Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Something To Think About - Where Does All That Lobbying Money Come From?

Well, we know that the incessant inundation of our congresspeople with torrents of lobbying money has hamstrung any attempts to get a 'robust public option' into the dialogue, much less single-payer, which is what would really make the difference in giving every American access to decent, affordable health care.

But let's take this question a bit further.

Let's see...

What do insurance companies do?

One definition is "pooling the resources of a large group to pay for the losses of a small group." In health care terms, this would involve taking money (premiums) from a large group of people, and paying the medical bills (losses) of a small group of people - that is, people who are ill, which are a smaller sub-group within any given group of people - with that money. The insurance company makes determinations about how much money they will need to cover these medical expenses by calculating the odds that a certain percentage of people are going to have medical expenses at any given time, and that furthermore, they estimate which of those people will be more likely to need medical care by calculating age range, medical histories and other criteria, and charge premiums according to who is most likely to need care. The larger and more diverse the pool of customers, the lower the overall cost of covering these losses.

Every business has income and expenses, and hopefully, profit.

For insurance companies, the expenses are:
  • the medical bills they pay on behalf of their customers
  • employees' salaries
  • building and infrastructure overhead
  • administrative costs
(I'm sure I've left out plenty, but this is a very broad overview)

And their income?
  • customer premiums
Out of the customer premiums, all these business expenses need to be paid - including whatever is left over, which goes to profit for the shareholders of the company.

So - what you and I pay to the insurance company is the only income they have. Everything else is outgo.

Oh, gosh - it seems I've left out an expense!

I forgot about - lobbying!

Yes - your insanely high health insurance premium is what the insurance company lobbyists use to donate to your congressperson's campaign fund, to get their ear and convince them to vote against a public option and to not even consider single-payer!

That is where all that lobbying money comes from! You and me.

While they're taking our money to deny us care, they use our money to insure that nothing changes! All those billions of lobby dollars did not come from anywhere else but our pockets - and they're being used against us to literally destroy our lives if we should be so unlucky as to fall ill - while paying an enormous percentage of our income to these same insurance companies. The money that could be used to pay our medical bills so we don't lose our homes and go bankrupt instead goes to persuade Congress to allow them to keep stealing from us to give their CEOs multi-million-dollar salaries and a fat return for their shareholders.

It's the same way with the credit card companies - they get the money they use to influence Congress into screwing us over directly out of our pockets.

And an insurance bill without a public option is merely forcing all Americans to buy insurance, whether they can afford it or not - what a gift for the insurance companies! Millions of new customers to fleece! And bought and paid for, as usual, by you and me.

We're not rocket scientists here at Hooterville, but we can put 2 and 2 together.

Just something to think about.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hooterville's AU Church-State Issue of the Week

Every time I try to institute something "of the week" on this poor blog, it never gets very far. My ADD sees to that. Consistency? I think not!

Nevertheless, since I am on the executive board of my local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and have been involved with this fine organization for the last 3 years or so, I'm going to attempt a regular feature of a church-state issue here. To me, the church-state question encompasses so many different aspects of what I believe as a progressive that I think it's important to keep on top of it, and to see where the attempts by the right to blur (and eventually erase) the line really lead to.

As I have written about in my book, the rise of the Right as far as power is concerned has happened because of the alliance of the religious fundmentalist right and the big business right. Neither of these groups by themselves is powerful enough to be able to thwart the will of the rest of America, which considered itself fairly liberal (not hard-left, mind you, but liberal) until after the sixties, when a group of ├╝ber-wealthy Republicans, fearing the loss of their power structure and 'free enterprise', got together and formulated a long-term, highly-organized and well-funded plan to stamp out liberalism. Richmond lawyer (and future Supreme Court justice) Lewis Powell wrote a memo to the Chairman of the Education Committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which outlined the necessity of halting the influence of the Left, lest the whole free-enterprise system collapse, and soon after, as Lewis Lapham writes in Harper's, the machine was set in motion.

