Archive for the News Category

Three’s a Crowd

Posted in Elections, News, Politics, USA with tags , on October 18, 2012 by Z

In case anyone blinked and missed the mainstream news coverage of this, Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala were arrested outside of the 2nd Obama – Romney debate.  While they were officially grabbed for “blocking traffic,” the charge may as well have been “being in a third party.”  I’m reminded of the Bush-Gore debate in 2000 at UMass, Boston.  I was student there at the time (way back in my undergraduate days) and was offered a chance to “win” one of the set-aside-for-students tickets.  I passed, as I was already at the breaking point with the dems over a number of things (GATT, NAFTA, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, Madeleine Albright’s horrific take on Iraqi children, etc.).  One of my fellow students did get his hands on a ticket, however, and did something great.  He gave it to Ralph Nader.  This is what happened.  Kind of feels like we’ve been on an exercise bike for 12 years, doesn’t it?  Actually, forget that.  An exercise bike stays where it is.  We’re going in reverse.

Obromneycare, Dead Peasants and the Limits of Liberal Imagination

Posted in Capitalism, Economy, News, Politics, USA with tags , , on July 3, 2012 by Z

Obromneycare

 The Supreme Court has reached a decision.  Obromneycare + individual mandate have emerged from their rather cushy gauntlet intact.  How?  The penalty for the uninsured has been classified as a tax.  (See Correntewire for an excellent summary of Roberts’ legal gymnastics).  Discussion of Obromneycare’s constitutionality or lack thereof has been covered quite well elsewhere, so I’m going to do something else.  First, a brief summary of my own experience with the individual mandate in Massachusetts, where we’ve been living with the Romneycare to which Obama has attached his “Ob”:

For a while, I was covered by a subsidized plan because neither of my jobs offered insurance and my annual income was just under the cutoff point (300% of the federal poverty level).  Then I finished graduate school and moved to full time at one job, gaining insurance through my employer.  The tanking economy took a toll on that employer, which led to a reduction in my hours – which caused me to lose full time status – which allowed human resources to decree that I was no longer entitled to full time benefits – which meant my insurance was no more.  Luckily, I was able to keep three of my original five days a week at that job, and still had weekends at my other job, giving me a patchwork full time schedule, but no benefits.  I couldn’t go back on the subsidized plan, because my income was now too high.  At the same time, the cheapest available private plan that satisfied Romneycare’s holy writ cost more than double what I’d paid for the subsidized plan, and nearly double what I’d paid through my employer.  Obviously, I couldn’t afford it, and even if I could, I’d never have been able to pay the outrageous deductible if I had needed any care.  I then found that the penalty (properly called a penalty and not a tax here in Massachusetts) was lower than the cost of the cheapest plan and thanked the stormin’ mormon that I would be allowed to not buy a terrible, useless and expensive product, but could simply pay an arbitrary fine for the privilege of living with no health insurance.  Thanks, Mitt!  When tax time rolled around, I dutifully filled out my state return, waiting anxiously to see the outcome of the still relatively new healthcare schedule that would determine the extent of my fine.  I was surprised.  A handy chart through which I was obliged to search until I found the entry under my zip code informed me of what the state deemed an affordable payment for health insurance for my income group in my area.  The schedule I was filling out then spilled the beans: because the cost of the cheapest available plan exceeded the state’s notion of an affordable payment in my zip code at my income, I was off the hook.  No penalty.  Of course, I was still without insurance.

What lessons can we extract from my experience?  First of all, Romneycare, touted as “universal” by both Romney (that is, past-Romney.  Present-Romney has sworn to slay the beast he now retroactively did not spawn.) and current Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick is anything but.  Large groups of people throughout the state are deemed unable to afford the most affordable plans produced by the vaunted private sector, but are not sufficiently impoverished to warrant the attention of the state.  My situation is not unusual.  Depending on the overtime, I’m quite firmly in the 32-35k range, and the mixing and matching of part time positions is not at all strange in this era of underemployment.  It’s worth pointing out that Commonwealth Care, the group of subsidized plans here in Massachusetts, is available to a larger income group than Medicaid will be nationally under the ACA, meaning that even more people nationally than in Massachusetts will slip through the middle and be uninsured despite the new law.  In short, there’s nothing ‘universal’ about any of this.  There’s really no need to discuss the difference between care and insurance, as anyone interested in this issue is already aware of the health insurance industry’s apparent business model (“Find a way not to pay”).  The horrific deductibles many of the Romneycare spawned plans feature make the plans themselves so insubstantial, they serve no recognizable purpose other than fulfilling the minimum requirements necessary to avoid the penalty.  When I had to look into these “plans” a few years back, I found that some of them didn’t even offer prescription drug coverage, though it looks like that, at least, has been (partially) corrected.  If you’d like to see for yourself, just head over to the MA HealthConnector and shop around.  Have fun.  In effect, what the Massachusetts reform has accomplished is to establish a requirement that enables health insurance providers to sell bad products to a captive market.  At the same time, it allows those (like me) with whom private business would rather not deal to go without.  Private insurers therefore have free reign to sell barely there insurance to whatever groups of consumers they feel comfortable selling to, and leave the rest of us out to dry.

