Saturday, April 12, 2014

Editorial: GOP Wrong Again

After the frenzied finish of the first enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration on April 1 triumphantly announced that more than 7.1 million Americans had signed up for private insurance plans through the federally sponsored marketplaces. That surpassed the Congressional Budget Office’s original projection, even with the “disastrous” launch of that sidelined the website in October and much of November. As Eric Boehlert notes on page 10, the corporate media had echoed the Republican line that it would take a miracle for the marketplaces to enroll 7 million but conservatives remain in denial that the federal health reform has hit its stride.

Even before the White House announced the numbers, Sen. John Barasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, on March 30 had accused the administration of “cooking the books,” a conspiracy theory that other Republicans quickly took up. After President Obama claimed the credit in the Rose Garden, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called the 7.1 million signups a “slow rolling fiasco” and “a Pyrric victory” and others continued to express doubt about the numbers. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) adopted the GOP line that enrollees don’t count until they’ve paid their first month’s premium. “We don’t know of course exactly what they’ve signed up for, we don’t know how many have paid,” McConnell said. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) agreed in a conference call with reporters, “Clearly we still don’t have information on how many of those individuals have paid their premiums.”

If many new enrollees haven’t paid their first premiums yet, it may be because the insurance companies failed to increase their staff to handle the rush of new business and get out the invoices.

Other Republicans claimed the law also forced the cancellation of millions of policies, so many of the people enrolling in the new marketplaces were simply being forced to buy a different plan. “The bulk of the people who are signing up had insurance to begin with, and they probably had their insurance canceled because of Obamacare, said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), having no numbers to back up his claim, but then again Fox and Friends hosts rarely press their Republican guests. “It is abundantly clear this thing isn’t working,” Cruz added. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, GOP Virginia Senate candidate Ed Gillespie, Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) all expressed similar sentiments, Sy Mukherjee noted at

Remember that under the old “let the buyer beware” insurance system to which Republicans would like to return, three quarters of medical bankruptcies happened to people who thought they were covered until they got sick and found they were underinsured.

The Rand Corp. on April 8 poked a big hole in the Republican argument that millions lost insurance when it reported that at least 9.3 million more Americans have health insurance than in September 2013, virtually all as a result of the law. And that’s a net figure, accommodating the less than one million Americans who lost their individual plans because of cancellations. That’s less than 1% of the US population age 18-64, Rand noted.

And most of those people lost their old, low-cost insurance plans because the plans offered junk coverage that left policyholders vulnerable in case of a real health emergency. Among the ACA’s benefits are that it requires insurance companies to stop excluding coverage for “pre-existing conditions”; it requires that policies provide free preventive care; it does away with annual and lifetime caps on coverage; it provides subsidies to help small businesses provide insurance for workers; it provides discounts on prescription medicines for seniors; and it allows people to quit dead-end jobs and start their own businesses with the assurance that they can get affordable coverage.

One of the misconceptions of the Affordable Care Act is that it was based on the individual mandate plan embraced by Republicans in the 1990s, as insurance companies allied with conservatives to successfully sidetrack Hillary Clinton's attempt to reform health care. The difference was that the Heritage Foundation's original plan in 1989 merely proposed that people be forced to buy insurance, without the standards that the Affordable Care Act required for insurance coverage 20 years later.

And in those states where the insurance plans have not proven to be affordable, due to a lack of competition among private insurance companies, states can and should develop their own public options. The law allows states in 2017 to seek “innovation waivers” to try their own paths to universal health coverage, such as statewide single-payer plans. Vermont already is developing a single-payer plan. Under Section 1332, which provides for the waivers, states must cover as many people and offer coverage as comprehensive and affordable as the old system. Qualifying states would receive the same federal funding that would have been available under the ACA.

