Sep 052012
English: President Barack Obama's signature on...

English: President Barack Obama's signature on the health insurance reform bill at the White House, March 23, 2010. The President signed the bill with 22 different pens. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Democratic National Convention kicked off yesterday in Charlotte, North Carolina, and if the opening night is any indication of what’s to come, all those millionaires financing the great GOP propaganda machine better dig deep into their Swiss bank accounts. The contrast between the divisive “Me, me — keep your hands off what’s mine” theme of the RNC, and the uniting “We, us — nothing’s impossible when we work together” message of the DNC could not be more stark, nor could the choice confronting our nation be more important.

 Unity or division would seem a clear choice, but clarity is soon lost in the murky waters of politics, where information is readily distorted into much more useful forms of communication. It takes time and effort to filter the garbage and restore the pure, clean flow of information, especially when a handful of the uber-rich are willing to use their vast fortunes to pump toxic waste into the conversation, but for all those who are willing to hear, the purification process shifted gears last night.

For nearly four years, Republicans have done everything in their power to carry through on what Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell called the “single most important thing we want to achieve” — to make Barack Obama “a one-term president.” Toward that end, they’ve resorted to obstruction and distortion unparalleled in American history, and nowhere have those efforts been more dishonest than in their smear campaign on Obamacare. Fortunately, lies don’t hold up well in the sunshine, and as evidenced by the first night of the DNC, it appears that the Democrats are finally going to shine some light.

Personally, I can’t help it, but every time I hear some person complaining about the impact of “Obamacare,” I think of that Tea Party member holding the sign saying “Government Keep Your Hands Off My Medicare!” I know that the media is rife with misinformation regarding the legislation, and propagandists in the opposition camp have used every distortion possible to discredit the law, but at some point, you’d think people would take the time to actually check a fact or two.

The latest lie being told is the story about President Obama using the law to strip $716 billion from Medicare. Of course, what the perpetrators of the lie don’t  want people to know is that the cuts are not being taken from Medicare recipients but from providers in the form of future cost savings. One would think that cost control would be important for true fiscal conservatives, but evidently not when weighed against an effective political attack. The propagandists are also mum on the fact that the Paul Ryan plan for Medicare includes the same cost cuts, but what’s that little white lie when you’re so used to telling fat whoppers?

People also like to complain about how Obamacare is raising their premiums, which is obviously utter nonsense. The truth, as the Washington Post stated when assigning 3 Pinocchios to the RNC ad claiming that “Six in 10 Americans are seeing their premiums rise,” is that this would be quite a reach for a law “which largely has not gone into effect” yet. All of the most costly provisions of Obamacare aren’t scheduled to hit until 2014. And the best estimates for increases attributable to Obamacare are currently around 1.5%.

But that said, premiums are rising, and have been, quite steeply, since 2001 when they were on average 113% lower than today. Of course, premiums aren’t the only part of healthcare that’s rising. Costs are up as well, climbing to 17.3% of GDP while George Bush was president — the largest increase since 1960. And while the Bush years may have been bad for America, they were great for the medical insurers, who saw their profits soar 250% between 2000 and 2009.

Perhaps the most incredible whoppers being told are those casting Obamacare as the “biggest tax increase” in American history. It’s true that it is large, in raw, unadjusted for inflation numbers. But using any reasonable measure, such as percentage of GDP, which accounts for inflation, population growth, and all that normal stuff you’d be concerned about if you weren’t trying to distort perceptions, Obamacare is actually one of the smaller tax increases. At 0.42% of GDP, it’s about half the size of Reagan’s 1982 tax increase and less than 1/10th as large as the 5.04% Revenue Act of 1942.

Distortions mischaracterizing the “tax” component of Obamacare have become so severe that PolitiFact gave Rush Limbaugh’s claim a rating of “Pants on Fire” — a label placed on only the most bald-faced lies. And the assertion that the increases are targeted at the “poor and middle class” is even more patently absurd, as the largest single increase only applies to people making over $200,000, and most of the rest all applies to either “Cadillac” plans or is levied on manufacturers and providers. 

There is good news though — people are finally beginning to look at what’s inside Obamacare, and contrary to conservative myth, they’re liking what they find. People with adult children have already benefited from the provision that allows children up to age 26 to be included on a parent’s plan. The same holds true for parents of children with preexisting conditions who can no longer be denied coverage. Seniors too are benefiting from new rules that will close the prescription drug “donut hole” entirely by 2020. Small businesses are already receiving credits to help provide coverage for their employees; Medicaid is being made available to more people in desperate need, and lifetime and annual limits on coverage, the type that may have been a death sentence for young Zoe Lihn, are both on their way to elimination.

