Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Save It For When You're Alone

Can we just have a goddamn moratorium on talking about our food for a few weeks? I am sick to death of having to discuss every minute aspect of what I eat, from the level of high fructose corn syrup to the fat and sodium levels to the way the meat was raised to whether there is gluten in the oatmeal to whether the vegetables are local to whether one is eating too much or eating too much "bad" stuff. Suddenly eating has become a litmus test of one's goodness and decency, and the requisite obsessiveness borders on insanity. All of these things have become concerns for me, and yes, I do go out of my way to buy humanely-raised food and to avoid excessive "bad" ingredients. But at some point those things need to be put away, so that the only discussion of food at a meal becomes how good it tastes and how nice it was of the cook to make it. meal8 Dinner parties should never include talk of what shouldn't have gone into the food (or imminent disapproval couched in piercing questions about same) or what certain people can't or won't eat. Keep it to yourselves. Don't take it if you don't want it. Eating meals under such circumstances is like trying to have sex while the parties are considering which positions will most contribute to blood flow in the appropriate parts, what activities should be eschewed by certain religious practitioners, or what kinds of damage some types of activities can do to the softer parts of a human body. After all that, who the hell has the heart to go on?

From now on, such discussions should be relegated to the same exile as those about bathroom habits---to which, in many ways, they have evolved to bear a striking resemblance, anyway.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Vacation

As usual, in the Adirondacks. Because there's just not enough snow where we are. See you in a week.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Would Health Care Reform Help You?

MedicineBuddhaAbbeyBarbara O'Brien, longtime political commenter, author of Mahablog, and my former co-blogger at American Street, brings us a special guest post on the benefits of health care reform:
Many obstacles and stumbling blocks remain in the way of health care reform. The House and Senate bills will have to be merged, and then the House and Senate both will vote on the final bill. We don’t yet know what will be in the final bill, or if the final bill will be passed into law. Passage will be especially difficult in the Senate, where it will need 60 votes to pass. It is still possible that after all this angst, just one grandstanding senator could kill the whole thing.

But just for fun, let’s look at what conventional wisdom says will be in the final bill and see if there is anything in it that will be an immediate benefit to people with mesothelioma cancer and other asbestos-related disease.

It is likely that the final bill will provide additional funding for state high-risk insurance pools. Currently more than 30 states run such pools, which are nonprofit, state-sponsored health insurance plans for people who can’t buy insurance because of pre-existing conditions. The biggest problem with such pools is that, often, the insurance they offer is too expensive for many who might need it. Both the Senate and House bills provide $5 billion in subsidies for state high-risk pools to make the insurance more affordable.

Under the Senate bill, beginning in 2014, private companies would no longer be able to deny coverage to adults with pre-existing conditions, nor could they charge higher premiums for people with pre-existing conditions. Until then, the state high-risk pools could provide some help.

Closing the Medicare Part D coverage gap — also called the “doughnut hole” — is another potential provision that could help some patients with asbestos-related disease. The “doughnut hole” is the gap between the coverage for yearly out-of-pocket expenses provided by Medicare Part D and Medicare’s “catastrophic coverage” threshold.

For example, in 2009 Medicare Part D paid at least 75 percent of what patients paid for prescription drugs up to $2,700. After that, patients must pay for all of their prescription medications until what they have paid exceeds $6,154. At that point, the catastrophic coverage takes over, and Medicare pays for all but 5 percent of the patient’s drug bills. The final health care reform bill probably will provide for paying at least 50 percent of out-of-pocket costs in the doughnut hole.

You may have heard the bills include budget cuts to the Medicare program, and this has been a big concern to many people. Proponents of the bill insist that savings can be found to pay for the cuts, and that people who depend on Medicare won’t face reduced services. But this is a complex issue that I want to address in a later post.

