Thursday, December 29, 2011

What's Next for the 99%?

The Occupy movement in Vermont has felt widespread support from the community. But it has not been adept in including those supporters in its process. How can folks who identify with the Occupy Wall Street movement be part of the movement? Surely not by attending a General Assembly! There would never be enough room for everyone!

Folks active in the movement and folks who are not, I think, have this common interest: To find a meaningful way for every Vermonter who is sympathetic to the concerns of the Occupy movement to participate and propel the change we want to see. From down here on the ground, "How can we extend our sense of empowerment to the full diversity of the 99%?".

There are deep questions about what those concerns actually are, and what the values are that drive those concerns, but answers to the question might be simpler than expected, and more interesting, for supporters of the movement.

Many of the values and methods of the Occupy movement come out of Anarchist thought. Like the Trojan horse and liberal democracy, it carries within it the seeds of its own destruction, and the seeds of profound creativity. These seeds invite anyone to participate, to define a purpose and a goal, and pursue it. In an interesting coincidence, it distills to the state motto of Vermont: Freedom and Unity, That our personal freedom is protected by our unity, that our unity is lost if we exercise our freedom to the detriment of those around us. It is a profound paradox, and the ignition point of potentially profound creativity.

Which means that the answer to the question "What are the goals of the Occupy movement?" is probably held within you. YOU know exactly what those goals are, because you help to define them and express them. When you act on them, you participate in creating the world we all want to live in.

But doesn't the Occupy movement have goals? Aspirations? Isn't there an organization setting policy? If I am not signed up and paying dues, how do I (or does anyone) know I am part of the movement? How do I know I will be accepted as contributing, and how do I gain some control over what other people are doing? If there is no authority, no hierarchy, no precise definition of the ideals of the movement, "How do I find the boundaries of what is possible?". Who will hold me accountable for my actions?

As I understand it, yes, there are goals and aspirations, and no there are not. Chief among them is liberation from hierarchy, so no one else decides for you what they are. So no, there are no goals and aspirations which are dictated to you. The values goals and aspirations are determined culturally, by conference, collaboration, and relationship. The dues you pay to join this movement are the efforts you make to discover your power, and to connect with other people who are discovering their power. They are the efforts you make to create relationships with other Occupiers in which you are a leader among leaders. The dues you pay are contained within the effort you make to work out your actions as an equal member of a community, in which your team is equal to every other team, in which our clusters of teams (working groups, trust groups) are equal to that of every other across the nation and the world.

Americans are generally not accustomed to non-hierarchic cultures, where privilege is eschewed. The culture of Occupy intends to change that. Occupy your heart. Occupy your humanity. Occupy your authority. Occupy your right to be. Occupy your being. Occupy with us.

To me, the Occupy movement is fundamentally about building a culture and building community based on that culture. Privilege withers where people insist on relationships of equality. Community is the chief strategy for combating the ills of privilege, and it relies on mutual accountability. We are accountable to each other because we are all equal in our authority. This is the root of our freedom and our unity. We can do what we want to, but expect others to sometimes disagree, and tell us as much. Since there are no police, no priests and no judges, we can keep doing what we want to, with whatever support we might or might not get from the rest of the community. It is commitment to prosperous coexistence which holds us together. It is the understanding that "I must make the world safe for you so that you will want to make it safe for me.", which compels mutual accountability and doing the right thing.

As a person accustomed to the hierarchy of American society, emerging into equality has been a profound experience. By itself, I don't think this vision is sufficient for managing the affairs of the world, nor even of a small state like Vermont, but the vision isn't complete. And the vision is a culture, an evolving organic cluster of possibilities, not a rigid set of rules which preordains the solutions. We all get to participate in creating the world we want to see, and we do have some great challenges to meet!

Once you know that you identify with the Occupy movement, all that anyone needs to do to participate, then, is form a group - two typical forms are working groups and affinity (or trust) groups* - develop a plan, and take action. This openness might seem utterly cavernous. There are numerous ways to get grounded.

The first is the most natural in a new, uncontrolled environment: To ask "Why am I here?". Your sense of connection to the Occupy movement is your reason for participating. Another good question is "What do I want for myself and the world that connects me to the Occupy movement?". And, "How can I put force behind the change that I and the Occupy movement advocates?". Answering these questions leads you to specific actions that you might want to take.

If you are already active, in an anti-war group, in domestic violence education, in promoting community solidarity, in feeding people, if you are doing these things to empower people, to build a culture of mutual care, you are already involved. Now, just say to people, "This is my Occupation!".

Other ways include reading the blogs, "friending" or "liking" the Facebook pages, picking up some of the new books about the Occupy movement, surfing the internet for news and discussion, and generally engaging in self education. One place to start is our web page, Probably the best way is to connect with people who are active in the movement. The General Assembly is a logical starting point for meeting folks, but not necessarily the most friendly. They are business meetings and do not conduce to conversation. A new person would attend to find out what the current business is, and to be there at the end to meet other people. Another way is to join an existing working group.

Beyond these actions, I would have to ask you, "What do we who are active in the movement need to do to connect with you and assist your organizing?". What are the natural channels of communication where you would expect to see us and you do not? How can we help you in ways that we are not? What needs doing that we are not doing, so you can connect? Answers to these questions can be entered as a comment to this blog. Later, with demand, communication will open and we will become more adept at connecting with you, and the full diversity of the 99%. There will be channels. We need to work on them. (There is no organization and no one is full time!)

In recent conversation, some of us have come to see movement development not as recruitment, but as communication and empowerment. Our job is not to tell you or anyone what is right or how to get there, our job is to establish those lines of communication, to empower people to act in accord with conscience, and fuse these diverse interests into a unified effort. Our goal, I think, is to connect us to each other, to build the community that becomes the world we want to see.