By the time Obamacare is fully implemented, nobody will be denied coverage because of preexisting conditions, and numerous provisions will be in place to reduce fraud, increase the availability of preventative care, streamline processing, and subsidize lower income access to individual policies. The system will also include policy exchanges to increase competition, reduce costs and provide access for individuals and small businesses to purchase coverage at prices now available only to the largest customers.

Adult Americans really should take the time to find out more about the Affordable Care Act, instead of just believing the lies they’re being fed by politicians who only want to discredit President Obama and the Democrats, no matter how many people they harm in the process. And as for all those fear-mongering liars on the right, from Limbaugh to Romney/Ryan, may they be revealed as the self-serving assholes they truly are, because they may love America — it’s certainly treated them well — but they obviously don’t give a fat flying fuck about the American people.

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Mar 282011
Surplus Commodities Program. (53227(1770), 00/...

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First there was the New Deal, and then there came the Ordeal; now we need the Re-Deal.

For more than four decades after the Great Depression struck, programs based on progressive principles worked to ensure that all Americans shared in the prosperity of our great nation. The rich did get richer, but so did everyone else; fairness and empathy for our fellow man formed the moral foundation of our culture, and together we forged arguably the greatest nation in the history of the planet.

But all good things must come to an end, and that’s what started happening in the U.S. during the 1970s. The oil crisis of 1973, followed by a stock market crash and runaway inflation brought economic growth to a standstill. Productivity actually went backwards in 1974, shrinking by 1.5%, stagflation set in, the prime rate soared, and Americans were left desperate for change.

That change came in 1980. Ronald Reagan was elected in reaction to a stalled economy, the 444-day long Iran Hostage Crisis, and a general sense that America was losing its way. Reagan did bring change, by the boat load, and the short term results were impressive. In direct opposition to the austerity called for by Jimmy Carter, Reagan set in motion the wheels of a fiscally-expansive economic policy that would drop the 13.5% inflation rate of 1980 to just 3% by 1983.

Of course, most of the credit for the drop in inflation belongs to the monetary policies of then Federal Reserve chief, Paul Volcker, but it was Reagan’s combination of increased defense spending, coupled with massive tax cuts that would create a model for the future. Reagan would nearly double military spending during his time in office, while simultaneously ripping away the federal tax base. The result was a tripling of the federal debt, to $2.8 trillion, a dramatic shift that moved the U.S. from being the world’s largest international creditor to the world’s largest debtor nation.

Sadly, not only did Reagan plunge our nation into debt, but he did so as the reverse-Robin Hood in Chief. Establishing tax cuts very favorable to the rich, while cutting social programs and gutting the internal regulatory structure of the government, Reagan was the political godfather of movement conservatism. His policies, coupled with his suppression of union rights laid the foundation for the lopsided balance of prosperity we have today.

But as detrimental as Reagan’s policies were for working Americans, their harmful effects pale when compared to a single tenet that emanated from his bully pulpit — “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

No more destructive words have ever been uttered by a U.S. president. With a single statement, the actor turned president both rationalized his dismantling of social programs and gutting of tax revenues and also disassociated a large portion of the American public from their only means to combat their own demise. As Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman, once said in reference to movement conservatism, “Reagan taught the movement how to clothe elitist economic ideas in populist rhetoric.”

Once the American public bought into the notion of government-is-the-problem, the die was cast. The progressive ethics upon which modern America was built would soon be trampled time and again. Before long, the only Americans to reap any bounty would be the economic elite, who began to prosper as never before, doing so at the expense of everyone else.

The shift in public attitude was so strong that, in order to gain election, Democrats who once supported progressive principles embraced instead the Third Way. Combining conservative economic policy with a liberal position on social issues, Third Way Democrats are more Republican-light than truly Democratic. Bill Clinton presided in this manner, and as a result is responsible for such anti-worker legislation as NAFTA, as well as a heap of corporate wealthfare in the form of telecom “reform,” commodities treatment that opened the doors to the wild derivatives nightmare that nearly sunk the economy, and the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which removed all remaining barriers preventing commercial banks from playing in the Wall St. casino.

