Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Corruption is in the Eye of the beholder--Episode II

Corruption is in the eye of the beholder—Episode II

On Monday, Pres. Obama sped quietly in and out of Kabul. As the papers reported his visit, it sounds as if he was there just long enough to give President Hamid Karzai a stern lecture about political corruption in Afghanistan. Was he a little least bit embarrassed after two presidential elections won by questionable methods by George Bush, or after having given up most of his ideas for health reform because the insurance and drug industries managed to get legislators on their sides by spending significant amounts of money?

Campaign finance reform in the United States is an old topic. Congress keeps trying and not getting anywhere. Now the State of Maine has taken the initiative. Candidates running for public office in the state of Maine can get substantial sums of public money for their campaign if they can collect 3250 contributions, none of them larger than five dollars. Candidate who can find that many persons of ordinary means to support them will be given state money and will not be allowed to accept contributions larger than five dollars from private individuals.

In this way, once they reached the threshold of five dollars donations, candidates don't have to worry about fund-raising anymore. More importantly, the private donations candidates receive are each no larger than five dollars. There are no fat cat political contributors, no industries that have great clout when ordinary citizens do not because they don't have large sums of money to give to candidates.

The Maine plan is actually in operation. It models one way in which we could substantially reduce the influence of money interests on our political system.

We can see how deeply corruption is ingrained in our political process by the fact that only one state has managed to eliminate large contributions from the electoral process. While the state of Maine has shown that elections do not need to give exceptional power to the rich, the failure of other states and the federal government to adopt anything like the Maine plan shows that we have no business going around the world criticizing corruption of other governments.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Racist Opposition to Obama?

Racist Opposition to Obama?

Ever since former Pres. Jimmy Carter said publicly that some of the opposition to Pres. Obama and his proposals for health care reform are motivated by traditional racism – the belief in the pervasive incompetence of black Americans – other commentators have raised similar allegations.

Not surprisingly, the evidence to support these suspicions is scarce. But it does exist.

Comments on the Internet report the racist roots of the opposition to Obama. Many persons report the racist language their family and friends use when talking about the president.

An article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology reports on the racist sources of opposition to Pres. Obama's health care reform. Subjects to whom the current plan was presented as the plan devised by President Clinton in the 1990ties were not as fiercely opposed to health care reform as subjects to whom the same plan presented as the project of Pres. Obama's

Early on bizarre claims surfaced that Pres. Obama is not an American citizen, as well as the sly insinuations that he is really a Muslim. He is felt not to be like us and therefore not acceptable as leader of the country. Obviously he is not like us; after all he is president and we are not. But the difference racists point to is one that invalidates, incapacitates and makes him incompetent for the presidency-- his black skin and heritage.

Glenn Beck, a Fox Network star, accused Obama of being himself a racist because —Beck avers-- he does not like white people. Obama's origins and identity are foremost in the mind of many. In a saner time, someone like Beck would not get a job. But today . . .

The N-word has reappeared with alarming frequency-- not only from carloads of rednecks at political meetings but most shockingly in the Capitol building in Washington, DC when it was hurled at a leader of the civil rights movement, now a Congressman, John L. Lewis, and Black Congressman, Andre Carson, a week or so ago. (They also called Rep. Barney Frank a :”faggot.”)

Opponents of the new health care bill are trying to reassert states' rights in laws or amendments to state constitutions that make federal law inapplicable in individual states. While the limits of federal over state powers are always subject to negotiation in a federal system like ours, this recent movement to assert states rights uses the rhetoric of traditional white supremacist movements. There is talk of “nullification” and even of “secession” both of which appeared frequently in the rhetoric of Southern states before the Civil War, and came up again in political discourse after the Brown versus Board of Education decision that abolished segregated schools. The new defense of states rights and opposition to Obama's healthcare bill quite deliberately echoes earlier, explicitly racist assertions of states rights.

