Category Archives: Medicare

Confounder in Chief Trump Cons America into Republican Repeal-and-Run of Obamacare


As the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as US president approaches, it’s still uncertain how exactly he is going to govern, since his actions before and after the election show his total disregard of accepted political norms.

He has surrounded himself with a billionaire cabinet whose members have political views that conflict with each other and himself; but this may in fact be how he intends to rule, elevating himself above clashing voices like a Mafia Godfather. The Washington Post comments: “A number of people have been given the highest level of White House jobs without a clear indication of who is in charge. By some accounts, Trump likes this sort of management chaos around him. But it is not conducive to policy creation.”

Trump specializes in creating political confusion while promoting his next “big reveal,” such as a “beautiful” health care plan with “insurance for all.” But regardless of these promises, the ultimate outcome of the chaos and corruption within his cabinet can only be the Republican agenda of dismantling state regulations and agencies on behalf of corporations and the plutocracy.

Healthcare is a concrete example of policy confusion that eventually defaults to the position of the Republican right. On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act but at the same time save Medicare and Medicaid. He repeated his promise last weekend, telling the Washington Post he would unveil a nearly finished plan that would guarantee “insurance for everybody.” This conflicted with Republican rhetoric that they would focus on lower costs to ensure “access” to insurance, rather than universal coverage.

But Wednesday, the day of the confirmation hearing for Tom Price, his nominee to lead Health and Human Services, Trump backtracked on the promise in two separate interviews. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent comments: “While he reiterated that people without money will get coverage, he clarified that he’s considering a mechanism to do this: Medicaid block grants. … Progressives tend to oppose Medicaid block grants because they are all but certain to get cut, and because states would restrict eligibility requirements. … Thus, this idea – which seems likely to be at the center of the Trump/GOP replacement plan – would dilute the guarantee of coverage that Obamacare is striving to make universal. … Republicans just don’t believe health reform should guarantee coverage in the manner that the ACA does. … But the point is that Trump and his advisers are trying to obscure this. Trump does not want to be the guy who kicked millions off insurance. But it appears congressional Republicans philosophically cannot support anything that does not do this.”

In the confirmation hearings, Price himself twisted and turned to avoid answering a question from Elizabeth Warren if Medicare or Medicaid would be cut. Asked point-blank if dollars would not be cut, he replied: “We should put forward the resources to take care of the patient.” Earlier, he repeated the Republican line that individuals should have the opportunity to “gain access” to coverage, as opposed to “insurance for everybody.”

Trump’s role in this scenario is to create public uncertainty about what his administration is actually going to do about healthcare, a smokescreen for what Republican legislators like Price are preparing. This is a big deal because the deindustrialization of America has eliminated most unionized jobs with health benefits. The Republican rush to repeal the Affordable Care Act and remove coverage from up to 32 million Americans will affect many Trump voters who believed his promises of a better healthcare plan. But since the Republican strategy is to repeal the funding for Obamacare before a new plan takes effect – described by Elizabeth Warren on Sunday as “repeal and run” – it will be politically impossible to restore the taxes that will pay for any of the things he or his spokespeople have promised.

Many people who voted for Trump believed he would stop short of removing the coverage they were already receiving under the ACA. Greg Sargent reports a CNN feature about “people who live in Eastern Kentucky coal country and backed Trump because he promised to bring back coal jobs. Now, however, they worry that a provision in the ACA that makes it easier for longtime coal miners with black lung disease to get disability benefits could get eliminated along with the law. That provision shifted the burden of proving that the disability was directly caused by work in the mines away from the victim” and placed it on the owners.

Sargent argues that “while Trump did repeatedly vow repeal, these voters were absolutely right to conclude that he would not leave them without the sort of federal protections they enjoy under Obamacare. That’s because Trump did, in fact, clearly signal to them that this would not happen. … Yes, Trump said endlessly that he’d do away with the ACA instantly. Yes, his own replacement plan would leave millions without coverage. But here’s the rub: Trump also went to great lengths to portray himself as ideologically different from most other Republicans on fundamental questions about the proper role of governmental intervention to help poor and sick people without sufficient access to medical care. … Trump also repeatedly vowed not to touch Medicare, explicitly holding this up as proof he is not ideologically aligned with Paul Ryan on the safety net.”

Now the reality of Trump’s plans is not only causing extreme emotional distress but also imperiling the health of people currently covered by the law. Although under-reported, Bernie Sanders’ “Our Revolution” organized a day of action against ACA repeal on Sunday. At least 40 rallies took place in different cities, the highest profile one in Macomb County just outside of Detroit, Michigan, drew up to 10,000 in below-freezing weather to hear Sanders call for the defense of the ACA and the creation of a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system. Some in the crowd were Trump supporters now scared of losing their coverage. Elizabeth Warren spoke to 6,000 people at the historic Faneuil Hall in Boston – the rally was intended to be inside the hall, but had to be moved outside because of the size of the crowd.

In Price’s confirmation hearing, Democratic Senator Patty Murray told him: “My constituents are coming up to me with tears in their eyes, wondering what the future holds for their health care given the chaos Republican efforts could cause.” And in local meetings, Republican legislators are confronting angry constituents demanding answers on Obamacare repeal. The Houston Chronicle reported that far-right Ways and Means chair Rep. Kevin Brady, a vocal critic of the law, encountered 50 people at a meeting where he expected them to share “experiences with rising costs and loss of coverage and choice.” Instead they grilled him about his support for repeal without a replacement. “Don’t lie!” shouted Emily Hoppel, a 39-year-old with her 2-year-old son perched on her hip, when Brady moved from one goal of dismantling ACA to another of defunding Planned Parenthood, which he said used taxpayer money for abortion. “The Hyde Amendment,” she sputtered, incredulously, as Brady continued to talk over her. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, Rep. Justin Amash was repeatedly interrupted by constituents concerned about the repeal of the Act during a packed town hall meeting. After Amash referred to the healthcare law as “Obamacare,” a number of audience members interrupted to insist that he call it the “Affordable Care Act” instead.

