Sunday, October 25, 2009

How Obama's Doing: A Brief Progress Report

I wonder if the Left just inherently more pessimistic about our political fortunes than is the Right, at least when it comes to partisan and electoral prospects. It sure seemed like there was a lot of gloating from Republicans in Bush's early years. But right now, in the circles I travel, there is a lot of nail biting over the future of the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress.

I think, all in all, Obama is doing quite well. Consider where we are with the health care debate. Obama decided to jump into this fight in the first year of his first term. And unlike the Clinton Administration in the '90's, Obama decided to let Congress take the lead in crafting the legislation. So for months and months we've followed the ups and downs of every committee debate and ever Senator's proclamation of support or opposition. We watched, gape-mouthed, as conservatives took over summertime town hall meetings and shouted down their representatives and blocked civic discussion. It worked so well that the energy industry talked about emulating the tactic to block climate change legislation. For some of us, in those dog days of summer, it felt like maybe the wheels were already coming off Obama's wagon.

But once again, it turned out that the hits Obama was taking were part of a rope-a-dope strategy. The screamers ran out of breath, dropped their stupid signs ("Keep government hands off my Medicare!"), and went home. And what do you know, a solid majority of the public still supports creating a public insurance option to compete with for-profit plans. In fact, support for the public option is up 5 points since August. And Obama has an approval rating around 56% (which of course is higher than the proportion of votes he got in November).

Oh, and we're about to pass a landmark health reform bill with some version of a public option.

Let me stress this: Congress will pass major health care reform legislation in the next couple of months. President Obama will sign it into law. And this will be the most sweeping health care reform in a generation--since the creation of Medicare. We won't get everything we want--the public option may be watered down with one of the several compromises on the table--but it will still be a significant achievement. And this will all be accomplished in President Obama's first year in office.

Then, after passing sweeping health care reform--which, remember, President Clinton failed to do--President Obama will point and say, "See, this is 'change you can believe in.' This is why we came to Washington. To do big stuff." And that seems to me like a damn good start on his re-election campaign.

If you remember, at the beginning of all this, Republicans were talking about turning health care into Obama's Waterloo. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint (R) said darkly:
"If we're able to stop him on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."
That now looks like the exact opposite of what's actually going to happen. Not bad for a rookie president.

Friday, October 23, 2009

BTM Is Now Searchable!

You can now search past Better Than Machines posts with the Google search bar over on the right. I just noticed that Blogger offers this as a formatting option. Not sure how long it's been available, but it's about time, since Blogger is owned by Google.

Have you ever stopped to consider the vast reach of Google's tentacles? On any given day, I search the Internet using Google Inc.'s search engine; I email using Google Inc.'s email service; I write and disseminate radical political articles using Google Inc.'s blog product; I check the weather using my personalized Google Inc. homepage. Right now, I'm even playing a game of Google chess with a friend.

I don't think this is necessarily worth raising a stink over. (In other words... Dear Google Gods, Please don't smash my blog.) I'm not aware of any Googleopoly horror stories--probably just because I haven't looked. But Google is a corporation. It's not your friend, even if you've heard of their magical campus where all the workers are enlightened hipsters. Eventually--if it's not already--Google is going to be a problem.

In the meantime, you can now use another one of their products to search for your favorite BTM posts! Woohoo! (I like this oldie.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

That Machine Still Kills Fascists

I found a cultural treasure trove last night in Silver Spring, Maryland, a northern suburb of D.C. It was closing night of the DC Labor Film Festival, and they were showing Bound For Glory, a 1976 biographical film of Woody Guthrie, at the historic AFI Silver Theater.
Why had I never heard of this film? I don't know, but I was deprived. If you like Woody, you'll like this movie. The film does a good job of blending it all together--the music, the land, the trains, the Dust Bowl desperation, the slave-wage farms, the peoples' resistance--into a bittersweetness that, to me, is the very taste of our history. It manages to throw in plenty of songs without turning into a musical. It shows Woody to be as much a union organizer as a musician. In fact, his refusal to water down his radical message and turn his back on working people keeps him from landing big music contracts. There's pickin', and singin', and organizin', and strikin'. And it's all one thing.

I also learned stuff about Woody in this film that I did not know. For instance, I obviously knew Woody was a friend of organized labor--shoot, in '39 and '40 he was a columnist for the Daily Worker--but I didn't know that he spent so much time union organizing and that, more than once, he got his ass kicked for it. This is not just the Woody Guthrie you met in kindergarten music class.