Racist fears, conflicts and crimes are deeply embedded in all of our history. We can take pride in having struggled against racism but must acknowledge our shame in not having struggled more successfully. The election of Barack Obama is a milestone in the fight against racism but the remaining road is not only long, but has just gotten a lot longer.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Distrust of Government

Distrust of Government.

Distrust of the government is a venerable American tradition. Recall the opening paragraph of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience: “that government governs best which governs least.” Thoreau later amends this to “that government governs best which does not govern at all.” Today the suspicion of government and hostility to government action have once again reached a peak. Tea party protests against the Obama health care reform are frequent and noisy. States' rights advocacy is widespread; various states have passed laws trying to limit what they regard as interference by the federal government.

But the widespread sense that the government is the enemy is a serious matter because it is at odds with our traditional conceptions of our democracy. The preamble to the Constitution begins with the words: “ We the people...”. If you ask anyone about democracy, they will tell you that in our country the people are the source of all power and that they, therefore, control the government. But the message of many of the protests against the government is that the government is out of control. The citizens do not determine government policy. The government determines policy and does not respect the wishes and needs of the people. Our democracy is not working.

We should not take this idea literally that the people are supposed to control the government. The so-called checks and balances in our Constitution were all designed to put a distance between ordinary citizens and the government. While the founding fathers were meeting in Philadelphia to write the constitution, farmers in western Massachusetts staged an armed uprising because a financial crisis had forced many of their farms into foreclosure and the state government refused them any help. Known as Shay's rebellion, this uprising re-enforced the suspicions harbored by the many aristocratic founders against ordinary people. They made sure that the influence of these common citizens on the government would be buffered by various institutional protections such as the electoral college, or the two chamber legislature.
The Constitution written in Philadelphia in 1787 was not intended to give ordinary citizens the power to control the government. But it did give citizens the power to have a say, to be, on occasion, listened to. Citizens do have an influence—on rare occasions a significant influence on government. If this were not true, our government could not be as corrupted by money as it is. There would be no room for lobbyists to conduct their dirty trade if the Legislature were not open to external influences.

Complaints that the government is not controlled by citizens are destructive when they portray the government as the enemy, as the tool of totalitarian bureaucrats. When American democracy does allow ordinary citizens a voice, citizens can preserve that voice only by raising it. Once citizens limit themselves to complaints, to hostile sniping, they give up what ever little power is left for them after the lobbyists of multinational corporations have done their work.

Clearly our democracy is very corrupt. The concessions to drug companies, insurance companies, medical equipment companies, hospital acquisitions, associations of physicians and others which masquerade as the health reform bill show very clearly where the political power lies today. The health care bill is not so much a power grab by the federal government but a series of concessions to various industries and private interests by that same federal government.

American citizens need to struggle against the influence of money in politics, against lobbyists, against private interests and now against the Supreme Court which has made itself the spokesperson for those private interests. The restriction of individual citizenship and its power must encourage us to redouble our efforts to salvage what little is left of democracy.

The groups complaining about power grabs by the government not only misunderstand our political system but they detract attention from the real threat to democracy: moneyed private interests. What is worse they encourage abstention from political action, fostering instead sniping from the sidelines, feeling victimized and sorry for oneself, and a pervasive feeling of powerlessness. The groups complaining about power grabs by the government remove citizens from the political arena and thereby do the work for lobbyists and those who pay them.

Working to establish what is left of our democracy or perhaps even strengthening it is difficult and often very frustrating. Being cynical about the government, by contrast, is easy. It takes no effort at all. But it is giving up hope on American democracy; it is substituting self-pity for the commitments of citizens. The complaints of the tea party adherents, of the advocates of states rights, of the enemies of all government, are self-fulfilling prophecies . Only participating in the political process and trying to change it so as to come closer to our ideals, has a chance of salvaging a bit of our democracy. Giving up on it seals its fate.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

What Happened to Hope?

What happened to hope?

It is barely a year ago that Barack Obama was elected president with “Hope” as his slogan.