The left needs to cut through the smoke-and-mirrors rhetoric that Trump, the Confounder in Chief, uses to dominate the media and work to build support for Sanders’ and Warren’s defense of the ACA, together with other movements of mass resistance to corporate hegemony. This means developing an organized opposition to the Democratic leadership which failed to mobilize the party’s voters in the 2016 election.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, Bernie Sanders, donald trump, Elizabeth Warren, Medicare, Obama, Obamacare, Stand Your Ground law, Uncategorized

Trump and May: Wrecking the Social Compact in the U.S. and Britain (if we let them)


Despite the different social contexts, there are significant transatlantic parallels between the political situation in Europe and America. Sarkozy’s humiliation in France’s centre-right presidential primary has been attributed to a “revolt by the French people against the political class” by François Fillon, the winning candidate. In the US, the election of Donald Trump is equivalent to a Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen achieving presidential office, against the wishes of the political class. Now the centralization of executive branch powers that continued under Obama will be handed over to Trump, whose politics are scaringly shallow.

In the UK, after the Brexit vote to leave the EU, the Conservative party establishment quickly asserted control over its anti-EU faction. Prime Minister Theresa May rode the Brexit tiger by moving the government sharply to the right, but while she maintains a Thatcher-like image of unflappable control, in reality she is improvising from day to day in negotiations over the country’s transition. She hints she will keep key industries in the single market while being able to reduce immigration from within the EU, which European leaders have already denounced as unacceptable.

Her Cabinet is reportedly split to the point of paralysis over what strategy to follow. A recent memo by a Deloitte analyst pointed out that more than 500 separate commercial treaties would have to be re-negotiated in the event of a hard Brexit (leaving the single market), which would need the recruitment of another 30,000 civil servants and would be far “beyond the capacity and capability” of the government.

Across the Atlantic, the Washington Post argues that “Trump took the elements of an independent candidacy — the lack of clear ideology, the name recognition of a national celebrity and the personal fortune needed to fund a presidential campaign — and then did what no one seemed to have thought of before. He staged a hostile takeover of an existing major party. He had the best of both worlds, an outsider candidacy with crosscutting ideological appeal and the platform of a major party to wage the general election.”

Now that he has been elected, however, Trump has turned to the Republican establishment for help in building his administration. Trump’s initial appointments, including the neo-fascist Steve Bannon, appear to be aimed at appeasing his energized base – the tea party and hard-right racist wings of the Republicans – but he is already negotiating with establishment figures like Romney and Priebus and has embraced Paul Ryan’s budget plans.

Political theorist Theda Skopcol writes that after his unexpected election victory, Trump’s inner circle “provided little in the way of expert allies to help him fill tens of thousands of federal government jobs and plan comprehensive policy agendas. Especially on the domestic side, Trump has responded by immediately outsourcing much of this work to experienced GOP officials, including key players in his emergent White House and in Congress who have long been groomed by the Koch network. After apparently denouncing and opposing GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan during the election campaign, President-Elect Trump did a quick about-face to fully embrace Ryan and his radical government-shrinking policy agenda.”

This means the Republican-controlled government will ram through the Koch policy agendas of privatizing Medicare, cutting taxes even more for the rich, busting unions, deregulating business and abandoning environmental regulation. Some Democratic politicians like Chuck Schumer advocate holding Trump to fulfil the more populist of his campaign promises. But this can only sow illusions about the new administration: it will be the most corrupt, anti-labor and anti-jobs government in the U.S. since 1776.

Trump’s plan for rebuilding infrastructure, for example, which sounds like it would create construction jobs, is in reality “a tax-cut plan for utility-industry and construction-sector investors, and a massive corporate welfare plan for contractors. The Trump plan doesn’t directly fund new roads, bridges, water systems or airports, as did Hillary Clinton’s 2016 infrastructure proposal. Instead, Trump’s plan provides tax breaks to private-sector investors who back profitable construction projects. … Because the plan subsidizes investors, not projects; because it funds tax breaks, not bridges; because there’s no requirement that the projects be otherwise unfunded, there is simply no guarantee that the plan will produce any net new hiring.”

Skopcol points out that “Liberals and Democrats could be so focused on Trump’s racial and international policies that they fail to mobilize widespread American popular support to save programs like Medicare. Ironically, however, the pending Koch-inspired eviscerations of the U.S. social insurance system are likely to disillusion many of Trump’s ‘make America great again’ voters. … With total GOP control of Washington DC about to happen, the Koch network dream of an enfeebled U.S. domestic government is on the verge of realization. Unless Democrats learn to speak clearly and organize in many states and counties, no one will even be available to make the key changes visible or explain what is happening to disillusioned voters.”

That’s the key issue: Democrats must speak clearly and organize against the dismantling of social entitlements, but that means overcoming the corporate Wall Street Democrats who are responsible for the party’s electoral defeat. Adam Green of the Progressive Change Committee criticized Clinton for not addressing the central issue of a rigged economy that was so important to voters. “The Democrats need to be willing to say that our economy is rigged against the little guy, our democracy is corrupted by big money and we will fight Trump’s pro-corporate agenda and dedicate ourselves to fixing this rigged system,” he said.

