Uncommon Sense

May 29, 2010

Tea Party Bunkum

The news media are all aflutter about the “Tea Party,” with most describing it as a new force in American politics. A force, maybe, but “new” is certainly inaccurate. Simply put, the Republican Party has shrunk so much that these people, formerly a reliable core of republican voters, can compete with it. The so-called Tea Party is nothing more than the far right of the American polity. They have always been there, buried within the Republican Party which seemed like their only option for candidates to vote for. But the Republican party has so weakened itself, both in numbers and quality of politicians, that these “core conservatives” no longer feel like it provides their only options. They are going out and getting their own candidates.

And some of those candidates are winning. Stunning? Hardly.

There are so few Republicans left to vote that beating them is no great feat. Take Rand Paul’s “stunning” victory in the Republican Senate primary election in Kentucky. Even though he won in a near landslide, both of the Democratic candidates got more votes that did he. The numbers of Republicans are so small, that this large voting block is pushing the party even farther to the right. mainstream Republicans like John McCain are embarrassing themselves trying to reframe their records as hide bound conservatives, just to save their jobs. So, they are having an effect . . . on republican primaries; whether they will have an effect in general elections remains to be seen.

So, who are these “new” Tea Party folks? According to a CBS News/New York Times Poll, “The Tea Party Movement: Who are They” from April 5-12, 2010:

“89% are white; just 1% is African American. Tea Party supporters are older than the general public, including 29% who are seniors.

“In terms of politics, more than half (54%) identify themselves as Republicans, and four in 10 are independents. Only 5% of Tea Partiers are Democrats.

“Tea Partiers are more likely than Americans overall to attend religious services each week (38%) and to indentify themselves as evangelical (39%).”

They are also more well to do than the middle class with 20% reporting incomes over $100,000 per year and a greater proportion of these folks get Medicare and Social Security benefits than does the population as a whole.

Basically these are older conservative Americans who have fairly good lives and they don’t want to lose what they have. Just the election of a black president has raised fears that black people are going to extract revenge upon whites by benefiting “poor” people at their expense. This is where the phrase “I want my country back!” stems from.

Again, from the poll: “Negative perceptions of President Obama extend beyond his job performance. 84% of Tea Partiers have an unfavorable personal opinion of him, while Americans overall hold a more positive view (33% unfavorable).” (My italics.)

And “25% of Tea Party folks feel blacks are favored over whites by the Obama administration as compared to 7% by non-tea party white people.”

These people have been around forever and have become the unwitting dupes of the rich. Because they want to hold on to what little they have, they share a basic attitude with big business and rich people and therefore espouse many of the same attitudes. The Tea Partiers biggest issue is smaller government, which leads to less regulation and less taxes, which are right in the wheelhouse of the monied interests.

Their belief in their own vision of what is happening is so strong that 64% of Tea Party supporters think the Obama administration has increased taxes for most Americans, (while only 34% of the general public says that) and when, in fact, their taxes have actually gone down.

Just an aside, the Republicans argued that the Federal Economic Stimulus wouldn’t work (a big Tea Party belief); they argued only tax cuts would work, so the Obama administration included $200 billion of tax cuts in the $700+ billion bill even when the economic evidence shows that tax cuts do not stimulate the economy in hard times (people just save the money or use it to pay bills, they don’t spend on new things). Republican leaders have since claimed that “not one job was saved” while the Tea Partiers were claiming “our taxes have gone up.” Apparently a connection with reality is not needed.

The Tea partiers faith in their own vision may be related to the following poll finding: “63% of Tea Party identifiers say they get most of their political and current events news on television from Fox News Channel.” Fox “News” is really Fox Propaganda as it engages in lies and deceptions on a daily basis. These Tea Party folks apparently don’t care about veracity and continue to look to this network for their information.

So, is the “Tea Party” the new power in American Politics? Will there be an actual organized Tea Party? In a word: no.

These people didn’t come together by accident. They were gathered by “Astroturf” specialists as anti-Obama shock troops. (Astroturf organizers are people who organize “grass roots” events, events falsely appearing to have occurred spontaneously.) Whether the Tea Party will find its political footing and organize into something potent is really a moot point. Since these folks were subsumed by the Republican Party, pulling them out of there will reduce the Republican Party to a nonviable size or at least split it into two very small parts which, when they contest with one another over the conservative vote, will surely alienate some of their own voters which will actually reduce the influence of the right wing of the country.

