What You Should Think About Health Care

September 21, 2009

“Expensive medicines are always good:  if not for the patient, at least for the druggist.”

–Russian proverb

I recall, as a libertarian-minded youngster, becoming upset that media coverage of reforms advocated by Bill and Hillary Clinton referred to “the American health care system.”  I noted a fact as true today as it was then — this nation does not have a systematic approach to health care provision.  It bothered me to think that the implication of a “system” was misleading people into believing there was some sort of problem in need of a solution.

Today I remain concerned about use of the phrase “health care system.”  As a grown man with knowledge of the world that books alone cannot convey, I understand the grotesque inhumanity of American policy as relates to the provision of medical services.  It is a real and grave problem, a problem every other prosperous civilized nation has already solved within its own borders.  Arguments about the precise number of uninsured citizens only distract from the reality that tens of millions of Americans have no practical alternative to emergency medical services.

For some, this means sicknesses and injuries are only addressed in moments of desperation, with inefficient use of precious resources.  For some, this means sicknesses and injuries are endured despite protracted or even lifelong suffering.  According to [warning: PDF link] a recent Harvard study, for around 45,000 people each year, this leads to death.  Effective universal health care policy could save as many American lives as preventing one 9/11-magnitude attack every forty days!

Perhaps it is unfair to compare Republican party leaders with the leaders of Al Qaeda.  Yet the scope of preventable deaths brought about by human choices begs the question — to whom is that comparison unfair?  Are working class families caught in the gap between Medicaid and affluence somehow less innocent than the final occupants of the World Trade Center?  If expense is the real issue, why does solving the much more deadly problem of health care access warrant so much less support than the problem of terrorist attacks?

At a disturbing nexus of ignorance and irony, proponents of universal health care have been cast as villains who pose a threat to the American way of life.  That ignorance stems from some notion that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to see to the general welfare of the American people.  Never mind that the Article 1, Section 8 explicitly provides Congress with that power.  Never mind that the very first sentence of the Constitution articulates that duty as one fundamental purpose of our government.  As with so many other areas of debate, many critics of reform are unwilling to be swayed by even the most obvious facts.

If there has been any betrayal of the American way of life, it has been the institutionalization of political dogma holding that government action impedes private sector solutions.  While political leaders in the opposition party have either failed inexcusably in their duty to be informed or deliberately shirked their duty to serve the public interest, their followers are typically less villainous.  A month or so ago, one well-meaning and apparently patriotic woman shouted out that “the good hearts of the people” should be given a chance to address this problem.

As long as the problem has existed, public goodwill has had unfettered opportunity to provide relief to the sick and downtrodden.  In the early 1990s, it was already clear that philanthropy was inadequate.  In spite of enormous tax breaks for wealthy Americans in the interim, our nation has only seen more and more of our citizens uninsured or underinsured.  The notion that government cannot play a constructive role is repudiated not only by dozens upon dozens of foreign realities, but also by our own increasingly bleak public health reality.

Yet narrow interests remain zealously defended.  Some say that universal access to health care would somehow inhibit the development of new drugs and other medical technologies.  Does our nation lose nothing greater from tens of thousands of deaths (not to mention uncounted lost hours of productivity) brought about by inadequately treated medical conditions?  If medical innovation really suffers somehow from the provision of universal access, how much blood must be spilled in its name?

Yet even that is a false dichotomy.  Several European nations are each home to large thriving medical research enterprises.  Heck, even Cuba, in spite of scant national resources, manages to develop lifesaving new drugs at an impressive pace.  The idea that America, with so much raw wealth and so much intellectual capital, cannot meet the needs of its own people and still outshine the inventiveness of those other nations is a very strange assertion for a self-identified patriot to voice.

If there is any valid criticism of reformers, it would be about their widespread willingness to compromise with a political movement utterly at odds with facts.  In months of high profile public debate, few voices have been raised to ask just what profit-based health insurance actually accomplishes.  In effect, these institutions serve as private sector death panels. Somehow that term has instead achieved cultural resonance based on the fictitious and absurd rationing no public official has ever proposed to end the lives of Americans no one wishes to see dead.

Certainly there are times and places where compromise is in order.  When good faith efforts to get at the facts yield inconclusive results, bold action may be unwise.  Regarding the state of American health care today, it is only efforts made in bad faith that prevent widespread clarity about a national body count caused by a cutthroat economic paradigm applied to health care policy (not to mention monumental losses to productivity suffered by survivors of that same blight.)

Perversely, even as national media outlets are assault by propagandists, they continue to indulge purveyors of misinformation.  Again and again, transparent lies and the unrepentant dissemblers behind them are put on equal footing with provable facts and earnest informed advocates.  As with the disastrous plunge into Iraq, this critical political decision is being shaped by dialogues that equate major league national scoundrels with genuinely wise national leaders.  Yet whatever wisdom exists to promote reform, it seems unable to bring our nation anywhere near the kind of sweeping overhaul that would bring great benefit to each and every other enterprise by way of marginalizing a single parasitic industry.

Neither conservative nor libertarian thinking is without wisdom of its own.  This wisdom becomes folly when it relies on misinformation and hostile emotion.  Every day, more of our own citizens die because this particular folly continues without remedy.  If a few thousand Americans dying in 2001 justify enormous changes to our way of life, on what basis does anyone reject less dramatic change in to prevent the deaths of so many more innocent citizens?


