Saturday, November 23, 2013

Editorial: Swindlers Get Reprieve

Conservatives are betting big on the failure of the Affordable Care Act. They seem to think that if they can sabotage the health reforms, not only will it cause the general collapse of liberalism, but they also hope that health care in the United States will revert to the corrupt old system that allowed insurance companies to deny coverage to people with chronic health problems, cancel policies of people as soon as they were diagnosed with expensive illnesses, sell junk policies with little practical coverage for the unwary, and distribute excessive profits to their shareholders.

We aren’t going back. As of Jan. 1, regardless of whether the Obama administration ever gets glitch-free, millions of working poor people will start getting coverage through Medicaid. Millions of others will start getting subsidies to pay for private insurance through the federal marketplace. Those insurance policies will have to meet minimum standards for the first time. Insurance companies no longer will be able to deny coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Annual and lifetime limits on coverage will be outlawed. And profits will be limited.

Progressives should frame the insurance reforms that are contained in the Affordable Care Act as the last chance for insurance companies to show they can provide health coverage without swindling their customers. But those bad habits are hard for insurance companies to give up.

The reforms will be rough for some — particularly for those in the middle class who buy their own individual insurance policies but whose income is too great to qualify for subsidies. Some of them have junk policies that seem like a good deal until they actually get sick; others might have gotten relatively good, inexpensive coverage because they had a good health history, but even those able-bodied middle-classers probably won’t have to look far to find a friend or relative who has been going for years without health care because they have a pre-existing condition or they just never could afford the insurance premiums.

Insurance companies have been sending out letters to several million of their customers telling them that they have to cancel their plans because of the Affordable Care Act. In many cases, the letters try to steer the customers to higher-cost plans, and because has been balky and the customers might not know they can get the information by phone, they might not know they could get a better deal from the federal healthcare marketplace — particularly if they earn less than four times the federal poverty rate (that would be $45,960 for a single person or $94,000 for a family of four) and qualify for a subsidy..

Enough people are howling about rate shock that President Obama was forced to concede that insurance companies should be allowed to continue selling junk insurance policies to existing customers for one more year, to make good on his promise that “If you like your health plan, you can keep your health care plan.” At least under Obama’s terms the insurance companies are required to notify customers of their options under the Affordable Care Act.

That wasn’t good enough for Republicans who want to dismantle the ACA by any means they can. So the House, on a 261-157 vote that included 39 panicked Democrats siding with the Republicans and four Republicans siding with the rest of the Dems, passed the Swindlers’ Relief Act, sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) on Nov. 15. The bill would allow insurers to maintain existing substandard policies but also would let them offer those plans to new customers, which would undermine the new system, and would exempt the insurance companies from some of the consumer protections.

If the insurance mandate fails to provide a financially viable private insurance market, the next step for Congress should be passage of the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act (HR 676, sponsored by Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.), which would simply expand Medicare to cover everybody.

Passage of that bill will remain a long shot, even if Dems regain the House majority and neuter the Senate filibuster, but single-payer advocates can pick up the slack at the state level. The Affordable Care Act provides for “state innovation waivers” to be granted beginning in 2017, allowing states to implement creative plans they believe would work best for them. With this in mind, organized single-payer movements have taken root in Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New York, California, Oregon and Vermont. Vermont passed a law in 2011 setting the state on the party toward its own single-payer program.

Canada moved to a single-payer health care program starting at the provincial level with Saskatchewan in 1946. The United States might have to get the momentum going at the state level too.

In the meantime, enrollment in healthcare plans is surging in many states. In California, where only 31,000 people enrolled in October, nearly twice as many had enrolled in the first two weeks of November, the Los Angeles Times reported Nov. 19. Several other states, including Connecticut and Kentucky, were outpacing their enrollment estimates. In Minnesota, enrollment in the second half of October ran at triple the rate of the first half, officials told the Times. Washington state also was on track to easily exceed its October enrollment figure.

