Monday, September 28, 2009

At the Zoo

Something tells me it's all happening at the Zoo.
I do believe it. I do believe it's true.
-- Paul Simon

No Sift next week, because I'm doing the public-speaking thing in the Raleigh-Durham area next weekend. On Saturday I'm talking to the Conversations Towards a Better World workshop, and on Sunday I'll be preaching at the Community Church of Chapel Hill. I'll see that a text gets out somehow.

October 12 is iffy too, for other reasons. I'll try to do a Sift, but no promises.

This week's Sift is all notes of one sort or another.
  • Crazy Watch. I go back and forth on the out-and-out lunacy that's coming from the Right. Some days I think that they should be ignored because our attention just dignifies them. Other days I think we absolutely have to mobilize ourselves to stand up to this nonsense. Today ... well, it just seems like such an incredible zoo. How can I not watch?
  • Numbers. There's a new report from the Census Bureau and some new polls. Digging around in the numbers, you can find all kinds of things: The public option is wildly popular (and Paul Krugman explains why that doesn't translate into support in Congress). Hardly anybody believed there was a Bush Boom, because unless you were rich there wasn't. The uninsured aren't just young people who think they'll never get sick. And Obama is still in good shape for 2012.
  • Short Notes. Two very funny videos about health care. What I remember most about Forrest Church. If corporations are "persons", why don't they face murder charges when they kill people? The foreign plot to take over Iceland and Latvia. Do Dems really want to give health care to illegals? And more.

Crazy Watch
In a radio interview, Rep. Steve King of Iowa discusses same-sex marriage. (It's now legal in his state and he's totally ungrateful about how it's bolstering the local economy by drawing in couples from other states.) He attributes the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage to "very, very rich homosexual activists" and thinks it's all part of some big socialist plot. I can't quite figure out how the plot works, or why very, very rich people would support it, but it involves justifying "group marriage" to "access benefits". If you can make any more sense out of it than that, let me know.

One solution to the don't-dignify-them problem is to pay attention in a completely undignified way. In this clip, Michael Moore forms a crack team of gays and lesbians to ride the hot-pink Sodom-mobile, confronting the God-hates-fags forces of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.

In Rush Limbaugh's world all racial violence is black-on-white, all black-on-white violence is racially motivated, and it's Obama's fault.

The New Republic examines the influence of Ayn Rand, who published her last novel in 1957 but still sells half a million books each year.
In essence, Rand advocated an inverted Marxism. In the Marxist analysis, workers produce all value, and capitalists merely leech off their labor. Rand posited the opposite. In Atlas Shrugged, her hero, John Galt, leads a capitalist strike, in which the brilliant business leaders who drive all progress decide that they will no longer tolerate the parasitic workers exploiting their talent, and so they withdraw from society to create their own capitalistic paradise free of the ungrateful, incompetent masses.
In the sermon ("Who Owns the World?") I'm giving Sunday in Chapel Hill, I plan to address this point-of-view directly, and contrast it with Thomas Paine's Agrarian Justice. In a nutshell, the Rand view makes perfect sense if you assume that capitalists are the sole heirs of progress, and that the rest of us inherit the advances of previous generations only through them.

Another influential dead right-wing author is Cleon Skousen, who Glenn Beck is turning into a best-seller again. In his day he was considered a kook, but we're so short of kooks these days that we have to import them.

Birthers -- the folks who think President Obama isn't really a US citizen because he wasn't really born in Hawaii -- are running a half-hour infomercial on stations in the South. I hope the sheer persistence of these folks won't eventually convince the general public that there must be some issue here. There isn't. was all over this back in August 2008.

Just so you understand, here's how the game works: Imagine we're in a public place and I ask to see your driver's license. You show it to me and I say, "This is an obvious forgery! I demand that you show me your real driver's license!" Then I turn to the other people in the room and say, "Why can't she produce her real driver's license? Does she even have a driver's license? What is she hiding?" Other than continuing to show your "obvious forgery" and pointing out that I'm insane, what can you do?

Actor Chuck Norris:
I suggest you fly some revolutionary flag in lieu of your 50-star flag over the next year. Post the 13-star Betsy Ross flag, Navy Jack or Gadsden flag ("Don't Tread on Me") or any representation that tells the story of Old Glory and makes a stand for our Founders' vision of America. ... If you insist on posting a modern USA flag, too, then get one that is tea-stained to show your solidarity with our Founders.
I wonder how Norris would have reacted two years ago if liberal Democrats had suggested staining the American flag to protest against President Bush's violations of the Bill of Rights.

In the same column, Chuck says that he loved Glenn Beck's 9/12 Project because "it was a nonpolitical, nonpartisan movement" (that just happened to start almost immediately after a Democrat got inaugurated). Norris, if you remember, was the nonpolitical nonpartisan guy who was joined at the hip with Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee during the Iowa caucus campaign. And Huckabee had Chuck on his show just this weekend so that he and his much-younger second wife could denounce health-care reform in a nonpolitical nonpartisan way. (At the end of the segment, Huckabee expressed his good wishes for Norris' 8-year-old twins. I guess the children from his first marriage are unpersons now.)

Anyway, Chuck's guy lost, so now he wants to ditch democracy and have a revolution in the name of our Founders. Were the Founders sore losers too? I must have missed that part of my American History class.

At some point you have to wonder if there will be a push-back, a movement of conscience on the Right. What about all the people who just have a conservative philosophy, but aren't racists or lunatics or deniers-of-obvious-facts? I mean, you could oppose Obama's health care plan without making stuff up about death panels or posting Obama witch-doctor photos or telling lies about universal health-care systems in other countries. You could want a more hawkish approach to terrorism without claiming Obama is secretly a Muslim. (Not even New York White Pride claims that now.) At some point aren't the sane conservatives going to want to separate themselves from the crazies?