Someone once wrote of Woody in the New Yorker:
"Some day people are going to wake up to the fact that Woody Guthrie and the ten thousand songs that leap and tumble off the strings of his music box are a national possession like Yellowstone and Yosemite, and part of the best stuff this country has to show the world."
That was written in the 1940s, and I think that it's long since come true. Woody is in our national DNA. He's become the emblem of an era, because we look back and see the best of us in him.

After the movie, the Film Fest crowd walked over to a nearby pub where The U-Liners, a local roots-rock band, were playing an all-Woody Guthrie set. It was a great way to end the evening. Beer, greasy food, and a bar full of people singing the chorus to Union Maid.
Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union!
Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union 'till the day I die!
It was a great time. Thanks to the AFL-CIO DC metro council and the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute for putting on the film festival. And thanks to the The U-Liners for rocking.

I leave you with the progressive national anthem:

Monday, October 19, 2009

Republicans Root For Obama's, America's Failure

Remember a couple of weeks ago when conservatives cheered and applauded the announcement that the United States would not host the 2016 Olympics? Remember when the Republicans in Congress begged the Democrats to water down health care reform and then said they would oppose any health bill even if all their demands were met? Never mind that Americans are literally dying for health care. Never mind that medical bills are the number one cause of U.S. bankruptcies. Republicans have a president to sink, whatever the costs.

Rooting for failure. You expect it from guys like Limbaugh or Beck, who are so drunk on rage and fame that they actually believe their own bullshit. But even I assume there are still some honest, principled voices on the Right. Maybe there are. Somewhere. But they apparently have little power.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Who's Doing What on Health Care: The Left

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid:
Trying to decide whether he actually wants to, you know, lead the Senate majority party. If Reid did his job, 60 Democratic votes in the Senate would deliver a robust public health insurance option, and we would all sail off into the sunset. Since 2006, he's begged for the American people to give him a filibuster-busting 60 Democratic Senators. Now he's got them. So what's he waiting for?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:
Speaking for and leading the House majority party. Pelosi has made it clear that the House version of the health bill will have a strong public option. Thanks largely to her and House progressives, there isn't much doubt about this.

House Progressive Caucus:
Being awesome. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and his bunch have been saying (since before it was cool!) that they will vote against any health reform bill that does not include the public option. The House Progressives are the legislative foundation for the public option movement. Their outspokenness has meant that Pelosi can lead with backbone.

Senate Progressives:
Opening up a new front in the battle. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Pat Leahy (D-VT) are calling for an amendment to the Senate health bill that would remove the antitrust exemption for the insurance industry. Even Harry Reid is jumping in on this! Given that 94% of insurance markets are "highly concentrated," it should be easy to find support for this. And it will give the corporation lords something to fear in addition to the public option.

The White House:
Helping to shape the Senate's final bill, hopefully arm twisting. During the whole process, the White House has been happy to let Congress take the lead. Now that the Senate Health Committee and Finance Committee have each passed versions of the bill, it's time to merge the two together into the final bill that the whole Senate will vote on. This is being done in closed-door meetings with leaders from both committees, Harry Reid's office, and White House staffers. Will the White House insist that the final version contains the public option? They better.

The American Labor Movement:
Holding the freaking line. The AFL-CIO placed full-page ads in major newspapers calling the version of the bill (without a public option) approved this week by the Senate Finance Committee "deeply flawed," saying, "A public health plan is essential for reform." The new AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka has talked tough, promising "a labor movement that stands by its friends, punishes its enemies, and challenges those who can't decide whose side their on."

Grassroots Progressive Organizations:
Taking the battle to the streets and to corporate HQ. is helping Dawn Smith, for whom CIGNA has denied treatment for her brain tumor, to get a meeting with CIGNA's CEO. Health Care for America Now has led peaceful blockades of CIGNA and United Health Care headquarters, resulting in the arrest of dozens of activists.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Industry Hit Job Treated As Academic Work

Today the health insurance industry released a new "study" saying that the insurance reform bill moving through the Senate Finance Committee will end up raising premiums for people who already have insurance.

First of all, why do we even take seriously a "study," by an industry trade group, that is worded and timed for release specifically to block democratic reform of said industry? It's like the Mafia releasing a "study" saying that Americans are actually better off living with organized crime, so the FBI should just call of their dogs. It's like the tobacco industry publishing a "study" showing that cigarettes are good for you. In fact(!), the group that the insurance industry contracted to write the "study," PriceWaterhouseCoopers, did a similar faux study for the tobacco industry in the 90s. I don't know why we take this stuff seriously, but we do. This, apparently, is how we roll.

Moving on...