And Robert Reich slams the Democratic party for its corporate perspective. “The entire organization has to be reinvented from the ground up. The Democratic Party has become irrelevant to the lives of most people. It’s nothing but a giant fundraising machine. … “This new Democratic Party has got to show very vividly that Donald Trump … is fraudulent. And expose that fraud. And offer people the real thing, rather than the fake variety. … we need a political party, a progressive, new Democratic Party that’s going to be organizing in every state. And not only for the state elections, but also organizing grassroots groups that are active on specific issues right now in many, many states – including many of the groups that worked for Bernie Sanders – that need to be connected.”

While being in the forefront of the fight against the racist policies of the state, the left must participate in this struggle to change the Democratic party from within, as the only organization that can coordinate national resistance to Trump’s presidency. Millions of Americans are afraid of what they expect to happen and want to know what to do. They urgently need a roadmap of how to succeed in the fight for adequate housing, health, jobs, and a $15 minimum hourly wage; and a clear strategy to defend constitutional civil liberties and the hard fought gains of the Civil Rights Era. That makes it necessary to campaign on issues that will unite disparate groups and undermine Trump’s political support. A major battle inside and outside Congress to defend Medicare is an ideal opportunity to drive a wedge between Trump and those who supported him in the belief he cared about the needs of ordinary people like them.

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Filed under 2016 Election, Democratic Party, donald trump, Hillary Clinton, Medicare, political analysis, Trump, Uncategorized

The Kochs Can’t Slam Dunk Even After Buying an Election


America’s purplest plutocrats, the multi-billionaire Koch brothers, stand to reap the fruits of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision this November in the US mid-term elections. They are determined to manipulate the democratic processand overturn the Democratic majority in the Senate, preparing to outspend both Republicans and Democrats to the tune of $125 million. But as the Kochs flaunt their power to buy airtime, fund think-tanks, and pocket pundits, they are coming up against a different reality. It turns out that buying an election doesn’t mean a slam dunk, and that Americans will fight for fair play and a fair society.

The brothers’ ideological work is cut out for them, since the electorate across both parties is overwhelmingly wedded to ideas like the state taking care of the sick and elderly. A memo issued by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity explained they needed to undermine the importance Americans place on “taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak.” They have funded a barrage of TV ads attacking Obamacare, featuring a mother talking directly to camera musing over its disadvantages, which has as its ultimate motive discrediting the idea of government as an agent of positive economic change for struggling Americans.

While targeted at unseating Democrats, much of their spending is also intended to consolidate their influence in the Republican party through the leverage of an intransigent minority of Tea-Party legislators. Espousing a libertarian ideology, the brothers have a deep, vested interest in preventing state regulation of their huge investments in energy, transportation, and manufacturing. Growth of green energy technologies like solar and wind threatens to devalue their capital, and they have been instrumental through ALEC in blocking state legislation favoring the new technology.

Although the declining white vote is being eclipsed by the multiracial reality of America today, the brothers’ political strategy is to arouse the Republican base and encourage the disenfranchisement of Democratic voters. The Obamacare ads are clearly targeted at married women at home with kids, who along with old white men, are reliably Republican voters.

The first result of the Kochs’ efforts was seen in the North Carolina Republican primary. Over $2 million poured into the primary to ensure the plutocrats’ candidate of choice, Thom Tillis, was selected to run against sitting Democrat Kay Hagan. According to Chris Kromm on Democracy Now, “We saw two big players coming into the primary. One, nationally, was [Koch-funded] Americans for Prosperity. …They have spent more money attacking Kay Hagan than any other candidate across the country. And that started last fall. I mean, they’ve just been blanketing, a carpet bombing of the state of these attack ads, kind of trying to soften up support for Kay Hagan. Then, on the other side, you saw millions of dollars’ worth of ads supporting Tillis to really make sure he could survive this primary challenge from the tea party right.”

Although the Republican establishment-backed candidate, Tillis himself is so far to the right he is indistinguishable from his tea party challengers. As speaker of the North Carolina House, he pushed through a tax bill that cut income taxes on the rich, shifting the tax burden to an increased sales tax that affected the majority of people. He passed a bill to prevent the state from accepting Medicaid expansion funds under Obamacare – preventing hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians from access to health coverage and increasing their risk of death from illness. The legislature also passed a series of voter restriction changes that disproportionately affect poor and minority voters.

Tillis was able to do this because North Carolina, like many other states in the South and some in the mid-West, saw a virtually complete takeover of the legislature by right-wing Republicans in 2010, followed by the election of Republican Pat McCrory as governor in 2012. Since then, a state once known as one of the most moderate in the South has become a virtual laboratory for Tea Party-style policies.

Yet despite the Kochs’ propaganda onslaught and Tillis victory, there is mounting opposition to the legislature’s extremism. The growing “Moral Monday” movement has intercepted and directly challenged the Koch’s social Darwinism. One Monday in April 2013, a group of advocates for workers, civil rights and other issues entered the state capitol and refused to leave. Several members of the group, led by Rev. William Barber, head of North Carolina’s NAACP, were arrested that day, but each Monday since then the protesters returned. A rally in February this year drew more than 80,000 people, and public approval ratings for the governor and state assembly have tanked.