Yes, apparently. Lefty Coaster on DailyKos says that the owner of the prominent right-wing blog Little Green Footballs is trying to take a stand for right-wing sanity. He's not turning left, he's just trying not to go down the rabbit hole.

You too can have a Michelle Bachman action figure. Seriously. I wonder if the head spins all the way around.

Sarah Palin pocketed a six-figure fee to give a speech in Hong Kong, now part of communist China. I wonder how Palin would have reacted in 2005 if defeated VP candidate John Edwards had been paid big bucks to go to a communist country and criticize President Bush. Politicususa has similar thoughts:
I’m sure the Dixie Chicks are shocked to see Palin get away with criticizing our President on foreign soil during war! Head's up, girls, accusing a President of being a Socialist Commie income redistributing Marxist Hitler is the new definition of patriotism!
Palin's speech wasn't open to the press and as far as I know no transcript has appeared, but we do know that she attributed the financial meltdown to too much government regulation rather than too little.

My favorite reaction came from Paul Krugman on Rachel Maddow's show. On hearing that Palin's speech had lasted 90 minutes, he quipped: "That's half a Castro."

I'm not usually a big Katie Couric fan, but in this clip from her Glenn Beck interview she sets a good example by insisting that Beck either answer the question or openly refuse to answer. She doesn't get nasty about it, but she doesn't let go when Beck tries to dodge explaining what he meant by the phrase "white culture".

If you want to know how Beck came to be who he is, Salon has the story.

Public Eye looks at the activists who would like to create a smaller but more reliably and radically conservative Catholic Church.
Not only reproductive justice and equality issues are at stake. The time-tested Roman Catholic concern for economic justice and the poor, the rights of workers and immigrants, and a responsive government are anathema to the groups pushing for a more traditional church. The Catholic parish as a vital community for immigrants and poor people will be lost.

Last week I almost went with a note about Roy Blunt's monkey joke at the Values Voters Forum. It was easy to imagine that the monkey was supposed to be Obama, which in my mind would definitely be a racist slur. I pulled the note at the last minute because the clip I saw didn't have enough context to be sure that's what Blunt meant. (Let's face it, there's enough right-wing racism that you can have high standards about reporting it. Why machine-gun the ocean when there are fish to shoot right here in this barrel?)

I now think Blunt got a raw deal. Conservative blogger Catherine Favazza convinced me by posting a video of Blunt telling the same joke to the Heritage Foundation right after the Republican's loss of Congress in the 2006 election. (Pre-Obama, in other words.) There, the joke's punch line ("you have to play the ball where the monkey throws it") just meant: You have to deal with the situation you're in, even if it's not what you planned or what you think you deserve.

So I think the best anti-Blunt clip is still his old-people-don't-get-hip-replacements-in-Canada lie.

Stephen Colbert defends Beck and Rush Limbaugh from charges of racism:
sadly, any time a racist criticizes the President, someone cries "Racism."

A NYT/CBS poll has a clear majority (53% vs. 41%) of the public believing that the country is on the wrong track. Bad news for Obama, right? Well, maybe. In mid-October of last year the wrong-track majority was 89% vs. 7%. So about a third of the country used to think we were on the wrong track, but has since changed its mind.

Interesting long-term trend in the same poll: Only 1% describe the economy as very good compared to 28% very bad. Last October, very bad was the choice of 55%. Now here's the interesting part: All through the supposed "Bush Boom" the percentage saying the economy was very good never made it to double digits. By comparison, the very good percentage went into double digits in July, 1997 and stayed there for the rest of Clinton's second term, peaking at 29% in May, 2000.
One reason the public was never really taken in by the "Bush Boom" is the increasing disconnection between everyday life and the kinds of statistics economists focus on, particularly the gross domestic product (GDP). Saturday's NYT noted:
Despite signs that the economy [i.e. GDP] has resumed growing, unemployed Americans now confront a job market that is bleaker than ever in the current recession, and employment prospects are still getting worse. Job seekers now outnumber openings six to one, the worst ratio since the government began tracking open positions in 2000.
Median household income (adjusted for inflation) peaked late in the Clinton administration and was higher in 1998 than in 2008. Liberals and conservatives argue about the significance of that number: Conservatives point to the fact that household size is shrinking, so per capita income of the median household can rise even as median household income shrinks. Liberals point to long-term growth in the number of workers per household, and claim that the median household is only keeping as steady as it is by sending more members into the work force. I don't have numbers on either of those factors.

If high school was a long time ago: The median is the one in the middle. So the median household is the one where half the household are doing better and half are doing worse. The average household income can go up just because the rich are getting richer, but the median only increases if at least half the country is doing better.

The same Census Bureau report that was the ultimate source of the statistics in the last note also has some interesting things to say about who the uninsured are. Optimists like to think that the people without health insurance are all 20-somethings who believe they're indestructible. It turns out that about 1 in 4 of the uninsured are between 45 and 64.

In spite of all the shouting against it, the public option has the support of a large (oh, the irony) silent majority. The NYT/CBS poll has the public supporting the public option (Question 57) 65%-26%. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, 62.9% of doctors support it, with the rest split between those who want a purely private insurance system (27.3%) or a totally government-centered single-payer system (9.6%). Even the people in the districts of Blue Dog Democrats support the public option.

And yet, Max Baucus tells us that the public option cannot pass the Senate. Why? Paul Krugman explains:

We tend to think of the way things are now, with a huge army of lobbyists permanently camped in the corridors of power, with corporations prepared to unleash misleading ads and organize fake grass-roots protests against any legislation that threatens their bottom line, as the way it always was. But our corporate-cash-dominated system is a relatively recent creation, dating mainly from the late 1970s.

And now that this system exists, reform of any kind has become extremely difficult. That’s especially true for health care, where growing spending has made the vested interests far more powerful than they were in Nixon’s day. The health insurance industry, in particular, saw its premiums go from 1.5 percent of G.D.P. in 1970 to 5.5 percent in 2007, so that a once minor player has become a political behemoth, one that is currently spending $1.4 million a day lobbying Congress.