The headline of the Washington Post's article on this "study" says,
It would be more accurate to say,
"Pass Reform and We Will Raise Rates, Says Insurance Group"
The insurance industry is worried that a reform bill will force them to take on more unprofitable customers, i.e., people who need medical care. They are probably OK with some version of that as long as the bill also requires healthy Americans to buy insurance. The companies probably figure they can tweak the particulars (i.e., find subtle ways to deny care and crank up fees) to still come out on top. But Congress isn't doing enough, from the industry's perspective, to get young, healthy people to buy health insurance, so the deal is off. The health insurance industry is mad that people are not forced to buy their crappy products. So their plan is to either block reform or, failing that, accept the unprofitable customers and raise premiums for everybody. What's to stop them?

You might be thinking, "Isn't this exactly why we need a robust public health insurance option?" Well, yes. In fact, the Left in general, is saying that the "study," flawed as it is, actually makes a strong case for the public option. (Cheers to Rep. Anthony Weiner [D-NY] for making this point vocally today.) The point is, the insurance industry has complete power to raise rates, because the American people have nowhere else to go. So one way to get more people covered AND keep costs down is to create a public health insurance option that people can choose if they don't like what's offered by the companies. Why do market lovers oppose this? For months we've listened to the Right tell us how much everyone would hate public health insurance. I say, OK, prove it. Let's create a public option and see if people prefer it over for-profit care.

Finally, and although it has little to do with the current debate in Congress, I must ask once again:

Why do we need health insurance companies at all?

Obviously medical care has to be paid for somehow. An insurance company creates a pool of people who all pitch in money to a common fund. The company then sends money out for people whose medical bills it has to pay. And it keeps as profit any money left over. Like any business, the incentive is to increase revenue (premiums) and decrease expenditures (paying for medical care). And the model only works if the pool of people is big enough and healthy enough and the rates are high enough to pay for the sick people.

So why not make the "pool of people" the entire American population and make the "common fund" the government? No money would be lost to profit. Savings would mean lower costs and better care. No money or effort would be wasted on worrying about who's allowed in the pool and who's not. No more huge administrative costs for hospitals having to deal with so many different companies. No more worrying about pre-existing conditions. No money wasted on marketing and lobbying. No more worrying about getting screwed over when you need a medical procedure. And no 4-month-old infant would be ruled "too fat" for medical coverage.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Capitalism" Hits The Mark. Stuff Might Happen.

I saw Michael Moore's new movie, Capitalism: A Love Story last weekend. It did not disappoint.

In one way, Capitalism is like Moore's other films. He frames his arguments with witty Cliff's Notes-style history lessons, highlights personal stories that are at turns devastating and inspiring, and sprinkles satire over the whole thing. You're clinching your teeth, ready to storm the barricades alongside some of the people on the screen, then your laughing out loud at the utter ridiculousness of the thing he's criticizing. That's his brand, and he does it well.

But Capitalism is also bigger, scarier, and more exhilarating than anything else Moore has done. From the start, you get the feeling that he's playing for keeps. You get the feeling that people will leave the theater and take action, that stuff might happen. He describes it as the culmination of all his other films. It might be more accurate to say that he finally makes the intellectual leap and chases down the logical conclusion of what he's been getting at all along. Finally, we're not just talking about the gun lobby (Bowling for Columbine), or the military industrial complex (Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911). We're not just talking deadly insurance companies (Sicko) or a lying president (all of his films, I think). As powerful and necessary as a single-issue focus can be, it's too often just a game of "whack 'em all." Whack the gun lobby and mercenary corporations pop up. Outlaw the mercenary corporations and we're suddenly in a death spiral toward war with Iran. Get out of Iran and Goldman Sachs operates the Treasury Department. The media, and the permanent political class in general, tend to treat these things as separate, unrelated issues. To the extent that they acknowledge them as problems at all, they cast them as individual cases of "a few bad apples." Well, dare we ask why we're sitting beneath this tree eating these crappy apples?

With Capitalism, we're finally stepping back to examine the sick tree--the tree that gives us Enron, Blackwater, and Gilded Age inequality for its fruit.

What's Moore's diagnosis? He says the disease is capitalism itself. In nearly every area, too few people have too much power. Shrug it off as some hackneyed radicalism. Laugh it off as a lame echo of the Sixties. And then read it again, because it's not going anywhere. (And it's going to get louder.) Too few people have too much power. How is this possible if we are a democracy, with "one person one vote?" Because too few people and too few corporations have too much money. And money means power. And people abuse power. The idea that we can have political democracy alongside economic royalism is folly. One will always eat the other. Perhaps the most inspiring thing about this film is the suggestion, hinted throughout the picture, that the royalists have gotten fat and lethargic and the democrats are hungry.