The long-term provisions probably will include many other provisions that would benefit patients with asbestos-related disease, including increased funding for medical research. Although there are many complaints about the bill coming from all parts of the political spectrum, on the whole it would be a huge benefit to many people.
— Barbara O’Brien

Monday, February 08, 2010

No Honor Among Thieves

Here is another example of how the thinking behind the Citizens United decision will keep our democracy safe:
In a Message to Democrats, Wall St. Sends Cash to G.O.P.
...this year JP Morgan Chase’s political action committee is sending the Democrats a pointed message. While it has contributed to some individual Democrats and state organizations, it has rebuffed solicitations from the national Democratic House and Senate campaign committees. Instead, it gave $30,000 to their Republican counterparts.

The shift reflects the hard political edge to the industry’s campaign to thwart Mr. Obama’s proposals for tighter financial regulations.
cat-look-09-16-1958-10 Nah, no buyoffs here. We're ALL free to send boatloads of money to the very same lawmakers who can feather our beds, aren't we? Just because most of us have less access to great piles of hard cash than others, and just because hard cash buys you a piece of the pork pie, doesn't mean large swaths of the electorate are shut out of the legislative process, does it? Nah, that's communist talk.
But if buying off the cat's paws in the Senate and House remains the venerable campaign status quo, then the recent CU decision will make the following scenarios all the easier:
Wall Street lobbyists say the financial industry’s big Democratic donors help ensure that their arguments reach the ears of the president and Congress. White House visitors’ logs show dozens of meetings with big Wall Street fund-raisers, including Gary D. Cohn, a president of Goldman Sachs; Mr. Dimon of JPMorgan Chase; and Robert Wolf, the chief of the American division of the Swiss bank UBS, who has also played golf, had lunch and watched July 4 fireworks with the president.
When is the last time you or one of your friends tried to have a meeting with your elected representatives? Did you sit down for hours-long discussions? Were you freely invited back again and again so your views could be aired and considered? Did you have little breakfasts with plenty of goodies, or a few rounds of golf on a private course? Were you ushered into the special rooms set aside for such meetings and waited on by the staff? Did you representative take your call as soon as he or she learned it was you?

That's what I thought. Well, here's your Teabagger Nation, your populist revolution, your standing up for the little guy:
Republicans are rushing to capitalize on what they call Wall Street’s “buyer’s remorse” with the Democrats. And industry executives and lobbyists are warning Democrats that if Mr. Obama keeps attacking Wall Street “fat cats,” they may fight back by withholding their cash...

...UBS’s political action committee has shifted its contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. After dividing its money evenly between the parties for 2008, it has given about 56 percent to Republicans this cycle.

Most of its biggest contributions, of $10,000 each, went to five Republican opponents of Mr. Obama’s regulatory proposals, including Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking minority member of the Banking Committee.

The Democratic campaign committees declined to comment on Wall Street money. But their Republican rivals are actively courting it.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he visited New York about twice a month to try to tap into Wall Street’s “buyers’ remorse.”

“I just don’t know how long you can expect people to contribute money to a political party whose main plank of their platform is to punish you,” Mr. Cornyn said.
It wasn't "buyers' remorse" he was trying to tap into, you can bet on that. Is Cornyn actually trying to say these people---who boldly sucked the money out of the economy with their bad faith Ponzi schemes, beggared huge swaths of the middle and working class, and created the house of cards that collapsed the job market and resulted in the worst unemployment situation since the Great Depression---is Cornyn really saying these Burberry-suited carny barkers DON"T deserve to be punished? These regulations that Obama is considering, no matter how watered-down they may be, are aimed at preventing the re-occurrence of our recent financial meltdown and protecting the little guy on "Main Street", goals that the Republicans and their teabagger fifth column like to claim they are fighting for in the face of the Democratic party's rank pandering to the corporate elite. So why is it that when action is taken toward these ends, we see the Republicans lining up with their palms and their tongues out, practically orgasmic at the possibility of representing the very corporate community they took no end of delight in bashing while the TARP money and the subsequent bonuses were handed out?

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Bring Out Your Dead....Horse

After years of near-hysteria, much of which has led to tragically avoidable outcomes, we finally get a definitive statement on the safety of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine:
The British medical journal The Lancet yesterday offered a mea culpa of sorts for its role in launching a global vaccine scare. Its regrets come about 12 years too late.