But, but, . . . what about Rand Paul and Scott Brown, and. . . . Hey, Scott Brown never identified himself as a representative of any Tea Party. And, whatever happened to “all politics is local”? The Democratic candidate for Ted Kennedy’s old seat ran an awful campaign and deserved to lose. The primary cause of the loss? Taking the attitude that the position was a safe, Democratic seat in Congress. No one likes being taken for granted, which is what the Republican Party is finding out about their extreme right wing core aka “the Tea Party.”

May 8, 2010

Rabid Right Attack Dogs

Part of the strategy to dismantle America’s middle class is to attack any person or agency that wants to help poor and middle income folks. Hence President Obama, who is a center-left politician, is a flaming liberal, a socialist, a radical to the attackers. Unions are dangerous agents of socialism. Organizations designed to help the poor manage their lives and participate in our democracy, like Acorn, are targeted with dirty trick campaigns and forced to close. Straw dogs are so prevalent, they have become a fire hazard and if ignited they will burn our house down. The cornerstones of the misinformation campaign are the Internet and right wing radio and television. These are the people who have claimed “left wing bias” so loudly about our traditional media sources, a claim that cannot be verified by any independent study, that people have believed that big lie. If our current media have proven anything is that they are pro income—they will do almost anything for money. I happen to like PBS a great deal and when I was commuting to work, I listened to NPR’s Morning Edition regularly. I was also perplexed to hear that the lead story most days of the week concerned Israel. I understood that when there were big stories coming from the Middle East, but often when there was no significant change in anything going on in Israel, there would be some sort of story near the top of the show. NPR didn’t try to hide anything, they were getting fairly large grants to report the news from Israel which meant they had money to cover events in Israel even when they had little money to cover anything else. As a listened I had been lulled into thinking that stories occurred in order of their importance, which is generally true, but the story you have because a grant allowed you to acquire it always trumps the story you don’t because all you have is a wire service (or now web-based) report.

Back to the role of the right wing drum beaters. Calling Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck and their ilk “entertainers” is a little like calling hoodlums who have ransacked your house “decorators.” Paying these guys premium wages to destroy our democracy under the guise of freedom of speech is really going to puzzle the social archeologists of the 22nd century. “Did they know that these guys were inflaming hatred and bias?” “Why did they allow them to do that?”

I was actually a fan of the Limbaugh show in the early 1990s, until Bill Clinton got elected and Limbaugh started titling his show with the tag “America Held Hostage, Day XX.” Huh? What happened to poking fun at Femi-Nazis, and pointy headed intellectuals (my people). As I listened and paid more attention, Limbaugh’s bias became more vitriolic and more unhinged from reality. Several people reported calling his show to correct stories he had gotten wrong and no such corrections were forthcoming. That’s when I stopped listening. I firmly believe that “the truth shouldn’t get in the way of a good story,” but that only applies to fiction and jokes, not politics.

Glen Beck, Limbaugh’s successor, as the crown prince of right wing attack dogs is hard to watch. I can’t imagine Jonathan Swift or Douglas Adams inventing thoughts such as this man is capable of. Bizarre connections between the attacked and anything with the label bad on it (socialism, being weak, being un-American, etc.) trip off of his tongue. I don’t imagine anyone can actually follow his tortured arguments, they are left with just President Obama Something Bad as a conclusion. At least the magicians of my youth had the courtesy to say “nothing up this sleeve, nothing up this sleeve, and voila” when they pulled a rabbit out of nowhere, but Beck chugs along merrily as if he is establishing a rock solid chain of argument. Amazing. And these guys get millions of dollars to undermine our country.

So, Limbaugh begets Beck, Beck pushes Limbaugh to new heights. The Obama administration is now a “regime,” behavior that was lauded when George W. Bush was president is now condemned and, because these diatribes are so successful in mobilizing the Republican “base,” Republicans in Washington are borrowing from their playbook. Republican leaders in Washington refer to centrist policy offerings as “dangerous socialist” policies. The health care plan, centered on big business insurance companies, is “experimental” and “socialist.” The president is called a liar in open meetings by duly elected representatives who then use that fact to raise money for their re-election campaigns.

What ever happened to “My country, right or wrong?” What ever happen to “Country First?” What ever happened to civility? All of these used to be right wing clarion calls.

Apparently they don’t pay and they don’t polarize; that’s what happened. The fact that such behavior is un-American apparently escapes these people.

