Saturday, October 11, 2014

Editorial: Health Obstruction Breeds Contagion

The best thing Americans can do to eliminate the threat of the deadly Ebola virus in the United States would be to hasten the implementation of the Affordable Care Act so that every American with a fever and/or an upset stomach can see a doctor without fear of losing their job or emptying their savings.

Cable TV “news,” according to its business model, has whipped up hysteria over the Ebola threat in the US. Demagogues have demanded that the government stop all traffic with West Africa — which health professionals say is unnecessary and could even make the situation worse.

Thomas Freiden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on CNN Oct. 6 that if those countries with outbreaks were to be isolated, “the ability to stop the outbreak there” would become “very problematic.” If airlines only fly medical supplies and health workers into West Africa, and can’t fly travelers back, those routes quickly become unprofitable, American citizens (including health workers) won’t be able to return to the US and governments in those countries will get less stable, Frieden said.

The facts are that Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national, showed no signs of illness when he flew from Liberia, to Belgium Sept. 19. He appeared well when he arrived at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport Sept. 20 to visit his fiancee. He showed up at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas on Sept. 25 with fever and abdominal pain but no insurance. He told medical personnel he had recently arrived from Africa, but he apparently did not mention being around sick people. (He had helped take a pregnant neighbor to a clinic in Liberia. She later died and Duncan may not have known she had Ebola.) Duncan was released with antibiotics but his condition continued to worsen and when he returned to the ER Sept. 28 he was placed in isolation. He was diagnosed with Ebola two days later. He died Oct. 8. Officials are watching at least 10 people with whom Duncan had contact before he was hospitalized.

Duncan, as a visitor to the country, probably would not have had insurance anyway (which argues in favor of implementing a single-payer system that covers everybody in the nation). The threat of a contagious disease spreading throughout the population is greatly increased when a major part of the population lacks health insurance and hospitals have to consider how much care they can give the uninsured, since they know a large portion of that care will be uncompensated with fiscal “conservatives” in charge. And a breadwinner with a fever and an upset stomach has to weigh the cost of taking time off to get checked out by a doctor, at his own expense, or going ahead to his job at a restaurant, for example.

Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations writing in the Chicago Tribune Oct. 2, noted that even with the millions who have gained health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, 13.8% of Americans — about 43.3 million individuals — still lack health insurance. Millions more have policies whose “copays” for medical services are exorbitant for working people.

“These are the Americans who routinely tough out the flu, fever, aches and pains because seeking medical care is prohibitively expensive. If they become sick enough to feel desperate, the uninsured and underinsured of America go to public hospital emergency rooms for care, where waiting times in often-crowded settings can stretch on for hours. This reality is compounded by a weakened public health infrastructure: 52 health agencies, including 48 states, three territories and Washington, D.C., have reported budget cuts since 2008,” she wrote.

Republican attempts to obstruct the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which is designed to make health insurance affordable to people whose bosses refuse to provide health coverage, greatly increases the risk of an epidemic.

The risk of an Ebola outbreak — which requires close contact with a sick person who is showing symptoms — is relatively small in the United States. The risk of a flu epidemic — which is spread by an airborne virus, requires 200,000 hospitalizations and contributes to the deaths of more than 24,000 Americans a year — is much more likely. Republican obstruction of health coverage makes it worse.

Keep the Senate Democratic

If you are unhappy with President Obama, the last thing you should do is refrain from voting for Democrats in the mid-term election on Nov. 4 — and that goes double in states with hot US Senate races. People on the left who think there is no appreciable difference between Democrats and Republicans and giving the GOP full control of Congress haven’t been paying attention.

When progressives stayed home in 2010 to punish Democrats for not pushing progressive initiatives far enough, Republicans seized power in states such as Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. They then steamrolled Democratic minorities with a right-wing legislative agenda provided by the Big-Business dominated American Legislative Exchange Council that included measures to bust unions, make it more difficult for low-paid workers to get affordable health care, suppress the vote of the working-class and seniors and other affronts to the working class while enriching the corporate class. It might take a generation to reverse those defeats.