As the Big Business conservatives planned their comeback, Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, had a plan of his own. Outraged by the Supreme Court decision in 1964 that removed prayer from public schools, Weyrich wanted to hitch the evangelical Christian wagon to the Republican Party star. The problem was, at the time, neither side had an interest in the other. The Republican Party was, first and foremost, business-oriented, with no interest in challenging church-state separation. The evangelical community had largely separated itself from public life after the Scopes Monkey Trial; although William Jennings Bryan prevailed against celebrity trial lawyer Clarence Darrow and obtained a conviction against John Scopes for teaching evolution in school, evangelicals took a pounding in the press and were labeled 'ignorant' and 'backward'. In response, they retreated from the public sphere, and chose not to engage in 'worldly' activities, forming their own communities apart from the mainstream.

Weyrich was convinced that these two groups had common interests, and worked to unite them, but was not successful until 1978, when the IRS threatened to revoke tax-exempt status for private schools that were not sufficiently integrated. At this point, evangelicals suddenly saw that Big Government was the enemy, and that the Republican Party could be their ally in their fight against it.

This, basically, is an overview of how the religious right and big-business right combined their assets - big money and big obedient voter bloc - to wrest control of the public debate to their side, although they were numerically and ideologically in the minority. The evangelical vote pushed 'anti-government' Reagan into the presidency over the evangelical Jimmy Carter, whose liberal social views disappointed those who thought one of their own would uphold fundamentalist ideals; and the dismantling of the New Deal, which had rescued America from the Great Depression and given the country unprecedented prosperity and a strong middle class, began in earnest.

Neither side - Big Business or evangelical right - holds the mainstream view of America, but together they have proved a powerful juggernaut that will take an equally motivated and dedicated opposition to halt. My goal is to inform and engage the progressively-minded segment of America that is not aware of this - and there are a lot of people who fall into that category. This is why I work with church-state issues; because this is the way that the Big Business wing persuades the fundamentalist wing to support, with their massive and loyal voting bloc, public policies that actively hurt this country and the principles of democracy that our nation was founded on. This is the carrot; the motivator that the corporatists dangle in front of the fundies to keep them in line. Issues such as teaching creationism in schools, school vouchers, hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage, and generally inducing taxpayers to support religion with tax dollars, while attempting to dismantle public education and public services in favor of privatization, keep the evangelicals engaged and supportive of Big Business policies.  The aims of Big Business, however, have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with obtaining and controlling as much of the public purse and power as they can get their hands on, for their own benefit, and the subsequent detriment of the rest of the country.

They use the buzz-word 'Freedom' - to the fundies it means the freedom to impose their religious views legally on the rest of the country, without allowing anyone else the freedom to do the same to them; to the corporatists it means the freedom to prey financially on the rest of the country without regulation - the only regulations they care for are those which keep the rest of us from protecting ourselves from these predators. You can't blame them for being predators any more than you can blame a lion for being a predator - it is their nature. They are incorporated to make profit, not to protect the interests of the people. That is government's job, and the reason we have a government at all.

My first Issue of the Week is judicial ruling on church-state separation. Rob Boston, Assistant Director of Communications of AU, gives us Justice Antonin Scalia's take on it. No surprise here - he doesn't believe in it; doesn't think it is constitutional. Scalia thinks public schools should be allowed to teach "creation science" - an oxymoron if there ever was one. We have seen specifically where the danger lies here, during the Bush Administration, where 'differing views' on science on the subject of climate change, instead of one scientific standard, led the Administration to "suppression of scientific evidence that does not support administration plans."

When science is legally reduced to 'some guy's opinion', while individual views on morality are considered 'moral relativism' which should be eschewed in favor of one particular unyielding Christian standard as if it were scientific fact, then we are headed down a dangerous road indeed.

For more on AU's fight to keep Church and State separate, as it is in the Constitution, please check out their site at au.org.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Review of "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union" – by David Swanson

Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union – by David Swanson

I want to live in David Swanson’s America.