Republicans have been reluctant to actually produce an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, knowing that anything short of expanding Medicare to cover everybody is going to illustrate the benefits of Obamacare. Ryan admitted as much in an April 4 interview with Bloomberg News’ Al Hunt. Asked if Republicans would maintain the pre-existing conditions regulations, dependent coverage extension, and other rate requirements if they replaced Obamacare, Ryan said, “You dramatically crank up the cost. And you make it hard for people to get affordable health care.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on April 2 unveiled a conservative health care alternative which health analysts said it would cost millions of Americans to lose their existing health care plans and hurt the middle class and working poor.

Jindal’s “Freedom and Empowerment Plan” would repeal Obamacare and treat employer-sponsored coverage and nongroup insurance equally in the tax code. Repeal would cause at least 10 million people who have signed up for insurance through the new marketplaces, Medicaid expansion and the remaining individual market to lose their insurance. The substitute plan would lead many businesses to stop offering coverage altogether, Igor Volsky noted at (April 2).

Volsky noted that the 149 million nonelderly people who obtain coverage through their jobs don’t pay taxes on their benefits. The tax subsidy, which dates back to World War 2, encourages employers to offer health insurance. Jindal proposes to eliminate the tax-exempt status of employer-sponsored plans — treating employer-sponsored benefits as taxable income — and replace it with “a standard deduction for all forms of health insurance,” which would encourage individuals to buy coverage independent of their employer plans.

Volsky noted that sicker and lower-income people would be most disadvantaged by what Jindal is offering. If the ACA’s insurance regulations were fully repealed, individuals who lost their employer-sponsored insurance would turn to the individual market, where insurers would be able once again to cherry-pick the healthiest enrollees or charge more for pre-existing conditions.

And the Republicans’ proposed tax deduction would primarily benefit people in higher tax brackets and would be worth little (or nothing) to the vast majority of uninsured, who are in the 15% tax bracket or less and would reap few, if any, rewards from Jindal’s proposal.

As Americans become more familiar with the benefits of Obamacare and realize that Republicans have been lying about it for five years, and we see working-poor Americans dying because they are shut out of Medicaid by Republican governors and legislators who compose the real death panels, voters need to ask the Republican naysayers why they never lifted a finger when they were in power to help working people get affordable health care. In the meantime, progressives around the country should follow Vermont’s lead in promoting single-payer plans in their states as the next step toward affordable universal care. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2014
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Selections from the May 1, 2014 issue

‘Obamacare’ critics, including Kochs, accept subsidies;
Money lines up against minimum wage hike;
Connecticut, Maryland pass $10.10 minimum wage;
On high court, former lobbyist guts campaign reform;
Progressive Dems move to draft Bernie Sanders for president;
Polls show good news for Dems;
Red-state voters want to expand Medicaid;
Earthquakes raise fracking fears;
N.C. regulators in no hurry to clean up coal ash spill;
Mark Udall slams AFP Obamacare pitch to China;
Fox News least accurate on climate change;
Demint: Big government didn't free slaves ... 

Them that’s got shall get

CVS tobacco ban contributes to common good 

Accelerating use of renewable energy

Factory farms are no chicken Shangri-La

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas
Scrooge, a tea party revision

Friday, April 11, 2014

Differences between red and blue states predate the Civil War

By Marc Jampole

In rereading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution recently, I ran across an interesting description of the contrast in the society and economy between pre-Civil War North and South. Foner references the important insight of another historian, James L. Acorn, that slavery had sharply curtailed the scope of public authority in the pre-Civil War South because it produced a society of “patriarchal groupings” in which large numbers of people—all of African descent—remained under the authority of the private sector—their owners—and not subject to the government.  “With planters enjoying a disproportionate share of political power, taxes and social welfare expenditures remained low,” as did spending on public education.  Paved roads, water systems, public hospitals—all were nonexistent or much less developed than in the North before the Civil War.

Small government. Low taxes on the wealthy. Little public spending on education, infrastructure or health care. Little regulation of the economy, including none of the relationship between owners and workers. These aspects of the pre-Civil War South have come to define red state politics, which in recent years has been called Tea Party politics.  In fact, the core of red state America lies in the 11 slave-holding states that tried to secede from the United States in 1861.