A year later the hope that helped elect Obama has dissipated. Public opinion polls show clearly that a majority of Americans are seeing the United States declining as a world power. More than half of people asked, thought that China would become the dominant world power in the next few years. More important is the fact that few people seem to mind that a whole lot. Many Americans have given up hope. They have accepted that our power and wealth are declining. They are content to be second or third rate.

That's a rather remarkable change within a year. What happened?

We do not know all the reasons for our profound discouragement, but I list below all the relevant stories found in the newspaper on ONE day. With so much bad news on one day, is it a surprise that the enthusiasm of a year ago has evaporated?

In Massachusetts 30 state legislators (out of a total of 160—close to 20%) have decided not to run for office again. There are different reasons in each case, no doubt. But in the last 10 or 15 years several consecutive leaders of the Massachusetts House of Representatives were forced to quit their job because they were caught in serious corruption scandals. The political process is seriously compromised. One can see why people no longer want to participate as elected representatives.

Political corruption is not merely a problem in Massachusetts. A New York congressman, after 34 years in office, was reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee for accepting a free junket to the Caribbean. The governor of the state of New York who replaced Eliot Spitzer, after he was caught in a call girl scandal, now has to give up his the re-election campaign because he got involved on the wrong side in an ugly domestic violence controversy.

Goldman Sachs, deeply involved in the financial manipulations that caused the current economic downturn, is once again making money. At the same time 10% of the US workforce is unemployed. Now it turns out, that Goldman Sachs not only ruined the US economy but helped the Greek government to borrow excessively so that Greece also is now close to insolvency. Spokesmen for Goldman Sachs declared that “they did nothing illegal.” But they are clearly a pretty cynical bunch.

Government spokespersons have been silent in the matter.

The Republicans who have stonewalled any attempts to reform our health care system because (they say) they oppose “big government” and want to support individual liberty, insisted that the Patriot Act be re-authorized without adding any protections for individual liberties against Big Brother Homeland Security, FBI, CIA and other government agencies. Are these Representatives against “big government” or are they for it? A significant number of elected representatives are acting wildly irrationally. It is difficult to foresee what they will do next.
The attempt to extend unemployment benefits was stopped by one senator who was afraid that it would cost too much money. The Senate of the United States has become completely nonfunctional if one legislator can control the actions of the entire Senate. And no one cares for the unemployed whose unemployment payments are running out.

The public, televised Summit about health care reform, showed no sign of willingness to cooperate. Legislators are content to grandstand but are unwilling to get down to work. As a previous blog showed, even if some health care legislation emerges from Congress it will be woefully inadequate because drug company and insurance company money is more powerful than the needs and interests of ordinary voters. There is little hope that the government will act to improve conditions for ordinary citizens.

Another Taliban leader is killed in Pakistan by a CIA missile strike. A missile strike in Pakistan set in motion by the CIA is no different from suicide bombers in Pakistan or elsewhere set in motion by the Taliban or Al Quaeda. In the fight against terrorism we have become terrorists. But no one talks about it; no one raises questions about it. We used to believe that our foreign policy was governed by moral principle (even though that was not always the case.) But today interest in how we conduct ourselves in the world has disappeared. The CIA is free to torture and kill as they please.

It is difficult to feel pride in a government that is completely grid-locked at home, except when it comes to bailing out Goldman Sachs, and is engaging in terrorism abroad. Where ever we look, we see corruption, narrow minded selfishness, a completely nonfunctional legislature, while large numbers of citizens are suffering seriously from lack of employment, lack of housing and affordable health care.

Hope has disappeared. Can we hope for its return?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Political Violence in Iraq

Political violence in Iraq

Reports from Iraq uniformly stress the divisions in the country between Kurds, Shia and Sunni. Newspaper regularly refer to the “sectarian” divisions in the country. It leaves the American reader with a sense that Iraq is a very different country from ours and that it is hard for us to understand the passions that divide the population. Commentators on the election were uniformly fearful that sectarianism in Iraq would hinder the formation of a new government.