This is what the Occupy movement is about for me. The other issues, such as the decay of democracy, profligate consumerism, pathological corporate greed, are expressions of the way our society has failed to achieve our goals. Along side of the destruction of a corrupt, bankrupt system, we have a vision of a new world which is really the only world that is sustainable. Any thing you can do to help us get there is part of the plan, and a great way for you to participate.

(* Foot note: A "working group" is a committee. It is defined as being open to anyone, and as operating by consensus. An "affinity group" - aka "trust group" - is a small cluster of people who work and train together, and because membership is by agreement of the members, bond and develop trust that is not possible in a working group. Other groups using other definitions are also possible, at the discretion of the participants. The key is that the participants decide how to implement their values, with an expectation of mutual accountability.)

P.S. Anyone with the patience to join a still incubating working group, and interested in building the communication channels for the 99%, might look up the google group for Community Development , a working group whose mission is "Visioning our future and our success, as a community and a movement, in the full diversity of the 99%", for the entire state of Vermont.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Democracy or Oligarchy?

The radical right promotes privilege over democracy. They use democracy to leverage more privilege, then use added control over the system to further undermine democratic institutions. Most people who support the radical right are in the 99%, and with the disassembly of democracy they too will be driven toward economic insecurity.

Our movement must be vigilent to include all of the 99% when we interact with opponents. They fear the loss of privilege, of the entitlements of American wealth, but they build their hopes on sand - the oligarchs will impoverish all of us to guarantee their own position.

So we must gently remind our opponents, for most of us the choice is democracy or shared poverty. Democracy isn't easy, it includes no-privilege, but it does allow shared prosperity, as a result of cooperation.

The literature of the right says "the inevitable effect of democracy is that the masses will vote to take the wealth of those who have worked to earn it." [paraphrase] They know what the choice is and so must we: Democracy or Oligarchy. Which do you choose?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Reality has a liberal Bias

At Think Progress dot Com, Joe Romm cited a commentary by Paul Krugman in the NY Times,republicans-against-science . They can speak for themselves on these topics, but I found these comments (at Joe Romm's blog) especially spot on. 

cervantes says:
August 29, 2011 at 1:56 pm
Indeed. This mad rush back to the 12th Century should no longer be treated as just another political position. Conservatives like to complain that most scientists – and for that matter, most academics – are liberal, which they take as evidence of bias in the university. Nope. The university hires people who study and think. It’s reality that has a liberal bias, and it’s not just evil and terrifying, it’s just flat stupid that people who systematically deny reality get to be a political party, get respectful treatment from the corporate media, and get to hold powerful political offices. They should be laughed out of public life.
Tim says:
August 29, 2011 at 6:44 pm
By the criteria that define "liberal" now in the minds of "conservatives", the claim that academics are liberals is becoming truer by the day. As for scientific community, academic or otherwise, a 2009 Pew study found that only 6% of U.S. scientists now identify themselves as Republicans. 50 years ago, there was no such extreme rejection of the Republican party. As one editorialist I remember reading concluded, "it's not the scientists who have changed, it's the Republicans."

I have been arguing that "Yes the media is liberal. Honest Journalism is inherently a liberal activity". Krugmnan and Romm's commenters merely document the retreat of the conservatives from any pretense of authentic truth telling.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tax the Rich Because That's Where the Money is.

What happens when the guiding principle of an economy is to promote wealth?

The claim is that the opportunity to accumulate wealth motivates people to engage in economic activity. Putting aside whether people need a chance to get rich to be motivated (is that your motivation?), how is wealth accumulated? On the street it is called "The Profit Motive", and indeed, the explicit goal of business is to maximize profits.

What happens when the guiding principle of an economy is to maximize profits?

The value of the work done by wage earners and salary workers is split between the workers and the profits. And as worker productivity climbs, the value of the work done is split between fewer and fewer workers, and profits. But the split favors profits, not wages, and then competition for remaining jobs goes up, putting even more downward pressure on wages. It is the inherent tendency of for-profit business to eliminate workers, and reduce the amount of money paid to remaining workers, hence the money returned to the economy is doubly reduced, and demand for goods and services doubly depressed. As profits increase, the ostensible stimulative effect of a business having more money is canceled by the real effect of regular folks having less.

Putting aside the charge that the owners have "stolen" their profits from the workers, to whom does the ownership class expect to sell their goods and services if the wages they pay aren't proportional to the worker's productivity? That we are in the midst of a depression results directly from the simple contradiction that arises from this uni-polar ideology: All profits, all the time, no social investment, no sharing, no greater community well-being to worry about. And as a result, the economy grinds to a stop.

This would seem counter-intuitive to anyone who believes that the drive for profits drives the economy, but the drive for profits, the need to produce wealth from wealth, is the problem. It is the drive for excess profits which causes people and corporations to cut corners with worker safety, wages, social capital, the environment, etc. It is the drive for profits which sucks the productivity of the workers out of the economy and puts it into the bank accounts of people who already have more than they need and aren't inclined to spend it. The dirty little secret of capitalism is that if corporations were forced to spend their money - or lose it to taxes - the stimulative effect on the economy would be huge. But they are sworn to return their profits to investors. Who just take their money and look for new ways to accumulate more wealth -- but where are the new investment opportunities coming from when most people don't have enough to live on and can't afford what that new business might be selling?

Small "s" socialism, the idea that government protects the well being of the entire community of citizens, with high taxes for the wealthy and corporations, is a natural counterbalance to the drive for profits.