Many on the left have described the Tea Party and the rest of the right wing as inherently racist, pointing to the racial code words and phrases used by Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachman, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum and practically every other politician with Republican and Tea Party ties. Progressives also note the disparate impact on minorities of low taxes on the wealthy, privatization and the current shredding of the social net. 

The right denies a racist intent or tinge to the policies it supports, but let’s take a look at history.  The ideas and words of the current right are very similar to what southerners said before and during the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era. The differences between red and blue state economic, political and social beliefs today largely mirror the differences between the South and North before the Civil War:  Small versus large government. Low versus high taxes. Lots of social services versus very few. All these differences developed primarily because the South had large slave-owning plantations and the North relied on free, wage-earning labor.

In other words, while the right can make their weak protests that their views are not racially based, history demonstrates that the primary reason why these views developed in these particular parts of the United States was that the economy was based on slavery. And slavery in the United States was always intimately tied to racism.  Slave-owners and their defenders believed those of African descent were inherently lesser beings than whites by virtue of their skin color and origin.  Slave owners justified their cruelty towards slaves—the whippings, the suppression of education, the rapes, the splitting of families—by racist arguments that Africans were an inferior breed.  Slave owners asserted that Africans liked their fate and would be lost in the real world without the guiding hand of their owners. All racist beliefs and all justifications for the southern economic and political system.

Apologists like George Will may reference Edmund Burke, Montesquieu and the so-called conservative nature of agrarian politics and rural values all they like. That won’t change the fact that the economy and society that developed today’s right-wing ideology was racist.  Racism was the rational engine that fueled the pre-Civil War South, and it still fuels the ideology associated with its reincarnation into red states.

In many ways, we still have a civil war in the United States.   

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lesson from Pennsylvania knife attack: We need more gun control

By Marc Jampole

I don’t mean to trivialize the injuries suffered in the knife attack perpetrated by a high school sophomore at a high school in Murrysville, Pennsylvania.  It’s another in a long and seemingly endless line of incidents of mass violence at American schools. Of the 20 students and one teacher stabbed by teenaged loony Alex Hribal, at least four have serious wounds.

But all are expected to survive.

Imagine if instead of two large knives, Hribal had been packing a bolt-action rifle like his brother-in-arms, Adam Lanza, who killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut? Or how about if Hribal’s weapons of choice were semi-automatic handguns, like Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 and injured 17 in his rampage on the Virginia Tech University campus a few years back?

Just imagine if Hribal were toting a semi-automatic. The injuries would have been much worse than what he perpetrated with two knifes. There most assuredly would have been several if not many deaths. And the attack would have lasted much longer, because  the teacher who tackled Hribal would not have been able to do it—he would have been shot—maybe dead—before he got close enough to touch the maniac.

As tragic as the knife attack was, I’m fairly sure that the parents of at least some of the victims are muttering quietly to themselves how relieved they are that the nut didn’t have a gun. 

Those who say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” only have it half right:  guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people, which is why society has a right and an obligation to keep guns out of the hands of potential killers. Nothing in the Constitution bans regulation of firearms.

And it’s easy to do: toughen gun control laws so that it’s harder for mentally ill or unstable people to get them. Make sure that all gun sales have a three-day wait for a background check on the purchaser that includes going through the national registry, including all sales at guns shows. Ban all Internet gun sales. Beef up the national and state gun registries. Absolutely forbid concealed or unconcealed guns in schools, on university campuses, at airports and in restaurants. Limit the number of guns and amount of bullets someone can buy at one time. Limit the number of guns anyone can own.