The journal finally issued a full retraction of a study it ran in 1998 linking measles-mumps-rubella vaccines to autism. The paper, with Dr. Andrew Wakefield as lead author, sent British parents fleeing from inoculations and fed U.S. alarm over preservatives in vaccines.

Even in 1998, overwhelming scientific evidence showed vaccines to be safe. Yet the press-savvy Dr. Wakefield had been getting headlines for his research, and the Lancet's publication fed the controversy by giving him an aura of respectability.

Evidence of vaccine safety continued to build, but the Lancet stuck to its story through 2004, when it was revealed that Dr. Wakefield had been paid to conduct his study on children who were clients of a lawyer ginning up a lawsuit. Even then the journal offered only a partial retraction, saying it had been correct to "raise new ideas."

Meanwhile, Britain's child vaccination rates had plummeted to below 70% in some areas, down from more than 90% in the mid-1990s. The country has since suffered waves of measles outbreaks. In 1998 England and Wales had 56 cases; by 2008 the number was 1,370. In 2006, the first British child died of measles in more than a decade.

The Lancet decision came after the General Medical Council—Britain's medical regulator—ruled last week that Dr. Wakefield had acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly." The panel confirmed years of allegations that he had been untruthful about his patients and funding and had shown a "callous disregard" for the children—subjecting them to invasive and unnecessary procedures. Only with the GMC now considering whether to strip Dr. Wakefield of his license has the Lancet finally said it "fully retract[s] this paper from the published record."
I won't hold my breath waiting for the wave of media attention to this. More likely the usual suspects will continue along, endangering their own and everyone else, and their groundless paranoiac bullshit will entwine itself into the conventional wisdom for decades to come. After all, this is a country where the fact that H1N1 did NOT result in a medieval pile-up of corpses at doorsteps is taken as proof that we were lied to about the pandemic.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Eco-Friendly Republicans: No Idea Is So Bad It Can't Be Recycled

The Party of No is reviving its talking points on entitlements euthanasia again, so I thought it was a good time to revisit the good fight fought during Bush's unsuccessful attempts to pull the same trick. The P.O.N. sees in this current hysteria over deficits a perfect opening for another kill shot. (Almost redundant to mention that His Royal Obtuseness weighs in on this with typical ignorance.) Obama's overtures toward some spending reductions have been like blood in the water, and these sharks are starting to circle. Their suggestions are comedic, ideological, based on nothing more than John Birch-style contrarianism. It's important to familiarize ourselves with the truth, and shoot back with facts each time they level their lies at the media. Here are several posts I wrote during the uproar over S.S. in 2005. We won that fight. We really can't afford to lose it now.

Social Security Digest (12/16/04)

The great debate on Social Security is raging back and forth, and now Bush has fired his loudest shot over the heads of the bleeding hearts who want to see a safety net left in place. Below is a selection of some of the best and most concise readings on the problem from a liberal standpoint that I have seen so far.

First, an omnibus source of info in itself, check out The Social Security Networkwebsite, sponsored by The Century Foundation.

Krugman, with a general overview of why the arguments for change are false

Josh Marshall who warns us away from being sucked into making the financial risk/Wall Street argument and reminds us what S.S. was for in the first place: a safety net for old age that could not be touched by hard luck or hard times:
“This isn't about financing. It's about whether Americans get to keep Social Security, a program of guaranteed retirement insurance, which unlike the other key elements of a good retirement plan -- investments and pensions -- cannot be taken away.”
Michael Kinsley, on the contradictions inherent in the argument for change.