But similar results are possible otherwise. Corporations could be required to adhere to a triple bottom line - which includes social responsibility. Hence higher wages would be paid, people would have money to spend to meet their needs, and the economy would be more stable. We - the society with its various intellectual resources - could develop metrics to determine the real value of labor, and force corporations to pay the real value. One very helpful change would be to strengthen the social safety net, so that people in retirement are not fixated on high returns on their investments. We could have a progressive income tax for corporations, wherein the greater the profits, for the amount of capitalization, the higher the rate of taxation would need to be paid.

For example, one of the problems we have right now is that the really big corporations have big piles of cash they're not spending. They took the discretionary portion of their worker's productivity for profit, so the money is not circulating, and put it in the bank, or maybe paid dividends. But under the right kind of pressure they could be hiring people, repairing environmental damage, improving working conditions, and the economy would be stimulated by the improved incomes of ordinary people.

  Let's not confuse the need to have a sustainable livelihood, and the "right" to accumulate surplus wealth. If we were to think in terms of ensuring that people have the means to make a sustainable livelihood, a healthy life and a comfortable retirement, and made (excess) wealth accumulation a suspect activity, economic activity would support healthy communities and people, and really ambitious people just wouldn't have quite as much as before.

  And let's not forget that when the government collects taxes and spends money, they are hiring people, buying goods and services, and generally stimulating the economy. How is this not productive economic activity? Let's answer that from two viewpoints: For those who are rich and heavily taxed, THEY have less money, but does the economy? For those who benefit from those jobs, incomes are spent to acquire those things people need, the definition of prosperity. For the economy, the labor produced can be very cost effective, since it might mean education, health care, improvements to roads and infrastructure, protection of the environment, maintenance of parks, etc. These are all things that no one person would benefit from enough to pay for alone, but do benefit everyone enough to share in the cost of. It is a shibboleth that the government does not create jobs. The government, like any business, is a locus of productivity activity. The questions are "how do they get the money?", and "Is it meaningful work?".

Government gets its money by taxing us, and through a miscellany of fees. When we pay taxes, we are paying ahead for things we have decided - via democratic process - that we want. In business, we some times do this, such as in a CSA, a club fee, or a subscription, but usually we pay after the goods or services are produced. Here then the question is one of accountability. Most pay-after business is reserved for private enterprise. Accountability is at the cash out. Government is where we, the community and citizenry, lodge the pay-before economic activity, because is it accountable via democratic process. Do the politicians and the bureaucrats deliver the goods? Do they provide real services that are needed by people generally? We must be ever vigilant. (And when they contract to for-profit businesses, how do we hold them accountable?) But building schools and health clinics, hiring teachers and doctors, giving care to the elderly, are all very meaningful to general well being. And consider the improvement to the quality of life when parks are maintained and adolescents have good after-school programs for social, physical and intellectual enrichment! Consider the value of protected forests and clean water!

The problem is not that the government cannot produce any thing worthwhile. The problem is that some people want to maximize profit, by keeping wages low, taxes low, regulations few, by avoiding protections to the environment. They do not see government as the institutional expression of the community, where shared goods are paid for at large. They see the government as a competitor for economic activity and profit making. I say "Too bad!". I see our government as the place we - the people - go to do things we need to do together, and to guarantee general well being. Profit-making is inherently dependent on cutting corners that results in costs to other people. We all want a sustainable income, and profit making is inherently unsustainable because it cuts into the sustainability of the jobs which hinge on it.

The other dirty little secret of capitalism is that if profits are taxed and spent by government, MORE economic activity is produced than by business, if, as is now the case, there is so much money languishing in bank accounts. And when they tell you that new regulations just suppress the economy, they are snickering all the way to the bank. Let's look at Australia, which is in an upheaval because of the carbon-tax that has been implemented. Opponents charge it will reduce economic activity. But the money paid in taxes is going to be spent. If the government spends it to correct for the distortions it created by taxing carbon, the result will be huge new economic activity to build low carbon-emitting, sustainable infrastructure. The only parties that will be hurt are directly dependent on carbon, but soon enough even they could shift out of carbon and be part of the sustainable economy. No substantive harm in the long run. Only harm to profits.

The complaint is heard that the 50% of the country with more than the median income pay 78% of the taxes. But they also control 98% of the wealth. Shouldn't they be paying 98% of the taxes?

The most wealthy people, and corporations, assert they have made their wealth and deserve to keep it. I say, the economy produced their wealth and they happened to be in the right place with the right investment when the money came gushing out of the spigot. Who gets the wealth in good times is who must give it up in hard times. What is difficult to understand about that?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Who Ya Gonna Believe?"

Consider please the commentary posted by John McLaughry on VtDigger, as found in the link in the title of this essay.

Let me not, then, dwell too much at length over the hyperbole, distortion, selective use of evidence, and demagoguery, in which Mr. McLaughry so passionately engages.

Let me just call to mind the pole to which he is drawn: He believes in the privileges of power and scoffs at the idea of a community in which we - everyone - are mutually accountable. That society might be a community of equals escapes him, and that poverty for many might attend prosperity for a few, is irrelevant. That taxation might be a legitimate way to maintain well-being, and even a healthy economy, across all income grades, is simply unthinkable to him. The only ideal, as for so many Libertarians, is individual "freedom", which to me looks like "red-in-tooth-and-claw", "I'll-do-what-I-damn-well-please-no-matter-how-it-affects-anyone-else" misanthropy.