The protests in North Carolina have the advantage that the state house is located in Raleigh, at the apex of the “Triangle Area,” an urban and industrialized region that is considerably more moderate than the rural areas of the state. Significantly, however, the movement has spread rapidly from North Carolina to South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and some mid-Western states, becoming a rallying point for resistance to the Republican political elite. Although they have campaigned on a variety of issues, from voting rights to public education, events have created a focus on supporting Medicaid expansion in states where governors have refused the Obamacare provision for federal subsidy.

Atlanta, Georgia, is another site of resistance. Nearly 40 people were arrested protesting a bill that would bar the expansion of Medicaid. Rev. Raphael Warnock, who led the protests, told Democracy Now: “This was an effort to provide Medicaid, to provide health insurance, to some 650,000 Georgians. Georgia has the fifth-highest level of uninsured persons in the nation. We are witnessing, in this very moment, the closing of a number of rural hospitals. And so, while this issue is tragically and unfortunately racialized, often by those who are pushing against the Affordable Care Act, the fact is, it crosses racial lines. It moves from urban to rural issues. There are a lot of people who are suffering as a result of this.”

The South has been historically a bastion of reaction: Southern Democrats blocked the New Deal for African-Americans and resisted desegregation until federal intervention enforced Civil Rights Laws. As is well known, these led to a mass transfer of white Democratic voters to Republicans through Nixon’s Southern strategy. But in 2014 the American South is undergoing important changes. While Republicans have been able to leverage the deep strain of antigovernment sentiment, especially virulent in the South, and exploit racism, the growing fight over Medicaid expansion and a higher minimum wage is undermining its traditional conservatism and the racial divisions that have divided workers.

Not only did last Thursday’s one-day strike of workers in the fast-food industry mobilize workers in major cities like Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington DC, and Seattle for a $15 hourly wage and the right to form unions, but it also spread to towns in the deep South like Opelika, Alabama, West Memphis, Arkansas, and Southhaven, Mississippi, as well as cities in Florida, Texas, Missouri and the Carolinas. In all, workers in 158 US cities and 30 countries took part in the challenge to mega-corporations that are suffocating large swathes of the working population.

This growing movement defies the culture of intimidation and low-wage economics prevalent in the Southern states. No matter what the Kochs do, if the Democrats project a clear message of opposition to inequality, they can stem the Republican tide.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, fast-food workers, low-waged, Medicare, Obamacare, political analysis, strikes

Taking the Pulse of Struggle: Americans Ready to Battle the Corporate Attack on Living Standards


Last week’s overwhelming vote by 31,000 Boeing workers to reject a contract making cuts in pension and healthcare benefits is a signal that the tide is turning against the neoliberal strategy of using the threat of outsourced production to intimidate Americans into giving up their social safety net.

Boeing floated a promise of job security for the next eight years by committing to produce its newest aircraft in Seattle and offered a $10,000 bonus for agreeing to the deal. However, the current contract would be terminated, a defined-benefit pension plan replaced with a 401k, and healthcare costs increased.

Jeffrey Johnson of the Washington State Labor Council writes in the Seattle Times: “Machinists were presented with a unilateral proposal that would have frozen the pension system that they had bargained for over the last several decades — it would have also ended the pension system for new hires. …  It would have been unthinkable for grandparents or parents to sell out younger workers and future workers, many of whom are sons and daughters or nieces and nephews, and prevent them from earning a secure retirement future.”

According to the Washington Post, “Dian Lord, a toolmaker at Boeing’s facility in Renton who is nearing retirement, said Wednesday morning she believed the company was extorting its workers by pushing a swift contract vote while threatening to place 777X operations elsewhere if machinists don’t oblige. Still, Lord said she felt intense pressure to vote for the contract, especially considering that it could impact a variety of other Boeing workers and vendors should the company move elsewhere.”

The union leadership made no recommendation on the proposal until a packed meeting made clear that the membership overwhelmingly opposed it.

Reuters reports: “A crowd of more than 100 people erupted in cheers when the vote was announced amid a charged atmosphere at the union’s main hall in Seattle. … Even though the union’s 31,000 workers gave up their chance for [777X production] jobs, they considered the giveaways in the contract too grave to accept. … Voter turnout was high. Workers began lining up in predawn darkness on Wednesday outside the union hall in Everett, Washington and elsewhere in the Seattle area and in Oregon. … ‘It goes against everything that we’ve fought for over the years,’ said John Orcutt, 42, a 17-year union member and hydraulic tube bender.”

Boeing anticipated it could increase profits through confining wage increases to 1% annually for the life of the 777X project, reducing liabilities to retirees, and eliminating collective bargaining from the implementation of next-generation technology.

After the Boeing workers’ union was provoked into a 52-day strike in 2008, the company retaliated by moving work to South Carolina. The union dropped its complaint to the National Labor Relations Board about this illegal tactic when Boeing threatened to move production of another aircraft, the 737MAX, and demanded wage concessions in exchange for a guarantee that the plane would be built in unionized facilities around Puget Sound.

Jenny Brown of Labor Notes explains: “That contract saw a 70 percent yes vote and a generational split, with the over-50 workers voting no and the newer workers making only $15 an hour voting yes. The difference now is that, with the exception of those prepared to retire before 2016, everyone in the union is getting hit, hard. The younger workers lose out on a real pension, period. Anyone midway through their working years will lose a huge amount of the retirement income they anticipated. Medical costs will double or triple over the life of the extension, more than eating up the 1 percent raises. And the union membership will have no leverage against Boeing for 11 more years.”