That spending fuels debates that otherwise seem incomprehensible. Why are “centrist” Democrats like Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota so opposed to letting a public plan, in which Americans can buy their insurance directly from the government, compete with private insurers? Never mind their often incoherent arguments; what it comes down to is the money.

The "incoherent argument" Krugman refers to is here.

Public Policy Polling has Obama ahead of all prospective Republican candidates for 2012. Huckabee comes closest (losing 41%-48%) and Palin loses worst (38%-53%).

Short Notes
Two must-see videos on health care: Will Farrell assembles an all-star cast to tell us about the real victims are: health insurance executives. And Billionaires for Wealthcare perform a stirring Battle Hymn of the Insurance Companies. ("Let's save the status quo!")

Forrest Church, one of the top Unitarian Universalist ministers and authors, died Thursday. I never met Church personally, but at the UU General Assembly in June of 2008 he gave one of the most inspiring talks I've ever been to. Church knew he was dying at that point -- I think he would have been surprised to find out he would last this long -- and he very plainly and calmly discussed his own process of facing death. He was agnostic about the afterlife, so it wasn't all happy talk about seeing departed loved ones again. The same ideas appear in his book Love and Death.

Oh, if you remember Senator Frank Church of the Church Committee that reined in the abuses of the CIA -- that was his Dad.

DailyKos' Generation 1960 points out how the legal doctrine of corporate personhood is only used when it works to the corporation's benefit. In particular, corporations that (or who?) break laws are not prosecuted as criminals.
when an individual damages a corporation, we have criminal laws whereby taxpayers finance a criminal justice system that finances the prosecution of these damage claims. When a corporation damages an individual, except in rare cases we require the damaged individual to self-finance a civil claim against the corporation.

Here's a case-in-point: When Disney failed to pay royalties on 'Winnie the Pooh', there were no criminal charges considered against Disney. Instead, the owners of the rights had to self-finance the "prosecution" of a deep-pocketed defendant in civil court. But, if you or I fail to pay royalities on a Disney MP3, Disney can simply call the local prosecutor and have us arrested.

Separate legal systems for two types of persons -- sounds a little like colonialism, doesn't it? (Hint: We're not the masters.) Or look back at the September 7 Weekly Sift: If the Johns Manville Corporation were really a person and the legal system had done its job, J-M would have been executed as a serial killer.

Anne Trubeck argues that in the Internet Age we may be able to do without publishers, but we need editors more than ever. My own experience with print media leads me to believe that if you can't get your point across to the editor, you probably would have lost the readers too.

Medicare fraud ought to be a bipartisan issue. I wonder if it will be.
Gays and lesbians can quote the Bible too.
Nathan Lewis, referencing an article by Michael Hudson, uses Iceland and Latvia as examples of how a larger scam works: A country's banks play a risky game, making big profits off of loans that a sound banker wouldn't have made. An asset-and-debt bubble results, and eventually the bubble pops, making the banks insolvent. With the country's economy threatened, the IMF pressures the local government to guarantee the bank's debts (replacing private debt with public debt) and loans the local government the money it needs.

The government now is supposed to pay its inflated debt by raising taxes and cutting services. But that's a bit of a shell game, because it doesn't raise the foreign currency that the government now owes. Unless there's a major export industry -- Iceland and Latvia don't have one -- the only way to raise dollars or euros is ultimately for the government to sell off the national infrastructure to foreign investors.
Prices for assets in a crisis are normally very low. But a government that can be coerced into bailing out the bankers can also usually be coerced into selling off state assets at values that no private owner would accept.

The Republican lawsuit to block Paul Kirk's appointment to fill Ted Kennedy's senate seat was denied. Those Republicans ... always wanting unelected judges to get into the middle of everything.

Maybe this belongs up in Crazy Watch, but I thought I ought to explain the whole health-care-for-illegal-aliens thing, which is the latest red flag for the Just-Say-No Party to wave. There are two pieces to the part of health-care reform that provides coverage to people who don't have it now. The first piece is to establish exchanges where for-profit companies (and possibly also a public entity) offer policies to individuals. The second piece is a subsidy you can get if the cost of your purchased-on-the-exchange health insurance policy costs more than a certain percent of your income.

No one advocates giving illegal aliens subsidies. Republicans want a background check when you purchase a policy on the exchange, to make sure that you're in the country legally. Most Democrats don't. (For good reason, I might add. We don't want to do citizenship tests when people show up in emergency rooms -- what if your half-dead body got fished out of the ocean, for example, with no ID in your swimsuit pocket? -- so illegals are going to get some health care somehow. If they can purchase health insurance, we will get some money back from them in exchange for this care. Otherwise not.)

Republicans are spinning this as Democrats want to give or provide something to illegals. When they're trying not to lie, they say that Democrats want to give illegals "access" to health insurance -- in other words, let them buy it. The Republican alternative? We refuse to take their money. Illegals will just show up in emergency rooms, get care, and then vanish.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Long Way From Home

We don't eat in no white restaurant,
we're eating in that car.
Baloney again. Baloney again.
We don't sleep in no white hotel,
we're sleeping in that car.
Baloney again.

You don't strut around in these country towns,
you best stay in the car.
Look on ahead, don't stare around.
You best stay where you are.
You're a long way from home, boy.
Don't push your luck too far.
Baloney again.
-- Mark Knopfler, Baloney Again
In this week's Sift:
  • The Race Factor. During the hundreds of addresses our 43 white presidents have given to Congress, nobody ever jumped up and called them liars. Is it a coincidence that it happened to our first black president?
  • Tea With the Home Folks. The 9-12 Tea Party rally in Washington was bad enough. But did they have to do one in my hometown? While I was visiting my parents?
  • Short Notes: Health Care. We're #37! Why the Baucus Plan is so bad. Domestic violence is a pre-existing condition. Why can't a program that saves money and prevents crime get Republican support? And the public option doesn't need a trigger.
  • Other Short Notes. Sotomayor doubts corporate personhood. Christianism in our public schools and the military. Politico "balances" Joe Wilson with ... the Democrats who were right about Iraq. And why Obama scrapped Bush's missile shield program.

