the budget and debt ceiling has enhanced his claim to the title of Worst House Speaker since the Civil War.

Boehner’s fear of a revolt by approximately 30 “Tea Party” Republicans caused him to ignore his duties as speaker of the House — a constitutional office that requires him to act in the best interests of the nation, not just his own party. Instead he has consistently refused to allow bills to be heard that would help the President spur the economy, if they were not supported by a majority of the Republican caucus. He also refused to allow House conferees to negotiate with the Senate on the budget and appropriations before they expired on Oct. 1. Then he kept the House from voting on a “clean” continuing resolution that would have prevented the shutdown.

Only after the GOP’s more sober corporate sponsors began to panic at the prospect of a Treasury default did Boehner allow the business-class Republicans to vote with the Democrats to defuse the debt crisis and put the government back to work.

In shutting down the government for 16 days, Boehner and the House Republicans cost the United States more than $24 billion, according to Standard & Poors, and perhaps as much as $31 billion, as estimated by Moody’s Analytics. But Republicans still blamed the shutdown on President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for refusing to negotiate on defunding the Affordable Care Act as a condition for passing the continuing resolution.

We should be concerned that Sen. Rafael “Ted” Cruz (R-Texas), who helped to marshal the House Teabaggers to hold fast for defunding the government when the Democrats did not submit to their demands to defund Obamacare, against the advice of more senior Senate Republicans who could count. In the end, Cruz got 17 other senators and 144 House members to vote for default. He apparently is determined to make another run at shutting down the government and blocking a further debt extension next year.

“This was going to be a multistage, extended battle,” said Cruz, “but we’ve also seen a model that I think is the model going forward to defeat Obamacare, to bring back jobs, economic growth ...”

Which, of course, is nonsense, from the leader of a cabal that has stymied jobs and economic growth.

After the budget and the debt ceiling were resolved, the cable news channels had to find another crisis to cover. Luckily for them the new “Obamacare” website that debuted Oct. 1 was experiencing major malfunctions as millions of people, including the uninsured, the underinsured and the merely curious swamped HealthCare.gov. Most of them were unable to set up accounts that were needed before they could go ahead and browse available plans.

This glitch was annoying, but not entirely unexpected. Previous initiatives to expand health care, such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) under President Bill Clinton, Medicare Part D under President George W. Bush and Commonwealth Care, the Massachusetts health care exchange under then-Gov. Mitt Romney, also had rocky startups. But the traffic jam at HealthCare.gov was quickly translated by the talking heads on TV into a disastrous blunder that threatened the health-care reforms.

Your editor waited a week before trying to check out the online health insurance exchange. In two tries over a couple days, I was unable to set up an account. But after the feds did some work on the website the weekend of Oct. 19-20, I tried again on Oct. 21 and found that I was able to bypass the account setup and simply price the insurance plans that are available on the exchange.

It turns out that, despite Republican efforts to sabotage the initiative, Texans (at least in Austin) have 80 plans to choose from. Those under 50 can get health coverage for as little as $109 per month for catastrophic coverage, which has a maximum deductible of $6,350. That might seem like a lot, but your medical bill can run past that deductible in a hurry if you break a leg or find that you need a new kidney, which young adults occasionally do.

Texans over 50 in Austin can get health coverage for as little as $185.83 monthly for catastrophic coverage ($265.92 for a couple); $245.98 for the Bronze Plan, which is designed to cover 60% of all health care costs for the average person ($352 for a couple); $287.76 for the Silver Plan, which would cover 70% of health costs ($411.80 for a couple); $328.22 for the Gold Plan, which would cover 80% of health costs ($469.70 for a couple); and $399 for the Platinum Plan, which would cover 90% of health costs ($571 for a couple).

As it happens, my existing coverage with Aetna is priced comparably with the cheapest Bronze Plan, which is a Blue Cross HMO, but my Aetna PPO plan has better features, so I probably will keep it. Many families will benefit from the new choices — particularly those with pre-existing conditions that made it hard or impossible to get affordable insurance under the old system. For example, when my wife was laid off from the Austin school district in 2011, we paid $544 monthly to keep our coverage under the COBRA plan for what was similar to a Silver plan now available for a couple at $411.80. When we looked at getting our own coverage in 2011, we were unable to find an insurance company that was willing to cover my wife, who had a pre-existing condition. (She found another job that offers health coverage, but I had to find my own insurance, since TPP staff — but not the editor — get insurance through the Storm Lake Times in Iowa.)