The Boeing vote parallels Americans’ deep concerns about retirement and health coverage. This is why the reaction to the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is complex: despite the mismanaged launch of the website, the public is not moved by Republican attempts to repeal the law. Its advantage for the uninsured and low-paid is security in their coverage: it disconnects insurance from employment, removing the obligation to stay in an exploitative job in order to keep healthcare; it eliminates annual and lifetime benefit maximums, and prevents insurers refusing coverage because of pre-existing conditions. This is why politicians in Republican controlled states, organized by ALEC, are planning to undermine the law at the state level. They want to promote insecurity and intensify dependence on employers while cutting the social wage.

Obamacare attempts to rationalize healthcare while preserving the dominance of insurance companies by rearranging risk pools while mandating individual coverage. The health insurance industry is now positioned to extract premiums from a much larger base, creating a division of right-wing opinion between ALEC-backed governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and states where Republicans receive major campaign contributions from health insurers. In Florida, for example, the industry is pushing the state to reverse its stance on Medicaid. The federal government is offering billions of dollars to finance Medicaid’s expansion, and insurance companies want a piece of that action. Florida Blue executive Patrick Geraghty told journalists: “We believe strongly that we ought to be taking that funding.”

Obama has lost credibility with the public, however, because of the hopes raised by his optimistic statements about his administration’s signature legislation and their contradiction with the cack-handed implementation of the website, together with his promises about keeping existing plans (and, by implication, doctors with knowledge of people’s medical history). That is why the website debacle has eroded the trust Obama was able to leverage in two elections.

It also illustrates the bankruptcy of market-based solutions to social problems. The political decision to expand health coverage by relying on a mix of incentives and regulations for entrenched insurance companies, rather than instituting a single-payer system, has multiplied the law’s complexity exponentially. A physician writes that “administrative costs make up more than 30 percent of our national health care bill, most of it unnecessary. The waste in this area alone is equivalent to around $400 billion annually. That is more than enough to provide health care to every uninsured person living in our country. Some of these costs result from the slicing and dicing of Americans into ever-tinier and more confusing categories, the inevitable result of applying the principles of insurance to health care.” The Affordable Care Act will only increase this administrative complexity. It is “far too complicated and therefore too expensive to manage, full of holes, will be applied unevenly and unfairly, be full of unintended consequences, and be easily exploited by those looking to make a quick buck.”

While the problems with the Obamacare website will eventually be fixed, the need for adequate healthcare and an assurance that the old will not starve in retirement remains as acute as ever. The Boeing Union action is another example of the increased resistance to attempts to roll back Social Security and Medicare as well as to the assault on public workers’ pensions. This battle will undoubtedly intensify as the plutocracy and its political servants seek to lower the living standard of Americans.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, health care, Medicare, Obama, Obamacare, political analysis, Republicans

Uniting to Resist the Squeeze of the Plutocratic State: Fighting the NSA, Unfair Wages, and the Destruction of the Social Safety Net


Thousands demonstrated in Washington and across the US yesterday to protest NSA spying on citizens’ phone calls and electronic communications. A very broad coalition crossed political lines, reflecting a genuine popular movement. Although the “Stop Watching Us” rally was ignored by the mass media, an excellent account of it was carried by Russia Today.

The protest united organizations as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Green Party, Color of Change and Daily Kos to the Libertarian Party, FreedomWorks and Young Americans for Liberty, as well as individuals like Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei and journalist Glenn Greenwald; a punk band, YACHT, performed their song “Party at the NSA/Twenty-twenty-twenty-four hours a day!”

Banners and speeches thanked Edward Snowden for revealing the extent of government surveillance, and a statement from him was read to the crowd by Jesselyn Radack, director of the Government Accountability Project: “Today, no telephone in America makes a call without leaving a record with the NSA. Today, no Internet transaction enters or leaves America without passing through the NSA’s hands.” He denied that surveillance was anything to do with countering terrorism:  “It is about power, control, and trust in government; about whether you have a voice in our democracy or decisions are made for you rather than with you. We’re here to remind our government officials that they are public servants, not private investigators,” he said.

Snowden’s revelation that the US is also spying on foreign leaders’ personal phone calls has created more than diplomatic embarrassment. The international relations of the US have been weakened and its Anglophone accomplices in surveillance (the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) isolated at a time when these connections are central to the institution of new trade agreements, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership which gives transnational powers to US corporations. These negotiations are now unlikely to be completed before the end of the year deadline because other states in Southeast Asia and the Americas are pushing back against the terms of the agreement that undermine their national sovereignty. In addition, the government shutdown and impending debt ceiling standoff has called into question the dollar’s facilitation of world trade.

In Congress, Tea Party ideologues have done more than split the Republican party; they have also disrupted Obama’s efforts to rationalize the US state while containing domestic dissent within the established political system. Despite the acquiescence of the political elite, Obama has been unable to negotiate a “Grand Bargain” with Republicans that trades minor tax increases on the rich for cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Robert Reich comments that Washington’s political discourse has been framed entirely “around the size of government and the budget deficit – thereby diverting attention from what’s really going on:  the increasing concentration of the nation’s income and wealth at the very top, while most Americans fall further and further behind.”

The plutocratic campaign to avoid taxes, defund the state, and minimize regulation has jeopardized the US’s role in maintaining the conditions for international capital accumulation. But this crisis pales in comparison to its impact on the domestic situation. As Jo Comerford and Mattea Kramer pointed out, “Deep in the politics of the shutdown lies another truth: that it was all about taxes — about, to be more specific, the unwillingness of the Republicans to raise a penny of new tax revenue, even by closing egregious loopholes that give billions away to the richest Americans.  Simply shutting down the tax break on capital gains and dividends (at $83 billion annually) would be more than enough to triple funding for Head Start, domestic violence protection, the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program, and cancer care at the NIH.”