What You Should Think About Balance

October 18, 2008

“The new integrity of the world, in our view, can only be built upon the principles of freedom of choice and balance of interests.”

–Mikhail Gorbachev

It is fair to characterize the Fox News Channel as a partisan house organ and a degenerate propaganda mill.  However, as a full-fledged cable network, it is too complex a phenomenon to be understood from a perspective that lacks all nuance and subtlety.  For example, the “fair and balanced” slogan plays into a method frequently utilized to create the perception of legitimacy.  From segments passed off as hard news to the most unapologetic of opinion programming, simply presenting some sort of clash between pundits of differing views causes many viewers to believe they have seen a balanced presentation.

In some cases, this perception is completely unjustified.  Across the continuum from subtle to blatant, there are many ways to manipulate a debate through framing the issue, limiting responses, manipulating tone, etc.  Yet there are also instances when debate both lively and legitimate occurs on that channel.  Perhaps the most impressive effort to legitimize the entire venture is a program titled Fox News Watch.  More often than not, this program approaches media analysis from a perspective that is thoughtful or even scholarly.

It was in viewing an episode of that show that I first encountered the phrase “distortion of balance.”  It is a term Neil Gabler of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting coined in order to describe the trickery involved in legitimizing a bogus position by presenting it as the equivalent of a legitimate position.  The perception of evenhandedness obscures crucial underlying reality.

Imagine if a televised debate were conducted between one advocate for the position that the Moon is is chiefly composed of minerals while another advocate contended the Moon is an enormous mass of cheese.  The second position is unsupported by anything resembling conclusive evidence, but a sufficiently earnest pundit could well cloud the issues and leave ignorant viewers uncertain about the truth (or convinced of a falsehood.)  From Iraqi weapons programs to global climate change — areas where technical ignorance is entirely understandable among those who are not trained experts — many media outlets legitimize an entirely bogus viewpoint in the name of presenting “balanced” content.

This is not always the result of the desire to push a particular agenda.  For example, fact checking after major political debates has become a widespread practice in the media.  Yet few outlets ever dare to critique a larger number of questionable statements from one candidate than the other.  In pursuit of “balance” that comes from presented equal quantity, readers are given the false impression that an equal number of misleading statements were made by each speaker.  Unless the underlying reality actually involves equality on that plane, the end result is coverage that leaves the audience misinformed.

All this involves issues where opinions fit neatly into two mutually exclusive categories.  Especially when it comes to political issues, covering “both sides of the story” tends to be an especially clumsy oversimplification.  Popular rhetoric often falls back on extremism if for no other reason than that moderation tends to be less inspiring.  Nowhere is this more evident than resistance to economic reforms.  While filled with self-delusions of being reasonable, passionate extremists decry every little push toward moderation as a surefire way to transform the U.S.A. into a new incarnation of the U.S.S.R.

Even if one grants the dubious premise that economic planning is an anethema to civil liberties, those extremists deliberately steer discussion away from positions between capitalist and communist extremes.  Few of them could begin to articulate the technical distinctions between communism and socialism.  With that deficit of knowledge, they are able to remain earnest while spouting falsehoods that characterize socialism as an extreme position.  Being loudly mistaken is not as sinister as being loudly dishonest, but civic duty demands any loudness be preceded by a greater degree of thoughtfulness than can be seen among such extremists.

All of this feeds into the disastrous reality that America’s economic titans enjoy ample reward with no real risk.  The same system forces working families to face real risk without appropriate reward.  The structure of the ongoing bailout makes this abundantly clear, though similar public largess has been a fixture of American political history from our nation’s inception.  One of the few sound observations to emerge from popular punditry related to the economic crisis is that we live in a society that practices a very generous variety of socialism for the rich while leaving everyone else to struggle in a particularly harsh capitalist environment.

Because the wealth of this nation is made to flow uphill through systematic corruption on a scale that would make the most nefarious Politburo power broker blush, honest American citizens playing by the rules must compete for pieces of an economic pie that is already largely devoured before the competition begins.  As horrible as that sounds, its modern manifestation could be anticipated from the theories that prop up the status quo.  Trickle down economics is very much a call for the overwhelming majority of this nation’s workforce to content themselves with the scraps that fall from the tables of tycoons.  Never mind that same workforce gathered the ingredients, composed the menus, set the tables, and prepared the feasts.

Perhaps Versailles toward the end of the French monarchy is a soundcomparison.  Under Louis XVI, at times it seemed that no luxury was too excessive.  Nobles competed with one another in increasingly ostentatious displays of wealth.  Today’s gold-infused cheeseburgers and Hummer limousines showcase impractical concentrations of resources with all the enthusiasm of decadent aristocracies past.  It is true that our government does not bestow hereditary titles conveying special privileges, but the absence of those does little to distinguish our economic realities from the sort of aristocratic exploitation that sparked the American revolution.