The 36 states that depend on the federal website, many of whose Republican state officials declined to build their own exchanges, lagged far behind, but the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported in mid-November that was working for 90% of users who have tried to sign up. The agency has sent out 275,000 emails to people who had started to create accounts but couldn’t get through the process. As of mid-November, more than 50,000 people had selected an insurance plan — up from 27,000 in the entire month of October, the New York Times reported Nov. 19.

Joan McCarter noted at Nov. 19 that many people are likely still in window-shopping mode. Enrollments should pick up even more — both on the state sites and the federal site — in the last week or two before the Dec. 15 deadline for insurance to be in place on Jan. 1. Then it will pick up again in February and March before the final deadline. The experience implementing Massachusetts health reform provides the best model for enrollment patterns, and in the first four months of enrollment just about one-fifth of the uninsured population enrolled.

“The people will come. They’re not freaked out over what most people perceive as inevitable: a problematic new government program. They’re not abandoning support for the program in droves. They’re not calling for an end to the program. They’re patient enough to give it time to work, even if Republicans and the traditional media are not.”

States found it easier to enroll low-wage residents in the expanded Medicaid programs. Under the law, the federal government picks up nearly the entire cost of that expansion for the first several years. That wasn’t a good enough deal to convince Republican leaders in 26 states to give five million working poor a break, but in the other half of states, nearly 400,000 new people already qualified for Medicaid coverage in October. In Oregon, whose marketplace has had problems, the state reported that it signed up 70,000 new people for Medicaid.

Meanwhile, in Texas, where Rick Perry has failed in 15 years as lieutenant governor and governor to take any action to address the health-care crisis for the one-quarter of Texans who are uninsured, not only has Perry denied Medicaid expansion to cover one million working poor Texans who are uninsured; his heir-apparent, Attorney General Greg Abbott, has moved to prevent “navigators,” many of whom work for non-profit organizations, from helping potential customers find the insurance plan and federal subsidy that’s right for them.

Next year, when the benefits of “Obamacare” become apparent to all Americans, we hope Democrats can make the Republicans pay for their hostility to working people. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2013
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Selections from the December 15, 2013 issue

Friday, November 22, 2013

What do Wal-Mart and Arne Duncan have in common? Neither understands that it’s all about the wages

By Marc Jampole

Two stories floating around the news media lately both make me want to shake the principal actors and yell in their faces, “Raise wages and you’ll solve the problem.”

The first story involves Wal-Mart’s latest embarrassment—employees in its Canton, Ohio store organized a Thanksgiving food drive for fellow workers.  This act of charity—by and for employees only—begged the question that pundits, labor leaders, left-leaning actors and supporters of the minimum wage are all asking: Does Wal-Mart pay its employees too little money?

The Canton food drive for Wal-Mart employees came on the heels of a report by Demos, the liberal think tank, that if Wal-Mart had not engaged in a stock buy-back program in recent years, it would have had the money to raise employee salaries by $5.83 an hour and kept the same profit.  My only problem with the survey is that it doesn’t attack the profit margin, which is pretty fat for Wal-Mart and could be reduced to pay employees a living wage.

At this point, Wal-Mart’s treatment of its employees has achieved near mythic notoriety in the mainstream and the left-leaning media. The food drive is merely this week’s “Wal-Mart doesn’t pay its employees enough” story. I’m sure many others are as tired as I am of shouting at the paper, TV, radio or computer screen, “Just do the decent thing and raise their salaries to $15 an hour!”

Perhaps not so many people were yelling at  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan the other day when he announced a new public  relations campaign by the Department of Education to get more kids to consider careers as school teachers. Other sponsors include the Advertising Council, Microsoft, State Farm Insurance, Teach for America, the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions and several other educational groups. The problem the campaign addresses is that the Baby Boom generation of teachers is beginning to retire and many predict teacher shortages in the future.