The media obsession with the Tea Party has masked the fact that real poverty has increased, especially in the South and West. The middle class has been hit by job cuts and mortgage defaults and is sinking into the ranks of the poor.  Millenials are jobless or low-waged and unable to pay back huge student loans. Meanwhile, CEOs’ compensation is skyrocketing while the average wage has plateaued. According to a new study, based on a federal meals program as a proxy for poverty, a majority of students in public schools throughout the American South and West are low-income for the first time in at least four decades. “Children from those low-income families dominated classrooms in 13 states in the South and the four Western states with the largest populations in 2011,” reported the Washington Post. “A decade earlier, just four states reported poor children as a majority of the student population in their public schools. But by 2011, almost half of the nation’s 50 million public-school students — 48 percent — qualified for free or reduced-price meals. In some states, such as Mississippi, that proportion rose as high as 71 percent.”

Resistance doesn’t make the headlines, but is building in different forms. The low-waged campaign for a $15 minimum wage is, of necessity, not an economic strike struggle, but is aimed at mobilizing public opinion against highly-paid CEOs, leveraging the rhetoric of the Occupy movement. The overwhelming support for Bill DeBlasio in the New York mayoral election is a sign of the popular reception of politicians who – at least rhetorically – address the actual problems faced by voters and oppose the enrichment of the one percent. Unrepentant Marxists like Louis Proyect have questioned his character, but this focus misses the significance of the support he is getting for an openly left populist platform. No doubt he will make compromises with the financial class, as anyone with connections to the Clintons would, but his support for fast-food workers in New York City does more than burnish his populist credentials. It also gives major legislative encouragement to the broadening of their campaign.

The Nation comments: “… de Blasio’s appearance Wednesday outside a downtown Burger King signaled a potentially new moment for both city politics and Fast Food Forward, the coalition behind New Yorkers fast-food worker campaign. As the mayor-apparent of New York City, de Blasio is not just some scrappy, local pol offering a thumbs up to a worthy cause; he is a rising political power with a broad mandate and potentially national platform (indeed, de Blasio is now one of the highest-ranking elected officials to embrace the fast-food workers’ movement).”

Another signal of the popular mood is the viral internet response to comedian Russell Brand’s BBC interview, not only because of his articulation of the estrangement the public feels from the parliamentary process, but also because of his spirited deconstruction of the arguments of the interviewer, Jeremy Paxman. Brand insisted that voting had not stopped the corruption of politicians or the jeopardy of the planet and that the political system had created a disenfranchised public that it failed to serve. “It is not that I am not voting out of apathy. I am not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations,” he said. He placed the blame for voter apathy on a system that no longer heard or addressed the vast majority of people, suggesting that politicians were only interested in “serving the needs of corporations” and that an administrative system based on the “massive redistribution of wealth” should replace the status quo.

The indications are that the corporate-led squeeze on workers and the push of the wealthiest to destroy the social safety net has created the possibility of a renewal of protests along the lines of the Occupy movement, but on a vastly broader scale. The tactics of the old Occupy confined direct participation to those able to spend nights away from home or work. A more extensive and diverse challenge to the plutocratic hijacking of the political system may well appear in the next few months, with the restoration of popular sovereignty at its heart.

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Filed under Edward Snowden, fast-food workers, low-waged, Medicare, National Security Agency, Obama, occupy wall street, political analysis, poverty, Tea Party movement

Obamacare Crisis Week 2: Plutocrat Gangsters Hold America Hostage through Tea Party Posse


The US is entering its second week of a government shutdown. On the surface, life seems to be continuing as usual – at least, as far as the media is concerned.

Conservative Republicans, who are driving policy in Congress, are using the tactic of blocking government funding to delay the implementation of Obamacare. But their aim is to overturn established legislation that was passed in 2010. If the administration were to cave on this, it would have accepted the precedent that one chamber of Congress could enforce its will on government by holding funding hostage.

While Washington Democrats and Republicans maneuver for tactical advantage, the poor and near-poor are being punished. Government supplementary food programs, for example, have taken an immediate hit. Imara Jones pointed out on Democracy Now that the shutdown “comes on top of the dramatic cuts of sequestration. … mothers with young children… had gone to WIC sites and WIC programs in New York that were out of food. And that’s on day two…”

The shutdown is essentially a trial of strength between extremist billionaires and the executive branch. It’s not intended to achieve anything in itself, any more than Ted Cruz’s 21-hour monologue in Congress did. It is a ploy to put pressure on the Republican leadership and in turn on Obama through the coming debt ceiling negotiations to make bigger cuts in social spending and eventually eviscerate Social Security and Medicare.

Under Obama’s administration, the plutocracy has grown economically richer and politically more powerful, using unlimited access to new technology and media (thanks to the Supreme Court) to sway a disgruntled core of Tea Party supporters who have successfully elected extremist Republican candidates in gerrymandered constituencies. They in turn have been able to use weaknesses in the American political system to paralyze the government.

The New York Times reported on the plethora of well-funded conservative shell groups that have been campaigning against the health law, laundering political slush funds from the billionaire Koch brothers to create a sustained ideological onslaught on the idea of government-supported health care. The billionaires’ strategy has been to put pressure on Republican legislators through groups like “Heritage Action,” which has trained 6,000 paid “sentinels” to confront legislators around the country.