Modern militant rabble-rousers are do not condemn the growing concentration of wealth.  Though the original American patriots stirred up trouble to undermine a power structure that took from the many too enrich the few, the undercurrent of anger in today’s political dialogue actually perpetuates blatant plutocracy.  Government conceived “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” has become government of the people, by the rich, for the rich.  Apart from predictable vehement slander against reformers, proposed reforms are denounced by deliberately muddling humanitarian social spending with authoritarian tyranny.

There is no reason the United States of America cannot find a true balance.  Of invisible pink unicorns, an economic middle ground, and Saddam Hussein’s 21st century nuclear weapons program, there is one entity that is no myth.  Giving working families a fair deal, pursuing poverty harm reduction, promoting education, and stimulating scientific innovation are all pursuits that have been proven sustainable by many governments, including our own.  U.S. policy has always been a compromise between civic minimalism and policies promoted by those with other aspirations for our nation.

Perhaps a better tomorrow could also come from a new order that ceased funneling astronomical sums of public money into private hands.  Yet no politician has come forth with a credible proposal for a reform that would actually eliminate corruption in big business subsidy.  For that matter, thirty years of Republican promises to reduce government spending have only produced a record of huge spending increases, none greater than those undertaken with the full support of the sitting President.  Yet it is not too late for our nation to address decades of social neglect with bold action to move toward a healthy economic balance.


What You Should Think About Poverty

October 15, 2008

“For the first time in our history it is possible to conquer poverty.”

–Lyndon B. Johnson

Almost forty-five years ago, the President of the United States declared a War on Poverty.  Like the War on Drugs or the Global War on Terror, that militant metaphor ultimately proved misleading and counterproductive.  Unlike the War on Drugs or the Global War on Terror, our nation showed a stunning lack of resolve in dealing with this issue.  As Red Scare propaganda crystallized into an ideology of free market fundamentalism, the War on Poverty was displaced by an agenda that might be characterized as a war on the impoverished.

At the heart of this is a form of political opportunism that demonizes large groups of people by focusing on exceptionally bad, exceptionally rare, conduct within that group.  Often it is children who pay the price.  The typical beneficiary of Aid to Families with Dependent Children was a single mother who started her family with every intention of paternal involvement.  The scope of this need would be much reduced if there were no deadbeat dads.  Yet the political dialogue that killed AFDC was dominated by the hateful distortion holding that the program was nothing more than a meal ticket for “welfare queens” who became pregnant repeatedly for no other reason than pursuit of a government check.

Because of irrational hostility toward the very idea of welfare, this nation has traded a program that enabled poor mothers to focus their energies on parenting for a program that compels poor mothers to labor in unskilled jobs.  In some of the worst cases, child care expenses required to enable this makework approach outweigh the value of the work itself.  Even in the best cases, the policy change compounds the disadvantage of being born into poverty with the disadvantage of decreased parental involvement in the upbringing those children.

The present debate about immigration is similarly distorted.  The typical illegal immigrant is eager for honest work and reluctant to engage in criminal activity.  It is the lack of a viable alternative, not a preference for lawbreaking, that drives the illegal component of their activities.  Worse still, many politically vocal Americans are obsessed with the relatively rare phenomenon of “anchor babies.”  Their hatred for people who exploit our laws see their children born as U.S. citizens becomes an excuse for counterproductive malice in the framing of policies meant to govern the inevitable (and thoroughly useful) flow of foreign workers into our economy.

The theory capitalist extremists espouse is that “nanny state” largess somehow weakens our people and our economy.  The facts would beg to differ.  At the close of World War II, the average height of the Dutch had stagnated.  Growth dating back to a 19th century prosperity surge gave way to the devastation of brutal military occupation.  Yet generation by generation since, they have risen to become the tallest nation on Earth.  A major factor in the change was a body of social policy that insured no citizen of the Netherlands went hungry but for the choice to do so.

Progressive social minima, including universal health care and robust poverty relief, are not economic liabilities.  To the contrary, they provide economic stimulus on many levels.  In the most immediate sense, an uplift in public morale created by alleviation of domestic hunger, homelessness, and ailments is good for business.  So too is the increased productivity generated by direct beneficiaries of sensible welfare spending.  Coupled with a long term commitment to minimizing domestic deprivation, the intergenerational result is a markedly healthier, happier, and more productive national workforce.

This is not simply some theory crafted to manipulate voter behavior.  The Dutch example is the clearest of many.  Global happiness surveys routinely turn up the best results in Scandanavia.  I have a hunch those results are not on account of the weather.  Right wing protestations about the certain failure of the welfare state are soundly repudiated by its many real world successes.  Besides which, recent events should make as clear as day that cutthroat capitalists are in no position whatsoever to criticize the democracies of Western Europe in the arena of fiscal responsibility.

It may well be the case that individualism has, even deserves, a special place in American culture.  Yet this raises the question — what is truly more useful to the purpose of enabling American individuals to pursue happiness in their own fashion?  Is the entire answer nothing more than big guns and small taxes?  Might instead there be a wide range of constructive actions that can be taken to promote broad-based economic growth while giving our least fortunate citizens options they otherwise would be unlikely to experience?

The ideology of supply-side economics was evidently corrupt at first blush.  Yet it has taken thirty years of disastrous public policy, punctuated by events taking place just this year, to provide overwhelming hard evidence to support that conclusion.  For decades, some citizens upheld the private sector as intrinsically superior to the public sector, without any regard for technical specifics.  Those same people also insisted free markets were sacrosanct ideals that ought be held inviolate.  These beliefs went beyond “regardless of the cost” and to the extreme of “the idea that there is any price to be paid for this form of extremism is unthinkable.”