If Arne Duncan doesn’t know it, maybe his friends at Microsoft and the multinational advertising agencies involved in the Advertising Council could tell him that it’s a simple matter to attract more—and more competent—people to a job or career. Just offer more money.

I suspect that Duncan is not entirely serious about attracting more people to the teaching profession, given his continued support of charter schools. From day one, the goal of the charter school movement has been to hammer down salaries of teachers by destroying public school unions.  We know that the big money funding the charter school movement doesn’t really care about quality education. Otherwise they would have pulled the plug on charter schools years ago, given that on average charter schools underperform public schools.

The equation is simple:
  1. Charter schools pay less
  2. Thus, charter schools drive down teachers’ salaries
  3. Lower teacher salaries decrease interest in becoming a teacher.
If this esteemed group of government entities, companies and nonprofit organizations really wanted to build the next generation of school teachers, it would be bankrolling a campaign to make union organizing easier and to set high federal wage standards for all school teachers, public and private.

Both these stories come down to people with power scratching their heads and wondering what to do when the answer is standing right in front of them like a large cold and hungry elephant shivering and trumpeting loudly. PAY THEM MORE! It may mean taking a little less in profits, which are currently exorbitant. Or it may mean raising taxes. Doesn’t matter—those with jobs should make enough money to feed their families, and the professionals to whom we entrust our children should not have their decent wages reduced but instead be raised to the same rate at which we pay lawyers, accountants and other professionals. Pay teachers as much as we pay neurosurgeons and top PR execs, and we’ll have more people interested in the profession. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

In our adulation of the dead JFK, let’s not forget almost every myth about him is false

By Marc Jampole

In the tsunami of stories about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, no one yet has observed that JFK was one of the first and finest examples of manipulation of the mass media to elect a major candidate.

In 1956, Kennedy was a back-bench Senator known for little else than being the son of a rich man and the right-wing alternative to a moderate Tennessean as Adlai Stevenson’s running mate. Then his family launched an incessant public relations program based on the question, “Can a Catholic be elected president?” It seemed as if every month some national magazine or prestigious newspaper was asking the question and answering mostly in the affirmative.  In launching this PR campaign, the Kennedy family had one very large advantage: the family business was the largest advertiser in the mass media in the 1950s. 

After the first debate with Richard Nixon, the Kennedy PR machine shifted into fifth gear to focus the media conversation not on what was said, but on how they said it and what they looked like.  It was certainly the first time that issues—real or fabricated—took a back seat to style in discussing a major election. Likeability, that ineffable essence that the media later told us Bush II had and Al Gore did not, became a factor and the news media made sure we liked JFK a lot more than we did RMN. Of course, they had some help from Tricky Dick himself!

Fifty years after his assassination, the Kennedy legend is mostly built on myths, the most significant and mendacious of which is that he was a liberal or a progressive. Kennedy came from a dark past: His father sympathized with the Nazis. His younger brother was a lawyer for Joseph McCarthy.

As president, Kennedy tended to favor the right-wing. He called for decreasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations and for an increase in military spending. The two fiascos of his Administration—the Bay of Pigs invasion and the assassination of the head of the South Vietnamese government—were both examples of American imperialism and militarism.  Both decisions came back to haunt our country for years, like the equally foolish decision to invade Iraq decades later.

In retrospect, Kennedy’s civil rights record was shabby. Yes he was hobbled by his inability to manage Congress, but reviews of his administration’s actions in such books as Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters suggest that Kennedy was always looking for an excuse to declare failure in Democratic attempts to pass civil rights legislation.  Other books suggest that in finally passing civil rights and anti-poverty legislation, violence at the marches and riots in the inner cities moved Congress and the American people far more than did fulfilling the legacy of a martyred president.

Although Kennedy was born 30 years too early to be part of the Baby Boom generation, the fact that he was America’s youngest president when the Baby Boomers were reaching their teens did make it easy for Kennedy to become a symbol of a new, younger America. His public lifestyle and his rhetoric did seem to symbolize that youthful time, but his political actions did not represent youthful rebellion and idealism, but rather immature adventurism in foreign affairs and a middle-aged willingness to live with the status quo in everything else.