By creating a captive market, the ACA (like Romneycare) will basically carve out a fiefdom for the health insurance industry.  Purchasing terrible coverage under threat of a penalty (or tax) with no coverage amounts to nothing more than a legal obligation to fork cash over to an unaccountable private entity.  It’s downright feudal.  Which brings us to…

 

Dead Peasants

 While working on my master’s degree in a field in which I would later fail to find work, I developed an interest in agrarian history, which led me to the work of historian Thomas Bisson.  One of Bisson’s lesser known works is a book called Tormented Voices: Power, Crisis and Humanity in Rural Catalonia, 1140-1200.  The book was inspired by and largely based on research from a collection of peasant complaints regarding uncustomary abuse, violence and seizure of property and possessions.  Bisson frames the complaints within a narrative of the attempted expansion of seigniorial authority by local lords.  Within many of the complaints themselves, one can see the origins of some modern practices, including what has been called “Dead peasant insurance,” a practice in which a company will take out an insurance policy on the life of an employee.  Bisson makes several references to a woman named Ermessen who complained that she and her husband were forced to pay their lord 5 sous because their son had died.  This has nothing to do with health insurance (it’s really more about life insurance), but it does get at the diseased frame of mind we’re dealing with.  “Dead Pesants” is also a great title.  Bisson’s lords and knights set about trying to impose new fees, fines, dues, etc. on their peasants and used violence and systematic humiliation to force compliance.  The peasants complained to the Count of Barcelona (and later, the King of Aragon) hoping something might be done about their local lords.  Eventually, the King did take action, though this action occurred in the context of an ongoing struggle between royal and local authority, so how much weight the peasant’s complaints had is uncertain.  In any case, there is a clear parallel between the neo-feudal concept of dead peasant insurance and the neo-feudal health insurance dues now owed to the likes of Lord Aetna and the Holy Order of the Blue Cross & Shield.  Unlike in 12th century Catalonia, however, the current seigniorial overreach of the health insurance industry is not being done behind the back of a royal authority that might one day oppose it.  It is instead the result of collusion with that authority.  The ACA represents official sanction for the private management (and profit) of (and from) a properly public function.  It is legitimized neo-feudal rentier capitalism.

 

The Limits of Liberal Imagination

 The ACA represents the present limits of both liberal political will and imagination.  I suspect that conceptual constipation and lack of historical memory play a role in this quagmire.  Why else would the allegedly liberal wing of the democratic capitalist enterprise, the would be heirs of 1789 or at least 1776, have no better ideas than pressing for dues and rents from debt incumbent serfs, the way their old foe the feudal nobility did?  The situation would be hilariously bizarre, if it weren’t so transparent and sad.