David Swanson is an activist’s activist; I first became aware of him through the organization he co-founded, AfterDowningStreet.org. On May 3rd, 2005, through a link on Raw Story , I read about the Downing Street minutes, a recording of a meeting chaired by Tony Blair in which it was revealed that (as Rep. John Conyers wrote) “[the] British government and the United States government had secretly agreed to attack Iraq in 2002, before authorization was sought for such an attack in Congress, and had discussed creating pretextual justifications for doing so." I was just stunned, and even more stunned by the deafening silence from the mainstream media. Swanson and his co-founders were on it like white on rice, and I joined the group and bookmarked AfterDowningStreet.org as the ‘go-to’ website for information on the efforts to bring this into the light of day.

He has worked within politics, within peace groups, within labor groups, within communications groups, and his involvement in –and knowledge about – such a broad range of progressive issues and his hand-on experience with the inside workings of government and politics gives him a unique perspective on what is really going on in America; and, what’s more – what can and ought to be done to make it better.

I was thrilled to have David Swanson be the first person to review my book The Price of Right, and while it was not uniformly glowing I thought it was fair, made good points deserving of consideration and in general positive rather than negative, which is what one would hope for in a review, and I was glad to have it. One of his main criticisms was that, while I pointed out problems within our system, I did not present ideas for solutions to those problems.

When he was kind enough to send me his own book, Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union, to read and review, I saw why.

This book is sweeping in scope, and not only articulates the problems but nuts-and-bolts approaches to solutions to these problems from a progressive point of view. Swanson’s premise is that it is not a bad President or a corrupt party in power that is the root of our current trouble in America, but the imbalance between the so-called ‘three branches of government’, with an all-powerful, ‘imperial’ executive branch and a defanged, ineffective legislative branch, that has made the voice of the people unable to be heard.

Step by step, he outlines how the power grab by the executive branch during the Bush-Cheney regime has endangered, not only our present situation, but our future. The unprecedented powers that Bush and Cheney claimed for themselves – lying to Congress, starting a war of aggression based on those lies, ignoring the Geneva Conventions and habeas corpus, torture, illegal wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, abuse of the Justice Department – the list is so extensive as to be almost unbelievable; yet they have gotten away with all this and more; and they have yet to be so much as frowned at for these crimes – Congress (and the new President) seem to prefer to act like none of this ever happened, and want to ‘look forward rather than backward’. The reason that Cheney, Bush, et al. must be held accountable, Swanson asserts, is not, however, for revenge or retribution, which will not bring back one soldier or innocent civilian, but a far more important reason – to prevent future administrations from seizing those powers for their own use.

As much as the former administration abused the office, they could not have done so without the acquiescence of Congress, and this is what Swanson sees as a main point of his book. It is Congress that is the vox populi, and Congress which must stand its ground for the people if the American experiment is to succeed.

In this book, he clearly articulates, in very specific detail, not only what progressive values entail, but how they can be implemented. It is a radical approach, to be sure, and it’s difficult to imagine that these gigantic changes could happen in today’s climate of liberal timidity and conservative aggression. Some of these ideas are already on the progressive agenda – campaign finance reform, cutting the military budget, election protection, etc. However, Swanson goes further and dares to suggest solutions even many progressives would shy away from proposing - enlarging the House and eliminating the Senate, eliminating the electoral college, enlarging the Supreme Court and lessening its power, and tosses around other ideas requiring Constitutional amendments. As radical as these ideas may be, they are not idly thrown out – they are carefully researched and thought through. He carries progressive ideals to their logical conclusion, and it is only because we have gone so far in the opposite direction – towards corporatism and away from democracy, towards empire and away from a republic – that they seem so startling.

Swanson is more than an idealist – he has a firm direction and vision that he outlines in Daybreak, and has a history of successful and practical action working within the system as well as outside it. But, what is most important in my opinion, is that he works and fights for what he believes in, regardless of its chances of immediate success – and Daybreak is a practical handbook for change; the kind of change that is brought about by people who work towards their aim in the face of daunting opposition. Swanson is no stranger to that path, and this book is a call to those who are ready, with him, to ignore the ‘conventional wisdom’ and the naysayers, take on the big fight, and work for, not spare change, but real transformation – towards a ‘more perfect Union’.

