Tuesday, September 29, 2009

No Public Option, Then No Individual Mandate.

Apparently, the insurance industry is about to get it all: we will be required to buy insurance, and have no option except to buy it from the private, for-profit sector. Without there being a public option to buy, we will be forced to buy a product from people we don't trust, and whose purpose (making a profit) leads them to continually increase the cost while minimizing the services, at the same time they will get tens of millions of new customers. They must be salivating.

Is it the role of a democratic government to create a market, and then compel people to use that market? If the government is going to require its citizens to purchase health care insurance, then does it not seem to have an obligation to provide a policy that every citizen can afford? Under the individual mandate, and without the public insurance option, the government would be compelling its citizens to support the profit making enterprises of some citizens at the expense of others. What is the difference between being compelled to send money to the insurance companies, and being compelled to pay taxes? Only that taxes are set by persons elected by the people being taxed, while insurance companies are not democratic, do not see service to their customers as their reason to exist, and are free to raise the price as high as the market will bear - which will certainly be high if we are compelled to buy from it. I do not begrudge anyone the right to seek profit if the customer can refuse to buy, but to write it into law that citizens must provide profit to any other citizen, or even a non-citizen investor! - violates the essence of the democratic experiment - that we are all equal in the eyes of the law. By creating this mandate without the public insurance plan, Americans would be not equally protected by the law, because the law would be favoring some over others.

Before we lose this chance to get a non-profit, public sector health services payment system, we must link these two aspects. To get the individual mandate, there must be public insurance policy. We must tell those who oppose it, we will not accept the individual mandate without a public policy option. The insurance companies know they cannot meet the other mandates of the bills under consideration, without the increased number of customers. So we must tell them and their proxies in Congress: we will not create the market if they do not agree to a public insurance option. This will curdle their enthusiasm, because without the individual mandate, the insurance companies will not have 30 million new customers, and they will not have the surplus revenues needed to meet the new requirements. We must show them they cannot have the new revenues without also having the non-profit competitor.

This combination - the mandate to buy insurance without a public option to buy - cannot be allowed. It would be an assault on the principle of equality in the law, and a reward for an industry that has done a terrible job of meeting our needs. If we cannot have the public insurance option, let the other reforms go through without the mandate to purchase insurance. Then the need of the public option will be kicking down the door at the insurance companies.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Redefining Recovery: Wealth creation is not the problem, Poverty creation is.

Whether we would save Wall Street, Main Street, the industrial mile, the platinum mile, trailer parks, soccer parks, green belts or Park place, seems now to be a fight over wealth not yet generated, a scratching, cutting, blood-letting fight for survival. The competition for a share is like a dog fight, with teeth bared, flashing and slashing, and the choice is made for no reason better than “meaner is more deserving”. Those who have want to keep, those that have none want to get, and the argument serves no purpose greater than personal survival. In the language of economics, the justification is made in terms of jobs, protecting wealth, keeping the systems of the economy working. But does any one really know what this re-distributed wealth is supposed to accomplish, and whether it will do any good? I will offer my vision.

A friend said to me, “We need a new kind of fuel for our cars.”. I laughed out loud. “We NEED” I said, “clean water, shelter and food. We WANT cars and fuel for them.” Don't let me confuse you, I am not proposing to send everyone to the farm. But let us be clear about priorities. The driving force of any economy is the appetite for food, shelter, safety, health care, and clean water, the needs that get people to work and produce. If the economy fails to produce these things, people will be insecure and will not participate. If the economy does not produce these things, the people will find other ways to meet these needs, by stealth, theft or violence, if need be. If the people cannot meet these needs, they will suffer, rebel, get sick, self-medicate, or die. If the people who do the work cannot get their needs met, they cannot work, and the economy cannot flourish. The first priority of any economy must be to meet these essential needs.

If you are Hugo Chavez, you do this with oil wealth, by buying what your people need from other more productive economies. Not a sustainable solution.

If you are wise, you do this by planning investment into infrastructure that helps ordinary people to survive. For example, since clean water is a public good, you use some of the productivity of the economy to build treatment facilities. Since affordable housing is a public good, you configure property laws and taxes to favor ownership of an only home, to reduce pressure on property values. Since poverty is the failure to get needs met, you use some of the productivity of the economy to provide jobs to people who cannot otherwise find work, and you put them to doing things we need to do anyway, such as maintaining parks. The work contributes to the community, the worker has the stability of an income, the worker has pride in him or her self, and the local economy benefits from the money spent by this employed person whose previous income may have come partly from public dollars anyway.