Delusional hysteria isn’t the exclusive property of the parties Republican and Tea.  There’s just as much making the rounds amongst the Dems.  If those shaking from terror and screaming “Socialism!” in the ACA’s general direction are deluded and dead wrong (and they are), then those cheering about how it’s a step toward single payer are just as ridiculous.  By funneling cash into the pockets of insurance providers while simultaneously making them an integral part of a formally legislated healthcare plan, Obama & friends have created a barrier to single payer.  Should we ever have such a plan here in the US, it will need to be forced on a more, not less powerful insurance lobby.  It will exist despite, not because of, the ACA.  That polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans favor single payer really makes one wonder why the liberal imagination doesn’t seem to encompass this popular idea.  I once thought this could be explained via the usual logic regarding lobbyists and corporate money, but it’s more than that.  It’s a failure of imagination.  The ACA is the ultimate expression of a world view incapable of looking for solutions beyond the boundaries of the neoliberal consensus.  One might even argue that the individual mandate itself is an admission that American capitalism as it now exists has failed.  Private insurers have failed to achieve universal insurance in the “free” market.  The solution?  Don’t rethink markets – use the state to force people into them!  This represents an intellectual as well as a material failure, in that the initial, material failure (the existence of the uninsured, insured people denied claims) is compounded by a failure of imagination (“Private insurance didn’t work.  Try it again harder.”).  The ACA and in particular the individual mandate are at their core the self-cannibalization of American liberal capitalism.  The capitalist component is forced to eat a bit of liberty to sustain itself.  We’ve already seen this in other more obvious areas, such as the NDAA, the crackdown against the Occupy Movement, etc.  It is more and more apparent that liberals, shackled as they are to neoliberalism, will not be able to save liberty from capitalism.  Only the real left can do that.

Bad Faith 2012: They aren’t out of touch, they’re just not talking to you.

Posted in Bad Faith, Elections, Media, News, Politics, USA with tags , , , , , , on May 30, 2012 by Z

The conventional wisdom regarding both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama (according to their respective opponents in the left and right wings of the American neoliberal party with two names) is that they’re “out of touch.”  This is a very appealing explanation, especially in the case of Romney with his alien demeanor and cavalier country club financial sense (bet you how much, Mitt?).  However, there’s a better explanation.   They just aren’t talking to you.  The conversation taking place between candidates, pundits, etc. not only during election years, but all the time doesn’t require input from the American public.  It fact, it doesn’t even want it.  This conversation is about our future, but it isn’t one we’re actually invited to; it’s merely taking place where we can hear it.

 

When Mitt Romney stood in front of a crowd of his loyal followers at a palatial mansion and suggested that everyone should be able to live “like this,” many rightly pointed out that the very suggestion was absurd.  Of course it’s not possible for everyone to have a mansion with a household staff and all the ridiculous luxuries associated with that lifestyle (it’s especially impossible for the members of the household staff).  Yet, the people who pointed this out missed the point.  Mitt knows full well that not everyone can live his lifestyle (again, especially not the household staff).  So what’s the secret that renders this insane attitude comprehensible?  Simple – if you think his statement was strange, he wasn’t talking to you.  He was talking to people who can live “like this.”  He was talking to people who do have the wealth, the connections and the desire to live “like this.”  The household staff, for example, are not included when Mitt says “everyone.”  Neither are most of us.  We aren’t the people in whose interests he wants to run the country, and we don’t have what he needs to get where he wants to go.  Consider also his laughable suggestion that young people borrow money from their parents to start a business.  “Is he serious?” many asked.  Well, yes he was – he just wasn’t talking to you.  How can you tell?  Easy – because either you don’t have enough money to lend your children to enable them to take his advice, or if you’re young, your parents don’t have enough to lend to you.  Or, and this is certainly outside of Mitt’s experience, you do have the necessary capital, but don’t want to be a business owner.  If any of these things are true, Mitt wasn’t talking to you.  In Mitt land, the solution to your problems is to become a business owner.  If your class, your interests or your financial situation prevent you from doing this, Mitt doesn’t think your problems need solving.  You are a non person.

 

Barack Obama may take a slightly different approach, but offers the same result.  He’ll talk to us – I understand we’re meant to hope for change, or some such – but his policies, as noted elsewhere, are more or less the same as his predecessor’s.  Keep hoping, I guess.  The nice boss (Obama) talks to his employees while he exploits them, while the traditional boss (Romney) is content to let the rabble believe he’s talking to them.  Meanwhile, the neoliberal policy agenda marches on.

 

Public political discourse in the US remains confined to a ruling class.  This ruling class is more eclectic than it once was, as it includes both the traditional 1%er types and a class of professional politicians, but in most cases debate about policy remains firmly in the narrow neoliberal frame long laid out for us.  This is because the people participating in this debate don’t want our input.  We are allowed to fool ourselves into believing that we’re included, but the truth is that we’re spectators.  We can observe this public discourse through the mass media, but our input is neither welcomed nor necessary.  The position of the general public is not unlike that of a household servant.  The masters of the house, our employers, are arguing over how best to run their household, including how to treat us.  We are in the room, we can see and hear the discussion, but although we may convince ourselves that we’re involved, we are not.  Our access to the political process is largely coincidental at this point.  We can see it on TV, but attempting to contribute in the traditional way is a bit like yelling at game show contestants.  The folks on Wheel of Fortune can’t hear you, and neither can your political class.  Not only that, they aren’t even talking to you.