The Race Factor
Tuesday, responding to incidents like Joe Wilson shouting out "You lie!" during President Obama's address to Congress, Jimmy Carter said what a lot of other people had been thinking:
An overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity towards President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man.
Carter's statement brought a predictable response from the Right. Rush Limbaugh, for example:
I have serious concerns about today's media and their new standard, which is this: Any criticism of an African-American's policies or statements or misstatements is racist, and that's it. Therefore, the question: Can this nation really have an African-American president? Or will the fact that we have an African-American president so paralyze politically correct people in the media that the natural scrutiny and process through which all of our presidents are put through and vetted do not occur
Commenting on race is tricky these days, because it's so easy to either understate or overstate its importance. Conservatives want us to believe that President Obama's election marked the end of the race issue in America: If a black man can be elected president, what more is there to prove?

On the other hand, it's easy to forget what racism meant just a generation or two ago. Hitler was a racist because he tried to annihilate the Jews. The southern tradition of lynching had diminished by the 1950s, but still continued. In his 1963 inaugural address as Governor of Alabama, George Wallace announced: "Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever!"

We like to think of that as ancient history, but it's not. I was six. When Martin Luther King was murdered, I was 11 -- old enough to see that not everybody was sad about his death.

Dramatic examples of American racism have been immortalized in novels and movies like To Kill a Mockingbird and Mississippi Burning. But we've had a nationwide conspiracy of silence around the everyday racism that not so long ago was a fact of life -- not hidden or subtle or anything normal people were ashamed of. Its undramatic-but-accurate depiction of a 24/7 atmosphere of racism and sexism is one reason Mad Men deserves its Emmys. I picked Baloney Again to lead off this Sift because it similarly captures the undramatic everyday anxiety blacks lived with during Jim Crow.

Today's racism, by those standards, is pretty tame. That's why so many older people don't want to call it racism at all, or resent the implication that they might be racists. Whatever prejudices they still feel, they know they're not Hitlers or even Wallaces.

It's easy to get preachy on this subject, so let me tell you one of my own racist blunders. One morning last summer, I had just checked out of a hotel in D.C. and was in a hurry to get somewhere. The guy standing by the door was black, had a suit on, and just looked like a doorman to me, so I asked him how to get my car out of valet parking. He turned out to be some African diplomat.

Now, that incident doesn't prove that I'm secretly a white supremacist. But it does show that my unconscious mental reflexes assign blacks to subservient positions. A white guy in the same suit, standing in the same place, wouldn't have looked like a doorman to me. To that extent, at least, I'm a racist.

At this point I imagine most of my white readers saying, "Honest mistake. No harm done." But try looking at it from the other side: You're a black man of some accomplishment, and every so often a white takes you for a doorman or a clerk or a waiter. And lots more whites don't blunder that badly, but they just look surprised when they discover that you're actually the branch manager or the department head or the owner.

I bet that gets old. It must seem like you're constantly being told you should be subservient, that you are somehow violating the natural order by being a person of consequence and authority.

Any white woman who has been the first female something-or-other should be able to identify. Guys constantly come in asking you to get the boss, and then they have to blink a few times after you inform them that you are the boss. Maybe it was funny the first time. The 20th, not so much.

Now let's talk about Joe Wilson and Obama's other over-the-top critics. All presidents face opposition, and presidents who try to change things face lots of opposition. Nothing new there. But no Congressman ever shouted out "You lie!" during any of the hundreds of addresses our 43 white presidents have given to Congress. Then the first black president gives his second speech, and bang, it happens.

You want to tell me that's a coincidence?

Respect is one of those mental reflexes, and lots of white people -- especially, it seems, conservative white congressmen from South Carolina -- are not in the habit of giving it to blacks. I don't believe Joe Wilson consciously thought "Stick it to the nigger" before his outburst. But when Wilson saw a young black man lecturing him from the podium, I don't think he connected the situation to the long tradition of white presidents addressing Congress. I don't think Obama looked like a president to him. Maybe he looked more like a doorman or a clerk or a waiter.

So here's my assessment of the role race is playing: Opposition to Obama isn't just racism, but a white Obama would be getting more respect and more benefit of the doubt. Obama's opposition arose quicker and is
ruder, cruder, and more violent than it would be if he were white. Whites (especially southern whites) believe absurd things about Obama on flimsy evidence -- he's Muslim, he's Kenyan, he's the anti-Christ, he wants to kill your grandma -- things most of them would never believe about a white president. And they're angrier at him than they would be at a white man.

I doubt that Wilson or many of the other Obama critics are racists in a conscious Hitler-Wallace sense. Even among themselves, I don't believe they talk about shipping the blacks back to Africa, starting a race war, or reinstituting Jim Crow. I think they'd say no if you asked them "Should we be more afraid and less trusting of a black president than a white president?"

But they are more afraid and less trusting of Obama, because stuff like fear and trust and anger comes out of the unconscious. Like me sometimes, they reflexively think different thoughts about blacks than they do about whites. If you don't want to call that racism -- if you'd like to reserve the racist label for Nazis and segregationists -- then come up with some other word for it. But it's a factor and we need to talk about it.

A few years ago during the Don Imus flap I raised the issue of today's more subtle racism vs. the unapologetic 24/7 racism that Americans over 50 remember very clearly. That sparked a fascinating intergenerational conversation (535 comments) on DailyKos, as older commenters told some of the everyday-racism stories nobody talks about any more. For example, 20-somethings today don't know (and all 50-somethings do) that the "Eeney-Meeney" children's rhyme used to include the word nigger. Young people are stunned when you tell them.