Of course, the price is enormous beyond words.  To many Americans, every homeless schizophrenic, every undernourished child, every undermedicated senior citizen, and every serious medical condition left untreated constitute a great failure.  To turn Stalin on his head, behind each of those statistics is a staggering number of personal tragedies.  Each of them is heartwrenching.  Most of them are preventable.  That we as a nation should eschew efforts to engage in that prevention is abominable.

Obviously there are limits to our resources.  Yet those resources are part of a dynamic system that thrives under sound stewardship.  This same system withers when abused or neglected.  Trickle down economics endorsed a philosophy of deliberate neglect and fostered an environment of rampant abuse.  An ideal replacement would be a paradigm that transcends all ideology.  Yet if the ideal is unattainable, the least we can do is formulate a replacement ideology that fully recognizes the lessons to be learned by the realities of social spending around the world.

Just as Republicans never held any monopoly on patriotism, they also hold no monopoly on promoting economic growth.  Their leaders are quick to speak of growth as a justification for even deeper descent into the bowels of voodoo economics, but their ideas have been shown to create a false sense of prosperity amidst a backdrop of enormous fundamental problems.  Refusal to address those growing problems over such a long span of time is a big factor contributing to the crisis our economy faces today.  If we are ever to get serious about eliminating American poverty, we must first transcend the poverty of ideas afflicting this nation for the past few decades.


What You Should Think About Victory

October 14, 2008

“It is common sense to take a method and try it.  If it fails, admit it frankly and try another; but above all, try something.”

–Franklin D. Roosevelt

In theory, a two party system could provide a sturdy national rudder to guide the ship of state along an optimal path to the future.  Imagine a democratic China where a Red Party promotes traditional values and industrial growth while a Green party promotes modernism and environmental protection.  The Greens could provide support for a wide range of new ideas while the Reds oppose change and strike down the worst of new government institutions.  The end result would be constant improvement without runaway excess.

As wonderful as that sounds, it is merely theory.  Here in the United States, our politics are dominated by one party that emphasizes new ideas and another that favors the status quo.  In theory, while Democrats bring modern values and institutional changes to the table, Republicans obstruct all but the best of those new ideas.  In practice, this simply is not the case.

Many historical Democrats have brought helpful new ideas into the public arena.  Yet the Clinton administration found itself browbeaten by Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution.  After backing down in the fight for universal health care, Bill Clinton signed off on a range of institutional changes that were decidedly conservative.  While catering little to traditional values, his bold spending cuts and restraint with new initiatives were a wild departure from the “tax and spend liberal” brand Democrats’ critics so often apply to them.

Yet the historical record of Republicans is even less consistent with the idea of substantive conservatism.  Again and again a rhetorical emphasis on spending restraint gives way to bold new levels of federal spending.  Some Republicans may have stood in firm opposition to the rise of modern values, but their economic practices have ranged from incoherent to downright hypocritical.  As unpleasant as “tax and spend” may sound, surely it is better over the long term than “borrow and spend.”

Even today that side of the aisle offers us nothing new.  Senator John McCain continues to push for lower taxes on business, lower taxes on high personal incomes, increased defense spending, and a more belligerent posture on the world stage.  Even in those moments when he eschews fearmongering and presents himself as an agent of change, almost all the substance of his policy proposals is a call to stay the course.

Yet his opponent actually does rise up to fulfill the role of a liberal reformer.  Senator Barack Obama sometimes draws on ideas crafted in previous decades, but even his oldest proposals have yet to be given due consideration in national political dialogue.  Only a strong sense of unrest coupled with a spectacular failure of trickle down economics sets the stage for mainstream consideration of sweeping change.  The underlying realities are largely as they were years ago, but the signs indicating a need for change have become much harder to ignore.

It is in this context that some Republicans have taken to decrying a lack of jingoism in Senator Obama’s rhetoric.  The Rovian word count game (as in, “he spoke for an entire hour and did not use the word ‘victory once'”) is a sleazy and often misleading trick.  Yet it is true that the Democratic nominee is reluctant to use simplistic language in addressing complex nuanced subjects.  Rather than make unsubstantiated claims about future prosperity, victory, etc. he favors more precise and technical discussion.

Yet this should not be cast as a liability.  Amidst frequent Republican talk of prosperity, today’s announcement of a plan to increase the income tax deduction for dependents is the first proposal by Senator McCain to offer some benefit to working class families that was not inferred as an inevitable byproduct of making the rich even richer.  Though this does represent substantive change, it is both a departure from the rest of the Republican campaign and an oddly belated effort to acknowledge that America’s real economic distress must be addressed through outreach to the families and individuals in the most difficult of circumstances.

The same can be said for foreign affairs.  Republicans often speak in sure tones of victory in Iraq.  Some have tried to link this to declining levels of violence over there, as if partially cleaning up a mess of our own creation constitutes some sort of victory.  Others focus on the idea of a stable democratic regime able to provide for its own security.  Perhaps that would be a real victory, but it has not been advanced by recent military initiatives, nor is there any Republican proposal that speaks to the heart of political challenges facing democracy in Iraq.