So what's Moore's cure for capitalism? Democracy. And this is the strongest aspect of the film. "But wait! One's an economic system and the other's a political system," critics will object. Well, maintaining that artificial division has been an important strategy for the capitalists. "You can keep your democracy over there," they say. "Just don't touch the good stuff." We are allowed to elect American Idols while they decide what the richest nation in the history of the world does with its money. The truth is, democracy is a decision-making system. And it's the system that distributes power as evenly as possible over the widest group possible. It's the perfect medicine for what's killing us: Too few people have too much power.

But isn't a democratic economy some form of SOCIALISM? And here's where the whole discussion could devolve into a battle of competing definitions for words like capitalism and socialism. (One of these words make us think of Stalin and Mao!) Moore does a good job of navigating this minefield. He removes the mystique of the S-word by interviewing a real, live socialist sitting in the U.S. Senate. He pokes fun at how the word has been used recently. He looks at what made America a strong middle-class nation in the middle of the last century and then at how that broadly-shared prosperity was systematically dismantled.

Then, somewhere in the middle of the movie, it strikes you: This thoroughly radical movie--rebellious in the true sense of the word--is playing on thousands of screens across the country. How did this become possible? Then you'll see a scene of George W. Bush giving an awkward speech defending capitalism itself. This is when you start to wonder, does Moore's movie say more about where we are heading or about where we already are? Then cut to scenes of families squatting in their own homes to fight eviction, of radical labor activism, of prosperous democratically owned and operated factories. You start to think, it's not just that stuff might happen. Stuff is happening. Democracy is rising up against capitalism all over the place, and we can be a part of it. We have to be a part of it.


Has anybody else seen it yet? If so, please share your thoughts.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Health Care Debate at 14th and Constitution

On Monday I asked for suggestions about what my homemade sign should say when I went down to the National Mall to look for teabagger anti-health care protesters. On Tuesday I dusted off my bubble letter and coloring skillz. And on Wednesday I carried my sign along the Mall. The sign said:
"Firefighting isn't for profit. Why is health care?"
(Congratulations, Becky, your sign idea was the winner!) And for a little extra zing, I wrote this on the back of the sign:
"If you get very sick, your insurance co. hopes you die."
Because sad and true is still true. Once on the Mall, I walked and walked. But what do you know? No teabaggers in sight--just kickball games and joggers. So I decided to set up shop at the intersection of 14th Street NW and Constitution Avenue. The intersection was filled with pedestrians and DC commuters heading south to the 14th Street Bridge to Northern Virginia.

How did it go? I was surprised. There were zero negative reactions to the sign. Not a single person yelled vulgarities, offered a one-finger salute, or even wanted to argue. No opposition expressed to these--what might be called radically leftist--messages. That is definitely a first in my sign-holding experience. Maybe it's because everyone loves firefighters and no one loves insurance companies, so conservatives are disarmed by these statements. I wondered if the lack of pro-insurance-company reaction was due to the time of day and the location. Were people too tired and stressed trying to get home to even want to think about health care?

Well, it didn't stop the other side--if you can even call people who think our health system should prioritize health over private profit as a "side." Dozens of drivers honked and gave thumbs up. (Again, all thumbs, no middle fingers.) A number of people walking by encouraged, "Keep it up," and "You're right on," and so on. The supporters of these progressive populist slogans were as diverse as the mass of humanity flowing through this busy intersection. But honestly, I was kind of surprised by the number of older men in really nice cars who supported the messages on the sign.

A third group--and probably the biggest group--had a different reaction. Lots of people just stared at the sign, maybe looked away for a little bit, and then stared some more. I know they were reading it, because they were mouthing the words. Your guess is as good as mine as to what, if anything, was going on in their heads. What I hope is that these people had not really thought of the issue in this way before. (Like, "Oh yeah, insurance companies don't make money by paying for me to get medical service. They make money by collecting my premiums and then denying me coverage when I really need it.")

What I know is that not a single person driving, walking, or biking wanted to defend for-profit health insurance companies. Not one. Let's be clear. The abolition of health insurance companies is not anywhere within a thousand miles of the debate going on in Congress. Republican and Democratic lawmakers are arguing essentially over whether insurance companies should be allowed to run roughshod over us all or whether they should be reined in a little bit. I'm not diminishing here how much we need the public option and how important that fight is. I'm not taking my eye off the ball. I'm just realizing once again that what politicians debate is almost always more conservative than what the progressive majority of Americans really want.