In Friday's NYT, Charles Blow quotes a 2003 study by researchers at Rice University:
One of the greatest challenges facing black leaders is aversive racism, a subtle but insidious form of prejudice that emerges when people can justify their negative feelings toward blacks based on factors other than race.

Try the online Implicit Association Test to measure your association between white/black and good/bad. I expected to see some unconscious racism, but I was amazed how difficult it was for me to react when I had to sort images into white-or-bad vs. black-or-good. It was easy for me to lump together black faces and bad words, but much harder to lump together white faces and bad words.

You can find a lecture on unconscious prejudice here.

The House reprimanded Wilson on a mostly party-line vote. Just for comparison, consider the Iraqi guy who disrespected President Bush by throwing his shoes. He went to prison and claims he was tortured. Of course I'm not suggesting that Wilson ... well, it is unfair, isn't it?

Lest you think I have no sense of humor about race, I offer this scene from Clerks II.

Tea With the Home Folks
It's a bit unsettling when the craziness jumps off of the Fox News Channel and lands in your old hometown.

I spent September 12 in Quincy, Illinois, dealing with some of the consequences of my parents' recent health problems. I had forgotten, but six months ago during his weepy we-surround-them monologue Glenn Beck had picked out 9-12 as a special day. As the day after 9-11, it is supposed to represent a time when all Americans were united. What goes unsaid is that on 9-12-2001 we were united behind a conservative president. Beck, of course, is not calling for us to unite behind our current leader. Quite the opposite.

So in Quincy, as in D.C. and a few other places, 9-12 was an appropriate occasion to hold a Tea Party Rally. The Tea Parties are another new conservative thing. They hit public attention after Rick Santelli's mid-day rant on CNBC last February, which was cheered on by a spontaneous mob of real grassroots Americans -- the commodity traders on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The Tea Parties are sponsored and organized by Freedom Works, an organization started by former Republican Congressman Dick Armey and funded by the usual collection of conservative billionaires and corporations.

I was too busy to cover the 9/12 Quincy Tea Party in any depth, but I did find time to wander through the crowd. The people seemed genuine, I knew one of them, and in general they looked like the kind of people I generally see around Quincy -- the white people, that is. Quincy is hardly a racial melting pot, but there is a black neighborhood, a large number of our doctors and other imported professionals are South Asian, and there is at least a smattering of Hispanics and East Asians. I didn't see any of them at the rally.

The signs were mostly homemade, and I was struck by how many of them talked about "the People"-- "We the People" or "Listen to the People". And that's a clue to understanding the whole movement, I think, because in fact we did listen to the people: We had an election, and Obama and the Democrats won. Carrying out the agenda they ran on -- like national health care -- is listening to the people.

But the tea-party folks don't think so, because in this context the People does not mean the voters. One of those unconscious racial things I was talking about in the previous article is: When you say "the People" who are you picturing? Who are the real Americans?

For the folks at the tea parties, the People are white and heterosexual and Christian and speak with one of the standard American-English accents. When Beck talks about "you and your neighbors" in We Surround Them, the pictures that flash up are all of whites. And while the videographers' biases control who gets interviewed, I had a hard time finding any non-white faces in the background of any clip I saw of the D.C. rally.

If you make those restrictions -- if you ignore blacks, Hispanics, gays, Jews, Muslims, Asians, first-generation European immigrants, and anybody else who might be considered weird or strange (like people from San Francisco or New York City) -- then McCain won. He won by quite a wide margin, actually.

And yet somehow this strange usurper Barack Hussein Obama managed to take power. No wonder the People are so upset.

Almost as jarring as watching a tea party next to the Lincoln-Douglas monument in Quincy's Washington Park was seeing the the local newspaper -- where I had my first job -- cheerlead for the event. I had to write them a letter, which, to their credit, they published.

National coverage of the tea parties also became an issue. Fox News took out a color ad in the Washington Post accusing the other major networks of "missing" the D.C. rally. This ticked off CNN's Rick Sanchez to the point that he spent six on-air minutes demonstrating CNN's coverage of the rally and lecturing Fox on the difference between covering an event and promoting an event. Sanchez summed up by quoting Joe Wilson: "You lie."

If you want to see how "promoting" works, somebody filmed Fox filming the event. And even as the Fox News reporter is saying "they're black, they're white" -- try to find any non-white faces in the crowd behind him.

A picture "proving" the tea-party crowd was larger than "liberal media" estimates was apparently taken before the National Museum of the American Indian was built. Nate Silver believes the fire-department estimate of 60-70,000 people, not the 2 million figure that some on the right have thrown around.

Some independent liberal video journalists were in that crowd: NewLeft Media and Max Blumenthal.

Short Notes: Health Care
At last, a good health-care music video: We're #37! by Paul Hipp. It's got kind of a Bruce Springsteiny sound.
Senator Max Baucus finally came out with his "bipartisan" health-care proposal. As I (and a lot of other people) predicted no Republicans supported it. And Democrats aren't wild about it either.

Paul Krugman has critiqued the Baucus plan. And Marcy Wheeler has pointed out why his proposal is so bad: The document metadata indicates that it was mostly written by Baucus aide Liz Fowler, a former VP at health insurance giant WellPoint. So basically, the Baucus Plan is the Insurance Industry Plan.

Meteor Blades thinks Max did liberals a favor by making it totally obvious that bipartisanship is a waste of time: No matter what Democrats give up, Republicans don't compromise.
from here on out, on health coverage reform and quite a number of other issues, when anybody suggests that the Republicans have to be part of the mix, we've got Senator Baucus's Sisyphean effort to point to. He hacked great chunks off that stone he kept trying to push up Capitol Hill, and the GOP rolled it back on top of him every time.