In spite of the blood spilled, in spite of the treasure consumed, in spite of the goodwill lost; the McCain-Palin campaign pushes for continuity in U.S.-Iraq policy.  No matter how many times the candidates employ the word “victory,” neither does much to define it, let alone offer up a concrete plan for its achievement.  Rather than work on rallying the nation behind some sort of real solution to the serious problem, the Republican party has chosen to demonize their opponents for nothing worse than the failure to embrace hollow rhetoric.

Yet the absurdity does not end there.  Senator McCain has frequently told the nation that he knows how to capture Osama bin Laden.  What is he holding out for?  Does he fear such an accomplishment would not catapult him into the White House?  Is it an idea the present administration has refused to implement?  Is it an idea he would withhold from a future administration if Barack Obama should happen to serve as its Commander-in-Chief?

Senator Obama is not fast and loose with terms like “victory” only because to do so without coherent and concrete plans to accomplish victories is dishonest.  When we are honest, a discussion of Iraq must recognize tremendous challenges that no amount of military power can resolve.  Our armed forces are second to none, but that acknowledgement does not imbue them with supreme abilities to address diplomatic, political, or economic problems.  Perhaps the federal approach long advocated by Senator Joe Biden has drawbacks as well as advantages, but at least it speaks realistically to the nature of the situation in Iraq.

Should the next President of the United States be John McCain, I believe everyone would expect much talk of “victory.”  Yet does anyone expect him to swiftly neutralize Osama bin Laden?  Does anyone expect him to smoothly resolve the internal conflicts in Iraq?  Does anyone believe that his economic proposals would remedy fundamental economic problems the man himself was among the last to recognize?

If one does not look beyond the two party system for answers, then the choice is clear.  One alternative leads to a future where there is much talk of victory, while meaningful actions only perpetuate economic and foreign policies framed by the present administration.  The other path leads to a future of much more realistic discourse, with meaningful actions that strike a new economic balance and adopt a new tone on the world stage.  If ever our nation is to achieve real victories over the great challenges of our times, it seems to me that the political choice we must make is clear.


What You Should Think About Wealth

October 12, 2008

“Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power.”

–Benjamin Franklin

A great challenge facing the crop of national leaders to be selected this November will be promoting national unity.  For any office of import, surely an uncontested election is worse than a hotly contested election.  Yet one side effect of heated political contests is a wide range of fried political nerves.  Unscrupulous panderers are sure to cater to outrage about “socialism” in America while continuing to leave millions of citizens worse than misinformed about political realities.

Ultimately, the debate comes down to a clash of opinions about the nature of wealth.  Speaking from the gut, concerned liberals may rightly point out that millions of American households face extreme economic distress, then forget about facts and simply conclude that it is time for “a change.”  Yet concerned conservatives rightly point out that major American businesses also face economic distress, only to forget about facts and simply conclude that more tax cuts will certainly remedy the situation.

Fortunately the same clash can also be framed in cerebral terms.  Few serious thinkers dispute that the economic environment could be much better for both American consumers and American businesses.  The real work to be done on these issues comes from sorting out just what policies and practices will improve those conditions.  National dialog is severely impeded to the extent that handwaving media commentators reinforce popular claptrap about economics being “too complicated” for popular debate.

To the degree that the complexity is not a phantom generated by self-justifying academics, it is largely a matter of delineating the boundary between fact and opinion.  Whether it is “better” to break your leg in Canada, Connecticut, or Cuba is a fuzzy argument.  Yet the populations, budgets, and outcomes in each territory are facts.  Available calculations may not achieve metaphysically perfect precision, but arguments that depend on impeaching basic non-partisan public health data are implausible on their face.

To see progress in related civic discourse, there must be more than answering false narratives with alternative narratives.  Even casual conversations often offer up some opportunity to address reality.  Media professionals should feel shame whenever appeals to fear or anger eclipse rational discussion of substance.  Like never before, it has become possible to subsist on a diet of lies.  This makes it all the more urgent that the veil be cast aside whenever reality has the opportunity to intrude.

Do not let “tax cuts create growth” simple sit unchallenged as if it were the alpha and omega of wisdom about economics.  After all, where has tax cutting been practiced with more consistency and commitment than the United States in the early 21st century?  What sort of growth followed those policy changes?  Can it all be chalked up to the grave threat posed by fanatics with boxcutters?  Can it all be swept under the rug of incompetence and corruption?  Even if we grant that this growth generation strategy requires competence and integrity to implement, how plausible is it that such traits should come to dominate the White House and Congress?

Such trains of reasoning yield only to unreasonable resistance.  No doubt regurgitated talking points and flat out denials of reality are common outcomes of political clash.  Yet each instance where a sane adult falls back on irrational behavior to defend a political belief is one more instance in which the belief itself becomes distasteful.   Often these beliefs are incorporated into self-identity.  Changing them is not like learning the location of a new supermarket or the time change of a favored television program.  Yet the slower and deeper nature of these changes is no reason to deny that they occur . . . or that it is worthwhile to encourage them.