Their campaign builds on a Republican ideological narrative that portrays government deficits as unsustainable. Traveling to Congressional Tea Party leader Steve King’s constituency in rural Iowa, NYT reporter James Stewart “was surprised to hear in nearly all my conversations that the issue for people in this part of Iowa is less Obamacare than it is government spending in general. ‘We have to sacrifice now so our children will not be drowning in our debt,’ [King supporter and glass factory owner] Mr. Geels said.” Many online comments on the article pointed out that the region survived on massive agricultural subsidies, and in the event of another agricultural crisis like the 1980s would be appealing desperately for government help.

The shutdown has made major corporations and Wall Street nervous, but they are no longer able to command influence in the Republican party. The Associated Press commented that “the partial closing of the government and the looming confrontation over the nation’s borrowing limit highlight the remarkable drop in the business community’s influence among House Republicans, who increasingly respond more to tea party conservatives than to the Chamber of Commerce.”

Ironically, big business torpedoed Republican moderates in 2010, helping hard-core conservatives gain election to the House. Corporations might want a rollback of environmental regulations and even further cuts in their taxes, and Wall Street may be in favor of cutting Social Security, but neither want to crash the economy to achieve these aims. However, moderate Republicans face billionaire-funded attacks and attempts to unseat them in primaries if they voice their opinions.

Although some have argued that tea party ideology signifies a descent into insanity, it is in line with overall Republican strategy. The New York Times comments that despite its flaws, Obamacare “could fundamentally change the relationship between working Americans and their government. This could pose an existential threat to the small-government credo that has defined the G.O.P. for four decades. … To conservative Republicans, losing a large slice of the middle class to the ranks of the Democratic Party could justify extreme measures.”

Harold Meyerson points out that the party holds the House with a minority popular vote, the result of gerrymandered districting after the 2010 census. Either Republicans can exert influence by embracing minority rights, he says, or they can maximize their power “by trying to disrupt the nation to the point that the majority will be compelled to support Republican positions.” The redistricting will ensure there are no electoral repercussions for their intransigence.

Republican-controlled states like Mississippi have voted to reject government-subsidized Medicaid expansion, one of the health act’s provisions, which would have had the effect of expanding health coverage in the state’s predominantly white rural counties, which voted consistently to put Republican lawmakers into office.

Poor whites who presently form the conservative Republican demographic would then get the most benefits from Obamacare while, it turns out, poor blacks who live in Republican-controlled states would get little. “The irony is that these states that are rejecting Medicaid expansion — many of them Southern — are the very places where the concentration of poverty and lack of health insurance are the most acute,” said Dr. H. Jack Geiger, a founder of the community health center model. “It is their populations that have the highest burden of illness and costs to the entire health care system.”

While conservatives claim public support for their tactics, opinion polls tell a different story. Josh Marshall sums them up: “The public opposes [the shutdown] by overwhelming margins (70%+). The public also blames the shutdown on House Republicans by a substantial though not overwhelming margins (the number who blame Obama, in the mid-30s, roughly matches the base of the GOP).”

A Kaiser poll found that most Americans, even fervent opponents of the health law, were substantially in favor when asked about its individual provisions. “A majority of Republicans feel favorable towards seven of the 11 provisions asked about in the March poll, with seven in ten or more favoring tax credits to small businesses, closing the Medicare ‘doughnut hole’, and the exchanges,” researchers found.

The propaganda campaign against the law has created a great deal of public confusion, but what has been hidden in the furor about the government shutdown is that the launch of Obamacare on Tuesday generated a huge volume of traffic to its websites – 7 million people in the first two days, an unexpected volume that caused delays and access problems. There is clearly a huge pent-up demand for information about affordable health care.

Americans are genuinely worried about health care and the future. As Juan Cole points out: “This is an America where unemployment is stubbornly high for the Millennials, where the top 1% are taking home 20% of the national income (twice the proportion of just a few decades ago), and where people are struggling.” Young adults stay living with their parents, because even if they can get a job, it’s low-waged. Many are still burdened by college debt. In a Washington Post poll, almost two-thirds of people express concerns about covering their family’s basic living expenses, compared with less than half four decades ago.

Ralph Nader asks why big business, the Republican establishment, and the executive branch have suddenly become powerless. “Who is in charge here?” he writes. “Our Constitution opens with the words ‘We the People,’ not ‘We the Congress’ or ‘We the Corporations’.” It is time for the people to take sovereignty back into their own hands and disrupt the super-rich hostage-takers.

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Filed under debt limit impasse, Government shutdown, health care, Medicare, Obama, political analysis

Forget the Faustian Cliff Deal: Fight for a Living Wage


The last-minute deal to end the “fiscal cliff” settles very little. Congressional Republicans agreed to a small increase in taxes on individuals making more than $400k, while Democrats were able to extend the protections of the social safety net, like unemployment benefits, for two more months. Come February, the American electorate will have to go through another round of this perverse game of chicken with the “debt ceiling” debate.

According to Talking Points Memo, “a key provision of the fiscal cliff deal only buys down the sequester for two months, meaning deep cuts to domestic and defense spending will take effect at the end of February, right when the debt limit will have to be increased.”

It’s easy to see that the deal doesn’t defuse the Republican strategy of preventing the normal functioning of government in order to exert leverage on state policy. Another battle is looming in which Republicans will have a stronger hand politically. Paul Krugman’s take is that Obama’s “evident desire to have a deal before hitting the essentially innocuous fiscal cliff bodes very badly for the confrontation looming in a few weeks over the debt ceiling.”