To his credit, Clinton did at least balance the budget and turn over a surplus to his successor. But once George Bush took office, all stops were removed. Without a progressive bone in his body, the younger Bush wasn’t held back by any sense of fair play. He drastically cut taxes, especially for the rich, dismantled the regulatory structure, replacing all key posts with industry insiders, and spent federal money like a drunken sailor. Bush was asleep at the wheel when the Islamic terrorists attacked on 9/11, and again when the economic terrorists on Wall St. attacked in 2008. He opened a new prison for the former and rewarded the latter with a $700 billion bail-out.

President Barack Obama was then elected by campaigning on a platform of “Change we Need.” Obama rode the wave of anger directed at Republicans and Wall St. all the way into the Whitehouse and then quickly proceeded to surround himself with the very people who had orchestrated the collapse.

Another Third Way Democrat, Obama has promoted more aid for those in need than what occurred under the eight years of W’s rule, but he’s also bowed to conservative economic policy time after time. The Obama healthcare “reform” improved access to healthcare insurance, but did so without effectively addressing the related costs. The financial “reform” bill, ostensibly enacted to prevent another banking crash, was passed without provision to deal with Too-Big-Too-Fail or the derivative casino. Most recently, Obama signed legislation providing tax relief to average Americans but not without also extending the Bush cuts for the most wealthy.

The net result of more than 30 years of a federal government divorced from progressive principles is an America more reminiscent of that which created the Great Depression than the one that was created to ensure that it would never happen again. Concentration of wealth today is the worst since the Depression — so bad that the top 1% have leaped from 9% of overall income prior to Reagan, to 23.5% today, and now have more financial wealth than the bottom 95% of all Americans.

The richest 400 Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 50%, while a record number of our people live in poverty, including one in every five children. The robbery of wealth extracted through the subprime mortgage scheme took 30% of all middle class wealth and transferred it to the Wall St. thieves and disreputable brokers across the country. Homeowners by the millions are still facing foreclosure, and many who are not are paying underwater mortgages. Yet the banks are still paying out billions in bonuses, even after being bailed out with taxpayer money, and now account for more than 40% of all American corporate profits.

Meanwhile, the corporate share of federal tax revenues collected dropped from more than 30% during the progressive era to a mere 6.6% today. But even that low rate would present a huge increase for firms like G.E. that just filed its second return in a row where the IRS had to pay them money, in spite of billions in profits. Of course, American corporations responsible for shipping as many as 8 million jobs overseas need their tax savings in order to pay for their CEO salaries that skyrocketed from 24-to-1 in the late 1960s to a high of 431-to-1, before dropping after the banking crash to a mere 319-to-1.

Average Americans would likely cheer the prosperity of the elite, if only a bit of it was shared. But while the rich have been lining their pockets, median household income has now experienced its first decline since 1967, and job growth under Bush was the slowest since 1945. The U6 unemployment rate, which tracks the underemployed along with the unemployed, is still hovering near 17%, and overall participation in the labor force is at its lowest point since 1984.

Politicians say that corporations would start hiring but might need incentives, because their record profits, the highest ever at $1.659 trillion in the third quarter of 2010, just aren’t sufficient. But not to worry, because while the Congress may be in stalemate, the wave of new Republican governors in statehouses across the country are doing everything they can to cut taxes, along with social programs, while waging a war against public employees. Who says we can’t concentrate wealth still further?

We now have a national debt that exceeds $14 trillion, and the clarion call amongst politicians on both sides of the aisle is for austerity, for cuts to Social Security and Medicare and a draconian slashing of social programs of all types. We are in dire fiscal trouble they say, and there must be shared sacrifice — but the only sharing going on is a split where all benefits go to the wealthiest 1% and all sacrifice to the other 99% of us.

There is no excuse for this corrupted mess. The American People have allowed our country to be hijacked by a self-serving elite who deliberately drive wedges into the populace so that we’ll fight amongst ourselves while they bleed us all dry. Hard working people across the nation are struggling to make ends meet while the money changers struggle to find more ways to exploit them. Hard work should be rewarded above clever manipulation. In the words of one of our greatest presidents, a Republican named Abraham Lincoln, “Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Another famous Republican, President Teddy Roosevelt, once said “A great democracy must be progressive or it will soon cease to be a great democracy.” Truer words were never said. Progressive principles demand that all citizens work together for the common good. They support entrepreneurialism and prohibit monopoly. They’re rooted in fairness and insist that prosperity be shared. They require that we invest in our infrastructure, and in our people, for such investments form the true strength of a nation.