But here is the worst part: HIS IDEOLOGY, as Libertarians are known to say, IS NOT COMPATIBLE WITH DEMOCRACY. At the kindest, he elevates junk logic and demagoguery (Mr.McLaughry, please notice I am attacking your words and not you) to the status of commentary in the name of free speech. At the worst, he reflects (his rhetoric is consistent with) the views of people who would like to overthrow the United States Constitution and replace it with a Christian theocracy.

If the flaw of this intention is not obvious, the briefest clue I can offer is the one I can ask:

       In whose world are we all free to live: that one which
       values everyone and in which everyone has a voice, or that
       one in which only a selection of fortunate elites benefits
       from the Earth's bounty?

The objection of the extreme (and present) right is that wealth is taken for general good. Oh the horror! Once earned, again multiplied, under the efforts of the individual, it is unjust, it is wrong, they say, for the government to take that wealth to meet the needs of the community. Mindful that the government is where the people conduct their business, the radical right calls it oppression by democracy, the theft of wealth by people who did not earn it, through the autocracy of the mob. As rhetoric, these claims might seem sensible, but in any realistic sense they are laughable. If the conditions of democracy and mutual accountability, in which wealth is taken to support government services, are too constraining, would a state of chaos, such as Somalia today or Europe over its centuries of warfare be better?

The complaint of the left is that the right takes no responsibility for the general good. How, except by violence to people and the planet, is privilege to be maintained? At issue is whether our societies will provide opportunity to all of its members, through equal access to education, health care, housing and healthy food, or only to those endowed by prior good fortune to have the money to buy opportunity.

And of you I would ask: From what plate do you eat? Do you live in a silo of wealth making you immune to the slings and arrows of the modern world? Or are you dependent upon the good will of family, friends, strangers, and that institution upon which we depend to effect the common good, our government, for your safety and prosperity?

This is a values war. If you haven't heard a liberal say this recently, probably that is because the tradition of liberal democracy was thought sacrosanct, a foundation so precious we didn't think it needed defending. Yet it is. To witness the policy goals of the Far Right, it bears saying: We do not tug across a pit of mud from which all will emerge to pull another day. We pull across an abyss from which the loser will emerge, if not a corpse, then badly damaged. Sounds crazy, but those are the stakes. Push back time (for the benefit of my metaphor, "pull back time") is now. What are your values?

Not every Republican will want this battle. And it really is not a battle of right against left. It's a battle of absolutism against the messiness of the pragmatic middle. I would hope that practical, community rooted Republicans will be as scared as I am of the Corporatist-libertarian anti-democratic agenda. If you want to save democracy in America, Now is the time to say so, and to push back against the radical right agenda to destroy government.

To see a prominent intellectual connect the dots, go to Democracy Now! and watch the War and Peace news program for August 17, 2011, and the profile of Michelle Bachman in particular.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Bigger Government by the people who fear big government

Why is Congress considering a bill to force IP companies to preserve user data? Is Congress sure we need a data base with the name, address, phone number, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and temporarily-assigned IP addresses, of every internet user? Surely real criminals can be tracked without making every innocent American into a criminal-in-waiting? Let us remember that law enforcement exists to protect citizens, not to criminalize them, and that government exists to serve the people, not to be protected from the people.

Bills like HR 1981 putrefy the American ideals of democracy. If there is a real problem to be solved, let's find a better way.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Wealth Is Not Free

Let's talk about wealth and taxes.

Survival is a personal thing.

Survival is a community thing.

Survival is a planetary thing.

Greed is when a person endangers the systems by which other people, the community, and the planet survives, in pursuit of more than they actually need.

(When a person endangers systems in pursuit of exactly what they need, in the absence of a less destructive way, it is called desperation.)

Personal survival may seem the most natural pursuit of any person. But do we need to choose between personal and community survival? I think we are asked to think so, by persons who have what they need and don't care to share. They reckon it helps them to keep theirs if everyone else believes that personal resource security is the only form of security.

Or, as the political right tells us, "Government isn't the solution. Government is the problem." (Try interchanging "community" and "government".) They want us to believe that using the government to solve broad, shared problems is a danger to personal solutions.

Which is true if a pipe that leads to your bank account is under the spigot of wealth. If you have managed to exclude all of the people who usually just wait at the edge of the fountain pool, you certainly would not want to be told you must also wait for the pool to fill and to take your share with everyone else. You would want the police to protect your right to take more than your share, and you would promote the idea that survival is strictly a personal problem. "I got mine. You can have yours if you can get yours." Convenient for you.

Bad for everyone else. In a hunter-gatherer society, this behavior would be severely constrained. Personal survival does depend on community survival, and greedy behavior can endanger the entire group. That selfish behavior would be unsustainable in the group, and would be stopped. (See Colin Turnbull, The Forest People) In fact, such selfish behavior still is unsustainable. But now the scale of survival is planetary and epochal. Big lag time on accountability today.

And it is not true that personal security is an individual problem, if you are willing to wait for your share at the edge of the pool. Then you do need the authority of community, of elders, of the community council, or your government, to protect you, and to force that big-wealth-bully to conform to community norms. You need full mutual accountability. You need fairness, sharing, and cooperation, at the pool of wealth.

So yes, each of us must seek personal survival, even prosperity, and we can survive, even prosper, within the limits of what the community and the planet can sustain. And no, we do not need to choose between personal and community survival. We can have both, we must seek both, and we must seek harmony of both. As we have always, in ways that define our humanity, over tens and hundreds of millennia, balanced these interests. And certainly we cannot choose between personal and planetary survival.