Buy your copy of Daybreak here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Illegals, Watch Out - We're Taking Back Our Jobs!

There's a new movement afoot in the American Right. Inspired by the rabidly anti-immigration, tirelessly pro-American-worker Lou Dobbs, it's springing up all across America. From the meatpacking plants of Iowa to the dairy farms of Arizona, from the kitchens of New York's finest restaurants to the Salad Bowl of California's Salinas Valley, in hotels, motels, and Holiday Inns all across this great nation of ours, the patriotic men and women who for years have stood by and watched illegal immigrants swarming across the border to brazenly steal their jobs have had enough.

Formerly known as the Minute-Man Movement (or 'Beer Guts Across America'), whose aim was to merely monitor the flow of illegal immigration across the border between the U.S. and Mexico, the troubled group disbanded amid infighting and accusations of internal corruption and financial misconduct in 2007. Yet, the dissatisfaction and frustration felt by these hard-working American patriots has only grown more intense, as they watch job after job after job go to those with no legal right to that job, while they themselves, deserving natural-born citizens, sit at home on their couches, with an ice-cold Coors, a family-sized bag of Chee-tos and a clicker in their hands as they wait around for the job that never seems to materialize.

Well, the time for waiting is over.

The time for action has arrived.

Illegal criminals, take notice - Conservative Americans are taking back their jobs!

Yes, from the ashes of the failed Minute-Man Movement, the Gimme Back My Job, Dammit Coalition (GBMJ,DC) has risen, and it has spread like wildfire among conservatives sick and tired of illegals taking the jobs from deserving American citizens. No longer content to wait for the government to do it for them, these patriots have taken matters into their own hands. Now they're doing more than just protesting or watching from the sidelines - they're taking back their Constitutional, God-given right to a job. Suddenly, you see them everywhere - on the sidewalk with a leaf-blower strapped to their back, in the parking lot of your favorite restaurant with the keys to your car or inside, balancing a heavy-laden bus tray full of dirty dishes as they adroitly refill your iced tea glass on their way back to the kitchen. You may find them bent over in a lettuce field under a blistering sun with a rake in their hand, or endangering their limbs with casually-maintained but lethally sharp meat-cutting machinery for fourteen hours or more a day while earning somewhere around three dollars an hour, with no benefits, medical insurance, workman's compensation, or even bathroom breaks.

Most of them say they've never been happier.

"For the first time in my life, I feel needed," says Coalition member Chuck B. Liggett, 70, a former accountant who now works in a chicken-packing plant in Amarillo, Texas. "When the floor boss screams at me for slowing down, I feel a surge of pride because what I do actually matters. Now, I do an honest day's work for my pay, and by the time I collapse on my filthy mattress on the floor of my stinking room at the end of my fifteen-hour shift, I know I really earned that forty dollars!"

And it's not only men who are flocking to this bold new movement. Conservative women are finding satisfaction, fulfillment and a sense of what it feels like to be a real American as they embrace this exciting, energetic new way of life. Darlene Simmons, 47, works in a factory in downtown Los Angeles, sewing elastic bands into men's underwear seven days a week.

"It works out great, because working seven days means that I can save the expense of a car and an apartment - not that I could afford them on my salary," she explains. "I just fall asleep sitting at my sewing machine, and when I wake up, I'm right there ready for another day of rewarding, eye-straining, repetitive-stress-injury-inducing work!"

The jobs bonanza has been beneficial for Darlene's whole family as well.

"We're going back to the good old-fashioned American work ethic that made this country great!" says Darlene. "My kids used to be spoiled, lazy, smart-mouthed and never satisfied. No matter how much stuff we bought them, it was never enough. Now my kids work in the factory right along with me! Even my seven-year-old daughter can sew a button on a fly with those itty-bitty hands of hers - she's pretty handy, considering how she was always so busy texting her little friends! And you'd better believe there's no more complaining - you should see them cry with happiness for a little half-cup of water!"