Huffington Post's Ryan Grim calls attention to one of the more outrageous pre-existing conditions: domestic violence.
Under the cold logic of the insurance industry, it makes perfect sense: If you are in a marriage with someone who has beaten you in the past, you're more likely to get beaten again than the average person and are therefore more expensive to insure.
This is just one more example of how badly the concepts of profit and care fit together.

As the button says, Good Karma Is Cost Effective. Here's an example: Years ago some states started sending nurses to visit low-income pregnant teens to coach them about baby care, hoping that this would save money because the kids would need less medical care later.

They did, and money was saved. But a longer-term study has now followed the kids up to age 15 and noticed that they are also significantly less likely to get arrested. So in addition to the medium-term saving in medical costs, there's also probably a longer-term reduction in crime.

Naturally, Republicans are against making this program part of the federal health-care reform bill, calling it an example of "Nancy's nanny-state".

Scarecrow on FDL points out that we don't need a "trigger" -- a few more years to observe private competition -- before starting a public option. Massachusetts has already run that experiment.
Massachusetts' experience should be enough to answer Sen. Snowe's notion that we need to see what happens before triggering a public option. We've seen the future, and it doesn't work. Just having an exchange in which the existing private insurers compete doesn't seem to create more price competition or produce significant downward pressure on insurance premiums or provider costs.

Other Short Notes
It's early, but I'm liking Justice Sotomayor even more than I thought I would: She just suggested that corporate personhood might have been a mistake.

What do you think would happen if a Muslim football coach at a public high school got nine of his players to pledge themselves to Allah? Well, a Baptist coach took 20 of his players to a revival meeting where nine got baptized, and the district superintendent is standing up for him.
More on how the Christianization of the military hurts the security of the United States: Top Ten Ways to Convince the Muslims We're On a Crusade.

Matt Yglesias has an outrageous example of "balanced" reporting at Politico: They compared Joe Wilson seizing center-stage among Republicans with the "crazy" Democratic congressmen who went to Baghdad and predicted President Bush would mislead the American public into going to war. Given what we know now, a better adjective than crazy might be prescient or insightful.

In Foreign Policy, Joseph Cirincione summarizes Obama's decision to scrap the Bush missile defense plan in eastern Europe:
President Barack Obama replaces a system that did not work against a threat that did not exist with weapons that can defend against the real Iranian missile capability.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Assumed Conditions


In the practice of American and Canadian life insurance companies, asbestos workers are generally declined on account of the assumed health-injurious conditions of the industry.
-- Frederick L. Hoffman, chief actuary, Prudential Life Insurance Company, 1918

The fibrosis of this disease is irreversible and permanent so that eventually compensation will be paid to each of these men. But, as long as the man is not disabled it is felt that he should not be told of his condition so that he can live and work in peace and the company can benefit by his many years of experience. -- Dr. Kenneth W. Smith, medical director, Johns-Manville Corporation, 1949

They told me that his death was due to industrially incurred disease from asbestos particles in the lungs, but my appeal for burial and medical expenses was turned down due to statutes of limitations. -- from a letter by a Johns-Manville widow, published in Outrageous Misconduct by Paul Brodeur, 1985

In this week's Sift:
  • The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ... look for Doubt Is Their Product by David Michaels. I used to think the tobacco companies were the exception. Now I understand that they're the model.
  • Can Obama Compromise on Health Care? It sounds simple and obvious to go halfway, but the pieces of health-care reform don't separate easily.
  • Dick Being Dick. The Cheney Family goes on another Torture Misinformation Tour. Why exactly are we listening to these people?
  • Short Notes. Robbing the low-wage workers. The sad state of economics. Long-running political soap operas. And homeless children in our schools.

The Next Time You're In the Bookstore ...

... look for Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels.

I found this to be a radicalizing book. Each chapter examines a separate example of an industry that knew it was probably killing either its workers or its customers, and how it maneuvered to be allowed to keep on killing them.

What becomes apparent is that this is standard procedure. Sure, nobody creates a product with the idea of killing workers or customers. But if a corporation finds out that either its product or its processes are deadly, there is now an entire industry of firms and consultants that help it "manage" the situation and keep the profits rolling as long as possible -- maybe for decades.

The blueprint. The tobacco companies were the trail-blazers, and the path they trod is now well mapped and widely followed:
  1. Hide the data you've collected as long as possible. Claim that any internal reports you wrote would reveal your "trade secrets".
  2. Discourage other people from collecting or publishing data. If you can intimidate or destroy the reputations of the researchers who try, so much the better.
  3. Argue that there is not enough data to justify regulating your product or the process by which you manufacture it.
  4. When independent studies are prove that your product kills people, hire your own scientists to obfuscate the issue. No matter how egregiously they have to abuse scientific method, you can publish their results in "scientific journals" set up by you and other like-minded corporations.
  5. Argue that there is no scientific consensus on the harmfulness of your product. Regulation should be delayed until "conclusive" research is done. Then fight the funding of that research, because there's not enough evidence to justify an effort to gather evidence.
  6. When regulation becomes inevitable, argue that only the exposure levels that have been proven harmful should be banned. Below that, argue that there might be a "threshold effect". In fact, no one has ever found a threshold for a carcinogen. If some level of exposure causes cancer in 1 out of every 10 people, a lower level might only cause cancer in 1 out of 100 or 1 out of 10,000. But it still kills people.
  7. Fight every attempt to tighten the initially weak standard you got into the first regulation. Lobby, bribe, threaten -- do whatever you have to do to influence Congress and the regulating agency. At every proposed tightening of the standard, start a new round of obfuscation and claim that the science is unclear.
  8. Lobby to diminish or eliminate funding for the agency that enforces the regulations. Uninspected is almost as good as unregulated.
  9. When the jig is up, hide behind the government. You always complied with the regulations -- or at least no one can prove you didn't. And the FDA or EPA (or whoever) could have banned your product, but didn't. So it's their fault -- you should be immune from liability. The Bush administration actually tried to make this federal policy, in a push known as preemption immunity.
In short, as long as the government can't assemble (over your constant roadblocks) 100%-conclusive proof that you're killing people, you shouldn't be regulated. And as long as no one can prove that you didn't follow all regulations applicable at the time, you shouldn't be liable. And if you have trouble carrying out this plan, there are public relations firms that will guide you through it, and other firms that specialize in providing the obfuscating scientific reports you'll need.