But we must re-imagine what "prosperity" looks like. We must combat the fallacy of individual resource-based security (money, property, and investments are ephemeral) which militates against community-based security. We must remind ourselves of the prosperity and security we derive from relatives, friends, community, and from the state whose officials we elect and hold accountable, and that these relationships require healthy and sustainable systems. We must work to protect and enhance these systems. We must be willing to let some of our wealth be taken by the community for community goals, such as grouting the fountain of wealth. We must seek sustainable ways to get what we need, ways which are not stained by the impoverishment of others. What is not sustainable on a systems level is not prosperity. Nor is it survival. It is an illusion of prosperity. It is poisoned water.

So no, this is not about the end of ambition. Ambitious people seek solutions. Not greedy ambitious people seek solutions which are of benefit to everyone and the planet. We need creative, ambitious, community-minded people to do their things. Let us design appropriate rewards for our innovators. How about a sustainable planetary eco-system, healthy communities, good schools and medical care, the highest esteem of neighbors, and healthy children? Does any one need more?

And no, this would not be the end of prosperous living. This would be the end of unsustainable excess. This would be the beginning of sustainable abundance for all persons, of healthy habitats for all life, and of a planet glowing green and blue with healthy living systems.

Help debunk the lies. We do not need to choose between personal and community prosperity. We do need to say that the systems of community, of democratic self-governance, and of planetary health, are the best pathways to personal prosperity. People of great wealth do not have an automatic privilege to keep their wealth. Harm comes to people, communities and the planet, when that wealth is not put to work through projects the community values.

There is plenty of wealth out there to pay off the national debt, especially since much of it was gotten from lower taxes during a time of war, when those who wanted that war were not asked to pay for it. Let them pay for it. And then tax them until they begin to feel a real need for the security of healthy communities and a healthy planet.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Since my last post, I have had op-eds published in VtDigger, have testified at hearings of the Vermont Senate Health and Welfare committee, and have communicated with folks at the Equality Trust, a non-profit founded by the authors of The Spirit Level, Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. My ambition is to present the material found in this text and to promote the ideas it contains.

Also between then and now, I encountered a web site called PayUpNow, which features the gross underpayment of taxes by large corporations. I have posted it here for the value it might give you.

Anyway, I came to the blog this morning to learn how to email my posts, as I might post more often if an email gets me there.  I am anticipating an increased need to post.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Pandering To Wealth

I was disappointed when Governor Shumlin declared his opposition to any new taxes for the wealthiest Vermonters, but when I heard John Campbell second that opinion I was outraged. Has the Vermont Democratic party been infected by the illness afflicting the rest of America, “Protect the Wealthy”? Why are we protecting the right of people to get progressively more wealthy while the country, the states and localities suffer from big budget holes? While the national scene seems beyond redemption, and other states cannot be protected from here, I thought that at least Vermont, little, go-it-alone Vermont, would do the right thing. Especially astonishing for me was Shumlin's assertion that “we need these folks to stay around. They'll leave if we tax them too much.”

I'll self-censor my expletives. Who is twisting their arms? Who is making the right policy for Vermont too painful for the Governor and the President Pro-Tempore of the Senate to advocate for a more balanced tax policy? Why are our progressive leaders allowing themselves to be bullied? Am I wrong? Is this a function of thoughtful, independent concern for Vermont? I am not just upset with them as politicians, I am worried for Vermont that we are seeing the rhetoric of the far-right affecting our policy making.

I would like to say to who ever it is that has been talking to Shumlin and Campbell, “You know, if you like your money so much that you don't want to help the state out of its hole, the state doesn't need you.” My house representative Jason Lorbor claimed that more wealthy people are moving into Vermont than are moving out. Vermont has its quality of life, which is so attractive to out-of-staters, and the willingness of everybody to trust and help each other is at the core of this life. To cave in to the pressure of people who don't want to be taxed is to undermine the sense of community which is so essential to that Vermont quality of life. According to a caller to Tuesday's Vermont Edition on VPR, there are at least 60 Vermont millionaires who want to be taxed more so that the state will not need to cut essential services. Who care, apparently, about their fellow Vermonters and want to help out. These are the people that help make Vermont the great place it is.

I smell political arm-twisting. When we consider the willingness of many to pay more, and the income windfall that resulted from the extension of the Federal tax breaks, whatever is the logic of protecting these wealthiest Vermonters, it produces a very unattractive stench. Has anyone uncovered an explanation for this pandering?

I don't begrudge any one the right to earn more than most other people, but I worry about the ever widening gap between the most privileged and the most unlucky, destitute, and vulnerable among us. We have no reason to worry about wealthy people. We need to worry about the wealth-less. There is no benefit to the poor and middle class in “growing the pie” of wealth, if the slices don't get any larger, in fact get smaller, for the humblest of us.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Republican Party Obfuscates


H.202, the House health care bill will be debated in the House on Wednesday, March 23rd and Thursday, March 24th. In addition Senate Health and Welfare Committee will be holding public hearings on S.57 – the Senate version of the health care bill. These hearings will be held on Thursday, March 24, 2011 in Room 11 at the state house for Vermont business community, employers and employees; Thursday, March 31, 2011 in the House chamber for the Vermont consumer community; and Thursday, April 7, 2011 in Room 11 for the Vermont provider community.

Do not let these opportunities go by. Now is the time to voice your concerns and to ask those questions which seem to have no answers. Email or call your Representative(s) now as H.202 is being debated in the House. You can also testify in person at the Senate hearings noted above or submit written testimony to the Senate Committee by emailing Agatha Kessler at The Senate bill can be found here.