Quiddity with graphics

The Center for Economic and Policy Research, with a clear, simple, scientific analysis, with charts for clarification. CEPR's report makes these points:
1. Social Security is Financially Sound
2. President Bush's Social Security Cuts Would Be Large
3. Imaginary Stock Returns Don't Offset Real Benefit Cuts
4. Social Security is Extremely Efficient, Private Accounts Are Wasteful
5. Social Security Pays the Most to Those Who Need it Most
6. The Projected Shortfall is No Larger Than What We Have Seen In Past Decades
7. Young Workers Will Still See Much Higher Wages If Taxes Are Increased
8. The Bush Proposal Phases Out Social Security as We Know It

Update: Krugman checks in with a nod to The Century Foundation, referenced in the post above

Screw the Help (1/11/05)

Do people still know what it's like to spend a long day at work, every muscle aching from the job you're doing, and then to go home and collapse in a heap to try and rest up so you can make it through tomorrow, without the energy left to do much of anything else? Well you can be sure some people do.

But they aren't likely to be the ones sitting in the capitol pulling the strings on Social Security. I am sick to death of people without a clue as to what it's like working hard, underpaid physical labor, who sit around making pronouncements about what should be done with our money. When is the last time someone who worked with their hands went from the worksite to the House or Senate? When is the last time they sat on a thinktank or journalists' roundtable of "experts" to hold forth on what should be done with the little peoples' retirement future?

There's been a lot of discussion about the future of Social Security, but much of it betrays a blindness (or callousness) as to what many of the suggestions, if implemented, would mean in the real world. Many of those who would gut and destroy the system have no worries for their own futures, and the existence of that check each month is not going to make much difference to them either way. One of the worst suggestions being seriously considered by Republicans and open to compromise by the Democrats is the possibility of raising the retirement age to bring it in line with (let's face it, because they're the highest) white female longevity averages. But who really looks at what impact this could have?

Over at Brad DeLong's site, he quotes Irwin Stelzer of the Weekly Standard as having "some smart things to say about Social Security". "Smart" meaning, in part, that:
"Surely, extending the retirement age to reflect current longevity expectations should also be on the table."
Surely, no reasonable person with a 6 figure income, a portfolio to die for, and plenty of investments squirreled away offshore, anyway.

This was my response in DeLong's comments section:
"As long as the subject of raising the retirement age keeps coming up, let's talk about what that would mean for people whose work consists of hard physical labor, often with physical side effects that can be debilitating over a long period of time.
I never hear anyone discussing this, probably because the people debating it and most likely to write or influence the law on it themselves work mostly in offices where the hardest labor they encounter may be hauling a couple reams of paper, and the worst disabling injury may be carpal tunnel syndrome.
Getting to the average retirement age in one piece and still working can be a challenge to people who work in meat-packing plants, construction, domestic service, and similar work.
Many of these people are praying every day that their bodies will hold out. To move the retirement age even farther away from them is not only cruel, it is symptomatic of how alienated the governing and academic classes are from the people who create and support the infrastructures of their cushioned lives."
The question is now: Who will stand up for these people? Who is left to be their voice in the media, the government, and on the street now that the Democrats have abandoned human rights and justice for the sexy language of "moral values", and the Republican party has safely made the final transition to a completely plutocratic vehicle for the rich and powerful?

Hialeah Dreaming (1/15/05)

Yesterday, slacktivist's Fred Clark examined a piece written by Jonathan Rauch for the National Journal in which Rauch posits that the ultimate purpose behind the Repulican push to alter Social security is to re-engineer the public's perception of the duties of government and wean it from expecting social assistance for events which can be forseen.
Fred interprets Rauch as speaking for himself in calling SS "welfare", and then goes on to make a good case for why it isn't:
"Franklin D. Roosevelt was adamant, in creating Social Security, that the system was not welfare. To avoid that perception, or that accusation, he insisted that the flat-rate payroll taxes that fund the program be capped. Most Americans don't realize that there's a cap on payroll taxes because most Americans don't make more than $87,900 a year. Those who do, however, get a nice little tax break on their 87,901st dollar, and on every penny they earn beyond that... Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. You want to pretend it's welfare? Fine, let's pretend it's welfare. That means eliminating the cap on payroll taxes. And while we're at it, since this is a "welfare" program we're talking about now, let's keep in place the limit on new benefits for salary above that cap. This would be a fundamental change -- from social insurance to social welfare. And it would likely create a boom in creative new forms of non-wage (and thus nontaxed) income. But the resulting infusion of revenue would ensure the complete solvency of the program until long after the last-living baby boom widow was buried."
But after reading the NJ article, I'm not sure whether Rauch was agreeing with conservatives that it is a form of welfare, or whether he was putting that forth as part of an example of conservative argument against excessive interference with public life.