Progressive principles are about progress, about building a better America. Progress isn’t a dirty word — unless you prefer that things stay exactly as they are. The America captured in the artwork of Norman Rockwell, the America for which so many of us are nostalgic, that was an America built on progressive principles. The Great Depression was that same nation ravaged by scorched earth policies like those in effect today.

Isn’t it time that all Americans ask themselves which America they prefer?

We can work together to end the Ordeal and demand a Re-Deal where all Americans get a fair deal. One nation, one people — we must unite against the evil that’s destroying us; that evil has a name — its name is Greed.

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Feb 152011
Social Security Poster: old man

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President Obama sent his budget proposal for 2012 to Congress yesterday, and before the ink was even dry, Republicans were swarming like piranha. According to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), “It would be better doing nothing than if we were to actually pass this budget.” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said that the budget was based on “gimmicks,” and claimed that passing it would “be a national tragedy.”

White House estimates put the savings of the proposed budget at $1.1 trillion over 10 years, with two-thirds of the savings coming from spending cuts. Republicans have unanimously rejected that total, with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) labeling it a “timid response to a grave challenge.” Shelby added that the proposal “ignores the will of the American people,” which is more than a little odd coming from somebody who supported the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich and openly shared his lunatic idea to fix Social Security by increasing the retirement “age every several years” — both positions being opposed by the majority of Americans.

But it’s easy to understand why Republicans are so vehemently opposed to the President’s budget proposal. While it does make substantial cuts, actually eliminating or reducing the funding for 200 federal programs, the spending reductions total only $33 billion for 2012, which is far less than the Republican’s draconian proposal to cut $60 billion in 2011. But more importantly, the White House budget also ends the Bush tax cuts for the rich, increases taxation on multinational corporations, eliminates $46 billion in subsidies for oil, gas and coal interests, and cuts $78 billion from the right’s most sacrosanct bucket — the Pentagon.

There is a choice to be made regarding the future of our nation, and the American people need to wake up and pay attention. Our national debt is currently over $14 trillion. The interest alone on that debt amounts to around $250 billion per year. The simple truth is that it doesn’t matter if we cut the deficit by $30 billion or $60 billion, or even the $100 billion promised by Republicans, or more — we will still be diving deeper into debt.

Take your pick, the President’s budget or whatever counter is offered by the Republicans — it doesn’t really matter, the spending cuts you’ll find will be largely symbolic. Arguing the merit of either proposal based on the depth of cuts is pure political theater. Either option will be kicking the can down the road. The substantive difference, the criteria upon which the proposals should be judged, lies in their differing methodologies.

Republicans contend that our economic problems are all the result of excessive spending, and their budget proposals reflect that belief. Democrats counter that the issue is more complex and propose a solution that addresses both revenue and expenditure. The result is that, while both parties talk about the sacrifice that will be needed going forward, only the Democratic position strives to ensure that it’s shared.

The fact of the matter is that adherence to the Republican method for addressing the debt will place ALL of the sacrifice on those who can least afford it. Their solitary focus on spending cuts combined with their unwillingness to address a bloated defense budget leaves no alternative. Those fortunate enough to remain wealthy in post-Recession America will not suffer from the proposed federal spending cuts. They only share in the sacrifice by paying higher taxes. And with military spending off the table, cuts to the remainder of the discretionary budget will only harm the poor, impede upward mobility and further weaken the middle class.

President Obama’s budget proposal may not go far enough, but at least it presents a method for shared sacrifice that can be expanded. It combines cuts to social programs with a slight trimming of defense and adds a bit of revenue through modest tax increases. The Republican alternative is more an effort best represented by an M.C. Escher impossible reality. The bottom line being that the budget simply cannot be balanced solely within the proposed Republican framework.

The situation may be complicated, but the math really isn’t. With a $14 trillion hole, only about $440 billion in discretionary spending outside of defense, and annual interest payments of $250 billion, the Republican plan set forth by Rep. Ryan doesn’t balance the budget until the 2060s and piles on $62 trillion in debt during the process. Republican fiscal responsibility is a fairy tale, sort of a contemporary version of the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs.

But as insane as this GOP plan may appear, like an iceberg, there’s more to it than what we see on the surface. As House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) promised, the Republican budget will be “a serious document that will reflect the type of path we feel we should be taking to address the fiscal situation, including addressing entitlement reforms.” In GOP parlance, that means more pain for everyone but the wealthy, pain that will include a full frontal assault on our nation’s social safety nets.