But part of that sense of strangeness may simply come from the fact that the divisions we live with are so familiar to us. America is no more united than Iraq: there are whites and there are African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans. There are documented workers and undocumented ones. Some Americans are straight; others are gay. Some Americans are men; the others are women. And those are not all that significant divisions that affect our political life. It is difficult to look at Republicans stonewalling Democrats not only on legislation but also on appointees to the Obama administration without wondering about the sectarianism between the two parties in our system.
Religion plays a larger role in the divisions in Iraq than they do over here. But we recall that John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic president in our history. Evangelical religion is a factor in many political issues confronting our country. Nevertheless, race plays a more profound role for us than religion: the first year of the Obama presidency is an exercise in futility. There are many different reasons for that but, clearly, one of them is the fact that Obama is the first black president of the United States.

The difference between our divisions and those in Iraq is, of course, that theirs are often fought out with bombs and guns. Political violence is not unknown in the United States. Racial killings still occur as do killings of gay by straight men, and, much more frequently, of women by men. But physical violence is not daily event for us as it still is in Iraq.

The causes of physical violence in Iraq are a matter of discussion. Many people ascribe it to what sorts of people Iraqis, or, more generally, Arabs are, or they ascribe it to a different culture, or blame it on religion. Such explanation of political violence in Iraq may justify our distrust and dislike of the people there but they do not correspond to actual fact. It also reinforces the sense of strangeness and how we cannot really understand “those people.”

But that is a mistake. What happens in Iraq, politically, is not so different from what happens in the United States every day.
The most fundamental fact is that in our invasion in 2003 we destroyed government in Iraq. Not only did we capture and kill Saddam Hussein, but the early occupation authority disbanded the Iraqi army and sent home the bureaucrats. The result was a period of complete lawlessness with widespread looting of government offices and museums sheltering priceless antiquities. The US military force was not large enough to replace the Iraqi government's forces of law and order. Many years of harsh government repression were followed by a sudden disappearance of any police force. Not surprisingly a great deal of the early violence was apparently perpetrated by criminals.
A second source of violence came from the opposition to the US military. Various armed groups committed acts of violence in the hope of freeing the country from foreign occupation.

There is some indication that the religious component of the violence was very limited. In recent provincial elections, parties that took an explicitly religious position garnered very few votes. A majority of Iraqis want a strong central government to restore order. They appear to care much less about religious differentiations. In the current elections, one of the major contenders is the leader of an explicitly secular party. The Shia—one of the major religious groups—is deeply divided into different factions. Some Shia religious leaders openly support not only an elected government, but liberal freedoms, including freedom of religion. While they want Islamic law to play a role in the country they clearly distinguish the political order they advocate from the religious authoritarianism of Iran.

Whatever happens in Iraq is also under the influence of neighboring countries. Some of the violence is sponsored by Iran. Osama bin Laden's crew has its representatives in Iraq and contributes to the general turmoil.

There is no reason to accept the analysis that blames political violence in Iraq on the divisions between different religious groups. It is much more likely that a great deal of the political violence results from the American invasion and the early decision by the US administrators in Iraq to destroy the Iraqi military and police. We have now managed to help to rebuild both to some extent and apparently that is helping to reduce the prevailing violence.

Certainly, the culture in Iraq differs significantly from ours. But those differences do not extend to the political system. Iraqis, by and large, want peace as much that we do for ourselves. It is not clear at this point in US political history that their sectarianism is more profound than ours. Much of our sense of strangeness, that we cannot understand them or their political life, is misplaced and one more example of our xenophobia.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cost of War; Cost of Health Insurance

Cost of War, Cost of Health Insurance.

It's time to look at some numbers.

Estimates of people dying prematurely because they have no health insurance range from 22,000 to 45,000 persons a year. That is roughly between 200,000 and 400,000 Americans who died since 9/11 because they lacked health insurance. This number is not often mentioned in the partisan debates about health care. Many Republicans say that Obama-care is too expensive. Too expensive to save upwards of 22,000 lives per year?