Had we gone over the cliff, taxes would have been restored to Clinton-era levels. But why should there be any popular objection to restoring taxes to the level everybody was paying in the 1990s? The reason is that legislators have masked the real decline in wages over the last 10 years by cutting taxes, and rising prices have squeezed the middle class to the point that a small tax increase would have a major effect on their ability to make ends meet.

Michael Hudson points out the deception behind the political rhetoric over taxes: “The emerging financial oligarchy seeks to shift taxes off banks and their major customers (real estate, natural resources and monopolies) onto labor. Given the need to win voter acquiescence, this aim is best achieved by rolling back everyone’s taxes. The easiest way to do this is to shrink government spending, headed by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Yet these are the programs that enjoy the strongest voter support. This fact has inspired what may be called the Big Lie of our epoch: the pretense that governments can only create money to pay the financial sector, and that the beneficiaries of social programs should be entirely responsible for paying for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not the wealthy. … The raison d’être for taxing the 99% for Social Security and Medicare is simply to avoid taxing wealth, by falling on low wage income at a much higher rate than that of the wealthy.”

Wages have fallen as capital has creamed off a greater proportion of the national income at labor’s expense.  The key to employers’ ability to hold down wages is the decline of unions. They were able to organize effectively when the mass of Americans worked in factory jobs while the economy was expanding after World War 2. But unions have faced a war of attrition over the last 30 years as structural changes in the economy were accompanied by corporate-friendly legislative restrictions on their bargaining strength. These were political decisions that were aimed at destroying the gains of the New Deal.

Harold Meyerson notes in the Washington Post “how central the collapse of collective bargaining is to American workers’ inability to win themselves a raise. Yes, globalizing and mechanizing jobs has cut into the livelihoods of millions of U.S. workers, but that is far from the whole story. Roughly 100 million of the nation’s 143 million employed workers have jobs that can’t be shipped abroad, that aren’t in competition with steel workers in Sao Paolo or iPod assemblers in Shenzhen. Sales clerks, waiters, librarians and carpenters all utilize technology in their jobs, but not to the point that they’ve become dispensable. Yet while they can’t be dispensed with, neither can they bargain for a raise.”

Outsourcing undermined the unions’ base and this, while facilitated by new technology, resulted from decisions of the US government to open up the domestic economy to world trade. The consequence was a withdrawal of capital from direct manufacturing in the US in favor of the higher-profit areas of marketing and distribution. As manufacturing declined, corporations became increasingly financialized, facilitating the growth of monopolies.

Steve Fraser spells it out in TomDispatch: “Rates of U.S. investment in new plants, technology, and research and development began declining during the 1970s, a fall-off that only accelerated in the gilded 1980s.  Manufacturing, which accounted for nearly 30% of the economy after the Second World War, had dropped to just over 10% by 2011. … The ascendancy of high finance didn’t just replace an industrial heartland in the process of being gutted; it initiated that gutting and then lived off it, particularly during its formative decades.  The FIRE sector, that is, not only supplanted industry, but grew at its expense – and at the expense of the high wages it used to pay and the capital that used to flow into it.”

As well as being weakened by structural changes in the economy, unions have faced an ideological assault. As more and more workers found themselves on temporary assignment, without contracts or benefits, their resentment was leveraged electorally against organized labor by billionaire-funded campaigns aimed at dividing unionized employees from other workers.

Walmart is a model for this turn to absolute exploitation of workers. The company, according to In These Times writer David Moberg, “heavily influences standards for vast swaths of the American economy, from retail to logistics to manufacturing. Over the past few decades, Walmart’s competitive power—a combination of size, technology and cut-throat personnel policies—has played a role in dramatically reducing American retail workers’ average income and unionization level (from 8.6 percent in 1983 to 4.9 percent in 2011).” Walmart now pays less than what a worker needs to reproduce his or her labor-power, offloading the costs of healthcare, housing etc. onto the rest of society. It is a strategy that results in destroying a generation of workers – a form of destruction of capital – devaluing labor.

Low wages and opposition to unions are more than just a means of gaining market share. They are also a way of establishing power over the workforce. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein explains: “Wal-Mart’s hostility to a better-paid and healthier workforce is as much an issue of power as it is a question of prices and profits. High wages reduce turnover and awaken employee expectations, transforming the internal culture of the workplace. Decent wages lead to real career and the expectation of fair treatment over a lifetime of employment. That in turn might well lead to demands for a steady work shift, an equitable chance at promotion, retirement pay, and even the opportunity to make one’s voice heard in a collective fashion.” [Nelson Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution, New York 2009:250]

In 2012, union struggles for a living wage challenged not only the business strategy of companies like Walmart, but also the political strategy of the plutocracy to weaken and destroy unions and dump responsibility for social welfare onto the individual. Moberg notes: “OUR Walmart joins a host of smaller campaigns by workers in other precarious and penurious industries, like logistics, fast food and domestic work. With enough density of membership, service-sector unions can raise standards in local, and ultimately national, markets. For example, in San Francisco and New York, where 90 percent of hotel housekeepers are unionized, average hotel housekeeper wages are $19 to $26 an hour, compared to a national average of $10.10.”

Across the country, low-waged workers in various industries are empowering themselves by fighting back. The Occupy movement’s achievement to raise consciousness of inequality, new approaches to union organizing, and outpourings of solidarity such as the support for victims of Hurricane Sandy, point the way forward for 2013.

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Filed under austerity measures, debt limit impasse, Medicare, Obama, occupy wall street, OUR Walmart, political analysis, Walmart, We are the 99 percent