 

A Quick Word on May Day

Posted in Media, News, Politics with tags , , on May 6, 2012 by Z

As usual whenever anyone protests anything pertaining to class in the US, the blinders were on throughout the country.  I’ve seen quite a variety in crowd size estimates for the various May Day marches all over the states last week, most of them suspiciously low if half of what I see outside of professional media outlets is true.  More irritating is the realization that had I not deliberately sought out May Day related news, I might never have known anything had happened at all.  Fortunately, history is harder to derail by manipulating public discourse while actual political action is ongoing.  Both frantic denunciations and faux-oblivious silence sound eerily like a superstitous man whistling past the graveyard when they’re coming out of American “news” professionals.  Coverage or no coverage, the May Day rallies around the US (not to mention the rest of the world, where they were even bigger) show that the Occupy movement is going strong, and can organize in pretty much any city it needs to.

Of all the things that might come out of this, I hope most of all that it will put the US on a path that will bring back May Day in a country that has all but forgotten it.  Forget Labor Day.  A day to celebrate labor and the power of workers should be international.

Death and the Private Public

Posted in Capitalism, Media, News, USA with tags , , on March 25, 2012 by Z

The Trayvon Martin shooting has provoked a number of reactions throughout the internet and beyond, from the predictable (but reasonable) “If Trayvon had been white, Zimmerman would have been arrested” to the predictable (but pants-on-head retarded) “Well, he musta done sumthin.”  We were even treated to the Geraldo Rivera “hoodie as universal gang uniform” thesis (Uh oh – I’m pretty sure I own a couple of those.  I’d better check myself for gang tattoos and concealed weapons).  The prez went so far as to point out that if he had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon.  Sweet, I guess, although it does sound exactly like the sort of fundamentally noncommittal comment one might make in an election year to give Trayvon supporters the impression that one is on their side without giving that same impression to their (presumably white) detractors.  I’m going to focus on something else: gated communities.

Given the flood of coverage on the shooting, I initially thought one professional or another would comment on this at some point, but then I remembered that metastasized capitalism and private property worship are invisible to the mainstream media in the same way that water is invisible to fish.  That being the case, I’ll take a shot myself.  The gated community always struck me as suspiciously neo feudal: a quasi-public space arbitrarily cordoned off at the whim of some bearer(s) of accumulated capital for the alleged benefit of its wealthy and/or indebted inhabitants.  This is exactly the sort of ill defined space one might expect to see in a nation where a rigid and impractical conception of private property is asserting itself.  You know, like the US.  It is also the sort of space that appeals immediately to the aspiring and/or failed law enforcers among us (like George Zimmerman).  The private property designation carries a sort of “keep off my lawn” mentality right along with it that gives delusional fans of the “Law and Order” family of police procedural dramas an excuse to play cop (minus the actual training, knowledge of the law, etc. – but racial stereotypes, of course, remain constant).  Outside of a gated community, a “self-appointed neighborhood watchman” as Zimmerman has been called, is known as a nosy neighbor.  People don’t like nosy neighbors.  Cops tend to become frustrated with nuisance calls from nosy neighbors.  Add a gated community, however, and you get a “self appointed neighborhood watchman.”  Add a gun, and you get a vigilante with a sense of power and entitlement.  I can’t help but think that even a nut like Zimmerman would think twice before following an innocent teen down a public street.  Gated communities introduce the logic of private property to areas that should be public.  Lords of the manor (like Zimmerman) or private security guards who would otherwise not perform such functions are suddenly endowed with (or believe they are endowed with) police powers.  Public space becomes an extension of the private home.  Not cool, America.  The whole mess reeks of the misapplication of the classical Lockean conception of private property in which a titular owner has absolute control of his/her/their property, as though only they had a stake in its use.  Zimmerman’s apparent attitude – that Trayvon Martin had no interest in (or indeed right to) the streets of the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community is a symptom of this absurd conceit.  Trayvon had a clear interest in the streets: he was walking home on them.  Even if we ignore the obvious problems with Florida’s “Stand your ground” law, even if we ignore the role of racism, there is one thing we cannot ignore: we are a society that has apparently decided that a young man’s right to life doesn’t stack up to a suburbanite’s right to a private neighborhood.  Not cool, America.