What would be the costs of saving at least some of those lives? Estimates of the cost of Pres. Obama's health reform package range from 975 billion a year to 1.2 trillion, to $1.6 billion a year. That plan would not insure every last American citizen. It would not reduce that 22,000 or 45,000 number to zero. But it would help.

Here is another relevant number. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost just about $1 trillion last year. If we did not have to fight these two wars, we could actually afford to save a lot of American lives – without even counting the lives of our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan—let alone the dead and injured among Iraqis and Afghanis.

Many people think that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are essential to American security, in order to save American lives. We lost 3000 men and women on 9/11.Since that time between 200,000 and 400,000 Americans died for lack of health insurance.

How many lives are we going to sacrifice for our security? Whose security are we protecting? We are not protecting the lives lost to lack of health insurance.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Lower Health Care Costs???

Lower Health Care Costs?

The campaign for health care reform has two distinct goals. On the one hand, the reformers want to reduce the number of persons not covered by health insurance. On the other hand, they want to reduce the cost of health care.

The bill passed by the House of Representatives originally included a so-called “public option,”-- an attempt by the government to offer our health insurance more cheaply than many private plans. The hope was that in attempting to compete with government insurance plans, private insurers will be compelled to lower their prices. But that option is now off the table. I am sure that insurance company lobbyists had something to do with that. One opportunity for lowering health care costs has disappeared.

But of course, insurance is only one of costs of health care. Another significant source of soaring health care cost are the medicines produced by US and European drug companies. The New England Journal of Medicine notes that 13 European nations successfully regulate the price of drugs, reducing the average cost of name-brand prescription medicines by 35% to 55%. The US Veterans Administration is able to push down the price it pays for patent medicine by 40% through its bargaining power because it buys such large quantities of medicines. George Bush stopped Medicare from bargaining for similar discounts, an insane ban that Obama, during his campaign for the presidency, promised to overturn. But that seems to have disappeared from the scene.

As a consequence drug prices will be at least 40% higher than they need be under any health care reform bill this Congress may pass..
Another source of waste of medical dollars is the use of ineffective drugs or use of drugs in situations where they make no difference. The Boston Globe cites the case of a kidney drug in use for 20 years or more, which has recently been shown to be quite ineffective for most of the patients using it. Doctors did not know, for a long time, that the drug was useless. If some of the money saved by bargaining with the drug companies would be used for effectiveness studies, the use of many drugs could be severely limited or stopped altogether with an enormous further savings for the American health care industry. But at present government supervision is hampered by lack of money. The FDA relies too heavily on the drug companies' testing. The firms producing drugs conceal negative test results; they may know that the drug has negative side effects or complications, or is plain ineffective. But neither the government nor the physicians ever hear about that.

The pharmaceutical industry, flush with excess profits, clearly has the upper hand over Congress and the President. They are too powerful to try to limit their obscene profits. As long as no one dares to limit their price gouging, there will be no lowering health care costs.

Once again ordinary Americans suffer for the sake of increased profits for the very large international corporations. Our politicians are on their side, not on our's. Before we can reform health care, we need to fix our political system to once again represent all Americans and not just the very large businesses and global corporations.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The United States and Haiti

The United States and Haiti.

There are three important facts about Haiti. Two of those are well known. The third one is not. But the first two cannot be understood without taking the third one seriously.

Fact number one. The earthquake in Haiti was much more damaging because of Haiti's incredible poverty. Where people are not quite as poor, as for instance in Chile, their houses are likely to be constructed more solidly. Infrastructure is in better shape, etc. People have more resources in case of disasters.

Fact number two. US citizens have poured out incredible amounts of money and energy to help the victims of the Haiti earthquake.

Fact number three. The US government and US business there are seriously responsibility for the poverty of Haiti.

I referred to this in a recent blog: in the 1950s a US project built a dam in Haiti that flooded valuable farmland and provided irrigation for agribusinesses not owned by Haitians. While Haitian farmers lost fertile land, foreign companies profited; their profits were sent to the US and Europe instead of benefiting Haiti. Wealth created in Haiti was sent abroad.