Unfortunately state legislators haven’t learned yet that their job is to serve the people, and not to line their campaign coffers with contributions from the National Rifle Association. State Gun Laws Enacted in the Year Since Newtown
About 1,500 state gun bills have been introduced since the Newtown massacre.
178 passed at least one chamber of a state legislature. 109 have become law.
State Gun Laws Enacted in the Year Since Newtown
About 1,500 state gun bills have been introduced since the Newtown massacre.
178 passed at least one chamber of a state legislature. 109 have become law.
State Gun Laws Enacted in the Year Since Newtown
About 1,500 state gun bills have been introduced since the Newtown massacre.
178 passed at least one chamber of a state legislature. 109 have become law.
In the first year after the Newtown shootings, states passed 70 laws loosening gun controls, compared to a mere 39 tightening restrictions on gun purchase and ownership. Nothing demonstrates the power of crony capitalism than the disgraceful way that states across the country are putting their citizens in harm’s way by making it easier to buy guns and carry them in the streets.

I figure that if we strengthened our gun control laws so that they match other westernized countries, we would end up with more knife fights and knife attacks. And that’s a good thing. We can’t totally eliminate the crazies, the angry and the haters. But we can minimize the possibility of them getting hold of weapons that can cause serious damage to multiple people in seconds.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Head of Columbia business school wants to flood labor market to suppress wages

By Marc Jampole

From the solutions he offers to the labor challenges facing the U.S. economy in his article titled “Where Have All the Workers Give,” Glenn Hubbard must think that the problem is a lack of workers, not a lack of jobs.

Hubbard, dean of Columbia Business School, economic advisor to Mitt Romney and former chair of the Council of Economic Advisors under Bush II, is merely expressing the deepest fears of the business establishment: that when the Baby Boom generation retires, a shortage of labor will drive up wages as fewer people compete for a similar number of jobs. 

Now to most people, the problem with the economy is that it is not producing enough jobs. The unemployment rate is still 6.7% and even Hubbard admits that large numbers of the long-termed unemployed have stopped looking for jobs. Plus there are all those underemployed, the hordes of twenty-something baristas and call center operators with college diplomas.  Now common sense would suggest that we need more jobs, but Hubbard believes the real challenges is to get those long term unemployed back looking for jobs—and driving down wages even more than the nose dive in buying power that most people’s compensation took over the past 30 years.

The article, which leads the Wall Street Journal’s Saturday “Review” section, bemoans all government efforts to stimulate the creation of more jobs except one: lowering corporate taxes.  Studies have of course long ago disproven the idea that lowering taxes gives job creators the funds to create more jobs, and that in fact raising taxes creates more jobs. But Hubbard prefers to live in a world of false notions passing as ideas, not one of facts. Or maybe the world of sound bites he mouths on his Fox News TV appearances.

While ignoring job creation, the good professor describes a complete program for creating more job-seekers:
·         Remove the so-called disincentives to work created by the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act.
·         Make it harder to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, since without benefits, the disabled will have more incentive to seek employment.
·         Turn much of unemployment insurance into job training—in other words, take the money that those on unemployment insurance were going to use on food and rent and give it to community colleges and for-profit vocational schools for tuition. Keep in mind that a relatively small percent of employers are having trouble finding people with the skills their businesses need—maybe 15-20% of all unfilled jobs. 
·         Eliminate taxes on those receiving Social Security and still working, so that seniors who rejoin the work force will be able to keep more of what they make, supposedly an incentive for the old warriors to strap on their gear again and earn a paycheck.

Of course, those seniors won’t be making that much, and certainly much less than now if Hubbard’s proposals became law.  Hubbard wants to force feed more workers onto the job market, but he proposes nothing to create more jobs.

Like most mainstream Republicans, Hubbard’s underlying interest in advocating these positions is to suppress the cost of wages, which in effect takes money from the poor and middle class and gives it to the owners and operators of businesses AKA the wealthy.  He is trying to undermine the first decent break that Generation X and the Millennials are getting from the 21st century economy—a shrinking work force.

Hubbard’s essay boils down to a declaration of class warfare—or should I say, to a strategic plan for the next phase in the 30+-year war of the wealthy on everyone else in the United States.