That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of fodder for exasperation in it, most especially regarding the comforting myths about class and human behavior with which it enfolds itself. These are assumptions that we see parroted in the press and on websites everyday in statements by administration officials, "experts" and opinion-hurlers, until sheer repetition gives them the sheen of truth. For instance:

That investment will naturally give higher returns than SS if one accepts the increased risks.
Well, sure, if you put your money into volatile stocks that can also offer the potential for bankruptcy if you guess wrong. If you want to safeguard your old age with stocks equivalent in safety to SS, you're going to find that they pay just about the same as SS, plodding along unsexily, day after day. But those safe bets are a lot less common than they used to be, as stocks get wilder and wilder.

That we need to encourage a "culture of saving and personal responsibility", improve work habits and reduce crime, and that SS privatization will do it.
Guess what? Crime is down, has been going down, and shows every indication of continuing to go down. In addition, Americans are working more hours, are more productive, and have less leisure than citizens of any other developed nation. They are kept at the grindstone by businesses that refuse to hire needed additional workers in order to save on wages and benefits, then overwork their existing workforces to make up for it. This is the reason business pushed so hard last year for a redefinition of the "supervisory" employee, so that rank and file workers could be made to work overtime without receiving the overtime pay they once did. As for class warfare, what do they know about it? Someone dares mention that the policies of the administration have consistently favored the wealthy and attacked the weakest among us, and the right-wing, in its best Orwellian language, boo-hoos that it's "class warfare". Someone once cited a peasant rebellion in Britain against a local lord that culminated in the rape and dismemberment of his wife and children in front of his eyes, after which he was roasted alive on a spit. That, said he, was class warfare. The fact that so many of us have sat slack-jawed in front of the television watching this parade of outrages every night and not lifted one finger to redress them, even on our own behalf, is the amazing thing, and the only thing that prevents any real class warfare from occuring.

That involvement of the masses in the ownership of their own investment funds will make them more like the average Wall Street habituee, and create millions more Republican-prone voters.
Oh, yes. And we'll just be rife with buying and selling, and merging and trading, and then we'll all hold hands and sing as the next right-wing extremist mounts the presidential throne. Hmmm. Old ladies with a pittance in fast-dwindling blue chips will suddenly feel solidarity with Warren Buffett? When's the last time these guys had to stretch a paycheck from one week to the next, or weighed the merits of spending more on one kind of cereal over another based on how long it would last or how many it would feed? How many leave bills or utilities partially- or unpaid from month to month to pay other, more pressing debts? How many haven't seen a movie or bought new clothes for months because the money just wasn't there? And how many put off the doctor, or dentist, because there are more important things to buy, and they'll just wait and see if the pain goes away by itself? And they think these people, because a change in SS frees up $100-$200 a month, are going to sink the extra into a pie-in-the-sky someday crapshoot? And even if they did, who is going to teach them how? The government itself, that can't even understand or control the consequences of its own economic decisions?

It would be wonderful if the social engineers and media loudmouths that hold forth so glibly on other people's lives would step outside and spend a little time living them. But as that isn't going to happen, I have my own proposal for applying their principles for SS change to the rest of the US budget: Let's take, say, the revenue for highways and transportation, and give it to the Secretary of the Treasury, and send him down to Hialeah to see if he can't double the national take before sending it along for disbursement to the states. If he loses, hey, that's what happens when you live in a Darwinian idyll of personal responsiblity.

Monday, February 01, 2010

It Seems We Stood and Talked Like This Before

Unfortunately, I can remember where or when. But there is still no having a discussion with these people.

More later.