Why they get away with it. The striking thing about this pattern is that the individual steps sound reasonable. And that's always how you hear them. When some corporate flack on TV claims that his company is being regulated or sued based on flimsy evidence, no one points out that his corporation caused that lack of evidence and has manipulated it to its own advantage.

But when you see the pattern laid out end-to-end, it's just premeditated murder. Go back and re-read this week's opening quotes and consider whether Johns-Manville murdered its asbestos workers. They did. Now look at the speech then-Majority Leader Senator Bill Frist gave describing Johns-Manville as a "reputable company" that had been driven into bankruptcy by litigation. (Damn those asbestos-injury lawyers and what President Bush called their "junk lawsuits".)

Corporations get away with this because the public has been primed to hear their arguments. A very effective propaganda campaign tells us every day that industry is burdened by unreasonable regulations and lawsuits run wild. The discussion you hear in the mainstream media takes for granted that regulation is a drag on our economy.

In fact the opposite is true: American industry is vastly under-regulated, and regulating it effectively would be a huge boon to our economy. Good regulation saves money, because it's much more cost-effective to stop a Love Canal before it happens than to deal with its effects later.

And what do you think the long-term economic effects of this will be: American children born in the 1990s have higher IQs than children born in the 1970s. Why? Unleaded gasoline. Today's young people are smarter because they breathed in much less lead while growing up. So if you look into the eyes of your kid or grandkid and see something sparkly looking back, thank government regulation.

Buttered popcorn. For me, the example that brings it all home is in Chapter 10. Most of us know that in the Bad Old Days industries did irresponsible things with heavy metals like lead or mercury or chromium, or with chemicals like dioxin or PCBs. But did you know that until just a couple years ago workers were dying to put the artificial butter flavor into microwave popcorn?

It's true. The flavoring chemical was diacetyl, and while the FDA had approved it for eating, no one had ever tested what happens when people inhale it. Turns out they get the disease now known as popcorn lung. It was discovered, as most of these things are, by what Michaels calls "the body-in-the-morgue method": Workers at a popcorn plant in Missouri started getting the same previously rare lung disease. At least one frequent popcorn-eater got it.

The government's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended setting exposure standards for diacetyl in 2003, but (due either to step-8 underfunding or Bush-administration foot-dragging) OSHA couldn't get around to it. By 2007 Rep. Lynn Woolsey introduced a bill to force OSHA's hand. So naturally, the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress rose to protest this bill, using the step-5 "inconclusive research" dodge. During Congressional debate, Rep. Buck McKeon said:
More research currently is underway to determine a connection between diacetyl and this respiratory condition, and I fully support that research moving forward. Until the agency draws any conclusions, however, it is an open question as to whether diacetyl alone is to blame or whether the chemical, in combination with other agents, places workers at risk. ... In short, without proper scientific research into this question, I do not see how we can effectively legislate on it.
You see, butter-flavored microwave popcorn is so essential to the American way of life that workers should continue dying until we're absolutely sure what's killing them. (The workers would have been much better off if terrorists had been poisoning them rather than their employers. Then the one-percent doctrine would have come into play, and even a small likelihood would have demanded a drastic response.)

Eventually, the popcorn lung story got enough exposure that the major microwave popcorn companies stopped using diacetyl. The impact on the economy seems to have been minimal. (And of course we know the new flavoring is perfectly safe.) But it's still not illegal, and if you get an obscure popcorn brand, diacetyl might still be in there. Don't inhale the steam when you open the bag.

Now, in some ways the popcorn workers were lucky. Because the disease that threatened them was so rare and showed up so quickly, not that many of them had to die before people started catching on. But chemicals that just increase the rates of more common diseases are much harder to recognize as dangerous. Probably there are factories whose long-term workers suffer an uncommon number of heart attacks or prostate cancers, and nobody notices.

Or maybe just the company notices.

Can Obama Compromise on Health Care?

On Wednesday, President Obama will give a nationally televised address to Congress about health-care reform. He's expected to lay out what he wants, and to make a case for it to the nation. Everyone is trying to guess to what extent he'll accept half a loaf, and if so, where he'll compromise.

Words like compromise and bipartisan sound good, and suggest that if we only do half the job, it should only cost half as much. But the problem with designing half-way measures is that a lot of health-care reform ideas interlock. So if you just pick a few of them, it's possible to make things worse, or to create a system that will be so unpopular that the public will never support finishing the job. Let's go through the major reform ideas and see how they depend on each other.

The main idea.
Sick people should get care, and paying for it shouldn't drive them bankrupt. I wish every Democrat who spoke in public about health-care reform started with that statement. It frames health care in terms of people, and makes it a moral issue.

No pre-existing conditions.
If you're insured for everything but the illness you actually have, you're not insured. No-pre-existing-conditions is the most popular reform idea. Even Republicans say they're for it. So if you don't get this, you don't have reform at all.

No caps. Another very popular idea, for good reasons. If your insurance policy has a lifetime or annual cap, you're covered unless you really get sick -- then you're not covered. That's not insurance.

Mandates. Mandates say that people have to be insured, or somebody -- either an employer or the individual -- pays a penalty. Nobody likes being told what to do, so this is one of the least popular reforms. But it's linked to no-pre-existing-conditions like this: If you're healthy and the law says insurance companies can't turn you down for being sick, the clever thing to do is to stay uninsured until you get sick. You get most of the benefits of insurance without paying the premiums. If a lot of people do that, then everybody else has to pay whopping premiums to make up for them.