As the American people belatedly turn their backs on the absurd notion that every citizen ought aspire to be some sort of tycoon, we will collectively turn toward something else.  Even the most extreme of conservatives should be much more interested in tying these new ideals to reality than in jabbering on about doom and gloom born purely of political fearmongering.  Even the argument to desist with the mythology and get down to brass tacks is itself rooted in facts, from ongoing capital losses to polls projecting consolidation of legislative power.

One potential, perhaps ideal, casualty of contemporary politics would be this notion of “job creation.”  Short of making actual federal hires, there is nothing a President or Congress can do to create a job.  Still the term is a staple of hollow campaign promises.  Likewise, corporations often argue for a particular policy or subsidy based on theoretical “job creation” that is in no way linked to concrete workforce expansion plans.  Furthermore, new hires that do not actually accomplish some productive purpose create a false prosperity that simply cannot be sustained over time.

Between a natural tendency for leaders to take undue credit for good news and a body of policies oriented toward promoting quantity (and largely ignoring quality) in employment, it was entirely foreseeable that hearty growth achieved in recent years would eventually come undone.  Promoting this sort of unsustainable growth may delay the next downturn in the business cycle, but at the cost of its amplification.

Arguments from the political right are rarely short on hostility toward usefulness of promoting economic equality.  Yet they are rarely answered by questions about the usefulness of perpetuating (or amplifying) economic inequality.  Through a process that begins with facts, it is possible to provide compelling support for a conclusion that condemns some extreme scenario that not even Stalinists would actually have attempted.  Rather than wasting energy on the straw man of hypercommunism, there are two approaches informed commentators can take to provide a positive contribution to the shape of things to come.

The first is simply to point out that the United States could make tremendous moves away from cutthroat competition without getting anywhere near communism, real or imagined.  It is one thing to have difficulty grasping nuance — quite another to simply refuse all discussions that are not confined to absolute extremes.  Moments like that call for the subtlety of pointing out truly childish behavior while stopping well short of a counterproductive level of invective.

Perhaps more importantly, it is worthwhile to take a look at the nature of wealth itself.  What are the existent inequalities?  What is their usefulness, and how would that be diminished if those inequalities were diminished?   Mountains of data from dozens upon dozens of stable national economies demonstrate that prosperous corporations, complete with growing workforces, thrive well enough in a wide range of economic and social environments.  If there were a correlation between concentration of wealth and creation of wealth, then why is the current American economy as (or more) prone to difficulties than any other large modern economy?

As Pollyanna attitudes are put down by harsh realities, we must look inward as well as abroad.  Even allowing for some negative emotional bias at work on capital markets today, it is clear that slashing taxes on investment income and high levels of personal income is no way to build a more prosperous future.  A moment of national lucidity, prompted by crisis and under constant assault from bombastic pundits, provides a rare opporunity to strike a new balance.

Our future, be it more or less prosperous than today, will originate with this moment.  For those of us who care about the wealth of the nation, it is imperative that this new balance facilitate broad, real, and sustainable expansion of human achievement.  It may indeed be difficult and complicated to craft a detailed and comprehensive solution, but by now hopefully all earnest patriots can agree that it should be well within our means to do much better than Reaganomics.


What You Should Think About Welfare

October 8, 2008

“Children and dogs are as necessary to the welfare of this country as Wall Street and railroads.”

–Harry S. Truman

To date this year, 281 times the Sun has risen over the eastern horizon.  It appears that there are no press reports of widespread dismay about these events.  After all the history and mechanics of the Earth-Sun relationship are largely understood.  When it comes to federal bailouts of major private institutions, there is nothing secret about the mechanisms at work or the history.  Yet again and again and again, this predictable phenomenon is met with disgruntled surprise.

Of course there have been some major failures in the history of U.S. business.  The predictable mechanism at work here is invocation of the domino theory.  Dotcom ventures that did not exist a few years previously are in a poor position to claim that their failure will have devastating ripples throughout the economy.  Yet a wide variety of industries can make just such an appeal.  Industrialists cite their sprawling supply chains as if even the best of their suppliers could not weather the loss of a major buyer.  Financial service providers tally every asset and liability together and paint a picture of total loss should the institution fail.   Firms in the energy or transportation sectors sometimes couple legitimate arguments with hyperbole about theoretical disasters.

Capitalist theories hold that businesses unable to sustain themselves in market competition should cease to be.  Their employees and other assets are thought best utilized by other productive endeavors.  Some idealize those theories to the extent that it is inconceivable any practical considerations might justify intervention to prop up a failing business.  In reality, those practical considerations sometimes exist.  In reality, their absence is often no barrier to federal largess.

In fact, corporate welfare often has nothing to do with corporate distress.  Handouts in the form of tax loopholes custom-designed for a specific industry or even a specific corporation have been routine business on Capitol Hill throughout our history.  Massive subsidies for companies already turning a healthy profit are also part of that history.  Sometimes, it seems like simply having the money and influence to make the appeal is enough to insure the state will provide generous support on demand.

Yet only during confluences of bleak economic news and extraordinary increases in spending on corporate welfare is there much vocal outrage.  Supporters of officials (and the system) behind this spending are often quick to change the subject when there is no ongoing economic crisis.  Many will quietly condemn the spending, but few will take umbrage to the same extent they would if those officials took progressive stances on social issues.  It is as if all that waste and inefficiency were a small price to pay for keeping up the fight against gay marriage and gun commerce regulation.