May 5, 2010

Union-Anti, Union-Anti, Anti, Anti, Anti!

A spear point of the attack on the middle class by the monied interests is the undermining of the union movement in this country and it is working. Union jobs are a major source of stability for the middle class. Union wages are higher than non-union wages and those wages are generally spent in the communities where those jobs exist. The money is spent several times over, what economists call the “multiplier effect” (people paid with those wages, in turn buy things and pay for services, etc.), resulting in everyone in the community benefiting. But money paid to workers isn’t there to be paid to management or shareholders, so those folks have always opposed unionization of their businesses. But, because these jobs make customers for those selfsame businesses, one would think that the opposition would be mild. In roughly 1960 both Canada and the U.S. had about 32% of their jobs as union jobs. Now, Canada is at about 32% and the U.S. is at about 14%!

It will probably come as no shock that this period also corresponds to the time in which executive compensation has exploded, from being 3-4 times as much as what an average worker in the business makes to being 3-400 times as much, and in which a great many Wall Street workers have made millions and even billions without making a physical contribution to the economy.

So, how is this done? Typical of the attacks is one made by the CEO of Caterpillar, Inc. in my local newspaper recently. In an “Op-Ed” he spread disinformation about the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). This act is trying to return the law to the point where it was a few decades ago, where the powers of businesses and unions were fairly balanced. The points made in his article weren’t even the author’s own opinions; they were part of a standard anti-union diatribe that is being spouted by conservatives around the country. (Talking points are circulated on the internet! No “Old Boy’s Club” needed!) Plus, virtually every claim made by the CEO was incorrect. The EFCA will not eliminate secret ballot elections, elections would still be available to employees but as one of the options available to employees, not just employers as it is now. Currently management can demand “free and fair” elections and prohibit the historical card signing process. The rules (consistently distorted in managements direction since the Reagan administration) also allow them to hire union-busting companies to come in and intimidate their own employees with tactics like demanding to know how employees intend to vote in such an election! Also legal are threats, often delivered in private, that “if the union gets elected, we will have to fire you.” (This is more effectively done in private, because if you threaten to fire large groups of people, it is hard to say how that is an improvement over working with a union.)

So much for the sanctity of the secret ballot espoused by the author. This is a common tool in argumentation, though, to espouse something like the “sanctity of a secret ballot” which sounds like an absolute good. They also say competition is an absolute good. But, these are conditionally true ideas made to sound absolutely true. Competition is not always a good thing: imagine sitting around the dinner table with your kids and after some discussion you say “Well, Janey did best in school today, so she gets to eat.” This is ludicrous, I know, but sometimes competition is good, sometimes it is not. The same is true for a secret ballot. Before you try to hang me for being a democracy apostate, please note that none of your Senators or Congressmen get to vote secretly. Every time they cast a vote it is on the record. If voting in secret is so damned sacred, why don’t we let or federal representatives do so? (Hint, secret ballots are a tool, a good tool, like competition.)

In arguing against the binding arbitration provisions in EFCA, the author refers to “government arbitrators” when it is a well known fact that the arbitrators are from independent associations, such as the American Arbitration Association, that have nothing to do with any government and that the choice of arbitrator is mutual and not one-sided. And yet another conservative bugaboo “the government wants to control your life” is slipped into an argument in an attempt to demonize the EFCA.

I am surprised the author didn’t bring up the argument of “union pressure” being applied to “force” employees to sign cards. Specious as that argument is, it is pulled out over and over in such arguments as these. I am willing to put the charges of union abuse of employees on any scale provided by the author if he is willing to put charges of employer abuses on the other pan. I have no doubt which way that balance would swing. Possibly he had to edit his article for length and that is why this hoary old argument didn’t appear.

Big business and the monied interests do not want this legislation to pass as it undermines their idea of being in complete control of their universes.

The unfortunate aspects of the anti-union campaign is that it undermines the American middle class. It undermines our income, it undermines our ability to provide for our families and, amazingly, it undermines our ability to be customers of the companies fighting unionization. The appalling result is that while these companies are fighting to make sure our jobs are as low paying as possible (union jobs pay more than non-union jobs) these bastards are fleeing overseas, taking all of their jobs with them rather than paying American workers a decent wage, union or not. This does tell you where their hearts are if not their minds.

May 4, 2010

Health Care Debate Ain’t Over, Part 2

We are going to need the public option after all.