Insurance companies love mandates. (What business wouldn't love to have the government force people to buy its product?) Hospitals also love mandates, because their administrative costs go down if they can assume that everybody who comes in the door is covered.

Minimum coverage standards.
If the law is going to mandate coverage, then it has to define what coverage means. Otherwise bogus insurance companies will sell worthless policies to individuals and employers who are just trying to avoid the mandate penalty. But defining coverage raises a bunch of hot-button issues like abortion.

Lowering coverage standards is one way to limit costs. A policy can be a lot cheaper if it has a high deductible, high co-pays, and covers broken legs and heart attacks but not mental health or plastic surgery.

Low cost is particularly important if you have a mandate, because you don't want to force people to buy something they can't afford. But there's a trade-off, because a policy with a $2,000 deductible is useless if you don't have $2,000. If you can't go to the doctor because the co-pays and deductibles would bankrupt you, you're not really insured.

No matter how far you lower the cost of coverage, there will be people who can't pay it. So the government will have to pick up the full cost of insuring the poor, with a sliding subsidy that pays at least part of the cost of insurance for the working class. Otherwise a mandate is too onerous and the program will be wildly unpopular. Or, without a mandate, people will spend their premium-money on something else and gamble that they can stay healthy for the next few months.

Public option.
In many parts of the country, health insurance companies are like Coke and Pepsi: There only a handful of them, and they compete on advertising rather than on anything that matters, like price or quality. Now imagine that people are forced to buy their product and government money flows in to pay for it. What a gold mine! They can continue to raise premiums 10-15% a year without improving anything. So costs get out of hand unless there's real competition, not Coke/Pepsi competition.

Democrats want competition to come from a government-run public option. I never (OK, rarely) hear anybody make this analogy, but the logic is similar to FDR starting the TVA and the rural electric co-ops: Non-profit power companies provided a point of comparison that kept the profit-making power companies honest.

Republicans want to increase competition by tearing down the barriers to interstate competition between private insurance companies. The Republican plan could work, but only under conditions they undoubtedly would not support. Their plan eliminates any protection you get from state regulators, so there would have to be federal regulation at least as strict as the strictest state. And without serious anti-trust enforcement, a merger binge would replace the current local insurance oligopolies with a national oligopoly. Competition, in other words, would be temporary.

Taxes and deficits. Now that the Democrats are in power, deficits matter again. People who didn't blink at spending a trillion borrowed dollars to take over Iraq are horrified that caring for the sick might cost money. (It's all in the New Testament you know: "Curse you to hell, for I was hungry and you didn't feed me. I was naked and you didn't clothe me. I was an oil-rich Middle Eastern country and you didn't invade me.")

Some moderate Democrats have pledged not to vote for a bill that increases the deficit. (Republicans aren't going to vote for any bill, no matter what's in it.) In the campaign, Obama talked about reversing the Bush tax cuts for people who make more than $250,000 a year, but any tax increases beyond that would be a huge loss of face for him.

So what can Obama give up to get more support? Not much that I can see. The danger, if you start compromising, is that you wind up forcing people to buy over-priced policies that don't really cover them, the extra money flows to the insurance companies, and middle-class folks end up paying for it either in high premiums or increased taxes.

That's not half a loaf, and it would be so unpopular that you'd never be able to go back and get the rest of the loaf. Obama would do better to push through a good bill on a one-vote margin, and trust the results to speak for themselves.

Let me hit the deficit point a little harder: About 3,000 people died in the 9-11 attacks, and that was a reason to spend literally trillions invading Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention homeland security spending. No one asked how we would pay for it; it just had to be done.

Do you know how many American lives we could save if our death-from-treatable-conditions rate got down the level of France? More than 100,000 a year. That's like preventing a 9-11 disaster every 11 days. What's that worth to you?

Dick Being Dick

If a recent liberal administration had been as across-the-board disastrous as Bush-Cheney, I doubt we'd be hearing much from its leading players. But for some reason Dick Cheney can get on TV any time he wants to spout new lies and nonsense. And his daughter can too, which is even crazier.

The Cheney family's latest grand tour concerned the classified memos Dick said would prove that torture worked. Redacted versions of the memos were released, and they did no such thing. So he altered his phrasing:
The documents released Monday, clearly demonstrate that the individuals subjected to Enhanced Interrogation Techniques provided the bulk of intelligence we gained about al Qaeda.
Ummm, yeah. But the documents pointedly don't say -- and you have to think they would if it were true -- that enhanced interrogation got that information out of those individuals. Former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan says that it didn't. He also brings up the piece of the puzzle everyone else leaves out: What intelligence did torture cost us?
It is surprising, as the eighth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, that none of Al Qaeda’s top leadership is in our custody. One damaging consequence of the harsh interrogation program was that the expert interrogators whose skills were deemed unnecessary to the new methods were forced out.
Defenders always say something like "they kept us safe" (except for that one time) to excuse all the other Bush-Cheney failures: not catching Bin Laden, not winning the wars they started, wrecking our economy, selling out our moral principles, etc. But President Clinton kept us just as safe, if not safer. Maybe Chelsea Clinton should be on all the Sunday talk shows to tell us how he did it.

Short Notes
Happy Labor Day. A new study surveyed thousands of low-wage workers our three biggest cities. They found that underpaid wages, late paychecks, unpaid overtime, and various other abuses were common. "We estimate that 1.1 million workers across the three cities are robbed of $56.4 million every week because of employment and labor law violations."

Paul Krugman sums up the current state of economics.

Not even a Death Panel can pull the plug on bad political soap operas: Sarah Palin and Rod Blagojevich.

What are the public schools supposed to do with one million homeless pupils? “We see 8-year-olds telling Mom not to worry, don’t cry.”