And, far from costing jobs, the Affordable Care Act actually gives potential entrepreneurs the option to quit their old jobs and start new businesses without risking loss of health coverage for their spouse and/or children who have health problems. And small businesses will get tax credits to help them cover their workers.

So if you were unable to get into HealthCare.gov the first couple weeks, splash your face and try again. If you still can’t get through on the website, you can get help 24/7 by calling toll-free 1-800-318-2596. In many cities, you can stop by community-based health care exchange navigators to check out your options (find help in your area at LocalHelp.HealthCare.gov). And compare them with your friendly neighborhood insurance agent.

Consumers have until Dec. 15 to enroll for coverage that starts Jan. 1. Subsidies are available for people making up to 400% of the poverty level. Those who are uninsured have until March 31 to enroll in a health plan or face a fine. (Those below the poverty level will either be covered by Medicaid at federal expense or, if they are in states where Republican officials have refused to accept the federal money to help the working poor, at least they will not be penalized for their state’s miserly interference.)

As of Oct. 20, the White House said 476,000 Americans have begun applying for insurance, out of 19 million who had visited the website. More than half of the applicants are coming from the 36 states where the federal government was forced to take the lead in running the markets. The rest come from 14 states running their own markets, along with Washington, D.C.

Republicans have a three-year head-start on telling lies about what Obamacare will do, so it may take several weeks to get the system running smoothly and convince working-class Republicans (God help them!) to check their options on the healthcare exchange. But the health reforms will save lives of people who, as of Jan. 1, can go to the doctor without fear that the wrong diagnosis will cause their insurance company to cancel their policy and leave them adrift.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts seven million Americans will sign up for insurance in the health care exchanges between October and March, including 2.7 million young and healthy people. Nine million are expected to sign up for Medicaid. And anybody whose insurance premiums rise because of the Affordable Care Act may assume that a major reason is that their insurance provider is now required by federal law to provide benefits and pay for claims that previously would have been denied. And the Republican Party cannot let that accountability stand. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2013

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Selections from the November 15, 2013 issue





DISPATCHES
Fox’s ‘Obamacare’ smears can’t stand scrutiny;
Ohio expands Medicaid under 'Obamacare';
Oregon cuts uninsured population by 10% in two weeks;
Farm bill showdown over food stamps;
Kochs see $100B profit from tar sands pipeline;
Labor warns Dems: Don’t mess with Social Security or Medicare;
Sanders named to budget panel;
Sequester cut 1.2 million jobs;
Jobs report shows jobs needed, not theatrics;
Cruz gains from government shutdown;
Schweitzer mulls Dem prez race;
Biz lobby backs away from comprehensive immigration reform;
Sailor describes ocean as dead;
Stats: 'Obamacare' isn't creating part-time economy;
New voter ID law almost blocks Texas judge from polls;
CNN poll: Obamacare more popular than GOP;
Texas rep to disabled vets: Everybody's got to sacrifice ...


BOB RUNDLE
We should build an economy that’s fair to all


JOAN WALSH
Kick shutdown extortionists out of office


HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas
Obamacare is a victory for women









Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Movie promoters resort to print ad consisting of two blank pages and a URL

By Marc Jampole

Page A9 of today’s New York Times is entirely blank. So is page A10, with the exception of a cryptic website address at the bottom of the page:  wordsarelife.com.

What could “words are life” mean? And where will the URL lead us? To religion? Politics? To some feel good pop psychology or philosophy?

In fact the URL redirects to thebooktheif.com, which is a rather conventional website promoting a new movie, “The Book Thief,” based on the novel of the same name by Australian Markus Zusak. Narrated by the character called Death, the novel is about a German girl during World War II. The trailer and scenes come right out of the style I call “middle brow art house”: soft, pastel or autumn colors that seem painterly, music in the French light classical vein, a ponderous importance in the voices of the actors as if every line dripped with meaning, beautifully composed static shots. The director of the film, BTW, also directed “Life of Pi.” Enough said there.

I checked in other newspapers—Wall Street Journal and two Pennsylvania dailies—and didn’t find the ad.  It may have only run in the Times.

The ad raises some interesting questions about marketing. Clearly, the producers of the film think that people are going to wonder about what wordsarelife.com is all about and go to the website. I have no question that, compared to most other print ads in any publication, this two-page ad will influence more of the audience to comply with the call to action—to visit the website!

But once at the website, I wonder how long people will remain before heading elsewhere, disappointed that what they are seeing is a shill for a movie. Will people think, “Gee this approach is clever” or will they feel let down and disappointed, having anticipated something political or spiritual?