As a mechanism for meeting the human hierarchy of needs, our economy has been upside down. By favoring wealth accumulation with low taxes, wealth has gone to those already possessing it, and has allowed those with the fewest resources with no means to acquire any. Those who have, in our system, have gotten more and more, while those with the least just keep losing, suffering more and more. The problem, as I see it, is not that anyone is wealthy, but that any one might have so little of what they need that they cannot pull themselves up out of poverty. The problem, as I see it, is not that anyone has more than they need, it is that anyone has less than they need.

Although many people distrust the government, and dislike that anyone would be dependent upon it, and most people prefer the dignity of being paid for their personal productivity, the market by itself follows wealth, minimizing employment, often leaving well educated and responsible people without work or access to a minimum income. Furthermore, the market place follows wealth for private gain, making it unable, because of conflicts of interest and the absence of profit, to provide a whole class of services which are essential to the community, and even to the functioning of the market place.

“The government”, on the other hand, is the institutional realization of “community”, where the general and common goods have their voice and can bind on the productivity of the community, for their support. “The government”, we could say, is the only “business” in which everyone is a subscriber, and in which everyone has one vote. The Government is the only “business” whose “product” is paid for by those who can afford to pay, and received by all who need. The Government is the only “business” whose “product” is safety, clean water, roads, health care, community planning, education, and the power to set the rules of behavior and the power to force other businesses and people to follow those rules. The government is the one “business” to which people who are powerless can go for help and consideration, because other businesses – private interests - are uninterested. The government is the seat of the public interest which creates the environment for business and the market place to flourish in safety and with confidence in the supply of money, people and materials. The government is the seat of the public interest, with responsibility to everyone, with the responsibility to ensure that the basic structures of self-care are deployed. The government is where the appropriate private interest in wealth creation can be counterbalanced by a vision of common well-being. “The government” is the one source of sufficient power and authority to counterbalance greed and crime.

While the market provides opportunities to get wealthy, the government, as the sole guarantor of the public good, is the sole agent which can ensure that people have opportunities just to survive. This standard is very different from our custom, but provides ample room for driven motivated people to rise above the minimum. As a poor citizen, I do not expect any one to make my life comfortable beyond the provision of essential services, and for these I expect to work. But I need them to be there, at a price I can afford, and the opportunity to work for them.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Creation Stories of the Middle East , A Reaction

Ewa Wasilewska,

Have just finished reading your Creation Stories of the Middle East, and found it enlightening in many ways. Within your discipline, I am sure many are aware of the insights you provide, but for me it has exposed and detailed many key features in the evolution of how we, today, relate to each other, nature and the cosmos.

I am especially interested in the evolution of mind away from the flexible polytheism of pre-civilized peoples toward the more rigid and intolerant mono-theism of today. By contextualizing this process, you also relativize the duality of good and evil, showing it to be a natural outcome of the natural selection of ideas, and not absolute as so many religionists would have us believe. I am left to wonder whether urban life is not itself the explanation for the evolution of more rigid social and belief systems.

I also appreciate that you relate this evolution to ecological (resource) problems. I am interested in the carrying capacity of the planet for Homo sapiens, so it is interesting to see that the earliest civilizations recognized this problem, and that later mythologists (simultaneously to their invention of the single god and of good and evil?), chose to unmake this self-constraining vision and make a vision which promotes conflict, conquering and warfare as a solution to resource problems. If the alienation of physical from divine realities characterizes religion, then no wonder there are people who are as fervently anti-religion as others are fervently religious.

So I will need to read Creation Stories again to fully understand your explanation for the emergence of "religion". You seem to identify the term with institutions which propose a duality of physical reality and divine reality, where the divine reality cannot be understood without a transcendent and perhaps irrational faith. Because of this duality, you seem to be saying, the relationship between people and the divine ceased to be personal, daily, immediate, and more-or-less non-judgmental, and grew the relationship of power-over, of hierarchy, control, and, ultimately, suggested an irresponsible and narcissistic explanation for human life.

Hence, colonialism, corruption, resource wars, greed on Wall Street, consumerism and the cult of consumption, can - might be - explained in terms of a denatured humanity. Examples of human cruelty throughout time and across the globe challenge the idea of an innocent time ("the noble savage"), but then, the more poly-theistic characteristics of flexibility, cooperation, and mutual respect, have proven effective social and economic strategies, earlier in human history, for promoting survival, and to suppress them would result in the world we have, a world in which survival of life is not assured.

The intellectual and emotional substrate of polytheism remains in us and remains active, as does the mono-theistic drive for control. If the tendencies of, even sweeping assertions of the power of, these two minds, is revealed on the stage of world and U.S. politics at this very moment, we are given reasons for both hope and despair, that humanity can survive its impending ecological crisis.

Thank you for an introduction to the topic of the creation of the world as we know it.