Most Vermonters will agree that the current system has serious problems primarily because of its escalating costs and lack of built-in cost containment. In addition Vermont has 47,000 uninsured, half of whom are eligible for Medicaid, leaving approximately 24,000 Vermonters without insurance. In response the Administration and majority legislature are pursuing a completely new approach to health care. However, the question needs to be asked: Aren’t there better ways to deal with rising costs and the uninsured without completely changing the current system, driving insurers out of the state, and imposing government control over our health care? Aren’t there other approaches to be considered? For example, why not open the market up to the insurance industry across state lines to lower the cost of premiums, get serious about tort reform, continue to tweak Catamount to help the uninsured and continue to follow the Blueprint for Health to improve outcomes for everyone rather than turn the whole system upside down when we don’t even know where we are going?

As you may know, the House and Senate health care bill does primarily three things:

It lays the groundwork for development of an Exchange. The Exchange is intended to serve as a marketplace where Vermonters can compare and purchase health insurance. The federal health care reform law gives states broad authority regarding the operation of exchanges, including how many there are within each state, the breadth of the population included in the exchange, and the requirements placed on insurers who provide coverage to exchange enrollees. This definitely sounds good and as conceived by the federal health care reform law does have potential – except that the Administration believes they can use the Exchange as a platform to get to single payer/universal health care and are trying to only let one insurer into the Exchange – even though federal law requires more than one insurer in the Exchange. The Exchange would become operational in 2014 and the Administration is proposing that the Green Mountain Health Reform Board would develop a plan for the legislature by 2012 to supply the details of the Exchange design.

The Administration is proposing Vermont include in the Exchange employer groups with fewer than 100 employees (expanding the current small group market from up to 50 to up to 100 employees). They also propose that state and municipal employees (including teacher unions) become part of the Exchange, and that Vermont integrate Medicaid, Medicare and workers’ compensation medical payment coverage into the Exchange. A number of waivers will be needed to accomplish this.

It establishes the Green Mountain Health Reform Board. This 5-person Board would be analogous to the Public Service Board and would be appointed by the Governor. The Board will control the entire $5 billion health care system. Members would be responsible for all aspects of development of the Exchange and the design of the single payer system. They will develop cost containment strategies, including payment reform, design the benefit package under the single payer/universal health care system and set the budget and the global payments to providers. This Board would also be given the authority to review and approve health insurer premium rate increases. The cost of this Board is estimated to be approximately $1.3M/year.

As proposed, the Legislature is completely cut out of any governance process and has no means of overriding the Board’s decisions. Immediate concern has been expressed by legislators of both political parties and by Vermont’s health care providers because all decisions would flow through this group. The power of this group is beyond anything Vermont has seen because it is essentially in command of 20 percent of the state’s economy. The tough decisions will be made by the Board, not our elected leaders, and in so doing, the public is largely removed from the debate as well.

It puts in place the superstructure for the single payer/universal health care system but with no details. The Administration will ask for permission from the federal government to transform the Exchange into a publicly financed Exchange, which would be the single payer system. At that point, current premium payments by individuals and employers would be eliminated unless an employer chooses to continue providing health insurance coverage. All Vermonters would receive coverage by virtue of their residency for a package of health care benefits, coverage would not be linked to employment and most Vermonters would pay into a system for financing this coverage. This would be the single payer/universal health care system. The Administration has yet to propose the financing mechanism for the single payer/universal health care system, and will not do so until 2013 through the Green Mountain Health Reform Board.

All employers will be “asked” to join in the single payer/universal health care system as the state is not permitted to mandate participation; however, all Vermont employers will be subject to the payroll tax, assuming that is the financing mechanism chosen. If an employer chooses to keep its own insurance covered, that employer would be paying twice (once through the payroll tax for single payer/universal health care and then for its own insurance plan). Finally, the Administration has stated that employers would be free to provide supplemental coverage to their employees, financed completely by the employer/employee, on top of the payroll tax.

Using the payroll tax as the way of financing the system raises significant equity issues. Those who do not have a taxable wage would pay nothing as well as those at the lower end of the income scale. Those Vermonters remaining would shoulder the burden, in return for what most people would consider to be drastically reduced benefits.

As you can see there are many unanswered questions. For instance, how will this reform be financed and why is the financing proposal being delayed 2 years? The net effect will be to destroy the current system and begin to replace it before we know what the new system will cost. This will result in a de facto single payer/universal health care system. By its very nature, the proposal eliminates the “safety net” of a private insurance market; will there be a Plan B in case things do not turn out as expected? Will it be sustainable over time?

What will happen if Vermonters get care outside Vermont – will it be covered and what will Vermonters have to pay for it? How will border issues be addressed, i.e., if a New Hampshire employers have employees who live in Vermont, and vice versa? What will this plan do to the business environment in Vermont? Will it encourage or discourage new businesses?

Finally, what about state employees? Will they be required to be covered under the single payer/universal health care plan? Their right to bargain for health care benefits is in statute (3 VSA 904 and 3 VSA 631). If the state requires that they be covered under the single payer, the state would have to repeal these statutes, taking away their bargaining rights. The loss of bargaining rights would also apply to educators and municipalities. Being able to bargain for “wrap-around” or supplemental insurance will do nothing to contain costs and will raise questions of single-payer/universal health care equity. See the AP story on this here. According to the current version of H.202, the state will select an insurer to offer one plan with two levels of out-of-pocket expense. On January 1, 2014 those will be the only choices available to individuals and small businesses to obtain health insurance coverage in Vermont.

The fundamental problem is: there are currently no answers to basic and important questions. Vermonters are being asked to go along with a plan without any answers and are being asked to just trust that “they” will release the details later. Can we do this with our health care system that is $5 billion and 20% of the state gross product? Why is the plan being pushed through so quickly? Why at the last minute does H.202 now refer to single payer as “universal health care”?

Reach out to your State Representative(s) and Senator(s) now and require them to slow down the process. All that needs to be done right now is to allow the Exchange to go forward in accordance with Federal law. The Administration and the Legislature can then pursue alternatives that will begin to address cost containment, establish performance measures and assist the uninsured without expending $1.3M/year in support of the 5 member Green Mountain Health Reform Board. It will take time to develop the right system for Vermont and we should move ahead deliberatively and thoughtfully, engaging the public and having answers to questions at the ready to ensure public understanding and commitment rather than pushing through a bill that does not provide answers to basic and important questions. Your concerns are being heard. H.202 as passed out of the House Health and Welfare Committee now requires a fiscal analysis from the Legislature’s Joint fiscal Office by April 21st. So keep asking those questions and sharing your concerns.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Stephen Marshall March 22, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Your comment is awaiting moderation.

You’re not up-to-date on the bill. The house committee has issued a working draft to create a nominations board, with two year terms for 11 members, essentially just to identify qualified persons for the Green Mountain Care board.

I can understand doubt about the benefits package, since it hasn’t been created so far, but you have no right to assert they will be “drastically reduced”. You just don’t know. And two things: The people planning this thing will be covered by it, too, so its not going to be shabby, and those who want additional coverage will have the entire insurance market to get it from.

The arguments you have used to slow things down are edge issues. A complete and detailed plan would be terrific, but as yet we have not found any crystal ball to figure out the best plan. The fact is that these details will be resolved by thoughtful people from all political parties and there is no reason to worry about the pace. The fact is that the costs of health care are accelerating so fast we cannot afford to wait a year before implementing a plan to change the system. And besides the fact that the current system is a market failure, and there are thousands of people who need health care and are not now getting it, once the destructive properties of the profit motive are removed from the health care and health care financing systems, the terrific efficiencies gained will make Vermont a great place to do business.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Insurance is the Wrong Model for Health Care

As the citizens and legislators of Vermont consider a plan to displace private insurers from the essential care component of the health care delivery, I wonder why they wouldn't be relieved to get out. After all, the purpose of insurance is to protect the customer from an event that is possible but not inevitable, is not likely, and is terribly inconvenient, giving the customer reason to avoid the event. To me, this does not describe essential health and medical services.

For us, the people of Vermont, the services of doctors, hospitals, physical therapists, mental health therapists, midwives, chiropractors and so on, are routine, necessary, and, if not desirable, amount to the desirable response to another, actually unwanted, "event". In fact, the growth in deductibles tells us that the insurance companies don't want this responsibility either, and are doing exactly what the insurance model predicts they would do: they are offering more and more plans with larger and yet larger deductibles. Here are some numbers:

Between 2003 and 2009, premiums in employer-based plans, depending on the plan type, increased in Vermont in a range from 32% to 54%. And as a percentage of median incomes, these premiums went from 15% to 17.4% for singles, and from 14.4% to 19.4% for families. That's a painful lot of money that is cutting a lot of people and businesses out of the market. But meanwhile, deductibles for employed singles increased two and a half times (+148%), and doubled (+112%) for families with employer based insurance (Commonwealth Fund, 2010). But the deductible is the cost zone where essential care occurs, and these plans are only helpful in the event of - I am repeating myself - the unlikely and undesirable. I think the insurance companies do not want to be in the essential care business.

Simply put, the insurance model is the wrong way to pay for health care. If I buy a shirt, the retailer is happy when I take my shirt with me, and is happier yet when I wear it out and want more shirts. In the insurance business, what I buy, the seller hopes I will never use. And as the chances of my unlikely event occurring increases, the insurance salesman wants less and less to sell me any thing. His (her) best customer is the one who needs that product least, or not at all!

The problem for Vermont is that even though the insurance market does not want to, and cannot, provide what the people of Vermont want and need (universal, reliable, affordable, accessible health care), they also don't want to get out of the way so that we, the people of Vermont can provide it for ourselves. Could the insurance industry please answer this question? Why are you resisting a public system to pay for essential health care? In 2003, 58% of insured Vermonters had a deductible. In 2009, 71% had a deductible. Do you really WANT this job?

Most Vermonters think it's about the money. But how much is the essential services sector really worth to you? Is your profit in the essential care sector really worth more than universally accessible, quality health care is to Vermonters?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Fate We Choose

I asked my pharmacist, “Have you been following the debate over single payer?”
“No.” he said, “I don't think it's going to happen.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“The insurance companies won't let it happen. There is too much money involved.”

If we were not on a national and international stage, we might only be asking “What is the best way to deliver health care?” But the debate here in Vermont – our debate over single payer health care delivery – is much larger than how to best deliver health care. It's even larger than the the question “What is the relationship between the citizen and the government?” This debate is about the question “What do we want our lives to be like?” What is the reason for life? Why are we here? Why are we engaged in the democratic experiment? And “What fate shall we choose?” Is it our goal for everyone to have a reason to live and a quality of life that justifies living, or is it our goal for some few to live richly, while the vast majority of people live from pay check to pay check, at risk of eviction for any episode of ill health, eating second rate food? As the income gap widens, as the federal budget shrinks and college becomes less accessible, parks are over-run by commerce, as police and fire departments are halved or eliminated, as class sizes grow and arts and music disappear for our children, as the middle class disassembles, as the uber-rich cut environmental law exceptions for themselves, allowing them to pollute with eternal impunity, the fate of the poverty class awaits the middle class.

We are in a fight for our lives, our nation, and humanity. Confronted nationally by a declining quality of life, by increasing insecurity, the dogma being shouted is to preserve the right of a few to get rich. Too many of us believe this dogma. Confronted by downward mobility, we are told to blame the government for “spending too much”, for excessive social welfare, for too high entitlements. We are promised that if we reduce taxes, reduce even the bulwark of the middle class, Social Security, even while the rich get richer and the regular people become poor and then poorer, our wealth will come. They will invest with their hyper-exuberant tax savings, they say, the economic pie will get bigger, they say, and those jobs will restore prosperity, they say. Really? Do you really believe the uber-rich will not just keep the profits for themselves? Confronted by the end of the middle class, we desperately hope these promises will reverse the slide of our fortunes. But these promises are the cause of that slide.

How is it that keeping more tax money enables the uber-rich and corporations to invest, when their bank accounts are fuller than ever and corporations are hoarding money? While the US spends more on its military than all other countries combined, how is it the same political-right that demands lower taxes also takes the military budget off the chopping block? How is it that just when the political right has finished its spending spree, and the priorities of an economy in recovery under their political opposition take hold, then they call for austerity? How is it that just when the Treasury must begin to repay America's debt to the Social Security Trust Fund, just when the people of the nation need their collective safety net most of all, then they call for cuts in Social Security benefits, lest taxes must be raised. Whose money are they saving?

The extreme political right is not just unwilling to pay for their own priorities, they want to destroy the social safety net. They will do anything to advantage their own accumulation of wealth, even destroy the democratic experiment we are living. Read the libertarian literature. They want to end taxes. But without taxes, only oligarchs have money, and an end to taxes is an end to democracy. They say “Freedom is incompatible with democracy”, because democracy promotes tyranny of the majority. They show no temperance, no self-restraint, no regard for the commonweal. They are prepared to destroy our system government. And with their control of the right-wing media machine, they are succeeding.

And they will go to any end to prevent us from instituting a single payer health care system, because our success will endanger their project to make America safe for Oligarchy.

If we allow our political and economic policy to be guided by the anti-government pseudo-populism, only one political principle applies: The ends justify the means. Do any harm needed to hold and keep wealth and power. Scream, lie, distort, manipulate, steal, kill, take, hoard, what ever is needed, get it. Truth be damned, science be damned, justice be damned, the fate of the Earth be damned, the fate of other people and our democratic experiment be damned! Just get power. And blame the government for everything that goes wrong.

They would have us forget the power we have, demonize our institutions of collective action, and accept the slight of hand by which their wealth accumulates in ever deeper piles, while our nation, the first nation founded by the people, for the people, is stolen from us. They conveniently overlook that the government is us. They want us to forget that from we the governed comes all of the power. That the government is the institution through which we effect our common goals. They plan on us being hypnotized by the drumbeat of “get yours, you are alone”, and that we will lose the ability to fight back, make this our nation, make this a nation that is just, make this a nation in which lives can be lived with hope.

The choice we have is between living like the Japanese or Norwegians, whose lives are quite good, or like the Pakistanis, the Libyans, or even the Somalis, whose countries follow the writ of Libertarian-Capitalist self-interest. In countries with high social equity, like Japan and Norway, in the vision of our founders, and in our country until the Libertarian attack, two principles are (or were) joined in the means (by which ends are accomplished): the rights of personal voice, prosperity, and well-being, and the responsibility of a shared fate. In a just society, advocates for different ideas of how to create that nation seek a shared solution that aims for the most good for the most people. And it is in the resolution of different principles and visions that meaningful solutions are found. In an unjust society, only one principle applies. That one principle which destroys opponents. The principle of power. That one principle which we must summarily reject.

We have decided that “Health Care is a Human Right” because our conscience tells us we must, because whither the law, prevailing opinion or the demands of national security, we know that the better life it produces for individuals produces a better life for everyone, even those who can afford all the health care they could want, and that makes it the Right thing to do. Access to health care, education, healthy food, sound housing, are absolute human goods. We decide to call them “Rights” because we need to, we must, push back against the belief that “to get wealthy is a right, and for you to be impoverished is not my problem”. To get wealthy is not a right. And to be impoverished is not necessary. (Read extensive research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level, Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Bloomsbury Press, 2009)

We must fight now for health care as a human right with everything we have. When the advertising rolls out telling us about the great plans the insurance companies have to improve health care, when they charge that taxes will increase, when we are attacked with the label “Socialist”, when they talk about their passion for the health of patients and what a great job they do, we must answer their distortions and lies with truth, we must forcefully tell how they fail to deliver health care, and we must remind everyone: all they want is our money – they do not care about us. They haven't delivered, they can't deliver, and they won't deliver, the health care we need, because affordable health care for all, because health care as a human right, for profit, just isn't possible. It's a social project that only we, the people, through our government, can undertake.

Which fate do you choose?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Korean Foresight

I wonder whether the United States government, with the United Nations, has made any plans in the event of a humanitarian disaster on the Korean peninsula.

While the danger of real military conflict has declined in recent weeks, the regime in the north is surely unsustainable, and it would seem that any collapse scenario would present the international community with the same scale of disaster - especially since it could already, now, qualify as a disaster zone. Sooner or later, the international community will need to take responsibility for the essential needs of the North Koreans, and making plans for that eventuality would seem, to me, prudent.

Such planning might also facilitate the collapse of that horrific regime, as it might give confidence to the Chinese that they would not be subject to a massive and uncontrolled surge of refugees, and therefor would allow them to withdraw support for the North Koreans.

An internationally agreed plan, construction of infrastructure in China and South Korea, and massing of resources, would surely reduce the ultimate suffering of the North Korean people, and greatly accelerate their eventual integration into the international community.