Two aspects of the website will tend to make people feel disappointed or betrayed, as opposed to enjoying the cleverness of the pitch: First off, you don’t go directly to wordsarelife.com, but are rerouted to another website, which people who frequently surf the web often associate with a betrayal or trick.

Secondly, the website is so derivative and unclever that it is disappointing as a piece of entertainment. If, by going to the website, we stumbled upon an incredible scene from the movie to the sound of offbeat or catchy music, the creativity of the website would continue the creativity of the print and that would be fine. But instead, we get a static image, some pious words from a very serious young girl and music that sounds like leftovers from a French flick about romance between octogenarians.

The film’s producers must have run the print ads in front of focus groups, but there are many ways to skew the results of focus groups, which is why they have no statistical validity. And it may be that the focus group participants saw the ads without seeing the website, and so demonstrated that the approach worked in terms of a call to action. We can only speculate as to what research went into the decision to run the ads, but I get a gnawing feeling that the producers and their ad folk misinterpreted the results of research or fixed them through employing faulty methodology.

Yet even before we get to the website, I question the wisdom of placing this ad. Is the front section of the New York Times the best place for this print ad? People read different media in different ways and when they read a newspaper they read different parts of the paper in different ways. The same people who actively seek out movie ads in the entertainment section as part of planning their evening or weekend they may skim past all ads in the front section, focused as they are on digesting the overnight news.

The idea, of course, is that they can’t look past the two blank pages and that they will be enticed to visit the website because wordsarelife.com is an open-ended phrase that suggests spirituality, or at the very least higher order thinking—the very kind of thinking the reader is supposedly doing at the time he or she is reading the news section of the New York Times.  I can see this scenario working in the real world, but I can also imagine large numbers of people understanding immediately that the ad is a big sell and feeling betrayed even before they get on their computers or portable devices.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Lonely picket tells Park Avenue residents about their right-wing neighbor, David Koch

By Marc Jampole

The luxury apartment building at 740 Park Avenue in New York’s Upper East Side is so famous that it even has a book dedicated to its history. Now lots of churches and castles have volumes describing their history and residents, but not many apartment buildings achieve this mythic status. When the news media uses a single building to represent real money, it’s usually 740 Park,  which stands as a monument to Art Deco architecture at the corner of Park and East 71st Street.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis supposedly grew up here. Among other apartment unit owners we find this interesting triple play: John D. Rockefeller sold it to Saul Steinberg who sold it to Stephen Schwartzman, all billionaires and among the wealthiest men in the world when they set up housekeeping at 740. Among other notable residents of 740 Park at one time or another include Ronald Lauder, Jerzy Kosinski, Ronald Perelman, Steve Ross, John Thain and Vera Wang, all heavyweight money.

But perhaps the most infamous of the billionaires and multi-millionaires at 740 Park is David Koch, who took advantage of the awful Supreme Court decision in Citizen’s United to finance first the Tea Party and then the movement to not raise the debt ceiling or fund the government unless the Affordable Care Act was defunded. I think that even casual followers of news recognize David Koch and his less public brother Charles. 

Too bad for the other building residents that even as I write this blog entry, camped outside the door of 740 Park is a scruffy middle-aged man with three anti-Koch signs. He hangs out legally at the edge of the green awning and close to the street on completely public property.

The posters are all manufactured block print lettering in all caps on corrugated cardboard, so the letters hardly stand out and are hard to read a distance. The copy on the three signs says it all:
1.       

KOCH INDUSTRIES

LEADING THE CHARGE

IN THE CORPORATE

COUP D’√ČTAT OF

OUR DEMOCRACY

 

2.       

THE KOCH BROTHERS

DESTROYING OUR LAND

POLLUTING OUR AIR

POISONING OUR WATER

KILLING OUR DEMOCRACY

 

3.       

DAVID & CHARLES

KOCH

THE NEW FACES OF

ORGANIZED CRIME

 

The man is dressed in a denim army-style jacket and blue jeans, standard fare for protest rallies. Sometimes he stands and sometimes he sits. The man’s hair flows beneath his shoulders and is blond quickly going gray. His face has the sun creases of someone who has spent a lot of time working or playing outside. This sole protester could very easily be middle class, but what betrays his impoverished circumstances is his lack of teeth when he smiles. When he’s not engaged in conversation with willing passers-by, he reads a tattered paperback book.

The guy is passing out little two-sided postcards for a website called PopularResistance.org, which is the current website of one of the main national Occupy groups. The website should prove useful to anyone interested in protesting the current rule by the one-percenters, which has led to the most inequitable distribution of wealth since the Gilded Age. Sections of the website offer resources and information about existing protest group, forming new groups, getting informed about the issues and learning about community organizing and nonviolent protest.