Many on the center-left are working to overturn the 2010 Citizens United decision, as well as other rulings by the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court. But that takes two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of the states (that is, 38). It’s good to get started on an amendment to challenge corporate personhood but, in the meantime, there is nothing wrong with the Court that a strategic funeral (from natural causes) couldn’t fix. Remove one of the doctrinaire Republican justices and a newly configured Court could revisit the objectionable rulings. However, that only works if Obama is in position to get a replacement choice confirmed by the Senate. That isn’t going to happen if Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is in charge of vetting those nominees at the Judiciary Committee. (Be very afraid if departures from the Court come from among the liberal justices and the right wing doesn’t need occasional voice of reason Justice Kennedy to form a majority.)

Democrats hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate, including independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, who caucus with the Dems. Republicans need to gain six seats to capture control of the Senate and Republicans expect to pick up seats from retiring Democratic incumbents in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. Key battleground races include Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina and perhaps South Dakota. Nine of those dozen hot seats are now held by Democrats. Republicans hoped to capture the seat of retiring Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), but Rep Gary Peters (D-Mich) appears to be pulling away from the Republican challenger in Michigan. Democrats in South Dakota also have a good if underfunded progressive populist candidate in Rick Weiland, a former aide to ex-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) for the seat Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) is giving up. Former Gov. Mike Rounds, the Republican nominee, and former Republican Sen. Larry Pressler, running as an independent, are splitting the GOP vote. Weiland could win it with 40% of the vote — which Dems ought to be able to muster. And at least three incumbent Republicans are threatened. Alison Lundergan Grimes appears to be giving Minority Leader Mitch McConnell the fight of his life in Kentucky; Michelle Nunn (D) is pushing businessman David Perdue, who made his fortune outsourcing jobs, for the Georgia seat of retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R); and centrist independent Greg Orman is leading Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas).

And, for God’s sake, Minnesota, please send Al Franken back to the Senate with a big enough margin that he can feel comfortable using his considerable sense of humor again. — JMC

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

Friday, October 10, 2014

In the idealized world of television commercials, we care at least as much about dogs as we do about children

By Marc Jampole

Television commercials collectively present an idealized version of the real world. It’s the real world as imagined by the collective minds of the companies that advertise.  “Ad World” is primarily a suburban, middle-class world of two-car, two-parent families and affluent singles surrounded by great friends. The ads always make clear that buying products and services is the road to happiness. Even when depicting single-parent families as Wal-Mart sometimes does in holiday season advertising, the overtone is positive and happy in Ad World—if the family has any problems, they can all be solved in the usual manner: by buying something.

One big question for those who investigate the impact of advertising and other mass media on society in general is the degree to which the idealized version of advertising reflects the real world and how much advertising actually shapes the real world.

Whether descriptive of the real world or prescriptive of what advertisers want that world to be, the values depicted in Ad World can lead to some very disturbing conclusions about America and the American people.

For example, let’s take a look at dogs in current advertising. It’s almost impossible to find a TV commercial that features a family without a dog. Dogs also inhabit commercials that depict the lives of the singles crowd in Ad World. The broadcast of the most recent Super Bowl, for example, included television spots featuring dogs for Doritos, Cheerios, Budweiser, MetLife, Toyota and Audi.

The trend to feature dogs in TV commercials started about 20 years ago, and every year it seems to intensify. The past few years have produced a number of very disturbing spots in which dogs are equated to humans, as much a part of a family as children or as the most important loved one. There was the spot for Cinnamon Toast Crunch a few years ago in which a 30’s something single woman compared eating the sugary cereal to the sensual feeling her dog must get when its belly is scratched. Or Traveler’s Insurance longtime ad series in which a dog is not only part of the family, but a role model for how human beings should act.