The argument against a “public option” health care plan, and it is a valid concern, is that it would cost too much. Unfortunately for the naysayers, they again didn’t do the math (or did it and ignored it because it did not support their argument—this is called confirmation bias my friends and we all do it).

Let’s just use the round figure of $9000 per year for health insurance for a family of four (up from just half of that 10 years ago). This is close to the correct amount, but the exact figures aren’t important in this argument. What we are talking about is whether a government program would cost more than that $9000 to deliver the same service. It is that simple. Let’s start by recognizing that 20% of the total annual premium constitutes insurance company profit and overhead, so we remove that and we are down to $7200 that was spent to actually deliver health care. Now government based health care (e.g. Medicare) has 2% overhead (amazingly, the same overhead as the insurance industry had in the 1960’s!) and no profit so we need to add that back. We will call it $7350. This is the actual cost of the services plus overhead that $9000 in insurance premiums is providing.

So, the question is: Are you willing to pay $7350 more taxes to keep that $9000 in your pocket? No, really? Are you stupid or do you just think I am tricking you? Hey, most of us are willing to pay a realtor 3% of the selling price to sell our homes, but would you be willing to pay 20%? Why are we so willing to pay 18-20% of our health premiums to fill out a few forms and write a check?

Actually, with this argument I have short-changed the advantages to a public option system. The argument isn’t just about the cost, it’s about quality of service, too. Consider what the federal government’s VHA (Veteran’s Health Administration) accomplished when it adopted computerized record keeping. By computerizing pharmacy records they were able to compare the drugs prescribed with the health outcomes. They then adjusted their system to only include the drugs that actually worked. And, no, not just the cheapest ones! Because patients are with the VA forever, they discovered that cheap drugs that don’t work are way more expensive than expensive ones that do! But, doctors can override the computer system and prescribe non-recommended drugs, but that act comes up in their annual performance review. “Why did you prescribe a drug that doesn’t work as well? Oh, a drug company paid you to do it?” Interesting discussion, that.

For those of you who don’t want anyone or anything getting between you and your doctor when making your health care decisions, consider the fact that in addition to the health insurance companies being wedge firmly between you and your doctor, the bulk of the information doctors get on drugs is from pharmaceutical salesmen. These salesmen, who make quite nice salaries, are also allowed to sponsor trips for your doctor to speak to meetings of doctors as to how well those drugs he’s prescribing work . . . all expenses are paid, of course, and there is a stipend, of course, and . . . get the picture? The VHA system deliberate got between doctors and patients and nurses and patients as a check on mistakes. (Have you ever tried to read a written prescription from your doctor? In the VHA system, they have to be typed into a pharmacy request, resulting in instantly better communication.)

As part of the pharmacy system, the computer won’t allow a drug to be given to a patient until the patient’s ID number is typed or scanned in and the computer check against the doctor’s recommendation. In this manner the VHA has prevented tens of thousands of drug administration errors. A big deal? Well, independent hospital studies indicate that the rate of drug administration errors in ordinary hospitals is one, per patient, per day of stay! This is huge!

The opportunities for quality improvements are manifestly high. Private hospitals who have enacted quality assurance programs have, more often than not, either killed the program or they ended up closing their doors. The reason? The quality assurance efforts hurt their profits tremendously because of all of the unnecessary procedures that were no longer being billed. Some hospitals lost so much money not charging for services not needed that they went out of business. I’ll say this slowly so it has time to sink in: in the current system increasing the quality of delivery of health care results in a decrease in profitablility, so why is a profit motive good for your health?

So, do we need a public option? Or should we stay with a system built on good, old private enterprise? You choose.

May 2, 2010

A Novel Way to Regulate Corruption and Campaign Financing

Currently Wall Street banks are shelling out $1.4M per day trying to block the federal government’s effort to regulate their business. Some legislators have gone so far as to say “Sure, we will block that legislation. Now are you going to donate to my re-election campaign?” This is plain and simply corruption in our government and it’s legal! If we do not correct this flaw in our government, will just be accelerating our decline as a nation. The flaw is that we have made influence peddling legal and we have to make it illegal to save our representative government from the distorting influence of money. There are a great many approaches one could take. This one is simple and could very well succeed.

Previous attempts to regulate political campaign financing have run afoul of the constitutional right of free speech and the right to petition the government. Time and again Congress has passed promising reform legislation only to have it declared illegal/unconstitutional.