I want to cite two more, recent stories about Haitian poverty.

The first has to do with the price of rice: “Not long ago, Haiti was self-sufficient in rice. . . Haitian rice production kept pace with its population growth over the years. The Duvalier governments kept the Haitian market more or less protected. Only one port, Port-au-Prince, was open, allowing control of imports and keeping the level of contraband down. Imported rice sold for about the same price as Haitian rice up through Jean-Claude Duvalier's flight in 1986.

In the seventies, however, the destucturation of Haitian rice began when the government imported tons of U.S. rice following a drought. With a shortage of food and an exodus of hungry peasants to the capital to look for work, the government feared unrest.

Despite the increased imports, in 1987 Haiti still produced three- quarters of its rice needs, but the Henri Namphy regime, under heavy US pressure, . . . moved to liberalize the country by slashing tariffs, and opening all the ports.

U.S. rice has an artificially low price, since the U.S. protects its rice (and sugar beet and other) farmers with multitudes of programs, so U.S. farmers produce rice for less than Haitian farmers thanks to massive subsidies totalling literally hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars. The U.S. regularly produces hundreds of tons more than it needs. . . Contrary to its clarion call of free trade, the U.S. protects its own while it wrenches open the borders of nearby countries in order to market its over-production.

In addition to legally imported and smuggled rice, food aid (corn meal, beans, soy, oil) also undermined and continues to undermine local products by driving all prices down. Tons of aid makes its way onto the market, legally or illegally, and is sold, thus competing with local products.” (http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/43a/210.html)

The United States, in spite of its public veneration of the free market, subsidizes its rice farmers. The subsidies encourage increased production and the rice, and other food stuffs, not consumed in the US need to be exported. We then prevail on foreign countries like Haiti to import our excess food. Our food exports to countries like Haiti are much cheaper than the local product because they are subsidized by the US government. These subsidies benefit US Rice producers but they destroy indigenous agriculture. It puts farmers in Haiti out of work and thus increases poverty. Poverty in the Haitian countryside is the result of US agricultural policy.

Here is another story: “Currently, the minimum wage in Haiti for garment workers who produce for the US consumer market is $3.09 a day. Last year, the Haitian Parliament passed legislation to raise the minimum wage for all workers from $1.72 a day to $5 a day. But factory owners in the export sector producing for the US consumer market complained to Haitian President Preval, and he refused to implement the law. A compromise was reached: the minimum wage is now $5, except for the garment workers; they get $3.09 a day.

The AP gave the example of Jordanie Pinquie Rebeca, a garment worker:

Rebeca ... guides a piece of suit-jacket wool and its silky lining into a sewing machine ... If she does this for eight hours, she will earn $3.09. Her boss will ship the pinstriped suit she helped make to the United States, tariff-free. There a shopper will buy it from JoS. A. Bank Clothiers for $550.

The AP said that even the factory owners concede that garment-industry wages are too low to feed, clothe and house workers and their families.

As for Rebeca:

Rebeca ... sleeps on the street and barely eats. With a day's pay she can buy a cupful of rice and transport via group taxi, and pay down debt on her now-destroyed apartment. Anything left over goes to cell phone minutes to call her boyfriend, who was evacuated to the Dominican Republic with a leg fracture sustained in the quake, or her 4-year-old son, Mike, whom she sent to live with relatives in the countryside.” (http://www.truthout.org/haitian-garment-workers-should-get-5-a-day57145)

The United States is heavily involved in driving country folk off the land into the cities. There they are either unemployed or, if they're lucky, they get a job, like Rebeca in the story, making goods that get sold for a lot of money in United States,while they literally go hungry. American companies enrich themselves at the expense of Haitians who earn starvation wages.

These stories could be replicated indefinitely. The complicity of the United States governments and enterprises in Haitian poverty suggests a different interpretation of the second fact. The outpouring of help for Haiti is indeed a demonstration of American generosity but such generosity can barely scratch the surface of the reparations we should be offering Haiti for the damages our government's policies have done it.