Since the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, this ideological orthodoxy has created a situation in which big businesses are catered to with wild abandon.  Recent events create the impression that no sum is too large when it comes to spending on corporate bailouts.  Yet public sector efforts to help out individual Americans in economic distress have lost as much ground as has been gained during this time.  The blend of ideology and hypocrisy here is at the heart of the ongoing concentration of the nation’s wealth.

Our de facto aristocracy does not lack state support.  Even if maintaining England’s Civil List was not a self-funding endeavor, the costs would be a molehill compared to the mountain of federal money poured into the coffers of politically connected corporations.  Again, capitalist theory holds that this money will be used to insure optimal productivity, or else competitors will triumph.  Even a cursory survey of trends in private executive over the past thirty years renders that view preposterous.

The astronomically large flows of money from taxpayers to major corporations fund a range of “business operations” that typically include obscene compensation packages for the very executives responsible for failing to sustain their ventures through private means.  The indirect nature of public support for colossal CEO pay levels somehow causes it to have less of a political impact than initiatives that extend public support to needy individuals.  Though much of the nation does support reasonable social spending, millions of Americans continue to have contempt for the very idea of individual welfare.

To the degree that proposed social spending does nothing to make the lives of actual human beings better, it deserves contempt.  Yet to the degree that it extends real opportunity or alleviates real harms, social spending deserves at least as much consideration as that subset of corporate welfare that actually bolsters the overall national economy.  After all, sometimes giving a helping hand to a struggling business really does preserve good jobs, promote a favorable balance of trade, generate more tax revenue, etc.  Far more often, giving a helping hand to a struggling individual really does preserve good health, promote career advancement, generate more tax revenue, etc.

As the Red Scare continues to leave so many voters afflicted with a crippling political phobia, almost nothing worthwhile escapes the “socialist” brand.  The specter of some absolute economic equality far beyond even the Soviet regime’s extremes is offered up as an inevitable consequence of such modest proposals as expanding educational finance spending or raising taxes on personal incomes beyond the first quarter million dollars per year.  By denying the middle ground’s existence, ideological extremists have effectively thwarted the advance of social services for three decades.

The stagnation of purchasing power for 80% of American households during that same thirty year span cannot be pure coincidence.  While the corporate power structure siphons the nation’s wealth uphill, ordinary citizens do not enjoy better protection from danger, greater opportunity to learn, superior infrastructure, rising prestige in the world, cleaner air, safer water, etc.

In the end, this is a profoundly backward approach to acting on the U.S. Constitution’s decree that the government ought see to the general welfare.  The world is full of examples establishing that serious anti-poverty relief, generous educational subsidy, and even universal health care can be implemented to good effect without threatening useful levels of economic inequality.  Virtually no American desires a future social order in which every individual experiences the same economic outcome, but we ought to be able to rally a consensus around the idea that every American deserve a future in which fairness is the principal architect of all economic outcomes.


What You Should Think About This Economic Crisis

October 7, 2008

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’  One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.  In a crisis — be aware of the danger, but recognize the opportunity.”

–John F. Kennedy

Frenzies of risky speculation on an increasingly popular Wall Street left much of the nation heavily invested in dishonest schemes. Woefully lax regulations on credit resulted in unsustainable debt loads for many American households and businesses.  Ecological insensitivity in the hunger for economic growth raised the specter of an environmental catastrophe likely to unfold. Years of jingoistic proclamations coming from Republicans in the White House overpowered alarms raised by economic realists.  All the while, the federal government engaged in unprecedented deficit spending.

In hindsight, it is not so surprising that The Great Depression followed from the situation in the United States almost eighty years ago.  With any sort of working sight at all, it should be obvious that so many striking parallels exist between then and now.  Though global warming is a wild card compared to the Dust Bowl; we still have the very same Wall Street, the very same Republican Party, and disturbingly similar problems with every level of debt. It would be nice to think that wise national leadership could spare us such a dark chapter in future history.  It would be foolish to deny that national leadership up to now has spared us none of the crucial precursor conditions.

In the early 20th century, automation displaced many forms of labor.  Even myriad skilled trades were rendered obsolete by refinements to industrial processes.  While making it more and more difficult for American workers to find opportunity, this trend made it relatively easy for wealthy American investors to turn small fortunes into great fortunes.  Karl Marx predicted rising economic tensions would bring about political revolutions in which ownership of the means of production would be broadly distributed among workers.  Instead, a peaceful transition of power paved the way for comparatively modest upheavals like Social Security and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The situation today is different more in style than in substance.  Instead of growing pains caused by the rise of workplace automation, the 21st century U.S. faces challenges related to the rise of free trade.  Competition not only poses threats to high wages for many forms of productive endeavor in the United States, but American business operations are lured abroad by lax environmental standards, inhumane workplace safety standards, government hostility toward labor unions, etc.  As with the roaring 20s, the 80s and 90s saw mounting pressure on all layers of the economy except the top.  Replacing American workers, be it with foreigners or machines, has always tended to enrich those initially rich enough to bankroll the change.