The writing is on the wall. Because the Republicans refuse the responsible path of both increasing revenue and putting ALL spending on the table, they must attack the entitlements. This is possibly the GOP’s most egregious tactic and without doubt one of their favorite arenas for yarn spinning (a euphemism for telling bald-faced lies). Republicans would have everyone believe that Social Security is seriously broken, and that it’s partially to blame for the deficit — sadly, it doesn’t matter to them that both assertions have no basis in reality.

Republican spin on Social Security is nothing but more fable peddling. As evidenced in economist Dean Baker’s letter to Sen. Richard Shelby, sent after the Senator told a nice whopper about the program, even “if nothing is ever done, then Social Security would pay full benefits through the year 2037.” It would also be able to pay around 80% of benefits well into the second half of the century. With small tweaks, the program will remain vibrant for its entire 75-year horizon and beyond. But this narrative doesn’t fit the GOP model for fueling Wall St. profits through privatization, so the truth must be set aside and a tale must be spun.

Part of that Republican tale is the myth of a broken system, but even more disingenuous is their contention that we must fix Social Security in order to address the deficit. This is pure, unadulterated hogwash — grade-A falsehood — a freaking lie! The fact of the matter is that Social Security is not included in the deficit. It is both funded and expensed outside of the budget; it is an off-budget program, and it has a surplus balance of some $2.5 trillion. The truth of the matter is that Social Security hasn’t negatively impacted the deficit — it’s actually helped to mask its true magnitude.

Medicare is another story. Being included “on-budget,” shortfalls in Medicare funding do impact the budget, and program solvency will require much more than tweaking. But even in the case of Medicare, the Republican position is fraught with dishonesty. The problem with both Medicare and Medicaid is not inherent in the government programs but rather a function of the rising cost of healthcare. With Medicare the problem is exacerbated by the increasing number of elderly Americans, but unless we’re okay with just denying them medical services, we still need to seek a real solution.

Of course, a real solution for skyrocketing healthcare costs runs headlong into the Republican priority of maximizing corporate profits. So, never mind that nationally our spending on healthcare is approaching one-fifth of our GDP; forget about the fact that we spend more than double the OECD average yet achieve far worse health outcomes — and whatever you do, please ignore the man behind the curtain — the one atop any of the 10 largest medical insurers who saw their profits leap by 250% during the past decade. This is all SOP for the GOP. Their response to this upside-down scenario is not to reduce costs but to limit access with Medicare vouchers. Hurray for the red, white and blue!

Americans need to pull their heads out of the sand, open their eyes and come to grips with the fact that we’re being plundered by our nation’s economic elite. The Democrats are definitely complicit, but the Republicans are the soothsaying demons of the illicit extraction. Regardless the issue, they have but one position: protect the monied interests. Healthcare costs are soaring, so limit access. The defense budget expands 250%, from $333 billion under Clinton to $847 billion in 2010, and it’s off the table. Federal revenues drop from 21% of GDP in 2000 to 15% in 2010, and the answer is to cut taxes.

The Republican position is always simple because it is single-minded. It doesn’t have to consider the complexities of the economy, the nuances of trade policy, the impact of spending cuts, the most effective means to stimulate job growth, or the ethical implications of any of the above. No, the Republican Party’s laser-like focus on fending for the wealthy makes all decisions easy.

If they were truly concerned about cutting spending, they’d put their knife to defense: the largest and most wasteful of discretionary programs. If they really cared about healthcare costs, they strive to create competition with solutions like a public option. If they were truly concerned about jobs, they’d drop the nonsense about job-killing taxes and admit that tax cuts don’t create jobs. If they gave a flying flip about the average American, they’d drop the charade about having “a spending problem” and tell the truth about taxation.

That truth would include sharing the fact that in spite of a record $1.66 trillion in profits for 2010, revenue from corporate taxes was a meager $191 billion — a rate of around 11%. In full honesty, the GOP would also have to fess up about how overtaxed we aren’t. They’d have to admit that federal taxes are at historic lows. In fact, as a share of our nation’s economy, they’re at their lowest level since 1950. And if they really sought to inform instead of manipulate, they’d make sure that everyone understood that we have the third lowest total tax burden of all OECD nations, higher than only Mexico and Chile.

But honesty is far from being the GOP’s strong suit, and the wellbeing of average Americans is low on their list of priorities. So, we can all expect more distortion of facts, more narrowly focused policies, and more pain for the American people. But cheer up, there is a bright side: so long as you’re in the top 1 or 2 percent of Americans, you can rest assured that the GOP has your back. Of course, if you belong to the other 98%, watch out — because your back makes a real nice target for their budget knife.

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