Consider a current commercial for Budweiser that focuses on how important it is to come home for loved ones who depend on you after a night of boozing. The denouement of the narrative is when a sad dog perks up because its owner has come home after spending the night away. The owner explains that he stayed at a friend’s house because he had a little too much to drink and didn’t want to drive home.  Like many dog owners, the young man acts as if he believes that the dog can really understand what he’s saying.

This commercial could have featured a girlfriend, parent, roommate, brother or teenaged child as the symbol of “those we love who depend on us,” but the writers and the corporation that hired them selected a dog.

Are any of my dear readers—dog lovers or not—exasperated with me and ready to cry out, “They’re just trying to be cute”? Of course they are, but they are also communicating that dogs are as important as people, an ancillary message of so much TV advertising nowadays.

Let’s look at two other ads, both for dog products.  In one spot, by a company named Blue, a narrator talks to the audience while we see happy images of a mother doing housework and her son and dog at play. The narrator is directing his words at the mother and by implication to all mothers. The message of the narrator is that you (mothers) care about all the people you love and want them all to eat nutritious food. Then the narrator goes on to explain all the great nutritional advantages of Blue dog food in language that out of context we would assume applied to humans. While the spot for Budweiser uses a dog symbolize all loved ones, this spot for Blue avers that the dog is as much of the family and as loved as the child.

The same sentiment equating (and I would say conflating) dogs with children takes place in a Pet Smart ad which discusses and displays the various treats one can get for one’s dog at Pet Smart to celebrate Halloween.  Dogs after all are part of the family. You wouldn’t want them to be without their treats. I wonder if the people who buy Halloween-themed food and costumes for their dogs also take them trick-or-treating?

We all know cat ladies, but in the idealized world of television commercials, only dogs attain the special place in people’s hearts of children or friends.  The number of commercials for food and other products for dogs far outnumber the number for cats. More significantly, cats never appear in commercials for other products, whereas you can see dogs in TV commercials for everything from laundry soap to automobiles.

It’s easy to figure out why corporate America would want to put a pet every yard, to join two cars in every garage and five cell phones in every house. Whatever the pet, the more people bond with the animal, more likely they will purchase goods and services for the animal. The pet becomes another thing to spend money on, and better than a car or a wardrobe, the spending is for someone you love, creating a strong emotional dynamic to the commercial transaction.

But why dogs?

I would hate to think that Ad World reflects reality accurately. I would hate to think that large numbers of people actually do prefer dogs to humans, or treat their dogs better than they treat the people they know. I would like to think that Ad World is an unreal place that only describes the aspirations that corporate America has for all of us. To my mind in a world in which people have food insecurity and public high schools have to give their pupils obsolete text books, all pets are a frivolity. I would be happy to see a small tax placed on all purchases of pets and products for pets, with the funds earmarked for programs to help poor and disadvantaged children.

Such a tax would be impossible in Ad World, of course, because in Ad World there are no poor people and the only hungry people are those about to sit down to a fast-food meal, pizza and beer or a bowl of chips. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Let’s distinguish between sentiment against the actions of the Israeli government and pure anti-Semitism

By Marc Jampole 

The current wave of anti-Semitism in Western Europe is much more complicated than traditional European hatred of Jews, but it is also much less virulent and much less widespread.  Thanks to the efforts of virtually all governments and the European equivalent of the mainstream media, anti-Semitic feelings are marginalized in all of the states of the European Common Market with the possible exception of Hungary.

The complications derive from the split of the population of anti-Semites into two parts, one of which also distrusts and looks down upon the other. I’m talking of course about the growing Islamic minorities and the very small fringe of right-wing anti-Semites who continue the secular anti-Semitic traditions that dominated the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries in Europe.  The traditional anti-Semites dislike Muslims as much as or more than they hate Jews. 

A further complication is the political situation in the Middle East. Whether inclined to support the countries which supply Europe with oil or disturbed at the growing list of Israeli atrocities against Palestinians, a pool of fellow travelers stands ready to join the small fringe of Jew haters at any particular time or to respond to any specific issue involving Jews.