Part of the Kennedy myth is his personal glamour and elegance—but it was the glamour of rich folks spending their money on expensive stuff. The glamour was also part of the Kennedy PR machine, as exemplified by the first lady’s televised tour of the White House. I do, however, appreciate the fact that until Obama, Kennedy was our last president to cherish urban and urbane values. Between these two, all our presidents have wanted to be seen flipping sausages at a barbecue pit or chopping wood.

I do not believe someone’s personal life should enter into an accounting of his or her public legacy. I don’t care one way or another that Kennedy is reported to have bedded dozens if not hundreds of women. It has nothing to do with his ability to perform as president or his public legacy, unless the sex were not consensual or there were something else he did that indicated poor judgment or unacceptable behavior—underage women, hypocritically advocating celibacy while whoring around, sexual harassment or rape, for example. That Kennedy once forced a White House intern with whom he was having an affair to publicly felate a Secret Service agent does not speak well of the man.  

It probably helps Kennedy’s legacy that no president has died in office since he did. I remember many older family members telling me how heart broken they were when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office. It occurred 18 years before Kennedy was assassinated and 22 years after Warren G. Harding died in office. It’s now been 50 years and, thank goodness, no one has supplanted Kennedy as “the president I remember dying in office.”  The violence of the assassination heightens the sadness and sense of tragedy surrounding Kennedy, as well it should.  That there are so many photographs and moving images of Kennedy makes it easy for even those born long after him to know him, or at least know his myths.

The persistent rumors of a conspiracy to assassinate JFK also contribute to his high visibility. In fact, most of the Kennedy myth has little to do with the public man. Just think of the ways that his life and death are being covered these past few weeks:
  • The details of the assassination
  • The conspiracy theories
  • His wealth and glamour
  • His sex life (helped by the fact that one of his paramours was a third-rate actress who had a habit of bedding famous and powerful men and after her death became another mass media martyr)
  • The excitement of the New Frontier
  • The sad fact that he didn’t have time to work on his political agenda.
Of course, there are a few stories of substance as well, mostly discussions of whether Kennedy would have escalated the war in Viet Nam. Typically, left-wingers say no and right-wingers say yes. In this case, the right is most certainly closer to the truth, based on all of Kennedy’s actions as president.

Like most public myths, Kennedy is a vessel into which we can pour whatever beliefs we want. Some see him as right-wing, left-wing, cold warrior, dove, hawk, symbol of a more optimistic time, glamour god, sex symbol, sex pervert, leader of youth, friend to minorities, whatever you want.

My take on Kennedy is that he was a rich guy whose family spent a lot of money helping him obtain an office for which he was less than qualified.  His politics reflected the views of large corporations of his time, from lowering taxes on the wealthy to pursuing an aggressive imperialism throughout the world (For more on how large corporations controlled Kennedy, read G. William Domhoff’s recent The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy). He basically cared about power and his social class.  That he is beloved as one of our greatest presidents of all time is just another proof of the power of rich folk to manipulate the news media.

How often does mass media exhort public to imitate people who aren’t rich?

By Marc Jampole

We’re seeing a very rare media trend this fall. Story after story in the style, living, home and even business sections of newspapers and websites are advising people to imitate individuals who aren’t famous and don’t earn a lot of money, maybe $30,000 to $57,000 a year.

The envied group we’re supposed to imitate consists of professional shoppers. At least that’s the conclusion I draw from typing “Black Friday shopping tips” in the Google search box.  Of the 1.24 million results that come up, the first few pages are filled with articles that are going to teach us how to “shop like a pro,” by which the writers must mean a professional shopper, those low-paid gofers of party planners, marketing departments and rich folk.