Not even Darlene's aged, infirm 94-years-young grandmother has to miss out on the fun - when she was fired from the factory for sewing her hand to a pair of extra-large briefs, she quickly found work again as a housemaid to the factory owner's wife. With tears in her eyes, choked up and unable to speak for gratitude, Grammaw merely trembled with joy, as Darlene quickly interjected, "They're so good to us here!"

Conservatives are done with talking - now they're stepping up to the plate and claiming what's theirs. All those cushy jobs that the illegal immigrants have been stealing are now back in the rightful hands of natural citizens like Chuck and Darlene. Unemployment? These stalwarts don't know the meaning of the word.

As a wise American patriot once said, "How uniquely American."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Just Imagine the Response...

...if a Democrat had yelled out "You lie!" during a George W. Bush speech before Congress.

Just think about it.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Health Care, Corporate Personhood, Campaign Finance - the Unholy Trinity

Yes, yes, I know that there's "no way we can get the public option in there, much less single payer." We are up against, not the ridiculous tea-baggers and right-wing fundie nutballs, but the mightiest corporations in the land - and in the world. Make no mistake - this is no 'grass-roots uprising by the little people' - this is a massively funded Astro-turf operation, financed by the limitless coffers of the corporations who have made that money off of the backs of the sick and the poor. and they are not about to watch their cash cow just wander out of the pasture.

As we have seen by the lackluster efforts of the Democrats in Congress and even the President, this is not only a Republican issue (except for the fact that those corporations favor Republicans, which is traditionally and proudly the party of Big Business) - everyone in Congress has been paid scads and scads to grant these corporations a favorable ear. And until we find a way to get that kind of money out of Congress - the kind of money that is being called "First Amendment Free Speech Rights" by the insurance corporations, drug corporations, and health-management-for-profit organizations, and "bribery" by anyone else with a brain cell rolling around in their head - we will not be able to allow the people's voice to be heard - and the American people want health care!

Health care that will not send you to the poorhouse after a single catastrophic illness.

Health care that will not be doled out to you by people who stand to lose money by giving it to you, and stand to make money by denying it to you.

Health care that will lower overall costs by allowing everyone preventive care and practical treatment that keeps them from getting so sick before they get care that they end up in the emergency room, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars for something that could have been taken care of earlier for 50-100 dollars.

Health care that will that will help us all stay healthier and therefore more productive, taking less sick days.

Health care that will save us all money by keeping families out of bankruptcy and destitution, and off of the public welfare rolls, beause of an illness.

Lisa over at That's Why has a great post on health care and why there's no real debate - check it out!

Insurance has its place - for cosmetic or elective surgery, perhaps; for boutique care. If some rich yahoo wants a fancy hospital suite to get their facelifts and boob jobs in, by all means - get insurance for that! Pet insurance - sure! Pet medical care is expensive, and if we have pets, we want them to have good care and can pool our risk for that. I am consdering that myself, if I can get to where I can afford it. Insure your house, your car, your valuables. That's free-market.

But not profit-making off of life and death.

Every other civilized nation in the world makes it illegal to sell for-profit insurance for primary, necessary care. There are places (Switzerland, I think) that allow private insurance but it must be not-for-profit.

We cannot allow the necessities of life to become hostage to a private, for-profit model that is accountable not to the people, but to its shareholders only. Water, electricity, clean and breathable air, infrastructure (including basic communication) - these are things that fall under the category of 'life' in the phrase 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'. Freedom does not mean freedom to monopolize and steal. That original phrase was going to be 'life, liberty and property', and it was rightly changed.

'Government' is not a dirty word - unless you make it one!

So, to really be able to attack this problem in a way that we can win, there are two thing that we must look at - corporate personhood and campaign finance.

'Corporate personhood' was bought and paid for in the 1880s. Before then, there were restrictions by the states on how corporations could operate, and they could be dissolved by their state if they broke those laws. Of course, that was incredibly grating to the corporations, and they began lawyering up and devising legal strategies for many years before, waiting for just the right case and right justices to make a case for corporate personhood, which arrived in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad in 1886.