Elect the Dead

Posted in Korea, News, Politics, USA with tags on December 20, 2011 by Z

Kim Jong-Il is dead, and his son Kim Jong-Un is set to take over.  What will this mean for the hermit kingdom?  I don’t know.  What I do find interesting is this little known fact: The titular head of the North Korean state is still Kim Il-Sung, the late Kim Jong-Il’s father.  This “necrocracy” as the late Christopher Hitchens called it does give me an idea.  Maybe we should adopt a similar approach here in the states.  Our electoral system and its conjoined parties has become a mockery of even its very modest original promise.  Rather than not vote, we could all agree on a necrocratic write in.  John Brown for president.  How about it, gang?

The Not so Hidden Costs of Neoliberalism

Posted in Capitalism, Economy, Heritage Foundation, Media, News, USA with tags , , on December 20, 2011 by Z

Who is John Galt?  Well, the strictly factual answer is that he’s a fictional character in a boring novel by a 3rd rate pseudo-intellectual.  In a broader sense, he’s an inspiration for the neoliberal financial oligarchy (and its congressional quislings) that set the stage for this.  That’s right – 1 in 2 Americans are now poor or low income.  Yours truly may be late to the party (this news is several days old, of course), but I simply can’t let this pass without comment.  Worth noting is the tone of the piece – that is, the failure of the “journalist” to connect the dismal data to any sort of historical context.  What we are left with is a narrative of crisis without responsibility.  “Rising housing costs” are cited, along with an aside about stagnating wages and rising medical costs, but these are not explained.  They are noted simply as events – a case of rising costs – rather than as the real consequences of quantifiable human actions.  Apparently, when it comes to the clear results of the blatant transfer of wealth from everyone else to the rich (privatized profit, socialized risk), the 1% have no historical agency.  No, they only have that when they’re being “job creators.”  (When was that, exactly?  I must have been indisposed that day, ’cause I sure don’t remember it).  The best part is this bit:

“Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, questioned whether some people classified as poor or low-income actually suffer material hardship. He said that while safety-net programs have helped many Americans, they have gone too far, citing poor people who live in decent-size homes, drive cars and own wide-screen TVs.”

Evidently the boys over at the Heritage Foundation would have us believe that cars are an unnecessary luxury in a country with notoriously inadequate public transportation.  But Robby – how are we going to get to all these jobs you job creators have on the way?  Evidently it’s also necessary to make sure you destroy any possessions that hint at your past existence as a non-impoverished person.  If you’re recently poor and still have that house you bought back when you weren’t, be sure to get rid of it, or the Heritage Foundation won’t consider you poor – and god help you if you happen to live near a Rent-A-Center.*  Rent a TV you could never afford to buy, and Robby Rector doesn’t care about anything else.  Only someone utterly disconnected from real life could confuse the trappings of prosperity for prosperity itself.  My downstairs neighbors are impoverished Brazilian immigrants, but even they have an excellent stereo system.  That one comfort doesn’t make them any less poor, nor does it somehow render their hardships irrelevant.

The absurdity of Rector’s position seems obvious, but for the many yet ensnared in what the great Joe Bageant called “The American Hologram,” appearance equals reality.  I recall a night about six years ago when, at a dinner with friends, discussion turned to the economy.  After I made the usual assertions regarding capitalism’s contradictions to the bored faces of people used to my lefty ramblings, I argued that the American economy was looking more and more like that of a third world country.  There was only one question: The US will be a third world country – but will it look like it?  The implication, of course, being that an abysmal standard of living is perfectly acceptable as long as the appearance of prosperity is maintained.  Unless the streets turn to dusty dirt roads and the homes to the shacks of Hollywood poverty, the actual conditions don’t matter.  We’ve been trained well.

So who is John Galt?  John Galt is a tepid excuse for the not so hidden costs of neoliberalism.  Gear up, folks.  It’s going to get worse.

*For the uninitiated, Rent-A-Center is a business that exploits the working poor by renting electronics to them at monthly rates that appear affordable for a predetermined length of time that guarantees they will ultimately pay more than the cost of buying their rented “center” outright, which they of course would never have enough ready cash to do.