Since the recent Supreme Court decision to allow corporations unlimited spending on political campaigns, the need for some limitations on campaign financing has become even greater than it was. And ordinary people were complaining about the influence of rich people’s and corporations’ money on the political process long before the Court’s decision. Elected officials complain about the need to do nonstop fundraising. And now, taking the fiction that a corporation is a “person” for business purposes and extending that fiction into political arenas, the Supreme Court has aggravated the situation.
In some ways, the Supreme Court decision is a log jam breaker. Unless we want corporations to be running the country (more than they do now, in any case) we need some limitations on political spending. This is the impetus for the following proposition.

The founders of the country established that each of us had the right to petition the government and to speak freely. (These, after all, are the rights of individuals.) The Supreme Court has ruled that spending money on political campaigns is a form of free speech and that corporations have the same rights as people when it comes to spending on campaigns. But, it is still illegal to “peddle influence.” Influence peddling is to sell one’s influence in government in the form of “you give me money, I give you a political solution to your problem.”

What I contend is that any government official who asks for money from a person they do not represent is peddling their influence and that this should be illegal. When they do this they are essentially saying “give me money and even though I do not represent you, I will make it worth your while.” The flip side of this idea is if I offer a government official money and that official doesn’t represent me, I am soliciting that influence illegally. If this principle is followed to its logical conclusion, a great deal of good can be had. Basically such a new regulation would restrict the passage of political money only to between those people who have a representative relationship.

All U.S. citizens have a primary residence which determines who their state and federal representatives are. For example, each of us has a congressman and two senators on the federal side based on the state and congressional district in which our primary residence is located. These are the people who represent us and we should be able to petition them freely (which is why they maintain offices in their districts) and we should be able to support their campaigns or their political challengers campaigns financially. The same restriction should apply to “corporate people” if the Supreme court continues to persist in their opinion that corporations are not only persons for the purposes of business but politics, too. I suggest that the location of the corporate headquarters of a company should establish who the representatives of those “individuals” are.

Anyone offering money to an elected official or candidate for office who is not (or will not become) their representative is trying to buy influence, so those contributions should be illegal. Candidates for President of the United States would be able to solicit funds from everyone insofar as the President represents all citizens, but U.S. Senators would only be able to solicit and accept funds from legal residents of their states and U.S. Representatives would only be able to solicit and receive funds from people (corporate and otherwise) who live in their districts. The same restriction would apply to all local and state office holders and candidates for office.

Many also decry the influence of corporate lobbyists. Their influence under this plan would be greatly diminished because, while under this plan a single lobbyist could still represent the interests of a corporation to, for example, all of the members of a Senate committee under the free speech provisions of the constitution, but money could only be given to the representative of the state which houses the corporate headquarters. The reason there are so many lobbyists in Washington is the same reason given by the bank robber for why he robbed banks (“That’s where the money is.”): in this case Washington is where the influence is that can be bought. We have allowed our centers of representation, state and federal, to become clearinghouses for influence peddling. And while these lobbyists could still make the points their sponsors want them to, they couldn’t back up those points with unlimited “campaign donations.”

This approach is not an infringement on free speech because individuals would still be able to write, call, email, and speak to any member of any state or federal legislative body they chose. We are just making a distinction between political gifts of funds, one of which says “I want you to represent my interests instead of any of the other candidates in my district for whom I can vote,” and another which says “You don’t represent me but I want you to do me a favor anyway.”

The right to petition the government is not infringed because everyone has their representatives who are reachable in local offices and because campaign funds can only be solicited from people one represents there is a strong incentive for these representatives to listen to “their” people rather than to others. The courts and other systems of government are also represented locally and can be petitioned. By letting rich people and corporations unlimited access to all of our local, state, and federal officials, we are undermining our form of representative government. Currently, if I am poor or even of ordinary means, I have a few representatives, but if I am rich I have hundreds or thousands of representatives.

Foreign corporations with just one American subsidiary corporation would not have unfettered access to the entire political system, their money could only flow directly to candidates in the districts of the subsidiaries headquarters and not to every other office in the land.

This regulation will not totally right the campaign financial ship: the monied interests will be likely to create “separate” PACs in each state to be able to donate to all U.S. Senators’ campaigns and other subterfuges, but these will be easier to regulate than the current system. Using a PAC to “launder” donations to representatives not one’s own, should also be illegal, though, because it is a longstanding legal principle that one cannot eliminate one’s legal culpability by just using a middleman.

The question is: do we want to save our representative governments from the corruption of “legalized” influence peddling?

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