Once that was established (using the Fourteenth Amendment - same amendment that installed George W. Bush in the White House without being elected), corporations were not 'artificial legal constructs', like churches, unions, unincorporated businesses, civic clubs, and even governments. Corporations had the same rights as human beings - including freedom of speech - with none of the attendant vulnerabilities. They have an infinite 'lifespan'; no medical needs; no need for food, water or air; no families to protect and provide for. They can dissolve and re-form at any time. In a legal battle between a person and a corporation, the corporation can simply stall until that person dies. There is no way to have a fair contest between a person and a corporation - yet we are to consider them on the same legal footing as human beings?

This misguided judgment has set the tone for the declining quality of life for human beings as a whole, and a concentration of power, wealth and comfort to those few humans who reap the benefits of association with big corporations. And one of the biggest scams they have going is the 'health insurance' scam. And since a corporation's only obligation is to its bottom line - by law - the real-life-human-being effects of its money-making model do not figure into its calculations.

It can't.

We must understand that if a corporation were to put human well-being before profit, it would be breaking the law - violating the legal conditions of its obligations to its stockholders. It's not wrong to put profits first for a for-profit corporation.

What is wrong is placing the life and death of human beings into the hands of a for-profit corporation.

The government, on the other hand, was specifically designed to put the welfare of 'we the people' first. And the government is also accountable to us, unlike a corporation. That is why these life-and-death issues need to be in the hands of 'we the people'.

No, the government is not perfect. Yes, there are many things that could and should be changed to ensure accountability - but as citizens we do have that power. With corporations we do not. And do not give me that hoo-haw about 'competition and free market and the consumer making the choice and influencing the corporation that way'. That is malarkey and everyone knows it - even those who spout it like the Holy Gospel.

Which brings me to the next point about campaign finance.

As long as politicians are dependent upon huge sums of money to get elected and stay in office, almost half their time is involved in fundraising. And the massive amounts of money necessary to buy the television ads and other costs of campaigning are only available in three ways: one's own money - in which case you are merely purchasing an election; small donations from individuals - which is like trying to build a sand castle one grain of sand at a time; and corporate donations. Each one comes with a cost that does not belong in public elections and the running of our country to the benefit of all, not the privileged few.

And the cost of corporate donations, of course, is an obligation to give that donor your ear. The response to that is always. "I only listen; just like I'd listen to any citizen - that doesn't mean that I will legislate the way the corporations want me to."

Bull. Shit. On a stick.

The pressure to deliver is tremendous. Corporate donations include both a carrot and a stick. The carrot is, of course, the big donations, which frees up the time that a congressperson has to spend fundraising, and ostensibly 'tend to the people's business'.

But there is also the stick, that rarely gets spoken about on TV and the media.

The stick involves financing a more cooperative opponent for your seat - either the seat you seek, or the seat you hold. Tom "Dancing With the Stars" DeLay (and stay tuned for some more Tommi revelry when I get half a minute to put it together) ruled the House with that bludgeon. And that is another excuse that even the best-intentioned politicians can use to kid themselves and justify toeing the corporate line - "Well, if I don't go along, then I'll lose my seat to someone who may be worse - at least I can try to mitigate it and do some damage control. The person who takes my seat might be a 100% corporate tool all the way, but (insert rationalization here)". This is what we are seeing now with the Dems and Obama.

We need to overhaul the way our campaigns are financed - it's by the public; for the public; and it has to be with public money. The same with election and voting machines - these cannot be run on private proprietary software! How the hell can we even allow that to happen? Proprietary voting machine software owned by a corporation with a political agenda? Who the fuck thought that was OK?

So, we need to understand at a basic, gut level why these two issues - corporate personhood and campaign finance - must be addressed to get any kind of change enacted. Otherwise, we're spinning our wheels in a muddy ditch - and wondering why we're not moving forward.