Here is a sampling of articles in which we can learn how to “shop like a pro”:
  • How to Shop on Black Friday Like a Pro lays out three steps and three tips for shopping like a pro the day after Thanksgiving.  Unfortunately, the writer and editor are less than pros and make a number of irritating syntactical errors, such as writing “your” instead of “you’re.”
  • Shop Black Friday Like a Pro starts with the premise that the readers—like the writer—love to shop for the Holidays.
  • 12 tips for shopping Black Friday like a pro is a graduate seminar in how to shop during the Holidays. The last tip however, places a dark cloud on the whole process (I write “process,” since when there are 12 steps, there must be a “process“): “Plan a nice brunch or other social gathering at the end of your trip, so you’ll have something to look forward to.” Wait a second. If, as the article claims earlier, you are so excited about shopping that you “are already salivating,” why do you need something to which to look forward? Maybe professional shoppers are supposed to end their work days with a snack, kind of like reverse carbo-loading. I guess I was too busy taking humanities and science courses in college and I missed the “advanced professional shopping” seminars.  
  • 5 Steps to Shopping Black Friday Like a Pro advises people to have a Holiday shopping strategy. 
  • “Black Friday Survival Guide – How to Shop Like a Pro” compares Black Friday to the Superbowl, but warns that on the “potentially dangerous and stressful day” you better learn how to shop like a pro.  Football serves as the appropriate analogy for the grim picture of waiting on line, running towards products and pushing and shoving painted by the author.
  • 3 Ways to Shop Black Friday Like a Pro boils it down to the essentials of planning your route and coordinating with friends, so that one of you shops for certain items while the other looks for other things. 
Those who aren’t satisfied merely to achieve a professional status, though, may prefer How to win Black Friday 2013: Tips from a master.”  The article never tells what it means to win, but if there are three things I know about 21st century America it’s:
  1. We like to shop
  2. Winning is fun
  3. We like to aspire to the pinnacle, such as the pinnacle of shopping professionalism, that exalted point at which others laud you as a “master.”
The “shop like a pro” theme doesn’t exhaust the ways in which writers are giving us advice for Black Friday. You can find tips, ways, lessons, strategies, tactics and ideas in any quantity you like: 3, 5, 7, 10, 12 or 20. There are even 10 issues worth discussing in the eternal debate between shopping in person on Black Friday and online on Cyber Monday. Don’t worry—there are advantages to each.  That’s the great thing about America—you’re doing okay, as long as you’re shopping.

Interestingly enough, no one mentions products much in their advice on shopping. There are occasional references to tablets and video games, but mostly the products don’t matter—it’s all about the act of buying.

Traditionalists shouldn’t beware just yet. My Google News search of “Thanksgiving” yielded 158 million stories, as opposed to a mere 136 million for “Black Friday.” If we measure significance by number of Google hits, Thanksgiving is still the top Holiday of the last week of November.  There are many how-to-articles for Thanksgiving, too—how to roast a turkey, how to make a turducken, how to make gravy, how to plan a vegetarian Thanksgiving, how to address family disputes, how to decorate in a festive way.  It all seems to mundane and old-fashioned, though, compared to the thrilling rapture of pulling a credit card out of a wallet and handing it to a cashier.

But give it time. Black Friday is relatively new as a holiday.  It is still developing its traditions and its history. In the future, perhaps, certain food will become associated with Black Friday, like Mexican food with the Superbowl (My money is on hot turkey tacos). People will start telling stories of Black Friday the way they remember it in the good old days. The year Mom wrestled a PlayStation away from a 400-pound man. The year we roasted turkey on the portable grill in the Wal-Mart parking lot. And sooner  or later, someone is going to figure out that like most other American holidays, the best way to celebrate Black Friday is to buy something for someone and give it to them. Yes, I can see the glorious day—glorious for retailers—when people exchange presents for Black Friday. And at that point, we’ll have to create a new holiday—the one on which we shop for Black Friday presents.