Of course it is ultimately a good thing that handcrafting is no longer part of the process of manufacturing for many basic products.  I suspect, from a multigenerational perspective, abandoning protectionist trade policies will also tend to promote overall prosperity.  Yet even if one grants that global free trade is desirable (or merely inevitable,) there remains no sensible reason to ignore the suffering, losses, and inefficiencies that are side effects of the transition.

For all his failings, Karl Marx did a much better job articulating facts and predicting future events than any of his most prominent critics.  Legitimized by everything up to and including a string of Nobel Prizes, the Chicago School of economics offered the promise of a different path.  To greater or lesser degrees, their economic dignitaries advocated tax cuts, business deregulation, and trade liberalization based on the idea that enriching the already rich would cause opportunity to spill down on those Americans who are not heirs to a corporate fief.  These thinkers’ apparent intellectual heft gave credence to theories that justified all manner of irresponsible plutocratic policies.

In fairness, most of those Nobel Laureates did not endorse trickle-down economics in its entirety.  Most of them also understood Marxism as a legitimate and useful theoretical perspective.  Still, they and their students were all too willing to associate strong academic credentials with ideas and analysis that never deserved more respect than the ravings of bombastic partisan pundits.  This highly effective smoke screen provided cover for a wide range of downright destructive behaviors by investment professionals and corporate executives.  So long as people believed the cover story about “job creation,” what was actually happening could remain concealed.

The media was almost entirely unhelpful in this regard. What began as partisan propaganda festered into an almost universal tendency toward Pollyanna economics.  Every surge on Wall Street was a triumphant achievement of capitalism.  Every dip was a ballyhooed buying opportunity.  Ridiculous fantasies, like the idea that reducing already reasonable rates of taxation on large personal incomes would somehow actually increase the amount of revenue collected to fund the government, were almost never exposed to appropriate criticism.

Legitimate financial analysts became less popular than talking heads willing to characterize every situation as an economic boom sure to be followed by an even more wonderful economic boom.  The audience for honest informed voices dwindled dramatically.  Public officials also got into the act, spinning false narratives about the successes of voodoo economics even as some of its biggest failures were being repackaged and resold in transactions increasingly arcane yet entirely unhelpful.

This shuffling of paper concealed fundamental problems with our national economy.  It also facilitated the bloating of our financial sector into a true abomination.  There are many ways an economic parasite can draw a comfortable lifelong salary.  Yet no others offer such astronomical paydays.  Investment bankers took bonus after bonus after bonus for work product that lacked any identifiable connection to the creation of real value.  Even many local mortgage brokers enjoyed premium compensation for the decidedly unproductive act of encouraging aspiring homeowners to borrow far beyond their means of repayment.

Yet all is far from lost.  The very same know-nothings now producing news items that warn of a potential new depression jumped off the “everything is peachy” bandwagon no earlier than a year ago.  In fact, many came to recognize these dire straits only after a period of vocal uncertainty.  “Economics is for the experts,” was the cry of reporters and pundits ranging from the most astute to the most clueless.  Certainly the discipline has some legitimate technical depth, but the same could be said of diplomacy or warfare.  Should the media shrug and avoid deep coverage of those subjects as well?

If not, then there are some sources of hope to include in all that coverage.  Artificially low interest rates, underregulated capital markets, and an entrepreneur’s wet dream of a tax environment have conspired to prop up many unsound businesses.  In the years ahead, efficiency, productivity, and even employment should tend to rise as so many overdue reckonings occur.  Human and natural resources will be liberated from unhealthy situations.  The result would be a flood of real opportunities for newer and better businesses to emerge.

If public attention remains strong, fair and effective regulatory schemes could alleviate all manner of harms not only in the realm of financial services, but across the gamut of business practices.  While three agonizing years passed between the October 1929 stock market crash and Franklin Roosevelt’s first Presidential victory, George W. Bush’s successor will be selected within weeks of the current freefall in capital markets.  Also, the same modern information technology that contributed so much to the past decade of irresponsible speculation now offers swift command and control methods to institutional leaders working to mitigate the damage.

For the title of this piece, I simply referred to “this economic crisis” because it would be premature to put a name to the ongoing phenomenon.  Whether we are facing a full scale depression or at the bottom of a short-lived economic shock, it is sound advice for almost all Americans to suggest generating conventional income deserves more time and attention than generating income through the pursuit of capital gains. With any best case that stops short of fantasy or fluke, market investments are merely icing on the cake of wealth that was already conserved.

On the other hand, this very month may be the ideal time to embark on the pursuit of capital gains.  Claptrap about buying opportunities after every little dip of the past few years deters many investors from recognizing the real buying opportunities apparent today.  If a full economic depression awaits us, selections from the menu of mainstream investments are all unlikely to fair well.  However, if today’s supersensitive markets respond swiftly to new ideas and new leadership, investors getting started today will likely find themselves making gains right alongside those who have been building portfolios and/or home equity since Bill Clinton left the White House.

My personal opinion is that capital markets and home values will start trending soundly upward again at some point in 2009.  No honest analyst can claim certainty.  Yet the enormity of the corruption is already reflected by appropriately enormous losses.  Perhaps the best parting note I can offer on this subject is another tidbit of ancient wisdom — measure twice, cut once.