Of course, anti-Semites have always been able to find reasons to hate Jews—first for their supposed role in the death of their god, then for being usurers and the agents of exploitation (e.g., for the Hanseatic League in the Polish wheat fields), and then as the quintessential “other” during the early modern era when racist philosophies dominated so much western thought. Now it’s possible to hate Jews because they support Israel and are equated with Israelis and Israeli policies. 

The conflation of Jews with Israel is a mistake made by both Islamic and Christian anti-Semites. Progressive Jews such as me are disappointed when we see disappointment in Israel mentioned as a reason for the rise in anti-Semitic activity. We want the mass media to make a distinction between anti-Israeli opinion, which is often based in fact, and purely irrational Jew-hating.

Unfortunately, no such distinction is made among Jews either, at least in the United States. A major part of the education of Jewish youth in both after-school and day school programs revolves around connecting the Jewish religion and Jewish people with not just the land of Israel, but with the state of Israel as well. There are many programs that bring teens and young adults to the mother land—called “birthright” trips. The indoctrination doesn’t end with adulthood, as synagogues and Jewish federations all over the United States sponsor frequent tours and missions to Israel, all of which contain several appeals for funds to support the Israeli state. The mainstream American Jewish media questions Israeli actions in the occupied lands about as much as the U.S. mainstream media questions the assertion that the Ukrainian situation is all Russia’s fault. In virtually every Jewish setting, Jews are constantly barraged with twin ideological premises: 1) There can be no Judaism without Israel; 2) Israel can do no wrong.

How can we expect those susceptible to the siren song of anti-Semitism not to use every transgression by Israel as a reason to turn against the Jews when they see the Jewish establishment everywhere knee-jerk approval of every Israeli action, no matter how cruel or bellicose?  And how can we blame the anti-Semites for hiding behind Middle East politics as their excuse for Jew-hating when we see so many frequent anti-Islamic comments made in the news media by ultra-right and religious Jews? 

The easiest way to reduce anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere is for the American and European Jewish establishments to start criticizing Israel when it is wrong and to put real pressure on Israel to settle their differences at the negotiating table, not with armed conflict that sacrifices innocent victims and policies that deny people basic human and civil rights.  Splitting anti-Israel sentiment from anti-Semitic sentiment will reduce anti-Semitism as many begin to realize that it’s not inherent for Jewish culture and the Jewish religion to create and enforce apartheid-like conditions or to care little about harming civilians in an armed conflict. Rather it’s the actions of a governing elite hounded by special interest groups and in power for too long that has led Israel to its current predicament. Sounds like what happens all the time in the good old U. S. of A.!

People around the world don’t hate Christians because of American actions in Viet Nam, Central America and Iraq, but many people do hate Muslims because of the actions of a few terrorists and rogue governments such as Syria. That’s wrong, and it’s equally as wrong to hate Jews because of the actions of Israel. But if Jews want this wellspring of anti-Semitism to dry up, their actions must support their belief that Israel  does not equal Judaism. And that means criticizing Israel when its bombs indiscriminately, kills masses of children or begins building a new round of settlements in the occupied lands. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

It will take many steps to re-instill progressive values into American politics, but the start is a democratic sweep in November

By Marc Jampole

It’s becoming increasingly hard for a progressive to like the current run of Democratic candidates. So many of the candidates running for Congress, Senate and statewide offices are centrist or right-wing whose politics are not even barely acceptable to the traditional progressive wing of the Democratic party.

So why should progressives, liberals and traditional Democrats vote if their choices are such pro-business, right-leaning centrists Dems as Andrew Cuomo (New York), Andre Romanoff (Colorado) and Ann McLane Kuster (New Hampshire) or obnoxiously right-wing Republicans?

For one reason—making the Democratic party beholden to progressives is the first step to re-instilling progressive values into our political system. 