It did my heart good to learn that someone was bringing the battle—in this case a class war—to the bad guys. But then I realized that the Tea Party financier is probably spending time at another of his several residences.

Or maybe Koch is on a retreat for one of the many boards of which he is a director. Or perhaps he’s visiting the theatre named after him at Lincoln Center or the dinosaur wing of the American Museum of Natural History, which also bear his name. He could even be hiding out in one of the many hospitals to which has given a collective $395 million.

I don’t look at Koch’s civic and charitable contributions as a redeeming virtue, but rather as proof that he has too much money, much of it inherited.  His charitable activities fail to lend credibility to his extremely ignorant views. Yes, he helps to educate children in paleontology, but he also pays good money to spread doubt on global warming. Even while rich folk were both entertained and edified in the David Koch theatre during recent performances, thousands of poor children across the country missed Head Start early education and nutritional programs because of the recent government shutdown.

I applaud the sole picketer and wish more would join him and that other picketers were outside the residences of the ultra wealthy who are bankrolling conservative ideas.

But all the picketing in the world will do no good unless we remember to vote for the most progressive candidates in primaries and general elections—every election, not just every four years. We also have to keep the pressure on elected officials to raise the minimum wage, pass laws that make it easier to unionize and inject more money into repairing roads, increasing mass transit and subsidizing alternative energy.

All the same, it was good to see someone tell the truth about the Kochs in front of their neighbors.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Study proving public schools outperforms private schools is ignored by news media

Marc Jampole

It doesn’t surprise me that somebody figured out how to prove that public schools outperform private schools.

And it doesn’t surprise me that this seminal study is being ignored by the mainstream news media. As of one day after Atlantic released its article reviewing The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, a Google search yielded but one article covering the important findings of authors Sarah Theule Lubienski and Christopher A Lubienski.  

The Lubienskis took into account the effects of affluence, disabilities and other background factors and found that then public schools outperformed private schools over the past twenty years. According to Atlantic, the Lubienskis report that the Educational Testing Service, Stanford and Notre Dame all took a look at the same statistics—datasets they call it—and came to the same conclusions.

The Lubienskis aren’t saying that public school students score higher, because test comparisons show that the average private school student scores higher. But the private school student is likely to be wealthier, come from a stable family, not have a disability and not have suffered early life trauma. Correct for these factors—in a sense only compare apples that fell from the private school tree with those that fell from the public school tree—and the public school wins hands down. Not only that, but far from the crisis in public education that many see, the Lubienskis make a strong case that public schools are doing a fine job educating the youth of America.

The results of the study don’t surprise me because I live in the real world and in the real world the best get paid the most. Now I’m not saying that Alex Rodriguez deserves to make more money than Miguel Cabrera, but that they and every other professional ball player make a lot more money than minor leaguers, those in foreign leagues, semi-pros and beer league softballers.

The best lawyers tend to make the most money. The best accountants tend to make the most money. The best writers—business and entertainment—tend to make the most money. The best musicians tend to make the most money. Forget the obscene fact that Beyonce makes about 200 times what the concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic does, they both do quite well when compared to the average piano teacher who gives lessons through the Jewish Community Center or the YMCA.

Public school teachers make more money than private school teachers. Doesn’t it make sense that they would therefore do a better job and that public schools would therefore do better in quantitative comparisons?  I know that there are some very competent and dedicated private school teachers, but in general, how could they outperform public school teachers, who make so much more money?

Thus my lack of surprise to learn that public school students outperform private school students on a level playing field and that public schools and their teachers are more open to innovations and trying new learning techniques.

Nor was I surprised that the news media has ignored the Lubienski book. One of the ideological tenets of the mass media is that the private sector always outperforms the public sector. In the case of education, it's just not so, but the news media filters out this important news for ideological reasons.

The news media, owned as they are by large companies, have come to share big business’ disdain for unions, especially over the past 30 years. The news media will certainly give fair coverage to both sides of most labor disputes, but in feature coverage they give far greater voice to anti-union pundits, writers, politicians, theories and events than to those in support of unions. Weakening unions is one key strategy in the 30 year class war in which wealth has been transferred from the middle class and poor up the economic ladder to the wealthy.

Charter schools, vouchers for private schools, school and school district takeovers—virtually all of right-wing school reform attacks public school teachers because they are unionized and therefore make a decent wage. As supporters of this campaign against public teachers unions, it only makes sense that the news media ignores important books such as The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools.