Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Re-Post: Wassail Your Troubles Away (12/31/05)

 And God knows there were plenty of troubles.

wassailing Here's to the old pagan tradition of wassailing the apple trees.  From the Sulgrave Manor website we read:
" Apple trees were sprinkled with wassail to ensure a good crop. Villagers would gather around the apple trees with shotguns or pots and pans and made a tremendous racket to raise the Sleeping Tree Spirit and to scare off demons. A toast was then drunk from the Wassail Cup. Wassailing was meant to keep the tree safe from evil spirits until the next year's apples appeared.
Oh apple tree, we'll wassail thee
And hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord does know where we may go
To be merry another year
To grow well and to bear well
  And so merrily let us be
                                            Let every man drink up his glass
                                           And a health to the old apple tree
                                           Brave boys, and a health to the old apple tree"
And a number of other variations on this theme can be found around the net, here:
"A cider-soaked cake is laid in the fork of a tree and then more cider is splashed on it. The men fire their guns into the tree and bang on pots and pans while the rest of the people bow their heads and sing the special `Wassail Song`. This custom is said to ward off bad spirits from the orchard and encourages the good spirits to provide a bountiful crop for the following year.
In other traditions, the men of the village went out to the orchards carrying the wassail bowl, to alternately serenade and browbeat the apple trees. There were songs, dances and libations (for tree and man) until finally, in frustration, the trees would be threatened with the axe if they did not produce well in the coming year. A newspaper account of 1851 documents Devonshire men firing guns (charged only with powder) at the trees."

and here:
"It was apparently an old midwinter custom (old Christmas eve or old twelfth night or some such time) to get together in an orchard and drink cider or strong beer, possibly warmed and spiced, have a bonfire, fire shotguns into the tres 'to frighten off hte evil spirits', sing, and depending on local tradition carry out various customs, the most common of which was for a piece of toast on which some cider had been poured to be put nto the oldest tree 'for the robins'. "
and here:
"Wassail is an ale-based drink seasoned with spices and honey. It was served from huge bowls, often made of silver or pewter. The Wassail bowl would be passed around with the greeting, 'Wassail'.
Wassail gets its name from the Old English term "waes hael", meaning "be well". It was a Saxon custom that, at the start of each year, the lord of the manor would shout 'waes hael'. The assembled crowd would reply 'drinc hael', meaning 'drink and be healthy'.
As time went on, the tradition was carried on by people going from door to door, bearing good wishes and a wassail bowl of hot, spiced ale. In return people in the houses gave them drink, money and Christmas fayre and they believed they would receive good luck for the year to come.
The contents of the bowl varied in different parts of the country, but a popular one was known as lambs wool. It consisted of ale, baked apples, sugar, spices, eggs, and cream served with little pieces of bread or toast. It was the bread floating on the top that made it look like lamb's wool."

The recipe for making a wassail bowl found in The Joy of Cooking is about as authentic as you can get:

"WASSAIL
• 1 dozen apples
• 1 cup water
• 4 cups sugar
• 1 tablespoon grated nutmeg
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon ground mace
• 6 whole cloves
• 6 allspice berries
• 1 stick cinnamon
• 1 dozen eggs, whites and yolks separated and reserved
• 4 bottles sherry or madeira
• 2 cups brandy
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Core and bake apples for about 30 minutes, until tender but not mushy.
In a saucepan, combine water, sugar, nutmeg, ginger, mace, cloves, allspice berries and cinnamon and boil for 5 minutes. Let cool.
Beat egg whites until stiff, forming soft peaks, but not dry. Separately, beat egg yolks until light in color. Gently fold whites into yolks, using large bowl. Strain cooled sugar and spice mixture through sieve into eggs, combining quickly. In separate pots, bring sherry or madeira and brandy almost to the boiling point.
Incorporate hot sherry or madeira with the spice and egg mixture, beginning slowly and stirring briskly with each addition. Toward the end of this process, add brandy. Just before serving and while mixture is still foaming, add baked apples. Serve in a heat-resistant punch bowl or in individual mugs."


You can read a similar recipe with song and story here.

A couple years ago some friends and we sang and danced around the old man apple tree in our back yard (the "old man" being the oldest, largest of the trees), and we had a remarkably huge crop of fruit from all the trees the following summer.

wassailWhile I can't recommend the activity for everyone, I enjoyed it immensely, and although the drink itself wasn't as tasty as I'd hoped for, it was an interesting exercise in reconnecting to the past.  But on this, the nub end of the old year and the brink of the new, I can't think of anything better than to wish you all better days and better luck.  As the old song says:


Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too,
And God bless you and send you,
A happy New Year,
And God send you,
A happy new year.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Blessings


Merry Christmas

From my home (that's part of it over there) to yours.  Since my Christmas wishes for peace and love and all that have mostly ended in frustration, I wish this for myself, and for you as well:  that we cast off anger as a default position, find compassion in our hearts for those with whom we disagree, and in doing so experience some small peace.  Be well.  Do well.

Update: Christmas for our family always includes 3 things---watching Bad Santa, listening to Fairytale of New York, and watching and listening to the Christmas in Heaven sequence from Monty Python's Meaning of Life.  And this year, after being sucked in by an unexpected presentation on PBS of Sting at Durham Cathedral, I rushed to buy the DVD of If On A Winter's Night, which arrived on Christmas Eve and made for a magical evening.  Though I couldn't post something from that, I did find a lovely version of Christmas at Sea in a different venue.  O come let us adore them.









Wednesday, December 23, 2009

American Idle

Now that we understand that the House will have to give up the few decent features of its own reform bill to the nasty piece of business being passed in the Senate, I have to ask: with what will liberals be rewarded for abdicating their own ideals and principles to the hobby horse of "history" and the fata morgana of future fixes? Now that Republicans have been courted and feted while liberals were threatened and exiled, now that Nelson and Lieberman and Stupak have ringed our noses and led progressives and "reform" around the killing floor, now that Big Medicine and Pharma and the health insurance monopoly have wrung every concession and promise of status quo from the administration we entrusted with our vote, how will the White House and the right-wing cohort in Congress return the favor? Meaningful climate change legislation? FIRE sector reform with teeth? Consumer protection? Agricultural reform? Help for workers? Exit from Iraq? Torture policy reversed?

For me, the previews on these issues have been disheartening, and I won't hold my breath. The Republicans, who now represent the escaped insane of the nation, have built a party platform on dismantling the government and transforming it into a feedlot for the war industry. They have no stake in passing any legislation, for anything. They would love to make abortion (and many of them, contraception) illegal again, but they know they can effect basically the same thing through more and restrictive state-level regulations on clinics, providers, and the procedure itself, and there is no way the current Supreme Court will find any of it crossing the line as delineated by Casey v Planned Parenthood. Other than this, I don't see them caring about much of anything except sitting in front of the manger and starving the cow. And power, of course. They hate government but they won't stand for anyone but them running it, so like spoiled children deprived of a toy on a shopping outing, they will make everyone around them as miserable as themselves. No matter what other changes liberals seek, no matter how beneficial to the nation, we can expect no more than what we have already gotten: a parade of insults upon our character and intellect from the appeasers of our own group, and a big backhand across the face from the White House.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What's YOUR Story?

From now on, let's have full disclosure from every pundit and blogger shooting off his or her mouth about the "affordability" of the Insurance Monopoly Bill. What I want to know is:

1) What is your current income?

2) What is your current health insurance arrangement---premium, cost-share, employer share, family or individual coverage, etc.?

3) Do you have a chronic illness or impairment?

4) Do you have a child or dependent, and if so, do they have any chronic illness or impairment?

5) Have you ever had to spend any time without health insurance while raising a child, caring for an impaired dependent, or living through your own illness or impairment?

6) Have you ever had a family member who went a substantial period of time without health insurance?

7) Have you ever had to put off going for medical care for yourself or another because you couldn't afford it?

The answers to these questions should certainly put the content of any blather about affordability into context, and they will tell us whether their authors have the standing to be making such a call in the first place.

Me, I'll tell all in the next chapter.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Let's Not Allow the Perfect to Be the Enemy of the Abominable

After weeks of perusing liberal websites whose writers have been whistling past the graveyard of health care reform, insisting that this "historic" moment is only a launching pad for the really good reform that everyone will come to a consensus on and create in a couple years, and after posting my own pessimistic take on the matter, I have looked over the final Senate product and see that my worst fears have come to pass. Perhaps the most egregiously obvious sign that it heralds more business-as-usual is this:
The (Senate) legislation would not strip health insurance companies of their longstanding exemption from federal antitrust laws.
Good news. If you're Ronald Williams. Or a stockholder. The soup is on.

I wish I could think we were finally done with the divisive recriminations that have torn the liberal wing apart these past weeks, but I'm afraid it's only just starting, now that the House and Senate bills must be reconciled. The House bill, with all its flaws, is a piece of humanitarian genius compared to the Piece Of Shit (as Charles Pierce calls it) the Millionaires' Club finally extruded from their constipated asses. There will be an inevitable mitosis within the Democratic party as a result of this, and I'm beginning to think that may be the healthiest way for us to finally begin to represent the poor and disenfranchised again. God knows the Democratic Party as it now stands has long since given up even pretending it cares about those.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Trying to To Make A Ray of Sunshine Out of A Stream of Bat's Piss

People are trying to make the best out of the concessions Ben Nelson blackmailed the Senate into. Like, for instance, the abortion issue: states will be able to individually refuse permission for insurers in the insurance exchange to offer abortion coverage, and a woman will need to pay into a separate revenue stream when seeking an abortion using coverage provided by her insurer. Some say this isn't so bad. Many of those are men and women past childbearing age.

Forget what impact individual states can have on whether an insurer want the hassle of setting up different plans for different state exchanges, and whether that may influence the insurer to eliminate abortion coverage for simplicity's sake. It's that separate pay-out that strikes me as especially hollow. I've been able to do that since 1973. It's called paying out of pocket. So this does me no favors; what it does is put restrictions on what is ostensibly a legal medical procedure. But as we know, the fine points of legality have been lost on this Congress for many decades.

And BTW, is there a restriction on paying for fertility treatments that deliberately create numerous excess embryos, many of whom are then deliberately terminated in the womb? I really want to know, why is it we don't see big trucks with bloody blown-up photos and weeping children with protest signs outside fertility clinics? Why isn't there a move in the Senate to restrict them, to throw up ridiculous regulations and laws to make it impossible to find a clinic or a doctor to perform fertility procedures? Why don't we get long-winded sermons in Congress about the "holocaust" of wasted life? Oh, wait. Fertility treatments are legal, aren't they?

Dumb Shit is Our Birthright

Roy Edroso is feeling moroso:
That the grand hopes for we-dia and all the crap that came with it would prove a catastrophic bust is no surprise to students of history, who know what became of the Journals-Affiches of the French Revolution, and all the proletarian outlets thereafter.

But it is important to note not only what, but who failed in this case. It is tempting but too easy to lay the blame at the doorstep of one political faction or other. The real force behind blogs, Twitter, and all other social media is its users, which is to say, practically everyone of the internet. And this is the saddest part of the demise of the internet as anything other than a microwave for the mind: we are the ones who killed it. And no matter how feverishly we click and scroll and friend and block, nothing we do can bring it back to life.
--"Why This Decade Sucked, Reason #10: Social Media Ruined the Internet" Village Voice
Every time human beings communicate, there is a drag toward the lowest common denominator. We have seen in in the evolution of every one of our communication and social networking tools: schools, books, newspapers, music, movies, plays, philosophies and ideologies.

The whole history of humanity is the history of seining out the accumulating crap of an endeavor to search for the one worthwhile thing. If we can find a few on the internet, we can call it a draw.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Storm Coming

Mmmmm.

What We Lost When We Thought We'd Won

The Obama Plan for Health Care Reform during the campaign:
Limits premium discrimination based on gender and age.
The current Senate Bill:
A qualified high risk pool meets the requirements of this paragraph if such pool—...(C) ensures that with respect to the premium rate charged for health insurance coverage offered to eligible individuals through the high risk pool, such rate shall— (ii) vary on the basis of age by a factor of not greater than 4 to 1;....

With respect to the premium rate charged by a health insurance issuer for health insurance coverage offered in the individual or small group market— ‘‘(A) such rate shall vary with respect to the particular plan or coverage involved only by— ...(iii) age, except that such rate shall not vary by more than 3 to 1 for adults (consistent with section 2707(c));
The Obama Plan during the campaign:
Offers a public health insurance option to provide the uninsured and those who can’t find affordable coverage with a real choice.
The current Senate Bill:
December 16, 2009--Senate Democratic leaders abandoned the last vestige of a government health plan yesterday but pledged to move ahead on a sweeping health care overhaul, infuriating many liberals but pleasing President Obama, who said victory on his highest domestic priority was within sight.
The full specifics of Obama's Health Care during the campaign:
--Allow consumers to import safe drugs from other countries.
--Allow Medicare to negotiate for cheaper drug prices.
--NEW AFFORDABLE, ACCESSIBLE HEALTH INSURANCE OPTIONS. Through the Exchange, any American will have the opportunity to enroll in the new public plan or an approved private plan...
What will be in any bill:
(In the July 7, 2009 memo) the White House agreed to oppose any congressional efforts to use the government's leverage to bargain for lower drug prices or import drugs from Canada -- and also agreed not to pursue Medicare rebates or shift some drugs from Medicare Part B to Medicare Part D, which would cost Big Pharma billions in reduced reimbursements.

In exchange, the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers Association (PhRMA) agreed to cut $80 billion in projected costs to taxpayers and senior citizens over ten years. Or, as the memo says: "Commitment of up to $80 billion, but not more than $80 billion."
Now, please, tell me again that Obama did not build his campaign around the very things that have been trashed with his smiling approval, and that this bill, combined with business-as-usual economic "reform", is not going to turn us all into the indentured servantry of the corporate classes.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

And By the Way...

While much of my objection to the current incarnations of the House and Senate "Health Care Reform" bills has been on affordability grounds, let's just get this up front: there is nothing in either bill that would reduce the bureaucracy and storms of pointless, redundant paperwork, or that would actually reduce the costs of premiums in toto. Here's a chart by Nate Silver. I have problems with how he breaks down the amount of money the family in question will have to pay out-of-pocket, but that's not my concern here. My concern is that in comparing the various costs his family will have to pay in 2016, the total prices charged by the insurance company are essentially the same. As Matt Taibbi pointed out, allowing insurance companies, Pharma, and medical providers to continue doing business as usual was not supposed to be the goal of this reform effort. And for this, this big fucking humbug, we have the privilege of being forced to enrich the coffers of the already well-to-do.

To recap my ongoing argument with Kevin Drum (who is an inveterate optimist on this matter) in his comments:
Medicare buy-in is also now bye-byes. The plan is going to end up being a fat wet kiss to insurance and Pharma, and a financial burden to people with incomes under 100k and more than 40k. AND there is a good likelihood that after 9 long freaking years, we'll still be looking at 24 million people uninsured into 2019, so there goes your "universal". This is turning into a months long exercise in utter humiliation for liberals, and the only thing we are getting out of it is another administration pandering to the right and flipping the bird to progressive frustration. Kevin, it sucks, and speaking on behalf of all the people who do NOT make a shitload of money in this country, it's a millionaire's idea of affordability, given the imprimatur of affordability by media millionaires nodding and grunting their approval. The recent DHS report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services says this about the affordability of this great plan:

"The (Senate bill) specifies maximum out of pocket limits in 2014 equal to the corresponding maximums as defined by the Internal Revenue Code for high-deductible health plans. We estimate that these limits would be $6,645 for an individual and $13, 290 for a family with qualified creditable coverage (including employer-sponsored health insurance). For future years, the limits are indexed to the growth in the average health insurance premium in the U.S. Under this approach, the proportion of health care costs above the out-of-pocket maximum would be relatively stable over time. For the basic 'bronze' benefit plan for individuals, with an actuarial value of 60%, we estimate that the cost-sharing percentage applicable before the out-of-pocket maximum is reached would be about 76% in 2014 and later. The corresponding cost-sharing rate for family coverage is 64%...

We also considered the required penalty associated with the individual mandate if they chose to remain uninsured...Our model indicated that roughly 65% of those eligible for the Exchanges would choose to take such coverage, with the principal incentive being the level of premium assistance available....individuals or families for whom the 'bronze' plan premium level (reduced by the refundable premium assistance tax credit, if applicable) would exceed 8% of income would not be subject to penalty if they chose not to enroll in the Exchange plan. We estimate that this provision would exempt...about 16% of the non-aged population.""

Fuck that shit.
And this:
Millions WILL Remain Uninsured. There is NOTHING in this bill that will do that. They will continue to stick it to consumers because there is nothing in this bill that amounts to any kind of protection for affordability. Maybe in your world it is affordable to pay almost $14,000 a year for insurance plus co-pays on the order of 30% until you've spent $10K out of pocket. In my world, and the world of the people I know, this is not in any way affordable. Who's living in a dream world, Kevin?

As for losing a chance that may not come again for 40 years, if the Right gets back in charge down the road, there is nothing to stop them from gutting or rescinding any bill that passes anyway, so why not try for something worth fighting for? This bill as Lieberman wants it amounts to the government holding us for ransom on behalf of corporate profit.
Finally, my comment at the NYTimes on the fallout for Joe Lieberman after his shameful display of cupidity this week:
“I don’t feel like a spoiler,” Mr. Lieberman said.

That's because you couldn't feel with both hands and a feeling-hand dog to guide you, you disgraceful egomaniac. You haven't had a human feeling for years, as exemplified by your present inability to care one whit about the thousands who are dying while you grandstand and preen in the spotlight.

And this is the man all the Democrats are shaking in their boots over. Oh, Mary, pleeeze.
Yes, it's going to be a fine season of goodwill toward men.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Let's All Go Home and Let Joe Run the Country

At last: my very worst fears are about to become flesh:
The day before, Mr. Lieberman threatened on national television to join the Republicans in blocking the health care bill, President Obama’s chief domestic initiative. Within hours, he was in a meeting at the Capitol with top White House officials.

And on Monday night, Democratic senators emerged from a tense 90-minute closed-door session and suggested that they were on the verge of bowing to Mr. Lieberman’s main demands: that they scrap a plan to let people buy into Medicare beginning at age 55, and scotch even a fallback version of a new government-run health insurance plan, or public option.

Mr. Lieberman said he believed that the Medicare expansion was off the table, though he did not get any guarantee.
And of course, despite the wasted paragraphs spent fluffing Lieberman's ego, not one sentence was spent in this article on the fact that his wife is neck-deep in connections to the health insurance and Pharma industries. (Correction: The article did mention Lieberman kvetching that "...some people had begun attacking his wife, Hadassah, urging that she be fired from her job at a nonprofit organization that fights breast cancer, because she previously worked in public relations for two pharmaceutical companies." But that single sentence doesn't even begin to hint at the deep and decades-long tentacles Lieberman has within the various corporations for which she has worked and shilled.)

Where on earth is Obama in all this? What is wrong with our so-called leaders in the Senate, that they allow this hateful dwarf to lead them around by the nose in public like this? Doesn't anyone remember that we can have this watered-down compromise by reconciliation, and fuck the 60 votes?

And I'll bet that after he derails this "reform", he hangs on to his leadership position, too. I have an idea that will make him and his wife happy: let's just all line up every month and drop $600 into a bucket directly connected by pneumatic tube to the bank accounts of every insurance company and drug company in the country, and then go home and take care of our diseases with hot tea.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

War is Peace, Hate is Love

I have been mystified by the liberal responses to Obama's Nobel acceptance speech. I mean, really? Lauding and justifying 6 decades of near-constant and pointless war as you receive a prize for peace? This gets you misty-eyed? Really?? And after spending hours complaining about it to every innocent within earshot yesterday, I read Glenn Greenwald's reaction, which pretty well echoed my own and made me feel that perhaps I wasn't insane:
Is that what liberals were hoping for when they elected Obama: someone who would march right into Oslo and proudly announce to the world that we have a unilateral right to wage war when we want and to sing the virtues of war as a key instrument for peace?
I knew he was no dove when I voted for him, but when I compared his vote to ban cluster bombs to Hilary Clinton's vote against the ban, I really did think I was getting someone who might have some hesitance about continuing to fuel the dark Satanic mills of the military/industrial complex.

But I guess liberals will accept anything from a president these days so long as he can use multisyllabic words and talk in complete sentences, (another of my themes in yesterday's venting, and also coincidentally Greenwald's, here):
After eight years of enduring a President who spoke in simplistic Manichean imperatives and bullying decrees, many liberals are understandably joyous over having a President who uses their language and the rhetorical approach that resonates with them.
Yes. And if he uses that language to defend the indefensible, so much the better for getting the left to buy into the policies of the previous 8 years.

Greenwald also links to Chris Hayes over at The Nation, who quotes David Cortright, a Vietnam veteran and the Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame:
"I found the Nobel speech disappointing...To use the Nobel dais to justify the use of military force is unseemly. The president's characterization of the historic role of US military power was distorted, and his interpretation of just war theory was incomplete."
Disappointing. I wish I could tone it down to merely disappointing. As time goes on, I find Obama's various compromises and retreats on principles he outlined during his campaign to be more than just politics as usual. He worked tirelessly to gain our trust and make us believe that, this time, it could be different. I realize that his foreign policy approach was never intended to be completely dovish, but I personally think his acceptance speech in its overall tone and constant harking to a cynical realpolitik was inexcusable. Reagan could have done no better.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

When I'm Calling Yoo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oooo

Matt Y. posts a piece on a Pew poll showing the differences in policy outlook between ordinary citizens and members of the Council on Foreign Relations. But for me this was the eye-opener:
The proportion of the public saying torture is at least sometimes justified against suspected terrorists has increased modestly over the past year. Currently, 54% say torture is at least sometimes justified to gain important information from suspected terrorists, compared with 49% in April and 44% in February.
But another 16% believe torture is "rarely" justified, meaning that even they can visualize some rare scenario in which it could be used. So what this actually tells us is that 70% of respondents believe that torture can be justified in some cases. Thank you, John Yoo.

And thanks also to Matt for linking to this editorial (cached link) in the Financial Times by Steven Hill that points up the irony of awaiting a decision on healthcare reform by a deliberative body that is (surprise!) primarily an aristocracy of old male white millionaires who represent a minority of the electorate and most of whom haven't had to worry about their own health insurance for decades. This is why I have been harping on affordability, and this is why I still think it is the single most important element of reform. The public will judge the results by whether they are pushed into the poorhouse, a place most senators have never even read about, let alone visited.

Maybe we could torture them into passing something decent. Do you think the public would see that as "sometimes justified?" Yoo could write the memo.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

It's Hard to Light the Torches When Everything Is Wet



WASHINGTON — President Obama on Thursday hosted a forum with scores of business and labor leaders and economic advisers to both political parties to field “every demonstrably good idea” for creating jobs, but he cautioned that “our resources are limited.”

...“I want to be clear: While I believe the government has a critical role in creating the conditions for economic growth, ultimately true economic recovery is only going to come from the private sector,” he told his audience, which included critics as well as executives from American Airlines, Nucor Corp., Google Inc., Walt Disney Co. and Fed-Ex.

Mr. Obama told the chief executives that he wanted to know: “What’s holding back business investment and how we can increase confidence and spur hiring? And if there are things that we’re doing here in Washington that are inhibiting you, then we want to know about it.”
Oh, sweet Christ on a crutch, we're on our own, friends. Find a bucket and start bailing, because the poor are already treading water and going down for the third time, and the middle class just got the lifeboat with the hole in the bottom: (Elizabeth Warren via HuffPo)
Today, one in five Americans is unemployed, underemployed or just plain out of work. One in nine families can't make the minimum payment on their credit cards. One in eight mortgages is in default or foreclosure. One in eight Americans is on food stamps. More than 120,000 families are filing for bankruptcy every month. The economic crisis has wiped more than $5 trillion from pensions and savings, has left family balance sheets upside down, and threatens to put ten million homeowners out on the street.

Families have survived the ups and downs of economic booms and busts for a long time, but the fall-behind during the busts has gotten worse while the surge-ahead during the booms has stalled out. In the boom of the 1960s, for example, median family income jumped by 33% (adjusted for inflation). But the boom of the 2000s resulted in an almost-imperceptible 1.6% increase for the typical family. While Wall Street executives and others who owned lots of stock celebrated how good the recovery was for them, middle class families were left empty-handed.
Warren goes on to note this cruel irony:
But core expenses kept going up. By the early 2000s, families were spending twice as much (adjusted for inflation) on mortgages than they did a generation ago -- for a house that was, on average, only ten percent bigger and 25 years older. They also had to pay twice as much to hang on to their health insurance.

To cope, millions of families put a second parent into the workforce. But higher housing and medical costs combined with new expenses for child care, the costs of a second car to get to work and higher taxes combined to squeeze families even harder. Even with two incomes, they tightened their belts. Families today spend less than they did a generation ago on food, clothing, furniture, appliances, and other flexible purchases -- but it hasn't been enough to save them. Today's families have spent all their income, have spent all their savings, and have gone into debt to pay for college, to cover serious medical problems, and just to stay afloat a little while longer.
Warren's observations on the irony of being squeezed financially, despite the fact that the price of many goods have dropped sharply over the decades, is cited by Eileen Ruppell Shell in her book "Cheap". While Americans have been fed a continuing diet of cheap and inexpensive foods, entertainments, and household goods that has distracted them from their slipping wages, the so-called "inelastics", i.e., non-discountable essentials such as gasoline, health care, and housing, have gone up sharply. In times of high unemployment, this becomes a class-killer. How did our wages lose so much ground? Shell reminds us that the inflation of the 70s and de-regulation of the 80s spawned a nightmare of unemployment and credit debt, thanks to government policies (no link):
In 1978 the Humphrey-Hawkins Act mandated that inflation be reduced in 10 years from 9% to zero. The Federal Reserve Bank under both Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan strove tirelessly to achieve this ambitious goal by controlling employment levels through the manipulation of interest rates. Volcker and Greenspan reasoned that too great a demand for workers would lead to an increase in wages, which both economists deemed inflationary. When the unemployment rate fell below 5.5 or 6%, or seemed headed in that direction, the Fed raised interest rates to inhibit economic growth and by extension, hiring. As a result of this strategy, the unemployment rate climbed to 9.6% in 1983...greatly enlarging the pool of people seeking work and substantially diminishing the power of most workers to demand an increase in wages and benefits. Wages flattened, and if workers wanted to buy more, they took out a loan, often in the form of credit card debt.
And the rest, unfortunately, is history. All but the wealthiest fell into an earnings tar pit that we have yet to drag ourselves from. The predators at the top of the food chain have been eating us alive ever since.

Hear more about this from Warren herself in this Berkeley lecture from March 2007:

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Heniz 57 Legislation

Shorter New York Times editorial:  
  1. The public option will be open to almost no one and may end up insuring a number equal to the 1917 population of Finland;
  2. will have none of the negotiating power, capital, or healthy beneficiaries of the large insurance companies and thus will probably cost more;
  3. should raise its premiums or go under if it can't compete with its arms tied behind its back;  and
  4. will be hobbled going into markets where the insurance companies and medical providers already have well-established systems of commerce. 
So we should have one because it offers "choice" and might slow raising health care costs.

Really? That's "choice", as in:  here are 3 bottles of ketchup on the shelf. Two cost $20, but you never knew which ones had mouse feces in them, and they were the only bottles you could get until the House and Senate created a "public" ketchup from a compromise recipe. Now you can buy public ketchup for $22, but only if you qualify for food stamps, and now the bottles with the mouse feces will be clearly labeled. And after about 10 years people not on food stamps will be able to buy it, and maybe by then the other ketchup companies will blow up or go broke and you will be able to have the public ketchup for only $43.99, because the tomato providers will have to negotiate serious savings with the Secretary of Health and Rodent Waste.

Bring it on, you daring iconoclasts.

(Edited for clarity.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Calm Down

Thanksgiving is coming and so are my guests. After I get the last of what I need to get ready for their arrival, I'm going to settle in and enjoy some family time. Black Friday will be, as every year, a walk through the neighborhood if the weather cooperates, and then movies and wine in front of the fire. All day. With breaks for eating leftovers. My best to you and yours, and stop buying shit.



Enjoy your blessings.

More Change We Can Believe In

Thanksgiving is coming, and I'm thankful to live in a country where dissociative identity disorder is a national religion:
The United States won't join its NATO allies and many other countries in formally banning landmines, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said during his midday briefing Tuesday.

"This administration undertook a policy review and we decided our landmine policy remains in effect," Kelly said in response to a question. "We made our policy review and we determined that we would not be able to meet our national defense needs nor our security commitments to our friends and allies if we sign this convention."
What he means is we won't be able to do this, or this, because we have the 3rd largest mine arsenal in the world and what if we decide we need to start blowing up more hapless passersby again?

But it's all right; we'll clean up after ourselves:
Kelly said the United States continues to work with governments as well as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to help remove landmines.

"The U.S. is proud to be the world's single largest supporter of humanitarian mine action," Kelly said. "Since 1993 the U.S. has provided more than $1.5 billion worldwide dedicated to building new partnerships with more than 50 post-conflict countries and supporting efforts by dozens of NGOs to promote stability and set the stage for recovery and development through mine clearance and conventional-weapons destruction programs."
He's proud, because we have lowered the bar of acceptable atrocity so low in the last 8 years that it's now considered real humanitarianism to help other countries wipe up the blood we caused while we preserve the potential for spilling more by reviving our own landmine production. But what else would you expect from a guy who works for a broad who likes cluster bombs?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Got Yer Camel's Nose Right Here

It really does pain me to see liberals wasting their time throwing insults at each other, or making goofy-ass attacks on Obama, instead of having a serious discussion about how to rescue current efforts at reforming health care and health insurance. We divide cleanly down the middle between those who would rather see nothing at all rather than another financial load on people who are barely making it already, and those who think any reform, no matter how toothless, is a major accomplishment, a toe in the door, the camel's nose under the tent, that will inevitably lead to major, positive changes over time. As someone who holds the former view, let me explain why I think my loyal opposition is deluded by irrational exuberance.

We are NOT Canada. Our history, social structure, and general philosophical leanings as a people are very different, and far more conservative, than Canada's. In addition, this is not 1965, and the current polarization, fractiousness, and intransigence of our political groups is completely off the chart, even compared to the partisans who fought the civil rights wars. In fact, the ability to compromise that made Congress once amenable to passing Social Security, Medicaid, and the Civil Rights Act, was so damaged by the lasting effects of those battles that it may no longer be possible to find some reasonable middle ground for anything at all. Right now we have a party of "No" and a party of "No, don't be mad, I didn't mean it", and that's not a recipe for meaningful change any time in the foreseeable future.

Look at the Senate, and tell me that you really believe this is a body that, should any reform pass at all, will go back and begin cleaning it up and making it useful. And if the Dems don't haul their guts back off the floor and into their bellies and start pushing for changes that will help, not hurt, working people, the pig wallow you see right now is as good as it's going to get.

Americans have very short memories and even shorter fuses. They only know what you did for them lately, and the longer Democrats flub on this (don't even get me started on the FIRE sector mess), the more it will become their problem rather than one they inherited from Republicans. A weak bill that does nothing but shake down taxpayers for protection money to fill the overflowing coffers of private industry, while achieving little to no good for the people who need it most, is a guaranteed donkey-killer. When the elections come around, it will be the Republicans who will look like the only logical alternative, and if they can turn seats around in both 2010 and 2012, you can kiss your camel's nose good-bye. The GOP has effectively become a fiscally libertarian, culturally totalitarian theocracy machine, and wait till you see that prosperity-gospel megachurch they're going to build at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. That nose will be bloody, bruised, and booted back out into the dust storm, and the only question will be how long it will take till the bill is completely destroyed.

People are saying, "this is our only chance, and if something, no matter how putrid, doesn't pass, we won't get another chance for 50 years." Listen: if we don't do the hard work and make the difficult decisions on this the first time around, the Republicans will tear up the blueprint and toss it into the shredder. You're going to be back to square one anyway, only this time with the seething resentment of millions of voters to make sure you DON'T get another chance for 50 years.

Get rid of the abortion language. Require a powerful public option open to anyone who wants it, that can negotiate prices and require participation by medical providers. And for Christ's sake, lower those goddam premium caps to no more than 3% of income; most people don't earn the money of an op-ed journo or a Senator. And finally, screw the subsidies. Just establish a sliding scale fee for what private insurers can charge. This is not the free market. This is a captive audience that has no choice but to grow old, get sick and die. They are a gift being offered up to the same companies that have been screwing them for years already. Let those companies feel some pain, too.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Throwing Bad Votes After Bad

My comment at Kevin Drum's blog on the devolving "healthcare reform" now melting into a puddle on the Senate floor:
"The House Bill with its "compromises" was bad enough, but it was stronger than this pap. Do you really think the House will adopt the tattered remnants of reform that might survive whatever Reid shepherds through the senatorial gauntlet? I can't stress this part enough: this is not just about extending coverage to another 12 people (as Reich put it); this is about AFFORDABILITY. There is nothing that is going to be affordable about this once the Dems give the entire goddam thing away in the name of political feasibility. It will create a previously non-existent financial burden on people who can ill afford it, force shitty coverage down their throats in exchange for their hard-earned money, and once the full horror of its consequences begin to perk through the heartland, the Dems won't be able to get elected dogcatcher in a town full of puppy mills.

On the other hand, if we refuse to pass this shell of a bill, yes, the Republicans will get what they want---no reform---but is that a good enough reason not to do the only thing that makes sense? If this is not a strong bill with teeth, the Republicans WILL get back in, trust me, and they will dismantle what's left of it in record time, leaving Dems with both public enmity AND no health care reform. Get real. Dump this dog and start over. And get Obama out there to DO something about it, instead of sitting around trying to play the Buddha card."

How About a Newer Deal?

Problem:
Over the year, jobless rates increased in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The national unemployment rate rose to 10.2 percent in October, up 0.4 percentage point from September and 3.6 points from October 2008.
Solution:
As cities have grown rapidly across the nation, many have neglected infrastructure projects and paved over green spaces that once absorbed rainwater. That has contributed to sewage backups into more than 400,000 basements and spills into thousands of streets, according to data collected by state and federal officials. Sometimes, waste has overflowed just upstream from drinking water intake points or near public beaches.

There is no national record-keeping of how many illnesses are caused by sewage spills. But academic research suggests that as many as 20 million people each year become ill from drinking water containing bacteria and other pathogens that are often spread by untreated waste.
Problem:
America is hungry and getting hungrier, with 49 million people - 17 million of them children - last year unable to consistently get enough food to eat, according to a report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

These figures represent 14.6 percent of all households, a 3.5-percentage-point jump over 2007, and they are the largest recorded since the agency began measuring hunger in 1995.

Of those 49 million, 12 million adults and 5.2 million children reported experiencing the country's most severe hunger, possibly going days without eating. Among the children, nearly half a million in the developmentally critical years under age 6 were going hungry...

To help battle hunger, Obama said yesterday, "the first task is to restore job growth, which will help relieve the economic pressures that make it difficult for parents to put a square meal on the table each day."
Solutions:
Hazardous Waste: Hundreds of thousands of contaminated sites exist across the country, representing millions of dollars of untapped economic potential. Redevelopment of brownfield sites over the past five years generated an estimated 191,338 new jobs and $408 million annually in extra revenues for localities. In 2008, however, there were 188 U.S. cities with brownfield sites awaiting cleanup and redevelopment.

Bridges: More than 26%—more than one in four—of the nation’s bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. While some progress has been made in recent years to reduce the number of deficient and obsolete bridges in rural areas, the number in urban areas is rising. A $17 billion annual investment is needed to substantially improve current bridge conditions.

Roads: Congestion on the nation’s roads is increasing and the cost to improve is ever rising, causing the roads grade to decrease to a D- in 2009 (Report Card for America’s Infrastructure). Americans spend 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic at a cost to the economy of $78.2 billion, or $710 per motorist. Poor conditions cost motorists $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs.

Public Parks and Recreation: Parks, beaches, and other recreational facilities contribute $730 billion per year to the U.S. economy, support nearly 6.5 million jobs, and contribute to cleaner air and water and higher property values. Despite record spending on parks at the state and local level, the acreage of parkland per resident in urban areas is declining. While significant investments are being made in the National Park Service for its 2016 centennial, the agency’s facilities still face a $7-billion maintenance backlog.

Schools: No comprehensive, authoritative nationwide data on the condition of America’s school buildings have been collected in a decade. The National Education Association’s best estimate to bring the nation’s schools into good repair is $322 billion.

Energy: Progress has been made in grid reinforcement since 2005, and substantial investment in generation, transmission, and distribution is expected over the next two decades. Demand for electricity has grown by 25% since 1990. Public and government opposition and difficulty in the
permitting processes are restricting much needed modernization. Projected electric utility investment needs could be as much as $1.5 trillion by 2030.
Here's a blueprint, Mr. President. Try it. God knows no one's proposing anything better.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Land of the Free-Flowing Current

Digby, who has done some excellent documenting of the out-of-control use of tasering by poorly-trained police, links to yet another recent taser antic:
During protests over the past two days, at least a few students were tasered. UCLA officials said two were tasered on Wednesday and photos show that at least one student was on Thursday.

A witness to Thursday's incident tells LAist that two people were tasered during a scuffle captured in photos. "In fact with this particular incident," said the student, "there were actually two students who were tasered, the girl lying down next to Rustin O'Neill on the right in the first photo posted was also tasered, once, in the arm, and Rustin was tasered multiple times over the heart."

UCPD officials were not immediately available for comment...

A memo and training bulletin from Taser that gained media attention last month warned agencies that "if a stun gun is discharged to the chest, a lawsuit likely will follow, charging that police used excessive force," according to CNN in an aricle called "Taser makers say don't aim at chest."
Of course, Rustin O'Neill, who is revealed in the article's accompanying photos as being spectacularly laid out by campus cops for felony sidewalk-sitting, just happens to be black. Sheer coincidence.

I posted about this back in 2007, and at that time it seemed unlikely it could get much worse. But now it seems every time I turn around I read of some new and more ridiculous use of tasering. Got a tantrum-throwing 10-year old girl who won't take a shower? Call the cops. Gesturing while black? Take him downtown! Won't stand up when the cops tell you to? That broken back is no excuse! Confused? Let the cops relieve you of that confusion. Bi-polar? Pow! Off your meds? Pow!! Oh we love to give it to the crazies. Pow!!!

In Darius Rejali's "Torture and Democracy", an incredible treatise against "stealth" torture, he writes a major indictment against tasers ("instruments of torture"), recommending that they be banned entirely. He begins his book with a vignette on the arrest of Rodney King, and notes that while the world focussed harshly on the beating police gave him, the tasering he received got little attention:
Koon’s Taser model possessed two dart cartridges. Koon lodged the first pair of darts on King’s back and the second on his upper chest. Each discharge delivered short pulses of 50,000 volts, eight to fifteen pulses per second.

The pain was not trivial. The California Highway Patrol officer said King was “writhing.” LAPD officer Timothy Wind stated that King “was shouting incoherently from the pain of the taser.” Even Koon, who was nine feet away, declared, “He’s groaning like a wounded animal, and I can see the vibrations on him.” While Officer Laurence Powell beat King on video, Koon depressed the button a third time, draining whatever charge was left in the batteries. This was not a trivial discharge either. LAPD recruits knew that whoever touched a tased victim would also “get zapped. They don’t become unconscious . . . they just go down.” Officer Ted Briseno claims that he intervened at this point to stop the beating. Koon and Wind believe that “Briseno wasn’t trying to stop the violence; he was trying to prevent the TASER charge from hitting Powell and Wind.” At any rate, the third tase didn’t subdue King, and the beating continued.

If these beatings led to the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, the multiple high-voltage shocks barely impinged on public consciousness. Indeed, what would have happened if King had suffered no fractures, only the mere burn of the Taser? At the trial, the defense produced Dr. Dallas Long to contest whether there even was a burn scar. As Koon puts it, “Rodney King had no burn; a TASER dart doesn’t leave one.”

A democratic public may be outraged by violence it can see, but how likely is it that we will get outraged about violence like this, that may or may not leave traces, violence that we can hardly be sure took place at all? A victim with scars to show to the media will get sympathy or at least attention, but victims without scars do not have much to authorize their complaints to a skeptical public. A trial can focus on the specific damages of a beating—where did the blows allegedly fall? Were the strikes professional, necessary or neither?—but what precisely can a trial focus on with electric shocks that leave few marks? Some argue we are desensitized to violence we see on the evening news, but about violence we can’t see—even when its effects lie before our eyes, shaping very flow of traffic on our streets—we cannot reflect, much less react.
Even when the cops themselves are injured by this "safe" alternative to guns, SNAFU remains the status quo. As of March 2009, Amnesty International reported 351 deaths from tasers in the US since July 2001, and it looks like we're in no mood to quit now. Yet somehow our Daffy Defenders of Liberty have remained strangely mute on the subject.

I guess "freedom" as they see it means, not freedom from oppression, but freedom from oppression by the wrong people.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Get Over It Already

For me, this is the most important paragraph of an important post by Maggie Maher on the bru-ha-ha over mammograms:
No one is going to stop covering mammograms. But responsible physicians will begin giving patients more information about what the medical research shows, including the fact that for most women, the danger of undergoing unnecessary radiation –or an unneeded mastectomy or lumpectomy –far exceeds the likelihood that a mammogram will save their lives.
In my life I have had only one mammogram, when a lump I discovered in my breast suddenly appeared from nowhere. I was about 46 at the time.  Nothing came of it.  The lump mysteriously disappeared after I went through a series of tests, including sonogram,  mammogram and biopsy, none of which were conclusive.  It's been 10 years, and I feel no urgent need to go back.  What I have always felt was that the frequent exposure to radiation could be far more damaging than not getting the tests, and while I'm not convinced that this vindicates my cynicism, I feel at peace with my decisions.  I also feel comfortable with my instincts telling me that no matter what I do, my environment and those who poison it have far more control over whether I develop breast cancer than anything I can do.

Update:   Never ones to let an opportunity for politicization slip past, the Health Reform Free Marketeers are beating their chests to alert the rest of the troop:
Republicans are seizing on this week's recommendations for fewer Pap smears and mammograms to fuel concern about government-rationed medical care — and to try to chip away support by women for President Barack Obama's proposed health care overhaul.
"This is how rationing starts," declared Jon Kyl of Arizona, the party's second-in-command in the Senate, during a news conference. "This is what we're going to expect in the future."
Said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska: "Those recommendations will be used by the insurance companies as they make a determination as to what they're going to cover."
 A little late for all this concern, isn't it?

Ask Not For Whom the Stereotype Fails; It Fails For Thee

I was listening to the Communist radio show Tell Me More this afternoon, during a discussion of the martydom of St. Sarah, and heard columnist Mary Kate Cary hold forth on the very "one-of-us-ness" of Palin, and how representative she feels to the flyover types who find their unwilling noses forcibly pressed against a window into the babylon of eastern liberal hegemony. And she said something to the effect that Palin feels more like a real person, coming as she does from a state where there is no crime compared to the lairs of the citifed elite.

Well, that sounded odd to me, given the free-wheeling wild west ways of the Alaskan frontier. So I had to look it up. Imagine what I found:
"The crime rate in Alaska is about 8% higher than the national average rate. Property crimes account for around 83.6% of the crime rate in Alaska which is 3% higher than the national rate. The remaining 17.7% are violent crimes and are about 29% higher than other states."
That's 4041 crimes per 100,000 people!  Who has lower crimes rates than Alaska?  Well, the whole United States on average, for starters (3731 per 100,000).  Also these states, in descending order of crime:
  • California             (3556 per 100,000)
  • Massachusetts     (2825 per 100,000)
  • Rhode Island       (2850 per 100,000)
  • Pennsylvania        (2778 per 100,000)
  • Connecticutt        (2656 per 100,000)
  • Maine                  (2547 per 100,000)
  • New Jersey         (2542 per 100,000)
  • Vermont              (2447 per 100,000)
  • New York           (2393 per 100,000)  New York!!
  • New Hampshire   (2029 per 100,000)
And that's only 9 of the 31 states with fewer crimes than Alaska.  But let's not be unfair;  there are states who are more crime-ridden.  Eighteen of them, to be exact.  And among them are these bastions of liberal evildoing (in ascending order of crime):
  • Kansas               (4132 per 100,000)
  • Georgia              (4394 per 100,000)
  • Alabama             (4420 per 100,000)
  • Arkansas            (4482 per 100,000)
  • N. Carolina         (4553 per 100,000)
  • Texas                  (4632 per 100,000)
  • Louisiana             (4806 per 100,000)
  • Tennessee            (4840 per 100,000)
  • Arizona                (4897 per 100,000)
  • S.Carolina            (5060 per 100,000)
That's a powerful indictment against liberalism, all right.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

When Will They Make "God Bless the Child" Our National Anthem?

Reporters at the New York Times might try reading their own paper. Here’s Javier Hernandez’ partial explanation for the sudden decline in housing construction:
“Part of the overall decline in housing construction might be explained by the uncertainty in October over whether Congress would extend a tax credit for first-time home buyers. Earlier this month, lawmakers voted to extend the credit through April, but builders may have been reluctant to begin construction in October without assurance that homes would be bought.”
Just this past Saturday, Gretchen Morgenson quoted some builders who already answered the question:
“So what do these companies plan to do with their refunds?
Ken Campbell, the chief executive of Standard Pacific, said the money would allow his company to continue buying land. “Will we build more houses or will there be more people employed in the first quarter? Probably not,” he said. “Will employment accelerate when the market starts to grow? It will.”

Caryn Klebba, a spokeswoman for Pulte Homes, said in a statement that the company planned to use the funds it receives “to support its current operations and, when market conditions improve, fund future growth and expansion.”
In other words, like the banks before them, these companies will sit on the money, or use it to maintain the status quo. Buying land is not going to translate into more construction, although it will certainly remove from conservation all that nasty undeveloped green space cluttering up the landscape.

At a time when so many are suffering, there is no earthly excuse for this kind of largesse. And what if it did inhibit them from building more housing? When the median home price is running at $188,850, and the median yearly wage is only $32,390, how on earth is it a bad thing to discourage builders from throwing up even more unaffordable temples to ambition and ego, to squat in their un-landscaped middens as far as the eye can see?

1st World Bank Accounts, 3rd World Results

We really do belong in some kind of category all our own, the United States. When it comes to a decent standard of living, everyone is expendable, especially if it's going to cost money or discomfort someone who has it:
The United States lags far behind other nations in offering paid sick days, paid parental leave and other workplace benefits that proponents consider vital to public health and workers rights, according to research released on Tuesday.

The eight-year study found the most economically competitive nations offer forms of paid leave to workers that the United States does not, according to researchers at Harvard University and Canada's McGill University.

Of the world's 15 most competitive nations, 14 mandate paid sick leave, 13 guarantee paid maternal leave and 12 provide paid paternal leave by law, they said. Eleven provide paid leave to care for children's health and eight provide paid leave for adult family care.

The United States legally guarantees none of these policies to workers...
These comparisons may not be entirely fair, of course, given that the other countries in question have had the advantage of years of civilization. After all, there are around 193 countries in the world. But even widening the comparative pool doesn't help:
Looking more widely at 190 countries, the researchers found 163 guarantee paid sick leave and 164 guarantee paid annual leave.

Also, 177 nations guarantee paid leave for new mothers, 74 nations guarantee paid leave for new fathers and 157 nations guarantee workers a day of rest each week, they said.

The United States has none of these, they said.
And we won't, if Mike Enzi and the US Chamber of Commerce have anything to do with it. Even now, the Senate is shaming itself, defending "small business" from the communist encroachment of mandated paid leave for those with H1N1, despite the obvious public health benefits that could easily overshadow any inconvenience to employers. After all, if your entire staff goes down with pandemic flu because they couldn't afford to stay home and not infect their co-workers, who's going to do the work for you? But still they trot out the same hoary arguments they use to prevent the minimum wage from going up ("It's going to cost jobs!"), despite years of empirical evidence disproving them every time. Perhaps with Poland and Croatia leading the way, the US can figure this out some day. If we ever learn how to stop hunger, that is.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Final Word on Health Care Reform

Charles Pierce at Altercation sums it up so perfectly it needs nothing more than a blockquote:
I'm sorry but while both Ezra KLEIN and Jon COHN have done great work on this issue, they are talking here about a country and a political system that no longer exist. And their responses to Marcia Angell's CRI DE COEUR are largely political, and not really to the point of her piece, which is that no substantive reform of the system is possible until the control that the insurance industry exercises over the practice of medicine is broken forever. The now-familiar argument is that the House bill--even if it had a snowball's chance in hell of surviving the Senate intact, which it doesn't--represents a good first step. When exactly was the last time our political system--to say nothing of the Congress--did anything in "steps"? We don't progress. We move a step ahead, and then there's an election, and then we move another step in the opposite direction. The idea that the current debate will produce a system that will somehow be immune to our febrile and idiotic politics is naive to the point of translucence. For this to have worked at all, it had to be so huge and transformative as to immunize itself thoroughly in the event that Congress or the White House--or both--change hands. It had to be so immense as to be unmovable so that it would be permanent enough for enough people out in the country to become invested in it that the political danger would be to monkey with it at all. (Which is pretty much the way things are in Canada now. Their system, for all its flaws, is politically sacrosanct.) It also had to be a big enough change to overcome the fact that one of our two parties will be completely off its head for the foreseeable future. Whatever comes out of this process is going to be far too fragile to survive the kind of boneheaded thinking that produced this NONSENSE this week. And Social Security has a more solid constituency than whatever the new healthcare plan will have.
My fear isn't that he is right; I know he is.  My fear is that the industry foot now on the necks of the people who pay it will gain cleats from any bill putrid enough to become law, and that it will sink them into the economic jugular of the nation and bleed us out until nothing remains of the middle class but old re-runs of Leave It To Beaver.

Pro-Coathanger or Pro-Life?

Tristero likes "pro-coathanger" for anti-abortionists, although he recognizes its inflammatory qualities. Yet, as a way of invoking almost-forgotten memories of dead girls so terrified of giving birth that they were willing to chance death, it's pure genius. Why is it inflammatory? Because it suggests that all those people crying themselves silly over un-anchored blastocysts might not be the compassionate paradigms they paint themselves? No one who has ever spent any amount of time with them would doubt that there are few pure enough to wear the label they prefer. The phrase "pro-life" is such an ethically pure concoction that it's almost impossible for anyone to don it without hypocrisy, unless he is Gandhi or Albert Schweitzer. And the phrase itself speaks volumes about the fact that the vast majority of those who own it (aside from saints and bodhisattvas) feel no conflict amongst their positions, because everyone "knows" that it doesn't refer to war, or capital punishment, or a non-toxic environment, or freedom from slave labor. No, it's a very targeted phrase referring ONLY to one's attitudes toward pregnancy and fetuses, and that narrow definition allows for the implication that only fetuses matter. At this point it seems unlikely that "pro-life" can be rescued from the anti-abortion bin within my lifetime, but that doesn't mean its hypocrisy shouldn't be attacked, as many times as needed, and by whomever it is used.

But while we're in the room, let's talk about the received wisdom being bandied about of late that "the majority of Americans are now against abortion". The fact is that there has been no essential change in the positions held by most Americans since Roe v Wade. The phrase "pro-life" becomes malleable when people are left to their own devices in defining for themselves. The Gallup poll, which has been ballyhooed as the Revealed Truth on this, shows that currently 23% believe abortion should be legal under all circumstances, and yes, this is a decline from 2008. But about 23% felt the same way in '75-'77, '84-'85, '97-'98, and 2005, and that number rose and fell constantly over that time. If anything, the peak for this position rose starting in 1989 and fell in 1997, but rose and fell again thereafter. Likewise, the shift in percentage points over that time is similar for those who think abortion should have limitations, and those who think it should always be illegal, with a baseline (53-54% and 21-22% respectively) that has not significantly changed since 1975. This is the face of American attitude toward abortion: about 1/4 each believe it should be legal or illegal without exception. The rest have mixed feelings, and this has never really changed. What has changed is the media, using this latest nothing of a poll to trumpet falsehoods about the country being anti-abortion now (do you recall any of them talking about this in 1997?). And the more this becomes accepted, the bolder the pro-coathanger crowd will feel in pushing things like the Stupack Amendment down our throats, until one day we'll wake up to Bush's Supreme Court ripping up Roe v Wade and we can all go back to the bad old days where women AND fetuses died together.

And that's an image of the world "pro-life" people can live with.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Chemical Banks

My two cents' worth in commentary over at the New York Times in response to this:
As the nation’s war on cancer continues, with little change in the overall cancer mortality rate, many experts on cancer and public health say more attention should be paid to prevention.

But prevention has proved more difficult than many imagined. It has been devilishly difficult to show conclusively that something simple like eating more fruits and vegetables or exercising regularly helps...

...measures that are often assumed — and marketed — as ways to prevent cancer may not make much difference, researchers say.

For example, public health experts for years recommended eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day to prevent cancer, but the evidence is conflicting, at best suggestive, and far from definitive.

Low-fat diets were long thought to prevent breast cancer. But a large federal study randomizing women to a low-fat or normal diet and looking for an effect in breast cancer found nothing, said its director, Ross L. Prentice of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Fiber, found in fruits, vegetables and grains, is often thought to prevent colon cancer, even though two large studies found no effect.

“We thought we would show relationships that were strong and true,” said Dr. Tim Byers, professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, “particularly for dietary choices and food and vegetable intake. Now we have settled into thinking they are important but it’s not like saying you can cut your risk in half or three-quarters.” Others wonder whether even such qualified support is misplaced.

There has to be a reason the research disappointed, said Colin B. Begg, chairman of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Perhaps the crucial time to intervene is early in life.

“That’s one possibility,” Dr. Begg said. “The other is that it’s all sort of nonsense to begin with.”

Many hold out hope for exercise or weight loss. Studies have associated strenuous exercise with less cancer. But that is the same sort of evidence that misled scientists about aspects of diet.

“I think it’s wishful thinking,” said Dr. Susan Love, a breast surgeon and president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. “We would like things to be more in our control. I think that’s part of it. And in the absence of anything else, what do we tell women about how to prevent breast cancer? We tell them to exercise and eat a good diet.”

As for obesity, researchers differ. Studies that observed large numbers of people often found that fatter people have more cancer. But many of the correlations are weak, and different studies have pointed to different cancers, raising questions about whether some of the effects are real.

Dr. Otis W. Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, said he was convinced. The strongest link, he and others say, is with obesity and breast cancer. But there, Dr. Brawley says, the crucial period may occur early in life — girls who gain weight when they are young, he said, tend to start menstruating earlier, which increases their breast cancer risk because it adds years of exposure to the body’s estrogen. It may be that weight loss in adulthood does not help.
was this:
A strong correlative to cancer is a toxic environment, but one hardly ever hears such a possible cause discussed seriously by cancer researchers or in the cancer education programs directed to the public. It is the elephant in the room. Every year that passes increases the amount of toxic materials in our air, water, pharmaceuticals, household goods, building materials, food packaging, and foodstuffs. A recent study found not one sample of fish caught in US streams to be free of mercury. The CDC found that metabolites of plasticizing phthalates, which are finally being phased out here, have already become part of the human body, and studies show that the effects are concentrated especially among the overweight because of adipose storage. Look at breast cancer, where women have been beaten over the head with prescriptions involving fiber, diet, weight, and everything else under the sun, and shamed into guilt about bringing it on themselves. Yet breast fat is some of the most sensitive adipose tissue in the body to environmental toxins, and fatty tissue holds onto chemicals, where they continue to build up over time. If environmental causes are at the bottom of our cancer epidemic, it would make sense that obesity would be an indicator: more fat, more storage capacity for deadly chemicals. Yet no one seems to have made this a centerpiece of any anti-cancer campaign. Why? It's easier to blame individuals for "lifestyle decisions" and invoke "personal responsibility" than it is to really do anything about changing the environment, where a collusion of business interests would certainly push back against any such attempt. Better to just keep doling out the false hope that people can control their own fate, and let them keep dying.
UPDATE:In the Great Minds Think Alike Department, the latest issue of Harper's has this.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I'll See Your Moral Objection and Raise You One

Digby writes a sarcastic post intended to flip the "moral" argument against tax money going to insurers with abortion coverage:
I have a moral objection to paying for any kind of erectile dysfunction medicine in the new health reform bill and I think men who want to use it should just pay for it out of pocket. After all, I won't ever need such a pill. And anyway, it's no biggie. Just because most of them can get it under their insurance today doesn't mean they shouldn't have it stripped from their coverage in the future because of my moral objections. (I don't think there's even been a Supreme Court ruling making wood a constitutional right. I might be wrong about that.)

Many of the men who are prescribed this medication are on Medicare, so I think it should be stripped out of that coverage as well.
Remember, too, that only after ED drugs hit the market did insurers begin to cover women's birth control products, to avoid sex discrimination lawsuits.

But there is a very real reason to object to paying for the use of Viagra, and even though it's old news, nothing I'm aware of has changed:
America's CIA has found a novel way to gain information from fickle Afghan warlords - supplying sex-enhancing drug Viagra, a US media report says.

The Washington Post said it was one of a number of enticements being used.

In one case, a 60-year-old warlord with four wives was given four pills and four days later detailed Taleban movements in return for more.

"Whatever it takes to make friends and influence people," the Post quoted one agent as saying.

"Whether it's building a school or handing out Viagra."

'Silver bullet'

The newspaper said the use of Viagra had to be handled sensitively as the drug was not always known about in rural areas.

It quoted one retired agent as saying: "You didn't hand it out to younger guys, but it could be a silver bullet to make connections to the older ones."

In the case of the 60-year-old warlord - the head of a clan in southern Afghanistan who had not co-operated - operatives saw he had four younger wives.

The pills were explained and offered. Four days later the agents returned.

"He came up to us beaming," the Post quoted an agent as saying. "He said, 'You are a great man.'

"And after that we could do whatever we wanted in his area."

The pills could put chieftains "back in an authoritative position", another official said.
Ha ha ha. Do whatever we want, once again over the disposable bodies of women. As for the chieftains, they've been in an "authoritative position" for a long, long time. Anyone who has followed the fate of Afghan women and girls knows the brutalization, rape, and indignity they suffer in their role as men's slaves and breeding stock:
Jamila was married off when she was seven years old. Subjected to brutal beatings for nine years by her husband, she approached her father-in-law for help. For this "shame," a family member shot her in the leg.

During a rare visit to her parental home, she sought a divorce. A jirga, or assembly of local elders who act as informal dispute-resolution mechanisms in the absence of a formal justice system in many parts of Afghanistan, rejected her plea and sent her back to her marital home.

Jamila, whose real name and location cannot be revealed for her own safety, was punished once again, this time by her father-in-law, who beat her, cut off one nostril, shaved her head and tied her with a rope before throwing her outside the house.
Or this:
Afghanistan has quietly passed a law permitting Shia men to deny their wives food and sustenance if they refuse to obey their husbands' sexual demands, despite international outrage over an earlier version of the legislation which President Hamid Karzai had promised to review.

The new final draft of the legislation also grants guardianship of children exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers, and requires women to get permission from their husbands to work.

"It also effectively allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying 'blood money' to a girl who was injured when he raped her," the US charity Human Rights Watch said.

In early April, Barack Obama and Gordon Brown joined an international chorus of condemnation when the Guardian revealed that the earlier version of the law legalised rape within marriage, according to the UN.

Although Karzai appeared to back down, activists say the revised version of the law still contains repressive measures and contradicts the Afghan constitution and international treaties signed by the country.

Islamic law experts and human rights activists say that although the language of the original law has been changed, many of the provisions that alarmed women's rights groups remain, including this one: "Tamkeen is the readiness of the wife to submit to her husband's reasonable sexual enjoyment, and her prohibition from going out of the house, except in extreme circumstances, without her husband's permission. If any of the above provisions are not followed by the wife she is considered disobedient."
Nice. This, by the way, is what we're sending people to die for over there, in case anyone forgot. And this is what we are assisting with the dispensation of ED drugs. Not that clever bastards the world over haven't used it for rape before.

You think good old American men haven't thought of it, too? Let's take it to the logical conclusion: allowing insurance companies to cover Viagra once the new insurance exchange is in place is tantamount to using your tax money to facilitate rape.

Oh, but silly me, that's ok. If their victims become pregnant, the Stupak amendment will let them abort, assuming they can find a way to pay for it.