The right wing didn’t build the conservative fortress that is the contemporary American political scene in one day or one decade. They started whittling away at basic Democratic ideas from the time of Reagan and before—taking a few steps at a time: first one tax cut for the wealthy, then another, and then another. First crushing the air traffic controllers, then weakening rules that help unions organize, then going after public school teachers and the pensions of all public workers. Flooding the media with misleading studies falsely claiming that lowering taxes on the wealthy increases employment; falsely claiming that extending unemployment makes people want to stay home; falsely claiming that businesses don’t need regulation to do the right thing regarding safety and the environment; falsely claiming that moving to renewable fuels will shrink the economy; falsely claiming that returning the minimum wage to its buying power in the 1970’s would cost jobs.  Bit by bit, ever so slowly, the right wing pushed the country to the right.

And it’s only this gradualist approach that’s going to work if we are to return the country—on a 35-year binge of bad ideas—back to on the progressive path of the 1930’s-1970’s.

And it starts with this November’s vote: Politicians care about two things and two things only—money and votes. The more progressive the position, the less money the 1% will put up, but we can still beat them by getting out the vote.

If we can achieve the voter turnout of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, the Democrats will keep control of the Senate and eat into the Republican House majority (gerrymandering after the 2010 elections may make the House a lost cause until 2016). Everyone will know that it was turn out of traditionally Democratic groups such as the poor, young and minorities that swung the 2014 election to the Democrats.

In short, the Dems will be beholden to progressives.

Then comes the second step—insisting that every Democrat in office or running for office in 2015 and 2016 espouse basic progressive principles.  It is imperative that progressives start a letter-writing program to all their elected Democratic officials giving them an ultimatum: support these causes or else we will vote for someone who will. 

It would be wonderful it the most progressive government officials such as Elizabeth Warren and Bill De Blasio should steal a page from New Gingrich circa 1994 and put together a new Contract with America and make a public display of asking every Democratic candidate to sign it.

If I were to write The Progressive Contract for American, it would contain the following basic legislative and regulatory demands:
  1. Pass laws that overrule the Citizens United decision that unleashed the ability of large corporations and wealthy individuals to turn elections through massive infusions of money.
  2. Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour
  3. Develop regulations that make it easier for unions to organize workers and harder for companies to stop them.
  4. Raise taxes on incomes of more than $250,000 and place an annual wealth tax on all personal assets over $10 million, including fine art and real estate.
  5. Add a small transactional tax to all stock trades.
  6. Raise tariffs on select foreign goods so that they get no price advantage because their countries of origin have lower worker wages or lower safety and environmental standards.
  7. Pass legislation that ends harmful corporate practices, including pretending the company is headquartered in another country, reclassifying U.S. income as foreign income and outsourcing basic operational jobs to lower wage and benefit costs.
  8. Begin a massive investment in repairing our roads, bridges and public school buildings.
  9. Begin a massive investment in solar and wind energy, advanced technologies to increase energy efficiency, technologies to mitigate the most severe effects of global warming, space exploration and medical research.
  10. Go to a single payer system for purchase of prescription drugs for Medicare and Medicaid.
  11. Create an immigration policy that includes a road to citizenship and lifts quotas across the board and not just for high-salaried workers.
  12. Invest in vocational training programs at public high schools and community colleges so that those who are not suited for jobs that require college degrees can get low-cost training.
  13. End all federal and state aid to charter schools that do not perform better than their neighborhood equivalent in two years or who lose 30% of their teaching staff within any 12-month period; put a cap on what charter school executives can make and a floor equal to the pay of public school teachers in the region on what charters school teachers make.
  14. Pass federal and state laws permitting gay marriage and protecting the right of a woman to have an abortion.
  15. Stop allowing arms sales to any foreign governments and stop loaning foreign governments money to buy U.S. arms.
Progressives may not agree with everything I am proposing, but there is plenty of time to hash over those details. The main thing now is to vote on November 4 and vote for the only party that listens to the 99%—even though at the current moment it is listening with one ear closed and the other also hearing hedge-fund billionaires.